No, I Don’t Personalize Learning

Personalized learning. Differentiated learning. Individualization of learning.

Three jargon elements that twist any teacher’s grey matter in spectacular motions. Which is what? Add to that the pressure that may come through a school PD (“We need to individualize learning!”) and you have the perfect combination for confusion.

There seems to be a continuous debate around the first (“personalized” learning) but I think clarification of terms is always useful before engaging in any argument. Also, a little historical background helps one understand the causes, underpinnings and implications of any educational approach.

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A bit of history

1914 –  The inception of the concept rests with Helen Parkhurst who was heavily influenced by Maria Montessori and John Dewey’s work when she created the Dalton Plan, plan that was introduced in 1914  and was extended later in several countries across the world (from the U.S. and Australia to Japan and The Netherlands). It was designed as an “experiment” where teachers were observers mostly and they would “study the children to find out what environment will best meet their immediate educational needs.” Its main aim was to design learning experiences tailored to the students’ interests, needs, and abilities. 

1919 – Another step was taken by Carleton W. Washburne who set up the Winnetka Plan in Illinois, again influenced by Dewey’s ideas of progressive education: “The Progressive education is always concerned with the whole child – both as an individual and as a member of society.”

ProgressiveEducation2012

1920s  – William H. Kilpatrick, a successor of Dewey and considered a developmentalist, sets up the Project Method for early childhood education. The role of the teacher is that of a “guide”, children direct their own learning according to their interests, and explore their environment freely. Following the criticism from Dewey himself and other American scholars he admitted later that he “had made a mistake” when using an 18th c. approach and reviving it in a different context.

1950-1960  – Benjamin Bloom ‘s model of Mastery Learning (we all know his Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, which he published in  1956) aimed to improve student achievement and to reduce performance gaps by customizing learning experiences. It could involve teacher-directed group instruction, one-to-one tutoring or self-paced learning with programmed materials. It was a sequential model based on Skinner’s behaviorist theory: the material is broken down into small discrete units, lessons follow a logical progression, and only observable behaviors are measured. *This resembles Engelmann’s Direct Instruction model.

1960sFred S. Keller implements PSI (Personalized System of Instruction) also called The Keller Plan. As Bloom’s, his plan was grounded in behaviorist principles (operant conditioning), and mastery of content was the key feature. Proctors (either external or internal) would certify the level of “mastery” before students could move on to the next unit of study.

1980sHoward Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences (1983 – Frames of Mind) was published and was seen as a gateway to personalize learning even further. It was on this theoretical background that, unfortunately, the concept of learning styles emerged and took over much of the educational establishments (and no, learning styles are not supported by research nor by cognitive science).

Further on, the concept was discussed by Dan Buckley, David Hargreaves , David Hopkins, Michael Fullan and more. Technology is brought up as a major tool for personalization of learning and it becomes part of the rhetoric of “21st century skills”.

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As you can see, “personalization” was claimed by both behaviorists (traditionalists) and progressives, but for different aims and within different education philosophies.  The former see it as a way to increase achievement alone, achievement that needs to be strictly controlled, measured and compartmentalized; the latter, as a path towards self-directed learning, experimentation, and development of the “whole child”.  Regardless of where your biases lie, both have merits and disadvantages.

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Terminology

It is difficult but not impossible to clarify the meaning of each term in the apparently never-ending list of educational jargon.  The more we know about education the less we seem to understand as complexity gives way to confusion – which, in its turn, reflects on the actual pedagogy being embedded in the classroom.

Differentiation Individualization Personalization
Teacher role Central Moderate(sometimes s/he only facilitates learning) Guide /mentor/ tutor*Self-directed learning occurs most of the time
Objectives The same for all students The same for all students Each learner has specific objectives to reach
Curriculum Defined by teachers Defined by teachers The learner co-constructs the curriculum(decides what to learn)
Strategies used Teachers use different strategies so that all learners achieve key competences; these strategies vary according to groups of students not individuals Teachers vary their strategies according to individual needs; learning plans and contracts are negotiated with learners Focused on stimulating the full potential of the learner – rather than strictly cognitive skills
Agency It is given as a choice not as complete independence Learner’s self-direction is an accessory skill Self-directedness is central to learning

Many teachers combine features of the first two in different moments and with different learners. The challenges we face as teachers vary from one educational setting to the next, and those who dismiss differentiation either do not work with a truly heterogeneous group of learners or simply can’t be bothered to improve their practice (try using a single approach when teaching 6 subjects to 23 students of 10 different nationalities whose language competencies vary from beginner to advanced and I guarantee your failure). They would also claim that differentiation is antagonistic with high expectations and challenge – sign that they really do not grasp the concept let alone apply it.

While I am an adept of differentiation, I do not see the personalization of learning as an effective way to advance learning in primary classrooms. Surely it works well with older learners (teachers included – we blog, tweet, select what to learn, choose what conferences to participate in, read what we deem important and so on) but children as young as 7 do not have the necessary skills to direct their own learning. As seen above, the failure of various progressive models should be a lesson we are still denying. Incidental learning as well as informal learning do occur and they enrich children’s experiences and perspectives. However, in school, time is our most critical currency. Every decision we make affects what is learned and how it is learned. There is always a trade-off between what you choose to do more and what you do less or not at all.

Personalization sounds intuitively great – who wouldn’t like an education that allows us to learn “anything, anywhere, anytime”? Unfortunately, what stemmed from a rather noble concept has turned, in my view, into a complete caricature: a dry behaviorist model (chunk, study, test, repeat), a complete progressive failure (see references above, learning styles, and other nonsense), or a cult of technology (which presumably should replace teachers).

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Some reasons…

Age  – Young learners do not possess the necessary skills to self-direct their learning. Their intelligence has nothing to do with self-regulation and metacognition, these being critical in knowing what and how to learn. Completely deconstructing the curriculum is like throwing a non-swimmer into the deep. To be able to direct your own learning you need to master several key elements:

  • optimal learning strategies
  • reasonable background knowledge (to make sense of what you are learning, to be able to make connections and explore further)
  • self-monitoring and self-assessment strategies (so you can decide what you have learned and what you need to improve on, as well as to be able to identify own errors)
  • good development of literacies
  • strong motivation

We know how different our students are. While a small percentage might succeed in such environment, most would find it extremely difficult to learn in these highly demanding cognitive conditions. And that can easily lead to frustration, lack of motivation, abandonment of task – all with a great impact on learning itself. Even high school students still work on the elements I enumerated above – why do we ask it from young learners? They need a good curriculum, teacher pedagogical knowledge, feedback and guidance all along – even in guided inquiry settings. The rest is just an ideal – beautiful, but not realistic.

As Keith Brennan said,

Agency without the ability to fulfill itself is not freedom, or true agency. And the issue in learning is not about freedom. We enhance our students’ agency not when we set them up in learning experiences with tools that are not equal to what we ask of them – when we give them perfect freedom to make sub-optimal learning, assessment and critical choices. We facilitate agency when we provide students with tools that are equal to the things we ask of them, and that they ask of themselves.”

Further gaps – With students left to choose their own curriculum the gaps will only become greater. Many would pursue their interests (which is fine) but at the expense of being ignorant of core knowledge shared by the larger cultural and social group (which is not fine). Nobody *has to* learn about Shakespeare, about gravity or about power structures but then do not complain when people raise their eyebrow when you have no clue about either when engaged in a conversation. You may disagree with Hirsch, a pure traditionalist, (I do, on many levels) but he had a good about what it means to disempower students by giving them complete freedom on their learning. I think that the model he proposed is very reasonable as it allows students to both access and use basic knowledge and to devote time to their interests.

Hirsch curriculum

Technology cult – The idea the technology will replace teachers is a new trend in educational debates. Sorry to disappoint but less than 13% of participants enrolled in online courses and MOOCs complete them. And we are talking about learners who are way past age 7. If that happens with young adults then why do we keep promoting self-directed learning with children? How many failures do we need before we change this discourse?…

Teacher workload – Last but not least in my list is the amount of teacher work that needs to be devoted in a personalized approach to teaching. We already have a big share of work – from planning, marking, teaching in class to attending meetings, workshops and whatnot. It is unrealistic to request a primary teacher to personalize learning for 20 students, let alone a secondary teacher for a hundred or more.

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Further readings on personalization:

Benjamin Riley – Don’t Personalize Learning, The Ideology of Personalization 

Dan Meyer – Don’t Personalize Learning 

Mike Cauldfield – Why Personalized Learning Fails

Michael Feldstein – Personalized Learning Is Redundant 

A good blog post on differentiation by David Fawcet

*I wrote this at 2 a.m. so blame me for misspelling, typos or other mistakes.

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10 Responses to “No, I Don’t Personalize Learning”

  1. A really nice post for me; why?

    Firstly I think because it gives some literature for me to read around the subject. Secondly I tend to agree with almost all of the views expressed. Thirdly, I found it nicely structured and easy to read.

    I also agree that clarification of terms is essential is valuable discussion is to ensue. There are too many bloggers on here who seem to use definitions as a strategy to creat conflict. They have their own definition and accept nothing else as objective truth. This post lays out the writer’s interpretations with reference to literature where appropriate and for me that allows me to go ferreting.

    Having said all of that, I tend to have a slightly different description of my practice in secondary economics. I would guess that about 95% of my teaching is undifferentiated at KS4. It tends to become differentiated a little (the other 5%) in response to the needs of individual learners and these differences are initiated by them.Although only 5% of my teaching is personalised, I believe that this 5% leads to a greater than 5% increase in overall learning. Like the spending multiplier, this 5% is shared with other students and often leads to independent study.

    This 5% is likely to increase, often considerably based mainly upon group as we move through KS5 and beyond.

    This proportion I can manage, but I would stress that this is almost always initiated by the student.

    One small issue that I might debate is the issue of 13% completion rate for MOOCs. As I understand it, many MOOC based courses are actually free to enrol and participate. Many people will sign up when there is no chance they will ever complete. 13% is better than the response to an average postal/internet survey so I am surprised that the rate is actually this high. High dropout is for me one of the advantages of this model of education. No barriers to entry and exit as economists might say. People will often drop out due to the opportunity cost of their time.

    Great thought provoking post, thank you

    • Thank you for taking the time to post such a long, thoughtful comment.

      Sharing your experience in secondary is important – I , too, think that older students should be given the opportunity to direct some of their learning (they know best what strategies work for them). That is why I also brought up Hirsch and his emphasis on student *interest* as a path to make learning more meaningful and interesting. I think that students should be given the freedom to not only study independently the established curriculum but to actually be given a chunk of school time to pursue own interests. I recall being very keen on studying genetics in high school and I would have loved say 10% of school time just for learning that specific subject and its possible branches…

      The 5% you discuss is a great insight – the mutiplier effect is well-elaborated on.

      As for MOOCs… I am disappointed. I understand the many reasons behind such a high dropout rate but it is still a good argument for not personalizing teaching/learning with very young children.

  2. Reblogged this on i-Biology | Reflections and commented:
    This is a nice post by Christina Milos (@SurreallyNo), a PYP educator in Europe who takes a critical look at educational trends and practices and writes about them with some academic background. In this post she distinguishes between differentiation, individualization and personalization in learning, explaining why she doesn’t do the latter.

  3. Excellent post! Thanks for taking the time 🙂

  4. Will start by getting my bias out of the way: I am a Secondary teacher and I believe I am using personalised learning approaches as part of my teaching.

    I found this post really thought provoking, thanks. I do have a question though. In your Terminology section you talk about the teacher as guide/mentor/tutor and the students co-constructing their curriculum. Then in your critique of personalisation that follows it is all about a form of personalisation where teacher input is completely gone. Co- construction to me is that, CO-construction, a negotiation, 2 partners deciding together. Yet the version you present is deconstruct and do what ever takes your fancy. This seems to deviate away from what your definition is (although it may well be what some poor attempts at personalisation do). For personalisation to work it needs both teacher and student (ideally possibly even the parents) knowing the curriculum well and working together. To criticise where this doesn’t happen is a criticism of implementation not of personalisation itself. Am I deluded in thinking personalisation is about co-constructing rather than free range?

    Not sure whether this question is for you or for me but thank you for provoking the thoughts.

  5. Thank you, Steve, for the comment.

    Your question is, indeed, reasonable. It is difficult, as said, to come with a single definition of personalization as it took different forms both temporally (see beginning of the 20th century) and culturally. I tried to clarify the *central* features that the systems that use personalized learning share- variation exists within these systems and pinning down exactly what “personalization” entails is a daunting task. Many words we use in educational debate are assigned different meanings (take, for example, the most basic one, “learning”) and these are further complicated by the views of those who engage in conversations, by their epistemological stand, by their beliefs and pedagogical as well as cultural background.

    As far as personalization is concerned, I have nothing against it if we talk about secondary and higher education – on the contrary, I support it (see my comment to bt0558).

    I am not sure we need to over-think educational jargon – we do try to clarify it as much as we can although it keeps being obscured by further connections with cognitive science, learning theories and so forth. What ultimately matters is how effective you are as a teacher in your classroom.

  6. Thank you for this post. I enjoyed reading it. Agree, of course, that if we demand a comprehensively personalised education system (and it is being demanded – inspectors come around and sit with children asking them what personal choices they made in directing their own learning) it will be a case of many sinking in the deep end. I have tried all approaches and had some amazing outcomes, but generally, the gap within a class of children (I had never heard of the word cohort before until I came into education; dislike the word, a bit like the impassive phrase, ‘collateral damage’). At present I have a class of 10 year olds the reading age range is from 5years to 15 years. The personalisation within the class consists of my 5yr old reader having a personalised programme of learning support and my 15 yr old readers researching a project around adaptation in extreme climates. The learning gap is horrendous. Curiously, my ASD child always aims to create a self directed project. He ‘secretly’ created a powerpoint on the history of Doctor Who’s Tardis. Amazing to listen to him present it to the class with such confidence. Quite emotional. There’s a lot more I could say but …

  7. Hi Cristina,

    Nice post. Am glad I came across this as you have provided some useful references and history along with some food for thought as I think about these issues of students ‘taking charge of their own learning’. 🙂

    You refer to Keith Brennan’s point, “Agency without the ability to fulfill itself is not freedom, or true agency. ” This notion is so very current and necessary to state because we so often hear the cry—in naive mythical form—”We must let students be in charge of their own learning!”. People are nearly always referring to student agency without any reference to the skills of self-regulation and cognitive abilities.

    Where you and I may have some chatting to do is deeper down in the details of these very complex issues—ideas related to age, mechanisms for helping students to gain the prerequisite skills of self-regulation, metacognition and the like, and on the issue of ‘technology cult’.

    The Skinnerian ‘technology cult’ has really been around for a long time—we used to call it Computer Assisted Instruction (CAI). Now, as you suggest, it has moved into a pseudo-‘take charge’ venue of MOOCs and other online courses. Neither is a thrill for me! LOL

    So much to talk about!

    Thank you for making me think more deeply about these issues.

    Peter

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