Relevant content makes personalizing learning easier
When I was a teacher in Washington, D.C. I taught a class on local history. Students got to learn about places they had visited and people they had heard about. I’ve never taught a class where students were more deeply engaged in the actual content of the class.
One thing that always struck me about that class was how simple it felt to personalize learning. I was able to differentiate content, facilitate student choice, and provide every student with some form of targeted instruction. Personalizing learning didn’t feel like one more thing to do; it simply felt like the most natural way to introduce the content to my students. That class showed me how much easier it is to personalize learning when you’re working with content that is relevant to your students.
Personalized learning is an instructional approach that empowers students to build ownership of their learning. Relevant content can be a powerful tool to help build that ownership. It allows students to see a part of themselves in their school work. The more relevant the content, the better students are able to make the connections that can build ownership of learning. Researchers have also found that culturally relevant education can increase grades, participation, critical thinking skills, and lead to higher graduation rates.
The Core Four of Personalizing Learning is a framework for understanding the practices, mindsets, knowledge, and priorities that best personalize learning for students. Relevant content can be a powerful part of this work in both direct and indirect ways.
- Targeted Instruction: Educators can design learning experiences that empower students to engage with the content that is most meaningful to them. Students should have some amount of choice over the content they engage with. Relevant content options ensure that all students can see a part of themselves in their school work.
- Flexible Path and Pace: Different learning pathways can be designed to be relevant for different students. Flexibility in pace creates the opportunity for students to dive deeper into those topics that are most meaningful to them. Ensuring students engage in relevant content is an inherently flexible practice.
- Collaboration and Creativity: Robust conversations arise when students explore content that is relevant to themselves and also aligned to a common question or theme. We see this when students can explore different careers or historical figures. Every student has something personally relevant to share, and their understanding of a topic deepens when they can consider it from multiple perspectives.
- Student Reflection and Goal Setting: Relevant content develops a great sense of self. The more we understand our own interests and identities, the better each of us will be at reflecting on our work and setting goals for the future.
One challenge of relevant content is actually finding standards-aligned content that will be most relevant to students. Here are some ways teachers can approach culturally responsive content:
- Windows and Mirrors: Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop introduced the idea that content can be both a window and a mirror. As a window, content can allow students to move beyond their lived experiences. As a mirror, content can reflect a part of a student’s identity back to them. Think about the content you currently use; is it more of a window or more of a mirror for your students? Depending on your reflection, seek out content that balances these two categories.
- Digital resources: While there is more content in existence for educators than ever before, it is siloed and of varying levels of quality. Relevant Learner is a supplemental curriculum tool that makes it simple to engage all students in relevant content. They collect the content and use interest quizzes to personalize it for every student. Learning for Justice (formerly Teaching Tolerance) has a simple search engine for student texts. You can also filter their student texts based on a variety of criteria. The National Parks Service (NPS) is an often overlooked resource. Because so many of their parks are tied to local history, the NPS has a wealth of information that is relevant to a diverse array of student backgrounds.
Relevant content working alongside personalized learning has the power to connect and inspire our students. Personalizing learning creates an opportunity for educators to meet the needs of all students, honor their uniqueness, and build ownership of learning. Relevant content meets all these opportunities, allowing all our students to better connect with who they are and who they might become.
About Noah Dougherty - Guest Author
Noah Dougherty is the CEO and Co-Founder of Relevant Learner. He taught secondary ELA and social studies for eight years before becoming an instructional coach and school leader. Noah has written curriculum for public districts, charter organizations, and for-profit companies. He also worked as a consultant, partnering with districts across the country on personalized learning; strategic planning; and diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. Noah grew up in Syracuse, NY and now lives in Washington, DC.