The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

My Reactions To the Concept of Personalized Learning

on October 29, 2016

As I promised, today’s post gives my reactions to the beliefs and actions that have emerged from the introduction of Personalized Learning, as I understand them.  Digesting all the material in the Education Week booklet was difficult for me, so I may have interpreted some things incorrectly or been unfair in my judgments.  I would like very much to hear the opinions of readers who may be more familiar with the concept that characterises Personalized Learning and its performance so far.


Now that I know what personalized learning (PL) means, I realize that I can’t support it. What is clear to me is that PL is tied tightly to the CCSS, high stakes testing, and judgments made about the quality of students, teachers, and schools. Those three pillars of federal education policy have controlled public schools for most of this century so far; and there are not likely to be any school programs or teaching practices that do not bow to their power.

The word that has fooled me for some time– and probably many other people —was “personalized.” I thought it meant that schools would help students to choose, shape, expand, and use their learning to fit their needs and interests. But, alas, it means only that they will be given different types and amounts of assistance to acquire the the skills and information that government leaders and selected “experts” have determinedto be necessary for success in college and the work place.

Nevertheless, as I read the descriptions of PL being applied in some schools today, I had to admit that it might be better than much of the lock-step teaching and student learning expectations of the recent past. At least, PL acknowledges that students who don’t “get” stuff right away deserve some help; and to some extent it allows students to work on projects and give public demonstrations of their learning.

From what I read about the commercial programs being sold to schools, their key components are different forms of presenting information, and additional –perhaps better– explanations of concepts, key skills, and how to learn them. As might be expected, many of the educators consulted seem to think that they also differ widely in quality. Since I read only a few vague descriptions of such programs in the Ed Week booklet, I cannot make any judgment. But I do hope that the schools using such programs have enough variety in every classroom to serve the range of needs and preferences of all students.

Whatever their virtues or weaknesses may be,  PL commercial programs also present some new problems in the expense of the programs and the technology needed to use them, the difficulties of keeping track of student progress in those programs, and the complexity in changing teachers’ roles. I’m also afraid that many teachers will resist those role changes or feel they are incapable of making  them. Also, the presence of multiple commercial programs in every classroom may make it necessary to hire assistants to manage the technology and keep records of students’ progress.

Finally, I feel that our schools are being pushed too fast into accepting a new way of operating that is far from being proved effective. So far, research attempts have failed to produce strong and clear answers; and, I can’t help thinking that one of the reasons is the weakness of the PL concept. It is not at all certain that various types of assistance and more technology will make every student a winner in the sense that the federal government defines it.  Another reason is that the concept of a good education needs to change with the times, and ours has not. Our schools should be modernizing their K-12 curricula, high school course requirements, student discipline practices, class sizes, and the definition of “learning*. Our educational system is still seriously flawed because it has focused on what the people in power believe will raise our status on international tests, and not at all on the needs and aspirations of the young people who are now just subjects in a risky experiment.

  • “Learning is not climbing someone else’s ladder, but weaving your own web from the bits of meaning and beauty you find along your way.”
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8 responses to “My Reactions To the Concept of Personalized Learning

  1. Anne Kolibaba Larkin says:

    Wondering if “personalized learning” is just another take on “intervention program.” Could also be another term for “differentiated instruction” or “universal access.”

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    • writerjoney says:

      Unfortunately, I think it’s just another intervention. The sad thing is that I knew teachers who really personalized learning in ways that were simple but honest but their work goes unnoticed. I will write about some great things I saw next week.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Doug Garnett says:

    This has been a great series, Joanne. And I share your concern.

    It’s classic tech marketing (in any field) for the tech companies to name something the category we want (artificial intelligence, personalized learning). But for the products to not deliver what the name implies. (IBM’s CEO recently observed that AI is really are merely “assisted intelligence” – to help people use their intelligence more effectively.)

    True personalized learning is a great goal. But seems to me the minute it is systematized through bureaucracy or technology, it has failed. Because they are both the opposite of personalized.

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  3. Don Bellairs says:

    Schools need to be pushed. Most are anachronistic institutions perpetuating “lifestyles” for oblivious kids and too many uninspired, unaccountable veterans.
    The movie “Moneyball” demonstrated how the use of objective data immediately improved the goals of an under-performing baseball team. As a lifelong fan (the adjective “rabid” is automatically implied) of the University of Kentucky’s amazing basketball program, I know that the coach who gets the most players into the NBA (where they are prepared to be successful) has embraced “analytics.”
    Advances in technology give us a lot of opportunities to earn about our students–and our teachers. These can only be positives in a time when the efficacy of our public schools spirals downward and accountability is already nonexistent.

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    • Doug Garnett says:

      Just thinking here, Don. I work with a lot of data and decision making for human efforts based on data. My experience is that data sometimes delivers that kind of value. Quite often it doesn’t.

      My good friend (and brilliant man) @ShahinKhan has observed that “The ratio of relevant data to irrelevant data will asymptotically approach zero.” Meaning that we have to search harder and harder to find data that’s meaningful.

      I’m personally skeptical of the number and value of the opportunities data provides to learn about students. In a sense, there’s vast sums of data that “could be” helpful. But in our business we seek only “actionable” data – data where taking action based on what we learn makes a significant data.

      Perhaps expressing it differently…there’s a lot of potential data around learning but finding actionable data is hard.

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  4. Joanne, it is unfortunate that you are basing your understanding of personalized learning on the Ed Week report. It is definitely biased toward a definition of PL to which you are justifiably objecting. I find iNACOL and the Nellie Mae Foundation to be much better sources on the topic of personalized learning.

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  5. […] addition, you may want to re-read a piece I wrote earlier:”My Reaction to the Concept of Personalized Learning“, posted on October 29th, 2016.  You can also find it in “The Treasure Hunter” […]

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