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.

Every Child Unique

It was around 6 or 7 years ago when I talked (and wrote) about the lessons that so called ‘mainstream’ teachers could learn from those who taught children categorized as ‘special needs’. The big take-away I argued was that they already worked out of a paradigm of seeing and treating each child as an individual, meeting their learning needs individualistically instead of as batched cohorts.

One question I was asking was, “Why can’t every single child in a school have an Individual Learning Plan, like the SEN kids?”. I also suggested that as we embrace technology in the education domain this becomes more and more possible, more practical and doable.

So, I’m particularly pleased whenever I come across evidence that progress is being made in this direction – that, however slowly, things are happening. Here’s a nice article in which the writer advocates for the kind of design of schools that enables personalization of experience for every student;

Nobody is average, every student deserves personalized learning

Here also is Todd Rose’s TED talk on the Myth of Average:

The article also provides some great links to other articles and materials to broaden knowledge and understanding in this area.

AltSchool

It’s no surprise to me that we’re seeing increasing focus on experimentation with alternative models for schools, aimed at delivering a better and more effective education to prepare young people for the Twenty First Century.

Here’s a new one from a former Google Exec – called AltSchool. Most of the alternative models have common themes; harnessing IT, greater personalisation of the learning experience, more relaxed environments, students working at their own chosen pace driven by their own objectives.

CBS News – AltSchool – The Next Generation of School?

One aspect that is sometimes emphasised in these kinds of projects is about school size (and/ or class size). However, I believe that this may prove to be a red-herring and contributes unnecessarily to stretching the costs of such education beyond the reach of many. Internationally, most research on class sizes has given very weak or ambiguous results. If we look at the US education system as a whole, as the US sought to address issues of weak relative performance on tests like PISA and TIMMS, a lot of money was pumped in to cutting class sizes (and school sizes). However, this brought little or no gain in relative performance in these international comparative tests. Then, as the economy turned down and funds became tight, so class sizes went back up, but this had little or no discernible negative impact.

Do Google ever worry that their company is getting too big to be ‘personal’ or to get the best out of all the people who form its community? I believe this is looking at the wrong issue. I believe that school size doesn’t have to be a driver/ decider about ability to personalise education. In fact, a bigger school can offer students more flexibility in terms of subject choice combinations etc., especially in higher classes. It also offers the economies of scale that facilitate costly investment in IT infrastructure, online curriculum development etc.

Do We All Mean the Same Thing When We Refer To ‘Personalization’?

The simple answer to that question is – no we don’t. For pure profit motives this term which means a perfectly laudable aim and intention in progressive education has been latched on to, corrupted and made to mean something else when used by the EdTech companies when they come peddling their latest snake oils, charms and amulets.

This article sets out well the confusion that has been caused by the mangling distortions of the word. Plainly, to me, the definition used by progressive teachers that emphasises creativity and freedom of learning paths is the most appropriate use of the word.

Mindshift – Big Ideas Article

One interesting aspect of the article is the reference to current educational testing goals being incompatible with personalisation. I’m really not sure this is necessarily the case. I see personalisation as being very closely entwined with differentiation (not mentioned in the article). As one of the comments below the article points out, school systems will and probably should all have common end goals for every pupil. For example, every student should acquire the skills to carry out algebraic equations to a certain level of competency. However, differentiation and personalisation offer the idea that whilst the eventual end goals may be the same for different pupils, modern educational methods (including those that harness the benefits of IT) enable different students to take different paths to the same destination.

Even differentiation gets subjected to a lot of abusive corruption where it often appears to be a simplistic process of setting students in to different ability groups and then adopting different paths with each group that almost always pre-suppose different levels of eventual outcome (high, medium and low end goal expectations). Instead, I see differentiation and persoanalisation as harnessing all the tools available to educators (include ICT) to enable different students to take different paths, different sequences of units and activities, different pacing and methods, but with THE SAME level of end expectations and goals.

In this way, personalisation isn’t incompatible with common end tests and exams.