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March 23, 2017
Vol. 12
No. 14

A Practical Guide to Personalization in a Standards-Based World

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The increasing availability of technology provides teachers with multiple avenues to customize learning for their students. But despite the potential for rich learning experiences, teachers may still feel stymied by the demands of their content standards. The use of essential questions can help to bridge this gap. Essential questions are open-ended, engaging questions that facilitate student inquiry on an individual level; they allow students to find personal relevance in various disciplines while exploring key ideas (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005). These questions can reveal various entry points for teachers to help students find relevance, engage in inquiry, and create meaning while using technology as a tool in the process. Here we present several sample standards-aligned essential questions and the authentic, personalized learning experiences they inspire.

High School Science

A Practical Guide to Personalization in a Standards-Based World-table

Personalized learning

StandardNGSS HS-LS2-7 Design, evaluate, and refine a solution for reducing the impact of human activity on the environment and biodiversity.
Essential QuestionWhat role should humans play in safeguarding the environment?

The class begins to tackle this essential question with a three-minute quick write and discussion. To make the question relevant to their lives, the teacher encourages students to think about their own personal impact on the environment, as well as their efforts to protect it. Next, students form groups based on their interest in investigating one of the human activities that threatens the earth's environment and biodiversity. Research groups coalesce around topics like habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species, over-exploitation, or climate change. The student research groups follow class-generated guidelines for evaluating the validity of a source, corroborating evidence through multiple sources, and gathering data in a variety of formats (charts/graphs, testimonies of experts, video evidence, etc.). After each group presents their findings to the class, students choose an ecosystem, form new groups with others who chose the same ecosystem, and investigate the impact of various human threats. They also design a solution for reducing those threats while accounting for economic, safety, and other community-based concerns. They present their findings via a multimedia presentation to representative community officials in the affected areas. Finally, students revisit the essential question and post responses to a class Padlet that reflect on both individual and societal responsibilities.

3rd Grade Math

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Personalized learning

StandardCCSS.MATH.CONTENT.3.MD.B.4 Generate measurement data by measuring lengths using rulers marked with halves and fourths of an inch. Show the data by making a line plot, where the horizontal scale is marked off in appropriate units—whole numbers, halves, or quarters.
Essential QuestionHow do graphs help us tell stories with data?

In previous lessons, students practiced the skill of measuring lengths to the nearest quarter inch, and are now ready to transfer their learning. The teacher begins this lesson by sharing sample graphs from Steve Jenkins's book Animals by the Numbers. In small groups, the students share responses to the class essential question using their favorite graph from the book for reference. After a whole class debrief, the teacher shares three depictions (atlas moth, giant squid eye, and Goliath bird eater tarantula) from another Jenkins's book Actual Size and lets students choose between investigating wingspans, eye sizes, or arachnids' body widths. In interest-based groups, students are given rulers and pictures displaying the actual size of several examples from their chosen category. They measure and record their findings to the nearest quarter, half, or whole inch. Finally, students use the "Create a Graph Tool," on class iPads, to represent their data on a line plot. Once finished, students move into mixed groups to share their findings and then convene as a whole class to revisit the essential question, pulling in what they learned from their mixed group discussions to "tell their stories."

Intersecting Questions

Teachers can also use essential questions to promote cross-disciplinary inquiry. Because essential questions are conceptual in nature, they invite students to make connections and discover relationships between content areas. Here is a cross-curricular middle school example incorporating language arts and social studies.

6th Grade Language Arts and Social Studies

A Practical Guide to Personalization in a Standards-Based World-table3

Personalized learning

StandardCCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6.3 Analyze in detail how a key individual, event, or idea is introduced, illustrated, and elaborated in a text (e.g., through examples or anecdotes). CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6.9 Compare and contrast two authors' presentation of events (e.g., a memoir and a biography on the same person). CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.6.2.B Develop the topic with relevant facts, definitions, concrete details, quotations, or other information and examples.
Essential QuestionHow do we determine a person's character?

Students read an excerpt from John Adams's "Letter on Thomas Jefferson" from Zall's Adams on Adams (found in CCSS Appendix B) and discuss as a class how both Adams and Jefferson are characterized in this account, drawing on the dialogue and descriptions. With these characterizations in mind, each student hypothesizes whom he or she is most like—Adams or Jefferson—and consults sources to see how their chosen historical figure is portrayed in other essays, biographies, and films. Then, using iMovie Trailer with a combination of text and images from their research, students create short films depicting how they are like (or unlike) Adams or Jefferson, based on at least three different characterizations they discovered in their research. Following a class discussion about the reliability and specificity of different sources, students craft personal blog responses addressing the original essential question while referencing what they learned about Adams, Jefferson, and themselves in their research.
Although at first glance standards may obscure opportunities for personalization, using essential questions can reveal opportunities to promote individual relevance, encourage students to make connections to other content areas, and facilitate a classroom culture based on inquiry and meaning-making. In a standards-based climate, essential questions can connect students to content in more personal and powerful ways.

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Eric M. Carbaugh, PhD, is a full professor in the Department of Middle, Secondary, and Mathematics Education at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, where he instructs both undergraduate and graduate courses. As an educational consultant, he has worked with teachers and leaders at more than 100 schools and districts on a variety of topics related to curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

He is a coauthor of Designing Authentic Performance Tasks and Projects and the quick reference guide Principles and Practices for Effective Blended Learning. He has teaching experience at both the elementary and secondary levels and serves as the journal editor and a board member for the Virginia ASCD chapter.


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