Hot Rodding Our Way to Personalized Learning

Opinion | Personalized Learning

Hot Rodding Our Way to Personalized Learning

By Matt Greenfield     Sep 22, 2014

Hot Rodding Our Way to Personalized Learning

An entrepreneur I know tutors students in math. He told me a horrifying story about his efforts to help one girl catch up in her algebra class. The girl wasn’t just struggling: she didn’t understand anything he was saying. When he drilled down, he discovered that she did not even know how to multiply fractions. She did not know what happened when one multiplies a number by zero. The girl had been left by the side of the road years ago, and the curriculum had traveled on without her. Imagine how she felt sitting in math class with no one caring enough to notice that she was lost.

Tragedies like this are not the fault of any one person. They are the fault of a system that teaches a set curriculum rather than responding to the actual knowledge and the needs of each child. As every reader of EdSurge knows, we need technology that personalizes education, offering up the right lessons at the right time. School must become more responsive to students, more aware of when they are struggling.

But true personalization must go beyond just the measurement of core academic capabilities. We need to build a personalized curriculum around each student’s passion and knowledge.

There are already educational apps that let students decide whether their avatar is a cowboy or a pirate. This is not a bad thing. It is a first step toward acknowledging that students have different passions. But a genuinely personalized curriculum will take one student’s passion for baseball and build math lessons around runs batted in and history lessons around Jackie Robinson and Dominican training operations for hot prospects, and bring the math and the history of baseball together in open-ended interdisciplinary projects. We need to restructure our curricula and make them more flexible--and we need better tools for curating the right resources for each student.

The end goal of the educational system is to produce an engaged citizen who is an expert on something that is socially useful. But students spend most of their time in school feeling like the opposite of an expert: They are asked to perform a myriad of small tasks without knowing how those tasks fit together or how they relate to longer-term goals. Students worry about their grades and about how the system evaluates them. How much healthier it would be if students obsessed over how the school could help them achieve their own goals. We need to make education into a series of projects driven by the passions of students.

Here’s one approach: for seven years I taught composition at the City University of New York, an exhilarating, challenging, exasperating, and life-changing experience. Some of my students would have been fine at Harvard; others had shaky basic literacy. They came from all over the world. One was deeply interested in Irish history, one in soccer, one in heavy metal music, one in African drumming, and another in his family’s construction business. Some of my favorites, though, were the car guys.

On the first day of the course, the car guy (and it was always a guy) would always be slouching in the back of the room, refusing to make eye contact and radiating contempt for the entire academic enterprise. After I had gone around the room and learned a bit about everyone’s interests, I would come back to the car guy and say, “Hey x, I want you to tell the class about the two craziest things you ever did in a car.”

The car guy would initially be startled that I had called on him. After an initial resentment and suspicion, he would start to get excited about telling his hair-raising stories. He would notice that the rest of the class was enthralled. He would realize that he was having fun and feeling in control. For once, school was not shaming him and making him look like a dummy. When he finished, I would say, “For next week, just write down exactly what you just said. That is the first assignment for all of you: tell a story about when you did something a little crazy related to your passionate interest.”

From that moment on, the car guy would be a thoughtful, passionate, precise contributor to class discussion. He was a genuine expert who understood things that were baffling to others (and especially me!). When he wrote an essay about how he modified his Nissan for street racing, he knew he had to explain to me and to the rest of the class what a turbo-charger was and why he chose one design over another. He would feel proud of his skills and his intelligence and entitled to a seat at the table. And he would willingly start doing serious research on the history of cars and roads.

Each assignment became part of a larger final project. Nothing was thrown away or wasted. Part of the goal of the course was to teach students how to write substantial, well-researched, evidence-based arguments. But the true mission of the course was to show each student how his or her passion might be translated into the academic realm and then, with a bit of luck and experimentation, connected to some sort of career. Maybe, instead of working for an auto repair shop, car guy could be a car journalist, a car businessman, an automotive engineer, or even a designer.

It will be not be easy for education technology companies to tackle this kind of deep personalization. But we have to try. What kind of technology would help? Curation tools, driven by both social recommendation and algorithms. E-portfolios and other tools for managing project-based learning (I am an investor in e-portfolio company, Pathbrite). Tools like those of Tuva Labs, which offer statistics lessons based on a variety of interesting topics and actual social issues. And tools and services for bringing adult experts into schools. My friends at the NewSchools Venture Fund Seed Fund have backed a fascinating company called Nepris that uses volunteers from technology companies to teach classes on STEM topics using examples drawn from their jobs. I hope that Nepris will soon expand its offering beyond STEM.

Do we really need technology to accomplish this kind of personalization? Can’t a good teacher do all of this without specialized software tools? If a teacher has one or two students, perhaps. With five students, probably not. And with thirty or ninety or a hundred and twenty students, even commenting briefly on student work becomes a serious challenge.

When individual teachers struggle to create customized pathways for each student, their work cannot be re-used by other teachers with new students. And we never gather any real data on what works. We need tools. A new kind of education is struggling to be born. And only technology can deliver it.

Matt Greenfield is a managing partner of Rethink Education, a venture capital partnership focused on technology for learning.

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