“For in spite of itself any movement that thinks and acts in terms of an ‘ism becomes so involved in reaction against other ‘isms that it is unwittingly controlled by them. For it then forms its principles by reaction against them instead of by a comprehensive, constructive survey of actual needs, problems, and possibilities.”

– John Dewey, Experience and Education

Looking back at education’s recent history, it comes as no surprise that personalized learning is at the forefront of many conversations. After all, most movements are simply responses to previous eras. Their radicalism lies solely within their opposition, hoping to shine light on the blindspots of their predecessors and otherwise correct their seemingly misguided courses.

Dewey saw this nearly 100 years ago when he wrote Experience and Education, and it seems that this very idea still prevails today. We are in an era of post-standardization, where teachers are increasingly pushing back against standardized practices and moving towards practices that they deem more child-centered. This desire is admirable, as I know the intentions are good, but it’s important to be aware of more than just our intentions. It’s also important to be aware of our biases and how they impact our decision-making in the classroom.

Many personalized learning models, in response to the era of radical standardization that has preceded them, prioritize learner agency, student-driven practices, and individualized learning plans. Again, these tactics for personalizing learning are grounded in the best of intentions. Teachers want to ensure that every child is heard, seen, and valued; they want to be sure that every child is appropriately challenged throughout the school day so that each of them may reach their full potential.

But all too often on this quest for personalized learning, educators take these ideals too far. They conflate learner agency with classroom management practices that end up being more permissive than empowering; they believe that student-driven learning means handing the responsibility of curriculum design over to students; they begin to feel overwhelmed by promises for personalized learning plans that often prove unsustainable within months of the school year starting.

I know this because I have been one of these educators, on a quest to personalize learning through individualizing, attempting to empower my children by giving them too much agency. And it doesn’t work.

In fact, over my three years working in personalized learning schools, I began to realize that within our philosophy for personalized learning lied a paradox: our quest to personalize learning by creating learning experiences that were tailored to our children quite possibly made learning more impersonal than it was before.

That’s not to say that we were doing harm by the children. Of course, there were some strengths of being in a progressive school focused on personalized learning. However, I came to realize that the approach to teaching and learning was no more personal or impactful than that of your average public school–and not worth the resources we were putting towards personalizing learning.

Web-Based, Adaptive Learning Systems

Using web-based, adaptive learning systems is reductive, at best. Not only does it create a hysteria amongst children by engendering a unhealthy and competitive atmosphere; it silos children through its individualization. Interestingly enough, the push for personalization has come in response to a standardization era that praised the factory model. However, through these web-based, adaptive systems like Khan Academy or DreamBox, we’ve only refined the industrial model, creating a more complex conveyer belt of skills and competencies that children “master” mindlessly. As a result, they have less time to collaborate with peers or make connections between the skills they’re learning. And it doesn’t stop at chipping away at relationships in the classroom; it also chips away at learner agency.

Learner Agency and Autonomy

In a web-based, adaptive system, there is very little agency. Because children are the receivers of content, learning becomes a passive experience where they are simply receiving information and producing answers they think might be correct. But personalized learning’s impact on learner agency doesn’t stop there.

Many mistakenly conflate learner agency and autonomy with permissive classroom management practices that actually lead us away from our vision for personalized learning. Children thrive in learning environments with clear structures and boundaries, and too many naïvely progressive models for personalized learning turn away from structure, in fear they’ll be seen as “teacher-driven” or “top-down.” The fact of the matter is that teachers must be in the classroom to help build the structures that scaffold agency and autonomy over the long-term. By taking too permissive a stance and letting children have too much agency, we actually work against our goals of personalizing learning.

Personalized Learning Plans

I know, it seems crazy to say that personalized learning plans actually work against personalized learning, but I assure you they can. At first, this idea sounds great. When every child has a personalized learning plan, they each have their own goals and can work on what they need to in order to grow. While this is unsustainable long-term–even with cutting-edge technology–it’s equally as reductive and isolating as web-based, adaptive learning systems are.

In a well-engineered and well-structured class, the children are similar enough that they can work on similar learning tasks–projects or provocations that are specifically designed in a differentiated manner where there are multiple entry points. Take Singapore Math or Lucy Calkins’s Reading and Writing Workshop models: these both promote personalized learning, not through remarkably different goals or rigorously monitored personalized learning plans, but through class-wide provocations that allow children to mold the curriculum to meet their needs, with the help of a knowledgeable educator that has an understanding of paths they can follow towards success.

Individualized learning plans can ironically work in opposition to this. They have the potential to take away opportunities to learn with and from each other through common projects and provocations, and they add an element of micromanagement to the classroom. While it’s important for children to set goals and work towards them, it does not to be so rigorously monitored for each and every student. Instead, it’s more helpful to create a culture where students become aware of their obstacles and leverage class-wide tools for addressing their challenges. Goal-setting can, in fact, only be a cultural component of the classroom; it doesn’t always have to be a logistical one.

Finding Balance

It’s tempting to respond to an era of standardization by running to individualized practices. While we want each of children to be seen, heard, and valued in our classrooms, it doesn’t mean we have to micromanage their learning and individualize their curriculum. If we do, we will find ourselves further away from the goal of personalized learning than we were in the first place. We’ll find ourselves in impersonalized learning environments where children are dependent on tools and teachers to personalize on their behalf.

Instead, we must find a balance. We must remember that the era that preceded this one wasn’t all bad. There are, in fact, standardized, class-wide practices that can contribute to personalized learning more than individualized practices do–practices like teaching socio-emotional skills, providing choice within clear boundaries, and building structures for feedback so that learning becomes a ubiquitous conversation that stops even after your lessons end. When we view personalized learning in this way, we see that it gets us closer to a vision where all students are heard, seen and valued and can meaningfully connect with learning experiences.


4 thoughts

  1. Common theme here. I feel like you are hung up on your years at your personalized learning school and miss your true educational insights. Would appreciate more writing on more relateable situations.

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