Broadening the Dialogue about Personalized Learning Inspired by Dan Meyer

Bena Kallick and Allison Zmuda

Bena Kallick and Allison Zmuda are authors, friends, and colleagues. They co-authored the 2017 book, Students at the Center: Personalized Learning with Habits of Mind.


This past week, Dan Meyer crafted a blog post entitled “Problems with Personalized Learning” in which he critiqued this article in the March issue of Education Leadership.

We, among others, also had an article in that same issue that was themed “getting Personalization Right.” Although we appreciate the lively and necessary debate to clarify what personalized learning really is and how teachers are a vital part of working with students to coach their inquiry, exploration, and possible solutions, Dan Meyer is really talking about problems with personalized learning that are specific to this article.

In the spirit of necessary dialogue, we are responding to some of the ideas that Dan references from his close reading of this one article and broadening his focus on what he considers problems with personalized learning in general.

A Synopsis of the Critique

The following is a quick synopsis of Meyer’s critique in bold followed by his comments in italics.

Swapping out a teacher and swapping in technology to provide direct instruction and follow up problems is a low bar for effective instruction.

From Dan: If this is truly the case, if students didn’t interact with each other or their teacher at all, if they simply opened their books and completed a textbook assignment every day, every week, we really can’t do much worse. Most alternatives will look great. This isn’t a sober analysis of available alternatives.

Fast-forwarding, rewinding, and pausing instructional videos are often cited as advantages of personalized learning, not because this is necessarily good instruction, but because it’s what the technology permits.And this isn’t good instruction. It isn’t even good direct instruction. When someone is explaining something to you and you don’t understand them, you don’t ask that person to “repeat exactly what you just said only slower.” You might tell them what you understand of what they were saying. Then they might back up and take a different approach, using different examples, metaphors, or illustrations, ideally responding using your partial understanding as a resource.

I’m describing a very low bar for effective instruction. I’m describing techniques you likely employ in day-to-day conversation with friends and family without even thinking about them. I’m also describing a bar that 2017 personalized learning technology cannot clear.

Our Take

First, we would agree that technology cannot be swapped for good teaching. However, we would also point out that the role of both teacher and student is redefined with access to technology.

We suggest that what was described here is individualization, not personalized learning, as one respondent in the comments suggested. We share a concern that the social connection between learners is being glossed over in many circles as well as the importance of the students’ relationship to teachers.

How We Clarify Personalized Learning Vs. Individualization:

Delivery Model How Student Owns the Learning Experience Teacher’s Role in Learning Experience
Personalized Learning Student actively pursues authentic, complex problems that inspire co-creation in the inquiry, analysis, and final product. Teacher coaches learning through questions, conferences, and feedback.
Individualization Student controls the pace of the topic as well as when to demonstrate mastery. Teacher monitors/manages instruction through teacher or software-generated topics (e.g., video tutorials and related assignments)

In our book, Students at the Center: Personalized Learning with Habits of Mind, we identify four attributes that serve as indicators for the movement to a personalized classroom and school. We recognize that students:

  1. Need to have voice about what they are learning and the choices they make on behalf of their own learning.
  2. The opportunity to co-create some of the choices for learning that include such important aspects as goal setting and performance options.
  3. The realization that a social construction for learning that includes not only peers but experts beyond the school walls.
  4. A process for self discovery that helps students cumulate data about themselves as learners and shapes their possibilities and aspirations.

In fact, Dan offers that he “likes the ethos around personalized learning – increasing student agency and metacognition …

The Power of Curiosity

We also agree that rich learning experiences have students have a voice in their learning and become immersed in a problem. Once they become curious, they pursue the inquiry — struggling, tapping into their instincts where risk-taking and persistence are what “normal” looks like.

The dead ends and false starts are a natural part of the process because they are not in it alone for the procedural fluency that can be efficiently marked with “Cs” and “Xs.” This has a different learning legacy than having students jump through procedural hoops acting as a low-level bureaucrat that is fine with filling out paperwork.

Pursuing inquiry, engaging in rich dialogue, sharing approaches and possible solutions is at the very heart of personalized learning. The role of a teacher and student becomes closer to a learning partnership —

  • the teacher operates as a coach in a scrimmage, deliberately pausing, suggesting reflection and analysis, offering direct instruction and then the students resume their pursuit
  • the student learns by doing — taking action, making their arguments and approaches transparent, seeing what works, and planning next moves

There has to be a classroom/school-wide commitment to discourse and inquiry. One educator corroborated Dan’s assertions about the current challenges of the personalized learning tech market:

“And it seems like they all have the same weakness – adults presenting their all-knowingness of math to those who don’t. There’s no time set aside for students to get out of their own heads and talk about what they know (or don’t know) with other students. The creative side of math is being pushed aside by this kind of “teaching” and that’s a shame.”

There is nothing more important than relationships in making it personal. No number of assessments, diagnostics, or inventories can substitute for listening closely to students and understanding who they are and some of their dreams about who they might become. No technology platform that undercuts the opportunity to think and problem solve around interesting, messy problems is worth the title of “personalized learning.”

We are huge fans of Dan Meyer’s work as head teacher at Desmos and a prolific blog writer and speaker. This video replay of his TEDx talk Dan’s talk is a beautiful example of good teaching with a purpose of really engaging the students’ minds and reasoning capabilities.

Rather than surrendering to textbooks that mirror a TV sit com that is superficial and episodic, he finds meaningful hooks from the world that present themselves as math problems that are not easily solved. He builds their capacity for argumentation.

In other words, he helps prepare students for the complex projects that are referenced in personalized learning. In our opinion, he does not really describe a problem with personalized learning, he describes a need for greater specificity that grounds a district’s definition of personalized learning.

3 thoughts on “Broadening the Dialogue about Personalized Learning Inspired by Dan Meyer”

  1. We had to update our website and, therefore, lost two comments I felt were extremely helpful around this article. Since I still have the comments that were sent to me via email, I’m going to re-post to continue discussion.

  2. From Imogen Herrick:

    In the work I have been doing with teachers attempting to move more toward a personalized classroom, I have found that the definition of personalizedlearning can become a tricky conversation. There is still a lot of confusion about what personalized learning really means and how it deviates from differentiated/individualized instruction. I find it easiest to discuss the personalized movement in terms of a spectrum. Walking teachers from DI to Individualized to Personalized. While DI and Individualized are not considered truly personalized, they are a form of personalizing. I have found this approach allows teachers to become more comfortable with the definition and helps them think about ways they can improve upon what they already are doing. Dan Meyer seems to be missing valuable sections of this spectrum in his argument. I think his use of personalized learning here falls within the individualized context of the spectrum. He is not operating from the definition of a fully personalized learning experience, which confounds his argument. It seems he is not a fan of the flipped method of instruction, while this method can fall inside the spectrum of personalized learning (individualization) it alone would not be considered a fully personalized experience. In this respect, his argument falls somewhat flat in respect to the actual goals of personalized learning. However, it does highlight a conversation that I believe is happening on the ground in many schools looking to evolve into a more personalized approach. I have discussed these ideas multiple times with teachers interested in personalization. The definition is, in my opinion, absolutely a gray area for many educators.

  3. From Jane:

    I completely agree with Imogen. In my work as a school leader I find myself constantly explaining the details of our definition of personalising learning – discounting the various misinterpretations of the term, many of which fundamentally oppose my philosophy of education and our aims as educators. I usually fall back on the idea that it is absolutely about people (persons) and is therefore as much about relationships and social connections as it is individual aspiration.

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