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A karate match like this one illustrates many of the tenets of personalized learning.
A karate match like this one illustrates many of the tenets of personalized learning. Credit: Photo by @Luis Eduardo Noriega A/EFE via ZUMA Press.

It was through karate that I learned the importance of the challenge.

With thick glasses and 1980s-style “big hair,” I had achieved orange-belt status. Within this class, the fourth karate level of 10, I was at the top and winning every local match. Was it possible to take my skills to the next level?

Through my work at New Classrooms, I’ve seen firsthand that all students can succeed in a personalized environment. In any given class, there will be students who are struggling, those who are comfortable where they are and those who can go further — just like I experienced at my dojo, or self-defense-arts training school.

As interest in personalized learning grows, so do assumptions that this approach works best with students who have fallen behind. What we’ve learned, however, is that students who are working at or above grade-level can rise to the occasion when challenged.

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Frankly, students who need to be pushed further rarely are. With limited time, a teacher’s attention is more likely to go to the struggling student. But technology can now be leveraged to ensure teachers are meeting the needs of each student in a class. We should embrace the opportunity to positively challenge and push high-achieving students.

“We should embrace the opportunity to positively challenge and push high-achieving students.”

Despite the assumptions you might have of me as a 1980s karate sensation, it took a lot of time and work to become a champion. My reign of success at the local level was quickly challenged when I went to compete at the state level. I realized I had been treading water in my class. To grow and improve, I needed a challenge — I needed to change how I was measuring success and look at future goals instead of previous accomplishments.

We have found the same thing to be true for students who enter math class at or above grade-level.

Recently, we ran a pilot with Passaic Gifted and Talented Academy in New Jersey. A number of the school’s students had started the year at or above grade-level. When we looked back at the end of the year, those same students were not advancing as rapidly as we would have hoped.

This made sense to us. Researchers find a similar trend nationally with traditional school models. We knew that by performing at or above grade-level, these students already know the material — or at least a portion of it.

What did we do with this pilot? We re-anchored the students’ work. We set the bar higher so that every student had to play a bit of “catch up.” A seventh-grader, for example, was bumped up to target eighth-grade material while remaining in the same classroom with peers.

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By the following year, the results — in a population of students and teachers largely unchanged from the year before — showed that students were advancing at almost twice the national average.

These results were not isolated. We piloted this work with other schools. Across 600 students, we saw knowledge advancing at twice the national average. This means that an additional year of learning occurred for those students.

Too often, students don’t end up growing as much as they should. In this instance, the reason is simple: Curriculum is generally focused on a student’s current grade-level.

While students may have struggled at first, this idea allowed these students to grow quickly and far surpass our previous expectations.

We have so much to learn about this approach. We also have much to celebrate because this idea shows real potential.

In my pursuit of karate success, I too had to take this challenge into my own hands. With the support of my sensei, or instructor, I moved to a more advanced class. It was difficult and I was used to always being on top. I struggled and was knocked down frequently. Continuing to get up led me eventually to earn my green belt. It wasn’t until my third time at the state competition that I was actually ready for the challenge and ultimately took home the trophy.

As the interest in and possibilities of personalized learning grow, we need to encourage high-achieving students to see value in the challenge, even if it means not always remaining at the top of the class because the assignments are more difficult.

It may be tough, but struggling productively means these students are learning and reaching their real potential.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for our newsletter.

Chris Rush is the co-founder and chief program officer of New Classrooms Innovation Partners. 

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