Thursday, June 27, 2013

Inevitable: Mass customized learning: Learning in the age of empowerment

As a parent of two children who are very difficult to educate well, one because of significant needs related to his social/emotional/behavioral challenges being coupled with brightness and the other related to her giftedness, I have long advocated for a more responsive educational system. I have sat in meetings where the idea of an IEP for everyone has been proposed as an ideal but not something we are anywhere near ready for.

Twenty years ago, computer programs were being rolled out that allowed children to practice skills at their level until mastered and simulations that modeled ideas such as scientific population studies and the Oregon Trail experience. Those early learning programs have been dwarfed by the material now available to educators to personalize learning. They do not even begin to cover the online instructional opportunities now available for free.

When I went to school, the education library had an entire section of bound syllabi that we had to work through to understand the sequence of learning that was to be expected of children. Now curriculum mapping programs allow near instantaneous access to this material. Individual districts have produced their takes on state guidance. CCSS is all in the cloud.

We still do not have report cards that indicate particular skills/objectives that have been mastered. We maintain our rigid age-based grading system because of a misguided idea that kids are only capable of dealing with the social reality of their age-mates. The message to parents is "Do not send your child to kindergarten if they were born after September 1, June 1,... Wait a year they will do better,"  in spite of research to the contrary. Readiness is not about age, but about maturity, exposure to language and "school structures," and other individual variables.

These lock step aspects of our institutions are what make the IEP for every child inconceivable in spite of having the technology and desire to achieve it. I was at a school budget meeting when someone brought up the concept that technology is making everything cheaper and more efficient EXCEPT education. What was our district doing to change that reality? (Nothing) I have been told that we cannot push too hard because parents will be upset when their child is not advancing as fast as some. Parents will complain. Minorities will be held back. The list goes on.

C. Schwahn and B. McGarvey wrote Inevitable: Mass Customized Learning: Learning in the Age of Empowerment to show how individualization of learning can happen in a cost effective way. They showcase the ways that districts can strategically plan to move toward the ideal of an IEP for every learner. While they talk about getting the learners on board and the difficulty of some people with the transformational change of education, I suspect they underestimate the strength of the cultural demands for education to remain the same with only minor tweaks. We can do blended or flipped learning where the students all do the same activity at home- watch a video or listen to a podcast and then do work with paper and activities as a group, but nowhere are we comfortable identifying the idea that students of the same age do not need to do the same thing at the same time. It strikes some as elitist or racist.  After all children who do not learn as quickly will feel bad. If we are serious about an IEP for everyone, however, it is inevitable that some learners will progress at a rapid pace and others will plateau for extended periods of time. Culturally we need to wrap our minds around this idea and get comfortable with it. At some level it happens already. Some children achieve consistent A's without trying and others fail and are moved onward without the prerequisite skills, nearly destined to drop out. For some crazy idea, it is acceptable to fail kids and let them drop out in a way that accelerating others as possible is unacceptable.

Melding the objectives with reporting might help. If I know that Billy did not master R3.2.1 yet, rather than he received a U in reading, I might be more understanding of keeping him working on that material and allowing him to move on in other areas where he was successful. Benchmarking rather than time in grade becomes the way to move through the educational system.

Schwahn and McGarvey argue passionately for transforming education to become personalized to the learner. To utilize technology to maximize individualization, increase real teacher ratios and increase student motivation. By utilizing a system of benchmarks or learner outcomes, as the authors describe them, students and parents can understand where they are on the road of learning. By eliminating a ridiculous age-based grading system and teaching students where they are now, student learning can be maximized, while boredom and frustration can be minimized. They do not argue that this is an easy task. It requires not just change but transformation; a metamorphosis in the way a caterpillar becomes a butterfly. Technology is available to make it happen. Teachers would, mostly, argue that individualized learning is the ideal. Parents want their children to be successful. Children want to feel capable and like learning focused on real goals that are sensible to them. This is possible. TODAY.

This book is the most business-like book on change in education that I have read. It reads like books on leadership and change, not like books on teaching. The voice reflects the authors' bias that change that has occurred in the business world needs to be reflected in society's cultural perpetrator, schools. We cannot continue to change little things and expect big result changes. It is time to redo schools from the bottom up and enact a metamorphosis.

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