One of the popular new terms in education, certainly in Vermont but also nationally, is “personalized learning.” For the past two years everyone has been talking about it in my school and state. Same goes for its sister term, “personalized learning plan.”
About a year ago, I began to realize that not only was everyone talking about personalized learning, but they were using it to mean wildly different things. That’s a problem when the law requires it to be practiced (as it has in Vermont since 2013).
So what is personalized learning?
For starters, here’s a pretty classic take from Katrina Stevens, a Deputy Director in the Office of Educational Technology at the D.O.E. She lists ten different organizations . . . with ten different definitions of personalized learning.
“[T]his is a common occurrence in the early stages of disruptive innovation in any field,” she assures us, eventually concluding, “We hope that the field can converge around a definition that accounts for the key aspects.”
Two weeks ago EdWeek devoted an entire issue including some great articles to this question. But even though they did a nice job highlighting the wildly disparate ideas teachers and policymakers are throwing around, I wanted to get to the heart of the matter and find out where exactly this term came from in the first place.
Where It Came From
Most educators’ first exposure to “personalized learning” came in 2012, during the second wave of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative. After the (shall we say) mixed results of the original 2009 Race to the Top, Arne Duncan realized that targeting whole states with monolithic, top-down dictates might not be the most nimble way to enact change. So instead he rebaited his hook and began dangling his piles of cash in front of individual school districts in return for their adopting wacky new ideas that Duncan and his cronies had cooked up. Guess what the first one was:
Absolute Priority 1: Personalized Learning Environments (PLE).
To meet this priority, an applicant must coherently and comprehensively address how it will build on the core educational assurance areas to create learning environments that are designed to significantly improve learning and teaching through the personalization of strategies, tools, and supports for students and educators
There was only one problem. No one, including some pretty important stakeholders, had ever heard of “personalized learning”:
The American Association of School Administrators is seeking clarification on the idea of “personalized learning plans.” These are the name of the game since all applicants must make them a central part of their plans. AASA has some questions about what exactly the department has in mind. The definition within the criteria is vague and not common in the school/educator community.
Hey, no big deal, guys. It’s just that we kinda, sorta need to know a few little details:
The group wants to know how these plans are actually different from techniques such as differentiated learning, Response to Intervention, or individualized instruction . . . The group also is wondering if schools will have legal liability for personalized learning plans, like they do for individualized education programs for students in special education.
Good questions. So here we are, trying to drive change, and we’re not just pushing some newfangled idea, but a genuinely brand-new term that no one has ever heard of. How could it work?
That was 2012. One year later “personalized learning plans” were required by law in Vermont.
It’s always neat when educational reform people invent a new term out of thin air. It usually means they’re trying to repackage something — like the way that what we now call “proficiency learning” used to be called “competency learning” — and before that, “Outcome-Based Education” (and before that, “Mastery Learning”). Nothing wrong with a little rebranding, right?
In this way, “personalized learning” is really a softer way of saying “blended learning” — which in itself is a euphemism for computer-based learning. When I began teaching in 2010, small-town Vermont students still had to physically switch to larger regional high schools if they wanted to take more varied courses (which they often did); three years later, even kids at the mid-sized school I taught at were diversifying their course load (or recovering credit) by taking online courses. Three years after that, the first adaptive software program made its way into our curriculum. So the learning-by-tech was always there, it was just a question of to what extent it would be permitted by official school and state policy.
But think like a tech company. Facebook didn’t vacuum up all our data by leveling with us about what they’re doing. No. You can’t just come out and call what you’re doing “computerized learning” or even “blended learning”; that makes people nervous. We want our kids to have access to technology, but we don’t want Big Brother Mark Z teaching our kids; we want real human interaction with skilled educators and with diverse peers. A little credit recovery here or an online Latin class there is one thing; learning math and English in front of a screen is another. Plus, we’re suspicious of data-mining. In short, there’s really no way a state as liberal and right-thinking as Vermont would ever wave into law anything that sounds too tech-heavy. So you’ve got to rebrand it.
And everyone likes education that is “personalized,” right? That sounds progressive, child-focused. Plus, it sounds plausible: like some kind of sensible use of technology to personalize; our Amazon accounts give us recommendations, right? Our YouTube accounts do it. Why not some small slice of our schools, too? Play up the individualizing and play down the screen-time. To this day, this split exists in teachers’ understanding of “personalized learning: either student-centered and progressive, or tech-focused, using adaptive software in concert with more traditional instruction. It’s all things to all people — a big tent that waves everybody inside.
And don’t underestimate the impact of a fresh, new term. The AASA was right to question how Personalized Learning differs from the familiar buzzwords of yore: differentiation, individualized instruction, or Response to Intervention. The main thing is, those terms have been tried already. Most educators who started teaching when I did tried and tried to “differentiate”; it was a great idea, but it was really hard work — endless, really. Teachers have such an inherently impossible mission that more often than not they’ll hunt eagerly for new ideas from self-proclaimed “experts” — particularly if the solutions seem time- or labor-saving (a favorite false promise of tech device after tech device that educators have fallen for). Personalized learning has that allure: “Maybe, finally, we could truly personalize instruction . . . if we just had the right technology. And now we do!” Don’t fall for it. It’s happened before.
But we did fall for it. We are.
If you have any doubts about what this is, look at the backers. Not surprisingly, a big player pushing personalized learning has been iNacol — The International Association for K-12 Online Learning. Even they struggle to explain it clearly, with a whole page on their website devoted to trying to define personalized learning, one that reflects the schism between traditional individualized learning and learning-with-tech:
With student-centered, personalized learning, we can identify students’ unique needs and address them. Teachers possess powerful tools to personalize instruction and utilize real-time data for feedback to intervene exactly where each student needs it most. It is about optimizing learning every day and maximizing the amount of learning per unit of time. (Emphasis mine.)
Want to bet they’re not talking about the subtle skills of interpersonal communication? Reading between the lines, you can see they’re talking about adaptive software that can tailor a lesson to a specific student based on an algorithm.
There’s just enough progressive-speak in here to a) make them NOT sound like tech pushers, which they know educators and parents are suspicious of, and b) make them sound like they almost know what they’re talking about:
The shift toward personalization changes the dynamic between the teacher and student. Educators take on new roles as mentors, coaches and facilitators, and power and control shifts to the students. By giving students ownership over their learning and grounding learning in their interests and passions, they feel valued, motivated and in control.
Keep in mind, at the time this was written, nobody even knew what “personalization” meant. But iNACOL is already promising that it’s going to “change the dynamic between teacher and student.”
In case you were doubting their progressive credentials, they even cloak themselves in the garb of social justice:
We strive to disrupt the structural inequities driving the systems we’ve inherited. Access to high-quality, appropriately designed learning models and technologies can and should drive equitable opportunities and outcomes.
(That’s another hot term right now: equity.)
But in the end, the International Association for K-12 Online Learning is really interested in one thing and one thing only:
‘School’ is no longer defined merely as a physical space . . . Anytime, anywhere learning that bridges formal and informal learning experiences is connected through the effective use of advanced technologies. Digital learning modalities combined with competency-based progressions prove fundamental to modernizing education systems that meet each student’s unique needs.
That, I think, is what “Personalized learning” was originally intended as. You can’t come out and say that, of course, but this term would not exist unless edu-tech advocacy groups were pushing a new model designed to sell software. In this approach, kids are hooked up to algorithm-based programs with the teacher hovering nearby as a “consultant.” All kids have “personalized learning plans” — an idea that fits with our age of online social media profiles and which sounds promising, but which might also act the same as any other online profile — platforms for data companies to harvest students’ personal information.
The whole system is lubricated by competency-based (or “proficiency-based”) credits, which are the merit badges that students can collect while working online. Think about it: in order to allow students to secure credit for learning that is not taking place in a traditional class setting, you’ve got to get rid of that cumbersome seat time requirement. So you hide your arguments for new tech toys in progressive-speak about the restrictiveness of the Carnegie Unit and how a student’s age should not be the deciding factor in when she graduates. You want to free up the market to splash your tech products around? Then you’ve got to get schools to give up the old rules and the old system. You do that by serving up reheated John Dewey with a dash of social justice (“structural inequities”) — and of course a lot of talk about how schools haven’t changed at all in 100 years. The right-wingers will like the bottom-line-style insistence on every student attaining competency/proficiency and all that talk about breaking up the traditional school model (when it comes to education, Republicans are generally far less “conservative” and more radical than Democrats). And the left-wingers like the “student-centered” language about personalizing instruction — something they also liked about differentiated learning, and Response to Intervention — but this is less jargon-y AND it’s something new. Educators, meanwhile, love anything that seems remotely student-centered, especially on the heels of the Standardized Testing Era, which treated each kid about as individually as a prison inmate. Plus, teachers are generally a desperate lot, always looking for a new tool to help them do what they already know is an impossible job. Besides, when you get it passed as law (like in Vermont), teachers have no choice in the matter. Again, we’ve seen worse.
I also think this has a lot to do with the nexus of edu-tech advocacy companies (such as Summit Learning, backed by the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative) and the policy makers of the Democratic Party under Barack Obama and Arne Duncan. There has, for a long time, been an alliance between Democrats and Silicon Valley. There are some signs that that friendship may be slowing, as lawmakers grow more focused on the challenges of regulating private companies that have, for all intents and purposes, privatized the public square. There is also a growing exasperation with Mark Zuckerberg, I think, as well as an increasingly push from younger voters for a certain ideological purity, one more and more hostile to the political influence of large corporations, even those once seen as countercultural and progressive. We’re already seeing backlash against the more overtly tech-heavy examples of personalized learning, like the protests against the Zuckerberg-backed Summit Learning led by parents in Cheshire, Connecticut and even by students just recently in New York City.
So that, I think, is where we got personalized learning: from educational reformers with painfully little real knowledge of how schools run, pushing “disruptive” online learning technologies. They invoke just enough progressive talk to slip through, and — viola! Vermont, perhaps the most progressive state in the country, mandates it all — flexible pathways, personalized learning plans, and proficiency based learning.
They did all this just a year after the term first came to national prominence, when nobody, not even national educational groups, knew what it was. We still don’t.
Not long ago, I had the chance to visit Clayton High School, a public school just outside St. Louis, Missouri that, since 1966, has provided the English department with the equivalent of 40% more teachers than a normal public school. This extra staff has allowed each teacher to teach just 60% of a normal student load, and to meet individually with each student ten times a year for twenty minutes each, making an additional 200 minutes a year of individual writing instruction. This is true face-to-face “personalized learning,” in which experienced teachers react to and teach individual students in ways no computer ever can. These teachers at Clayton challenge, inspire, and bond with their students in conferences outside of class, and in doing so they have created the strongest English program I have ever seen. Yet this conferencing schedule is a significant amount of work, to the extent that while no other department in the school enjoys such a program, no other department wishes to. Furthermore, the program is a tremendous expense, to the point that years ago, in its infancy, the school administration had to choose between this English program and new lights for the football stadium. To this day nearly every year the expense comes under close scrutiny by the school board. It’s great work — if you can get it.
We must never forget that there are no easy answers in education if we are to truly “personalize” our teaching. If the United States truly valued this already, we would have smaller classes than the 30 or 35 that swell inside many American classrooms. We must also not make the mistake that generation after generation of reformer has made — imagining that some new technology will magically relieve us of the challenge of teaching individual human beings, who are as diverse as the leaves on every tree in the forest. Although algorithms do their best to approximate, and everywhere in the media companies micro-market to us, still no computer can know an individual child as well as a skilled teacher can, something the student cries from Summit Schools make painfully clear. We must also not make the mistake of thinking that computers — even highly intelligent ones — can read our children well enough to know or to inspire them. There is a big difference between being recommended a new song by an algorithm in YouTube and being recommended a new song by a friend who knows our tastes well. The former recommends to us what we already know we want, the latter shows us what we never knew we did.
I believe a good teacher can do the same for us too.
Let us keep this in mind as we make what we will of “personalized learning” and its ilk.
There will surely be more of it to come, under many new and different names.