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Dean Shareski Headshot

Personalization vs. Standardization: It's Tough To Do Both

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I'd be the first or second person in line to advocate that schooling needs to be more personal and relevant for our students. A key premise behind Disrupting Class speaks to the opportunity we have to provide customized learning for all students. The time is ripe. Of course this is not a widespread phenomena and in reality, we're a long ways off from making learning about the learner. It's still largely about the content and curriculum developed by folks far, far away from schools. In spite of that, there are great teachers who either usurp some of their curricula requirements or masterfully make learning personal and relevant for students. Those teachers are magicians and that's more or less what I believe every teacher ought to strive for. But it shouldn't require as much voodoo as it does.

Our current system and structure fights personalized learning with nearly every new policy and protocol it can generate. The system craves standardization while we desperately need customization. These competing ideals butt heads constantly and for those teachers who do believe in personalizing learning, they live in perpetual frustration. Typically these are the teachers you'll find roaming around blogs, Twitter, Delicious and other spaces searching and asking how to create the type of learning that honors students' passions and allows them to own the learning. In the end, without a restructuring of time and current curriculum requirements the best we can hope for is small pockets of success or the .02 percent of students whose passion happens to be trigonometry or Shakespeare.

When I read posts from Karl Fisch, I can't help but think he's a perfect example of a teacher trying to make the most of his situation. He tells his algebra students what they need to be successful.

...to be successful you're going to have to be a learner, you're going to have to learn how to learn, and go after things on your own. You're going to have to be independent, curious, passionate learners, who don't just sit back and wait for someone to tell them what they're supposed to know, but who go out and try to figure things out for yourself. Who pursue your interests, your goals, your passions with intensity, and who actively participate in everything you do. Who go out and find other learners who are passionate about what you are passionate about and learn from them -- and alongside them.

Wonderful goals and yet I can help but wonder if algebra is the best vehicle to accomplish these goals. Why algebra? I'm not suggesting it has no value but it seems very arbitrary. Karl later confesses,

I'm trying to get you to be actively involved in your own education, to be independent and curious learners in mathematics, even if algebra is never going to be your favorite subject.

Why not study Numismatics or Ogham Divination? (For the record, I had no idea what Ogham Divination was but did a search for obscure courses.) My point is that it seems like Karl might accomplish these broad goals in better, more personal ways but he's working inside a system that isn't all that flexible and so he has to work all that much harder to achieve his goals.

But here's the thing that I'm grappling with. While I'm busy advocating for changes that might support an education that fuels and fosters students' passions, I worry that we lose sight of what a liberal education is all about. They don't know what they don't know. Providing students with broad experiences that invites them to develop a variety of skills, understand and appreciate diverse perspectives and potentially uncover hidden talents and interests speaks to a fairly well accepted purpose of school. Perhaps this is how many see our current model and justify it's existence assuming it's accomplishing this goal. I'm not convinced however that our intent is always to provide a broad experience but we can conveniently label anything that's boring and irrelevant part of this experience. There's lots of work to be done when it comes to getting this part right and it requires as much revamping as the personalized learning does. The back to the basic folks are forgetting the basics, whatever that means, isn't enough anymore. There's also the "life's-not-always-interesting-suck-it-up" camp which once again helps to justify marginal teaching practices and curriculum. If we were truly starting education from scratch today, I can't imagine we'd build the same system we have. There would be lots of discussion as to what types of content all students need. Even if core content and skills could be determined, we'd never teach them all as segmented subjects taught in isolation in 45-minute increments.

So I'm still having a difficult time envisioning this kind of education. One model that seems to be address the "they don't know what they don't know" part is Think Global School. Students get to experience 12 countries in 12 trimesters. Not really a scalable model but the concept of new experiences in interesting, meaningful contexts is worth examining. The personalized approach seems to be the attempt of the German education system which tries to identify student aptitude very early and provide a more direct path. This isn't really the kind of personal education I'm envisioning as it still revolves primarily around vocation as opposed to passion. The uncovering or pursuit of passion becomes a very interesting question as we see young people, even many adults struggle with this discovery. Sadly, many never find their passions. Yet many of our students have passions and interests that simply don't fit into the academia of school and students are left to pursue them outside of school.

So while it may be possible to provide both, I've not seen it done to any degree. Once again our system fails us. So I need to know if my ideas about a balance between passion based learning and a liberal education has merit or perhaps I'm missing something in this equation. I'd also be grateful if any can share some examples of people or institutions who are getting this balance right.