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What Is a Personalized Education, and Why Doesn't Everyone Get One?

There's been a lot of jabber lately about personalized educations. This blah-blah usually centers on the latest incarnation of a cyclical phenomenon: the evergreen idea that we can shape every child's education around his or her unique skills, talents and passions. Most recently, this looks like computer-driven, assessment-based sorting—giving kids tests that "tell us where they are," ever so precisely, then using that information to plan a course of instruction, at the "right" pace (which can also be delivered via technology). Very personal—if you believe that tests give us the information we need.

It's vastly more complicated and nuanced than that, of course. As Audrey Hill, a middle school English teacher in New York, points out in her excellent blog:

Personalization can mean opposite things. It's a kind of verbal tofu... the educational equivalent of soft serve, tempeh, and a tofu veggie burger. It's a sexy new word for a sexy new future: whatever you want to eat will be made out of the same stuff, but it will be made especially for you.

In the parlance of corporate reformers and their Silicon Valley billionaires bosses, personalization is the less lovely, impersonal ability to educate children online using algorithms that adapt to the child through continuous analysis of their online behavior modifying content, pace, product and reward. Personalization on a narrow band. It's a marketing term. It promises a return on its investment.

Hill also describes what a genuinely personalized education might look like—using Yong Zhao's classroom variables of pace, product, content and learning environment. It's good stuff—tailoring what happens in the classroom to those unique skills, talents and passions. It's also as old as time, pretty much, harking back to the tutors hired by the well-to-do in centuries past for the unique children who would inherit their fortunes. Pricey private schools have always stressed their small class sizes and one-on-one approach to teaching little Chauncey what he needs to know to go forth and lead. Even Dewey stressed an individual child's investment in his own learning, a good definition of personalization.

What's changed? As usual, the technology. And the funding.

And also—the assertion that this new version of "competency-based," technology-driven education is actually personalized, and a solution for what ails public schools. You know (sarcasm alert)—government schools with their overstuffed classrooms, batch learning and tendency to let students dribble through the cracks. This individualized content delivery and reiterated mastery is how we will keep track of every single one of those tax-dollar-consuming students.

Sounds good, no?

I want to make two points here. First, there is no such thing as 100 percent personalized learning in a formal education. Even highly regarded 19th century tutors, preparing elite young men to read the law, practice medicine, or write poetry, were using pedagogical methods and common instructional materials designed for other well-born scions. There are disciplinary traditions, and fundamental texts and the literary canon. We've been accumulating and tweaking a core framework of What Kids Need to Know and Be Able to Do for decades, and it's the antithesis of personalized.

Every aspect of a coherent curriculum is chosen by someone, generally because it's believed to be essential for young people to absorb before being considered "educated." Ask any American citizen what children should be learning—there's a great deal of consistency, across the country. There aren't many parents who would agree to a genuinely personalized curriculum—eliminating mathematics, for example, or bypassing written composition, and substituting, say, astronomy or snow-boarding as essential competency.

The second point is that there are excellent reasons for teaching children in groups. Without a cluster of peers, there is no dialogue, no sifting through viewpoints and logic, no collective challenges to received content; there's only the test to see if the student remembers what they've been told.

Learning is social. It happens in context. And the context includes other actors, whether the subject is geometry, economics or choral music. When you strip all peer interactions out of learning, you're left with bare facts and theorems and instructions—content—plus, in competency-based learning, a screen, the next quiz and maybe, if you're lucky, a digital badge.

For many kids and many learning tasks, groups are an excellent way to practice competencies, both academic and (I hate this phrase) soft skills, like sharing, taking turns, listening to others, disagreeing, keeping commitments and generating new ideas.

There are ways to authentically personalize a child's education, but they're not what we're describing as "personal" in 2017.  Here's a story about a girl who deserved, and never got, a truly personalized education:

A few years back, I was teaching a course that my middle school labeled "Enrichment." It was, essentially, a dumping ground for 7th graders who were grossly behind in their regular class assignments, for a variety of reasons. These students were taken out of their elective classes, and scheduled into Enrichment, so that I could stand over them and get them caught up, at which time—theoretically—they would enjoy the reward of returning to physical education or art or life skills classes.

This didn't work particularly well. Most of the kids simply did not want to do the work that had piled up, because it was difficult or boring. By the time they got to Enrichment, there was so much undone homework that their semester grade was already trashed. With teachers offering 50 percent credit on late work, they could beaver away at 25 missing assignments and still fail—so why try? Some of them also preferred spending an hour in a pleasant room with a teacher who would help them with their work, rather than taking it home.

Midway into the first semester, Ariana was placed in Enrichment. Ariana was born in Albania. Her father and his brother had sold their ancestral homes and all their worldly goods and come to America with their families to start a new life. They leased a local restaurant and were working day and night to make a go of it. Ariana spoke little English, but was learning rapidly. Not rapidly enough to stay on top of her work in six classes, however.

It seemed to me that my job was to be Ariana's advocate with her teachers. I went to each of them to ask how to cut down assignments to the most critical skills, and jettison all the undone work. Some of Ariana's teachers were helpful and willing to try to keep her afloat through giving an "adjusted" grade; others just saw a long row of zeros and failing test grades and couldn't see their way clear to actually personalizing the work load and content.

Ariana was one of 150 students they were responsible for—what if every child wanted special consideration? Were they supposed to write new tests and quizzes for her? Were they supposed to create a new grading system for one student?

Ariana was one of the most motivated students I've ever had—and I've taught thousands of middle schoolers. She wanted very much to succeed, to learn quickly. She confided that she had been punished for her bad grades, with her father and uncle believing she was not trying, not doing her best. She had been at the top of her class in Albania—so why not here? She wasn't specific about what "punishment" meant—but it seemed outrageous to me that this kid was diligently trying to find the answers to the questions at the end of Chapter 22 in her Science book, when she had a kindergarten vocabulary.

I gave her early-reader chapter books that my own children had outgrown. She loved Henry and Mudge and the Little House on the Prairie series. Although I was supposed to help her "get caught up" on homework, it seemed more important to me that she learn to read and write in English. She was reluctant to take the gift books home, because she was sure her father would believe she'd stolen them from school. I was never able to make contact with the family; they had no listed phone, except the restaurant, and nobody there who could speak to me in English.

I wish I could say I found the magic keys to personalizing Ariana's education. I mostly floundered, caught between a couple of teachers who resented having such a needy, non-standard student to teach—and a complete lack of resources. There was a single ESL teacher in the county with the ability to speak to Ariana in her native tongue, and she came a couple of times, but was responsible for hundreds of other children, county-wide, whose first language was not English and could conveniently be taught in groups.

Ariana loved the computer, and it was the best reward for her. She'd had no experience with computers, but with a little assistance, went to sites about Albania. Some of my slacker Enrichment boys helped her find sites with Albanian text. Did you know that there are 36 characters in the Albanian alphabet (and sometimes more, Ariana said)? I certainly didn't. She kept calling me over—look at this picture! See these mountains!

Once, she came to class with her gym bag, from which she pulled out a beautiful embroidered blouse and red skirt—treasures from home. Why don't you show them to your social studies teacher, I asked? Maybe you could do a talk on the geography, economy, language, and customs of Albania? No, she said. Seventh grade is American history. My country is not in the textbooks.

Then one day, she wasn't there. As I was cleaning up and getting ready to leave, she slipped into my room and handed me the books I'd given her. Her father had fallen, sliding on some grease on the restaurant floor, and broken his leg. The local hospital refused to treat him, because he had no insurance, and was not a citizen. He was out in their two-family van. The whole family was headed to Boston, because the brothers' cousin told them there was free health care there, and his leg could be set. They were leaving, for good. I insisted she take the books. It seemed like such a small thing.

A couple of weeks later, I got a note from Ariana, addressed to me at school, thanking me for the books and for being kind to her. There was no return address or further information about their prospects on the East Coast, or her father's leg. She was starting over at another school, somewhere.

When I think of how to deal with students as unique persons, I wonder how sift-and-sort competency-based programs deal with bright, ambitious, respectful students like Ariana who simply need time and individual care, the attention of a flexible, creative teacher.  Education can and should be personalized, but there is no single template for successfully doing that. 

Image credit: Pablo

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