Friday, October 18, 2013

What if you built an educational system and it didn’t work as planned?


That question is one that we absolutely must ask ourselves in 2013. Policy makers adopted an educational formula that imposes behavioral statements as educational standards, standardized tests as the basis for all quality determinations, and accountability to those tests as if they capture the bulk of what students should have learned over the year.

The system cannot be said to be working effectively by anyone examining the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Our standing internationally continues to head in the wrong direction, curriculum winds up limited by the tested material, and the goal of a K-12 education to produce students ready to face the worlds of college and work seems ever further away.

The response, however, is the system of standards, standardized tests, and accountability is itself just fine—in spite of the limited evidence the system is moving us closer to the overall goals—and we just need to do two things: fine tune a few of the parts, and really hold teacher's feet to the fire.

There is, however, an additional set of responses. Perhaps the formula itself is flawed, or one of more of the pieces within the formula was never designed to play its assigned role, or there exists a better way. Almost no attention is paid to these additional responses.

Why is that? It could be because education is very difficult for outsiders to understand. It could be that the idea of reducing education to a single number or metric is appealing in the face of not really being able to understand. It may be that the political capital to put standards, standardized tests, and accountability programs in place came at such a cost no one feels up to actually making another set of changes

I think it is far simpler than that.

I think it has to do with fear. Somehow, we seem to think, anything different than the current path brings with it the possibility that we might just mess things up. The old medical admonition to “first, do no harm,” seems to have found its way into educational circles creating a paralysis when it comes to change of any type besides what we have at the present.

But what if the present system already violates the rule? What if the intent was certainly commendable but the result is now anything but? What if in hindsight we had applied that “first do no harm” rule? Might we have made very different decisions than what we did?

Its time to get a little creative; its time to see that the system in its present form fails the test of being a rational response to a major need; its time we started to seek some answers beyond the dated mantra of test-based accountability, because the present system may well be the cause of many of the problems it purports to want to change. It may be the single greatest source of the harm it hopes to avoid.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Defining personalized learning

At a conference this week I heard a panel attempt to define what personalized learning is. It was interesting, all over the board, and inconclusive. I felt for the educators given the challenges they faced and their willingness to try something new.

What was missing from the conversation was a defined rationale. The panel agreed it was the right thing to do, but at no point did I hear them offer a reason that was compelling. It was like they sensed it and yet weren't quite sure how to give voice to their logic.

What I hoped to hear was the idea that individualized learning is about moving from the current state of things where time is a constant with the result that achievement varies widely, to one where the level of proficiency is the constant and time, effort, and the instructional path by which each student arrives at that point are the variables. The path would be determined explicitly against a student's needs.

The lack of a rationale for any educational endeavor--whether a good one or a bad one--leaves us vulnerable to the risk of making change for the sake of change. That must not be the case, especially for something as powerful as the idea of personalized learning.