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.