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Dispelling myths: Personalized learning tools will not replace teachers

This is a guest post by Andrew Smith Lewis, executive chairman at Cerego.

Why is it that so many people who opine on matters of education do so by espousing an “either or” position, reducing their argument to a zero sum game, thereby forcing readers to take sides?

Isn’t that the exact opposite of what education and learning are supposed to be all about?

Take, for instance, the recent Washington Post piece by Sabrina Joy Stevens, a teacher-turned-education activist based in Washington D.C, who wrote an opinion-editorial piece for the paper criticizing personalized learning tools. 

In her piece, Stevens propagates common misconceptions about personalized learning tools. But as the executive chairman of a company focused on personalized learning, who works closely with great teachers to find a balance between technology and instruction, I am compelled to point out how misguided — and misleading — her arguments are.

First of all, I take issue with her basic definition of personalized learning, which betrays a few bad assumptions. Stevens believes that personalized learning tools are nothing more than a patch for a broken education system, suggesting that the promise of personalized learning is built around a goal of “digitized, standardized learning.”

It is an error to think that personalized learning is just set of digitized practice problems. We’re not talking about old multiplication tables in newly digitized form, where students get increasingly difficult questions until they get one wrong, then get easier problems until they get them right again. Those kinds of tools are trivial, and they’re not oriented to change outcomes. Digitized drill-and-kill is not revolutionary, nor is it personalized.

The fact that any learning tool is digital is simply table stakes these days. Digital is a condition of modern living and learning — nothing more, and nothing less.

Second, true personalization is the exact opposite of standardization. True personalization accepts that we all learn differently and at different paces, and that what actually makes it into our brain can vary drastically from student to student. The desired outcomes may be standardized, but the path to that outcome, and the goal of increasing the speed and likelihood of reaching positive outcomes is precisely the goal of some of the most innovative companies leading the personalized learning charge.

But the argument that irks me most is the suggestion that personalized learning tools are trying to be a replacement for teachers.

Personalized learning tools are not replacing teachers. They don’t seek to replace personal interaction, either.  Any argument to such effect is fear-mongering fabrication.

The truth of the matter is, personalized learning tools are a way for teachers to learn more about their students, and a way for students to learn at their own pace. These tools are designed to be a powerful supplement for teachers, not a replacement. They give teachers more context, and more data upon which to make pedagogical and intervention decisions.

Embrace this idea:  humans are wonderful at certain tasks, and decidedly less than wonderful at others. The most stubborn among us may resist this truth, but the most stubborn among us have also resisted nearly every positive technological change since…forever.

Personalized learning tools are not created to subtract something from the classroom as Stevens suggests. Rather, they aspire to be additive and empowering. They free up teachers to spend more time interacting with students on an individual basis, foregoing the rote call-and-response of yore. Any honest teacher will admit that when it comes to certain aspects of her profession, she may as well be a machine, and that’s bad for everyone.

Teachers should not be charged with transferring knowledge to students in bulk, playing to the median, the mean, or in many cases the lowest common denominator. Personalized learning tools can fundamentally improve the quality of student-teacher interactions by stratifying roles and enabling more frequent, bespoke, high-intensity, and high-functioning engagement.

The role of teachers is shifting from “sage on the stage” to the “guide on the side.” That’s a fact. Modern, forward-thinking teachers can be more effective with their talents when they are enabled to cater to each student’s own trajectory, rather than preaching to tuned-out masses. We should be empowering students to explore self-directed learning paths. And we should enable teachers enrich that journey, helping a student move forward if and when they get stuck.

Personalized learning tools, in the hands of savvy teachers, make those teachers more effective, and improve student learning outcomes non-trivially. They build on what teachers already do best.

I will continue to fight for one of education’s biggest and most important ideas, and I know that many others will too. Substance needs to win over self-preservation and ignorance. We need to summon enough courage to recognize that attacking individual weaknesses and playing to individual strengths is nothing short of necessary.

aslAndrew Smith Lewis heads Cerego’s US operations and runs Cerego’s Advisory Board, which is an international group of experts and practitioners in scientific, technological, and commercial areas directly relevant to the company’s activities.

Currently based in Palo Alto, Andrew lived in Japan for 25 years and is fluent in Japanese.

Top image via Shutterstock


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