This post is by Ryan MacDonald, program coordinator for the Innovation Lab Network at CCSSO.
Growing up, I was a student with a learning disability. I have dyslexia and struggled with reading and writing for most of my life. I had educational experiences that often made me feel “different” and less than my fellow classmates. I had supports within my schools to aid me in my struggles, but those supports often brought negative attention to me and my disability. Years later, I still have clear memories of my classmates calling me “retarded” and feeling helpless in my situation. As I look back on my educational experience, my disability was the defining quality in my elementary and middle schools years. I was my disability.
Unfortunately, I was not alone in feeling like this. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there are over 2 million students receiving special education services for a learning disability in the United States. Students throughout the country are sitting in schools, and may feel “different” because of their learning disability. As the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) illustrates in its “The State of Learning Disabilities”, students with learning disabilities often feel stigmatized and parents report their child is often bullied because of their disability. I went to traditional schools with a teacher at the front of the classroom giving the same lesson to every student at the same time. Looking back, it’s not a surprise I felt so different and had low self-esteem. If you learn differently from the educator’s teaching style, it’s easy to feel inadequate. Many of our current schooling models in the United States have not been set up to meet the needs of all students given the variety of needs we bring into the classroom and our different learning styles.
However, states, districts and schools are looking to change this by transforming their schooling models into personalized learning environments. Personalized learning creates a learning culture that embraces and acknowledges that every student has different learning needs and styles--instead of treating every student as the same type of learner. This model shows promise to limit stigmatization of students with disabilities since every student develops a learning plan that incorporates their needs and learning styles. During my education, I was often taken out of the classroom and given specific instruction one-on-one to aid in my struggles with reading and writing. The action of removing me from the classroom and away from my peers made me feel isolated and brought attention to my disability. My educators were not able to give me the support I needed in the classroom because the system was designed to teach all students in the same way. If I had attended a personalized learning environment, there would have been opportunities to provide me with the support I needed in the classroom without removing me from my peers.
There’s clear opportunity to use personalized learning to aid students with disabilities in their learning and raise their self-esteem in their learning. However, barriers still exist. One barrier is the lack of knowledge of what is personalized learning and how it can benefit students with disabilities. In elementary and middle school, I had an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) that guided my learning to increase my reading and writing skills. There could be the perception the IEP was a personalized plan for me. Looking back, I do not see it as a personalized learning plan for me. I did not even know I had an IEP until this year, ten years after the fact. In a personalized learning environment, students and educators act as partners in crafting and planning their learning plans. Additionally, because of the misconception of learning disabilities, schools and educators often have lower expectations for students with disabilities and feel they are not able to fully participate in the classroom. These barriers should inform our thinking and not discourage the expansion of true personalized learning access to students with disabilities.
Allowing students with disabilities the ability to learn in the classroom with their peers has the potential to strip away the stigma of having a disability. NCLD, in its Personalized Learning: Meeting the Needs of Students with Disabilities, has pointed to the reduction of stigma as a benefit for students with learning disabilities. It also has the potential benefit of increasing student engagement and achievement in personalized learning environments. A personalized learning environment allows educators to weave different learning and teaching styles into the classroom to meet students where they are in their learning. In an article for Understood.org, Bob Cunningham points to the importance of self-esteem for students in their education, and he notes that high self-esteem comes from repeated success. Unfortunately, students with disabilities often have lower self-esteem which results in anxiety and sadness, which can lead to students losing interest in learning. Personalized learning, when done well, can build a supportive, healthy learning environment that increases the self-esteem of students with disabilities, with the added benefit of increased engagement and achievement.
Looking back now, I often wonder what school would’ve been like had I matured in a personalized learning environment. Recently I had the opportunity, through my work with CCSSO’s Innovation Lab Network, to see personalized learning schools in Wisconsin and New Hampshire. In these classrooms, I saw students with different needs, at different stages of their learning, taking ownership of their education. The educators in these schools treated the students as individuals rather than a group. As I spoke and interacted with students in these visits, I imagined how my own growth and development could be different if I’d had the opportunity to learn in this model of school, like these students. Would I have felt so isolated from my peers? Could I have learned at a different pace? Would my classmates had called me “retard” less? Would I have felt like a normal kid instead of lesser than my classmates?
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