Beware of the Personalized Learning Propaganda

Photo Credit: Lucélia Ribeiro (CC-By-SA 2.0)

The lust for money and power drives a lot of bad public policy. This truism certainly applies to education, where technology corporations have joined Brave New Worlders in seeking to implement technology-driven “personalized learning” (PL). What these forces won’t admit (or at least not in so many words) is that the goal of adopting education by machine is to (1) replace genuine education with training for workforce skills, and (2) eventually reshape individual personalities, attitudes, and mindsets to better fit the government-approved mold.

But even if the goal of PL really were to bolster academic content knowledge by improving instruction, modern cognitive science suggests this can’t happen. A recent article by Benjamin Riley explains why. Writing for an issue of Educational Leadership devoted to “Getting Personalization Right,” Riley begins with this wry observation: “with the exception of the article you’ve just started reading, nearly everything you read in this magazine about personalized learning is probably wrong.”

Riley defines PL as a system in which the student has greater control over the content and the pace at which he learns, with some use of technology to customize learning. He begins by reviewing the research about PL’s effectiveness. Asking what evidence there is that PL works, he answers his own question: “Virtually none.” The U.S. Department of Education has funded PL in 21 school districts to the tune of half a billion dollars, but two research studies have shown no significant effect on student outcomes. Riley found only one study, by the Rand Corporation, showing any positive effect on student learning (and that in elementary but not secondary grades), but he notes that even that study’s lead author cautioned against “buy[ing] into the advocacy around how great [PL] is.”

Although Riley admits he spent years advocating for PL, he now realizes that “we are collectively fooling ourselves on the idea.” Why does PL fail at actually improving learning? “I believe,” he says, “it contradicts another well-established evidence base related to education: the science of learning.”

As Riley explains, cognitive science teaches that, in any area of study, learning depends on committing certain facts to long-term memory. Once that occurs, the student’s brain is freed to use what’s called “working memory” – actively thinking about something – to solve problems and otherwise build on the knowledge that’s now embedded in the brain. In contrast to our limited working memories, Riley says, “long-term memory refers to facts that you have memorized, and no longer need to consciously think about to access.” An example would be multiplication tables – you needn’t stop to calculate 8 x 5, because you’ve memorized the answer. “The expansion of long-term memory gives students more space for active thinking.”

How does PL conflict with this scientific reality? Because students who are controlling the content of their learning, usually by finding information on the Internet or clicking through an educational-software program, are highly unlikely to commit that information to long-term memory. They scan it, they click it, they’re on to the next task. Certainly there are exceptional students who will delve deeply enough to implant the information in their brains, but the vast majority of students simply won’t, unless they’re made to.

Which brings us to the second of Riley’s characteristics of PL – a student’s control over the pace of his learning. PL conflicts with this as well. As Riley says, “effortful thinking – making use of short-term memory – is mentally fatiguing. . . . [T]he majority of students need the equivalent of a trainer in the gym to help them keep on pace to learn. We call these trainers teachers.” But of course, teachers are exactly the link in the education chain that PL advocates hope to eliminate, or at least minimize by reducing them to data-collectors.

In her valuable book Seven Myths About Education, Daisy Christodoulou makes the same point about the necessity of committing knowledge to long-term memory. Everything the progressive educators say they want – including education as “problem-solving” – depends on deeply embedded knowledge: “When we try to solve any problem,” Christodoulou writes, “we draw on all the knowledge that we have committed to long-term memory. The more knowledge we have, the more types of problems we are able to solve.” And the stubborn fact is that PL makes it much harder for students to increase their long-term knowledge.

In short, cognitive science confirms what all veteran teachers know: True learning requires structure, repetition, and work, not just ability to mimic something that pops up once on a screen before moving on to the next. Beware the PL propaganda.

2 thoughts on “Beware of the Personalized Learning Propaganda

  1. Excellent article. As a retired School Psychologist, I have been very concerned with what I term the “Death of Knowledge.”

    It seems to me that Common Core totally de-emphasizes acquisition of Knowledge and instead substitutes Process. What we’re used to think of as Learning has been turned upside down.

    Students are being educated to be completely dependent on computers…Cyborgs.


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