Dan Meyer wrote a great post a few days ago about the dangers of personalized learning, critical of an article on personalized learning in Educational Leadership. This paragraph captures the heart of his criticism:
The medium is the message. Personalized learning is only as good as its technology, and in 2017 that technology isn’t good enough. Its gravity pulls towards videos of adults talking about math, followed by multiple choice exercises for practice, all of which is leavened by occasional projects. It doesn’t matter that students can choose the pace or presentation of that learning. Taking your pick of impoverished options still leaves you with an impoverished option.
You should read his piece, it’s great. But since reading it, one thing has bugged me. When I read about personalized learning I see a kind of orthodoxy to the arguments, an assumption that tailoring the pace, presentation, and content of learning to individual students is inherently good. I want to push back against those premises. Dan makes a great point that the technology just doesn’t exist yet to realize the potential of personalized learning that is often talked about. Personalized learning will likely still scare me when the technology catches up, and that is because I believe personalizing pace, presentation, and content can create problems no matter how well it’s done.
As a teacher, part of my job is to adjust the pace of instruction to student needs, to speed up or slow down as necessary and revisit content when the circumstances demand. At the same time, part of my job is to hold every student accountable to high standards. There’s an inherent tension there. If I am willing to slow down my instruction until I am 100% sure every student has learned, we may never get anywhere. I’m not proud of that, but it’s the reality. And when that pace gets personalized, the students with a stronger background are likely to pull further ahead and increase existing inequities.
One vision of great teaching is that every student is working on a different topic, at that just right level of difficulty, moving through an endless ladder of content. Another vision is that every student works on polynomials for four weeks. Every student moves their understanding forward, grappling with the big ideas of the unit. Inevitably, that looks different for different students. But working on the same content creates opportunities for collaboration and engagement in math class. I’m not arguing that personalizing the pace of instruction is universally bad. Just that it’s worth pausing and questioning the idea that every student working at their own pace is an automatic win.
His students don’t report to class to be presented with information. Instead, they’re empowered to use a variety of learning tools. Some students, like Cal, prefer step-by-step videos; others prefer songs and catchy rhymes to help them learn concepts. [..] He opens a series of videos and online tutorials, as well as tutorials prepared by his teacher (link).
Lots of arguments for personalizing the presentation of information rest on learning styles. Many educators believe that tailoring instruction to individual students’ learning styles is critical for learning. Others cite research suggesting that adapting instruction to match learning styles is a poor use of time.
But separate from learning styles, I would argue there is a more fundamental misconception at play. Given a choice between different presentations, a learner is likely to choose the mode of presentation that feels easiest. Deeper processing that leads to durable learning often occurs when learning presents some difficulties, challenging students to think in depth about the content. Yet learners are likely to mistake ease of learning for effectiveness of learning; “In short, we often seek to eliminate difficulties in learning to our own detriment” (link). Again, I’m sure there are benefits of personalizing presentation of information, but there are potential downfalls as well.
I’d like to start with a philosophical argument. Folks love to say, “in today’s day and age when you can instantly Google facts, facts don’t matter”. I disagree. Facts need to be in long-term memory to do anything useful with them. But, probably more relevant, research suggests that through “information avoidance”, people are likely only to confirm their existing beliefs as long as they have control over what they are interested in learning.
More concretely, some of my largest successes as an educator have been in changing a student’s perception of their ability as a mathematical thinker. These are few and far between, but when students choose what they would like to learn, we might not like what they choose. What if no women want to be engineers? What if no people of color want to be engineers? That’s an obvious problem. Part of the job of teachers is to empower students, both with knowledge and with beliefs that they can expand the horizon of what they can be good at. And that means pushing every student to learn, even if it’s not what they’re interested in.
I don’t mean to argue against any personalized learning, ever. But I do find that personalization is often assumed to be a good thing, without examining some of the assumptions underlying that thinking.