This is an excerpt from Reclaiming Personalized Learning: A Guide to Restoring Equity and Humanity in Schools, available in August 2019 (Corwin Press).

“Stories are data with a soul,” says Brené Brown, vulnerability and shame scholar. Too often, we forget this in schools. We forget that our own education is defined by the stories we tell about it, not by the bits of information we gathered along the way. Albert Einstein goes as far to say that education is not “what is learned,” but instead “what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned.”

It’s simple, really, and maybe its simplicity is what makes it so hard for us to understand: what remains from our time in school are our stories. But in the modern, post-industrial era, the stories that define our schools are slipping away. They’re becoming lost, buried underneath what feels like insurmountable initiative after insurmountable initiative, the latest of which is personalized learning.

My Journey with Personalized Learning

From July of 2014 to June of 2017, I spent nearly three years in personalized learning classrooms in Silicon Valley, working for an education technology start-up company and network of personalized learning microschools. It was created and funded by the technology elites of Silicon Valley, coming from the likes of Facebook and Google. I founded three micro-schools with three different teams of teachers, spoke with reporters around the country, and even traveled to China to contribute to this nascent philosophy of technology-powered personalized learning.

To say the least, it was invigorating. Never before had I experienced so much autonomy. Never before had I been handed a blank slate on which to design schools and classrooms. Never before had I been given the opportunity to bring ideas to life that had previously only existed in my mind.

At first, the premise of technology-powered personalized learning seemed like a panacea. Through meticulously crafted algorithms that paired children with individualized content, Silicon Valley’s brand of personalized learning aimed to minimize the complexity of individualizing education, and in effect, make individual teachers more powerful. With time and the collection of big data, many thought that the software could even become smart enough to suggest activities to children. It was surmised that the technology would take the load off of us, the educators, so we would have more time for what mattered most: face-to-face interaction with our children.

It would all take place on a playlist. Each individual child’s playlist would house unique sets of activity cards which contained individualized learning activities. The design and selection of each activity card would take into account the child’s academic level, learning preferences, and interests. To me, it sounded like greatest idea ever known to man. What better way to personalize than to give each child their own unique curriculum? But it didn’t take long for the challenges associated with this brand of technology-driven, hyper-individualized learning to set in.

I probably don’t need to tell you that the workload was immense and unsustainable. When I began teaching in Silicon Valley, I had but a mere twelve students, all of whom I shared with a co-teacher. By the end of the year, we had almost 20 children in the classroom, and I swear I aged a year for each of the children I worked with that year. While we hypothesized that the workload would become more sustainable with time, it never really did. I re-learned very quickly that in order for curriculum to be individualized, a person—not a computer—had to do the individualizing. While digital technology could organize the activity cards and the data, it was my responsibility to know the students, understand their needs, and curate an experience based on my knowledge of them. What I did not yet know was that this degree of individualization was not actually necessary to personalize learning.

Alas, this hyper-individualized brand of personalization prevailed due to its appeal to investors and parents. After all, the parents and investors were the primary groups we were trying to please. They were the ones paying for this unique brand of teaching and learning. Their money and support were keeping the company and the ideology alive, when in reality, it should have been the inherent value to children and educators that kept it alive. This led me to the realization that the brand of personalized learning we were selling was not based in evidentiary need: it was, instead, based in an economic demand, fueled by privilege.

We live in a culture that values self-interest and competitiveness. It comes as no surprise, then, that a highly individualized brand of personalized learning would come to the forefront of the educational conversation, especially in affluent circles. Through misinformation disseminated through social media and a corporately-driven agenda that prioritizes instant gratification and self-interest, parents all over the country have begun to believe that in order for their child to have a high-quality education, it must be tailored specifically to them.

John Dewey once said that “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” (1938).

Our principles were, indeed, formed out of reaction to some of the failures of mainstream education. They were also built off of an economic demand for individualized learning that so many had yet to realize would provide no better of an education than most public schools that weren’t individualizing curriculum. I know because I was a public-school teacher beforehand. I’ve experienced public school in direct juxtaposition with this seductive, technology-powered brand of personalized learning. I saw no increases in test scores (as measured by NWEA-MAP) between the two different settings; I noticed no qualitative differences in my students’ writing; I observed no significant differences in their ability to think critically or solve problems on their own; I felt no difference in their ability to empathize with others. And it was because in public school, I was employing many of the practices that embody a personalized pedagogy that humanizes the learning experience, as opposed dehumanizing learning through digitized and industrialized models for individualizing curriculum.

The Call for Humanized Personalization

This stark differentiation between humanized personalization and dehumanized personalization is what lies at the center of my criticism of technology-powered personalized learning. Technology-powered individualization is just as industrialized as the standardized practices of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. It still encompasses a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching and learning: the only difference is that it’s delivered digitally. It’s still tracking children even if they are allowed to “go at their own pace.” This isn’t learning that’s inherently meaningful and personal; it’s learning that serves only economic and utilitarian purposes.

It’s true that education must serve a utilitarian purpose, but only in part. Meaningful education helps children grow into adults who secure jobs; it teaches children to communicate with one another; it even has the capacity to help learners push boundaries and move our country forward. But as we look at modern history and move through this precarious time in our country, it’s now more important than ever that education serves the purpose of deepening our humanity and connectedness to those around us. It must help each individual find their purpose within a collective society and how to contribute to it meaningfully.

So what does it mean to humanize personalization? It means to make learning speak to each of our children on an inherently personal level. It involves cultivating a collective consciousness in the classroom, so that all learners can converge through common learning experiences; it entails leveraging small-group instructional experiences to strategically group students; and it necessitates strong relationships between educators and students so that educators can nurture the delicate inner dialogues of our students.

But this does not necessitate individualizing the curriculum; instead, it requires us to engineer curriculum mindfully so that it is differentiated for a diverse group of learners. It requires us to keep equity and justice at the center of our intentions for personalization, so that all children are able to get what they need without creating any additional barriers for others.

Missing Pieces of Personalization

Deepening our humanity includes making sure our children are learning from, through, and with other human beings in a meaningful way: it includes ensuring that all children are able to do so. And this cannot happen if we do not bring equity and justice to the center of our conversations about personalized learning. Too often, equity and justice are left out of the personalization conversation. These are missing pieces of the puzzle that must be discussed in order to avoid the dehumanizing effects of digitally-driven personalization.

It is often assumed that Silicon Valley’s brand of personalized learning supports and promotes equity, but this is another myth and perhaps even a misunderstanding of what the word equity actually means. Equity is not about giving all children the same experience or tool; it’s not about making sure that each child gets a unique playlist of activities that either they’ve created or have been created for them. That’s equality. We promote equity when we differentiate the supports given to each child, supports based on individual needs that remove barriers and help them gain access to a meaningful education.

While it may be true that certain children—who are likely outliers with exceptional needs—may benefit from the degree of individualization that Silicon Valley promotes, this is not the case for most children. We can serve most children sustainably by building inclusive and just learning environments where a humanized brand of personalized learning is promulgated.

By building inclusive learning environments, specifically engineered for the education of diverse groups of learners, learning becomes personal through student empowerment, the cultivation of self-awareness, agency, and autonomy, and the intimate personal connections students are able to build through dialogue, discourse, and authentic learning experiences. Not only is this more meaningful that Silicon Valley’s dehumanizing brand of technology-powered personalized learning; it’s more sustainable for educators and will get us closer to the equitable ideal that I’m certain we’re all striving for.

This isn’t just a matter of classroom practice. We cannot possibly make learning personal for diverse groups of students if we do not address the socio-economic and cultural barriers that an enormous proportion of students experience, especially students of color, students from low-income households and LGBTQ students. This problem can’t be solved through individualized curricula either; instead, it necessitates a foundational change in our pedagogy, the systems we build to support a humanized pedagogy, and the way our schools are funded.

In short, the technology-powered, hyper-individualized brand of personalized learning is getting us farther away from the democratic principles on which the education system was founded. That’s not to say that everything happening in schools in Silicon Valley is ineffective. I’ve met and worked with countless skilled, talented, and creative educators who would do anything to help their children feel seen, heard, and valued in their classrooms. I’ve witnessed innovative projects and empathetic classroom practices that make learning feel personal. But I’ve also seen the detrimental effects of putting technology at the center of a school system, at the expense of turning away from the very people who have the capacity to make learning personal in the first place—the teachers and the children.

The Paradox of Personalization

It’s ironic, really. In our quest to personalize learning in Silicon Valley—in our quest to individualize curriculum using technology—we made our classrooms and the culture of the school all the more impersonal. We chose to individualize in an effort to personalize, when in reality, we needed to focus on equity, sustainable pedagogy, and collective school culture. We should have started by investing in whole-school experiences and whole-group practices. We should have put our energy towards building collectivist classroom cultures that would eventually nurture individual learners in their agency and autonomy. It was a wild realization—at least for me—that these two seemingly opposed ideas, individualism and collectivism, could sit in the same space and actually support one another.

When two ideas sit in the same space, seemingly working in opposition to one another, we call it a paradox. The beauty of a paradox, however, is that when it is more closely examined, it has a uniquely comforting beauty that somehow brings order, balance, and harmony to uncertainty, chaos, and disorder.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function” (1936). Education is filled with situations like these: paradoxes that tempt us to lose our ability to function. But we must continue to function because of and in spite of them.

As we move forward into an era that beckons us to personalize learning, I hope we can all remember that the most personal mementos we take with us from school are our stories. It’s true that stories are filled with conflict, opposing ideas, and dissonance. But they are also filled with heroic tales of courage, vulnerability, and humanity, none of which would exist without the main character’s willingness to sit in dissonance. When we sit in dissonance, we see that the complexities of learning can shine in colorful abundance.

Personalized learning is no different. There are countless conflicts, dissonances, and paradoxes that make the classroom a beautifully complex place to teach and learn. It is these paradoxes and the dissonance that accompanies them that make our schools inherently personal places to deepen our humanity and engage in the human experience of learning.

The truth is this: it isn’t the technology or any one framework that makes learning personal, as personalized learning companies with a vested interest in profits might tempt you to believe. People personalize learning. And in order for learning to feel personal, people need to be at the center of education, not technology.

Reclaiming Personalized Learning

As a result, it’s time we reclaim the term personalized learning. The education technology industry has claimed it as its own, exploiting it for profits and reducing it down to individualized tracks for learning, further isolating our children when they need to be working together. The work of making learning personal resides within educators and learners. It blossoms within the relationships we build and withers when those intimate human connections are broken.

In essence, personalized learning is more about culture and pedagogy than it is about technology-driven individualization; it necessitates vulnerability and courage, if we are to navigate the many paradoxes that make the classroom feel uncertain and messy. However, above all else, I’ve learned that personalization is a feeling more than anything else—one that helps us feel connected to one another through the ubiquitous human experience of learning.

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