“Why did it take a pandemic to see the humanity in teaching?” said author Bettina Love recently in a webinar on abolitionist teaching.

Abolitionist teaching is a new concept to me, I’ll admit. Some of the ideas certainly made me uncomfortable, but I am finding more and more comfort with these ideas as each day passes. At one point, Dena Simmons, author of noted that “SEL [was] white supremacy with a hug,” rocking me to core, having embraced social-emotional learning in my classroom for years now. At the end of the day, though, Dr. Love’s question is an important one to center. After all, what are we in this profession for if not for helping students connect with their humanity?

With some time to sit with these ideas and some additional digging into them, I’ve come to a familiar realization that the exploration of these ideas do not require us to draw hard lines in the sand. SEL isn’t necessarily bad; it’s just bad when not done through the lens of anti-bias and anti-racist education.

The same goes for personalized learning. It is incumbent upon us as responsible pedagogues to not only consider what personalization looks like within the context of a pandemic, but also within the context of a society whose collective consciousness is radically changing in light of recent world events. I think I can safely speak for other White people when I say many of our eyes have opened wider than they ever have been, and so many of us are now more keenly aware of the grasp that White supremacy has on our country and its institutions.

The systemic constraints brought about by a global pandemic and uprisings in response to racism continue to transform our definition of personalization, and as a result, when discussing personalized learning, we must consider these barriers. Personalizing learning during a pandemic is, in fact, possible–just not necessarily in the ways that technology-driven pedagogy would have you think. Far too many teachers resort to web-based, adaptive tools when trying to personalize learning, and far too many–perhaps even more–teachers are leveraging these tools while trying to teach from home. 

We have to be intentional when personalizing learning. If we over-individualize learning by giving each child a different activity or using web-based, adaptive tools to digitally individualize content, we commit ourselves and our students to a number of unintended consequences, such as social isolation and tracking, both of which ultimately work against our collective goals for equity in schools.

We shouldn’t have had to wait for a pandemic to be able to see the humanity in teaching. Our humanity was there all along, and by considering what it means to humanize personalization, we create more options for ourselves when trying to reach all students in the classroom–whether it be in person or from a distance. The problem with mainstream thinking on personalized learning is that it centers digital tools and learning activities, when in reality, we should be centering human beings, their identities, and their experiences. We need not purchase expensive digital subscriptions to accelerate kids through automated content; we can instead leverage what we know about humanized pedagogy to help our students stay connected with one another, meanwhile learning what they need to learn.

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Comparing humanized and dehumanized personalization, from Reclaiming Personalized Learning (Corwin Press, 2019).

I developed this theory for personalization shortly after leaving Silicon Valley in 2017, and I did so having witnessed the maladaptive and dehumanizing effects of personalized learning technologies in classrooms.

Learning that’s inherently personal and meaningful still matters–even when we are teaching in a pandemic. In fact, it’s probably even more important when we’re teaching from a distance. We must be even more inquisitive, even more mindful, and even more intentional when personalizing learning during a pandemic. It’s all too tempting to put kids on personalized learning programs, but we must resist and consider the alternatives.

Tip 1: Use digital technology as a means for keeping students connected–not as a means for individualizing learning or “keeping them busy.”

Generally speaking, I like to consider a few key questions prior to choosing technology for my classroom:

  1. Does the tool minimize complexity?
  2. Does the tool maximize individual power and potential?
  3. Does the tool reimagine learning experiences?
  4. Does the tool preserve or enhance student connection?

The final question is especially important to consider when teaching from a distance. Too often, teachers resort to web-based, adaptive tools that individualize content and attempt to accelerate students through curriculum. Good teachers know that this is not learning; we know that this is content consumption and regurgitation, dehumanizing the learning process and engendering dependent learning habits. As Zaretta Hammond shares in Culturally Responsive Pedagogy and the Brain, dependent learning operates in opposition to culturally responsive pedagogy and student liberation–meaning that it operates in opposition of our goals for humanized teaching and learning.

But that’s not to say that technology can’t help us personalize learning and provide quality instruction while teaching from our homes. In a recent Edutopia article on humanizing digital pedagogy, I wrote about creating opportunities for dialogue, discourse, and self-reflection using digital tools like Seesaw and Google Meet. Simple tools like these allow for the free-flow of dialogue and the easy sharing of photos of student work; they create opportunities for connection and collaboration, assuming, of course, that teachers and students have access to devices and Internet connection.

Web-based, adaptive tools like Khan Academy, Dreambox, or Lexia dehumanize digital pedagogy, centering content acquisition as opposed to learner-centered academic and personal growth. In most cases, these tools actually chip away at human connection by siloing and tracking students–and we can’t afford to do that in an era where social distancing and communicating through screens are required. This requires us to think of personalized learning not as individualized learning, but instead as learning that is multi-dimensional, creating points for students converge in whole-group or small-group settings, as well as diverge and create space for individualization, when appropriate.

Tip 2: Think of personalizing learning in three dimensions.

I recommend doing this whether you’re teaching digitally or not–but it’s especially true when you are required to use digital technology to reach your students. You can read more about these three dimensions in my book, Reclaiming Personalized Learning–but here’s a preview.

In the first dimension of personalized learning, we cultivate a collective consciousness in the classroom. This matters because all human beings are social in nature, and as a result, learning must be a social and connected experience. By grounding all students in a collective experience (i.e., a common minilesson, provocation, or guiding question), students are immediately connected to one another and can learn together. This matters for making learning experiences personal and meaningful, and it can be readily achieved using Google Meet or Zoom. For reading or writing workshop, this may look like modeling a skill before students apply it on their own, and in math workshop, this may entail using one of Jo Boaler’s open-ended, low-floor/high-ceiling tasks.

In the second dimension, teachers leverage small group instruction for a few reasons. When most teachers think of small-group instruction, they think of grouping by ability or academic level. But if we only group students by ability level, we run the risk of tracking them, which once again, works against our collective goals for equity in our classrooms. That’s why, when grouping students, we must create both heterogeneous and homogenous groups. On the resources page, I’ve provided some tools for efficiently grouping students into both ability-similar and mixed-ability groups.

Here’s an example of how I have used a two-dimensional grid to create both heterogeneous and homogenous groups. On one dimension, I have kids grouped by similar abilities that I aim to target in small groups. On the other dimension, I have kids groups heterogeneously, allowing me to leverage the benefits of cognitive diversity in a setting that’s more intimate than whole-group instruction.

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In the third dimension, consider students’ individual learning trajectories and the inner dialogues that govern their decision-making. By leveraging the workshop model, conferencing with students one-on-one, and finding opportunities for individualized feedback, it is possible to help students continuously make progress that is unique to them. Individual student conferences can go beyond providing individualized feedback; teachers can also take time to continuously get to know students on a personal level, better understanding their interests, learning habits, and pieces of their identities, which brings me to my second tip.

Tip 3: Center students’ identities and take into account inequities pronounced by the pandemic.

Personalizing learning cannot just be about ability level–despite the fact that so many do this. In fact, if you’re considering skill level and academics without considering identity, then you’re going about it completely wrong. We have to take identity into consideration with personalizing–whether we’re in the classroom or teaching from a distance.

The digital divide has only made the inequities of our education system more pronounced. Schools in White neighborhoods are disproportionately well-funded, allowing for easy access to digital technology that supports live learning sessions, while students in Black and Brown neighborhoods are more likely to have limited access to the digital tools (due entirely to a lack of equitable funding) necessary to allow these three aforementioned dimensions of personalized learning to come alive. Even if schools are able to provide access to digital tools and Wifi, Internet access can be inconsistent, at best. This also doesn’t take into account the barriers that some families have encountered with maintaining employment while their children are at home.

Given the diversity of constraints and barriers that so many families are facing, it is imperative that we center students’ identities, so that we can take into account the barriers that impact access to learning. Students may need more breaks, extended time on assignments, and perhaps even curricular modifications. This is tricky because, in the process of personalizing, we must make sure that we aren’t creating more barriers or inequities while modifying workload or accommodating individual student needs.

A New Vision for Learning

We’re left with no choice. We will never be able to go back to the “normal” we knew before COVID-19. But that might actually be a good thing. Normal was inequitable. Normal was wrought with flaws.

Instead, we have to forge a new path, and at the start of that path must be our humanity. Recent world events are challenging us to stop where we are, to listen to leaders like Bettina Love and Dena Simmons, and to get in touch with our own humanity so that we can help our students connect with theirs while learning.

If you are still curious about this idea of personalizing in a pandemic, please join me and Carol Tomlinson next week for the first session of my book club on Reclaiming Personalized Learning.

We would absolutely love to have you.

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