Is individualized instruction a bad thing?

Diana Senechal left the following comment over on a Wall Street Journal article about computers’ burgeoning ability to individualize student learning:

While “individualized instruction” seems an unequivocal good, perhaps it is not. There is something to be said for asking students to pay attention to something that does not immediately interest them, something they may not immediately understand.

TrappedNew software “rescues” children from frustration and difficulty; it meets them at their level and provides hints and encouragement when they have trouble answering a question. Some researchers are developing mood-sensitive software with animation that mirrors and responds to students’ moods.

This may well be more engaging for some students. It may bring up test scores. But what are the long-term consequences? What will happen when these students need to learn something difficult and complex? What will happen when they need to pay attention to a lecture? Will they reach for their ipads and entertain themselves with a game? Will they text a friend across the room, “OMG this is so boring”?

The article refers to teachers at P.S. 100 who say that the computer sounds and animation capture students’ attention in ways the teachers could not. Is this really a good thing? Or are we teaching children that they need not discipline their attention on their own, that they need not persist with anything that doesn’t grab them right away?

What do you think of Diana’s comment? Is individualized instruction and/or learning a bad thing?

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39 Responses to “Is individualized instruction a bad thing?”

  1. There is something to be said about her comments. Students will need that self-discipline in college and at a job. What happens if we don’t teach them this self-discipline and make them pay attention in class when they get to college or a job?

    K-12 talks about making students “college” ready, but we fail in many ways because we don’t prepare them for the fact that college professors teach differently than high school and that in college, most of what you do requires self-discipline and self-determination and control.

    • Let’s accept her argument at face value (which I’m not ready to do, but for argument’s sake…). How do we keep this from turning into “Students, you have to put up with any crappy and/or boring instruction we throw at you. That ‘self-discipline’ and ‘self-control’ that you learn will be good for you in the long run because other aspects of life are crappy and/or boring.”?

      • Well said! Why should all students (or any for that matter) conform to the the norms for learning the way we know learning due to our experience? Why is that students can’t explore on their own? Certainly, there needs to be baseline education to make us productive citizens, but 95% of what is taught in schools is not there to make us productive citizens, but should be there to entice us, excite us, and allow us to really explore learning and those learning opportunities that ignite passion for life long learning.

      • There’s a difference between accepting poor instruction and dealing with frustration and difficulty. Any topic that requires us to change the way that we think about something is going to be difficult. While adaptive instruction is appropriate to skills, it is often not to concepts. Solving equations using algebra is an appropriate application, the concepts of derivatives and integrals are not. Ideas of Modern Physics are “difficult” enough that people in the field had a hard time accepting them (Special and General Relativity, Quantum Mechanics). Einstein’s famous “God does not play dice” quote was a rejection of Quantum Mechanics…an expression of frustration with not understanding it.

  2. Individualized instruction is absolutely not a bad thing. Individualized instruction doesn’t mean the same concepts can’t be taught it means the learning to get from point A to point B is structured to help that student. Why are we still so stuck in the mindset that the teacher knows best and they must put forth what they feel is important to know for the student. Look at a map, there are lots of ways to get from point A to point B, the journey is often what matters most and in the end that you get to point B.

  3. Students have no opportunity to know what might interest them if no one is available to introduce them to ideas and knowledge out of their experience and comfort zones. Until a person – child or adult – has exposure to something different, they have no way of knowing if it’s of interest or not. Besides, not all of life is interesting: learning to drive a car isn’t particularly exciting, but the reward is high.

    • While I agree with you Nancy that teachers need to be there to introduce new ideas, they aren’t fully utilizing the web (or technology) to help foster that learning for the students.

      Teachers aren’t understanding fully that technology is there to help them faciliate learning, not there to replace teachers or their guidance. However, teachers need to understand that they are, more than every, faciliators in the learning process, not the knowledge hubs they might have been i the past.

  4. I think that individualization is a good thing, but there is a cost that we’re ignoring.

    One of the dichotomies of technology is that while it enables individuals to connect with a much larger swath of the universe, it has also made individuals a bit more oblivious to the people in their immediate vicinity. It seems that while our “community” is much larger in terms of people and geographical area, this might come at the cost of the community right around us. You’d only have to watch people text rather than talk to the people sitting next to them to see anecdotal evidence of that (then again, my wife has always contended that I’m odd and talk to strangers.

    Within this context, perhaps it’s wise to think about the larger ramifications of individualization in school. Sure, we’re able to go from A-B in many different ways, and that’s a good thing. However, to what extent are we deemphasizing the community that can exist in the class? To what extent are we teaching that the good of the individual is more important than the good of the community? What are the effects on Democracy that requires individuals to not only vote in their own self-interests, but to sometimes see the larger picture that exists beyond themselves? Maybe I’m over-exaggerating the role individualized education plays in this, but . . . well, just but.

  5. Ms. Senechal is entitled to formulate any opinion she wants, and apparently the media will publish it. Her opinion, based on her 4 years of public school teaching experience (according to her web site), does not align with conventional practice, however. The law is the law and IEPs have been federally-mandated since the 1960s. Her opinion, while thought-provoking, potentially inflamatory, and therefore likely published in an effort to help sell papers for the WSJ, is essentially moot.

    • Matt, why do you assume that her comment was an attack on IEPs? The WSJ article is about an entire school embracing “blended learning.” Students spend two hours a day (!) interacting with a laptop and an array of software. These are not special ed kids; it’s the entire population of a school. IEPs are not involved in this plan. And in fact, although differentiated instruction has been the law since the 1960’s, the model and the law have changed considerably and working within the regular classroom is greatly valued.

  6. As a Technology Integrator, I think that Ms. Senechal has a valid point. Of course, teaching with technology is by no means limited to 1 kid-1 laptop-1 set of headphones. I enjoy watching kids working in groups and grappling with problems that are real to them, with or without technology. As the wife of a professor, I do worry that we are sending kids to college who are unable to engage with what they don’t already like. I don’t defend the dry-as-dust lecturer (whose sheaf of papers is halfway to being dust already) but it is true that the basics of many disciplines require some plain hard work, some of it rather boring. When I taught gifted kids, I encouraged parents to expose them to the chance to fail at something, and the chance to be bored from time to time. After all, one day they, too, will be stuck in traffic– or in a long grocery line– or in the dentist’s chair. (No offense intended, dentists!)

  7. Don’t you learn that in the real world? I used to think it was okay that I didn’t like heavy metal, and that I simply could not be in the same room with my grandparents when I was in school. But after I graduated from school I realized that you have to put up with things you don’t like, or/and learn to understand and appreciate those things. It doesn’t have anything to do with the way you learn or what you use to learn to me.

    Sorry this is pretty anecdotal.

  8. I think the scenario used for a story on individualized learning and the teachers response both show a superficial understanding of individualized learning via technology and problem solving/critical thinking. In the context in which we read, I can see her point. All you are talking about is the old computer based instruction with a little student input. That is not problem solving in nature and it certainly isn’t individualized instruction by today’s definition. Now, you give me a classroom of kids working in groups and on laptops on a project where they must first do research on their topic then create multimedia that represents their understandings, I can easily say that it is individualized, problem solving, and all the related concepts. But given the story and her response, I don’t have much problem with what she said.

    • Bob, I think you’ve gotten at some of what I’m feeling here. I DO think there’s a place for individualized learning and I DO think that computers are going to help with that. Some of that’s going to be relatively low-level (but adaptive) drill-and-kill learning software like what’s described here. Some also may be higher-level simulations where we put students into immersive environments and ask them to be active decision-makers and apply what they learn. Or anything in between…

      If all we do is the low-level stuff, I’ve got issues. If it’s a blend of lower- and higher-level stuff, I feel much better about it. I’m trying to separate my feelings about the software described in the story from Diana’s blanket, all-encompassing statement about individualized instruction generally…

  9. Thanks Scott. I didn’t reply to the original article because when I see technologies that perpetuate status quo but are portrayed as the next best thing, there is so much wrong with it, I can’t comment. One of my usual whipping posts are IWB’s. So back to the teacher, she’s not seeing connections to higher order thinking because there are few if any. Thus, I can’t criticize her point of view, in her eyes the case has not been made and you have to admire her for that.

  10. Is it K-12’s job to prepare students for boredom? Or is it k-12’s job to teach the fundamentals our students need? I believe in the 2nd. K-12’s job is to teach the standards and benchmarks established by the school districts/state/nation (depending on state).

    This then prompts a question I have asked before.. Why is it that colleges and universities don’t have to change? Why are they allowed to teach in the same way they’ve been doing for years?

  11. Wow, this sounds like a discussion about computer assisted instruction from about 10 years ago. Why shouldn’t instruction use the same communication and research methods that exist in the “real world”? I highly recommend using technology to enhance and yes, individualize, the learning experience to reach more students. Life is not boring, if you know how to make it interesting. Why should education be boring? There is no value in telling a student that there’s nothing you can do about it….just learn to endure it. Let’s empower kids to make changes.

  12. Last spring, Ms. Senechal was granted the cover story in “The American Educator”, a publication of the AFT. I responded here.
    That said, I don’t necessarily believe that the blended approach as outlined in the article is much different than handing students a guided reader workbook. This isn’t the best use of technology dollars in my opinion. Contrast this with the blended courses taught at our high school, where students attend 2 1/2 days per week and learn and create content in a hybrid format during their remaining “free time.” That to me is a true blended experience.

  13. I really see Diana’s comments differently than what other posters are placing on here (and perhaps I should be replying to her blog instead???)

    I get the impression that her comments are more related to a tension between characterizing individualized learning as instantaneous stimulus and feedback (which it is not) and a need for students to still be present even when they do not see relevance in what is being taught.

    If so, this isn’t really about individualized instruction. The concept of individualized instruction is independent of technology, and independent of instantaneous feedback and stimulus.

    Likewise, whole group instruction is not mutually exclusive to individualized instruction either.

    What I think she is saying is that instantaneous stimulus and feedback may make it harder for children to focus when those might not be present – that is not an “individualized instruction” issue though.

    • Joel,

      I think you’re correct that Ms. Senechal’s overall main point seems to be specifically against the attention-grabbing aspect of this example of individualized instruction.

      In my opinion though, her first paragraph in particular seems to imply that specifically asking students to pay attention to uninteresting topics or information helps them build their ability to focus.

      A corollary to that would be that we should sometimes strive to be uninteresting for the good of the students’ focus, and that for this reason, individualized instruction is not a good model to use 100% of the time. I’m not sure I’m reading this as she intended it, but that’s what I get out of it.

  14. This year I have 186 Pre-AP and AP Physics students. The idea of having to provide individualized instruction for each of them is probably not feasible for me. Please don’t recommend it to my administrators. Please?

  15. i think if we realize the true power of web access… connections we’ve never been able to access before… that provides the personalization we all seek. we can now let kids decide what they want to learn – as long as we’re instilling a process of learning how to learn – until that process is 2nd nature.

    model what to do when you don’t know what to do… let kids pick what they learn… then the only stress we’ll experience – is a healthy stress of – how do i get better. frustration and difficulty and patience with irresolution – all good things – why not experience them on a personal level..

    also – going global – has been the best thing for our community. outliers are so much more obvious on a global scale – and with that insight – face to face can’t help but improve.

  16. Hello, my name is Trieu Tran. I am here for a class assignment to comment on your post. Here is the link to our class blog:

    I do agree with individualized instruction because it introduces new ideas and it prepares them for the future. In my opinion, students should pay attention during lectures. At home or during spare time is when they could be individual learners.

    • Trieu, why should students only get to be ‘individual learners’ at home rather than at school? Why the distinction? Is individualized learning only okay in informal, but not formal, learning settings?

  17. As has already been mentioned, my concern is with actual human interaction. While individual instruction is a beneficial tool, it is important for students to also learn to interact with people. Perhaps in the digital age in which we live, we spend too much time interacting with machines and not enough time interacting with other people. God originally intended us to interact with each other, and for thousands of years people have been interacting with each other intellectually. Ultimately it is important to remember that actual social skills are as important as technological skills.

  18. I wouldn’t be too concerned about what Diana Senechal has to say about technology and learning, I am concerned about the amount of attention her ideas about the subject have been given by groups like the AFT. I wrote about my concerns with that article here and here. I do think her concerns are based out of a common problem centered around the issues of technology literacy and how technology is integrated into the classroom though.

  19. I believe that educators should provide individualized instruction when needed because “one size doesn’t fit all”; in other words there are diferrent types of learners in a clasrroms (i.e. visual, auditory, kinesthetic), not counting students with learning dissabilities (special needs students) and gifted students. Whenever appropriate, I believe that using assistive technology to make content more accessible and more meaningful to students should be a priority. Technology per se is not always the solution, it is rather the way we use it to achieve a specific goal that is the solution. Regarding the discipline aspect, althought I believe that teachers should demande respect and discipline in the classroom, all of that “good stuff” should start at home, and parents as just as accountable.

  20. Wouldn’t good individualized instruction do the opposite of what is described? The goal would be to keep students in the right zone (which would be cyclical) of challenge/frustration as opposed to shooting for a lack of challenge/frustration.

    I’m thinking that algorithms would be adjusted per student like this article.

  21. I don’t like the underlying assumption of Ms. Senechal’s comment that if a student is frustrated, it’s because the content is too difficult.

    Let’s give our students some credit: some of them are frustrated because the work is too easy.

    And let’s face reality: if Little Suzy can pass the mandated student performance standards but the other 29 kids in her class can’t, the teacher simply cannot afford to be focused on Little Suzy’s learning needs.

    And yes, even if Little Suzy is very smart indeed, she still has educational needs.

    This is where individualized learning comes to “rescue” us all from an impossible situation. It’s less about avoiding the frustration of having to read un-illustrated text with no pop-up encouragement messages, and more about avoiding the frustration of not having our needs met.

    Side question: Does Ms. Senechal have an advanced degree in psychology or child development or somesuch? I did a quick search in my little commenting time remaining and could not find out for sure. Is her worry about the development of the ability to focus a general concern or is it based in clinical fact?

  22. Everything is wrong here:

    1. Assuming that software provides “individualized instruction” is false. Just because a computer is programed to deliver different questions does not mean that it actually knows anything about how or what the child is learning.

    2. Saying that children benefit from being bored so that they can be prepared for future boredom is silly.

    3. The false choice between a boring lecture and drill software is a straw man that is not even worth talking about.

    None of this has anything to do with individualized LEARNING, which is what ALL learning is.

  23. I have worked with individualized computer programs before, and I don’t think that I would call them individualized instruction. The assess what “skills” a student needs and then gives them the lessons required to pass the test at the end. From what I have seen, there is little learning going on.

    I think that individualized instruction is great, but a computer program is not going to take care of all the instruction. It might help, but it still can’t replace the teacher.

    I am all for individualized instruction, and I am all for technology in the classroom, but I still don’t see how the teacher can be replaced. The systems that do still don’t teach effectively.

  24. Since WW II venture capital has chased the holy grail of computer assisted instruction. There is little if any evidence to support its educational value – this stuff never teaches, at best it TESTS prior knowledge.

    Any teacher who thinks they can be replaced by a computer, probably should be.

    If the edtech community were better versed in the work of Seymour Papert and his colleagues, they would stop falling for the ridiculous fantasy of “dancing fractions teaching math” over and over again.

    How many people in the edtech community today have read any of these books?
    Cynthia Solomon’s “Computer Environments for Children: A Reflection on Theories of Learning and Education”

  25. By the way, this is the same baloney that enemies of public education like Michael Horn and Tom Vanderark peddle when they talk about individualizing education.

  26. I don’t think that the real question here is whether or not technology can enable students to learn new things. It unquestionably can. To prove this point watch a student use technology to look up an answer to his/her own question. Technology can also enhance individual learning.

    Ms. Senechal’s point is very valid, in my opinion. It is sometimes important for students to participate in conversations and learning about which they have very little interest – or at least initially have very little interest. One of my greatest joys as a teacher is watching a student find something interesting that he/she did not initially think was going to be worth thinking about. If students are not required to participate in learning that they find uninspiring they will never have the chance to change their minds and find it meaningful.

    By the way, I think one of the best parts of this post is the incredible array of comments that have been written after it.

  27. There’s an underlying problem in her assumptions. I agree that schools should teach self-discipline as part of personal development. Teaching learners how to learn – and how to take steps over time to reach a final goal are all excellent ideas for part of the curriculum we teach at school.

    The assumption this can only be achieved by non-individual teaching strikes me as wildly erroneous. In fact, as with so many things, introducing it at the right point for the individual and in the right way can probably make it a good and useful, well-integrated life lesson. Going back to boring people into submission and hoping this helps them learn – which is an unfair view of non-individual learning I know but it’s an exaggeration rather than a complete fabrication – is supposed to teach them what exactly?

  28. On the college prep aspect of this.. Isn’t online learning growing at a faster rate at the college level? I loved college, but one of the things I disliked was the fact that they let anyone who had a Ph.D. teach. Whether you were actually capable of doing so was not a requirement. Students were just supposed to memorize whatever the prof decided they should learn. Luckily, most of my profs were a lot more engaging than that.

    Still, what this all boils down to for me is that learning needs to be student-centered, not teacher-centered. Technology enables students to explore, connect, and create, but it needs to become still more student-centered.

    At the same time, I definitely sympathize with teachers that have too many students and are stuck in the brick-and-mortar paradigm, without the tools they need. Been there, done that.

  29. Individualized instruction means:
    – student exclusively pursuing interests only?
    – student avoiding difficulty?
    – student using “boredom” to avoid?

  30. I came upon this only the other day–thank you, Scott, for posting my WSJ comment and starting this interesting discussion. And thanks to everyone for the comments.

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