You Say Personalized and I Say Individualized … Shall We Teach?

You Say Personalized and I Say Individualized … Shall We Teach?
Contributed By

Ariel Margolis

Director of Online Learning at Hebrew College

You Say Personalized and I Say Individualized … Shall We Teach?

Posted in Community | November 29, 2017

Last June, I had the opportunity to stay at the Fountainbleu for the Schoology NEXT conference. Each morning, I walked passed a hallway dedicated to Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack.

Music by Sinatra played in that hallway.

Memories of visiting my grandparents in the Berkshires flooded my consciousness. I remember distinctly sitting with my grandmother on the porch listening to “this music” not knowing who The Chairman of the Board was. I considered it “old people music.”

That has since come back to bite me as my kids will say in the car, “Hey Dad, can we listen to the 80s station? We like that old music!” Ouch.

I now listen to Sinatra regularly, especially when I work on designing online courses. One song that sticks with me is “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.” You know the one—where the pronunciation of words is compared (feel free to hum or sing along), You say tomato and I say tomahto. You say potato and I say potahto.

The idea behind the song was to differentiate between the upper class pronunciation potahto with the working class potato, but in the end it’s not worth the effort to argue. Between you and me, so long as there is sour cream, butter, chives, and bacon bits, I will eat the tuber regardless of its pronunciation.

Mincing Words: Real Differences Between Personalized and Individualized Instruction

I referenced this Gershwin song, as I see a similar phenomenon occurring between the words "individualized" and "personalized." Since this blog post is one in a mini-series about my journey through personalized instruction, I want pause to clarify the definitions of these words—individualized and personalized—because they are too often used interchangeably, when in fact they are two different methodologies.

Individualized instruction refers to designing instruction for a student based on that student’s pace, ability, or achievement. Personalized instruction refers to designing instruction for a student based on that student’s interest or passion.

But, isn’t personalized instruction a form of individualized instruction?

The answer is … it depends.

Personalization Mixed with Individualization

Personalized instruction focuses on a student’s interest. Individualized focuses on the student’s academic skill sets.

Now, here is where “depends” comes into play.

A teacher can assign material that interests a student (e.g., the art of baking a potato). However, if the personalized material is too easy or hard (e.g., giving a 2nd grader the section on potato baking from Barham’s The Science of Cooking), it is not meeting the student’s learning needs. Therefore, the material should be accessible to the student—it should be individualized.

Ask yourself: without taking into account the students’ abilities, how effective would the instruction be? How impactful would you be?

On the flip-side, what's the impact of a lesson that doesn't provide any room for interest-based choice? It's like serving your students a raw baked potato without any options for toppings. It's flavorless, hard to swallow, and totally forgettable.

Perhaps the phrase “all french fries are potatoes but not all potatoes are french fries” is applicable here (anyone have mayo or ketchup?).

Personalization Adds Flare. Individualization Adds Structure.

In the articles referenced above, you will see the progression (or comparison) of individualized instruction and personalized instruction. All have the same goal—meeting students’ needs.

Yet, personalization adds the flare, the pizzazz, the human factor into the dish.

Personalization is potentially scary and daunting. It requires you to know your students in a way that up until recently, was considered inconsequential. It requires sitting down with each student and learning what makes him/her tick. What is curious to them? What do they want to study?

Once you have gained his/her trust, a bit of revelation occurs. “I like graphic design,” “I want to be a doctor,” “I love soccer.”

The secret ingredient reveals itself.

With that knowledge, you have the power to design beautiful recipes consisting of lessons and activities that meet the interest of the student. You can create that delicious dish of learning that your student will relish and devour. Be it baked potatoes vs. baked manicotti, all students are learning the same skill sets (baking).

But, what if they are not learning the same skill sets?

Think about a math class—what happens when there are two students with one needing to focus on order of operations while the other needs to learn reducing fractions? (By the way, it doesn't need to be just math. Students of all levels are in every class and need to focus on different skill sets. Well ... they don’t need to, but if they are going to be successful learners, they do).

Enter in Individualized instruction. This is where students’ skill sets are brought in. Each student has skill sets and goals that he/she works on.

Now, let’s mix individualized and personalized instruction in one bowl. Individual students’ skill sets and preferences are discovered, worked with, and used to facilitate learning in a classroom.

Think it’s impossible to conceive?

Organized Chaos: This is What Individualized Personalization Looks Like

Ever seen the inner workings of a restaurant kitchen?

There is a head chef who oversees the sous chefs, bakers, salad makers, and even the dishwashers. Each one works on his/her own skill set. Each one focuses on what interests them (And if you think the dishwasher isn’t invested, think again. Almost all chefs started out doing the dishes. It helps them understand how to care for the utensils and serviceware).

The same is true for a classroom that contains both individualized and personalized instruction. Students work on individual skill sets while studying topics that interest them. It’s a five course meal of delectable dishes. Each student has a purpose. Each student prepares his/her own part of the meal.

As a teacher, I started out individualizing instruction and then moved into personalizing the instruction.

Was that the way to go?

Permit me to be as bold as Julia Child putting marshmallows on top of sweet potatoes. Yes, it was the right way to go.

I needed to master the skill set of individualized instruction before folding personalization into the mixture. Why? Because I had to meet my students' learning needs. I needed to learn how to do that before I learned how to personalize the learning.

And that is just what I did.

* * *

Questions to think about after reading this post:

  1. Before reading this post, what was your understanding of individualized and personalized learning?
  2. Which do you feel is more helpful to you as a practitioner, individualized instruction or personalized instruction?
  3. Personalized instruction is often seen as shying away from the “standard curriculum.” Do you agree or disagree? Why?

Activity to do after reading this post:

Do some research on your own with regard to defining individualized and personalized learning. Did you have an educator that incorporated both types of learning? How did you take it to it? Did you take to it? Would you now? In 100 words or fewer or in a 1 minute audio or video cast, share your response with me directly ( and/or in the comments below.


*This post is part of a running mini-series by Ariel Margolis about his journey towards personalized learning. Make sure to read the other installments:


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