Bursting the 'Personalization' Bubble: An Alternative Vision for Our Public Schools

Bursting the 'Personalization' Bubble: An Alternative Vision for Our Public Schools

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A few years ago, a series of unfortunate events managed to peg me as a prominent opponent of personalized learning. Given the widespread enthusiasm for the idea that students should be given greater control over what, when, and how they learn—preferably involving some sort of technology—this is an uncomfortable place to be. I am the heretic in the edtech temple.

The fact that I’m troubled by personalized learning, however, does not mean I’m an enthusiast for the so-called “factory model of education” (an edu-myth of dubious historical accuracy, as Audrey Watters and Sherman Dorn have explained).

Instead, I’d like to redirect the enthusiasm for personalization toward an alternative vision for our public schools. I’ve cheekily dubbed this my “Alt-Vision” for education, and it rests on four principles.

1. Teachers—not technology—should be the primary designers of students’ learning experiences.

One critical hallmark of any profession is that its practitioners use a specialized body of knowledge to solve particular problems. This involves a blend of art and science, and involves aesthetic choices informed by scientific principles. Architects, engineers, and designers all do this.

The same should be true for teachers. Teachers should be the primary designers of learning experiences; as Bror Saxberg from Kaplan Education memorably described, they should be “learning engineers.” They are the experts we must trust to make complicated pedagogical choices informed by insights gleaned from experience and professional training.

Few would directly advocate against teacher professionalism, but the rhetoric of personalized learning often suggests students or software are better suited to make choices about learning. My former employer, for example, argues that students should have “the freedom and power to own their learning, choosing the pace and types of learning activities that work best for them, in service of their goals.”

I disagree. Novices do not think the same way as experts. And we are nowhere near the point where an algorithm can make an informed determination about what a student has or hasn’t learned. Teachers must determine the types of learning activities that will work best for their students, and we demean the profession when we suggest otherwise.

2. The experiences that teachers design should emphasize the social aspect of learning.

Over the past decade, I’ve visited many schools throughout this country and others, observing teachers performing their craft. The experiences that have most inspired me have shared one singular feature: They have involved rich conversations among a community of scholars. The most compelling classrooms are ones in which learning goals are shared, and knowledge is fostered through social interactions.

Many exemplary educators share this point of view. For example, Dan Meyer, former math teacher turned chief academic officer for Desmos, described how he wants to create “constructive controversies” between students, those moments when students feel safe to challenge each other to drive their learning. “There is a social aspect that is critical. I don’t tell teachers that students should fully construct their knowledge—teachers are a resource in the process,” he said. “They need to create the controversy.”

Tracy Johnston Zager is another math teacher who shares this vision of the collegial classroom. As she writes in her forthcoming book Becoming the Math Teacher You Wish You'd Had: Ideas and Strategies from Vibrant Classrooms, teachers play a pivotal role in developing this social environment:

If a major part of doing mathematics involves interacting with other mathematicians, then a major part of teaching students mathematics must be to teach students how, why, and whether to interact with each other mathematically. Students need to learn how to ask for what they need from each other, and to be what they need for each other. In other words, we need to teach students how to be good colleagues, in math and life.

Doesn’t that sound like the sort of classroom environment we want to be fostering? Of course, as Zager told me, fostering collegiality does not simply mean more groupwork (“Kids react to that with great bile,” she says). Instead, she describes herself as “a big fan of rich tasks that all students can access and discuss together” and “low threshold, high-ceiling activities [where] students can enter or exit at multiple points, and there’s opportunity for shared community.” Zager also adds a last point: “Personalized learning is not going to help the conversation.”

There’s one additional caveat: this principle places an emphasis on social learning. I am not suggesting this approach should be used exclusively. There should still be plenty of time for students to work independently, or for teachers to employ direct instruction as needed.

3. The experiences that teachers design should be informed by learning science.

The first two prongs of this alternative vision view teachers as learned, respected professionals with a high degree of autonomy over decision-making. But this poses a challenge—just as I want students to learn together through shared communal experiences, so too would I like to see educators to explore problems of instructional practice with their colleagues. How might we develop a common framework for this sort of professional development?

Enter cognitive science, also known as the science of learning. I am a full-throated enthusiast for the potential value of educators understanding this science for purposes of improving student learning. But I’m increasingly convinced it’s equally valuable as a way of creating a common language to explore questions of pedagogy.

I’ve seen inspiring examples of this firsthand. Not long ago, I spent an evening with group of teachers who were prepared by the Boston Teacher Residency. These teachers had recently read two books on cognitive science (Why Don’t Students Like School? and Making it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning) and were participating in ongoing professional development on how learning science could inform their practice. Julie Sloan, who facilitates this PD, finds that teachers enjoy grappling with cognitive science because it “brings an intellectualism that’s been missing in the profession, a return to teaching as an intellectual endeavor.”

The movement toward personalization largely rests on the as-yet unproven assumption that our learning differences are more significant than our similarities. Not only is that claim empirically suspect, but it erodes the possibility of the teaching profession advancing as a professional learning community that anchors its discourse in science.

4. Teachers should primarily use technology to identify social learning opportunities.

What role does technology play in the Alt-Vision? I am neither neo-Luddite nor blind enthusiast for technology in education. There are ways in which it can be used in service of the principles set forth here—but they require disentangling technology from personalization.

Consider again Dan Meyer, who is helping Desmos build the next generation of graphing calculator. The tool can be used by individual students to solve problems, but Meyer sounded more excited to explore ways in which Desmos can foster shared math activities. “I’m interested in what technology can do to promote social learning,” Meyer said. “At Desmos, two students can do the same problem, and [then the software] can identify which students have different views, and could have an interesting debate.”

Similarly, Beth Rabbit, the new CEO of The Learning Accelerator, whose mission is to accelerate high-quality blended learning, urges edtech enthusiasts to be more conscious of the consequences of design choices related to personalizing learning. “If you take personalized learning to its obvious extreme, [which is] every kid in a pod learning at [his or her] own rate, you have [a] huge trade off with group learning, with peers, and pacing together,” she told me. “We have to understand what tradeoffs we’re making—and we’re not having that conversation.”

The Alt-Vision is a sketch, a general set of principles around which we might foster a different conversation than the one we’re currently having in education. But there is one point on which I’m unyielding: We begin to forge the character of our country in our public schools. At time when I feel our nation pulling further apart, I hope we start thinking and talking more about how we might move closer together, and promote the integration—rather than the personalization—of our learning experiences in public education. 

Benjamin Riley (@benjaminjriley) is the founder and executive director of Deans for Impact. The views expressed here represent Riley's personal views and not those of his organization.

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