We live in a world that’s constantly asking us to pick sides. Education is guilty of this, as well. Even after all these years, I still find that the world standard elicits an emphatic, emotional response from others. The mere mentioning of the word causes people to tense up and close themselves off to conversation. This is especially true in progressive environments.

It’s not hard to figure out why: standards originated in an era that promoted the standardization of learning objectives, and with that, unfortunately, came the attempted standardization of pedagogy and our students. It’s unfortunate, really, because standards can support our classrooms, so long as we use them in a way that is learner-centered.

To use standards in a learner-centered way feels antithetical, I know. It is, in this way, that education forces us to choose. Are we learner-centered? Or do we advocate for standards in our classroom?

Me? I refuse to be put into a box. I am an advocate for standards-based learning, and I consider myself to be a learner-centered teacher. Here’s why.

Standards provide a common language for teachers and students.

Without standards, we find ourselves without a common language around what students should know and be able to do. This results in confusion, inconsistency, and as a result, inequity. In order to build environments that are learner-centered, we need a common language around what children should know and be able to do.

Equity and inclusion are often left conversations around personalized learning and whole-child learning, but equity and inclusion must be at the center of what we do if we want learning to be truly personal for all of our children. We cannot possibly create equitable experiences within and between schools and classrooms if we don’t have common standards upon which we can build curricula.

Standards help us build and fortify classroom structures.

In this recent push for personalized learning, many progressive educators have been tempted to throw standards out the door, viewing them as a threat to both personalized learning and learning that’s personal. But the fact of the matter is this: one cannot personalize without learning objectives.

Sure, educators should be trusted to be professionals. We should be given autonomy over what we teach and how we teach it. But in the context of a school, autonomy and independence cannot be synonyms. We must remember that we are working within the confines of a learning community–a learning community whose job it is to create equitable experiences for all learners.

Some educators misconstrue the definition of autonomy: they think it means they should be able to do whatever they want. But autonomy has little to do with teacher preference in a classroom. Instead, the purpose of autonomy is to allow teachers to meet the needs of students in their classrooms. Autonomy is about serving the kids, not a teacher operating in isolation simply because he or she prefers to work that way.

School-wide agreed-upon learning objectives are not a threat to autonomy, so long as teachers are still given the professional responsibility of deciding how to reach these agreed-upon standards. It is in the day-to-day pedagogy, the building of a classroom community, and the cultivation of a healthy learning environment that we hope teachers will exercise their autonomy. The standards are simply the play structure on which teachers and students can explore an engaging curriculum.

Without the structure that standards can provide, our classrooms and our curriculum can become unmanageable. It’s hard to figure out what students already know and it’s nearly impossible to figure out who is in need of extra intervention. But it’s a fine line we must walk. We can’t let standard learning outcomes standardize our pedagogy and our students. True innovation comes with both mindful constraints and creative autonomy. In this case, common learning goals provide the mindful constraints, while teachers are trusted with the creative autonomy to meet the needs of students in the context of those goals.

Standards can contribute to identity development and a conscious knowledge of self.

This is probably the most radical statement in this post. I know it. But I feel pretty passionately about it.

The era of standardization has left us acting out in revolt to pre-defined learning objectives, especially ones that are time-bound or aligned to a specific grade-level. What we must remember is that communication is critical to identity development. In order for children to develop identity, they must learn how to communicate with the world around them; and to do that, they must master the basic literacies of the world.

The basic literacies of our world are spoken and written language, mathematics, humanities, the arts and the sciences. Each of these literacies not only help a learner interact with the world around them, but these literacies help us explore and name pieces of ourselves. It is in this way that an understanding of the essential skills kids should know and be able to do actually support identity development down the road. These literacies–and the skills that define them–help them interact with and navigate a dynamic world.

After all, without a way to interact with and navigate the world, how will they be able to see themselves and their place in it?

Why this push for competencies then?

I’m guessing critics of standards are currently shaking their heads reading this.

No, they’ll reply. We need competency-based learning, instead.

Competency-based learning is the next big buzz word in education, and it is, of course, with good intention. Progressive educators want to give children the space to learn at their own paces and not be defined by time barriers. Educators also want to create more process-focused learning outcomes, so we can re-focus ourselves on the process of learning more than we do the product. Competency-based learning gives us this, in some capacity.

These intentions are all good and well, but at the end of the day, competencies and standards are both giving educators valuable information about the classroom: they are both telling teachers what students should know and be able to do. In fact, the Common Core is a great example of a standard set that blurs the lines between standards and competencies. The Common Core provides time-bound learning objectives, helping us understand if children are in need of intervention; it also provides process-focused objectives, including things like the mathematical practices and even different ways of showing mastery.

When all is said and done, I’m still not quite sure what the fuss is about standards–so long as they’re used well. Do I think they should be used for high-stakes assessments and labeling students? Absolutely not. Do I think they’re helpful in structuring a curriculum and getting all teachers on the same page? You bet I do.

So call them standards, or call them competencies. Call them what you’d like to call them. Just make sure you define learning outcomes before you start your teaching. It’s best for teachers, it’s best for kids, and it’s best for creating equitable learning environments.

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