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;
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.