Personalized Learning Tools

My opinion of the education technology scene has changed quite a bit over the past few years. Whenever people hear that I’m interested in both computer science and education, their default response tends to be something along the lines of, “You should work for edX or Khan Academy!” When I was a freshman in college, I was totally on board with that idea. However, after realizing that my favorite part of teaching was getting to know my students on a deeper level and pushing them to achieve more, I became less interested in the idea of building technology that put curriculum online because I thought it seemed impersonal.

I was also somewhat influenced by Dan Meyer’s blog post “Problems with Personalized Learning” from March 2017. In the blog post, Dan highlights some of his concerns about an article written about personalized learning.

Personalized learning is only as good as its technology, and in 2017 that technology isn’t good enough. Its gravity pulls towards videos of adults talking about math, followed by multiple choice exercises for practice, all of which is leavened by occasional projects. It doesn’t matter that students can choose the pace or presentation of that learning. Taking your pick of impoverished options still leaves you with an impoverished option.

I’ll be honest—reading this blog post made me question the effectiveness of all the personalized learning tools I had heard about. However, after reading Sal Khan’s The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined, I realized that there was nothing wrong per se about the tools themselves. The problem was assuming that the simple act of incorporating “personalized learning” tools in the classroom would automatically make students learn better. The tool itself is not the solution. Rather the tool makes it possible for teachers and students to have more meaningful interactions in the classroom.

Sal explains that by having students watch lecture videos on their own time, teachers can invest classroom time in working one-on-one with students and personalize the explanations they give them. Student performance tracking on platforms like Khan Academy help teachers identify which students are struggling and on which concepts, which in turn allows teachers to address specific pain points for students.

Another way in which tools like Khan Academy pave the way for personalized learning is by making mastery learning possible. Students should not move onto more advanced topics until they have demonstrated mastery of the foundational concepts. Mastery learning is generally not feasible with the traditional school system because the entire class moves together from unit to unit regardless of whether or not the student has actually mastered the previous unit’s material. However, by letting students move at their own pace, Khan Academy opens the doors to mastery learning, which I would argue is a key to truly personalized learning.

Just having the right tools doesn’t mean that the problem will be solved. It’s equally important, if not more important, to use the tools properly. Funnily enough, this lesson helped me realize that tools that might seem impersonal on the surface can, in fact, open the doors to more personal interactions.

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The End of the Rainbow

In her book, The End of the Rainbow: How Educating for HAPPINESS (Not Money) Would Transform Our Schools, Susan Engel describes eight dispositions that she believes schools should help students develop so that they can live happier lives. These eight dispositions include:

  1. Engagement: Become immersed in complex and meaningful activities
  2. Purpose: Develop a sense of purpose
  3. Curiosity: Acquire an eagerness for knowledge, and the ability to get it
  4. Thoughtfulness: Think about things fully
  5. Mastery: Become good at things
  6. Contribute to one’s community
  7. Appreciate and understand those who are different from you
  8. Read for pleasure and for information

Engel then goes on to discuss concrete goals that go hand-in-hand with the aforementioned dispositions:

  1. Give students the opportunity to have sustained, varied, and meaningful conversations.
  2. Help students develop a love for reading by letting them read whatever they want.
  3. Teach students to embrace those who are not like themselves by teaching them how to work together toward achieving a common goal.
  4. Focus more on what students want to learn and encourage students to ask their own questions.
  5. Each child should be doing at least one thing he or she is passionate about and developing expertise in that area.
  6. Adults should make the effort to truly get to know the students.

Engel also suggests a new system of assessment to evaluate how effective schools are at developing these key qualities. Randomly recording classroom interactions throughout the school year encourages teachers to focus on goals like encouraging collaboration among students and piquing student curiosity as much as possible.

While Engel does provide convincing arguments as to why students would benefit from an education that develops the eight dispositions listed in the beginning, I’m still doubtful as to how feasible it would be to prioritize happiness in schools. At the end of the day, the current college and job application processes rely on measuring individual student achievement, which does not seem immediately compatible with Engel’s model. I am all for using Engel’s ideas in extracurricular programs (e.g. CodeIt), but it seems like other facets of society must change in order for parents and schools to truly feel comfortable embracing her suggestions.

College and Gender through Books

“One of the insights at the core of the college idea—indeed of the idea of community itself—has always been that to serve others is to serve oneself by providing a sense of purpose, thereby countering the loneliness and aimlessness by which all people, young and old, can be afflicted.”

from Andrew Delbanco’s College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be

Over the past two weeks, I’ve been spending more time reading books just for fun. It’s been a good reminder of how I can learn about other people’s perspectives on the world just by cracking open a book. I know I’m not great at writing book reviews, but I do know that articulating my thoughts helps me make better sense of books. So here goes the rambling…

College

Big Idea #1

The first book I finished reading last week was Andrew Delbanco’s College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be. Delbanco talks about how college as an entity first arose in the United States and how it has evolved since then. The message that really stuck with me, though, was the idea that colleges have done a great job of cementing socioeconomic inequality in the United States. A person’s chance at having a high-paying job is higher if he or she attends a brand name college or university. However, at the same time, the children who are most well-equipped for and most likely to be admitted to those institutions are children who already come from families that have a decently high income. These children can afford to attend quality schools and participate in extracurricular activities outside of the classroom. Thus, the people who are more likely to be effective change makers in struggling communities (i.e. people who themselves grew up in these communities) are the people who have significantly more hurdles to overcome to make those changes. According to Delbanco, “it is often students of lesser means for whom college means the most—not just in the measurable sense of improving their economic competitiveness, but in the intellectual and imaginative enlargement it makes possible.” I don’t have any solutions to this problem, but it does remind me to be thankful that I have the opportunity to attend such an incredible institution myself. I think it gives more meaning to all the time I dedicate running outreach programs and making sure they are accessible to as many students as possible.

Big Idea #2

Delbanco also brings up the idea of meritocracy, which was first coined by Michael Young in The Rise of the Meritocracy. Delbanco explains that we have become

a society “dedicated to the one overriding purpose of economic expansion,” in which “people are judged according to the single test of how much they increase production.” In such a society, “the scientist whose invention does the work of ten thousand, or the administrator who organizes clutches of technicians” is counted “among the great,” and intelligence is defined as “the ability to raise production, directly or indirectly.”

Especially at a school like MIT, this statement could not ring truer. But does it have to be that way? I feel myself trying to tear away from this definition of success and coming up with new ideas regarding what it means to live a meaningful life. I haven’t figured out the answer, and maybe I never will, but I definitely think it’s something worth thinking about it personally rather than blindly accepting someone else’s definition.

Gender

This past weekend, I finished reading If I Was Your Girl, a young adult novel written by Meredith Russo, a transgender woman. The book was written from the perspective of a teenage transgender girl, and it opened up my eyes to an entirely different world. It made me realize that it is quite a luxury to feel comfortable living in my own skin. I can only imagine how lonely, confusing, and frustrating it must feel growing up in a body that does not feel like your own and not having anyone around who can explain what you’re feeling. Anyway, the bottom line was that this book made me think about issues I never even knew existed. Although I am by no means an expert on any of this, I know more now than I knew a week ago.

I’m in the middle of another book right now called Symptoms of Being Human, which is told from the perspective of a gender fluid teenager. To be honest, Jeff Garvin’s novel has been a bit harder for me to understand since I’m still trying to wrap my head around the idea of gender fluidity. It is intriguing, though, to read the thoughts that go through the protagonist’s mind, and hopefully, by the end of the novel, I will have a better understanding of the protagonist’s view on identity.

P.S. Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but the protagonists in both If I Was Your Girl and Symptoms of Being Human seem to have a special attachment to the Star Wars saga. Maybe it’s about time I actually watch those movies…

The Upside of Irrationality for Learning

People are irrational creatures. As much as we might like to say that we always make rational decisions, this simply is not true. I’m in the middle of reading Dan Ariely’s book The Upside of Irrationality, and I thought I would share some of my insights regarding how understanding people’s irrational tendencies can make us better teachers and learners.

Ariely conducted an experiment to test what he calls the IKEA effect. His hypothesis was that when people put in the effort to create things (e.g. when they put together their own IKEA furniture), they attribute more value to their creation. Without going into the details of the actual experiment, I can tell you that the IKEA effect indeed exists. Teachers can take advantage of this phenomenon by giving students more control over their learning, thus providing them with more ownership over the material.

In a separate study, Ariely also found that when people are required to spend more effort on a particular task, they attribute more value to the final product. However, if the task is tricky to a point that the person does not complete the product, then the attributed value drops to below that of an easier but finished product. This finding supports the idea that students learn best when in the zone of proximal development (ZPD). In other words, we should be aiming to provide students with tasks that are just outside the bounds of the students’ current abilities, but that can be completed with some guidance from the teacher. The amount of expected guidance from the teacher is important to consider, however, because as mentioned previously, students should still feel like they contributed significantly to the completion of the task.

These ideas about teaching are by no means revolutionary. However, I thought it was an interesting exercise to consider how people’s irrational behavior can explain why certain teaching techniques may be effective.