In 2019, Watch for Unidentified Passing Fads in Education
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“Personalized learning” (PL) must be wonderful, right? Who wouldn’t like their instruction — whether recreational or intellectual — tailored to their individual capabilities, needs, and aspirations?

Unfortunately, labels can, and often do, mislead consumers in the education world. Remember the “outcome-based education” movement of the 1990s? It sounded peachy keen until critical analysis exposed the agendas underlying such dubious educational outcomes: the creation of “world citizens” and “collaborative workers.”

What about the personalized learning that the high priests of ed-tech wizardry are furiously pushing on K–12 schools across the land? First question: What is it? I found hilarity in a November 2018 edition of Education Week, the ed-establishment’s paper of record, that basically answered: We don’t exactly know.

That answer, while funny, was also honest, and in explaining it, Ed-Week — in particular, reporter Benjamin Herold — laid out information useful to PL enthusiasts and skeptics alike. Herold deemed it a “big problem” that within schools the PL tag “is used to mean just about anything.”

Examples: “Algorithm-driven playlists? Grouping students based on digital data? Letting teens design projects based on their personal interests? Adaptive software that adjusts to each student’s skill level? Customized activities to help kids develop a growth mindset?”

Yes, all of those and more. However, when you break it all down to its essence, the enthusiasm du jour is computerized instruction, with the teacher reduced to the role of mere facilitator, as opposed to direct instructor.

The idea of teachers acting as facilitators is a very old idea that dates back at least 100 years, to the progressive theories of philosopher John Dewey, nostrums that continue to be recycled under new names as hot fads in education. With regard to personalized learning, the Ed-Week report indicates more than a few educators are recognizing computerization can have an effect opposite of the one advertised. In other words, it can de-personalize education.

A remedy favored by some educrats is to infuse technology-driven personalized learning with social-emotional learning (SEL), wherein schools systematically probe and record in databases students’ feelings, attitudes, dispositions, grit, vulnerabilities, and so on.

Swell. So, the plan is to moderate the extremes of one over-sold fad by combining it with another of a psychological nature that is even more extreme? Instead of teacher acting only as an instructional facilitator, we now get teachers functioning as unlicensed psychiatrists!

As a useful refocus for the new year, how about we identify and reward teachers who are great teachers — teachers who know their academic disciplines and delight in passing along knowledge and skills to their students and then leading them to become independent thinkers?

Personalized learning has existed down through the ages in many forms under the watchful eye of master teachers. Socrates cleverly engaged students through dialogues. Maria Montessori was dedicated to individuality and self-directed learning. Jaime Escalante flexed the power of high expectations in leading struggling inner-city students to levels of excellence in mathematical study.

Computers can be a useful resource for teaching, but it is highly doubtful they can ever truly personalize classrooms in any positive sense. It’s much more likely they will be used to accomplish much more nefarious goals.

Robert Holland (holland@heartland.org) is a senior fellow for education policy with The Heartland Institute.

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