Individualism in Education

I’ve been returning recently to a conversation I had in January when walking to dinner with Steve Hargadon during EduCon.  We were discussing Finland’s high performance on the international benchmarking assessment, the PISA. There was initial puzzlement when Finland was announced as one of the top 5 scoring countries because so much of their educational structure was quite different from the other high scoring countries. What became apparent though is that the one theme the Finnish could agree on collectively was a narrative of equity.

We’d like to believe that Americans could gather around this same call of equity, but in reality Americans prefer a narrative of meritocracy. We tell rags-to-rich stories of folks such as Bill Gates, for example. This so-called poor man who came from nothing and built an empire attended one of the most privileged boarding schools in the nation, the college he dropped out of was a small university– Harvard. Gates had access to a computer when few people even really knew what computers were. The reality of his narrative is really one of privilege, connection and access.

What might be a narrative Americans could rally around? Perhaps individualization is the answer. Somewhat tied to the American focus on meritocracy is our country’s rich history of “rugged individualism.”  Parents certainly want to see each of their children as “special,” so parents will support efforts to a tailored approach to education. As teachers and administrators, we’re moving on a trajectory toward individualization with our shifts toward differentiation and universal design for learning.

What will it take for education reform to rally behind individualization? At the very least, we must shift from being  an educator being “the sage on the stage to the guide on the side.”  Teachers will never become obsolete—this movement is not about replacing teachers with Khan Academy-like videos and gamified instruction. Clearly these are tools that can support instruction. How we teach must change significantly.

In the end though, it’s most often the relationship between the teacher and the student that impacts student achievement. One of the most powerful elements of a move towards individualization is that students will feel increasingly more that their teachers really understand their needs. When students feel that someone cares about them, they begin to care more about what they’re learning.