Is customized learning something we can use now?  There are a number of schools who are trying to customize learning in their schools and most claim that they are being successful.  Are those claims based on fact?  Personally, I think the concept is new enough that the jury is still out.

Customized learning is based on two main concepts:  first, that everyone learns at a different pace and second, that everyone learns in different ways.  These two ideas aren’t new concepts, but now that technological advances have made information widely available the argument is that we no longer need to move through a standardized program in school.  Instead students should be given more freedom and choice in their learning.  In this way students focus learning on the critical thinking and skills which allow students to use information rather than the information itself.  Many argue that our school systems were designed in response the industrial age and we need to change them in order to provide our students the skills they need to be successful in our new world.

Personally, I think the argument is accurate.  We do need to re-think school systems and some schools are already on that path.  But education is very slow to change and the call for reform in education has been going on for years and honestly, little has happened.  So, is customized learning being used now?  Yes, I think that some schools are doing it but what it requires is a change in the culture of the community and for that change to occur there needs to be something deeply motivating and most schools are very comfortable in their current state.

If you’re interested in this concept, you can read about some schools that are using customized learning here:  10 Key Components of Customized Learning


Customized learning is perfect!  I mean the name says it all right? We all like custom things for our own specific needs.  We like our clothes to be custom fit, our painting preferences for our room and our laptops to be just the way we like it.  Why not make education the same way?

It seems scale always gets in the way.

You see customizing means you are not as dedicated to standardizing and thus efficiencies drop and we all suffer more.  It is easier to teach/build/move to the middle and get as many people as possible.
However… in education, this may very well be changing!

Customized learning, aka personalized and/or adaptive learning, is becoming more possible everyday.  Thanks to technologies, we can better track how students interact with content; at least on a device of some sort.  As a result, the programs can tailor their teaching methodologies to meet the specific learning needs of students. Many groups such as Fishtree, Khan Academy, Newton and a many more are doing this now. If they continue to be successful, then their learning algorithms will continue to grow and become more intelligent and predictive of a student’s learning patterns.

But I do wonder how this can be applied to things such as conversation, debate, writing, etc.  Maybe it will be a long time; maybe never.  If we can use customized learning now and continue to learn from it, then future generations of teachers and students will reap the benefits.


Taken to its logical extension, customized learning means presenting materials and skill development opportunities to students in a modality that is tailored specifically for each individual student. Taken at face value, this task in impossible without resorting to computers and sophisticated (expensive) software that tracks student input to prior stimuli and responds with additional stimuli based upon the student’s data. I see this vision as one more chimera of the future, which seems inevitably to involved students staring at screens, isolated from their peers through the focus on an inanimate object. We have all seen our children eying cell phone screens. The difference is, they are socializing in the latter, and droning in the former.

Life is essentially relational. miss that step and you miss it all. kids will not behave as sheep, or drones, or factory workers on an assembly line. I have heard so often that our educational system was built during the second industrial revolution, and therefore was geared to produce widgets of humans beings. I know of no teacher who strives for this outcome. Yet we tune toward tech as if it is the silver bullet, the Holy Grail, that will unfetter humanity from its assembly line schools by … having kids isolated from each other, staring at screens, and starving for human interaction.

Another vision of customized learning is actually project based learning, where kids get involved in what intrinsically interests them, create projects that demonstrate knowledge and skill acquisition, and fully embrace the goal of becoming lifelong learners. Done well, the concept has some merit to me, but I cannot help but think that we all need some baseline maths, history, literature, science, etc., in order to be able to relate to each other in meaningful ways. Further, it gives me pause that the K-12 academic establishment has bought into Gardner’s intelligence argument without any proof that we actually learn best in these various modalities. Our preferences may not, in fact, be our strengths. Also, metrics are difficult to come by when kids are coming up with the projects themselves. Intrinsic interest? You bet! but how does a teacher tell Johnny that his project lacks sophistication? Certainly, kids need to have growth-oriented mindsets in order to take in critical feedback and apply it.

The broad goal of these efforts is to achieve the democratization of education. In principle I embrace the goal, but I believe that the democratization of education is not found in giving every student the power to pursue whatever he or she wants, but to empower students to work together collaboratively, each person contributing his or her strengths, toward a common objective; a common cause. I see democracy as collective in this way. We are not free to do whatever we want. Following that path leads to the violation of others’ rights. We are free to organize and work together for the common good however, and that task is noble indeed!