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The Politics of Personalization in the 21st Century

October 1, 2010 Phil McRae

The world’s education systems are in the midst of change (aka informed transformation) unlike any other time over the past century. It’s a historical moment where governments, teachers, parents and school communities are exploring visions of an education system that would embody increased flexibility (curricular and otherwise), innovation (technologies and pedagogy) and more individualized and self-directed approaches to student learning. Within this 21st-century parade of change, the notion of personalization in education is moving to the forefront. It’s an ambiguous and often broadly defined notion that has been hotly contested in the United Kingdom over the past several years. It’s a movement that could be as influential to how public education is conceived as privatization was in the 1980s.

The intent of this article is to provide a brief introduction to the discourse on personalization and encourage a space where Alberta teachers can raise their voices to (re)define and (re)shape this fragile idea as it gets positioned as the next big educational reform.

Struggling for an Identity

Personalizing learning is not new to the skilled practice of teaching and learning in Alberta, or to the pedagogical work of teachers around the world. Personalization is in many respects a case of déjà vu. It’s bound up in assessment for learning, which is a focus of the Alberta Initiative for School Improvement (AISI), and with differentiated instruction, which for many years has been weaving together pedagogical practices aimed at tailoring a student’s instruction, curriculum and learning supports to meet their specific interests, learning styles and aspirations. Every day, legions of teachers enter classrooms in Alberta to engage diverse minds across multiple activities and to support each student as he or she inquires into problems. These same teachers, who hold a keen awareness of each of their student’s particular learning styles and passions, are also simultaneously contending with issues of poverty, lack of parental involvement (or conversely helicopter parents), large classes, familial and community influences, student effort and numerous digital and popular culture distractions that add to complexity of their professional practice.

Personalized learning is not a pedagogic theory nor a coherent set of teaching approaches, but an idea that is struggling for an identity. As Michael Fullan (2009) suggests, the concept is most commonly associated in the United States with differentiated instruction. David Hargreaves (2006), a principal architect of the idea, refers to “personalizing” learning rather than “personalized” learning, in order to emphasize that it is a process, not a product. Given that language is the fundamental medium for the social construction of meaning, the term is currently under construction and being (re)defined in many quarters. To give it a new flavour from differentiated instruction and assessment for learning, the terminology is often positioned as uniquely in step with the 21st century (Leadbeater 2008). As the International Network for Educational Transformation (iNet) indicates, “Personalised learning is the challenge to meet more of the needs of more students more fully than has been achieved in the past ... It is concerned with a transformation of education and schooling that is fit for citizens in the 21st century” (iNet 2010a). 

Origins in the United Kingdom

Historically, the term personalized learning was coined in a September 2003 speech in Britain by the Honourable David Miliband, then-minister of state for School Standards for the United Kingdom, who pronounced that “Personalised learning demands that every aspect of teaching and support is designed around a pupil’s needs” (Hargreaves 2004). This speech was driven by Tony Blair’s Labour government’s desire to reorganize the way services were delivered, given a concern that public institutions and government were lacking legitimacy in the public’s eyes. Over time, the government’s reorganization entailed moving from the universal provision of services by government toward a more personalized approach that was hinged on each citizen’s actions.

Thus, in the UK, personalized learning has been bound up in a larger framework for the personalization of public services. In both the healthcare and education sectors, the appeal is to the consumer side of a citizenry looking for a promise of choice, greater flexibility and efficiencies for the individual. People are participants in the design, delivery and co-production of those public goods that they feel are of most worth to them. Of course, the benefit to the financially strapped state is to encourage citizens to take on more personal responsibility for the public good. In this framing of personalized services for the citizenry, UK policy makers do not necessarily distinguish between children and adults. 

David Hargreaves (not to be confused with Andy Hargreaves of Boston College) has been instrumental in defining this idea in the education sector by establishing nine gateways to personalizing learning. In David Hargreaves’ view, personalized learning represents a larger movement that needs to be put forward on several fronts to (re)shape teaching and learning. His nine gateways to personalizing learning are assessment for learning; learning to learn; student voice; curriculum; new technologies; school design and organization; advice and guidance; mentoring and coaching; and workforce development (Hargreaves 2006).

The close association of personalized learning and new technologies has been a central strand since the inception of the idea, and is part of the all-embracing creed of technocrats looking to enter system level educational reform. Of note is that David Hargreaves was a former chair of the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency, which was the UK government’s main partner in the strategic development and delivery of its information and communications technology (ICT) and e-learning strategy. This agency has been shut down by the British government and will cease to exist November 2010. 

Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley (2009) have critiqued David Hargreaves’s approach to personalization as being a new way to manage and market learning in their book The Fourth Way:

Indeed, he [David Hargreaves] initially referred to personalization in terms of its “synonym, customization in the business world”. With customized learning, students access existing and unchanged kinds of conventional learning through different means—on site or off site, online or offline, in school or out of school, quickly or slowly.  . . . [B]ut the nature of learning is not transformed into something deeper, more challenging, and more connected to compelling issues in their world and their lives.  . . . [T]wenty-first century schools must also embrace deeper virtues and values such as courage, compassion, service, sacrifice, long-term commitment and perseverance.

Customized learning is pleasurable and instantly gratifying. Nevertheless it  . . .  ultimately becomes just one more process of business-driven training delivered to satisfy individual consumer tastes and desires. (p. 84)

Personalizing Learning in Canada

Personalized learning is part of the mantra of many educational reform efforts across Canada, where it is often coupled with technology as a means for more flexible learning delivery (as if learning can be delivered like pizza pie). For example, New Brunswick’s Department of Education has produced a document entitled NB3-21C: Creating a 21st Century Learning Model of Public Education Three-Year Plan 2010–2013, that speaks explicitly to personalization, where learning can be delivered 7 days a week, 24 hours a day, 52 weeks a year (anytime, anyplace and at any pace), all facilitated by a multitude of technologies. As with other advocacy positions around personalized learning, emerging technologies are positioned as the force(s) to bring personalization to all students. The New Brunswick agenda emphasizes technology as a main strategy for system level accountability to support “progress monitoring for all students, and to provide data on cohorts of students at all levels of the K–12 system” (New Brunswick Department of Education 2010, p.20). This particular advance of the personalized learning concept may, unfortunately, be travelling down a precarious path of centralization, standardization and narrow outcome-based accountability that distracts reformers from the broader goals of 21st-century skills. 

In Alberta, the ministry of education’s 2010–2013 business plan addresses personalized learning as both an opportunity and a challenge. In fact, the first goal and strategy of the current business plan articulates the intent to “support a flexible approach to enable learning any time, any place and at any pace, facilitated by increased access to learning technologies (Alberta Education 2010a, p. 70). In the plan, personalization is addressed in the same breath as technology, where one is the facilitator of the other. In many ways this is a natural reaction of a government looking to create/support public services in a more digitized society, where people are experiencing (or perceiving) greater choice, more voice and increased scope for self-organization throughout their (digital) lives.

In the more recent recommendations from Inspiring Action on Education (2010b), Alberta Education’s vision for policy directions, legislative change and transformational shifts for education in the province, personalized learning is not equated solely with emerging technologies, but positioned as extending students’ learning experiences into community. “Personalized learning means that … students have access to a greater variety of learning experiences that include and extend beyond traditional education settings and benefit from increased community involvement in their learning” (Alberta Education 2010b, p. 14).

Technologies and (Hyper)Personalization

We now have many deep cultural undertows that are worth supporting; primarily differentiation that recognizes the diversity and complexity in the classroom, and the taking up of emerging technologies to engage learning. Yet we must draw carefully on these cultural shifts to make sound pedagogical decisions in the best interests of students within a commitment to public education and core values of innovation, creativity, social responsibility and community.

Obviously, we’re entering a digital age where students access the information they want—how they want it, when they want it and where they want it (think personalized learning at any time, place or pace). This will have a profound effect on critical thinking as people are increasingly fed only the exact type of information (specific political views, topical book themes and local environmental conditions) and sources (individual blogs, new media and ethnically oriented online spaces) to which they digitally subscribe. In many ways, hyperpersonalized (customized) digital spaces have the potential to limit students to only the content that they want to see, hear and read about. While considering personalization and technology, we need to think about the role of critical thinking, diversity and chance (serendipity), and their importance to learning and society, and to the long-term implications of driving digital personalization (customization) in terms of the future of public education.

Personalization of learning and emerging technologies are engaged in a policy handshake that must be examined. There are, for example, questions of teacher and student efficacy in a K–12 education system when personalization is coupled primarily with the discourses on emerging technologies and their benefits. Especially if the focus is on individualized learning (between student, technology and content), in the relative absence of collective learning, socio-constructivism and relationships with peers, teachers and the community. 

We should also not be distracted from other critical issues by a focus on personalization empowered by emerging technologies. Issues engendered by the pervasive digital connectivity of young people and society are critical if we hope to achieve a healthy balance in our society.  There is a growing call for studies on the physiological effect of digital technologies and new media on children’s brain development—a neuroscience of children and media (Anderson 2007). Based on this concern, we should consider the personal cost to 8–18-year-olds who average 10 hours and 45 minutes a day per day exposed to media (Kaiser Foundation 2010) or the Canadian Paediatric Society’s recent policy recommendation of no screen time for children under two years of age and a maximum of two hours for children older than two (Canadian Paediatric Society 2009). 

Finally, we should be mindful of saving stillness in a digital age where a kind of solitude that refreshes and restores a person is valued. Stillness is a particular concern that distinguished professor Sherry Turkle, director of MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, argues is essential to identity formation and healthy adolescent development in the 21st century. Turkle speculates that “If we identify our need for stillness as something that is part of our human purposes, we will find ways to bring it back into our lives. If we only get excited about what technology makes easy, we will say that this is a kind of … 18th century completely passé thing and that it is not essential. I think that part of K–12 education now should be to give students a place for this kind of stillness, because I don’t think that the rest of their lives is making it easy for them” (Dretzin 2009).

Educators need to be committed to exploring these issues with parents, health professionals and the wider education community so that the transformations to the education system associated with technologies are truly informed. 


Much of the impulse behind personalization of learning is laudable. This stance is in line with many promising new forms of assessment, differentiated learning and instruction, and redesigning high schools beyond age cohorts and class structures. More flexible approaches to education moving away from an industrial model are necessary, and finding ways to personalize learning will be important to adequately develop the skills and knowledge in society that will help the next generation creatively navigate an uncertain future. However, as Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley suggest, personalized learning is often a Third Way reform effort driven by business-like customization, and deeper learning is constrained by the forces of accountability and performance.

Personalized learning is often represented as a novel approach to enhancing the pedagogical practices of educators to broadly reorganize schooling in the 21st century. The personalized (re)shaping of teaching and learning is generally to be achieved through assessing the strengths of individuals and then addressing the specific needs and learning styles of each student in a school community. To achieve this end, governments and school jurisdictions around the world are pulling together a mélange of policy priorities that range from focusing on emerging technologies to increasing students’ active community engagement in learning. Just as with past educational reform efforts, personalized learning is now being represented by a complex collection of voices ranging from those who are critically informed to the misleading and myopic zealousness of those who focus on technology as the metaphor for all change in an education system. Alberta teachers need to add their informed voice and pedagogic experience to this conversation.

Perhaps an immediate and personal action that teachers can take is to embrace the wiki way of influencing meaning by visiting and contributing to or (re)shaping the definition of personalized learning. As educators and others search out the meaning of this term, you will then have put your personal stamp on the concept as you see it lived out in your own unique educational contexts. Ultimately, we need to individually and collectively (re)define this term, and in doing so be empowered to share a vision of what knowledge and pedagogical approaches are of most worth in the 21st century.


Alberta Education. 2010a. Education Business Plan 2010–13. Edmonton, AB: Government of Alberta. Retrieved August 12, 2010, at

-----. 2010b. Inspiring Action on Education. Edmonton, AB: Government of Alberta. Retrieved August 12, 2010, at

Anderson, C.A. 2007. “A Neuroscience of Children and Media?” Journal of Children and Media 1, no. 1: 77–85.

Canadian Paediatric Society. 2009. Impact of Media Use on Children and Youth. Ottawa, Ontario: Canadian Paediatric Society. Retrieved August 12, 2010, at

Dretzin, R. (Producer). 2009, September 22. “Interview with Sherry Turkle.” Frontline

[Television Broadcast]. Public Broadcasting Service. Retrieved August 2, 2010, at

Fullan, M. 2009. Michael Fullan's Answer to "What Is Personalized Learning?" Microsoft Education Partner Network. Retrieved August 19, 2010, at

Hargreaves, A. and D. Shirley. 2009. The Fourth Way: The Inspiring Future for Educational Change. Thousand Oaks, Calif: Corwin Press.

Hargreaves, D. 2004. Personalising Learning: Next Steps in Working Laterally. London: Specialist Schools and Academics Trust.

------.2006. Personalising Learning 6: The Final Gateway: School Design and Organisation. London: Specialist Schools and Academics Trust.


iNet—International Networking for Educational Transformation. 2010. What We Do: Our Priorities: Personalising Learning. Taunton, Somerset: Specialist Schools and Academics Trust. Retrieved August 30, 2010, at

Kaiser Family Foundation. 2010. Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8–18 Year Olds. Menlo Park, CA: Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

Leadbeater, C. 2008. What's Next? 21 Ideas for 21st Century Learning. London: The Innovation Unit.

New Brunswick Department of Education. 2010. NB3-21C: Creating a 21st Century—Learning Model of Public Education. Retrieved August 31, 2010, at

Phil McRae is an ATA staff officer in the Government program area.

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