The last decade has brought a major shift in K-12 education. We have moved from a traditional, one-size-fits-all model to more flexible approaches that offer students greater voice and choice in how, where, and through whom they learn through student-centered and personalized learning models. These initiatives hold promise for transforming how students with learning disabilities (LD) experience education. Yet, they will not be successful if they cannot effectively connect intentions of personalizing learning with the underlying realities of how diverse students learn.
We have found that the students who most need personalized approaches are also the least likely to benefit from them as they are currently implemented. Why? For students to actually take advantage of learning opportunities in personalized environments, they need to be self-determined (have the capacity to make active choices about one’s learning and life) and be able to self-advocate (understand and communicate their rights and needs). These are capabilities and skills that students with disabilities need, but often lack. And these are the very skills that personalized learning draw on in classrooms every day as students are offered choice and agency in their learning.
In this way, personalized learning environments can be disabling for students with LD, when personalized learning was meant to be the great enabler. Even though students can learn to self-advocate and can develop the capacity for self-determination, they are rarely offered the support, instruction, and opportunities in the classroom to do so. This is especially true for students with disabilities — adults rarely let vulnerable kids take the lead. And that’s problematic if we want students to succeed in their K-12 education and beyond. Students will go on to post-secondary education or the workforce where they must make choices about courses or vocations and speak to faculty members or employers about their accommodations. If the students have had little experience with making choices and exercising their self-advocacy skills, they are less likely to be successful.
To change the outcomes for students, educators need to provide students with LD “access to agency.” Students need freedom (with support) to exercise and opportunities to practice these skills in settings where their actions have actual and observable consequences from which students can learn. The goal must be to provide the space and support students need to engage mindfully in classroom activities that emphasize self-development as a learner. This should include routines and activities that:
- Support understanding of oneself as a learner – strengths, challenges and preferences
- Support understanding of the learning environment, its opportunities and challenges
- Facilitate use of one’s voice to set goals and express needs
In this context, the flexible options provided within personalized environments need to be accessible. Without accessibility, personalized learning environments lack actual opportunities for students with LD to act with agency. For example, when students are provided with the option to select from a range of topics and texts for an independent project but only one of the texts is available with audio support, students who struggle to read (like those with dyslexia) have, in fact, no choice in their learning.
Importantly, accessibility itself provides opportunities for personalization within student-centered learning environments. For example, not all students who struggle to read struggle with the same specific skills. One student may need language support (lower level like vocabulary, or higher level like inferencing), while another might need read aloud for only a few words per page. Still another may need the full text read aloud but finds human voices distracting because the emotional inflection is difficult for them to understand. When personalized learning environments are rendered accessible to students with diverse learning needs, students with learning disabilities will have a better opportunity to exercise agency.
To offer truly student-centered learning environments, educators need to develop and nurture an inclusive mindset — a mindset that attends to the cognitive, behavioral, and emotional dimensions of learning in all of its rich complexity. Families need to understand which of their child’s challenges are a function of their disability and which are a bi-product of the biases they encounter in school, in their community, and even at home. Additionally, policy makers must build accessibility into every initiative from the outset rather than retrofitting it for students with disabilities later. When accessibility exists and students are provided opportunities to exercise agency, students with learning disabilities will have greater opportunities to explore and develop an understanding of themselves and the capacity to communicate their needs. They will be empowered to grow, thrive and develop into expert learners.