Saturday, May 13, 2017

(Not) A New Conversation

Phyllis Lockett took to Huffington Post last week to call for a New Conversation, which-- okay, can we stop calling for new conversations? Because they're hardly ever new and often they are barely conversations, and we have had many of these calls and maybe we should just finish one of our old conversations instead of dropping them to start new ones like an easily-distracted party guest.

Lockett is listed as a CEO without indicating "of what,"  a piece of fairly critical information in this context. Lockett used to be CEO of New Schools for Chicago, which used to be Renaissance, a private turnaround charter school investment launch group. As NSFC chief, Lockett was pretty vocal about the awfulness of failing public schools. After NSFC, Lockett has moved on to be CEO of LEAP Innovations. LEAP's mission is to "discover, pilot and scale personalized learning technologies and innovation practices in the classroom." They claim to be a "national hub" for an "ecosystem" of "education innovators, digital entrepreneurs, and thought leaders."

So given that, can we guess what Lockett's "new conversation" is going to look like?

She opens by noting that reform is kind of stale, what with the standards movement and charters being old, and so we need something fresh, because, I guess, we're not so much interested in effectiveness as we are in freshness?

What we really need is a new conversation that begins with what our children want and need and empowers them to pursue their interests. There’s a name for it—personalized learning–and it’s based on the common sense idea that our schools should meet every child where they are and help them get where they want to go.

So, another pitch for personalized learning. Who would have expected that, from a woman who currently earns her living promoting personalized learning. But I support public education and that's where I make my (considerably more modest) living. Maybe she 's just in the field because she really believes it, and she's not just pushing a product. Maybe her argument really is new and not just the same old PL boilerplate. Or maybe by reading her new boilerplate, we can get a sense of what the new sales pitch is going to be. Let's see. Let's move down through her pitch and see if it's made out of valid points.

First, she notes that no two children enter a classroom at the same point, and that teachers have to teach to the middle in their classroom. Half-true-- students do enter at different points, but teachers with a good handle on instructional design can still meet students where those students are.

Next, this:

The personalization of learning allows students to demonstrate competency as soon as they’re ready – and once they do so, let them go on to achieve higher.

Bzzzt. Wrong. The notion that education is simply demonstrating a series of competencies is fundamental to Personalized Learning (I will use capital to distinguish between personalized learning the education idea and Personalized Learning the product for sale), and it is one of PL's fundamental flaws. Demonstrating a series of competencies is not education-- it's training. And it's not even good training, because it breaks down tasks into simple bits and then assumes that a quick assessment task (which may or may not actually reflect the competence it claims to measure) means that competency is now mastered. I earned my "multiply by six" badge last year, so clearly I never need to do any more work on multiplying by six ever again.

Gone are the days when it was enough for students to download information from a textbook into their brains.

Well, those days have been mostly gone for decades, if I understand what she means by "downloading" from a textbook into a brain. Of, course, maybe she just means "reading," in which case, yeah, we still do that. We think there's some utility to it. And all of this begs the question of what, exactly, is different about asking students to download information from a computer screen.

There's a Montessori quote. PL folks like Montessori even though their entire philosophy is anti-Montessori. The quote Pickett uses here is the one about "follow the child, they will show you what they need to do..." but PL's philosophy is "use computer software to tell the child what to do next." It is not child-centered; it is software centered. Do you want to argue that the software is child centered? How can that be-- the software was written by humans, and those humans have never even met the children who are now subject to the software's plans and limitations. There can be no child-centered system that does not take the time to meet the child.

But Pickett will continue on this idea of "let the child lead" which is manifestly not what a PL program does. It lets the software lead.

Of course, students can’t do it alone. They need teachers and mentors to co-design their learning experience so that it covers a range of topics and subject matter. Done well, personalized learning empowers great teachers to make dynamic adjustments based on each student’s skills, curiosity, and goals.

Nope. If the classroom is truly teacher-directed and child-centered, then your PL software is really just a computer bank of resources, which is fine, but don't hand me a hammer and tell me you have now taken a bold new step in architectural design. Pickett is of course being generous here-- many PL advocates believe the teacher's role is basic monitoring, and not anything resembling teaching at all.

Pickett nods to Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) which are a great example of how we can provide everything from a personalized learning experience for students all the way to a series of go-through-motions paperwork for teachers and parents.

Pickett winds up with a one-two punch of "Hey, the world is changing and we must adapt and change, too" leading right into "Shiny pretty future but sometimes the education system doesn't like to buy my product try new things and I hope this will be different."

Bottom line: Pickett is not offering a conversation. There's no "Let's hear from teachers what they think would be a good idea to pursue or not." And there is nothing new. This is just plain old "We have a new product that we would like you to believe will help educate students, so would you give us some money for it, please."

This is what to watch for when a Personalized Learning advocate comes your way-- not a new conversation about education, but an old sales pitch.


  1. When I was in 8th grade, back in the years of Open Classrooms, my family moved to a real live open-classroom school district that had purchased a pretty cool Personalized Learning science curriculum. The idea was that all students started with Lesson One and followed step-by-step instructions, did step-by-step experiments, filled in worksheets, and after [X] lessons we went into a smaller room, took the test for that unit (independently), handed it in for grading, and if we did well enough, we went on to the next unit.

    When we moved there, it was 6 weeks into the school year, so I was starting on Unit 1 Lesson 1 in mid-October. Being the academically competitive person I still am today, my goal was to Catch Up To And Surpass The Class. (Note: at no time was my goal any actual LEARNING.)

    Six weeks later, I had caught up to the slower students in the class (which was itself actually 2 or 3 full classes, as all of 8th grade had science together, if my memory is correct); in another month, I was approaching the middle of the pack, and by the end of the year I was indeed out in front.

    The only thing I really remember is adding HCl to a base to make water and a salt, and mixing some chemicals that made a yellow precipitate. That is IT. An entire YEAR of chemistry, and the only thing I can tell you with any certainty today is that an acid plus a base makes water and a salt, and that's only because it was reinforced in 11th-grade chemistry (which was barely related to the work I'd done 3 years earlier), and I learned the word "precipitate" as a noun.

    But hey, at least I got to Demonstrate Mastery and Learn At My Own Pace.

    Brings to mind 3rd grade, when I went through the entire box of SRA cards (yes, I'm THAT OLD!), all the way to the last Dark Red card, because my teachers couldn't keep me busy. Again, I don't remember what was ON any of them (I remember the unit on Japan and I remember learning all about teeth in 3rd grade); I just wanted to get through the entire set.

    Maybe I really AM so unique that no other student ever will just want to Get Through The Work And Graduate Early (like I did for my Bachelor's in college) even if actual *learning* is minimal, but I suspect that's not the case.

    And therein lies another danger of this trend: there's no guarantee of learning in a setup where you can still game the system the way I did. I certainly don't trust the writers of the software to bear in mind kids like me when they make their product, because that would require a level of foresight to plan and complexity in execution that would end up not being cost-effective any more.

    Good luck with that.

  2. Great job calling it like it is, a sales pitch. Thanks for the common sense and plain talk as well as some really classy smack downs.