When will we stop judging elephants by how well they can climb trees?

You’ve probably seen the 2012 cartoon where there is a long line of animals: a monkey, penguin, seal, fish, elephant, bird, and a dog. Then there is a man sitting behind a desk saying, “For a fair selection everybody has to take the same exam: please climb that tree.” Welcome to the common mindset behind some of the most dominant educational policy discussions.

This cartoon relates to a conversation I once had with a school district superintendent. I was talking with her about the possibility of launching one or more magnet or charter schools within the district she serves and she was initially interested in exploring the possibility. We had trouble finding a time to meet, but a few months later I reached out to see if we could grab lunch and revisit the conversation. Her reply was something like this. “I’d love to have lunch, but I’m not sure about this charter or magnet school thing. It seems to me that if it is good for one kid, it is good for all of them. Do we really believe that? Do we believe that a uniform educational experience is the key to equity, access, and opportunity? Does that mean we think the same education or training is required for every role in family, society, and the workplace? Is this the path to helping each student discover and develop her unique gifts, talents, abilities, and passions? Is the “what is good for one is good for all” philosophy of education the best way to help people make their unique contribution to the world?

I do not question the value of a common body of knowledge to some extent, but that is different from arguing for the same type of education for every child driven by the same tests. True equity, access and opportunity will come from educational choice and a diversity of educational options. This is why I continue to argue that a great strength of the United States educational landscape is the rich diversity. On the K-12 level I’m referring to legacy public, public magnet, public charter, independent, parochial, homeschooling, unschooling, world schooling, project-based learning schools, game-based learning schools, STEM academies, bilingual schools, democratic schools, Waldorf schools, Montessori schools, and a myriad of others. On the University level I’m referring to everything from small liberal arts colleges to state Universities, blended and online options to technical and community colleges, public to private and faith-based, elite schools to a wonderfully interesting collection of alternative schools, even (maybe especially) the self-directed and uncollege options available today.

Have you noticed the recent articles and blog posts critiquing Arne Duncan for sending his children to the University of Chicago Lab Schools. Part of the critique is that he is sending his kids to a school that does not align with many of his educational reform efforts as US Secretary of Education. I appreciate that critique, but from another perspective, I commend him for selecting a school that he thinks is the best fit for his kids. Now all we need to do is to pursue more national and state policies that make such choice more widely available to the rest of the families in the country. Duncan knows that you don’t test an elephant by how well it can climb a tree, and he knows that the same thing is true when it comes to finding the right fit between a student and a school.

What does this have to do with testing and the cartoon? Standardized testing is a powerful educational technology, so powerful that it can reshape an entire school or district. It can drive schools and leaders to redesign their curriculum, schedule and priorities to make sure that students perform adequately on a given test or set of tests. That means prioritizing certain core competencies over others. It means celebrating the strengths and passions of some students while paying little attention to the gifts and interests of others. It means that some will believe that they are “good at school” while others don’t think so. It means having some students who strive to simply tolerate or survive the school day. That is a waste of a person’s gifts, talents, abilities, passions and potential; especially given that there are so many schools today that would be a great fit for these students.

Some might argue, “Haven’t you seen how poorly many charter and choice schools are performing?” Yes, there are problem schools, but there is also a problem with measuring the performance of these schools using those same tests that make elephants try to climb trees. I respect how this is a tidy want to compare schools, but it is a bit like doctors using standards for dentists. Both are healthcare workers, but they have enough differences that they probably call for a different measure of effectiveness. If we are going to measure across wildly different schools, maybe we should use measures about student engagement, holistic and personalized student growth and development, and the discovery and development of their gifts, talents, abilities, and passions.

Isn’t this just another sign of our increasingly self-absorbed culture? Students want everything their way instead of sucking it up and doing the work? I’ve talked to more than a few people who think as much, but I look at it differently. Yes, this is about a more personalized and customized approach to education. It is a recognition that people are different and we can best celebrate and maximize those differences by matching the student with the best fit school. This isn’t about catering to every whim and preference of a person. It is instead a perspective that doesn’t want to see a single student go to waste, one that aspires for learners to discover their unique contributions to the world. This is ultimately not about self-service, but it is about best positioning students to discover how they can live a rich and fulfilling life that benefits themselves and the people around them. And while some argue that focusing on STEM in our schools is the key to winning some international economic competition, I continue to defend the position that a nation and world will be better off if we invest in maximizing the potential of each person instead of sifting out those who don’t fit the STEM mold. In fact, by choosing a more personalized approach, we may find that we gain more traction than ever on everything from crime reduction to workforce and economic development.

Post Cookie Cutter Education: The What & Why of Personalized Learning

What is personalized learning? Ask a dozen people and get a half dozen answers. We have several terms that many use interchangeably today; terms like individualized instruction, customized learning, differentiated instruction, learner-centerness, and personalized learning. While purists will argue for clear distinctions among these terms, we don’t always find that in the wild. People use the terms with different definitions in mind and, over time, we get several working definitions for each. With that said, I contend that personalized learning is among the broadest in the sense that it merges all the other terms. Personalized learning involves customizing what to learn, how to learn it, at what pace to learn it, where to learn, even why to learn something. It also includes opportunity for the learners to have significant input on each of these items. In other words, who is personalizing the learning is part of the personalization as well. Let’s go through each of these one at a time.

What is learned?

When we look at other terms like differentiated instruction, there is a personalization of how things are learned and how things are assessed. However, the outcomes or goals are usually the same for all learners in a given class. A fully personalized experience also  personalizes what to learned. One student might puruse a completely different learning goal from another.

The limitation here is that most schools decide that there are certain shared goals or outcomes, things that should be learned by all students.

How is it learned?

There is more than one way to learn something, and a personalized learning approach emphasizes this reality. As such, the “how” of learning might take into account a given learner’s background knowledge and experience, motivation, available resources and other elements.

While some use the personalized “how” to explore each student’s learning styles, I’m skeptical that this is a good use of time and energy, and the research doesn’t back up the hype about learning styles over the past couple of decades. At the same time, there seems to be support that certain strategies or methods work well to master certain skills. For example, while there might be some adjustments to the “how” of riding a bike, every “how” will involve some measure of practice on an actual bike. Within that general practice, there is still plenty of room for personalized approaches.

At what pace is it learned?

Most schools are notoriously bad at personalizing in this area. If someone doesn’t go at a “standard” pace or the pace determined by the teacher, school, or curriculum; then the student is “behind” or “ahead.” Yet, the pace at which someone proceeds toward mastery in a given domain varies widely from one person to another, and personalized pacing gets at this fact in a way that doesn’t penalize people for needing more or less time.

While many schools and educators aspire to personalize pace, and they are doing so with a myriad of strategies; traditional grade levels, semester schedules and other parts of many schools limit the extent to which pace can be personalized in those contexts. Even within some of those limitations, a growing number of teachers are embracing the opportunity to honor the differences among learners with regard to pace, and new adaptive learning software is helping people consider such possibilities.

Where is it learned?

This is not one that many focus upon when you read about personalized learning, but even the location of the learning can be personalized. In some cases, it is an extension of the personalized how. One might spend time in the library, while another conducts interviews or observations in the community, another is learning through a service learning activity, and yet another is learning through blended or online communities and experiences. The where of learning allows us to consider location limitations of a given learner but also locations or contexts that will best help a learner meet a given goal.

Why is it learned?

This is another one that isn’t talked about as much when we think of personalized learning, but motivation is such a critical part of effective learning. If a person has a compelling why for learning something then that is a huge step in the right direction, one large enough to overcome otherwise underwhelming learning contexts. As such, even more traditional contexts can invite or help students come up with a personalized why for what they are learning. The same why doesn’t work for everyone. For some, a good why is because the teacher said so. For another, it is about getting a certain grade. Far more compelling whys relate to how it will help one achieve a personal goal, how it resonates with a personal passion or interest, how it meets an important need in the world, or how it connects with one’s personal values, beliefs or convictions.

Who does the personalizing?

While there are contexts where the teacher does the personalizing to the learner, there is also the powerful possibility of engaging the learner in designing the learning experience. As such, the learner might collaborate with the teacher and others to decide what to learn, how to learn it, why to learn it, and where to learn it. In other settings, the learner is equipped and unleashed to direct much of this process with different measures of coaching or guidance from another.

Why personalized learning?

Given these descriptions of personalized learning, this leads us to also consider whether there is a compelling why. Why this shift in educational practice? Some argue that it is little more than a sign of an increasingly self-centered society. Others say it is yet another fad, soon to fade. Still others of us look at personalized learning differently. Personalized learning is an opportunity to recognize, honor, and take into account the distinct gifts, talents, abilities and passions of learners. It is an approach that invites the learner to take greater ownership in the learning process, to become independent and increasingly self-directed learners. Increased attention to this approach certainly has larger cultural influences, but it is also a natural development of new discoveries about how people learn. Just as personalized medicine is growing from new knowledge of human genetics, personalized learning comes from a growing recognition that there are countless distinct and unique elements to each person. As such, the why of personalized learning is connected to both scientific discoveries about human learning, as well as a growing post-industrial philosophy of education. Such a philosophy seeks to affirm and amplify the unique contributions of each person instead of creating an assembly line that produces a uniform end product.

Educational Publishers & Content Providers: The Future is About Analytics, Feedback & Assessment

What is the future of educational publishers and content providers? As more content becomes freely distributed online and there are more creative (and sometimes free) products and services that help aggregate, curate, chunk, edit and beautify this content; there are questions about the role of educational publishers and content providers. While there is something to be said for a one-stop-shop for content, that might not be enough to secure a solid spot in the marketplace of the future, especially given that content is not the only thing for which people are shopping.

Some fear or simply predict the demise of such groups, but I expect a long and vibrant future. In fact, over the past decade or two, we’ve already witnessed publishing companies rebrand themselves as education companies with a broader portfolio of offerings than ever before. They’ve done so by adding experts in everything from educational psychology and brain research to instructional design, software development to game design, educational assessment to statistics, analytics, and testing. These are exactly the types of moves that will help them establish, maintain, and extend their role in the field of education. This is a shift from a time when many educational publishers and content providers would suggest that it is best to leave the “teaching” up to the professional educators. Now, more realize that there is not (nor has there really ever been) a clear distinction between the design of educational products and services and the use of them for teaching. Each influences the other, and understanding of educational research is critical for those who design and develop the products and services that inform what and how educators teach students.

According to this article, the preK-12 testing and assessment market is almost a 2.5 billion dollar market, “making them the single largest category of education sales” in 2012-2013! A good amount of this is the result of efforts to nationalize and standardize curriculum across geographic regions (like with the Common Core), allowing education companies to design a single product that aligns with the needs of a larger client base. However, even apart from such moves for standardization, more people are becoming aware of the possibilities and impact of using feedback loops and rich data to inform educational decisions.

This is just the beginning. If you are in educational publishing or a startup in the education sector, this is not only a trend to watch, but one to embrace. Start thinking about the next version of your products and services and how learning analytics and feedback loops fit with them. If you look at the K-12 Horizon Report’s 5-year predictions, you see learning analytics, the Internet of everything, and wearable technology. What do all three of these have in common? They are an extension of the Internet’s revolution of increased access to information, but this time it is increasing a new type of information and making it possible to analyze and make important decisions based on the data. Now we have a full circle. Data is experienced by learners. The actions and changes of the learner become new data points, which give feedback directly to the learner, to a teacher, or the product that provided the initial data. There is a new action taken by the learner, teacher and/or interactive product and the cycle continues (see the following image for three sample scenarios).

Screen Shot 2015-02-16 at 2.36.14 PM

Some (although an increasingly small number) still think of the Internet and digital revolution in terms of widespread access to rich content. Those are people who think that digitizing content is adequate. Since the 2000s, we’ve experience the social web, one that is read and write. Now we live in a time where those two are merged, and each action individually and collectively becomes a new data point that can be mined and analyzed for important insights.

While there are hundreds of analytics, data warehousing and mining, adaptive learning, and analytic dashboard providers; there is a powerful opportunity for educational content providers who find ways to animate their content with feedback, reporting features, assessment tools, dashboards, early alert features, and adaptive learning pathways. Education’s future is largely one of blended learning, and a growing number of education providers (from K-12 schools to corporate trainers) are learning to design experiences that are constantly adjusting and adapting.

The concept that we are just making products for the true experts, teachers, is noble and respectable, but the 21st century teacher will be looking for new content and learning experiences that interact with them (and their students), tools that give them rich and important data (often real-time or nearly-now) about what is working, what is not, who is learning, who is not, and why. They will be looking for ways to track and monitor learning progress. If a content provider does not do such things, it will be in jeopardy, with the exception of extremely scarce or high-demand content that can’t be easily accessed elsewhere.

As such, content still matters. It always will. However, the thriving educational content providers and publishers of the 21st century understand that the most high-demand features will involve analytics, feedback (to the learner, teacher, or back to the content for real-time or nearly now adjustments), assessment, and tracking.

5 Predictions About Educational Credentialing in 2024

I am doing a bit of consulting later in the week, and one of my tasks is to make a few predictions about education in 2024. My part of the day is focused upon alternate and micro-credentialing. With that in mind, here are five predictions. I don’t necessarily like all these outcomes, but based upon the trends, I see many of them as highly likely, especially as they relate to adult and continuing education; and education for trades and regulated professions. What do you think? As you read this short list, you may be surprised about how much does not seem to be directly tied to credentialing. That is because, at least in much of American higher education, credentials and assessments tend to shape and direct much education practice.

I’ve always seen assessment as a bit boring until I started to recognize how it has become the most powerful aspect of many education environments. Change or add a given assessment or evaluation practice and you can quickly see a transformation in an entire system. Look at the conversations about Common Core in K-12 education. It was when the use of assessments started to take root that the debates become most intense.

Do you have any predictions of your own?

1. Unbundled Education – Education will become increasingly unbundled and aggregated across networks and contexts. This will give way to increased grass-roots educational initiatives, the capacity for learners to self-blend learning experiences from multiple sources and organizations, and cross-organizational credentials. Highly regulated sectors and those with strong centralized professional organizations and standards will be most insulated from some of this. It will lead to significant turmoil and disruption in many higher education institutions.

2. Networked Learning will become a fundamental life and work skill. While the most regulated industries will be more insulated, there will be significant conflict between democratizing and authoritarian models of education and training. Regardless, a fundamental aspect of lifelong learning will be the development, maintenance and ongoing expansion of a personal learning network. Related to this, we will see massive formal learning networks within geographic areas, specific fields and professions, and other distinct physical or virtual communities.

3. For many professions and trades, competency-based education and assessment will largely replace assessment of readiness through traditional letter grade systems, GPAs and similar measures. Systems like traditional letter grades will be phased out with the emergence of more accurate and granular measures of learner progress and competence. This will impact both initial training and continuing education.

4. Depending upon the context, alternate and micro-credentialing systems will replace or supplement letter grades, course, credits, and degrees (but the most regulated industries will be more insulated from this disruption). These emerging credentialing systems will have features like expiration dates and detailed information about the criteria met to earn the credential.

5. Educational experiences will provide significant learner control and/or learner-specific adjustments of time, place, pace and learning pathway. As part of this, adaptive learning and robust learning progression designs will replace many industrial or one-size-fits all models of education and training. For better or worse, with the maturity of adaptive learning tools, there will be a renewed and invigorated battle between the  “science of teaching and learning” and the “art of teaching and learning.” Learning analytics and big data will drive the design of high-impact, competency-based individualized learning experiences.