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

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

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:

  1. A Single Learning Path, but the pace of advancement is adjusted to the learner. In this simplest form, one still assumes that there is only one way to learn, but that individuals differ in how quickly they advance along that single path. This was the rationale of teaching machines, originally designed by psychologist B. F. Skinner in the middle of the twentieth century, and is still the most popular version of individual differences. One might call it impersonalized personalization…
  2. Favored Content. Even at young ages, individuals have quite different preferences. Five year olds may be fascinated by numbers, by dinosaurs, by foods, or by certain kinds of animals. Many powerful ideas can be presented via different ‘vehicles,’ and quite possibly, strong interests and deep knowledge combine to help with learning those ideas.
  3. Different Learning Styles. The assumption here is that individuals differ in how they approach learning; the delivery of materials and collection of responses depends on the so-called preferred style of the learner. The styles could be related to sensory systems (visual learner, auditory learner, etc.) or to cognitive styles (focused or wide-ranging; playful or planful; rational or intuitive, etc.). As I’ve frequently noted, ‘learning styles’ are not the same as ‘intelligences’. And, to be frank, I am dubious about the notion of learning styles.
  4. Different Intelligences. Here one assumes that all human beings have the same set of intelligences, but that individuals differ in which of the intelligences are stronger, and thus presumably constitute privileged ways of mastering educational materials. And so, when taking a course in history or in mathematics, some learners gain from a linguistic approach, others from a spatial approach, still others from a logical or bodily or inter-personal approach. On this version of personalization, one would teach individuals using methods consistent with their intellectual profiles. The profiles could be inferred from personal testimony, observations by parents or teachers, or simple computer-presented measurements. I’ve written at length about this approach in my book “The Disciplined Mind.

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.

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Filed under Digital Culture, Education, Future, Phylosophy

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