Yes but … how do I balance student interest with Standards?

As a full-time education consultant, Allison Zmuda works with educators to grow ideas on how to make learning for students challenging, possible and worthy of the attempt. Over the past fifteen years, Zmuda has shared curricular, assessment, and instructional ideas, shown illustrative examples, and offered practical strategies of how to get started.

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This is my second in the “Yes, but …” series to support the obvious and subtle challenges of moving toward personalized learning. My first addressed the problem of students not buying in to personalized learning.

Yes, but how do I balance what students are interested in and the Standards I am expected to teach?

Personalized learning and Standards have more in common than you think. In recent years, Standards increasingly focus on demonstrated fluency, conceptual understanding, and application. Just to name a few…

  • common core standardsCommon Core Mathematics identifies these three key instructional shifts in the front part of their document as the inspiration of how Standards for Mathematical Practice and Domains of Math work together.
  • Next Generation Science Standards are organized around Science and Engineering practices (what you can do with what you know), DCIs (specific areas of focus) and Cross-Cutting Concepts (big ideas for students to explore with the areas of focus and practices.
  • National Arts Standards were drafted in consultation with Jay and Daisy McTighe to articulate broader transfer goals, understandings and essential questions in conjunction with the Standards.
  • Common Core English Language Arts offers a vision of the profile of a literate student as the basis of how the Anchor Standards were drafted: a student who can “demonstrate independence, build strong content knowledge, respond to the varying demands of audience, purpose and discipline, comprehend as well as critique, value evidence, and use technology and digital media strategically.”

So if Standards are not the main problem, what is? It’s how we have been using the Standards.

1. Standards are the building code for the Curriculum.

Grant Wiggins
Grant Wiggins

Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe describe standards as “the building code” for an architectural design.

“A Standard is an outcome … Architects and builders must attend to them but they are not the purpose of the design. The house to be built or renovated is designed to meet the needs of the client in a functional and pleasing manner — while also meeting the building code along the way.”

The job of curriculum designers is to determine how to build a curriculum that engages students around problems, challenges, and ideas as well as meeting the “code.”

2. Standards give us clarity on the big-picture and the details.

Most teachers pay attention to what they are responsible for at their grade level or their course. But they are losing the big picture of the collective vision of the discipline. What does it mean to become a more prolific and proficient historian, scientist, poet, or graphic designer? How do those skills grow over time?

Just like Google Earth, we need to get better at zooming out to see the broader context as vertical teams and zooming in to see how what we’re teaching is in service to those broader goals. There is a truth that is underlying this point of view.

As teachers, our students are “on loan” to us for a short while. With the precious time we have, our job is to help them stay focused on what we are doing (short-term goals of the unit, lesson) and why we are doing it (long term transfer goals and understandings).

3. We can focus on the Standards without fixating on the external standardized test.

It is a leap of faith that if you immerse students in the topics or skills the Standards suggest through problem-solving, deep examination of texts, collaboration to consider alternate viewpoints, synthesize information, and take action on an idea … then the Standards will take care of themselves.

In a Personalized Learning classroom, encourage students to pursue inquiries, generate ideas, and create work that documents their accomplishments of what they have figured out so far. Please don’t misunderstand — an external standardized test is a legitimate snapshot of what the student can know and be able to do, but it is only one snapshot in a broader collection of photos.

So yes, students should be able to read a passage or an essay and then respond to a series of comprehension and inferential questions. But that is a small part of what deep reading looks like. And the more connected students are to why this topic or idea is significant, the more willing they will be to do the heavy lifting that close reading requires.

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