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.

What’s the Point of School?

In an opinion piece for the BBC, the Home Editor asks that question, one that we really need to discuss here in the US.

Even though our education system is designed and assessed upon its ability to get lots of children through state exams, very few people seriously argue that the fundamental point of schools is ensuring pupils pass tests.

Not sure he’s right about the “very few people” part.

We ascribe to schools a loftier ambition than academic success alone. We want them to prepare our children for adulthood and provide them with the skills to have the most fruitful and fulfilling life possible. Don’t we?

We would like to think so. A report from an “all-party parliamentary group” seems to reinforce the idea of students learning more than just “history and maths”.

There is, actually, a surprising amount of agreement on these ideas. Progressive educationalists tend to call it “emotional intelligence” or “emotional health”, while conservatives prefer words like “character” and “backbone”, but it amounts to pretty much the same thing.

Here in the US, you could probably get the same agreement, although only in terms of language and phrasing. When it comes to execution, we still have far too many “leaders” who advocate for schools that emphasize pupils passing tests ahead of those “loftier” ambitions.

Of course, that seemingly high-minded report was written by politicians, which means there’s going to be a point where it heads way off the rails.

The APPG report recognises the weakness in the UK evidence base but points to successful initiatives in Singapore and the United States. The American “Knowledge is Power Program’ (KIPP) is cited as a model of what is possible.

And, as far as I’m concerned, anyone who uses the terms “grit” and/or “rigor” in support of their ideas about what education should be, immediately loses all credibility.

Ok, so maybe this story is not a good starting point for a discussion of the purpose of public education.1 But that question is one we very much need to answer as a society.


  1. Will’s book Why School? is a much better choice.

Another Fresh Start

Although the astronomical end of summer doesn’t arrive until September 21st, today, the Labor Day holiday in the US, is the symbolic end of the season. This weekend is sort of a dividing line between a couple of months in relative slow motion and the life getting back to normal, whatever that looks like to you.

It’s also that time of year when teachers and football coaches have something in common: that positive feeling of getting a fresh start on a new season and a chance to fix all the mistakes made in previous years.  Of course, when you get away from the fact that both schools and football teams share a fall start, the similarities quickly disappear.

Probably the largest divergence being that the coach has a good understanding of the talent he has on his squad, whereas most teachers will be working with children they’ve never seen before. And the scouting data they have to work with is not especially reliable.

I haven’t had a classroom of my own for many years, and as I’ve ranted about many times, I’m not a big fan of discrete academic years, but I still have some of the same optimistic feelings. After a very busy summer of planning, and a couple of successful professional learning events in August, this is going to be a very good year.

However, I’m afraid my hopeful feelings really only apply to the somewhat narrow focus of my job. Prior to kicking things into high gear this week, we’ve spent a lot of time discussing with teachers and school administrators how they can help their kids to develop their critical thinking skills and using technology for creative purposes.

As you broaden the view of American education from individual schools to the district, state and national level, my pessimism level rises. Too much of the conversation in those forums is dominated by people more concerned about data than about kids and crafting proposals firmly rooted in the previous century. 

Anyway, I’m not sure where this rambling mess is going so I’ll just end it now, while attempting to retain my Labor Day optimism throughout the coming school year.

Putting Students in Charge

Do yourself a favor and spend 15 minutes of your time to watch this video.* It’s a great example of what high school should look like for most students in this country.

Ok, you might think this type of independent, student-driven learning might not be appropriate for every kid, especially those who have been force fed six, seven, eight years of test prep indoctrination and don’t know anything different. I certainly know lots of high school teachers who will tell you that their students couldn’t possibly handle this approach to school.

However, the principal at this school clearly explains why students need to be deeply involved in the design of their own educational experience.

My personal and professional investment in these opportunities is to create a school in a way of educating young people that allows them to be completely invested. And to stop trying to move every kind of human being through the same gate.

I think the more options we have in our schools, the more students we will help develop into the kinds of citizens we need. And that it’s ok for you to need a little bit of a different approach from mine.

We need to offer more options, with more of them designed by and with the students themselves. The fact that this program was developed by one of those students only lends the approach more credibility.

And is probably the reason why it’s likely to remain an idiosyncratic niche in the American educational system.


*Despite the pleadings of Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson to watch their trailer, hit the skip button.

Here We Go Again

It’s the day after Labor Day in the US, the opening day of another school year around here, and in many other districts.

I’m not in the classroom anymore1, but I still get a pleasant feeling of optimism every fall as we start, with the belief and hope that every student will be successful. I’ve been fortunate to have that largely optimism realized by each following June, with a few exceptions, of course.

Even with that, I still think we need to make some major changes to the standard academic calendar observed by most schools, as I ranted about a week or so ago. In a comment, Chris wondered why it was so hard to close schools in June and open them again in September.

I want to know why it’s so much work to start and stop. Have a chance to engage in some reflection and planning. Stop the mail, put the laptops away, and plan for when the painters can come in and touch up the walls.

This is hard?

Actually, opening and closing school is not all that difficult, I just think there are better ways to use time, money and effort involved in the process.

I certainly agree that we need to build some downtime into school to reflect and plan, for students as well as teachers. However, I would rather see that time spread out over a year-long schedule rather than clumped into one big break.

A calendar that continues to break the year into four quarters with a three week break in-between is the most common year-round plan, and one that our district experimented with in a few elementary schools. The three-week break would still offer plenty of family time as well as much better opportunities for remediation than waiting until summer.

Combine that schedule with some new instructional and curriculum ideas2 and we would have one big step towards some real reform.

Anyway, regardless of my wild ideas for change, I hope everyone shares the same optimism for their students as we begin this new school year.


1 In case you’re new to my mess, I’m one of those evil, lazy central office types whose students are more mature than most high school students. A few only slightly more. :-)

2 For example, not all students require four quarters to learn Algebra 1, while some could use more time. Not restricting learning to one nine month year would allow for more flexibility.

Time to Change the Calendar

Tomorrow most of the teachers in our overly-large school district return to their schools, getting ready for the kids to show up the following week.

Another school year begins.

And we have another opportunity to consider just how much is being wasted by clinging to our traditional academic year.

This particular idea pops back into my head twice a year as I watch all the effort being expended preparing to close schools in June, only to allocate even more to open them again two months later. Not to mention all the time not devoted to student learning during the process.

Michael at The Principal’s Page, who starts by telling us how much he loves his summer vacation, has also come to the same conclusion.

Except the fact that after 18 years of this I am now convinced summer is a waste of time.

We put so much effort into shutting down school for the summer.

Then we put twice as much into starting school back up again in the fall.

I’ve heard all the rationale for keeping the current system, including the one about kids having all kinds of special opportunities offered during summer. Programs like the institute for the arts, STEM camp, and tech adventure camp around here.

Programs that should be part of the “regular” curriculum.

However, I also wonder about the message being sent to students, parents and the community when “serious” learning is segmented into ten months, then it stops and the “fun” learning occurs during the other two.

For these and many other reasons, The Principal is right. It is way past time for the idea of a “school year” with a 2-3 month summer break to go away.

A Very Solid Business

Between media companies looking to schools for new revenue streams and charter schools as investment opportunities, I think I’m in the wrong end of the education sector.

Charter schools, as you might remember, were supposed to be innovative alternatives to “traditional” schools, funded with public money and often serving poorer communities.

However, according to something called Entertainment Properties Trust, they might also be a nice addition to your investment portfolio.

What is Entertainment Properties Trust? According to its website, it is “a specialty real estate investment trust (REIT) that invests in properties in select categories which require unique industry knowledge, and offer stable and attractive returns.”

And the website also says this: “Our investment portfolio of nearly $3 billion includes megaplex movie theatres and adjacent retail, public charter schools, and other destination recreational and specialty investments. This portfolio includes over 160 locations spread across 34 states with over 200 tenants.”

The video interview with the CEO embedded in the Answer Sheet post is quite strange, although not especially unsurprising given the concerted effort of politicians to sell off as many public resources as possible to the highest bidder.

I especially enjoyed this little piece of analysis.

Well I think it’s a very stable business, very recession-resistant. It’s a very high-demand product. There’s 400,000 kids on waiting lists for charter schools … the industry’s growing about 12-14% a year. So it’s a high-growth, very stable, recession-resistant business. It’s a public payer, the state is the payer on this, uh, category, and uh, if you do business with states with solid treasuries. then it’s a very solid business.

Pick companies in the right states, the ones willing to divert lots of public money into charters, and you have a winning investment.

What we don’t get from the charter industry, and most independent charters as well, is a better education for the money spent, one of the claims often heard from their political advocates.

Creating Schools for the Weird

In his book “We Are All Weird“, Seth Godin offers a short but interesting manifesto on how the age of mass (mass marketing, mass manufacture) is fast disappearing as the concept of “normal” becomes obsolete and the audience/customer splinters into thousands of tribes (another of his concepts).

Godin’s primary audience is business people, of course, but in this book he does offer a brief look at education, which is probably the “mass” institution in this country that is the most resistant to change.

At the end of that section, Godin offers a simple proposal for transforming American education.

A different approach to education is almost impossible to conceptualize and seemingly impossible to execute. The simple alternative to our broken system of education is to embrace the weird, to abandon normal. To acknowledge that our factories don’t need so many cogs, so many compliant workers, so many people willing to work cheap.

It’s simple but it’s not easy. It’s not easy because we can’t process weird, we can’t mass produce students when we have to work with them one at a time or in like minded groups. We can’t test these kids into compliance and thus we can’t have a reliable, process-oriented factory mindset for the business of education. No, it’s not easy at all.

When we consider whom we pay the most, whom we seek to hire, whom we applaude, follow, and emulate, these grownups are the outliers, the weird ones. Did they get there by being normal students in school and then magically transform themselves in to Yo Yo Ma or Richard Branson? Hardly. The stories of so many outliers are remarkably familiar. They didn’t like the conformity forced on them by school, struggled, suffered, survived, and now they’re revered.

What happens if our schools, and the people who run them, and fund them, stop seeing the mass and start looking for the weird? What if they acknowledge that more compliance doesn’t make a better school but merely makes one that’s easier to run?

My proposed solution is simple. Don’t waste a lot of time and money pushing kids in directions they don’t want to go. Instead, find out what weirdness they excel at and encourage them to do that. And then get out of the way.

Ok, so maybe you don’t like the idea of calling your students “weird”. Substitute “unique” instead. Godin’s ideas still make a lot of sense, although maybe with less impact.

I know I’ve ranted many times in this space about all the many “leaders” proposing reforms to the education system modeled on business principles. However, this approach is more about relating to the needs of people than about reforming traditional business methods.

Although many policy makers may view learning as an assembly line process, it’s really all about many, many unique, individual people in our classrooms. And any experienced teacher will tell you they’re all weird.

The Dangerous Parts of School

Jessica Hagy, who writes/draws the wonderful Indexed blog, has created a great list of Nine Dangerous Things You Learned in School for the Forbes website.

All the items, including the graphs/drawings that accompany the words, are right on target but number 5 ties directly to my rant from yesterday about giving kids options in their post graduation plans.

There is a very clear, single path to success.

It’s called college. Everyone can join the top 1% if they do well enough in school and ignore the basic math problem inherent in that idea.

It’s very dangerous to believe in one right answer to any part of life, with the possible exception of stuff like “do I jump out of a plane without a parachute?”.

But the best of the bunch is number 7.

Standardized tests measure your value.

By value, I’m talking about future earning potential, not anything else that might have other kinds of value.

Of course, there are more than nine dangerous things we learned, and continue to teach kids, in school, and in writing the draft of this post, I was trying to think of a few of them.

However, this morning Doug jumped in and added many of those I was considering so instead of repeating them here, go read his thoughts.

I would only like to extend the idea in his number 6: not only don’t you need to be smart at everything, you can and should get smarter through out your life beyond school.

That’s coming from a math major who learned to write and appreciate language long after finishing “school”.

Recovering From Failure

The New York Times Learning Network blog has an interesting lesson on the topic of failure, with some good examples from sports, business, the arts and other fields.

It also asks students to consider some interesting questions about failure in their own lives and those of people they know.

Can failure be useful? Can you think of examples, from your own life or someone else’s, when it has led to something positive?

How is failure defined and dealt with in your family, your school, the activities you do outside of school, among your friends and in your community? Which of those definitions and responses to failure seem fairest or best to you? Why?

What can be done to avoid failure? Should people try to avoid it?

What is “failure” and what is “success”? Who decides?

Missing, however, is any real consideration of failure as it applies to school. What happens if you fail the midterm in English 7? What recovery options do you have for getting a bad score on the SOLs?* Suppose you get a 1 on an AP test?

We really don’t deal well with the concept of failure in school, especially in helping students learn from it and discovering options for recovery. Maybe in sports, possibly the arts or other “non-academic” contests. But for most kids, failing a class or a grade means they will repeat it.

But the most likely scenario is that they get to cover the same content, often using the same materials and teaching techniques, often in the compressed time frame of summer school. And usually with only slightly better results, not anything we might call “success”.

Doing the same thing in the same way hoping for different results.

Is that how people recover from failure in real life?


*For those outside of Virginia, that’s the acronym for our spring standardized tests.

Work That Means Something

According to a post at Geek.com, Apple gives this welcome note to all new employees at the company.

There’s work and there’s your life’s work.

The kind of work that has your fingerprints all over it. The kind of work that you’d never compromise on. That you’d sacrifice a weekend for. You can do that kind of work at Apple. People don’t come here to play it safe. They come here to swim in the deep end.

They want their work to add up to something.

Something big. Something that couldn’t happen anywhere else.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could swap out “Apple” and insert the name of our school or district? And mean it?

Testing School

A brief conversation during a planning meeting at one of the three new schools our district will open next fall. Several people bemoaning that the design didn’t include more spaces to allow for testing of large groups of students.

Ok, nothing significant to all that. Still, the thought of building schools to accommodate standardized testing is a little depressing.

But I guess it’s the next logical step now that we’ve completely wrapped the curriculum for most students around the concept of all testing, all the time. Or “gathering data” in the current vernacular.

Time for Spring Cleaning

The opinion section of yesterday’s Post featured their annual spring cleaning column*, a selection of ten essays on things each writer believes we’d be better off without.

Interesting that two are education related, although one of those pieces largely hits the mark, while the other misses completely.

In the first category is Let’s get rid of grades, written by a college professor. Her reasoning includes the misguided student motivation that comes from most grading systems, as well as the fact that “grades are not very good predictors of accomplishment, curiosity, happiness or success”.

All good points, but this is probably the best reason for dumping grades:

Without grades, we would be forced to offer detailed, critical assessments of our students’ strengths and weaknesses, both to them and to future schools and employers. We would need to pay closer attention to their process and their progress rather than just their final products.

The other essay about school, Get rid of the 3 p.m. school day, is by a vice president at CitiBank and former director of the Office of Management and Budget. In other words, an education “expert”.

His logic follows the usual political reform line that more time spent in school, without changing any other aspect of the experience (except maybe adding some “intensive” tutoring), will automatically lead to improved student achievement. As measured by those international standardized tests, of course.

How does he know this will work? Because “a longer day is a key aspect of high-performing charter schools”. We all know that charter schools are universally successful, and whatever they do should be applied everywhere.

I completely agree that we need to make some major changes to the way we use time in school – starting with dropping the reliance on a 1930′s agrarian calendar.

But, as with many other instructional factors, the same schedule may not be appropriate for every student in every school and we have to stop pretending that it will.


*Warning: the Post puts each essay on a different page and may require you to register with them to read them. I think registration is still free but, since I actually pay to have them deliver the analog version (aka a subscriber), I can’t be sure.