Book Review of Inevitable: Mass Customized Learning in an Age of Empowerment

In Invevitable: Mass Customized Learning in the Age of Empowerment, Charles Schwahn and Beatrice McGarvey cast a vision and rationale for schools to make the shift from a mass production model to a mass customization model. What is mass customization?  It is all around us today.  Consider the experience of ordering a computer from  You choose from multiple features and end up with a customized computer…and they are able to do this on a massive scale for clients around the world. In this text, the authors show how it is possible to apply this type of mass customization to transform learning organizations. They point to the fact that mass customization is already a reality in today’s world.  While the desire to individualize learning is nothing new, Schwan and McGarvey note that, in previous decades, the technologies did not exist to make customization for the individual learner scalable…something that could reasonably be done throughout the public education system. The technology is now here, as shown by the mass customization of products and services at places like Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Bing, Verizon, and Wikipedia.

They assert that mass customized learning (MCL) is not accomplished by simply adjusting the existing system.  As the end of chapter 6, they note that “It is a new vision that retains very little of today’s practices and structures…The MCL vision must be the target, the plan, the goal…in short, the job description and total focus of everyone.”  This resonates with my research on innovative schools, where I consistently found these schools having an “unavoidable, school-shaping concept.”  In this case, the unavoidable school-shaping concept is mass customized learning.

The vision for schools of MCL is one that is learner-centered, where teachers empower and set up the conditions in which learner choice is central to the learning experience.  For the full vision, you’ll need to read the book, or you might want to check out some of the videos and resources on their web site.

The most memorable part of the text was chapter 8, where they used the metaphor of weight-bearing walls.  As you likely know, weight-bearing walls (WBW) in a building are key to its structural integrity.  Remove those walls and the building falls down.  The vision for MCL is one, they argue, that requires replacing the traditional weight-bearing walls of the industrial age school with a new set of weight-bearing walls.  The WBWs that they identify with the industrial age schools are familiar to most everyone.  In fact, they are so familiar that some might mistake they and defining attributes of a school. They are things like grade levels, students assigned to classrooms, bell schedules, courses, textbooks, a traditional letter grade system, report cards, and a nine-month school year. Removing such WBWs and replacing them with the WBWs of mass customized learning requires strong leadership, a clear vision, and lots of work.  However, they lay out a plan for how to start such a change.  In the end, “The MCL vision is best implemented by teaching teams, working with multi-age learners, in a non-graded system.”  The text includes a number of concrete examples for how schools are making the shift and their web site provides such information as well.

This is a well-written book with a bold vision for what is possible in a schools that seeks to leverage many affordances of the digital age to meet the needs of each learner.

2 Replies to “Book Review of Inevitable: Mass Customized Learning in an Age of Empowerment”

  1. Bernard Bull Post author

    Thank you for the comment. As you note, the idea of individualizing instruction is certainly not new. What I appreciate about the text is the use of some new metaphors for discussing educational change (e.g. weight-bearing walls), as well as the way in which the authors applied the concept of mass customization to learning organizations (not entirely new, but an idea that is modeled after mass customization in the business sectors). Mass customization, while having many similarities, seems distinct from more generally speaking about individualized or personalized learning. It adds the issue of scale to those subjects. It does, however, seem to parallel some of the ideas in Christensen’s Disrupting Class.

  2. Rich Kent

    “This is a well-written book…”

    The idea of individualizing instruction in the classroom through a variety of approaches is vital and well established by countless teachers and scholars, from Dewey (“Were all instructors to realize that the quality of mental process, not the production of correct answers, is the measure of educative growth something hardly less than a revolution in teaching would be worked.” Democracy and Education, 1916) to Howard Gardner and his focus on multiple intelligences. I have no doubt that the authors of this self-published book are wonderful educators, but Inevitable called out for an editor, a copy editor, and peer review. The book is not well written and the ideas are not original.

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