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Education Nation

Commentary: It Takes Personalized Learning

The education system Americans have today was created in the early 1900s to serve a different time with different needs. It was designed to process large populations of students by grouping them according to age and then instructing them in batches. In an era when most students would grow up to work in a factory or an industrial job of some sort, this standardization worked well enough.

But as the United States has shifted from an industrial economy to a knowledge-based one, we need our students to master higher-order knowledge and skills. As a result, society is increasingly asking our schools to do something very different from the purpose for which they were built.

The reason our factory-model education system falls short, to put it simply, is that everyone has different learning needs at different times. Most of us know this intuitively. We remember being in school and struggling to master a concept while a friend grasped it immediately. When a parent or a teacher would explain the same concept in a different way, however, we understood. We also remember excelling in certain classes but struggling in others.

All of our students would benefit from a personalized learning approach to maximize each child’s potential. In an ideal world, we could individualize learning by providing each student with a personal tutor. Benjamin Bloom’s research in the 1980s demonstrated that human tutors could improve learning in earth-shattering ways—bringing a student from the bottom of the pack into the upper quartiles. Unfortunately, this option is prohibitively expensive to employ en masse.

Online learning has the potential to solve the personalization challenge as it allows students to learn in the time, place, path, and pace that are optimized for their needs. It can also deliver a higher-quality learning experience by providing students with frequent and timely feedback. When it is blended into brick-and-mortar schools to provide students with safe, nurturing, and social environments, it allows us to redesign fundamentally the educational model to make it both personalized and affordable.

Teachers shifting to these blended-learning models are also finding that they have more time to focus on activities like critical thinking, writing, and project-based learning, as they spend less time on more manual tasks.

Results from these new blended learning models are encouraging. The KIPP Empower elementary school, a blended learning school with over 90 percent of its students living in poverty, earned an API score of 991 this year—out of a total possible score of 1,000—which makes it the highest-performing school in the Los Angeles school district. In Indianapolis, the new Carpe Diem blended learning middle school saw 93 percent of its eighth graders pass the state math and language arts exams during its first year of operation.

If the goal is to educate every student to the highest potential, we need to transform our education system from the present-day monolithic model, where time is fixed and learning is variable, into one that enables affordable mass customization, where time becomes the variable so learning can be the constant. Current innovations in blended learning are making this kind of personalized education a reality.