McDonaldization of Education is eroding under Personalization

As personalized learning is becoming more prevalent in education, the pedagogy of instructors is being altered. In other words, by including the learner’s voice, choice, and agency in teacher designed tasks and lessons, this disrupts the smooth operation of the McDonaldized classroom.

The McDonaldlization of teaching and learning views learners as human nuggets rather than individuals. In a sense, many school districts have adopted the characteristics of fast-food restaurants by focusing on efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control. How then has this phenomenon impacted student achievement?

  • Efficiency: The optimal method for accomplishing a task.
    By focusing on efficiency, the onus for learning is placed on the teacher rather than the learner. Hence, the learner becomes passive and unable to process content on a deeper level.
  • Calculability: Learning objectives that are quantifiable rather than subjective.
    Quantifying learning objectives helps teachers to measure the learner’s knowledge attainment and skills acquired. However, the results of these various measures are examined and used to direct learning pathways for learners without the learner’s input. Hence, the learner’s test scores and grades are fundamentally decontextualized for him or her.
  • Predictability: Standardized and uniform services that are highly repetitive, highly routine, and predictable. 
    By focusing on predictability, the onus for learning is again placed on the teacher rather than the learner. Hence, teachers religiously use routines to design learning environments and tasks that elicit predetermined responses. As a result, critical and creative thinking tends to be suppressed within the learning environment.
  • Control: Standardized and uniform practices that establishes routines.
    By focusing on control, the learner’s needs, preferences, and interests are not considered while the teacher is crafting his or her standardized perfunctory practices. Hence, the learner becomes an entity that needs to be controlled rather than taught.


Personalized learning, on the other hand, views learners as the unique individuals they are. Instead of mass producing general lessons and activities for the K-12 agglomerate,  personalized learning begets lessons that are made to order for individual students. Personalized learning tailors the environment and learning experiences by factoring in the learners needs, preferences, and interests.  How then will this emerging phenomenon impact student achievement?

  • Learner needs: What the learner perceives as a weakness or areas for improvement; what the data indicates as a weakness or an area for improvement
    By focusing on learner needs, teachers and learners may co-design learning pathways; forging learner agency and promoting the learner’s voice.
  • Learner Preferences: Tasks and environmental affinities that the learner has.
    By focusing on learner preferences, tasks and environments may be co-designed with the learner; forging learner identity and promoting learner choice.
  • Learner Interests: Topics, concepts, and/or theories that the learner has deep interests in and passions for.
    By focusing on learner interests, teachers and learners may co-design projects that are relevant for learners; thus forging learner power, also known as productive power.

In sum, McDonaldization of education is eroding. Student nuggets are now unique individual learners who use choice menus to co-design their learning experience. This shift has educators now saying, “welcome to my classroom where you can have it your way.”

What do Instructional Design Models and Early Childhood Programs in Reggio Emilia, Italy have in Common?

From birth to school age, learning is already personalized for preschool children. Especially in Reggio Emilia, Italy. As young children grow and develop, they explore their environments and develop natural interests for learning. They acquire “a hundred languages, a hundred hands, a hundred thoughts, a hundred ways of thinking, of playing, [and] of speaking…” (Malaguzzi, 2012). Then, as illustrated in the poem, No Way, The Hundred is There, the school and the culture kills ninety-nine. The school and the culture “tell the child to think without hands, to do without head, to listen and not speak, to understand without joy…” (Malaguzzi, 2012). The school and the culture help to force students to abandon the natural learning process and their natural learning interests, thus complying with contrived learning topics which may or may not feel relevant.

I liken the theory of personalized learning to instructional design models since instructional design models place students at the center of the design process. Students are encouraged to set goals and to participate in the design of their learning pathways. As preschool children design their own learning byway of following their desired interests, instructional design models also allow students to acknowledge and recognize their learning interests, learning preferences, and learning needs by way of their natural learning desires. This  promotes student voice, student choice, and student agency. Table 1 below compares curricular design models with instructional design models. I included this table because it supports my claim that the theory of personalized learning is strongly related to principles of instructional design.

My experience in Reggio Emilia, Italy has taught me a lot. For starts, expert pedagogists present reality, explore reality, and turn facts into conjecture for their young students daily, in order to increase critical and creative thinking. Expert pedagogists also reinforce the young child’s sense of the possible using their Zones of Desirability. Zones of Desirability is defined as the gaps between the young child’s knowledge and his or her desire to know. This gap becomes an irritant to the young child, creating a strong urge to fill his or her knowledge gaps with missing knowledge. As a result, the child seeks information and self designs learning experiences that can possibly fill those knowledge gaps thereby creating new knowledge.  Moreover, Zones of Desirability limits knowledge fragmentation within the young child and is a part of the knowledge building processes and the learning processes that the child gains.  Figure 1 below, shows the flow of knowledge within the Zones of Desirability.

Figure 1:

With the student being at the center of instructional design models, one can imagine that Zones of Desirability are embedded within instructional systems design.  As the student proceeds to learn what he or she desires to learn (based on learner preferences and interests), the instructional designer personalizes the learning experience for students by default.  Hence, what do instructional design models and Early Childhood Programs in Reggio Emilia, Italy have in Common? They both cultivate the curiosity and imagination of learners, and they both use instructional design practices that lead to the satiation of learner curiosity, desires, and goals.

Edwards, C. P., Gandini, L., & Forman, G. E. (2012). The hundred languages of children: The Reggio Emilia experience in transformation. Santa Barbara, California: Praeger.

How is Personalized Learning related to an Ownership Quotient?

“Tailoring learning for each student’s strengths, needs and interests–including enabling student voice and choice in what, how, when and where they learn–to provide flexibility and supports to ensure mastery of the highest standards possible” (Abel, 2016).

This quote is an excellent summary of all of the articles that I have read on personalized learning thus far. Embodied in Abel’s quote is the assumption that learners will take ownership of their learning, hence leading to greater self-efficacy, self-regulation, self-direction, and learner independence, which are all by-products of learner ownership. As a result, all of these by-products create high quality personalized learning.

Using the balance scale as an analogy, high quality personalized learning repositions the learner on the balance scale, thus placing equal weight of accountability on both the learner and the teacher. Therefore, high quality personalized learning enables learners to pursue proficiencies and competencies that are aligned to established standards while teachers create on-demand “instructional interventions and supports for each student” during the learning process (Abel, 2016).  Out of this dichotomy comes an ownership quotient. 


In the world of business, the ownership quotient encompasses a degree or amount of a specified quality within an organization. Specifically, it is the quality of the linkages between employees, customers, and profits. These linkages create a service/profit chain.

This same concept is applicable to education, especially under the umbrella of personalized learning. Instead of the linkages being the employees, the customers, and the profits,  for a school district or educational organization, the linkages are the faculty, the students, and student achievement.

According to the Ownership Quotient (2008), there are 8 key links within the service/ profit chain that influences linkages. I’ve adjusted those 8 links to fit education, hence they are key links within the service/student achievement chain.

1.  The ownership opportunity (e.g.,opportunity for faculty and students to own the teaching and learning process).
2.  Build ownership into the strategic value vision (e.g., adding methods for achieving staff and student ownership in the both the district’s vision and the strategic plan).
3. Leverage value over cost (this principle is aimed specifically at district level leadership).
4. Put [students] to work.
5. Boost the [Faculty] Ownership Quotient (e.g., faculty feels like a co-owner within the organization).
6. Engineer ownership through anticipatory management (e.g., create buy-in from faculty and students by planning for possible learning difficulties or setbacks).
7. Build a strong and adaptive ownership culture (beginning at the district level and ending in the classroom, every individual associated with the district owns the teaching and learning process).
8. Sustain success.

In sum, the Ownership Quotient theory applies well to the idea of personalized learning. As students begin to own their learning, the quality of the service/student achievement linkages improve since the following elements show true ownership of learning and constructs each link in the chain:
a) self-efficacy,
b) self-regulation,
c) self-direction, and
d) learner independence


Abel, N. (2016, February 17). What is Personalized Learning. INACOL. Retrieved July 02, 2018, from

Heskett, J. L., Sasser, E. W., & Wheeler, J. (2008). The ownership quotient: Putting the service profit chain to work for unbeatable competitive advantage. Boston, Mass: Harvard Business Press.

Teaching students how to learn, unlearn, and relearn, is teaching literacy

“Literacy is about learning, and learning is about unlearning and relearning” (Spencer & Juliani, 2017, p. 19). Spencer and Juliani, authors of Empower: What happens when students own their learning, devised six truths that support a principle for empowering our learners. Truth numbers one and five from their book, focus on learning. Learning is how we perceive experiences that we are in, and how we process those experiences (McCarthy, 2000). Hence, “Truth #1: Every child deserves to own their learning. Teachers can empower student ownership of lifelong learning.”


Students are born natural learners. Their sense of perception (how they take in the things they learn) and their processing ability (what they do with what they take in) enable students to naturally be self-directed learners (McCarthy, 2000).  Hence, from birth, students once owned their learning; but something happened along the way that caused many students to lose ownership of their learning.  Providing students with choices is the first step teachers can take to support students with reclaiming their learning territory.

Spencer and Juliani’s fifth truth about learning calls into question, our current definition of literacy. “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearned, and relearn” (p. 19). Thus, teaching students how to learn, unlearn, and relearn, is teaching literacy.

In the US, there are currently four ideologies that define literacy instruction in significantly contrasting ways. They are: Functional Literacy, Cultural Literacy, Progressive Literacy, and Critical Literacy. Functional Literacy defines literacy as a tool needed to function in school and in the workforce. Cultural Literacy defines literacy as a mechanism for instilling morals, values, and a common background of knowledge. Progressive Literacy defines literacy as “personal discovery”(Cadiero-Kaplan, 2002, p.376). Finally, Critical Literacy defines literacy as an approach to “social transformation” (Cadiero-Kaplan, 2002, p. 377). Of the four, functional literacy is the most stagnant and limiting. Perhaps because it is linked with the social mores of the industrial age. However, progressive literacy is the most active and free flowing of all the literacy ideologies, which meshes well with the principles of personalized learning and learning itself, because it is linked to progressive education, a byproduct of industrialization.

Children’s interests, needs, and inclinations are natural sources of self-directed learning and self-regulated learning. They are also natural sources for empowering learning. As students are taught concepts, facts, procedures, processes, and principles, they should not only be learning, but unlearning and relearning from the experience. Moreover, true learning includes failure. Failure is necessary for learning, unlearning, and relearning. Hence, if failure is not an option, then neither is literacy.


Cadiero-Kaplan, Karen (2002). Literacy Ideologies: Critically Engaging the Language Arts Curriculum. Language Arts, v79 n5 p372-81

McCarthy, B. (2000). About learning. Wauconda, Ill: About Learning.

Spencer, J., & Juliani, A. J. (2017). Empower: What happens when students own their learning.