Personalized Learning: More Teacher, Less Algorithm?

By Benjamin Herold — June 08, 2015 8 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

As a reporter who covers ed tech full-time, I get a LOT of press releases and public-relations pitches about “personalized learning,” mostly from vendors, advocacy groups, and the like.

The thrust is generally the same: Digital technology + data + algorithms = content and instruction that can be tailored to individual students’ strengths, weaknesses, preferences, and interests. Let the revolution begin.

But last month, while reporting at Mount Pleasant High School in Wilmington, Del. for Education Week’s forthcoming Technology Counts 2015 report, to be released Wednesday, I came across an altogether different version of technology-enabled personalized learning.

What first caught my eye: watching Mount Pleasant junior Ta’Nia Henson walk out of her Advanced Placement English class.

Turns out, the 17 year-old Henson is much more passionate about music than English. So in the middle of class, she decided to head downstairs, to the school’s high-tech in-house audio-engineering studio.

Then, what really grabbed me: the reaction of Henson’s teacher, Robyn Howton. The 24-year classroom veteran couldn’t have been happier.

“She’s very creative, but I could never get her to enjoy the formal-type writing we would do in class,” Howton explained. “For me, the hook to getting her to value English was helping her to see its power in what she loves to do.”

And then, the two things that have had me thinking ever since: Both Howton and Henson swear that that using technology to produce music has not only made Henson more engaged in English class, but actually helped her to become a better writer.

And the whole experiment grew out of the pair’s close personal relationship, nurtured not just in class, but in long talks during practices and meets for the track team (which Howton helps coach) and in a school-based college prep program (that Howton helps lead.)

Algorithms aren’t driving the “personalization” in Ta’Nia Henson’s education.

Her teacher is.

Technology’s role

Don’t get me wrong. Technology is playing a critical role. It provided more opportunities for Howton to create that magical moment for Henson to become invested in her own learning. And when that crucial something did click, the experience was more powerful, because the teen had access to an amazing variety of tools to explore and create and learn, both in class and on her own.

But that version of “personalized learning” is quite different from the version that has become almost de rigueur in the ed-tech sector. Too often, the tendency there is to think primarily in terms of the exploding markets for digital devices and content.

One of the potentially big problems with that thinking is that regardless of how it is packaged or pitched, very few teachers are using all that new technology to actually transform how they teach. As I reported for Technology Counts, researchers have consistently found that teachers most often use ed tech to make incremental changes to what they already do, in effect adapting innovations to fit their existing practices, rather than vice versa.

Perhaps that’s part of the allure of attempting to achieve personalization via algorithms and adaptive technology.

In that model, teachers don’t have to change their spots or become diehard constructivists in order to let students move at their own pace through content that is tailored specifically to them.

At its best, that approach can have real benefits, including more efficient and focused delivery of content to students, as well as better and more timely information for teachers about what their students know and are able to do.

But the original promise of ed tech went much further. It was about changing classrooms from teacher-centered to student-centered, about putting children in control of their own learning, about promoting collaboration and exploration, and about giving children access to the tools and training they will need to solve the big problems our generation can’t even anticipate.

Given the vastness of the public school system and teachers’ long history of underutilizing new technologies, maybe the current direction of personalized learning is to be anticipated, and appreciated for what it is.

But one of the joys of my job is to sit in the classrooms of those educators who, like Robyn Howton, are still in pursuit of something more.

Finding students’ passions

“I’ve yet to see a software program with algorithms that promotes critical thinking. Given a choice, I don’t want to spend money on that,” Howton told me.

“I’d rather use our resources to help kids find their passions. I’d much rather have an audio lab than a program kids can take a grammar test on.”

To reinforce the point, she directed my attention back to Ta’Nia Henson, looking confident and happy as she went about her work in Mt. Pleasant High’s music studio.

The petite teen plays keyboards, piano, violin, and trumpet there. She writes lyrics. She records herself playing and singing. She searches for musical samples and audio artifacts—for her current project, a recording of a contemporary actress reciting Sojourner Truth’s famous “Ain’t I A Woman?” speech. And she uses both hardware and software to digitally mix it all into crisp, professional-sounding R&B and pop songs.

And all of that work is informing and being incorporated into Henson’s project for Howton’s English class, too. The song Henson produced was part of the collaborative multimedia project her group developed. It also drove her to go well above and beyond the literature review that was the basis of the research paper Howton assigned, conducting interviews with her classmates, teachers, and school administrators about how changing gender roles and expectations are impacting them.

Howton “is the only one who allows me to have my love of music in her classroom,” Henson told me when I asked why she was so engaged in the project.

“She told me I could be creative,” Henson said.

The teen’s enthusiasm is energizing, Howton said.

But it’s the evolution of Henson’s writing that has provided her teacher with affirmation.

The bright but sometimes-lacking-in-confidence student “has gone from using a pretty straightforward sentence structure and common transitions to a much more complex style,” Howton said. “There is more depth to her ideas. Her word choice has expanded. She’s taking information from multiple sources and combining it to support her own ideas, rather than just directly quoting the facts.”

There’s more.

“Before, when she had to read this ‘ancient history,’ it wasn’t interesting to her,” Howton told me. “But then some things from early American writers started finding its way into this album she was creating. She started to get it, how these ideas from the past play out today. Watching her make all these connections has been really exciting.”

Do you really think producing music for class projects helped with all that? I asked.

“I know it did,” Howton replied. “I know because of conversations we’ve had about how she expresses her ideas when writing lyrics. That really seemed to click for her. Ta’Nia started playing with words there, and we talked about it, and she started to see how it could apply to academic writing.”

Henson sees it similarly.

“Putting music into English class helped me explain my thoughts better,” she said.

Even more important, from her perspective: “Learning writing skills from [Howton] has helped me improve my song structure,” Henson said. “They tell more stories now than they did last year.”

The problem of scale

It should be noted at this point that Howton is an extreme outlier, even within 1,100-student Mount Pleasant High. The school’s principal, Heather Austin, estimated that maybe 5 percent of Mount Pleasant’s teachers were even attempting to use technology in such a student-centered away. Another 5 percent weren’t attempting to use technology at all. The vast majority, Austin said, are muddling along somewhere in the middle. Think PowerPoint presentations added to their lectures.

That seems pretty typical, based on my review of almost two decade’s worth of research for Technology Counts.

The barriers are all too familiar:

Poor training.

Teachers who shut the classroom door and do what they believe is right, which is often what they’ve always done.

A standardized-test-based accountability system that leaves precious little time and support for the kinds of experimentation and productive failure and relationship-building that is at the heart of student-centered classrooms.

For all those reasons, maybe it isn’t realistic to expect that most teachers will approach using technology the same way Robyn Howton does.

And for all those reasons, maybe it isn’t realistic to expect that most students will have the type of personalized, technology-enabled learning experience that Ta’Nia Henson and many of her peers in Howton’s classes are having.

Given that, perhaps it does make sense to put our “personalized learning” eggs in the data-and-algorithms basket. Maybe that model will prove to be more scalable than expecting every teacher to help find each student’s passion, and nurture it, and leverage it to support goals like becoming a better writer.

But sitting in Mt. Pleasant High, watching Ta’Nia Henson go about her work, it was hard not to conclude that right now might be a very good time for educators and district leaders and the ed-tech industry alike to pause and reflect on what it is they actually want this new, technology-driven push for “personalized learning” to look like.

One person who I know has a clear vision is Ta’Nia Henson’s mother, Grace Froding.

She loves that her daughter has access to technology.

She loves even more that her daughter has access to a teacher who doesn’t delegate to that technology the process of helping her daughter realize her full potential.

“Ms. Howton is breaking away and actually teaching to the unique student and letting them express themselves and get their ideas across,” Froding told me.

“It is so refreshing to have a teacher who can actually understand your child and work with your child’s strengths and help them incorporate it into their academic learning.”

Photos: Ta’Nia Henson, an 11th grader at Mt. Pleasant High School in Wilmington, Del., works in her school’s audio engineering studio.

Mt. Pleasant High teacher Robyn Howton works with students in her 11th grade Advanced Placement English class.

See also:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.