Where We Go From Here
August 25, 2009
Implementation is always more complex than initially thought, but . . .
As anyone who knows me or has been reading my occasional blogs is aware, I have been struggling for years, in fact decades, to find answers to the question “How do we free each learner to achieve at the highest levels?” Stated another way: “How do we move from the Age of Schooling to the Age of Learning?
I’m well aware of many elements in the system that work against those goals. Worst in my mind is the issue of time. This plays out in many ways but at the deep levels are the notions that effectively demand that all students learn material on the same time schedule and to the same degree, and that school goes for 6 hours a day, 180+/- days a year – with summers off. In elementary level this sets up the expectation that every 3rd grader needs exactly the same number of days to learn exactly the same things. Consider a student who came in with academic advantages. If a student could finish learning everything in the 3rd grade curriculum by March, then “Sorry about your luck, you’re staying here.” What about the learner who came in with academic deficiencies? “Sorry about your luck, too. You’ll either be promoted when you are not truly ready, or you’ll be held back an entire year for what might be a 2 month lag.” At the middle and high school level this plays out in the idea of courses being of a particular, set length (thanks to the “Carnegie Unit”), with enough “seat time” minutes to satisfy someone, someplace. Once again, if students come to a course with a great deal of knowledge and enthusiasm, they know ahead of time that they will still spend exactly the same number of minutes in the course as the student who walked in with nary a clue. And the teachers know that even if their advanced knowledge of child development and the infusion of technology meant that they could teach everything in the curriculum in 85% of the current time allotted, they will still spend exactly the same number of days as they did before all that professional development and technology. In fact, they know that it still takes exactly the same amount of time to earn a credit in Algebra I in 2009 as it did when my mother took the class in 1928! Progress, anyone?
Let me cut to the chase. I like to look at converging ideas and trends, and here are some of the trends and developments that will have a huge impact in the months and years ahead as they converge.
First, common standards and assessments are coming. The good news is that there will be some level of agreement on what a credit in any course should actually mean in terms of what the student should know and be able to do. And it won’t matter if the student lives in NE, KY, DC, MA or AK. And there will be agreed upon systems for determining that the student knows the material at the level required for the credit.
Second, there is an explosion occurring in terms of technologies that can help any child learn virtually anything – and virtually! An article I saw today talked about the 15, 000 – 60,000 apps that have been created for the iPhone, and iTouch just for language learning! This heralds a trur learning 3.0 breakthrough, a curriculum that can be personalized for each individual learner. I have sometimes used the term “mass customization”. Much has been written about how this is occurring already in standard economic and business realms. Unless you have been living under a rock, you should know of the new virtual games, the incredible websites, the iPhone apps, the You Tube videos, even the Twitter feeds (just to start the endless list) ready to help a learner understand a concept on his/her time schedule in the place that the learner controls.
There is a parallel explosion showing the impact and effect of technology in online learning. Two quick reinforcements of this – Christensen et al (Disrupting Class, 2008) predict that half of all high school credits will be earned online by 2019. And we have the new gov’t report from the US DOE (http://www.ed.gov/rschstat/eval/tech/evidence-based-practices/finalreport.pdf) that concludes: The meta-analysis found that, on average, students in online learning conditions performed better [bolded type mine] than those receiving face-to-face instruction.
Third, the technical and technological ability to move from the ability to track courses, to an ability to track individuals’ learning! Really wasn’t possible until the last few years, but now it is. This is the intersection of “tagging” and technology. A learner can take a module, or “micro-learning experience” (learned anytime, any place, under any circumstances) and tag it in as many different ways as are useful and appropriate The complex migration pattern a student learned to understand the impact of emerging religious expressions in American history might use a sophisticated equation that is required for the credit in precalculus. The learner would “tag” the learning for both “US History” as well as “Mathematics”. This is no longer rocket science. The technology is already out there. (Go look at how flickr photos are arranged at www.taggalaxy.de to see and example in another field.)
Conclusion? These three factors set up the means for the transition to occur. We can keep the structures, but not be condemned to keeping the system inside the structures. There are many reasons why the structural elements are necessary. We have societal needs that mandate having a safe place for kids to be during the day if they are ages five to eighteen. We also have a teaching force in place in every school, and “turning them out” while kids learn on their own certainly makes no sense from any perspective. The solution is “simple”. Kids still go to the places we have always called school (public, private, charter, home, etc); they can even go at the same time of day that we have all become accustomed to (8 to 3, for example), and they can continue the Sept-May schedule (or particular variant common in a local place to account for the required number of days). But what goes on inside is quite different. The main change is recognizing that using the 3 factors above, valuable and valued learning can occur for the learner at any time, any place, in any form or fashion. School goes from 8 – 3, but if the learner spends weeks from 7-10 p.m. learning on “his/her own” , or on weekends, or during summer, with a virtual tutor, a friend in another state, a stand-alone program or an MMORPG game, then that’s great! What happens in school is specialized help, specialized tools and resources, and most of all committed teachers who are guiding the individual’s learning, not “teaching a course”.
With all courses defined (see the first big idea) then the learner works on fulfilling all the elements needed to earn the credit in that course. Everything they learn has potential value because the learning is “tagged” and can fulfill any appropriate learning task or standard. Forget the false dichotomy the “system” has created between “formal” and “informal learning” . Students may actually begin working on learning what they need for a US History credit well before they are the age of current juniors. The work on mastering the learning and skills may stretch over a few years. In fact, every course credit can be seen as growing organically out of learning that has been seamlessly occurring as far back as the learner and the mentor/guide/teacher can look.
Much more to these ideas, for instance the notion that teachers would work with students for years rather than months, notions about how the number of “credits” earned by the end of high school could easily number 50 or 80 or more. Also many ideas about the exciting professional development that could occur as the transition takes place, but those can wait for more explanation at another time.
I want feedback, including all the “Yes, but”(s) . . . you can imagine!