A Shifting View of Personalized Learning


Somewhere in a box in my garage, I have a picture of my footprint in the sand of an unremembered beach.  I’ve kept that picture over the years not to remember that day or that place, but because the picture itself fascinates me.

My brain can see two different things when I look at that image.  Most of the time I see the imprint of my foot in the sand.  The dark shadows showing how deeply my toes sunk in.

And then it shifts.

Instead of seeing an imprint, I see a mold of a foot jutting out of the sand.  I stare and stare at this image and it really looks like a mold of a foot coming out of the sand.

And then it shifts again and I see the imprint.

The ability of my brain to interpret the same information so completely differently is fascinating.


I experienced much the same feeling when I read Benjamin Doxdator’s mind-blowing take on personalized learning.

I am a staunch advocate of personalized learning.  My experience in public schools and my research in the science of learning have both led me to the conclusion that moving away from the grade-level based model to a system that gives educators freedom to meet students where they are and allows students to progress at their own pace without judgement and labels is one of the most high impact strategies we can take.

I am a regular reader of www.comptetencyworks.org and www.knowledgeworks.org and follow the stories of schools that are moving in the direction of competency-based personalized learning with joy in my heart.  I may not exactly be a “true believer” in the power of personalized learning, but I am definitely an advocate.


And then the view shifts.


As I wrote about before, what is called personalized learning is not always very personal.  Sometimes schools go down the road of “Playlist Cycles of Doom” and just expect students to learn on their own at their own pace.

Doxdator calls this PL and says it “signifies something quite narrow: the use of digital technologies and platforms to monitor and track student progress through prescribed curriculum content, and then the displaying student data on a dashboard for teachers, administrators, and parents.”

That is not what I mean by personalized learning.

That is not what I am advocating for.

But I think that there is a great degree of truth in his view that it is what many people are doing in the name of personalized learning.

I think that that is what many people are selling in the name of personalized learning.


Where Doxdator really blows my mind is when he starts digging into the political subtext in some of the push for personalized learning.

“More than anyone, Audrey Watters has carried the mantle of Noam Chomsky’s work on interrogating the relationship between media, capital, and messaging in the field of education. The dominant ideology in education that seemingly challenges the neoconservative standardized testing and ‘no excuses’ movement argues for:

  • A highly individualistic conception of success in school and life

  • A vision of the world as meritocratic, where creators with the right character (grit, and not privilege) rise to the top

  • Becoming a user of platforms

  • A valuation of education in terms of economic productivity (both on the national and individual level)


Every teacher faces “great pressure to demonstrate their … credentials” by praising the aims of personalized learning: creativity and empowerment, closing ‘achievement gaps’, and preparation for employment. The PL movement hitches onto the ideals of inclusiveness and allowing students to move at their own pace, while caricaturing education as stuck in some factory model past. Only a traditional, conservative educator stuck in the past could oppose the aims of PL to set students free.


This ideology “helps mobilize the populace against an enemy [factory model, standardized testing], and because the [factory model] concept is fuzzy it can be used against anybody.” Moreover, the ideology “helps fragment the left and labor movements”: while the neoconservative ‘no excuses’ movement functions as the overarching enemy, the left becomes split between PL as a Silicon Valley solution that serves capital, and all of the other opposition movements from critical pedagogy to unschooling. And since those movements lack corporate backers and well-funded news outlets, PL emerges as the dominant challenger to the back-to-basics movement.


I have been thinking a lot about equity lately and how those in power create structures that maintain and strengthen their power.  I recently watched Noam Chompsky’s Requiem for the American Dream and I am afraid that I see some of what he warns about in this view of what is driving Personalized Learning—in particular, an attack on solidarity.

I do not want to be part of further fragmenting groups of people who are standing for a change in our social structure—who are standing for more equitable opportunities for all learners.

Not even in the name of something I believe in—that learning should be student-centered and learners should have the power to drive their own learning and own it themselves.

Furthermore, I am leery of anything in education that is primarily motivated by profit.  I am afraid that much of what passes for personalized learning is being driven by that motivation.

When I first read about Rocketship charter network, I was excited because it sounded like they were doing some of the things I had been wanting to try myself—using the power of technology to create fluidity in the system to allow students to pursue mastery of learning rather than coverage of content.

The article I read years ago was pretty glowing and I longed to go visit one of their schools and see for myself what they were doing and how it was working.

I never did figure out how to finance such an exploratory trip and had to content myself with just reading about them.

Now, reports are not so glowing.

NPR wrote about the charter network in 2016.

The schools are getting results on improving test scores, but they are not doing what I envisioned—using technology to create fluidity in systems powered by cultures that valued relationships and trusted in the power of every student to learn.  Instead, their version of personalized learning appears to be more about a focus on improving test scores and taking “some of the instructional burden off teachers.”  According to NPR, Rocketship students are spending large amounts of time on computers using adaptive software.

This is definitely not the type of personalized learning I am advocating.


And then the view shifts again.

While I am not a proponent of Personalized Learning that seeks to create profit for edtech companies or depersonalizes the education process in the name of personalization, I am a proponent of experimentation in education.

I kind of agree with the EdSurge article in support of Rocketship that Doxdater found problematic.

In discussing flak Doxdater had this to say about Edsurge:

“I don’t know what direct flak Kamenetz received, but EdSurge responded with an article that tries to normalise NPR’s “harsh picture” of Rocketship by both appealing to common wisdom -“every educator knows” – and common problems: “these issues are not unique to Rocketship. They are questions that many schools across the country, both public and charter, struggle with.” In several instances, EdSurge asks for outright sympathy with Rocketship and paints their struggles as universal:

“If we respond to this article about Rocketship by villainizing the organization, we fail to learn.”

“Again this is not a Rocketship problem. All schools in the 21st century will wrestle with the balance of tech and teacher time as they integrate new technologies into teaching and learning practices.”

“Exactly how students and teachers spend their time in school is at the core of our schools. We must ask these questions–not just of Rocketship but of every school we encounter.”

Here is the thing.  All of those quotes that Doxdater didn’t like, kind of resonate with me.

Because I believe that we are not yet very good at learning from our mistakes in the world of education.

I believe that it is important not to villainize any of the players, but to foster difficult conversations that look honestly at what is really working and what is not working and ask important questions about why.

I believe that we need to engage in that wonderful process of Attempt-Fail-Analyze-Adjust and redesign our systems based on lessons learned.

And mostly, I really do believe in personalized learning.  I just don’t think we’ve really figured out what that looks like or how to do it yet.


And then the view shifts.


Because I can see it as just propaganda.  I can see it as someone’s argument to fund their business or sell their product.

And I’m not really down with that.


Thanks, Benjamin Doxdater, for making me think.


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