The hype and reality of personalized learning

Billions of dollars are being spent on personalized learning in K-12 education, with 97% of US school districts investing in this hot educational trend. But what is “personalized learning” and are these efforts worthwhile?

A recent Education Week article The Case(s) Against Personalized Learning” by Benjamin Herold includes interesting research findings slotted into a confusing narrative.

Herold begins by describing personalized learning as a high-tech, well-funded push for schools to install computer-based lessons that supposedly monitors each student’s responses and “personalizes” subsequent lesson plans. He then goes on to outline arguments that the hype for this agenda “outweighs the research”, that this kind of personalized learning is “bad for teachers and students”, and that “critics are worried that ‘personalized learning’ is cover for an aggressive push by the tech industry to turn K-12 education into a giant data-mining enterprise.”

Given Herold’s initial framing, it’s unsurprising that the article is full of competing perspectives. Juicy journalism perhaps, but the result is that the various authorities quoted talk past each other because they have different preconceptions of what personalized learning is.

Much of this confusion can eliminated if we think of personalized learning as a spectrum, with two extremes defined by Dan Buckley as: the

…”the T-route, in which the educational route the learner takes is controlled, decided and evaluated ultimately by the Teacher, and P-route in which the route that the learner takes is controlled, decided and evaluated by Peers (or Pupils if you prefer).”
The PbyP Approach, Dan Buckley

For example from the article, the author of Schooling Beyond Measure, Alfie Kohn’s view that:

“…much of what’s marketed as ‘personalized learning’ amounts to little more than breaking knowledge and ideas down into itty-bitty parts, then using extrinsic rewards to march kids through a series of decontextualized skills they had no meaningful role in choosing.”

is a dismissal of the T-route, while Diane Tavenner, the CEO of California’s Summit Public Schools charter network, who says:

“…the strongest personalized-learning models offer the best of what both conservatives and progressives want: high-quality standards and content for students, with opportunities to apply that knowledge via self-directed projects, all supplemented by human mentors and technology tools that help students keep track of their own learning.”

is claiming that Summit’s technology platform and instructional model, developed with support from Facebook and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, represents a successful mixture of the T- and P- routes.

Which brings us to my interest in this topic as a student and facilitator of adult learning — which is not mentioned in the article. (To be fair, Education Week confines itself to K-12 education — though you wouldn’t guess that from its name.)

The energetic disagreements documented by Herold are fueled by society’s three mutually incompatible ideas about children’s education (i.e. making good citizens, mastering certain bodies of knowledge, and fulfilling each student’s unique potential) as laid out in Kieran Egan’s thought-provoking book The Educated Mind. These societal goals, however imperfectly attained, imply the need for a mixture of T- and P- route learning strategies since teachers will always be needed to facilitate the understanding of ideas that have taken centuries for the human race to discover and which society insists are important for young minds to grasp.

For adults, on the other hand, I’d argue that the P- route is by far the dominant successful learning paradigm. In a world where the job you’ll be doing in ten years time probably hasn’t been invented yet — the story of my life since I was in my 20’s — self-directed, active, peer-supported, just-in-time learning is the default mode for most professionals these days. Every adult learner and meeting attendee needs to create their own environment and structure for life-long personalized learning if they are to be optimally effective in the world of work.

Arguments about how we should educate children will likely (and should) never end, but the case for P-route personalized learning in the adult world of work has never been stronger. And until default meeting process reflects this reality, our meetings will be pale shadows of what they could be.

Image attribution: edusurge

Four tools for communities of practice

HT Harold Jarche

Today, communities of practice — groups of people who share a common interest, profession, or passion and actively engage around what they have in common — have become essential sources for productive learning, because they provide crucial bridges for social learning between our work community and our external social networks.

Here are four tools for creating, supporting, and enriching communities of practice.

Peer Conferences
In my post Conferences as Communities of Practice I explain how peer conferences can support communities of practice. (In 1992, the first peer conference I ever designed created a community of practice that has endured to this day.)

Listservs
Listservs are an old but still surprisingly useful technology that manages a list of subscribers and allows any member to send one email to the list, which then transparently sends it to the other list subscribers. Listserv software is available on multiple platforms and is free for up to ten lists of up to five hundred subscribers which should be sufficient for most communities of practice. While numerous commercial alternatives like Yahoo! Groups and Google Groups exist, there’s something to be said for self-hosted technology that doesn’t rely on third party providers who may close down or change services with little notice or recourse.

Slack
Slack can be used free for basic support of communities of practice (up to 10,000 messages), though many useful functions are only available in paid versions ($80+ per person annually). All Slack content is searchable. The product, initially targeted at organizations, has been evolving into a community platform, which, because of the cost is probably most useful for communities whose members already have corporate access.

Zoom
The ability to converse with community members via audio/video/chat on a scheduled or ad hoc basis is an important tool for maintaining and growing community connections online. For many years the free Google Hangouts was my go to tool for this purpose, but the service has become almost impossible to use on an ad hoc basis and Zoom seems to be the most popular replacement. For short meetings (up to a maximum of 100 participants for 40 minutes) the free Zoom Basic will suffice, but most communities will be well served by Zoom Pro (unlimited duration and participants; $180/year). Since any community member who has a paid Zoom plan can host a video/web conference, this tool can be a cost-effective way for communities of practice to keep in touch.

Do you use other tools to create, support, and enrich your communities of practice? If so, share them in the comments below!

Why experiential learning is superior to every other kind

Why is experiential learning superior to every other kind? In a word: feedback. Jerry Weinberg explains simply and concisely.

“Why is reading or writing something different from doing something?

First consider reading. Reading is (usually) a solitary activity, with no feedback. Without feedback, there’s no check on what you believe you’re learning.

Now, writing. Unless you put your writing in the hands of someone (or perhaps some computer analysis app), there’s also no feedback, so there’s no check on whether you wrote sense or nonsense.

When you do something, you interact with the real world, and the world responds in some way. With the world’s feedback, you have the possibility of learning, confirming, or disconfirming something. That’s why we strongly favor experiential learning over, say, lecturing or passive reading or writing.”
—Jerry Weinberg, Why is reading or writing something different from doing something?

Photo attribution: Flickr user mikebaird

Practice what you teach


When I’m presenting and sharing my conviction that experiential learning is far superior to broadcast learning, it would be pretty hypocritical for me to lecture. It would also be pretty ineffective. As Stephen Jenkinson says:

“…when expressed properly, teachings don’t function as symbols or metaphors…they are an incarnation of what they are advocating.”
—Stephen Jenkinson, On How We Deny Our Mortality, The Sun Magazine

“Teachings are an incarnation of what they are advocating.” I’m glad to see that this point of view is being championed in the educational community , under the rubric of recursive practice, and I hope to see a wider awareness of its importance as the years pass.

In the meantime, if you come to one of my workshops or presentations you won’t find me talking to you uninterrupted for more than five to ten minutes max. That’s how I practice what I teach.

Children shouldn’t sit still in class — and neither should adults

It’s amazing that established research on ways to improve children’s learning is ignored when designing adult learning environments.

Some examples. We know that kids shouldn’t sit still in class. Short bursts in physical activity are positively linked to increased levels of attention and performance. Watch Mike Kuczala’s TEDx talk “The Kinesthetic Classroom: Teaching and Learning through Movement.” Michelle Obama’s 2010 “Let’s Move” initiative works to increase movement and healthy eating in schools. Classroom movement programs like GoNoodle are now used in more than 60,000 elementary schools in the United States. [More links to research can be found in Dr Ash Routen’s and Dr Lauren Sherar’s article “Active lessons can boost children’s learning and health“.]

Read the rest of this entry »

Replace “brain training” hype with something that works

Driving home from the post office today, I finally heard one too many promotions for Lumosity brain training on my local NPR station. Lumosity, in case you somehow haven’t heard, is a subscription to online games that claim to improve memory, attention, cognitive flexibility, speed of processing, problem solving, and, for all I know, world peace too.

Despite the Federal Trade Commission slapping Lumosity’s creator, Lumos Labs, with a $50 million judgment (reduced to a $2 million fine) in January to settle charges of deceptive advertising that claimed — with no “competent and reliable scientific evidence” — that the games could help users achieve their “full potential in every aspect of life”, the company continues to bombard consumers with ads. Meanwhile, research on the efficacy of such programs has found little or no evidence that they make any difference to global measures of intelligence or cognition.

“I think claims these companies have been making — and Lumosity is not alone — have been grossly exaggerated. They’re trying to argue that we’re going to take you out of [the] active world … that we’re going to put you in a room alone in front of a computer screen and you’ll play a game that will make you smarter.”
“There is no compelling evidence for that.”
Dr. Laura Carstensen, founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity

At best, it turns out, these games somewhat improve the ability of players to … wait for it … play the games.

Which leads to a simple suggestion.

Instead of paying for programs that claim to “train your brain”, figure out what you want to do that actively engages your mind — and do it!

You’ll probably learn a thing or two about something that actually interests you. And, though I can’t guarantee that your mind will become healthier, your bank account definitely will be!

Illustration components from Flickr users isaacmao and gambort

 

Look back to look forward

Janus-VaticanFrom September 2002 through November 2009 I kept a journal, writing each day before going to bed. Every once in a while I’ll pick one of the five thick notebooks I filled during those seven years and read some entries at random.

Why do I do this?

I don’t revisit my journals to immerse myself in my past. Back then, I wrote to capture and reflect on my experience while it was still fresh, to explore how I responded to and felt about the day’s events. I didn’t write for posterity, and there are many raw experiences in these pages that are painful to recall.

Instead, I dip into what I wrote to compare where I was then with where I am now.

Sometimes I discover that life circumstances have changed. Perhaps I’m no longer impacted by certain issues that once preoccupied me (e.g., my financial situation has changed for the better.) Perhaps some issues are still part of my life, but my response to them is different (e.g., speaking in public no longer scares me as much as it once did.) And perhaps I’m aware now of issues that were absent from my journals (e.g., the implications of growing older.)

Whatever I discover, when I look back at what I used to think and do I receive important information.

Often I discover that I am continuing to change and grow in specific ways. As someone who wants to be a life-long learner, someone who doesn’t want to be “stuck”, that is good and encouraging information to have.

I also notice that certain aspects of my life haven’t changed significantly. Frequently, that’s because they are core aspects of who I am and the world I inhabit.

And sometimes, I become aware that I’m stuck in some pattern of behavior or response that I’d like to change. That’s good information too.

Look back to look forward. At the end of a peer conference, a personal introspective allows participants to explore new directions as a result of experiences during the event. On a longer timescale, old personal journals (or any records of past personal introspection) can be a great tool for learning about ourselves and mapping our future path on life’s journey.

Creative Commons image of Janus courtesy of Wikipedia

Three key kinds of learning at events—Part 2

andragogy 2176517925_36eebf532b_bIn Part 1, I introduced three distinct categories of learning: factual information acquisition, problem solving, and building a process toolkit, and gave examples of how typical desired meeting outcomes involve different mixtures of each category. Here’s a final example of the complex ways that learning and learning approaches can be affected by multiple factors, specifically the differences between how children and adults typically learn.

Pedagogy and Andragogy
In the 2014 post Meetings are a mess—and how they got that way I explained how we typically extend into adulthood the pedagogy we’re all exposed to as kids. The word pedagogy comes from the Greek paid, meaning “child” and ago meaning “lead.” So pedagogy literally means “to lead the child.”

The much less familiar term andragogy, first coined in the 1830s, has had multiple definitions over the years, but its modern meaning was shaped by Malcolm Knowles in his 1980 book The Modern Practice of Adult Education: From Pedagogy to Andragogy, based on the Greek word aner with the stem andra meaning “man, not boy” (i.e. adult), and agogus meaning “leader of.” Knowles defined the term as “the art and science of adult learning” and argued that we need to take into account differences between child and adult learners. Specifically, he posited the following changes as individuals mature:

  1. Personality moves from dependent to self-directed.
  2. Learning focus moves from content acquisition to problem solving.
  3. Experience provides a growing resource for their learning activity.
  4. Readiness to learn becomes increasingly aligned with their life roles.
  5. Motivation to learn is more likely to be generated internally than externally.

My professional life journey illustrates all these transformations. At school I was force-fed a concentrated diet of science and mathematics. Besides making a broad decision to study the sciences rather than the arts, I had very little say in what classes I was expected to take. Since then:

  1. My subsequent career path—elementary particle physics research, running a solar manufacturing business, teaching computer science, IT consulting, and, most recently, meeting design—displays a steady movement from doing what I was told I was able to do to what I chose to pursue for my own reasons.
  2. As a physicist, much of my work depended on what I learned at school, university, and academic conferences. As my experience grew, my professional work became increasingly centered on creative problem solving for clients.
  3. In academia, I relied chiefly on classroom learning. Over time, my 30+ years experience has become key to my effectiveness as a meeting designer and convener.
  4. Discovering that I love bringing people together motivates the work of learning what I need to know to perform my work well.
  5. Although financial factors now play a smaller role in determining how much I work, my mission to share what I think is of value drives my desire to learn how to improve my effectiveness and scope.

Take a moment to review your own professional life and see if Knowles’s maturation concepts reflect differences in how you learned in school and now learn as an adult.

Of course, just as there isn’t a clear boundary between childlike and adult behaviors, there’s no clear-cut distinction between pedagogy and andragogy. Both terms encompass motivations and contexts for learning, and it’s most accurate to view them as endpoints on a spectrum of learning behaviors. Nevertheless, Knowles’s five assertions, each positing progression from passivity to action, provide critical insight into why active learning becomes an increasingly important learning modality as we mature.

Too many events still use child-based pedagogical instead of adult-centered andragogical modalities. By concentrating on the latter, we can improve the effectiveness and relevance of the learning we desire and require from our face-to-face meetings.

Photo attribution: Flickr user agent_ladybug