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Personalized Learning and Ensuring That Students Learn the Tedious Stuff

There's recently been exploding interest in personalized learning, and it's sparked a lot of terrific thinking. In education, though, such good and sensible ideas frequently come wrapped in faddish enthusiasm, wishful thinking, and self-assurance. I suspect that's why Amplify CEO Larry Berger's frank take on personalized learning resonated so strongly a few weeks back, and why I heard from so many regarding the genial response by NewClassrooms CEO Joel Rose. Well, now, Jonathan Skolnick—who has tackled personalized-learning strategy at School of One, Caliber Schools, and the New York City Department of Education, and is now a VP at the Educational Alliance—has written with a missive that raises one of the thorniest questions about personalized learning: How do we ensure that students in self-directed, customized environments still master skills and content that we think critical—but that they may deem tedious, pointless, and unnecessary? In other words, how do we make certain that empowered students still wind up "eating their veggies"? I thought Jonathan's note, addressed to his old colleague Joel Rose, worth sharing:

Dear Joel,

I've enjoyed your exchange at RHSU with Larry Berger about how to approach personalized learning and the role that an "engineering approach" should play in all this. I've long appreciated your focus on the importance of classroom design and the shape of the teacher's role when it comes to personalization. As you note, given the constraints of an industrial-era school model and the wide range of student needs, the challenges of personalization are just too hard for most teachers.

This brings me to a confession of my own. While I've spent much of the past decade working on a wide range of personalized learning models, I began my career in the classroom. What I really struggled with wasn't so much designing lessons for which students were prepared, but designing lessons about which they cared. Too often, my efforts to personalize around academic-readiness levels never got off the ground because the material itself felt irrelevant and lacking in any real-world application. I sometimes thought that it was as though I was forcing all my students to wear a single-sized top hat to school. Sure, I'd prefer to give them customized top hats that fit, but even more, I'd prefer they not have to wear such ridiculous hats at all.

After all, I know from my own learning that when content is engaging and relevant, you don't need the content provider to do a lot of fancy engineering. Think of a SportsCenter segment on the NBA playoff race, a podcast on the upcoming congressional elections, or a Rick Hess blog post. None of it is personalized in the way we mean when we talk about engineered "personalized learning environments," but if you care about any of these topics, you'll personalize them for yourself and fill in many of your own knowledge gaps.

Here's an example of what I mean. When Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans just before the 2005 school year began, my U.S. History classes spent the first six weeks of the year studying the government's response. I was trying to break out of the chronological textbook curriculum that would have had us, I don't know, making a Venn diagram about the differences and similarities between the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution—or something equally forgettable. Instead, kids of all levels were curious enough about the topic to do their own, personalized research and discovery. Lots of progressive school models have a track record of personalizing learning in this same way—not by customizing or engineering the boring stuff, but by allowing teachers to cut it out of the school experience as much as possible.

At the same time, there are still essential learning goals that require students to eat skill or knowledge "vegetables" that just aren't that inherently tasty. And let's be honest: Progressive school models aren't great at teaching them. It was one thing to have my students throw themselves into drafting creative hurricane-recovery proposals for FEMA, but quite another to teach them the tedious grammatical and statistical-analysis skills required to make such a proposal truly professional.

The larger dilemma here is that some of the things we truly want students to learn may be hard to teach in interesting or engaging ways, and students may sometimes be most interested in and engaged by things that don't lead them towards mastery of critical skills and knowledge.

Faced with this dilemma, personalized learning models such as Teach to One have attempted to make differentiation easier and progress more visible and motivating to both the student and teacher. And I think they've succeeded in making academic "vegetables" more digestible. But I wonder: Have personalized learning models tried to do too much by selling themselves as a replacement for, rather than a supplement to, existing school designs?

After all, critics are right to question whether we are creating a truly personalized learning experience when few things feel less personal than finding the area of a triangle. It's hard to talk about "personalization" if the student feels no innate connection to the goal, and too many "personalized" classrooms short-change this bigger picture (hence the anti-engineering side of the personalized learning spectrum: Big Picture Learning). Tech-enabled, playlist-based personalized learning is perhaps most useful as a component that addresses the specific "vegetables problem" of progressive learning. Such models would devise better ways—including when it comes to the things like staffing, space, and operational design that you mention—to help students master the skills they need to tackle the things they actually do care about.

Thanks to you and Larry for opening up this conversation and giving us a chance to engage on this. I hope we can keep working our way toward models that address both your teaching problem (customizing for readiness) and my teaching problem (customizing for relevance). And I think we'd agree that solving both problems requires the kind of outside-the-box redesign—of space, time, staffing, and yes, even technology—that too many schools today ignore at their own risk.

"Personalized learning" is easy to like. Who would be against it? (After all, it's hard to picture many educators, politicos, or foundation executives who are busy thinking, "I really want to be an advocate for impersonal learning.") What matters, of course, is what that expansive phrase actually means in schools and classrooms—especially when it comes to practical questions, like what happens when a student is wholly disengaged from skills or knowledge we think are essential? Just how much is customization and student-centeredness a goal, and how much is it a tool for ensuring that students do a better job of mastering our prescribed scope and sequence? These are age-old dilemmas, but it's safe to say that confronting them and wrestling with them will boost the odds that personalized learning will deliver on its ambitions.

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