I had the pleasure of hearing Chris Emdin speak yesterday in a panel on equity and anti-racism in education, and the biggest idea I left with was this:

We need to interrupt conversations in order to change them.

As a third-grade teacher, I’m here to interrupt the conversation around personalized learning, and I’m here to refocus the conversation on equity–and not that poorly defined understanding of equity that causes education technology companies to put children in front of screens with content that is matched to them–but the definition of equity that helps all children get what they need in the context of the classroom. The truth of the matter is that teachers’ voices are largely ignored in conversations around personalized learning. It’s education technology entrepreneurs and researchers that are doing all of the talking for us, and their heads are too far in the clouds–stuck in theoretical spaces that hardly translate to reality.

Interrupting the Conversation about Personalized Learning

Far too many mainstream thought leaders in personalized learning assume that personalization is a matter of complexity minimization; they assume that if we simply pair kids with the correct content or fill in gaps in background knowledge, then we can solve the many problems plaguing the education system. But this reduces personalized learning–and education, in general–down to an over-simplified problem that assumes we simply need to match children with content that’s within their zone of proximal development. And there are so many reasons why this is wrong.

First and foremost, this presumes a factory-oriented model for learning. The factory model fills students with knowledge, as opposed to building life-long competencies and capacities within them. When we consider knowledge first, we forget that the children in our classrooms are nuanced and sentient human beings, with emotions, histories, and identities. We neglect the idea that not all children come to school with the same sets of experiences–experiences that form vastly different sets of background knowledge that impact how an individual child will experience school.

This, in turn, causes us to presume that certain types of background knowledge are better than others. I got into this conversation on Twitter today, actually, about the role that background knowledge plays in reading achievement. Sure, background knowledge is a strong contributor to reading achievement, but we must ask ourselves what is meant by “background knowledge” before acting on it. The truth of the matter is this: all of our students come to school with a ton of background knowledge from their lives; it just may not be the type of background knowledge that helps them play the game of schooling. Our job then, as teachers, is to build upon the assets that define their background knowledge and background experiences (Moll et al, 1992). To presume that the child of a migrant worker somehow has better or worse background knowledge than the child of a Fortune 500 CEO is discriminatory and oppressive. The reality is that they are simply two different types of backgrounds that prepare them in different ways for a school that assimilates children into a culture of cisgender, straight, and white hegemony.

As a result, this way of thinking about personalization is dehumanizing. It makes children the objects of school, as opposed to the subjects of an educational narrative that is constantly evolving. Thinking about personalization solely in terms of knowledge and complexity minimization is dehumanizing because it actively removes the humanity from the lifelong process of education. Far too many mainstream leaders in personalized learning see personalization as a means for checking off boxes–that the simple mastery of content and acquisition of knowledge means that learning has been effective–that is has been personalized.

Now don’t get me wrong, that’s not to say that knowledge isn’t important in our discussions about education. Of course, we want our children to be able to read, write, and compute. We want our children to be able to use the sciences and the arts in order to better understand each other and the world around them. But far too often, these knowledge domains are capitalized upon for utilitarian purposes; they are not seen in school for what they truly are.

At their most fundamental levels, the literacies and the sciences are human languages, intended to help human beings understand the world around them–to mold it and to communicate with it. In actuality, the subjects we learn in school are there because they help us connect with the world–and with one another.

A Change is in Order

Now, imagine a classroom where the Fortune 500 CEO’s child and the migrant worker’s child are in a classroom where both sets of background knowledge are equally valued. Imagine this same classroom where students are neither confined by the pressures of standardized assessment nor oppressed by the achievement culture that the United States’ education system has so ruthlessly promulgated. Imagine a classroom where connection and collaboration are valued over competition.

These sorts of classrooms aren’t about filling children with knowledge, much like the mainstream thought leaders in personalization might tell you. These classrooms are not about “filling in” background knowledge or “closing gaps.” Instead, these classrooms are about exchanging information between learners; they’re about storytelling and human connection.

And this is where the conversation around personalized learning needs to go.

When learning is personal and personalized, it is inherently meaningful to the learner. The best ones to make their learning personal are the learners themselves, and in order for us to allow for this type of personalization in our classrooms, we must change the system in which our schools and our classrooms are situated. We must move away from the racist, classist, and sexist ideologies that make one child’s background knowledge “better” than another child’s. We must widen the walls of our classrooms to allow an infinite number of diverse and intersectional stories that personalize learning experiences through partnership and human connection.

It’s kind of ironic. In our quest to personalize learning, we’ve managed to make it all the more impersonal: we’ve forgotten that an integral part of equity is belonging.

This should be our first priority in our classrooms. When the conversation around personalized learning begins with knowledge–when it begins with looking at children in terms of what they don’t have–we immediately exclude a large number of children. We immediately tell them that they don’t belong.

I, for one, do not want to be that person–the person who makes a child feel like they don’t belong in school. Do you?

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