Posted by: crudbasher | June 17, 2011

Do You Really Want Personalized Learning?



Personalize: (v) to make personal or individual; specifically : to mark as the property of a particular person.

Lately I have heard a lot of education pundits and bloggers talking about personalized learning. Heck, I have mentioned it too! Do we all really know what it means? I thought I would lay out what I think it means. It will most likely make lots of people uncomfortable.

What sparked this off is this blog post by John Connell. Let me quote a bit:

I would really like to see the debate widened to question not only what the school actually ought to be in an age in which we agree that the ‘industrial-age school’ is no longer relevant, but also whether we even need the school at all. Can we envision an education system that makes the school much less relevant than it is just now and possibly even completely irrelevant in time?

From reading his site, John Connell and I would not agree on most things related to politics. I have his site in my RSS reader thought because he’s smart and worth listening to. In this case I’m not sure he really realizes what he is asking for. Let me explain.

(cc) Tom Carmony

The first, most common interpretation of personalized learning is to tailor a lesson in the classroom to each student’s way of learning. I don’t call this personalizing though. This is differentiation which is to take a concept and present it in many different ways. In my mind, a true personalized curriculum, means the student chooses what they want to learn, when they want to learn it, and how they want to learn it. This concept profoundly smashes a fundamental principle of mass schooling, which is everyone learns the same thing. Not only that, but even if you can take elective classes, the student can only choose from an approved list of classes.

This part is where some teachers will get uncomfortable. Who gets to decide what a student gets to learn? If you look at the current school model, the Secretary of Education in Washington DC has more of a say as to what my child will learn than I do. In fact the participants in the school system with the least say in the curriculum are the student and parents. This is especially ironic when it is the parents who are paying for it all. Imagine going to a restaurant and being told what you are going to eat, then given a bill. It would not be a popular place would it? Perhaps this could be why many students treat summer break as less of a vacation and more of a jailbreak?

So who decides what the students learn? Doesn’t there have to be certain required topics? Maybe. Probably. Do we have to ban certain topics? What if a student wants to learn how to make explosives? I doubt anyone wants that offered as curriculum but you can find that sort of thing online. That’s the problem. When all learning was done via school, it was easy to restrict the content. That’s not the case anymore. Pandora’s Box has been opened and the knowledge is free.

What about morals? For example, I read a blog post the other day from a fellow who was passionately talking about teaching global warming. Well as it turns out, I don’t agree that man is causing all of it, and I don’t think it’s a crisis. If you want to believe in it, that’s fine, but I don’t. So what about the person who teaches my child? Do their beliefs trump mine? The guy who was blogging about it would say he would teach just what he believed in order to shape the student’s opinions. He would probably justify it because he was saving the planet. What do we call teaching just one side in order to influence people?

Brainwashing: (n) any method of controlled systematic indoctrination, especially one based on repetition or confusion.

Back to John Connell. I think he would be uncomfortable with complete personalization because of his blog tag line:

The point is not to interpret the world but to change it

How can you do that if you can’t control what the students learn? We can only change those things we have control of.

The reason I call this blog Education Stormfront is because the magnitude of the changes coming to education is like a massive storm. It’s going to reshape everything. Reforming education isn’t just about putting computers in the classroom. The current system is about control. If you personalize education, you give up control and that is frightening to a lot of people. I happen to believe in the individual and would love a personalized system. It’s the only way to let each person develop to their fullest potential. This is one of the biggest clouds in the fast approaching storm of educational change.

I thought about this topic for a week while I decided to write it. This is one of those topics that can inflame some emotions, however I sincerely would be interested in hearing other points of view! Please give me your thoughts in the comments!

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