Philanthropy and Control Part II: Give Us Personalized Learning without the Algorithms.

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Think of a teachable moment in school that changed your life. Go ahead, actually do it!

What did that lesson consist of? Who taught you the lesson, or who facilitated your learning? Who was there? What did it feel like? What did the room look like?

For me, it was my 7th grade English teacher who challenged my assumption of what is “normal.” I will never forget that moment that I compared a divorced family to a normal family. He asked me what a “normal” family was, and I said two parents, a mom and a dad. He questioned if that was normal, given how many families either have a divorced family or one parent. I learned that day not to assume that your “normal” is everyone else’s “normal.” (Ironically, my own parents are divorced).

For most of us, a teachable moment did not necessitate fancy equipment or technological gimmicks. This is unsurprising- our power as a species comes from human connection. Technology can aid us in our power, but it must be a tool rather than our focus. With perseverance and concentration, we can achieve great things, but we have shown repeatedly that shiny, flashy objects can often distract us more than help us. Increasingly, tech entrepreneurs have used our students as experiments for new technology.

Personalized Learning: The Newest Education Reform Gimmick

Personalized learning is a tech-based reform effort promulgated by the wealth of Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg. Vague and magic-bullety as all other corporate reform efforts, personalized learning appears to be some mix of “using digital content and tools in a purposeful way,” “incorporating personalized (learning) playlists”, flexible seating, and “involving students in grading conversations” (while other students work on technology)[1]. It is pretty clear that personalized learning uses some type of algorithm-driven/adaptive software in order to provide personalization to students.

But wait, I’m sorry. I’m rushing to define this “revolutionary” movement. According to ed-tech CEO Larry Berger of Amplify, “in the same way that Inuits have lots of words for snow,” personalized learning could mean a lot of different things [2]. The Principal at Chicago International Charter School West Belden says, “We don’t believe that personalized learning is any one thing. It’s a mindset” [3]. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative defines personalized learning as “social-emotional and interpersonal skills, mental and physical health, and a child’s confident progress toward a sense of purpose” [4].

So, basically, personalized learning is any combination of edu-buzz words and corporate branding cliches. Its definition is as adaptive as the software it wants to numb our students’ minds with.

As a teacher, I wouldn’t touch a gimmicky philosophy like this with a ten-foot pole. Of course there are some half-truths within the philosophy that are useful- what teacher (in theory) does not want students to pursue their interests in the classroom or to gain social-emotional and interpersonal skills, mental and physical health, as the Zuckerberg Initiative claims that personalized learning does?

I contend that the Zuckerberg-funded theory of personalized learning will not help students to gain social-emotional and interpersonal skills, mental and physical health, and a child’s confident progress toward a sense of purpose. Instead, personalized learning will go the way of other overly prescriptive edtech philosophies: it will be used to further the standardized testing regime, it will seek to replace teacher instructional power with technological instructional power, and it will isolate students from their peers.

The Wrong Questions

When it comes to education reform, I am tired. I am tired of magic bullet solutions funded by billionaires that claim to provide better “outcomes” for students but seem to ask the wrong questions; they seem to have the wrong schema and premises.

In his speech outlining his support of personalized learning, Mark Zuckerberg cited test score data from the Gates Foundation stating that personalized learning has improved “student outcomes” by 100%. The problem with this methodology, of course, is that focusing on student test scores is proven to have an inverse relationship with student happiness and academic engagement. The love of learning and feeling of belonging to a community that drive success in the real world are stripped away from teaching that fixates on ‘passing the test.’

Even if we accept the premise that personalized learning can effectively raise math and reading test scores, so what? It is time to re-focus on humanizing the classroom, and it is time to emphasize happiness, engagement, and empathy as values to achieve.

How to Personalize Learning without Personalized Learning

As of 2015, the average American tween (8-12) consumes 4 hours and 36 minutes of screen media per day; the average American teen (13-18) consumes 6 hours and 40 minutes of screen media per day [5].

This does not include screen time in school.

If you have spent time around an American tween or teen in recent years, you understand that these numbers have only gone up with the ubiquity of Fortnite, Snapchat, YouTube, phones, and tablets.

Rather than have algorithm-driven instruction for our students that furthers their social isolation and unhealthy screen addiction, we should be seeking to inspire balanced students who have empathy, social awareness, self awareness, and imagination. 

I have been trying to be more positive in my life, so how can we fight against the one-size-fits-all complaint about school without employing Zuckerberg and Gates’ vision for personalized learning?

How about looking at the alma mater of Mark Zuckerberg, Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire?

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I don’t see any iPads, Smart Boards, or even computers! BOOKS!!!! CHALKBOARDS!!!! Heresy!!!

In fact, they regularly employ the Harkness educational method, in which 12 students and 1 teacher “democratically” discuss the subject at hand. They are co-creators of knowledge, they collaborate to create knowledge even when they disagree, they listen, and they understand. They solve problems, they innovate, and they have independent projects. Here’s more if you’re curious: https://www.exeter.edu/exeter-difference/how-youll-learn .

It’s awesome! It’s no wonder that a place like this produced Mark Zuckerberg and so many other successful people. It’s also $49,880 to send your child there…ok, this is not the exact scalable model to innovate our public schools.

Still, I think there are some important lessons from Phillips Exeter Academy that can inform us how to better personalize learning.

  1. Class size matters. Phillips Exeter Academy has 12 students per class. Personally, I have 30+ students per class- how can I properly form relationships with students and create a humanizing, personal, educational experience with my students under those conditions? It’s not just me: 80% of 16,000 recently surveyed Michigan teachers said that reducing class size would have a big impact on learning. Algorithm-based personalized learning will further justify cost-cutting (de-professionalizing of the teaching profession) and the “teacher-proofing” of American classrooms.
  2. Ditch the high-stakes tests. Phillips Exeter Academy’s website really exudes a feeling that learning is promoted as not just a means to an end, but as a virtue itself. I didn’t see a single reference to standardized tests mentioned on the website. Have you ever heard of Campbell’s Law? It states: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” So basically…Zuckerberg’s personalized learning is being used to help students pass tests- not for any long-term sense of learning or mission.
  3. Good lessons don’t need technology, but good lessons that use technology have a good reason to use the technology. At Phillips Exeter Academy, technology is used in order to facilitate design-based projects that have students grappling with real world projects. Here’s a great example: a student who designed and created an actual “tiny house.” However, the school also has teacher-facilitated discussions, and teacher-guided mentorship that serves as primary instructional leadership. Technology can be a valuable tool! But once it becomes the primary means of instruction, this de-professionalizes the creativity of teachers and the imagination of students.

So a final word to Mark Zuckerberg: if you INSIST on continuing to push your billionaire education reform, at least think back to your own high school experience. Think of your most memorable educational experiences, think of what provided you the creativity and imagination to create a successful business, and try to think of the human connections you made at school. How can our schools move in that direction instead of an Orwellian, robotic direction? While you’re at it, maybe think deeply about what your effect your products Facebook and Instagram have on society and how that coincides with the values that Phillips Exeter Academy taught you.


1. [1] https://www.edelements.com/blog/six-examples-of-what-personalized-learning-looks-like

2. [2] https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2018/11/07/what-does-personalized-learning-mean-whatever-people.html

3. [3]Ibid

4. [4]https://www.chalkbeat.org/posts/us/2018/09/06/chan-zuckerberg-education/

5.[5]https://www.commonsensemedia.org/sites/default/files/uploads/research/census_executivesummary.pdf

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