Personalizing Learning verus Personalized Learned

Thought it might be helpful to add an outside voice to our local conversation.

Below are excerpts from the article Four Reasons to Seriously Worry About Peronsallized Learning by Alfie Kohn in the Washington Post


Personal learning entails working with each child to create projects of intellectual discovery that reflect his or her unique needs and interests. It requires the presence of a caring teacher who knows each child well.

Personalized learning entails adjusting the difficulty level of prefabricated skills-based exercises based on students’ test scores. It requires the purchase of software from one of those companies that can afford full-page ads in Education Week.

How can we tell when the lovely idea of personal learning has been co-opted[3] and then twisted into PLI? Here are four warning signs:

1. The tasks have been personalized for kids, not created bythem. With PLI, the center of gravity is outside the students (as Dewey once put it), and their choices are limited to when — or maybe, if they’re lucky, how – they’ll master a set of skills mandated by people who have never met them. In the words of education author Will Richardson, “’Personalized’ learning is something that we do to kids; ‘personal’ learning is something they do for themselves.”[4]

2. Education is about the transmission of bits of information, not the construction of meaning. Closely related to the pseudochoice provided to students is the underlying model of learning. Behaviorism, the beast that just won’t die, lurks at the core of PLI just as it animates “competency-based progression,” “mastery learning,” and programs that tweak the “delivery of instruction.” (Hint: Unless someone is sending out for pizza at a faculty meeting, the word delivery is always troubling in the context of schooling.)

3. The main objective is just to raise test scores. This explains PLI’s constant use of instruments that resemble standardized tests. When we hear a phrase such as “monitor students’ progress,” we should immediately ask, “What do you mean by progress?” That word, like achievement, often refers to nothing more than results on dreadful tests. And the next logical question when something is described as a way of “personalizing” instruction: What’s the effect of this on kids’ interest in reading or math or writing – or in school itself? Personal learning tends to nourish kids’ curiosity and deepen their enthusiasm. “Personalized” or “customized” learning – not so much.

4. It’s all about the tech. Two overlapping groups of educators seem particularly enamored of PLI: (1) those who are awed by anything emitted by the private sector, including books about leadership whose examples are drawn from Fortune 500 companies and filled with declarations about the need to “leverage strategic cultures for transformational disruption”[8]; and (2) those who experience excitement from anything involving technology – even though much of what falls under the heading “ed tech” is, to put it charitably, of scant educational value.[9]

Certain forms of technology can be used to support progressive education, but meaningful (and truly personal) learning never requires technology. Therefore, if an idea like personalization is presented from the start as entailing software or a screen, we ought to be extremely skeptical about who really benefits.

One final caveat: in the best student-centered, project-based education, kids spend much of their time learning with and from one another. Thus, while making sense of ideas is surely personal, it is not exclusivelyindividual because it involves collaboration and takes place in a community. Even proponents of personal learning may sometimes forget that fact, but it’s a fact that was never learned by supporters of personalized learning.

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About J Martens

Educator living and working in Vancouver BC Learning how formative assessment, literacy, inquiry, and technology serve to improve learning and increase engagement (for teachers & students).
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