Don’t Personalize Learning?

Snowflakes: Wikimedia Commons

Two blogs appeared not long ago, both with the provocative title “Don’t Personalize Learning.” Each author meant something a bit different by “personalized learning” but they both raised important cautionary notes.

Dan Meyer focuses on the idea, popular among personalized learning advocates, that students are best served by instruction that allows them to move along their own path and at their own pace. His critique is primarily that these individual, solitary approaches to learning prohibit productive interaction. If students are all at different places in the content, they can’t engage with it together through debate, discussion, and collaboration, and this “circumscribes pedagogical possibilities.”

The other post, by Benjamin Riley, targets the idea that students learn more if they are allowed to choose what (the path) and when (the pace) they study. Riley critiques both the path and the pace argument. If students choose what to learn, he writes, they are unlikely to proceed in a way that allows them to accumulate knowledge systematically, leaving them with prior knowledge gaps that get in the way of new learning. Moreover, students are likely to avoid difficult topics that require a lot of thinking (thinking, after all is hard work), thus causing them to slow down or simply steer clear of more challenging material.

Helping students find paths through challenging material and pushing them is the job of the teacher, Riley points out: “[We] created the profession we call “teaching” largely to solve for this problem.”

I couldn’t agree more. In the current mood of negativity about schools and universities, we sometimes forget how valuable a good teacher is, and how important their ability to construct a clear explanation, offer the right example, spin an analogy, or facilitate a vigorous discussion can be. We also forget how much students learn from one another during group projects and discussions.

By all means, develop better tools for individualized learning. But in the meantime, let’s not neglect or minimize the importance of social learning or the value of an inspired, inspiring teacher.

Dr. Marie Norman is the Senior Director of Educational Excellence at Acatar. Norman has taught anthropology for over 20 years and worked in faculty development for 10 years. She is the co-author of the book How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching.