It makes perfect sense why there is a push for personalized learning in our schools. It is a well-intentioned response to the standardized curriculum and instructional practices that date back to the last century. As an ideal, personalized learning aims to provide instructional experiences tailored to each learner’s preferences and interests, and at a pace appropriate to their needs.
But despite our good intentions, personalized learning in practice often falls short of those ideals. And that’s due to a number of misconceptions that persist around personalization.
Because “personalization” emphasizes focusing on the needs of each individual, we sometimes assume that to mean that a child’s education should then be individualized. It is this assumption that has given us the many web-based, adaptive technologies that individualize curriculum on our kids’ behalf. That can result in teachers putting tablets in front of kids, letting the technology do the work, and meanwhile calling it “personalized learning” when it’s anything but that.
What we fail to realize is that individualization actually has diminishing returns. As individualization increases, so does the potential for isolation. In classrooms where the primary mode of personalization is hyper-individualized, technology-driven curriculum, we find our children siphoned off into silos, taking away valuable points of convergence.
When we take away points of convergence, we take away opportunities for our children to learn from, through, and with each other. We rob them of opportunities for social-emotional learning through serendipitous and spontaneous interactions. We limit the amount of time children can learn through meaningful dialogue and discourse. In essence, we take away the very things that make the human condition of learning utterly personal in the first place.
What’s more, when technology gets involved, things can get even worse. Some tools gamify and reward user behavior in ways that can be addictive. They create learning environments where children crave “tablet time” and engender a superficial motivation grounded in the number of points earned or levels achieved. (This is no better than the antiquated grading systems of the past.) At younger ages, technology even has the potential to stunt executive functioning skills and sensory integration, making it challenging for children to stay regulated and organized as they grow older.
So if it’s so bad, then why do we keep doing it? The answers are simple—and a bit unpleasant.
We keep doing it because it’s easier for us.
This past year, it seemed like it was almost every day that my students were asking me for time on ST Math, a web-based, adaptive tool for math instruction. They were asking me so much that I decided to write a persuasive essay on why we should find better tools for learning math in our classroom. Their addiction to this personalized learning tool made my argument both a high-interest and controversial topic.
“Why do you think people want to use the applications?” I asked my class.
One of my students blurted out, “I think it’s because then our parents don’t have to help us with our homework.”
I sat there, stunned at this third grader’s intuitive grasp on one of the perceived user needs of personalized learning programs: parents (and teachers) find it easier. When we use a tool that will personalize on the child’s behalf, it helps us feel like we’re accomplishing something. It helps us feel like we’ve taken the extra step to make sure our kids’ learning is tailored just to them—with minimal effort or responsibility. But it doesn’t end there.
We keep doing it because we’ve convinced ourselves we have the results to support it.
Many of these programs are designed using gamification techniques. Not only does this create the potential for addiction, but it also encourages metrics we want to see—metrics that make us believe our children are learning, even if they’re not.
A 2017 study from RAND suggested that personalized learning practices were responsible for gains of three percentage points in math, and no statistically significant gains in reading achievement.
It’s possible that test scores may bump up a few points when using tools that individualize curriculum. But is this enough to suggest that students are learning in a meaningful (and sustainable) way? It comes as no surprise that some tools show fleeting gains in test scores, especially those that are designed to mimic standardized assessments.
When we subconsciously design tools off of these flawed metrics to elicit positive results, we are falling victim to a greater phenomenon known as Campbell’s Law. When flawed success metrics are put in place, they begin to distort the original processes they were intended to monitor in the first place. In essence, flawed metrics engender flawed methods for teaching and learning, launching us into a vicious perpetuation of the great problem of modern education: data that is inactionable and unhelpful in truly reforming our system.
The potential impact of technology products to improve student achievement pales in comparison to other pedagogical, cultural, and societal inputs. In fact, John Hattie’s meta-analysis of over 800 studies shows that school- and class-wide factors like collective teacher efficacy (effect size = 1.57), feedback (.70), and prior ability (.94) have a far greater impact on student achievement than individualized (.23) or web-based learning (.18).
And despite this well-vetted research, there’s one more reason why we continue to “personalize learning” even though it has not been proven effective.
It’s because technology companies are really good at what they do—selling technology.
Technology companies are businesses first—and educational entities second. Yes, many edtech companies proffer lofty and noble mission statements about serving kids. But at the end of the day, they all need to make money to survive. And those with investors are often constantly under pressure to maximize profits within a short period of time.
Like any company, those in edtech make and sell products, and would find it very difficult to survive without buyers and users. That, in turn, can create perverse incentives that are at odds with what students and teachers really need. And, if given the opportunity to close a sale, few companies would walk away even if they knew the product is not the best fit for the school.
I know, because I worked for one.
Put the person back in personalized learning.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not entirely against technology use in our classrooms. Instead, I believe our flawed assumptions cause us to over-use it. We assume that the more individualized a child’s education is, the more personalized it is. But that’s simply not true.
In order for learning to be personal, it must be meaningful and transferable. And meaningful, transferable learning only comes when human connection is at the center of what we do. When we over-individualize learning—especially when we do so using technology—we isolate our children. We put them in silos and take away opportunities for them to connect with one another in order to learn.
It is for this reason that I have four simple guiding questions when deciding whether or not I should use any given technology tool in my classroom. These guiding questions are just that: a guide. They are not the be-all-end-all of technology integration, but they have been a good litmus test for me when deciding which technologies to use in my classroom.
- Does the technology help to minimize complexity?
- Does the technology help to maximize the individual power and potential of all learners in the room?
- Will the technology help us to do something previously unimaginable?
- Will the technology preserve or enhance human connection in the classroom?
If the answer to all four of these questions is yes, then it’s likely that you’ve chosen to use technology in a way that puts human connection at the center. If not? Well, you may want to reconsider the tool you’ve chosen. It’s important to remember that learning is a human condition, and if we put technology at the center of it, we are only doing a disservice to ourselves, our students and future generations of learners.
Lucky for us, we have a choice. We can choose to perpetuate the misguided use of technology in our classrooms, or we can choose technology that deepens our humanity. It’s up to you.