Personalized Learning at Scale

A military example from a US Army vet.

GUEST COLUMN | by Kevin M.A. Nguyen

CREDIT US Army careers and jobs“Personalized learning is…” How many times have you read that lately? Though the concept has been around for decades, personalized learning has seen a resurgence in recent years, and educators argue for many different methods to achieve this: adaptive computer programs, differentiated instruction—the list goes on and on.

While everyone has a different opinion on what personalized learning should look like, in the most general sense, personalized learning is the practice of teaching to the needs of the individual rather than the group.

Like a classroom, a platoon uses scaffolding through lessons and plans that build on each other, as well as multimodal exercises through different training types like discussion, simulations, and live training.

A popular myth is that the perfect personalized learning situation is a teacher-learner ratio of 1-to-1 — I argue that this ratio isn’t always ideal, and can think of many scenarios where 1-to-1 learning is ineffective or even detrimental.

More than that, using a 1-to-1 ratio just isn’t realistic in most situations. Effective personalized learning is possible at the group level, and I believe many classrooms could benefit from learning how the military conducts its training at scale.

As an eight-year veteran of the U.S. Army, I believe the challenges between training military forces and teaching students in classrooms are largely similar: the populations are diverse and the stakes are high.

Like many American classrooms, a typical platoon— a standard military unit of roughly 20-45 soldiers—will have ‘students’ from drastically different educational, socioeconomic, and cultural backgrounds. Add to that age, experience, and rank differences and you’ve got quite a smorgasbord of people. Like students working toward academic achievement and standardized tests, soldiers need to improve their skills in order to execute missions that are at times life-threatening and could have lasting effects on an international scale.

So how is training conducted? With a lot of scaffolding and multi-modal training. An example scenario: a platoon receives a mission to transport supplies from Point A to Point B. First, the platoon leader briefs the entire platoon about the mission. After some discussion, the soldiers “back brief” or explain the mission to their leader in their own words. This method can be adapted for the classroom through clear instruction and daily agendas from the teacher and think-pair-shares by the students.

Next, the platoon performs a rock drill, in which soldiers put rocks and stick figures in the sand to rehearse an upcoming scenario. In the classroom, students can learn concepts better through similar pieces of realia, such as dioramas, manipulatives, or other 3D models. The platoon conducts several rehearsals after the rock drill, where they physically run around and use vehicles. This entire process can last anywhere from minutes to several days depending on the situation, but in between the steps there are breakout sessions where the soldiers help each other prep and practice. There are even remedial trainings for more fundamental pieces of the mission, like weapons training and first aid. My point: when something as important as a mission comes along, the military does its best to maximize learning opportunities. Like a classroom, a platoon uses scaffolding through lessons and plans that build on each other, as well as multimodal exercises through different training types like discussion, simulations, and live training.

Of course, training and education are not the same thing. But there’s a saying in the military: “No plan survives first contact”—in other words, all plans go out the window once bullets start flying. Even so, military units are still successful in carrying out their missions. Through different kinds of training, soldiers develop a conceptual understanding of what needs to be done and can adapt to dynamic situations, thus allowing them to achieve their end goal. I believe that is an education.

I posit that educators can take some cues from how the military approaches learning. Members of the military don’t view what they’re doing as personalized or differentiated learning; however, all soldiers go through different modes of training with the idea that everyone will understand the concept at some point in the process. This is not the most efficient method, but it arguably is personalized learning at scale. Without any one-on-one training, a soldier is exposed to the way that he learns best through different modes of teaching. Soldiers exercise empathy and learn how to effectively employ different teaching methods so that they can help their buddies and train subordinates when the time comes. Just imagine: students helping each other learn at a personal level. Wouldn’t that be a sight to see?

Kevin M.A. Nguyen is product manager at, a leading online destination for educators of students Pre-K through fifth grade.

One comment

  1. […] The first article was by a seasoned military officer, Kevin M.A. Nguyen, who outlined his view of how personalized learning works, and how his experience might be brought to bear in K-12 schools. For readers who don’t follow trends in education, personalized learning is all the rage these days. The theory behind it is that today’s technology enables learning plans to be personalized for student who learn at different speeds. Used effectively, computers can feed content to students based on what skills they master and how quickly they master them, as measured by assessments embedded in the materials. Student outcomes will improve as a result &#8211 or so goes the theory. […]

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