You can’t have a conversation about education reform these days without, at some point, hearing the words “personalization” and “engagement.” What do they really mean? Here to explain is George Wood, superintendent and secondary school principal at the Federal Hocking Local School District in Stewart, Ohio.  He is also the executive director of the Forum for Education and Democracy and chair of the board for the Coalition of Essential Schools. This appeared on the forum’s blog.

By George Wood

“Personalization” and “engagement” seem to be the new catchwords in education reform these days.  Too bad the concepts are not credited to the person who first talked about them.  It was the late Ted Sizer —  in the Common Principles that he developed for the Coalition of Essential Schools  — who pushed for personalized learning environments that engaged young learners. These days, he is seldom mentioned when these terms are rolled out.

There may be a good reason for that. As polite as Ted always was, I think he might object rather passionately to the way “personalization” is being tossed around today.

I was reminded of this while attending a workshop this past week on using technological tools to “personalize” student learning.  The speaker felt that it might be appropriate to give examples of such personalization. He cited the way Amazon offers you other books or items you might like based on your last purchase; how Apple will customize the computer you purchase; or how the grocery store offers you coupons at checkout for your favorite items.

This isn’t personalization—it is just marketing.  Think of how little this actually has to do with personalization.  It has nothing to do with the consumer as an individual. The very same choices of books on Amazon, storage space on the Apple, and discounts on groceries will be offered to thousands, if not millions, of consumers every day.  It does not matter if this is a one-time purchase, a whim, a gift, or an errand you are running for someone else.  This type of personalization is based on a prototypical consumer, not the individual actually standing at the checkout.

Further, this marketing approach is about creating, not satisfying, a need.  The goal is to get the individual to part with money or, shall we say, capital.  It does not create wealth, or personal capital, for the consumer–only for the vendor.

Finally, this type of marketing stratifies consumers.  Based on prior purchases or ability to pay, more choices or options are offered.  To the wealthy go the spoils in the form of even more ways to spend cash.

Personalization in the classroom is something very different.  Allow me a different metaphor:  the good fishing guide.

Sorry, but I go fly-fishing a lot, so most of my stories come from the water.  When I go to new water I usually hire a guide.  I figure that he or she has a lot of local knowledge and can teach me how to navigate some unknown territory.  I also want to keep learning about the craft of fly-fishing and figure someone who does it for a living might know a few things I could learn.

I am frequently asked what I look for in a guide, and the answer is pretty simple.  My first question to a prospective guide is,  “What will the day look like?”  I know I have found a good guide if she tells me we are first going to go somewhere and try out the water.  This is code for, “I am going to take you somewhere where there are very few trees or other casting problems and where I know there were fish yesterday and see what you can do.  Then I will figure out our day.

Here is what that good guide does:  She looks at my fishing gear and makes a quick fix if the line shows some wear. Then she chooses a fly (usually one of her own) and sets me to work.  Pointing out a spot where fish are likely to be rising, the guide tells me to see if I can cast a fly over that target. Then she’ll step back and watch.  She may even walk up the bank a ways to act like she is checking out another spot–she isn’t, she’s checking on me.

After a bit of observation, the lesson begins.  Maybe there is something about my casting that needs to be adjusted. Perhaps she will show me another way to read the water, or dig into my fly box for something that turns over just right in today’s conditions.  But every single suggestion, idea, move, or thought, is about who I am as a fisherman in the conditions I face that day.

This is personalization.

It occurs when a teacher watches and learns about her pupil. She then observes the conditions for learning. She understands what the objective is (catch and release a bunch of trout to make me happy). She has a wide range of tactics (from teaching strategies, to different materials, to even different learning sites if we change rivers) at her fingertips. Finally, she knows that tomorrow’s client may be as different as the weather conditions can be.

The personalization of learning is not just pretending kids have choices in what they are going to learn. Rather, it is building environments in which teachers have the time and skill to know their students and can adjust the pace, the materials, and the surroundings so they can meet the needs of all learners.