Know the Students

In Personalized Learning, Theodore Sizer wrote:
 "We cannot teach students well if we do not know them well. At its heart, personalized learning requires profound shifts in our thinking about education and schooling.
A part of this quote is the opening line in the introduction of a paper published in the South African Journal of Education. The South African researchers, Nyna Amin and Renuka Vithal, arrive however at an entirely opposite conclusion. These authors state the following in their abstract:
"A surprise finding for successful teaching, in what may be considered difficult yet not uncommon conditions of schooling in South Africa, is that knowing about students can be dangerous, and that not knowing students can be useful for teachers."
Back when I was in high school, I still remember when I was made aware by one of my teachers that he knew that I had only one pair of pants to wear to school. My first reaction was that my teacher simply had too much information. I was nervous for I did not know what my teacher would do with that information. How much a teacher knows about a student and what a teacher does with that knowledge are obviously two separate items. In my case, I was afraid that my teacher would do something that would humiliate me in front of the class.

Yet, it is easy to jump to the notion that teachers must know their students well. As Amin and Vithal relate in their paper, even when teachers are not going to use what they know about their students maliciously, or assume harmful generalizations, different outcomes may still result depending on what a teacher chooses to do. In one school, one teacher, Navin, chose to be caring while another teacher, Bernice, simply focused on teaching.
...teacher knowing of students' extremely severe and difficult backgrounds can result in undue attention to background, or alternatively, can obscure or undermine a focus on foregrounds and become debilitating, not only for learners, but also for teachers. Navin noted the time he spent on advising and supporting students, which, it might be argued, took place at the expense of educational tasks and actions. By consciously refusing to know students, Bernice made it possible for students to let go of their past and present hardships, and capacitated them to engage the main functions of schools, which was to teach and learn. Foreground offers an explanation for why Bernice is successful; it is a future-focused approach....
Of course, it is wrong to expect that every teacher can serve as a skilled social worker. For this reason, it is perhaps important not to cut short Sizer's statement. It simply must include the second part, "At its heart, personalized learning requires profound shifts in our thinking about education and schooling." Knowing one's students must focus on learning areas. After all, a teacher should be expected to be capable of addressing learning concerns and challenges.

Lyanne Melendez of ABC7 reports on a new initiative from the San Francisco school district:

"Finding out what goes on in the classroom from their perspective to help improve the way kids learn best." is an acceptable objective. This is obviously a much more limited scope. Going beyond this can easily end in a scenario similar to what the researchers in South Africa found.