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.

Competency-based Badges for Differentiated Instruction

I’m delighted to start with the third MOOC that I’ve hosted. This one is called Adventures in Blended Learning. The following video explains the main goals of the course.

As I say in the video, one of the goals is to get informed about the possibilities of teaching and learning in the digital age. So, on the first night of the course, Kirsty Plander tweeted the following:

I love these sorts of questions. These are the types of teaching and learning questions that great teachers are constantly asking. A question like this represents awareness of students, the ability to observe and identify challenges to learning, and a desire to explore possibilities that will better meet the needs of each learner. In this case, Kristy poses a classic question about meeting the needs of diverse learners. We all know that students come to our classes with widely different life experiences, levels of confidence about formal learning environments, different levels of background knowledge about the course, different attention spans, different goals and passions, and so much more. Each person is a unique creation, full of potential. If that is true, how to you give some power to the potential in each student?

Some approach this by trying to teach to the middle, thinking this will stretch those who struggle, meet the needs of the majority, and hopefully be enough to not bore the advanced students. Yet, if you’ve taught for a few years, you know that such a strategy doesn’t work especially well. What are our options?

This is where blended learning becomes a promising possibility. As many explain, blended learning allows you to address these sorts of challenges by blending the best of face-to-face teaching and learning with the best of digital learning experiences. Allow me to share one (of many possible ways to design a blended experience to address the situation posted in Kristy’s Tweet above, and I’ll do it with two things that I’ve written quite a bit about over the last year or two: competency-based education and digital badges.

For the sake of time, I’ll just use the Educase explanation of competency-based education for now.

The competency-based education (CBE) approach allows students to advance based on their ability to master a skill or competency at their own pace regardless of environment. This method is tailored to meet different learning abilities and can lead to more efficient student outcomes. – http://www.educause.edu/library/competency-based-education-cbe

Imagine you are teaching an introductory business course. Some students have work experience, they learned quite a bit from their parents, and they are coming to the course with a working knowledge of the basics. Others do not have a clue, but this is the first course, so there are no pre-requisites. So, imagine breaking that introductory course (or just the prerequisites) into a discrete list of competencies. What skills do they need to have upon completion of the course? what skills do they need to thrive in the course in the first place (prerequisites)?

Once you have that list, now imagine creating a simple tutorial or or learning experience associated with that skill. It might include a reading or two, a recorded mini-lecture on the topic, a couple of practices exercises, a couple of case studies or real-life situations that use that skill or concept, an ungraded practice quiz for students to test their knowledge, as well as some advanced applications of the same concept (added as an optional…going deeper element). Finally, you come up with a description of how you would know when a person truly has the understanding and skill that you wanted in the area. You write it out in a specific and measurable list of criteria.

All this goes into an online learning module. There is a different module for each core concept. When students come to the course, they complete some sort of pre-test to see what they do or don’t know, what skills that do or don’t have. That pre-test should include measures for each of the modules built online. This could be done pretty easily using any number of online quiz/test tools. The result will give the student a list of areas to work on for the course. If a student performs well, they might be guided to a set of more advanced tutorials or just more advanced applications of the same basic concepts. If the student did not do as well, the list of suggested modules are included. Students can progress through completion of the modules and demonstration of their growing competency on a personalized, self-paced basis (or, perhaps certain skills must be demonstrated by the end of week 2 or 3 of the course). When a student completes the module, a digital badge is issued (here are some options for creating badges, or some LMSs like Canvas, Moodle, and Blackboard have them built-in). The badge is evidence that students met the criteria. You can even set the badges up in levels. You need to complete all 8 level 1 badges to gain access to the 5 level two badges…you get the idea.

This may sound like a ton of work to prepare. It is, but it doesn’t have to be all done at once. In fact, you could involve a group of students in helping create some of these modules as practice tools for themselves and learning modules for future classes. Refining and improving the modules could even be a challenge/task for students who perform well on the pre-tests.

There are so many ways to get at a challenge like Kristy described, but I see this one as especially promising. In fact,  it would not be hard to co-create it with a team of faculty at several schools, sharing their resources with one another. It would be a great way to divide the labor and make it more doable. Or, if one is not ready for that option, the instructor can just start small. Start with 3-5 of the most important skills or the areas where the most students enter a class with deficiencies.

What do you think? Would this potentially help address the challenge posed by Kristy? What are the benefits and downsides to such a practice? What other strategies might you consider? Can you think of how we might blend learning across face-to-face and online instruction to help address it?

Even as I’m finishing this article, I’m thinking about how to approach it in a completely different way through a self-directed, project-based approach. If you are game, I’d love to hear your suggestions on proposed ways to address this challenge. Why not share your it in the comment area?

5 Reasons for Blended Learning: Clarifying the Why

I’m leading a 4-week mini-MOOC on Adventures in Blended Learning from January 5 – 30 (by the way, all are welcome to participate in part or all of the experiences). While signing up is already already indication that those people have interest in understanding and maybe trying to intentionally design blended learning experiences, I am compelled to start with an exploration of the compelling “why” about blended learning. Without the why, too many things can go awry and a sense of relevance about “what” we are learning is more likely to die. As I explained in a recent article, integrating technology in and of itself is not an admirable or worthwhile goal. It is about designing learning experiences that best meet the needs of students. Toward that end, I offer 5 possible (but somewhat overlapping) reasons for considering the use of blended learning. This is far from an exhaustive list. There are many more, but these represent some of the most commonly referenced reasons.

1. To reap the promised benefits of research findings about blended learning.

There is a growing body of literature that now spans over a decade about blended learning. We are finding multiple benefits from taking the best of both worlds (face-to-face and online) in the classroom. As such, some are choosing blended learning so they can reap the benefits suggested in these research reports.

2. To create opportunities for one-on-on and small group time between the teacher and students.

In a traditional classroom environment, the teacher is often working with everyone at the same time. That leaves little time for high-impact personalized moments with each student or small groups of students? Think of the idea of stations that is common in early childhood education. Now imagine a situation where you do the same thing with older students, even high school and college. Every “station” contributes something new to the student’s learning about a stated learning objective. Some stations might be practice, others a chance to test their knowledge of key ideas through an interactive low-stakes assessment online, and yet other stations might be the teacher working with a small group of students. This is one of many possible blended learning models, but it allows teachers the flexibility to meet the needs of more students while giving everyone rich and valuable learning experiences.

This is also part of the reason that many are opting for a form of blended learning called the flipped classroom, where students learn about basic content outside of class but then come to class to do “homework”, freeing up the teacher to wander the room and work with individuals or small groups as needed.

3. To provide personalized learning.

We all know that students are not the same. They come to our classes with different knowledge, skills, abilities, passions, prior knowledge beliefs about what we will be teaching, levels of confidence, and all sorts of other things that impact how and what they learn in our classes. One strategy in the past was to try to find a level of teaching that reaches somewhere in the middle, allowing the teacher (sometimes with help) to do special work with the struggling students and/or enhancements for the student performing well. Or, in some contexts, the struggling and high performing students just have their needs unmet, sometimes walking away from the experience bored, disconnected, and with little progress. As we think about leveraging the best of face-to-face and online instruction together, it gives us new ways to think about providing multiple pathways to the same learning destination, pathways that work for individuals. Or, for some it is more about the pace. Some self-paced digital learning experiences allow each student to work at different paces, better meeting their individual needs. Personalization by time and pace are challenging in many traditional classroom designs, but new opportunities arise when we explore blended learning designs.

Many talk about this is terms of moving away from a one-size-fits all approach to education.

4. To take advantage of student data and adaptive learning.

As educational products and software develop, there are growing selections of what is called adaptive learning software. It is software that adapts and adjusts according to student performance, allowing a level of personalization and tracking of student progress that is difficult otherwise. By blending a class experience between teacher-guided instruction and computer-based instruction with such software, teachers are able to get rich data about student progress, and students get lessons catered their own level and readiness. Take a look at the image included in this article written for educational publishers and content providers (you might be interested in reading the article too). Notice the feedback loops that I represent in the visual. Designing classes that get at these sorts of models if part of what is leading schools and teachers to opt for a blended learning approach.

Many argue that this data will help us from letting some students “fall between the cracks.”

5. Extending the classroom and resources beyond the school walls.

The digital revolution leaves us with unprecedented access to rich content, communities, and people from around the world. Some are designing blended learning lessons and experiences to capitalize upon this access, building opportunities for individual students or groups to engage with this online content and people or communities to help them make progress in their learning. We see this with foreign language instruction as teachers build programs for students from different countries to interact with each other. We see it for student-centered projects and research. We see it with students collaborating with professionals or students from other schools using digital tools.

One example comes from the idea of helping students build what we call a student personal learning network, but there are hundreds of other ways to leverage this access as well.