Thursday, March 27, 2014

Personalized Learning

One of the benefits promised repeatedly by our Data Overlords and Standards Bearers is the personalization of education.

We will collect the data and crunch the numbers and analyze the results and cross check the strengths and weaknesses against a thousand points of light and lo and behold, the System will spit out a personalized Pearson-produced educational program on the Pearson software loaded on the student's personal computer.

This is one of those reformy things that has real appeal for some folks, but it does raise the question of how one has individualized instruction in a standardized system. Let me lay it out for you.

Here's Chris. Chris has a personal chef. When Chris is feeling hungry for seafood, he asks his personal chef to whip something up. The chef knows Chris's moods and preferences, knows what's been going on in Chris's life, knows how hungry Chris is likely to be that day. The chef also knows Chris's tolerance for new and experimental. So factoring all that in, Chris's chef whips up a personal meal for Chris.

Here's Pat. Pat is standing in McDonalds, looking at the menu. He's thinking he'd rather have a burger than McNuggets, and he'd rather have Diet Coke than Full Fat Coke, but he's not in the mood for a large, so he'll take a medium. So that's what Pat orders.

We can say that both Pat and Chris have had a personalized, individualized dining experience. But it's fundamentally different.

Now let's go to school.

Chris is a bright ten year old who turns out to have a love for dinosaurs and fashion design. Chris is a little ahead of the class on reading skills, so the teacher finds Chris some books about dinosaurs and fashion. The teacher also gives Chris the job of mentoring one of the shyer low-skills readers in class, and puts Chris together with a student who's very interested in computers to create a presentation software project about dresses. Chris has some issues with writing, so the teacher develops some materials that harnesses Chris's love of dinosaurs to help remediate the organizational issues that Chris experiences with writing.

Pat's teacher has a list of 100 items that all students must master. Pat's pre-test indicates that Pat succeeds in fifty-seven of those. Therefor, Pat's instruction will focus on the remaining forty-three. Pat's teaching kit includes a video, a manipulative and a practice worksheet for each item. Pat's data indicates which of the three Pat should use.

We can say that both Chris and Pat have personalized, individualized educational experiences. But Chris has a teacher who is responding in a personal way with a wildly broad range of possibilities, selecting choices based on Chris's strengths, weaknesses, interests, and passions. Pat's teacher has a checklist. Chris's teacher may never teach another student in exactly the same way ever again. Pat's teacher can make no such claim.

The program from Pat's teacher looks individualized, but it's not. In that classroom, every student is traveling the exact same path-- the only difference is how fast or slow or which parts they just skip past. Chris's teacher allows all students to travel their own individual path. To use another metaphor, Pat is traveling on a train on a track driven by a conductor; he might walk around on the cars on the train, but he's on a train going to exactly the same station as every other passenger. Chris has been handed the keys to a four-wheeler and a few hundred acres to explore.

So personalized learning systems, like many other treats in Reformy Stuff World, sound like they could hold promise. But as with all the treats, we need to pay close attention to what is actually attached to the label.

1 comment:

  1. I'm a 7th grade language arts teacher in Pinellas county.
    This is a very illuminating analogy. Thank you for sharing it. I'm going to be referring to it, and I will be forwarding the link to this post.