Yes, Personalized Learning and Standards Can Co-Exist

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 19 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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I recently came across the article, Personalized Learning and Common Core: Mortal Enemies? on The article defines personalized learning as “a new tech-fueled trend in education” and goes on to cite why adopting the practice may revert our schools back to the pre-standards days of underachievement.

In addition to the article’s misrepresentation of what personalized learning actually is, I obviously disagree with the implication that personalized learning results in chaos. The idea of allowing students to “go at their own pace” with technology is individualization, not personalized learning as the writer states.

Beyond that is the fact that personalized learning and standards are not mutually exclusive.

From the point of view of a classroom teacher, there are three pertinent questions that must be addressed for this learning approach to align to the standards and the heart of personalized learning.

Question 1: Do I know my content standards — what they say, what they mean, how they interrelate?

Fluency with content standards means that a teacher can see the forest (overarching expectations) and the trees (grade-level expectations). The teacher can then take the standards language — which is often obtuse, dense, or overly detailed — and translate
it so that students can be clear about the disciplinary outcomes.

Some content standards are more important than others, and the teacher can focus on what is pivotal (developmentally, in the PK–12 scope and sequence) rather than “covering” every standard.

Question 2: Do I trust my students to be true learning partners — in a dynamic rather than hierarchical exchange — in which we collaborate to frame tasks, evaluate progress, and consider next steps?

One essential strategy is to establish key criteria for quality work. How the work will be evaluated must be transparent to students, and they must have access to several examples that demonstrate work meeting those criteria.

This is true whether the criteria has been developed externally or by the students. The use of key criteria becomes the basis for feedback and identification of next steps.

The second essential strategy is to use formative assessment to gather detailed information to improve instruction and student learning while it’s happening.

The teacher can determine the appropriate next steps on the basis of what the learner needs: just-in-time teaching, more practice, additional development time, seeking out expert advice, and so on. The teacher has the flexibility to focus on the desired Standards (as measured through independent performance) instead of following a rigid pacing guide.

Question 3: Do I have tolerance for mess, uncertainty, and failure — change that takes me out of my comfort zone?

Structure and planning are still important, but the focus is no longer implement-assess-repeat until the curriculum is over. Instead, the structure and the plans are in service to the development of students’ disciplinary and cross-disciplinary outcomes. Therefore, if our best-laid plans do not work, as educators we have an obligation to figure out alternate routes for student success.

We are not suggesting that the student has no role in his own achievement; we advocate that self-regulation is pivotal to success for both teacher and student. The messiness of this type of learning experience requires considerable rapport between teacher and student as learning partners so that when there is a roadblock or a dead end, partners see it as an obstacle, not a death blow.

To learn more about incorporating personalized learning into your classroom, school, or district, pick up Students at the Center: Personalized Learning with Habits of Mind. The book, co-authored with Bena Kallick, outlines four attributes of personalized learning to guide instructional leaders and teachers: voice, co-creation, social construction, and self-discovery.

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