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A primer for Mark Zuckerberg on personalized learning — by Harvard’s Howard Gardner

In this undated photo provided by Mark Zuckerberg, Max Chan Zuckerberg is held by her parents, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan Zuckerberg. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife announced the birth of their daughter, Max, as well as plans to donate most of their wealth to a new organization that will tackle a broad range of the world’s ills. (Mark Zuckerberg via AP)
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The world now knows that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, are going to over time donate 99 percent of the Facebook stock they own to “advance human potential and promote equality for all children,” a pledge they made this week as they announced the birth of their daughter, Max.

In a letter to Max, Zuckerberg and Chan explained how investments in education would be part of their philanthropy, and they said:

Our experience with personalized learning, internet access, and community education and health has shaped our philosophy.
Our generation grew up in classrooms where we all learned the same things at the same pace regardless of our interests or needs.
Your generation will set goals for what you want to become — like an engineer, health worker, writer or community leader. You’ll have technology that understands how you learn best and where you need to focus. You’ll advance quickly in subjects that interest you most, and get as much help as you need in your most challenging areas. You’ll explore topics that aren’t even offered in schools today. Your teachers will also have better tools and data to help you achieve your goals.
Even better, students around the world will be able to use personalized learning tools over the internet, even if they don’t live near good schools. Of course it will take more than technology to give everyone a fair start in life, but personalized learning can be one scalable way to give all children a better education and more equal opportunity.
We’re starting to build this technology now, and the results are already promising. Not only do students perform better on tests, but they gain the skills and confidence to learn anything they want. And this journey is just beginning. The technology and teaching will rapidly improve every year you’re in school.
Your mother and I have both taught students and we’ve seen what it takes to make this work. It will take working with the strongest leaders in education to help schools around the world adopt personalized learning. It will take engaging with communities, which is why we’re starting in our San Francisco Bay Area community. It will take building new technology and trying new ideas. And it will take making mistakes and learning many lessons before achieving these goals.

The San Francisco Bay mention was a reference to their plans to open a private, tuition-free school for low-income children in East Palo Alto, Calif., that will educate children and provide health care and support for families. As for learning from mistakes, Zuckerberg’s last foray into school reform was a $100 million gift he made to Newark Public Schools that failed to produce the kind of dramatic reform he had sought, in part, critics said, because community members were not asked to participate in making critical decisions about how to change the system.

Now Zuckerberg and Chan are intent on putting big money into their idea of “personalized learning,” which conjures different things to different people. Here’s an open letter to Zuckerberg and Chan from Howard Gardner, the world-renowned Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, about personalized learning and how they might want to look at it for maximum effect.

Gardner revolutionized the fields of psychology and education more than 30 years ago when he published his 1983 book “Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences,” which detailed a new model of human intelligence that went beyond the traditional view that there was a single kind that could be measured by standardized tests. (You can read his account of how he came up with the theory here.) He is also the co-founder and senior director of Project Zero, an educational research group at Harvard composed of multiple, independently sponsored research projects with the aim of understanding and enhancing high-level thinking and learning across disciplines.  He is the author of  numerous books on intelligence and creativity, including an updated version of his ground-breaking book, called “Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons.”

To Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan:
As one who has long urged a more personalized form of education, I am delighted that you and your wife Priscilla Chan have pledged to give away 99 percent of your Facebook holdings; and that you have prioritized “personalized learning” in the queue of philanthropic priorities. As I use the term, personalized learning addresses each learner specifically—rather than relying on generic approaches, the so-called ‘one size fits all’ model.
Even if there were such an entity as the ‘average person,’ it’s clear that many of us are not average; a generic approach to education will only suit a small minority of learners. The rest of us, with more jagged profiles or idiosyncratic strengths and weaknesses, are left to fend for ourselves. Indeed, after I, as a psychologist, developed the theory of multiple intelligences, over 30 years ago, I realized that this psychological theory had profound implications for how teaching and learning can take place—for every teacher, every learner, and now, I would add, every app.
Yet a commitment to individualization or personalization is but the first step (and all too often, it is only a rhetorical step). One then has to determine on what basis the individualization takes place. With respect to your daughter Max (congratulations, or, if I may, mazel tov!) I can envision at least four possibilities:
Of course, one would not have to approach individuals through their area of intellectual strength. One might even try to bolster a weak intelligence—but such an approach should be adopted intentionally and not by accident.
There are many other types and approaches to individual differences—for example, through personality or through membership in cultural or social groups. They are not mutually exclusive—for instance, one could look both at favored contents (Max loves to visit the aquarium and recognizes all kinds of sea creatures) and at profiles of intelligences (she is strong in musical, spatial, and naturalist intelligences). I look forward to seeing which facets of individual differences you choose to focus on and, importantly, whether learning and—as important—love of learning are thereby achieved.