The co-option of the term “personalized learning” by billionaires and Silicon Valley start-ups is, for all intents, complete. Software is the path to an “education.” Deep data drives the delivery, and assessment is built in. From a curriculum standpoint, the machines can construct the recipe for “achievement” far better than the humans.
That’s the new, for profit story of learning in the modern world.
But as Lewis Perelman pointed out in comment on one of my blog posts from a few months ago, there’s a fatal flaw in that scenario. Put simply, we can’t have everyone get As. And if “personalized learning” achieves its goal, that’s exactly what would happen, right?
That would mean that the “academic-bureaucratic complex” that serves as the core of our education narrative would be “gravely undermined.”
The last thing those who pay high taxes and steep tuition for academic “excellence” want is to become denizens of Lake Wobegon where “all of the children are above average.”
So Gates, Zuckerberg, and their cronies are playing a can’t-win game. If their version of personalized conformity actually were to achieve equality of results, it would destroy — or be destroyed by — the very standard-setting apparatus it courts. And if (really, when) it fails to achieve equality of standardized outcomes, then it will simply be viewed as a failure.
So in the context of school reform, Gates’ notion of personalized instruction is bound to be just one more in a long string of barren initiatives.
What won’t fail in this information, knowledge, people, and technology abundant world is personal learning, pursuing a curriculum that WE develop to serve our learning needs and desires, maintaining the healthy diversity of learning and exploration that societies require to evolve. The type of learning that, as Perelman notes, “is what humans of all ages did for thousands of years before school was ever invented.”
If we mean learning that the learner really owns and determines, let’s make sure we call it what it is: “personal.” The “personalized” ship has sailed.
(Image credit: Redd Angelo)
Mark Brown says
When schools were co-opted as institutions of sorting rather than institutions of learning the dream of personalised learning was sacrificed.
We’re taught in school that there is but one measure of human excellence and then are lead to believe that excellence that falls outside these bounds (artists, athletes, even innovative thinking) is not as worthy.
In schools we also prioritise those things which are easy to measure (such as fact recall and conformity) over those which are much more important but hard to measure (such as creativity, innovation, and teamwork).
Incredibly, some peoples’ excellence in the lesser respected areas of the arts, athletics, and innovative thinking survives the erosion of school and later becomes apparent in great works, pro sports careers, and inventions.
I wonder how many more Elton Johns, Michael Jordons, and Steve Jobs we might have if schools once again placed the emphasis on learning rather than sorting against a nebulous mean.
Juan Domingo Farnos says
Una vez mas Will hablas de un concepto, la personalizacion del aprendizaje muy distinta de la que tenemos nosotros y todo por no contemplar ni la inclusion (ni social, economica, digital…) y por tanto la Excelencia personalizada, y ni siquiera por hablar de que no existen clases en el aprendizaje, ya que no hablamos de la educación formal, como hace el y su “parte de cultura”, si no que lo hacemos de la educación en general, sin adjetivos y por tanto sin segregaciones…..
Eso lo he hablado y mucho con Bryan Alexander y Maha Baly, por lo que pretendemos establecer trabajos a tres idiomas y con tres culturas diferentes para tratar de establecer ideas comunes pero a través de las diferencias.
Juan Domingo Farnos @juandoming
Robert Schuetz says
You’re ringing the truth bell once again Will.
Stephen Downes is on my must-read blogger roll. He contrasts personal versus personalized learning much better than I can; http://www.downes.ca/post/65065
I especially like his restaurant vs. farm stand analogy. There is value in preparing our own meals.
Doug Smith says
Interesting insights. I do wonder how critical those differentiating grades have become when those at the top of the pecking order dial in A’s based more on where they go to school that what they learn.
You’re exactly right that personal learning will prevail anyway. I’ve been in the workforce for forty years and no one has ever asked me what my undergraduate grades were when handing me a project or task.
Incidentally, the implied violence of the image you’ve selected seems completely inappropriate.
Will Richardson says
Thanks for the comment Doug.
In terms of the picture, to me that’s a kid jumping up in the air in the middle of some wooded path. What do you see?
Doug Smith says
Wow. I can see that now. Perhaps it says more about my perception than your choice but I first say a person hanged. Sorry to put that in your head now, but that’s what I saw.
Jenni Hayman says
Hi Will, given the stillness of the feet, that’s a teenager that has hanged him or herself. I agree with others, not appropriate. Your article however, has great merit.
Will Richardson says
I guess I’m just wondering why anyone would think I would purposely put a picture of a kid hanging himself on my blog (which, by the way, this picture is definitely not.) Weird…
Warren Buckleitner says
I saw that too… I must admit.
Isaac Payton says
My question is simply, how do we practically navigate this issue in today’s learning environment. I am studying to become a teacher and I am new to your website, but my main question is how can these discussions such as this play out for the lonely teacher in a school area where none of the parents, administration, and other teachers agree?
Will Richardson says
The short answer is it’s really tough to do. Change requires a supportive, innovative, forward thinking culture. Absent that, you have to find your sympathizers and start advocating for change you believe in. Also, as a new teacher, I would make sure the school I choose to work in has a culture that supports dialogue and innovative practice.