Review: “Balancing Freedom and Limitations: A case study of choice provision in a personalized learning class”

by Christopher S. Nelson

            It is one semester into the 2018-2019 school year and many high school teachers of the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District are still struggling to understand and implement personalized learning in their classrooms. August of this year, the district superintendent laid out specific guidelines for launching the final stages of a three-year plan to incorporate the Core Four personalized learning strategy district-wide (see diagram 1). Grades K-8 have seen success with this new methodology for the last two years, but understanding how to apply true personalized learning versus differentiated and individualized learning has become a proverbial snipe hunt for many high school teachers. This article addresses concerns from teachers in this district shared by the educators and students of the 2017 Riverview Middle School case study conducted by Steven Netcoh, Ph.D.: The underlying issue appears to lie in balancing choices and freedom with standards, boundaries, and academic rigor.

Figure 1. Core Four diagram. (Johns, 2018, p. 6)

       In this study, Netcoh used an ethnographic realist approach by conducting a series of interviews and observations on a group of eight teachers and eighty students. My first take away from this was the 10:1 student-teacher ratio which seems a bit high for such a program. Following a study conducted at the University of Alaska during Spring of 2018, the optimal ratio for a traditional classroom is 15:1. That is with a teacher-dictated curriculum and the same method of instruction for each student. It was decided during the study and confirmed by Dr. Peter Jacobsen (personal communication, April 2018) that [the most effective ratio for personalized learning is between a five and seven students per teacher]. I believe the study would have revealed a higher success rate had the program included four to five additional instructors.

       In the Methods section of the study, Netcoh delivers a thorough demographic of both student and teacher populations. Students are narratively categorized by grade level, then broken down into percentages for race, financial disparity, Special Education, and English Language Learners. The teachers’ demographics are presented similarly, by grade taught, race, gender, and experience teaching, but it is done through a table rather than a narrative. I found this to be more helpful than the student demographic as it puts all data in an easy-to-read visual. No gender breakdown for students was offered, data I feel could have bearing on the findings.

       Beyond those flaws inherent in the study based on lacking demographics and student-teacher ratio, I found this article to be very informative and well supported. I will be brutally honest: I rarely follow hyperlinks in studies because the hyperlinked targets inevitably have more hyperlinks. Nothing is more frustrating than being thrown down rabbit holes. With this study, however, I found the hyperlinks quite interesting and was excited to use them. In particular, James A. Beane’s A Middle School Curriculum: from Rhetoric to Reality (Netcoh, 2018, p. 384) makes the case for the importance of building both content proficiency and self-esteem in middle school students through the use of personalized learning (Beane, 1993, p.6).

      The information provided in regards to a new personalized learning launch reflects a commonality in the confusion and apprehension shared universally across other districts, attributed to the newness of the methodology and lacking experiential data. (Netcoh, 2018, p. 383). This is comforting in that other districts are pushing through and eventually embracing the concept, a potential indicator of the successful universal move from rigid to personalized learning. Aside from the overwhelming amount of ways to personalize and differentiate, the elephant in the room goes back to the keystone concept of empowering students to own their learning: students’ personalized learning could “invert the power dynamics of core classes by providing them full autonomy to choose what they studied and how they spent their time during [omitted] class” (Netcoh, 2017, p.388).

       The findings of the study were eye-opening in that not only were the teachers unanimously concerned with the power struggle over academic command, but some students felt overwhelmed at being placed in the driver’s seat. This problem will resolve itself, however; with districts introducing personalized learning at all grades, students will become better acclimated cumulatively as they approach high school. For districts launching this year, the graduating class of 2021 will have the empowerment of autonomous education and the ability to adapt to the rapid changes brought on by society’s reliance on ever-changing technology. However, there is one point mentioned but not addressed: maturity is going to have a major impact on a child’s ability to self-regulate through a personalized learning process. Netcoh says that personalized learning is actuated by students pursuing knowledge that is “meaningful and relevant to their lives” (2018, p.388). By count, he uses the phrase, “relevant to their lives” five times, placing emphasis on this tenet, but what if you have a high school student who truly doesn’t care?  Whether it is a result of true disparity or teenaged vapidity, there are going to be those students who show up with, as one teacher said it, “beaten puppy” attitude (L. Conner, personal communication, September 2018).  Will personalized learning still work? Or is it time to use Love and Logic Learning and let the consequences finally play out?

Overall, the article is easy to understand and supplies solid supporting information. It sheds light on the issues at stake in regards to teachers relinquishing control to students and the arguments from three sides: teachers against, students against, and students for personalization. While none of the hot button issues are resolved through this study, Netcoh offers a list of references which can be used as guidelines when instituting a new program. I greatly enjoyed this article (I can’t believe I just wrote that), and I strongly recommend it for anyone faced with the daunting task of pioneering a program in their school district.


Beane, J. A. (1998). A middle school curriculum: From rhetoric to reality. Columbus, OH:National Middle School      Association.

Johns, S., & Walking, M. (n.d.). Core Four [Digital image]. Retrieved. September 21, 2018, from edu/science/article/pii/S0742051X16302748.

Netcoh, S., Phd. (2017, May 31). Balancing freedom and limitations: A case study of choice provision in a personalized learning class. Teaching and  Teacher Education, 66, 383-392. Retrieved September 19, 2018, from. https://www-sciencedirect com.proxy.library.uaf.

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