Of Babies and Bathwater: A Call to Thoughtfulness as We Embrace...

Personalized Learning

Of Babies and Bathwater: A Call to Thoughtfulness as We Embrace Individualized Learning

By Ryan Fuhrman     Aug 21, 2017

Of Babies and Bathwater: A Call to Thoughtfulness as We Embrace Individualized Learning

This article is part of the guide: What Personalized Learning Looks Like Across the Country: The 2017 Fifty States Project.

Let me be up front. I am a big fan of individualized learning. In many ways, it seems to be the promised land that we have sought as teachers for a very long time: the ability to meet every student where they are and target their specific needs with purposeful, specific lessons to ensure their fullest potential is reached.

But, I am very, very wary of individualized learning, too. Like all things, the details matter a great deal. Teachers have a long history of throwing the baby out with the bathwater in our pursuit of the next “great thing.” I think that is why teachers who have been around long enough will always talk about “The Pendulum” and its constant swing back from a new way of doing things to the old ways of doing things.

Here are my thoughts on how we can do a better job this time to incorporate and adopt the best of individualized learning without losing the essential things that could get lost if we are not thoughtful.

But first, some background on me so you can decide if I warrant a hearing. I am a 15-year veteran of the Junior High science classroom. I graduated high school in 1997, which means I remember a time before the Internet. In fact—and I am very proud of this—in my 4th grade class, I was chosen to set-up and rewind the film projector, a skill that sadly has not been in high demand since. I still remember the day my older brother, a first-gen computer nerd, brought home an Apple IIe with amber colored monitor. I vividly recall negotiating a chatroom on AOL, surfing the web using Netscape, getting my first email, seeing my first Powerpoint, downloading my first ill-gotten album from Limewire, purchasing my first mobile phone in college, and on and on as the world moved from analog to digital.

I delve into my personal history because I have experienced the before and after of so many inventions that have changed the world. As a teacher, I have seen how many of these innovations have made their way into our schools with a promise to revolutionize for the better some corner of education. When I student taught, I remember the sheer excitement on students’ faces when I used a PowerPoint for the first time in their classroom. But let me ask you this: Do your students still get excited about seeing a teacher stand up and use a PowerPoint today?

One thing that has amazed me is how quickly the new and exciting fade simply because they’re the water that students swim in. I fear that as teachers we quickly assume the next great technological innovation will be the silver bullet that makes teaching easy and effective, capturing the attention of all the students in our rooms and making our job easier. But for those of you who have been around in this profession for a decade or two, have you seen this realized?

Now before you write me off as some luddite, I feel it’s important to explain I teach at a progressive 1-to-1 school, equipped with Chromebooks. I utilize and try to maximize technology in my teaching everyday. I am often the first in the building to try out a new app, platform, or piece of hardware. I coach a VEX robotics team.

I love technology and the new possibilities it opens up for me to be a better teacher and ensure student learning. I just don’t want to lose the good parts of what we already do. I don’t want to chuck out the great things we are doing now, just to surf the latest wave. I don’t want to have the proverbial educational lawn littered with babies. So here are three “babies” to consider as we move to embrace individualized learning and realize its potential.

It must start with love

We live in a broken world and I don’t need to convince any of you that many of our students are arriving in our classrooms shellshocked with deep emotional needs. If we create a classroom where individualization means seeing students solely as numbers on a spreadsheet that need to be scheduled, assigned lessons, and evaluated, we will lose the very heart of education. I do not think this is a empty fear. Already schools are moving to increase the number of students a teacher oversees because so much of student time is in front of a screen. I recently attended a major policy conference where a state superintendent of education postulated replacing upper level math teachers with content recorded by “a good college professor.”

Stick with collaboration

As we increase the time students spend in front of screens we must, in equal measure, decrease the time that they spend interacting with other students. If our jobs as teachers is solely to help students efficiently download the knowledge and skills needed to show mastery on district and state exams, then perhaps this is not a cause for concern.

Yet teachers do so much more. I realize that one of our core missions is to prepare students with knowledge and skills, but I also firmly believe that we need to prepare students for life and citizenry in a democratic society. Where will people learn the essential skills of listening, dialogue, and working together regardless of background that is so necessary for a thriving nation, if not in our classrooms? We must be careful when adopting and implementing individualized learning that we don’t completely lose the benefits of working in a group.

Get hands-on...literally

The final issue to be cognizant of, as we move towards a more individualized learning environment, is the amazing thing that can happen in a classroom when computers are put away, and challenges and deep thinking are brought forward. In my science classroom, as I have moved to embrace the new science standards, I have been incorporating more hands-on engineering challenges. These require a group or a team of two to work together to solve a problem with creating a new item (similar to every career I can think of). Little technology is needed to get students elbow deep in a bucket of water, trying to figure out the correct ratios of baking soda and vinegar needed to get their self-designed submarine to return back to the surface after a minute under. In their excitement and laughter, I see true learning occurring—one that presents the same challenge and resources to every student and challenges them to individually and collectively present a solution.

When I think about the world and the problems that it faces (and that we face as dependents of a healthy planet), I can’t help but think this is the real goal of education. Groups or excited individuals taking their knowledge and experiences to make the world better.

Ryan Fuhrman is a seventh grade science teacher and instructional coach at Sheridan Junior High School. Last year, he was chosen as the 2017 Wyoming Teacher of the Year.

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