E Pluribus Unum: Standardization and Personalization in Education

At first glance, it seems to me like a difficult balancing act: implementing standards, which tend to impose uniformity on curriculum, instruction, and expectations for student achievement; and implementing the use of new technologies, like tablet computers, which enable an increasing personalization of the learning process. Collins and Halverson, in Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology, find these two trends in direct opposition. They write:

Standardized assessments are motivated by the reform effort to ensure that all children are at least educated to a common expectation for learning. However, standardized approaches to instruction, by definition, restrict the range of acceptable practice…To the degree that technology allows students to go off in their own direction, it is in direct conflict with the standardized assessments pervading schools (Collins and Halverson 45).

As I sat listening to school improvement plan reports, two of the concepts that particularly stood out were differentiation and coherence. On the face of it, these concepts, too, seem to be in opposition: differentiation implies making distinctions and treating students in different ways, while coherence implies holding the educational program together around a common set of goals and practices.  But, on further study and reflection, I came to the conclusion that differentiation and coherence are complementary rather than competing goals. Schools can have common goals and a common instructional framework for achieving those goals (coherence) that recognize and accommodate the differing needs of individual students (differentiation).

Minnesota has recently adopted the Common Core standards in English language arts, a set of standards that are common to all but four of the fifty states. The standards are not intended to prescribe everything that students should know, but rather to provide a basic framework of necessary skills (such as fluent reading, effective writing, and critical thinking). For example, one of the core literacy standards for grades 6-8 is: “Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience” (Common Core 66). The standard prescribes a basic skill that all students are expected to master, but doesn’t tell teachers how to apply that standard within their individual content areas, or how to instruct students of differing needs and abilities.

The goal of coherence is to reinforce these standards and skills across the curriculum. For example, the standard quoted above (the production of clear and coherent writing appropriate to task, purpose and audience) is just as relevant to a science class as it is to an English class. As Diana Oxley writes:

“[T]eaching is more likely to produce learning when it connects learning in different contexts over an extended period of time. When learning is linked in this way, students are able to extend and deepen existing knowledge and adjust and refine understandings. Students’ ability to apply learning in different contexts allows them to test what they know and generalize their knowledge (Oxley 3).

Standards and coherence are different from “coverage,” the idea that schools should cover “all the important knowledge that people might need in the rest of their life” (Collins and Halverson 46). Collins and Halverson observe that, “as knowledge has grown exponentially, textbooks have grown fatter and fatter” (Collins and Halverson 46). The goal of “coverage” has become impossible to achieve, and students need instead flexible skills that can be applied across disciplines to enable more independent learning.

Oxley points out that, in Japan, which dramatically outranks the U.S. in cognitive skills (Japan ranks fifth in the Global Index of Cognitive Skills, the U.S. ranks fourteenth), “textbooks are thinner and teachers cover fewer topics in greater depth than in the United States” (Oxley 3). Their goal is not coverage, but flexibility of application.

It seems to me that tablet computers such as iPads can facilitate the differentiation of instruction (helping to tailor lessons to the needs of individual students) and the overall personalization (or customization) of the educational experience within the framework of common standards. Tablet computers can be used not only for reinforcing basic skills, but also for applying those skills in authentic situations across different content areas.

The challenge of balancing standardization and personalization in education seems to me to reflect the basic challenge of living in a democracy. How do we identify and reinforce common values and common purpose while respecting and maintaining a diversity of individual and cultural experience? How can we be both the same and different? How do we reconcile individuality with commonality? How do we create one out of many?


Collins and Halverson (2009). Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology: The Digital Revolution and Schooling in America. New York: Teachers College Press.

Oxley, Diana (2008). “Creating Instructional Program Coherence.” Principal’s Research Review 3.5 (September).

Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects. Available for download here.

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