Opinion
Curriculum Commentary

Fighting the Enemies of Personalized Learning

By Joseph S. Renzulli — February 28, 2012 6 min read

There are conferences for just about everything these days, but because of my interest in personalized learning, it appeared that this one on redesigning personalized learning would be just the ticket for gaining new insights into how learning can be more responsive to the divergent needs and diverse populations in today’s schools. Most educators agree that the one-size-fits-all curriculum needs addressing, and this by-invitation-only “summit” showed so much promise that I wangled an invite. Resplendent with all the buzzwords of the personalization and differentiation mystique (“flexible,” “student-driven,” “authentic,” “everywhere learning,” “systemic redesign"—to mention a few), the event would be staffed by the gurus of school reform and attended by education power brokers and CEOs from the public and private sectors.

Wow! What could be more appealing and hopeful for a change from the harmful direction that education has taken since the No Child Left Behind Act turned the learning process into a gigantic text-consumption and weakness-based test-prep industry? And the expectation that technology was a major answer to this promise of a revolution in personalizing learning made the conference even more appealing.

The emergence of technology in education has certainly created a renewed interest in personalizing learning and providing teachers with the tools necessary for differentiating curriculum. Early efforts to use technology to personalize learning can be traced back to B.F. Skinner’s teaching machines, which were designed to use rote-and-drill to automate the task of programmed instruction. Get the correct answer and you moved on to the next question. A wrong answer recycled the student through more practice material until he or she answered the question correctly.

True personalization requires more than just looking at achievement levels and trying to compensate for deficiencies."

Teaching machines were another failure in the long history of so-called “innovations” in education, but when computers and the Internet came along we seemed poised to capitalize on technology that placed vast amounts of the world’s knowledge at students’ fingertips. Just as Gutenberg revolutionized access to knowledge, at least for the restricted number of scholars of his time, we now have the capacity to make knowledge public for anyone who can read and log in.

It soon became clear that the general focus of the conference was on basic curriculum competencies and more-efficient procedures for mastery and improved achievement-test scores. Now, rather than covering material in a lock-step fashion for all students at the same time, teachers can direct content at different levels to students according to their varied achievement levels. Although this use of technology extends (by a giant step) the traditional one-size-fits-all instructional model, it only accounts for varying competency levels rather than examining at least three other categories of learner characteristics that define true personalization. This restricted focus led me to conclude that we are using today’s technology for what might be called “Gutenberg-online"—the electronic shuffling of worksheets and standard-text material—and that, pedagogically, we haven’t progressed much beyond the type of learning that Skinner advocated with his teaching machines.

22OP2 CopyrightedImage

A similar case can be made for the explosion of online courses currently available to school-age students. These courses have great value when not available locally, but they almost always follow a linear, sequential instructional model rather than a more inductive and investigative model of learning. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, a course is a course is a course, or in education-speak: Standards-driven prescriptive material is geared toward answering the questions at the end of the chapter and taking another achievement test. Skinner’s teaching-machine movement failed because we were treating students like Pavlov’s dogs. We could face the same consequences with today’s technology unless we expand our vision about what personalization could be and how technology can help make it happen.

See Also

See related commentary: People vs. ‘Personalization’

True personalization requires more than just looking at achievement levels and trying to compensate for deficiencies. At least three other characteristics of the learner and differentiation of content and process are necessary to give us a more comprehensive profile of student potentials and point us in the direction of making modifications in the learning process. In addition to achievement levels, information about student interests, learning styles, and preferred modes of expression allow us to make decisions about personalization that take multiple dimensions of the learner into account.

This information can easily be gathered and analyzed through the use of computer-generated profiles and from search engines that match multiple categorized resources from databanks containing vast quantities of highly interactive online material. Teachers can use this technology to infuse into any and all standards-driven curriculum highly engaging enrichment materials that can make any lesson or unit of study more exciting, engaging, and enjoyable. Math concepts improve and become more relevant when students use technology to design and build their own roller coaster. Students can gain a greater appreciation and understanding of ancient Egyptian culture when they do a virtual dissection and preservation of their own mummy.

The differentiation of content requires adding more depth and complexity to the curriculum rather than transmitting more or easier factual material. By focusing on structures of knowledge, basic principles, functional concepts, and methods of inquiry in particular disciplines, students are prepared to assume roles as firsthand inquirers rather than mere consumers of information. The differentiation of process requires the use of a variety of instructional strategies that differ from the traditional deductive, didactic, prescriptive approach used in most classrooms. Respect for learning-style variations can be achieved by using instructional strategies such as simulations, Socratic inquiry, problem-based learning, dramatizations, and individual and small-group investigations of real problems. Expression-style preferences can be accommodated by giving students opportunities to communicate visually, graphically, artistically, and through animatronics, multimedia, and various community-service involvements.

The biggest enemies of differentiation are time and the overprescription of learning. Before the availability of computers and the Internet, teachers simply did not have the time to find and direct customized resources to individual students.

Our obsession with content mastery and Skinner’s behavioral theory of learning are slowly but surely giving way to an interest in personalization and differentiation. While it is understandable that our early use of technology was mainly an adaptation of Gutenberg-online and a teaching-machine mentality of what learning is all about, we now have both the pedagogical rationale and technological capability to use the many dimensions of student characteristics that clearly and unequivocally result in higher engagement, enjoyment, and enthusiasm for learning.

Amazon and Netflix know what we like to read and view, and they make use of this information to “differentiate” the material they send us. We can do the same thing to enrich the entire learning environment by capitalizing on a broader spectrum of learner characteristics, creating comprehensive computer-generated student profiles, and using the interactive capabilities of today’s technology to revitalize learning. By so doing, we can minimize boredom and make learning the challenging, enjoyable, and relevant process that it should be.

A version of this article appeared in the February 29, 2012 edition of Education Week as Going Beyond Gutenberg and Skinner

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Professional Development Webinar
Building Leadership Excellence Through Instructional Coaching
Join this webinar for a discussion on instructional coaching and ways you can link your implement or build on your program.
Content provided by Whetstone Education/SchoolMint
Teaching Webinar Tips for Better Hybrid Learning: Ask the Experts What Works
Register and ask your questions about hybrid learning to our expert panel.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Families & the Community Webinar
Family Engagement for Student Success With Dr. Karen Mapp
Register for this free webinar to learn how to empower and engage families for student success featuring Karen L. Mapp.
Content provided by Panorama Education & PowerMyLearning

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Director PEAK Academy Hapeville campus
Hapeville, Georgia, United States
Camelot Education
Technology Product Manager
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States
Camelot Education
2021-2022 Teacher (Districtwide)
Dallas, TX, US
Dallas Independent School District
[2021-2022] Founding Middle School Academic Dean
New York, NY, US
DREAM Charter School

Read Next

Curriculum The Dr. Seuss Controversy: What Educators Need to Know
The business that manages Dr. Seuss' work and legacy will cease publishing six books due to racist stereotypes and offensive content.
5 min read
A copy of the book "And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street," by Dr. Seuss, rests in a chair on March 1, 2021, in Walpole, Mass. Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the business that preserves and protects the author and illustrator's legacy, announced on his birthday, Tuesday, March 2, 2021, that it would cease publication of several children's titles including "And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street" and "If I Ran the Zoo," because of insensitive and racist imagery.
Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced it would cease publication of several of the author's children's titles because of insensitive and racist imagery.
Steven Senne/AP
Curriculum Opinion The Overlooked Support Teachers Are Missing: A Coherent Curriculum
Here’s the research on how districts can improve instructional systems—which was already a challenge in the best of times.
Morgan Polikoff, Elaine Wang & Julia Kaufman
5 min read
A team of people work together to build a block structure.
Imam Fathoni/iStock<br/>
Curriculum Leader To Learn From Taking an Unapologetic Approach to Curriculum Overhaul
An academic leader at a charter school has overhauled curriculum—and proved that instructional rigor and anti-racism can co-exist.
11 min read
Danielle Kelsick, Chief Academic Officer for the Environmental Charter Schools in Redondo Beach, Calif.
Danielle Kelsick, Chief Academic Officer for the Environmental Charter Schools in Redondo Beach, Calif.
Nick Agro for Education Week
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Curriculum Whitepaper
Educator Survey Results: Meeting the Demands of Hybrid Learning with eBooks
With COVID-19 altering nearly all aspects of daily life, including the way students learn, this survey sought insight from those on the f...
Content provided by OverDrive