No surprise that a catch-phrase like “personalized learning,” using technology to upend traditional whole group lessons, has birthed a gaggle of different meanings. Is it updated “competency-based learning?” Or “differentiated learning” in new clothes or “individualized learning” redecorated? (see here, here and here). Such proliferation of school reforms into slogans is as familiar as photos of sunsets. “Blended learning,” “project-based teaching,” and “21st Century skills” are a few recent bumper stickers–how about “flipped classrooms?”– that have generated many meanings as they get converted by policymakers, marketeers, researchers, wannabe reformers, and, yes, teachers into daily lessons.
For decades, I have seen such phrases become semantic swamps where educational progressives and conservatives argue for their version of the “true” meaning of the words. As a researcher trained in history, since the early 1980s, I have tracked policies as they get put into practice in schools and classrooms. After all, the first step in science is to observe systematically the phenomenon or as Yogi Berra put it: “You can observe a lot by watching.” The second step is to describe and tell others what was seen and explain it.
Over the past few months, I have visited eight schools and 17 teachers in “Silicon Valley,” that near-mythical stretch of the Bay area in Northern California encompassing San Jose, San Francisco, and Oakland and their environs. I went into schools and classrooms that administrators, policymakers, researchers, and others identified for me as “best cases,” or exemplars of integrating use of technology into daily lessons. Many, but not all, told me that they had integrated technology into their lessons to “personalize learning.”
The questions I asked myself while observing a class was simply: What are teachers and students doing when computer use is integrated into a lesson? Toward what ends is such use aimed?
Teachers and principals invited me to observe. There were no tours or group visits. I went to each school and talked with principals, various teachers, and read online documents describing the school. I sat in 90-minute lessons, listened to students in and out of class–even shadowing a student at one school for a morning–and took copious notes. I sent drafts of my classroom observations to teachers to correct any errors in facts that I made. Then I published accounts of my observations in my blog in March, April, and May 2016. Although I am far from finished in this project, now is the time for that second step (see above). I need to make sense of what I saw at the epicenter of technological optimism. So this is an initial pass at figuring out what I saw as I sloshed through the semantic swamp of “personalized learning.”
The “Personalized Learning” spectrum
When I visited the schools, administrators and most teachers told me that they were “personalizing learning.” What I saw, however, in classrooms and schools was a continuum of different approaches–which I call the “personalized learning spectrum”–that encompassed distinct ways of implementing technology in lessons to reach larger purposes for schooling. Let me be clear, I value no end of the spectrum (or the middle) more than the other. I have worked hard to strip away value-loaded words that suggest some kinds of “personalized learning” are better than others.
At one end of the continuum are teacher-centered lessons and programs within the traditional age-graded school using behavioral approaches that seek efficient and effective learning to make children into knowledgeable, skilled, and independent adults who can successfully enter the labor market, thrive, and become adults who help their communities. These approaches (and ultimate aims for public schools) have clear historical underpinnings dating back nearly a century.
At the other end of the continuum are student-centered lessons and programs that seek student agency and shape how children grow cognitively, psychologically, emotionally, and physically. They avoid the traditional age-graded arrangements that they believe have deadened learning for over a century. Their overall goals of schooling are to convert children into adults who are creative thinkers, help out in their communities, enter jobs and succeed in careers, and become thoughtful, mindful adults. Like the other end of the spectrum, these approaches have a century-old history as well.
And, of course, on this spectrum hugging the middle are hybrids mixing behavioral and cognitive approaches aimed at turning children into adults who engage in their communities, are creative, thoughtful individuals who succeed in the workplace.
Such a spectrum has been around for many decades with different names such as “Progressive-to-Traditional,” “Teacher-centered to Student-centered, etc. A glance at the rear-view mirror about the history of these continua helps me make sense of what I saw in my observations..
Looking back a century
What today’s reformers promoting “personalized learning” have to remember are their yesteryear cousins among Progressive reformers a century ago. Then, these reformers wanted public schools to turn children and youth into thoughtful, civically engaged, whole adults. Those early Progressives drank deeply from the well of John Dewey but ended up following the ideas of fellow Progressive Edward Thorndike, an early behaviorist psychologist and expert in testing.*
If one wing of these early progressives were pedagogical pioneers advocating project-based learning, student-centered activities, and connections to the world outside of the classroom, another wing of the same movement were efficiency-minded, “administrative progressives,” who admired the then corporate leaders of large organizations committed to both efficiency and effectiveness–Standard Oil, U.S. Steel, General Motors. Thorndike at Columbia University’s Teachers College, Ellwood P. Cubberley at Stanford and other academics, in alliance with the new field of educational psychology, borrowed heavily from business leaders. They counted and measured everything in schools and classrooms under the flag of “scientific management.” They reduced complex skills and knowledge to small chunks that students could learn and practice. They wanted to make teachers efficient in delivering lessons to 40-plus students with the newest technologies of the time: testing, film, radio. They created checklists for teachers to follow in getting students to learn and behave. They created checklists for principals to evaluate teachers and checklists for superintendents to gauge district performance including where every penny was spent.
A century ago, this efficiency-minded, behaviorist wing of the progressive movement overwhelmed the pedagogical progressives passionate about students developing and using a range of cognitive and social skills. Thorndike trumped Dewey.
Now in 2016 behaviorists and believers in the “whole child” wear the clothes of school reformers and educational entrepreneurs. They tout scientific studies showing lessons tailored for individual students produce higher test scores than before, or that project-based learning creates independent, creative, and smart students.
What exists now is a re-emergence of the efficiency-minded “administrative progressives” from a century ago who now, as entrepreneurs and practical reformers want public schools to be more market-like where supply and demand reign, and more realistic in preparing students for a competitive job market. Opposed are those who see schools as places to create whole, knowledgeable human beings capable of entering and succeeding in a world far different than their parents faced. The struggle today is between re-emergent, century-old wings of educational progressives. It is, then, again a family fight.
Part 2 will place some of the classroom lessons and schools I observed and have documented elsewhere along that continuum.
*A current dust-up between Progressives and Conservatives over school reform (see Rick Hess’s summary of back-and-forth bloggers here) misses entirely the intra-reformer struggle among Progressives a century ago and how the conservative, efficiency-driven wing (e.g., Edward Thorndike, et. al.) of those early Progressives triumphed over the liberal, student-centered, reconstructionist wing (e.g., John Dewey, George Counts, et. al.) who sought to make schools student-centered and agents of societal reform. David Tyack tracked this split fully in The One Best System and with co-author Elisabeth Hansot in Managers of Virtue. The split that Hess and others see today is hardly new. It is a resurgence of that old struggle among Progressives but now reincarnated in an age of standards, testing, and accountability. The split among current school reformers is over both equity and efficiency with one wing labeled “Progressives” and the other “Conservatives.” Current “Progressives,” imbued with social justice, want schools to be agents of social and political change and student-centered. They use both behaviorist and cognitive approaches to “personalize learning.” “Conservatives” want contemporary reform policies (e.g., charters, standards and accountability) to be sustained because they advance equity and blend technology to create both student- and teacher-centered experiences. They, too, want learning to be “personalized” and create both behaviorist- and cognitive-driven lessons. Such clashes track earlier differences among reformers a century ago. The conflict today, as then, tries to answer the age-old question: Is the job of public schools in a democratic and capitalist-driven society to solve larger economic, social, and political problems that the nation faces or focus on building whole human beings who can thrive and succeed in a highly competitive society?