What If Every Student Had A Personalized Learning Plan?

In a 2019 opinion piece for online education news site the74million.org, Harvard Graduate School of Education Professor Paul Reville posed an intriguing question: “What if every child had a personalized plan to help him or her thrive?” Although this may sound like a theoretical question, Reville heads up Harvard’s Education Redesign Lab, where researchers are busy experimenting with an education model based on a high degree of personalization for all students.

Typically, only students with special education needs move through school with an individualized education plan (IEP), per the requirements of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. As emphasized by the federal guide to IEPs, such plans are “designed for one student and must be a truly individualized document” with the purpose of identifying and providing specific supports and interventions based on a student’s special education diagnosis. What follows is an ongoing dialogue between the school and the student’s family, with required progress reports and IEP readjustments as needed.

Expanding personalization in education

The Education Redesign Lab's vision is detailed in a new study focused on the implementation of what the lab calls “success plans” in more than a dozen school districts around the country. Rooted in an IEP-like approach to working with students and their unique needs, these “personalized plans—tangible tools for identifying children's and youths' strengths, interests, and needs and matching them with tailored supports and opportunities—have the potential to reshape our education system,” according to the lab’s website.

Despite its potential, such a model has been vastly underutilized in education thus far, with the report noting that many students who might be eligible for special education services either do not seek out or are not given formal evaluations and diagnoses. As a result, only a “small portion” of these potentially eligible individuals have access to an IEP or its less restrictive companion, the 504 plan.

Beyond expanding access to personalized plans for those with learning differences, the Harvard researchers intend the model to be transformative for all students, particularly those who live in poverty. According to the researchers, there is an “iron law correlation in the U.S. between a child’s socioeconomic status and his or her prospects for educational achievement,” and a comprehensive approach that includes personalized plans may be an important way to combat the correlation.

With this in mind, the Education Research Lab crafted a framework that goes beyond tackling academic concerns to include the following focus areas:

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  • Constructing children’s cabinets or working groups

  • Expanding learning opportunities

  • Integrating social and emotional health services

  • Personalizing learning

The goal is to broaden access to support systems and subsequently point students in the direction of counseling services, medical care, and after-school enrichment options that can help them identify and overcome barriers. To facilitate these efforts, the lab also launched the By All Means initiative designed to “support local communities as they create cross-sector systems of child well-being and education.” Thus far, researchers have worked with civic and education leaders in a handful of states to build a network of support for the By All Means initiative and the accompanying success plan model.

Modernizing an existing approach

Although Harvard's Education Research Lab is directing new energy and resources toward studying the potential of personalized learning plans, the concept itself is not a novel one. In fact, according to the report, such strategies “gained prominence in the 1990s as a national school reform initiative” intended to more successfully meet the needs of an increasingly diverse student population, as well as to help more students graduate from high school and go on to college. An underlying belief in student voice and empowerment fueled the endeavor, with students being guided to identify their own future goals and realize a path to achieving them.

According to the Harvard researchers, the initially narrow focus on personalized academic plans has gradually expanded to include the broader, holistic approach embedded in the lab's success plan model. Although the details of how to put such plans into practice on a wide scale are still to come—along with cost-effectiveness studies and clearly articulated ways to protect students’ data privacy in a digital age—some school districts are already experimenting with the concept. For instance, as acknowledged in a 2018 EdSurge profile by Frank Barnes, Vermont students in grades seven through 12 are required to have in place a “document that guides each learner through a meaningful learning experience that leads to college and/or career readiness.”

The individual learning plans being put to use in Vermont are built around the idea that different students need different levels of support and guidance in order to succeed. Intended to grow alongside the students, the specific benchmarks and aims articulated within each plan can be shifted and readjusted as needed—and, perhaps unsurprisingly, making this level of personalization a reality has not been without its challenges. As Barnes phrased it, “Understanding, accepting, and implementing a shift in thinking takes time and patience. There is a learning curve, which can cause anxiety for some students and teachers,” particularly older students who may be resistant to change and educators uncertain of how to embrace a more student-led, individualized approach to teaching and learning.

Those searching for a place to start on the personalized learning plan path will find a wealth of information in the Harvard Education Research Lab report, which describes the various ways to craft and implement such plans and provides an extensive, research-based foundation for doing so. Certainly, the goal articulated in Reville's the74million.org piece (“Embed equity and access in every aspect of the work”) is an admirable one.

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