Some (Re)Thinking about Personalized Learning

When the notion of “personalized learning” first appeared about fifty years ago, folks imagined “teaching machines” sitting on top of every desk. Proponents believed that these “Skinner boxes” would offer individualized pacing, allowing all students to master content. Interestingly, the idea of machines replacing teachers was already decades old, if not older.

I think of three things when I read this snapshot of mid–1960’s educational reform:

  1. The innovation of “personalized learning” merged with older ideas like the “teaching machine” in much the same way that particles of dust find their way to forming little gray tumbleweeds under furniture.
  2. B. F. Skinner’s teaching machines worked through positive reinforcement, so there’s the smell of “education as behavioral intervention” hanging over the lifeless clicking and whirring of that teacher-free classroom.
  3. “Personalization” meant responding to student needs against a prescribed curricular program, but doesn’t seem to have made room for authentic student choice.

In the “what’s old is what’s new again” way of school reform, there’s been a lot of talk about personalized learning over the past few years. Advances in mobile and other technologies have something to do with that. I can’t deny that today’s applications and online services help us track student needs against standards in ways that we couldn’t before, even with a room full of Skinner boxes.

But, not surprisingly, there’s some repackaging of older ideas. The basic model of many of these new applications and services remains unchanged from the teaching machines of the 20th century and earlier. A student answers a question and, if correct, receives the award of a harder question. Lather, rinse, repeat.

There’s actually something to be said for this kind of individualized pacing. A student who needs more time to master one concept and less time to master another isn’t under the rule of class pacing, which is basically what the curriculum or the teacher determines to be an appropriate pace for most.

But is it just about pacing? If so, we’re working from the assumption that all students need to learn the same things in the same ways. That’s a primitive vision of the best interactions over the lines of the instructional core–the fidget-spinner arrangement of student, teacher, and content. The vision sees content as a uniform thing that all students have to get. Teachers give it, but why not a machine?

We’ve been caught in the current of a standards movement in American education for several decades. Our most recent standards flow from interesting and even broad college and career readiness goals. When they were unveiled ten years ago, progressive educators immediately began to think of different ways to work with different students on different skills, all to facilitate individualized education. It all promised to reimagine the instructional core in ways that ensured equity through student choice at a larger scale than we’d ever known.

I worry that it’s all turning into a one-size-fits-all approach.

A giant teaching machine.

I’m not ready to think that this is happening by design. Rather, it seems to be more about the ways in which schools are reacting. The incredible amount of testing is certainly behind some of it, forcing everyone into narrow definitions of grade level outcomes. The pathways provided by this or that personalized learning system also represent limiting factors in schools that have embraced such applications and services.

If learning were truly personalized, we’d see all different measurements of mastery against different collections of standards for each student. We’d see a prioritization of mentorship and other human interactions over the machine-like delivery of content and the drilling of decontextualized skills. There’s a big role for technology in helping us track mastery as we learn all that we need to know about each student. However, a lot of “personalization” would occur in what students endeavor to build with one another and in the community, often with technology that enables bold and boisterous creation rather than technology that just assesses, brooding over the whole scene like a gargoyle.

That all sounds like a complicated mess. The pathways don’t cut neat lines through content in a Skinner box branching program or a finely-tuned standards-aligned staircase of performance expectations. Rather, they follow the student through the development of something that is–let’s face it–really complicated and messy.

A vocation.

If personalized learning is just individualized pacing along tightly prescribed pathways, it’s much ado about not much actual personalization.

Let’s not call that “personalized learning,” then. The words themselves speak to deeper choice and ownership.

They mean listening for, hearing, and learning what it means to follow a calling.