A standards-based curriculum
can be accessible to learners at
many different readiness levels.
The key is to base it in rich concepts.
and Ochan Kusuma-Powell
Several years ago, we were facilitating a work- shop on personalized learning at a large inter- national school in China. The school had spent years developing a standards-based curriculum, including benchmarks for what students should
achieve at different grade levels. Teachers had spent considerable time unpacking these benchmarks, and the school had
embarked on a comprehensive curriculum-mapping initiative
using the latest software.
Just before the coffee break, a clearly frustrated participant
raised her hand and offered this comment:
We’ve just spent two years developing standards and benchmarks
for our curriculum. We have standardized our expectations of
student achievement at each grade level. And now you want us
to personalize learning! You want us to treat each student as a
unique learner. Aren’t the concepts of a standards-based curricu-
lum and personalized learning mutually exclusive?
We suspect that many teachers around the world wrestle
with this question: With the widespread movement toward
greater accountability and measureable learning standards,
can we still make room for the needs of each individual
As educators who’ve taught diverse populations in the
United States, Saudia Arabia, Tanzania, Indonesia, and Malaysia, we believe the answer is yes. Under the right conditions,
personalized learning and a standards-based curriculum can
complement each other rather than exist at odds. Two teacher
actions that foster such powerful integration are developing
curricular standards around concepts and recognizing which
parts of the curriculum we can—and cannot—personalize.
Curriculum: Where the Rubber Meets the Road
Some of us may remember the tire commercial that included
the phrase “where the rubber meets the road.” The expression came to mean a crucial point or defining moment. In
the classroom, the rubber meets the road at the moment
when the student interacts with the curriculum. As educators, our responsibility is to create conditions for the most
meaningful and rich interaction. For this reason, it’s less
than helpful to think about the curriculum without also
thinking about the learner.
A curriculum without learning
standards has neither rigor nor
credibility. It virtually ensures
confusion and mediocrity.
In fact, personalized learning and curricular standards and
benchmarks are not only complementary, but also mutually
dependent. To see why, consider what might happen to one
without the presence of the other.
In the absence of a personalized approach to learning, a
standards-based curriculum can easily become an overpacked
program of content delivery with a narrow focus on high-stakes testing. When we leave the learner out of our planning for instruction, the focus shifts from student learning to
accountability and quality control. Carried to an extreme, this
emphasis can actually impede student learning—particularly
for students who learn differently. No matter how solid and
thought provoking the curriculum may be, when the voice
of the student is deemphasized or forgotten, learning suffers.