Personalized learning is more than an edtech marketing term. It requires good teachers.

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Boys and girl use computers at a table while teacher observes.
 (Kudryavtsev Pavel/iStock)

Copyright© 2022 by Susan Linn. This excerpt originally appeared in “Who's Raising the Kids?: Big Tech, Big Business, and the Lives of Children,” published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.

Marketers are notoriously good at identifying societal trends or movements and co-opting the words used to describe them to attract buyers for whatever they’re selling. Take the word “green,” which was adopted by environmentalists in the early 1970s as shorthand for relating to or supporting the natural world. As the environmental movement gained traction, marketing experts began warning corporations that they’d better win “the loyalty of the growing legions of green consumers.” Green morphed into a common marketing buzzword employed even by fossil fuel companies and airlines, which are notorious for their harmful impact on the environment. Green was such a misused descriptor that in 1986 an environmental scientist named Jay Westerveld coined the term greenwashing: the practice of companies advertising their products and practices as environmentally beneficial when they verifiably are not.

Who's Raising the Kids? book coverI found myself thinking a lot about greenwashing as I researched edtech products and kept encountering the term “personalized learning” in their marketing. It’s currently a tagline used to market edtech programs like Prodigy [a math game] that are designed for kids to use on their own without input from teachers. The term is used to maximize the use of digital technologies in children’s learning. In doing so, it minimizes, and even dismisses, the central importance of teachers to the learning process. 

In fact, research shows that teachers are essential to effective “personalized,” or “personal,” learning — whether kids are using edtech materials or not. As Alfie Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards and other books about education, said in Psychology Today: “[true personal learning requires] the presence of a caring teacher who knows each child well” and “works with each child to create projects of intellectual discovery that reflect his or her unique needs and interests.”

In reality, “personalized” or “personal” learning predates edtech by decades. Like the word green, it’s been corrupted by the marketing industry’s practice of exploiting a social movement — in this instance, the theories and practices of progressive education — and using it to sell products that have little to do with and are antithetical to the original meaning of the term. 

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The meaning of “personalized learning” is rooted in research and practice pointing to the following conclusions: Children have an innate drive to learn, and how they learn best varies from child to child. Kids are not passive, empty vessels waiting to be filled with facts but rather active, innately curious explorers. 

Two concepts connected with progressive education’s version of personalized learning are particularly intriguing to me. One is “constructing knowledge” and the other is “making meaning.” The phrase “constructing knowledge” evokes a vision of kids actively participating in learning and that what they’ve learned serves as a foundation on which to build their understanding of new information they encounter. Meanwhile, the term “making meaning” describes the human drive to understand, make sense of, and relate to whatever they encounter. In education, making meaning suggests that real, usable learning occurs when children grasp a concept so deeply that they can actively apply what they learn in one context to challenges that arise in another context.

If you want to experience children constructing knowledge and making meaning, you might want to hang out for a while with newly verbal young children as they encounter the world. They often narrate thought processes that older children have learned to keep internal. When my daughter was a toddler, for instance, she encountered a black olive for the very first time. After studying it a while, she looked up and announced, “This is not a grape!” She’d encountered something new (the olive) and, on her own, felt compelled to understand what it was. She searched through her twenty-two or so months of life experience for clues to make sense of it until she found one. While she did not know what it was (an olive), she at least knew what it was not (a grape)! 

My understanding of personalized learning also comes from teaching in a play-based preschool. And my daughter’s experience attending a play-based preschool reinforced my belief in its value. In each instance, kids had access to materials like books, art supplies, blocks, sand, water, dress-up clothes, and special projects that, for the most part, they could explore in their own time, depending on their interests. Children’s involvement with the materials was driven by their interests and inclinations, but teachers were always available to join in, advise, supervise, stand back, observe, or help kids reflect on their experience. 

A 2019 report from the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado is a sweeping condemnation of the edtech version of personalized learning. It found “questionable educational assumptions embedded in influential programs, self interested advocacy by the technology industry, serious threats to student privacy, and a lack of research support.” 

Thinking about the “questionable educational assumptions” embedded in Prodigy leads me directly to the popular phenomenon of gamification, or gamified learning, which applies some of the more addictive features of video games to subjects taught in school. These can include badges, levels, digital prizes, competition, and variable rewards. 

Gamified edtech products are a lucrative business these days. Globally, game-based learning is expected to garner $29.7 billion in 2026, up from $11 billion in 2021. The rationale proponents often give for gamifying education is that kids like video games and sustain their interest in them for hours at a time. It makes sense, the reasoning goes, to transfer the gaming features that keep kids glued to screens to classroom teaching and learning. And, since these products are games, and games connote play, it also makes marketing sense to link these products to the robust evidence that play is the foundation of intellectual exploration and crucial life-enriching abilities such as problem-solving, reasoning, literacy, social skills, creativity, and self-regulation. 

One obvious difference is that when products lean heavily on external motivations like competition and virtual prizes, they teach kids to dismiss the value of experience and they promote the value of acquisition. In contrast, the kind of play that facilitates children’s learning, growth, and development is its own reward. It’s a deeply satisfying experience in and of itself. Opportunities for actual play-based learning help kids learn that the world is an intriguing place and that exploring it and figuring things out are both interesting and valuable in and of themselves. 

It’s understandable that when the pandemic forced schools all over the world to rush headlong into educating children remotely, decisions about edtech were made without much time to think them through. But, under normal circumstances, it’s in the best interest of children that we all, including teachers, administrators, and school boards, approach edtech offerings with healthy skepticism. And, like any materials used in schools, edtech programs, platforms, and devices should be free of any features that exploit kids for profit. 

Susan Linn
Susan Linn

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Susan Linn is a psychologist, award-winning ventriloquist, and a world-renowned expert on creative play and the impact of media and commercial marketing on children. She was the Founding Director of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (now called Fairplay) and is currently research associate at Boston Children’s Hospital and lecturer on psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. She is the author of Consuming Kids, The Case for Make Believe, and Who’s Raising the Kids? Her website is https://www.consumingkids.com.