Over this past Thanksgiving dinner, I explained personalized learning to my grandpa. A few minutes into my excited soapbox speech about “self-pacing” and “differentiated instruction,” he stopped me.

“This sounds just like my school growing up. This isn’t new!”

Blushing, I paused. He continued.

“In my one-room schoolhouse, kids had to learn at their own pace. All of them were in different grades, learning different things.”

My grandpa was right: personalized learning is not new. The idea of tailoring instruction to individual students’ needs is as old as the practice of tutoring.

What I explained to my grandpa was that, with the internet and modern technology, personalized learning is now much more scalable. Some educators, like those who teach high school, have over one hundred students throughout the day. Teachers can utilize digital content and online tools to spend less time lecturing and more time helping individuals. Data from learning software can live in one centralized place, as opposed to one hundred different papers and tests. Plus, with the internet, students have ubiquitous access to information, meaning they have more opportunities about what to learn and when.

He slowly nodded in agreement and then posed a question:

“What happens when you have a bunch of kids, all learning different stuff at different speeds? Do you get rid of grades and separate subjects altogether?”

Uf. Right on, Grandpa. That is a huge question, one that the education field has yet to reconcile. Some for-profit private schools like Altschool are purportedly implementing a Montessori 2.0 model, where students flow seamlessly between subjects and grades. My Education Elements CEO reflected on a recent Altschool tour in TechCrunch this week.

I’m not convinced that Altschool’s model is the ideal form of personalized learning. I do believe, however, that some degree of self-paced learning and differentiated content should be common among personalized learning initiatives.

For example, through their Personalized Learning Plan platform, Summit Public Schools allows students to self-assign intermediary deadlines of projects. Their approach also permits students significant leeway in the form of their projects, but students are still generally required to learn the same content at the same time.

Other schools utilize digital content providers like Fishtree that do a great job of both differentiating content and facilitating self-pacing. However, the content delivered often supports only lower levels of Bloom’s taxonomy, like remembering and understanding.

Personalized learning still has far to go before it resembles a modern version of my grandpa’s one-room schoolhouse. Nevertheless, personalized learning advocates like myself have to be mindful of the implications of our preachings. What would our education system look like without separated grades and subjects? What are the implications of that shift, and does it represent a reality we would want? It’s easy to bemoan the factory model of education that has existed in the U.S. for the past century, but I’m not sure we have thought hard enough about the end-game of our current ambitions.

What does our education system look like with personalized learning fully in place?

Photo Credit: Roger W