Ideally, schools are places that foster each student's individuality of interest, learning style, and ambition. However, it can be complicated for teachers, especially in the context of an already demanding day, to attempt to make sense of the many and varied theories that purport to explain the factors involved in student individuality. While working with the Internet does not eliminate these difficulties, it is a powerful source of information and ideas for better tailoring classroom experiences to individual student needs, preferences, and interests.
The notion of individualizing education, which holds that each student has unique strengths and interests to be fostered and needs to be met in the learning process, is not a new one in K-12 education. Indeed, one could argue that preparing students for life after school in ways that help them flourish as individuals is one of the main purposes of formal schooling. It is a complicated issue, however, because there may be as many answers to the question of how best to meet a given student's needs as there are students. Nonetheless, the attempt to reach a better understanding of the issue is a worthwhile activity; while there may be no easy solutions, educational practice that is informed by study of what it means to individualize education will, as a result, be that much better equipped actually to attempt to do so.
Indeed, there is already ample research on the subject. For instance, Howard Gardner, a noted researcher at Harvard University, has developed a theory of Multiple Intelligences (MI), that presents a justification for attending to the needs of the individual. MI theory asserts the existence of at least seven distinct human intelligences, skills, or aptitudes: musical, bodily-kinesthetic, spatial, interpersonal, intrapersonal, logical mathematical, and linguistic (Gardner, 1993, page 17). According to Gardner, only the latter two of these intelligences are consistently tested and valued in schools, and yet the skills associated with the other five intelligences are just as societally and culturally relevant. Students who do not demonstrate particular proficiency in the latter two intelligences can still go on to lead productive and successful lives, ostensibly with the help of some configuration of the other intelligences.
Gardner justified his preoccupation with MI theory by saying: "[I]f I had to offer one reason above others [for developing MI theory], it would be the following. Anyone who has spent a significant amount of time with children ... will have been struck by the vast differences among children, including ones reared in the same family" (Gardner, 1993, page 65). And as Gardner further describes, the implications of such differences among children are potentially far-reaching in the classroom.Without a doubt, one of the reasons that MI theory has attracted attention in the educational community is because of its ringing endorsement of an ensemble of propositions: we are not all the same, we do not all have the same kinds of minds; education works more effectively for most individuals if these differences in mentation and strengths are taken into account rather than denied or ignored. I have always believed that the heart of the MI perspective--in theory and in practice--inheres in taking human differences seriously. At the theoretical level, one acknowledges that all individuals cannot be profitably arrayed on a single intellectual dimension. At the practical level, one acknowledges that any uniform educational approach is likely to serve only a minority of children (Gardner, 1995, page 208).
Historically, a preoccupation with the ways in which the individual learned was the domain of the behaviorists, who believed that a person's actions were completely predicated upon stimuli, or contingencies, in that person's external environment (Greeno, Collins, and Resnick, 1994); the now-famous S=>R (stimulus leads to response) diagram is a product of behaviorist theory and research. B.F. Skinner, the primary scholar associated with behaviorism, professed an interest in the learning habits and preferences of the individual. As a manifestation of this interest, Skinner was inspired to develop a "teaching machine" after he observed in his daughter's classroom that "[a]ll students had to proceed at the same pace" (Ludy, 1988, page 708), despite the fact that not all students were necessarily able to proceed at the same pace. A teaching machine was just what its name implies, a physical apparatus designed to instruct students in simple concepts.
For Skinner, the beauty of the machine was that he had designed it so that the pace at which the lesson proceeded was determined by the individual student; thus, students could progress as quickly or as slowly as they desired or needed. For a brief historical moment, then, the concept of teaching machines and their preliminary attempt to tend to at least some basic needs of the individual enjoyed immense popularity. Indeed, Sidney Pressey, another developer of teaching machines, described this hopeful vision of education: "Work in the schools of the future will be marvelously though simply organized, so as to adjust almost automatically to individual differences and to the characteristics of the learning process" (Ludy, 1988, page 707).
However, teaching machines, behaviorism, and a supreme focus on the individual eventually fell out of favor as different theories of learning emerged that challenged the adequacy of the behaviorist notion that people learn simply by reacting to environmental stimuli. One of these theories that supplanted behaviorism is known as constructivism. Constructivism, as its name implies, argues that human beings do not learn by passively absorbing knowledge; the human mind is not a "tabula rasa" upon which information from the outside world is etched in its "pure" form. Rather, the theory goes, people are active participants in the acquisition of knowledge, constructing their own understandings of situations and stimuli, drawing upon prior knowledge and experience, and creating mental representations of the things they learn (Greeno, et al., 1994). Constructivism is often discussed in terms of a social context. That is, there is a theory known as social constructivism that supports the tenets of constructivism but that also makes the claim that the construction of knowledge is influenced by people's interactions with other people.
In addition, some theorists (Greeno, et al., 1994) also assert that people and their approaches to learning and knowledge construction are influenced by the norms and practices of the communities and culture in which they matured. Culture involves not only a person's external environment, but also the historical and contemporary sum of human activity in that environment. Culture encompasses the things people have assigned value and significance to in a given environment, as well as how the value and significance of those things waxes and wanes over time. Different cultures arise, presumably because people are in different places, that is, they have exposure to different environmental stimuli to which value is assigned. This, in turn, may lead to differences in what is considered important in a given group: differences in language, custom, values, and other manifestations of a particular group's way of living their lives. Socioculturalism, as the theory dealing with these issues is known, subsequently argues that the kinds of knowledge an individual can learn to use and the ways in which she learns them are constrained by the culture in which she matured.
The increased preponderance of contemporary learning theories has profound implications for educating the individual. Social constructivism and socioculturalism focus implicitly on trying to describe and delineate the characteristics of the social or cultural group rather than those of the individual. Individuals are argued to be influenced by their social and cultural ties. Despite the likely validity of this stance, however, there is still an element of individuality in each child. The difficulty arises because the increased complexity and number of factors that different theorists believe affect the development of a child means that determining the particular configuration of influences that affect a given student, and subsequently the proper course of action to meet that student's needs, has become a much more complex process.
How can teachers make sense of these theories? Teachers have so many responsibilities that it is unfeasible to take into consideration the family history, cultural influences, affective disposition, or even biology of each and every student. Teachers are faced with practical obstacles such as time constraints; the demands of a class full of students, each with his or her own needs and preferences; and the pressures of meeting school-mandated standards, each of which detracts from the amount of quality time a given teacher can spend indulging the needs of a given student. As much as teachers would like to provide students with all of the time and supports that each of them needs to excel in school, the fact remains that in the realm of the contemporary classroom, such close attention to students' needs is often unfeasible.
For this reason, we include individualizing education as a powerful idea in the context of the LETSNet project. Testimony from a variety of teachers teaching a variety of students-gifted, special education, ESL, culturally diverse-indicates that computer technology in general and Internet technology in particular has the potential to help schools think about meeting individual students' needs with unprecedented effectiveness. For instance, the breadth of information available on the Internet may increase student motivation by enabling teachers to structure learning experiences so that students can pursue topics of particular interest to them. Some research findings indicate that computer technology can mitigate the effects of learning disabilities (Clarke, 1996; Torgesen & Barker, 1995). Also, the multimedia capabilities of Internet technology, such as sound, video, and hypertext, can bring subject matter alive in many ways for many individual students. The active nature of Internet-enhanced education may help students take a more proactive role in articulating their needs and interests and, subsequently, in realizing their individual potential. Finally, the most significant contribution that Internet technology makes to education is to facilitate the process whereby students can make meaningful connections with each other regardless of physical proximity. Communication over email, on listservs, or using real-time teleconferencing provides students with unprecedented opportunities to find people who have interests, questions, and experiences with which they can identify.
Teaching with the Internet is not a cure-all for the problem of how to educate students with vastly different needs. Like any teaching, Internet teaching is informed and influenced by the beliefs of those who use it, whether they subscribe to a behaviorist, constructivist, sociocultural, or combination philosophy. It is unlikely that there will soon be any consensus on the "proper" way to teach with the Internet. Having gathered testimony from a variety of teachers using Internet technology, however, we feel that thoughtful teaching with the Internet is at least a step closer to the idea of an individualized education. There are many reasons for this.
First of all, Internet technology use encourages student autonomy. Often, students know more about computing than do teachers, so they can help the teacher and each other, and they can also take initiative in developing projects and activities. Such opportunities to take initiative may help students become more aware of and vocal about their needs and preferences in other areas. Second, since there are so many resources on the Internet, it is likely that each student could find information of interest that takes into consideration special educational or cultural needs. The breadth of information available is incredible, providing access to resources such as up-to-the-minute photos of tropical storms, sound files to assist in learning a language, and even entire texts and manuscripts. Third, the Internet is not only a place to locate information, but also a medium for showcasing work that students have done. The opportunity to develop Web-based documents, augmented with graphics and sound, that highlight their best work in whatever form it takes-textual, artistic, mathematical-can help students express themselves eloquently and create products that reflect who they are and in which they can truly take pride.
As school districts incorporate Internet technology into their classrooms and curricula with increasing frequency, students will not be the only learners involved. Teachers, too, are finding it necessary to reflect on their own teaching practices and personal learning preferences as they strive to make sense of the wealth of possibilities associated with the Internet and to draw meaningful connections between these possibilities and the knowledge they want students to take away with them. Perhaps as teachers and students learn together to capitalize on the educational opportunities of the Internet, there will be more dialogue about how individuals can situate themselves to take full advantage, in ways that make sense and are most expeditious for them.
Clarke, E. Human-Computer Interaction and Dyslexia [http://www.futurenet.co.uk/charity/ado/em-intro.html]
Gardner, H. (1993). Multiple intelligences: The theory in practice. New York: Basic Books.
Gardner, H. (November, 1995). Reflections on multiple intelligences: Myths and messages. Phi Delta Kappan, 200-209.
Greeno, J. G., Collins, A., Resnick, L. B. (1994) Cognition and learning. Handbook of Educational Psychology.
Ludy, T. B., Jr. (1988). A history of teaching machines. American Psychologist 43(9), 703-712.
- Valerie Worthington