Wednesday, February 25, 2015

More Required Reading: Learning Style and Personal vs Personalized Learning

 Think your student has a specific "learning style?"  This thoughtful NY Times op-ed gathers a variety of voices on this issue.   Is learning style the same as a learning disability?  How much weight can/should teachers give this issue? 

Students do have preferences when it comes to receiving information visually or verbally, said Mark A. McDaniel, a psychology professor at Washington University and a co-author of the book “Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning.” 

And, said Harold Pashler, a psychology professor at the University of California, San Diego, and one of Dr. McDaniel’s co-authors on the study, no compelling evidence for teaching to students’ learning styles has emerged in the years since: “There’s one or two somewhat oddball studies,” he said, “but there’s a number of new negative findings that are more substantial.”

Dr. Pashler, too, has encountered regret from teachers who feel they should be doing more to tailor instruction to different learning styles: “They assume this is well established by the education field, that it would be great if they could only test people’s learning styles and differentiate education accordingly, but they feel sadly unable to do that because they don’t have the resources and the tests and everything else.”

Why this regret, if learning styles actually have so little support? “I think it’s because they’re taught this in the education schools,” said Dr. Pashler.
Then there's a good and engaging article by writer Alfie Kohn, a leading critic of test score "fixation."  It's called Four Reasons to Worry about "Personalized Learning."

(I was very happy to see Tocqueville referenced in this article, just as I was happy to see reader/teacher David Edelman reference John Mill in a comment.  There's gold in those thinkers, no matter how old their writings.)
One sociologist writes about the continued relevance of what Tocqueville noticed way back then, particularly the odd fact that we cherish our commitment to individualism yet experience a “relentless pressure to conform.” Each of us can do what he likes as long as he ends up fundamentally similar to everyone else: You’re “free to expand as a standardized individual.”[1]

Personal learning entails working with each child to create projects of intellectual discovery that reflect his or her unique needs and interests. It requires the presence of a caring teacher who knows each child well. 

Personalized learning entails adjusting the difficulty level of prefabricated skills-based exercises based on students’ test scores. It requires the purchase of software from one of those companies that can afford full-page ads in Education Week.
The four warning signs about personal versus personalized learning?

1) The tasks have been personalized for kids, not created by them.

2) Education is about the transmission of bits of information, not the construction of meaning.

3) The main objective is just to raise test scores.

4) It's all about the tech (no bass, just treble).

“Follow the money” is apt advice in many sectors of education — for example, in language arts, where millions are made selling leveled “guided reading” systems, skills-based literacy workbooks, and the like. Simpler strategies, such as having kids choose, read, and discuss real books from the library may be more effective, but, as reading expert Dick Allington asks drily, “Who promotes a research-based practice that seems an unlikely profit center? No one.”

No kidding.

He saves the best for last and I wish everyone, from the Superintendent to the School Board to principals and teachers would read this:

This version of “personalized learning” actually began 60 years ago when B.F. Skinner proposed setting each child before a teaching machine, an idea rooted in “measurability, uniformity, and control of the student,” according to Canadian educator Philip McRae. Today’s:

adaptive learning systems still promote the notion of the isolated individual. . .being delivered concrete and sequential content for mastery. However, the re-branding is that of personalization. . . [with a] customized technology platform delivering 21st century competencies. . . .At its most innocent, it is a renewed attempt at bringing back behaviourism and operant conditioning to make learning more efficient. At its most sinister, it establishes children as measurable commodities to be cataloged and capitalized upon by corporations.[11] 

Certain forms of technology can be used to support progressive education, but meaningful (and truly personal) learning never requires technology. Therefore, if an idea like personalization is presented from the start as entailing software or a screen, we ought to be extremely skeptical about who really benefits.

One final caveat: in the best student-centered, project-based education, kids spend much of their time learning with and from one another. Thus, while making sense of ideas is surely personal, it is not exclusively individual because it involves collaboration and takes place in a community. Even proponents of personal learning may sometimes forget that fact, but it’s a fact that was never learned by supporters of personalized learning.

I laughed at this sentence:

(Hint: Unless someone is sending out for pizza at a faculty meeting, the word delivery is always troubling in the context of schooling.) 


Greg Linden said...

It is pretty disappointing how "personalized education" has rapidly turned into a marketing pitch for expensive and ineffective software.

To be fair, personalization algorithms are just tools. If someone comes up with a way to teach kids math more quickly and easily at low or no cost using personalization algorithms, I'm all for it.

I'm impressed, for example, with some of the latest math content from Khan Academy (such as this). You take quizzes and, when you get a lot of something wrong, it gives you help in the form of hints and then instructional videos. If you get everything right, it assumes you know the material, and it jumps you ahead rather than wasting your time. And it's all free. It's a pretty good example of at least a baby step toward helpful personalized education.

The problem comes in when someone sells very expensive technology tools that don't work. The $1B iPad tablet fiasco in Los Angeles is a horrifying cautionary tale of how technology is just a tool, and just a tool that does no good and even does harm if it's not the right tool or is not used well.

At this point, I'm skeptical in general of technology in schools given how often it just becomes an expensive boondoggle that does nothing to help students or teachers. Personalization, done right, does have some promise as a useful tool, but it's so hard to do it right, and so easy to just spew marketing around an ineffective product instead, that I too am skeptical about anyone talking about their "personalized education" software.

Anonymous said...

Here is another definition of personalized learning.This comes from iNACOL - International Association for K12 Online Learning.

Personalized learning is tailoring learning for each student’s strengths, needs and interests — including enabling student voice and choice in what, how, when and where they learn — to provide flexibility and supports to ensure mastery of the highest standards possible.

I think that this sounds like the kind of education I want for my kids and I hope Seattle can provide it. This definition suggests that it is not prescriptive or a sequential set of low level worksheets as this post suggests.

I thought this report called Mean what you say. Defining and Integrating Personalized, Blended and Competency provided helpful clarification of these terms that are often thrown around interchangeably but mean very different things.

This report also points out that it is possible to do personalized learning without any technology.


Anonymous said...

I have always appreciated teachers who made the effort to individualize instruction. The evidence of that happening is when I walk into a classroom & see different students doing different work.

Here are some things I have seen teachers do. Mad Math Minutes, where a short period of each math class is spent with students working on calculation problems, only moving on when they can complete the page correctly at a certain speed, so that each child is on a different page.

Individual rubrics, where each student has a rubric for the classwork that relates to that student’s academic goals, so they are all advancing but not all doing the same work. For example, one student’s rubric might include citing & using 2 pieces of evidence to support each point, while another student might include completing an editing checklist for conventions.

I have seen teachers do a 1 minute assessment at the beginning of each class & assign students to groups for the day based on whether they are beyond the standard, working on the standard, or needed remedial work to approach the standard, then each group is doing different work that day.

My child had a Spanish teacher who had all the vocabulary homework as an online quiz. Every day each student had to achieve 80% correct, with as many attempts as they needed. The teacher generated a daily report so that she could give extra attention or support to students who were struggling. It was not the majority of the work they did in her class, but it allowed her to spend less time grading & give more targeted support. Also I think students were more likely to do it than make flashcards.

One of my kids has an IEP for a learning disability & what works for other kids doesn’t work for my kid. Special ed students are in gen ed classrooms, so teachers must be able to differentiate for them. If you have ever looked at a psych-ed evaluation report you will see that there are in fact differences in how kids learn. What impacts learning to read could be strengths & weaknesses in language processing, visual-spacial processing, working memory, long-term memory, etc. Using one-size-fits-all teaching strategies, whether computerized or not, will not address all learners. For some kids, tech solutions are the only way they can participate in a gen ed classroom. So I am not ready to call tech the bad guy. Do we really want to leave those solutions only to families who can buy it for their kid?

I believe that it is too easy for kids to fall through the cracks when all the kids have to be learning the same lessons, at the same pace, at the same age. Then some kids are learning nothing because they catch on quickly or already know it & others will never catch up because they needed more time or different strategies to learn important concepts that they are expected to build on. When a child misses a lot of school because of serious illness, family instability or mental health issues, there is no way for them to start where they left off. Somehow they have to continue moving on with new material & try to do catch up at home.

More individualization, more chances, more flexibility ….please.