George Lucas Educational Foundation

Are Personalized Learning and Differentiated Instruction Trendy?

Are Personalized Learning and Differentiated Instruction Trendy?

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The ASCD named their top five educational trends for 2011- including 21st century learning as the top trend, and Differentiated Instruction as number 2. While on one hand, I look at anything branded a "trend" with suspicion, I think we all understand that personalized learning and differentiated instruction is simply great teaching. The "push" and the "trend" aspect of it is to make it more easily understood and implemented for teachers and students alike. What's your take on anything being named a "trend" or Buzz word in education? Does it make it more or less worthy of notice and attention? How can we help make personalized learning a reality versus another "fad" or Pet Rock in education?

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Lori Gully, Florida Virtual School's picture

While it may feel a little funky to be considered a trend, personalized learning is beginning to get attention from funders. This is a definite benefit to being a fad phrase, because funding innovative projects that take learning to the next level can be tricky. You're right, Whitney, the great teaching and learning that happen in personalized models is just what we need to make an impact on education.

Betty Ray's picture
Betty Ray
Senior Editor at Large

I hear what you're saying, Whitney. I don't really know what their editors were thinking but I would guess the "trendiness" of personalized learning is in the onslaught of new technologies that are making it easier. Is that a trend? I would say no, since technologies only going to personalize more information for us. But it's great to see a broader discussion of personalized learning, for sure!

Nina Smith's picture
Nina Smith
Mentor, Teacher Trainer

If we make a clear distinction between teaching and learning (as we should) the real idea becomes very clear: all learning is individual, and the best results come from personalized teaching.

Let me explain my thoughts a bit more.

Changing the educational focus from teaching to learning makes perfect sense if we wish to have good quality education. After all, the fact is that ALL "true" or "real" learning happens in your students' brains. To me this means the necessity of understanding the way learning happens. Enhancing the circumstances where learning occurs automatically increases the deep learning that is transferable and permanent. If we want to call this personalized teaching or differentiated instruction or tag it with any other trendy buzzword, we may do so. But it still doesn't change the ultimate truth behind it: effective teachers have always been working this way. Today we just have more scientific facts to put there to show WHY we are correct. :D

Holding teachers accountable for teaching is much less effective than holding students accountable for learning.

Rather than assuming that it is teachers' job to impart wisdom to students who will somehow magically absorb it, we should focus on the teachers' ability to guide students into building their own knowledge base. And just holding teachers accountable for facilitating that learning by providing them with tools and time for personalized feedback will increase the quality of education to a whole new level.

Whitney Hoffman's picture
Whitney Hoffman
Producer LD Podcast, Digital Media Consultant, Author

@Nina- I agree with you- teachers have to be much more like guides and less like farmers trying to force feed geese to make foie gras- knowledge isn;t meant to be stuffed or crammed into a kid, but incorporated into who they are.

I came across this article today on a Delaware School using "Expeditionary Learning"- which sounds just like personalized and project based learning at its best, and they are having great results.

Will this proliferation of new labels, names, and "branding" confuse the issue even more?

I think it does show however, the central tenants of DI and personalized learning- the relationships between teachers and students is the key starting point for exemplary learning environments.

Nina Smith's picture
Nina Smith
Mentor, Teacher Trainer

It seems to me that multiple labels indeed do confuse even more. And while I understand the need of inventing new names and labels to replace the ones that have accumulated negative connotations, I am also a bit scared that the very core (or the essence?) of teaching and learning will be lost.

To me the solution for differentiation is very easy (and costs absolutely nothing): considering students as partners in education, instead of objects.

I would be happy to teach how to do that! Please check my Notes about this at

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