what-mi-am-i

Individuation in Education: How Tech Companies Might Play a Role

As one who has long urged a more personalized form of education, I’m very pleased to see that Facebook plans to create platforms that will address each learner specifically (rather than relying on generic approaches, the so called ‘one size fits all’ model).

I understand that other technology companies like Apple have similar aspirations. 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.

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. I can envision at least three possibilities:

l. 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 still the most popular version of individual differences.

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 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’.

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 approach. On this version of personalization, Facebook 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.

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 and at profiles of intelligences. I look forward to seeing which facets of individual differences are chosen by Facebook (and other providers) and whether educational successes are thereby achieved.

-Howard Gardner