Catalyst Series: Todd Rose on Personalized Learning

Catalyst Series: Todd Rose on Personalized Learning

“The most fatal mistake of the industrial era is that we extended the idea of standardization from products to people.”

This was Todd Rose’s opening remark at last week’s gathering of educators, scholars, and community leaders. The event, the second in our Catalyst Series, is part of the Education Innovation Research Network, and was hosted at the Rhode Island Office of Innovation.

Rose, author of The End of Average, argues that standardization as a guiding principle has become deeply rooted in the way we think about ourselves and our capabilities. He advocates instead for a way of approaching education that expands our ideas about human potential, and prioritizes individual needs and outcomes.

Rose spoke informally and candidly. When asked, he shared a bit of his personal narrative. He grew up in rural Utah where “conformity was the prize,” he said. He failed out of high school. “They sort of kicked me out.” He laughed as he recalled his 0.9 GPA. “You have to work pretty hard to do that badly,” he said.  Soon after, he found himself working several minimum wage jobs to support himself, his wife, and two children, and decided that he wanted more. “But maybe,” he thought, “it’s not that I’m a bad learner, maybe there’s a bad fit between me and the institutions.”

Now, Rose is the director of the Mind, Brain, and Education Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and leads the Laboratory for the Science of the Individual, where he works to bring his research on the science of individuality to a broader public, through the practice of personalization in education.

In calling for transformation of our education systems, we can make arguments for economic need, but Rose believes that making change is now a moral imperative. “As individuals, as people, we have right, we have worth, we are not means to some other end. We know that people are capable and we need to build systems that support that. We owe it to each other to actually invest in each other,” he said.

In offering some guideposts for how this might be done, Rose emphasized two key concepts: First, to involve practitioners from the start. “As scientists, we need to get over this superiority complex that we know something practitioners don’t.” And second, that it is worth investing time in unpacking our language. “It’s shocking how much we think of as knowledge is just shared jargon.”

We have to be willing to define personalized outcomes and re-define what we mean by success. Supporting personalized outcomes is the only way to get to something equitable, Rose said, but also cautioned against simplistic thinking that “if you do personalization well,” you will accomplish social equity. “Equity is a separate commitment.”

In the discussion that followed, participants had the opportunity to work in small groups, exploring ideas about what a more personalized learning model might look like for students, educators, and school communities. These ideas and comments generated will help to shape the questions that the research team will undertake.

What we mean (and don't mean) by personalized learning

The RI Personalized Learning Initiative released a white paper in February of 2017, written by RIDE, the Rhode Island Office of Innovation, Rhode Island Mayoral Academies, Highlander Institute, and co-signed by RISTE, RI-CAN, the School of Education at RIC, and RIASP. The paper was first drafted in September of 2016 and was revised to include contributions and feedback from stakeholders across the state, including educators, administrators, families, and non-profit and industry leaders. Click here to read the Personalized Learning White Paper.

To learn more about the Education Innovation Research Network, our Catalyst Series, or to join us, visit us at

The Education Innovation Research Network is a partnership between Eduvate RI, The College & University Research Collaborative, and The Rhode Island Office of Innovation.