By: Kristen Thorson and Erin Gohl

For more than a century, educators have iteratively tried to improve the structures of schooling by refining the environment design, adopting new resources, and adjusting the requirements for high school graduation in a quest to shape and yield the most prepared graduates. Historically, students have been treated as the variable that must adapt to each particular community’s mold of learning and educational success. Students have been expected to adjust to the structures and expectations formed by the set of policies, procedures, and implementations that educational experts have designed.

In recent years, administrators, teachers, and researchers have begun to reframe this conception of education, noting that students each have a unique learning profile and that educational design should take those differences into account. Concomitantly, as research has improved the understanding of the variety of ways that students learn, innovations in education and technology have allowed for schools and districts to begin to more efficiently create student-centered, personalized learning opportunities to meet the unique needs and strengths of individual students.

Strides have been made in accomplishing this task, and schools and districts are designing more flexible learning environments, creating a range of pedagogical practices teachers can use, and seeking to engage students in ways that are based on their personal history, attributes, and path to preparation for lifelong success. However, educators are still the drivers of decision-making about that learning. In order to truly personalize learning, we must invite students into the conversation with their insights and preferences about their own strengths and challenges. Student voice and agency must be at the center of planning and implementation. In response to this challenge, The Friday Institute has rolled out a suite of resources for students, educators, and now parents, to help make student input a key piece of student-centered learning design and engagement.

Students LEAD & Teachers Understand

Earlier this year, The Friday Institute for Educational Innovation launched a student-centered course, Students LEAD (Learn, Explore, & Advocate Differently), aimed at equipping students with in-depth information about their own learning strengths and challenges. At the completion of the interactive, online course, students receive an Advocacy Plan that outlines their personal learning profile with recommendations and resources for leveraging strengths and managing challenges. Over 600 students have completed the course to date, and their experiences demonstrate increased engagement and achievement as a result of increased student empowerment and agency. A major piece of the advocacy plan includes coaching and strategies for having students communicate with their teachers to advocate for ways to leverage their strengths within classroom settings.

A related course for teachers, Learning Differences MOOC-­Ed, expands teachers’ understanding and skill sets to work with students with a variety of strengths and challenges. The course, which is free of charge and open to any educator from around the world, helps educators to better understand the broad array of learning differences their students may have and provides strategies to positively and proactively respond to the distinct needs of each student. This course expands teachers’ understanding and skill sets to work with students with a variety of strengths and challenges. Though each course benefits participants on their own, done in conjunction, they allow for a shared understanding as students and teachers collaborate as partners in finding ways to maximize student success.

Parents Guide

With the success of both the Learning Differences MOOC-Ed for educators and the Students LEAD course, The Friday Institute recognized the value of bringing parents and families into the conversations and support around student learning. Earlier this month, The Friday Institute launched Letting Students LEAD, a parent-directed companion resource to further support maximizing student learning.

The parent guide includes ways for adults to learn alongside their children enrolled in the course. The guide walks parents and families through each of the key components of the student course: focusing on strengths, exploring strategies at home, and advocating at school. It also provides conversation starters, actionable strategies, and resources that help families understand and support their child’s unique learning profile.

This coordinated approach extends the system of support and deepens the understanding around a student’s unique set of needs and strengths as well as the resources to support student learning. As students embrace the feeling of being in the driver’s seat with their own learning through the interactive course, parents now have a resource designed to help them skillfully sit in the passenger seat, guiding and supporting their child’s learning experience.

The parent guide provides:

  • Common Language: The parent guide, in conjunction with the courses for students and educators, helps participants to develop a common language and understanding around learning strengths, challenges, and needs. To be trite, it puts everyone on the same page. The courses and guide all articulate and use common definitions for various executive functioning skills (attention, memory, expressing ideas, organization, and time management) and educate participants on how these skills relate to student learning. When students, supported by their families, can articulate what they need to learn, they are able to shape their learning environment to reflect their unique needs. Dr. Mary Ann Wolf, Director of Digital Learning Programs at The Friday Institute explained the benefit of a common vernacular, “Parents want to be effective advocates for their child’s needs and success. Providing parents with an opportunity to learn more[a]–and a shared language with teachers and the student–results in better communication, higher achievement, and a happier community.”
  • Growth Mindset Approach: A main theme that runs throughout the triad of resources is that ALL students can learn. The student course, specifically, meets students where they are and helps them to identify their strengths and challenges. The approach of the courses and guide teaches students to leverage their strengths as a strategy. And, rather than seeing learning challenges as deficits or disabilities, it defines them as simply, and non-judgmentally, as learning differences. This helps parents to reframe their understanding of their children’s needs and that, with the right strategies and understanding, their child’s abilities can be developed over time.
  • Practical Strategies & Resources: The student course and parent guide provide a vetted set of resources, strategies, and support tools for students and parents to leverage the student’s strengths to mitigate the challenges to learning. The strategies–such as emailing teachers or setting calendar reminders–are practical, low-burden, and yield a high impact. The wide-applicability of these strategies means that students and parents can utilize them beyond a specific course or grade level. And students and families can use this information to communicate a child’s strengths and needs to each new teacher or learning experience. Further, as noted by Alex Dreier, Instructional Design Lead at The Friday Institute, “The course teaches students the function and purpose of each resource so that students and families can continue to add to their toolbox as a student grows and changes.” By understanding the kinds of resources that facilitate learning for each student, there is a pathway for long-term success.

Empowering Students, Teachers, & Parents

Successful educational policy and practice should be responsive to the learner, rather than the student adapting to the generic mold defined by the practices and systems of school districts across the country. Equipping students with information about how they learn best along with tools and personalized action plans for navigating their learning, empowers students to have agency in their own learning.

When students share their experience and advocacy plans, teachers have a fuller understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of each individual student. When the teacher and student engage in dialogue to have this information result in mutual understanding, teachers can then develop learning experiences and environments that are customized for engagement and effectiveness. And, when parents are part of the conversation, students’ learning becomes increasingly more personalized and relevant at school and at home. Lauren Acree, Research Associate at The Friday Institute, summed up the goal of these efforts: “The hope is that students are able to be successful as they are. By building the capacity of students themselves, and the parents and teachers in their life, students are able to be their best selves academically as well as outside of school.”

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