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In Which Checker Finn and I Part Company (Again), This Time Over (De)Personalized Learning

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Back in the days when I was on the Dark side, ensconced in the well-funded right side of the political spectrum, I was very close to Checker Finn. Checker and I were like brother and sister. We wrote a book together. We wrote essays and manifestos together. We laughed together. Our families were friends.

One thing we always agreed on: students should have much more than the basics of reading and math. We criticized NCLB for its limited focus on reading and math and nothing more. We believed that students should have classes in history and literature taught by superb teachers. We were strong advocates for the humanities, and we even organized conferences promoting the humanities.

So, imagine my surprise when I saw that Checker recently endorsed computer-based instruction! Aka “personalized” learning, which I call depersonalized learning.

Checker wrote:

“I am 200 percent in favor of personalized learning, defined as enabling every child to move through the prescribed curriculum at his or her own speed, progressing on the basis of individual mastery of important skills and knowledge rather than in lockstep according to age, grade level, and end-of-year assessments. (I’m 200 percent opposed to the “let everyone learn whatever they want to whenever they want to learn it” version.)

“There is nothing beneficial to kids about declaring that every ten-year-old belongs in something called “fifth grade” and that all will proceed to “sixth grade” when they get a year older, get passing marks from their teachers, and perform acceptably on “grade-level” tests at year’s end.

“That’s not how it worked in the one-room schoolhouses of yesteryear, and it’s oblivious to the many ways that children differ from each other, the ways their modes and rates of learning differ, how widely their starting achievement levels differ, and how their interests, brains, and outside circumstances often cause them to learn different subjects at unequal speeds—and to move faster and slower, deeper or shallower, at different points in their lives, even at different points within a “school year.””

Checker is now a member of the Maryland Board of Education. So he is not just theorizing.

I wrote a note to Checker, whom I have seldom seen in the past eight years:

“Dear Checker,

“Despite our ideological and political differences, I do love you. I always will.

“That said, I could not disagree more with your article about children being taught by computers. We used to write articles and even a book together about the importance of the humanities, of humane teaching and learning. You know, I know, that children will never learn to love history and English from a computer. They get turned on by a teacher who loves literature, loves history and is passionate about sharing it with students.

“You went to a great school with teachers like that and small classes. Didn’t you sit around a table, just 12 of you, and discuss and listen and learn? Didn’t you send both your kids to the same kind of schools? Why would you want other people’s kids plunked in front of a computer all day? That’s not the kind of education we once believed in and advocated for.


I warned him that I planned to blog about his endorsement of computer-based instruction.

Checker responded:

“The main answer is that you misread my case for personalized learning as if it consists of strapping kids to a computer and having them learn only that way. I never said or wrote that and I don’t think it. The technology–“blended learning” style–can be a huge assist to the teacher, school and pupil and liberates the kids in part from the disadvantages of “batch processing.” One thing I’ve learned in recent years is that even high priced private schools with small classes are NOT always good at dealing with the educational needs of gifted kids and others who for whatever reason don’t fit in with the current lesson plan. Some gifted teachers manage differentiation much better than others but it’s really hard to do and the wider the spread within the class (and of course the larger the class) the harder it is to do. Technology can help a bunch but it’s not INSTEAD of teachers; it’s a supplement.

“Best, Checker”

If all he meant was to use computers in the classroom, that’s a duh moment. That’s nothing new! What is being sold these days as “personalized learning” is the use of technology for embedded instruction and assessment, all while data-mining. As New York Commissioner MaryEllen Elia once explained at a meeting of NYSAPE members that I arranged, annual tests will no longer be needed when assessments are embedded, and students are continuously assessed. That’s personalized learning: moving at your own speed through a scripted curriculum.

At best, we have a misunderstanding. At worst, Checker will lend his considerable influence to methods that will standardize teaching, remove the need for great teachers, demoralize teachers, and subvert the teaching of the humanities.

Sad. So sad.

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