Personalized learning and youth development are foundations of AYPF’s work. As we educate, inform, and engage policymakers, we are always guided by the philosophy of putting youth first and ensuring that policy is centered on their needs and what is best for them. For too long, policies have been made to benefit the adults running the system, with little attention to the children and youth being served. As an organization that doesn’t represent any part of the system (school leaders, teachers, or program providers), rather just what’s best, based on research, for kids, we are happy to see that more and more leaders and organizations are finally focusing on personalized learning, student-centered learning, individualized learning, and youth development approaches that consider the needs of each individual youth¹.
Because we are all different, educational settings need to be personalized, based on the academic, social, and emotional needs, interests, strengths, and career and life goals of each learner. Learning opportunities should be designed to fit these needs, rather than trying to fit every student into a prescribed mode of learning. While the traditional model of schooling does work for some students, most youth, and particularly the traditionally underserved youth we focus on, need something very different.
For too long, we’ve put not only square pegs, but triangular pegs, oval pegs, and rectangular pegs, into a round hole. No wonder so many kids drop out of high school and are so disengaged. Their learning environment doesn’t come close to fitting them.
Young people should experience supportive, engaging, and developmentally-appropriate learning settings that challenge them and build upon their interests and strengths, and the settings should allow for the development of a wide range of knowledge, skills, and competencies. Learning should be keyed to the academic level and talents of students, allowing them to learn at their own pace with the appropriate tools and supports to develop the required mastery of academic and non-academic material. Instruction should provide opportunities for learners to make connections between what they are learning and use that information to solve real problems that have meaning to them.
Personalized learning relies on differentiated and customized instruction, requiring a cadre of instructors and counselors who are able to continuously assess the learner, set growth measures and targets, and help the learner access the appropriate material to be on a steady pace to mastery. Learners should be well known by their instructors and have opportunities to develop strong relationships with caring adults, counselors, mentors, and teachers. Learners should have a personalized learning plan, based on the student’s abilities, interests, and postsecondary goals, to ensure they meet college and career ready standards. Other factors, such as creating a sense of belonging and safety, positive social norms, and opportunities for leadership, voice, and choice and to develop social and emotional skills, need to be included in a personalized learning experience.
You may notice that I haven’t used the word school to describe the concept of personalized learning. That’s because learning happens everywhere, and we need to find ways to connect the learning that does occur in school with the learning that takes place in other arenas, such as afterschool, summer, in clubs and activities, at work (paid and unpaid), postsecondary settings, online and through technology, and in other educational environments (museums, libraries, and alternative education, for example). To truly embrace and advance a personalized learning approach, our policies need to break down the walls between formal and informal learning, help kids get access to lots of knowledge and advance in a chosen pathway, ensure the learning leads to quality outcomes, and find ways to assess and determine the value of that learning.
We think personalized learning, with its focus on the individual, is especially critical in helping traditionally underserved youth, including those who have dropped out of school, are overage and under-credited and need more time or flexibility to earn a high school diploma or equivalent, have special needs, and/or face additional challenges such as being homeless or involved with the foster care or juvenile justice system. In truth, many youth fall into multiple categories, which means things get even more complicated. We need truly responsive and individualized learning approaches that address not just educational goals, but help with health, mental health, food, housing, transportation, child care, safety and security, social and emotional development, and relationship building.
Finally, this all really does come down to relationships. While rigor and relevance in learning are important, without relationships, nothing happens. The relationship and trust between a youth and adult drives what happens in the classroom and in other educational settings, yet we neglect that important ingredient and focus instead on fixes like testing and assessment, school choice, or online learning. They might all play an important role in improving outcomes for youth, but if we don’t make learning personal, we miss our chance to help each young person strive to be the best they can be.
So, my last thought is, how do we promote policies that create these comprehensive personalized learning experiences I’m talking about? Would love to hear your thoughts.
¹Personalized learning is one of AYPF’s four policy pillars.
AYPF is writing blogs on each of its four Policy Pillars: Personalized Learning, Pathways to College and Career Readiness and Success, Comprehensive Connected Supports, and Expanding Learning and Skill Development. Stay tuned for future blog posts.