On Personalized Learning

The term “Personalized Learning” has rubbed me the wrong way for quite some time. Admittedly this likely stemmed from stories like how Carpe Diem school ‘personalized’ learning by putting students in cubicles;

Carpe Diem cubicles

Raise your hand if you have a job where you work in a cubicle all day and feel energized, appreciated, and passionate about your work.

I can’t imagine much worse for my children. I want them exploring, interacting, discovering, and, most importantly, interested in learning. I don’t want them moving onto the next algorithm after earning a badge.

Recently it appears the Edtech community has strayed from the cubical, Khan Academy model of Personalized Learning in favor of something more nebulous; the basic idea that students can work at their own pace with the teacher guiding and tutoring on the side. This often comes with mantras such as ‘student choice’ and ‘individualized learning plan.’ These aren’t bad things, but I submit that students working primarily on their own, at their own pace, is.

Which brings me to my recent revelation about why personalized learning as a primary structure for learning bugs me; it’s still passive. It appears that most of the ‘content delivery’ is still about students absorbing information from a source passively, then working exercises or doing practice of some sort to work towards mastery. When I think of an ideal math lesson, on the other hand, I think of rich tasks that take collaboration and significant critical thinking, such as Fawn’s Barbie Bungie Jump (listen to the kids cheer in the video!), Dan’s 3 act lessons, or Desmos’s Central Park. Shooting for productive struggle, I want to walk into a math class and see kids pointing at each others work, arguing, and even cheering.  Summarized, I want math class to be engaging in the sense that students actually want to be there. 

If I want students to be learning through collaboration and dialogue, then, generally speaking, I want them moving along at about the same pace. I do have times, particularly towards the ends of units, where students are working on problems independently for solidifying problem solving or receiving remediation as needed. This, however, is usually a few days to a week, as compared to the other three to five weeks in a unit where students learn primarily through collaboration. To be sure, my beliefs here are rooted in the decades of research on STEM education which has demonstrated consistently that a variety of methods centered around active learning are the best ways for students to learn. Additionally, in talking to my wife about this, she gave an incredible insight; “What skills can you gain from class time that you can’t gain from studying?” Precisely. Studying on one’s own helps to learn content, but collaboration, argumentation, sense-making through inquiry, and many other skills are emphasized when rich activities are the focus during class time.

There are some other things that bother me about personalized learning. It appears to be rooted in the theory of Learning Styles, which isn’t really a thing, as it turns out. (see also here and here). Students, generally speaking, learn from some types of teaching and don’t from others. Identified preferences in how that learning takes place hasn’t been shown to make any real difference in the actual learning that happens.

Then there is this post which makes the claim that the ‘factory model’ of education that many personalized learning proponents want to upheave is really the first experiment in personalized learning.

Finally, I agree with Dan Meyer who states that personalized learning is fun like choosing your own ad experience is fun. (Spoiler alert: It’s not).

I do believe that proponents of personalized learning mean well, and I believe that aspects of the model woven into a class at the right time can be useful. In the end, however, I choose rich, engaging, interactive tasks over learning at one’s own pace.

Advertisements

3 responses to “On Personalized Learning

  1. Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist

    This post has gotten me thinking, so thanks! One of my kids is in high school now and is making choices about whether to take AP courses. That’s caused conversations between my wife and I about content vs things like sense-making and the other things you mention. Some AP curricula seem to be all about content to “get ready for the exam.” When I talk to AP physics teachers, some are doing really cool things in their class, but it seems they, too, are tied to a content goal line. The examples you give of the types of classrooms you’d like to see seem to focus on students being able to engage with all kinds of material in ways that they enjoy, and strengthens them as learners. I guess my question for you is whether those sorts of classrooms are easier to achieve if content goals were reduced.

  2. Yes, a million times yes. I challenge adults to actually remember the content they learned in their HS classes….rarely they can beyond a few generalizations. It’s the skills one gains through learning content, and the big picture of the content, that matters, in my opinion. One thing I love about my CIS Physics class (https://learningandphysics.wordpress.com/2013/01/08/teaching-a-university-course-at-the-high-school-level/) is that it is mechanics only, so we get to spend a year diving really deeply into the content so that big pictures and skills can be emphasized many times over. I personally believe that to be worthwhile.

  3. Awesome post, Casey. Totally agree with everything you said.

    No point in writing more. This is perfect!

    Rock right on,
    Bill

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s