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Asking the Wrong Question About Personalized Learning

Well, this has gotten really interesting. Every time I run one of these notes on personalized learning, I figure that we're done. And then I get a bunch of notes in response. The common thread is a sense of relief that there's a platform where people are sharing uncomfortable truths about personalization—because those writing to me seem to have gotten a memo that you're not supposed to rain on the personalization parade. It's not that they're "anti-personalization" (I don't even know what that would mean), but they seem to feel that there's one right way to think and talk about personalization—and it's not their way. I find it all disconcertingly familiar. Meanwhile, I figure that one thing I can do is offer a space for those who want share sensible, practical concerns. In that spirit, I thought it worth sharing this note from Leigh McGuigan, who, after working in district leadership roles in New York, Chicago, and Cleveland, is now CEO and co-founder of Vertus High School.

Dear Rick,

I appreciated the recent blog posts from Larry Berger, Joel Rose, and Jonathan Skolnick on getting real about personalized learning. I loved their straight talk about the challenges of "engineering," the need to rethink classrooms, and how to get students to "eat their vegetables." But I wanted to raise a different issue based on our experience at Vertus High School, a blended high school for at-risk boys in upstate New York. Our students arrive at our door very far behind. Most do not know basic math, cannot recognize an adverb, and have never met an engineer. But when they graduate, most will go to college, some to the military or technical training, and a few to living-wage jobs.

We have four years to prepare our students for the world they will encounter. For our boys—like for most people—success after high school will mostly require that they do things someone else's way, on someone else's schedule. Much of this will be boring, and very little will be "personalized." In most colleges, they will be expected to learn what their professor teaches, in the way he or she teaches it. In their jobs, their boss will likely dictate what they should do, and how and by when they should do it. Maybe a lucky few will go to colleges that nurture their individual interests and cater to their learning preferences, and to first jobs with lots of agency to pursue interesting questions as they see fit. But not many. We have a moral obligation to prepare them to succeed in the world they're going to actually encounter.

Of late, it seems that talk of personalization focuses on the question, "What kind of personalization will make school engaging for students?" My experience leads me to think that's the wrong question. And I worry that much of the thinking that results when it comes to personalization approaches fantasy—or educational malpractice.

I think the more useful question about personalized learning is, "How do we personalize learning for students while preparing them for what life will actually be like after high school—which, in truth, will be largely impersonal?" Some might wave this off as a misguided concern, but I think that's a profound mistake and a disservice to our charges. As Vertus has grown over our first few years, this tension has been central to our work.  

An undue focus on "engagement" personalization risks students not building the broad body of secure, automatic knowledge and skills they'll need to succeed in college, and that they may not develop the self-control and grit to independently weather challenges, setbacks, and annoyances. Our students need a great deal of practice in that stuff which we might call "the basics." We've found that we can't let them just rely on their strengths or follow their preferences if we're going to help them master those.

At Vertus, we do personalize, of course. Our students spend about half their time in learning labs completing online courses. We meet each student at their starting point, and each moves through courses at his own pace. In a self-paced environment, we learned early on that we had to provide strong incentives for making progress, as students who have not had success in school don't have a compelling vision of the future to motivate them. We have learned the importance of giving our students explicit instruction and patient practice in how to concentrate and motivate themselves.

We also make it a point to incorporate plenty of traditional instruction. Students spend the other half of their time in typical small classrooms. The so-called "tired old model" of teaching a group of students the same thing in the same way is easy to dismiss, but it is still mainly what students will encounter after high school. In classrooms, students can learn to be part of respectful discussions and how to wait patiently while someone else's needs are attended to. Since many of our students come to us with bad classroom habits, we've doubled down on fostering strong classroom cultures and student engagement. Our students use their classroom time to deepen skills in reading, writing, and math and to learn and practice the specific knowledge and skills that the New York State Regents tests require. Learning to succeed in a classroom and learning material that may not feel relevant or seem interesting are core skills in college.  

Personalization done right can help cultivate self-control and self-motivation, the characteristics that students will need in the real world. But personalization done wrong risks graduating students who are ill-equipped to succeed in the real world, lack important knowledge and skills—and of doing all this because it's trying to answer the wrong question. I hope we're not experimenting on our students to satisfy our theologies, as they won't get many second chances.

I think these kinds of concerns, however annoying and inconvenient, are important. I think having them raised publicly and in measured tones by veteran educators is a gift. It's easy for enthusiasts of any reform to just tell themselves that someone like Leigh "just doesn't get it." They do it time after time in the world of education reform. And each and every time it's a mistake. Here's hoping things will go differently this time.

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