Sunday, November 8, 2015

Personalization Won't Work without Standards: Time to Pause for the Cause?

After a good decade of teaching hard, Epiphany #1: Learning—the enduring, meaningful kind—almost always gets messy fast, going the way of the unexpected, regardless of how hard I work, how well I prepare, and how many resources my learners and I command. 

So I began to plan, and put time aside for, the inevitable: my learners and I needing, from time to time, to slow down and determine where we were and why, before we decided what to do next. We came to depend on these time outs to reconnect with each other and re-orient ourselves to where we were headed. Over time, we referred to these time outs as taking a pause for the cause.

When my learners and I first started pausing for the cause, everyone felt relief, but then it wasn’t so clear what it was we should be doing to reconnect and re-orient. Make up missed homework? Revise a paper? Catch up on reading? Time, once again, evaporated, and though it had been nice to slow down for a day, we never made enough progress. Epiphany #2: There must be clarity about the cause to make the pause worthwhile.

Slowly (the multiple-years kind of slowly), I realized that my knee-jerk resistance to standards had blinded me to their power to personalize instruction—to determine with learners what particular paths they would find or make to travel to the desired destination.  Without wisely-chosen standards as our glowing beacon, my learners and I, no matter how many times we slowed down to regroup, inevitably found ourselves wrecked again on the shoals of confusion and fatigue.

Accepting this counterintuitive finding—that learning targets pointing to a well-chosen standard provide the clarity that enables personalization to become feasible—challenged an idea I’d previously clung to: standards cause standardization. Over time, though, I’ve changed my mind; without the rudder of explicit learning targets, aligned to a standards’ glowing beacon, learners and teachers are doomed to lose each other and their way while crossing the sea of learning experiences.

And then, finally, Epiphany #3: Most days should include at least a few moments for these types of time outs. Waiting weeks or even months to pause for the cause is a sure way to lose the cause. While at first these regular pauses may seem like they’re slowing down learning, over time they create a culture of coherence, which builds confidence and stamina in learners, who begin to find the feeling for the learning, which enables them to sustain and manage longer periods of practice because they can see that glowing beacon getting closer.  

Going the way of the unexpected—following our learners where they need to go to get to their destination—can feel chaotic and downright scary at times, especially if we’re not clear about what matters most. And even when we think we are clear about what matters most, we continue to find at least a few confused and fatigued learners still struggling to find their ways. At least I do.

I thank my lucky stars that early in my career my mentors insisted that I get clear about what mattered most in my setting, not to standardize learning, but so I could then communicate this to my learners, and begin an ongoing dialogue with them about what they and I could do to help them find and make their ways to those vital outcomes. Trying to personalize instruction for classrooms full of students without first establishing the explicit and measurable learning outcomes that matter most, would be like trying to sail hundreds of ships across the ocean, without a single rudder or compass.  

While it’s never tidy, how far and fast and to what end my learners travel depends on how well—or in some cases, how poorly—I’ve applied this principle: Enduring, meaningful learning almost always gets messy fast, going the way of the unexpected, so expect the unexpected; create time and structures that enable learners and educators to regularly reconnect with each other and re-orient themselves to the explicit learning outcomes that matter most.

Is the learning you’re leading going the way of the unexpected? Of course it is. Perhaps it’s time to pause for the cause.


  1. Thanks for your post! I'm just saying YES YES YES! It's SO important to have reflection time that we build in regularly! Think about our PD when we just get info thrown at us with no think time- or pause for the cause- then nothing comes of it... or at least much less than could because to ACT upon the ideas, we have to weave them into our current thinking and set their place in our minds. That's what that time out does for us and kids! :D You'd LOVE our books on Guided Inquiry & Guided Inquiry Design - not to be silly- but just to connect you to my work and writings on a reflective practice in inquiry ed.
    Thanks for your reflection and taking time to share with us! :D Leslie

    a link to one of the books I mentioned above for your reference. Cheers!

  2. Thanks for sharing! Awesome information! It reminds me of Steven Covey's habit -"Sharpening Your Saw."