Larry Cuban and his work have had a formative influence on me and my own engagement with educational reform. I still remember the first time he welcomed me into his office hours even though I was neither a student of his nor a student at Stanford (though, full disclosure, my wife was). I came to talk to him because I was having difficulty with an article I was trying to write about some of the problems of a well-known but challenging educational reform effort in which I was involved. Larry listened patiently, asked a key question here or there, and, then, after politely reminding me that there were others waiting, simply asked something along the lines of “Why don’t you just go and write it?” So I did, and it was published a short time later. I have been citing and drawing on his work and ideas ever since. These days I particularly appreciate the opportunity to follow Larry’s observations and most recent research on his blog – Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice. The post below began as a comment to a post of his on personalization, but it grew so long I decided post it here.
Dear Larry – Your blog posts are always enlightening! Your recent post describing the many versions of “personalization” you’ve seen in your visits to schools seems particularly relevant these days for a number of reasons:
- Growing interest in personalization along with continuing questions about how to define it
- What’s described as promising but limited research so far
- Support for personalized learning in federal (Race to the Top) and recent state led efforts in Rhode Island and Tennessee
Ironically, it’s probably worth noting that this surge in interest in personalization coincides with the closing of the national organization of the Coalition of Essential Schools – founded by Ted Sizer who put personalization on the map in the 1980’s and 90’s.
Your post prompted me to reflect on some of these developments and what I have been seeing in my own research on improvement efforts and “innovation” in several developing and developed countries. In particular, I think your draft of what you call a “continuum” of personalization in many of the “lessons” you’ve observed nicely highlights the way that personalization often involves a mix of teacher-centered and student-centered activities. One way to expand the continuum and get at some of the complexities that you and your commentators have acknowledged might be to look at the extent to which several different educational decisions are made by teachers and/or students. For example, many approaches to personalization talk about customizing the goals, the content, and the pace of educational activities. It seems like those approaches at your “teacher-directed” end of the spectrum adapt instruction to the needs/interests of students, but, for the most part teachers are still making the decisions about:
- What the students should be learning (and why)
- The materials they should use and the paths they should follow
- The speed with which they move along those paths
At the other end, students may be making more of those decisions themselves. In the middle, teachers and students may be sharing those decisions, teachers may make some decisions and students others, and teachers may make those decisions sometimes while students make them at others (e.g. higher performing students may be allowed/encouraged to make more of those decisions than their peers).
To make things more complicated, each decision about goals, content, and pace can be broken down into a whole series of related choices. Decisions related to content and materials, for instance, include who chooses reading materials, what to focus on in the reading, how to read it, and how material should be presented (as one of your commenters, Dylan Kane, noted). It’s also possible to imagine a whole bunch of other decisions that we might (or might not!) want to take into account. For example, I’m beginning to experiment with letting my graduate students choose not only when to take on particular assignments but also where (e.g. in the classroom or not; alone or with others). I also remember passionate discussions at one meeting of educators working on designing a new school (the Celebration School, developed as part of the planned community connected to Disneyworld) about whether or not to enable students to determine the kind of lighting that best suited their “learning style.” Adding to the complexities, as Laura Chapman pointed out in the comments, these decisions can also be made by those who develop the technologies used to support personalization. It’s also possible, with the developments in distance and blended learning to imagine a variety of other people, including parents, taking a more direct role in these lesson-level decisions as well. (Extending the scope of personalization beyond “lessons” and courses, and making it a core concept in a reimagined system of education as in approaches like ReSchool Colorado can make it more complicated still.)
However we define the key instructional decisions, I think you’re right that the extent to which teachers or students make those decisions distinguishes many of the current approaches. I’d be interested to know, though, how often you see personalized approaches that really give students wide latitude and extensive control over their own learning? Chris Ongaro, a graduate student here at Teachers College, is looking at student’s experiences in a variety of “personalized” courses (many of them online), and he tells me that even when students are given choices, those choices are usually extremely limited, rarely allowing students to imagine or pursue their own options. As he said to me, students may play a role in shaping the means, but the ends are often predetermined.
While I raise these questions, following your descriptive lead, I’m trying not to place a particular value on one end of the continuum or the other. But as we describe the role of the teacher and the student, I’m also reminded again of what Sizer often said (quoting James Comer, eminent psychologist and founder of the School Development Program): The three most important things in schools (and school improvement) are “relationships, relationships, relationships.” For Sizer, personalization grew out of the belief that “we can’t teach students well if we do not know them well.” That relationship both allows those in the role of teacher to recognize and respond to each student’s needs and interests, but it also opens up those in the student’s role to opportunities and challenges they may never have encountered on their own. While I often ask my students these days to explain to me why teachers are needed in schools (truth be told, I also ask them why we need “students”), it may be worth trying to capture something about the nature of the teacher-student relationships in these approaches to personalization as well. But now your straightforward and clear continuum looks a lot more like one of those polygons and polyhedrons that you and wrubens discussed…
At the end of the day, though, I see many of the same things you do: approaches to personalizing activities, classes, and courses that are often carried out in the regular school day or within typical course structures and with the expectation that “success” will mean meeting conventional graduation standards, going to college and getting a “good” job. Perhaps it should be no surprise then, that under these circumstances, as you so eloquently put it:
…wherever these classrooms, programs, schools, and districts fall on the continuum of personalized learning with their playlists, self-assessment software, and tailored lessons all of them work within the traditional age-graded school structure. No public school in Silicon Valley that I visited departed from that century-old school organization.