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The history of personalized learning

Casey BrownJuly 25, 2019

One of the biggest topics in all education circles involves making learning personalized for each and every student in the classroom. Talk of differentiation and meeting the needs of every learner are commonplace today. However, personalized learning is not new to the world of education — it’s been around for years in various forms. From its early days in the Victoria era, we have seen personalized learning evolve and grow to its present state, supported by technology.

Educators have been working for decades trying to figure out how to teach to students who are the same age but at different learning levels. The history of personalized education is indicative of the collective growth and evolution of many ideas in education.

Try offering amazing personalized learning experiences in your classroom with Classcraft.

The early years 

Documented efforts in personalized learning began in the late 1800s.

silver pocket watch
Photo credit: Isabella Christina

Late 1800s and early 1900s

Pueblo Plan

Superintendent Preston Search of Pueblo, Colorado allows students to move at their own pace in the learning environment. Not every student has to do the same thing at the same time in the classroom. This is one of the first recorded instances of personalized learning being formally introduced in the classroom.

San Francisco Normal School

Students are promoted based on mastery. Once a student masters a grade level in a subject, he or she can move on to the next grade level. This means a student could be in sixth grade English, ninth grade science, and seventh grade math at the same time.

The school also creates worksheets to accompany the given texts. This allows students to practice the material independently. Worrying that too much independent work might affect students’ ability to communicate well with others, the school requires classes that involve interaction such as “oral expression.”


John Dewey

John Dewey publishes his book Democracy and Education. It details that learning should center around the student and depart from the traditional curriculum-centered teaching style. He argues that a student needs to be engaged to be able to learn. His mission is to encourage the growth of learners in small learning communities where they can discuss and uphold the American ideals of democracy.

disco ball
Photo credit:  neosiam

1960s and 1970s

The Keller Plan

Fred Keller creates the Personalized System of Instruction (PSI), where students learn and master content at their own pace and are assessed at the end of each unit. Those who have mastered the material move on to the next unit; others must re-learn the material and retake the test.

Zone of Proximal Development

Lev Vygotsky introduces his theory on the zone of proximal development. This theory states that students need to be challenged just beyond their current level of independent competence. Each student needs to be provided with learning experiences that push them slightly beyond their ability to understand things on their own. According to Vygotsky, this stretching of the mind is necessary for growth.


The Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 (EHA), which was later renamed as part of The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), ensures that students with disabilities legally have a right to free public education that is tailored to their needs. This legislation also provides Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) to students who are eligible for disability accommodations under this law. IDEA also guarantees that all students should be placed in their least restrictive environment (LRE).

black ipod
Photo credit: Pixabay

The 2000s

Two forms of personalized learning

Dan Buckley is credited with defining personalized learning in two different ways in 2005. “Personalization for the learner” refers to the teacher creating the learning experience for the student. “Personalization by the learner” refers to the student acquiring skills to better adjust his or her own learning. These definitions are originally developed for use in Microsoft’s Practical Guide to Envisioning and Transforming Education. Corporations are becoming more involved in educational theory and development.

School of One

In New York City, schools use technology and data to reform students’ individual learning experiences. Students take a test at the end of every day to see where they stand with the current learning objectives. Based on their daily test performance, an individualized schedule is created for their next day of classes. This is one of the first instances of a school focusing on the use of technology to create individualized learning experiences.

little girl operating an ipad
Photo credit: Igor Starkov

2010 to present 

School districts

Personalized learning has become a common part of school district learning plans. Funding and professional development opportunities are often focused on the idea of each student learning at his or her own pace and with his or her own learning style whenever possible.


Politicians, lawmakers, academics, teachers, and citizens get more involved in personalized learning. They create state and local agencies that are dedicated to encouraging and supporting personalized learning in the classroom. New policies are written to help encourage more individualized education plans.


Many charitable organizations, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, champion personalized learning. Hoping to inspire discussion and innovation, they create a working definition of personalized learning:

Personalized learning seeks to accelerate student learning by tailoring the instructional environment—what, when, how, and where students learn—to address the individual needs, skills and interests of each student. Students can take ownership of their own learning, while developing deep, personal connections with each other, their teachers, and other adults.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, also invest effort and funding to support the development of more personalized learning experiences. In 2017, their Chan Zuckerberg Initiative joins forces with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to pledge 12 million dollars to support ways to tailor education to individual student needs.

Online curriculum

Personalized learning is one of the greatest advantages online learning has to offer. The digital learning space gives students power over what and how they learn while providing instruction where they need it — it’s almost like having a private tutor to walk you through a subject.

Quests were created by Classcraft as a roadmap that can be adapted to each student’s learning style and level of mastery. Teachers blend their lesson plan with a powerful narrative to create choose-your-own-learning adventures. Students follow the map, at their own pace or under the teacher’s direction, to meet their learning goals with the help of embedded activities and resources. Branching pathways can be used to reinforce specific information or provide extra support when it’s needed.

Why is personalized learning important for the future?

Personalized learning has been around for decades and will continue to be a major part of education. People are increasingly looking for ways to make learning more purposeful and specific to each learner. With new technology helping to individualize education on the spot, students are able to get immediate feedback and adjust their learning paths.

Personalized Learning