Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and Personalized Learning

One of my favorite esoteric bumper stickers reads, “Heisenberg May Have Slept Here”.  It is a fairly ineffective bumper sticker, since only a few people on the planet actually get it—and they mostly spend their days in physics laboratories, rarely giving much time to driving in cars and reading bumper stickers.  Heisenberg was a theoretical physicist who postulated that the more precisely one measures the location of a particle, the less precisely one would know its momentum

Lately, I’ve come to realize that the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle applies to education reform plans—we’re throwing a lot of photons at Iowa’s educational systems, in an attempt to precisely pinpoint the problems.  Unfortunately, the more precisely we determine the exact location of an educational flaw, the less we know about where it’s going.  An examination of an educational system is a slippery job at best—and a whole lot of poking and prodding simply tends to make the machine unwieldy, uncooperative and wholly unpredictable.

In terms of physics, the Uncertainty Principle has profound implications.   Heisenberg stated,

Adapting the idea to educational reform initiatives, Heisenberg would remind us that we will never be able to completely describe either what works or doesn’t work in the present educational system.  Assessing and re-assessing our students to look for deficiencies still doesn't allow us to calculate the future!  The measurements themselves change the outcomes.  In my opinion, standardized assessment is the flawed premise of our worn-out experiment.
          What if today’s education system thinkers learned a lesson from quantum physics?  What if we embraced quantum uncertainty, and allowed each and every student to carve out his own pathway to educational success?   What if we didn’t classify, categorize, label and measure and test the life out of our learners?  Heisenberg wasn't afraid of a little uncertainty. He said, "the path comes into existence only when we observe it.  We must begin with uncertainty."
          I like that.  It is time to personalize the education experience for each and every student (and every teacher too, for that matter).  What works for some won’t work for others.  That’s OK.  Just as technological advances have allowed scientists to move forward in their description of the quantum universe, technology aptly applied will finally allow teachers to manage the burdensome data points associated with personalized learning.  Technology is the reagent that will make this new educational equation into a sustainable pathway, for both learners and teachers. 
          For some classical physicists, the Uncertainty Principle and the chaos it implied were untenable.  Likewise, some classical educators will insist upon well-ordered classrooms, look-alike transcripts and neatly categorized kids.  But some of us are ready to make the quantum leap.  

Remember, the path comes into existence only when we observe it.   
We must begin with uncertainty.