The vision of the American Youth Policy Forum is for every young person, especially at-risk youth, to be prepared with the knowledge, skills and behaviors necessary for successful lives as wage earners, engaged citizens, and lifelong learners. A critical component to realizing this vision is learning opportunities that are personalized and student-centered, increasing the likelihood that young people will remain engaged in their learning, less likely to drop out of school, and more likely to succeed in college and careers.
Adults should consider all of students’ aptitudes, abilities and aspirations, and customize learning experiences with those in mind, including having youth learn at their own pace. Young people need to proceed to the next level of instruction once they have mastered certain content and skills. This mastery should not be left to chance, but needs to be systematically attained by receiving detailed feedback and supports from teachers, tutors, mentors, community members, and work-based instructors.
Adults also need to develop meaningful relationships with students. Research has shown that student engagement depends not only on schools that commit to building on student strengths, but also on educators who make them feel excited about their future, and support them along their academic and skill development journey.
AYPF’s mission is to help policymakers craft education and youth policy, and one way AYPF does this is through our study tours that allow participants to see and experience first-hand programs and policies that support youth. On recent tours that focus on the concept of Deeper Learning (funded by the Hewlett Foundation), policymakers witnessed what personalized learning looks like at the school level and which policies need to be in place to support this kind of learning. They talked to students who are motivated to learn, eager to be challenged, and regularly apply their learning to real-life situations. These students are actively engaged in deeper learning, which is defined as a set of knowledge, skills and beliefs including:
• Mastery of Core Academic Content, studying subjects such as reading, writing, mathematics and science to build a strong academic foundation, understanding the principles in these key academic areas, and using this knowledge to complete new tasks.
• Critical Thinking and Problem Solving, where students think critically and analytically, constructing arguments based on finding, evaluating and synthesizing information, and figuring out their own solutions to complex problems.
• Collaboration, where young people work in teams, taking into account multiple perspectives and negotiating a variety of learning styles while working collaboratively on a shared goal.
• Effective Communication, where students communicate clearly in written and oral presentations, listen attentively, and provide constructive feedback to one another.
• Self-directed Learning, where students learn to direct their own learning by setting goals for themselves, monitor their progress towards these goals, and assess their own strengths and areas for improvement.
• An “Academic Mindset,” where students learn to trust their own abilities, to believe in themselves, and to learn from others.
How academic knowledge and skills are acquired varies from school to school. Some schools rely heavily on students doing projects or expeditions (which focus on in-depth study of a theme or topic), many of which last for weeks. In many schools, students assemble a portfolio of their work, and defend this body of work in presentations to teachers, family, and community members as part of graduation requirements. In some of the schools, internships provide students hands-on learning experiences, giving them a chance to apply their knowledge to real-world situations. All these opportunities help students take increasing ownership over their learning and identify connections between disciplines. As learning is customized to students’ interests and abilities, they retain knowledge longer, and this results, as research has revealed, in higher performance. They emerge from the high school experience with a strong belief in themselves and the efficacy of hard work, and are well prepared for college and careers.
These study tours showcase the reality and promise of personalizing learning for every student, along with the attendant result of graduating students who are ready to be successful no matter where life leads them.
Stay tuned for subsequent blogs in this series on Deeper Learning, where we will be discussing what it looks like in practice and policy.
Loretta Goodwin is a Senior Director at the American Youth Policy Forum