When Personalized Learning is Too Impersonal

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash 

I remember the first time I heard the term “playlist” used in an educational context—it was in an audiobook I was listening to on the treadmill.

The author talked about this new charter school called RocketShip in the Bay Area.  He described how the teachers used playlists to personalize the learning and allow each student to pursue mastery of learning targets.

I remember being so excited that I yelled out, “Yes!” and pumped my fist into the air a few times as I was walking (perhaps not the coolest thing to do in the gym, but hey, I am a certified learning geek).

A playlist—using technology to help teachers navigate the logistics of bringing fluidity to our standardized system—this seemed brilliant!  I wanted so badly to go see it action, but the demands of my job and the shortcomings in my finances prevented such an expedition (so far).

 

Then, recently, I read something disturbing about playlists in education—the “playlist cycle of doom!”  

The playlist cycle of doom?  How could something designed to give learners exactly what their brains needed—based on where they actually were instead of where they were supposed to be—have turned into a cycle of doom?

This article’s author, Rupa Chandra Gupta, described the program her school was implementing:

“In 2015, our school was selected to join the first cohort of a personalized learning program that involved a web-based technology platform, curricula, digital assessments and extended training.  A foundation of the program had students learn the content (facts, definitions, procedures) largely on their own.  Students work through an online set of activities—called a playlist—for each topic.  They then take a quiz to demonstrate mastery.  Ideally, this is done with little support.  That way, teachers can spend more time working with students on application of content and projects.

As I observed classrooms, I noticed a significant portion of students go through a disturbing cycle: do the playlist, take the assessment, fail it.  Do the playlist (again), take the assessment (again), fail it (again).  Do the playlist (yep, one more time), take the assessment (uh huh), fail it (surprise, surprise).  It’s a frustrating experience, especially for struggling students.”

 

What Gupta described was not what had me pumping my fist into the air and embarrassingly yelling out loud in public. 

No.  This was not my vision of an educational playlist.  This “personalized” learning was far too incredibly impersonal.

I was excited about the possibility of using technology to allow teachers to bring fluidity to the groups of students they worked with, so that students were always able to work in their struggle zone—where it was never too easy nor too hard.  Where they had multiple opportunities to engage in Attempt—Fail—Analyze—Adjust in a supportive learning environment.

I never imagined creating a system that expected learners to learn on their own. 

Most of us need to work with others to access the true power of our amazing brains.  Humans are social creatures.  Learning is almost always most powerful when it is a social endeavor

I never imagined creating a system that did not include coaching. 

Beginning learners, who are on the low end of the learning curve, are not usually knowledgeable enough about the type of adjustments to try when engaged in a cycle of attempt—fail—analyze—adjust.  Having someone from further up the curve offer suggestions (coaching) about what types of adjustments to try is an extremely powerful key to learning. 

Analyzing and adjusting is a vital component of powerful learning and one that doesn’t happen with dependent learners without powerful coaching.  That is, unless you’re engaging learners in reflection about their own learning with others who are at the same stage of the learning curve (and who have previously learned skills for examining and sharing their own thinking).

 

Fortunately, Gupta did not leave us stuck with a vision of the Playlist Cycle of Doom.  She went on to describe just such an example of personalized learning that employed the power of shared self-reflection.  She discussed a second grade teacher who coached her students to reflect and share their strategies for reading non-fiction.

 

Unfortunately, Gupta’s school is not the only one to have experimented with taking the personal out of personalized learning. 

I attended an online school billed as a “competency-based” approached to higher education.

What that meant for me was almost no actual human interaction.  I was assigned a mentor at the beginning of my program which was a feature that had really drawn me to the school when I was conducting my research into master’s programs.

I was very excited by this feature.  I’d never truly had a mentor before and was really looking forward to someone who could push my thinking and point me in directions I might not have considered on my own.

Unfortunately, my mentor did none of those things.  I’m not sure whether it was a design of the program, or her own lack of clarity of what the role of mentor entailed, but my assigned mentor only acted in the role of “accountability partner.”  She allotted me 15 minutes a week and the main purpose of our calls was to make sure I was getting my assignments complete and turned it.

15 minutes a week is not a lot of time to build a relationship with someone.  It certainly wasn’t enough time to ponder all the questions I had about teaching, leading, learning, and where my place might be in the vast universe of shifting the paradigm for how schools work in America.

So, if the mentor wasn’t going to build a relationship with me and help me to ponder those questions, perhaps my professors might.

Except, I didn’t have any professors.

Each “course” I took in this program only had assignments. The “competency-based” approach meant that I could tackle these assignments at my own pace and whenever I wanted. There were materials I could access and boards I could post to if I had questions.  And, to be fair, if I had posted questions, I am sure that a real human with real knowledge would have replied to my query. 

But, I did not post questions.

The kinds of questions I had required a relationship and trust to be asked.  They weren’t the sort of questions I was comfortable posting for strangers.

I still haven’t finished this master’s program.

I dropped out (for now) at the very end because I didn’t have the emotional, institutional or financial resources to make the capstone project happen.

I am not trying to blame the pain of that personal failure on my unnamed school, but I am issuing a clarion call along with Rupa Chandra Gupta.

“Playlists alone don’t equal personalized learning” and personalized pacing alone doesn’t equal competency-based education.

We need to keep experimenting with how to use technology to allow personalized pacing and targeted lessons, but we must never forget the very human and social aspect of learning and the power of coaching along the way.

The Rocket Fuel of Learning

 

“Attempt—Fail—Analyze—Adjust” these words have formed a mantra for me ever since I first heard and saw them during my training as a Read Right™ consultant.  Dr. Dee Tadlock drew them as a cycle and explained that that is how brains learn a process.

I’d never heard it put that way before, and it struck a deeply resonate note within me.

Attempt—Fail—Analyze—Adjust—and attempt again.  A continuing cycle of learning with FAILING and making mistakes taking center stage in the learning process.

That certainly wasn’t how I’d been conducting my learning life.

Mistakes were things to be embarrassed about and minimized. 

Failure was definitely not good.  Up to that point in my life, I was pretty adept at avoiding it—mostly by making sure that I stuck to my lane and did things that I was already pretty good at.

My history was filled with abandoned learning journeys.  Things that I’d decided I just wasn’t very good at like singing, dancing, selling, writing, getting published, playing sports…..  Oh, the list was long.

Then I read Carol Dweck’s book Mindset and “Attempt—Fail—Analyze—Adjust” sang even louder in my ears and in my heart.

This—this thing we were teaching our teachers and that they were teaching their students about how learning works—this WAS the growth mindset.  If they could really grasp this idea about learning from their time in a Read Right program, they could use it in the rest of their lives to power their learning in other areas.  This was powerful!

The thing is, we didn’t always do a good job of highlighting this valuable way of looking at learning.  Attempt—Fail—Analyze—Adjust is the foundation upon which the Read Right™ methodology is based, but we only ever talked about it on the first day of training when we introduced teachers to the methodology and the theory that underpins it.  Those words are never again mentioned in our manual or in my trainer’s manual.

I changed that.

I put it Center Stage during my trainings.  I’d draw it on the board and talk to students about it.  I called it “The Rocket Fuel of Learning” and would bring in stories of famous people who had shared how they had learned through their failures.  I shared my own stories of failing and trying again.  I encouraged my trainees and the students in their classes to share stories of learning through failure.

For ten years I have been traveling the country and working in classrooms to help people understand the power of a personalized competency-based approach to getting better at reading.  I love this work.  I love what I get to do.  I love the difference I get to make in classrooms and in the lives of students who have an opportunity to get better at reading AND at understanding how learning works.

And yet…

And yet…

I fear we play too small a game.

I fear that too many of the students we reach do not take the idea of Attempt—Fail—Analyze—Adjust out into their other classrooms.  I fear that they do not apply the Rocket Fuel of Learning to math and science and Literature.  And I fear that lack of application is because the culture and the structures of their schools are not yet set up for that.

They are not set up for that. 

They are set up for grading.  For assignments.  For tests.  For one and done.

I know.  I see it.  In state after state.  In school after school.

And yet…

And yet… 

The change is coming!  Glory, hallelujah, the change is coming!

I see it!

I see it in Monte Syrie and his Project 180 blog.  In his tagline, “Do, Reflect, Do Better.”

In his words as he daily blogs about the lessons he and his students are learning as they attempt—fail—analyze—adjust—and attempt again:

“The 180 experience is a cycle of practice, feedback, and performance. The kids practice. I give them feedback. They perform. I assess their performances. Together, we adjust their aims and trajectories, and we enter the next cycle. When learning is a circle and not a line it obviates the constructs of anxiety and finality. When kids know they have practiced the performance (practice looks identical to performance), anxiety is greatly reduced, for they know what to expect. This is not always the case with “tests,” many of which are often the embodiment of the “gotcha game” that some teachers play under the guise of “rigor.” It is no wonder, then, that kids experience anxiety, especially in high school, where they arrive with their deeply conditioned responses and continue their “conditioning” throughout most of their educational experience, up to and including college. Further, when kids know they have another shot (multiple if necessary) to demonstrate proficiency, they come to learn that assessment can and should be “for” learning. And, too, they learn that the notion of finality is really more a teacher’s choice than a dictum of the system, but it has been their reality for so long they may never fully grasp the “untruth” of the nefarious notion of a test being an end rather than a bridge. And that is what I want performances to be: bridges, crossings to the next stage. I don’t want them to create anxiety. I don’t want them to connote finality. I want them to be natural steps along the learning journey. But that takes time, and that takes trust. I speak it. The kids hear it. But they do not yet believe it. After all, I am up against years of conditioning, so I will be patient and diligent. We will get there.”

 

I see it in other teacher bloggers who are making the same transition to classrooms and schools without grades and sharing the hashtag “#goinggradeless”.  More and more teachers experimenting—attempting, failing, analyzing, adjusting, and attempting again—as they figure out how to empower students to own their own learning and push themselves up the learning curve.

 

I see it in the stories of schools, districts—and ENTIRE STATES—moving to mastery-based learning models.  Stories that are posted regularly on www.competencyworks.org.  Beautiful articulations of the learning journeys of educators that are transforming their learning environments through the process of attempt—fail—analyze—adjust as they learn what works and what doesn’t.

 

So, yes.  So far, I and the company I work for, have been playing too small a game. 

We make a difference for the teachers and the students we get to reach, but our message of mastery-based learning that starts with wherever a student is at and lets them progress at their own pace through cycling until mastery is achieved, is not yet reaching beyond the confines of our Read Right™ classrooms.

But our learning journey is not done.

I am adapting and adopting the mission statement of Education Reimagined as my own.

They say:

“Education Reimagined exists to accelerate the shift to learner-centered education in the U.S. such that it is inevitable and irreversible.

I say:

Growth Deliberate Consulting exists to accelerate the shift to learner-centered, mastery-based holistic education in the U.S. and beyond such that it is inevitable and irreversible.

 And I am learning from others who are up to accelerating the shift as well.  Others who are sharing their learning journeys and lighting the way.

So thank you Monte Syrie.  Thank you Competency Works.  Thank you Education Reimagined.  Thank you Read Right and thank you Dr. Tadlock for helping me to see that F A I L simply stands for First Attempt In Learning.