We had some visitors to SLA the other day, and when they were doing a debrief with me, a person asked me to unpack a statement we say a lot – “Standards, not Standardization.” It lead to a conversation about balancing being intentional in everything we do while also giving students voice and choice which bears some unpacking here.

First, the SLA learning ecosystem – with the core values, shared curriculum planning tools, common project rubric, grade-wide essential questions and aligned subject-specific standards – means that students can expect a consistent language of teaching and learning. The purpose of that is make sure that students spend as little time as possible trying to figure out the adults. By having a common language of teaching and learning, there is a framework that is empowering for students because it becomes much easier to move across the disciplines and learn.

Next, creating the space for 33 kids in classroom to all be able to thoughtfully investigate an idea and build toward making something powerful requires thoughtful planning. And it requires a balance of structure and freedom that takes a deft hand. Not enough structure, and there’s a real risk of having a lot of “inch-deep, mile-wide” work from students. Too much structure, and you’ll get “recipe-based teaching” where the vast majority of the student work looks far too much alike because the students weren’t given the freedom to make the work what they wanted or needed it to be.

A great example of how that work comes together is the work spearheaded by Roz Echols around creating a structure for our Capstone projects. Every year, 125 seniors create original inquiry-projects where the topics are completely student created. The structure of the capstone project has to be flexible enough to encompass student plays, event planning, and more “classical” deep research projects. The framework for the Capstone projects (found here) is simple, elegant, and it allows students enough of a roadmap to plan a year-long project while being open-ended enough to encompass so many different ideas.

Thoughtful frameworks for learning are at the heart of the idea “standards, not standardization.” The kind of intentionality required to allow students to engage in deep learning that is empowering, authentic and personally meaningful requires teachers to think about their classes not as day-to-day, but unit to unit and as part of the larger ecosystem of the school. When we are intentional about helping students to interpret standards, skills and content in ways that have meaning for them, understanding that there are many ways for students to manifest their learning, then we create the space for those moments in our classes where students can surprise us in wonderful ways by bringing their creativity and ideas to the subjects we teach.

Thoughtful structures can move us intentionally away from a scripted classroom and move us much closer to the kinds of classrooms where students and teachers have a shared sense of purpose and a shared sense of responsibility to each other. And in those classrooms, the ideas can flow freely, and those serendipitous moments of learning when things come together and the learning is powerfully communal can happen accidentally by design.