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MSPnet Blog: “Personalized”

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posted June 19, 2017 – by Brian Drayton

I have written about “personalized” education in this blog  before (most recently here), as I have tried to pull together the many threads that are converging with this term.  It is tied up with “competency based education (CBE),”  micro-credentialing and the block chain, virtual schools (for profit or nonprofit, charter or otherwise), the press for digital curriculum and computerized testing, privatization … and many other features of the current education scene.  I am still struggling to get my arms around the Hydra, so to speak, so here is an interim report from my reading, providing some entry points if you have not been riding this particular hobby-horse.

You will quickly find, as you read these and other links, that anyone who seeks to understand the state of play, and who wants to avoid joining a “party” or taking a position prematurely, has to read apparently endless numbers of “reports,” “research,” “white papers” and other emissions from interested parties.   A common rhetoric has developed, at least among the advocates for the Agenda, by which I mean the complex of ideas, selling points, technologies, and strategies hinted at in my first paragraph.  This rhetoric is worth a separate study, and is a good place to begin reflecting on how your educational values (and experience) relate to the tidal wave of claims.  Some of the buzzwords (“factory model” or the increasingly popular “Prussion model”;  “student-centered”; “traditional schooling”; “anytime, anywhere”, etc.) have formed the subject of earlier posts in this blog, but these and others will need attention again.

One final prefatory note:  My aim in this blog is to provide a service by scanning and reflecting upon ed blogs that touch on interesting and important trends and ideas relating to STEM education.  I struggle to find blogs that seem to bear on this directly and with little reference to policy issues or politics. I have found, however, that even blogs written by class teachers are absorbed, to a considerable degree, with the sausage grinder that is American education policy-making.  I am about to go on vacation, and see a new landscape, and when I return I will enter with refreshed attention on the STEM side of things — and send me suggestions!!! — but of course, the policy-type turmoil creates the conditions within which public education has to try to accomplish its mission, and so the many voices of power, influence, and ideation are heard in each classroom, often with significant consequences for “what I do on Monday.”  So much for my sorry-not sorry apology.    Here are 5 entry points.

A. Personalized learning is a coming thing.  A recent article in the National Education Assoc. publication NEA Today makes the case for personalization, both on the merits and as a coming wave (so get with it).  The commonest theme is voiced by Rachel Moola, a Pennsylvania teacher: “We wanted to modernize the school and make what we were doing more authentic for our kids.”  The article moves back and forth from vignettes at a couple of schools, to quotations from experts who voice guarded enthusiasm for the movement, to views on the spread of the phenomenon.  The closing quotation, from a teacher, ends the piece on an appealing note:

We’re not standing in front of the whole class presenting a lesson,” Brown says. “We’re working with each student, helping them with what they need at that moment, helping them develop skills in a way that keeps them engaged. Every day can be different If we want it to be, and I’m seeing these kids learning and succeeding. I see sparks every day. That’s what being a teacher is all about.

No one explains why this kind of creativity and diversity has only been possible because of this innovation (and indeed that it could be achieved in other ways than are getting the most press, see this  article for one example).

As more people read about it, personalized learning has become more popular,” explains Elliot Soloway, a professor of computer science at the University of Michigan. “But as a term, it’s become more and more melted down and confusing.”

According to the National Education Technology Plan issued in 2010 by the U.S Department of Education, personalized learning puts “students at the center and empowers them to take control of their own learning by providing flexibility on several dimensions.”

The result was a hybrid blended learning program built around a flex-rotation model. An individual student receives a portion of their instruction online and then is rotated through small groups, either to work independently or to collaborate with fellow students. Later, the student and the teacher meet face-to-face to address and analyze the student’s struggles or successes.

“With this model, every student is answering a minimum of ten questions on every single topic,” says Schreiber. “I know within minutes that a student doesn’t understand a particular concept. In years past, I really had no idea what their level of knowledge was until I gave them a test a couple of weeks down the line.

B. The research base is thin.  Reforms and innovations in schools require systemic adjustments of various kinds, even if the “reform” is aimed at the classroom — just look at the adjustments that have resulted from the Common Core or NGSS. While decision-makers at various levels in the system may make positive decisions to implement the innovation, in many cases teachers are not given that voice, and students and their parents almost never have a substantive voice.  The result is that new results amount to an experiment (often not well designed) with subjects who have not given informed consent.  At the very least, it would be nice to know that some care had been taken, some rigorous qualitative and quantitative research conducted, so that some evidence backs up claims of costs and benefits.      Personalization lacks much of a research base, and for many of its advocates, this is at worst an inconvenience.  Trial and error seems like a daring and “disruptive” basis for action.   The spirit of the age is expressed clearly in this article on personalization, whose tone is quite positive:

We think that personalized learning makes sense,” Zuckerberg told Education Week in an exclusive telephone interview last week. “We want to see as many good versions of this idea as possible get tested in the world.” In December, the couple announced they will eventually give 99 percent of their Facebook shares—worth an estimated $45 billion—to a variety of causes, headlined by the development of software “that understands how you learn best and where you need to focus.”…. While companies have generated hundreds of products and a smattering of new school models are showing promise, there is little large-scale evidence that the approach can improve teaching and learning or narrow gaps in academic achievement.  Many in Silicon Valley, including Zuckerberg, don’t seem to mind.
“We don’t know for certain that it’s going to work,” he said. “All we can really hope to do is provide an initial boost and try to show that this could work as a model, and hopefully it gets its own tailwind that carries it towards mainstream adoption.



C.It can mean a lot of different things, which makes evaluation of the idea difficult, and makes you wonder if sometimes what’s being sold is the “sizzle” of novelty.  A historical perspective can help here, and Larry Cuban’s blog  is a good place to start.   As part of a larger study he’s been engaged in (and blogging about), he talked with “more than 3 dozen teachers in 11 schools in Silicon Valley.  He found little consensus among this group of innovators, and reflects

The popular policy innovation of “personalized learning” has a history of Progressive reformers a century ago embedded in it. Implementation today, as before, depends upon teachers adapting lessons to the contexts in which they find themselves and modifying what designers have created. Classroom adaptations mean that rigorous–however it is defined–lessons will vary adding further diversity to both definition and practice of the policy. And putting “personalized learning” into classroom practice means that there will continue to be hand-to-hand wrestling with issues of testing and accountability.

D. Personlized learning, if it is of the high-tech variety currently favored in press accounts, is often bundled with other tools and strategies, including collecting “big data” on students, the institution of a competency-based approach, changes in the work force, as “teachers” can be replaced by other kinds of education workers, and more.  Check out this report from Wrench-in-the-gears on controversies in Boone County, Ky.

E. Policy and technology are also ideological. Given that good teachers have always tried to work with the children that are before them, and given that many teachers and schools have found ways to encourage and invite students to exert agency in their learning, why is the current wave of emphasis on “personalization” (which is couched very often in terms of   choice, even when the choice is highly channelized) so deeply attractive?  Why are straw-men (straw-teachers, straw-schools) constructed with such rhetorical passion, when their destruction provides very little positive evidence for anything?  Audrey Watters has reflected on this question, as she explores spoken and unspoken messages in current policy conversations about personalization:

we can see “personalization” as both a product (and I mean quite literally a product) of and a response to the rise of post-war consumer capitalism. Monograms on mass-produced objects. Millions of towels and t-shirts and trucks and tchotchkes that are all identical except you can buy one with your name or your initials printed on it. “Personalization” acts as some sort of psychological balm, perhaps, to standardization. A salve. Not a solution.   But “personalization” is not simply how we cope with our desire for individuality in an age of mass production, of course. It’s increasingly how we’re sold things. It’s how we are profiled, how we are segmented, how we are advertised to.

As I close out this t00-long piece, one observation.  I have heard people comment, upon some of the dissenting voices in the ed blogosphere, that they sound “strident” or partisan.  All I can say is that the proponents of the Idea of the Hour also speak loudly and urgently —stridently if you will — with a difference, that their alliances with the powerful, such as billionaire philanthropists or major business sectors provide a certain normalization, so that they are seen as the “ground” so that voices in opposition stand out as the figure — angular and in tension with the ground.  A philosophical or historical perspective is essential if we are to get outside the agonistic system, and construct our own understanding of the challenges before us.

Note:  The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the writer alone, and do not necessarily refect the position of MSPnet, TERC, or the National Science Foundation.