What would schools look like if they were designed around the needs of students?
That’s the question that drives the work of Rebecca Wolfe, PhD ’06, director of the Massachusetts-based Students at the Center project, part of the nonprofit Jobs For the Future.
Called “personalized learning,” the idea sounds simple: Let the students dictate the direction and pace of instruction. Its adherents claim that not only will student outcomes improve, but point to research that shows it works particularly well for students of color. However, convincing the many entrenched interests that run school bureaucracies to give in to such a radical change can be a challenge.
Wolfe, whose doctorate from Stanford University is in education policy and administration, is a leader in the personalized learning movement and wears many hats —persuading districts that a shift to personalized learning will be favorable for the entire school community, then acting as a cheerleader, facilitator and therapist for the districts who try it.
Students at the Center makes it clear in its literature that deep, evidence-based research lies at the heart of its enthusiastic advocacy for personalized learning. According to the organization’s website, these are the four major prongs of student-centered learning: 1. Learning is personalized 2. Learning is competency based 3. Learning takes place anytime, anywhere 4. Students exert ownership over their learning.
Students at the Center recently launched an online “hub” that aims to provide parents, educators and districts with the tools they need to adopt a personalized learning approach in their schools. Wolfe and her colleagues in 2013 published a book on personalized learning, Anytime, Anywhere: Student-Centered Learning for Schools and Teachers, with Harvard Education Press. It’s all a part of her goal to transform the way students learn in America. She spoke to The Hechinger Report about the vast potential for personalized learning and the biggest obstacles standing in its way.
Q: One of the tenets of Students at the Center is that each student must be provided with the scaffolding and differentiated support needed to keep progressing at a pace that allows the student to reach college, career, and civic outcomes, even when unequal resources are required to achieve a more equitable result. Do you think the US believes in the last part of that statement, or is there still great resistance to it?
A: I tend to be an eternal optimist when it comes to my work in education and I think that there are more people and systems and policy makers ready to concede that statement and agree with that statement than there ever have been before. Now that’s not to say it’s widespread and not to say that if you took a poll or asked somebody running for president right now that it’s a popular view, but I think there is more movement in that direction and more evidence that that’s what’s needed than ever before.