Current Series of Blog Posts

 

1. To Reform or Transform Education Systems? 

       Posted 11/13/16      

       This is the first in a series of short posts to come.

       Our education systems were designed in and for the Industrial Age.  Manual labor was the predominant form of work, so we did not need to educate many people to high levels.  Thus, we designed a system to sort students by forcing many students to drop out and become manual laborers and promoting others to later become managers and professional people.  How does it do this?  We know that people learn at different rates, yet we teach a fixed amount of content in a fixed amount of time.  The slower learners accumulate gaps in their learning that makes it ever more difficult to learn related material in the future, virtually condemning them to drop out.  We talk about “no child left behind” and “every student succeeds,” but our Industrial-Age system was designed to leave children behind.  And that is what we needed in the Industrial Age.

       But now, in the Digital Age, knowledge work is becoming the predominant form of work, so we need to educate far more people to far higher levels.  Rather than holding time constant, which forces achievement to vary, we need to hold achievement constant at a mastery level and allow time to vary – for each learner to take the time needed to learn what is taught.  In essence, time-based student progress is damaging to our students and communities in the Digital Age.  Only competency-based student progress can meet our new educational needs.

       The problem is that competency-based student progress requires massive changes throughout an educational system.  The assessment subsystem must change from norm-referenced (comparing a student’s performance to other students), to criterion-referenced (comparing a student’s performance to a criterion or standard).  The recordkeeping subsystem must change from bundling competencies into courses and assigning overall grades, to listing individual competencies and indicating whether or not each has been mastered.  The instructional subsystem must change from large-group-based and lecture-based, to personalized and learning by doing.  This means the teacher’s role has to change from “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side.”  Projects replace courses.  And continuous progress for each student means grade levels become obsolete. 

       Without all these changes throughout an entire educational system, competency-based student progress will not work well, and neither the needs of students nor the needs of their communities and states will be met.  Fifty years of piecemeal reforms – that have left time-based student progress intact – have failed to meet our new educational needs.  Only comprehensive, systemic transformation – paradigm change – can meet these new needs.  We must transform, not reform, our educational systems.  We must transform them from the teacher-centered (time-based) paradigm to the learner-centered (competency-based) paradigm.

       In my next post, I describe features this new paradigm must have.

 

3.  Competency-Based System

       In my previous post, I described five features for the new paradigm of education: 1) competency-based system, 2) learner-centered instruction and assessment, 3) curriculum to better their world, 4) technology to support learners, and 5) organizational structures.  This post elaborates on the first of these, which has three parts. 

       1. Competency-based student progress.  When student progress is based on time, slow learners are forced on before they learn the material, thereby accumulating gaps in their learning that make it more difficult for them to learn related material in the future.  This condemns them to flunking out and hating learning.  Also, the fast learners are held back, reducing the amount they learn, frustrating them, and turning them off to education.  This squanders talents that are sorely needed by our society.  Therefore, student progress must be based on learning, rather than on time.  Every child should work until she or he has learned it, and then be allowed to move on right away.  The pace of learning must be customized, not standardized.  And this will do much to improve equity in education.

       2. Competency-based student assessment.  For student progress to be competency-based, we need to know when the student has learned the material.  This requires a different paradigm of student assessment.  It must be criterion-referenced (comparing a student’s performance to a criterion or standard), rather than norm-referenced (comparing a student’s performance to other students’ performances).  This means that mastery must be defined for every competency, by identifying the criteria by which it is to be measured.  It also means that standards must be broken down to elementary competencies, and each competency must be assessed separately, instead of tests that merely sample a set of competencies and give an overall score.  Does this mean that tests must be longer?  Actually, no.  In fact, it means that the assessment should be fully integrated with the instruction.  The motto is practice until perfect.  Students practice a competency until they have gotten, say, the last 10 items in a row correct (a criterion that may vary for each competency).  This can be managed easily through a computer system, like the Khan Academy (www.khanacademy.org).  So there is no need for a separate test, saving great amounts of time.  In cases where combining elementary competencies into larger capabilities is important, students can again practice until perfect.

       3. Competency-based student records.  For competency-based student progress, we need not only criterion-referenced assessment, but also good records of what each student has mastered.  The current report card lists titles of courses along with a grade that tells you nothing about specific competencies the student has and has not yet mastered.  Instead, we need a report card that lists all individual competencies currently mastered and links those competencies to evidence of their mastery (performance results and/or portfolio products with date of mastery).  These records should belong to the student, as well as the school, and each student should be allowed to make any of those records as public or private as she or he wants.

       In sum, the new paradigm requires competency-based student progress, assessments, and records.  Now, all of these would be very difficult for a teacher to keep track of.  But technology can make it much easier, and free the teacher to work on more important and rewarding things.  Technology’s role will be described in my sixth post.  In my next post, I will elaborate on what instruction and assessment should be like in the new paradigm of education to promote intrinsic motivation and student self-regulation.

 

 

2. Key Features of the New Paradigm 

Posted 11/21/16       

       In my previous post, I described how the Digital Age has created the need to transform rather than reform our education systems, that the fundamental structure of our systems has to change, not single pieces of the systems.  So what should the new paradigm be like?

       1. Competency-based system.  This has three parts.  First, student progress must be based on learning rather than on time, student assessment must be criterion-referenced (comparing a student’s performance to a criterion) rather than norm-referenced (comparing a student’s performance to other students’ performances), and student records must list individual competencies and indicate whether or not each has been mastered, rather than listing course names with grades.

       2. Learner-centered instruction and assessment.  This has two major parts.  First, instruction must entail learning by doing authentic tasks (projects, problems, inquiries, maker activities, and other kinds of activities), typically through collaboration on small teams.  Second, there must be tutorials for students to use individually, just-in-time during task performance.  In addition, learning should be personalized and self-regulated, and assessments should integrated with instruction.  These changes require massive changes in the roles of both teachers and students. 

       3. Curriculum to better their world.  According to Marc Prensky, the current Academic Model of curriculum is about improving individuals’ thinking, whereas it should be about improving the world and having individuals improve in that process.  This would make education much more connected and real, increasing intrinsic motivation and empowerment. The curriculum should be organized around sound progressions in four main “pillars” of the curriculum – effective accomplishing, thinking, relating, and action – rather than around progressions in the current four main pillars of math, English, social studies, and science.

       4. Technology in the new paradigm.  Technology must play a central role in enabling this learner-centered paradigm of education.  We have identified four new roles that technology must serve: keeping records of student competencies, planning for student learning, providing immersive task environments and just-in-time tutorials, and providing competency-based assessments integrated with the tutorials.

       5. Organizational structures.  We say teaching is a profession, but we don’t treat teachers like professionals.  They are at the bottom of the bureaucracy and held accountable the way assembly-line workers are.  Other professionals, like architects, accountants, and lawyers, band together into firms, make all their own decisions, and are held accountable by their clients.  We must design non-bureaucratic organizational structures that similarly empower teachers and hold them more accountable to the people they serve and less to politicians.

       In the next five posts I elaborate on each of these five features.

4. Instruction and Assessment in the Learner-Centered Paradigm               Posted 12/8/16

       In an earlier post, I described five features for the new paradigm of education: 1) competency-based system, 2) learner-centered instruction and assessment, 3) curriculum to better their world, 4) technology to support learners, and 5) organizational structures.  This post elaborates on the second of these, which has five parts. 

       1. Task-based instruction.  Instruction must entail learning by doing authentic tasks.  We call this task-based instruction, as a comprehensive term that includes project-based, problem-based, inquiry-based, maker-based, and other forms of activity-based instruction, typically through collaboration on small teams.  To enhance motivation and transfer, the tasks should be authentic, preferably with real-world impact.  They should be interdisciplinary, given that that is the nature of most real-world tasks.  They should usually be of significant scope, requiring weeks rather than minutes or hours to perform.  And they should be relevant to student interests (see #4 below).

       2. Just-in-time tutorials.  There must be tutorials for students to use individually, just-in-time during task performance.  To acquire a competency, students benefit greatly from being told how to do it, being shown how to do it, and having to do it in a variety of situations that reflect real-world variations.  When a new competency is needed during performance of a task, there should immediately be a time-out during which each student on the team has their own tutorial that they work on until the competency is mastered.  When all team members have mastered it, the time-out ends and the team continues with the task by using that competency right away.  This greatly accelerates the learning process and enhances motivation.

       3. Integrated assessments.  The competency-based assessments are integrated into the tutorials, because each student practices a competency until they reach the criterion for mastery (e.g., the last 10 performances in a row correct, without help).  So there is no need for a test.  Each student practices until perfect.  When individual competencies are mastered in a set of competencies, the whole set can also be practiced until perfect.

       4. Personalized learning.  The tasks and tutorials must be personalized.  This has several dimensions.  The learning goals are personalized by allowing each student to select ones that reflect their current competencies and their individual interests and talents.  Tasks are personalized by allowing each student to select from a menu of tasks that address their learning goals, or to design their own tasks around their learning goals.  Tutorials, assessments, and reflections are all personalized by adjusting them to what has worked best for each student in the past and allowing each student to make some strategy decisions on their own.

       5. Self-directed learning and intrinsic motivation.  The learning process must promote self-direction and intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation.  An essential role for the teacher is to support each student in using the amounts and kinds of self-direction that are within the student’s zone of proximal development.  This ties in closely with the guidance for personalized learning.

       Of course, these five changes require changes in the roles of both teachers and students.  Teachers must be advisors in the design and/or selection of engaging student work, facilitators of student work, mentors, and lifelong learners.  Students must be active and self-directed rather than passive and teacher-directed.  In my next post, I will elaborate on what the curriculum should be like in the new paradigm of education.

5. Curriculum in the Learner-Centered Paradigm

       In an earlier post, I described five features for the new paradigm of education: 1) competency-based system, 2) learner-centered instruction and assessment, 3) curriculum to better their world, 4) technology to support learners, and 5) organizational structures.  This post elaborates on the third of these. 

       According to Marc Prensky, the current Academic Model of curriculum is about improving individuals’ thinking, whereas it should be about improving the world and having individuals improve in that process.  This would make education much more connected and real, increasing intrinsic motivation and empowerment.  Furthermore, the Academic Model focuses almost exclusively on making learners more effective at thinking.  In contrast, Prensky describes the Empowerment-to-Better-their-World Model, in which the focus is on making learners more effective at accomplishing.  Of course, effective thinking is an important requirement for effective accomplishing, but only one of several.  Also important are effective relating to other people, and effective action.  The curriculum, he argues, should be organized around sound progressions in these four main “pillars” of the curriculum (accomplishing, thinking, relating, and action), rather than around progressions in the current four main pillars of math, English, social studies, and science (or MESS for short).

       Pensky identifies very different subjects for each of the new pillars.  For Effective Thinking he identifies quantitative and pattern thinking, scientific thinking, critical thinking, historical perspective, creative thinking, systems thinking, financial thinking, habits of mind, understanding communication (reading and listening), and much more.  Certainly, elements of the old four pillars would be brought in at appropriate times, but the overall sequence would be organized around these new competencies.  For Effective Relationships Prensky identifies listening, networking, collaboration, relationship-building, empathy, compassion, conflict resolution, negotiation, communication, and much more.  Again, sound progressions should be designed in these subjects.  For Effective Action he identifies adaptability, leadership and followership, decision making under uncertainty, experiment taking, reality testing/feedback, patience, resilience and grit, entrepreneurship, improvisation, strategic planning, and much more.  Effective Accomplishing requires experience in combining all the above competencies, so progressions in each of those three pillars need to be carefully interwoven with each other.

       This curricular focus on accomplishing (let’s call it the Accomplishing Model) represents a true paradigm change rather than the piecemeal changes that have been made to curriculum over the past century, because it entails dramatically restructuring the elements of the curriculum in the service of new goals.  Furthermore, it fits well with tasks (primarily projects) replacing courses, with criterion-referenced assessment replacing norm-referenced assessment, and with students being active and self-directed rather than passive and teacher-directed (all of which I described in my previous post).  Therefore, this curricular dimension of the digital-age paradigm of education is tailor-made to fit with the instructional and assessment dimensions.

       In my next post, I will elaborate on what the technology should be like in the new paradigm of education to effectively support the new instructional, assessment, and curriculum subsystems in the learner-centered paradigm.

6. Technology in the Learner-Centered paradigm

       In an earlier post, I described five features for the new paradigm of education: 1) competency-based system, 2) learner-centered instruction and assessment, 3) curriculum to better their world, 4) technology to support learners, and 5) organizational structures.  This post elaborates on the fourth of these. 

       Providing competency-based, personalized learning experiences places huge new burdens on teachers – ones where technology can help a lot.  We have identified four new functions that technology can serve to help both the teacher and the learner in the learning process: planning, instruction, assessment, and recordkeeping.

       Planning.  Since students move on as soon as they master competencies, they are learning different things at any given time, and therefore they each need a personal learning plan.  Creating those plans could be an onerous task for the teacher and student. Technology can make it much quicker and easier by helping them set career and long-term learning goals, identify competencies to learn next in pursuit of those goals, identify projects and other activities to learn those competencies, identify teammates to work with them on those projects, and develop learning contracts that describe all the above.

       Instruction.  Technology can provide immersive, realistic project environments for conducting those projects or can augment real environments.  And it can provide just-in-time tutorials to help students master the competencies required by the project.  Each student could have a virtual personal tutor on a tablet who comes to know its student’s learning styles, needs, and preferences.  And the tutor provides feedback on practice trials that do not meet the standards of performance.

       Assessment.   In addition to such formative evaluation (feedback), the tutor also requires the student to practice until perfect (summative evaluation) – that is, until the student reaches the criterion for that competency, perhaps 10 items in a row correct without assistance.  This ensures that each student individually masters all the competencies, even though they are collaborating with others on the project.  Furthermore, the system provides formative and summative assessment of team performance on the project.

       Recordkeeping.  Keeping track of every individual competency mastered by every individual student could be an onerous task for a teacher.  But technology can do it automatically.  When a student reaches the criterion for mastery of a competency, the virtual tutor automatically enters that information in the student’s personal record of competencies, which can be seen by the student, teacher, parents, and other authorized people.  The student can also link artifacts and other evidence of mastery to the list of competencies, and this electronic portfolio is available to the student for life, not just while in that school.  The technology system also maintains a record of any of that student’s personal characteristics that influence learning, so the virtual tutor can tailor the tutorials to the student’s needs and interests.

       These four functions are seamlessly integrated in a single platform that is open, modular, interoperable, and customizable.  Teachers and others can develop apps for this platform in the form of projects, tutorials/assessments, and more, either for free or for a fee. And the system is designed to evaluate and, in some cases, improve itself directly.  For more about these functions for technology see this article in JECR.  In my next post, I will elaborate on organizational structures in the new paradigm of education.