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Can Personalized Learning Have a Template?

For decades, students who strayed too far from average in terms of their abilities—either toward disability or toward giftedness—have been subject to an Individual Education Program (IEP) that describes in detail the steps that will be taken to address the student’s educational needs. The program is mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and it is often considered a bureaucratic hassle for those involved, requiring form after form, and meeting after meeting.

An increasingly popular step for states is to mandate that a struggling school in the process of reorganization require a similar document for each student in the school in an effort to demonstrate that learning at the school is being individualized and differentiated. In Washington, every seventh grader who failed to meet progress standards has a Student Learning Plan in place for their eighth grade year.

These programs are massive mandates that affect thousands, if not millions, of students. Programs of that size will naturally streamline the procedures by templating the process. The question is whether truly individualized learning can be described on a template and, if so, where it should fall in the process: periodically during learning on the student side, or on the teacher side in the form of varied lesson plans.

Government- and School-based Personalized Learning Plans

In terms of mandates, Rhode Island has gone even farther, requiring Individual Learning Plans for every student in Grades 5–12 as part of their diploma system. Hope High School in Providence published their entire ILP program guide online to assist other schools that are facing a similar process. Additionally, West Des Moines Community Schools in Iowa has gathered many different personalized learning program examples from around the world into an easily accessible online catalog.

Under Hope’s system, students are the drivers of the program and complete the vast majority of the templates and guides as a way to generate buy-in toward their academic, social, and civic success.

The key word, however, is template. Of course, some uniformity has to be expected when thousands of students are being governed under these plans. The question becomes whether a system of templates and meetings generates a truly individualized educational strategy.

Lesson Plan Templates for Individualization

On the other hand, perhaps the true driver of the personalized learning experience should have the reins. Teachers can also be the subject of certain templating when filling out their lesson plans. Those requirements don’t change just because the school or district has moved toward a more individualized method of instruction.

As the US Department of Education defines, “In an environment that is fully personalized, the learning objectives and content as well as the method and pace may all vary.” Sam Redding from Temple University’s Center on Innovations in Learning has a comprehensive report on individualized instruction from the teacher’s point of view, including a number of lesson plan templates. While the desired result—personalized instruction for every student—might still be achieved, the lesson plan templates are extremely regimented, even dictating timeframes. Thus, the USDOE’s definition is not quite accomplished.

The Way Forward

Most educators recognize that individualized instruction should be a goal that everyone should strive for. As more and more classrooms, schools, and districts formalize these plans, how does differentiation scale to accommodate millions of students?

Education has been governed by paperwork and bureaucracy since the beginning of the formal education system. This regimented approach has its roots in the Industrial Revolution, valuing efficiency and cost management over individualization. It’s time for a new approach.

The world of technology scales very well. Personalized Learning Plans can be tailored for each individual based on the work that student is completing and the goals to be met. The curriculum can then be modified for the best efficacy. Instead of paperwork and regimented lesson plans that still try to fit every student into an appropriate silo, individualization can be made possible through the technology that has impacted almost every other facet of our lives.

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