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The Power of Individualized Learning in Progressive Education

By Larry Sandomir, 7th grade English teacher

Progressive education has a powerful impact on students. But to truly understand its power, it’s crucial to look at the outcomes of individual learners. Progressive education allows teachers to meet each student’s needs in a way that is unrivaled by other forms of education.

Middle School Classroom

Learning rarely, if ever, is a straight line, and a teacher’s ability to meet a student’s needs consistently requires flexibility and an awareness of what makes each student tick. Progressive education requires the teacher to understand the child in a much more profound way and to reflect on what will make that child motivated to become invested in a subject. Other forms of education can’t do this as fully, because they often have limits, time frames and prescribed approaches that preclude the type of individualization a teacher might want to employ. With progressive education, a teacher is encouraged to think outside the box for each student to maximize their learning.

In my time at Calhoun, I have been given the freedom to find that sweet spot for each child. Calhoun students are given the space to explore in a way that allows them to be more involved in their own education, find their own a voice, and gain confidence in themselves and their accomplishments.

As an English teacher, I am deeply involved with language and words – but there is more than one way to get a student to use words meaningfully. I can ask for all the traditional ways of expression and kids will give them to me, but in the end, that becomes forgettable to them if they haven’t put themselves into the work.  However, if I can offer additional options for their assignments, such as art and video activities that ask them to use language to explain their creations, then young people will do remarkable things.

I invited author and motivational speaker Liz Murray (known for her “Homeless to Harvard” story), who led a writing workshop for my seventh grade students. One of these students would often turn in well-written, cogent analyses and essays, yet I knew that deep down this writing held no meaning for her. During the workshop with Liz, this particular student felt the freedom to sit down and express herself. What emerged, after less than 30 minutes, was a poem that stunned me with its power.

Later, I spoke with her and asked her how long she had been writing poetry. She said she had never really written poetry before. There is no way to explain inspiration at given moment – as a teacher, you find yourself slack-jawed at the immense wisdom and talent of young people. From that moment on, I encouraged this student to express herself through poetry and poetic prose. By the end of the school year, she had created over 50 pages of verse, stunning in ways that can hardly be described accurately. These pages demonstrated her ability with language and her understanding of the material we covered in class. But ultimately, the space she received in class to express herself empowered this extraordinary student to share her story with a wider audience.

Student Writing

I taught another seventh grader who expressed herself beautifully through art. She was generally reserved in class, kind to everyone, and one of the few individuals who everyone loved. She had drawn for a long time before, but as she put it, just fooled around with it.  Then she started to use her art to express her point of view about the literature we were reading or about social justice issues. She’d draw and then explain in words what her art was meant to show. These writings were filled with something akin to a famous artist explaining their approach. So she wrote and drew, and we displayed both her art and her writing.  My class area was often referred to as a gallery, because so many of her creations were on the walls, but no one was jealous. No one said it wasn’t fair. Instead, her peers would stand in front of her work and look at it, sometimes for 10-15 minutes at a time. They would find more to discuss with every second that passed, much like folks in museums studying famous paintings.  Language became much more powerful for this student as a result of being allowed to use art to express her analyses. She was totally invested in her art and thus became the same with her words.

All of us who teach have a curriculum, a foundational document that gives a direction to the school year. However, in progressive education, we can make detours within the curriculum that make it meaningful to the learners who sit in front of us each day. Those detours reflect the individual moments, those frozen segments of time where you make an adjustment in perspective and tell yourself that this student might benefit from doing this activity in a way different from the one you originally created. 

It’s not news to say that every child learns differently. Some need visual cues while others are auditory learners. Some need to hear things more than a few times before they truly understand. There are kids who have to move around in order to settle their minds. There are those who are going to need more time that you think might be necessary because you cannot always demand creativity on a deadline.

Therefore, if the assignment calls for a prose analysis and a poem emerges that fulfills the same goal, why not? If art allows an individual to speak with their unique voice, accompanied by explanatory writing, why not? Every individual has the right to have their learning style respected, worked with and strengthened.  Progressive education allows that to happen in ways that make learning something that is looked forward to, embraced and celebrated.