Personalized learning and special education

Male tutor sitting at a table with a special needs teenage boy

As the holiday season arrives in full swing, many of us in education are busily preparing for the rest of this year as well as the holidays. I thought it would be fun to have some of my friends and neighbors over to kick off the holiday season. Because many of them are in education and all of us are mothers, the conversation inevitably turns to the state of education. I try to listen for a bit before sharing research and evidence on learning outcomes. Inevitably, though I am on my soap box about how we have to prepare our kiddos now for college and careers. That we can’t wait until they are in high school and try to get them prepared for college and/or careers.  That we must look at each of our kiddos and identify their strengths and their goals and provide learning based on that information. One friend, who also happens to be a teacher, looked at me and said, “okay, I agree with what you are saying but how do we do it? It sounds like you are talking about providing a ‘special education’ for every student in my class. I have 21 students in my class, are you nuts?!”  I  replied, “yes, I am talking about personalized learning.  Providing education tailored to each student’s individual needs based on individual goals and informed by individual student data: personalized learning… AKA: special education.  We can learn a great deal about how to personalize learning by reviewing lessons learned from the field of special education.

There is a great deal of discussion about personalized learning but what is it? Wikipedia defines it as “the tailoring of pedagogy, curriculum and learning environments to meet the needs and aspirations of individual learners. Typically technology is used to facilitate personalized learning environments.” I’ve heard others refer to it as “competency-based learning,” “adaptive learning,” “student centered learning” and “individualized learning.” While all of the aforementioned strategies support personalized learning, isn’t personalized learning a pedagogical philosophy that is not unlike special education? Take a look at Florian and Black-Hawkins (2010) description of their conceptualization of inclusive pedagogy:

“Our conceptualisation of inclusive pedagogy focuses on how to extend what is ordinarily available in the community of the classroom as a way of reducing the need to mark some learners as different. This is underpinned by a shift in pedagogical thinking from an approach that works for most learners existing alongside something ‘additional’ or ‘different’ for those (some) who experience difficulties, towards one that involves providing rich learning opportunities that are sufficiently made available for everyone, so that all learners are able to participate in classroom life.”

Studies carried out by the Institute of Education, University of London have determined eight themes necessary for inclusion:

  • Inclusive learning environment – sound and light issues, seating, resources, displays, low arousal areas, health and safety
  • Multi-sensory approaches, including ICT – when teaching, for pupil recording and to promote security and organisation
  • Working with additional adults – consulting pupils about support, planning support, evaluating support
  • Managing peer relationships – grouping pupils, managing group work and discussion, developing responsibility
  • Adult /pupil communication and language – teachers’ and pupils’ communication, pupil-teacher interaction
  • Formative assessment/ assessment for learning – understanding the aims of the lesson, focusing on how pupils learn, giving feedback, understanding assessment criteria, reviewing progress and helping pupils to improve, gathering assessment evidence
  • Motivation – understanding the structure of the lesson, relevant and motivating tasks, reward systems
  • Memory/ consolidation – recapping, reducing reliance on memory, consolidating learning, independent study/homework

When reviewing the themes necessary for successful inclusion, the components of personalized learning become clearly linked. In special education the student is the focus and the learning builds on the individual student’s assets. Special education teachers adapt and differentiate instruction based on student needs. Another commonality is the idea of using data to inform and modify instruction. This is not new to special education as for students with disabilities, data sets the stage for creating a student’s IEP (otherwise known as an Individual Education Plan). In addition, RtI which took so many by storm when it was introduced into federal legislation requires the use of data to inform instruction. Using existing data as well as gathering data to inform instruction seems like a given yet is still not utilized. Use of formative assessment can and should be utilized to personalize the learning of all of our students.