Kathleen Kesson: It takes a community

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Kathleen Kesson, who is a researcher, writer and teacher educator who lives in Barre. She is the former director of the John Dewey Project on Progressive Education at the University of Vermont and director of teacher education at Goddard College. Currently she is professor of Teaching, Learning, and Leadership at the Brooklyn Campus of Long Island University. Since 2013, she has conducted research on Vermont’s personalized learning initiatives.

Revolutions can be noisy things, accompanied by lots of shouting and protest and upheavals. Or they can be quiet affairs, preceded by rumbles of discontent, small tremors, and minor transformations that startle us when we suddenly realize that everything has changed. The personalization of learning is a quiet rebellion against the unrelenting focus on standardized testing and the one-size-fits-all curriculum and standards that have characterized education policy in recent decades.

More important than what it is against, however, is what it is for. It is for putting students at the center of their learning and allowing them to pursue their own curiosities, interests and passions. It is about helping them connect these interests to rigorous learning experiences, and providing them with the time and the tools they need to succeed. It is about engaging parents, businesses and communities more actively in the education of our young people than ever before. It is fitting that this dynamic approach to education has taken root and begun to flourish in Vermont, a tiny state with a population known for its independent spirit, willingness to buck larger trends, and a strong inclination towards civic participation and “small-d” democracy.

In 2013, the General Assembly of the state of Vermont passed and the governor signed into law legislation mandating that every young person in Vermont have a personalized learning plan, that their learning be assessed not through grades earned in courses, but through the attainment of “proficiencies,” and that they have access to many “flexible pathways” towards graduation, including work experience, early college options and dual enrollment. This remarkable legislation, embodied in Act 77, was somewhat overshadowed by the more controversial Act 46, which sparked on-going and often heated discussions about school consolidation. But Act 77 has perhaps more power to shape the educational experience of our young people in Vermont than does the administrative structure of their school district.

Personalized learning is a way of tapping into the interests, desires and enthusiasms of the young people in our communities, and putting these to work.


Personalized learning is not an educational bandwagon that has come from “on high” by policy makers who have spent no time in classrooms. It is a unique case of policy meeting practice; great teachers in all corners of Vermont have been doing this for years, and now they have the supporting policy they need to do it even better. In my research, I have interviewed Vermont high school graduates from years past who were fortunate enough to have these personalized learning options. Some of them were on the verge of dropping out of school when these opportunities presented themselves. They talk about how their lives were changed by their experiences, how they were inspired to pursue their new-found academic interests in college, or how they discovered careers in which they are now thriving.

Vermont communities are filled with intelligent people doing interesting things. This is what personalized learning is all about: connecting young folks with the people and the resources beyond the school walls that can help them realize their dreams. If you are a farmer or a gardener with skills to share, a retired engineer with a lifetime of experience, a tinkerer inventing gadgets in your garage, a film buff, a chef, a tracker or wildlife monitor, or a craftsperson with unique artistic knowledge, please heed the call when a teacher contacts you in hopes that you can donate a bit of your time to a young person who needs what you have to offer. Better yet, contact your local school and offer to contribute your time and expertise. I can assure you that the benefits go both ways.

We are living in a time of rapid transition in which the old models and structures, be they economic, political, technological, social or environmental, clearly won’t suffice, and new ones are being invented. It’s a very exciting time, but schools and communities need to change and adapt to meet the new circumstances. Young people are an incredible resource for a society in transition. They are not so conditioned by old ideas that they can’t imagine things differently. They have the energy to try new things, and if released from the fears of “getting the wrong answer,” they might prove to be the enthusiastic experimenters and inventors that we need. They want to be of use, they want to find meaning in what they do, and they want to create a better world. Personalized learning is a way of tapping into the interests, desires and enthusiasms of the young people in our communities, and putting these to work. But teachers and schools can’t do this by themselves – they need all of us pitching in. It really does take a community to educate a young person. Personalized learning is, at best, a way to create dynamic youth/adult partnerships in order to do the important work that needs to be done to revitalize our communities and lead us into the future.

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  • Thank you to Kathleen Kesson for putting ‘personalized learning’ into the context we oldtime teachers once knew it, different learning opportunities for different kids. Of late, people with hardware & software to sell have tried to high jack thus term so that “personalized” means kids sitting at computers can work through the same digital workbook pages at individual rates.

    This past year an 8th grader at my community school and I personalized learning, hers and mine. We cooked together once a week and at the end of the year she left with a binder of recipes of everything she’d cooked–from blueberry smoothies to guacamole toastadas, quiche, quesadillas, sushi, and so on and so on. Historical and cultural notes, poems, and narratives accompanied each recipe. I made a second binder for myself because our very personal time together is something I treasure.

    • Kathleen Kesson

      Susan Ohanian makes a really important point that we need to keep in mind. The billionaire education philanthropists see dollar signs when they hear “personalized learning” and are pouring vast resources into software development that they hope will reshape education. While online and blended learning may play some role in creating opportunities for students in remote rural areas, digital learning is no substitute for strong schools and community engagement in education.

    • William Hays

      Sushi? Child abuse, methinks!

      • The 8th grader kept begging me that we do sushi. I told her how nervous I was about something I’d never done. She said, “We can learn this together.” And we did.

  • An eloquent and timely commentary. I might add that the same approach, one pioneered by schools like Goddard, is desperately needed in “higher” education. Unfortunately, the expectations of academe and the accrediting bodies that license it make it harder and harder for those who don’t fit the standard mold to thrive as students, and force innovative institutions such as Goddard and the now defunct Burlington College over the financial precipice. Thanks Kathleen!

  • Kathleen’s commentary is inspiring. It exemplifies the kind of “outside the box” thinking that is sorely lacking in much of public education. One career educator, when I asked her opinion about having gardens and greenhouses in our schools, told me: “We don’t have time for that kind of nonsense. We need to prepare our kids to get into good colleges.” That kind of attitude no longer has any place in any serious dialogue about how to nurture our children. But the exhortation to “follow your bliss,” so eloquently put forth by the late Joseph Campbell, has never resonated with the majority of teachers and administrators. Instead, schools gave been designed and operated more like penal institutions than academies on the Aristotleian model. Children sit in overheated rooms (winter and summer) rote learning to meet the standards of common core; pining for recess and the end of the school day. As our home-grown prophet and school dropout Ben Hewitt puts it in his writings about unschooling, no wonder so many are obese. What do you expect when the kids have to sit all day?

  • Chaunce Benedict

    “This remarkable legislation, embodied in Act 77, was somewhat overshadowed by the more controversial Act 46, which sparked on-going and often heated discussions about school consolidation. But Act 77 has perhaps more power to shape the educational experience of our young people in Vermont than does the administrative structure of their school district.”

    When you can no longer attend elementary school in your home community, nor participate in summer school activities in your home community, nor are able to attend the secondary school of your choice, nor have a local school board responsive to your interests and looking out for your education, and know that your parents, next door neighbors and grandparents find it difficult to conveniently visit your school, and are unable to attend an annual school district meeting to understand the role local democracy has in shaping your education – and when you therefore find your town hollowed out by the loss of community identify and the dissolution of local democracy – you may wonder how your nice neighbor who still works at the University thought that “perhaps” Act 77 superseded the “administrative structure” in its power to shape your education, let alone to shape your life.

    • Kathleen Kesson

      Mr. Benedict – Your points are well taken. My commentary was in no way meant to diminish the very real concerns that we probably share over the loss of community and democracy that is likely to result from Act 46. Only to say that the conversation about personalized learning has been “overshadowed” by conversations about consolidation. My opinion is that personalized learning and strong communities go hand in hand!

  • William Hays

    The title of this article should “It Takes a Union” (read: NEA/UFT). Don’t forget a lot of tax dollars that Vermonters can’t afford. “Reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic” is dead.

  • “The great myths show that when you follow somebody else’s path, you go astray.

    The hero has to set off by himself, leaving the old world and the old ways behind. He must venture into the darkness of the unknown, where there is no map and no clear route. He must fight his own monsters, not somebody else’s. explore his own labyrinth, and endure his own ordeal before he can find what is missing in his life.

    Thus transfigured, he can bring something of value to the world that has been left behind. But if the knight finds himself riding along an already established track, he is simply following in somebody else’s footsteps and will not have an adventure. In the words of the Old French text of The Quest of the Holy Grail, if he wants to succeed, he must enter the forest “at a point that he, himself, had chosen, where it was darkest and there was no path.”

    The wasteland in the Grail legend is a place where people live inauthentic lives, blindly following the norms of their society and doing only what other people expect.”

    –From “The Spiral Staircase” by Karen Armstrong

  • Ethan Maurer

    A very interesting article but why no mention of Vermont’s High School Completion Program which started the use of personalized learning plans over 10 years ago with the passage of Act 176. This program has worked with many students who had dropped out or were at risk of dropping out and connected them to the Adult Education system in VT.

    • Kathleen Kesson

      Yes, I’m well aware of this great option. Unfortunately, space constraints in an opinion piece render it impossible to make mention of all the good things that have happened here in Vermont related to personalized learning. My research has taken me to exemplary programs started well over 15 years ago. In the book I am working on, these local historical data will be documented.

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