15th century
21st century

How Special Education Can Help Make Personalized Learning A Reality for More Students

March Rogers

Our daughter, Lyra, was two years old when she was diagnosed with autism. My wife and I immediately experienced waves of shock and confusion. What did this mean for Lyra’s future? What support would she need? What services were available to help us? As we adjusted to the new reality for our family, we began the long process of becoming experts in raising and advocating for our child with autism.

When Lyra turned three, we learned about the Individualized Education Program (IEP). An IEP maps out a student’s strengths and weakness, the type of personalized instruction that will support those needs, and any necessary classroom accommodations and assistive technology. Special education experts work with teachers and families to develop a student’s IEP, which gives parents and students – who need to participate in the content and environment of their education – an advocacy tool.

A design sense

I’m a software designer by trade and one of the key traits of a good designer is empathy. We spend time with people and use our empathy to discover unmet needs, which helps us create valuable products and services. It’s through this lens that I have been thinking about how IEPs and the personalized learning movement could benefit from inclusive design. I believe practices in special education can help inform the personalized-learning revolution.

Inclusive design is one of the most powerful design methods I know. I first learned about it while helping to design digital learning tools for students with certain forms of dyslexia, but these tools are now used by millions of people around the world. Rather than creating a one-size-fits-all product or experience, inclusive design drives toward one-size-fits-one solutions. By focusing on what is unique about individuals, you can often discover solutions that are better for everyone. A classic example is the ramp, which was developed to accommodate wheelchair users. But anyone pushing a stroller, lugging a suitcase, or riding a bike has certainly benefited from a ramp. If this approach works for our bodies, could it also work for how our minds learn and grow?

If you think about the classic model of a school, it has not kept up with the needs of modern students. Schools were established in the 19th century to provide a mostly agrarian society with the literacy skills required to adapt to the radical transformations wrought by the Industrial Revolution. As mechanization shifted the economy, it became critical to develop future factory workers. So the public education system optimized for uniformity and efficiency to teach reading, writing, basic math and rote memorization.

Automation and information technology have shifted a multitude of jobs from the factory to the office. With the emergence of the internet and smartphones, the need to memorize facts has diminished as all human knowledge sits in your pocket. What we need now are not lifelong factory workers but lifelong learners.

Kids today don’t need to memorize, they need to learn to solve hard problems. They don’t need to regurgitate essays, they need to form their own opinions. They don’t need to sit quietly, they need to debate with each other. In the post-industrial world, the flaws in the existing model of an all-knowing teacher pouring rote knowledge into the heads of dutiful students are becoming clear.

As creativity, collaboration, critical thinking and communication become vital life skills, schools are starting to adapt. Education researchers like Professor Sugata Mitra are radically rethinking what a classroom should look like with his Classroom in the Cloud program. Teachers are experimenting with “flipped classrooms” where students consume YouTube-style lectures at home and spend their class time working on projects together.

An exciting new era of education is dawning. One where technology, modern instructional techniques and new insights into diverse learning styles could lead to individualized education for every student. We have the opportunity to design a new classroom, a new educational experience where personalized learning is the standard, not the exception.

New model of learning

I see a great opportunity to use this same inclusive design method to help inform the evolving field of personalized learning. We can learn from the design of IEPs and the students who use them. What insights can we uncover by learning with and from children who participate in special education? How about starting with an assessment of each student’s particular strengths, preferences and needs? We can look to the different physical, mental and emotional dimensions of each child and plan accommodations and supports to match.

Does Julie best understand complex concepts through quiet reflection or intense discussion? Can Aditya sit quietly and concentrate for hours or does he need to run, jump and climb between lessons to stay focused? Does Xiu Ying prefer to ask questions in a group setting or one on one with her teacher?

Next, we can adapt the curriculum from a “students better keep up” model to a competency-based system, where students progress at their own pace and in their own way to master a topic.

Khan Academy’s online math program is an example of how technology can enable a competency-based system. A teacher can select a topic and each student can go through multiple lessons and exercises that build on one another to create a foundation. Students don’t progress to new concepts until they’ve mastered the one at hand. This approach allows students to learn through the combination of explanations, animations and hands-on exercises that work best for them.

Modern software tools allow students to express themselves in ways that suit their preferences and needs. Students who are more comfortable speaking rather than writing can submit their assignments as videos. Using online group discussions, shy students can share their learnings, request help when they need it and practice peer mentoring.

We know from research and from special education practices, that students thrive more when they have a support network. How can we translate that aspect for the broader student population? Can technology and contemporary pedagogy shift a teacher’s focus from lecturing and grading papers to a more personalized approach? These are hard questions, with daunting facets and no easy answer, but I believe we need to ask them.

My journey as Lyra’s father has brought home how important it is to learn from people other than ourselves. Inclusive design has become my new guiding principle. I believe it can be applied to education and can help prepare any child for the world they will one day inherit. Leading with empathy, we can build on the foundation of special education practices and create an educational journey for all children that is more supportive of their unique gifts and instills in them a love of learning–and empathy for others.

I’m not implying that personalized learning will replace special education programs like IEPs. Such programs provide much needed support and advocacy for some of our most vulnerable children. Instead, personalized learning and special education can complement one another.

Lyra is 10 years old now. She loves to count, sing Sesame Street songs and make her own slime. There’s a team of people who come together with Lyra to build her learning around her favorite things. I look forward to a day when the level of energy, love and dedication that my own daughter receives in her educational journey is available to every child in the world.

Originally published on mismatch.design.