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Personalizing flipped engagement

7 min read


Will Richardson

Three words seem to be dancing around in my head of late when it comes to current thinking about education: “personalization,” “engagement” and “flip.” All three were on display on the vendor floor and in session rooms at last week’s International Society for Technology in Education conference in San Diego, one of the largest ed tech conferences in the world attended by upward of 18,000 people.

At first blush, they are words that seem to promote a vision of better learning for kids. But as is so often the case in education, I’m not sure we as a community are spending enough time digging to parse what those words really mean, especially in the context of what deep learning now requires in a connected world.

Let’s set some of that context first. The Web has changed or is changing just about everything when it comes to how we think about the ways in which we communicate, collaborate and create. It’s had an enormous effect on media, business, politics and journalism, and its effect on education — both higher ed and K-12 — is beginning to be felt in earnest. Our kids (and we ourselves) are suddenly walking around with access to the sum of human knowledge in our pockets and connections to literally millions of potential teachers. It’s a dramatic shift that requires new literacies to navigate all that access and, importantly, new dispositions to take advantage of it for learning.

At this sudden moment of abundance, I totally get why we want to “personalize” education for each child. We can truly individualize the classroom by using data-driven platforms to continually assess and track progress through any given curriculum and provide the most relevant content or resources to any given learner based on specific needs or learning styles. Personalization promises better student achievement and, I believe, a more effective delivery method than any one teacher with 25 or 30 students in a classroom can compete with. It’s a no-brainer, right?

Well, I struggle with that picture on a couple of levels. First, ask just about any vendor of personalization technology what the intended outcome is and, with a little prodding, you’ll get to this: better test scores. And, if that’s what we value as the most important outcome of schooling, it’s hard to argue that we’re in the midst of a huge advance. But that’s not what I value in a world of abundance. Our systems and assessments assume that neither content nor access to teachers is widely available, and that we must deliver a proscribed, fairly narrow curriculum to each child because if they don’t have it in their heads when they need it, they will fail at the task. Technology and the Web has radically changed that concept.

We don’t need personalization as much as we need to promote and give opportunities for our kids to do personal learning. And while they come from the same root, those two words are vastly different. “Personalized” learning is something that we do to kids; “personal” learning is something they do for themselves. In a world where we can explore almost every interest or passion in depth on our own or with others, it’s crucially more important to have the dispositions and the skills to create our own educational opportunities, not be trained to wait for opportunities that someone else has selected for delivery.

Personalization comes at the expense of denying students opportunities to learn personally, forming the habits of mind and “network literacies” that will serve them much more effectively than most of the content knowledge that, as we know from experience, never gets applied in real life.

Similarly, the word “engagement” gets very little pushback in the conversation. Absolutely, I want my kids to be engaged in schools. But I marvel how that, in many schools I work with, the prevailing narrative seems to be that we can’t engage kids without technology, without a smartphone, tablet computer or some other multimedia device or tool. Countless studies are being conducted that will no doubt show that engagement is on the rise — at least in the short term. It’s as if engaging them in learning without technology has become this impossible task.

In a word, that’s bunk. If we can’t engage our kids in ideas and explorations that require no technology, then we have surely lost our way. Big questions, passion, personal interest are what should drive our use of technology, not the other way around. Can the Web and laptops, et al., support and expand intrinsic engagement for those parts of the world that interest us? Absolutely! But while a multimedia textbook on an iPad may be more engaging than the dog-eared paper one we’ve been handing out for decades, a textbook is still a textbook. You want to really engage kids? Give them opportunities to learn personally, to create their own texts and courses of study, and to pursue that learning with others in and out of the classroom who share a passion.

Finally, it seems like everything is being “flipped” these days — flipped classrooms, flipped teachers, flipped texts. For the uninitiated, the flipped concept suggests that we can now use technology to offload many of the more mundane classroom tasks — lectures primarily. It’s not hard to see the appeal, with the advent of Khan Academy and easy screencast-recording technology that allows any of us to give a lecture for homework and free up time for in-class problem-solving and discussion. But here’s the thing: flipping is nothing new, and as it stands, most flipping that I see doesn’t flip the most important switch that I’ve been discussing here — moving ownership of learning away from the teacher and more toward the student.

As a high-school English teacher, I was flipping in the classroom in 1983, having my students read the literature at home and come into class ready to discuss it. That was flipping the curriculum, but it still wasn’t flipping the control of the learning. By assigning the lecture at home, we’re still in charge of delivering the curriculum, just at a different time. From what I’ve seen, flipping doesn’t do much for helping kids become better learners in the sense of being able to drive their own education.

The larger point is this: This moment of huge disruption requires us to think deeply about our goals and practices as educators, and it requires us to think deeply about the language we use. Words matter. More importantly, our thinking about what we want our kids to learn and our changed roles in that process matters. I’m suggesting that right now, because of the Web and the plethora of new technologies, the best thing we can do for kids is empower them to make regular, important, thoughtful decisions about their own learning, what they learn and how they learn it, and to frame our use of language in that larger shift, not simply in the affordances for traditional curriculum delivery that the tools of the moment might bring.

Will Richardson is a parent, author, speaker and educator who has been writing about the intersection of social networks and learning for the past decade, most recently at His award-winning books and presentations worldwide have ignited rich conversations around relevant school reform in the context of the huge impact the Web and other technologies are having on our ability to connect and learn with one another.