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Students at the Center
Rebecca Wolfe

What would schools look like if they were designed around the needs of students?

That’s the question that drives the work of Rebecca Wolfe, director of the Massachusetts-based Students at the Center project, part of the nonprofit Jobs For the Future.

Called “personalized learning,” the idea sounds simple: Let the students dictate the direction and pace of instruction. Its adherents claim that not only will student outcomes improve, but point to research that shows it works particularly well for students of color. However, convincing the many entrenched interests that run school bureaucracies to give in to such a radical change can be a challenge.

Wolfe, whose doctorate from Stanford University is in education policy and administration, is a leader in the personalized learning movement and wears many hats —persuading districts that a shift to personalized learning will be favorable for the entire school community, then acting as a cheerleader, facilitator and therapist for the districts who try it.

Students at the Center makes it clear in its literature that deep, evidence-based research lies at the heart of its enthusiastic advocacy for personalized learning. According to the organization’s website, these are the four major prongs of student-centered learning: 1. Learning is personalized 2. Learning is competency based 3. Learning takes place anytime, anywhere 4. Students exert ownership over their learning.

Students at the Center recently launched an online “hub” that aims to provide parents, educators and districts with the tools they need to adopt a personalized learning approach in their schools. Wolfe and her colleagues in 2013 published a book on personalized learning, Anytime, Anywhere: Student-Centered Learning for Schools and Teachers, with Harvard Education Press. It’s all a part of her goal to transform the way students learn in America. She spoke to The Hechinger Report about the vast potential for personalized learning and the biggest obstacles standing in its way.

Related: How scrapping the one-size-fits-all education defeats inequity

Q: One of the tenets of Students at the Center is that each student must be provided with the scaffolding and differentiated support needed to keep progressing at a pace that allows the student to reach college, career, and civic outcomes, even when unequal resources are required to achieve a more equitable result. Do you think the US believes in the last part of that statement, or is there still great resistance to it?

A: I tend to be an eternal optimist when it comes to my work in education and I think that there are more people and systems and policy makers ready to concede that statement and agree with that statement than there ever have been before. Now that’s not to say it’s widespread and not to say that if you took a poll or asked somebody running for president right now that it’s a popular view, but I think there is more movement in that direction and more evidence that that’s what’s needed than ever before.

Q: Does personalized learning cost more to districts than the one-size-fits-all approach we have been using for generations?

A: There’s not been a ton of work done on that yet. But the work that has been done basically says it costs about the same. A study the Nellie Mae Education Foundation sponsored had that finding. That’s the first thing policy makers want to know. A lot of this is just doing things differently. So it’s not always that there’s such huge increased cost. And part of what we’re trying to look at in the cost factor is the longer term benefits. There may be shorter term increasing costs, but when you look at the longer term remediation issues, career advancement issues, that’s what this is all trying to get to, the longer term outcomes for students. Those costs wind up having a much more sunny picture than the upfront costs. Of course that’s a big ask for a school district or principal or state trying to figure out their immediate year budget.

Related: Lessons from the principal of a Kentucky school that went from one of the worst to one of the best under Common Core

Q: From your experiences, what is the single biggest obstacle that schools encounter when they try to move to a more student-centered, personalized learning approach?

A: The single biggest is always a hard question. Because of the very nature of this approach, it’s not a single model. So each school and district really takes the principle and decides what makes the most sense for their particular context and their particular state and their particular standards they are trying to address. So I would say the things we see have a lot to do with communication and culture change. Because you’re asking teachers and students and parents and communities at large to change to an education setting that very few of them have ever experienced in their own lives. And very few if any teachers were trained in. So I would say if there’s any single biggest area, it’s getting folks to understand why it’s important, what it looks like and how you do it. Once you get that fired up piece, the other many difficult things—and there are many difficult things, many challenging things, about this—but those become the things that people tackle together. The how do you do the teaching, how do you change the schedule, how do you do the curriculum—those are the kinds of things that once you have the right mindset, is hard work but not an obstacle.

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Q: What are the key ways personalized learning can help poor children and children of color?

A: Personally, I believe it is the way to help poor children and children of color. What we have seen for far too many years is these children getting passed along with what some of us call Swiss cheese knowledge: giant gaps and holes in what they have learned or haven’t learned. So there’s really no other way to address these inequities without looking deeply at the individual child and what he or she needs to know, already knows, and how they’re going to learn that. At the core of this personalization work is figuring out systems that will enable every child to have that individualization and understanding of their learning and being able to connect them and motivate them. What we have seen so often is that poor children and children of color have been disengaged from the system for so long because they have had so many negative experiences. One of the exciting pieces of research that has come out in recent years and a lot of the Students at the Center work is that kind of engagement and motivation and that relationship building that is key to the personalized aspect isn’t just the kind of nice, touchy-feely good stuff that we do on the side because we’re good people and we care about kids, but that is actually how our minds work. That is actually what it takes to get that deeper learning experience. To be able to transfer knowledge and be able to engage. It’s even more important for students who had these large gaps in learning over the years and who have been marginalized by our current system.

Q: With personalized learning, does the race and gender of teachers become less relevant to learning?

A: With my researcher hat on, I would say we don’t know yet. To be perfectly candid, we haven’t really looked deeply at that question. With my theoretical hat on, based on what we’ve seen, personalized schools doing well with the theory of this, then absolutely I think it does because part of this is their new personalized, aspirational vision—it’s not one teacher and one student, there’s a much more collaborative approach to learning. So students are learning from other students. And it’s not just about that one superstar, superhuman teacher reaching that one student. It’s about that one teacher being able to focus on the individual needs of the students and recognizing, “You know what, I might not be the best person to teach this student and so I’m going to connect them to the people or institutions or digital platform or whatever it is that most meets their learning style and learning needs.” So again from that kind of aspirational vision, I think it does become somewhat less important, but I certainly don’t want to underemphasize how important it is to have teachers of color and teachers from more backgrounds. Research is showing how important that is for the relationship-building part.

Related: Do the arts go hand in hand with Common Core?

Q: One of the core principles of personalized learning is that students have ownership over their learning. Have you found that that changes or improves student outcomes?

A: Similar to the idea of motivations and engagement, what some of the great emerging work and some of the learning theories that lay out the golden standard of knowledge is around this concept called transfer. So can you take something that you learned in a single classroom or single content area and apply the kind of thinking strategies you learned there to another situation? And that’s what gets us to this deeper learning that will create the kind of critical thinking skills we want all students to graduate with. So to get to that, what we have found increasingly in this research is that students need to understand their own learning process. They need to be able to know when is transfer important. They need to be able to say, “Oh this way I learned to apply this math problem has a really similar way I might apply to this science lab.” And giving them that power to understand their own brains turns out to be a really profound way of accelerating learning. The other piece hooks into that engagement and motivation. When students genuinely have a say in how they learn, when they learn it and who they learn it with, they are far more likely to be engaged in that lesson. And if they are engaged, they are far more likely to actually learn it. It’s the kind of stuff those of us in the youth development field have been saying for years. Of course students need to feel like they have some choice, have some power. Everybody said, “Yeah, yeah, that’s nice, but I need to teach them math.” What we’re now trying to show through research is that it’s not those things you do after school on the side that are nice, it’s that if you want to teach math, they have to feel they have some active engagement and some ownership over how it gets taught.

This story was written by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter to get a weekly update on blended learning.

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