Landing : Athabascau University

Four Reasons to Worry About "Personalized Learning" - Alfie Kohn

Alfie Kohn is one of my favourite writers and this is a good example of why. Kohn's basic concern with personalized learning is that  "Each of us can do what he likes as long as he ends up fundamentally similar to everyone else" but he drills down a lot further. These are his fundamental worries with how personalized learning is being conceived and implemented:

1. The tasks have been personalized for kids, not created by them.

2. Education is about the transmission of bits of information, not the construction of meaning.

3. The main objective is just to raise test scores.

4. It’s all about the tech.

I share Kohn's concerns - I am appalled by a lot of the adaptive hypermedia, learning analytics and intelligent tutoring systems that I have seen, dating back around three decades or more but apparently now reaching critical mass in the personalization movement. He is absolutely right to be afraid of how these things are being used and implemented not just for kids but for adults. The trend towards measurability, uniformity and control of students is a heinous crime against this and future generations, made much worse by the institutionalized power abuse that comes with the package.

On the other hand, I think that it doesn't have to be that way. First of all, it is important to consider the granularity: adaptive systems can have a lot of value when they are available in small pieces that give learners the power to choose them as tools to support their personal learning (and, as Kohn points out, social learning). I am also not averse, on the whole, to tools that suggest and advise but that do not dictate. But mainly, like all things technological, from painting to bridge construction, it ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it that matters. It's a problem when the process of learning is hardened into a toolset that is dictated by a small hierarchy and not socially negotiated. It's the higher levels of control that are the most worrisome technologies in this assembly: the tools just make it easier to exert that control. We should fight against the standardized tests, the teaching for grades, the manipulation of learners for political ends. But, when that toolset simply adds to what we already have, it can make the whole system more creative, flexible and controllable by learners. It's the difference between what Franklin calls 'holistic' and 'prescriptive' technologies.


  • Shafiq February 25, 2015 - 1:28pm

    Thanks for sharing Jon, and that article is mind blowing and full of reality. What we are facing today is control on human thought, rather than giving everyone ability to learn in enjoyable, flexible and creative manner. In general sense, what students are racing for is to get better grades at the end of course and very few actually taking just for the sack of actual learning, is that pressure from society, your family, your co-worker and from within.

    I am big fan of Open Learning Concept where there is no boundary, no restriction and at least no money involve. Anyone can share and learn from each other by collaborating.

    We should consider our self as students for life, like a famous saying "Learn like you never going to die, and live like you will die tomorrow" apologies if did not say it right.

    Thanks again 

  • Louis Lemaire February 28, 2015 - 8:54pm

    At first glance, I thought to myself, "well why don't we want to leverage personalized learning?!?" Many a person has said that they are a [visual/audio/independent study] type of learning, or "I learn better when [blank condition]". 

    But after reading the referenced article, I can see what was meant - it's not what I thought at all. I don't know whether the "each person has their own learning style" stuff is myth or not, but I can see the controversy. It sounds like people are capitalizing on these 'myths' - true or not.

    These notions seem to be conventional wisdom, so leave it to the free market to capitalize on parents who want to believe that their *ahem* snowflake is different from every other snowflake. It seems that rather than teachers adjusting to their students, or tweaking a class or grouping of students, it makes the education system formulaic. This idea of personalized learning seems really dangerous - that it allows a computer formula to gradually adjust test (task) difficulty until individual students succeed. Sometimes we need to push people, we need to let them fail and put themselves back together. Learning can be acheived through pressure and adversity if used correctly.