I started this blog five years ago now. I can’t believe it’s been that long. It’s taken me from Chicago to San Francisco and back. But somewhere over this five years–over the course of this journey on which I’ve so appreciated you following me–I started to lose some of my inspiration.

It started somewhere towards the end of my fifth year teaching, which also was the end of my first year working for a personalized learning start-up and network of private schools in Silicon Valley.

I had gone into the school year with unrelenting energy, thrilled to be opening a brand new micro-school and to work on technology tools that were intended to personalize my students’ learning. The idea sounded exhilarating: I was set to work with real engineers on a technology platform for the classroom. It would allow me to send individualized “cards” to a child’s “playlist.” These cards would house activities tailored to each of my children so that they could, in theory, learn at their own pace and at their own level. It sounded like the greatest idea ever known to man.

But it wasn’t long before the challenges of this brand of personalized learning set in.

Not only were we a brand new school, encountering the issues that new independent schools generally do, but in addition to that, we were tasked with the never-before-done vision of individualizing every child’s education. The workload was immense and unsustainable, and even when I felt like I was doing what we set out to do–curate educational playlists of cards that were specifically chosen for them–I didn’t feel like it was entirely effective. It was isolating with every child working on something different; it was impersonal with kids learning basic math skills from Khan Academy; it was disembodied and disconnected, with a computer constantly being a mediator between my students and me.

It seems like a lot of new information is coming out now–information I wished I’d known a few years ago. When I began working in Silicon Valley, personalized learning was very new. No one really knew what it meant, and as a result, it led to us having unrealistic expectations for what we could really achieve in the classroom and what was actually best for kids.

Most recently, Diane Ravitch, research professor of education at NYU, wrote about 5 risks posed by the increasing misuse of technology in schools, one of which being the ongoing threat of personalized learning. Additionally, Syndey Johnson, assistant editor of EdSurge Higher Ed, wrote that personalized learning practices promoting hyper-individualized technology could actually have negative effects on student learning.

Interestingly enough, I noticed this within my first year, well before these resources were made available. I noticed that we didn’t have the data to back up our approach. I noticed that my results in the first year were no better than those of mine in public school, and in some cases, worse than my results in public school. And simultaneously, I noticed that I was more burnt out than I had ever been–and with half the class size I’d had the year before.

Risk-taking means failing, and I think that’s okay to a certain point. When I got to the end of the school year that first year, hardly recognizing myself or the classroom that I came to every day, I realized that I had failed. I did my best to be kind to myself, to acknowledge the risks I’d taken, and to communicate the fruitful learnings of failure to my superiors.

After all, we tell our children it’s okay to fail, despite how crushing it may feel sometimes. And failure in this context felt absolutely crushing to me.

I should have known better, I thought to myself.

With time, I forgave myself and tried to learn from my mistakes. I moved away from hyper-individualized learning. I implemented more class-wide practices, learned more about the workshop model, and tried to hone my assessment practices so that I could meet the needs of individual learners sustainably through small-group work and more systematized feedback.

And while I felt as though I had begun to learn my lesson, slowly navigating away from hyper-individualized, industrialized personalization and more towards a humanized classroom that focused on student-driven practices, formative feedback, and engaging, project-based learning, my company traipsed forward with ultimately the same sexy theory: that personalization meant hyper-individualization, and that big data and a playlist would provide that.

I look back now, and I wish I would have said more. I wish I would have been even more outspoken. But I know how outspoken I was. I know how much I said. I shared my experience and my feelings so much that my words became white noise: an inconvenient truth that my superiors did not want to hear.

It broke my heart, to be frank.

I was so inspired by the company at the outset, excited to be in a private organization that truly valued teachers as 21st century knowledge workers. But as every month passed, my naïvete became resoundingly self-evident. This company I had joined was just that–a company. And their primary concern was not the children’s education: their primary concern was monetizing the tools. Their primary stakeholders were the investors who’d invested a great deal of money in this–albeit interesting–idea.

I’ve been gone from San Francisco for over half a year now, and my time in Silicon Valley is becoming but a distant memory. And as a result, you might wonder why I’m writing about this now.

I’m writing about this now because it’s still important.

I started a new job this past fall in Chicago. Upon my arrival, I was almost immediately known as the “personalized learning” guy. People knew about my resumé, my associated work, my blog, and other places I’d published online. When I discovered this, fear coursed through my veins. I was worried that, yet again, the same expectations would be placed upon me–to build 21 individualized curricula for 21 individuals. Luckily, my team and my superiors shared my vision for personalized learning–a vision that is less a trending fad and more focused on student agency and engineering a learning environment where all learners are welcome and able to succeed. And with that alignment, I shared my experiences and my learnings around personalization with my families within the first weeks of school.

I share this now publicly because I want teachers around the country to know that the vision for personalized learning that Silicon Valley preaches does not work. We proved it time and time again. Hyper-individualization does precisely what the emerging body of research says it does and more: it isolates children, it breeds competition, it assumes that children can learn entirely on their own, and it dehumanizes the learning environment, reducing the human experience of learning down to a mechanistic process, one where children become the objects of learning as opposed to the subjects of their own educational narrative.

Moreover, I share this now because I don’t want to see this pressure put on teachers–well-intentioned, hard-working teachers who already have trouble meeting the needs of the children in their classrooms. It breaks my heart to see this pressure being put on teachers, and it breaks my heart even more to know that I was once a part of the proliferation of this brand of personalized learning.

But I now can share what I wish I would have known some three-and-a-half years ago.

We must walk away from this hyper-individualized brand of personalized learning. We must walk away from its reductionism, assuming that education is simply an arrangement of individualized playlist cards or isolated experiences. We must run from the idea that technology is necessary to make the classroom a more personal and humanized place, because what personalizes the classroom is not fancy technology and big data: truly knowing children is what personalizes and humanizes a modern classroom.

Within the last year of my time in Silicon Valley, I spoke with an engineer about an idea he had. He fantasized about the notion that artificial intelligence (AI) technology could, in fact, play a role in personalized learning in the near future. I pushed back immediately, knowing full well the engineer would assure me that AI could very well do some of the jobs that teachers do now. And surely he did. He told me that, some day, the “future Paul France” would look back and see that AI could, in fact, do some of the jobs I do now.

I believe him. I’ve seen what’s possible in Silicon Valley, and I don’t doubt the ventures to which ambitious humans set their minds. That said, I’d never want a computer to do what I do. What I do requires curiosity, compassion, and heart. What I do requires a yearning to contribute to something greater than myself.

I’m sure that an engineer well-versed in AI would tell you that this–curiosity, compassion, heart–that it’s all theoretically possible. And I’m sure it is. But technologists know that good technology is only built to fulfill needs that didn’t previously have solutions. Curiosity, compassion, and a love for learning are needs that are already accounted for.

They are accounted for by teachers–not computers.

87 thoughts

  1. I appreciate your courage, sharing, and growing that you have done. Through all of your posts it has always been very obvious that your students have been at the center of your teaching. I have followed your blog and your past companies accomplishments and have certainly felt inspirED. I have been a part of a group of parents that have been trying to grow the same sort of community. I don’t believe it is a “throw the baby out with the bathwater” type of situation. You have learned and shared lessons. I have grown because of that. I hope you go forward with renewed energy.

  2. As one who is recently using and reading more about “personalized learning,” I appreciate the perspective this post has to offer. I didn’t see personalized learning in this way (reading about it from Costa, Zmuda, and Kallick) It makes me mindful that the philosophy behind the personalization is important. For example, I don’t want to lose sight of the value in the social construction of knowledge through interaction and the consideration of multiple viewpoints. It’s not just about the stuff to learn, it’s also about the process of how we go about learning it.

  3. Assuming that the New Yorker article mentioned in your bio is the one I read last year, I can only say that I am overjoyed that you have come to realize that Silicon Valley’s “disruption” matrix is not the answer for primary (or secondary, or post-seconary) education. I am a former professor and come from a family of teachers; I also have two children in public school. Reading about new ed tech fads coming out of Silicon Valley drives me insane–the hubris of people not directly involved with education believing that they alone have the answers is insufferable. As we evidently have to learn over and over again, these companies are only tangentially out to make their market niches better or more humane. They are out to make money. If they can do that on the backs of people increasingly frustrated with under-funded and over-tested public education, they’ll happily do so.

  4. Will be sharing this with my teaching colleagues, thanks. Interestingly my own journey has been from individualised/independent classroom practice (albeit not using technology) to mostly whole class instruction and whole class activities which I have found to be more effective and motivational for my students. Also, I have discovered this is supported by research showing the superiority of explicit instruction over the semi- and un-guided teaching approaches which individualised/personalized learning tends to involve.

      1. I’d argue you need a balanced approach to instruction – both involving the teacher’s expertise rather than a computer algorithm – which includes whole class, small group, individual activities and centres. Not every child needs the instruction you are about to give, in the same way, at the same time. Formative assessment (assessment for learning) can help determine what learners need and when. (In addition, building students’ metacognition (assessment as learning) can help them begin to own their learning and have a say in what, how and when they learn.) Whole class instruction is important: when you discuss soft skills (social, self-reg, executive function, self-assessment), if you’re introducing project-based learning or discussing essential questions, at the beginning of a unit to help everyone “be on the same page”, at the end of a unit to explore key skills learned, etc. but when used daily for most instruction it soon zooms in on the illusory “average” student leaving those who struggle and those who need more challenge (in the margins) over- or under-served. We need to challenge our assumptions and beliefs about instruction – teacher-led classrooms (where we determine what happens, when and how) is great for compliance but removes learner agency. In other words those who are motivated to “play the game of school” do well, others not so much. We’ve used this approach for over a century (Sir Ken Robinson in his famous TEDTalk refers to this as our assembly line approach to learning where the age of manufacture is the most important factor. As such everyone at the same age, learns the same thing, at the same time). We KNOW this approach only works for some. Often, we as teachers, played the game of school. This colours our assumptions and beliefs (it worked for me so it will work for my class). To better understand how students who struggle to play the game feel, watch the video F.A.T City Workshop by Richard Lavoie. In it he shows you what it’s like to struggle with “easy” tasks. It should be required viewing for every teacher. Ignore the dated hair-dos 🙂 it is worth the hour of your time. It has the best definition of “fair” that (I believe) every teacher needs to incorporate into their assumptions and beliefs about learning and learners.
        As the past-president of the Inclusive Learning Network of ISTE I’d humbly recommend you explore the new ISTE standards for educators and students. They nicely frame the skills students need (supported with technology). The standards state: “The ISTE Standards for Students are designed to empower student voice and ensure that learning is a student-driven process.” I’d also suggest watching Todd Rose’s TEDTalk. He does an amazing job busting the myth of average in the video of the same name. Finally, I’d suggest you explore Universal Design for Learning. This framework is based on evidence that variability is the norm and there are ways to design instruction to address it. The goal of UDL is to create purposeful and motivated, resourceful and knowledgeable, and strategic and goal-directed expert learners. (www.cast.org) This is impossible through “one-size-fits-none” whole class instruction (alone) or “personalized” learning driven by an algorithm. @kendrafgrant

  5. Could you elaborate on what you mean by “hyper-individualized” with some context? What would hyper-individualized mean in the context of math or reading? The AI discussion is important for reasons other than what you give: when its advocates talk about “personalized learning” many people believe there is some kind of AI guiding both the tasks given to their children and their responses. That is, there something other than an if-then-else algorithm at play.

    1. Hi Chris, when I say hyper-individualized, I mean that every child is doing something different. I didn’t address that part of the argument in the post, but I do think we should be focusing on training mindful teachers who understand child development and learning progressions, so that they can choose tasks to use within their classrooms. It’s so critical we have mindful teachers who know how to respond to children. Again, while I’m sure it’s possible that AI can achieve that, I don’t think it’s wise or preferred.

      1. Approaches that take into consideration the developmental stages of children and the kinds of environments needed for them to thrive is what quality Montessori does. The training to put this method into play is built around an open-ended wholistic curriculum that allows the children to follow their interests, learn the skills they need to pursue them, and to collaborate with others. Ecology and a sense of purpose with a responsibility to others are the end results.

  6. Could you elaborate on what you mean by “hyper-individualized” with some context? What would hyper-individualized mean in the context of math or reading? The AI discussion is important for reasons other than what you give: when its advocates talk about “personalized learning” many people believe there is some kind of AI guiding both the tasks given to their children and their responses. That is, there something other than an if-then-else algorithm at play.

    1. When I say hyper-individualization, I mean when every child has his or her own curriculum and/or activity. Theoretically, big data or AI could make this possible, and it already has with things like Khan Academy or even just simple gaming. The data collected is theorized to “suggest” the next activity. In my opinion, the next activity should come from a knowledgeable teacher, not a computer or algorithm, even if it is more complex than if-then-else.

  7. Hi Paul – Thank you for posting your reflections on your experience. The wisdom in your words is invaluable! Please keep taking risks though, because the world needs to learn from your experience!

  8. This is a wonderful post, which I really appreciate. I have worked in open education now for about 4 years and feel like an open approach provides ways to personalize curriculum for students while still emphasizing the role of the educator and the students in their learning. The social and emotional aspects of the classroom are such an important piece of education and isolated students in “hyper-personalized” curriculum seems to diminish them.

    1. I agree, Mindy! I like to find ways to create an environment where a healthy amount of choice is offered, meanwhile providing activities around which all students can collaborate. Would love to hear more about what you’ve learned through your experiences.

  9. Wow. As a recent transplant to Silicon Valley’s education scene, this is disheartening. But I do see what you’re saying. I see so much emphasis on personalized learning and data, data, data, that we forget the crucial human component to teaching and learning. Thank you for sharing your experience. I will reblog this at recco.tech.

    1. I agree. Data absolutely has its place–both quantitative and qualitative–but when technology and big data become the center of what we do, we’re really missing the boat and need to reprioritize.

      1. I agree data is important but isn’t as “objective” as people like to think. It’s only as objective as the algorithm created by a human. (To explore further I recommend Cathy O’Neil’s TEDTalk – The era of blind faith in big data must end).
        In Canada (Ontario specifically) we use Pedagogical Documentation. This is a great overview from our Ministry of Education – http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/literacynumeracy/inspire/research/CBS_PedagogicalDocument.pdf This process is just as valid as “objective” test scores and other text-based summative assessment. We also focus on more human assessment (assessment for and as learning) rather than standardized testing. Here’s a (somewhat dated flash-site) from our Ministry that none-the-less has great information. There’s nary an algorithm in sight with this approach 🙂 http://www.edugains.ca/newsite/aer/eModules/courseEngine/assessmentForAndAsLearning.html

        BTW: I appreciate you sharing your thoughts and engaging in discussion around them. As an educator, your self-reflective and open sharing approach will take you far (and benefit your students). And while I’ll agree, as others have (not so gently) stated, as a master teacher there’s a fair amount of “been there, heard that, fought that” in what I’m reading. For example, in 1994 Ken O’Connor worked with us to explore not giving zero’s for incomplete work, not averaging marks but taking most resent/most consistent marks, etc. that people are still (just) talking about (and arguing about) today. The adage “everything old is new again” is often true in education.

      2. I totally get it. I think I’d be frustrated if I were them, too. But I think this will serve me well going forward, because I think it’s important to let teachers make mistakes and construct knowledge on their own. It’s just like we do with our kids: we let them make their own mistakes so that the lessons become more meaningful. This lesson has been SO meaningful for me–and likely because I was able to learn it on my own.

        Thanks for following along and commenting!

  10. I’ll give you kudos for being self-reflective and learning from your mistakes, but here’s the thing. Maybe had you not been so arrogant five years ago you wouldn’t have made those mistakes in the first place. You act like you’ve invented the wheel, when, in fact, there have been experienced educators for decades with wheels in hand trying to shout these truths in your face. But you and all your other young cohort have dismissed experienced educators as “entrenched defenders of the status quo”, haven’t you? Everything you know now, many other people knew then, and those people have been trying to tell you. Better late than never, I suppose, but now that you’ve realized your mistake, maybe you could realize something else: you have two ears and only one mouth for a reason.

    1. Hey, I appreciate the feedback, and I agree that young people can do more to learn about education’s history and learn from more experienced peers.

      Hindsight is always 20/20, but I also think it’s important that new educators feel free to try new things, even if their experience go against that of their predecessors. I especially think it’s important for new educators to heed the warnings of their predecessors, without labeling them as you’ve been labeled in the past. You have “entrenched defenders of the status quo” in quotes, but if my knowledge serves me correctly, I don’t think I’ve blanketed all experienced educators with that label. If I did somewhere, I apologize. I think it’s important we refrain from labels and name-calling to make sure we’re coming together and actualizing your vision for bringing justice to education.

      Thank you for your perspective, for reading, and most of all, for respecting my journey as an educator. I respect all you’ve done for our profession!


    2. I agree with dienne77 – sorry kid, but this is not news to anybody in the public school system. Many of us read your article and are shaking our heads in frustration.

  11. So much learning in this post – thank you for sharing. At my last school, I led our transformation toward PL and faced similar struggles (I’d love your feedback on a piece I wrote for EdSurge on my experience – it’s called “Playlists Alone Don’t Equal Personalized Learning”). For me, well executed personalized learning strategies should AMPLIFY relationships between teachers and students, definitely not diminish or replace! More recently, I’ve been working on a concept to hopefully build toward this vision. Maybe we can connect – I’d love to get your eyes on it and see what you think!

  12. Hi Paul, Thanks for sharing your experience. I am glad to know that there are others out there who realize the importance of the human factor. Knowing students and where they come from is so important in any plan of education. Without that knowledge and sharing with others, students lose the ability and skills to interact with each other. Thanks again.
    Ann Peeke

  13. Nice to hear from our young educators. You went through a hell that nobody could be expected to predict. That you woke up is the best news here. Hang in there, keep that critical eye of yours wide open, look at all the facts not just the ones that confirm your beliefs, you know there is so much more to discover. Have you read Gatto’s ‘Underground History of American Education’? SV education isn’t the first, or the last paradigm to delude American educators. Gatto gives a full scholarly history documenting the foundations of our current pedagogical insanity, and spotlights some of those that rebelled. The past is prologue. Best wishes.

    1. Thanks for the recommendation. I have not yet read it, but it’s now on my list. I recently read “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” which was an incredible read. I couldn’t put it down.

      The past is prologue. I love that. Thanks for the good will and support.

  14. Hey Paul, I posted a longer comment before this, but it hasn’t appeared here yet. Upon trying again, it says “Duplicate Comment Detected”. So most possibly it has ended up in the spam folder somehow…

  15. Hi Paul,

    I learned a lot from your post, and from the comments left here by others. I’m a self-directed learner from India, and a majority of the learning resources I’ve been using to teach myself philosophy, design and tech since 2011 are made in Silicon Valley. So I thought it might add some value to share my perspective on this.

    I’ve come to realize over time that autonomy, mastery and purpose are the three pillars for driving meaningful learning and work experiences for human beings.

    So, while I will usually appreciate a smooth learning curve provided by a linear path that helps me grow in a focused skill area in a short time span, it is the immediate, tactical questions that spring to my mind as I am learning that create the ‘personalization’ for me, which takes me through a short (or sometimes long) trip through the search engines and the ‘interwebs’, creating a few more questions along the way…

    Also I largely let big questions and a long-term vision to guide me in designing the overall trajectory of my learning journey.

    If I were in a physical learning environment with peers and mentors (rather than sitting in solitude with my browser), I would likely let the search engines solve the easier, more trivial questions, and keep the deeper and relatively difficult questions for discussing with my human companions, so that I can leverage their intelligences, emotions, experiences, and natural language abilities, which provide a great interface and “compute power” for communicating and clarifying complex concepts. And then, if there are still some confounding questions lingering after this, I would put them on the web, and leverage its larger, diverse body of experts to provide solutions.

    The area where I most appreciate assistance in personalization is in setting the correct level of difficulty based on my proficiency in any given skill area, and helping me in filtering the content, so that I don’t have to tread through introductory content unnecessarily, nor stand frozen on my tracks by an insurmountable wall. I feel that this ‘prior learning assessment’, and the calibrating of the ideal difficulty level of the content, could best be done by a ‘human + AI’ combo, rather than just AI.

    Thus, in my experience, personalized learning happens through it being largely self-designed, or powered by my curiosity and passions, ideas and questions, with only short paths being algorithmically prescribed. In my view, it makes for a more humane and fulfilling learning experience.

    I think that makers of learning products would benefit much if they ask themselves these questions during their day-to-day work:
    • “Do we really need to automate this portion of the workflow, or would it be better to leverage the agency of the human users?”
    • “Are we making the learning experience more humane to its users and others in their immediate environment with this feature, or is it dehumanizing?”
    • “Does our product help create stronger communities of problem-solvers, or does it produce polarization and cut-throat competition?”

    I would like to conclude by quoting Lao-tzu’s Tao Te Ching (80):
    “If a country is governed wisely,
    its inhabitants will be content.
    They enjoy the labor of their hands
    and don’t waste time inventing
    labor-saving machines…”

    Devavrat Ravetkar
    Self-directed Learner
    19th January, 2018

    P.S. I would like to mention that I am a big fan of the works of Douglas Engelbart, Seymour Papert and Bret Victor, and I am deeply interested in crafting a career in tech and design by building meaningful learning ecosystems.

    1. Hi Devavrat! Your comment did go to spam, so I’m so glad you said something. Weird!

      I love that you referenced Daniel Pink. I’m a big fan of his work, and I call upon it a lot when thinking and talking about student agency. I also love the questions you asked. I think those are great to think about when designing or choosing technology.

      As my think has evolved, I think the exact difficulty level is less important than the flexibility of the task. Piaget refers to the “zone of proximal development,” and I believe the word “zone” implies that there is a range of appropriate difficulty level. Granted, I teach 3rd graders currently, so it’s an entirely different beast than adult learning. That said, I try to choose learning tasks that offer multiple entry points for learners. Jo Boaeler, Professor of Mathematics Education at Stanford, refers to tasks like these as “low floor, high ceiling,” meaning that all learners–regardless of level–can interact with the given task. I find that incorporating tasks like these naturally enable personalization in the classroom, as children are able to work in a way that works for them.

      Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts!

      1. Paul,
        Firstly, thanks for pulling out my comment from the depths of the spam folder and letting it see the light of day. It was my first comment, and a moderately long one, so there must’ve been something about that which made the spam algorithms to mark it negatively. I imagine them thinking “Why would a first-timer post such a long comment? It must be spam!” 😛

        I appreciate you sharing about the importance of flexibility of a learning task, such that it offers multiple entry points, thus being accessible to almost all, if not all learners. I’d be curious to learn how you ensure or verify if a task is “low floor, high ceiling” in the first place, and how does the selection of the appropriate entry point work in a classroom setting: Does it happen effortlessly as students just pick the right trajectory as per their abilities, or do you have to intervene and assess their level somehow, to prescribe the right entry point?

        I guess another way to put the question might be: In your experience, when do you have to put in the most effort: Does it take more effort to find or design a flexible learning task, or in ensuring during the class time that all the students are able to complete the given task?

  16. Thank you, a clear cogent statement. Thank you for continuing to teach, too – I taught middle school math for part of a year but wasn’t strong enough for the job.

    To me it was clear from the start that ‘personalized learning’ was a scam. Its fervent proponents, Bill Gates et al, in no case submit their own children to ‘personalized learning’. Their children get small class sizes with well-trained human teachers. Spend all that edtech money on more teachers instead – we know that small class size works. But there’s no profit in more teachers..

  17. I remember reading about the “personalized learning” schools and … pretty much stopped when I read “Khan Academy.” Its procedural dronage with procedural practice to master is pretty much the antithesis of what Jo Boaler, Simon Papert and the other “offical cool people” would promote (and when it comes to math, Marilyn Burns should be on the must-know list).
    I’ve spent some years in special education , including at a very effective school (The New Community School) where yes, personalized learning is what it should be. It takes a whole lot of resources … and a *lot* of human intuition and exploration.
    That said, technology is no where near meeting its potential for making this better. We can and should have students engaging in learning w/ tech. Even starkly mediocre designed practice can get good results… which means that when I say “hey, this stuff’s still just practice… why are you calling it ‘learning’?” I get “but we have data!” as a reply.
    Where I am now, students are oh, at least 5 times as engaged in practice of math skills b/c it’s done on the computer and personalized… but they also get the classroom experience and awesome instruction. Now, why the computer stuff is stuck in text-on-screen … I don’t know. Desmos and geogebra give me hope, though those communities suffer from “what’s the latest new thing we can do! 3D!” when … the nitty gritty of turning the potential into things people can use is still somewhere maybe on an agenda.
    Tech should have a role — but using our kids as experimental fodder and, for the most part, not really caring about experiment results except in marketing terms, is appalling.

  18. Going on 16 years as a teacher on the commute between San Francisco to Silicon Valley, I’ve always been careful and skeptical. My partner was hired originally by Apple in the secret work of the first iPhone, and we are a family, like Steve Jobs’, that has kept the devices away from our children. As we are now looking at high schools, we are most inspired by heterogeneity of students, variety of interesting and traditional courses, outdoor adventures, and access to hands-on building tools. The “personalized learning platforms” of today are an oxymoron. Teachers are craftspeople that use their own passions and interests to spark those of their students. We teachers foster an environment in which individuals are driven to learn from and with their peers and their teachers. The devices are a sporadic tool, and must be relegated to particular tasks and learning games, no more.

  19. I am an old guard teacher who is happy you are now learning this lesson. I know others are giving you crap for not realizing the obvious, but it was not obvious to you until you experienced it. A lesser person would have doubled down on their primary hypothesis rather than modify it. Keep advocating for your students and giving a voice to what you have learned. And please don’t blame yourself (as you seem to do) for not speaking loudly enough– the people you were speaking to are deaf to any knowledge, such as yours, that upsets their view– that conveniently that allows them to attract investors. Your audience are the administrators, school-board members, teachers and parents who, like you, are more interested in students and learning than in money. They can hear you and they need to hear you.

  20. I appreciate that you have so openly admitted to your error, however, I disagree with your underlying idea that you wish the Ravitch and other resources were available when you started. They absolutely were. I have been reading about the problems of this troubling trend for many many years and I finally was courageous enough to write my first letter to the editor about the dangers on cyber or personalized learning about 5 years ago.

    I am continuously troubled by connected people who do not read such resources. Any ideas how this did not show up on your radar until relatively recently?

    Teacher, especially our fellow NBCTs, have an obligation to deeply research large scale changes that are pushed into our classroom. And by research I mean go beyond the cheerleader articles and advocacy research and dig into some higher quality research. We also need to have a stronger basis in how people learn. My doctoral work really pushed me on this. A framework basic in solid constructivist learning theory not only makes me a better teacher, but also allows me to have arguments about ed reform that are not emotionally based but rather based on fundamental science. This elevates those conversations and makes them “safer” to have with an administrator.

    I wish you success as you change schools and continue your journey. Each year a teacher learns more about the education process is a year that our students grow even more.

    1. Thanks for reading, and thank you for the response, Alice. Can you attach those resources for me? I’d love to read them. While I wish I knew everything and could see everything, I’ve come to realize that I’m not superman 🙂

      I agree that NBCTs have a responsibility to understand the changes we’re making to our classrooms, but I also think that we all do things in our classrooms that we wish to change later on. I’m sure you can say the same–that you’ve tried things in your classroom that, at the time, you thought would work, but only to find out later you had a blindspot.

      I appreciate your candor; I also think that one of our roles as NBCTs is to lift each other up when we’ve owned our blindspots and as we attempt to move on from them. There are enough people demonizing teachers out there, and I don’t think we should do it to each other!

      Please send along your resources! I’d love to read them!

      1. The national academies” How People Learn” is a great place to start. A deeper read into social constructivism is Lave and Wenger’s Comunities of Practice. Basically, humans learn by constructing their knowledge rather than having that knowledge handed to them. This knowledge construction occurs via language ( in many forms ) and is heavily influenced by prior knowledge, experiences and context. This explains a lot of our perennial classroom frustrations of students not understanding or learning things that we think we have explained it very very clearly. Students need lots of opportunities to use language to work through and construct deep understanding. These are messy situations that cannot be automated.

        I think you misinterpreted part of my criticism. When i said NBCTs have a responsibility to research changes, I said specifically large scale changes. We all experiment in our own individual classrooms, but large scale changes in a system or building are different because they involve a lot of resources and often take more time to parse out any positive or negative consequences. Our individual classrooms are a lot more nimble and we can veer away from changes that are not working quite quickly.
        I have been teaching for enough decades to have lived through many attempts at large changes, some of which were well thought out and many that were not. Those that were not were, at best, a waste of resources. The ones that had the largest affects on student learning where are implemented incrementally, iteratively, and slowly and with a lot of conversations between various stakeholders in the building. School officials are often pushed to jump on the latest educational bandwagon and I think it is the role of well credentialed teachers to give the admin the support needed for them to take the time to learn before they give into the push.

  21. As a former software queen, I entered education thinking that tech could help — and it can. Used as a single tool in the array of tools available to learners, personalized skill building by letting students practice and repeat in a safe, private environment with immediate feedback can be helpful to students who need it. However, skill-building is really only a minor component of education, even though many of our educational systems pretend that it is the most important result. Is that because skill building is measurable, but wisdom is not? Visualization technology, virtual reality technology, and other tech tools can help with the development of higher level understanding and creativity, leading to wisdom.

  22. Paul,
    From reading your blog I am concerned by what you experienced and that you describe it as personalized learning. Personalized learning is a model of instruction in which the teacher still plays an integral part. There is no learning without the teacher. Personalized learning is not, and should not be a program or a tool. Yes, technology is a resource for personalizing instruction, but should not be the be all-end all for students. Personalized learning- done right allows students to gain the habits of success they need to grow as independent learners. It does not mean individualized instruction for all. There are great examples of personalized learning models being implemented in schools across our country. Change is hard- very hard, and we should give teachers working with PL models the support and encouragement they need to continue on their path. I am always worried when we paint all things education with the same brush. Naysayers will use your experience as a means to do just that.
    I wish you well in your future endeavors and wholeheartedly support the brave school leaders and teachers who have embraced quality personalized instruction in their classrooms.

    As a disclaimer I run a nonprofit that supports teachers and school leaders as they implement change in their schools. I know firsthand the struggles they face in creating real lasting change.

  23. Great piece! Thank you so much for sharing. Education has always been a “community” experience and should never ever be isolating for both teachers and students.

  24. Hello Paul – we met a few years back and I read some of your prior blog posts, and then this one crossed my path. I appreciate what you’re putting out here, being candid about a difficult personal process and the concerns that have come up in your journey through teaching and edtech. Where you wrote about a recent conversation regarding AI, I was reminded of a blog post of my own which I invite you (and everyone else) to read:

  25. Hi Paul,

    I think that a true Montessori education might resonate with you and your work as an educator. It’s not just about mixed-aged classrooms and hands-on learning (though there’s nothing comparable to Montessori materials!). It also promotes collaborative work–small groups of students working together on BIG work. Cooperation, negotiation, collaboration, organization, time management–these are all practical life skills that elementary students in Montessori classrooms practice each day.

    Isolation and hyper-personalization is not what children need to taught. We need to teach them how to work together. That is how we can make our world a better place.

    The Montessori Guide is a beautiful treasure trove of information about Montessori education. Check out the section about Montessori in the elementary years.


    My best,


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