Student Engagement

Personalized Learning and the School of One

New York City’s experiment in differentiated instruction relies heavily, but not exclusively on technology to adapt lessons to individuals.

June 11, 2010

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:

"Teachers generally work on a mass-production model -- if 30 kids are in the class, the goal is to find a method that will allow the highest percentage of them to succeed. A great teacher can employ secondary methods to get through to laggards, but given the variables that individual students bring to the class, a handful of kids will inevitably be shortchanged. Teaching each child at his or her optimal level with the optimal technique has traditionally been left to private schools and expensive tutors. But with more schools employing computers, Rose saw a chance to bring boutique education to a mass public-school audience."

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

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  • K-2 Primary
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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