K 12: Customizable Learning Means Every Student Learns Something Different

Nov 8, 2018 by

Touted as another cure-all, mass customized learning means a more incoherent society.

According to the people controlling our public schools, this country has been blessed by an endless stream of brilliant innovations. For examples, we had Sight-word instruction, which creates dyslexia and illiteracy; we had New Math, which the whole country hated; we had Constructivist instruction which guarantees less success in the classroom. Point is, the hype is often far separated from reality. We have a lot of gimmicks in our classrooms that almost always share two things: they were lavishly promoted as breakthroughs; and they don’t work very well.

So forgive my hesitation when I read praise of “mass customized learning,” which the developers hail as “the only way to achieve true education reform. We have to redesign student learning from class time to curriculum and from teaching styles to learning spaces.” Translation: throw everything out the window and start anew with a big blank check.

Julie Mathiesen has been the Director at TIE (Technology and Innovation in Education) in Rapid City, Iowa, since 2008. She promotes “the concept of Mass Customized Learning; a technologically empowered educational system in which learning activities are keyed to the individual student’s learning style and developmental level.”

According to Mathiesen; “The old way of learning doesn’t work anymore, because students are living in a world where they are no longer ‘told’ how to think and don’t process and learn through ‘telling.’ Instead, students learn by doing and by learning anytime, anywhere.”

 Mathiesen claimed that, no matter how much you spruce up an old model of car,  no one would want it because “there’s always a maximum capacity…and the same applies to education.”

Maybe this is baloney. There is no reason why the human brain is any different now than it was 50 or 100 years ago. In fact, the best students around the world are typically sitting in large classrooms, more like amphitheaters, listening to professors, just as they have for hundreds of years. The large lecture is efficient and it’s cheap. What’s not to like? Unless perhaps you don’t want efficiency and economy.

 We know for sure that our Education Establishment is always finding reasons to attack the traditional classroom, the traditional lecture, and the traditional role of the teacher. Typically, they announce: none of this stuff works, we have to do everything differentlyIf it was blue, paint it pink; if it was tall, make it short; if it was up in the air, put it on the floor.

 All instruction will be customized. Students may sometimes be in the same classroom but each will be attending his own separate school. Each will, in effect, have what schools now call an IEP, individualized education plan.

Why is this such a great idea? What about the responsibility of the school to identify those things which everyone should know and then teach those things? In other words, what about the classical concept of a shared community of knowledge??
Taken to its logical conclusion, customized learning means a different academic experience for every kid. That might sound fun and exciting for a time. But surely there are things that everybody should know. Who is Shakespeare?  What’s a hypotenuse? Why do people still talk about Julius Caesar?
 Truth is, our Progressive educators don’t like people knowing a wealth of knowledge. It’s not fair; it’s not what socialists call “democratic.” So this new approach is a good way to keep everybody ignorant and separate. Nobody will have any way to judge anybody else’s knowledge because everybody will know different things.

Customized learning is a proposal that would probably require more administrators and bigger budgets. But here’s the main problem. What about the theory that there is a best way to do things? Why not do it that way? When you design a hotel lobby, or machine interface, or an amusement park ride, you don’t create a different ride for every customer. No, you try to create the best ride for everybody in one place.

ASCD, a big voice in the Education Establishment, concluded: “Mass customized learning is about each learner becoming an active, engaged partner with real voice in how he or she learns and how he or she demonstrates knowledge or skill.”

In other words, students decide what they should know and how they will prove that they know it. How convenient for the studentsThe Education Establishment gets “competency learning” or “standards-based learning” all in one swoop. 

Subjective assessment will be the norm. Expect more administrative problems as there will be different tests for every student. Chaos will necessarily increase. No two students will know the same facts. Mass customizable learning might be the best gimmick yet if your real goal is to make sure that  K-12 education remains ineffectual.

 You never know with our Education Establishment whether they are searching in the dark for a bright idea, or their real purpose is to finally kill off what’s left of traditional education. I’d put my money on the latter.

Let’s consider this question: if people were really serious about making schools better, wouldn’t they pick a certain body of knowledge and demonstrate how that knowledge can be taught most quickly and efficiently? Funny thing, they never do this. The most popular first step is to throw everything out the window and jump into deep, very expensive water. That’s how we lost phonics in 1931. That’s how we got New Math in 1962. That’s how we now have Constructivism in every classroom.

 The Education Establishment, for the past century, has relentlessly tried to chip away at traditional content. Less and less is taught. Customizable learning achieves the same goal in a different way. Each child learns a different set of facts. In total, more might actually be taught. But the facts are all Balkanized, atomized, divided into small parcels. There will be less and less shared knowledge, and therefore less communication within the society. That seems to me a weakness.

Bruce Deitrick Price’s new book is “Saving K-12 – What happened to our public schools? How do we fix them?” He deconstructs educational theories and methods on Improve-Education.org.  

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