Personalized Learning Changed Liam's Life

My Personalized Learning Experience
By Liam Corcoran

Personalized Learning Student- Liam Corcoran

In my junior year of high school I had no aspirations aside from becoming a famous rap artist. I didn’t have any fans, I didn’t have a plan and honestly, I didn’t have any skills. I had written and recorded one song when I decided my future was in music. I had been steadily getting more and more depressed for as long as I could remember and this was my only salvation. My self-esteem was at an all time low, I hated school more than ever and my frustration with the world as a whole continued to spiral. 

At seventeen, with one song under my belt, I actually had many of the trappings of a successful rapper: I was desperate, angry and insisted on going against the grain. 

That was six years ago. 

Since then, I have written and recorded over 200 songs. I worked as a supervisor at one of Vermont’s first medical cannabis dispensaries. I started a business centered around helping people overcome anxiety, boredom and loneliness. All of these opportunities stemmed directly from what I did my senior year of high school.

Looking back at where I was at seventeen, all of these accomplishments seem impossible. So what made them possible? Pathways. That was the name of the project-based, standards based personalized learning program I attended at my local high school senior year. As I reflect on my Pathways experience - now that PLPs are being implemented - I am able to identify the most important lessons I learned.

1. Confidence

I will always be grateful of how supportive my parents have been to me. The only problem is, no matter how wonderful our parents may be, the fact remains that we spend more time at school than we do at home for nine months of the year. And unfortunately, I have had very poor relationships with the majority of my teachers for as long as I can remember. 

This greatly affected the way I perceived myself. I had a tendency to do the “wrong” thing at school. My attitude was wrong. I talked at the wrong time. I did my work in the wrong way. So there was a constant voice of doubt in the back of my mind, second-guessing my every action. Over time, I internalized the voices of my teachers.

During my year of personalized learning, my confidence steadily grew. No longer were my ideas, my ways of being or my actions wrong. They were accepted by my teachers. I don’t remember one instance when someone said to me “No” when I presented them with an idea of what I wanted to do or how I wanted to do it. Instead, they often responded with “OK, how will you make that work?”. I chose what I wanted to study and how I wanted to study it. 

I began making decisions that I had never had the power to make before. Not only because I was a senior in high school, but because I was also now part of a culture that allowed me to succeed in my own way and fail in my own way. And whether it was a success or a failure, my teachers were there to congratulate me on my effort and help me learn from the experience. 

2. Creativity

Inseparable from my feelings of self-worth were my powers of creativity. From a young age, I had the notion that creativity meant the ability to produce art. This was continually reinforced throughout my schooling career. 

I know now that creativity means the ability to face problems in different ways. There are creative ways to think, speak and move through the world. 

By these standards, I was always creative. I just was never aware of my creativity. I believed that creativity was a rare gift. The truth is, humans are inherently creative. All humans. Sure, there are varying degrees of ability, but we all possess basic creativity and most importantly, the potential to become more creative. 

Currently, there is a growing awareness of the need for people to be creative because the world is rapidly changing and becoming increasingly complicated. In the context of school preparing us for life, the most prominent problem we all inevitably face is employment. At school, I had a very limited range of possibilities presented to me. It wasn’t until my experience with personalized learning that I realized I didn’t have to uncomfortably try and fit myself into one of the traditional employment boxes: business, health care, law, education, etc. I began to realize I was unique. 

During much of my life, I either felt bored or anxious because I was an individual trying to do the same thing everyone else was doing. This created a constant conflict between who I was and what I did. Personalized Learning allowed me to reconcile these two and understand that I had to create my own way of being in the world.

3. Connection

The most important experience for us when we are young (and forever afterwards) is feeling loved. This can be the love of a parent, the love of a friend or the love you have for yourself and the world around you. The more we experience love, the more our capacity to experience love grows. Love is about acceptance and belief. My personality type is hard to love in a traditional learning environment. 

I made it difficult for my teachers to accept me for who I was. I would talk to my classmates when I wasn’t supposed to be, not follow directions and question everything. Obviously, these are frustrating behaviors for someone trying to teach a classroom full of students. But these behaviors are not bad behaviors. Talking to my classmates, I’m learning social skills. Not following directions, I’m thinking for myself. Questioning everything, is inquisitive and thoughtful. 

My teachers said they believed in me, but at the same time, I didn’t feel they accepted who I was or made it possible for me to believe in myself. I used to feel a great deal of resentment towards my teachers for not treating me with respect and allowing me to follow my own path. Their task, I realize now, was near impossible. 

How can a teacher be expected to ensure the success of all of their students when they are expecting the same thing at the same time from each one? How can a teacher be expected to address behaviors when they have a whole classroom to manage? How can a teacher be expected to connect with each student and have a chance to accept and believe in each student when the student never has a chance to be themselves? 

Through my personalized learning experience, I developed relationships of trust and respect with my teachers. And my classmates. And all of the people I met in the community. And myself. I felt love more than I ever had before. My attitude toward life itself changed. I had grown to love learning, love the people around me and love myself. 

Not everyone’s experience may be as dramatic but each one is as special. Every person should have the opportunity to follow their passions, fail in their own way and experience love. We should all be empowered to find our own path.