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Posted by on in Education Policy

steam engine

Personalized Learning is getting the hard sell these days. It's marketable for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that nobody really knows what Personalized Learning is.

What it suggests is something appealing, like Individualized Education Programs for everyone. Personalized Learning fans like to trot out exemplars like Chugach, Alaska, a remote, tiny town where a school system created a system in which each student had her own personal path to graduation, with projects, content, and assessment.

While there are plenty of problems with the Chugach thing, it's a good example of what most of us think Personalized Learning would mean. An educational program custom designed for each individual learner. Custom designed like a meal at a restaurant where you can choose the protein and spices and sauces and dishes and means of cooking and order exactly what you are hungry for.

But as Personalized Learning rolls out, that's not what it's like at all.

From the College Board's personalized SAT prep courtesy of Khan Academy, through bold plans like this IBM personalized education pitch is something else entirely. This is just path-switching.

The Brand X that we're supposed to be escaping, the view of education that Personalized Learning is supposed to alter, the toxin for which Personalized Learning is the alleged antidote is an education model in which all students get on the same car of the same train and ride the same tracks to the same destination at the same time. That's not what's actually going on in public schools these days, but let's set that aside for the moment.

Real personalized learning would tear up the tracks, park the train, offer every student a good pair of hiking shoes or maybe a four-wheeler, maybe even a hoverboard, plus a map of the territory (probably in the form of an actual teacher), then let the student pick a destination and a path and manner of traveling.

But techno-personalized learning keeps the track and the train. In the most basic version, we keep one train and one track and the "personalization" is that students get on at different station. Maybe they occasionally get to catch a helicopter that zips them ahead a couple of stops. (Think the old SRA reading program.)

Pat completes the first computer exercise in the module. An algorithm (cheerfully mis-identified as "artificial intelligence" because that sounds so super-cool) checks Pat's answers and the particular configuration of incorrect answers, by which the algorithm assigns the next exercise to Pat. Rinse and repeat. Pat is still on the train, but now there's a small web of tracks that he must travel. But Pat is still a passenger on this train, choosing no part of the journey, the destination, nor the means of travel.

That is in fact one of the key ways to identify whether you've got actual personalized learning or not -- how prominent is the voice of the student. If the pitch is "Our super-duper AI will analyze student performance and assign an appropriately awesome module to enhance learning swellness," this is not actual personalized learning, but Algorthmically Mediated Lessons (h/t Bill Fitzgerald) which is not personalized learning at all.

That's the bait and switch to watch out for. The promise is a hugely flexible and open-ended, even project-based, learning that is adapted to every individual learner. The delivery more often is the chance to pay big bucks for what is essentially a proprietary library of exercises managed by a proprietary software algorithm for doling the assignments out based on a battery of pre-made standardized tests and quizzes. That is not personalized learning. You cannot have personalized learning without persons. That includes persons making the decisions about hat the students do. That includes using knowledge of the person who is the student, and not handing out materials created by someone who has never met the students (and created the exercises before the student ever stepped into the classroom).

That impersonal education is not automatically terrible, and often has a place in education-- but it's not personalized learning.

And it's worth noting that the one train, one track model was abandoned by public education ages ago. Differentiated instruction, IEP's, authentic assessment, project-based learning, and a thousand other methods have been tried and adopted by classroom teachers who routinely work to meet students where they are and craft instruction to suit their personal needs. That's one of the great ironies of the bait and switch, the algorithmically mediated lessons - in the majority of US classrooms, when it comes to personalization, Faux Personalized Learning is actually a step backwards. The personalized bait-and-switch is about getting teachers to trade in their shiny hoverboards or rusty steam engines.

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Posted by on in Education Policy

kids and computers

I've been concerned that teachers are not paying enough attention to the health risks they are imposing on our children now that schools require students to use digital devices every day, and at ever younger ages. Ironically, teachers themselves seem to be avoiding this critical education.

What happens to children who use digital devices every day? Researchers and doctors agree that the risks for permanent retinal damage, physical pain, myopia, headaches, anxiety, depression, obesity, diabetes, addiction, and suicide all increase. Add in homework on a device, and you can add sleeplessness, and the well known host of ills that accompany it: more weight gain, more depression, inability to focus, irritability, hyperactivity and poor school performance.

Since publishing "First, Do No Harm," my first article on EdWords, I have not had much feedback from teachers. The health issues posed by digital devices were recently discussed on BAM! Radio Network, in a Rae Pica interview. I hope you'll listen to it. You can determine how free of known hazards your own classroom is, and what steps you can take to help protect your students.

It's important to note that these health issues expand into our children's overall well being, and how our kids are going to grow up. Here is an article from Psychology Today you might find illuminating. I wrote it for Dr. Victoria Dunckley's blog. Dr. Dunckley is leading the national conversation about the impact of digital devices on children's mental health and brain development.

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Posted by on in Education Policy

soap box derby car

We have tied to explain the problems of equality and equity and opportunity dozens of ways. Here's one you've probably seen many many times:











 
 
I'm going to offer another metaphor today-- the soap box derby.

Let's imagine two racers approaching the starting line. Our two young divers are seated in similarly-built cars, made well enough for the race. The race down the hill begins at the starting line, but before they arrive at that line, anything goes.

Chris's car is carried to the starting line, and there Chris sits, waiting for the flag to be waved, at which point Chris will take off the break and let gravity move the car down the hill.

Meanwhile, Pat is lined up further in back of the starting line. Pat has family there, too, and when the flag waves, Pat's family will push Pat just as hard as they can.

A few seconds later, we see the two cars on the hill. The race has begun. Pat is out in front, going far faster than Chris. But when someone among the spectators complains that the race is not fair, the reply they hear is this:

"It's perfectly fair. Look-- they're in equal cars, on the same hill, each one steering and driving their car depending on nothing but their own skills, reflexes, talents and abilities. If Pat wins, that must be because Pat is a better driver, and Chris would be better off building a skill set and becoming a better driver than worrying about. Because right now, on that hill, they are perfectly equal."

We could make the metaphor more complicated, give Pat and Chris different vehicles to represent various obstacles Chris brings into the race. But here's the thing-- even if Chris has just as good a car, is just as strong and sharp, works just as hard at driving, history is still on Pat's side. Everything that happened before the starting line was crossed makes a huge difference.

Research tells us over and over again that families of origin make a huge difference, that history stacks the deck before a child even crosses the starting line. We also know that how our society functions makes a difference as well (I might expand the metaphor by adding that Chris is stopped by police every ten feet down the hill).

I'm not arguing for inescapable destiny. I'm not saying that children who are born poor or raised poor are doomed, their fate set in stone, nothing we can do about it. There's plenty we can do about it. There are soooo many things that we can do in school to help boost up those racers who didn't get the extra push to start, and we should be doing every single one we can think of, because success is attainable for every child who walks through the school door.

But we can't do anything if we don't understand the situation. And if we are looking at the two racers on the hill, saying, "Well, they're totally equal with the same resources and situation, so I guess Chris just isn't trying hard enough," then we don't understand the situation, and we won't find the solutions we need.

 

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Posted by on in Education Policy

Let me admit...

Before I start I want to readily admit that there are far more than three things wrong with our current educational system. The three reasons I'm about to discuss are the ones I think are most detrimental to the success of our schools in this country.

Things that matter but won't be discussed

I can tell you right now that none of these things have anything to do with funding, politics, or the zip code that you live in.  All of these are things that have effects on education and its success, but I would like to focus on systemic, instructional, and conceptual issues that exist at the school, district, and national level. These are key thing that are, in my mind, possible to change with the right commitment.

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Posted by on in Education Policy

When I send my children to school, I imagine that I am sending them into an environment where caring professionals are encouraging and challenging them to learn new ideas and engage in new experiences, anxious to open my kids' eyes to new possibilities. I am counting on teachers to provide understandable connections to what the kids already know and help them create a bridge to their future studies. Fundamental to the teachers' efforts, I imagine, is an overarching concern for my children's well-being.

So I confess I am baffled by the silence from teachers, when it comes to the health risks caused by daily classroom screen time.  I would have expected educators to clamor for more information, call for medical and scientific support, and rush to mitigate the situation once they learned that daily use of digital devices poses serious health risks to their students. But that hasn't happened, despite all the media attention and medical research that has recently been made available.

And the research is clear: daily computer use damages children. Myopia tops the list. The USC Roski Eye Institute, in its largest and most recent myopia study, showed that daily screen time is the likely culprit for childhood myopia doubling in our country.

Retinal damage (which can lead to macular degeneration and blindness) is next. Prevent Blindness America and voluminous medical researchers report that children's eyes absorb more blue light than adults: the damaging HEV rays go straight to the back of a child's eye.

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