Alfie Kohn: Four Reasons to Worry About Personalized Learning

February 2015 post from the great Alfie Kohn.

On Personal vs. Personalized Learning, Inc. (PLI):

“A suffix can change everything. When you attach -ality to sentiment, for example, you end up with what Wallace Stevens called a failure of feeling. When -ized is added to personal, again, the original idea has been not merely changed but corrupted — and even worse is something we might call Personalized Learning, Inc. (PLI), in which companies sell us digital products to monitor students while purporting to respond to the differences among them.

Personal learning entails working with each child to create projects of intellectual discovery that reflect his or her unique needs and interests. It requires the presence of a caring teacher who knows each child well.

Personalized learning entails adjusting the difficulty level of prefabricated skills-based exercises based on students’ test scores. It requires the purchase of software from one of those companies that can afford full-page ads in Education Week.”

On Technology:

“It’s all about the tech. Two overlapping groups of educators seem particularly enamored of PLI: (1) those who are awed by anything emitted by the private sector, including books about leadership whose examples are drawn from Fortune 500 companies and filled with declarations about the need to “leverage strategic cultures for transformational disruption”; and (2) those who experience excitement that borders on sexual arousal from anything involving technology – even though much of what falls under the heading “ed tech” is, to put it charitably, of scant educational value.”

“Follow the money” is apt advice in many sectors of education — for example, in language arts, where millions are made selling leveled “guided reading” systems, skills-based literacy workbooks, and the like. Simpler strategies, such as having kids choose, read, and discuss real books from the library may be more effective, but, as reading expert Dick Allington asks drily, “Who promotes a research-based practice that seems an unlikely profit center? No one.” Personalization is an even more disturbing example of this phenomenon because the word has come to be equated with technology – perhaps because it’s far more profitable for the purveyors that way and, at the same time, “It’s so much cheaper to buy a new computer than to pay a teacher’s salary year after year.”

“Certain forms of technology can be used to support progressive education, but meaningful (and truly personal) learning never requires technology. Therefore, if an idea like personalization is presented from the start as entailing software or a screen, we ought to be extremely skeptical about who really benefits.”

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