Never Mind The Personalized Learning. Let's Do Personalized Learning Instead.
As the education world scrambles to figure out what next fall will look like, many, many voices are speaking up for reimagined schooling. One particular model has surfaced repeatedly, and it’s not at all new—but it could be.
The old model of everybody goes and sits in the classroom, and the teacher is in front of that classroom and teaches that class, and you do that all across the city, all across the state, all these buildings, all these physical classrooms — why, with all the technology you have.
What most advocates have been selling for years is not actually personalized at all, but is a system in which content delivery and assessment are handled by software. An algorithm, often touted as Artificial Intelligence, decides which assignments to deliver to the student. There may be a human “mentor” available to the students, but the computer manages most of the “educating.” The argument is that software is fast, deep, and flexible to “personalize” education, or that the software can move a student through a list of competencies and certify each one, checking off the list at the student’s personalized speed.
The model has been tried by charter chains like Rocketship Academy, without a great deal of success. But it’s appealing at the moment because sitting each student down in front of a computer screen in separate locations is the ultimate in social distancing (and replacing expensive humans with software is appealing to some folks, too). Nevertheless, it’s hard to have personalized learning when you have removed persons from the education.
But what if we reclaimed the term “personalized education”? What if we decided that the key to personalized learning is not computers, but human beings? Could we meet the needs of students and the recommendations of the CDC? Let’s play the reimagining education game. What could actual personalized education look like?
To really personalize education, you need to provide more time and opportunity for teachers and individual students to interact. There are many ways we could do this, but let’s try this—split the school day in half and have teachers spend half the day teaching class, and half the day in conference with individual students. Reduce class size to a maximum of fifteen; that will allow teachers to get to know students better, sooner, and will also make it easier to do social distancing within the classroom. It retains class meetings, which provide the invaluable opportunity for learning to occur as part of a community of learners.
Students would have either morning or afternoon classes, reducing the number of students in the building at any time. Cafeteria services could be cut to a minimum while still providing meals to go for students who need them. Classes would be structured so that lots of the work is done outside of school. Teachers and students would maintain on-line contact and students could reach out for help at any time; keeping in contact virtually doesn’t work too badly if there’s a meat world relationship as the foundation.
Each student would have personal contact with a teacher who has ample time to work with that student one-on-one. Teachers would have time to really learn the strengths and weaknesses, interests and goals, of every student. Teachers and families could develop individualized education programs (IEPs) for every student, not just the law mandates. There would even be time to design and implement courses of independent study, and leeway to focus on mastery and not just seat time.
There are all sorts of challenges with this vision. Transportation in particular would be a problem for lots of working parents. Creative scheduling would be needed to give high school students a full schedule in half days. And teaching staff would have to be increased, even doubled, to make this work, as well as increasing the physical space for the school (though moving away from the institutional bricks and mortars would fit well with the personalized approach). That cost alone guarantees that nobody is actually going to try this.
Covid-19 or not, we’ve always known what’s required for truly personalized education. Instead, we’ve focused on how to keep costs low, how to make schooling “efficient.” Truly personalized education is costly. We should not be fooled by people who attempt to slap that label on a cheap alternative.