Personalized learning is quickly becoming the gold standard in schools. It makes sense why: educators and administrators want to make sure each child is reaching his or her full potential, and parents want to ensure that their children are being challenged appropriately.

What many don’t realize is that personalized learning is so much more than academic levels and learning preferences. In order for learning to be personalized, it must feel personal, meaning learners must be able to connect to the content and to the classroom. As a result, personalized learning is just as much cultural, pedagogical, and philosophical as it is technological. Neglecting the classroom environment, pedagogy, and a human-centered vision for personalization create more problems that technology can solve.


Problem 1: Over-Documentation

Technology-enabled personalization necessitates data collection, and this inherent need for data has arguably gone a bit too far, making educators feel like they need to quantify every step in a child’s learning journey. While there is an inherent need for data in the classroom, there are some learning moments that are meant remain private, swept into the subconscious and supporting learning in ways we can’t comprehend. Not to mention, of course, that data entry for the purpose of personalization could become even more time-consuming than the simple act of assessing itself, as I’ve born witness to in personalized learning schools.

What’s more, if educators aren’t entering the data themselves, then programs like Lexia, Khan Academy, NWEA, or other adaptive technologies must provide data for us. This, however, necessitates children being in front of screens and using these tools for extended periods of time in order to achieve coverage of key content areas and their subsequent standards. What’s more, these programs assess in a rather de-contextualized way, through rote, multiple-choice question. Instead of these technologies enabling a 21st century model for teaching and learning–one that is authentic and project-based–they actualize a modern-day industrial model for education where children are simply filled with content based on the appropriate academic level.

What you can do instead: Choose key points throughout your instructional units and/or projects to get reliable thin slices of data that are representative of specific skills you’ve been working on. I try to create a pre-assessment, post-assessment, and a handful of formal formative assessments over the course of an 8-week unit, similar to the ones I shared back in January. While imperfect, these can provide some valid and reliable measures for growth that don’t rely on an excess of data, but still provide you and your children with actionable feedback to adjust your instruction, as needed.

Problem 2: Micromanagement

It’s tempting to view the personalized classroom from a perspective of deficits and gaps. It’s only natural to see what children don’t know after assessing, but we must be more mindful than this. Growth cannot be only about filling in gaps.

Playlists are becoming very popular in the world of personalized learning, but in my experience, these do little to make the experience of learning more personal. In fact,I believe computer-generated playlists have the potential to be a detriment to the inherently personal feeling we’re trying to achieve in our classrooms. Imagine receiving a laundry list of things to do from a superior or a machine, all based on things you’re “still working on.” This chips away at the child’s senses of autonomy and purpose within the classroom, removing choice and replacing it with compliance.

What you can do instead: Teach children how to make decisions and give them the space to learn from their errors. I don’t give the children in my K/1/2 class a list of things they must complete in reading, writing, or math workshop. Sure, I require them to complete entries in their draft books or to read for a certain number of minutes each day (after working with them to build their stamina). After that, though, I provide an array of choices and centers, all of which I feel will support their academic and socio-emotional growth in the classroom.

In detail, I share the intention behind the centers and games, telling them that a game like Mystery Plate (based on Everyday Math’s Penny Plate) will help them practice recalling ways to make 5 and 10, or that Array War will help them learn to skip count and repeatedly add numbers. Sometimes, my children make what I believe to be the “wrong” choice, and I can tell because they either have trouble playing the game or because I see that they’re off-task (Misbehavior is always an indicator that something else is going on; engagement implies that the task is appropriate for the child.). These moments where children make the “wrong” choice are valuable moments for learning. Sure, it means a little less time within their zone of proximal development for literacy and numeracy skills, but it also means more time reflecting on autonomy, self-management, and responsible decision-making.

Problem 3: Entitlement

I was hesitant to write about this one, but it really is one of the biggest problems in personalized learning schools. Many conflate personalization with individualization, and while these terms do overlap in some ways, they are not synonymous. Parents come into personalized learning environments, telling tales of their child’s unique learning style, and requesting that their child participate in something that is exclusive, specifically catered to their child and no one else.

Not only is this unscalable and unreasonable to ask, it’s also not desirable. This sort of hyper-individualization robs children of chances to work with peers and neglects to teach them that they are part of a classroom community, one that is intended to be a microcosm for the global community of which they are a part, as well. We plant the seeds of empathy in our classrooms, and we can only do this if children are able to see outside of themselves. There is a happy medium between honoring unique needs and compassionately guiding children through their egocentrism. We need to be especially mindful of this in classrooms that are personalized as to not breed entitlement.

What you can do instead: Spend time nurturing your classroom community. In order for learning to feel personal and for our children to feel empowered to make decisions that support their own learning, they need space and time to meaningfully interact with their peers. Train children to make responsible decisions when working independently, whether it comes to choosing the right center or choosing the right words when resolving a conflict. Teach children that sometimes slowing down to help another isn’t only going to help us gain fluency in something we already know; it’s also just the right thing to do. Spend time building strong structures for feedback and reflection so that the children can be growing through self-talk and peer-to-peer feedback even when you’re not around.

Revisiting the Purpose of Personalization

Before personalizing, we must ask ourselves the very important question about why we are personalizing in the first place. If we look at the recent history of education, it’s unsurprising to see that personalization has made its way into the forefront of the educational conversation.

As a society, we’re obsessed with getting ahead, and personalization seems to be the most desirable way for us to control, predict, and perpetuate our intellectual and economic hegemony. By personalizing learning, underachievers can close the gap, and the overachievers can continue to be “challenged” without being held back by their slower counterparts. But this selfish intention is, in fact, going to catch up to us–if it hasn’t already.

Learning must be about meaningful connection, whether that meaningful connection manifests itself in the form of connecting new information to pre-existing background knowledge, or whether that connection manifests itself in a sense of belonging or purpose within a community. Regardless, connection should be at the foundation of our rationale for personalization, and I believe that, if we remember this, we can preemptively avoid the three aforementioned problems, meanwhile creating learning environments that feel personal to all.

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