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“Personalized learning” is among the most discussed initiatives in education today. Most schools nationwide say they’ve implemented personalized learning, to some degree. Some use online programs or software to give students access to content at their individual level, allowing them to move through lessons at their own pace. Others have combined grade levels to best meet the needs of students. A few have begun giving students more control over what they learn, believing that this will get them more engaged in their studies.

“What’s necessary now is that we widen the aperture of the personalization conversation to include conversations about identity and who students are,” said Caroline Hill, the chief of school creation and transformation at CityBridge Education, a nonprofit that supports innovative schools in the District of Columbia. “You cannot personalize the learning experience for someone if you don’t know who they are.”

Hill and her colleagues have designed a framework, which they call the equityXdesign framework, to help schools identify the needs of the most excluded students in a school and to design learning experiences based on what they need to become successful. It makes personalized learning a strategy for equity. And a number of schools in Washington, D.C., have adopted this approach as a way to close achievement gaps for historically disadvantaged populations.

For example, at the Howard University Middle School of Math and Science, on the university’s campus, 78 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and about half are considered “at-risk.” About half enter the middle school performing below grade level in math or reading or both.

Kathryn Procope, the school’s principal, said her students’ needs demanded a shift in how teachers and administrators approach education, particularly because the school aims to prepare students for rigorous college majors and future careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

So far, MS2,, as the school is nicknamed, has personalized its core academic courses by using the Summit Learning Platform, an online resource that has replaced traditional whole-group classroom instruction. Students log into Summit to learn new content and complete assignments, turning to teachers for support along the way. (More than 330 schools now use the Summit Learning Platform, designed by the Summit charter school network in California and Washington.)

Related: Rethinking grade levels and school design for personalized learning

Procope thinks the personalization of self-paced lessons has already made a difference. Just this year, judging from a fall to a winter assessment of student learning, Procope said, students who hadn’t shown growth in academic achievement in prior years are showing it now. She said it has been difficult to switch to Summit for both teachers and students because the learning platform is so different from traditional instruction, and parents have been hard to convince as well, but the data showing student progress helps justify the change.

“You cannot personalize the learning experience for someone if you don’t know who they are.”

At a national level, many advocates for personalized learning and “student-centered” education now make the argument CityBridge does – that this new instructional approach can be consciously used to help all types of students, from all types of backgrounds, become high achievers. Last week iNacol, a leading advocacy organization, released a detailed report called Designing for Equity: Leveraging Competency-based Education To Ensure All Students Succeed, which has specific suggestions for policies and practices that can help accomplish this.

The authors argue that the traditional educational system was designed to “sort” students, expecting some to succeed and others to fail, and that such a system favored children from more advantaged backgrounds. “Personalized and competency-based systems have the ability to empower individuals and enable educators to disrupt the historical dynamic of sorting students, and replace it with one that seeks to educate 100 percent of students,” the report concludes.

At MS2 in Washington, leaders have personalized not just the academic content of each student’s program; they’ve also invited students to consult on the design of the school schedule.

For example, Damont Morgan, a seventh grader, is among a group of students testing out their ideas about the school day. He prefers to have his core academic classes in the morning and electives like music and physical education in the afternoon. That way he can get the classes that take more focus and mental energy out of the way and have a chance to “chill” in the afternoon.

Damont has also been among those allowed to choose their own focus areas during flexible periods. He chose to spend extra time in science, for example, on a week when he knew he was behind in the class.

While Procope hasn’t entertained Damont’s idea to scrap the school’s uniforms, the 13-year-old said he’s glad his principal is listening to his ideas and taking him seriously.

“A lot of schools, they don’t really listen to the students and what they want,” Damont said. “They just do it their own way.”

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  1. Science of i & the Quest for Personalized Learning & Teaching

    I teach Psychology at a Community College located in New York City. Teaching Psychological science, the Science of i, compels me to consider some of the implications for personalized learning, raised by your article.
    Q. Can we consider positioning the student along with the teacher at the fulcrum of the personalized learning-teaching enterprise?

    The challenges faced by students in their pursuit of personalized learning appear to be even more acute at the community college level than at the schools you describe in your article.
    My personal experience, over 2 decades of community college teaching, encourage me to consider several impeding factors in the planning and deployment of personalized learning:
    admin. resistance to faculty-driven/student-suggested innovations in syllabus delivery;
    Control v. Content top-down obsolete bureaucratic arrangements in which authority flows downward and accountability flows upward;
    exclusion of faculty from shared governance;
    exclusion of students from shared governance;
    turf control strategies of departments and offices that are rewarded with upward professional mobility, surrogacy/proxies and so-called competency raises;
    failure to acknowledge the continually expanding potential of web-learning for both faculty and students, that require rapid transformation of obsolete admin-controlled, dysfunctional organizational arrangements.
    hyper-racialized staffing patterns that promote ethno-racial enclaves within the college and across the university, rather than a more equitable and inclusive diversity,

    I am hopeful the persuasive insistence on personalized learning will not be limited to faculty and students, but will become a prerequisite for hiring, training and retaining administrators and supervisors who commit to become personalized learners at all levels of the enterprise.

    Chitra Karunakaran Ed.D.

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