“Personalized learning” is the latest iteration of “21st Century” innovation in education. Since 2010, it has emerged to fill what New Zealand education commentator Benjamin Riley aptly termed “an empty vessel” in the peculiar world of global education reform. Into that vessel can be poured any number of theories of learning or pet educational policies. “A term that can mean anything,” he warns us, “often signifies nothing.”
If “personalized learning” turns out to be more illusory than real, then North American school districts from “Crossroads of the Future” County (Iredall, NC) to the Province of British Columbia are embarked upon an experimental education project of little substance and destination unknown. In the case of Canada’s Pacific province, that would be catastrophic coming in the wake of the current prolonged and bitterly divisive BC Teachers’ Strike. At the very least, the growing concerns being raised about the wisdom and practicality of “Personalized Learning” should be enough to slow down, if not, derail, the latest educational bandwagon movement.
The B.C. Education Plan known as “Personalized Learning,” hatched in 2010 and implemented starting in 2012, is an ambitious attempt to answer the call for “bold innovation” in public education. Inspired, in part, by Sir Ken Robinson’s 2010 TED Talks and supported by Pearson International, the world’s largest global learning corporation, it is in the vanguard of such projects worldwide.
In the rather grandiose BC Learns vision, progressive education pioneered by Chicago Lab School educator John Dewey has been ‘rebranded” for the 21st century. The new educational cant is a familiar one: “The greater value of education for every student is not in learning the information but in learning the skills they need to successfully find, consume, think about and apply it in their lives.” Such individualized learning will allow students to apply learned skills to real-world scenarios, says B.C. Education Minister Peter Fassbender.
Technology and ‘teaching machines’ rather than students seem to lie at the centre of the latest educational change movement. What its promoters seem to mean by “personalized learning” is that it should involve using technology to give students more freedom to control their education experience. That sounds good, but what does it mean in practice? American “Disruptive Innovation” theorist Clayton Christensen, provides this answer: “Blended learning involves leveraging the Internet to afford each student a more personalized learning experience, meaning increased student control over the time, place, path, and/or pace of his or her learning.”
We must “empower learners to learn any time, any place and at any pace, both in school and beyond,” proclaims the recent Aspen Institute report, Learners at the Center of the Networked World. “Instead of organizing students by age and giving them all the same lesson, [students may] initiate their own learning, may follow different paths, and seek varied resources to help them meet their goals,” according to Alex Hernandez of the Charter Schools Growth Fund.
The central arguments mobilized in support of such initiatives are highly suspect. Benjamin Riley’s recent June 20, 2014 commentary, “Don’t Personalize Learning,” exposed the fallacies associated with two of the core assumptions: (1) Students will learn more if they have more flexibility to choose their own “path” and what to learn (“the path argument”); and (2) students will learn more if they have more power over when they learn (“the pace argument”). Both of these assumptions, it might be noted, are also cardinal principles of the failed “progressive education” movement of the 1960s and early 1970s.
First, the “path argument “assumption that students always benefit from “constructing knowledge” is at odds with what we know about cognition or knowledge acquisition. Most of the educational research demonstrates that knowledge is cumulative. What a child is capable of learning depends upon her stage of development and what she already knows. When a child encounters new information, lacking the preexisting knowledge to put the information in context, she invariably becomes frustrated and finds it difficult to learn. When learning is “personalized” students are left more on their own, and many – perhaps most- are not really properly equipped to make sense of new information. Allowing students to “pick what comes next” may be fashionable, but professional teachers are still, for the most part, better at guiding student paths to learning.
Second, the problem with “the pace argument” is that it runs counter to cognitive science research. We now know that the human brain is not naturally built to think. Students, left to their own devices, tend to choose ‘the easy route’ and to avoid thinking. That’s because thinking is hard and many students need to be challenged to raise their sights. Introducing technology may promote more student engagement, but it’s a safe bet that many will continue to shy away from activities that they find hard and unpleasant. The “fun’ of initial discovery can be short-lived when it comes to applying those ‘learnings’ to solving deeper, more complex problems.
Registering such sound objections to “personalized learning” opens skeptics like me up to charges that you are archaic in your thinking or worse, wedded to the old “factory model” of education. Defenders of futuristic education also jump to the conclusion that you are against technology in schools. Such allegations levelled at critics like Riley and Dan Willingham, author of Why Don’t Kids Like School?” are patently false. Indeed, most of the leading critics are also attuned to the need to integrate ICT effectively and meaningfully into today’s classrooms.
Personalization of learning is foundering, particularly in BC, because it is founded more upon progressive ideology than on sound, research-based pedagogy. Promoters of Personalized Learning in B.C. and Iredell County, NC, are implementing a pedagogical theory that runs counter to what we now know about how the mind works. If, as Dan Willingham has demonstrated, “children are more alike than different in how they think and learn,” then the whole initiative has been launched on a false set of assumptions. Betting big on Personalized Learning believing it will improve student learning is foolhardy in the face of cognitive science evidence to the contrary.
Signs are emerging in Canada that “Personalized Learning” is losing its allure. A recent Nova Scotia School Boards Association (NSSBA) Discussion Paper, written by Penny Milton and released in April 2014, appropriated much of the C21 Canada vision exemplified in Shifting Minds, but studiously avoided any mention of the BC iteration or any specific reference to “personalized learning.” In spite of its claim to being “bold and innovative” in approach, it attempted to occupy the middle ground. Much of the proposed NSSBA agenda was ‘boilerplate’ thinking stemming from the usual Canadian “research” sources, C21 Canada and the Canadian Education Association. It’s also notably non-commital on student testing and assessment and focused mostly on rather mundane ‘in-the-box’ alternative programs.
What’s behind the recent appeal of Personalized Learning as an answer to the call for 21st Century innovation in education? Why is Personalized Learning coming to be viewed as the progressive education cant re-branded for the 21st century classroom? What are the chances that the BC Education Plan will actually work to improve student learning? Most importantly, how can we sensibly and effectively integrate IT into the classroom without completely dumbing-down curriculum and, once again, giving kids a virtual license to ‘do their own thing’ with questionable results?