Thoughts on Personalized Learning

In the article “Let’s Celebrate Personalization: But Not Too Fast’, C. A. Tomlinson discusses the questions that teachers and administrators need to ask before reforming their schools according to the broad category of personalization. Personalization covers any method or instructional tool intended to adjust the direction, pace, and even subjects taught, to the level of the individual student. The end goal is to make each student enjoy school by making him/her feel the learning methods were designed just for her/him. At the furthest extreme, students design their own curriculum, and study whatever they want at the fastest pace they can handle.

Intuitively, the resources required to tailor an entire curriculum to each student would be staggering, and this is why schools formed a one-size-fits-all approach to begin with: there aren’t enough qualified teachers for every student to have a private tutor, and most jobs have a certain set of skills in common, starting with reading, writing, and arithmetic, that would benefit from a group of students listening to the same teacher. Usually, personalization is considered feasible using computers and the Internet, with a teacher simply monitoring students’ progress and trying to grade according to loose guidelines set by the online tools.

The biggest concern I have is whether personalization can truly be taken to the level where students make all their own choices. A cynical part of me suspects that many students, given the option to learn “whatever you want,’ will choose “nothing.’ If every child grew a desire to learn as much as possible, schools would never have needed to exist, as everyone would be self-taught. It’s not that they don’t necessarily have an idea what they want for their future; rather, their interests might be too specialized for a full career, or suited only to a career with very limited available jobs, like film actor, pop musician, or professional athlete.

Teenagers aren’t always prepared to make lifelong career decisions at their age, which is why education is structured in America to keep the curriculum as broad as possible through the end of high school, and not allow students to narrow their focus until they are in college (and legally adults). But it’s difficult, for example, to convince my ninth graders that they need to understand chemistry and physics, if they hadn’t already been inspired by an earlier influence to work in engineering or research.

If the goal is to help every student succeed, teachers will always encounter students who resist learning. Then the goal should be “You’re required to be here and required to know these things, so we might as well make the process as painless as possible.’ Personalization then is a matter of providing the tools to assist struggling learners with the standardized topics we tend to fall back on.

This more understated method of “personalization,’ differentiated instruction, is being pursued at my school through Achieve3000, an online tool that supplements our in-house curriculum by rewriting nonfiction articles to different approximate reading grade levels. This allows students to learn the same concepts to a depth proportional to their pace and comfort level. Upper-level science and social studies classes have used it to apparent success, but I haven’t had a chance to use it yet. I’m working on presenting the concepts of my lessons visually for struggling readers, but with advanced formulas for the high-achieving reading and math students; and offering quizzes with a mix of very simple questions (the concepts I need everyone to know) and challenging math for the high achievers.