This blog was originally published on Education Week.

Let’s put personalized learning in its proper place. That is: as a foundational part of a larger whole, reflecting the coherent integration of 21st-century definitions of student success; school design and learning models tuned to those robust definitions; and a surrounding environment of supportive adult learning, re-imagined roles for assessment, and enabling policy.

Okay, that was a mouthful, wasn’t it? Educators and ed reformers (including all of us at NGLC) are frequently guilty of communicating what we’re seeking to accomplish in over-complicated ways. That’s a problem. The goals of next gen, learner-centered, personalized education can and need to be expressed simply, powerfully and memorably.

But the design and effective execution of these forms of education is anything but simple. In the field’s intensifying move toward personalized learning, we risk falling into several age-old traps that share a common root: the all-too-human tendency to reduce a complex, challenging undertaking to a smaller, more easily digestible version of itself. One that carries the illusion of real change, but in reality is destined to become a caricature of the original, complex idea.

Three such traps we should all be aware of:

1. Old Wine in New Bottles Syndrome. If all of this fuss contents itself with coloring safely inside the lines of traditional, last-century definitions of student success, it will have accomplished very little. We will have done the equivalent of pouring old wine into alluring new bottles.

While more than 80 percent of American high school students move onto some form of postsecondary education today (good), just a third will emerge with a degree, leaving all of the others to face daunting odds of earning a living wage. Some of this problem can be assigned to colleges still clinging to 20th-century norms of undergraduate education, and some to the trauma and disruption many kids in the U.S. experience, growing up in poverty amidst unstable homes and communities. But much of it lies with the profound chasm between what our systems and our practices still define as student success–typically, meeting course requirements and passing state tests in traditional academic subjects–and the deeper, broader competencies that today’s high school graduates must develop in order to thrive in the 21st century.

The irony is that most everyone knows what these competencies are: critical thinking, problem solving, communicating, collaborating and other social skills, continual learning, self-direction, perseverance, goal-setting…. Ask any roomful of adults and that’s what you’ll hear. What’s still missing is a widespread understanding of how fundamentally students’ experience of public education needs to change if they are to genuinely develop those competencies in school.

Personalized learning models that are detached from a deep, community-wide examination and redefinition of student success, conducted prior to the adoption of new forms of learning and assessment, are completely missing the boat. Ratcheting up proficiency rates on state tests in ELA and math is a good thing, but falls woefully short of adequately preparing students for the challenges they’ll face upon graduating from high school. (See NGLC’s MyWays project for more on this.)

2. Silver Bullet Fever. Leaving out the “north star” guidance of a richer, deeper definition of student success undercuts the chances of real transformation. Over-focusing on implementing personalizing learning as a kind of Uber-Pedagogical Silver Bullet carries the risk of doing as much harm as good. Here are three of the risks that worry me most.

  • Tunnel-vision learning: Learning science tells us that learning is a “jagged” phenomenon. It doesn’t proceed in straight lines or predictable steps in every case. If schools orient all learning around helping students proceed, inch by inch, along established learning pathways all the time, that will limit the infinite possibilities (and the joys!) of the unexpected, circuitous ways children learn. (See Todd Rose’s The End of Average to be convinced on this point.) Across the rich mix of 21st-century competencies and traditional academic disciplines, the rising chorus to “always meet students right where they are” on academic learning progressions risks sacrificing the big leaps in order to proceed in orderly fashion along a trail of small steps.
  • Lonely learning: Life is social. Much of learning is social. Some of the most essential learning that students accomplish in school is that which builds their ability to listen, work together with others, handle social challenges, deepen their sense of empathy, and fulfill responsibilities as a member of a community. This skill development–arguably more important now, in these socially fractious times, than ever–happens in a great many ways across a great many forms of student experience. But it won’t happen, much, for students whose schools over-emphasize 500 personalized learning pathways for their 500 students, at the expense of community-building, learning in teams, and asking students to actively contribute to the work of the whole.
  • Inauthentic learning: Many of the next gen schools getting the most attention nationally–High Tech High, New Tech, EL Education, Big Picture, school districts in Lindsay, Vista, Kettle Morraine, and St. Vrain, and among NGLC grantees, Summit, Design Tech, Thrive, Da Vinci, Valor, and Brooklyn LAB–make a deep commitment to experiential learning, in increasingly authentic, out-of-school environments as students progress. Some of the schools are essentially bringing what used to be extracurricular or optional (for example, drama) into their regular school day for all students to experience. A few of the personalized learning frameworks now being published and scrutinized by potential district adopters hold up experiential and project-based learning as a foundational element, but my un-scientific sense is that many do not – or, like Summit’s Basecamp network, they tend to place experiential learning behind other priorities in the sequence of implementation.

Project-based learning is hard to do well. But students moving through personalized learning pathways arguably need these forms of learning even more than students in more traditional classrooms. Without it, the learning may be the equivalent of “processed foods with all of the ‘right’ nutritional values” rather than fresh, whole fruits, grains and vegetables–real food for productive struggle, as Mike Petrilli memorably wrote in “Don’t Let Personalized Learning Become the Processed Food of Education.”

3.  Bright and Shiny Disease. Improving learning and deepening student outcomes is still, at the end of the day, about the people. It is not, most obviously, about the technology. Technology is a crucial enabler and a potentially useful disrupter (a role it has served with distinction in other sectors and industries). We are nearing the point of market demand for personalized learning when all manner of bright-and-shiny tools, platforms, apps, and gadgets will promise to deliver it with one easy purchase. Many schools and districts–let’s hope not too many–will fall prey to these promises, ignoring or profoundly under-addressing the challenge of enabling teachers to work effectively in personalized learning environments.

But there’s a larger point to make here, beyond the siren call of technology. There’s a lot of energy being invested these days in uncovering a kind of educational Holy Grail: a common definition of personalized learning. Such a thing would be helpful, but – like everything else I’m writing about in this blog, apparently – the rush to nail it down carries risks.

I have a sense that at least some of the swirl around personalized learning, in these still-early days, risks having the effect of narrowing, rather than deepening, our thinking about its role within a larger reimagining of public education. I’m thinking of our own response at NGLC (and that of our grantees) to the recently released RAND report on the degree to which 40 NGLC grantee schools reflect “four interdependent strategies” of personalized learning as an example. It’s a solid report, providing useful data and perceptive observations on these schools’ instructional practices. The RAND researchers clearly understand the wide variety of learning designs being pursued by these schools. We worry, though, that in how they are digested by the field, reports like this one can tend to reduce a tremendously varied set of experiments in school design down to… well, a single construction composed of four interdependent strategies.

What’s the problem with that? It’s that today’s four strategies for research inquiry tend to morph into tomorrow’s checklist for school design and implementation, or (even riskier) the next day’s accountability policy. What results too often from these well-intended efforts is a narrow, incomplete version of the comprehensively integrated original set of ideas.

For example: Professional learning for teachers barely shows up in most of the frameworks seeking to characterize effective personalized learning. They focus instead on the cool new stuff: student profiles, personal learning paths, competency-based progression, flexible learning environments.

These are exciting and utterly important reforms carrying loads of potential. But let’s not kid ourselves here. The key determiner of the success and sustainability of this effort will be the degree to which we enlist, prepare, support, and involve teachers, school leaders, and other education professionals in effectively carrying it through. Next gen, personalized, student-centered learning for students demands thoroughly professional, next gen environments and culture among the adults. (That’s not just my own opinion; it’s probably the biggest lesson learned by NGLC’s school-design grantees over the course of launching and refining their schools.)

So: let’s put the four strategies, or the three dimensions, or the five whatevers of personalized learning presented by all of the PL framework in their proper place – as core parts of a much larger whole. At the very least: let’s not ramp up personalized learning in the industrialized way the U.S. did standards-based reform–a good idea that led in far too many communities to narrowed learning and constant test prep. Lofty visions of education reform that burst with promise at the conceptual level (from “Hold all kids to higher expectations!” to “All learning should be personalized!”) have a way of turning into contorted imitations of themselves when the education industrial complex tries to implement them at scale. The silver-bullet/bright-and-shiny/old-wine syndromes I describe here are caution lights we should all be aware of as we proceed.

Andy Calkins is Director of Next Generation Learning Challenges. Connect with them on Twitter: @nextgenlc.

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