Strange Bedfellows: The Marriage of Personalized Learning and High-Quality Curriculum
Unexpected pairings are a common feature throughout history and culture; Dharma and Greg, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia, Frog and Toad, Martha Stewart and Snoop Dogg. Opposites attract when they have a shared purpose and their strengths complement one another. They can approach problems with a greater set of ideas and a broader range of perspectives. At first glance, personalized learning and high-quality curriculum may seem like opposing movements. However, they both aim to deepen student learning and approach that task with a variety of strategies that, when paired, are a powerful set of tools.
On their own, personalized learning and high-quality curriculum both have a positive effect on student outcomes. A 2017 study by the RAND Corporation found evidence that personalized learning, “can improve achievement for students, regardless of their starting level” and that students surpassed national norms when their learning experiences were personalized for at least two years. A 2015 study by the Center for American Progress found that high-quality curriculum’s impact on student achievement, in terms of cost-effectiveness, “was almost 40 times that of class-size reduction.”
Yet for many, the adoption of a high-quality curriculum that may standardize objectives, assessments, and lessons would seem to offer less opportunity for flexibility and personalization. How could a resource that provides more structure be useful when planning for personalized learning?
The answer lies in how teachers can choose to focus their energy and talent. A high-quality curriculum allows teachers to focus on personalizing learning experiences rather than curating (or creating) content.
In the past, teachers were responsible for selecting, creating, and organizing the content they used in their classes. Because this work was central to delivering a lesson, it was often prioritized over other tasks, such as analyzing and responding to student data. A high-quality curriculum provides the objective and lesson plan or outline to start from and the instructional resources necessary to execute that lesson. Because the starting point has been set, teachers can focus their energy and talent on personalizing a lesson so that it meets the needs and interests of all students. When personalizing curriculum, teachers should remember the following:
Equitable outcomes matter. A high-quality curriculum ensures all students build the skills and knowledge necessary to be successful. Personalized learning is what ensures that all students, regardless of their starting point, have equal access to that curriculum. Teachers should monitor student outcomes to ensure they are fully-leveraging the power of high-quality curriculum and personalized learning.
Personalize the student learning experience. Common objectives ensure all students across a school or district build the same skills and knowledge. Each teacher should consider which instructional model best supports their students in meeting that objective. For example, an ELA lesson may have students read three different poems to analyze the author’s use of diction. One teacher may use a three-station rotation model to help students engage with those poems individually, collaboratively, and with teacher guidance. Another teacher may have all students analyze two of those poems collaboratively while pulling targeted small groups to support students reading below grade-level. Both teachers are personalizing a lesson to meet the needs and strengths of their students.
Refocus on the needs of students. Teachers should shift their focus and energy from curation to designing a lesson experience that is personalized, based on the needs of their students. The only way to know what those needs are is to spend more time looking at student work and outcomes. An experienced PL teacher should not be spending more time planning, they should be shifting their time to focus more on student data. This knowledge will empower them to quickly improve lessons and group students.
The most common criticism of both standardized curriculum and technology in the classroom is that they replace the teacher. The premise of this argument is flawed because personalized learning and high-quality curriculum actually elevate the role of the teacher. Students do not learn because of an algorithm or pacing calendar, they learn because a teacher has the talent and expertise to design a learning experience that meets the needs of every student.
Check out our white paper series on selecting Curriculum to Support Personalized Learning
About Noah Dougherty
Noah Dougherty is a Design Principal at Education Elements. He previously worked as a teacher, curriculum writer, instructional coach, and school leader. He began his teaching career in Prince George’s County, Maryland with Teach For America and continued with KIPP DC. He has taught middle school social studies, 8th grade ELA, English 12, AP Literature, high school journalism, and DC History. While at KIPP DC he wrote the middle school social studies curriculum, designed a blended professional development course on writing instruction, and supported personalized learning. As a school leader he coached eleven teachers on the ELA and social studies teams, leading to a 13-point gain in students earning a 4+ on the PARCC, more than doubling the portion of students passing from the previous year. Noah has also worked for DC Public Schools and LearnZillion on curriculum development initiatives. He is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh. Noah grew up in Syracuse, NY and now lives in Washington, DC.