Aug 17
sophie.d's picture

The Importance of Personalized Learning and How Our Schools Fall Short

Parkinson’s disease can be caused by a variety of genetic mutations. One damages PINK1, a protein that sticks to the tops of damaged mitochondria, tagging them to be broken down. Spring of my sophomore year bio class I had the opportunity to dig into the genetic and biochemical mechanisms behind Parkinson’s disease. Armed with a school-issued Chromebook, a world of scientific papers lay at my hands. With the gifted of hours of free class time, I had the space to dissect the text, taking full advantage of Google and control find. Pencil sketches and teacher-scrawled questions guided me along the mind-blowing path of biology and my questions popped up like branches on a tree. For the first time, I had the freedom to follow those questions, self-designing research to fit my interests. I had stuck my feet into the river of personalized learning and was prepared to let it sweep me onward. Summer came around and I found myself in a lab, pipetting out standards and sonicating ground up mouse lungs. Each week, we had journal club and read a paper related to the lab's area of study: redox biology in lung disease. Suddenly, my Parkinson's practice blossomed in my head. In a world where everything was new, I could draw on my experience: reading papers, drawing models, and even the knowledge about redox as it relates to Parkinson's. Personalized learning had gifted me lifelong skills that served me in the "real world", and I became determined to pursue it in my education.

I used to think that some classes you like, and some you don’t, and that’s just the way school is. Grades were a strong motivator in my learning and I thought very little about the learning process and my place in education. I didn’t like my sophomore year bio class. Coming into the class with a strong background and interest in science, I hoped for deep content and challenge. The presence of science “skills”, such as modeling, close reading, and writing, seemed to replace the content I yearned for. Throughout the first portion of the year, I found myself bored and frustrated, yet I did not speak up, accepting the experience as normal. Midway through the year my teacher approached me and asked about my experience in the class. From this simple action, an ongoing conversation was born, sprouting an independent project that became a defining positive experience of my year. Those skills I couldn't stand slipped into my head like vegetables in mac and cheese, strengthening my scientific thinking and allowing me to pursue deeper content. I realized that my education is a complex system, like the signaling within a cell. I discovered that by eliminating my passiveness towards my learning I could restore the metaphorical PINK1 protein of my education and prune and shape my experiences to my own needs.

Educators and lawmakers have already recognized the importance of personalized learning. Vermont is a leader in progressive education: in July of 2013, Act 77 passed into law. This act, a decade in the making, redefined our state’s education system. Act 77 requires schools to support flexible pathways to graduation. This is defined as “any combination of high-quality academic and experiential components leading to secondary school completion and postsecondary readiness”. In addition, schools had to implement personalized learning plans (PLPs) which are developed by students and document the current strengths, needs, motivation, and goals of each student.

I graduate from Champlain Valley Union High School in 2020. My grade is the first at my school to graduate by standards, meaning our school has completed the shift to personalized learning. There is a greater presence of alternative learning programs such as online learning and career and technical education, which opens up opportunities for many of my peers. Personally, I wish to pursue a “traditional” high school education. Act 77 reaches this pathway only through PLPs. In ninth and tenth grade I created a presentation, or PLP, reflecting on my year which I shared with my advisor. This process was one that I failed to find value in. Like many of my peers, I viewed it as another box to check off, and an ungraded one at that. My PLP consisted of a slide for each prompt, such as "how have I grown", adorned with photos and short bulleted lists. While the process did prompt me to reflect on my year, I did not set goals or make a concrete plan for future learning. My PLP was shared with my parents and advisor only and none of my teachers were involved in the process. This takes the value away from PLPs by eliminating their presence in the classroom. In fact, the personalization I benefited from in my bio class was not linked to the PLP process and instead was brought upon by a teacher going out of her way to help me grow. While the idea of each student creating a personalized learning plan is appealing, a lack of execution prevents substantial change from taking root. The promising personalization outlined by Act 77 fails to reach a large portion of students in Vermont.

Communication with my sophomore year bio teacher was a crucial component in turning around the class for me. Every student deserves a relationship of this level with their teachers and with it the opportunity to engage in a tailored curriculum. Personalized learning plans could begin to live up to their intent by being applied in the classroom, not just in the scope of graduation and beyond. Currently, in addition to content and skills, students are assessed on their habits of learning. An example of a target I was assessed on last year in my bio class is "I communicate questions, ideas, stuck points or conflicts". This correlates with a scale, which consists of four boxes: 1, 2, 3, and 4. Each box has a description of what the student must demonstrate to earn that grade. It is crucial that students develop habits in high school that will serve them for the rest of their lives. The current system does not fully achieve this, as habits of learning, while appearing on one's grade portal, do not factor into overall grade and GPA. Students interact very little with the targets and it is not a primary focus. For example, I had a 4 (the highest grade) on my habits of learning in bio all year, despite failing to communicate my disconnect with the class. A way to improve habits of learning, as well as achieve personalization in the classroom, is by requiring students to write their own habits of learning targets. The target would have to be approved by a teacher and the student would be assessed on it throughout the year. The writing process would demand student reflection as well as spark communication between students and teachers. Grades would serve as both a motivator and a way of tracking progress. Students could write a different target for each class specific to its unique challenges or use a more general target for multiple classes. This is an example of a learning target I would write for one of my classes this year: (note—far left is a 1, and far right is a 4)

Expanding on my learning
I do the minimum required to achieve my target grade.I complete all assignments thoroughly but do not pursue areas of interest.I further my learning by asking questions and expanding on assignments.I further my learning by asking questions, expanding on assignments, and designing additional learning opportunities.

As I prepare to return to school, I will make it a goal of mine to communicate with my teachers and pursue exciting learning opportunities. I hope that as I continue on my journey toward taking responsibility for my own education, Vermont continues to develop its education system to reach the needs of students in the classroom. Biology taught me that a microscopic change can revolutionize a huge system. And that’s all I’m asking for. Small conversations, one student and one teacher, propelling our state forward on the promising path of personalized learning.