School & District Management Opinion

What we Lose with Personalization (Part 2)

By Justin Reich — July 12, 2012 2 min read
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Personalization, for most who use the term, means optimizing individual learning progress along a defined trajectory. This optimization happens by measuring student competence and achievement. This optimization can (more or less) only happen on things we can measure computationally.

(This is the second of two posts on personalization, the first talked about the tensions between personalization and the civic mission of schools.)

My seventh grade math teacher, Mr. Scilin, optimized my learning along unmeasurable dimensions and managed to do immeasurable good in the process.

I was good at math. At my Montessori middle school, I basically ended up a year ahead in math, working on my own. I bet I would have thrived in personalized learning environment, where I could have raced along as fast as I wanted. I’m also the kind of person who would have loved the virtual stickers, stars, and badges provided by a personalization system. I’m a sucker for points and levels.

In the seventh grade, Mr. Scilin had students work in collaborative groups. As I can recall, for most of the year, I spent most of my time teaching math and helping other people solve problems. I really enjoyed the course, and it was one of the inflection points that moved my life towards a career of teaching. But if you had plopped 12 year old me in front of a sticker-dispensing machine, I probably would have happily gone on optimizing myself.

Mr. Scilin could have helped me personalize my learning in all kinds of ways, but he didn’t. He designed a learning environment that optimized things that computers can’t measure: sharing with humility, an ethic of communal responsibility, identifying multiple explanations and solutions in collaboration with other learners, and so forth.

When I applied to college, I got a scholarship related to leadership. I wrote my admissions essay about running calculus study groups.

I don’t want to paint this particular situation of peer support and teaching as exclusively an either/or. Of course savvy designers of personlization systems will find ways to motivate students to help one another, even when they are at different levels. But there is something about an ethic of communal responsibility—the shared journey that a cohort of learners experiences together—that might be the sort of thing with unmeasurable valuable, recognized as immeasurably valuable when its gone.

Personalization optimizes on observable characteristics. Lots of things we care about are not easy or inexpensive to computationally observe.

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my papers, presentations and so forth, visit EdTechResearcher.

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