Personalization

There is a lot of talk in ed-tech and ed-reform about personalization right now. There are a lot of folks on the vendor floor of places like ISTE and NCTM who will sell you products that are supposedly personalized, and much of the buzz around something like Khan Academy is that it personalizes the learning for kids.

We should be careful about how we use that term, and we should be very skeptical of how well computerized programs can really personalize for kids. Most of what I see – especially from curriculum and assessment vendors – involves personalization of pace while still maintaining standardization of content. That’s not good enough. While a program that allows you to take a pre-test and then get practice problems and tutorials and videos that are specifically tailored to the things you did poorly on and allows you to practice those things until you can pass the test a) might raise test scores (and it is easy imagine it would), and b) might be marginally better than a "traditional" classroom that did not offer choice of content or pace (and I put "traditional" in quotes because there have been legions of teachers who have been giving kids real choice for decades,) that doesn’t mean we should settle for that. I’ll even grant that these programs have a place in helping students to master the concepts that someone else tells them (and us) they have to learn — and to that end, SLA uses one of these programs, Study Island, to help kids get ready for the PSSAs — but let’s not call it personalized, and let’s not think that it is good enough. Here’s why.

First, this notion of personalization of learning removes student choice from learning what they most want to learn. It still assumes that kids have to learn everything we want them to learn. I don’t know how, in this era of high-stakes tests and corporate education "reform," where test scores are the profit and loss statements for schools, we can get away from this systemically, but we have to, and because language matters, I don’t think we should call self-paced tutorials real personalization. (It also isn’t necessarily anything new. The old SRA learning modules did much the same thing in the 1970s, but they just weren’t computerized.) We have to get to a place where we understand that while there are skills that students do need and content they do need to at least be exposed to, that both those lists of "must haves" are probably far more expansive than they need to be right now at the expense of all kinds of things that students could do, create and learn that would ignite their passion and their minds in ways that mandated content consumption doesn’t.

Second, this model of "personalization" is still building off of a deficit model where students no longer have to do the things they are good at so they can focus on the things they are bad at. We have to move to a system where we create more space for students to play to their strengths while mitigating their weaknesses. Instead, we create system after system where kids are told to keep working on the things they are worst at, often at the expense of the things they are good at. And then we wonder why kids don’t like school or worse – think they don’t like learning.

Finally, too much of this model of "personalization" misses another one of the most personal pieces of learning – the artifacts of learning we create when we learn. I want students to be able to own their learning by creating stuff that matters to them. At SLA this year, I saw students build bio-walls, make movies, apply complicated mathematical concepts as they built trebuchets and robots, write and enact public action campaigns and form book clubs around genre studies of their own definition. At ISTE this week, I watched as Larry Rosenstock showed project after project of student work that showed their ability to synthesize powerful ideas into gorgeous products of their own design. All of these examples are mapped to standards, all of these are ways for students to demonstrate mastery of the same concepts that we test on, but in ways that are truly personal to the student, because they choose them. That’s the model of personalization I want to see schools move toward.

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