In Part 1, I described an instructional innovation Professor Fred Keller designed in the mid-1960s aimed at transforming the traditional college undergraduate lecture course in psychology. Called Personalized System of Instruction, PSI was a course using behaviorist techniques that permitted students to move at their own pace in finishing assignments, taking tests, and completing the course. Similar courses in the social and natural sciences spread rapidly across university campuses throughout the 1970s and early 1980s.
Initially popular as they were in converting traditional courses into individually guided lessons, these university courses faded. By the mid-1990s, few faculty used PSI for introductory courses.
Evidence of higher student scores for those completing the PSI course as compared to traditional lecture course, however, clearly supported the innovation. Dropping PSI, then, had little to do with its demonstrated success with students. Other factors played a part in the disappearance of PSI on college campuses. Many professors who had adopted PSI came to realize the huge amount of work they had to put in with few tangible rewards from their department. Moreover, the lack of university incentives for improved teaching–research was believed to be far more important than teaching–drained enthusiasm from those who saw positive results of PSI courses. These and other factors led to the demise of an innovation that seemingly worked.
It is puzzling, however, that research studies demonstrated the superiority of PSI over traditional lecture courses yet still universities dropped such courses. With the growth of online learning–or distance learning–advocates in the past decades have talked about resurrecting versions of PSI especially because of the current ubiquity of devices and software that could be easily applied to undergraduate science and math courses. So it is possible that some incarnation of PSI may stage a comeback not in its original behaviorist design reliant upon text but as online course software conveying science concepts in undergraduate courses. A once-heralded innovation may arise from the pile of dead reform. Alas, another zombie reform.
Zombie reforms, according to economist Paul Krugman, contains “beliefs about policy that have been repeatedly refuted with evidence and analysis but refuse to die.” Think of “learning styles,” “left brain/right brain” teaching, and year-round schooling (see here, here, and here).
That is not the case for PSI. Strong evidence supported it continuation. But that second life for PSI hasn’t happened yet in higher education. Something similar to what occurred with PSI in higher education, however is occurring in K-12 schools.
With the onslaught of high-decibel policy talk on “personalized learning” and an array of programs popping up across the country funded by donors and corporate icons in technology in the past decade, self-paced and individualized software, most of which have few if any studies about their effectiveness, have appeared in many schools. In the history of school efforts to individualize teaching and learning, such reforms have appeared again and again (see here and here). And here is another “again.”
Why do zombie reforms pushing individualization in K-12 schools and often lacking solid evidence keep getting resurrected?
Answer: The abiding impact of age-graded school structures and cultures.
The age-graded school (e.g., K-5, K-8, 6-8, 9-12), a 19th century innovation, solved the problem of how to provide an efficient schooling to masses of children entering urban schools in the 20th century. Today, the age-graded school is everywhere. Most Americans have gone to kindergarten at age 5, studied Egyptian mummies in the 6th grade, took algebra in the 8th or 9th grade and then left 12th grade with a diploma.
As an organization, the age-graded school allocates children and youth by age to school “grades”; it houses teachers in separate classrooms and prescribes a curriculum carved up into weekly chunks for each grade. Teachers and students cover each chunk assuming that all children will move uniformly through a school year of 36-weeks, and, after passing tests would be promoted.
These structures and the culture that have grown within age-graded schools over the past century, however, say nothing about which of the multiple purposes tax-supported public schools should pursue (e.g., civic engagement, preparation for the workplace, strengthening individual character, cultivating problem-solving and critical thinking, and making society more just). Taxpayers, voters, policy elites, and donors decide.
Late-19th and early 20th century critics of age-graded schools saw these structures as crippling the intellectual and psychological growth of individual children who learn at different rates hence causing school dropouts as students of different ages piled up in lower grades because teachers flunked them repeatedly.*
The development of twice yearly promotions and ability groups smoothed out some of the inherent problems of age-graded schools. But left untouched the overall structure of the age-graded school that required teachers to cover the content and skills specific to a 3rd or 6th grade class where every student had to learn that content and skills by the end of the school year or be held back. These regularities became the “grammar of schooling” and have persisted decade after decade. The notion that children differ in how fast they learn knowledge and skills was out-of-sync with the age-graded school.
Nonetheless, reformers launched repeated efforts to “individualize” instruction. The Winnetka Plan and the Dalton Plan appeared in the 1920s and 1930s, teaching machines in the 1950s, computer-assisted instruction in the 1970s and 1980s, and now “personalized learning”.**
In each instance, a flurry of hyperbole accompanied the innovation, programs spread proclaiming the end of the graded school, but as time went by, these efforts to individualize teaching and learning lost their mojo. The age-graded school won again and again.
The hullabaloo of new technologies again has promised that 1:1 devices and extraordinarily powerful interactive software will turn the dream of individualization into a daily workable reality in U.S. schools.
No reliable and valid body of evidence yet supports such claims for any version of “personalized learning” that is marketed now. Thus, another zombie school reform climbs from the grave to do battle with the historic age-graded school.
*William T. Harris, “The Early Withdrawal of Pupils from School: Its Causes and Its Penalties,” National Educational Association, Journal of Proceedings and Addresses, Boston,1873; E.E. White, “Several Problems in Graded-School Management,” National Educational Association, Journal of Proceedings and Addresses, Detroit, 1874 (Worcester, Mass.: Charles Hamilton, 1874).
**With the Education for All Handicapped children legislation becoming law in 1975 and the subsequent creation of Individualized Education Plans (IEPS), a version of “personalized learning” became a mainstay in special education but has had limited influence in regular schooling.