Over a year ago now, I wrote a piece entitled “A Crash Course in Personalization,” in which I emphasized the importance of familiarizing yourself with standards, leveraging the power of the flipped classroom, and mastering formative assessment practices. And while I still firmly believe in understanding benchmarks and mastering effective documentation, my way of thinking has changed immensely on what personalization is and should be.
It is none other than the wonderful kindergarten and first-graders I have to thank for this renewed vision for personalization in the classroom, because through watching them, I have been able to see, more genuinely than I ever have before, what it means to make learning personal. Learning is personal when children ask endless questions, when they’re wiggling in their seats and anxious to get started, when they sit for extended periods of time, working hard to get that origami fold perfectly symmetrical or that popsicle stick in just the right place.
But interestingly enough, when personalization is defined, it refers more so to providing instruction that is within a child’s zone of proximal development; it refers to delivering content and activities that help a child operate at his or her “just right” level. And while I still believe this to be an important part of personalization, it is, by no means, the first thing about personalization.
The Problem with Personalization
When we examine the word personalization, and break the term down into its respective parts, we find two things: we find the word person, and more importantly, we find the word personal.
Technology-based personalization–the ones that build complex algorithms that automate new activities and questions based on quantitative data–do anything but cater to these roots of personalization. They do not recognize and honor the individual; they do very little to make learning personal. In fact, education technologies like Khan Academy, IXL, DreamBox, or Learn Zillion enable personalization no more than a paper formative assessment. These tools, while adaptive and potentially allowing the educator to save time, do little to engage students in learning, help them see the relevance in academic material, and make the process of learning these important concepts personal.
The problem with our current stance on personalization is that it’s grounded in the factory model of education. While we’ve tried to convince ourselves that we’ve moved away from the factory model for teaching and learning, the mainstream approach to personalization is only amplifying the factory model. It’s comparable to replacing an old, antique printing press with a high-speed laser printer. The latter completes the same task, only faster than the antiquated printing press, but it wasn’t until the Internet came along that information-sharing was truly revolutionized, providing a brand new way to think about information-sharing.
Adaptive assessment technology is no different. It is simply a more efficient assessment tool, one that accelerates the process of content acquisition. But it has not, by any means, revolutionized teaching and learning. Instead, it has neglected to truly think differently about what it means to make learning personal to children.
The First Thing About Personalized Learning
So how is it possible, then, that so much money has been invested in tools that presume the teaching can be done for educators? It’s possible because we live in a world of instant gratification, a world where we insist that a streamlined and automated system for educating children will reduce the extraneous variables of employing lots of different teachers, that standardizing the way things are explained and presented to children will provide us with a valid and reliable way of monitoring student progress.
But more often than not, these technology tools only provide short-term solutions that are nearly as ephemeral as many of our children’s attention spans. They provide a short-lived period of heightened engagement for students, simply due to novelty, before the tool becomes just as disengaging as the worksheets that have dominated the classroom for decades.
Engagement at the Heart of Personalization
In Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching, she cites Component 3c, engaging students in learning, as the heart of the framework, for without engagement, it is impossible for children to connect to the curriculum, to make themselves vulnerable to new information and ways of thinking, and to assimilate new experiences into their already existing mental models of the world.
As a result, in order to make learning personal, the first thing about personalization need not be predictive educational technology that assesses and adapts to student achievement; the first thing about personalization should be helping students connect with content on a visceral level, see themselves within it, and develop the intrinsic motivation to stay curious, creative, and critical.
As the sun sets on another year of school, and as you reflect going into next year, ask yourself if your method for personalizing does the latter–if it engages students’ souls in the learning process. If it doesn’t, reconsider your approach, and remember that, in order to personalize, you must make learning personal.