More Comments on Personalization Continuum (Tom Hatch)

Tom Hatch is an Associate Professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. I met Tom at Stanford University when his wife, Karen Hammerness, was a graduate student and took one of my classes. Hatch had worked closely with Ted Sizer, Howard Gardner, and James Comer–leaders of whole-school reform movement in the 1980s and 1990s. He subsequently wrote thoughtfully about theories of action. I used an article he wrote in my seminars for many years (“The Difference in Theory That Matters in the Practice of School Improvement,” 1998 in American Educational Research Journal).

He posted this letter to me April 7, 2017. In it, he offers comments on the  Personalization Continuum that I had drafted, weaving together readers’ comments with his own research and experiences. 

Dear Larry

Your recent post describing the many versions of “personalization” you’ve seen in your visits to schools seems particularly relevant these days for a number of reasons:

Ironically, it’s probably worth noting that this surge in interest in personalization coincides with the closing of the national organization of the Coalition of Essential Schools – founded by Ted Sizer who put personalization on the map in the 1980’s and 90’s.

Your post prompted me to reflect on some of these developments and what I have been seeing in my own research on improvement efforts and “innovation” in several developing and developed countries.  In particular, I think your draft of what you call a “continuum” of personalization in many of the “lessons” you’ve observed nicely highlights the way that personalization often involves a mix of teacher-centered and student-centered activities. One way to expand the continuum and get at some of the complexities that you and your commentators have acknowledged might be to look at the extent to which several different educational decisions are made by teachers and/or students.  For example, many approaches to personalization talk about customizing the goals, the content, and the pace of educational activities. It seems like those approaches at your “teacher-directed” end of the spectrum adapt instruction to the needs/interests of students, but, for the most part teachers are still making the decisions about:

  • What the students should be learning (and why)
  • The materials they should use and the paths they should follow
  • The speed with which they move along those paths

At the other end, students may be making more of those decisions themselves.  In the middle, teachers and students may be sharing those decisions, teachers may make some decisions and students others, and teachers may make those decisions sometimes while students make them at others (e.g. higher performing students may be allowed/encouraged to make more of those decisions than their peers).

To make things more complicated, each decision about goals, content, and pace can be broken down into a whole series of related choices. Decisions related to content and materials, for instance, include who chooses reading materials, what to focus on in the reading, how to read it, and how material should be presented (as one of your commenters, Dylan Kane, noted).

It’s also possible to imagine a whole bunch of other decisions that we might (or might not!) want to take into account.  For example, I’m beginning to experiment with letting my graduate students choose not only when to take on particular assignments but also where (e.g. in the classroom or not; alone or with others).  I also remember passionate discussions at one meeting of educators working on designing a new school (the Celebration School, developed as part of the planned community connected to Disneyworld) about whether or not to enable students to determine the kind of lighting that best suited their “learning style.”

Adding to the complexities, as Laura Chapman pointed out in the comments, these decisions can also be made by those who develop the technologies used to support personalization.  It’s also possible, with the developments in distance and blended learning to imagine a variety of other people, including parents, taking a more direct role in these lesson-level decisions as well. (Extending the scope of personalization beyond “lessons” and courses, and making it a core concept in a reimagined system of education as in approaches like ReSchool Colorado can make it more complicated still.)

However we define the key instructional decisions, I think you’re right that the extent to which teachers or students make those decisions distinguishes many of the current approaches.  I’d be interested to know, though, how often you see personalized approaches that really give students wide latitude and extensive control over their own learning? Chris Ongaro, a graduate student here at Teachers College, is looking at student’s experiences in a variety of “personalized” courses (many of them online), and he tells me that even when students are given choices, those choices are usually extremely limited, rarely allowing students to imagine or pursue their own options.  As he said to me, students may play a role in shaping the means, but the ends are often predetermined.

While I raise these questions, following your descriptive lead, I’m trying not to place a particular value on one end of the continuum or the other.  But as we describe the role of the teacher and the student, I’m also reminded again of what Sizer often said (quoting James Comer, eminent psychologist and founder of the School Development Program):  The three most important things in schools (and school improvement) are “relationships, relationships, relationships.” For Sizer, personalization grew out of the belief that “we can’t teach students well if we do not know them well.”  That relationship both allows those in the role of teacher to recognize and respond to each student’s needs and interests, but it also opens up those in the student’s role to opportunities and challenges they may never have encountered on their own. While I often ask my students these days to explain to me why teachers are needed in schools (truth be told, I also ask them why we need “students”), it may be worth trying to capture something about the nature of the teacher-student relationships in these approaches to personalization as well.  But now your straightforward and clear continuum looks a lot more like one of those polygons and polyhedrons that you and W[ilfred] Rubens discussed…

At the end of the day, though, I see many of the same things you do: approaches to personalizing activities, classes, and courses that are often carried out in the regular school day or within typical course structures and with the expectation that “success” will mean meeting conventional graduation standards, going to college and getting a “good” job.  Perhaps it should be no surprise then, that under these circumstances, as you… put it:

…wherever these classrooms, programs, schools, and districts  fall on the continuum of personalized learning with their playlists, self-assessment software, and tailored lessons all of them work within the traditional age-graded school structure. No public school in Silicon Valley that I visited departed from that century-old school organization.



Filed under how teachers teach, research, school reform policies, technology use

5 responses to “More Comments on Personalization Continuum (Tom Hatch)

  1. David F

    Hi Larry—thanks for this series. I think the dynamic that gets me upset with these sorts of initiatives is that they are generally not teacher driven–I’m going to guess that in most cases you found teachers who were supplied some type of tech and they made use of it, but these were not instances of teachers clamoring for it. Also, where’s the cognitive psychology in all of this? Are these methods demonstrably learning enhancers or are they based on faulty assumptions (learning styles, etc.)? I just read this which is pretty good:

    but also see Paul Kirschner’s recent piece in Computers and Education:

  2. Alice in PA

    The idea of choice in the classroom has been an interesting topic of conversation between my fellow science teachers and science education doc students. Here are two points that come up pertaining to science education, particularly in the high school. They are along a similar vein as my previous comments.
    1) Misconceptions are rampant in science and people develop these strong but naïve beliefs very early. I view one of the roles of being a secondary science teacher is to develop and use specific activities to move my students closer to a scientific understanding. This leaves little room for choice in more than just a cosmetic sense.
    2) Another of my roles as a high school science teacher is to move my students into the community of scientists in their habits of mind and their representations such as diagrams and data organization. These are the basic tools of communication in science. Again, this leaves a smaller window for choice in the sense of ” choose how to show your learning via video, project etc.”

    Now this does not mean that individual student interests and beliefs/misconceptions are not used and addressed. And there is some room for students to choose a topic in which to display some basic identification skills ( such as the presence of forces and acceleration in a sports video).
    Perhaps I am viewing the idea of choice too narrowly or setting an unreasonable assumption of choice being present on almost a daily basis.

    • larrycuban

      Your comment, Alice, strikes me as being part of the century long tension (and debate) between teacher/student responsibility for choosing content. Secondary school teachers trained in disciplines lean more to the teacher-directed choices for obvious reasons. Nothing surprising here. When the rhetoric surrounding “personalized learning” threatens to drown us, the age-old intellectual debates over how much teachers should make decisions about content and how much students should–arises again. No right or wrong here. Just one of those dilemmas that are at the core of public schooling. Thanks for the comment.

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