Mind the Disruption of Personalized Learning

Type: Article
Topics: Curriculum & Assessment, School Administrator Magazine, Technology & AI

October 01, 2019

Executive Perspective

I was with McGraw-Hill Education at the time that Clayton Christensen popularized the term “disruptive innovation.” We published his book Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, in which he wrote about a process by which “a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market … and then relentlessly moves up the market, eventually displacing established competitors.”

Christensen’s book applied the concept to education and, in 2009, we invited him to speak at our National Conference on Education. Several years later, Christensen’s co-author Michael Horn wrote Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools, and we invited Horn to speak at a subsequent national conference.

I am enamored with the disruptive innovation idea because, as Christensen and Horn suggest, it can and will happen in education. Both see technology as the enabler and possibly the disruptor, but those of us who are advocates for the major transformation that must take place in education believe that much of the necessary disruption has less to do with technology and more with the prevailing culture.

Unfamiliar Feel

Personalized learning has the potential of being a disruptor, but we already are experiencing the backlash against it because many unfortunately view it as a ploy by technology companies to sell more of their products. Whereas technology is an enabling tool to personalize learning, the movement consists of so much more. In Horn’s 2014 book, the blended approach clearly points to technology enhancing teacher-led instruction.

When we walk into a classroom emphasizing personalized learning, we do not see the traditional rows of desks facing the front of the room with the teacher lecturing the class. Instead we see students scattered about the room in small groups or working on their own. Some will be on their laptops while others are reading a book, or writing, or working with manipulatives. The teacher usually is not in the front of the room. Indeed, you might have to search hard to find the teacher if she or he is in a corner working with a small group or huddled somewhere with a student needing individual attention.

Parents who experienced the traditional classroom might walk into such a scene and be dismayed by what they may perceive as disorderly and disorganized, but what they are witnessing is a classroom where students have the opportunity to direct their own learning, where students can work independently on assignments while others can collaborate with classmates on projects.

Excitement abounds within such a classroom because students are not being bored by a lecture on a topic they already know or material they do not understand. What each student is doing is appropriate to her or his ability to understand at that very moment. Two students could be working to solve a problem, but one already may be near the solution while the other needs to take more time to arrive at the answer. That is acceptable in this classroom because students are allowed and encouraged to work at their own pace.

I recall visiting a high school classroom in Salt Lake City, Utah, where a student was independently working on her Algebra I class. Even though it was only early December, she shared with me that she was just about done with fulfilling all the requirements to get credit for the course. I congratulated her and wondered what she would do with her spare time. She informed me that, as proficient as she was in math, her literacy skills were not up to par. The “spare time” would allow her to concentrate more on her reading and writing without the threat of her failing that subject and having to go to summer school.

Full Conversion Ahead

In a personalized learning environment, no time is wasted. No student sits in class bored by explanations of concepts she or he already knows or frustrated because the class has moved on, leaving others behind. In a personalized learning environment, there is no remediation. In a personalized classroom, students progress at their own pace. No one is held back from advanced studies.

I am hoping that the 20th-century education model that exists today will be disrupted by the changes that personalized learning powered by technology can bring. I believe there is a tipping point that when reached will lead to a full conversion to the new model. In only 10 years, the cellphone has transformed how we communicate. Can education be far behind?