In case you haven’t seen it yet, I published an article on EdSurge the other day, entitled “Why are we still personalizing learning if it’s not personal?” While it’s been mostly well-received, especially as we seem to be on the cusp of an era that’s pushing for a mindful detechnologization of our schools, there are some dissenters.

I think it’s great, personally, to have such a lively discussion about the use of technology in our classrooms. It’s good to advocate for technologies that are going to make us more powerful in the long run, but it’s also good to get in touch with our assumptions so we can understand the degree to which they’re coloring–or perhaps misguiding–our perspectives.

These three flawed assumptions about individualizing learning are pretty common. If you’re hearing them, too, feel free to use some of my words next time you’re in conversation about this topic. If you’ve got additional thoughts to add, please comment or tweet me. I’d love to hear from you.

Flawed Assumption #1: Technology-powered individualized learning saves us time in the long run. It’s more efficient.

This is the most common flawed assumption, which is why I’ve chosen to begin with it. Time is a scarce commodity, and it makes sense why people think this. And if we view the learning process in a reductive way–that is, if we see learning as simply checking off boxes and filling kids with information–then this assumption is correct.

But those of us who have taught in classrooms know that this is not what meaningful learning is. In fact, this flawed assumption most often comes from technology executives who have not spent time in a classroom. What’s more, it comes from individuals who lack the training and expertise that’s necessary to make decisions in the classroom. They assume that because it may streamline some professional development or employee on-boarding, that it must be meaningful in our classrooms, as well.

Nevermind the fact that adult-learners and child-learners have drastically different needs. The flaws of this assumption become especially problematic when we neglect to see the by-products of this perceived “saving of time.” What many don’t realize is that personalized learning programs require a baseline amount of time that children must spend on the program. After all, how is the program going to individualize without data from the child? The child must spend a significant amount of time on the tool in order for it to achieve the marketed benefits.

Take Dreambox, for instance. In order for children to meet the minimum baseline, they must be on the tool at least 60 minutes each week, with sessions no shorter than 20 minutes. If you have 60-minute math blocks like I do, that ends up being 20% of your students’ time over the course of one week. Over the course of the year? That’s 40 hours. 40 hours that could be spent learning through face-to-face math games; 40 hours that could be spent focusing on high-quality math journaling. 40 hours that could be spent learning from, through, and with other human beings.

Flawed Assumption #2: Kids have different learning styles. They need to be able to learn at their own pace and in their own way. Technology gives us that.

First of all, learning styles have been disproven many times. Gardner’s research on learning styles has been misinterpreted a number of times, and Gardner himself acknowledges this. We are all visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and every-other-type-of-learner you might imagine. When all of these intelligences work together, we all learn meaningfully.

That said, different children may have unique learning preferences or needs, and one of those is certainly pace. It’s one of the most observable differences within our classrooms because it is ubiquitous. We all have different processing speeds, and as a result, we finish things at different times. Technology-powered individualized learning individualizes pace to a degree that is unnecessary and will actually contribute to a widening of the achievement gap. It allows children to accelerate through a curriculum too quickly, taking away opportunities for meaningful learning and perhaps even giving us a flawed understanding of what our children actually know and are able to do.

The alternative? Create a menu of options in your classroom related to the topic you’re studying. The kids that finish things early can work on an enrichment activity and deepen their understanding of any given topic. The kids that need more time can get that time, without a widening of the achievement gap and without putting more divergence between diverse learners in the classroom.

Flawed Assumption #3: There’s no other sustainable or scalable way to achieve this level of individualization.

This is probably true. It’s next to impossible to individualize at this level and this consistently without technology.

But here’s the kicker: we probably don’t even need to individualize to the extent we are trying to.

As I wrote in Tuesday’s EdSurge article, we assume a direct relationship between the amount of individualization and how personalized a learning experience is. But this is a false assumption, one that makes us think every child needs a curriculum that’s perfectly tailored to them.

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This simply isn’t true. What our kids need is a society that is set up for all children succeed, regardless of identity markers. They need learning environments that are engineered for them to learn autonomous decision-making, giving a menu of limited choices. They need a humanized pedagogy where they are explicitly taught about autonomy and self-awareness–and how to leverage it to learn in a manner that’s meaningful.

They need teachers who know how to differentiate class-wide instruction, not individualize curriculum.

Just Because We Can, Doesn’t Mean We Should

In essence, we are trying to achieve something we don’t need to achieveThis notion that every child must have a curriculum tailored to their needs is a byproduct of a society and educational agenda that prioritizes self-interest, privilege, and education business over quality pedagogy and nurturing learning environments.

Yes, we want all of our children to have their needs met. We want all children to feel seen, heard, and valued in our classrooms. But this cannot and will not be achieved through the technology-driven individualization of curriculum. It will, instead, be achieved through differentiated pedagogy that honors the human condition of learning.

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5 thoughts

  1. Thank you for addressing this. For many years, textbook publishers have pushed the public education curriculum and I have witnessed students suffer as a result of that. Now, it’s technology executives. Just as with the former, masterful educators must remain vigilant and continue to do what’s best for students, even if the educator finds himself as the lone voice in the wilderness. Students still must read; students still must pick up a pencil to write. Students still need regular collaboration with other students and the teacher. The human element is oh so important. I appreciate your message.

  2. The distinction you make between “technology-driven individualization of curriculum” and personalization is such an important one. Too many make the assumption that these two concepts are essentially the same thing, and that is simply not the case (although many in the edtech industry would lead educators to believe that.) I also appreciate your point that the more we individualize instruction / curriculum, it actually becomes less personalized for students as this leads to learning in isolation. Keep up the great writing!

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