First and foremost, CL recognizes that students learn at different time frames and in different ways. So in a CL environment, students are no longer held accountable in a time-based system like most schools have used for a hundred years. It used to be that, starting at 5 years old, if you showed up, did your work, and didn't cause too much trouble, 13 years later you'd be handed a high school diploma. In our new system, students are held accountable to a set of learning goals aligned with state and national curriculums. Students finish their education when they have mastered all of their required goals, be it at 16 years of age or 19.
Every great teacher knows that you need to differentiate education in order to best meet your students' needs, and a customized learning environment helps accomplish that goal. We've always known this, but we now believe the technology has finally caught up enough to make everything feasible.
A visionary view of what CL could look like
A classroom in a CL school also recognizes that when students are given a voice in how their education is run and choices throughout the process they tend achieve more because they are more engaged. You will often see students at the beginning of the year helping craft class visions and codes of cooperation, because as every good teacher knows a simple investment in class culture early on pays dividends for the rest of the year.
With these changes in structure of the school and the classroom also comes changes in how students are evaluated. Most schools recognized that this new style of learning based on goals does not lend itself well to a traditional A-F grade, and have adopted what is called "standards-based grading." This is a good thing, and I'll send you to consult Alfie Kohn if you disagree. A CL school may no longer recognize grade levels, and have students working together who before may have been separated. Will Kindergartners be thrown in with eighth-graders? No. But students who are within a year or two of each other and who are working on the same goal may be able to collaborate and learn from each other now.
How all of this is implemented in each school is going to look different, and that's OK. Every school, and every teacher, needs to look at the guiding principles of customized learning and then figure out the best possible way for it to work in their community. What I do know is that teachers will have to collaborate in order to make this work, and they will have to make sure they are constantly holding students accountable to high standards. There also needs to be a constant flow of communication with parents and community members in order to avoid friction.
Looking back on what I've written, a few words/phrases stand out: Learning, Mastery, Voice & Choice, Differentiation, Goals, Collaboration, Teachers, Parent Communication. Things we've always known to be good for education. We don't lose these things when we move towards customized learning, we give them even greater emphasis! And that is why I think this is real, positive change that we should all be pursuing.