Why Personalized Learning Fails

There’s a great discussion going on about the myth of personalized learning, both at Dan Meyer’s blog and at Benjiman Riley’s. Michael Feldstein has also stepped into the conversation, pointing out the two (or more) definitions that seem to be in play here.

I’ve covered this area  more fully before (see last year’s Are Conversation and Customization Orthogonal?). But I’ll just add this.

If you look at the methodologies that have tended to produce great results, structured discussion ranks very highly. That could be peer instruction for physics. It could be one of Dan Meyer’s puzzlers. It could be your Socratic dialogue on the strengths and weaknesses of democratic systems.

I often warn  about overgeneralizing across disciplines but let me overgeneralize across disciplines here: if there is one thing that almost all disciplines benefit from, it’s structured discussion. It gets us out of our own head, pushes us to understand ideas better. It teaches us to talk like geologists, or mathematicians, or philosophers; over time that leads to us *thinking* like geologists, mathematicians, and philosophers. Structured discussion is how we externalize thought so that we can tinker with it, refactor it, and re-absorb it better than it was before.

Is personalization orthogonal to structured discussion? That’s debatable, I suppose.

In practice, do the current forms of personalization in vogue (see, for instance, Rocketship) undermine the ability of a skilled teacher to run productive structured discussions?

Absolutely. Not a doubt in my mind.

Sure, you can have a book club where everyone is on a different chapter. You can have a meeting where people have read the pre-meeting documents at some random time over the past three months. All these things are possible. They just don’t work that well. If the meat of your instruction is discussion, you have to make sure the personalization approach supports that, and that’s harder to do than it looks.

We’ve gotten so used to running around saying education is broken that we forget what an amazing feat it is that what are essentially biological cavepeople go through twelve to twenty years of talking with other cavepeople and at the end of it can land a probe on Mars or dissect the sociological implications of street art. That’s a lot of success to put on the line on a hunch we could do a bit better if we let everyone go at different paces on their iPads. I wonder how many people realize that?




11 thoughts on “Why Personalized Learning Fails

  1. You’re 100% correct, structured discussion is extremely important in the learning environment for kids and adults. However, class cannot be, nor should it be, all discussion based; kids do need to also master skills, sometimes very basic, to engage in the discussions in a meaningful way. Technology allows us to reach our kids on their level for independent practice, which then sets them up for success in whole group discussions and lessons (where they spend the majority of their day).

    While at Rocketship we leverage technology, we also work closely with our teachers on habits of discussion and constantly increasing student talk time to give students maximum time to practice speaking, sharing, and listening with each other. As you note, building on each other’s ideas is one of the most powerful ways to learn.

    It seems like the conversations around blended learning or personalization often turns into this “either this or that” dichotomy, but the reality is it’s “this AND that.” Tech is a tool, not an end-all-be-all.

  2. Hi Rocketship!

    Technology allows us to reach our kids on their level for independent practice, which then sets them up for success in whole group discussions and lessons (where they spend the majority of their day).

    The idea that students must do the clickity-click skill development stuff before they can start to discuss ideas is contradicted by a pile of research, including Saxe’s study of Brazilian street children and the decade of Cognitively Guided Instruction research.

    Their sum finds that kids bring a wealthy understanding of math concepts into the classroom, however informal, and that skilled teachers build on those rudimentary concepts rather than trying to rebuild that foundation or pretend it doesn’t exist.

    I’m curious what research informs your conviction that kids can’t have those discussions without skill development first.

    Thanks in advance. – Dan.

    PS. I’m not saying skill development isn’t important. Just questioning its place and precedence.

  3. We’re not saying IF they skill build THEN they can engage in conversation. Again, it’s about the this AND that. We don’t have a conviction that kid’s can’t have discussions w/out skill development nor did we say that.

    Students need to have prior knowledge tapped – which plays on some skill or prior understanding – (via direct instruction and group discussion), practice that skill, have more discussion, have more practice and so on. Practice and learning come in many forms; exposing kids to the same content with a variety of mediums and methods leads to stronger student understanding.

    Very few students would excel only w/ discussion…similarly, very few students would excel only w/ skill building and practice. Teaching is about balancing direct instruction, group practice and independent work in a way that meets the unique needs of every student.

    Structured discussion fits into many aspects of instruction. However, it’s also worth noting that a strong teacher will lead structured conversation with high levels of differentiation to further personalize learning and we see this happen all the time in our inclusive classrooms. As you said, teachers, “build on those rudimentary concepts.”

    Skills do take precedence in that a students contributing to a class dialogue about long division will have far more relevance if they aren’t still struggling w/ basic number sense. That doesn’t mean they can’t contribute or a teacher can’t find ways to involve them, but that discussion will have far more meaning when the student has the skills. If you look at Dr. Blooms taxonomy, you’ll see knowledge is at the very bottom of the foundation and the higher level skills required for meaningful discussion (analysis, synthesis and evaluation) are at the top.

    Skills are a framework that allow us to push our thinking and discover new things.

    Personalized learning fails when students are tracked into classes with only homogeneous peers or never pushed to excel beyond their comfort zone. But to say that personalized learning fails (as if it is one singular way of teaching) because it’s not structured discussion is absurd and a clear misunderstanding of what personalized learning actually is. We strive to personalize learning for our students in all settings, whether the modality is a team building exercise, a class discussion on how a character in a book shows empathy, or on a computer practicing times tables.

    Excellent teachers know how to balance instruction and that’s the key to student success.

  4. Thanks for the response. I don’t know who around here is promoting skills at the expense of discussion or vice versa but I’m glad we’ve set them straight! It’d be interesting to see how Rocketship manages the balance between those two someday. I don’t think the Frontline report did much justice to the network’s capacity there.

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