BARRINGTON, R.I. (WPRI) – When Andrew Anderson was a student at Barrington Middle School in the early 1990s, traditional academic work didn’t come easy for him. He recalls struggling at times as he sat in a row of desks with a teacher at the front of the class.  

Now that he’s the principal of the school, Anderson is working closely with the teachers there to reinvent the classroom by embracing personalized learning, an innovative concept designed to tailor the school experience for the needs of individual students.

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He said the school has been focused on personalized learning for three years, with the goal of having students become “conductors of their own knowledge.”

“We’ve adopted something called the deeper learning principles,” Anderson told Eyewitness News. “We want our students to be able to collaborate, to create, to think critically, to be creative, engage in strong academic content and also be self-reflective learners.”

Barrington isn’t alone. Rhode Island has been recognized as leader in the country for its work on personalized learning, with districts and charter schools across the state – including Central Falls, North Smithfield, Providence and West Warwick – seeking to improve outcomes by providing a more engaging experience to students.

Each year the Providence-based Highlander Institute hosts the Blended and Personalized Learning Conference, which draws more than 1,000 attendees from across the country to learn about the work happening there. Nearly half of the participants in the April conference were teachers seeking to implement the method in their classrooms.

Barrington Middle School, Captain Isaac Paine Elementary School in Forster and Providence-based 360 High School each won $200,000 Lighthouse Grants from the state last year to continue to grow their personalized learning programs.

According to the grant’s website, a Lighthouse School “is a place where amazing education is already happening, where the school community is committed to personalized learning, and where–with just a little additional support–personalized learning can be brought to scale schoolwide.”

In Barrington, that has meant soliciting student input on everything from what’s being taught in the classroom to the design of the town’s new middle school, which will open its doors next year. Anderson said one of the key concepts of personalized learning involves students working together.

“Instead of doing problems on the board maybe they’re turning to their partner and solving a problem together, a real-world problem,” he said. “That’s an example of deeper learning and that happens on a daily basis.”

“Because they have some voice and choice in what they’re doing, the student engagement level is really through the roof,” he said.

But Anderson stressed that personalized learning isn’t a one size fits all theory. 

Other districts have focused their efforts on using technology in the classroom, investing in chromebooks or tablets. At Pleasant View Elementary School in Providence, it’s not uncommon to see students sitting in groups learning on computers while the teachers facilitate the experience.

The initial results appear to be promising. Anderson acknowledged that Barrington Middle School has long posted some of the highest test scores in the state, but he said he’s confident the personalized learning experience will lead to better outcomes for students as they go through college and into their careers.

“If were a student now in this type of learning, I would have thrived,” he said.

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Dan McGowan ( covers politics, education and the city of Providence for Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan