Individualized Learning Creates a Class of One
Focus Gives Students Ownership of Their Work
By Tim Weldon, Education Policy Analyst
A Framework for Deeper Learning
In early 2012, The Council of State Governments created the Center for Innovation and Transformation in Education, known as CITE. This signature effort in the field of education will enhance policymakers’ ability to make informed decisions on key education issues designed to ensure students graduate from high school with the skills to be college- and career-ready.
It began with a sticky problem … literally.
Danville, Ky., High School physics teacher Danny Goodwin gave his students the following assignment: Create from scratch a substance so viscous it would hold in place a 500-gram weight on one end of a two-foot-long board when raised to create a ramp.
Students did not receive a how-to guide. Through trial and error they created their gluey concoctions and lathered them on their boards, then elevated the boards as high as possible before the weights slowly pulled loose and slid down the incline.
The point: Teach students the principles of gravity, viscosity and friction through authentic, hands-on learning. Each team of students found a slightly different approach to tackle the problem.
In a typical physics class, students might receive a complex scientific formula they would have to apply to a group of problems in a textbook or on a worksheet. But this assignment was different. It involved a concept known as project-based learning. In effect, students had to devise a method to halt gravity as if they were preventing the apple from falling on Sir Isaac Newton’s head.
“In project-based learning you actually get to use the material and information that we get and apply it, and it gives us a much more in-depth understanding of all the material,” explained Tyler Whitehouse, a junior.
“We have to teach students to think,” Danville Superintendent Carmen Coleman said. “The world has changed drastically, yet schools have not.”
Although teachers frequently assign projects to reinforce instruction, project-based learning takes the concept to a different level. The project itself takes center stage instead of being used to supplement traditional instruction. Students engaged in project-based assignments are assessed not by taking a pen-and-paper test, but by actually performing a task to demonstrate what they’ve learned. As long as their projects address state standards, the only limitation is typically the students’ own creativity.
Individualized, personalized and customized learning have become popular and often interchangeable buzzwords in education. One idea behind this individualized approach is that it frequently engages unmotivated learners by giving them ownership of their work. It also requires students of all ability levels to solve problems through hands-on activities.
“That’s what businesses are looking for these days,” Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday said. “And too many of our kids come out and try to go into college or careers and they’re just not self-directed. They’ve been handed things on a silver plate. Step One. Step Two. Step Three. They’re just not independent thinkers, and I think that’s bad for our country.”
Alabama Sen. Vivian Davis Figures, a member of the Senate Education Committee, wishes her schools offered an individualized approach to education when she was growing up. Figures, who serves on the board of trustees at Jacksonville State University, supports individualization both in K–12 and postsecondary education.
“As a state senator, I believe that if individualized instruction was implemented in K–16, the state would literally save millions of dollars,” she said. “We would also produce more efficient, effective and productive students who will be sufficiently prepared for the workforce. The millions of dollars the state would save could be invested in industry recruitment to hire these students who most definitely would be highly qualified.
“Individualized instruction is a win-win for all.”
Many schools—charter and noncharter alike—are starting to design innovative strategies to engage students and offer a more individualized approach. One example is the Avalon School, a small charter school for grades 7–12 in St. Paul, Minn.
Holly Marsh graduated in 2012 with 38 other seniors. Her experience at Avalon included three community internships mirroring her interests, including one with the National Park Service. Although some of her courses included traditional seminars, many of her classroom assignments involved independent project-based learning. During her senior year, an interest in education policy became the lynchpin for Marsh’s culminating senior project, resulting in a state statute expanding the kind of personalized learning Marsh received at Avalon.
Seniors at Avalon are required to complete a project involving at least 300 hours of documented work. They have to create a formal proposal, work with community members and make a 30-minute formal public presentation on the project and its outcomes.
Marsh wondered why the individualized instruction available to students at Avalon wasn’t available to students in all Minnesota schools. She believed the state should give schools greater autonomy to provide the same personalized learning she received.
During her senior year, Marsh helped draft language that ultimately was included in Minnesota House File 2949, also known as The Improved Achievement Through Individualized Learning Act, which encourages schools to introduce and expand individualization. The Senate approved the legislation unanimously; the House adopted it by a 119-9 vote. Marsh testified three times at legislative committee meetings.
“We believe the individualization needs to occur in what students are learning, the pace at which they’re learning it and how the information gets into the students. So it’s about making it so teachers can get information to individual students tailored to their specific needs, interests and learning styles,” Marsh said. “I’m just a very passionate individual who has had an opportunity to go to an extraordinary school, and I would love to see this replicated, because I think it can be replicated.”
Individualized Track to Graduation
Idaho also has adopted an individualized approach that not only allows students to graduate from high school early, but also rewards those who do.
In 2010, Idaho’s legislature enacted House Bill 493, known as Mastery Advancement Pilot Program bill. It authorized pilot programs enabling students to graduate from high school up to three years early. By 2017, early graduates will be awarded scholarships amounting to 35 percent of the amount the state would have appropriated on their education during their senior year. Their school districts also will receive 35 percent, with the remaining 30 percent going back into Idaho’s general fund.
After its first year, 79 high school students met the requirements of the program and received money.
“This is an attempt to allow students to move ahead at their own pace, which we think will not only save the state money, but will also allow us to spend more time with those students who really need the help,” said Sen. Dean Mortimer, vice chair of the Idaho Senate Education Committee.
The 2012 legislature followed up by enacting House Bill 426, creating the so-called “8 in 6” program to encourage students to get on the fast track to a college degree. The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Steven Thayn, compresses eight years of education into six. Thayn hopes it will allow students to earn a bachelor’s degree after just two full years in college. Thayn said the measure could eventually save Idaho taxpayers more than $100 million a year.
The plan begins in seventh grade with students taking one online class. Students would then take two online classes each summer and earn seven college credits per semester during the school year. The last two years of high school would be spent in college-level courses. Thayn describes traditional public education as a factory or conveyor system in which students are expected to learn at the same pace.
“We don’t have any definition of mastery. Students advance to the next grade at the end of 180 days,” he said. “So there’s no incentive for the student to learn anything quicker, because there’s no advantage in learning.”
Challenges to Individualization
Public education often has treated students as interchangeable parts, not as individuals, even though each student has a unique learning style. One concept gaining traction is a break from the traditional one-size-fits-all model that has been a defining feature of American education.
“If a child participates in individualized instruction and is able to move from one level to another at his or her own individual pace and ability, I believe that child has a higher probability of being more confident and having higher self-esteem,” Figures, the Alabama senator, said. “The child will also have a better chance of discovering what his or her passion is, thus leading to joy and fulfillment.”
While models and pockets of innovation exist, several challenges will have to be addressed to allow individualization to take root on a broad scale.
Teachers and school leaders will have to understand how to adjust their instruction for a tailor-made curriculum. Schools and teachers also must develop individualized assessments. The standard pen-and-paper test will not accurately measure individual mastery. Therefore, alternative multiple assessments will have to be created to allow students to demonstrate proficiency in various forms. These can include projects, portfolios and a variety of digital or online assessments.
Holliday, of Kentucky, said another key task will involve building partnerships with postsecondary education. He said colleges of education will have to change the way future teachers are prepared and must be willing to accept students from schools with a curriculum and assessment design that may seem completely foreign to postsecondary admissions officials today.
“If you’re going to (a system of) project-based learning and kids are doing a senior project, if higher education doesn’t take that and value that, … if higher education doesn’t buy into it, you’re not going to get anywhere,” Holliday said.
The Council of State Governments recently created the Center for Innovation and Transformation in Education, which has launched an analysis of policies and practices that will drive deeper learning outcomes, resulting in more students completing high school with mastery of content, application of knowledge and higher-order thinking skills such as inquiry and analysis.
A key component of that work surrounds implementing personalized instruction through transformational activities and innovative pedagogies. A focus group appointed to advise the center recommended states provide flexibility to local school districts to create innovative models of instruction and assessment or authorize innovation zones that will allow these practices, such as individualization, project-based learning and multiple forms of assessments, to take root. The center will release its policy and practice framework in late 2012.
Putting Students at the Core
The details may vary, but many school systems are creating a framework for real and lasting school improvements built around individualized instruction. One system doing this is the Expeditionary Learning Network, a charter school network with more than 150 schools—elementary through high school—in which student-centered instruction is as much a fixture as textbooks and test-taking are in most schools.
At Clairemont Elementary in Decatur, Ga., an Expeditionary Learning school, students learn about rock formations by visiting a working coal mine, not by reading about them in a book or passing around samples of rocks in the classroom. The unit might conclude with students researching and creating brochures about rock formations at a nearby park.
Expeditionary Learning engages students; they are required to use high-level critical thinking skills to solve problems through hands-on assignments.
Erin Wheeler, principal at Clairemont, points out individualized learning is important because students don’t enter her school at the same place.
“Every single child learns in their own way, which could be very similar in a whole class or could be very different,” she said.
Teachers at Clairemont begin each school year with individual student assessments, not just paper and pencil tests, but opportunities to interact with their students to understand each of their abilities and needs.
“If we understand where each child is, then we can design the differentiated lessons for the various groups, so we take them from where they are to the next step,” Wheeler said.
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