Future of Learning

OPINION: Personalized learning wasn’t invented by Silicon Valley

Why the approach is sometimes misinterpreted as a step toward replacing teachers with technology

In 1907, a teacher from Italy proposed a new vision for the modern classroom.

The age of industrialization was winding down, but schools were still turning out students in the same way that factories were turning out cars: uniform, and en masse. So she designed a teaching style intended to identify and cultivate the unique potential, interests and aspirations of each learner. She named it after herself: the Montessori Method.

Sadly, most schools today grapple with the same instructional models Montessori sought to replace more than a century ago. Students at different levels, with different backgrounds and interests, receive the same lessons. Teachers are boxed in by grades, class sizes, or the invisible hand of assessment nudging them to teach to the average.

In response, a growing number of educators are implementing a modern-day version of Montessori’s method called personalized learning. It empowers students to take ownership over their learning, zeroes in on their social and emotional development, and encourages educators to build relationships with students that are rooted in a deeper understanding of their needs. It allows students — even within the same class — to advance  when they show mastery.

Some skeptics have come to view personalized learning as an Orwellian approach to education that amounts to little more than “behaviorism on a screen.” A recent New York Times article characterizes personalized learning as Silicon Valley’s takeover of public schools.

But, personalized learning was not invented by Silicon Valley. Nor is it entirely new — or even especially progressive. The concept of “individual difference” gained currency among educators in the 1950s. In the 1970s, “individualized instruction” materials proliferated across schools. Most parents are familiar with the assortment  of “just right” or “stretch” books found in modern classrooms to help young readers move at their own pace  toward grade-level reading standards.

What’s new and contentious is the potential for technology to make good on the promise of age-old concepts within classrooms that are increasingly diverse, and perhaps more complex, than at any time in our nation’s educational history.

Educators have figured out that technology can help to free their time from administrative tasks like grading assessments, allowing them to shift energy toward individual student relationships. It provides access to vast libraries of content, which can be curated to reflect the interests and cultures of diverse classrooms.

Technology also generates more objective data that can upend implicit biases that hold students of color back in an era where more than 80 percent of teachers are white.

The important, though often exaggerated, role that technology plays within personalized classrooms means that the approach is sometimes misinterpreted as a step toward replacing teachers with technology.

It is mistaken by critics as an attempt to lower standards for student performance.

Related: How to unlock students’ internal drive for learning

At its best, technology is only part of a broader strategy to differentiate and tailor instruction. Responding to challenges, motivating students and curating resources that meet an individual’s needs — these are the roles of the teacher. Cherry-picking examples of implementation gone awry distorts educators’ influence and import.

If we teach to the middle, we will continue to marginalize students who do not fall on the average. Students who are already below grade-level expectations will fall further behind. Students who bring trauma into the classroom will be disciplined for acting out.

Students with interests, passions and cultural backgrounds outside of the core curriculum will become disengaged with a classroom that does not meet their needs.

Related: School districts are going into debt to keep up with technology

What’s worse: If we continue to distort the challenges and potential of innovative approaches, then we will continue to fail children at schools that have seen decades of divestment, like the ones I attended on the South Side of Chicago — children who have the most to lose from our aversion to change.

I hear every day in Chicago from teachers who’ve been in the classroom for decades, who had lost their passion for teaching, saying that personalized learning has allowed them to build relationships with each student in ways that have reawakened their love for the profession.

I meet students who, though attending schools that once felt written off, are exploring their interests, charting independent learning paths, showing everyone that they have boundless potential.

Let’s tell their stories, too.

This story about personalized learning was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

A Chicago native and public school graduate, Phyllis Lockett is the founder and CEO of LEAP Innovations, a national nonprofit that helps schools and teachers personalize learning.

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Phyllis Lockett

Phyllis Lockett is the founder and CEO of LEAP Innovations. The founding president and CEO of New Schools for Chicago, she previously served as executive… See Archive

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