Skip to main content

Curmudgucation: Using Cultural Competency to Sell Personalized [sic] Learning

Over at EdTechTimes, a site that for a consulting group that clearly is interested in pushing personalized [sic] learning, I found a podcast by Mariel Cariker entitled "Cultural Competency: Finding Ways To Bring Equity Through Personalized Learning." (It is accompanied by a transcript.) The podcast is sponsored by TeachPlus.

Like many of the arguments being used to push PL, it's an odd little mishmash.

A real killer app.


The piece opens by chatting with Nick Donahue, CEO of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. She describes Nellie Mae as "focused on community leadership and engagement," but in the context of this podcast, it might be more appropriate to note that Nellie Mae is hugely invested in pushing personalized [sic} learning via mass standardized algorithm-managed computer delivery systems. Donahue is not a disinterested expert in the field; he's a guy with a product to sell that just happens to be the product that this podcast is "examining."

Donahue offers plenty of the usual rhetoric, including the old suggestion that education hasn't changed in 100 years. He does manage to avoid the word "disrupt," but he still advises "challenging some of the traditional structures and approaches and mindsets that have ruled education for 100 years." He suggests that school leaders approach this as a means of providing freedom for teachers, specifically the freedom and flexibility to "teach" a large group. And then he drops this line:

Flipped learning is headed in the right direction, that would mean when the kids are together with you, let’s do the things that really access the killer app that great teachers are.

How do you know you're dealing with a computer-based technocrat? When they start referring to real live human beings as "apps." I'm sure he figures this is really a compliment because he didn't just call teachers aps, but "killer apps." But, no. No, teachers are actual live humans in no way interchangeable with computer programs.

Next up is O'Sha Williams, and probably the important thing to know about Williams is that she is currently a TeachPlus Policy Fellow (that explains why she, out of a few million teachers, was selected for this podcast), which is coming straight out of her two years as a Teach for America temp in Providence, RI, schools. (And if you want one more example of TFA's hubris, after her two years in the classroom, she served as mentor teacher, showing new teachers the ropes). The TFA stint came right after she graduated from Brown with a BA in Education Studies in 2016.

Williams makes a compelling argument for why it's important "for students to have teachers that look like them and share their experiences." I'm not sure how anyone can argue against this, though sadly, I know there are those that try and those that simply ignore the whole thing. But she reflects on her own experience, talks about the issue of a predominantly white teaching staff for a predominantly Black student body, the importance of a student's life outside the building. Then she gets to personalizing:

Students have a variety of experiences and needs that can’t all be met in one fell swoop. So by having students work on task list that are catered to their experience, their linguistic ability, and their interests. Giving them choice and giving them flexibility in meeting those academic standards allows for students to be more interested in what they’re doing. Like an important historical figure that is in line with their own academic goals or pursuits, or whether they are studying a part of their own culture to present to others.

All of this is fairly obvious. None of it requires a computer. Some of it-- assigning work based on their reading level-- has been strictly verboten for the past few decades. But Williams is careful to not say that an algorithm is handling all of this for her.

Then it's back to Donahue, who offers insights like "Nick says not considering individual students’ needs can cause them harm in the long term." Well, yeah. The rest of his argument is against one-size-fits-all schooling in favor of a more targeted approach, and I'm reminded of how the current wave of Reformsters has been able to use backlash against the previous wave of reform (Common Core et al) to fuel their own movement. The idea of targeting individual students is not particularly new. But where is he going with this:

We’re well into an era of personalization and customization as a society. And so that’s the good news. I think though that in education, we have not quite really faced the distinctions that define racial inequities.

Finally, we go to the MET, a Providence, RI, school founded in 1996 that specializes in a sort of CTE personalized unschooling life-credits hybrid education. It's an intriguing program, and I'm now wondering why PL fans haven't referenced it as often as, say, Chugach, Alaska. I suspect there's a lot to that story, but now is not the time.

Then we're on the home stretch. Donahue says, yes, there's a fear that PL is going to squeeze teachers out of the classroom, and he does remember a time when it was about "teacher-proofing" a program, but now they get that an awesome live human is a necessary part. Whether they get that get that, or just get that it's a necessary piece of marketing PL remains to be seen.   

Equity is making sure that students have the same ability to take for granted their academic environment being for them, and structured for them, and in their favor. And thoughtful, intentional, and curated for their success. And not feeling as though they are in a system that has been structured for them to fail.

The whole business is an interesting stance. On the one hand, it flies in the face of the standards movement which says that nothing about a student's background should be allowed to reduce expectations for them. Standardization wants to see everyone fit in that one size. On the other hand, the idea of structuring an academic environment to be supportive of students seems so fundamental that I'm not sure how any edu-movement can claim it. Yes, too many schools fail miserably in this fundamental-- I'm just not sure why the restructuring of a school around the PL model is necessary to correct the issue.

Equity issues have been used to sell everything from charter schools to TFA, but the attempt to link them to personalized [sic] learning seems to still be in the rough draft stage. That's unfortunate, because real personalized learning (the type that involves persons and not computerized algorithms) has some real use for addressing equity issues in this country, provided it's not used to narrow the focus so that we ignore the larger institutional systemic issues. My hope is that the attempt to use equity as a marketing tool for personalized [sic] learning doesn't simply set back real efforts to really fix a real problem. This article/advertisement does not get my hopes up.

By the way-- once a teacher retires, are they still a killer app? A retired app? Any kind of app at all, or just a few loose lines of code? Asking for a friend.

This blog post has been shared by permission from the author.
Readers wishing to comment on the content are encouraged to do so via the link to the original post.
Find the original post here:

The views expressed by the blogger are not necessarily those of NEPC.

Peter Greene

Peter Greene has been a high school English teacher in Northwest Pennsylvania for over 30 years. He blogs at Curmudgucation. ...