Customized Learning and Bright Futures


The following post was written by Bill Zima who has been working as the assistant principal at Massabesic Middle School in RSU #57, Waterboro, during their beginning transformation to a “standards based system”. Bill recently started a new job as principal at Mt. Ararat Middle School in MSAD #75, Topsham. Bill has contributed earlier to and you can access his other posts. He serves on the Maine Association for Middle Level Education board.

When I reflect on what is meant by student-centered, performance-based classrooms, “voice and choice” often comes to mind. This then prompts three questions; (1) Are students given the choice to use their special gifts, interests and desires to demonstrate understanding of a concept or skill? (2) Are students given the voice to help shape the curriculum and the learning path? (3) Do we actively engage the students in a conversation about what is working and not working in their schools? I know there are bright spots throughout Maine, but as a system, yes is a rare answer. The curriculum is often set, placed in binders and stored on shelves. Learning outcomes are defined by grade levels and are not easily adjusted. If we want to answer yes to the above questions, students must become active owners of the curriculum and their learning. They will not be able to do so until we develop systems of instruction that are transparent allowing them to see the path of learning required to become proficient in a concept or a skill.

The first of the Bright Futures Core Practices calls for a curriculum that is relevant, challenging, integrative and exploratory while being accessible to all students. Does this mean all students need to do the same activities and pass the same assessments in order to demonstrate understanding? In recent years, some have suggested uniformity is the only way to ensure all students learn the same curriculum. This approach however conflicts with the findings of neuroscience. Studies of the adolescent brain confirm what educators have long thought, students learn in different ways and at different times. So why do we continue to make statements like “all 7th graders should be able to…” We need to move away from the traditional approach of grade-level defined curriculum and look to true learning progressions. The challenge lies within our outdated instructional system. That system makes or even forces students to move to the next grade-level whether they are ready to or not. “Sorry we finished 6th grade curriculum. You need to go to seventh grade. You passed with an 80 percent, which is good for you. The missing 20 percent, well, that may not matter.” I ask students, “Have you ever felt left behind in the classroom, because the teacher had to move on?” All the students I have spoken with have said yes, they are frustrated when things move too quickly and they miss concepts. Teachers often talk about the impediment of students coming to their classrooms without the necessary skills to be successful. Yet, we have a hard time identifying which specific skills those are. Why do we continue to do this?

We need to work with parents, teachers, community members and students to get at what we want our students to know and be able to do. Once we recognize the learning outcomes, we can create progressions of learning that will lead from the introduction of the concept or skill through to being proficient or advanced. Once these progressions are created, it will be clear to student, parent and teacher which skills or concepts are prerequisites. This will make the curriculum appropriately challenging. To make it engaging and meaningful, teachers can provide opportunities for students to demonstrate their proficiency using their gifts and interests. This in fact makes the curriculum uniform but but the details varied. That is mass customization.

The Red Cross Aquatics Safety Program is a wonderful example of this approach. They have made their curriculum completely transparent by defining what it means to be proficient at swimming and then designed a program to help students get from water exploration to being a safe and efficient swimmer. The skills associated with each level are clear and must be demonstrated before one is allowed to move to the next level.

Some swimmers will inevitably move faster through the program. Yet we do not think less of those students who need more time to demonstrate nor do we tell them they have been here for 175 days and must now move into the deep end regardless of skill or readiness. We recognize that different swimmers have different personalities, experiences and body types that all affect how they first meet the water and develop a comfort level for success. Why is this not possible for our students? Do they not come to us with different experiences, personalities and gifts? The Aquatics program can be applied to anyone, the masses but tailored for the individual needs, customization. Hence, a system of mass customization.

The Common Core attempts to build learning progressions for language arts and math but then places them back into arbitrarily defined grade levels. As long as we continue to allow grade levels to dictate the curriculum (oh that is taught in 7th grade, you will have to wait) we will never make it accessible to all students. We must not “teach” the Common Core but instead use the Common Core to guide what we teach. In my conversations with students, they have described curriculum as a “big, secret book” the teacher looks at, teaches a concept and then flips the page to the next unit. Students see the concepts or skills as unrelated chunks of learning. Never truly grasping the relationship. Learning progressions, however, show students that once you finish this skill or concept, we will move on to this skill or concept. The curriculum becomes clear. And then when they choose how they will demonstrate understanding using their interests, it becomes real and they will engage. I believe we should be able to ask any student 3 questions that help to see the accessibility of our curriculum; (1) What are you working on, (2) how do you know when you are done, and (3) what do you do next. We need to open the curriculum to our students and let them in on our secret. They have asked me for it. Have you asked them?


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4 Responses to “Customized Learning and Bright Futures”

  1. NancyEH Says:

    The Red Cross swim standards are VERY different from what would be expected in a Language Arts, or Social Studies, or Health classroom. Those are not easily treated in such a sequential manner. I would appreciate seeing one of those subject areas addressed.

    Although I understand what standards-based proponents are saying, I dispute its practical application across the curriculum and the state. Until someone proves that such an approach actually increases the all-important test scores, I – for one, and maybe only one – will not be convinced.

    • Bill Zima Says:

      The swimming standards are a concrete example of how procedural knowledge can be placed in a series of progressive steps. Other content areas that are procedural in nature,think math, can also be placed in such a way. I agree with you that content areas that consist of primarily declarative knowledge add a twist. But I know, after working to build these progressions both at Massabesic Middle School and with the State, it can be done.

      Would you agree that there is prerequisite knowledge needed in the building of conceptual ideas? For instance, in science, I would begin by teaching my students a food chain before going into the food web and then ultimately to the complexities of symbiotic relationships needed to support an ecosystem. In language arts, we would want our early students to start with 1-1 letter correspondence, move to decoding 1-syllable words, then 2-syllable words with short vowel sounds, and so on until they are reading for meaning and able to defend their argument with evidence from the text.

      Please look at the curriculum frameworks from Massabesic Middle:

      You are correct about the test. As long as we measure ourselves by it, we are held to its limitations. I do believe that if we engage students around meaningful, accessible curriculum, which I am defining as one that is transparent and gives students voice and choice, they will become critical thinkers, able to access and analyze information leading them to defend through oral and written statements their own opinions and ideas. The increased engagement, I argue, comes from a decrease in the ambiguous path to learning so many students feel. When the path is clear, the intellectual side can more easily guide the emotional and students can begin to see how effort really does assist in accomplishing the task of learning.

      Thanks for your comments.

  2. Ernie Easter Says:

    Standardized testing will remain the biggest deterrent to implementing a standards-based curriculum. Once that piece is removed from our laws and regulations then the challenge of individualizing instruction can begin.

    As we work to design a curriculum that is relevant, challenging, integrative and exploratory while being accessible to all students, my challenge as a middle-level teacher will be in managing all these individual learning plans. The expectation of a student-centered, performance-based classrooms is that all students will be motivated to learn as they accept ownership and responsibility for their own learning, even the unmotivated students of the past. As I reflect on some of my most challenging students as a 20-year special education teacher and a 10-year multi-graded, small rural school teacher, I remember former students who were intentionally and actively disengaged. Whether or not a standards-based approach would have changed their behavior is not clear to me.

    I do hope that Polyanna is sitting this one out as the conversation to reshape education begins anew.

    • Bill Zima Says:

      You make a wonderful point in regards to our unmotivated students. I do not want anyone to think that simply giving students ownership of their learning will cause ALL to engage. That is Pollyanna. I do not believe that there is a single solution that will work for all students (or adults for that matter). There are days when I simply need to disengage and recharge.

      But with that said, I have worked with many of the “intentional non-learners” and I have seen heightened engagement. When I taught science in Florida, I had one period daily that was in the co-taught model. Recognizing quickly that they learned differently, I developed a plan to study ecology in the field at a local park. The students met with the rangers, learned about the park and then developed a plan to collect information on the wild inhabitants in the park. The students conducted water quality tests, wildlife tracking, and hiking trail development seminars (done by the rangers). The students then created a proposal on what the park can do to increase visitor satisfaction. That group of students who were absolutely unengaged in my classroom, were so driven by the project, that they used the time in my classroom to prepare for the visits. They had a voice in how the class was run and it was my job to ensure their learning was supporting the Sunshine State Standards for ecology.

      At the end of the Invention Fair at Massabesic Middle School, I was congratulating a teacher and her students on a successful day. Another student approached the teacher and asked her to sign his planner. She looked it over and asked him why he did not record any homework for the week. He responded by saying that he spent all of his time working on his project. I asked him if he did any of the work at home. He said he spent every night reviewing his persuasive writing (sales-pitch) and his display for accuracy. He said he also went most of the snow-day on the internet, researching his facts. I told him that was homework. He laughed and vanished back into the crowd of the soon to be dismissed students. He was a boy that suffered from lack of work production but found engagement through the project. Of the 97 students involved in that project, all but 2 did not finish. 1 was ill for the 2 weeks prior and the other was close, but did not meet the deadline.

      Many of the struggling learners who visit my office tell me that school is a mystery to them. They do not know what we are trying to teach them. And simply saying you need to know this as you get older does not work. It did not work for me. I was in the moment as an adolescent and loving every minute of it. They too are living in the moment. When the student and I discuss that they need to finish this to meet this learning target. If they struggle to meet the target, a teacher can divide into a progression with more stpes so the students can find success and move to the next. That does not mean they will automatically engage, but knowing the path clears the ambiguity and makes the work less daunting. Giving them a voice and choice validates them. This validation can be a big motivator for us to tap into.

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