A few months ago I was asked to write for a publication with this question in mind – High standards—personalization. Are these two education trends really in opposition?  After truly procrastinating and torturing myself over the writing I finished it, turned it in, but didn’t make selection for publication.  So I have this piece of writing that needs a place to live… its long.  I’m not going to apologize about that, but just be aware.

For Each to Excel

High standards and personalization are not in opposition.  Standardization and personalization are in opposition.  Holding students to a high standard while also personalizing the educational experience are not only, not in opposition, but really are the nexus where motivation meets productivity.  For the past 15 years I have taught in a rural school in northern Wisconsin, a small town bedroom community outside Kansas City, a school in northern Arizona that was home to many recent immigrant children as well as those coming from the Navajo reservation and an urban school in Center City Philadelphia.

With this survey of America and her schools in mind, I am certain what we need at this exciting moment in American education is more personalization, more high standards and little to no standardization.  Why in the era when we are equipped with the technology to truly invigorate teaching and learning with individualized opportunities are we, as a nation, fixated on an assessment regime that squelches innovation, individuality and creativity?  Students and teachers are ready to move to the place where school is more than a holding pen, more than a place to ‘do your time’ but one where true transformation can occur on an individual level for all members of the school community.

The tools of modern learning allow for students to access and interact with content in ways that were not available to the classrooms of the past.  From manipulating interactive simulations to searching the National Archives, students have more complex ways of processing and analyzing their world.  One way to take advantage of this massive world of information is to move the learning from a place of one-size fits all, to a place of inquiry for each student.  The potential for learning increases when the students are allowed to ask questions within their learning and then given space to investigate, be curious and dig.

In the classroom, this inquiry-driven approach takes form in a multitude of diverse projects.  In one 11th grade English class, students were asked to investigate a community need, locate grants that could be used to support that need and then apply for the grant.  In 10th grade science, students were asked to complete a project at the end of the year that dug deeper into a concept from the year-long course about which they remained curious and driven to further understanding.  In 11th grade physics, the students were asked to observe what happened on the city buses everyday, record their observations, and then work to develop new public service announcements about the laws of physics that impact their ride.  The goal was to increase safety for the passengers.

Putting interesting concepts in front of the students, challenging them to ask questions, and then giving them space to inquire further is one of the most effective means of facilitating learning.  These are all examples of allowing students to design the end products while holding them to high standards of learning without standardizing the outcome.

Standardization kills creativity.  In an era of constant talk about the need for innovation in all areas of life and the economy, creativity is one of the main qualities that fuels innovation.  We all need to be working to foster a citizenry that can inquire, search out information to build learning and then create original works from that inquiry driven learning.  The days of learning ‘the one right way’ to complete a task and then repeat that task over and over — is over.

Teachers and students are inundated with choice, options, and issues that demand critical but also creative thinkers.  Working with students to develop the skills for this world rather than focusing on access to static content is key.  Responding to dynamic situations that require a student to adjust, reconfigure and rethink while progressing forward fosters a learning environment that invigorates.  One way that this happens at the classroom level is quite simple yet difficult at the same time.  Teachers must stop directing all aspects of the final outcomes of student work.  Typically, students mimic rather than create original work.  Our new learning landscape allows for the teacher to step aside and let students create.  This is simple, yet to give up this level of control requires a shift in the teacher’s classroom role.  Additionally, the teacher must recognize that in letting the students create and inquire, the end product may fall short of what was anticipated.  This is ok.  Allowing the students the latitude to fail should certainly be factored into potential outcomes in this type of learning environment.

Creativity involves risk and trying something new.  School is the perfect place to work through that process with the students to reflect on what went well, what did not and how to make changes for future ventures.  I watched a bright and tenacious 11th grader go after a story for one of our history projects.  She called and reached out in every way possible.  She researched and dug and in the end came up short.  When she came to me feeling frustrated and somewhat defeated, we decided to change her project from being about this topic, to being about her process and the difficulties she encountered along the way.  She learned.  It was personalized, and she was held to high standards.  However, it did not look like any other student’s learning.  The educational system needs to start getting comfortable with this variation in learning. To do otherwise sanitizes the educational experience into being predictable, mimicked and flat.

Personalization allows for ownership of learning and investment from the students.  From a school-wide standpoint there are a number of opportunities to endeavor for high standards as well as personalize the educational experience.  At the Science Leadership Academy (SLA), we employ a 3-year-long program that challenges students to pursue their own interests.  Starting in their sophomore year and continuing through their junior year, students are given Wednesday afternoons to intern, learn, volunteer, and do – we call it the Individualized Education Program (ILP).  Some students enroll in college classes to pursue a subject not offered at school, others are in law offices, businesses, university labs, non-profits.   The sky is the limit.  The school offers a set of options but the student can also propose an alternative and seek out their own tailor-made internship.  These experiences have led students to further investigate a particular career path and for others they realize that they would rather pursue a different path.  College scholarships, admissions, job offers, awards are all potential outcomes for students doing what they are already interested in, but with the time allocated within the normal school day for them to pursue.  This is a key component, making school about life and not just encouraging them to engage in these types of learning experiences ‘outside’ the school day.

For the final year of this arc, students are let loose to create a Capstone project of their design.  There is guidance, mentors, check ins and other scaffolded experiences that assist students through a year long project, but the choices of what to create and how to create it are left to the student.  They design, plan, schedule and execute the final project.  This process is meant to synthesize the learning experiences that we build toward as a school.  Our five core values – Inquiry, Collaboration, Research, Reflection, and Presentation – are on embedded as seniors carry out the project.  It is not rare for students to stumble or struggle.  Once again, this is ok.

The three-year program asks students to identify their own interests, pursue them,  and create from those interests.  It is a throughline embedded in their learning that values them individually while holding them to a high standard of achievement.  The measurement of this achievement is the work of their own hands, rather than that of a scan sheet.  Talk to any student about their learning at the end of this experience and they will be able to process and reflect at a level that make most employers salivate.  They not only know what gets in the way of their productivity, but how to mitigate for those obstacles and ways to improve the next time they tackle a big project again.  This is learning for the modern age.

So now for the inevitable question of assessment.  This type of conversation about teaching and learning always boils down to assessment.  Currently our educational system employs one of the cheapest forms of assessing student work, multiple choice questions.  This standardized assessment, while not horrible, is just irrelevant.  It measures the wrong thing.  Our assessments need to be as dynamic as the learning and relevant to the complex nature of the work.  At SLA, we employ a three-part system of assessment that endeavors to provide a variety of feedback to the students regarding their academic progress.

During all four quarters we submit traditional grades just like all the other schools in the School District of Philadelphia.  This continuation of traditional grades allows for our students to pursue placement in top colleges, compete for scholarships and the like.  We do not leave it just at traditional grades, though.  Accompanying the traditional report card for the 1st and 3rd quarters is a narrative report from each teacher.  This two to three paragraph narrative explains the student’s progress, comments on strengths and weaknesses, and suggests goals for the upcoming quarters.  During the 2nd and 4th quarters, a standards-based report card is included with the traditional report card.  The standards based report card comments on specific skill development for each of the subject areas.

All of this robust information is collected and shared in a student-run conference with the academic advisor and the parents.  Goals are then discussed and set for the upcoming quarters.  All of this information is logged in our Learning Management System – SLATE – so all teachers, administrators, and counselors can access the data at anytime throughout the student’s four years with SLA.  This system attends to a traditional model while also recognizing that a letter is not the whole story.  The incorporation of these three measurement techniques provide the learner, parents, advisors and teachers with a full circle feedback loop on the individual progress from a holistic, narrative and standards-based perspective.  This is a vigorous model of assessment.  Nothing about this is standardized.  This is personalized and sets a high standard for achievement.

The tools, systems and networks available for learning are as unending as are the possibilities for demonstration of that learning.  Holding this process back with a stilted and stifling standardized assessment regime is outdated.  Learning has never been so ready to wrap its arms around differentiation, personalization and high standards.  Standardization gets in the way.

Teaching and learning are standing on the edge of unlimited opportunities for robust investigation that invites student interest and passion.  By engaging students in inquiry-driven education, projects to let their creativity shine and space for them to pursue their interests, we can all move forward into modern learning that no longer asks for replication and memorization as demonstrations of learning. Instead, we can move into learning that is dynamic, challenging and interesting.  Sadly, this is not embraced in the broader educational establishment.

It takes action to shift learning into this realm.  The status quo is not welcome here.  It is sometimes uncomfortable and messy.  We owe it to our community to work with the students in our charge to not only inform, but value their role, voice and passion within the learning environment.  Start talking, reaching out, developing networks with the stakeholders motivated to re-evaluate the learning environment.  This is literally as simple and complex as being willing to learn in front of our students as we create the classrooms and schools they need.