March 27, 2023
The other day I talked with a parent who was lamenting how much time her children spend on screens at school. They are in an excellent school—the kind of place celebrated for student-teacher relationships—and the use of technology is presented as an opportunity for personalized learning: the online phonics tutor helps each child with the sounds she specifically struggles with; the online math practice program allows her son to be tackling problems way beyond his peers, but without having to manage the social dynamics of doing so. Technically, the technology is delivering a learning experience that a teacher cannot: the teacher can’t differentiate phonics or math problems for all twenty-eight students simultaneously.
And yet, although grateful for the efforts at personalized learning, this mother said: I just hate the idea that I’m sending my kids to school—where they are surrounded by bright, diverse peers and gifted teachers—to sit on screens. It feels almost like parallel play.
She has a point.
From a teacher’s perspective, I get it—and I did it. When I taught Humanities, I swore by Membean: an adaptive, gamified, platform for teaching vocabulary—or rather, “building word consciousness”. Membean made it so I never made another vocab list or quiz, and students never crammed to take a meaningless assessment. From a teaching and learning perspective, there was a tradeoff—the words students learned were no longer derived from our common reading—each student had a personalized word list based on performance—but from an uptake perspective, Membean was a better vocabulary teacher than I could ever be. The kids actually learned the words. And because they had been taught in such a sticky, gamified, context-heavy way, they actually retained the words and were excited to use them.
As a teacher, it felt like a win. And also, if I’m being honest, like a shortcut. Which is why this parent’s comment went straight to my heart and got me thinking: is personalized learning what kids need? And if so, what is the role of a teacher in a personalized learning classroom?
Personalized Learning Literature
The research and advice in favor of personalized learning abound; the thesis is beyond debatable at this point: kids learn better when their learning is personalized in some way. Examples of personalization include giving students agency in what and how they learn; differentiating content to reflect interest and ability; or assessment to…