Personalized Learning

“Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.”

Thomas Gradgrind, the tyrannical Headmaster of Charles Dickens’s Hard Times may have been a satirical cliche, but in these days of oppressive standardised testing it’s hard not to believe that he’s alive and well and driving education policy. A friend on Facebook recently shared a link to an American school test. It was a tongue in cheek opportunity for adults to see how they match up to what is required of young children. However, what was most disturbing for me was that almost every question was purely asking for regurgitation of a fact to answer multiple choice questions. Worse, a small amount of knowledge invariably told you that two of the four possible options offered were nonsense, so you only had to guess between the other two. Everything was based at the very lowest levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning. If this is what we offer and call it education, should we be at all surprised if most children are switched off from school and learning?

A cynic would have to suspect that the Gradgrinds are really on a mission which does not include the mission to really develop lifelong learners who take 100% ownership for their own learning, who love the learning process and have a growth mindset that reflects a belief that the more they learn, the more they can learn – without limitations.

This is the backdrop to ever increasing numbers of children being pulled out of the mainstream education system by intelligent, thinking parents for home schooling, unschooling or various other options. The response from within ‘big education’ has been personalisation. It’s been getting hotter and hotter as a topic over the last few years. The starting principle is to understand the learning needs, motivation, disposition and interests of each child and to then meet them where they are. Differentiation brings different teaching methods, types of task, assessments whilst not necessarily changing the end goals or longer term expectations of each pupil.

Personalisation has attracted the attention of many in Silicon Valley, especially as they have been concerned about the educational experiences of their own children. This has seen them bring together two elements – personalisation and their passion for ‘big data’ – the belief that IT is the tool to be harnessed to deliver true personalisation. There is some logic in this. If you think about how many iPhones are in use in the world, every one of them has a different configuration, set up, selection of apps and settings – all based upon the way the individual owner uses it. This is personalisation on a massive scale.

Here is a recent article that indicates that after stuttering first steps in to the education arena, Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan are now intent on pumping a large amount of funding in to this arena of harnessing technology to support personalisation;

Edweek – Zuckerberg To Bet Big On Personalized Learning

I think, if all this money is to lead to valuable outcomes that raise the standards of schooling and bring benefits to education, then it’s key that the IT technology tail doesn’t try to wag the education dog. Children, their needs and their education have to be the driving force. Here’s a very interesting article from the NewYorker that looks at a boutique chain of schools – AltSchools that has gone beyond simply seeking to be a hi tech deliverer to the education profession by actually setting up their own schools that they then use as centres of research and experimentation as they explore ways to harness IT for improvements in education. As the article makes clear, it’s far from a smooth path and there will be many twists and turns;

NewYorker – AltSchools Disrupted Education

Perhaps the biggest clash in this whole equation is going to come from the fact that, in order to justify all this investment and to prove (or refute) the evidence that IT and large-scale data collection can facilitate true personalisation of the educational experience, people are going to want things they can measure. They are going to want to look for measurable, quantifiable changes in the child, a class of children or a whole school. However, regrettably, so many of the outcomes that we look for when educating ‘the whole child’and developing lifelong learners equipped with the skills to succeed in life don’t lend themselves to being measured. If, as a result of this education, the children were to grow up as more empathic, higher integrity humans with the levels of resilience, stamina and creativity to contribute more to the world than if they had been educated in more traditional ways, that evidence is very unlikely to be available in any of their data.

Hmm, this needs some more thinking. Otherwise, we’ll just finish up with another unpalatable replacement for the standardised testing. Good that we’re experimenting. Good that we’re looking at how technology can bring positive change. Bad if we let the technology call the shots.


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