Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Personalized learning...

The following is from an article in Education Week: Schools Use Digital Tools to Customize Education by Michelle R. Davis
In today’s digital marketplace, students of all ages can create experiences tailored just for them. When a teenager searches for movies to watch, an online film site can provide suggestions based on past viewing history. Music lovers can create personalized playlists for everything from a workout in the gym to a study session. And when children play video games, they can choose a variety paths—based on their interests and skill levels—toward slaying a dragon or defeating an enemy.

Then many of these same students walk into their classrooms and sit at their desks to absorb one-size-fits-all lessons or, if they’re lucky, instruction aimed at the high-, mid-, or low-level learner. And in many cases, there is little, if any, technology integrated into those lessons.

In some pockets around the country, though, educators and schools are turning to technology and different teaching and learning approaches to give students a personalized learning experience that mirrors the customized experiences they take for granted in their lives outside of school.
That is a pretty compelling image. Instead of children being bored in school, or lost in lessons over their heads, appropriate challenge is delivered at a pace consistent with the child's ability to learn. OK, I'm almost sold. Sounds great on paper.

It seems completely new technologies are most easily adopted by the young. Hand a child your new iPhone and he or she will know more about it in the next ten minutes than you might discover in the first hour. And so what relationship do teachers have in the new schooling? Is there a place for maturity, and long range view? Is there a place for beauty and skill? Will there be mentors showing what you can actually accomplish by directing the application of technology with depth of insight toward significant objectives? Maybe so, or at least we can hope. In the meantime it seems that many schools are trying to push older teachers out of the way to make room for a new generation of teachers more fluent in new technologies.

There are some rules based human procedures that can be easily and effectively applied through technology. It is faster for a computer to do algebra or calculus than for a human being to do so. A word processor can check your spelling as you type, correct your punctuation, and suggest alternate words and phrasing. An accountant in another country, speaking another native language can do your taxes just as effectively as one in the US because he or she would be following the same rules and inputting the data in the same form. But what part will creativity play in schooling?

I hope that as we continue our mindless rush into new technologies (that I am not opposed to) we remember a few things. First is that the hands, applied through lessons in real life offer greater meaning than just the eyes, ears and mind alone. Second, our children need to be exposed to a full range of tools, that allow them to bring their ideas into concrete reality and build on the foundation of human culture. And third, the development of technology is a vector, with each level built on the foundation of past technologies. To understand technology and its full effect and value requires that we understand the whole of it, from the most simple to complex. By understanding the hammer as well as the most fascinating new technology gives one power and control over our own shared destiny. With a simple tool like a hammer or screwdriver, a man or woman can express his or her mastery over technology even in the most desperate of situations.

If this subject in of interest to you, you might enjoy an earlier post, Preservation and transmission of human culture.

Steven, when he first came to woodshop asked me, "Don't you have a computer here? I'm really good at games, and wood shop is boring." I knew it wasn't really boring, but that it was difficult and new for him and required skills he did not have. Now, with greater confidence, he tells me, "Wood shop is my favorite thing in school." Otto Salomon said that in the education of the child, we need to start with the known and move to the unknown. Salomon began sloyd lessons with the knife, as Swedish children already knew how to use knives without injuring themselves. It may get to the point in American education that we will need to start with the computer because that is what is already known to kids. What bizarre twist of educational reality! It completely misses the other points in Sloyd education... move from the simple to the complex and from the concrete to the abstract. In the meantime,

Make, fix and create... We will never fully outgrow our need for reality.


  1. I am not opposed to technology in our classrooms either. However, I am opposed to how teaching manual skills may suffer as a result. How to balance the two? Are our schools going to become places where it's either one or the other?

  2. Cris, it seems most schools have already become places where it is one and not the other. So for all practical purposes, the damage is already done. Children who crave hands on experience are often segregated from the rest and often drop out. some are advanced into academics but will never be quite as smart, and not quite as engaged as they would have been if hands-on learning had been there for them.

    How can I know that? I'm a late bloomer and it took me a long time to realize that having my brains in my hands was a very good thing.

  3. Doug-

    I completely agree with you. Parents that tell me that their children struggle in school also tell me that their kids love photography, taking things apart or building models. I tell them that it's because they are truly learning during these activities. But one problem is that the learning that does take place during these activities can't always be quantified- and therefore isn't prioritized by educational leaders. When (or how) are the folks with the phd's going to realize that the real vehicles for learning math and english are the hands?