High expectations for relevance

deeper_learning_cover

Throughout the year, we read a variety of books with the Education Innovation Fellows. This month, the book is Deeper Learning. In the spirit of participating in the learning process, I am sharing my own reflection on the text.

One striking aspect of Deeper Learning is how much the authors, Monica Martinez and Dennis McGrath, highlight the words and work of real teachers, leaders, and students in the schools they profile. The whole book is full of short anecdotes from the individuals doing the hard work of transforming schools, and we, the readers, often get these stories from a close, over-the-shoulder perspective. Reading this, I didn’t need convincing as to whether or not this work was possible—I felt instead that I was hearing from the people who were doing the work. The relevance and purpose of what they are doing to invest and to inspire students, and to reach beyond the walls of their schools feels urgent and vital.

In their concluding chapter, the authors make one of their more forceful claims about the necessity of this work:

If public education does not transform, not only will it become irrelevant, but it will generate more and far-reaching inequality with regard to education and broader life outcomes that have for years been linked to education attainment (p 186).

So many of the stories they tell are fundamentally about that issue of relevance. Education, they argue, must rest on meaningful, relevant connections between students and between students and teachers. The work that students do ought to be relevant to them, to their communities, and to the education and careers they will have beyond their time in K-12.

The question I ask myself, as an education professional and as a parent, is about that connection between relevance and equity. When I choose to accept the irrelevance of what many students are doing in school, then am I simultaneously accepting inequity in the broader life outcomes of students in different communities?

I also appreciate the broad definition of “relevance” that Martinez and McGrath embrace. Rather that narrowing relevance solely to math and reading outcomes, or to college acceptance rates, or to employment opportunities, they broadly conceive of relevant deeper learning as “the capacity for learning how to learn.” They elaborate:

More specifically, Deeper Learning is the process of preparing and empowering students to master essential academic content, think critically and solve complex problems, work collaboratively, communicate effectively, have an academic mindset, and be self-directed in their education (p 3).

This leaves me thinking that if I’m looking for evidence of deeper learning in schools and classrooms, then I, too, have to listen to the students, leaders, and teachers doing transformative work. And if I’m looking for relevance in particular, then I should listen to students and to their families. Because it’s not just teachers who should expect education to feel relevant—students should feel that relevance, and families should expect it. And setting high expectations for relevance is one step toward enabling the transformation the authors describe.

—Andrew Plemmons Pratt
Education Innovation Fellowship

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New Measures of Broader Outcomes

I find that many proposals for why we should improve education rely on a handful of similar arguments. Some common ones that I encounter:

  1. Appeals that highlight opportunity gaps between high- and low-income students.
  2. Appeals about the importance of education for the U.S. economy.
  3. Appeals about “The Future” or boilerplate about our current era of “high-speed information” and the need to help students adapt to technology.

The economic and opportunity arguments are important and valuable. And while I think that a lot of technology predictions don’t pan out, I certainly want all students to be ready for “The Future,” whatever it may hold. The authors of a paper released last fall make a different appeal. In “Dissatisfied Yet Optimistic,” they argue:

We must be far less patient about expanding our vision of what it means for students to be successful and developing effective ways of supporting and measuring this broader view.

This is an argument about what students should be learning that isn’t bounded by a curriculum. It’s about multiplying an academic curriculum by what the authors refer to as “critical habits of success such as self-awareness, agency, drive, curiosity and empathy.”

I think that the writers—Stacey Childress, Aylon Samouha, Diane Tavenner, and Jeff Wetzler—rightly attribute some of the recent opposition of parents around the country to standardized tests to the narrow focus on math and reading common in many schools. But I think they’re also pointing to big, challenging, and potentially messy work, which is figuring out ways to assess these other “critical skills.” I don’t think that it’s always easy to measure these things, and there’s also a risk that it will initially feel uncomfortable or wrong to measure intangibles like curiosity, empathy, and deep content expertise. But their impatience resonates with me because I don’t think that we can wait for other elements of next-generation education systems to fall into place before digging into this question of what an expanded vision for student success is, and how to measure it.

The authors describe this element of their theory of change as a need for “new measures of broader outcomes.” This expanded vision of student success will certainly require appropriate measures of things like agency and executive function. But I think that this work can’t be left solely to the innovators and early adopters in the education world. Another of the seven “key factors” upon which their theory depends is deep engagement from “students, families, and communities.” They argue that these stakeholders need “a clear and compelling vision of what school can be for their child” and that “in short, they need a compelling reason to change what they are looking for in schools.” One of these things that families might not yet know they can look for is the expanded vision of what student success means, and how to measure it.

So this is one of many important challenges in education innovation: cultivating conversations among educators and with parents about the limited scope of what we mean by a “good school.” The primary measures of “good” that are readily available rely upon the existing narrow focus on math and reading scores.

One of the authors, Alyon Samouha, will be doing a workshop this month with the 2016 Education Innovation Fellows, and I’m eager to see what sort of new measures of broader outcomes they design.

—Andrew Plemmons Pratt

Mapping Personalized Learning for Fellows

A prototype version of the Education Innovation Fellowship skill map made from Post-Its

A prototype version of the Education Innovation Fellowship skill map.

As we’re recruiting teachers for the 2016 cohort of Education Innovation Fellows, we are also working to apply what we have learned from the first three years of the Fellowship to make next year even better. One important lesson is that personalized learning is not just for K-12 students—it is also a powerful tool for enhancing adult learning. So we’re building out a framework to better personalize the Fellowship experience itself. We’re drawing a new map.

The first of the four pillars in our vision of personalization is competency-based learning. This means that a learner gets the right content at the right time, based on her current skills and knowledge. She gets credit for what she knows, and gets the precise support she needs to learn what she has not yet mastered. For Fellows, this means meeting them where they are. Some might already have deep experience with blended learning, while some might be new to the field. Others might have read widely on education innovation, while others might be looking for the best sources. One fellow might have been building project-based learning experiences for years; another might be ready to begin redesigning a curriculum with a project-based focus.

The point is that everyone has gaps in their knowledge, and everyone has a different starting point. In order to chart a course through all of the learning we pack into the Fellowship, a skill map is a powerful tool. A skill map plots the relationships between discrete units of knowledge. For example, middle-school math students must learn how to multiply decimals before they can use pi to calculate the circumference of a circle; the former skill is a prerequisite for the first. Similarly, Fellows must be able to explain the steps of the design thinking process before applying that process to pilot projects in their own classrooms.

An upshot of mapping skills like this is that Fellows can then move at their own pace: if you’ve already mastered a foundational skill, you can move ahead to a higher-level skill. That ability reinforces two other personalized learning pillars: student autonomy (Fellows can better define the pace, path, and substance of what they learn), and purposeful and relevant study.

We’ll have more to share in the coming weeks about how this framework will work. In the meantime, the origin point on this map is the Fellowship application.

—Andrew Plemmons Pratt, Program Manager, Education Innovation Fellowship