The Messy Reality of Personalized Learning

Jul 14, 2019 by

Untangling the mixed record of the latest big-fix educational trend promoted by Silicon Valley.

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A half hour west of downtown Providence, Rhode Island, past potholed highways lined with maple, ash, and pine trees, is the town of Foster, population forty-seven hundred. Its residents live on small farms and in aging, widely spaced homes; the closest grocery store is in Johnston, twenty miles away. Down Route 6, not far from the Shady Acres Restaurant and Dairy, is Captain Isaac Paine Elementary School. Kristen Danusis, a former school psychologist who became the principal in 2013, tells me that many of her students live “off the grid,” in households that earn little regular income.

Yet, inside Isaac Paine, tech abounds. Teachers project lesson plans onto interactive screens, and little hands reach for black Chromebook laptops, which are stacked like cafeteria trays in a large box called a Chromecart. In one class, Danusis introduces me to a lanky child in rain boots, who clicks through an online math program while chatting about a baby goat that’s being weaned in her back yard. In another room, children rotate through learning stations, sometimes at screens, sometimes putting pencils to paper. Kids work alone and in small groups; they sit at tiny desks and on beanbags and sofas scattered around the classroom. It looks unlike any school I ever attended. The ratio of children to Chromebooks, in grades three through five, is one to one.

Danusis and her teaching staff practice personalized learning, an individual-comes-first approach, usually aided by laptops, that has become a reformist calling card in education. Two years ago, Isaac Paine Elementary won a competitive grant from the Rhode Island Office of Innovation to become a showcase “lighthouse school,” part of a statewide push to bring tech into education. That push officially began in 2014, when Deborah Gist, who was then the state’s commissioner of education, announced a public-private “innovation partnership” to merge traditional and computerized pedagogy. It was the latest big-fix trend in K-12 education, and Gist, a favored daughter of Silicon Valley philanthropists, offered up the nation’s smallest state as a laboratory mouse.

Personalized learning argues that the entrepreneurial nature of the knowledge economy and the gaping need, diversity, and unmanageable size of a typical public-school classroom are ill-served by the usual arrangement of a teacher lecturing at a blackboard. Some kids are English learners, and others have disabilities; some read well above grade level, and others lag behind in math. If every child had a computer or iPad, she could log into a customized cyber classroom and learn at her own pace.

continue: The Messy Reality of Personalized Learning | The New Yorker

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