Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Wide Space Between Personalized Learning and Personal Learning is Choice of Action

Finding Eden (M.A. Reilly, 2011)
When something is personal, agency is required.  When something is personalized, the receiver is acted upon, not acting.  Personal learning requires the learner to be the doer--the actor. Personalized learning situates the learner as the recipient of something that another has determined. 

Personal learning is inhabited by a body. Personalization requires no such agency on the part of the learner and matters of agency are ones we need to consider.

Justin Reich in a recent EdTech Research blog raises questions about the term, personalization.  He writes:
"Personalization" has won the hearts of every camp in education. Whether you are a market-based reformer, an open education advocate, or a 21st century Dewey partisan, everyone agrees that learning should be personalized: learning experiences should be tailored to each individual student. We also agree that personalization is made feasible by new technologies.
Since we agree on these broad principles, we should expect fierce battles over the specifics, over "what we mean by personalization."
Let me be frank: I'm not a fan of personalized learning and I can say squarely that it hasn't won my heart.  Nonetheless, I did wonder at the definitions that Reich might offer. He provides the following understandings of what personalization via 'technology' means:
using technology to individually diagnose student competencies on standardized tests and then apply algorithms to adaptively deliver appropriately challenging content to each student to help them perform better on those tests. It means taking the factory model of education and giving every kid an assembly line.

For some, personalization means that technology opens a world of information and expertise to every student, empowers students as explorers and creators, and lets them follow their interests and passions in diverse directions. It means blowing up the factory, and building something else (maybe creative agencies).
Although these definitions are offered as different, I wonder if they really are.  If we ask who is the agent in each scenario, we do not come up with the learner.   In the first, the learner is situated as sick and the remedy is personalization that is provided through technology.  In the second, technology again (How ubiquitous is that?) has donned the pants so to speak and is the actor that grants learner permission to follow interests and passions, as streamlined through the technology.  Reich says in the first example, the learner is given a new assembly line and in the second example the factory model of schooling is exploded. But is it, really?

At the center of a factory model is control: The owner's control over the worker; the school's control over the learner.  Something other is determining the limits of another's actions. The wrappings of the second model may not look like a factory, but without will and agency it retains a similar level of control--just one that is dressed differently.

Personal learning is quite different as it is, well, personal.  It requires the learner to act, to make decisions--even (and perhaps especially) ones that may be considered 'poor'.  It does not safeguard, coddle, enforce, limit, encourage, or coerce the learner towards a specific direction--as such matters rest in the learner's hands. Whereas personalization requires following; personal learning requires thinking, being.

Interestingly, Reich alludes to the division between Edward Thorndike and John Dewey towards the end of the post and suggests that the differences between the two definitions of personalization he offers are akin to the philosophical differences between the two men.  Hmm.  I don't think Dewey would have liked either definition. 

As I read the post, I was reminded that some years ago I published an article titled, 'Choice of Action: Using Data to Make Instructional Decisions in Kindergarten' with an obvious nod to Dewey (1916) who noted: "The self is not something ready-made, but something in continuous formation through choice of action" (p. 351). 

Dewey's right--the difference between ready-made and continuous formation is the difference between personalized and personal.

We make ourselves by our actions. Agency is required.

It is this ready-made vs. continuous formation that offers us the sharpest insight into the gross differences between personalization and personal.  Personalization eschews a body, while personal learning is fully embodied; it happens alongside the continuous formation of self. 

Work Cited:
Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education: An introduction to the philosophy of education. New York: Macmillan.


  1. Nice post! It's the difference between choosing what meal you want to eat and the restaurant you want to eat at. If we insist on forcing kids to learn what we want then to know rather than what interests them, we can't expect any better results in schooling. The problem is, schooling has always been a way of state control and indoctrination of citizens. As long as the state provides it, this won't change.

    1. The learning within personal learning is not just about 'content' but more so about the tacit understandings that develop alongside the sanctioned learning. The journey that happens that could not be mapped prior to making it.

  2. For so many it comes down to control and faith one has that children/students can think on their own. It's impossible to script or plan for personal learning. Great post.

    1. It is impossible and yet it is not only done, but also offered as a responsible action--a form of education reform. We should know better, but we don't seem to learn this very well.