“Mr. France, can we please do ST Math?” one of my students asked me, referring to a personalized learning application on their iPads. Grounded in pretty sound research, the tool uses visuo-spatial models to help kids learn math through an automated program.

This was my first year back in Chicago, and I had just spent the previous three years working in Silicon Valley for a personalized learning company and network of microschools. I left for a multitude of reasons, but ultimately found that the company’s vision for personalized learning didn’t work. Learning didn’t become personal through a series of video-based lessons; it did so through flexible curriculum and student agency.

And so, as you can imagine, I was resistant to the idea of using the program, despite the cited research and some of my kids’ desire to use it. I was worried they’d be hyper-focused on their levels and that it would isolate them from one another, due to the fact that they’d all be on different questions.

To make a long story short, I turned out to be right. The entire tone of the room changed: the kids seemed sedated by their tablets, clicking buttons without intention or awareness of what they were learning and why. Kids looked around at each other’s tablets, trying to see what questions their neighbors were on and asking questions about levels. But that wasn’t even the worst part. What was most troubling for me as a teacher was that my kids who struggled most with math seemed to be the most frustrated. Not only were they aware of the fact that they were receiving simpler content; they were struggling with it, unsure what to do.

Any teacher knows that there is never just one struggling student in the class: it was many of them. And without good strategies for problem-solving, many of them just sat there listlessly, their shoulders slumping in defeat.

Why Personalized Learning?

There are a lot of thoughts around why we should be personalizing learning, and equity is now at the center of these discussions. This is a good thing overall, but the problem is that so many tend to define equity poorly. While equity means that every individual gets what they need in the classroom, it doesn’t mean that we have to electronically deliver individualized curricula to students in order to give them what they need.

In Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain by Zaretta Hammond, she discusses the idea of dependent versus independent learners. Dependent learners, by nature, rely on teachers or adults for meaningful learnings; independent learners, in contrast, can learn with less support from an adult through critical thinking skills. Hammond argues that fostering independence in all learners, but especially learners in historically marginalized populations, is critical to culturally responsive teaching.

I argue that this is also critical to personalizing learning. In order for learning to be meaningful, relevant, and inherently personal, students must be able to leverage their own independence to learn on their own. Don’t get me wrong: this doesn’t mean students need to teach themselves. Instead, this means that students must feel empowered to make decisions on their own over the course of a given learning experience.

Liberation and Personalization

It’s tempting to think of liberation as a breaking of the chains, setting one entirely free, unrestricted to do whatever they please. This is, in fact, the etymological definition of liberation. But this is not a reality in our world and likely never will be. There are rules and systems within which we all must work.

But it is possible to achieve varying levels of freedom within the systems that exist in modern society. The freedom to make decisions within the systems is better known as autonomy. When we work autonomously, we do so within the confines of a system, and if the system works in a manner that’s is equitable, it allows all individuals to make decisions that allow them a healthy amount of self-government, where they can make decisions to self-actualize.

This, of course, is all theoretical. Because we know full well that the systems that define modern society are not set up in a way that allow all people to make decisions autonomously for self-actualization. And it’s for this reason that I think to have a true conversation about student liberation and personalization, that we must discuss the system within which this new paradigm for personalization exists. Because if we don’t change the system, then we aren’t really making learning any more personal or personalized for our kids: we’re simply continuing on with the same system in a different iteration.

It’s like the example I shared at the beginning of this post. While that experience was branded as “personalized,” it was no more personal or liberating than an experience where students are sitting in silent rows learning from a sage-like pedagogue. It was, instead, mindless, confining, and for some, even dehumanizing. If we continue to build models for education–and tools like the one I mentioned above–within the current industrialized paradigm for education, we are going to continue working not only against true personalization–but also student liberation.

What are your thoughts?

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