We Need to Humanize Education More Than We Need to Personalize Learning

Opinion | Personalized Learning

We Need to Humanize Education More Than We Need to Personalize Learning

By Randy Weiner     Apr 13, 2019

We Need to Humanize Education More Than We Need to Personalize Learning

Over the last ten years, my privilege has allowed me to participate in a number of educational arenas. I’ve co-founded both a charter school and an education technology company, and I provide consulting and coaching support to schools and leaders related to personalized learning.

In any given week, I’m actively engaged in trying to deepen my own knowledge, support the growth of others’ knowledge and internalize a wide range of diverse perspectives on how we can best serve children via more personalized learning. But “more” might not be the solution we need right now. Lately, I’ve felt that for all our good intentions, we’re missing the larger point. We’re not seeing the persons in personalized learning.

In the lead up to this year’s SXSW EDU, I found myself reading about how personalized learning would be addressed at the conference and experienced a visceral sense of nausea. The dis-ease I felt in the pit of my stomach stemmed from struggling to digest ongoing, well-intentioned guidance on how to better implement personalized learning at a time when hate crimes have increased year-over-year for each of the last four years.

Privileged folks, myself included, may need to hit the pause button on personalized learning, at least for the moment. Although I do not question the value of seeking to better understand and practice personalized learning, I also submit that we may be doing little more than tinkering around the edges of changing students’ lives at a time when our country may be doing more to visibly de-humanize our most vulnerable children than it has over the last 20 to 30 years.

Until adults stop murdering children for who they are, it may be time to focus on how to humanize, rather than personalize, our perception of our children and their education, and ultimately, ourselves.

The ideas behind good personalized learning practices should be welcomed into the classroom, but the level of confusion the term engenders suggests there might be a better linguistic frame to catalyze greater impact. Perhaps in a nod to what the term represents, there is no consensus definition for personalized learning, making execution all the more challenging. Teachers, very understandably, often wonder whether or not personalized learning is just the latest re-packaging of a past pedagogy. Or they may wonder how to just get it done without wading into the waters of trying to define it.

Personalized learning definitions also rarely reflect the term’s first six letters. For example, a person, does not, by definition:

  • Care a whit about content that is in the “zone of proximal development
  • Connect with a teacher in a small group setting
  • Thrive because we offer differentiated lesson plans

None of the above are bad practices, but neither are they a priori personalized, nevermind humanizing, practices. We should not expect an intrepid educator to blow the dust off a Rift Valley Public School District stone tablet to reveal the above as among our universal educational truths. Without a humanizing focus, we may be wasting children’s time.

Moreover, the word “humanize” might be more universally and readily understandable than “personalized learning.” And more important, the opposite of “humanize”—“de-humanize”—may be more readily understood than personalized learning ever has been.

That concept makes sense to us. We know what a de-humanizing experience looks like, and we know what it’s like to humanize an individual student, with all their personality quirks and complexities, versus talking about one in the abstract. It’s a subtle shift in terminology, but it may position more educators to self-assess their practices more effectively by thinking in terms of humanizing learning versus personalizing learning.

Take the following two statements for example. Which one feels like it might be more easily implemented for all children?

  • Self-paced learning leads to greater student outcomes
  • Telling students they can't achieve something because of who they are is a bad idea

The first sentence may be easily implementable for some practitioners, but it can also carry a lot of complex baggage for teachers, such as thinking about whether or not some students are moving too fast or too slow.

The second sentence is more akin to an educational Hippocratic Oath. We shouldn’t tell kids they can’t do something because of who they are—whether that is due to the color of their skin, the way they speak, their personality or any other trumped-up basis for discrimination. It would be hard (though sadly not impossible for some) to criticize that position. Such clarity may be useful because the needs of our neediest children start with the requirement to be humanized.

Most of us are wired to feel it when we are trampling on someone’s humanity. No one feels it, not in the soul, when a child isn’t able to choose where to sit to do his work; the same gut check isn’t available.

Is it oversimplification to spell out what ought to be painfully obvious? When we look across our country and see so many children’s futures—especially black and brown children’s futures—mowed down by the de-humanizing practices both intentional and unintentional taking place every day in- and outside of our nation’s classrooms, oversimplification starts to sound nothing less than insulting.

The impact of teacher-student relationships is well researched. It might also be the best way to humanize children’s education. Is it the most impactful factor in their success? No, that honor goes to teacher excellence. However, I suspect that implicit in excellent teachers’ practice is the development of humanizing relationships with children as the foundation for the education that follows.

There’s plenty we can do to better connect educators and students. We can start by considering the following questions: How well do we support teachers to consistently and meaningfully connect with families? How well do your own children’s teachers know them? What might be necessary to humanize children who look different from the teaching corps that serves them? Can we look ourselves in the mirror and say we've done everything we can to recognize children’s humanity?

I submit we have not, and that it is irresponsible to continue grappling with what personalized learning is or looks like without focusing on our children’s humanity.

If we must, we can still serve students a blend of the buzzword-friendly education word salad popular today. The call to humanize education is not an excuse to delay providing a “rigorous, 21st century, adaptive, mindful content playlist with SEL-infused foam, served over a bed of STEAM-ed, empathy-based student voices and choices.” We can still order from that menu.

It is, however, a call to say that, if we increase the magnification of our child-centric lens, we should see that we are not moving fast enough for them. We don’t yet understand how to operationalize personalized learning at scale—and that’s OK. Focusing on honoring a child’s humanity might help. And it may result in better student outcomes faster.

In contrast to personalized learning’s relative opacity, plainly stated questions can illuminate if we are humanizing a child’s education:

  1. Did I see my students today for who they are and can be? Would my students know?
  2. Did I make a new connection or deepen an existing relationship with my students today?
  3. How would each of my students know I truly care about them?
  4. Did I demonstrate my own humanity to my students today?
  5. Did I do anything today to oppress a child’s humanity? How can I be sure?

By humanizing education, we can be certain we also personalize it. The converse is not necessarily true, and therein lies the problem. Let’s get out of our heads and go straight to the heart of the issue: no amount of personalized learning will fill the soul-sized black hole we create when we fail to recognize a child’s humanity.

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