The Cold Truth About Personalized Learning

In just a couple of weeks, my older son will start preschool.

Here are a couple of things, in no particular order, that I hope he learns while he is there:

  1. What finger paint smells like
  2. How to glue cotton balls onto construction paper
  3. The words to Down by the Bay
  4. That there are other cool things in the world besides trucks and washing machines
  5. That if you push someone’s block tower over, it will hurt their feelings
  6. That occasionally – just every now and then – it is okay to sit still for a little bit

It’s not an exhaustive list, but even if it went on forever, there are a few things you can be sure I wouldn’t include: “kindergarten readiness,” for example, or even his ABC’s or colors. 

 (I’m confident that, as soon as the time is right, he’ll figure out that J can’t be K just because he feels like it and that pink is actually a little bit different from purple.)

I’m sending him to the preschool down the street from us a couple times a week because I’m pretty sure he’ll really like it, and I want him to enjoy being three years old.

When I first started researching competency based education, I learned about a little native village in Alaska called Chugach, where the Gates Foundation and Apple conducted a pilot study on standards based education.

In the district’s application for a Malcolm Baldridge Award, the authors described the way they enlisted community “stakeholders” to help them develop standards:

“The leadership team sets value for all stakeholders by requiring their input and constant evaluation of the organization,” says the application.  “For example, community members helped to create standards.”

And then they listed an example of community input:

“‘We want our kids to enjoy what they are learning while they are learning, and to have a good humor in life,’ said a Tatitlek Elder attending OTE meetings.”

Yes!  Yes, me too – and how succinctly put! I remember thinking.

But then came the next sentence:

“These words are clearly reflected in CSD standards P/S Level 2.5 Demonstrates responsible use of humor.”

“Responsible use of humor”??  What??  No!  That’s not what the elders said at all!

It’s what an employer might say of their employees – you know, lest humor get in the way of their efficiency.

This – this twisting and standardizing of the hopes and dreams we have for our children, and the cruel and cold replacement of efficiency and linearity for the messy and impossible to measure qualities like good humor in life that make school memorable, joyful, and maybe even irresponsible every now and then – is precisely the danger we face right now.

This is the cold truth about the “personalized learning” they are promising us.

While they chastise us for clinging to an outdated, “one size fits all” approach to school – with kids all about the same age learning and playing and growing together – they are quietly slipping in a model that claims all children can and will fit one size, given sufficient time and technology.

It’s a ruse of epic proportions.

I am lucky that I (sort of) have the means to send my little boy to the preschool down the street: when we visited, some kids were playing dress-up, others were doing an art project, and a couple girls were just chatting with the teacher.  There was only one desktop computer, and no one was on it.

My son discovered the big wooden blocks while we were there, and when it was time to leave, I had to convince him that it was okay, we’d be back soon.

Look carefully, however, at the types of early childhood programs investors are working to develop, with their laser-like focus on all that is measurable and profitable, and it becomes clear that my son, if he is not already, will soon be among the lucky few… and who knows for how long. 

Let’s be vigilant, parents.  They will take everything, while pretending to give everything, if we let them. 



(Photo above courtesy of my almost three-year-old, who uses my breast pump tube as a firetruck hose and wine stoppers as traffic cones.  #Standardizethat.)




Author: Emily Talmage

My name is Emily Talmage and I teach fourth grade at Montello Elementary School in Lewiston, Maine. In addition to teaching in Lewiston, I have also taught special education and general education in New York City, including one year at a “high-performing” charter school in Brooklyn. I also have two master’s degrees; one in Urban Education from Mercy College, and another in Developmental Psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University. I have also worked as a research analyst and assistant at the National Center for Children and Families at Columbia and Oldham Innovative Research in Portland.

15 thoughts on “The Cold Truth About Personalized Learning”

  1. Thank you once again, Emily​! You have encapsulated what is insidious and sinister about the way families and schools are being entrapped by benign sounding rhetoric to embrace cold-hearted technology as the method for indoctrinating our children for work-force development rather than compassionate participation in a diverse, vibrant society. My children went to a similar pre-school–I know your son will enjoy his time there. I hope he can continue to enjoy school as the years go by. You are certainly doing everything in your power to assure that happens for not only your own son, but for all children.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As always, Emily, this is poignant and a strong warning. Do you see signs that some policy makers understand this perspective?


  3. Thanks, Emily. So much of the standards movement depends on a mechanistic model of society. You are advocating that schools be more like families where we love each other and accept each other’s differences. We teach and learn together. Education is not something we want done to our children but something that they co-create with their teachers and classmates. Would love to talk with you about this sometime.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Project XQ is tied to ASU + GSV Learning Summit 2017 and the Digital Promise (both of which are Gates funded), as well as the Emerson Collective. Their CEO is someone who was a former civil rights official in the Obama Department of Education. Also, they are tied to the widow of Steve Jobs, so there is an Apple connection too.

      The ASU + GSV summit is a technology-pushing event.


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