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MSPnet Blog: “Talking, teaching, and personalization”

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posted June 18, 2018 – by Brian Drayton

The personalized learning bandwagon is rolling on, loaded with the usual ed-policy farrago  of interesting ideas from the past, new ideas with some potential, commercial hype, wishful thinking, and more. Research, as is usual with ed innovations, is lagging far behind implementation, but a few studies and the anecdata are accumulating.  I see one conclusion that may be worth drawing at these early stages:  where the innovations allow or encourage teachers and students to get to know each other, and talk about content, good things happen.  The technologies, the new accountability systems, the “data driven approach” and all the rest either help, or do less harm, if those fundamentals are in place.  It’s why “personalization” works very well in the absence of much technology.

“Personalized learning is difficult to do,” says EdWeek, in reporting on a RAND study of 10 Opportunity by Design schools that have been part of a Carnegie initiative.  A RAND study  of schools funded by the Gates Foundation’s Next Generation Learning Challenges initiative made the same discovery.  In addition to the adjustments required by teachers, students, parents, and administrators to move towards this paradigm, there are issues with how the technology fits in and actually serves the purpose of “personalizing” education.  In both cases, the “personlization” model being implemented is tech-heavy, even tech-dependent; while the majority of people (students, teachers etc.) involved are positive (or cautiously positive) about the New Way, results in terms of student outcomes (mostly achievement scores) are mixed at best.

But there are other programs that focus on student agency, relationships, and challenging projects — for example those discussed in this Hechinger Report story on innovations in Vermont, or this report on a high school in Pittsfield, NH, or this comment from an op-ed by a Rhode Island teacher:

A personalized education approach looks different for each student. In order to do this, I as a teacher have to get to know my students, find out what drives them, and use it to engage them in their learning. Like adults, kids have disparate strengths and passions. This takes time and patience; we cannot always race to the finish line.

[Note:  Parochial though I am, I did not intend this to be so New England focused, and the links will take you beyond that region.]

What works in all these classrooms, and I would argue in any classroom where teachers have respect for student ideas, and incorporate them in a reflective strategy to encourage growth, is that pedagogy is embedded in relationship, and in deep engagement in the subject matter.  These in turn support effective, deep, engaging, and fun classroom discourse — between teachers and students, and among the students themselves.  The discourse helps build meaning — qualitative and quantitative sense-making and narrative — and make ideas and questions alive and therefore flexible and responsive.

“Talk is always constitutive of some portion of reality: it either makes something already existing present to (or for) the participants, or creates something new.” (Duranti, 1988, p. 225).

It is in the voicing, discussion, critiquing, and revoicing/revising of one’s ideas that the learning culture in a classroom develops, and each one can find his or her place in it. To quote from a thought piece by Dr, Sylvia Weir and myself long ago:

When one is first exploring a knowledge domain, the novice speaks through another’s voice until she appropriates that language for herself, imbuing it with her own intention and meaning. This clearly relates to events in a classroom, where appropriating their teacher’s discourse [and I would add building together their own voice]  is a primary task of students. If one “finds concepts in talk” (Edwards, 1993), then close analysis of classroom conversation will be the principle place to seek for evidence of conceptual change and learning.

So it is entirely to be expected that such conversations, and the relationships they depend on, turn out to be essential components in a lively classroom.  “Personalization” happens where there are active, interacting, mutually shaping agents — persons, in fact — engaged in with the world together;  this is the sine qua non.  Technology may help (or hinder);  so may many other elements in a reforming school, and should be judged by their effects on the good functioning of a learning community.


Duranti, A. (1988). Ethnography of speaking: Towards a linguistics of the praxis. In. Newmeyer, F.J., ed., Linguistics: The Cambridge Survey. IV. Language: the socio-cultural context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 201-228.

Edwards, D. (1993).  But what do children really think? Discourse analysis and conceptual content in children’s talk. Cognition and Instruction, 11(3&4): 207-225.

NOTE:  The opinions here expressed are those of the author alone, and not necessarily shared by MSPnet, TERC, or the National Science Foundation.