Must Read: Larry Berger’s Confession & Question About Personalized Learning

Larry Berger, CEO of Amplify, offers a fantastic distillation of the promises of digital personalized learning and how they are undone by the reality of learning:

We also don’t have the assessments to place kids with any precision on the map. The existing measures are not high enough resolution to detect the thing that a kid should learn tomorrow. Our current precision would be like Google Maps trying to steer you home tonight using a GPS system that knows only that your location correlates highly with either Maryland or Virginia.

If you’re anywhere adjacent to digital personalized learning – working at an edtech company, teaching in a personalized learning school, in a romantic relationship with anyone in those two categories – you should read this piece.

Berger closes with an excellent question to guide the next generation of personalized learning:

What did your best teachers and coaches do for you—without the benefit of maps, algorithms, or data—to personalize your learning?

My best teachers knew what I knew. They understood what I understood about whatever I was learning in a way that algorithms in 2018 cannot touch. And they used their knowledge not to suggest the next “learning object” in a sequence but to challenge me in whatever I was learning then.

“Okay you think you know this pretty well. Let me ask you this.”

What’s your answer to Berger’s question?

BTW. It’s always the right time to quote Begle’s Second Law:

Mathematics education is much more complicated than you expected even though you expected it to be more complicated than you expected.

Featured Comment

SueH:

I have come to believe that all learning is personalized not because of what the teacher does but because of what’s happening inside the learner’s brain. Whatever pedagogical choices a teacher makes, it’s the student’s work that causes new neural networks to be created and pre-existing ones to be augmented or strengthened or broken or pruned.

Scott Farrand:

I’ll accept the risk of stating the obvious: my best teachers cared about me, and I felt that. Teaching is an act of love. A teacher who cares about each student is much more likely to, in that instant after a student responds to a question, find the positive value in the response and communicate encouragement to the student, verbally and nonverbally. And students who feel cared for are more likely to have good things going on in their brains, as described by SueH.

About 
I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. More here.

13 Comments

  1. Reply

    Dan,

    Thanks as always for great thought-provoking posts! Five years ago I led a team that piloted the Teach to One: Math Personalized Learning model at my school – MS88 – in Brooklyn, NY. My team and I ran it for 3.5 years very successfully, and I’ve since moved on to another team to launch the Summit Learning Model. (Teach to One is still going strong). While far from perfect, Teach to One: Math is by far the most comprehensive and adaptive mathematics learning system I know of. In other words, it comes so much closer to really knowing what the students know than any other system I know of. It actually does a really good job of this, far better than any teacher could do on the scale that it works. The Summit Learning Model’s platform doesn’t even come close (nor does anything else). I encourage you to check out Teach to One: Math and see for yourself. I’d love to tell you more about my experiences with both if you’re interested!

    Aaron Kaswell
    MS88 STEAM Teacher

    • Thanks for commenting, Aaron. I’d love to hear more about what Teach to One did that the Summit PLP doesn’t.

  2. Reply

    Interesting….. my best teacher knew what I didn’t know or understand — even when I didn’t — and was able to ask the right questions so that I could uncover that for myself, close the gap, and resume forward movement.

    Featured Comment

    I have come to believe that all learning is personalized not because of what the teacher does but because of what’s happening inside the learner’s brain. Whatever pedagogical choices a teacher makes, it’s the student’s work that causes new neural networks to be created and pre-existing ones to be augmented or strengthened or broken or pruned.

    The effort to incorporate new knowledge with prior learning is intensely personal because ieach learner is his/her own unique package of motivation, prior knowledge & skill, life & learning experiences, successes, failures, pressures, emotions of the moment, state of health, readiness to learn, etc., etc., etc.

    The success or not of the endeavour depends on the interplay of an incredibly complex collection of factors. The more skilled teachers become, the more perspectives, possibilities, experiences, questions, imagination, and empathy they can draw on to ‘goose’ the learning process along. When I hear any group of reformers or ‘instructional engineers’ declare that they’ve figured out the ONE TRUE WAY, I have to remind myself that these one chord wonders still have a lot to learn.

  3. Reply

    This is an important question. I’m also thinking about the opposite:

    What didn’t my worst teachers and coaches do for me to personalize my learning?

    In high school, I recall their sigh of relief as they sat down at their desk after lecturing–a clear sign to me that they had finished their job. In other words, they viewed me as an object. They talked AT me not TO me. Overall, they didn’t really interact much. Their classrooms were eerily quiet (all hopes of a good relationship destroyed in order to get it that way). There was also a level of pretend interest in my well being. They seemed like nice people who were doing there job, but I could sense that they didn’t want me to get too close to them. The relationship was non-existent or nearly so.

    In college, they made me feel stupid for not knowing everything or for asking dumb questions.
    Even though they frequently asked for questions throughout their lectures, I could again sense that they wanted a distant relationship. It was clear that they didn’t care about my real questions. That’s an awful feeling. It made me once again feel like an object, not a human. Ultimately, I could sense the goal was to say everything that needed to be said, not to have an impact on my life.

    As I think about the original question, and my musings about the opposite, it seems clear to me that the teachers and coaches who personalized learning for me were somehow able to establish a solid relationship with me. When that happened, I idolized them. I watched their every move. I listened to their every word. I felt comfortable asking the questions I really wanted to ask. I didn’t feel embarrassed for not knowing everything.

    I also worked harder because they would often say something personalized to me about what I had written or about something I had done in class (Interestingly, I recall receiving personalized feedback from the former types of teachers and I recall the ALMOST persuasive power those comments held over me. Then I would go to class and lose those feelings.)

    • “Authentic” project based learning, eh?

      Is that the sort when it fails it isn’t “authentic”, and when it succeeds turns out to have a large, but hidden, dose of traditional learning?

      My apologies for the scorn, but if a style of education is so hard to get right that it needs “authentic” in front of it, then it will almost certainly fail over time in the real classroom.

    • No offense taken with the scorn, I think PBL, like other buzz-words that pop up in education can often lose their meaning so I wanted to qualify with authentic just as a way to say that I don’t think the
      word should be tossed around lightly. What I mean by authentic is projected BASED learning, not project ORIENTED learning. Basically, how do students learn about a topic by doing a project, not summarize their learning in a project. When done well, I feel like students are able to explore/create novel ideas and live in productive struggle.

  4. Reply

    I love the featured comment!

    To me, my best teachers only presented the content knowledge to me and let me decide how much I want to learn. I remember that I only took in things that I was ready to absorb. Some things are very good but I wasn’t able to take in when it was presented to me.

    I believe that everyone knows themselves the best and throughout the years people have developed theories about their lives after I almost screwed up two student’s decision making in my first year as a teacher. That was painstaking. I gave the kids some advice. For the first one, I thought that would be the best for him, but what I didn’t realize is that the kid was super intelligent- much intelligent than I, as his teacher. The advice I gave him was superficial and that almost cause him to make the no-so-good choice for his life.

    For the second one, the kid hated math so I gave the kid some advice and it turned out to be my advice was not helpful at all.

    Honestly, I am very regretful. I agree with the featured comment that kids can personalize their learning by themselves. :))))

  5. Reply

    Featured Comment

    I’ll accept the risk of stating the obvious: my best teachers cared about me, and I felt that. Teaching is an act of love. A teacher who cares about each student is much more likely to, in that instant after a student responds to a question, find the positive value in the response and communicate encouragement to the student, verbally and nonverbally. And students who feel cared for are more likely to have good things going on in their brains, as described by SueH.
  6. Reply

    Better than admit he was wrong, Berger does the real rarity with the personalised learning crowd — he actually asks other people what might work.

    Contrast him with Bill Gates, who changes course without saying he was wrong and without asking people who actually teach why he was wrong.

    Teachers said years ago that computerised “personalised learning” was a busted flush.

    He still has much to learn though. Instead of trying to work out whether traits come before genes or genes come before traits, a real teacher would find out what students needed and then teach them side by side. If you teach factorising separately on the basis you did expansion last week, so they get that, then you are a mug. Things are never that simple.

  7. Reply

    I agree with Scott that the great teachers both care deeply about their students and are able to convey that to them. I’ve been in Scott’s classes and without a doubt he makes this happen. There is another piece great teachers (including Scott) bring– a deep connected understanding of mathematics– both from the personal viewpoint and the viewpoint of students. Fosnot’s “Landscapes of Learning”, Ball’s “Mathematical Knowledge for Teaching”, the concepts and practices of RME (Realistic Math Education– Freudenthal), and Polya’s analysis of “Teaching, Math, and Teaching Math”, all make good headway in capturing this. Caring, knowledge, and the hard work needed to bring that knowledge into the classroom– that’s what the great teachers I have seen do. Those teachers can see inside the heads of their students and know where they might want to go next. As Ball says, “One eye on the interest and development of students, one eye on the mathematical horizon”. In terms of computers being able to go alone at this, to paraphrase something I heard somewhere, “Any teacher that can be replaced by a computer should be.”

    • Jeff, your last sentence in your comment is quite compelling. The more I think about that, the more it makes sense. Remember the old interview question that went something like “Is teaching an art or a science?” I always answered that question with “It’s both.” There has to be passion. Passion about helping people to help themselves. But there also has to be knowledge. Knowledge about the actual skills…management, content, organization, etc. In my mind, an advertised “personal” learning experience based on a technological “tool” is just that, a tool. The technology doesn’t take into consideration all the variables present in a students mind, only what the student outputs. On a large scale, these tools are valuable for producing data. Data that can be useful, IF interpreted logically. Putting all a student’s learning experience in one technological basket leaves out the human part.

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