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Personalized Learning Requires a Change of Thinking About Time

October 31, 2017

Earlier this month, Julia Freeland Fisher published a thought provoking article for the Christensen Institute Newsletter suggesting that personalized learning can only work if educators and policy makers shed their notions about time. Ms. Fisher notes that in many cases when an innovative technology is introduced, instead of replacing and old way of doing business the organization adds a new layer… in much the same way a bookkeeper who worked for me in the early 1980s persisted in keeping books in a handwritten ledger at the same time as she entered data on the “newfangled” computer. She writes about how this applies to schools who are introducing personalized learning:

This is especially true for traditional systems that may be aiming to adopt new approaches to teaching and learning but less willing to do away with legacy structures. Innovation theory shows us that in industry after industry, existing organizations often default to hybrid innovations that combine new technologies or approaches with old ways of doing business. Put differently, rather than actually making any real tradeoffs, organizations may start doing new things without stopping doing old things.

Ms. Fisher contends that personalized learning that is enhanced by technology will only work if schools abandon one of their deeply held legacies: the time paradigm.

Although schools may manage to add more time on the margins, personalized learning at scale will likely require a massive rethinking of how schools use time, alongside pursuing new efficiencies that can save time. I was reminded of this while reading Silicon Schools’ recent report on its past five years supporting new and redesigned schools in the California Bay Area. In it, the fund’s leaders share actionable insights about the promise and pitfalls of personalized approaches. Among these takeaways, the word “time” appears a total of 39 times in the report’s 27 pages.

Specifically, the report highlights a vital reality on the ground: how schools use time is a balancing act. The report enumerates tradeoffs schools personalizing learning have had to weigh: how much time students should spend working on their own versus in groups; how much time students should be in front of screens versus offline; how much time students should work on content that is at versus above their current instructional level.

Ms. Fisher outlines several ways time can be used more efficiently and different kinds of software products that can facilitate the different uses of time. But ultimately, Ms. Fisher’s advocacy for changing the time paradigm falls short of the mark in one important aspect: she still implies that time will be constant for learners batched in age cohorts. If schools want to truly personalize learning they will need to abandon the legacy structure that insists on grouping students in age cohorts and having them complete curricula based on moving in a lockstep time frame based on objectives linked to those cohorts. Technology makes this possible… but the mental model of the factory school must be abandoned before it can take place.

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