Questioning the Core Assumptions of Personalized Learning With Math...

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Questioning the Core Assumptions of Personalized Learning With Math Blogger Dan Meyer

By Mary Jo Madda (Columnist)     Sep 12, 2017

Questioning the Core Assumptions of Personalized Learning With Math Blogger Dan Meyer

This article is part of the guide The Personalized Learning Toolkit.

A few weeks ago, while perusing Twitter for news stories, a few folks on the EdSurge team came across a Tweet by math blogger, former teacher and current Desmos Chief Academic Officer Dan Meyer. He had recently read an EdSurge article regarding struggles that had taken place during a Fulton County Schools’ personalized learning initiative, and in response, Meyer Tweeted the following:

The genesis of the conversation. (Twitter)

Though the “invitation” wasn’t directed at anyone in particular, EdSurge decided to take him up on the offer. Last week, Meyer joined in on a very special Google On Air Hangout for a live discussion around exactly that topic—the “core assumptions” of personalized learning, where Meyer thinks PL helps or hurts classroom learning, and how technology fits into all of this.

We’ve adapted the interview into both a podcast and a (slightly abbreviated) Q&A. Scroll below to get right to the interview, and scroll even further down to view the recording of the live conversation.

EdSurge: Let’s start out with the basics. What do you define as personalized learning?

Dan Meyer: That's a great question with a very contested answer. I'd say there's a couple of key parts that are non-negotiables, and from there, you can find some flexibility. For instance, competency-based grading seems really important, where students can demonstrate their competency on a given course... Whenever you hit the end of Algebra One, if two students know the same about Algebra, they should progress in the same direction in their learning. They should both get the same grade.

The next that I think that is non-negotiable is the idea that technology should play some part in helping students learn at their own pace. This comes from the Bloom study, which is cited a lot—Bloom found enormous gains for tutoring, which in this day and age is a kind of obvious point to a lot of educators. But back when that study came out, it was a pretty serious deal that when you gave someone a one-on-one tutor, they learned loads more than without that.

It's really hard to accomplish those two goals without some technological help. The idea is, “How can I get myself to duplicate and make copies of myself 40 times to help out with students side by side?” It's impossible. Therefore, enter technology. Those, in my mind, are some of the core assumptions I see across lots of different models.

Where does that technology come in? Pedagogy? In the Atlanta piece that we published, one of the educators described the key to personalized learning as “the idea of the teacher transferring ownership of learning to students so they can be self-directed learners." Do you agree or disagree that that is the key to this concept of personalized learning?

I love the statement. My goal as the person representing in some ways a more traditional style of instruction, less personalized, and emphasizing certain parts of math... I don't want to default to some lazy cliches. “Ownership of learning” and “self-directed learning,” in my mind, are overused cliches, to the point of meaninglessness. I'm going to do my best to reckon with them.

I'll make a metaphor. When I go to the gym, it's a pretty rare day when I push myself consistently to have my heart rate in the red, working really hard. I want to slack a bit. I want to do exercises in ways that accommodate my limitations and laziness. And so, one of the benefits of having a teacher who has a more global view of the subject is that they can push you and direct you in ways that keep your brain in the red zone. That's one aspect I think where teachers are super valuable. I'm not sure it's even possible for students to provoke themselves in the ways that teachers can provoke those students.

The assumption I love about personalized learning is the idea that every student in class should be challenged and in that mental red zone for large portions of the day. Every day, every hour? That will burn a kid out.

The “ownership” piece that you spoke about may be a bit cliché, but what about the implementation piece? Don't we want to ensure that you're training students to take ownership of the work that they are doing in the sense that they feel responsible for it, and that they feel proud of the work that they're producing?

“Proud of the work that they're doing” is a very uncliched description of a student in the classroom… Love it. All of that.

There's a learner profiles that came up in this RAND study that showed another more unevenly implemented version of PL. I'm in favor of students knowing what they know and don't know, and where they're going next. But in the cliché, it leaves a lot of room for me to step in and say, "I'm not sure what this means." And there's part of it where I don't know if [some things] are possible, or even advisable.

So then, when it comes to the assumptions behind personalized learning, what do you question as the biggest, most potentially damaging assumption?

The biggest assumption I question is the degree to which technology replaces the word that sets off alarm bells (“teachers”). Technology is not up to the task. I question the assumption that technology can do what we want technology to do. We ask technology to do a couple things that I don't think in 2017 it does a good job of, and one is to be the human tutor at the side of the student. We overestimate the ability of a computer!

Also, we overestimate the ability of the computer to access student mastery in a competency-based system. I've run (as a math teacher) competency-based grading, and it was entirely on paper. Sure, there were aspects of it that were a bummer for me. It was a lot of hand grading, but in turn, I felt so much confidence when I said, "Yes, you're competent." That meant something.

The computer does not reach the level of the human tutor in assessing competency.

Let’s stick with that: What about the assessment piece? What’s the role of technology in that, if any?

As far as the practice goes, computers do a very good job of taking teacher input, teacher assessment, teacher grading or feedback on student thinking, and storing that somewhere in a way that everyone (parents, administrators, students, and teachers) can view.

I'm nervous about computers being the one to assign that student a score, a mark, a grade. To elaborate, what I see in a lot of these platforms is multiple choice—a lot of numerical responses… It’s the kind of learning that's cheapest and easiest for computers to do.

Some might think that artificial intelligence could improve that—that someday, computers will basically be able to do assessments that relies more on human cognition right now.

Fingers crossed, right? Sure. Hey, I'm not opposed. I don't see it happening in 2017. What are we going to do? Put these systems in place, and the kids between now and 2024 are going to get screwed? We can't do that.

Do you think then when we implement PL, we're at risk of moving from a community-based mentality in schools to more of an individual-based mentality?

Yeah, absolutely. I couldn't have said it better. Where I work, at Desmos, we're not looking to individualize learning as how we think of it. What am I learning? What am I watching? What assessment am I taking? We're in favor of a learning that is social and creative, so our efforts related to finding ways to make these devices, phones and computers that students love outside of class resemble what they do inside of class.

For instance, think about what students love to do with their phones outside of class. They're creating, and they're sharing those creations: stories, and text messages, and videos, and photos. They share those with their networks to get feedback on them, find out triggers about what people like. But you bring those same devices into a school setting, and it's like they switch into airplane mode… Why isn't it awesome when they step into the four walls of my classroom?

On the other side of that, more of an individualistic perspective would say, "It's good to focus on the individual, because then kids don't get lost in the group.” What's your response to that?

I'm generally in favor of some balance. There are some times where students will be practicing different things. But, I think we vastly underestimate the value of discussion and explanation. An hour ago, before this talk, I was thinking about what I might say here. And when I'm saying it in my head, I'm like, "Yeah. Nailed it." But here and now, when I start to articulate it… I start to realize the limitations of my imagination... You respond to things I'm saying, and you're pushing on ways that I didn't anticipate.

Slight switch—why don't we hear more about the failures of personalized learning?

There is a certain hero narrative, a savior narrative. This is the new hot thing. We don't like to publish, even in research studies, negative results. With every incentive, from venture capital on down to even individual teachers, it seems to be all about, “Let's make this thing work.” If I'm in conversation with a teacher, I can find out pretty fast if they're pedaling cliches or if they're real. I really think it really has to do with incentives from the media, to the venture capital world, all invested in the narrative that personalized learning is what is going to save society—from test scores to our GDP.

So that being said, going forward, as a last question, how do you think we can continue having these conversations, without all of that white noise that takes place in and around this space?

I think that we should all resolve to be a little bit annoying when it's possible, and to ask people to clarify their priors to define personalized learning in very concrete terms. What does this mean on the ground level? What does a good classroom look like? What if I walked into your school? Get on that level as fast as possible, as annoyingly as possible. That's my resolution.

Know what you love about learning and teaching, and let's make sure whatever models we use testify that truth. If you ever feel that twinge, this is not living up to my ideals. Don't suppress that. Steer straight into that, and change it.

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