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Advertising Inadequacy?

You know how you sometimes can’t help but feel self-conscious, criticized or even worse when someone offers you unsolicited advice or help for an “area of improvement”?

Could a non-stop barrage of ads or invitations for certain “personalized learning tools” have the same effect?

This week, news about a massive K-12 student information database created by a for-profit education company has reignited parents’ concerns about their children’s academic privacy. I think all of those concerns are valid and worth exploring, as others have and will continue to do.

But I find myself thinking more about the direct and indirect effects of something like this on the teaching and learning process itself. In particular, I wonder about how this affects a learner’s self-identity as a learner.

During the learning process, learners aren’t just learning about the content of whatever they’re engaging with. They’re also forming and updating their ideas about themselves as learners, and about what learning is.

That means that typically, students whose learning styles fit well within the traditional school model, get positive feedback that makes them feel capable and smart, which sustains a mindset that’s conducive to continued learning. On the flip side, students whose learning styles aren’t respected in the traditional model tend to get more feedback that suggests to them that they’re not as capable and not as smart—even when teachers and other guides are actively trying to protect their feelings. This can inspire feelings of frustration, shame, fear and humiliation, none of which promote deep academic learning. (They do encourage learning ways to avoid those feelings, though—hello, defiant behavior!)

As I implied above, it’s not always explicit praise or condemnation that leads to this, either. More often than not, it’s the labeling and sorting processes students experience in school (especially in our modern era of Data walls, etc.) that communicate this to them. That’s traditionally been one of the biggest challenges to finding ways to support diverse learners in most school settings: figuring out how to differentiate teaching and learning in ways that avoid stigmatizing certain learners and their ways of learning and knowing.

Too often, these students have been forced to try to learn in an schooling environment that makes it really hard to shed whatever initial label (“special,” “struggling,” “at-risk,” “below basic,” “hyperactive,” “troubled”) has been assigned to them. Because how others perceive us affects how they treat us, narrow or false perceptions of who these learners really are impacts their ability to grow, change and define themselves on their own terms. This is an old problem that educators have made great strides in trying to solve, but which has come back with a vengeance as standardization and “no excuses!” schooling has come back in vogue.

The kind of information stored in this database, from what I can tell so far, is exactly the same standardized stuff we already have, just centralized and streamlined to make it easier to access by school officials and now, private companies. The primary value of that information to school officials is to target kids for different kinds of interventions during the school day (many of which, when educators aren’t careful, can trigger an “Oh, man, I have to go this {group/special class/whatever} again? This makes me feel dumb. And I’m missing recess!” response in students).

The primary value of that information to companies is—or will be—targeted advertising, which raises the possibility of yet another realm in which ads will invade our lives. In this context, it also raises the possibility of taking a student’s six-hour problem (“I feel dumb at school”) and making it an all-waking-hours problem (“I feel dumb every time I have to go to that reading class, and every time my parents get the mail and we’ve got loads of glossy ads about reading stuff, and every time I’m online and I see banner ads about fixing my reading problems.”) Putting aside for a moment whether we should commercialize our private lives even further, all of these constant suggestions of deficit could be seriously frustrating, even damaging, to learners.

It’s also worth noting that advertisers design ads to reinforce consumers’ feelings of inadequacy, then offer their company’s product as a solution to consumers’ problems. This is troubling enough when we’re just talking about concern over the size of one’s pores or thighs. There’s much more at stake here, when we’re talking about young learners’ perceptions of their own minds and capabilities.

As technology breaks down the traditional boundaries around academic learning time and other learning time, what interventions or safeguards would help avoid reinforcing negative self-perceptions? And if it’s the mere suggestion of deficit implied by the fact that the ad was sent, and not even the content of the ad itself (just like it’s often the act of putting a child in one group or another, not what adults say to the child in relationship to these events, that leads to self-doubt), is it even possible to mitigate them? Is the solution to just limit how many of these interactions young learners have?

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