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Designing Personalized Learning for Every Student

by Dianne Ferguson, Cleo Droege, Hafdís Guðjónsdóttir, Jackie Lester, Gwen Meyer, Ginevra Ralph, Nadia Sampson and Janet Williams

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. A Framework for Curricular Design

What do teachers think of when they hear the word curriculum? A book for students? A workbook? A teacher's manual? A list of subjects they have to teach? Many teachers think of curriculum in one of these ways. To them, curriculum refers to what educators teach, and that information is determined by someone else (or some group) and given to them in the form of books, texts, and lists.

The Role of the “Official” Curriculum

Many countries, states, and districts have identified what might be called an “official” or “standard” curriculum. Externally imposed standards of achievement or student outcomes have increasingly become one way to articulate this curriculum. We expect students to know and be able to do a set of tasks at various points in their schooling careers. This list of learning expectations is then translated into learning materials, such as textbooks, which may be accompanied by teachers' manuals that help both teachers and students meet the expectations. Some communities refer to these learning expectations as “curricular aims,” “common curricular goals,” “standards,” and “benchmarks.”

The underlying logic of curricular aims or approved standard curriculum, whether standards based or not, is that if a student learns this content, then the student is likely to be able to use it to become an active, contributing member of the community. Put another way, our communities need children, youth, and adults who have learned and can use these bits of information and demonstrate these skills.

Historically, this logic has served teachers and students reasonably well. Many students have learned much of what is contained in the official curriculum and textbooks—at least momentarily—and most do go on to construct active, contributing lives. We find ourselves troubled today, however, by the students who don't seem to fit into a prescribed curriculum, as well as by adults who report that they “never learned anything useful in school.” Too many students promptly forget much of what they learned as they pursue their own interests and lives, cleanly decoupling school learning from life. School learning becomes a kind of job that must occupy the days of our children and youth, but has little relevance to the real learning that supports how they live their lives. Part of our purpose in this book is to make school learning more meaningful life learning.

The purpose of schooling is not to make every child learn everything that is in the official curriculum. It is to help students acquire the competence to be active, valued members of their communities. If learning all, or even most, of the official curriculum accomplishes this purpose, so much the better. But if learning the official curriculum does not seem to result in students' ability to use their learning, teachers must make different curricular decisions.

As our society changes from an industrial structure to one reliant on information technology, the logic of an official curriculum becomes less useful. Our emerging society is making far different demands. A schooling in facts and skills will be less useful than one that prepares adults to creatively seek out information, create new information, and respond to the problems and purposes of each day.

Standards and other forms of official curricula are, and will remain, useful to teachers as long as they are periodically reviewed and revised by our communities. We should remember, however, that such standards or shared learning aims are meant to guide how teachers work with learners toward those goals. By themselves, official curriculum standards, even when learned, cannot ensure that learners will be successful in achieving the goals set for them.

Curriculum as Decision Making

Given the nature of the official curriculum and the important purposes of schooling for children and youth, it is most powerful and effective if teachers think of curriculum as first and foremost about teacher decision making. Teachers must first decide how well the official curriculum or achievement standards are working to achieve educational outcomes for each student. They must then decide how to tweak official curriculum activities to incorporate other learning tasks so that individually tailored and effective learning experiences will occur for every student. Many teachers do this tweaking automatically, following some kind of instinct, but don't typically take the time either beforehand or afterward to reflect about why they are making these decisions.

In this chapter, we show how teachers can make those sorts of curricular plans and decisions more deliberately by using a deeper understanding of every student's needs and abilities. We begin by describing three broad types of curricular decision making that teachers use repeatedly. Examples from Ms. Clark's class will probably look familiar.

Three Decision-Making Situations

Teachers encounter three kinds of decision-making situations, based on the unique ways their students learn and use their learning. The kinds of curricular decisions teachers may need to make are slightly different for each one, but all students are likely to benefit, making their learning more productive and meaningful.

Enriching the Curriculum

Some students seem to float through whatever teachers are teaching, learning with apparent ease and interest at least most of the time. They generally do well enough on measures of acquisition and achievement. They function well in their lives outside school and as members of their peer group. These are the easy situations that make a teacher's job both comfortable and satisfying. But teachers are not always sure if such students remember any of the learning or if they just operate outside school on the basis of what they learn there instead of in school. Teachers may also wonder about their inability to excite any real passion about learning for some students. The students learn what is taught, and they meet criteria—they are the “good citizens.” But teachers are concerned about transmitting their passion for learning to their students.

We think such students need teachers to find ways to enrich the curriculum for them, to help them identify and get excited about their learning and its usefulness in their lives. If there is a “goodness of fit” between what students are learning in school and the interests and demands of their lives outside school, their learning will be more meaningful and sensible to them. This kind of identification with what they are learning is the real stuff of both learning motivation and passion for learning. They might also learn more deeply. Most students need teachers to make enrichment decisions at least part of the time, as illustrated by the case of Samuel.

Samuel is an example of a student who generally finishes his assignments well ahead of the class. Often, Ms. Clark will announce to the class that Samuel is available to help and that he doesn't mind circling around the room. Most kids are receptive, and the teacher appreciates the support. But she questions if placing him in this role is fair and if it enhances his learning. Certainly it helps his social interaction with his peers. The class easily respects him as smart.

One day, Samuel had finished a guided reading activity on early civilizations 30 minutes ahead of everyone else. With his pleasant smile, he asked, “What shall I do now?” The rest of the class had the task in hand, and the teacher sensed that asking him to help others was avoiding the real issue. Samuel was entitled to a challenge. He needed to puzzle over tasks or activities the way his classmates did. She knew she was not meeting his needs. Grasping for an idea, she asked Samuel if he wanted to build a Sumerian water clock from some old directions she had found. His eyes lighted up and off he went. Since then, Samuel still helps Eli, Josh, and even Amanda, but at other times, the teacher offers Samuel—for his own learning—project ideas that she will never get around to using with the whole class.

Enhancing the Curriculum

There are students who may draw a teacher's special attention. It's not that they are not learning—it's that they learn so quickly that they have time to fool around and distract others. Such students may become bored and frustrated because they feel they waste time waiting for others, and they may gradually lose all interest. They drop out and stop trying. Their ability to meet the standards of achievement that teachers and schools have set quickly diminishes.

Other students may struggle with their learning. They take longer to figure something out and sometimes despair of ever succeeding. Some learning is more drudgery than discovery. Students feel little passion and, over time, little interest in learning. Struggling students may try to handle their frustration by making even less effort, arguing that they don't need to learn what teachers ask of them to be successful in their lives. Once a student has made this kind of decision to devalue school learning, it can be almost impossible to change the student's mind.

Both bored and struggling students need teachers to enhance the curriculum to respond not just to their abilities, but also to their learning styles, preferences, personal interests, and intelligences. Children may struggle, for example, because they are active, inductive learners who find rote, repetitive, deductive learning incomprehensible and boring. Facile learners often need more areas to learn and explore that build upon their interests and preferred ways of learning so that they can make learning alive in their lives.

All learners have various intelligences, or ways of receiving and expressing their knowledge. These intelligences can serve as a powerful springboard for creative curricular decision making and instructional planning. Howard Gardner (1993), the leading multiple intelligences theorist, has identified eight so far, and other educators, such as Goleman (1995), are defining more. Here are some of them:

  • Kinesthetic intelligence.
  • Musical intelligence.
  • Logical-mathematical intelligence.
  • Linguistic intelligence.
  • Interpersonal intelligence.
  • Intrapersonal intelligence.
  • Spatial intelligence.
  • Naturalistic intelligence.
  • Emotional intelligence.

All learners, including those with significantly different abilities, cultural backgrounds, and family lives, have both strengths and needs in each of these areas. Teachers need to draw upon and strengthen all of a student's intelligences. Students who discover new ways to apply and build on the range of skills that they already possess develop true self-esteem. Such meaningful experiences can sustain them during more challenging learning activities.

There are many ways to enhance the curriculum to respond to a student's intelligences, learning styles, and learning preferences. The demands of the task can be changed (e.g., give more or fewer examples, read more or fewer pages or books). Teachers might change the focus of the task. An example might be allowing students to learn a curricular goal—such as learn basic probability—by studying basketball teams and player statistics. Another example might be to learn about adjectives and adverbs by being the notetaker for a science experiment. Working on a curricular goal can occur within the context of an activity or lesson that might focus on a different curricular topic.

Teachers can enhance the options of what students produce. For one student, the assignment to write about his family might mean exploring his family tree and writing about distant relatives and the language they spoke in the old country. For another student, it might mean writing about her family's interest in hiking through the mountain forests, an interest the student passionately shares with her family. It might mean drawing, writing a song, or videotaping a play instead of actually writing out the assignment. In the end, the students will learn the official curricular aims, but their different ways of acquiring and using the knowledge are what make the curriculum useful in building the students' competence and value as members of their community.

Ms. Clark and her student Brandon both learned from the following experience. Brandon is constantly doodling or drawing when expected to work independently. During a reading fluency activity, which required him to choose a story, listen to a tape, reread the passage to the teacher, then produce a written retell, he consistently chose bug stories. After Brandon had practiced his reading, the teacher was later exasperated to see him drawing again instead of working on his writing assignment. She looked at his paper and discovered an intricate picture map depicting each aspect of the original story. He glanced at her sheepishly as she stood beside him. She encouraged him to tell her about his drawing. He explained the life cycle of a moth in detail. She asked him to complete the drawing, giving him permission to retell his selections in the picture map format, which he is most comfortable with. His confidence in his ability to retell his selections soared. It had taken her a moment to realize that Brandon was exhibiting a benchmark skill in his preferred alternative style.

Overlapping and Embedding the Curriculum

Teachers may have students whose abilities make it impossible for them to learn in some areas. Barriers to learning can be physical; medical; emotional; or a reflection of a student's history, culture, or personality. In these types of situations, teachers have to be guided directly by the schooling outcomes and the student's strengths to align the student's learning needs more closely with the official curriculum. Of course, a number of these students can learn many, even all, parts of the official curriculum, especially when teachers are creative and flexible. Others, like Susannah in the following narrative, will work on communication objectives, which are tied to the state benchmarks for communication, during the class's literacy learning activities that are aligned with another part of the official curriculum.

Using the official curriculum as the only teaching reference may not allow teachers to be as confident that their teaching is helping a student become a more active and contributing member of the community. Teachers must select those parts of the curriculum that directly build students' competence in the activities of real life, both inside and outside school.

Susannah's teachers weren't sure if Susannah would be able to participate in a 6th grade literature circle. Literature circles require five students to choose a book, plan the reading calendar, set up a schedule for group members to take a role for participation within the group, and discuss the book. They later answer questions about the book during a group presentation. The roles include discussion director, literary luminary, illustrator, connector, and summarizer. Some teachers add other roles.

Ms. Jackson, the speech-language specialist, was focusing on Susannah's communication goals: to articulate and comprehend functional vocabulary and to follow directions. Ms. Clark offered the class a choice of six books to vote on. Susannah voted for Woodsong because she liked the picture of dogs on the cover.

Groups began to form, and Susannah joined a group with four other students interested in Woodsong. Ms. Jackson monitored the group as the students chose roles. Susannah began with the role of Word Wizard, which required her to choose vocabulary words from the book's first chapter. The speech-language specialist, Ms. Jackson, helped Susannah choose words containing sounds that they were practicing. Susannah wrote her word list. The group went to the two comfortable couches in the back of the room to listen to the first chapter on tape as they followed along in their books. To the teachers' delight, Susannah participated in the group activity while also working on her communication goals. For Susannah, curricular decisions involved finding ways to embed or overlap her communication objectives in activities like literature circles in which other students' objectives are focused more on reading.

* * *

In the following chapters, we present strategies to help teachers make these three kinds of curricular decisions and assess their students' outcomes from a more individual and personalized perspective. Here is what we present:

  • Ways to get to know your students' and their families' interests and learning priorities more personally, deeply, and quickly than is often typical. Knowing students well helps teachers feel confident that students understand the relevancy of what they are learning to their real-life activities. (See Chapters 2 and 3.)
  • Examples of how to build curriculum plans using an activity-based assessment. (See Chapters 3 and 4.)
  • Processes and tools to identify, discuss, and document student learning gains that are seen in the classroom but don't necessarily appear in state benchmark exams. Such gains are valuable to both the student and the student's family. (See Chapters 5 and 6.)
  • Strategies to elicit validating information from families on how their children are using their new learning and skills in the community activities that they identified earlier as high priority. (See Chapter 3.)

Gardner, H. (1993). Multiple intelligences: The theory in practice. New York: BasicBooks.

Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence. New York: Bantam Books.

For Further Reading

If you are interested in learning more about differentiated instruction, you may want to take a look at the work of Tomlinson (1996, 1997a, 1997b, 1999). The book edited by Pugach and Warger (1996) and the book edited by Falvey (1995) discuss the history of general and special education reforms and how the two movements can unite through curriculum design. The books by Armstrong (1994a, 1994b, 1998) use Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences to discuss the inner gifts and genius in all students, especially students labeled with disabilities. The resources by Chard (1998a, 1998b) offer educators an introduction to and numerous examples of the “project approach.”

Armstrong, T. (1994a). Multiple intelligences: Seven ways to approach curriculum. Educational Leadership, 52(3), 26–28.

Armstrong, T. (1994b). Multiple intelligences in the classroom. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Armstrong, T. (1998). Awakening genius in the classroom. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Chard, S. C. (1998a). The project approach: Developing the basic framework: Practical guide 1. New York: Scholastic.

Chard, S. C. (1998b). The project approach: Developing curriculum with children: Practical guide 2. New York: Scholastic.

Falvey, M. A. (Ed.). (1995). Inclusive and heterogeneous schooling: Assessment, curriculum, and instruction. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing.

Pugach, M. C., & Warger, C. L. (Eds.). (1996). Curriculum trends, special education, and reform: Refocusing the conversation. New York: Teachers College Press.

Tomlinson, C. A. (Developer). (1996). Differentiating instruction for mixed-ability classrooms: An ASCD professional inquiry kit. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Tomlinson, C. A. (Educational Consultant). (1997a). Differentiating instruction. tape 1: Creating multiple paths for learning with facilitator's guide [Videotape]. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Tomlinson, C. A. (Educational Consultant). (1997b). Differentiating instruction. Tape 2: Instructional and management strategies [Videotape]. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Tomlinson, C. A. (1999). The differentiated classroom: Responding to the needs of all learners. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.


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