I’ve been working in technology-rich classrooms for the past six years now. It all started when I was working in the suburbs of Chicago in public school. My friend and colleague, Katy, had written a grant for one-to-one iPad usage in her classroom, the first pilot of its kind in our district. Within a year, the pilot had been scaled out to our whole team, and I was lucky enough to take part in the second year of the pilot.
It was here that I was first able to see the value of technology in the classroom. We used Popplet to help children map their thinking and Google Forms to collect data and organize it effectively. We helped children curate their own digital portfolios in Google Drive, enabling them to reflect on their learning and lead their own conferences, to name just a few ways we integrated the tech successfully.
It was thrilling work. It was that work that made me want to delve deeper into education technology. It was this work that brought me to San Francisco, where I ended up working in the education technology industry as a practicing educator for three years.
My perspective has changed, though, as a result of my time in the education technology industry. To this day, I still believe the work I did in public school in Chicago was powerful, and I believe that the tools we used helped to change the way the children learned in our classrooms. I believe it made us more efficient, and I believe that it opened up so many possibilities in our classrooms.
But I see now that there is a point when technology has diminishing returns.
Slowly but surely, I saw my practice decline during my time in the education technology industry. It was wild, really, to be in a school with so many resources, with literal engineers there to help build tools that were supposed to make the ability to personalize even more possible than before.
It never seemed to feel effective, though. With all children working on different skills, it was hard to help them when they struggled. I found myself running around the classroom, putting out fires more often than I was meaningfully educating the children. There was little to unite the classroom, other than the physical space and morning meeting. The playlist was reductive and isolating, siloing children based on individualized activities, rather than uniting them through inquiry and a common purpose. The idea of the playlist persisted, though. To me, it began to feel like we were using technology simply for the sake of technology.
The following year, a lot changed for me. I went into the following school year with a fresh perspective and some optimism. I also changed grade levels. I started teaching kindergarten.
It was a transformative time for me, getting to work with such young children. And it was through these little eyes that I was able to see just how flawed our hypotheses on personalized learning were. The use of technology was laborious and, at times, counterproductive for the children in the classroom. I began to see that technology wasn’t consistently enabling personalization; it was, instead, diminishing learning more often than it was enhancing it.
The next time you’re in a kindergarten or pre-school classroom, look around. Notice the activities or centers that are available, and notice the choices the children are making. You’ll see that young children operate with boundless enthusiasm. They build interesting structures, draw strange-looking pictures, and write about parts of their lives that matter to them. They function in a classroom very much so on their own agenda.
In essence, they personalize the experience all on their own.
As a result, it is their agency and autonomy that helps them construct knowledge, supported only by strong relationships with their peers and teachers, coupled with an innately curious, intrinsic motivation.
In my experience, the technology just got in the way. I didn’t believe it in years prior when I was teaching the older grades. It took seeing it for my own eyes to truly understand how much of a hindrance the technology could be when making learning feel personal.
A kindergarten classroom makes it clear just how possible personalized learning is without technology. I began to see that personalized learning is not driven by technology or even solely by the teacher’s ability to personalize on behalf of the children: Personalized learning is driven by the learners themselves, guided by knowledgeable, empathetic teachers that know how to engineer a learning environment where autonomous learning and teacher-influenced learning can strike a mindful balance.
That’s not to say that technology can’t play a role, but I also don’t believe it to be necessary in a personalized learning environment. Sure, technology can help us collect academic data, more efficiently reflect on insights, or redefine learning in a modern classroom. To this day, I continue to use technology for these purposes when it feels appropriate. It can help us document learning through picture and video more efficiently than in years past. It can even help us bring new learning experiences into the classroom through innovative technologies like Skype, YouTube, or Google Earth.
Our privilege in affluent schools tells us that these technologies are necessary for personalizing learning, but in reality, they’re unnecessary enhancements. They’re not getting to the root of what’s hindering education in our country at-large.
Personalized learning is not possible in so many schools across the country because choice has become limited. Schools, especially ones in urban communities that serve low-income populations or communities of color, are limited in the choices they can provide children because the teachers themselves are limited by the choices they can make in their classrooms. The proposed solutions to “failing” schools has historically been a systematization of curriculum and instruction, an over-investment in technology, and high-stakes measures that disincentivize instructional risk-taking, pedagogical innovation, and overall vulnerability with our practice.
As a result, if we really want to make learning all the more personal–if we really want it to be tailored to the individual–we have to invest our trust in teachers to engineer learning environments where this is possible. We must train them to build flexible units of instruction that allow them to respond to the needs of diverse groups of children. We must help them understand how to manage the complexity of autonomous learning through effective classroom management. We must support them by making sure the basic needs of a classroom are met–needs like planning time and psychological safety–before attempting to “enhance” classrooms with technology.
If we continue with a method of micromanagement, and if we allow technologists to proliferate this dehumanizing philosophy for personalized learning, I think we’ll find the same problems will only continue to manifest. We need to change our strategy for bettering our schools, because it’s not the technology that will personalize learning and rehumanize the system.
It’s the people.
In 2017 alone, $1.2 billion was invested in education technologies intended to “improve outcomes for teachers and learners.” Those dollars are rarely, if ever, going into teacher training or equitable compensation. That money is going straight into the hands of technologists who are looking to turn a profit–all in the name of personalized learning.
It’s time we, the teachers, take back our profession. It’s time we remember that schools are primarily made up of the teachers and students that engage in the vulnerable and courageous process of learning every day. It’s time we remember that it is not technology that personalizes learning; it is, instead, the teachers that pour their hearts into their craft and the students that take courageous risks every day that make learning utterly personal.
We are living in an era of great change–an era where we can speak truth to the powers that threaten our classrooms, quite possibly more than ever before. We need to speak out against education technology ventures that threaten to poison our pedagogy, and we need to remember to keep people at the center of our schools, for it is the people, not the technology, that makes learning all the more personal.