Palimpsest: “A manuscript, typically of papyrus or parchment, that has been written on more than once, with the earlier writing incompletely erased and often legible (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, fourth edition, 2000, p. 1265).
Personalized learning, i.e.,tailoring knowledge and skills to the individual student, has been the dream of Progressive educators since the early 20th century and put into partial practice then, in the 1960s, and now. The School of One, AltSchool, and different contemporary versions of online and teacher-student interactions–a sub-set of what many call “blended learning“–have written over the original Progressive rhetoric and actions of a half-century and century ago. Knowing that Progressive under-text about past efforts to educate Americans–the “earlier writing incompletely erased and often legible”–could bring a sharper perspective to the contemporary claims that champions of personalized learning–however defined–bring to policymakers, parents, and teachers. That resurrecting of the under-text highlights the pedagogical and efficiency-driven wings of the Progressive movement then and today.
What I do in the rest of this post is clarify the original text of Progressive education a century ago, fast-forward to the 1960s when that Progressive impulse surfaced again, and leap ahead to the early 2000s for the current effort to personalize learning, connecting it to the Progressive reforms decades earlier.
Earlier Progressive movement, 1890s-1940s
In these decades “progressive education” was the reigning political ideology in U.S. schooling. There were two main ideas, anchored in what was then emerging as a “science of education,” that spurred and divided U.S. progressives. First, student-centered instruction, small group and individualized learning (adherents were sometimes called “pedagogical progressives“) and, second, business-oriented advocates of “scientific management” (sometimes called “administrative progressives”) who sought to prepare children and youth to fit into work and society far more efficiently than the traditional schooling of the day. Both wings of the progressive movement drew from the writings of John Dewey and his embrace of science.
School boards, superintendents, and researchers of the day glommed on to “scientific management.” Proud to be called “educational engineers” during these years, these “administrative progressives” created lists of behaviors that superintendents should follow to strengthen district performance and principals could use to evaluate teachers. They measured everything that was nailed down or moved. These efficiency-minded progressives triumphed politically in shaping schools in the early decades of the 20th century. “Pedagogical progressives”and their yearning for student-centered, individualized learning figured large in the words and imagination of advocates but made a small dent in school practice.
Neo-Progressive Reforms, 1960s
Revival of Progressive educational ideas occurred during the 1960s amid desegregation struggles, the war in Vietnam, and cultural changes in society. Neoprogressive reformers, borrowing from their earlier efficiency-driven “administrative progressives,” launched innovations such as “performance contracting.” Corporations took over failing schools in Texarkana (AR), Gary (IN), and 100 other districts promising that their methods of teaching reading (e.g., new technologies such as programmed learning) would raise test scores fast and cheaply. Partial to the corporate managerial strategies in running schools, these reformers sought accountability through the contract they signed with district school boards. By the mid-1970s, school boards had dumped the contracts.
As for the pedagogical wing of the Progressive movement interested in student-centered classroom activities, small groups, and individualized learning, there was Individually Guided Education and “open classrooms“(also called “open education” and “informal education”). The story of how a British import called “informal education” became the reform du jour in the U.S. begins with critics’ heavy pounding of schools in the mid-1950s. Across the political spectrum, critics flailed U.S. schools because education, they believed, could solve national problems arising from Cold War competition with the Soviet Union, caste-like treatment of black citizens, and a pervasive culture of conformity that suffocated imagination. Richly amplified by the media, “open classrooms” in its focus on students learning-by-doing in small groups and as individuals resonated with vocal critics of creativity-crushing classrooms. Thousands of elementary school classrooms–out of a few million–became home-like settings where young children sitting on rugs moved individually from one attractive “learning center” for math to others in science, reading, writing, and art. Teams of teachers worked with multi-age groups of students and created non-graded elementary schools. Both the efficiency and pedagogical wings of the Progressive movement surfaced in the mid-1960s, spread its wings, but plummeted swiftly within a decade.
Personalized Learning Today
The pumped up language accompanying “personalized learning” resonates like the slap of high-fives between earlier Progressive educators and current reformers. Rhetoric aside, however, issues of research and accountability continue to bedevil those clanging the cymbals for “student-centered” instruction and learning. The research supporting “personalized” or “blended learning” is, at best thin. Then again, few innovators, past or present, seldom invoked research support for their initiatives.
But accountability in these years of Common Core standards and testing is another matter. As one report put it:
Personalized learning is rooted in the expectation that students should progress through content based on demonstrated learning instead of seat time. By contrast, standards-based accountability centers its ideas about what students should know, and when, on grade-level expectations and pacing. The result is that as personalized learning models become more widespread, practitioners are increasingly encountering tensions between personalized learning and state and federal accountability structures.
Tensions arise over end-of-year testing, meeting annual proficiency standards, and judging school performance on the basis of student scores. Few policymakers and present-day Progressive reformers eager to install “personalized learning” in their schools have yet taken note of these conflicts.
Current innovations such as “personalized instruction,” “student centered learning, and “blended learning” are written over the underlying, century-old text of Progressive education. Efficiency in teaching students (faster, better, and at less cost) while teachers individualize instruction combines anew the two wings of the century-old Progressive education movement.