Thursday, June 14, 2012

Personalized learning, choice, and democracy

What could be wrong with "personalized" learning or school "choice"? From the perspective of the student and family, it would seem that nothing could be better than an educational program that is individually tailored to suit that student. Nothing could be better than a menu of school options with a variety of programs to choose from.

Yet there is more to it than that.

Schools have a social function that goes beyond the achievement goals of individual students. Schooling and public education are more than a publicly paid service. Students are more than simply the "clients" of a school system.

If "personalized" learning simply meant adapting the curriculum to meet the individual needs of every student, I would be a fan. That would require much smaller classes and much more attention and time from teachers.

But "personalized" learning has become a euphamism for "choice". And "choice" in today's world means a competitive model where schools have different programs and parents and students are seen as clients in a competitive environment.

Public schools in Canada are run by locally elected school Boards because the entire public has an interest in our public schools. Public education has a critical social function - it prepares citizens to be members of a democracy. This means more than simply acquiring skills that enable a student to be work ready, or developing interests that are personally fulfilling. Students need to develop the critical thinking skill and historical knowledge to be active democratic citizens.

Consider these words from John Ralston Saul:

As for public education, it is a simile for civilized democracy. You could say that public education is the primary foundation in any civilized democracy. That was one of the great discoveries of western civilization in its modern form in the middle of the 19th century.

Any weakening of universal public education can only be a weakening of democracy. I personally do not believe that citizens—Canadian citizens in particular—have any desire to abandon the true strengths of their society. I believe that there is a profound understanding in our society of the long-standing essential role universal public education plays in making us a civilized democracy.

At the school level, the social component of schooling means we need to consider more than simply "choice" for students and families. Schools do not only serve particular students needs of the students who attend that school and therefore schools need to be organized in a way that it equitable and that balances student needs and interests with societal needs and priorities. It is for this reason that Canadian public schools were developed with a model of neighborhood comprehensive schools - the same services, decided upon by elected Boards and provincially mandated curriculum, would be provided to every citizen regardless of income or geography.

"Personalized" learning and "choice" interfere with these social objectives. They view schools as commodities and families as clients. When individual schools seek to attract students and families based on specialty programs or personalized learning experiences, they may satisfy the need of some individual students but the school system as a whole will lose those features that are so critical to us a democratic society.

A system based on "choice" leaves poor students and disadvantaged students behind. Equity is lost when middle class families flee their neighborhood schools and the students who remain are ghetto-ized.

An overly "personalized" set of programs may serve the individual needs of particular students, but it may also mean there are gaps in students' historical knowledge and skills for democratic citizenship. Society and communities should impose constraints on mandatory curriculum because there is some knowledge that we collectively feel every citizen needs to know to make informed decisions and be democratically engaged.

When I read headlines like "Gulf Islands District leads province in personalized learning" I am worried how the patchwork of programs and specialties will impact the basic foundation that our schools were meant to provide. I am worried that while some students will excel in an environment that meets their specific and personal needs, that the needs of the greater community are being lost.

Many of the proponents of "personalized" learning suggest we need a new model for the 21st Century. But let's not forget the whole public in public education.

Saul concludes:

Today we have a largely urban population. Our cities are filled with a highly mobile population, two job families, high divorce levels, single parent families, the return of long hours of work, the loss of community identification, high immigration levels, a new rise in the division between rich and poor and so on and so on. All of these factors mean that the one—if not the only—public structure we have which is capable of reaching out to all citizens in all parts of the country and making them feel part of the extended family of citizenship is the public education system. In the classic sense of the inclusive democracy, those simple bricks and mortar buildings, which we call the public schools, are in fact the one remaining open club house of citizenship. Not only is the public education system and its fundamental structure not old fashioned, it has found a new form of modernity. I would argue that we are more reliant on it today than we were through most of the 20th century.

(For John Raulson Saul's full speech see:

No comments:

Post a Comment