Personalising education – is it a good idea?

Personalising educationA disturbing number of people are still talking about personalising education – making it person-centred. Often, this talk about the student as person is little more than snappy advertising copy that is left deliberately vague so that it can mean many different things to many different people, thereby maximising its market appeal. Or it functions like a decorative bow on a box that is full of other pedagogic goodies (like non-linearity and life-long learning), creating the mistaken impression that somehow all those other wonderful things are connected by some ribbon of logic to the big red bow on the outside.

The talk about personalising education is horribly muddled, so to avoid getting lost in that box full of pedagogic goodies, let’s just focus on the big red bow on the outside: the insistence that we must think of the student as a person.

1. Is that not a good idea? Is the discourse of person-centred education not a lovely way of talking about children?

No, it isn’t. Talk about personalising the education of children is pernicious. The new idea of person-centredness is not a pleasant and harmless extension of the older idea of a child-centred education. The concept of the person refers primarily to adults viewed within a certain legal framework in which they have equal rights codified in law to things like property, the ability to enter into contracts, the right not to be arrested arbitrarily, etc., etc. To talk of children as persons is to think of them as being already grown up. But every interesting and non-silly theory of education recognises that children are not yet grown up, and that a key task of education must be to help them make the difficult transition from childhood to maturity.

2. But in thinking of the student as a person aren’t we making a bold step beyond the awful regimes of the past that indoctrinated young minds and hearts?

Sugata Mitra is our favourite advocate of this idea, and his model of online education is supposed to outdoctrinate – undoing the evils of indoctrination.

This is pure naivety. Person-centred education would be education for a society as rigidly ordered as any of the old empires (despite all its talk of flexibility and the apparent uncertainty about the future). That rigid structure is simply a consequence of the fact that the freedom of the person is only possible in a society where the rest of public life is reduced, as far as possible, to impersonal calculation. Respect for persons means that no one must be obliged to do anything in particular for society. Their only due must be to abide by the law and pay their taxes. Inevitably, this means that in the world of work money must rule. A person-centred society is inevitably also a money-centred society, so the concept of the person is joined at the hip to that extreme of impersonality. There is no choice about that. People who want to be persons just have to live with it. And, inevitably, a person-centred education is one that gets students to see the world-as-cash-machine as something perfectly natural – which is a work of indoctrination as dubious as any attempted by the tyrannical regimes of the past.

3. But surely we should respect the child as a person who can choose what he or she wants?

We are not against children choosing things. As children mature, a greater freedom of choice needs to be granted them. But it is folly to base a theory of education from the outset on the idea that children must be free to do what they want. No, some of the most important aspects of education involve inspiring children to do things, and pay attention to things, and study things that they wouldn’t otherwise choose.

In thinking about education it would be slightly more sensible to begin at the opposite end – to begin with adults. The educational system needs a set of priorities – views about the abilities, sensitivities, forms of awareness and understanding that we want adults to have. As teachers we inevitably view children as future adults – as people who will soon revitalise the adult world. Of course, we have to ensure that children do not suffer too much in the process, that square pegs are not bashed into round holes, and that children can still enjoy their childhood while preparing for adulthood, but we can’t dismantle the educational system and replace it with whatever the pre-teen focus groups might dictate.

4. But in a world of such cultural diversity don’t we need to treat the child as a person who can choose his or her identity?

As we have argued (in agreeing with Camille Paglia) the danger in the West is not from educational tyranny but from an anomie that pervades society outside the classroom walls. Insofar as that is the case, what children need is an education that helps them make sense of the world, that gives them a cultural compass that can help them find their way within it and begin to really engage with it instead of feeling that they must flee from it.

To this end, schools need to present a narrative, looking back at history, to attempt an explanation of where we have come from – a story that also implies ideas about where we might be heading. We might, for instance, feel that our world should be understood as a product of the Enlightenment, putting its birth somewhere in the seventeenth century, perhaps, and seeing society after that as being riven by conflicting currents of thought and feeling and action – an unfinished project that the children will one day have to take up and move forward. This need not be passed down to the students as something carved in stone, but as an interpretation of a period of tremendous conflict – an interpretation that is itself open to challenge and revision and improvement. And in this, students will be seen, not as abstract ahistorical persons, but as children of the Enlightenment, and they will receive a rich framework within which they can later choose which of the conflicting currents they want to side with.

5. But we believe in world peace, so surely it is good for students to think of themselves as persons who are essentially the same as all the other persons of the world?

No, nothing is more violent than to insist that – despite all the evidence of the senses – we are all essentially the same, just as nothing is more violent than a form of globalisation that not only ignores difference, but that actively works to destroy it.

No, if world peace is the issue, children need to learn to love difference – to love a world in which different cultures are allowed to flourish. But this love of difference and culture has to make some sort of sense historically – it has to appear that this is what we need to be doing at this historical juncture, otherwise we just leave the individual with his or her feelings that appear to come from nowhere and mean nothing. So, again, we need to risk promoting that narrative and promoting a particular culture in school. Insisting on the child-as-person, though, precludes that.

6. But we are all democrats now, and surely the idea of the person is at the heart of our democracy?

No, the concept of the person is at the heart of our legal system and our economy, but it is not at the heart of a vibrant democracy – one in which people think of themselves primarily as citizens of this particular political community, and who are inspired to participate in it, speaking out to challenge attacks on the education system, or the persistence of corruption, or the stupidity of the current economic policy. If democracy is the issue, then we need to put the engaged and active citizen (not the person) at the heart of our educational system.


So why personalise education? There really is only one answer: so that education as a public service can be dismantled and then rebuilt as business – another part of the expanded entrepreneurial economy in which the most profitable bits of education are packaged as commodities and sold to whoever has money to pay for them. The idea of the student-as-person is really the idea of the student-as-consumer. And the talk of person-centred education is really just window dressing for the commercialisation of education.

Does that mean that those of us who are skeptical are just digging our heels in and resisting change? No. The educational system desperately needs to be reformed. We do not yet have an education for democracy. We don’t have an education for peace. We don’t have an education that would enable young people to take back and reclaim the culture that has been handed over to business. We don’t have an education that really helps young people take a long hard look at life, and the world and themselves, at where they have come from and where they think they should be heading.

There is a long list of things that need to be done. Personalising education, though, is not one of them.

Photo credit: Mohammed Abed / AFP / Getty Images – from Intentblog

written by Torn Halves on December 11, 2012 in digital revolution and Edtech and education and pedagogy and Sugata Mitra with no comments