Education Letter to the Editor

Reader Responds to Personalized Learning Special Report

December 12, 2017 4 min read
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False debates are a specialty in the world of public education. Whether it’s about the Common Core State Standards, public charter schools, or teacher evaluation, the debates are often based on distortions if not outright lies. The latest entry in the field of false debates is “personalized learning.”

Education Week‘s recent special report invited 36 “educators, experts, and critics” to describe what personalized learning should and shouldn’t be (“What Should (and Shouldn’t) Personalized Learning Look Like?”, Nov. 8, 2017). Their answers are all over the place: Advocates see it as a logical next step for teachers to tailor instruction to the unique needs of each child. Opponents warn of too much screen time, loss of teaching jobs, and the end of student privacy.

The phrase “personalized learning” dates back more than 50 years, according to Wikipedia, but the concept probably goes back to the dawn of time. One version of it dates to the start of the 20th century when Maria Montessori pioneered her child-centered approach to student learning. It’s now making a comeback.

Under the Montessori approach, children choose their own learning materials from options offered by teachers and are encouraged to follow their natural curiosity. The teacher’s job is more steering than rowing. (Full disclosure: I’m a Montessori parent and a board member of a public Montessori school in Chicago.)

In a companion piece to the survey, Education Week outlined three arguments against personalized learning (“The Case(s) Against Personalized Learning,”). The first argument is that the evidence base for personalized learning is “very weak,” despite some promising studies about it.

This is less an argument against personalized learning than a critique of the field of educational research, which is notoriously incapable of showing cause and effect of any reforms. Moreover, so much educational “research” is agenda-driven that it’s often hard to separate truth from spin.

As an argument against personal learning, the “weak evidence base” is itself weak. The same critique applies to many ideas in public education. If we bought into it, we’d never try anything new.

The second argument against personalized learning is that it’s “bad for teachers and students.” This sounds more like an opinion than an argument, and it’s largely based on the incorrect belief that personalized learning is all about kids working alone on computers.

Technology is often involved in personalized learning and some students thrive by working independently on computers, but the use of technology is hardly unique to personalized learning. Every school in America uses computers. Frankly, in this day and age, the bigger threat to children would be the absence of technology in the classroom.

Some others worry that personalized learning means the end of standards and shared knowledge about the world. Again, this fear is mostly overblown. Standards and curriculum are not going anywhere. It falls to teachers and schools to implement them, whether they use a personalized approach, a traditional lecture format or something else.

The third and final argument has to do with the threat to student privacy because some of the technology used in personalized learning collects data that can be used inappropriately. This may be true but the article does not show that it’s a pervasive threat. Instead, it quotes fear mongers.

The fact is, everyone’s personal data, from social security numbers to financial and health-related information, is captured in countless public and private databases. It’s part of modern life if you go to the doctor, borrow money, shop at Amazon, or book a flight online. Every time you choose a movie on Netflix your data is captured and your viewing options are “personalized” the next time you turn on the TV.

We have laws to protect privacy and if we need more laws we should pass them, but the answer to this “threat” should not be to cripple children by denying them the benefits of technology. Set up rules and enforce them.

At its core, personalized learning is an intentional effort to meet each child where they are and instruct accordingly, which is what great teachers have always done. As with any other educational reform, it relies on teachers and school leaders applying it thoughtfully and adapting to challenges along the way, as these three counterarguments show.

One form of personalized learning is also embedded in federal law and in practice in every public school in America: the individualized education program, or IEP, for a student with disabilities. Personalized learning simply applies a similar approach to all students.

Extremist talk on either end of the debate is unhelpful. Personalized learning is not the panacea for everything wrong with public education, and it’s not a threat to teaching jobs, student privacy, high standards, or shared knowledge. It’s merely a phrase describing a proven concept in education: Follow the child.

Peter Cunningham

Executive Director

Education Post

Chicago, Ill.

A version of this article appeared in the December 13, 2017 edition of Education Week as Reader Responds to Personalized Learning Special Report


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