The History of Personalized Learning

Personalized learning may be popular, but it isn’t new

Teachers have long recognized that the prior knowledge and experience students arrive with on their first day of school vary greatly. Long before standardized tests confirmed it, educators knew that some students were ready for grade-level content while others were not.

Armed with this understanding, educators have used numerous strategies—everything from grade promotion and repetition to tracking to differentiated instruction—to address the needs of children who may be the same age but are at different learning levels.

While interest in personalized learning appears to be peaking (not, apparently, only in the ad copy of edtech companies), the practice of adjusting what, when, and how a student learns has a long history. Efforts to personalize learning and meet students where they are can be traced back to before the turn of the 19th century. While not an exhaustive history, the below timeline presents a few highlights along the path to personalized learning:

In 1880s, Preston Search, superintendent of schools in Pueblo, Colorado, introduced a plan to enable students to move at their own pace. Few details remain of Search’s Pueblo Plan, as it became known, except that a lack of quality learning materials likely hampered its spread.

In 1912, a plan at the San Francisco Normal School promoted students once they demonstrated mastery in a given subject. A student in this model might be studying 8th grade history material, 6th grade English, and 9th grade mathematics. Additionally, administrators at the San Francisco Normal School created worksheets to be used independently by students with their textbooks. Anticipating that working solo would leave students ill-prepared for life in the real world, the model also featured two periods dedicated to “oral expression”, “real training in exposition, discussion, and dramatics.”

In 1916, John Dewey published “Democracy and Education,” which advocated for placing the child, as opposed to the curriculum, at the center of the classroom. His celebrated work argued for creating communities of learners who could discuss ideas and uphold American democratic ideals. An early constructivist, Dewey saw education as a social interaction between children and adults, and believed that knowledge couldn’t simply be given to a child, but that a student must experience something and engage with it to learn.

In 1928, Sidney Pressey, a professor of psychology at Ohio State University,  invents a “teaching machine” with a vision for “freeing …teacher and pupil from educational drudgery.” The machine, which Pressey termed “adjunct autoinstruction,” presented students with a questions and four multiple-choice answers. When students answered correctly, the machine’s window moved on to another question.

In 1968, Fred Keller introduced Personal Systems of Instruction (PSI), also known as the Keller Plan, to help students in Brazil master content at their own pace. In PSI, curriculum was broken down into short units, at the end of which students would take formative assessments on the skills and concepts they had studied. Students studied primarily written material, moving through content at their own pace. If they failed a unit assessment, they returned to the coursework until they could demonstrate mastery. PSI has considerable support from empirical research. Students in these PSI courses “learn course content better, remember it longer, and like the experience more than students in traditional classes” (see Fox, 2004).

In 1978, Harvard University Press publishes for the first time in English Lev Vygotsky’s work on the “Zone of Proximal Development.” This further developed constructs for how each student’s needs could be met when the typical classroom is filled with a wide variety of learners, describing the cognitive space where each student, with the assistance of adults or more skilled students, is provided with learning experiences that are slightly beyond their current competence level.

In 2009, New Classrooms co-founders Joel Rose and Chris Rush developed School of One as part of the New York City Department of Education. School of One was one of the first attempts to utilize technology to tailor what, when, where, and how a student learned based on their unique skills. Named one of the “Best Inventions of 2009” by Time Magazine, School of One uses data from a short assessment at the end of each day to create a customized schedule for students and teachers based on what they had learned the previous day. Students encounter mathematics content in a variety of different ways, including teacher-delivered, small group collaboration, and independent or virtual instruction. Two years later, the pair founded New Classrooms and developed a new personalized learning model called Teach to One: Math, which shared some of the same principles and goals as School of One, but explored new academic, technological, and operational strategies. Results show that students participating in Teach to One: Math are making significant growth gains compared to the national average.

In 2014, personalized learning is on the lips of policy makers, academics, educators, and parents across the country. An important debate about the characteristics that define personalized learning is being waged, with some decrying the concept an “empty vessel.” The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other philanthropies have produced a working definition of personalized learning, which many hope will encourage further discussion, exploration, and experimentation of strategies to customize instruction to students’ unique learning needs, abilities, and interests. State and local departments of education from Tennessee, Wisconsin, South Carolina, and others have created offices of personalized learning. And districts from Oregon to Texas are rolling out personalized learning initiatives. Bellwether Education Partners, with funding from New Classrooms, published a Policy Playbook for policy makers hoping to encourage personalized learning efforts in their areas.

In 2015, Summit Public Schools offers its personalized learning platform to 19 pilot schools around the country as “Summit Basecamp.” The success of this program, as well as of New Classrooms’ Teach to One: Math and others, solidifies Mark Zuckerberg and wife Priscilla Chan’s commitment to support personalized learning in order to create a better future for their newborn daughter. They announce their support in a public pledge to donate an estimated $45 billion towards this goal and other philanthropic endeavors.

Still going strong in 2017, personalized learning is a common part of school districts’ strategic plans, as well as increasingly a priority in state and federal education initiatives.

What important milestones on the pathway to personalized learning have we missed?

What do you see as the antecedents to the movement to personalize learning that we see today? Share them with us on Twitter @NewClassrooms (#pathwaystoPL) or on Facebook at Facebook.com/NewClassrooms.

Originally published Dec 14, 2014. Updated Aug 22, 2017.

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