Futures: Personalization and Community


As part of the Futures discussion that I have referred to in recent blog entries, the transition to more personalized education poses the question, “How will personalization affect the importance of community in a school?”

Several forces are reshaping the relationship between the individual and the community in schools: first, the increasing applicability of technology to education; secondly, the evolution of learning from rote and the “theory and practice” approach to deeper learning; and finally, the perception, perhaps mistaken, that the sense of community is in decline as populations become culturally more diverse.

At our school, the changes we are seeing in learning include the ascendancy, primarily, of experiential learning, of creative learning and of collaborative learning, overlaid with the structural change of personalization. We should probably avoid the phrase “personalized learning” since personalization is not so much about learning as it is about how a learner’s program is designed. Personalization does pave the way to better learning, by structuring the student’s program around strengths, passions and desirable areas of competence. This evolution has occurred because of a genuine desire in most educators to put the student at the centre of the school’s organizational priorities. Secure educators will take this path, and some are leading the way.

Embedded in the SMUS experience is the belief that growth of character is an essential part of education. The lessons of puberty, for instance, are almost entirely lessons of finding one’s own distinct self, separate from mother and father, in relation to others in the world. This is what happens, developmentally, at that stage of life.

This is why Middle Schools, if they are sized right, are desirable. That sense of identity and of a person’s relationship with others will grow and change dozens of ways throughout life, but it is launched in Middle School. Middle School is a community where young people go through this phase, where adults in the right ratio and interested in them, can cast on them a penetrating and knowing eye. In most cases, the Middle School experience is preferable to enduring the challenge alone, or amid brief and superficial friendships. This is community, where students learn or reinforce values, test character and know that hands, barely visible, make the world safe enough for them to take the ineluctable and desirable risks of growing up.

Technology creates online schools, and it creates online lessons, on video, taught by the best teachers available. This is a recipe that motivates many planners to say that in the future students will move from school to school, or stay largely at home, choosing group learning in traditional classes when and where they want. Such schools exist now, and more will exist in future that have skeletal facilities, or virtual facilities, and lots of online activity. They are less expensive than either public or private schools. If challenged, they claim that the community they provide, coupled with the student’s own home community, are adequate.

Is it adequate? Learning human values – learning humanity, if one believes in humanity – requires interaction with others that leads to families and communities, countries and a world that cares about its future well-being. Learning good character requires reinforcement across a galaxy of experiences, among adults and students who know the student personally; most parents believe their sons and daughters can’t do this in isolation. Respect, courage, service and honesty by definition involve the tests and challenges that are daily played out both – and necessarily – within one’s own self and within a community. A community can be deliberate about these testing challenges, can present living examples, where collaboration on service activities, on teams or orchestras or musical casts creates an experience greater than the sum of the parts. Most people have important enduring relationships in their lives. These are harder and more meaningful than brief relationships, and require a community where people know one another.

We know that increasingly, students will take advantage of the flexibility provided by technology to access information and also to access those excellent online “teachers” – the explainers of concepts. Websites such as the Khan Academy and very good online schools will increase access to excellent explainers of concepts to students in large numbers, in an exciting and charismatic way. However, in the future this is not what real teachers will spend a lot of time doing.

In the future, teachers will take over once the student has finished with the excellent explainer, and the teacher will start the process of deeper learning. We will see a world where students will find it less important to tick boxes and collect credentials. Institutions of higher learning are already headed in that direction. For institutions of higher learning, that is and will continue to be a mammoth transition, but it is beginning. Universities and colleges are intelligent places, and in the end they will uphold their ideals against the temptations of convenience and standardized order.

There is no question that the student’s learning pathway will be more individualized, more flexible and more exposed to different “locations of learning” than at present. There is no question that the role of the teacher will change. There is very little to indicate, however, that anything can replace the power of a community to make that education as human as possible.

Bob Snowden
Bob Snowden was Head of School at St. Michaels University School for 22 years, from 1995-2017.


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