Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Personalized and Standardized: The Tension

I've doing a lot of thinking and reading lately about the idea of personlized learning.

 I am struggling with a concrete definition and vision for how such a concept can be implemented within schools and within our school system.

The word itself - personalized - tends to throw me off.  For example, is the idea personalized learning congruent with personal learning?  Furthermore, how does personalized learning "look" within a standards based education system (where the curricular learning outcomes are prescribed)?

Powell and Powell,  in a recent Ed Leadership article are clear in their opinion:
A curriculum without learning standards has neither rigor nor credibility.  It virtually ensures confusion and mediocrity. 
As I think about this, I tend to agree.  As a society we have a vested interest in determining what skills and knowledge we want our youth to acquire.

I don't think the "show up and learn what you want" type of "personal learning" is in our collective best interest.

So how does personalization interact effectively within a standardized system?

Curriculum Reform 
I have written about this topic before.  I believe this will be the spark we need to reform our system.  In essence, we need to ask ourselves "what is worth knowing".  Many have written about 21st Century Skills and competencies so I won't belabor the point.

Nonetheless, I believe that we need to adopt a thematic and skills based model of curriculum.  In the Powell and Powell article they talk about "a shift to concepts" in curriculum.  The authors go on to ask a series of questions to determine the value of any chosen concept:

Does the concept have enduring value? Does the concept  reside at the heart of the discipline?  Does the concept require analysis?  Does it have the potential to engage students?

These are great questions.  As we look to update curriculum I think they are questions that should be kept in mind.

Assessment Practices
I believe that sound assessment and grading practices are at the heart of any personalized learning system (not technology).

Assessment practices that identify the individual needs, challenges and strengths of each learner will drive personalized learning (I am essentially talking about formative assessment here).

In the same Powell and Powell article  , the authors definitively state that the "form of assessment can usually be personalized, but the criteria should not be".  They go to write "the criteria we use to evaluate students' achievement should not be differentiated.; we should hold all students to the same high standards."

I have mixed feeling about this statement.  Firstly, not all assessment is the same.  In our effective use of formative assessment we may need to differentiate some of the criteria  for individual learners.  I also think we need to be careful when we talk about "high standards."  Any talk about "high standards" need to be commonly understood and applied - particularly when it comes to the assessment and evaluation of students.   To best achieve this I would suggest the following practices:
  • Outcomes Based Grading - linking grades to learning outcomes in a deliberate and concrete way. I recommend reading this great article from ASCD on standards based grading. In my opinion this is the best way to authentically capture student grades that are consistent and reliable. The students in Mr. Seltzer's class deserve to be graded according to the mandated learning outcomes -consistently applied within a school and/or department.  (A disclaimer: Attaching letter grades and percentages is not the best of way to measure and inspire learning. Nonetheless our current education "system" requires us to do so.)
  • School Wide Grading Protocols - Having clear and common expectations when grading students is something we have implemented at our school. You may want to see our school's grading policy here
  • Collaborative Grading - Teachers coming together to examine, review and grade student work promotes collaboration, common standards, and consistency.
As I navigate the changing landscape of education I am becoming keenly aware of the necessary tensions between personalization and standardization.  It is within this tension that reform needs to occur.


  1. Great post Johnny! I definitely think we need to place greater emphasis on the application of skills in our curriculum. It remains important for students to develop basic skills and factual knowledge but if we are truly trying to prepare our students for a world that we can't predict, we should be allowing our students greater opportunity to practice and apply their skills to different situations and initiatives. At the elementary ages, we do a much better job with emphasizing skills. Reading, writing and arithmetic are all crucial skills, even though I imagine their applications will be much different for our youngest students than they are for us currently. For example, when I was learning to read and write I doubt any of my teachers would have told me I'd want to learn these skills so I could read and write a blog! As our students grow older and begin to master their basic skills, we should be providing more opportunities to apply their skills to real-life situations. It is in these real-life situations that we will be able to guide students and help the develop their 21st century competences. What concerns me is that currently in high school I see many students being asked to learn (or should i say memorize) decontextualized nuggets of information. Instead, we should be helping each student find his/her passion and when he/she does we should let the student explore further. While doing so, the student may need to learn and memorize some detailed content. But at that point, the details will be contextualized and the student will see a purpose. So,I guess after all this I'm suggesting our prescribed learning outcomes include far more skills, with the hope that this drives educators to work on the application of skills rather than the memorization of facts.

    I really like your comments about assessment. I believe that regardless of the curriculum, good assessment practices can go a long ways towards personalizing learning for students. Standards remain important so that students and teachers have an idea of what to shoot for, but i also agree with you that standards do need to be differentiated for individuals. Some students need the expectations set a little lower at times and others need the bar set a little higher a times. The challenge must be appropriate for a student's skillset. Putting students in position to tackle real-life challenges is one way of matching skills and challenge. Placing greater emphasis on formative assessment is how we can be the influential 'guide on the side' who offers suggestions, challenges perspectives and when necessary instructs our students in basic skills.

    As always, thanks for the thoughtful post!

  2. Hi Aaron
    I really appreciate you taking the time to leave a very thoughtful response. I have been doing fare bit thinking about this lately. I do see the proper use of formative assessment as being such a key factor in this process, in addition to quality curriculum reform. As I think more about the idea of "differentiating standards" I would tend lean towards the idea of differentiating the learning activity in order that the individual student can meet the prescribed standard. I tend to see "criteria" as different from "standard". If, for example, the standard is - to write a well developed sentence - we want all students to do that. However, the criteria to help each student do that might be different. You might have a student who struggles with tense and another with "run-on sentences". In this example, the teacher's effective use of formative assessment would identify this problem and create meaningful interventions (i.e. criteria) for each student to meet the standard.

    Does that make sense?