The Starbucks Effect: The Customization of Education
Two years ago during the pandemic lock-down, I familiarized myself with food delivery apps such as DoorDash and Grubhub. I delighted in checking and unchecking boxes and writing instructions in the comment box, customizing the advertised entree to my preference. No cherry tomatoes or scallions, half of the dressing on the side, add extra avocado, sub sweet potatoes for rice. With each new order, I created a unique dish based on my current mood and cravings.
Even pre-pandemic, customization was a huge part of our society; from choosing settings on our phones, to stores in which a person can design one’s own soft toys, to apps that allow us to mix and match apparel from a variety of vendors, we live in a world in which we have control over the products we purchase, and we can find solutions for something specific when we cannot find it. At first glance, all this choice “feels empowering, as if we are in control,” according to Dr. Laurie Santos in the episode “Choice Overload” from the Happiness Lab Podcast. But what if our fascination with choice is spurious? What if all this choice is making us less satisfied and less happier than we think?
When I first listened to this podcast, I immediately thought of my work as an educator, and I began to wonder how the societal eruption of choice and customization in consumerism and just about everything in our lives might affect education in independent schools. Can we accommodate all the milk preferences, sizes, syrup pumps, sweeteners, and secret menu requests we receive (fun fact I learned from the podcast: Starbucks has 80,000 permutations on their menu, not including Pumpkin Spice season!)? Or could less choice paradoxically build stronger community and student well-being in an independent school?
At my school, we openly talk about how teachers embrace personalized learning, an approach that originates with the teacher. A teacher (the “company”) tailors assignments (the “product”) to learning style preferences (individual tastes) of their students (“customers”) based on performance (personal and preference information), and the teacher adapts accordingly, many times by asking a lot of questions. One example of personalized learning in an English class is book clubs. Students may choose from a list of books to read, and students may personalize the pace and path of learning, yet all students still explore the same themes, progress through the assignments, check-in with their teacher before moving on, and receive points.
Personalized and individualized (or customized) approaches in the classroom are related, but there are some key differences. One key distinction between the two is that individualized learning starts with the needs of only one student rather than the needs of all students in a class. Furthermore, an individualized approach is initiated from the student or parent (customers) side. The student (or – in some cases – a parent) volunteers information about herself, and the teacher then adapts to the student. As a result, the student expects information to be delivered in a way that is unique for her.
I wonder what part a customized approach to consumerism might play in the type of individualized requests independent schools receive. The more a person compares the thing he/she chooses, the greater the result of worse feelings and a lack of satisfaction, according to Dr. Laurie Santos. So, if I receive a call from a private tutor, for example, advocating on behalf of a student to have different assignments and more choice from the rest of the class due to the student’s learning styles because another school the tutor works with is able to do so, would honoring this request truly result in stronger well-being for the student at our school? Or rather, with more choices for the student (i.e. the student can choose to follow the class or a customized assignment), does the increase in choice push the student into cognitive overload, exactly the opposite of what the tutor is striving for?
Schools must continue to clarify expectations, and these explanations may need to occur in multiple places and times throughout each school year. For example, as a school we have taken a page from the Lisa Damour playbook, and we use the language “at our school, this is what XYZ looks like.” By doing so, we are able to celebrate our community, elevating all students. And if we receive a customized request that we cannot honor, we stand firm and uphold our school mission to remember that we are a strong community that filters out some of the choice and sticks to what we do best: developing the well-being of all our students.
None of this is easy work. But the reality is just as there are diminishing returns with too many choices in any part of our lives, this holds true, too, for individualized learning at a school. After the Covid years of social isolation and learning from home, we must continue to emphasize that a community mindset means keeping all of us connected to one another, ensuring that no student is diminished by someone else’s individual requests. Next time I order from DoorDash, maybe I will not make any adjustments to my order, trust that the restaurant knows which ingredients to put together to make an excellent meal, and save my cognition for a different decision.
Elizabeth Smith is the Dean of Academics at Ursuline Academy of Dallas and drinks drinks tall, decaf, almond milk lattes.
Santos, Laurie. “Choice Overload.” The Happiness Lab, https://www.happinesslab.fm/season-1-episodes/choice-overload.