Don’t standardize education, personalize it

I just finished reading Ken Robinson’s book The Element. The title comes from the idiom of someone being in his or her “element.” The book is filled with stories of people who have discovered and followed their passions.

Here are a couple quotes from the book regarding standardized education.

The fact is that given the challenges we face, education doesn’t need to be reformed — it needs to be transformed. The key to this transformation is not to standardize education but to personalize it, to build achievement on discovering the individual talents of each child, to put students in an environment where they want to learn and where they can naturally discover their true passions.

Learning happens in the minds and souls of individuals — not in the databases of multiple-choice tests. I doubt there are many children who leap out of bed in the morning wondering what they can do to raise the reading score for their state. Learning is a personal process …

Here is a talk (link died) Ken Robinson gave at TED in 2006 that led to his writing The Element. The video is entertaining as well as thought-provoking.

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11 thoughts on “Don’t standardize education, personalize it

  1. As someone who has studied education policy quite a bit, I feel the need to attach all sorts of qualifications to this argument.
    1. Not everyone can make a living following their early passions.
    2. Many people in this country, even adults, struggle with reading because their schools and parents didn’t focus enough attention on making sure they learned it when they were young.
    3. We can have more standardization (of a certain type) and more personalization at the same time.

  2. I agree that a certain type of standardization is not incompatible with personalization. My objection isn’t so much to a standard curriculum (if it’s a sensible curriculum) but to standardized testing. Schools should emphasize the most basic skills, like reading; it’s hard to get very far pursuing any passion if you lack basic skills. But within a framework of teaching basic skills, much more could be done to develop individual gifts.

    Robinson’s book mostly gives examples of people who had talents that didn’t fit into the academic grid. But education can also fail those who do well in it. As I argued in this post, education can discourage creativity and encourage perfectionism.

  3. I think all schools must have standards that they all agree upon and its up to them how to teach these in a personalized manner in their classrooms.

  4. In today’s academic world you can’t personalize education. If you have a class of 275 students and you try to personalize a learner experience you will be killed in your course evaluation. We have to have in mind the selfish nature of human beings, specially under pressure.

  5. Hector, I agree that personalized education doesn’t fit well with our industrial-style education system. But that could be an argument for moving away from an industrial education model instead of giving up on personalized education.

  6. I disagree. Without standardization there is no point giving diplomas or degrees. They mean nothing and become arbitrary without a curriculum to back them. And yes, even the grades you get are a measure of your comprehension of that curriculum. Advocating for personalization is like arguing for the abandonment of education all together without risking the implication that someone might be unqualified as a consequence.

  7. As with so many other discussions and debates, it all depends on our definitions. Just what do we mean by “personalization” or “standardization”? John clarified his definition somewhat – but not fully – when he wrote:

    “My objection isn’t so much to a standard curriculum (if it’s a sensible curriculum) but to standardized testing.”

    Does “standardized” mean an agreed-upon body of information – a canon of literature, facts and figures, names and dates – that makes one “educated”? I for one feel that such a canon is necessary. But we still have no agreed-upon definition of “personalized.”

  8. Sorry I missed this post (I linked here from educational monoculture) . I’ve been harboring similar sentiments for some time now, and I’m glad that respectable people are sharing them.

    Regarding CogitoErgoCogitoSum’s comment:
    “Without standardization there is no point giving diplomas or degrees.” Consider the PhD degree; this award is given on the basis of unique achievement, not mastery of standardized curriculum. Are we to believe that seeking the hightest academic degree is pointless? On a more synical and unfortunate note, there are plenty of financial and political incentives to giving diplomas and degrees, regardless of whether learning or achievement has occurred.

  9. scrap tests (or at least, grades) and find a way to reinstantiate mentor/apprentice relationships. (“Internships” are a very faint echo of this).

    Let the mentors be the ‘diploma’. I’d rather hear about my prospective hire from a living, breathing, working, respected fellow worker in a field, than see some “summa cum laude” on a keyword-marinated CV.

  10. Amy Connelly Dawson

    I do not agree that we can “can’t personalize education” or that “Without standardization there is not point giving diplomas or degrees”. Education can be personalized and learners accountable for knowledge gained. We can’t continue to educate our children with a “one size fits all” model.

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