Let Me Individualize That For You

The US Secretary of Education recently asked Congress to fund, among other things, resources to help teachers “personalize learning”.

Lots of other education leaders talk about we need “individualized” learning.

Junk mail from edtech companies offer to sell me “solutions” that will help teachers “individualize” or “personalize” their instruction.

Setting aside the fact that the ultimate goal in most discussions of this topic, and certainly for the corporate “solutions”, is to improve standardized test scores, I find something very wrong with those two terms, “individualize” and “personalize”.

Both carry the implication of an action done for (or possibly to) someone else. In the case of K12 education, the teacher (or increasingly a set of algorithms) will individualize/personalize an instructional plan that is then carried out by the student. Based on a whole bunch of data, of course. 

However, make a very small change to the vocabulary – individual instead of individualize or personal instead of personalize – and you arrive at a very different concept, the idea we should be talking about.

Individual learning, personal learning, is something you do for yourself, certainly with input from friends, family, members of your network, but always under your own direction, based on your own goals. And always subject to revision at any time. With the essence being the individual in control.

Now I’m not saying we should turn all decisions about curriculum over to students; make everything in school optional. Certainly there is a basic foundation of knowledge and skills everyone needs before they can make any meaningful goals for themselves. Being able to read and write effectively in your native language should be a given and we can debate what is added beyond that.

However, in the larger picture of K12 schooling, learning cannot be truly individual or personal unless the student is directly involved and allowed to make real choices. 

Ok, am I being too nit picky about language? Maybe. But it’s said that words matter, the vocabulary you use is important.

And when I look at the context surrounding the pronouncements about personalized learning by Duncan and other education “experts”, not to mention in the marketing materials from any number of vendors, there is very little about including students in the decision making process.

Just lots of adults crafting an “individualized” education for kids who will live in a very different future from the one they faced.

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