Personalized Learning: Preparing High School Students to Create their Futures

Edited by Joseph DiMartino, John Clarke, and
Denise Wolk (The Scarecrow Press, 368 pages, $43.95)
reviewed by Jill Davidson

Personalized Learning affirms and enlightens the efforts of high school educators who base their pedagogy on knowing students’ minds and hearts well, advocating structures and methods that support students’ particular, idiosyncratic ways of learning and teachers’ judgments about how best to teach them.

Editor Joseph DiMartino introduces the book, suggesting personalization can be a powerful lever that quickly creates fertile learning and teaching conditions because it puts the focus of a school where it should be, on students. DiMartino affectingly describes how school failed his own children, and makes the compelling assertion that personalization gains significance as students get older and prepare to find their places in the world beyond school.

Several among the book’s eighteen chapters stand out. Heading up the book’s first section, on personalized learning plans, Elliot Washor illustrates how such plans entirely guide teaching and learning at the Met in Providence, Rhode Island; a powerful essay by student Priscilla Santana follows, emphasizing the way that the Met’s curriculum and teachers helped her engage with the world and create a path for herself.

Also in the first section, Anne Frederichs and David Gibson discuss the experience of using personalized learning plans at Montpelier High School in Montpelier, Vermont, making the point that personalization is alien to many students. This cogent warning is backed up by their emphasis on the skills and attributes that teachers, parents, advisors and friends need when the spotlight suddenly is on a student who has been comfortable in dim anonymity.

The second section looks at teaching; within it, discussing teacher training centered around personalization, A. Thomas Billings offers a useful ten-point list of ideas for student-centered learning. In the third section, devoted to school design, Mary Ann Lachat and Martha Williams write about how educators can collect and use data to make pedagogical decisions within the context of personalization.

The book’s fourth section, on systems, contains a unique perspective from John Clarke on organic school change that evolves from relationships among adults. “Focused human energy is what school change requires,” Clarke writes, and throughout Personalized Learning, positive human relationships and connections emerge as the simplest and best principle around which to structure schools.