Can Personalized Learning and the Common Core co-exist?

Teach to the needs of each individual student. Teach to the standards. Teachers can’t do both, right?


One of the more frequent frustrations I hear from teaching colleagues is the (supposed) contradiction between trying to personalize learning for each of their students, and addressing the big, national, one-size-fits-all (their words) standards that seem to loom over their shoulders like a baton-wielding prison guard.

(“Hey, stop being innovative and creative! That doesn’t meet a standard!” Whack!)

Maybe that’s a little extreme, but teachers are hard-pressed enough to do one of the above tasks, much less both at the same time.

The good news? Competency-based standards and personalized learning not only go hand-in-hand, but personalization is one of the most effective ways to create standards-based instruction.

Personalized goals need benchmarks

Common Core State Standards provide ideal targets, and because CCSS are competencies for both college and career readiness, they support a wider range of personalized goals and interests. The learner who is heading for a four-year college and the one who is looking to jump right into the workforce both find standards that can be aligned to their personal goals.

Common Core provides guidance for a personalized learning path

Personalized Learning scares many teachers because it feels a little out of control. Standards provide regular signposts along the way, keeping the path focused on what the teacher (or the building or district) is aiming for. But it allows the learning to remain individualized and student-driven (the heart of personalized learning), so kids can meet standards where it makes the most sense based on their strengths and interests.

Competency-based standards create a “big picture”

One of the misunderstanding of personalized learning is that kids just do whatever they want, even if it doesn’t “fit” into anything. With a set of standards guiding the goal-setting and assignment creation and assessment, the teacher can be confident that all those individual projects are actually moving towards something meaningful. The student has much of the control, but the teacher is no longer stressed that they “aren’t really learning anything”.

This is especially helpful as teachers transition to a personalized learning environment. Many of us have our own subject-matter prejudices and pet projects that we know (at least in the back of our heads) are addressing some learning goal that we have for our students. When I taught To Kill a Mockingbird, I knew that I would be able to touch some of the standards because of the questions I could ask and the writing I assigned. If they picked their own books, I couldn’t assure that they would hit those benchmarks.

But when the students are designing their own assignments and projects, and choosing their own materials, they are also aligning those goals with the standards. They will meet those benchmarks because they designed the project to do so.

Puts learning into the hands of learner

When students are driving the learning, there is a deeper understanding of the standards and a buy-in on the part of the learners. The learning path becomes more flexible because the standards act as a common target, regardless of how the learner hits it. The established standards are no longer a teacher’s tool, they are a learner’s resource. This creates a better chance for the student to internalize the standards, rather than asking the tired question: “Why am I learning this?”

Despite the uninformed criticism, the Common Core State Standards don’t rob teachers of the ability to innovation or individualize. Instead, a set of standards makes it even more possible to turn that creativity and choice over to the learner. They don’t dictate how the teacher should teach, but they do provide students with a tool to guide their learning.

In short, the standards don’t create inflexibility; they actually encourage personalization.