Are Standards and Personalization Mutually Exclusive?

student centered learningThere has been a lot of chatter about standards, particularly the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in recent months. Some has been positive and some has been negative. In particular, one of the things we’ve seen is the argument that if a district uses the CCSS, student-centered learning is not possible. At the Institute, we wholeheartedly disagree with that argument. In fact, personalized learning should not be devoid of standards. Standards give learners and educators a framework or matrix against which to evaluate and choose what to learn at what time and in what order. Quality standards can still provide plenty of room for learners and educators to co-design how learning will be approached, what goals will be most appropriate for the learner, what tools will be most useful, which strategies to employ, where and how learning will be accomplished and how best to show that learning has occurred.

We can argue about whether the assessments used to measure achievement of standards are appropriate and useful, but assessments are not the same as standards. Poor quality assessments were widely used long before the Common Core State Standards were even an idea. Yes, we need to insist on assessment instruments and processes that accurately and completely measure learning. In fact, assessments that measure whether students meet the Common Core State Standards and any other standards that reflect what learners need to know in today’s and tomorrow’s world will have to be more robust, application-focused and performance-based than assessments of the past.

The presence of robust, rigorous standards that reflect what students should know and be able to do is crucial to a well-designed, student-centered learning environment. In fact, without standards learners and educators are left to decide in the moment what might be important and worthy of learning without the context of careful thought, an understanding of what learners may need to know twenty years from now and at what level these skills and concepts must be mastered.

Personalized learning is about creating paths to achieve important standards that reflect crucial concepts and skills. To argue that somehow having rigorous standards prohibits learners from having voice and choice in their learning, building the capacity to learn for a lifetime, drawing from themselves the insights and observations necessary to place their learning in context (as opposed to having their learning pre-chewed and spoon-fed) seems to be a telling reflection of our adult inability to move beyond the schools we experienced and embrace the learning environment best suited for today’s learner and tomorrow’s society.

Certainly, not all learners will achieve challenging standards at the same time and in the same manner. This concept is at the heart of personalizing learning with students. Some students may never fully achieve the standards during their formal education. (Although, education is likely to become much less formal as it is increasingly personalized.) This is not an argument for lower standards, nor is it in conflict with our efforts to assure that learners experience an education designed to support how they learn best. Quality standards and personalized learning are not mutually exclusive; they are in fact mutually beneficial.

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