Random Thoughts

Personalizing Education in a Standards-Based System

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My thoughts after reading Seth Godin’s post Back to (the wrong) school and Douglas Rushkoff post Are Jobs Obsolete?

The other day I was looking at a curriculum map similar to this one:

curriculum map










As I was looking over it I started shaking my head and wondering how do we personalize education in a standardized system? When every student has to learn the concepts covered in a specific unit by a specific time whether or not the students are done learning, have mastered the skills and concepts or are ready to move on.

When curriculum maps and content standards drive classroom instruction how do we personalize the educational experience for our students? How do we allow them to follow their passion, to wonder, to follow paths of interest?

I’ve talked before on this blog about my struggle with standards, about confining both teachers and students to what they can learn to one or two well written sentences of a bullet point. 

Does it really matter that every child learns the same thing or at the same time? Or is it more important that they just become a learner? Learning how to learn, unlearn, and relearn and having the skills and the passion to make it happen.

What if it was just a school’s mission and vision, or in my school’s case, our Definition of Learning that drove learning in our schools. What if at the end of every year kids had to show this:

We value meaningful learning where students construct enduring understanding by developing and applying knowledge, skills, and attitudes. Increased understanding is evidenced by students who:

  • Explain its relevance
  • Describe how it connects to or conflicts with prior learning
  • Communicate it effectively to others
  • Generalize and apply it effectively to new situations
  • Reflect critically on their own and other’s learning
  • Ask questions to extend learning
  • Create meaningful solutions


Do we care what class it happens in? Do we really care about the content? Or can we stand in awe of the great work our kids can produce when we make it personal and allow their passion to show through.  

I started blogging in 2005 and found it such a powerful way to reflect and share my thinking about technology, this generation, and how we prepare students for their future not our past.


  1. Jeff,

    I think you are hitting upon something that we all struggle with: How do we assure that all kids are receiving a high quality education with rigorous curriculum, yet personalize learning for every child. I’m not sure I’ve heard or read the perfect answer – one that meets economical and political realities, yet satisfies those who are passionate about truly transforming education.

    But I think you hit on something in your post when you wrote:

    Does it really matter that every child learns the same thing or at the same time? Or is it more important that they just become a learner?

    Specifically, I think your comment on the time piece is so important. Why do we demand that math, English, social studies, science, etc. be the same length of time for every learner? Why do we demand that kids have to learn Biology in 180 days, broken into 45 day quarters, with 45 minutes per day of class? Why do we demand that kids only learn from 7:30 AM to 3:00 PM?

    What if we eliminated time as a limiting factor? What if we allowed students to study biology for 90 minutes a day because they are passionate about it, while at the same time only 45 minutes of math? What if we said to a student, “Here is what we expect you to know and be able to do to earn credit in this course, place and time are up to you?” That way if a student wanted to “learn” biology while working at a zoo she could. That way if a student wanted to meet those expectations in 1/2 the time, he could.

    As long as we constrain learning to a tired calendar and an institutionalized model, I’m not sure we are going to be able to meet the demands of both rigorous expectations and personalization. But, if stop putting a stopwatch on learning, well… I think we’re on to something there.

  2. I agree with you 50% on this one, Jeff. Standards can be useful in defining the core skills that students should be able to do, which is why they were developed in the first place. Where the problem lies is that standards are being used to narrow curriculum down to single, digestible ideas that DON’T promote thinking. Its so they can be “assessed” on a bubble sheet.

    They’re also being used to “assess” the pace of learning, which is not the intended purpose nor structure to begin with. Unfortunately, like so many things, standards are a good idea run amok by test scores and “international performance.”

    I think if you look at it in that light, your Definition of Learning is (in its own way) a set of standards, but in their purest form. Adaptable for every learner, yet providing a goal for teachers to help push learners toward.

    Great thoughts…its always good to have reminders about what we do and why we do it.

  3. Steve Yurkiw Reply

    Check out the concept of layered curriculum…may provide some of the elements you are searching for…

  4. Nicole Horsley Reply

    I think that you are right, we need to move past the academic content and move on to making sure our children are prepared for the 21st century and beyond. It’s going to take a massive movement to get our federal and state governments, and even a portion of our administrators and teachers in the field, to understand it’s not about what you remember anymore. Now…it’s about how you handle finding out and what you’re going to do with it.

  5. These are interesting thoughts Jeff, and I agree with you in so many ways – I understand how standards can be seen as a way of putting all of our students in the same box. And in an ideal world, it seems like creating a learning environment where students are not only encouraged, but required to learn by pursuing their own interests, is an innovative and effective way to learn. But clearly defined standards can also provide a starting place (rather than an ending place) – to spark ideas and allow students to grow starting from where they are. This is the very nature of the differentiated classroom. I don’t know, I’m all for moving away from content driven schools, but what about accountability? If there’s no target, how do students know where to aim? I think standards just need to be redefined, and not focused on content.

  6. Yes, and the PYP curriculum approaches this pretty well. The challenge is using guided inquiry to develop transdisciplinary skills in order. All too many well-meaning teachers leave out the guided part or ignore the scope and sequence which is meant not as an end, but as a means of ensuring the basic subject literacy necessary for students to launch their own learning (with goals, rewards, and timelines defined by themselves).

    One of the hardest things is to come to terms with the fact that this is a messy process that often highlights the limitations of what even the best written curriculum.

    Thanks for the discussion.
    Brady / @becline

  7. The best course I ever took in undergrad was based on the concept of Mastery learning. I chose what grade I wanted to earn, and then had a series of accomplishments I had to achieve to reach that goal. I learned more about myself and the way I learn in that class than any other class in my entire education.

    There were sections of the course that I was able to breeze through without a second glance, and then sections of the course I struggled with immensely. The act of re-writing a research paper (at least 5 times) until it met the standards of an A, and the act of taking an exam (she made me take it orally and verbally) until I achieved an A, taught me how to write incredibly well and take exams which stayed with me for the rest of my academic career. I was more than willing to do the work because I wanted to learn. I never once thought about how long it took me to learn the information.

    By the end of the course not only did I know the content, but I knew more about how I processed information than any other course ever taught me in my career of academia. From that moment on, I consistently received A’s because in my mind, I approached each course with the goal of mastery in my mind.

    Standards and benchmarks have a place in our curriculum, but they should be at the beginning, not at the end. We need to view a standards-based curriculum as a starting point to let students fly. How far they decide to go should be up to them.

  8. Christine Harris Reply

    Our NZ curriculum is based on standards … for students from year 2 through to year 13 (6-17 years of age). Personalizing learning for students within a standards based curriculum is possible if the focus of all curriculum planning is student engagement first and foremost within the learning area. Our school is rethinking our curriculum so that the essential foundations are built around striving to create learning contexts that will engage learners. We have the knowledge pertaining to student engagement and now we have to ensure that these precepts are what drives our curriculum. I figure that if students are engaged then the standards will be more likely to be achieved. I believe that all units of integrated learning should focus on:
    1. Relevance to student’s passions and interest (Teacher and school responsibility to get to know each student which will include understanding student’s – home setting and community)
    2. Communicating with and including parents and families in the curriculum
    3. Giving students opportunity to take social action within the learning
    4. Ensuring that teachers are using and learning about digital technologies so that the tools of learning are relevant to our students
    5. Opportunities for students to work independently and interdependently

    All of our learning contexts need to include aspects of these prerequisites for student engagement. We are trialing this with a desire to really personalize learning for or students and engaging them in the learning. As a school principal this is the moral and ethical obligation I have to students. The Standards will be met hopefully but they are not the focus of our curriculum planning – student learning IS.

  9. Jeff, you have really captured the “gap” in education here. If we take a look at how social media has revolutionized (and I use that term as in – “revolution” – A forcible overthrow of a government or social order for a new system.) how people communicate and “learn”, we can see that personalization and customization is a new norm. The FB/Google approach of bringing the user the content, interface, etc that they want, when they want should send a loud message to educators. However, we are so steeped in dictating what should be learned versus focusing on the “learning process”. This has ultimately killed creativity for both the teacher and the student. I call standards a necessary evil, but I think the critical conversation we need to continue to hash out is how do we develop systems that allow students/teachers to assemble their knowledge based upon learning styles, interests, etc.??? The debate shouldn’t be pedagogy vs passion but when pedagogy meets passion, performance is the outcome.

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  15. I think that this is something that every teacher struggles with and the reality is that there are requirements that we all are expected to teach within a school year. There are standards so that all schools are teaching the same things. This way if a child leaves one school and goes to another at some point during the year, it is assured that the student will learn what they need to in that year. It is up to us as teachers to differentiate our instruction to reach each of our learners effectively. It is true that not every student learns at the same rate but isn’t that our job to figure out how to work with each student to help them become effective learners?

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  19. I am so grateful for your post and to keep this conversation going!
    I agree completely…these standards keep us locked in as teachers and reduce the creativity and inquiry of our students.
    Once we learn how much more students are capable of learning- more than we ever imagined in our lesson plans…we will see that they not only meet but far exceed the benchmarks!
    I think we are all on a huge shift in education…let’s hope we don’t have to wait much longer!

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