Personalization is Killing Pedagogy


I recently saw a CNN report that was inquiring whether personalized learning was the future of education. The idea was based on a $133 million school startup known as AltSchool. This inquiry was actually a legitimate concern identified by former Google executive, Max Ventilla. The ambition to make the learning experience more personal is a difficult one to argue against. However, as more and more schools adopt this philosophy, a multi-billion dollar industry is emerging. The question is that in its attempt to systemize this approach, is it ironically in danger of depersonalizing the learning experience of students more than ever?

Again, it seems harmless, but the reality of how it would be implemented in schools is questionable. For example, there are aspects of the AltSchool program that are impressive (flexible schedule, commitment to physical education and innovation), but the reported approach to learning sounds anything but personal.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the original concept of developing greater student agency — a complex task — is being lost in attempts by well-intentioned schools to provide this opportunity in a manageable manner which is, in turn, being capitalized upon by the “education reform” industry. These canned approaches move us further and further away from the objective of making learning personal.

Even so, some educational publishers are beginning to standardize personalization. The desire for technology integration and data analytics (two worthy things given the right context ) have combined to form a conveyor belt approach to learning. It works like this: the software indicates that you have “mastered” X; the student can move to Y. In this way, technology investment is justified and data is recorded in visually appealing ways. This is not learning and it is not personal.

In his new book, Eric Sheninger points out that “pedagogy always trumps technology.” There can be no argument with this perspective. “For digital learning to be implemented effectively,” Sheninger contends, “[we must] focus on pedagogy first.”

Therefore, our insistence that we are doing our best to provide “personal” learning stems from a conviction that the learner comes first, that the skilled teacher is more critical than ever, and that technology and data can amplify this philosophy when approached in the correct context.

If personalized learning means that students are required to move through a series of data points in some software program, then I hope schools will avoid this movement at all costs. Learning should be personal. The best learning has always been personal. It requires relationships and collaboration, individuality and personal rapport.

Obama Stepping In On Education

This wimages (3)eekend, the U.S. Department of Education had a breakthrough in educational policy. Substantial changes to the amount and purpose of standardized testing that students and teachers are subjected to each year may change.

Specifically, they accepted responsibility for “unnecessary testing and not enough clarity of the purpose applied to the task of assessing students.” This was followed by a “Testing Action Plan,” which was released with a list of principles for “fewer and smarter assessments” including the following:

  1. Worth-taking – and relevant to the curriculum that is taught in the classroom
  2. High-quality – aligned to standards with objectives to elicit accurate information about student growth and knowledge
  3. Time-limited – to 2% of classroom time
  4. Fair and consistent – taking into account of all abilities and backgrounds
  5. Transparent as to purpose
  6. One of multiple measures – not the only factor of a student, teacher or school’s success or failure
  7. Meant to improve learning – a tool that helps teachers teach and students learn better

Even though I am not a teacher myself, the “time limited” principle caught my attention and I would like to know how much time is put into testing because I can imagine it to be very time consuming. I also like that there will be a shift in the purpose of the assessments as “tools in a broader strategy to improve teaching and learning.” Currently, the purpose of the tests is to measure student progress and have them prepared for entry-level careers, college courses and workforce training programs…but are we really there?

Testing can be affective, which I do believe that it was at one point in time. However, I think that from various pressures, the way that tests are prepared, administered and ultimately, the results analyzed has gained such a negative connotation with students, parents and teachers that the system needs to be rejuvenated to show that tests can be productive and positive for everyone.

All of this began a year ago when high school students in Boulder, Colorado boycotted the state-mandated science and social studies assessments. The following spring, elementary school parents refused permission for their children to be tested in the PARCC math and English language arts assessments. Even though we now have a document promising changes, we must wait and see what positive changes actually happen, if any.

President Obama and the Department of Education will work with states to provide greater flexibility on assessments. This is also a call to Congress to codify the changes in the Education Act – “No Child Left Behind.”