Feature

The Next Big Thing: Personalized Education

A quantum leap in learning will allow everyone to go to the head of the class.

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Throughout most of history, only the wealthy have been able to afford an education geared to the individual learner. For the rest of us, education has remained a mass affair, with standard curricula, pedagogy, and assessments.

The financial crisis will likely change this state of affairs. With the global quest for long-term competitiveness assuming new urgency, education is on everyone’’s front burner. Societies are looking for ways to make quantum leaps in the speed and efficiency of learning. So long as we insist on teaching all students the same subjects in the same way, progress will be incremental. But now for the first time it is possible to individualize education — to teach each person what he or she needs and wants to know in ways that are most comfortable and most efficient, producing a qualitative spurt in educational effectiveness.

In fact, we already have the technology to do so. Well-programmed computers — whether in the form of personal computers or hand-held devices — are becoming the vehicles of choice. They will offer many ways to master materials. Students (or their teachers, parents, or coaches) will choose the optimal ways of presenting the materials. Appropriate tools for assessment will be implemented. And best of all, computers are infinitely patient and flexible. If a promising approach does not work the first time, it can be repeated, and if it continues to fail, other options will be readily available.

Just how will this happen? Where, when, and by whom? According to the analysis of business expert Clayton Christensen, personalized education is likely to begin outside formal school through a combination of entrepreneurial vendors on the one hand and ambitious students and parents on the other. Once far more efficient and effective education has been modeled in homes and clubs, those schools, communities, and/or societies that have the ambition, the means, and the willingness to take risks will follow suit. I’d bet on Singapore or Sweden before wagering on U.S. public schools. I recall the words of Winston Churchill: “The American people always do the right thing, after they’ve tried every other alternative.”

Wherever and whenever personalized education takes hold, the resulting world will be very different. Many more individuals will be well-educated because they will have learned in ways that suit them best. Even more importantly, these individuals will want to keep learning as they grow older because they have tasted success and are motivated to continue. Let’s just hope we can keep up with the robots.

Howard Gardner is John H. and Elisabeth A. Hobbs professor of cognition and education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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