Month: June 2014

Total 4 Posts

Personalized Learning Software: Fun Like Choosing Your Own Ad Experience


After last week’s post knocking around “personalized learning”, Michael Feldstein argued that the term is too ambiguous to be useful:

All learning is personalized in virtue of the fact that it is accomplished by a person for him or herself. This may seem like a pedantic point, but if the whole point of creating the term is to focus on fitting the education to the student rather than the other way around, then it’s important to be clear about agency. What we really want to talk about, I think, is “personalized education” or, more specifically, “personalized instruction.”

Mike Caulfield described the value of structured discussion and how current personalized learning technologies undermine it:

… if there is one thing that almost all disciplines benefit from, it’s structured discussion. It gets us out of our own head, pushes us to understand ideas better. It teaches us to talk like geologists, or mathematicians, or philosophers; over time that leads to us thinking like geologists, mathematicians, and philosophers. Structured discussion is how we externalize thought so that we can tinker with it, refactor it, and re-absorb it better than it was before.

Is personalization orthogonal to structured discussion? That’s debatable, I suppose.

In practice, do the current forms of personalization in vogue (see, for instance, Rocketship) undermine the ability of a skilled teacher to run productive structured discussions?

Absolutely. Not a doubt in my mind.

Alex Hernandez claimed I set up a false choice between personalized learning paths and structured discussion:

Students can engage in personalized learning for a portion of the day and spend the rest of their time in rich learning activities that only teachers can provide. The bet here is that if students can drive their development of background knowledge, teachers can “trade up” and focus their energies on challenging tasks and compelling experiences.

Kevin Hall, one of the most useful foils I have at this blog, described a particular form of personalization:

Different groups could do the task with the same or isomorphic data sets in different contexts: sports, movies, etc. [..] My guess is ed tech will have us to this point relatively soon, don’t you think?

I just finished reading Daniel Willingham’s Why Students Don’t Like School, a challenging and affirming read at different times, and he takes a very dim view of this kind of personalization:

Trying to make the material relevant to students’ interests doesn’t work. As I noted in Chapter One, content is seldom the decisive factor in whether or not our interest is maintained.

I left comments in response to Michael Feldstein, Alex Hernandez, and Kevin Hall, in which I elaborate on the title of this post.

And Benjamin Riley, after starting this whole fire, tossed on another can of kerosene.

Don’t Personalize Learning

Benjamin Riley offers two reasons related to cognition and learning why we shouldn’t attempt to personalize student learning. Here’s his second:

This is also why I think it’s a mistake to place children in charge of the speed of their learning, particularly during the early years of their education. If left to decide for themselves, many kids – and particularly those from at-risk backgrounds – will choose a relatively slow velocity of learning (again, because thinking is hard). The slow pace will lead to large knowledge deficits compared to their peers, which will cause them to slow down further, until eventually they “switch off” from school. The only way to prevent this slow downward spiral for these students is to push them harder and faster. But they need to be pushed, which means we should not cede to them control of the pace of their learning.

My own argument against personalized learning is that — in Audrey Watters’ fine formulation — it “circumscribes pedagogical possibilities.” Which is to say, a lot of fun learning in math class — argument, discussion, and debate chief among them — is impossible very difficult when you aren’t learning it synchronously with a group. Riley’s argument adds new dimensions to those concerns.

BTW. I left my own version of Riley’s second argument on Will Richardson’s blog, a forum where the value of student-personalized curriculum is, IMO, too often assumed to be utterly obvious and questioned only by cowards and cranks. Rather than spending his time tangling with anonymous Internet commenters, I’d like to know how a thoughtful technologist like Richardson would engage a critic like Riley.

2014 Jun 24. Mike Caulfield:

I often warn about overgeneralizing across disciplines but let me overgeneralize across disciplines here: if there is one thing that almost all disciplines benefit from, it’s structured discussion. It gets us out of our own head, pushes us to understand ideas better. It teaches us to talk like geologists, or mathematicians, or philosophers; over time that leads to us thinking like geologists, mathematicians, and philosophers. Structured discussion is how we externalize thought so that we can tinker with it and refactor it.

2014 Jun 25. Alex Hernandez writes a thoughtful rebuttal.

Tools For Socialized Instruction Not Individualized Instruction

PearDeck is technology you should try out. Here’s how it works. Let’s say this image fascinates me:


It takes a certain amount of spatial skill to answer the question, “How high will the creamer be in the upside-down container? Will it be higher than the original? Lower? The same?” (I mean the volume is the same, after all.)

So I create a new PearDeck presentation and send the link out on Twitter asking just those questions. PearDeck then lets me capture the feedback of these students in realtime.


The teacher interface expands to let me know whose answers are close or not that close.


This sets me up for anything from an explanation of how to calculate solids of revolution in Calculus or a debate about covariation in Algebra.

If you’re an educational technologist and you think this is interesting, please notice that this is the opposite of individualized instruction. It’s socialized instruction. PearDeck would be much less interesting if you were the only person estimating, or if you were answering the question “Will it be higher or lower or the same?” alone.

Sometimes learning is less fun when you’re learning at your own pace.

(The answer.)

“You Can Always Add. You Can’t Subtract.”

a/k/a [Makeover] Painted Cubes (See preview.)

That’s a very helpful comment from, Alyssa Boike, a recent workshop participant. Textbooks don’t have that same luxury.

Here’s an example. Watch how Connected Mathematics treats the classic Painted Cube problem:


Here are elements the textbook has already added:

  1. A central question. (“How many faces of the little cubes have been painted?”)
  2. A strategy. (“Look at smaller versions of the cube.” It also tells you by omission that it’s impossible to find more than three faces painted.)
  3. A table. (For organizing your data.)
  4. Table column headings. (Edge length, total cubes, total cubes of each kind.)

If you subtract those elements and add them in later, you get to ask interesting questions and host interesting conversations with your students. Like this:

  1. A central question. (“What questions do you have about Leon and his cube?” And later: “Guess how many cubes don’t have any paint on them at all?”)
  2. A strategy. (“What are all the possibilities for the number of faces that could have paint on them? Could five faces have paint on them? Can I tell you how mathematicians work on big problems? They look at smaller versions of the big problem. What would that look like here?”)
  3. A table. (“All of the numbers from our smaller versions are getting out of control. How can we organize all these loose numbers?”)
  4. Table column headings. (“What kind of data should we look at? What about these cubes seems important enough to keep track of?”)

You can always add those elements into the problem — the questions, the information, the mathematical structures, the strategy — as your students struggle and need help. But you can’t subtract them.

Once your students see the table, you can’t ask, “What tool could we use to organize ourselves?” The answer has been given. Once they see the table headings, you can’t ask, “What quantities seem important to keep track of in the table?” They know now. Once you add the strategy (“Look at smaller versions.”) their answers to the question “What strategies could we use?” won’t be as interesting.

In sum, much of the problem has been pre-formulated, which is a pity, seeing as how mathematicians and cognitive psychologists and education researchers agree that formulating the problem leads to success and interest in solving the problem.

So again I have to remind myself to be less helpful and be more thoughtful instead.

BTW. Of course I’m partial to Nicole Paris’ setup of the task:


Great Help From The Comments

I’m reprinting Bryan Meyer’s entire comment:

I don’t know that I have anything terribly insightful to add, but this seems like a fun conversation.

I don’t really see too much that is wrong with the problem/puzzle itself, which (to me) is something like:

I have this cube (show picture/tangible) made up of smaller cubes. If I dipped the whole thing in paint, how many of the smaller cubes would have paint on them? Is there a rule or shortcut we can create that would allow us to answer that question for ANY sized cube?

To me, the issue seems to be that the version we see in your blog post attempts to steer the direction of student thinking and leaves little room for play and divergent thinking/approaches. It “scaffolds” away all of the rich mathematical thinking and play in an attempt to cover standards. In particular, the unspoken assumption in the way it has been printed is that writing and graphing linear, quadratic, and exponential functions is the real “Math” in the task (things we can easily point to as belonging to the discipline/standards).

But, at it’s core and without all the mechanical scaffolding (as re-posed here), the question allows room for many mathematical strengths and habits of mind to be valued and sends different messages about what the real “math” might be: taking things apart and putting them back together, creating systems of organization, assigning variables, making generalizations, posing extension questions, etc. In addition, because it doesn’t dictate how to proceed, it encourages students to trust their own thinking and allows them to “see themselves” in the work that develops. The work of the teacher becomes to follow the student, looking for mathematically ripe opportunities in their work and thinking.

2014 Jun 2. Christopher Danielson brings his perspective to the task as writer of CMP.

2015 Nov 2. Great example from Jennifer Michaelis.