George Lucas Educational Foundation
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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

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Grace Rubenstein's picture
Grace Rubenstein
Former senior producer at Edutopia

Victoria, thanks for jumping in. I'm really glad this post spoke to you. It sounds like your son's school is doing great work. Looking forward to having your voice in our discussions at Edutopia!


Maria Sommer's picture

This is exactly where I would like my school to be, but we aren't. HOW did they do it? Where did the funding for the technology come from? What about the professional development? Exactly what types of software and curriculum resources do they use and where can I find them?

Grace Rubenstein's picture
Grace Rubenstein
Former senior producer at Edutopia

Hi Maria. Glad this piqued your interest! I can't speak to those details on the School of One, as I haven't researched it in that much depth myself. I'd recommend you check out our Schools That Work coverage on Forest Lake Elementary in Columbia, SC. There's lots of info there that I hope will answers your questions about PD, funding, software, etc., and that I think will be useful no matter what grade level (elementary or otherwise) you work in.

Also, the School of One website (linked from my blog post above) may have some more specific info on that program.

Good luck! Keep us posted on your efforts.

sarahas5's picture
Algebra and AP English teacher from Gainesville, Florida

I think we are moving more and more toward that "luxurious" position of a "school for one"--"boutique education"--as we incorporate technology into our school. My school has very little--especially if you compare it to Forest Lake Elementary in Columbia, S.C.--but we do have the benefit of teaching three days in the classrooms and "home-schooling" the other two. That means students can use computers and other machines at home to get that technological component.

For my classes, I've been able to adopt technology to teach in my place on those two home-school days. As I learn more and more about integrating technology into my subjects, my students are getting more and more of it--and they love it. It does allow them the freedom to learn for themselves--or rather teach themselves what they'd like to learn. It makes "rabbit trails" a positive thing in education--when the student can stray off that too-well-beaten path to find that real-world topic that interests him.

I think as long as we can collaborate and communicate while students go off on their own trails, the school of one is a great concept.

Carla Schuab's picture

I believe that this model can make a huge difference in every school. Nevertheless, for it to be effective teachers will need to really understand their students' individual needs and be persistent. It is difficult to get it right the first time around. This past year, I conducted an action research to design a differentiated lesson based on students' interests and readiness levels. After refining it a couple of times, it was a total success. The level of engagement of my pre-k students was higher than ever before and the results were simply amazing!

Gradinita's picture

If this is elitism, I'll take a second helping please:

- practicing math skills on a computer
- creating videos with a Flip cam
- contributing to the class blog
- producing PowerPoint slide shows
- startlingly engaged and self-directed
- often all in the same room

Isn't it quite obvious that School of One is on the right track?

Boutique education sounds like music to my ears in a world of the impersonal, regimented, square (box) shaped educational system.

Is it any wonder that the adult working class is constantly being told to "think outside the box"? What if they were never mentally and physically taught "in a box", but were instead treated as individuals?

Every year adults spends billions on self help books that ask them to unlearn what they were taught in school. This often boils down to unlearning how they were taught to think in school.

If School of One catches on, it will be because America has finally (woken up .. oops )caught on.

Gradinita Cresa

Darleen Saunders's picture

We are all on to something here, but I must add that in order to create a new environment like the ones we have described above our current students will need a period of adjustment. Our students will need to unlearn the mass production model first.

When we switched from public school to homeschool this advice was given to me and we found it enormously useful. We gave ourselves time to relax and not try to learn anything for awhile. Time to decompress if you will. After a while learning became natural, like it had in the pre-school years.

Our younger students will take to the "school of one" naturally as that is how they are already learning. But the older students who have been pre-programed for our traditional model of school may need a transition time to get in touch with their innate abilities to learn on their own again.

jenn's picture

I am a teacher in South Carolina and it's great to hear that Forest Lake is being celebrated for what they are doing. This model of learning is very interesting to me. I am a graduate student and this week our focus was on developing professional learning communities. I can see how the success at Forest Lake or in the School of One model is clearly related to the ability and the desire of the teachers and administrators to work and learn together with a focus on meeting the students' needs. I am so interested in finding out more about this model.

Prodigy Game's picture

Great article! I would just like to add that there are many great games out there that take advantage of their ability to engage children by providing learning environments that kids voluntarily participate in. It is my firm believe that without technology, the quest for customized education will be lost. Technology enables both a greater insight into a child's skill level and the ability to adapt instruction to suit each child's particular learning needs and development curve.

That is why we have designed a personalized learning tool that is not only tailored to each individual, but is also incredibly fun for kids. This isn't like any other learning game out there - it uses principles present in adult games to keep children engaged longer. Additionally, using adaptive algorithms in the game and an external wrist sensor, we are able to monitor a child's level of engagement, and adapt the game to keep them learning longer. If that isn't enough, results have shown a 20% average increase in skill level over 4 weeks. Currently the game is focused on math skills for grades 1-5 (ages 6-11), but we hope to add a literacy module soon. Check it out here.

Alida's picture
2nd grade teacher, from California

"Boutique education" may sound like an elitist term, but it really hits the nail on the button. It makes perfect sense that education should be tailored for the individual needs of a student but it is always difficult to put in place. Thanks for providing the model. No we just need the access to technology that is necessary to make this a success at my school site.

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