As a district cabinet member and superintendent, I spent countless hours in planning sessions, retreats, and other meetings where system leaders are supposed to come up with a new strategic vision for their schools. Often, the day would begin with a hands-on small-group activity in which we would be asked to discuss our core values and beliefs about the mission of public education. Typically, the facilitator would tell us to begin by focusing on our students, as in the following instructions (copied verbatim from one such meeting):
Please take this chart paper and markers and draw a picture of a child in the center of a circle. Then, think about all of the unique needs the child has. Now, think about all of the people that influence that child’s life and write them down around the child, showing the wide array of people that are involved with children. Where do you fit in?
I’ve always cringed when asked to participate in this sort of activity. Partly, that’s because I’m a curmudgeon, and I’ve attended far too many of these retreats to find them surprising or delightful. Mostly, though, I bristle at the idea that veteran school and district leaders have to be told to put students’ needs front and center, as if that were ever in question. I always find myself asking, do we really have to go through the motions of pledging our commitment to banal slogans such as “put children first,” “every child has unique needs,” and “schools should be organized to serve children, not adults”? Can’t we just assume that everybody in the room cares about kids, so that we can focus on the specific adult actions that lead to improved student achievement and well-being?
For the same reason, my internal contrarian tends to emerge whenever I read about the education world’s current enthusiasm for “personalized learning.”
Recently, any number of education funders, nonprofits, and associations have climbed aboard the personalized learning bandwagon — e.g., the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Gates Foundation, Digital Promise, AASA, and many others. And at first glance it looks compelling enough: Let’s organize adult activities around children’s interests, needs, and strengths; let’s assess them on their progress toward agreed-upon standards and give them the time they need to reach those standards, and let’s use the latest software to make ongoing, real-time adjustments so that each student is learning the right material for them, at the right time.
But, and to repeat what has been said by other critics of this movement, I don’t see anything new here but the brand name. Sure, computers have become more sophisticated and “adaptive” to individual students. But the concept of personalization itself is anything but original. Educators in the Progressive tradition have spent decades advocating for schools to be more responsive to children’s individual needs and interests.
I bristle at the idea that veteran school and district leaders have to be told to put students’ needs front and center, as if that were ever in question.
If there’s anything to be gained by treating personalized learning as a new approach to K-12 education, I don’t see it. But I do see how that label can fool people into thinking they’re onto something new. More important, I worry that this language creates a serious distraction. It invites educators to fight for a position (the idea that children’s individual needs should be met) that nobody opposes, when they ought to be focusing on more urgent questions: Assuming that we all want instruction to be more responsive to students, what should we do with the adults who work in schools? How must they change? Why is this sort of change so hard to accomplish? And what are the most important and useful things we can do to make it happen?
I would argue that if the goal is to provide more instruction that taps into students’ individual needs and personal interests, then school and district leaders should focus on doing specific things that might actually move the needle, such as making sure: 1) that teachers know their students well; 2) that they assess student learning carefully; 3) that they provide students with rich and diverse materials in a range of media, and 4) that student and teacher assignments are flexible.
Know students well.
I once worked with a 5th-grade teacher, Ms. Walker, who created the imaginary town of “Walkerville” in her classroom and spent most of September and October introducing her students to each other and building strong social norms in their new community. I asked her, how could she afford to start the year at such a slow pace, focusing so much attention on classroom relationships while making so little headway on the academic curriculum? As long as she took the time to get know her 5th graders really well at the beginning, she replied, she would have no trouble catching up and teaching at an accelerated pace over the rest of the year. And guess what? She was right. Her students’ achievements were consistently the highest and her kids the happiest in the school.
The research is clear: The teacher-student relationship matters. Too often, school leaders create enormous pressure to get through the curriculum and prepare for tests, setting aside any goals for social-emotional learning. But they ought to do the opposite, sending a clear message to teachers that the urge to cover academic material shouldn’t come at the expense of efforts to build community and get to know students’ strengths, needs, interests, backgrounds, fears, hopes, and dreams. Those goals are non-negotiable.
Assess students carefully.
It never ceases to amaze me that while our schools spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year on standardized tests and districts spend countless hours analyzing testing data, they do precious little to help teachers build their expertise in classroom assessment. Yet, if teachers are to learn about their students’ individual needs, interests, and strengths, then they must know how to create discussion questions, math problems, quizzes, and informal assessments that will generate that information. They must also learn to observe students carefully, take note of what they see, collect and organize that data, and consult it when deciding which supports to provide individual students, which books to recommend for them, which assignments to give them, and on and on.
Provide rich and diverse materials.
Most elementary and some middle-level classrooms have a leveled library where students can pick a book according to their reading needs and interests. And growing numbers of classrooms feature a bank of computers, where students work on reading or math problems that are, in theory, aligned to their particular needs. But all too often, teachers have confided in me that the books are outdated, the computer programs aren’t as good as advertised, and they don’t have funding to purchase the kinds of varied, high-quality, culturally respectful resources that would allow them to be more responsive to students’ needs and interests. This is a systemic issue more than a problem of classroom practice: District leaders need to make it a priority to invest in such materials, keep them up-to-date, and include teachers in the selection and purchasing process.
Allow for flexibility in student and teacher assignments.
When I became superintendent in Stamford, Conn., I was struck by how many people wanted their child to go to Westover Magnet Elementary School, so I visited the school and talked to the principal and teachers. As a magnet school, they had a self-selected population, which contributed to their impressive outcomes. However, the real secret of their success was that they constantly grouped and regrouped students according to the students’ needs and the teachers’ strengths. The principal and team leaders knew exactly what was happening with every student, what they needed to work on, and which teacher would be best suited to work with them. The teachers’ practice was public, and they were accountable to each other as a result. That might not be feasible in every school, but the underlying principle is an important one: To be responsive to individual students, schools may have to be flexible about teacher and student assignments and groupings.
It may be true that every child has individual interests, passions, strengths, and challenges — but teachers and school and district leaders have always known that. Nobody in K-12 education would reject the idea that every student has unique needs (though many of us do reject the idea that they have distinct “learning styles”). Thus, to advocate something called “personalized learning” is like trying to pick a fight with someone who left the neighborhood a long time ago. It’s just empty posturing. (And it’s particularly ironic to call for personalized learning without confronting the standardized testing regime around which instruction is currently organized.)
But if we reframe the issue to focus on the specific things that educators can do to be more responsive to students’ needs, then we might be able to make some progress. And, for that matter, we might be forced to acknowledge the trade-offs that could be involved. For example, by directing teachers to focus more individual attention on each student — or to encourage them to study and learn at their own pace, focusing on topics of their choosing — we might be lending credence to the notion that public education is a private commodity rather than a public good. In the name of personalizing learning, might we exacerbate the achievement gaps that already divide our students, helping the most privileged students to rush further and further ahead? Isn’t there a danger that personalization will only lead to more ranking and sorting in the public schools? Perhaps, then, instead of calling for a massive transformation of our school system based on the idea that learning should be personalized, we should first take some modest steps to help teachers become a little more responsive to the kids in front of them.
Citation: Starr, J.S. (2018). Let’s be precise about personalization. Phi Delta Kappan 99 (7), 72-73.