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How Teachers Are at the Core of Personalized Learning - Not Technology

How Teachers Are at the Core of Personalized Learning - Not Technology

Personalized Learning  |  Classrooms

One of the major complaints that I have heard in my community as we have adopted personalized learning relates to the idea that personalized learning means that we are adopting technology and getting rid of teachers. There may be some places that are doing that, but my vision for personalized learning doesn’t include removing teachers – instead, it requires asking even more of teachers. 

I read an article by Rick Hess at EdWeek called, “A Confession and a Question on Personalized Learning.” He shares a letter from Larry Berger, CEO of Amplify, an EdTech company. The headline is a bit of clickbait, where the confession is really a recognition of what good educators have known for many years.  

He buried the “question” pretty deep in the letter, so I’ll bring it up here:

“What did your best teachers and coaches do for you—without the benefit of maps, algorithms, or data—to personalize your learning?”

I’ve been saying my whole career that not only is personalized learning not trying to get rid of teachers, it requires teachers to be even better than they are now.

When we were kids, our teachers had more homogeneous groupings of students than teachers now do. And so, for current teachers to be able to meet the needs of so many diverse students (and compete with video games and social media and other technology), they need to be really amazing.

Mr. Berger talks about the approach he has used for personalized learning, which he calls the engineering model. He says:

“You start with a map of all the things that kids need to learn.Then you measure the kids so that you can place each kid on the map in just the spot where they know everything behind them, and in front of them is what they should learn next. Then you assemble a vast library of learning objects and ask an algorithm to sort through it to find the optimal learning object for each kid at that particular moment. Then you make each kid use the learning object. Then you measure the kids again. If they have learned what you wanted them to learn, you move them to the next place on the map. If they didn't learn it, you try something simpler. If the map, the assessments, and the library were used by millions of kids, then the algorithms would get smarter and smarter, and make better, more personalized choices about which things to put in front of which kids.”

For those of us in education, working with kids every day, we know this engineering model of personalized learning is not the answer. This is why we get so frustrated with EdTech companies that claim to have the answer. A day may exist when this is viable, but it is not today.

Our goal is NOT the engineering model of personalized learning. 

When I say we give students what they need, we need teachers that are highly compassionate, intuitive, and know a lot about what students need to be effective. 

This idea that algorithms and technology can “save” the education system is fundamentally flawed. All throughout the history of education, great teachers have made positive, powerful connections with students and given them an opportunity to soar! 

Parallel to those great teachers are teachers that do not help students progress.

In my mind, personalized learning is a request for every teacher to step up their game, know their students, and make sure those students are getting what they need when they need it. 

And it extends beyond one teacher’s classroom. Personalized learning recognizes and values learning that happens from multiple sources, not just what was in a textbook. 

I’ll close with a question similar to Mr. Berger’s:

“What are you going to do for your students—without the benefit of maps, algorithms, or data—to personalize their learning?”

This is THE question. If technology can help, then use it, but technology is not the savior of education.


[Curious about the role of technology in the classroom? Check out this point of view on how to actually use technology to support learning.]

About Jethro Jones - Guest Author

Principal at Tanana Middle School in Fairbanks North Star Borough School District

Public Relations Today