A memo for Jeb Bush

Doug Tuthill

In a recent interview with Sal Khan, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush suggested we need a common term for concepts such as mastery-based learning, personalized learning, competency-based learning, individualized learning and customized learning. 

“We need to come up with a name that everyone uses,” Bush told Khan at a recent education reform conference in San Diego. “When you figure it out, send a memo out to the rest of us.” 

Governor, I recommend we use the term ”customized education.” Here’s why.

All learning is personal. Thirty students sitting quietly in rows taking detailed notes of their teacher’s lecture are engaged in personalized learning. No two students assimilate the teacher’s words in the same way. We all interpret incoming stimuli through the lenses of our previous experience and knowledge. Since no two people have lived identical lives, no two people interpret information, such as a lecture, in identical ways. Consequently, all learning, including how well someone masters a competency, is personal.

When people use terms such as personalized learning, they are really referring to teaching, not learning. While 30 students sitting in rows taking lecture notes are engaged in personalized learning, the teacher is not engaged in personalized instruction. The teacher is using one-size-fits-all group instruction. This group instruction is what reformers want to replace with instruction that is customized to each child’s needs.  

Progressive educators have been advocating for personalized instruction for at least 150 years. Public education adopted one-size-fits-all batch instruction in the late 1800s because it was scalable and personalized instruction was not. Our inability to scale personalized instruction has thwarted us ever since. What’s different today is technology. Technology that did not exist 30 years ago is now enabling entities such as the Khan Academy to make customized education possible for every child globally. 

So why do I prefer customized education over personalized instruction?

Khan Academy does not provide personalized instruction for every child. But it does provide content and tools that make it possible for learners to customize their education.

Education is more than instruction. Many of my most powerful learning experiences have come while doing yard work. I listened to a thought-provoking discussion between Sal Khan and Jeb Bush, thought about their exchange while working in the yard, and then clarified my thoughts by writing this blog post.  This is why the term you are searching for, Governor, should be broad enough to encompass external instruction and self-guided learning activities. And why I prefer customized education.

So why customized education and not personalized education?

The term personalized learning has become so ubiquitous that trying to explain why it is redundant and misleading seems overly complex and onerous. I’d rather reboot, dump the word “personalized,” and go with customized.

Customized education – the future of public education, workforce education, and civic education.

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