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MSPnet Blog: ““Personalization” and the reform industry: Factories pt iii”

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posted March 17, 2015 – by Brian Drayton

When I started thinking about the implications of the buzzwords of the family “factory” or “industrial model of education,” I was trying to figure out why it seemed to carry so much power, rhetorically speaking, so that it was used over and over.  Who was using it, to make what arguments?  Were they bringing fresh insight to educational practice or theory, or were they selling something?

One characteristic of buzzwords is that they attract others, like honey attracts flies (buzz!). I was hoping that if I examined some of these co-occurrences, I might better understand the nuances of the “factory” metaphor.  Early on, it became clear that many people who set up “factory = status quo = bad” were, explicitly or implicitly, also conveying “good = ‘reform’ = technology”  — and another word that often comes up is “personalized”, along with ideas like “anytime/anywhere learning” and similar tropes.   As we have seen, it comes up in discussions about virtual schooling, or “disruptive” ideas in school design, and visions of the School of the Future (see further, for this kind of thinking such interesting books as Collins and Halverson’s Rethinking education in the age of technology, or Molnar’s exploration of virtual schools whose proponents argue that online curriculum can be tailored to individual students to promote greater student achievement than can be realized in traditional brick-and-mortar schools).

A confession:  When I hear such terms buzz by, I reflexively think, “Learning has always been anytime/anywhere!  What’s the big deal here?  Learning is always “personal,” who else is doing the learning except the individual person — in/from her/his social context, amidst mediating artifacts, and in verbal and non-verbal transactions. I have not seen more than one teacher in my life who was not concerned to bring each student under her/his care along according to condition and ability — though some teachers are more skilled, committed, aware, gifted, persistent, than others…”   Hackles rise, too, when I see advertisements or advocacy pieces talk about the “students’ zone of proximal development,”  as though there was some sort of group mind to be diagnosed and treated by some deterministic if terribly clever system…

OK, rant over.

“Personalization” is one of the birds that flock together with “factory” language, and as mentioned in the last post, these two ideas over the years have sometimes been allied, sometimes opposed.  Curiously, when modern advocates talk about replacing the non-existent “factory model” with something, it’s typically with technology, which is to be purchased, used to help shape students, in order to fit them to work as technology users in the modern engines of the economy.  There is a semantic nexus awaiting exploration here.

But there can be, and is, a lively debate over what “personalization” actually means (student-driven learning?  Individual learning?  Personalized instruction?  Adaptive technologies for testing and tutoring?), and also how it relates to other elements of learning (discourse and other socio-cultural processes;  projects and service;  apprenticeships cognitive and otherwise)  —

And what’s the role of the school?  Is it to exactly mirror the external world, or  should it provide a place where the skills of critique, reflection, debate, evaluation, inquiry are fostered, and the child (and teacher) as social-cognitive-physical-artistic-political (etc.)  can at least sometimes be acknowledged, and these different elements of us, with their various kinds of learning, can be seen as allies and resources?  Perhaps my attitudes can be  detected here…

These reflections were occasioned and sharpened by reading Audrey Watters’s recent blog post is very interesting on the subject of personalization and technology, and following the links she provides to an extended blogosphere discussion on many aspects of the topic, from ideology to pedagogy to economics to cognitive science.    I cannot hope to summarize here, but I strongly encourage you to follow at least some of the threads, and develop your own critique of this buzzword, or others that, well, bug you.