As an assistant superintendent I recall a conversation I had with one of our truly expert teachers. She taught second grade. She was a source of wisdom and a model of professionalism for teachers and administrators alike. She bore the responsibility modestly and gracefully. I, like many of her colleagues, had grown accustomed to approaching her whenever there was a professional development opportunity for the latest, greatest idea. She could be depended upon to attend, evaluate, analyze, and report. One September, we received a mailer for another “great” presentation and I approached this teacher and inquired about her availability. The conversation went something like this.
You know Rich when you send me to a math conference, I come back inspired to be the best math teacher I can be with all of the challenge and work that that entails. When you ask me to attend a language arts conference, I go and return committed to be the best language arts teacher I can be. What I don’t need from you right now is another friggin’ idea!
It was September. She and all of her colleagues were busily engaged in the annual herding cats process, trying to get bunches of K-3 kids to recall what a line was (“Everybody line up”) or how to positively channel the overflow of enthusiasm that kids of that age bring to the beginning of each new school year. It was not a good time for new ideas!
In the best of times there are windows of opportunity for leaders to introduce new ideas. These windows are rarely open in the last days of schools or in the few days of “deep breaths” that normally follow the dismissal of kids for the summer. Nor are they open during the first few weeks of school.
But these are not the best of times. These are times when the public’s perception of our system of public education is at an all-time low. These are times when teachers are fleeing the system to escape the oppressive and counterproductive structures designed by reformers to raise test scores. These are times when we are living with the results of focusing our professional efforts on what happens in our classroom while paying little attention and even less energy to adding our individual and collective voices to establishing a better definition of what school should mean.
Collectively, we missed the boat with the development and implementation of the standards/assessment approach to improvement. Our voices became loudest when the same approaches were applied to the assessment and evaluation of teachers and administrators. While calling attention to a genuinely terrible (and statistically invalid) idea, we reinforced the narrative of our detractors that we were acting primarily out of selfish interest and self-protection and thereby reinforced the dismissal of our concerns as typically self-serving union responses.
Coming to a school near you…
I’m writing today because I see another challenge on the horizon… the current fascination with “personalized” learning. Sir Ken Robinson noted that part of the dilemma faced during the run up to the standards and assessment reform culture was the obvious charm with high standards. I believe he noted in one of his talks, “Of course we value high standards. Who could possibly argue for lower standards?” The issue wasn’t the rigor of the standards. It was the narrowness of the focus. It was in the definition of the purpose and the means to assess progress towards that purpose. And the result… teachers in tested content areas as test prep tutors and the relegation of teachers in non-tests areas (art, music, world languages, etc.) to the role of necessary evil.
And now we have personalized learning. Who could argue against personalized learning? Luddites, Neanderthals, Socialists?
If we see that the successful adoption of the standards/assessment school improvement/reform model has had a significant impact on the lives of both students and educators, you ain’t seen nothing yet. In the absence of any clarity about what personalized learning should look like and what learning experiences for kids should look like in a ‘personalized’ culture, take a quick look at who’s defining the term for us. I’ll save you a bit of research… Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and a host of tech and publishing companies.
“I’ve seen your future… and it doesn’t work”
Once again dredging up past experiences, I recall a grad class I was taking for my Masters at a very well regarded school of education. In one of my summer session classes, the professor assigned a paper which seemed to a fellow student to be a bit more than he had hoped to deal with during the summer. He rashly questioned the need for such an intensive assignment. The professor looked pensively at him and then uttered, “Son, I’ve seen your future… and it doesn’t work.” Not a highlight in the career of either participant.
We have seen the future when it involves professional educators ceding the role of what’s good for children to politicians and policy makers. It’s a future which doesn’t work, with a past that documents the failure. We cannot follow the path of non-involvement with this latest direction.
I do not see personalized learning as a purchased system built around algorithms that move students though set curricula, varying only the speed and the depth of coverage.
When I think of personalized learning, I think of children being helped to uncover and explore their interests. I see learning experiences for children extending well beyond the walls of the school and the limits of school hours and course requirements. I see teachers (with the term including school leaders and other caring adults) serving as guides to the connection of interests to critical skill development which is not limited by the walls of the school. I see teachers guiding students in the development of personal “playlists” of learning experiences. I see teachers helping student navigate the course selection process and acting as catalysts for the school in the development of procedures and policies that allow students to demonstrate their learning and be recognized for such learning.
Most of all I see personalized learning, writ LARGE, as the means by which we begin to reverse the reality that far too many students grow increasingly disengaged the longer they remain in school. I see this as the opportunity to define the “right thing” piece of education and learning.
How do you define personalized learning? How has your definition been formed? Enhanced? Limited? How does it incorporate what we know about learning (both adult and younger)? What can you do/are you willing to do to insure that personalized learning becomes something far greater than a profit center for businesses? My suggestion… take an hour or two one evening and do some informal research. Commit to sharing your learning (and your questions) with your colleagues.
The best way to sterilize a good idea is to turn it into a program.”
– – Richard Strong
PS This is really a leadership issue. It is the commitment to the development of a grass roots followership that was missing in the run-up to the standards reform movement and which developed significant power during the opt out movement.