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Personalization: When Square Pegs Meet Round Holes

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Tailors are busy people.  It's personal thing.  We all want our clothes to fit. 

Once upon a time, when we ordered a cup of coffee, our options included cream, sugar, both, or black.  Now, we expect our favorite roast to blend with a mélange of specific flavors that match our particular taste.  A lot of us like to have it served in a place that has a certain style.  That in itself is worth an extra buck or two.  Sure, there are tons of people who never touch the stuff, but even many of them like the aroma, and, let's face it, the coffee shop is a good place to take care of email.

Now, consider this.  A parent walks into a classroom, sits down with the teacher, fires up the family laptop, and announces, "Our neuropsychologist just did an fMRI scan of our daughter.  I want to share the results with you.  As you know, she's a good student, but the report is pretty specific about how you can further motivate her to learn."  Wow, the epitome of personalization.  As a teacher, what do you do with that counsel?  You probably worry about a level playing field.  What about the kids whose parents can't afford it?  Should we require that they all have an fMRI?  If so, who will pay for it?  What about those parents who don't want their child to have an fMRI?

It's not so wild a dream.  In fact, a new profession is emerging, Mind-Brain and Education (MBE).  This relatively new field encompasses neuroscience, philosophy, linguistics, pedagogy, and developmental psychology.  What we know about how the brain grows and develops can help us in our ongoing quest to personalize.

We all know that technology can be a valuable tool, especially if it helps us build on a foundation of sound teacher and student relationships.  Computer programs can chart a student's day-to-day progress in discrete areas of the curriculum, provide instant feedback and reinforcement, and give a thoughtful teacher a set of sensors that pinpoint where help might be needed.  While being data-driven makes sense, so does being sensor-driven, constantly in touch with opportunities to personally help a student succeed and discover the thrill of learning.     

Of course, there are other ways.  One is to simply get to know our students even better.  The best educators have always paid attention to learning styles, interests, talents, hopes, and dreams.  Understanding differences helps us personalize.  Rallying around common goals that we reach in a diversity of ways strengthens our sense of community. 

The more we know the better our chances of tailoring education for each student.  All together now, let's sing "Getting to Know You..."

On the other hand, forces in society are pushing our education system toward standardization.  If we teach everybody the same thing at the same pace, then test them, we get a score, a rating, or a ranking.  We compare those numbers, and that makes the news.  The whole process makes it easier to ignore social, economic, and cultural factors that can make a big difference in achievement.  We are left with an impression that we can get our education scores the same way we get box scores for football, basketball, baseball, hockey, and soccer.  We know it isn't that easy.  Simply put, we don't all fit in the same box.   

Growing numbers of educators are getting concerned that their goals are becoming numbers in a news story rather than fully educated people.  Constructive restlessness is simmering among parents, communities, and nations who know that our future depends on discovering and developing unique talents and abilities.  Unfortunately, one way to increase those numbers is to narrow the curriculum to a few things that are more easily tested.  Interests, motivations, and aspirations of students fall victim to the numbers game.  Sometimes students lose interest.  Too often, we lose them.

Standards can be helpful if they are flexible enough to meet the needs of a fast-changing world.  Testing and assessment are essential but, at their best, they give us clues about how we can improve education for each individual student.  If we hope to personalize, we need to focus on those clues rather than seeing a few numbers and rushing to conclusions. 

Schools are often among the largest organizations in a community.  Yet, they are expected to deliver one of the most personal services.  That's why educators and communities should pay particular attention to individual needs and interests, along with the imperative of producing good members of a civil society.

Laurie Barron is superintendent of the Evergreen School District in KalispellMontana.  She served as a member of an international Futures Council 21, which generously provided counsel as we developed our book, Twenty-One Trends for the 21st Century.  This noted educator reminds us that, "One size does not fit all.  There should be one goal: high achievement, and there should be multiple paths to meet that goal: personalization."

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