Personalized Learning

Dec2015_Family_highres-1024x683

courtesy mark zuckerberg / facebook

Recently Facebook billionaires Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan simultaneously announced the birth of their daughter Max and the transfer of their wealth to Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, LLC.  Congratulations to the new parents – it changes everything.  What captures our interest the most is their pledge to support what’s called personalized learning.

“Personalized learning” is a contemporary label which acknowledges the ancient reality that the learning process is as unique as the individual. Perhaps the most successful example of personalized learning in history is when King Philip II of Macedonia summoned Aristotle to tutor his son Alexander.  In our era of mass education is this level of personalized learning possible?  The answer is a resounding “YES”, but only if approached freely.

Armed with only a computer and a connection to the internet students have virtual access to an ever-growing repository of the recorded knowledge of human history.  A student in Daytona Beach, Florida could access not only the collected works of Aristotle, but also take an online course about China from Harvard, learn about the Human Genome Project, visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art, teach themselves how to rebuild an engine, and on and on and on.  The breadth and depth of information available to students thanks to technology is beyond comprehension and would dazzle Aristotle himself.

A free relationship with this seemingly limitless information is the best way to maximize its value as a learning tool.  Why?  Because how we learn is a sometimes counterintuitive process still revealing its secrets.  We still debate the most basic questions such as “What is intelligence?”  Just over 30 years ago Howard Gardner, the world-renowned Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education developed a theory of multiple intelligences in an attempt to explain that seeking a single-measure of intelligence (IQ) is misguided.  He recently penned a letter of advice to Zuckerberg on how his theory would interact with personalized learning to produce infinite permutations of the learning process.

This is important because personalized learning today generally refers to technology that guides the learning process itself.  Some influential education policy advisors claim that personalized learning does not necessarily mean technology.  And industry advocates claim their personalized learning technology is merely a complementary tool that will help teachers and students develop a learning plan.  But the writing is on the wall for those who have the eyes to see.  These systems will not just be freely available for use but seem destined to enframe education itself.

Having hardly penetrated the mystery of the learning process we should adopt a free relationship with artificially intelligent education systems in a way that humbly acknowledges our knowledge gaps.  Consider this, one of the most creative, influential and celebrated persons in recent history was deeply influenced by studying calligraphy after dropping out of college. What personalized learning software could program this pathway into its algorithm?

Personalized learning through adaptive technology reminds us of a new take on the old proverb that you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make them drink.  Within the context of learning this proverb has evidence-based support which shows that forcing someone to “learn” anything actually destroys self-motivation and curiosity.  This phenomenon is common knowledge at one of the top management consulting companies in the world where a senior partner asked about continuing education states: “We can’t insist that partners do anything. They have to want to do it.”

Tethering students to the personalized learning software purchased by a school district is no better than tethering them to a textbook.  It is the availability of tools that should be celebrated not a narrative of one replacing another.  Sudbury maintains a free relationship with all learning tools because the student is free to decide what works best for them.  If a fee-based adaptive technology helps a student learn algebra – great.  If another student would rather use a free old textbook – no problem.  And some students might just decide that algebra isn’t necessary for them – that is okay too.  The common denominator at Sudbury is freedom.

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