Nobody is Average, Every Student Deserves Personalized Learning

In Square Peg, Todd Rose tells the story of how a high school dropout became a Harvard professor in educational neuroscience. Diagnosed with ADHD in middle school, Rose was always in trouble.

From his study of complex systems and neuroscience, he makes four points:

  • variability is the rule: perceptions and reactions are much more dynamic and diverse than previously thought;
  • emotions are important: emotional states influence learning;
  • context is key: circumstances affect the behavior; and
  • feedback loops determine success or failure: small changes making a difference.

In Todd’s TED talk on the Myth of Average, he makes the case that schools are designed based on the average. But the problem is that no student is average on every dimension, “Every student has a jagged learning profile.” Rose said, “We blame kids, teachers, and parents, but it’s just bad design.”

School designs based on average destroy talent, according to Rose because advanced students aren’t challenged and students with specific weaknesses don’t have their strengths nurtured.

Rose finds this unacceptable given that blended tools and environments can be designed for the edges, not the averages, the “learning equiv of adjustable seats.”

Cofounder and president of The Center for Individual Opportunity, Rose is providing leadership around the emerging science of the individual including:

“Creation of technology standards for education aligned to the science of the individual, as well as the development of an Individual Talent Model that integrates cutting-edge insights from the new science, along with decades of research on talent identification and development, to create a powerful new approach to nurturing individual potential that can be implemented within traditional educational settings.”

Student-centered learning. Fortunately, Rose is not fighting this battle alone. The International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL, where I’m a director) is dedicated to advancing student-centered learning. In her last blog, President & CEO Susan Patrick outlined that student-centered learning:

  • Is an education full of variety and choices.
  • Always involves a relationship between the teacher and the student, as well as a strong sense of community within the class as a whole.
  • Is a space where students have access to a wide range of subjects that meet their pathway needs and interests.
  • Is, within each subject, students’ right to access learning experiences that enable them to progress according to their ability levels.
  • Is an opportunity for students to make decisions about the direction of their learning; for example, they can pick the topic they are going to research for an assignment, the book for their book chats and how they want to write the procedures for their lab work.
  • Is a dynamic learning opportunity that provides students with content that addresses their personal learning needs based on their interests, parental input and teacher observation as well as assessment data, which is the most important element.
  • Is students managing their own work calendars and daily schedules to stay on track, so they are free to move through courses at their own paces and have individualized learning paths and intervention plans.
  • Is students using personal learning tools, such as mobile devices, to individualize their learning and improve communication within the school community.
  • Is the school community’s inclusion of multiple layers of support.
  • Is students interacting and collaborating with each other and with the content.
  • Emphasizes teachers interacting with the content, with students and with other teachers.
  • Necessitates social-emotional connections built between students and teachers as the foundation of their work together.
  • Means various starting points within content, varied amounts of guided practice and independent practice as needed.

Providing experiences like this at scale will require comprehensive learner profiles. As noted last month, a learner profile includes three elements:

  • Learning transcript: grades, courses (and/or learning levels), state and district achievement data.
  • Personalized learning information: supplemental achievement data, record of services received, feedback on work habits, record of extracurricular activities and work/service experiences.
  • Portfolio of student work: collection of personal best work products.

Learner profiles will benefit students with learning differences. According to Rose, that’s all of them. Profiles, if managed by parents, can maximize personalization and privacy. Using a free mobile application, parents could grant read/write access to the profile to multiple providers.

Online profile management is becoming important in every aspect of life, it’s a new digital literacy competency that every young person must learn to exercise. That starts with empowering parents to take charge of education data with a portable learning profile.

For more, check out:

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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Andrew Frishman

Tom, thanks for sharing this. I was excited to see that Big Picture Learning network ( is one of the few examples that Dr. Todd Rose chose to highlight in his insightful book. As we think about how to design schools and learning experiences to truly personalize them for students I feel that the "10 Expectations" that Elliot Washor and Charlie Mojkowski described in "Leaving to Learn" - I'm intrigued to hear what you (and readers of this blog) think and feel about them (see this 3 min video -

Tom Vander Ark

See Todd's new book, The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness

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