An Analogy: Personalized Learning is a Philosophy, Not a Fad

While reading the biography of a an educational entrepreneur that I interviewed for an episode of my podcast, the MoonshotEdu Show, this image came to mind. The guest, Kelly Tenkely, is a champion for celebrating, nurturing, and honoring the uniqueness of every child. She is an advocate for personalized learning, but this is far more than a buzz word to people like her. A commitment to pursuing personalized learning stems from a core set of beliefs about human worth and purpose.

Reading the biography in preparation for the show, this odd scene came into my mind. I was standing at the entrance of a large convention center. It was the opening hours of a massive education conference. As teachers entered the building, they were each greeted, provided with a handful of nicely folded clothing, and directed to changing rooms on each side of the registration hall. As I looked over at the changing room, I saw teachers of all sizes and types walking out in the exact same all-white, one-size-fits-all jump suits. They were ridiculously small for some people, fit others just right, and still others were tripping over the extra foot of slack dragging on the floor. It was a hilarious site, but everyone walked around as if it was just a typical day at an education conference. Some seemed happy and others were visibly uncomfortable, but nobody challenged the wisdom of putting everyone in these silly uniforms.

What were people thinking?

  • “I look good!”
  • “I’m cold.”
  • “I’m too fat.”

Even though the clothing was not the right fit for people, the clothing set the standard. If they did not fit, then it was clearly the fault of the wearer. They needed to lose weight, gain weight, or they just had the wrong body type.

You see where I am going with this, right? This is largely our approach to education in many places today, and when we think of it this way, it does not really make much sense, at least not unless our goal is to make everyone look alike as we hear in the little boxes song.

There is room for commonalities in clothing just as there is room for shared  goals and standards, but people are different. They are going to live different lives. They will develop different strengths. They have different life stories. They have different fears to overcome. They have and will have different callings in life.

Sameness is not the most important goal in education. Yes, there are compelling arguments for shared democratic values, a shared commitment to abiding by certain laws, and even shared skills like basic literacy and numeracy, but there is so much that is distinct. Why not have school contexts were we can celebrate the fact that every person is indeed unique and on a unique life journey? If we truly embrace this vision, then it calls for us to reconsider how we approach many things in school.

Many of us are so used to the standardized way of doing things, that we find it hard to imagine what this other way could look like. Yet, there are a growing number of examples for the past and present. In addition, if you take any group of ten people, put them in a room, and ask them to dream up a school based upon this core concept, you will get a myriad of promising possibilities.