Even Schools are Recognizing the Value of Personalized Learning

Photo by WBUR Flickr Photostream/Creative Commons

Photo by WBUR Flickr Photostream/Creative Commons

I heard a report on my local public radio station about the finalists for the federally funded “Race to the Top” competition. According to the Department of Education website, the sixteen winning “districts will share nearly $400 million to support locally developed plans to personalize and deepen student learning, directly improve student achievement and educator effectiveness, close achievement gaps, and prepare every student to succeed in college and their careers.”

The report I heard focused on the three small California districts that won, beating out several bigger districts. What are these school districts doing that won them the cash prize?

They are personalizing their students’ curriculum.

New Haven United has an aggressive plan to provide each student in grades 6 through 12 with their own digital tablet, along with hiring extra math, literacy and assessment coaches to help teachers personalize instruction. Lindsay Unified is shifting all their students to performance-based learning, which allows students to work at their own pace through all the material required for ultimate graduation. Galt Elementary District is implementing StrengthsExplorer to create a blend of individualized online learning with classroom instruction for each student. Apparently, the students in these districts have responded very well to the changes. Teachers at Lindsay Unified describe a new excitement for learning when the kids realize they really can move ahead whenever they’re ready, even if that means the kids move up to the next grade level’s material.

I think this news is very encouraging. Could it be that educational authorities are recognizing the value of self-directed learning? I mean for real – not just warm fuzzy platitudes. It would seem so, at least in part. These Districts are still controlling what their students learn, but at least they’re giving the kids some latitude with how and when to learn.

Not everyone can homeschool, and I’ve often wondered how public schools might implement the advantages that homeschooling offers. Hiring enough teachers to create a student to teacher ratio of 6 to 1 would be amazing, but prohibitively expensive. Perhaps the next best solution is technology. Why should all kids have to sit through the same lecture when some kids already know the material, some kids have no clue what is going on, and other kids are simply more visual or kinesthetic learners? Providing every child with a digital tablet or some other regular access to a the Internet would allow access to the information students need to know, whenever they are ready to learn it.

Just this one innovation, if it was really used, would give kids some sense of control over their own education. Of course, it would be even better to let kids have more of a say in the content of their curriculum, besides just picking a few electives in high school. But I don’t see that happening anytime soon. That’s the ultimate control isn’t it? Controlling what kids learn, and in autocratic countries, controlling what adults learn, too. I’m not insinuating that this is done with evil intent. On the contrary, I think authorities generally have noble intentions of doing what is best for their students. They truly want kids to succeed.

My argument is simply that top-down curriculum is not as effective as passion inspired curriculum. It would be lovely if our kids readily absorbed all those carefully chosen textbooks we give them, but if they’re not interested, very little of that information is going to stick with them. Why waste everyone’s time (teachers included), when kids could be investigating things they are really curious about? I would also argue, that even with the best of intentions, we can’t know best what anyone else should learn. We can share what we know, but every child will grow up to do things that we cannot foresee. The best we can do for them is to avoid squashing their natural impulse to learn, and give them the tools and resources to find what they need, when they need it.

Oh well, these winning school districts are off to a good start. Other districts will be watching to see if these innovations produce results. In the future, hopefully more schools will be leveraging technology to give kids more control over the delivery of their curriculum and at least some customization based on learning styles and strengths.

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