Personalization: the oak and the weed


Oaks grow slowly, weeds grow fast. Inevitably, many who are so inclined will choose to be the dandelions of personalization, bright and enthusiastic until their gaudy flowers turn to feathery wisps, and next distraction scatters them. Meanwhile those of us who see personalization as one more evolution in the ancient oak that is education, will remain dedicated to the work. Personalization is, in simple terms, the word on which we are hanging the promise of flexibility, choice, and fulfillment that are the result of two forces: first is the liberation of our students’ opportunities from a single (albeit familiar and comforting) tradition, into a wider, embracing, and cosmopolitan fabric woven from as many traditions as our families represent. Secondly, we see the maturation of technology into a powerful set of tools truly useful to learning. The reality, also, is that these two tides don’t well up in just our school, but all schools, both public and private, including schools who even in the loosest way are similar to ours. Personalization therefore, isn’t a mantle we can choose either to wear or to leave in the closet. Before the next decade, for certain, “personalization” will fade, having become too small a word to contain what, quite obviously, will once again be called simply “education”.

While these two themes are pervasive, they do not form a picture that has any of the features of a “status quo”. They are disruptive – in the good sense of the word that I like. As I wrote in a blog entry on this theme last June, at SMUS we are being intentional about these developments in education. We formed a team of our staff who will have time set aside to serve as our shepherds, so to speak, as we discuss and decide what personalization will look like at SMUS. Yesterday, this team had its first day-long meeting, under the guidance of Heather Clayton, our Director of Learning. I participated in the meeting via Skype – I was in Toronto for the Simon Ibell event I wrote about last week. It’s pertinent that we could not have had this conversation without Skype. I couldn’t have contemplated it twenty years ago, when I first set foot in the Head’s office at the School.

Many people think that “the next new thing” in education will finally end all the complaining in staff rooms, soothe all the headaches, resolve the frustrations, and lead students finally to the pure, bright mountaintop of illumination. I find the optimism of such people enchanting, but my own experience and observation is that education – and human beings – are unlikely to be transformed like this. Schools will always have to pursue the same ideals – those ideals compose the horizon that continually moves away from us even while we head in its direction. Those ideals are summed up in our Mission: education is about seeking the excellence in all of us. It is about doing so with passion and compassion. It is about creating the community in which we will discover the promise in our selves and the world. It is about the pursuit of truth and goodness. And, finally, both practically and monumentally, it is about preparation for higher learning, and for life.

In one of the first pieces I wrote upon arriving at the School – before “blog” was even a word (it was that long ago; I am beginning my twenty-first year as Head of SMUS) – I quoted from a world I still retreat to – in my imagination more than the demands of life will allow in reality – the world of fly-fishing. Roderick Haig Brown (1908-1976) was a jurist, author, conservationist and one of the first Chancellors of University of Victoria, who wrote about his passion for fly fishing with a simplicity that was so evocative his books are classics. In one of his essays, he identifies the purpose of education “to lead forth from young men and women the great and complicated humanity that is theirs.” This has been, and always will be the purpose of education. The art of change is to preserve the things that don’t change.


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