There are a number of myths surrounding personalized learning, and it wasn’t until I moved to San Francisco and worked for an education technology start-up for three years that I learned about them by experiencing them first-hand.
These myths are pervasive, but it turns out that if we’re aware of them, we can use the our most powerful tool of all–our pedagogy–to overcome them and do right by our students.
Myth 1: Personalization necessitates an individualized curriculum.
If personalization and individualization were supposed to mean the same thing, they wouldn’t be two different words. In order to understand the difference between the two, just examine the bases of the words. The base of personalization is person, while the base of individualization is div or divid, meaning “separate.”
When we individualize, we separate: we isolate students by giving each of them their own curriculum. This operates in direct opposition to learning that’s personal, because it inadvertently removes other people from students’ learning experiences. The truth is, personalized learning experiences don’t have to be individualized; they simply have to be personally relevant and meaningful to all students in the classroom. Relationships and human connection are inherently meaningful to all students, which is why we must avoid individualization and instead curate learning experiences where students can connect with one another.
Myth 2: Personalized learning means that curriculum must be interest-based.
Because we assume personalized curriculum necessitates individualization, we also tend to assume that it must align with our students’ pre-existing interests. But this is neither sustainable nor best for kids.
Instead, our job as educators is to engage children with content and topics that lie outside their interests, partially to expose them to new ideas, but also to help them build a rich schema. Neglecting to do so is a disservice to our students.
Myth 3: Personalization lies within the teacher’s locus of control.
When I started personalizing, I used to think that it was my job to personalize on behalf of my students. This caused me to create as many sets of curriculum as there were students in my classroom.
But I soon realized that this was wrong. I soon realized that by partnering with my students, I could share the responsibility of personalizing learning with them. No, this didn’t mean that I allowed them to design their own learning activities. They are not qualified to do that. We, the teachers, are qualified to create educative learning experiences for our classrooms because we’ve been trained to.
Instead, when we partner with students, we ensure there is a healthy amount of voice and choice in the classroom. This entails providing choice within clear boundaries, and this entails being intentional with the types of activities we use in our classrooms. All student choices should have specific purposes to ensure that they are, in fact, educative. We can also partner with when we use assessment mindfully, not as a metric for compliance, but instead as a way to cultivate self-awareness and help them communicate with educators about their needs.
Myth 4: Technology is necessary for personalizing learning.
Technology companies want you to believe that their tools are essential for personalization, but they’re not. I know because I worked in personalized learning in Silicon Valley, and by the time I left I was hardly using the tools. Why? Because they created an unsustainable workload that burned me out.
Education technology helps educators individualize curriculum, which we now know is very different than personalizing learning. When we redefine personalization as a pedagogy that values human connection and meaningful learning, we begin to see that human beings should be powering it, not computers.
Myth 5: Digitally-driven personalization paves a path to equity.
Education technology companies will attempt to sell you their technology, claiming that it will close achievement gaps because it gives everyone what they need. But this marketing tactic is not grounded in reality. Instead, it’s intended to help technology companies hemorrhage money from school systems that are serving our most vulnerable populations.
Educational equity can only be achieved through inclusive and just practices that foster human connection. These inclusive and just practices include funding all schools equitably so that all kids can access an appropriately rigorous education, regardless of zip code.
At the very least, our practices for personalization in the classroom need to preserve connection between students, and more often than not, personalized learning technologies chip away at this. When we individualize curriculum, we inadvertently track kids, worsening the achievement gap.
The solution, you ask?
To overcome these myths, we must put human interests back at the center of our intentions for personalization, not the interests of technology companies. Our schools are inundated with digital technology, and very little of it has been empirically proven to directly impact student outcomes.
As we allow our definition of personalization to develop, it’s important that educators reclaim it as a humanized pedagogy that honors equity and human connection.
If you want to find out more about this, please join our Twitter chat at #rethink_learning on Monday, March 25th at 6:00 PM CT!