Personalized Learning: Hype or Insight?

“Personalized Learning” is all the rage these days.  Like everything else in education (including video games for learning) this rage is part hype, part sales job, part ideological policy advocacy, and part real insight.  But, too often, when things run their course, we end up with the hype, sales job, and advocacy, and not the insight.  And that is all too likely to happen here again.

To me, the deepest part of personalized learning is to take away time as the measure of learning.  Different people learn things on different time scales depending on their characteristics and past experiences.  In many cases, how fast a person learns something is much less important than how well they learn it.  And speed at learning may not be a good indicator of anything other than that the learner came to the task already well prepared to learn based on copious past experience.

Personalized learning can have two different meanings.  It can mean stressing the learner’s own agency, goals, choices, and interests (but WITH mentoring; we cannot expect learners to always be able to make good choices).  Or it can mean that teachers or technologies make choices about what a learner will do in a course of learning based on assessments of the learner’s progress, characteristics, and, perhaps, goals, interests, and experiences.  Of course, these two things can (and often should) be blended in various ways.

Much talk about personalized learning goes on in the absence of a clear statement of what the advocate takes to be a good (correct) theory of teaching and learning and in the absence of what the advocate takes a “person” to be (that is, the “person” to whom we are “person-alizing”).  Personalized learning is going to work differently if it is based on a theory of teaching and learning as facts, decomposed sub-skills, and skill-and-drill than if it is based on a theory of teaching and learning as problem solving, using facts as tools to solve problems, situated and embodied cognition, collaboration, and preparation for future learning.

Personalized learning is going to work differently if it is based on the notion of a person as a set of (dis)abilities, skills, and traits than if it is based on the notion of a person as a body of embodied experiences over time that have either prepared or not prepared them for current learning in a given area.  This latter view of personhood becomes different, as well, when we add to it the fact that people are actually different at different times based on the other people, tools, environments, and activities to which they are connected or networked.  No network and we are dealing with an attenuated person.

Personalized learning can mean fast food for Herman and healthy food for Hermione based on choices they or others have made based on their “individuality”.  But fast food leads to a very different outcome than healthy food and it does no good to argue that we are personalizing eating or meals.  We can always choose a general enough term to make it look like people are getting the same thing when they are not.

And, too, the world will not always customize itself to us.  There are times when all of us have to learn in ways that are required (even for survival) and not in our favored or practiced ways.  But this means, as well, that students need to learn both to adapt to the world, but also to customize (change, modify, “mod” as gamers say) the world, as much as they can, so that they have created circumstances ripe for a fruitful partnership between themselves and the world.  It is hard to do this if the world has always already been prearranged to suit your “needs”—this is personalization as false comfort.

Finally, it seems that some people who talk about personalization quickly move to talking about kids with disabilities, implying that personalization is just a ruse to help such kids and destigmatize them.  But, to me, a good theory of teaching and learning implies that teaching that is not personalized, crafted to, sensitive to the life experiences and trajectories of individuals is not going to be effective for anyone.  And teaching and learning that does not ensure that a person becomes a deliberate learner capable of making good choices, directing their own learning, and “modding” the world for success is not worth all that much for anyone.  Stressing personalization for the kids with disabilities just lets the schools off the hook for using a bad theory of teaching and learning for all the other kids.

Do we really trust that big corporations in need of continual short-term quarterly profits and ideologically-driven politicians will supply the real insights behind personalized learning? 


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