Personalized learning in special education

Personalized learning has become the motto of education in recent years, particularly in special education. While I consider this to be excellent on many levels, it’s not without danger.

What is personalized learning?

It’s actually a very difficult question to answer because definitions vary a lot. One that many agree on, is that learning should be student centered, and not teacher centered. In its most conservative form, it means shifting the focus from lecturing to student activities. Where it starts becoming personalized is when students are allowed different options to demonstrate their knowledge and gain credit for the class. After that the field is open and interpretations vary. Examples include:

  • Catering to different learning styles (School of One, 2010);
  • Providing material adapted for the students disability;
  • Allowing students to advance at their own pace through the material and providing enrichment material for the advanced students;
  • Letting students choose their homework;
  • Allowing students to choose how to demonstrate their knowledge; and
  • Letting students choose what they learn

Personalized learning and special education

In special education, personalized learning is essential. Students have extremely varied needs requiring diverse adaptations or modifications of the curriculum and assessments (A Day in the Life – Special Education Teacher, 2008). Providing subtitles to blind students would be useless. Asking deaf students to write comments based on an audio recording with no transcript would be equally meaningless. There are obvious needs for personalized learning when it comes to sensory impairments.

Less obvious maybe but no less essential are personalization for students with learning disabilities. I tutored a little girl ten years ago. She was in third grade at the time and the school wanted to send her to a CLIS (special education class in French primary schools), in another school because they didn’t have one adapted to their needs. The family was firmly opposed to this, as CLIS were a dump for children with disabilities at the time, where education was sub-par, and it would cause them many hardship due to the distance. I could talk about this case for hours, but to keep it short I’ll just say this. Yes, this little girl suffered from disability(ies), I don’t know which one(s), but it was obvious that she had at least a speech impairment and difficulties with any abstract concepts. And at the time I met her she was failing in math and French. With 3 months and 2 hours a week of tutoring, she passed. What happened? Personalized instruction. She probably isn’t majoring in math in college, but without it, she wouldn’t have graduated from primary school…

With the move toward inclusive education, personalized learning is bound to gain in importance, and not only for special education students. As it is believed in Finland, every student is special and all deserve personalized learning (Finland’s Formula for Success, 2012). If all students receive personalized learning, it de-stigmatizes special education, on top of being beneficial for all students. Finland consistently ranks very high on PISA, though not as much as in the past (Taylor, 2013).

The danger of personalized learning

Personalized learning seem awesome when you look at it from the perspective of what it could bring to students, but not all is perfect. What makes personalized learning dangerous is that it can be used to dumb-down education for struggling students, pushing them toward lower standards of achievement and vocational teaching.

France’s services for students with disabilities are far below that of the United States. Despite some great improvements since the beginning of personalized learning plans and educational reforms of 2005 – in 2014, 260,000 attended regular schools, twice as many as in 2006 –  76,000 do so in special education classes, and the number of students with disability attending secondary schools is half of those enrolled in primary schools, despite it lasting two years longer than primary school. Those special education classes, the government is proud to mention, are being created at a fast pace mostly in vocational schools (Ministère de l’Education Nationale, 2015).

All of this is in accordance with the students’ personalized learning plans. As we can see, personalized learning doesn’t necessary lead to access to proper education…

Personalized learning, great but be careful

In conclusion, I would still say that personalized learning is an incredible opportunity for students and this effort needs to be continued and promoted. It also need to be carefully monitored to ensure that it leads to equal opportunities and better learning, not a lowering of standards or delivery of a sub-par education.

References

Ministère de l’Education Nationale, de l’Enseignement Supérieur et de la Recherche. (2015, February). La scolarisation des élèves handicapés. Retrieved from http://www.education.gouv.fr/cid207/la-scolarisation-des-eleves-handicapes.html

Taylor, Adam. (2013, December 3). Finland used to have the best education system in the world – What happened? Retrieved from http://www.businessinsider.com/why-finland-fell-in-the-pisa-rankings-2013-12

Youtube. (2008, August 5). A Day in the Life – Special Education Teacher. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tcWtAmVB9-o

Youtube. (2010, November 30). School of One. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HSTrI6nj5xU

Youtube. (2012, January 25). Finland’s Formula for Success. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HsdFi8zMrYI

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