Personalization Depends On The Person

Jose VilsonResources8 Comments


Any so-called innovation deserves a second and third look when it’s brought to kids, even if it’s from Sir Ken Robinson. I saw this in my timeline, which says the following:

“Education doesn’t need to be reformed – it needs to be transformed. The key is not to standardize education, but to personalize it, to build achievement on discovering the individual talents of each child, to put students in an environment where they want to learn and where they can naturally discover their true passions.” – Sir Ken Robinson

Whenever anyone mentions personalization, it usually involves some sort of tech, akin to extreme differentiation. Some folk have bastardized the word to include folks like Khan Academy or Rocketship, where the tech is more important than the pedagogy. Children get a responsive program in front of them that moves along depending on correct answers, but that’s responsive, not personalized. Slight difference.

Let me preface my forthcoming critique by saying that I do believe in personalization generally. I think we need to better direct our school system so that students can discover their own paths without feeling like they’ve failed some ominous adult’s expectations. I generally think students have to go a certain route because that’s what society says, within reason. We don’t have enough student voice in education, and fostering students voices matters in any democracy.

Having said that, personalization also depends a lot on the person doing the personalizing. Some of my favorite youth activists (thinking Stephanie Rivera and Hannah Nguyen here) always remind me how adults love to impose their adult issues onto kids. “Personalization” means different things. Some kids really don’t know the things they’re capable of. Some adults, neither.

Personalization looks different across race, class, and gender lines. For example, when I tell you how many teachers just want to dump kids in vocational schools or alternative schools when it’s not necessary without asking them, that’s a problem. Some adults are still so caught up with which jobs some kids deserve and who looks good for which jobs that, if we take personalization the wrong way, we’re going back to making choices for kids at times when we can make choices with them.

We need appropriate baselines, too, and a timeline for when adults should make suggestions for their education. It’s a touchy thing, and we need our system to be much more responsive than it currently is. Personalization is more powerful when, as educators, we show students other doors and let them decide. We’re just giving them tools. However those tools look like, at least we’ve given them more pathways than were originally available to them without us.

But that’s none of my business. Ain’t nothin’ personal.


Comments 8

  1. Hello Jose,

    I agree with your post about personalization. I teach elementary school and my focus has been the process. My objective at the beginning of my lesson is, how can I get the students to embrace the strategies for problem solving? Your comments about students choosing their own path is interesting and warrants further investigation. It is evident that we grasp information differently, therefore if the process of teaching is personalized, I believe we can have a better success rate.

  2. Thanks for broadening this discussion. I too agree with the concept of personalization — in general, but the specifics are, well, personal. There has to be more to personalization of learning that letting students only follow their current passions or interests. I believe I have a responsibility to point or show my students possibilities and areas they may not know, and therefore have not considered.

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  3. But, how to allow some sort of personalization without allowing people (well-meaning educators, who are unaware of what they are doing), to segregate, to track by race, etc?

    We are wrong to dump every kid into the same class, taught the same way, as we do at many schools… but when there were more options, we know what it looked like.

    So yeah, I agree with you in theory. But how?

  4. I am bit confused. While I generally agree with the fact that personalization is not a great thing, particularly because there is literally zero evidence that learning styles exist (i.e. see ; and anything written by

    I would counter that maybe standardizing practices is better in the sense that if we use pedagogy that is proven alongside data that aids in our remediation techniques (while keeping best practices for specific domains the same for initial acquisition of knowledge), then we have a hybrid system:

    1. Use best practices and data-supported instructional models for our classes at initial learning points (may differ for integrated co-teaching whereby cognitive needs would have to adapt delivery and materials for particular students)
    2. Use data on formative assessments to gauge who needs “what” and remediate from there
    3. Repeat

    The notion of student voices is very good but in limited and specific contexts. It is almost like saying we as patients in a doctors office or a surgeon ward should have more say in our medications and operations, neither of which i have the technical knowledge or experience to make critical judgments on. Yet, having students give feedback on pedagogical interventions they felt motivated by, and teaching styles that keep their attention, etc. is a great way to drive instruction.

    As far as “dumping students into vocational education” I think the quite opposite, most progressive industrialized nations introduce technical education much earlier with much more prestige in the US. Why do you think Germany has a big part in the production process for Apple? They have much more highly skilled laborers than we do. Instead we have the fairy-tale notion that everyone is equal cognitively (probably abridge from times of racial disparity and discrimination, but greatly misapplied cognitively) and that they all deserve equal education in all facets and equal outcomes. A free and appropriate education is the law and I agree with it. Many of students are not cognitively capable of handling highly complex syntax when they themselves have life experiences that truncated their ability to acquire vast knowledge, vocabulary understanding, or the capability to synthesize both into readily understood information. Having an outlet for students who cannot quite make the grade is a way to give them a viable sense of accomplishment and autonomy while generating income. I’ve seen too much the passing through of students in traditional academic programs to prop up state diploma rates and they leave high school with no technical mastery and no academic ability to translate into a profession. They end up in low-wage (read: unlivable wage) jobs and for what? To say “everyone is the same?”

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