Individualized Learning Doesn’t Have to Be Lonely

In Learning Should NEVER Be Lonely his recent Tempered Radical post, Bill Ferriter says he cannot come to grips with “personalized learning.” He admits that he maybe paranoid but is literally frightened. (He created the image above which is used with his permission.) He relates this nightmare:

I see rows of quiet kids sitting behind computers in quiet classrooms clicking away at keyboards as they work on individual tasks that are “customized to meet their unique sets of strengths and weaknesses.”  I see principals reveling in “the responsiveness of their classrooms” and teachers relaxing because there’s nothing to grade.  Worse yet, I see corporate giants drooling over heaping piles of cold, hard cash forked over by districts trying to “make the grade” even when “making the grade” means stripping every last drop of humanity out of our schools.

Ferriter ends his post saying that real learning may sometimes be personal and is often social, but is never lonely.

Related: See Who Will Watch The Watchers? for my nightmare.

I  love personalized learning myself, but there’s a huge distinction between the kind of scripted, robotic, impersonal personalized online learning he describes and the type in which students design and execute their own units.

I’ve been experimenting in recent semesters with student autonomy. My results are mixed, but so far giving students a big say in what they’re going to learn, how they’re going to learn it, and how they’re going to prove they learned it shows promise.

For example, students in my engineering classes have studied cryptology, domes, mining, radio telescopes, computer ergonomics, and world famous structures, to name a few. They have created reports, slide-shows, posters, models, and art projects for assessment. One girl compared Ipads to Surfaces. She emailed customer service reps from each company asking why she should buy their product and then confronted each with the replies of their counterpart. She worked alone but she wasn’t lonely.

Related: See Nine Dos and Donts for Cultivating Student Autonomy for more on my experience so far.

Finally, I’d bet Bill Ferriter would have no issue with the kind of personalized learning I describe here, and the difference between our interpretations of what personalized means is really just an example of how the same phrase can provoke different reactions, depending on how it’s understood.

Resource: You can download and modify the Individual Learning Survey my students complete at the being of the “build your own unit” work.

Related: What are the differences between lonely, alone, personalized, and individual? Join the discussion in the Collaboratory.


Sandy Merz

I grew up in Silver City, New Mexico and went the University of New Mexico, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Geology. After working for the U.S. Geological Survey in remote regions of western New Mexico, I moved to Tucson to attend graduate school at the University of Arizona, earning a Master of Science degree in Hydrogeology. While working as an intern hydrologist for a local county agency, I started doing volunteer work that involved making presentations in schools. At that moment I knew teaching was the path to follow. It must have been a good decision because I’m still on the path after thirty-two years. My teaching certificates are in math and science and I am a National Board Certified Teacher in Career and Technical Education. After teaching engineering and math and elective classes at the same school in downtown Tucson my whole career, I’ve moved to a different middle school and district on the edge of town to teach math. In addition to full time teaching, I am actively involved in the teacher leadership movement by facilitating National Board candidates, blogging for Stories from School Arizona, and serving on the Arizona K12 Center’s TeacherSolutions team. In January 2017, Raytheon Missile System named me a Leader in Education and I’m a former Arizona Hope Street Fellow.

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