Don’t Let Personalized Learning Become the Processed Food of Education

There’s a lot that’s appealing about personalized learning, properly construed. Rather than march a classroom of students through academic material at the exact same pace, regardless of their discordant levels of readiness or their varying degrees of background knowledge, personalized settings allow schools to target instruction to the exact needs of individual children. It’s not meant to be a euphemism for “computer-based instruction,” but a version of differentiation that uses a variety of approaches, from tutoring to peer discussions to teacher-led lessons and, yes, some digital resources. Done right, it doesn’t give up on academic standards, either. Instruction may be personalized but all students are still expected to master all the knowledge and skills that will prepare them for the next step in their learning and for eventual success beyond school.

Hooray for all that. But after seeing a version of personalized learning in action recently, I’m worried that it may be reinforcing some of the worst aspects of standards-based, data-driven instruction. Namely: It might be encouraging a reductionist type of education that breaks learning into little bits and scraps and bytes of disparate skills, disconnected from an inspiring, coherent whole.

Personalized learning enthusiasts might look to the food industry for a cautionary tale. In his best-selling book, In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan discusses the notion of “nutritionalism.” As Americans have become more health-conscious in recent years, food companies have developed new products that are “nutritious”: They are low-fat, or low-salt, or high in protein, or high in Omega 3s. But these heavily processed foods, it turns out, still aren’t as healthy as regular old natural ones: fruits and vegetables; lean meats; whole grains; beans; and the like.

So, too, with great teaching and learning. Picture an elementary school. Yes, there’s a long list of skills that kids need to master and for which an individualized approach would work fine: decoding; spelling; writing letters and numbers; counting to one hundred; keyboarding; and so forth. Measuring children’s progress in learning these skills is the sort of thing that assessments like iReady’s can readily do, and then point teachers and parents toward learning modules that will help them take the next step.

Yet there’s so much else that we also want young children to experience and that’s hard—maybe impossible—to break down into little bits. It’s also tough for the kiddos to do on their own, especially before they can read well. For instance: enjoying a great work of children’s literature; learning about the country’s founding and other key parts of American history; exploring the Greek myths; studying folk heroes; putting on a play; performing a concert; and figuring out how to get along with others.

Yes, there’s a lot of promise in videos and apps in teaching some of this sort of content, too, as I’ve written before. And there’s no reason that a “personalized” classroom can’t mix and match the more individualized approach for the discreet skills with more communitarian methods for the other stuff. There’s no reason—but are schools making sure that’s happening?

I visited a public K–8 school a few weeks ago that is implementing personalized learning. What I saw concerned me. The school was obsessed with standards, which were printed everywhere. But teacher-led instruction had become practically verboten. Everything looked like distilled and fragmented test-prep. It reminded me of the kind of boring, uninspiring, skills-centric standards-based instruction that my colleague Kathleen Porter-Magee has warned us against, especially for English Language Arts (ELA).

After students learn how to read, the “outcomes-focused” instruction that characterizes the standards era needs to adapt as the classroom shifts to English language arts. Then we must stop trying to teach reading the way we teach math. Rather, we need to view the skills and habits described by the standards as tools—tools that can and should be honed over time, in service of understanding and analyzing great texts, but that are not the “content” of reading instruction.

The way to do that is to forget about teaching individual ELA standards, and instead to teach a wonderful, aligned curriculum. (Here’s one that looks great to me.) Decide what novels, stories, and books are worth students’ time and teach those to the standards.

That would be a huge change from the practices of many “standards-based” classrooms, and personalized-learning ones as well. Teachers would stop projecting the day’s standards-to-be-tackled on the board; they would stop asking students to determine whether they have mastered a particular standard, and how to know when they’ve mastered it—practices I saw at the school I visited. They would stop planning lessons by “back-mapping” from the standards. They would simply adopt a great curriculum that is aligned to the standards, then forget about the standards and teach the curriculum instead. In other words, they would serve fresh fruits and vegetables, rather than processed foods with all of the “right” nutritional values.

That’s hard to do, though, in a personalized classroom, if the model is premised on the idea that we can break knowledge and skills into discreet standards and progressions, and if teacher-led discussions are discouraged. Perhaps that works for math. But for English? History? Science? Art and music? Character, values, and self-control?

Maybe what I saw was an exception. Perhaps most schools across the country are making wise decisions about how to use personalized learning to enhance the educational experience, rather than squeeze all of the joy and inspiration out of it. Maybe teachers are using small doses of digital instruction so they have more time, or smaller groups of students, for the main event: introducing kids to great works of literature, or big ideas in science, or the sweep of human history.

Maybe. But we in education have a bad habit of taking good ideas to their logical extreme. Let’s not fetishize skills and progressions and standards and personalization. Let’s not double-down on the old industrial model, by turning it into the robotic model. Let’s not mimic the food industry, for instance, turning a cauliflower into “cauliflower rice,” which may have certain virtues but loses the shape and the majesty and the opportunities presented by an entire cauliflower. Let’s serve kids a nutritious meal, not one made up of little bits of nutrition.

—Mike Petrilli

Mike Petrilli is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, and executive editor of Education Next.

This post originally appeared in Flypaper.

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