Two Worlds Collide … And Students Learn

August 26, 2016
Paul Curtis

Paul Curtis

Merging personalized and project-based learning to improve relevance and rigor.


Two innovative approaches to teaching are currently racing to be the lead disruption to the traditional teacher-centric model.  One is focused on making learning more customized to each student and the other is focussed on making learning more authentic and engaging.  Ironically, these two camps for education reform seem to be at odds with each other and have been slow to learn from each other’s advances.  Not surprisingly, the real salvation of our educational system is the thoughtful collision and integration of these two approaches.


Personalized Learning

The first approach is the “personalized learning” camp.  This camp is passionate about making each student’s learning path tailored to meet the student’s needs.  They advocate that the pace students move through the curriculum and the learning tasks they experience should reflect the needs of the student and are highly critical of the “assembly line” mode of learning that most students experience in traditional schools.  In an ideal world, each student would have a personal tutor who knew what the student was capable of, what they were interested in, and how they learned best.  When we know each student is unique, why do they all get the same worksheet, take the same test, and spend the same amount of time in each class?


To achieve this in school systems that have 35 or more students for every teacher, the personalized learning camp is relying on technology.  Digital curriculum delivery allows the computer to track the student’s progress, allow the student to skip activities if the skill has been mastered, deliver more learning activities when the student is struggling with a skill, and even customize the kind of activity based on how the student learns best.  Students move at their own pace and progress only when they demonstrate mastery, not when the teacher decides it’s time to move on. Students can spend extra time working on the stuff that’s hard for them, and breeze quickly through things that are easy.


As a disruptor, personalized learning is pretty powerful. What do concepts like “seat time” and “graduation year” mean when everyone is moving at their own pace? What is the role of teachers if technology is delivering most of the content?  Fueled by the companies that create the learning software, new models of blended and hybrid schools that divide time between computer-based learning that can happen anywhere and brick and mortar classrooms are challenging the very concept of school.


Project-Based Learning

The second camp is characterized as “deeper learning” or “project-based learning”.  This camp is most passionate about giving students complex, authentic, and engaging tasks that develop skills like creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration that are absolutely necessary in the modern world.  Those who advocate for deeper learning are critical of standardized tests that emphasize memorization and regurgitation and leave little room for understanding and application.    


One of the key strategies of deeper learning is to use projects and problems as the driver for learning.  Unlike traditional projects that tend to be launched as a culminating event at the end of unit, project-based units start with students being given a difficult challenge before any instruction begins.  The students learn the material as they work with their peers over many days or weeks to develop and present a solution.  Like the world outside of school, learning happens in real time as you realize you need to know something.  Also like the world outside of school, being knowledgeable is only part of what makes you successful.  Making sense of the knowledge, communicating effectively with others about that knowledge, grappling with diverse perspectives, applying that knowledge, and validating your ideas are just as important.  And none of that is easily assessed by a multiple choice test.


Like personalized, deeper learning and project based learning also change the fundamental role of the teacher as they become more focussed on guiding students to resources for learning and less focussed on delivering content. Further, teachers must adapt their assessment practices to measure the things traditional tests can’t.  Effective use of project based learning also works best with certain structural changes to the school as well including longer blocks of time, team teaching and integrated courses, and access to web enabled devices for research.


The Battle Between Approaches

Those in the personalized learning camp tend not to show much interest in the practices of those in the deeper learning camp.  They argue that projects are not a guaranteed curriculum that ensures every student masters the content and that too many kids ride on the coattails of their peers. They argue that, too often, teacher created projects are not rigorous or well designed enough to maximize student learning or sufficiently cover the needed content.


On the other hand, those in the deeper learning camp find a room full of students sitting in front of computers working independently with headsets on as depressing or even Orwellian.  They are critical of relying on computers for assessment because they tend to only measure content mastery and are not well suited to measure the more cognitive skills that this camp values.


Our Challenge And Best Hope

Treating these approaches as separate and mutually exclusive pedagogies is a mistake we can’t afford to make.  Both approaches have value and merit.  Deeper learning practices that are proven to increase student engagement and produce the kinds of skills needed for the new economy can be improved by leveraging the practices of personalized learning that allows each student to get the kind of differentiated instruction need to ensure that they have mastered the content.  And those implementing personalized learning would benefit by balancing their computer aided learning with robust and authentic projects.


After decades of isolated efforts, it is time to bring these approaches together.  Rather than arguing over which approach is best, innovative educators must learn to take what is best about both approaches and combine them. It’s time to dissolve the walls that separate the camps and formally take steps to bring these practitioners together to cross pollinate our individual learning and initiate a new wave of innovation in the ed sector.  This is the next challenge for educators and, I believe, our best hope of truly preparing our students for the complex, rapidly changing, technology driven, increasingly connected world they will face.


Interested in hearing more? Help us by voting for Paul Curtis and Drew Schrader for the upcoming SXSW conference.



    • NTN’s Drew Schrader makes the case for Personalized PBL



    • NTN’s Paul Curtis puts on the gloves and says it’s not either, it’s  both


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