Standardization and personalization in education

June 20, 2024 •

11 min reading

Standardization and personalization in education: The right balance

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When it comes to human needs and desires, there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’. That’s nothing new, of course, yet it’s only in recent years that technology and big data have allowed personalization to permeate our lives, from targeted product ads on social media to tailored music and film recommendations on streaming services and customized guest services at a hotel.

Not only do we value this personalization in our lives, but we have come to expect it, appreciating the increased relevance and individuality that it brings. Yet, at the same time, we also expect certain standards to be met – whether that be in the products we buy, the essential services offered by a hotel or restaurant, or the quality of teaching we receive when undertaking a degree.

In education, the standardized approach is defined by clear learning objectives and expectations, a fixed curriculum and teaching methods, and reliable assessments allowing for recognized accreditation. This is often considered to be in conflict with a personalized approach, which customizes the learning process to adapt to an individual’s needs and abilities. Yet, while each approach has benefits and challenges, it’s possible – and important – to find a healthy balance between the two, allowing teachers to maintain quality and rigor while creating the best environment for each student to thrive. In fact, it can be said that the two methods are not in conflict at all, but are actually complementary.


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Understanding standardization and personalization in education

Characteristics of standardization in education

Let’s be clear, standards are necessary and important. Standardization in education exists to ensure a certain quality and consistency of learning across the school and higher education system. By definition, it means that everyone is taught the same curriculum in the same way, with a set pace, level, expectations and assessments. Standardization sets out clear learning objectives, offers consistent teaching methods and reliable assessments, and allows for direct comparison between students.

Yet its flaw is to assume that if every student is exposed to the same conditions, each will leave the classroom with the same knowledge and level of achievement. Any teacher knows that simply isn’t true, because each student has different needs, abilities, interests and ways of learning. Which is where personalization comes in.

Characteristics of personalization in education

A student-centred approach which engages the individual in creating their own learning activities, personalization acknowledges difference and tailors the educational experience to create the best learning environment for each student, thus ensuring they fulfil their potential. That could mean varying the pace of learning, offering activities to suit particular interests, or teaching content outside the standard curriculum.

As the late British education expert Sir Ken Robinson is quoted as saying:

Personalized learning is finding the best ways to engage with people with different interests, passions and ways of thinking. It's what good teachers have always known. That their job is not to teach subjects, but to teach students.

The case for standardization

Advantages of standardized approaches in education

  • Quality: Standardization provides an up-to-date curriculum that teaches best practices. This reflects the broader professional world, where certain standards must be upheld. In hospitality, for example, excellence is a baseline requirement and students should be trained to these standards to ensure the necessary level of service wherever they go on to work.
  • Consistency: Standardization ensures that every educational institution offers a consistent level of education, making a student’s qualifications and knowledge transferrable to other regions where the same standards apply.
  • Fair assessment: Using standard learning objectives and assessment criteria ensures that learning outcomes are easy to measure, assessment is fair and the resulting accreditation will be universally recognized.
  • Protection of students’ interests: Standards ensure that every student is given the same goals, equal access to resources and equal opportunity to succeed within the system.

Challenges and limitations of over-reliance on standardization


The importance of personalization

Benefits of personalized learning experiences

  • Autonomy of learning: Personalization offers students the chance to learn at a pace and in a manner that suits them.
  • Choice: Students can pursue the topics that interest them through tailored projects.
  • Motivation: When teaching and learning methods are customized for an individual’s talents, abilities and interests, they are more likely to be motivated to learn and engaged with the subject.
  • Enhances the student-teacher relationship: Involving the student in the creation of their own learning activities fosters collaboration between teacher and student and allows the educator to guide students in a coach-like manner, leading to a more personal relationship between the two.
  • Equity: Personalization allows for a fair learning environment where each individual receives what they need to thrive.
  • Gains in achievemen: According to a RAND report, personalized learning can lead to significant gains in achievement.

Personalized learning models

So how, exactly, should educators personalize their teaching?

Challenges and considerations for implementing personalization

Time-consuming: Planning personalized teaching methods can be a drain on the time of educators, particularly when limited resources are available.

Inconsistent: Project-work and other non-standardized learning approaches are subjective and can be difficult to assess in a consistent manner.

Difficult to scale: Since by nature personalized learning is focused on individual needs and abilities, it can be hard and/or expensive to scale up.

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Strategies for balancing standardization and personalization

Modern education doesn’t have to be about choosing between these two approaches. Finding a balance between personalization and standardization is the best way to help students reach their potential. By using standardization as a foundation to ensure consistency and quality, the educator can then build upon this with customized learning methods and activities tailored to students’ needs and passions, fostering engagement and creativity. In this way, personalization and standardization actually support each other.

Flexibility within standardized frameworks

One example of this outside education is healthcare. Obviously, standards in medical care are vitally important, yet when personalization is used in the right way, at the right moment – for example in treatment rather than diagnosis – it can give doctors the freedom to meet patients’ healthcare needs more effectively.

The same can apply in education. Standards are a baseline which teachers can and should rely upon, while using personalization to give them the freedom to cater to an individual student’s desires and abilities.

Individualized learning pathways within a standardized curriculum

Personalized teaching doesn’t have to mean developing a separate lesson plan for each student in a class of twenty or thirty – an exhausting prospect, as every teacher would agree. Rather, it’s about providing different learning methods to help students understand the concepts and topics in the standard curriculum. It’s also about recognizing that students progress at different rates and providing the right level of challenge according to their needs.

Leveraging technology for personalized learning experiences

Just as marketing managers use customer data to target their Instagram ads appropriately, various digital tools allow educators to assess their students’ needs, provide immediate feedback and personalize their learning. Adaptive learning platforms use algorithms to analyse student performance and deliver targeted learning, while virtual reality simulations, interactive games, and multimedia resources cater to diverse learning styles.

Tools such as QR codes linking to online resources can also boost flexibility and autonomy in learning, provide extra challenges for high-achieving students and encourage independent learning outside the classroom.

Professional development for educators to support personalized learning

Just as students benefit from teaching that takes into account their personal needs and interests, so, too, do educators, meaning that professional development should also be personalized. This could mean bringing in external expertise, giving teachers a choice of learning options based on individual interests, and allowing them extra time to take advantage of the opportunities available at their own pace. By learning in this way themselves, teachers are better placed to pass on this model of personalized learning to their students in the classroom.

Collaborative learning environments that accommodate diverse needs

All of this leads to a better educational environment for all students, but particularly those with diverse needs, such as students from varied cultural backgrounds, and the neurodiverse. Personalization allows teachers to recognize the unique strengths and challenges these students have and take a nuanced, tailored approach to their learning, so fostering a sense of belonging and empowerment.


The Role of theory and practice

It’s also crucial to acknowledge the importance of following a pedagogical approach that combines theory and practice, since this can aid educational institutions in finding the right balance between standardization and personalization. At EHL, rigorous classroom-based teaching ensures that students acquire an essential bedrock of theoretical knowledge and attain the necessary academic standards, while assessment of learning outcomes and monitoring of student successes allows the school to strengthen those standards and enhance its educational effectiveness. However, putting theory into practice is a defining part of EHL’s learning philosophy, and this also guarantees personalization opportunities. Group work, Student Business Projects and internships offer students the chance to pursue their own interests, work at their own pace and set their own goals, all while applying their theoretical knowledge to real-life situations. Likewise, a range of extra-curricular activities and student committees allow for extra personalization of the student experience while adding value to their theoretical learning.


The Role of educators and administrators

Of course, if this fine balance is to be achieved, it’s vital that leaders set educators and administrators on the right path by fostering a conducive environment. Leaders must establish and maintain standards, absolutely, but they should also inspire, encourage each staff member to grow, and welcome ideas that differ from their own. By creating a workplace environment that allows people to be individuals and encourages them to think for themselves, leaders will foster a culture of innovation and adaptability that will improve teaching and learning. Constant collaboration between teachers, administrators, and stakeholders builds trust in the standards set out by leaders and empowers individuals to suggest ideas for personalization that will contribute to a dynamic and inclusive teaching environment where both students and educators can thrive.


Future directions and considerations

The future is personalized. With vast and rapid strides being made in artificial intelligence, data analytics and machine learning, personalization is set to morph into hyper-personalization, transforming many sectors, including education. Already in use, AI-powered personalized learning platforms will become ever-more sophisticated, allowing educators to cater to individual students’ interests and abilities like never before. Intelligent tutoring systems, algorithms and AI-driven recommendations will be honed and expanded, providing detailed insights into students’ desires and needs, and offering highly tailored instruction and feedback, opening up new possibilities for independent learning inside and outside the classroom.

However, it’s important to use these personalization techniques and tools to enhance, not replace, baseline educational standards, just as it’s vital to balance digital learning with human interaction, and technological innovation with ethical standards, such as ensuring rigorous data protection and equitable access to digital tools. As we race towards an increasingly personalized future, leaders must train our educators and administrators to manage these new tools and get the best out of them, while also maintaining the essential standards that ensure quality, consistency and fair assessment in our educational system.

Written by

VET Content and Learning Experience Coordinator at EHL

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