How to personalize learning? Start with empathy.

I recently caught up with a  friend of mine, let’s call her Sheila.  We hadn’t talked in some time and I was glad to catch up on her life and, especially, to hear how her daughter, Carolyn, was doing.

A History of Illness

Carolyn, now  in high school, has lived with a severe chronic illness her whole life that has increasingly caused frequent and sometimes prolonged hospitalizations, which, of course, keep her out of school.  During her freshman year, Carolyn missed four months of school and was just transitioning back when her mom and I spoke.  Knowing that working with the school system to accommodate Carolyn has been akin to a part-time job for Sheila, I asked how it was going. 

An Empathetic School

Sheila told me the school had been great.  They have a program for students with chronic illnesses.  Not only does the team work together to provide tutoring, they also support students socially and emotionally.  An example of their accommodation, Sheila told me, was that Carolyn was allowed to show proficiency on major assignments, rather than being held accountable (I.e., graded down) for missing assignments.

I was overjoyed to hear this.  Navigating schoolwork and missed assignments has been a major source of stress for both Carolyn and Sheila, exacerbated, no doubt, by the fact that Carolyn attends one of the highest performing high schools in her state. KUDOS to this high school for creating such program and by doing so, showing empathy for students whose very real struggles would prevent them from passing their courses if not for these accommodations. Other schools offer similar alternative programs for students who, for a variety of reasons, need a more personalized approach.

Good for one or good for all?

But then, I have to wonder—are some of these accommodations just good practice that can be extended to all students?  If teachers realize that some assignments are simply not essential (and thus can be not “counted”) then it stands to reason that they’ve already done the hard work of identifying what is and is not essential—which standards must be mastered, what each student must know and be able to do to be considered proficient in a particular course of study and allowed to move forward. So why not apply this philosophy to the entire school?

This isn’t about missing assignments or not holding students accountable.  It’s about how we think about learning in general.  If we can allow flexibilities for some, let’s do the same for all.  Giving each student what she needs, when she needs it just makes sense.  If we do that, the learning will follow.

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