As a long time education reform advocate, I don’t mind saying that the reform agenda has gotten a bit stale. Standards based reform dates back to the 70s. The first charter laws schools were passed over 20 years ago, just as a body of research confirmed the impact of great teaching on student achievement. Sure, reform has made progress. But with only 1/3 of our students college and career ready, it would be a shame if we used today’s opportunity to rehash tired old debates about choice and accountability.
What we really need is a new conversation that begins with what our children want and need and empowers them to pursue their interests. There’s a name for it—personalized learning–and it’s based on the common sense idea that our schools should meet every child where they are and help them get where they want to go.
No two students enter the classroom at the same exact point, even if they’re identical twins. Over the course of a school year, some will feel overwhelmed, get frustrated and fall behind; others will get bored and tune out. Under the circumstances, the teacher will do the only rational thing and teach to the middle.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. The personalization of learning allows students to demonstrate competency as soon as they’re ready – and once they do so, let them go on to achieve higher. It allows teachers to target learning in a way they never could when they’re teaching 30 kids all at once.
Gone are the days when it was enough for students to download information from a textbook into their brains. There’s a growing recognition that “seat time” obsolete as a way of measuring educational attainment. With the proper support, we can create a school system that helps students begin at the point that is right for them, and proceed at the pace that suits their needs.
Long ago, educator Maria Montessori told us to, “Follow the child, they will show you what they need to do…” Somewhere along the way, however, the adults stopped following the children. In their own way, the kids have been resisting ever since—racing ahead on their own or dropping out.
Letting learners lead starts by helping them articulate the skills and subjects that spark their passion, equipping them with the tools to self-advocate, and then focusing their learning experience on those interests and strengths.
Of course, students can’t do it alone. They need teachers and mentors to co-design their learning experience so that it covers a range of topics and subject matter. Done well, personalized learning empowers great teachers to make dynamic adjustments based on each student’s skills, curiosity, and goals.
Our public education system essentially piloted personalized learning when it adopted the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for students with disabilities. Perhaps ironically, special education is one of the few areas where policy and practice recognizes that kids are unique and that the one-size-fits-all approach won’t work. With personalized learning, we can take that idea to scale.
And here’s another inescapable reality: the world is changing so much faster than our system of education that we are increasingly at risk of obsolescence no matter how much we try to adapt. Today’s college freshmen were born the same year as Google. Our high school freshmen are barely older than Facebook. Our fifth graders have been around longer than the Khan Academy and our second graders pre-date Instagram.
Somewhere in America, or maybe in rural India, there are new ideas germinating that could revolutionize teaching and learning five years from today. The only appropriate response to a changing world is to be permanently and constantly adapting.
It is futile to try and memorize the world as it is today or as it was yesterday. In an increasingly connected, ever-changing society, it is more important for students to learn how to engage with and learn from the world around them and keep pace as it evolves.
Right now, personalized learning is in its infancy, but it has the potential to touch every child in America in a matter of a few years. After successive waves of reform, the education sector has a natural tendency to resist change. Let’s hope personalized learning is the exception to the trend.