Personalized Learning Can Empower Kids With Special Needs When Done Right

Jul 6, 2018 12:00:00 AM

by Michelle Shearer

Twenty-first century learning calls on adults in the classroom to move from a position of power to a position of empowerment. How and whether we empower all students determines our success in driving true equity for our traditionally most disadvantaged students, including those with disabilities and specific learning needs. That unique, empowering relationship between adults and students is at the center of personalized learning systems. For this reason, personalized learning holds promise and challenge. It relies on teachers to facilitate and design learning. Ideally, teachers are as explicit about empowering students and providing choice in learning as they are about content. Personalized learning, while promising, presents challenges for students with disabilities and other specific learning needs. Although many general and special educators are working to fully include all students in personalized learning systems, they face persistent obstacles. Resources may not be accessible to all students. Educators may not fully understand the range of students’ needs and challenges present in their classrooms. Professional learning may be needed regarding best practices for implementing blended models, project-based learning or other engaging forms of instruction for all learners. In other words, [pullquote position="right"]personalized learning does not happen on its own.[/pullquote] We must be deliberate in our efforts to make it a reality. There are a number of reasons why students with disabilities might be left out of personalized learning efforts. For example, well-intentioned adults may hold conscious and unconscious biases about the capabilities of students with disabilities. We may insist the academic curriculum is inaccessible or withhold certain learning opportunities, perhaps in an effort to protect students with special needs from failure and disappointment. Regardless of the reason, when we deprive students with disabilities of meaningful educational choices, we don't just limit their opportunity to learn—we essentially teach them that they don't belong in certain learning communities. All students must develop the inclination and ability to direct their educational choices. Self-advocacy skills—the capacity to advocate for oneself or one’s group with an understanding of one’s rights, interests and needs—and self-determination—the capacity to be the primary agent in one’s own learning and life—are nonnegotiables for the future success of any student. The dilemma is that [pullquote]students with disabilities often have the most to gain from developing a sense of agency but may be the least prepared to do so.[/pullquote] When students with disabilities leave the care of their families or educators and the legal protections of IDEA after high school, they are sure to face challenges in a new and unfamiliar adult world. They will inevitably need to advocate for accommodations, either to a faculty member or employer, and will need to stand up for themselves in a community or civic setting. This can be difficult for students encountering such scenarios for the first time, especially if they have never advocated for their needs, strengths or interests in any setting prior to confronting adult challenges. The role of the educator is essential in helping students develop self-advocacy skills and self-determination and take ownership of their future success. As educators, we don’t forfeit that responsibility—we embrace it. There are several ways to support inclusive development of self-advocacy skills and self-determination within personalized learning systems, including:
  • Explicit instruction and assessments of skills associated with self-advocacy and self-determination, such as problem solving, goal setting and self-awareness.
  • Integration of principles of universal design for learning that are built into the curriculum and school culture so that the principles of voice and choice are meaningful for all learners.
  • Proactive involvement of students in meetings and decisions that affect their learning and lives, such as IEP and transition meetings.
As educators, our fundamental goal is to prepare all students for whatever the world throws their way, by designing personalized learning experiences and ensuring students are well-equipped to make informed decisions about their learning and lives. Empowering all students to be self-determined self-advocates isn't someone else's job. It's core to what we all do.

Michelle Shearer

Michelle Shearer served as the 2011 National Teacher of the Year. After, she went on to teach at Frederick High School. Now, she works as the Project Manager for High School Innovation and Transformation for Frederick County Public Schools.

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