Joining the “Constructive Controversy” – A Response Inspired by Annie Murphy Paul’s “Against Personalized Learning”

By Allison Zmuda and Bena Kallick

kids and technology
Contrary to popular belief, technology is not synonymous with personalized learning.

Annie Murphy Paul wrote a thoughtful blog post with a provocative title, “Against Personalized Learning.” She described the popularity of personalized learning as an idea — a “head-nodder phrase” as she calls it — recognizing “that students are all individuals, with different experiences and different preferences.” Paul also contends that new learning should be “carefully sequenced and scaffolded” to maximize effectiveness and enjoyment.

We actually believe the biggest problem with personalized learning is the way personalized learning is being defined. It is frequently confused with individualization, which provides student control over the pace in which they learn as well as control over when students are ready to demonstrate learning. In this model, teachers are becoming managers of a learning experience where their talents, pedagogy, and training are not being sufficiently tapped.

True personalized learning is NOT students plugging into a device and independently working through a module that was designed by a software platform or a classroom teacher. We absolutely agree with Benjamin Riley’s suggestion that we must “disentangle technology from personalization,” especially considering the way technology has become incorrectly synonymous with personalized learning in the eyes of many.

We would like to offer a more robust definition of personalized learning.

What is Personalized Learning?

Understanding By DesignPersonalized learning is a progressively student–driven model where students deeply engage in meaningful, authentic, and rigorous challenges to demonstrate desired outcomes. We break down this definition below:

A progressively student-driven model is dependent on the degree to which scaffolding is helpful and needed based on background knowledge of the topic, interest level of the student, and responsiveness of the teacher/school.

The degree to which students deeply engage comes from learning experiences where they have a degree of independence to play, problem-solve, and fail openly to better understand the concept, topic, or skill. They uncover ideas and test them out through discussions, prototypes, and creations to share their approach, justification, or perspective.

Meaningful, authentic, and rigorous challenges describe why students become more deeply immersed in the learning experience. To engage students, the learning has to be novel and complex enough to hold their attention, but still interesting enough to motivate them to stick with the difficulty of revising, re-imagining, or restarting.

Desired outcomes of learning are the expectations we have of our students, the desired results of learning (Stage 1 of Understanding by Design). Clarity on the end in mind does open up space for flexibility in how students can show what they learned (Stage 2) as well as personalizing the learning plan (Stage 3).

Why is Personalized Learning Relevant?

What is happening in many schools — teachers working hard to cover curriculum so that students can be “educated” as demonstrated by their capacity to remember and respond with the appropriate fact, theorem, interpretation, or explanation — is woefully insufficient.

In a recent blog post, Will Richardson challenges educators: “Of all the difficult, complex questions we should be asking about the school experience at this moment, this may be the most important: Should our primary focus be on ‘educating’ children, or should it be on developing them as learners?”

This reminds us of the late Grant Wiggins and his powerful line that the point of school is not getting good at school — school should get us ready for life. We are not advocating for what Paul may have implied: personalized learning where students are in control of what to learn, how to demonstrate learning, and what learning path to take instead of or independent from the teacher.

Back to the beginning and why we are adding our voices to the “constructive controversy” (we love that term too). The “system of education that acknowledges and accommodates both realities” — one that honors the learner in front of us as well as respects what novice learners need — is something that many schools, educational leaders, and thought partners continue to explore and envision. There are promising models that create room for investigation, creation, and sharing that go far beyond a “one size fits all model” but still honor rigorous goals set out in the local curricula and aligned with state, ministry and national expectations.

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