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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Personalized Learning and the School of One

Personalized learning has been a lot on our minds at Edutopia lately. We just launched some major coverage on Forest Lake Elementary School in Columbia, South Carolina -- a kind of "little school that could" for differentiated instruction. It's an earnest, humble place (except for the slew of awards touted on the façade) full of earnest, humble people who are simply determined to teach each child as a unique individual. Through strong leadership, dogged grant-writing and constant collaboration, they've done it.

So I perked right up when I saw Ta-Nehisi Coates's essay in the latest Atlantic, "The Littlest Schoolhouse" (thanks to @SaheliDatta on Twitter for calling it to my attention).

It's a personal story (the best kind, I think -- better than detached pontifications about theories and statistics). Coates paints himself as the poster child for personalization -- which he never got but desperately needed as a child in school. He struggled, goofed off, struggled some more, and finally dropped out of college. Now, he's writing for the Atlantic. Not too shabby. He asks, "How could I utterly fail in practice and then succeed in the game?"

His answer: "The biggest difference between my work life and my school life is that my job allows for a high level of personalization. Unlike my teachers in school, my editors don't unilaterally insist that I do a story a certain way; instead, we come to an agreement."

But the practice could become much more like the game (I have my fingers crossed!). Coates's beacon of hope is the School of One, New York City's experiment in differentiation instruction. It's still in the Petri dish (just an add-on program in a few pilot schools so far), but the goal of founder Joel Rose is to perfect the formula and then spread it to schools all across town. School of One relies heavily but not exclusively on technology to adapt lessons to individuals. And it gets points for having a catchy name.

Coates describes the vision like this:


That's the first time I've heard the term "boutique education," and I like it. Yes, it smacks of elitism -- except that in this case, the argument is that we can and should offer the quote-unquote luxury item, a personalized education that actually works, to everyone.

At Forest Lake, I saw exactly what Coates saw at I.S. 339 in the Bronx, an early site for School of One. Different clusters of children would be reading books, practicing math skills on a computer, creating videos with a Flip cam, contributing to the class blog, producing PowerPoint slide shows, or reviewing suffixes and prefixes on an interactive whiteboard -- often all in the same room. The kids were startlingly engaged and self-directed, even 6- and 7-year-olds.

If School of One succeeds, we could see Forest Lake Elementary Schools all over New York, and maybe beyond. And I hope that means we could help many more kids -- those for whom the one-size-fits-all ways don't work and even those who don't have Coates's luck and resilience -- reach their potential.

What difference do you think this model could make in your school setting? What will it take for it succeed?

-- Grace Rubenstein, is a senior producer at Edutopia

Comments (14)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

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Janis Seminara's picture
Janis Seminara
Writer, Writing tutor

This program is so promising. I too would love to teach in a school like this one. Imagine that! A school that applies itself to meet the
students potential! Glorious!

Darleen Saunders's picture

I am glad to see that "differentiation" and many of the practices that came from gifted education now filter down to all.

Children love to learn, when we let them be who they intrinsically are. When we see them as individuals and are mindful of their abilities and talents children blossom into lifelong learners.

Gail Poulin's picture

I teach kindergarten in a suburban school. My instruction is pretty much down the middle with a few limited forays into the higher and lower level learner categories. Apart from the guided reading time, nowhere is there the time, resources, or personnel to meet the needs of the full range of learners. I for one have long wanted to throw out the idea of grades. Teach what the students need to know when they are ready to learn it. When they complete that, move on. Find out their special interests and talents and work with that. I think some magnet or performing arts schools do a better job teaching students for the very reason that they are addressing a wider variety of learning styles. This sounds like the school for me. No more pushing kids into territory they aren't prepared for just because it's on the standards based report card. I would love to see the student back in the center of teaching and learning.

Victoria Clearwater's picture

Hi Grace, Victoria here :) I'm a parent - my son Lucas (16) is a student at the Puget Sound Community School (www.pscs.org) here in Seattle. I'm also a Board Member and assist with their marketing efforts. I regularly scan the press, came across this post, immediately created an account here and want to introduce myself and you all to PSCS, which is built on similar principals as the School of One. We also have a facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/PSCSfans, and our interim Director, Steve Miranda, has an incredible blog, "Re-educate" (http://stevemiranda.wordpress.com/), which I think you'll love! I could go on forever about PSCS, how my son is truly thriving and what it all as meant to our family. This clearly is not the place - it's just my hope that as like minds come together, education can really be transformed beyond these inspired pockets of experimentation. So looking forward to further posts here :) ....v

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