The Hardest Part of Customized Education

The Hardest Part of Customized Education

By Richard Worzel [Traduire]

When the editors of TEACH Magazine said that they were going to be running a series on customized education and asked if I’d like to contribute, my first thought was, “It’s about time!” I wrote my first article on this subject in these pages almost 15 years ago. I’ve made my views abundantly clear on this subject many times in these pages in the past: I believe that an education and a curriculum tailored to the needs and abilities of each student is absolutely critical to the future of education and our society. But for this series, I decided I would take a run at the hardest part of this issue: How do you grade a child’s unique educational experience? What do grades mean in such a setting?

To approach this issue, let’s ask a more fundamental question: Why do we have grades at all? Grading performance is done for three primary reasons. First, and most importantly, grading allows educators to pass valuable information along to each other intended to assist in crafting a child’s education by highlighting where they are strong and where they need help. Evaluation is a means of managing. As they say in the business world: “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.”

Second, grading is supposed to be a way for the education system and its parts (schools and classrooms) to evaluate how well the system is performing. Grading should allow administrators to build on strengths and find ways of repairing or improving weaknesses. Of course, that can’t happen if each school or each classroom curves the marks so that it appears that every classroom is producing “normal” performances. Grading is supposed to help us evaluate the performance of the system as a whole, as well as the performance of individual students.

And finally, grading is supposed to inform parents on how their child is performing. Parents can choose to assess a school’s performance based on their child’s grades. But if each student is pursuing a curriculum and a path of study that is unique to them, what do grades mean? How do you judge creativity and innovation in learning art? What yardstick do you use to measure achievement in core subjects like reading, writing, and arithmetic in which everyone must develop competency, when the child may not be studying these things according to an established curriculum path?

Clearly, this is going to require a major rethink, particularly as there won’t be any grade levels to gauge against. How can you tell if your child is reading at a Grade Three level if there’s no Grade Three?

Well, phrasing the question properly makes it simpler to come to an answer. You may not be able to tell if a child is reading at what was a Grade Three level (and I would argue that we should gradually do away with all references to such historical artifacts), but you will be able to gauge (and test if necessary) whether your 8-year-old child is reading at a standard deviation above or below the median level for all Canadian children her age. Moreover, I suspect this will provide a better measure of performance, both for the child and for a given class and school, than a hypothetical Third Grade level.

But not all evaluations will be this simple. Suppose, for instance, that reading is being learned by a particular student as a means of facilitating her interest in computer game design. The focus is on game design and reading skills are only part of the education this student is receiving. How do you evaluate the rest of what’s going on in order to gauge performance? It’s here that we’re going to have to be both creative and insightful.

I would start by having the child and teacher set specific goals for the school term, such as designing a game that is of interest to the child’s peer group and complete it by the end of term. The kind and scope of game can be specified in as much detail as is appropriate. Then, the teacher can, separately, outline the skill sets he expects will be required to complete the project and drawing on similar projects evaluated by other students elsewhere in Canada, set high benchmarks for the project overall and the various skills such as, reading, math, research, geography, and so on, that the teacher expects will be involved. Again, in performing this assessment, the teacher will draw on the experiences of other teachers. If there are none that are relevant for a given project, he will have to estimate what is likely. Once this has been done, the teacher might, depending on the age and maturity of the student, discuss these yardsticks with the student and agree on what learning expectations will be required to complete the project. These expectations include generally accepted core curricula, such as reading, history, mathematics, teamwork, and so on, but they may also include novel subjects, such as playability or how immersive the game is, which are characteristics of successful game design.


And to these things, I would add one other measure: enthusiasm. How enthusiastic is the student about what she is doing? Is she racing ahead, eager to do more—and learn more—or is she just going through the motions? In my opinion, one of the greatest advantages of customized education is that we can make learning fun again. I see this as one reason for employing the interests of the student as a vehicle for encouraging her to learn all the other things she needs to know. If she is not enthusiastic, that would be cause for concern and should engender discussion between teacher, student, parent, and possibly, the school administrator as well.

As the student progresses in her studies and becomes a teenager, she should be approaching more adult projects that require more thought, effort, and sweat. At what is now the high school level, I would begin to involve the organizations that the student will be moving into beyond her formal public schooling, whether a post-secondary institution of learning or an employer, as part of her education. Now her projects may be done in a work-study collaboration with this post-secondary agency and should involve real problems and real solutions that become important in the outside world.

For instance, if a student is showing a strong desire to become an artist, perhaps he can work with a local art gallery or museum to prepare works of art for sale or display. There he’ll also learn about marketing, commissions, and the business of earning a living as an artist. If he wants to become a journalist, he begins a blog under the auspices of an approved website, contributing real work that gets posted on the web—and may earn him real money. If he shows interest in becoming a health care professional, he works as a volunteer in a local hospital while studying the prerequisites for medicine. And if he is working on projects that will lead to post-secondary institutions, there is no reason why he can’t be working on projects that earn him credits in such institutions—if he can meet their performance standards.

The point here is not just to evaluate the student based on his public school’s standards, but on the more rigourous standards that he will meet in the outside world once he finishes his public education. In this way, his feet will already be on the steps in which he has indicated an interest. Public education will dovetail with the future the student selects for him or herself and prepares them for it in a way that we don’t quite today.

Evaluation should therefore, lead not only to performance improvement, but to real-world success, and an unbridled enthusiasm for, and ability within, the student’s chosen field. We should accept nothing less, for to do so would be to shortchange ourselves in the most fundamental upheaval in education since the invention of movable type.

Richard Worzel is Canada’s leading futurist. He volunteers his time to speak to high school students for free, when his schedule permits. You may contact him through his website or by email.


1 comment on "The Hardest Part of Customized Education"

  1. MC

    I think its important to get the fundamentals across. There is not a lot of them and yet the apply to all our endeavors regardless of endeavor. Customized curriculums are to account for differences in the student not differences in knowledge requirements.

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