Sunday, June 30, 2013


My school teaches students in a one-to-one classroom; one teacher, one student.  Doesn't this sound awesome?  From the teaching perspective, you can customize every lesson to the student and be sure they're really learning.  From the student perspective, you won't have to sit while the teacher's instruction outpaces your focus or interest.

We had an IEP meeting for one of our students and we were trying to convince the local school board that this student was making dramatic progress with us and thus his needs were being met.  The moderator said "who wouldn't make progress in a one-to-one classroom!"  And this got me thinking.  I wouldn't.  I would have HATED a one-to-one environment as a student.  I didn't like to be the object of too much intense teacher concentration (and really, we can be overly intense sometimes).  I liked to sit back and evaluate what the teacher said before deciding to accept or reject it.  I liked to have a little freedom and control over how I took my notes and whether or not my mind drifted during class.  I liked the opportunity to work with other students- our collective energy was so much more powerful than mine alone.

As a teacher, I'm not a huge fan of one-to-one either.  First of all, while "classroom management" is easier (this is a pretty silly word to use for one-to-one) it can also be more difficult because there's no escaping personality conflicts.  It's easier to get locked into battles of will (I avoid these like I would avoid Mexican food in NY- sorry guys, it's terrible)  but I've noticed these types of intense, pride posturing battles in classrooms near mine.  There are no other students near by to say "hey dude, chill out" and there's no one the teacher can turn to to exchange a sympathetic look with or to share a joke with to relieve the tension.  This leads to my biggest complaint against one-to-one.  It assumes that the teacher can teach all the student needs to learn.  THIS ISN'T TRUE!  Students learn so much more from each other.  The teacher can present content and establish a respectful and fun classroom culture, but the students sustain the culture, teach each other how to act, give each other support and encouragement, joke to relieve tension, boredom or frustration, and reinterpret the content in different ways so that their classmates can see it from multiple perspectives.  Learning is both a solitary and group endeavor.

So I know not many people have one-to-one classroom environments so this doesn't really matter to many besides me BUT I've been reading a little bit about the advent of personalized learning software.  It seems that since the whole constructivist approach to teaching math, where everyone had to learn everything in groups, hasn't really shown huge gains, there's a movement to go in the opposite direction.  Personalized learning software seems like it's going somewhere.  Knewton, a personalized learning software developer based in NY, and Pearson are teaming up to bring customized, competency-based learning to as many students as possible.  I think their vision of the future will be students sitting at home, in coffee shops, in libraries or even in classrooms, logging in to their program and getting a wholly customized learning experience.  The Knewton software amasses student data and has an algorithm that decides when a student is ready to move on to new material, and what that new material will be.  This is exactly like what I'm doing right now, except without the teacher.

Here's what I see happening:

  1. computers probably aren't smart enough to do this yet.  I don't know if they ever will be.  I have an Algebra student who asked me if numbers go on forever.  We had a nice side discussion on the nature of number and infinity which he understood.  His abstract reasoning capabilities have far outpaced his computational competence so he asks really good, deep math questions and understands the answers even when he struggles with adding fractions.  I can satisfy his deeper curiosity while still drilling him on basic arithmetic.  A program would decide that he's not ready for anything beyond basic computation. 
  2. I do believe that school is about more than learning content.  I think that learning to work cooperatively is important.  Learning to share a joke to relieve stress is important.  Learning how to speak up for yourself to an authority figure is important.  Socialization is important.  Maybe this just makes me old fashioned.  But having people by your side makes learning more fun too.  
  3. Peers push you to accomplish more than you can by yourself.  This is a problem I've seen in one-to-one teaching- that it's so much harder to motivate a student to study independently or to work on projects.  When there's no one to share it with, no peer audience, teenagers shut down and disengage.  Duh!  Even teenagers with special needs (we teach a lot of students with severe social anxiety) need peers to support them.  Even if you place kids in the same classrooms to use these educational technologies, they won't be learning the same content so won't be able to support or motivate each other effectively.  
  4. Finally, if you allow students to do the work at home, I think cheating will become the norm.  I think it already is.  A coworker of mine (a teacher!) admitted to me that she takes all of her sisters' online tests for her because her sister is an athlete and doesn't need school.  
Can't we find a middle ground?  There is never going to be one model that works for everyone, but we all deserve to experience different types of learning.  I may not like one-to-one learning because it makes me uncomfortable, but I went in to see my professors to get help on papers and it was good for me.  We all need a mix of different experiences.  We need technology and classrooms and individualized instruction and games and textbooks and teachers.  Why can't technology make our classrooms richer and more full of different kinds of learning?  Why is it a choice between classrooms or personalized learning?  Can't we recognized that there are good things about classrooms?  Why are we so obsessed with "or"?  Why not and?  Knewton and Pearson might say though that they are offering an "and" option.  That this is meant to enrich teachers' curricula not replace them, but I'm suspicious that this is just another way to devalue teachers' professionalism.  I read an article in Newsweek (I think but of course I can't find it now) where the head of one of these personalized software companies admitted that he didn't employ any educators on staff.  And Pearson, based on what I've seen of their textbooks, doesn't know that much about teaching either.