“Personalized Learning” Is Redundant

Dan Meyer has just published a provocative post called “Don’t Personalize Learning,” inspired by an even more provocative post with the same title by Benjamin Riley (as well as being a follow-up to Meyer’s post “Tools for Socialized Instruction not Individualized Instruction“). Part of the confound here is sloppy terminology. Specifically, I think the term “personalized learning” doesn’t really mean anything, so it’s hard to have an intelligent conversation about it.

All learning is personalized in virtue of the fact that it is accomplished by a person for him or herself. This may seem like a pedantic point, but if the whole point of creating the term is to focus on fitting the education to the student rather than the other way around, then it’s important to be clear about agency. What we really want to talk about, I think, is “personalized education” or, more specifically, “personalized instruction.” Here too we need to be thoughtful about what we mean by “personalized.” To me, “personalized” means “to make more personal,” which has to do with the goals and desires of the person in question. If I let you choose what you want to learn and how you want to learn it, those are aspects of personalization. Riley argues that radical personalization, where students make all the choices, isn’t necessarily a good thing, for several reasons. One reason he gives is that learning is cumulative and students are not likely to stumble upon the correct ordering by themselves. He asserts that teaching was invented “largely to solve for that problem.” I agree that one of the main values of a teacher is to help students find good learning paths, but I disagree that students are unlikely to find good paths themselves. Teachers can help students optimize, but the truth is that people learn all sorts of things all the time on their own. Teaching is about the zone of proximal development; it’s about helping students learn (and discover) those things that they are not quite ready to learn on their own but can learn with a little bit of help. That’s not the same thing at all as saying that humans aren’t good at constructing good learning experiences for themselves (which is what you get if you take Ryan’s argument to its logical conclusion). Also, I believe in the value of curriculum, but it’s a bit of a straw man to suggest that personalized learning must mean that students decide everything, for themselves and on their own.

And I vehemently disagree with him when he writes,

Second, the problem with the pace argument is that it too contradicts one of the key insights from cognitive science: our minds are not built to think. In fact, our brains are largely oriented to avoid thinking. That’s because thinking is hard. And often not fun, at least at first. As a result, we will naturally gravitate away from activities that we find hard and unpleasant.

Frankly, I think he draws exactly the wrong conclusion from the research he cites. I would say, rather, that we are most inclined to think about things that inspire a sense of fun. We like stories and puzzles. But which stories and which puzzles we like is…well…personal. If you want to to get humans to think on a regular basis, then you have to make it personal to them. My own experience as both a teacher and a learner is that if a person is personally engaged then he or she can often learn quite quickly and eagerly. The same cannot often be said of somebody who is personally disengaged. Of course, one can be personally engaged without having a personalized learning experience, if by the latter you mean that the student chooses the work. But the point I made at the top of the post is that “personal” is inherent to the person. The student may not decide what work to do, but she and only she always decides whether or not to engage with that work. When the work is not personalized, a good teacher is always performing in acts of persuasion, trying to help students find personal reasons to engage.

Meyer is latching onto something different. By “personal” he seems to mean “solitary,” and I interpret him to be responding specifically to adaptive systems, which are often labeled “personalized learning” (as well as “new and improved” and “99.44% pure”). First of all, in and of themselves, adaptive systems are often not personalized in the sense that I described above. They are customized, in that they respond to the individual learner’s knowledge and skill gaps, but they are not personalized. Customized solitary instruction has its place, as I described in my post about what teachers should know about adaptive systems. Customized instruction can also be personalized—for example, students can choose their path down a skill tree on Khan Academy. But I think Dan’s main point is that many of the more interesting and potent learning experiences tend to happen when humans talk with other intelligent humans. We learn from each other, traveling down paths that machines can’t take us yet (and probably won’t be able to for quite a while). It is possible for a learning experience to be simultaneously social and personalized, for example, when students individually individually work on problems they choose that are interesting to them but then discuss their ideas and solutions with their classmates.

So, to sum up:

  1. Humans are generally pretty good at learning what they want to learn (but can get stuck sometimes).
  2. Help from good teachers can enable humans to learn more effectively than they can on their own in many cases.
  3. Sometimes solitary study can be helpful, particularly for practicing weak skills.
  4. Conversations with other humans often lead to rich, powerful, and personal learning experiences that are difficult or impossible to have on one’s own.
  5. All learning is personal. Some instruction is personalized to a student’s individual interests and choices, and some is customized to a students individual skills and knowledge. Some is both and some is neither.
  6. Personalized instruction may or may not include social learning activities.
  7. Customized instruction may or may not include some personalization.

Why do we make this stuff so complicated?

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About Michael Feldstein

Michael Feldstein is co-Publisher of e-Literate, co-Producer of e-Literate TV, and Partner in MindWires Consulting. For more information, see his profile page.
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6 Responses to “Personalized Learning” Is Redundant

  1. With regard to bullet point number 3 “Sometimes solitary study can be helpful, particularly for practicing weak skills.” It’s curious that this point even needs to be made isn’t it? Part of the issue might be that we’ve placed so much emphasis on collaborative learning, the wisdom of crowds, and other communally initiated academic activities in recent years (think of open source) that we forget sometimes that communal experiences are often complemented and fortified by spending time alone. You would think in a society that places as much emphasis as we do on individualism that we’d place more truck in solitude. But I don’t think that’s the case. Look for example at this ngram view of solitude: http://preview.tinyurl.com/lz2scan and this other one on loneliness: http://tinyurl.com/lxspd3o . The decline in talk about solitude, and the concomitant increase in talk about loneliness are suggestive of a larger psychological trend in America that is probably also reflected in education: we’re increasingly less interested in celebrating the virtues of solitude, and we’re increasingly anxious about being alone. Within the tech-ed community my impression is that we’ve accepted these trends at face value: we celebrate interactive learning, and the connected ebook, while often at the same time maligning (or at least calling into question) the person who does their best work alone in a library carrel or holed up at home reading a book offline. We take this aversion to learning alone as “natural.” But in fact, as William Deresiewicz has argued in a Chronicle piece titled “The End of Solitude” (http://chronicle.com/article/The-End-of-Solitude/3708) our gravitation toward collaborative learning, and our skepticism of solitary learning may be historically contingent and very much an unintended consequence of tech innovation:

    “the Internet is as powerful a machine for the production of loneliness as television is for the manufacture of boredom. If six hours of television a day creates the aptitude for boredom, the inability to sit still, a hundred text messages a day creates the aptitude for loneliness, the inability to be by yourself. Some degree of boredom and loneliness is to be expected, especially among young people, given the way our human environment has been attenuated. But technology amplifies those tendencies.”

    Not sure how to summarize the above, except to say that point number 3, um, might not be complicated. But it does have a history that suggests that our receptivity to it’s wisdom has changed in the past and is likely to change again in the future.

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