Did you know that later this year you’ll be able to send information about your sweat profile, including photos of a disposable “sweat patch” taken after 30 minutes of exercise to Gatorade, and they will formulate a “customized hydration beverage,” Gx, just for you? Due to advancements in science and technology, customized products like Gx are are on the rise across multiple industries, including personal care products such as shampoo, skin cream, and vitamins. I read about these new products in the April 18, 2019 print edition of the Wall Street Journal article, The Age of Personalized Everything, by Ellen Byron. As research evolves, scientists are proving what we intuitively have known for some time: human beings are unique and therefore one size does not fit all.
However, what strikes me is how in our “Age of Personalized Everything,” a vital industry to our nation’s long-term success -- K-12 education -- is often reluctant to fully embrace personalization, and instead opts to tinker on the periphery giving every student a personal computing device and automating traditional practices. Why is this disparity occuring? I’m guessing the skeptics will say that personalizing consumer products is a relatively low stakes endeavor compared to K-12 education and for a while I had the same thought. My evidence for this “high stakes” hypothesis was the higher incidence of innovation I saw in K-8 schools where the stakes are perceived as lower compared to high school when students’ grades are going on their permanent record (transcripts) and college admission is on the line.
However, when I started to think about other high stakes industries, like medicine, this hypothesis was negated. Treating cancer, where the result is often a matter of life or death, has the highest stakes. It’s precisely because the stakes are so high that people are willing to try anything, even if the likelihood of success is minimal or unknown, especially when other treatments have failed. Advances in cancer and DNA research and rapidly increasing computing power that enables researchers to quickly sift through reams of treatment data from clinical trials around the globe is leading to life-saving personalized cancer treatments.
According to a Jan. 26, 2018 US. News article,
“One size doesn't fit all is a tenet of personalized medicine, also called precision medicine. Even within a single type of cancer, tumor types differ from one patient to another. It makes sense that treatment should be individualized, as well.”
Furthermore, the National Institutes of Health have embarked on an ambitious and
“historic research program, All of Us, to gather data from one million or more people living in the United States to accelerate research and improve health. By taking into account individual differences in lifestyle, environment, and biology, researchers will uncover paths toward delivering precision medicine.”
As medical science advances, there is an expectation that medical professionals, as a whole, will leverage the new research and apply it to treating patients. I question if there is the same expectation related to advances in the science of learning and the brain. Is the new research making it into the hands and minds of the professionals -- administrators and teachers -- in the field? If so, how is the research influencing school design? If not, why not?
Specifically, if we’re willing to personalize in both low and high stakes industries, why is there so much reluctance to personalize education and fully make the transition from school-centered to learner-centered education? As with most large systems involving people, the reasons are complex. However, I believe there are a few key obstacles impeding our transition to learner-centered schools.
Affinity for the familiar or its corollary, fear of the unknown.
People are creatures of habit. There is comfort and safety in the familiar that is difficult to resist. School, as we know it, is rooted in over a century of traditions. When we break with tradition, it can seem uncomfortable or even wrong. Even when we know the current system has shortcomings, we are often reluctant to pursue an option that is unfamiliar or viewed as unproven. An option’s novelty, by definition, requires one to do research to understand if it is a better option. Many can’t or don’t want to take the time or effort to do this research. Following the perceived path of least resistance is human nature.
Consequently, the compelling reasons why change is necessary in order to unleash all learners’ potential need to be made visible to all stakeholders -- parents, students, educators, business and community members -- repeatedly and relentlessly. We cannot over-communicate the value and positive outcomes of learner-centered education. Even when you think you just can’t talk about it anymore and everyone surely must have heard the message, you must say it again. Until learner-centered education is the status quo, the message has to be enthusiastically repeated.
The traditional system rewards compliance and conformity.
Being unique in a standardized education system creates unwanted complexity and as a result often carries a stigma. Through the years, “adjustments” to the system have been made to accommodate some differences such as programs for those determined to be gifted and talented and those with special needs, but the individual has never been fully embraced. Whereas personalization is viewed as cutting-edge and positive for sports drinks, shampoo, and medicine, it’s problematic for most schools. Furthermore, when a person doesn’t fit the mold of the traditional education system, the implication is the person needs to change. The message routinely delivered, explicitly and implicitly, is that the system is “working” for the majority of the population. However, it doesn’t take much investigating to see that this premise is a facade intended to perpetuate the status quo. As no one is standard or average, the system provides a less than ideal fit for all. The unfortunate result is a needless squandering of talent that doesn’t fit the mold. As a nation, we cannot afford to squander any talent.
Complex systems require multiple levers to change in concert.
Where learner-centered change efforts run into trouble is not supporting the change through three keys levers simultaneously. As described in iNACOL’s Quality Principles for Competency Education, the key components or levers of an education system include: “purpose and culture, pedagogy, and structure.” Too often, the levers are acted upon separately in an effort to minimize the complexity of the change and with the intent of making it easier for people involved in the change effort. For example, schools might change their assessment structure by introducing Standards Based Grading, but don’t address the significant cultural changes for students, parents, and teachers necessary to effectively implement this change. As a result, the change effort fails and reinforces the perspective that the new way was “bad” and the status quo is better.
Systems are designed to deliver the results they get. The traditional system is not broken. It’s delivering the results of efficiently sorting students into cohorts who are “above average” and bound for management and those who are “average” and destined for factory jobs as designed by the Committee of Ten to fuel the Industrial Age. The issue is that this result is obsolete. The world has moved on and the result we now need is education that unleashes all learners’ potential in order to solve the complex, open-ended challenges facing our world today. However, we continue to tweak the existing system and convince ourselves that we’re preparing all students to be college and career-ready when the system was never designed to do this. If we want different results from our education system, and I think most would agree we do, then we have to re-design all components of the system, keeping the end result in mind.
Changing a school’s culture is probably the most difficult of the three components to accomplish, especially, at an existing school. Cultures are shaped by long-standing beliefs and values (see points one and two above) which must be scrutinized under bright lights in order to determine those that are compatible with a learner-centered model and those that must be modified or shed. Culture change is relatively easier for a new, small school as it has the benefit of attracting students and staff who share the organization’s “why,” but it still requires great intentionality and continuous care and feeding. I understand this reality first hand as we are creating a culture that supports learner-centered education at Pathways High. We’re still in the early stages, but the outcomes for students and staff, including higher engagement and ownership of learning, are promising and inspiring. The hard work is paying off.
If the experiences of other industries as well as our experience at Pathways High has shown us anything it’s that personalization can and does drive positive outcomes. Will you join us?