At the American Alliance for Museums’ convening on the future of education in September, I had the pleasure of sharing two scenarios of the future that seem plausible in light of our forecast on the future of learning:
• A vibrant learning grid in which all of us who care about learning create a flexible and radically personalized learning ecosystem that meets the needs of all learners
• A fractured landscape in which only those whose families have the time, money, and resources to customize or supplement their learning journeys have access to learning that adapts to and meets their needs.
While we’re working to contribute to the creation of a vibrant learning grid and I travel the country helping education stakeholders envision possibilities for moving toward a dynamic learning ecosystem that adapts to learners, getting there is not a given. It will take distributed and concerted effort to envision best possibilities for making use of future trends and to pursue sustained systemic transformation from multiple vantage points, some of which sit within today’s K-12 public education system and some of which extend far beyond its boundaries.
So I was excited when some of my fellow convening participants elected to focus during our ideation time on imagining what it would take to build a vibrant learning grid. To roll up our sleeves and begin some big systemic architecture.
As we chatted, we kept circling back to an idea that’s stayed with me. That’s it’s not enough simply to diversify pathways along a fixed curriculum or to personalize supports to help learners do their best in something that looks only a little different from today’s industrial-era education system. That instead we need to design for interest-based collaborative learning that supports learners in directing their own learning journeys according to their interests and goals (with skilled guidance and brokering that helps them connect those interests and goals with the exciting array of opportunities that we expect will proliferate as well as with what we know of future careers, further education opportunities, and the civic and societal dimensions of learning). That personalizing learning for all can’t equate to designing primarily solo learning opportunities, even though some individual pursuits will be appropriate for some learners some of the time. Because we are social beings, and we learn well together when motivated by relevant and authentic challenges.
Since September, I’ve continued to circle back to interest-based collaborative learning as a key facet of the radically personalized learning ecosystem that we hope to create with all of you and many others. The crux of the matter? We need to stop designing for the convenience of adults and start designing for the passions of young people. As we do that, we can’t let any particular systemic structure, however radical it might seem today, become the only one supporting learning. Because learning ecosystems have to keep adapting to stay vibrant.
One of my favorite activities involves getting a bunch of really smart people together and talking about something I’m passionate about. I was able to do that this week as a panelist at the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents (CAPSS) policy symposium. Together with the other panelists – Nick Donohue, David Ruff, Cory Curl, Kate Nielsen, and Casey Cobb – we discussed competency- (or as it is called in Connecticut, mastery-based) education. Along with representatives from the Governor’s office, state legislators, folks from the department of education, and superintendents and other district leaders from across the state, we discussed several aspects on competency education including graduation requirements, assessment, accountability, teacher preparation, and professional development. The resources from the symposium can be found here, here, and here.
After leading the research for KnowledgeWorks’ competency education publications, which can be found at the link above, and visiting several schools deep into the implementation of competency, I thought I had a pretty good idea of how nuanced a paradigm shift like competency would be. I was wrong. Dead wrong. While I have spent many hours reading, researching, writing, and thinking about what the implications might be for assessment and accountability in a competency-based system, I did not have an adequate appreciation for how complex this shift would be given the other aspects (professional development, teacher preparation, graduation rates, etc.) we discussed in Connecticut. Given my experience, there are my takeaways from the symposium:
- I came away with more questions than answers but I am very OK with this because…
- There are some extremely smart people working on this and I am confident that, together, we will find the answers and, finally…
- I am more convinced than ever that a competency-based system is a great, if not the only, way to meet all of our students’ needs.
If competency education is something that you’re interested in learning more about, I would encourage you to check out the resources at the link above. I have no doubt that they will put you on your way to better understanding competency-based education.
As I’ve worked with superintendents’ groups around the country this fall, conversations about the potential to create radically personalized learning for all young people have consistently highlighted the need to think anew about the many kinds of infrastructure that might support districts in making such a shift – or prevent them from doing so. As a New Hampshire superintendent in whose district one elementary school is pursuing mass customization observed, today’s data systems and curricular resources do not align with such tailored support for learning. Innovative districts are often working around such systems and are coming up against the limits of their individual spans of control.
The further we move toward radical personalization, not just along a single pathway but along multiple pathways driven by interest-driven collaborative learning, the further out of alignment our current education infrastructure threatens to become.
In order to build the vibrant and diverse learning ecosystem that we would like to see in ten years, and to make it readily available for all students, we need to take a hard look today at the infrastructures surrounding learning. We need to ask whether each one is supporting the kind of learning that we want to promote, whether it is impeding that approach to learning, whether it is simply obsolete, and whether it is working with other systems in a coherent way. This scrutiny will involve designing at a broad scale for a very granular, or individual, level of learning.
More specifically, to support radically personalized learning, our education infrastructures need to have the flexibility to support multiple kinds of learning experiences happening at anytime, anywhere, and in any way. Whether we’re talking statewide data systems of the kind that inBloom has been attempting (amid much controversy) to initiate, data backpacks that enable learning records to follow a child across learning experiences, learning-focused assessment and accountability systems, or some other type of infrastructure, we need to put learning and learners at the center and design from there. That process will involve crossing any number of boundaries that can serve as barriers today. As the inBloom controversy has been demonstrating, it will require careful examination of critical issues such as privacy and clear communication with our publics.
It will also involve taking nothing for granted. While we might end up doing some things exactly as we do them today, doing them that way simply because that’s what we’re accustomed to will not suffice. We won’t be able to deliver on the promise of radically personalized learning without challenging layers and layers of assumptions, setting aside our stake in the current game, and keeping our service to learners front and center. Nor will we be able to do so without enacting courageous and creative leadership that looks beyond today’s constraints to possibilities and designs back from our highest aspirations for all young people, regardless of their families’ means.
District participants at a recent Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents workshop on the future of learning emphasized the potential to pursue regional solutions that can meet the needs of more learners, instead of every district’s struggling to meet every need on its own. They saw the potential both for districts to collaborate in creating regional solutions today and for those solutions to open the way toward even greater innovation tomorrow. As we looked ten years out and envisioned the best possibilities for learning, participants saw such boundary-spanning as a strategy that they could employ today to move toward a personalized future of learning that truly meets the needs of all students.
I see this kind of boundary spanning within the public education system – and with other kinds of entities that could also have a role in delivering or supporting learning – as being a key way of pursuing the diverse learning ecosystem toward which future trends point. It also promises to be critical in making that learning ecosystem vibrant for, and accessible to, all learners. Designing for learning – and especially for the kind of radically personalized learning that we think will be possible – will require what the Institute for the Future describes as organizing learning not around educational institutions but around learning flows. It will also require designing for learners’ needs and convenience, not for those of adults.
In one example of such cross-boundary collaboration, in 2011 North Carolina passed legislation authorizing multiple school districts to establish a regional school serving students from multiple districts. The Northeast Regional Early College High School of Biotechnology and Agriscience draws students from five school districts in partnership with North Carolina State University and operates at the North Carolina Department of Agriculture’s Tidewater Research Station property.
In another example, the Providence After-School Alliance brings community-based learning experiences into the Providence, Rhode Island, school district. Connecting middle- and high-school students with community-based experiential learning opportunities, this nonprofit organization not only connects young people with after-school and expanded learning programs but also partners with the public school district so that students earn badges for participating in those experiences. In other words, they get credit in the public school system for their community-based learning experiences.
Lastly, the Virtual High School Collaborative highlights the possibility of exchanging learning resources across as well as within states. Charging school districts a nominal membership fee to cover basic expenses, this network operates as a barter system in which each participating school offers one teacher to teach 25 students from member schools. In return, that teacher’s home school gets 25 places for students to take any of the 200-plus courses that the collaborative offers.
While today’s districts might or might not be the ideal unit of organization for the future, such examples highlight the potential to enrich possibilities for learners by working creatively within and across those structures to enable more kinds of learning experiences. As our forecast highlights, the future of learning promises to be one in which educators create many right solutions to meet different learners’ needs. Why should we limit ourselves to a structure that evolved to suit an outdated industrial education system? Instead, let’s work with existing structures, and within existing regulatory frameworks, to create more pathways toward success. Regional partnerships, community-based learning brokers, and interstate collaboratives represent just some of the ways in which we can think creatively about organizational structures in order to transition today’s public education system toward being a viable node within a vibrant and radically personalized learning ecosystem.
I have to take a moment to give a “shout out” to Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore, Maryland. The school was cited by the U.S. Department of Education today in its latest release on progress under the School Improvement Grant initiative.
In 2008 HBO produced a documentary, “Hard Times at Douglass High,” detailing in stark relief the difficult and dangerous day-to-day life in Frederick Douglass – a school that was on the verge of closure. The HBO documentary identified Frederick Douglass among the nation’s worst high schools. In 2010-11, under the SIG proposal, Frederick Douglass and the Baltimore City Schools launched an aggressive effort to re-imagine teaching, learning and academic life for its students. (Full disclosure, EDWorks has been privileged to work hand-in-hand with the Frederick Douglass team to design and implement that plan).
The U.S. Department of Education release provided a window into the school’s rapid improvement: “At Baltimore’s Frederick Douglass High School, the second oldest historically integrated public high school in the United States, the dropout rate was cut in half and proficiency in English language arts jumped from 41 percent to 53 percent in the first year of the grant. Scores have continued to improve at the school with nearly 90 percent Free and Reduced Lunch enrollment. The school opened a night school where students can get tutoring or take credit recovery classes and added a recording and media production studio where career and technical students can train. The school also began offering students the chance to take dual enrollment classes at nearby Baltimore City Community College.”
School leadership and staff will be the first to tell you they don’t have time to bask in the accolades. They know they have a long way to go to help their students realize their full potential. They continue to push as hard today as they did in 2010 when they started this effort.
The secret to Frederick Douglass’ success is both wildly simple and immensely difficult. It’s courage. The leadership team and staff at Douglass display the courage to do the right thing for their students at the right time. Period. No excuses.
It is their unwavering courage and their absolute belief in their students that bode well for Frederick Douglass’ continued success.