Sunday, January 23, 2011

What will "personalized" learning look like? A cynic's view

Part of the dialogue surrounding 21st Century Learning encourages "personalized" learning. This idea has been particularly highlighted in British Columbia in documents from the Ministry and School Boards.

The basic idea is that rather than children conforming to a "cookie cutter" style school or classroom, there is more opportunity for children to design (or have designed for them) an educational program tailored to them individually. The student's interests and abilities would play as much of a factor in the design of the educational program as their age or catchment area.

It is an attractive idea, and harkens back to an earlier time of teaching and learning, when students received individual tutoring and apprenticeships. Prior to mass education systems, children (of the wealthy) would receive individual instruction in a variety of topics or subject areas by tutors or experts and would explore their interests, finally deciding on an area in which to apprentice. Each child's program could be designed in accordance with the interests and abilities of the child or the parents.

Of course, personalized learning, in which the student and teacher jointly select all of the learning topics/activities/projects specifically for that one student, is expensive. The type of learning that some children do in private, after school activities, is exactly this type of learning. Piano lessons, some sports training, dance academies - all are examples of more personalized learning as typically the student and parent together select the activity, and in most cases although there is some age discrimination, the placement of the child is by ability rather than other criteria. Many incorporate individual lessons in conjunction with group activities. This allows for a high degree of individualization for each student.

My own daughter attends viola lessons outside of school and it is an excellent model of education. We don't really need to reinvent the wheel to know what "21st century personalized learning" looks like - we just need the resources to pay for it.

She receives private instruction once a week for an hour. She participates in small group instruction twice or three times a month in different groupings for different experiences. She practices daily but under my supervision and as I attend the lessons I am able to provide some guidance during practice times. She performs twice or three times a year. She takes formal examinations as she is ready for them and they provide a goal to work towards and a confirmation she has attained a certain level of proficiency. She has the consistency of a single teacher who has traveled with her developmentally through her music studies. Because the small group is multi-age and multi-ability level, she has mentors and she is a teacher. She is able to have a lot of choice regarding the content of her program, because she moves through a "personalized" curriculum individually and in small groups. Every aspect of the learning program is focused on her educational needs.

What are the key features of this "personalized" learning?
  • Extremely small class sizes. Even group instruction in private settings is often 10 - 15 students. This is true for older students as well as younger. With this number of students, even in a group setting, the teacher is able to provide significant, meaningful one-on-one attention during instructions and practice. 
  • Regular individual instruction. This ensures that on a regular basis, the student is receiving instruction geared specifically to their current ability level. The education theorist Vygotsky understood that the best and most effective learning happens within a student's "zone of proximal development". That is, they are attempting to do whatever is just immediately harder than what they already know how to do. This is almost impossible in a group setting, as students learn at different rates. Individual instruction also allows for individualized curriculum. Each student can select, with their teacher, activities, content areas, projects and so forth that are meaningful to them or are the most suitable for the next stage in their learning.
  • Structured, monitored study/practice time, with a guide who is sufficiently knowledgeable to help and able to motivate the student to attend to what they often consider a "boring" task. Any parent who has helped with homework or cajoled their child to practice scales would understand this immediately.
  • Opportunities to "show what you know" - performances, mentoring of junior students, and occasional examinations to ensure proficiency of a set of learning outcomes.
  • Opportunities to work with others - small group projects, community events, social learning.
When I look at some of the models of "personalized" learning in the press today, they include some of these elements. They say things like, "the teacher becomes the guide on the side", "less time in classrooms and more in student-designed project work", "individualized pathways and choice". 

Rarely do they paint a "picture" of a typical personalized learning program, but when they do, it is never the one I imagine will come about in the real world. For anyone who has lived through the many bureaucratic education reforms of the last fifty years, most of which came with woefully inadequate funding to support them, the cynicism level will be high. 

What does the private instruction cost? Compare how many students receive instruction from a full time teacher:
  • My daughter's viola teacher has a "case load" of about 20 - 25 students per year. Plus many many hours of parent time are involved (from all 20 - 25 parents).
  • A classroom teacher in the public system for one "subject" in a secondary school has on average 210 students per year. The students may or may not be getting the parent time. Depends on the student. A classroom teacher in the lower grades will have only 30 students, but they are responsible for at least four subject areas: literacy, mathematics, social studies and science. Some of our elective teachers in the lower grades have incredibly high case loads - up to 300 students.
For the same one teacher, five to ten times as many students are being "educated". Or put another way, each student is getting 1/10th of the teacher time and attention. Or the private model is five to ten times more expensive.

And so for anyone who knows the real cost of personalized learning and also the level of funding typical in our schools, we fear the picture will end up something like this:
  •  The "instruction" part will take place in very large classes, akin to lecture halls. Rather than specific, individualized instruction, it will be like a first year college course. Most of the students won't be able to follow and many will be bored. The format will encourage "talk and chalk" style learning, simply because of the numbers.
  • The "learning activities" will be "student driven" - a euphemism for do it yourself. Perhaps a small amount of time will be available to meet with a teacher, but it will be woefully insufficient, because the teacher will have hundreds of students on their "caseload". Students who are not self motivated will flounder. This is what the portfolio program looked like and part of why it failed, even thought portfolios themselves are an excellent idea.
  • Supervised study/practice time will not be with teachers. They are too expensive. We see this already in "resource rooms" with one teacher and several educational assistants or in over-sized classes that should be split into two but instead are provided an educational assistant who is unlikely to have any training is the subject area.
  • Student "choice" will be that individual teachers will have to offer a wide variety of courses / areas of study, but they won't have adequate preparation time to develop them and they may not have the expertise. Already it is common for elective courses in secondary schools to place up to 5 or 6 different course curricula into a single classroom at a single time with a single teacher. Some teachers are preparing upwards of 8, 9, 10 different courses during a single semester. And they are assigned 192 minutes per week of preparation time to do it. That is maybe 20 minutes per course to provide 6 or 7 hours of instruction. 
Am I too cynical? If I didn't see children sign up to take their Daily Physical Activity through online PE courses, perhaps I would have more faith. If I didn't watch the portfolio program thrust onto schools with almost zero funding only to frustrate parents and die a slow death, perhaps I would have more hope.

Until we invest significantly more resources in the school system, we simply will not implement meaningful change. Every child deserves a personalized education, but if politicians mean it, they had better be prepared to pay for it and not just talk about it.

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