Opinion Blog

Peter DeWitt's

Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Standardization? Personalization? Or Both?

By Peter DeWitt — November 22, 2013 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

It’s what good teachers have always known. That their job is not to teach subjects, but to teach students.” Sir Ken Robinson

Sir Ken Robinson, one of my favorite education experts, believes strongly in personalized learning. He has been quoted as saying, “Personalized learning, to me, is the process of contouring learning to the individuals that you’re dealing with, recognizing that we all have different strengths and weaknesses, different interests [and] different ways of learning.”

Education critics believe that we do need a national set of standards which are internationally benchmarked, and seem to have very little personalization at all. If you have a moment, do a quick Google search on “Do we need education standards?” Most of the results I received were all from the U.S. Department of Education, state education departments and for-profit companies.

Without sounding too cynical, I do like the idea of standards, especially if they are internationally benchmarked. However, politicians and policymakers keep using international comparison data incorrectly just to focus on the failure of public education, and push for a more standards-based education, which is why there is a resistance to any standards. They are being sold as the end all to be all and they are not.

Trying to be optimistic, I would prefer to focus on the fact that we are not failing but can always improve. There must be a happy medium between personalized learning and standards....or am I just too optimistic? Sir Ken Robinson continued to say,

It isn't that everyone has to learn different things, although eventually our interests will take us in different directions," he continued. "But in terms of the things we want all people to learn ... personalized learning is finding the best ways to engage with people with different interests, passions and ways of thinking. It's what good teachers have always known. That their job is not to teach subjects, but to teach students."

Although I like to think globally, I feel the need for practicality as well. If the main concern is that standards create a one-size-fits-all approach to learning, can’t we find a way to personalize the learning around those set of standards, at the same time we encourage students to explore their own deeper passions?

This world would be a very boring place if we were all the same, so if that’s what standards set out to do, they’re wrong. But...do standards cause that sameness or is it what we do with them? Is it possible to provide a base of information at the same time we encourage personalized learning? Is personalized learning still possible with a standards-based education?

Standards and Personalization?

Recently, I read a few blogs that stated standards are the worst thing to happen to education. Are they really the worst thing? Or is it the testing that came along with them? I believe it’s the testing and accountability on steroids that came along with them that are the worst thing we have seen in education, which of course have only gotten worse in the past few years.

Is it possible to have standards without having standardized tests because the problem may not be the standard...but what we do with it? And yes, that goes for the Common Core State Standards as well. Is the problem the Core or what we do with the Core?

Like you, I have seen many examples of homework that isn’t age appropriate and confusing. However, does the school leader or teacher have any responsibility in what goes home, because it might not be the Core but the worksheet that was chosen? I mean...let’s face it, we have all seen inappropriate homework long before the Core entered our lives.

Please don’t get me wrong because I am proceeding with caution when it comes to the CCSS. I believe that it might provide a good base for some kids, but the reality is that there will always be students who do not meet the expectations of the CCSS from year to year.

What happens then?

I have a hard time thinking that kids who come in knowing 1/16th the language and vocabulary that their peers know are somehow going to rise to the challenge of more “rigorous” work. There are parts of the CCSS that need to change, and if they do not, there will be a mass exodus of states using them because of parents and educator pressure. Perhaps all of the money being spent on flawed (and abusive) state testing could somehow be directed toward strengthening what happens between the ages of birth and four before children enter kindergarten.

I read a blog somewhere, and I’m not sure where, so please forgive me for not linking to it...that we cannot expect every student to break the 4-minute mile. This doesn’t mean we can’t encourage all kids to run, but everyone’s Personal Record (PR) is different. Just because someone doesn’t break the 4-minute mile doesn’t mean they didn’t experience growth. And just because they didn’t break that barrier doesn’t mean they can’t be successful somewhere else.

In the End

Is it possible that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing? Is it possible that both can be done? Standards become a problem when we expect everyone to reach the same benchmark, but what if educators were allowed a bit of flexibility? Standards are a problem when we think there is only one way to show success, which is where personalization enters into the picture.

If our only benchmark to show success with standards is through a test, it’s abusive and wrong. We should not be referring to kids as a “1, 2, 3, or 4” depending on their score from high stakes testing, and that happens far too often, and has devastating effects on any learning that could be accomplished. Educators should always have the freedom to use standards as a base but get to the heart of individual learning through personalization. Students and teachers should be given autonomy in their learning.

My fear of what is being done with standards goes further beyond what happens with kids in elementary school who hate school because they feel that they are not good enough. My fear continues on for those students who drop out of school because they believe it is their only option. If we could offer personalization for them without the constant fear of accountability, perhaps they would not drop out in the first place.

Connect with Peter on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.