When Students Drive Learning, They Can Do So Much More

Personalized Learning

When Students Drive Learning, They Can Do So Much More

By Susannah Johnson     Nov 16, 2017

When Students Drive Learning, They Can Do So Much More

The industrial model of education is failing.

Our communities are being deprived of engaged citizens equipped with the skills required to be productive and compassionate, and who have ownership of their learning journey. Consider the following students whose potential remains untapped in the current industrial model:

Even though he struggles with dyslexia as a high school junior, Eddie (student names have been changed) had figured out how to do school well enough to get through his day. He wasn't engaged in most of his classes nor was he doing homework at home, and though he was not yet sure how he wanted to spend his future he did have strong passions in surfing, photography and the beach culture here in Hawaii. Overall, he was tired, bored and felt apathy toward school in general.

Another student, Warren, had a passion and needed substantial time to work on a project on integrated service learning aimed at educating peers and younger students on issues of diversity and inclusiveness, specifically aimed at LGBTQ+ anti-bullying. Meanwhile Kristina wrote a play in her junior individualized Philosophical Literature course and needed time in her schedule to revise and adapt her work as well as produce the show and direct it. And a small cluster of boys needed extra space in their day to work on robotics and coding projects, on top of their computer science and physics work.

According to our mission, Honolulu’s Assets High School “serves gifted and capable students specializing in those with dyslexia and other language-based learning differences. We provide a strength-based program, complemented by outreach and training, that empowers students to become effective learners and confident self-advocates.”

This year I’m piloting a different, student-focused approach we call the Flex Program, which we hope offers a new path forward for students like Eddie. Our main thought with this program was finding a way to align students’ intrinsic motivation with the core skills required to succeed in education and in life.

What Is Individualized Learning?

The school mission predicates finding ways to meet students where they are and ignite authentic inquisition. To me, being able to provide 100 percent individualized instruction that was truly dynamic for student needs within our high school program, without any additional money, facilities or special hours seems like a natural evolution. We just have to answer, “What is individualized learning?”

Current trends in education include three key concepts in student-centered learning: differentiated, personalized and individualized instruction. Equity framework in education lets go of assumptions while honoring differences in order to level the playing field for all learners. Imagine equitable education as a video game quest in which the characters gain necessary tools to unlock the next levels along the way, and different characters have different natural skill sets and thus require different supportive tools. What separates the three, to me, are nuanced practices all based in what each human needs to learn.

Differentiated instruction speaks to equity in learning, such as providing audio books for dyslexic students so that they are able to read and think at their cognitive ability rather than having to fight words on a page. Personalized learning emphasizes student voice and choice. For example, a personalized approach allows students to choose the type of project they complete to demonstrate mastery.

Individualized instruction is coming to life with the Flex Program, as each student has a curriculum that is just for them and is working in a schedule to support their work. With 23 students working on 36 curricula, and seeking credits in English, social studies, science and electives, working on online courses and college credits, the program incorporates service-learning, project-based, inquiry-driven, problem-based, place-based, and culture-based learning.

Designing Learning With Students

Students take ownership of the program from day one, as they collaborate with the teacher and with one another in setting up the “classroom” as a co-working space during the first days of school.

The curriculum planning process begins with students identifying various areas of passion, interest and curiosity as well as strengths and challenges in their academic endeavors and then together we amalgamate those components in order to develop a syllabus and curriculum that would most benefit their learning. Designed by students with students (i.e. not something being done to students), individualized learning incorporates interest and motivation, but also necessitates working on the skills a student needs most.

Since educators can’t divine what students will need to know in the future, content is less essential than teaching them how to think and learn along with functional skills. Thus, critical thinking skills and strategies are my “core content,” and regular thinking breaks and activities support that practice as well as discourse amongst the students.

While it is easiest with older students who have identified their passions and are better equipped for self-directed learning, supports and scaffolding make it possible to bring this type of learning to every student. Being able to work at their own pace, to pursue random topics of interest, having time to really focus on skills they lack, and appreciation of independence all motivate individualized learning. It highlights space in a student’s school day that is true to them.

When Students Drive Learning

Fast forward to Eddie this year: he shows up for the flex program at fourth period and is there for an English credit, social studies and a three-hour elective block. He first plans out his day, which includes planning time estimates and deadlines. His self-identified passions led him to an integrated photojournalism project that requires not only shooting photos but also learning a new editing software as well as researching about his ideas and writing (which he identified as his biggest area of challenge in order to be college ready).

Some days, Eddie heads to different parts of Oahu in order to shoot photos and reflect on his ideas, while other days he sits down to editing for two to three class periods. And nearly every day he writes. He does homework as needed and when he out working it is often after 7 p.m. when he texts that he’s finished. At the completion of his first project I asked him to complete self-assessment and reflection. Afterward, he told me, “Ms. Johnson, I need to be a better writer. I’m going to focus on that this quarter.” Eddie’s driving his own learning and there is no need to “pull” him along in school or push him to learn.

My role in the classroom has evolved dramatically. I have let go of being a teacher in order to become a partner for each student on their personal learning journey. I don’t believe teachers are obsolete, but I do use the “I Don’t Know” pedagogy and find it works to encourage individual or collaborative problem-solving as students effectuate their own learning. Reflecting questions back to students and asking, “How do you think we could figure that out,” feels better and is more productive.

While this program is by no means fully developed and may take time to form and grow, it offers an alternative to the industrialized model that we know is not working for all students. If knowledge is anachronistic, and thinking is our current goal, then perhaps an educator’s role is to remove the shackles holding students back so that they may find their own liberated and authentic learning path.

Susannah Johnson is a humanities and individual curricula teacher at Assets High School in Honolulu.

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