Simplifying definitions in education

There sure is a lot to keep straight when it comes to all the shifts happening in classrooms across the country. Let me summarize.

I see it as a wave of competing “_____learning movements.” (Fill in the blank: blended, personalized, deeper, project-based, competency-based.)

Susan Patrick believes part of the problem is that we “employ several commonly used terms interchangeably.” Ken Kay and others have signaled that we have a “huge nomenclature problem.” And Andy Calkins tells it to us straight: “We are, let’s face it, a Tower of Babel when it comes to defining what we’re all doing here.”

And while there are a lot of great resources to help folks distinguish their “online” from their “project-based,” it’s Andy’s quadrant to the rescue when it comes to my go-to resource for getting and keeping us all on the same page.

Here’s how Andy breaks it down in his Moving Towards Next Gen Learning blog:

The graphic you see here builds (with Michael Horn’s and Heather Staker’s blessing) on the  taxonomy of blended learning developed by the Christensen Institute. It creates a landscape map of current reform efforts in the blended/competency-based/personalized learning space using four key dimensions of their taxonomy: degree of variation in, and student input into (even control of), the time, pace, path, and place of learning.



  • X-Axis: Time and place are being stretched these days through digital, online media
  • Y-Axis: Path and pace are being stretched in models that make students the organizers and managers of their own learning


Quadrant I: Learning in traditional school structures and classroom settings, increasingly with some level of digital support. This is probably where most of the country is, these days: use of digital and online content and tools (including quite extensive use), but tucked inside of pretty recognizable age-based classroom models.

Quadrant II: Blended learning in its most common forms (lab and station rotation), by which practitioners are using digital learning to transform some aspects of the traditional model. There’s a lot of healthy innovating around time and place in this quadrant, lately around flipping what transpires in classrooms and what’s being asked of students at home. Quadrant II is also where a growing swath of schools believe they are, but in truth, many haven’t migrated that deeply out of Quadrant I. This quadrant is where Rocketship and Florida Virtual live, and is what resources like Khan Academy are being most widely used to support. The Christensen Institute has recently updated its taxonomy to suggest hybrid learning as a term for “sustaining” forms of blended-learning innovation that would land in Quadrant II, as opposed to disruptive forms.

Quadrant III: Personalized and competency-based learning, which may be digitally supported or not, but which are where learning becomes stretched by path and pace — moving towards more individual customization for (and by) each student in the design and management of his/her learning pathways. Not many schools (yet) have moved entirely beyond age-based student progression, but a number of school networks and districts are experimentingBig Picture is here, along with New Tech and Expeditionary Learning, and a handful of school districts; all of them would say they’re enlisting students in building their own competencies, to a degree at their own pace, through active, project-based, experiential learning.

Quadrant IV: Disruptive forms of blended, next generation learning, all of which combine elements of the other quadrants, encompassing innovation in the use of all four elements – time, place, path, pace. Personalized learning, which some might include in this quadrant, incorporates variation and student enlistment in the time/pace/path/place of learning while being generally agnostic on its degree of digital support. We would propose that next generation learning, on the other hand, includes that assumption – that in order for personalized learning to be implemented effectively, affordably, and equitably, it must include a strong digital component.

Andy’s post goes on to situate the the work of Next Generation Learning Challenge (NGLC) and NGLC Regional Fund grantees inside the quadrant framework. (See “Lighting the Path to Personalized Learning: Inspiring Stories from Next Gen Schools” for lessons from NGLC leaders.) He explains:

The Regional Fund schools will begin to emerge over a series of autumns beginning in 2015. When they do, their particular mix of approaches will place them somewhere in Quadrant IV as they seek to fuse aspects of blended, competency-based, personalized, student-centered learning into a coherent whole. They’ll join a movement of efforts across much of the reform landscape to do the same, in an infinite array of “mixes.” Will it matter what learning-reform labels most aptly describe their model? Yes, to researchers, policymakers, funders and system architects seeking to study and scale up ideas that work. But – possibly not, to everyone else. As one school head told us recently: “We stay away from labels. Better to just talk in plain terms about what students are experiencing.”

I think he’s onto something there. As I’ve been known to say… “the greatest chance we have to bring all the moving pieces together is to keep the focus on goals for teaching and learning.”


Carri Schneider is Director of Research and Policy for Getting Smart. Find Carri on Twitter @CarriSchneider.