The Dystopian Future of Schools

“The goalpost has moved. It’s become much more difficult to do your job as an educator and actually prepare students for the 2030s, ’40s and ’50s.” – Max Ventilla

Amid a flurry of interest in the latest panacea for student disengagement, a recent CNN report asked, Is personalized learning the future of school? The report, based upon a $133 million school startup known as AltSchool, is a response to a legitimate concern identified by former Google executive, Max Ventilla. The ambition to make the learning experience more personal is a difficult one to argue against. But as more and more schools adopt this philosophy, the result is an emerging multi-billion dollar industry that, in its attempt to systemize this approach, is ironically in danger of depersonalizing the learning experience of students more than ever.

The notion that students deserve greater autonomy over their learning is an admirable one, but the reality of how this ambition is being implemented in many schools is questionable. Take the AltSchool example, as reported by CNN: “Students are served up a “play list,” where each has a list of 25 items they are responsible for each week. Peering into a student’s Google Chromebook, the list reveals a series of activities, called cards, that might vary from using an iPad learning app to watching an instructional video.” There are aspects of the AltSchool program that are impressive (flexible schedule, commitment to physical education and innovation), but there is a burgeoning industry out there just waiting to make learning anything but personal.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the original concept of developing greater student agency – a complex task – is being lost in attempts by well-intentioned schools to provide this opportunity in a manageable manner which is, in turn, being capitalized upon by the “education reform” industry. These canned approaches move us further and further away from the objective of making learning personal. As Will Richardson recently observed, personal agency is not:

  • having an option of “how” to move through the curriculum.
  • always knowing where you are on a “topic.”
  • learning something that is limited by “how much there is left” to learn.
  • what the people making the “products” to support it want it to be.Is it not ironic that some educational publishers (transformed from textbook empires to digital content management monoliths) are beginning to standardize personalization? The desire for technology integration and data analytics – two worthy things given the right context – have coalesced to form a conveyor belt approach to learning. It works like this: the software indicates that you have “mastered” X; the student can move to Y. In this way, technology investment is justified and data is recorded in visually appealing ways. This is not learning and it is not personal.

In his new book, Eric Sheninger correctly points out that “pedagogy always trumps technology.” There can be no argument with this perspective. “For digital learning to be implemented effectively,” Sheninger contends, “[we must] focus on pedagogy first.” It is for this reason that I almost recoil when people ask about the “personalized” learning program we are developing at our school. Our insistence that we are doing our best to provide “personal” learning stems from a conviction that the learner comes first, that the skilled teacher is more critical than ever, and that technology and data can amplify this philosophy when approached in the correct context. This is what the people I work with understand and believe  personalized learning to be.

I really like what Pernille Ripp has to say on this topic:

“Personalized learning does not mean to let go, give up control of everything, and hope for the best. It doesn’t mean that every kid has to make something, invent something, or be creative for every assignment… It doesn’t mean that teachers should just facilitate or guide and otherwise get out of the way. There will never be just one role for all of us to fit all of the time.”

The promise of student agency will be more dystopia than Utopia if we are not clear about the things we value in schools. Personalized learning does not require a product. It does not involve isolation. If personalized learning means that students are required to move through a series of data points in some canned software program (“deliverology”), then I hope schools will avoid this movement at all costs (the financial cost alone is substantial). Learning should be personal. The best learning has always been personal. It requires, at its centre, relationships and collaboration, individuality and personal rapport. In the right context, technology and data can amplify this experience.

Learning is personal. It always has been. It always will be.

Dan Simon. “Is Personalized Learning the Future of School?” CNN, April 15, 2016.
Will Richardson. “What ‘Student Agency’ Is Not.” Modern Learning.
Eric C. Sheninger. UnCommon Learning: Creating Schools That Work for Kids
Pernille Ripp. “What Personalized Learning is Not.”

Image credit @bryanMMathers via Visual Thinkery.