Personalized Learning

I’m still in between writing assignments. Well, I have one in the works, but I’m waiting around for the publicist to set up the interview. So, let me tell you about another topic that’s on the back burner.

Last spring, I spent weeks and weeks touring other public schools in the area looking for another public school that would work for Ian. I think I looked at seven or eight different programs. The best programs were doing super interesting things with computers. Let me back up.

One of the big problems in special ed is that you have a group of kids who are disabled, but they are each disabled in different ways. Some have emotional problems, others have cognitive problems, and still others may attentional issues. Public schools dump all those kids in the same room. None of them may read on grade level, but each one is getting tripped up for different reasons.

The old school way of dealing with this diverse bunch is to make them all read the same book at their age-level ability, even though none of them actually reads on grade level. So, the teacher will read the book out loud to the class — in some cases the kids will listen to the book on tape — and the teacher will explain the book to the kids. So, the kids aren’t working on learning how to read. Then the aides and the teachers will talk them through an essay on the book.  I call this pretend learning.

The new way is to set the kids in front of a computer, where they’ll read “Huck Finn” or “Charlotte’s Web” on their reading level. The computer program translates the book to their ability. These programs generate questions and assignments that are appropriate for them. Later, the class might work together on a group assignment or discussion on the same matter. The whole group has read Huck Finn, just on their own level.

This method is very cost-effective. Instead of hiring extra teachers and aides, the kids use a computer. The teacher doesn’t have to generate assignments for each kid. The kids aren’t stressed out by doing work that is too hard for them. There isn’t any of the pretend learning bs. I don’t see a downside.

There’s a quiet movement that’s happening in general ed to do the same thing, because, after all, all kids are different. It’s starting off in some charter schools and spreading. The teachers’ union hates it because, in some ways, it de-professionalizes the teachers. The standards movement people hate it, because they insist that every 9th grader should read the same 9th grade science textbook. But this movement is going to win out, because of money.

47 thoughts on “Personalized Learning

  1. I can’t connect the dots on your last sentence. Where is the monetary advantage for general ed environments? They will pay teachers less because the computer program makes their job easier? The program allows a single teacher to teach a larger classroom? Something else?


    1. 1. It saves money, because it makes special ed a lot cheaper. Tons of money goes to a small army of aides and other assistants who do this pretend learning with the students.

      2. Class size can be bigger in the general ed setting.

      3. Teachers end up becoming “facilitators”, rather than “instructors.” It’s hard to be a really good teacher in a traditional classroom. Not everybody is a talented lecturer. There is a high level of burn out. Schools spend a lot of money dealing with tenured teachers who are bad at it or are burnt out. They have to find a place for them, where they will do the least damage. Those less talented/burned out teachers might be just fine in these classroom settings.


  2. I like the idea of having the learning pitched at each child’s level/ability but I’m skeptical about it being sold as cost savings measure. A computer can never replace the benefits of a relationship between a teacher and a child/learner.

    How is this different than online university classes? Or canned lectures? Won’t it result in more of a divide between the haves and the have nots?

    One of the benefits of a private school is that they have the resources (teachers) to really know your child, both socially and how they learn. And, like med school, once you’re in, you’re “in” – they have the resources to support different kids’ abilities to get them through to graduation.

    I think it’s an “and” situation – use the computer app/system to translate Huck Finn for each learner AND have teachers to teach.


    1. Regarding “once you’re in, you’re in.”

      It depends on the school. The elite colleges are very supportive, and the work is not difficult compared to the ability of the average admittee, so they can be very supportive. But the elite boarding schools, when I was there, dismissed a lot of students for academic problems, and the NYC private schools still do. My daughter’s class lost about ten percent between kindergarten and high school who couldn’t keep up academically.


      1. My sweeping generalization didn’t hold! Seriously, though, my daughter’s school has seen similar attrition as well for a variety of reasons. Some academic (the challenges of dual language programs appear from grade 3-4 onwards when it switches from “learning to read” to “reading to learn”), some social (didn’t find their tribe), and other reasons (super sporty kids switching to a sports-focused magnet-type public school). School X can be an amazing school but not for every kid.


  3. I agree on the “pretend learning” front, but I see downsides.

    The first downside is, how does the computer set the appropriate level for the child? It seems to me computer-adapted leveling only automates the sort of leveling a teacher does. So there’s a savings in time for the teacher, but there’s a loss as well. In the “old fashioned” (traditional?) system, the teacher has to engage with a child to determine his reading level. The best teachers will note areas of strength as well as weakness.

    In the general ed setting, we found a real resistance to allowing children to read material which was challenging enough. As reading researchers have pointed out, if a child’s absorbed in the text, they’re reading at a good level for them. There is a school of thought that connects recent drops in reading scores to a drop in textbook complexity.

    I have doubts that the leveled materials produced by the computers will be good materials. Some aspects of your post seem to propose using computers to tackle what’s really a political problem–the insistence that all students be “on grade level.” It comes down to a (political) lack of trust in teachers’ estimations of student ability.

    I have one child who could never type fast enough to satisfy the settings the software used to judge “proficiency.” The teachers were not allowed to correct for obvious misjudgments on the software’s part. (not that the software is judging, of course. It’s just applying speed of response as the criterion for progression.) I do think a switch to machines will select out a group of children as “learning disabled” because they don’t behave or react in the ways software expects them to react.


  4. Isn’t this just dealing practically with what was the one room schoolhouse situation? A teacher or two for a class of kids at different levels. With the proper-sized classroom, it can be done well. The computer app should just be another tool used by human teachers to teach face-to-face.

    I don’t see many solutions to improving education/reducing burnout that don’t involve investments of time & money. It’s a labour intensive venture. My daughter will never be more inspired by a computer program than she is by the teachers she’s had who really understand and know her. It’s another tool, not a replacement.


  5. Honestly, Jonah has only had a handful of great teachers who knew him and cared about him. He doesn’t even remember the names of his elementary school teachers. Ian has had none. I’ll take computers over bad teachers.


    1. If it’s a binary choice, then yes, computers win over bad teachers. But I think that’s a false argument – computers vs. teachers. I’m not saying that you’re making that argument but that conservatives hoping to cut education funding like to set it up as such. They sell us on the idea that there’s some magical technology or mysterious fat in the budget that’ll save millions while still delivering effective public education.

      Education needs an infusion of cash for more teachers over the long term. In the short term, get those programs in to make some improvements now.

      And I hear you about teachers – no matter the school, public or private, there will be duds. You’ve gotta be advocating for your kid all the time.


    2. “He doesn’t even remember the names of his elementary school teachers.”


      That’s awful! I remember the names of every single one of my teachers grades K-6 (with a little effort), and that’s been 30-36 years ago.


  6. Mrs Ford, second grade, 1957. Mrs Snodgrass, fourth grade. Mr Bisio, fifth grade – he was dreadful, liked to cane kids. First grade is lost territory for me.


    1. Kindergarten–Miss Liddell and Mrs. Baxter; first grade–Mrs. Carey and Miss Cummings; second–Mrs. Carey (she switched grades); third grade–Mrs. Dudley and Miss Martin (I had a big crush on her); fourth grade–Mrs. Ricca.


  7. As someone whose kid was pushed into one of those computerized LArts classrooms for seventh grade — it was Scholastic’s Reading 180 — I have nothing good to say about his experience.

    I don’t even know where to begin to explain how enraged I’m getting just thinking about it now, six years later. He lost a lot of ground that year with the completely dumbed-down materials that made up that curriculum.

    He only caught up only because we hired a terrific tutor. That was several thousand dollars we hadn’t budgeted for.

    Luckily, just the mention we had been talking to an attorney was enough to get the school moving, so at least we were spared that expense.

    The next year he was back in a co-taught general ed classroom, where he read, among other pieces of real, actual literature, To Kill a Mockingbird. He made terrific progress and it was a boon to his concept of himself as a reader to have completed such a lengthy, involved novel.

    High school seniors in our district are assigned to write a letter to one of their teachers from before high school. My kid chose to thank his eighth grade teacher for “introducing me to adult literature.”

    Anyway, when places like the Chicago Lab School and Sidwell Friends replace their teachers with laptops, let me know.


    1. “As someone whose kid was pushed into one of those computerized LArts classrooms for seventh grade — it was Scholastic’s Reading 180 — I have nothing good to say about his experience”.

      Reminds me of those SRA leveled readers back in the day. I remember blowing through them as fast as possible. I don’t remember learning much from it!

      I actually work with leveled readers now as a volunteer reading tutor in a public school. I see 3 grade 1 kids, 2 grade 2’s and 1 grade 3 for half an hour a week. They read to me and we do other games, etc. depending upon what they are working on (sight words, comprehension, fluency, etc.). The leveled readers work well in a focused environment one-on-one.

      “Anyway, when places like the Chicago Lab School and Sidwell Friends replace their teachers with laptops, let me know”.

      You said it MUCH more succinctly than I did – private schools can afford to provide much more tailored-to-the-student teaching than public schools.


      1. I was able to blow through those SRA cards. I don’t know what I learned, but they weren’t the regular assignment. They were what you could do after the regular assignment.


      2. It seems to me there’s got to be a way to use computers some of the time (in the way that we used SRAs – I remember those too!) but get better teachers who can teach books to the whole class. I have a good friend who is a very hard-working high school English teacher and there are many methods you can use for this. Reading a computer-adapted version of Charlotte’s Web or Huck Finn is not the same as reading Charlotte’s Web or Huck Finn. Not saying the adapted versions can’t be helpful, but some contact with really well-written books is important.


  8. See, I loved the SRAs. I was four grades ahead in reading, so I would have been bored if I had been forced to read the same stuff as other kids.

    These individualized systems of education can really only happen by using technology, in a typical, cash-strapped school districts. Some kids do thrive with self directed learning on the computer. Ian does. Even Jonah, who is about the most average, typical kid that you can find, likes it.

    One of Jonah’s math teachers a couple of years back experimented with a reversed classroom. It was part of his master’s thesis. He was actually a very good traditional teacher, too. He had the kids watch a video lecture about a topic at home for homework. Then in class, the kids did the problems that would have been assigned for homework. The teacher went around the room and helped the kids who needed help and answered questions. Jonah liked it.

    I was talking with a middle school English teacher a couple of weeks ago. She was assigned one class that was mostly made up of kids with IEPs and ELL students. None of them were remotely on grade level. She had to walk them through “1984.” She said it was painful. The ELL students were not only not fluent in English, but she said that they had never learned to read in their original languages. She said that she had to use the book to teach them words like “pig” and “sheep”. She thought it was silly. Those kids needed first grade books, not Orwell.


    1. “Those kids needed first grade books, not Orwell.”

      Actually, Orwell is part of their civics classes these days.

      E’s 9th grade bio teacher is flipping the classroom. Seems to work well.


    2. Having worked with the flipped model myself, there are serious problems with it as an across the board solution. What about the kids who don’t have a computer at home? Or a quiet place to listen to the assigned lectures? The flipped models are really difficult to implement in a low SES district – the kind of places that most need help.


  9. I thought 1984 was boring, or possibly too hard, when I was in high school, and I was at the top of my class. I can’t imagine any reasonable teacher choosing to use it for anything other than AP. (Part of the problem is that when you do get a good or great teacher, she/he isn’t always allowed to choose the material.) But things like Charlotte’s Web or To Kill a Mockingbird can be made accessible to most kids, though probably not those who are more than a couple of years behind grade level.

    The flipping idea seems great in theory, though I do wonder how many kids just don’t watch (due to inaccessibility or slacking or whatever). Does the teacher wind up giving the lecture again anyway?


    1. “Does the teacher wind up giving the lecture again anyway?” Apparently, sort of but faster. E’s bio teacher also says it works better with his Honors classes.

      I’m working with Heart of Darkness this term (the whole class is sort of based on it) and my students *hate* it. I never liked much of anything I read for school except Hamlet, which I devoured. I didn’t read TKAM until I was in my 30s. It was all white guys*, all the time, for us in HS.

      *Or white women** with white guy pseudonyms, hello George Eliot.
      ** Oh, I might have read Wuthering Heights. Does Bronte count because she published it under a male pseudonym even if I knew it was Bronte when I read it?


    2. Here’s a depressing story (no matter where you stand on the political spectrum): One of my partners and I were sitting with a young associate, and my partner said something critical about “the Big Brother tendencies of the Obama administration.” The associate said, “Yes, that’s right.” We were surprised, because she is pretty liberal, and an Obama fan, but she went on, “That’s how government should be. Like a big brother. A big brother who stands up for you on the playground and protects you. That’s my ideal of government.” She was not being ironic or clever or paradoxical, she truly had zero cultural literacy.


      1. I’ve tried to inculcate in mine, and they are adamantine. I do my goddamn best. We are secular, and I have tried to sell them on reading Bible just for cultural literacy. They won’t. Tom Sawyer is another country, might as well be the dark side of the moon. They had a steady diet of YA shit, with heroic tweens finding their way while betrayed by adults. Crap.


      2. “They had a steady diet of YA shit, with heroic tweens finding their way while betrayed by adults. Crap.”

        Like Huckleberry Finn?


  10. My son has a flipped classroom for AP Chem, and the class is divided into two, with each half doing the flipped learning one week, and traditional the next. This is the pilot year, and we were told they were monitoring how well it works very closely, before deciding to switch to it full time.


  11. If my child was going to use adaptive reading, I’d want to see it in action before I’d sign on. I’d want to know what criterion was being used to adapt the text, what the text looked like adapted. Is that something you’ve seen in your explorations? For example, seen Charlotte’s Web adapted to different abilities? And, indeed, what about 1984?

    And, let’s say a good program might be better than a bad teacher. I still would want good teachers for my children (and other people’s) and am not willing to give up the battle for good teachers in exchange for adequate computer programs. Mind you, I think I’ve largely been blessed with a lot of good teachers (I even think the one who had a depression spiral for a month and left the classroom to her own devices was a good teacher who was having a bad month).


  12. I don’t know if the Lab school is starting a computer-aided education program, but Lakeside school in Seattle (best known for having been the school that Bill Gates attended) is. They’re planning a branded private “minischool” based on the concept of leveraging technology for individualized education. By leveraging technology (and dropping extracurriculars), they hope to pay teachers better, give them more responsibilities, and keep the cost of the school at $18K or so, compared to $30K (Sidwell is 40K).

    The school will be targeted at a high-achieving population (and is also driven by an inability to expand the Lakeside proper program); I’m intrigued to see how the model pans out (though irritated by the branding — some folks are referring to the school as “Lakeside Lite”, which can’t be good for anyone and by the diversion of Lakeside’s funds for startup costs).


  13. I’ve gotten bored with complaints about the cultural literacy of young people. Of course they know a different set of information than we do. Everyone has overlapping sets of knowledge, and it’s never very intersting to be surprised that someone else doesn’t know something you know, because there’s a bias in the testing of that knowledge, because you only ask about what you already know.

    Whenever people complain about the cultural literacy of young people, I like to ask them whether they know what the integral (or the derivative) of e^x is.

    In fact, I’m a lot more intrigued when someone’s sphere of knowledge isn’t the same as mine. I learned a lot from my kiddo’s project on the Haitian revolution and am learning quite a bit about the Treaty of Versailles through her eyes.


    1. You would have to majorly stupid not to know the derivative of e^x, although most of the associates in our office don’t: that’s why they went to law school, because they were no good at math. How are you on hypergeometric versus binomial distribution? The diggers and the levellers? (Half credit if you know the band.) Indifference curves? The circle of fifths? Bring it on.


      1. Ignorant, not stupid to not know the derivative (or integral) of e^x.

        Am well versed on distributions, but knew nothing about the English civil war, and only marginally about music theory. But it would take a pretty extensive and long term examination to uncover the relative ranking of most of our spheres of knowledge (which are probably pretty extensive). And, the exam probably can’t be designed (since there are no good ways to test for the real extremes of a complex distribution).


    2. Yes. It gets old explaining references to young people, but not nearly so old as the whole “the kids today don’t….” shtick.


      1. “the kids today don’t….” shtick… that’s me! I deeply regret the amount of our culture which my kids have pushed away as they squander their hours on video shoot-em-ups. I tried many times to lead them into the paths of righteousness, or at least what I regard as high culture, and did… poorly.


      2. I put “kids today” shticks applied to one’s own children in a different category than the shtick in general. I do not know what I would do if my kids were inclined to squander their hours on video shoot-em ups, which I consider to be a maladaptive behavior on so many different levels.


      3. Just to be clear, I make no statement about “kids today.” I’m just relating an amusing episode, to remind us of how far reality is from our ideals. Mostly, I think the kids are alright. I would bet that most of our associates would recognize a reference to Big Brother, although one has obviously an embarrassing lacuna in her cultural literacy. Most of them would not know the derivative of e^x, notwithstanding that they are millennials, because most of them were no good at math, which is why they went to law school.


  14. I think personalized learning sounds great to parents who think their children could progress faster than their classmates. It does not sound great if you suspect it could sentence your child to a preordained niche from which she’d never escape.

    It’s one thing to provide vocabulary help, for example, when reading a challenging book. At what point, though, does simplifying a book mean the class isn’t really reading the same book? Wouldn’t it be better to read The Hunger Games than a bowlderized version of The Overcoat?

    I just discovered there is are multiple graphic novel treatments of The Metamorphosis. See:

    One way to “personalize learning” without a computer would be to assign students to read either the original (in translation) or the graphic novel. This would at least allow a class with different reading levels to discuss the essentials of the work.

    And yet…

    At least the graphic novel, with abridged text, has been created by an artist, and published by a publisher. Who sees the “personalized” texts produced by computer programs?


  15. “Who sees the “personalized” texts produced by computer programs?”

    Yes, that’s my worry. And, especially with children who have complex learning difficulties, the computer program could slip into squirrel holes that reinforce bad/wrong/misdirected learning/behaviors (think the Microsoft Word paper clip, but without the knowledge, ability, or permission to turn it off or ignore it). Computers are getting better, but they are still computers.

    An example is the “predictive” behavior of text generators. My kiddo likes to play with predictive poetry — the other day I was shown a poem that had been generated. The first lines are the following:

    “The reproach of the stars was almost enough
    To put the galaxy on autopilot”

    Pretty good, right? And the selection begin done by kiddo probably helped generate it. But what happens when someone who has language difficulties is using predictive software? Will the results convey their learning or intent?

    I think the tools will only function with highly trained oversight. But part of the premise of the industry generating the tools is that the tools themselves will replace professional human knowledge. Sometimes that works — Googles algorithms have replaced human-generated indexing (to a great extent). But, Google is constantly tweaking its algorithms to fix gaming of the system and humans are ultimately judging the success of the search results (though I do worry about the naive user, the issues could be even more pronounced with those with cognitive/learning/language difficulties).


  16. No. The computer isn’t translating the texts. That would be impossible. The publishers hired people who took the science textbook and wrote it at four or five different levels. Because all the textbooks are online right now – kids are reading them on their school-issued Chromebooks – the teacher can click one button to put it at the kid’s personal reading level. A science class can do an assignment on storms with kids of very different reading levels. It’s a way of keeping the kids who are falling behind in that same classroom. Otherwise, they would be put in the basement of the school with the other rejects. (no exaggeration.)

    This isn’t way off in the future stuff. This is now. It’s here.

    In a perfect world, there would be a teacher who could work individually with each kid working to each kid’s strengths and weaknesses. But in a typical public school, that. can’t. happen. And given the state of the world, it’s not ever going to happen. Public schools can educate one very standard type of kid with loud mouth parents who make sure that their kid gets the right things and who live in school districts with the right zip code. They have no idea what to do with the oddballs, the wallflowers, the poor, the damaged, the neglected.


    1. You know, I reject that argument completely, from my personal experience as both a student and my knowledge of what teachers succeed in doing in public schools. I was myself an oddball kid, though admittedly neither neglected nor learning challenged. There were plenty of teachers who reached me.

      And I have seen the work of teachers, in my own district and elsewhere (an example: a science teacher, who was spending her lunch time when we served on a committee together modifying her physics lesson for an autistic student in her class, using resources on the web and elsewhere).

      I’m not arguing against the concept — of texts leveled to different reading levels, and the example of electronic texts. But I am arguing against the idea that this will be a panacea that fixes the problems in the classroom that teachers try to solve. I’ve also generally found the validation of these programs to be tremendously unreliable and biased by business plans.


      1. Your children are in private schools.

        I have seen first hand what goes on in public schools to kids who are untraditional learners. I spend a good part of my day talking to parents of oddballs and the teachers of oddballs. It’s not the teachers’ fault. It’s the system. There are not enough hours in the day for a teacher to work one-on-one with kids. Ask any teacher. Any teacher. He/she will tell you the same thing.

        I don’t think it’s a panacea at all. It’s the best of the realistic alternatives.


      2. My daughter is in a private school but many/most of my friends’ kids are in public schools. I also volunteer tutor in a public elementary school helping struggling readers (what used to be done by paid staff before the huge cuts to education here in British Columbia). One friend’s school’s PAC is raising money for photocopy paper – that’s a school in a middle class neighborhood. The school I tutor in is highly rated but starved for funding.

        In other words, I agree with you in that there aren’t enough hours in the day for one teacher or $ in the system to have enough aides in each classroom. Add in the families who aren’t able to advocate for their kids like you can and you have many many kids falling through the cracks.

        And I hear you that you don’t think it’s a silver bullet. I’m just saying, okay, implement it but also keep pushing for fair and adequate funding in the medium to long term.

        No public education system can afford to have the quality of facilities that a private school has but all students deserve a quality education. We all win.


      3. Yes, my kids are in private schools — but I didn’t attend one for most of my education and the teachers I am referencing are at public schools.


  17. I am just learning about the idea of personalized learning and I love it. I attended a private school where my educators could decide what they want to teach us. I loved the freedom and passion that my teachers had for teaching us. I never wanted to skip class or not work my hardest for a class. My teachers did not demand our motivation…they earned it.


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