Personalization: Necessary or Nice in Education?

I advocate for providing for all students the opportunity to explore different resources in the context of a relevant learning task. Teachers should consider the whole child when they prepare for instruction, considering their social and emotional needs as well as the academic. The best education is one in which learners have choice in what to explore.

Yet I worry that we are tailoring our instruction for students to the point where they no longer have to struggle to attain essential understandings and skills in their lives. Let me explain.

My son had never seen Wall-e, a Disney Pixar movie, until last night. We watched it together, often discussing parts of the story when he had questions. The one issue he could not seem to come to grips with was why the humans in the spaceship Axiom were “so fat”. I responded that every task was now being done for them. For example, they didn’t have to walk anywhere because their hover chairs transported them to wherever they wanted to go. Their drinks were hand-delivered. Yet even after multiple explanations, he couldn’t grasp the concept.

I am not surprised. It’s a complex movie, rife with references to 2001: A Space Odyssey and other notable media and events related to space travel. More so, I wonder if my son struggled with the concept of people who cannot fend for themselves. He is an independent and active guy. The idea that someone else will provide for all of his needs and wants seemed foreign. Not that my wife and I don’t spoil him terribly…

In schools, we as educators are expected to ensure that every child succeeds (it’s an act, you know). This is an expectation regardless of a student’s home life, genetics, peer relationships, mental health, or past experiences. Our collective response seems to be one of bending over backward to accommodate our students in the hope that they avoid failure and move on to that next grade. Never mind that some skills have been ignored while other expectations have been met some time ago. Move along, move along…


This is a hard issue to address. I haven’t been in the classroom in almost a decade. To say that I can speak with authority on the topic of personalization might be a stretch.

What can I speak to is my own experiences as a life long learner. For example, I am currently pursuing my first degree black belt in tae kwon do. Right now I am in a unique situation: We are moving to a new location, in an area that does not have a tae kwon do center in which I could practice. “No problem – just get a punch card and come up on Saturdays to stay fresh and learn a new form,” states our master instructor. There is little accommodation for my situation. Either do it or don’t. It’s a centuries-old form of martial art and self-defense; no one is going to personalize this craft for me.

Do we do students a disservice when we adjust our instruction so much that we never give them a chance of reaching the original goals set? What would happen if we said, “This is the expectation; I expect you to meet it.”? The reaction would depend a lot on the context. In communities that expect the very best in their child’s lives, any deviance from a situation that does not result in success might lead to parental and even political consternation. No administrator or teacher wants that in their lives.

Maybe a better approach is to create the conditions for personalization. Meaning, how can we be attuned to our students’ needs and interests, understand this information, and apply it to our instruction in ways that both differentiate for students’ needs and honor serious expectations for learning? Learners naturally seek more complexity in their learning progressions. Why would we inhibit this? It is a misnomer that teachers should be differentiating for students. When instruction is prepared for possibilities, students can differentiate for themselves.

Personalization is not a promise for every student succeeding in school, nor permission that allows all kids to get by because the outcomes are more important than the processes. Instead, personalization should be about finding what approach best fits each child in their learning endeavors, and giving them the tools and knowledge to make sense of the world as we know it. This is education as it was intended.

Author: Matt Renwick

Matt Renwick is a 17-year public educator who began as a 5th and 6th grade teacher. After seven years of teaching, he served as a dean of students, assistant principal and athletic director before becoming an elementary principal in Wisconsin Rapids. Matt is now an elementary principal for the Mineral Point Unified School District (http://mineralpointschools.org/). Matt tweets @ReadByExample and writes for ASCD (www.ascd.org) and Lead Literacy (www.leadliteracy.com).

7 thoughts on “Personalization: Necessary or Nice in Education?”

  1. I am so glad we were able to bring you to our community. I now look forward to reading this blog every week. I am looking forward to all the great learning experiences you will bring to our school. Whether or not I am part of the ELL team, I know my students will be in great hands. By the way, we do have tae kwon do instruction in Dodgeville. My boys participated for several years. Although not currently, I do have a good friend that has her kids in it. Let me know if you would like any information about it.
    Keep up your wonderful gift of writing! I will keep reading

    Like

    1. Thanks Timothy for the warm welcome and for reading and responding. Please share that information about tae kwon do with me when convenient.

      Like

  2. I have struggled with this same idea for a few years now. You explain it in a way that makes complete sense and actually simplifies the personalization craze. I agree, more now than ever, that we educators need to find a balance. There will never be a magic bullet for learning because we need to ebb and flow with the needs of our students and communities. Let’s find a balance that makes sense and allows for success!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Interesting article/thinking. Differentiation is not in place to make life/school easier for the child but rather for the students to always be on that edge of struggle, challenge and failure. If a teacher feels like he/she is doing all the work, then it would be time to reassess his or her understanding of differentiation.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Very interesting and thoughtful article. I really anjoyed reading it and it also gave me a lot to think about. Wall-e is one of my favorite movies. It is so great your child didn’t understand this concept – that means he’s too far from this ‘reality’ and it is also a sign of a parenting done right.
    Congrats to that and to the article! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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