Personalized Learning and Questions of Equity

Can an education system built around personalized learning produce more equitable outcomes than the current model of schooling? This question has been rattling in my head during the past few weeks as I continue to explore the movement toward personalization, which seems to be gaining at least some momentum in recent years with an increasing number of schools and even states adopting more personalized approaches to education. My current state of residence, Vermont, is fully enmeshed in the personalization movement. In 2013, the state passed Act 77, which aims to provide students in Vermont with multiple and flexible pathways to high school graduation through increased access to work-based and blended learning opportunities, dual enrollment, and early college. It also requires all students in grades 7-12 to have a personalized learning plan (PLP) by the 2018-19 school year. Paired with the state’s Education Quality Standards, which mandates that high schools develop proficiency-based rather than “seat time” graduation requirements by 2020, Act 77 aims to “move[s] Vermont’s public education system to a model based on personalization” (Vermont Agency of Education, n.d., p. 5).

My question about personalized learning and equity has become particularly thorny in the wake of my revisiting “critical pedagogy” through the writing of educational and cultural theorists such as Henry Giroux and Peter McLaren. Critical pedagogy is a movement within the field of education that frames schools as sites of political struggle, arenas for empowerment of oppressed and marginalized students, and grounds for social, cultural, and economic transformation. Critical educational theorists such as Giroux and McLaren raise important questions about whose interests are served by dominant models of schooling, how schools reproduce society’s economic, social, and cultural inequalities, and the degree to which schools provide opportunities for self empowerment and social mobility (McLaren, 1998, p. 166). These critical questions can be applied to personalized learning, and they provide a useful lens for examining personalization’s capacity to create more equitable outcomes than the current system. In the remainder of this post, I will offer my own conception of personalized learning, outline some questions about the movement that critical educational theorists have raised for me, and offer some final considerations for proponents of personalization in light of these questions.

My conception of personalized learning builds on the work of Bray & McClaskey (2015) and Clarke (2013). I have come to understand it as an approach through which students work collaboratively with teachers to design educational experiences that are responsive to their unique interests, needs, and aspirations as learners. Within this model, students take increased control of their learning by developing academic goals (with teacher support), monitoring their own progress toward established objectives, and driving the inquiry process. The approach offers students voice and choice in what they learn, how they acquire new knowledge and skills, and how they demonstrate their learning. Personalized learning is built on strong relationships between students and teachers as educators come to know students, their passions, strengths, needs, and aspirations well. It also offers flexible learning environments (both inside and outside school) through which students engage their inquiry projects. Personalized learning is more a philosophy of education than a specific set of teaching practices and requires teachers to view themselves as students’ partners rather than directors of their learning.  

While I am excited about the personalization movement and its potential to more deeply engage students in their learning, provide them more ownership of their education, and allow them to become more active in their communities, critical pedagogy has forced me to consider a number of questions as I continue my exploration of this alternative approach to schooling. Some questions I have been contemplating are: In what ways will personalized learning address social inequalities based on race, class, sex, culture, and sexual orientation that shape and are shaped by students’ educational experiences? Who will determine the competencies students must demonstrate to advance in their schooling, and whose interests will be served by those standards? Does this system of assessment ask students from marginalized cultures to choose between assimilating into the dominant culture and forgoing opportunities for academic advancement? What do schools and their surrounding communities understand the primary purpose of education to be within a personalized learning framework? Will schools predominantly aim to prepare students for the “21st century global economy,” critical and transformative democratic citizenship, or social mobility and cultural assimilation (Labaree, 1997)? Whose interests are served by each of these goals, and what are the likely outcomes of decisions to prioritize one goal over the others?

There will not, of course, be singular answers to any of these questions, but they will be crucial for social justice advocates and critical educators to track as the movement toward personalization continues. If, for example, corporate interests and logic continue to drive educational goals and standards, critical theorists predict current inequities based on race, class, sex, culture, and sexual orientation will persist despite the shift to personalized learning. When corporate interests and logic take precedence in education, emphasis is placed on preparing students for roles within existing economic and social structures rather than equipping them with the knowledge and skills to transform the inequitable status quo. Critical pedagogy places significant responsibility on educators for teaching students to critically interrogate these inequitable structures so they can transform them into more just and democratic systems. Is there, then, a role for this kind of teacher-directed critical questioning within a personalized learning framework? I would argue there is (a full answer to this question, however, requires another essay). Whether teachers are aware of, interested in, and/or prepared for this role, however, is another question altogether. Ultimately, it is imperative for proponents of personalized learning who are also committed to social justice and equity to ask critical questions of this model and to identify ways it can be merged with more transformative approaches to schooling to ensure the inequities of the current system are not reproduced under the guise of personalization.


Bray, B., & McClaskey, K. (2015). Make learning personal: The what, who, wow, where,
            and why. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Clarke, J.H. (2013). Personalized learning: Student-designed pathways to high school
            graduation. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Labaree, D.F. (1997). Public goods, private goods: The American struggle over
            educational goals. American Educational Research Journal, 34(1), 39-81.
McLaren, P. (1998). Life in schools: An introduction to critical pedagogy in the
            foundations of education (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Longman.