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Tracing Personalized Learning Research Back to the 1970s

The research supporting the current trend towards "personalized learning" is limited, as Education Week detailed earlier this month in a special report on growing efforts to design teaching and learning around K-12 students' distinctive strengths, needs, and preferences.

"Limited," however, doesn't mean that such research is all new or emerging.

Included among the dozens of studies we reviewed for the report were a handful of evaluations dating to the 1970s on "mastery learning" and what was known as the "Personalized System of Instruction." Developed by educational psychologists Benjamin Bloom and Fred Keller, respectively, both are clear philosophical and pedagogical antecedents of the contemporary personalized-learning push. 

"Often when we see an ed-tech product, the developers will talk about how amazing and groundbreaking it is," said Jennifer Morrison, an assistant professor of education at Johns Hopkins University who focuses on evaluations of educational technology.

"And it's like, 'No, no, no—that was first done a long time ago,' " Morrison said.

Personalized learning's origins in behaviorism

So what can these old approaches tell us about one of K-12's newest trends?

The roots of all of it can be traced back to behaviorism, Morrison said. The theory holds that human behavior can be explained by how we are conditioned to respond to various stimuli in our environments. In its broadest terms, behaviorism has been reflected in educational settings that emphasize rote learning to help students find "right" answers.

In 1976, researchers James Block and Robert Burns reviewed what was known at the time about Bloom's "mastery learning" approach and Keller's Personalized System of Instruction. The features they highlighted in those two approaches are directly echoed in much of the conversation around personalized learning today: 

  • In both models, it was seen as critical to give students a clear idea of where they were going/what they were expected to learn.
  • Each task was broken into smaller units of learning. Instruction would then focus on each individual step, with student understanding being tested at each checkpoint along the way.
  • Teachers were expected to provide immediate feedback to students upon the completion of tests at each step.
  • It was seen as critical that individual students were provided with the time they needed to learn each component task, even if they took more (or less) time than their peers (in other words, self-pacing.)
  • It was seen as important that students were provided "alternative learning opportunities" if an initial strategy was not working.

Keller's approach emphasized cooperative learning among students, rather than individual consumption of information from a teacher. It also emphasized that students not be penalized for any errors, and that lectures and demonstrations be used for motivation, rather than to provide information (a kind of descendant of the modern "flipped classroom.")

Neither approach relied on technology— they were founded well before the advent of the personal computer.

But both were controversial, Block and Burns wrote:

"Critics...assert that mastery approaches to instruction are rigid, mechanistic, training strategies; that they can only give students the simple skills required to survive in a closed society; and that they do not appreciate the complexities of school learning."

Such skepticism likely sounds familiar to many of the parents and activists raising concern about personalized learning now.

Did 'mastery learning' work?

Based on their review of existing research at the time, Block and Burns concluded that yes, "mastery-taught students have exhibited greater learning, on the average, than their nonmastery-taught counterparts."

The researchers also held out hope that such approaches would be particularly helpful in aiding "slower students to learn more like faster students do."

It's important, however, to note that the studies included in this review involved college students, not K-12 students. The focus was "lower-order cognitive behaviors," such as understanding introductory textbooks.

And a decade later, a researcher named Robert Slavin aggressively challenged the findings, saying that most of the studies included in Block's and Burns' review focused on teacher-developed measures, not standardized assessments of student learning. Slavin also noted that giving some students a lot more instructional time may very well have been the factor that led to increased performance —not the nature of the instruction itself.

"Simply receiving frequent and immediate feedback on performance may account for a substantial portion of the mastery learning effect," Slavin wrote. 

Overall, Slavin maintained, his findings "do not support the [claim] that mastery learning is more effective than traditional instruction given equal time and achievement measures that assess coverage as well as mastery."

The debate continued for years, without a definitive resolution.

What does it mean for today?

Over the past 40 years, of course, technology, has changed things quite a bit.

"Today, computers have the capacity to not only vary the pace [of material], but also the content, how much is presented, and, with adaptive [products], even the difficulty," said Steven Ross, a research scientist and professor at Johns Hopkins University.

"We now have intelligent systems in which computers can figure out what a student's misconception is and present remedial material," he said.

But the underlying theory and instructional practices found in contemporary "personalized-learning" classrooms are often quite similar to those found in "mastery-based" classrooms of the '60s and '70s, Ross said. There is still too often an emphasis on drill-and-practice teaching, and rote memorization and regurgitation of information is still too often prioritized over deeper, more critical thinking.

That's not necessarily a bad thing—in some situations and circumstances, drill-and-practice still has a role to play. And there's some reason to believe—from research both old and new—that technology can make that process more efficient, personalized, and effective.

But limiting "personalized learning" to drill-and-practice isn't enough, Ross said.

"Most products work in certain contexts," he said.  "They can provide additional tools that teachers can choose from."


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