How personalized learning powers special ed

How popular individualized instruction methods benefit students with disabilities
By: | Issue: April 2020
March 12, 2020
To promote personalized learning approach, teachers at Fresno USD blend whole group instruction, targeted small group instruction, collaborative tasks and independent practice with meaningful use of technology.To promote personalized learning approach, teachers at Fresno USD blend whole group instruction, targeted small group instruction, collaborative tasks and independent practice with meaningful use of technology.

With new technologies available to help facilitate students’ progress, increasing numbers of schools are attempting personalized learning.

But some educators wonder if it can leave students with disabilities behind. The assumption is that these students are left to their own devices—with technology responsible for moving them into higher-order skills.

But teachers and administrators who are incorporating personalized learning (PL) in the classroom and schools say this isn’t the case.

Rather than relying on technology programs to provide students with academic content on their level, when they appear ready for it, classrooms focused on the PL approach provide robust learning opportunities for all, including students with special needs.


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Those opportunities may include collaborating on projects with other students, practicing critical thinking skills by pursuing their own learning interests, and attempting more rigorous work with their teachers’ guidance.

“An effective personalized learning initiative should emphasize the variability of all learners,” says Julie Wheelock, program manager for the department of special education in Fresno USD in California, which just completed a four-year implementation of PL. “Effective personalized, blended learning requires high expectations grounded in each students’ gifts and strong support aligned with each students’ needs. When done well, we’ve observed students with special needs learn to know their own giftedness.”

Here’s how various aspects of personalized learning are making an impact on special education students.

Personalized learning method mixture

Variety is an important component of personalized learning, and when teachers have a toolbox of instructional methods at their disposal, meeting the needs of each student is more likely.

For instance, in Fresno, teachers are applying approaches that blend whole group instruction, targeted small group instruction, collaborative tasks, and independent practice with meaningful use and non-use of technology.

Personalized learning checklist

• Flexible content

• Targeted instruction that emphasizes learner variability

• Student reflection and ownership

• Data-driven decision making

• Structures to ensure more teacher time with students

• An inclusive culture where students act as resources
for each other

Such methods serve as a foundation used to tailor instruction to match individual needs, says Ryan Coe, secondary director of curriculum, instruction and professional learning.

“The blended approaches applied by teachers for all students allow multiple entry points, different ways to show learning, increased opportunity for face-to-face and digital communication and collaboration, and improved access to digital supports for alternate ways to process learning and demonstrate understanding.”

One Fresno teacher found that using Flipgrid, a fun video app, helped special needs students more readily reflect on their learning before moving to writing. Another found that a flipped instruction model allowed students to watch the instructional video at their own pace and rewind or play back the video as needed.

Some teachers implement various instructional methods at the same time, using learning stations. At the high school in Corcoran USD in California, a special ed teacher was included on the design team for the school’s PL initiative.

After training on various PL methods, the teacher implemented the model in her class and supported other teachers, both special ed and general ed, to implement in their classrooms.

Learning from special ed

Many of the strategies that work best in personalized learning classrooms are the same strategies that have worked well for special education teachers for many years.

“A lot of special ed classrooms are based on competency; we want students to understand a skill before moving on to the next thing,” says Michelle Bowman, assistant principal of Cookeville High School, part of the Putnam County School System in Tennessee, and a former special education teacher. “And personalized learning is adopting that approach.”

The district has just completed a three-year integration of personalized learning. Besides a focus on competency, PL-based classrooms incorporate strategies such as co-teaching, teaching stations and hands-on learning—all of which are commonly used in special education.

In some schools, special ed teachers are being called on to share their experience with these techniques with general ed teachers.

“Special ed teachers have to develop strategies to fit the needs of each individual learner,” Bowman says, adding that language in individualized education plans can also give mainstream education teachers ideas.

Corcoran High Principal Antonia Stone offered an example of how this special ed teacher implements PL in her classes: On Monday, she teaches a new concept to her students. On Tuesday, a formative assessment shows where the kids are and how well they are grasping the new content. Groups with various levels of support are then created based on strengths and weaknesses.


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One group may work with a paraprofessional on vocabulary the students struggled with and the teacher may work with students who need support with strategies to summarize.

Other stations, which all students visit at some point, incorporate work with a peer mentor and engaging with a video clip or short article on the concept. Students get reassessed before moving on to new concepts.

Student choice and voice

Giving students choices in how they learn, what projects they pursue and how their learning is assessed can be invaluable for all students.

Those who struggle with written tests, for instance, can instead give a presentation or test verbally, says Sam Brooks, personalized learning supervisor for the Putnam County School System in Tennessee.

In one classroom, he watched a teacher allow special needs students to choose how to present the information that needed to be assessed; one student gave a PowerPoint presentation while another made a poster and talked about it to the class.

When Fresno USD rolled out its personalized learning initiative four years ago, the foundations were “honoring student voice, cultivating competencies for future readiness, and delivering quality instruction with intentional use of digital resources,” says Philip Neufeld, executive director for information technology.

After four years of focusing on honoring student voice, third-party analysis of Fresno’s program showed positive impact across all student groups, including students with special needs, he adds.

Real-time data usage

The continuous assessment of skills and understanding—central to the PL approach—is beneficial for all students, especially special needs students who may easily fall behind.
Software programs provide ongoing data for teachers to see how much students are learning, but there are plenty of other ways to glean consistent, real-time data in a PL classroom.

In some Putnam County (Tenn.) schools, special ed teachers share their experiences in personalized learning with general ed teachers.

In some Putnam County (Tenn.) schools, special ed teachers share their experiences in personalized learning with general ed teachers.

Formative, almost daily assessments can be as simple as an assignment posting board where students mark their progress with choices such as “I understand this fully,” “I need help with a few things,” or “I need help.”

Harnessing ongoing data and using it to make decisions about how to move forward is a hallmark of personalized learning. And it’s especially helpful for students with special needs.

With regular, ongoing assessments to reveal student learning outcomes, teachers can use that data to make decisions about how to better target future instruction. PL makes it feasible to build targeted groups based on which students need a review of the concept, which ones can apply the concept and which ones can go deeper to analysis, says Stone of Corcoran High.

“I hear a lot about sped students never getting to analysis,” she adds. “With properly implemented PL, this isn’t true.”


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For example, one special ed teacher used political cartoons as a means to discover the author’s purpose and find evidence from the text to support that assertion. The students then applied the concept to a short piece of text.

She worked with three students at a time who had similar questions, comments and pace. The teacher also used different cartoons with messages leveled from more obvious to more obscure, based on each group’s abilities. The lesson was successful in moving students of all abilities from learning a concept, applying it and analyzing it.

“Personalized learning doesn’t impede already struggling students,” says Stone. “Rather, it challenges them, makes the content accessible and comprehensible, and allows them to achieve.”

Nancy Mann Jackson is an Alabama-based writer.