Do not go stupid into that personalized learning blood: Part 1, Mind the evidence

Well, here we go again.

Though very few in education have actual experience with personalized learning, and though many questions remain around recent (but, fairly, somewhat positive) reports of personalized learning’s effectiveness, some very influential groups seem bent on getting the enterprise’s blood pumping about it.

May’s New Schools Venture Fund Summit (think Bonnaroo, only for the Big-‘R’ ed-reform crowd), for example, was heavy with sessions about personalized-learning solutions and potential. The Gates Foundation — with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg riding piggyback — has declared personalized learning its next Big Educational Priority (sigh — been here, done this), and each has engines of truthy journalism again cranking on full to sway hearts and minds. (Note the funding statements, for example, at the end of this and this.)

Close to my Minnesota home, meanwhile, the educationally active Bush Foundation has also prioritized the expansion of personalized learning. And, similar to the Gates/Zuckerberg hype playbook, Bush has promoted personalized learning’s wonders via local events keynoted by the educationally abysmal Sir Ken Robinson and public forums (led mainly by ed media/policy folks, that is) about ‘re-inventing high school’, joined by Minnesota-based ed-innovation outfits like Education Evolving (note some of the breathless ‘personalized learning’-themed content they’ve generated in the past few years here).

While it’s fairly common to see excitement swell over ‘cool practices’ in education, personalized learning’s offer (e.g., foolproof, quickly responsive instruction sculpted to each person’s needs and paces, all powered by innovative, ’21st-century’ delivery methods) has a rare amount of unifying power — something that shouldn’t be all that surprising, considering that personalized learning is so widely appealing.

  • Fans of progressive education, for one, see a tech-assisted realization of the student-centered ideal they’ve had for a century or so, but that all the system’s inept, recalcitrant teachers just can’t seem to get right. (Their characterization of system teachers, by the way, not mine.) Many parents would count in here, too, whether or not they identify as educationally progressive: in short, the idea of personalizing learning is attractive to those who have long wished individual kids’ learning and growth weren’t so tied to whole-group schedules, structures, and methods.
  • Next, the policy wonks who have long chased — and been eluded by — replicable, scalable ed improvements see a solution that could neutralize some of the human element (read: teachers, again) that’s meddled with their vision more times than Scooby Doo and the Mystery Machine gang have disrupted dastardly villains.
  • Additionally, education vendors drool over all the hardware, software, training, maintenance, replacement, and even architecture schools will need to pull off personalized learning, as it should earn enough to put their grandkids through college.

Rolled together, all such parties see personalized learning as something akin to John Dewey’s Lab School, only filled with 1:1 digital devices and Interactive Whiteboards. And, as each of those so completely transformed kids’ results, the combined result could only be amaz…uh, scratch that.

And on scores like those — like, looking at histories and evidence alone — personalized learning is another rush of pumping blood I really hope we don’t wade stupidly and fully into. (I have some more practical and theoretical differences with personalized learning, but I’ll share those in a Part 2 to this post. Should be up in a few days.) This hope is not rooted some hatred of technology in the classroom or of student-centered instruction or any of that. I mean…I don’t like either of those things, but certainly not because I oppose them of themselves. I’d feel much differently about them if they’d ever worked as promised, believe me.

The plain fact, however, is that they haven’t. They’ve historically failed loads of kids — most especially those coming to school with the most profound needs — and cost the enterprise immense amounts of time, funding, angst, and opportunity before ultimately being scrapped.

(And please don’t forget: after these kinds of Next Big Things don’t send achievement through the roof as advertised [and they won’t], the system’s teachers will definitely be left holding the bag on their failures. Ask any funder or reformer about why the promised results didn’t materialize [see Gates, again — the above-linked pieces will give a sample of this retort], and they’ll always point back to [a] teachers who were too dense or too stubborn, or to [b] the fortified-against-change conditions the dense, stubborn teachers have aligned to create. Always.)

If you’re skeptical of these claims, thinking it’s all just some know-it-all Luddite’s ranty viewpoint, please read either this, thisthis, this, this, or this. They’re all well-researched works that should give you about all the history and analysis you should need, and they all say pretty well the same thing about ‘revolutionary student-centered approaches’ like personalized learning. (SERENDIPITY ALERT: A hero of mine, Larry Cuban, put out a blog just today touching on just such themes. See it here.)

Hell, even a co-author of the RAND report everyone’s waving around as definitive proof of personalized learning’s greatness is urging caution, reminding that personalized learning’s success seems greatly dependent on school-contextual factors. It’s a caution I appreciate, especially considering that some of the most personalized-learning-effective school contexts being created are being done so at costs upward of $25K per kid annually — and, if you’re a kid from a family that can afford such price tags in the first place, loads of statistics over a long period of time have indicated that you’d likely succeed about anywhere in American education, personalized-learning-enabled or not.

So…RAND as definitive proof? I think not. In light of the histories I linked above, the questionable parts — and there are plenty — become even more questionable.

In short: before rushing stupid into all the blood pumping around personalized learning, join me in reasonably interrogating the hype. You’re going to see a lot of this hype in the months ahead, as lots of passion — supported by money, lots of money — will make sure you do. When you do, though, follow advice from Dan Willingham’s  very wise (and way too overlooked, if you ask me) When Can You Trust the Experts?: How to Tell Good Science from Bad in Education to slow your rush into the pumping blood:

  1. Strip claims to their essentials (i.e., of emotion, claims persuaders are ‘like you’, analogies, etc) and evaluate for scientific credibility, and Flip promised outcomes to judge whether or not the trade-offs are worth the time/dollars/angst
  2. Trace claims to their original sources to verify when able, don’t just rely on that ‘experts’ or journalists or whoever is giving the fullest, most accurate picture
  3. Analyze claims based on evidence — and ask persuaders to provide such evidence if they do not. Remember, too, that things like Rick Wormeli writings and Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talks do not count as evidence. You should care most about how students grew when studied, and preferably across many demographics and contexts. Smoke may be blown, but don’t take it in without sound evidence.
  4. Asking ‘Should I Do It?’ as in, ‘Does it make sense for my context?’ (preferably in light of points 1-3, above) before jumping to the conclusion that anything is roundly good for every student and teacher everywhere.

For more complete breakdowns of these questions and this decision-making process, see Willingham’s When Can You Trust the Experts? chapters 5-8.

…and, well, if you’d rather not do the homework because you’ve made up your mind about PL’s greatness (even though it hasn’t proven much of anything yet), I have no idea what to say to you. Enjoy your evidence-unbothered life, I suppose. At least you’ll have lots of company.

(Part 2 to follow soon with some practical & theoretical points against personalized learning — with evidence, of course.) 🙂


2 thoughts on “Do not go stupid into that personalized learning blood: Part 1, Mind the evidence

  1. I am old enough to remember the days when film strips and vinyl records were the limits of tech and tv was supposed to be the magical remedy for all ills. My kids lived through word processors and the younger hit college with internet access – again, forecast magical results not achieved. I forsee the same lack of magical results with personalized learning.

    For most kids, choosing content-rich, properly sequenced curricula, grouping by academic level (by subject), and using direct, explicit instruction would probably be the most effective path – with no added cost – but we all know why that will not happen (even in urban schools/districts where those unpleasant demographic realities are not an issue).

    That said, the most academically advanced and motivated kids could benefit significantly- kids with 130+ IQs working well above grade level and capable of an accelerated pace- but the edworld has never shown much interest (any significant interest) in those kids. The attitude that “those kids will do fine anyway” has been around at least since my aunt started teaching, a hundred years ago. The idea that personalized learning will be effective for large numbers of kids with average ability and motivation does not seem reasonable to me, and that it will be effective for kids with IQs below 90 and questionable motivation (and we have many such) seems fantastical.

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