Using Garmin and Ford to Transform Education

The US of A has been discussing education reform for well over a decade now, and we still haven’t made the changes we need to prepare a democratic citizens for full civic participation, or prepare our workforce for competition in the global marketplace. Our teachers and educational leaders did not have a crystal ball: there’s no way they could know 20 years ago what their students would be facing today.

Our leaders have lately been taking up the podium and pen to make predictions and demands towards their national (USA), state (Ohio), and local (Cleveland) visions to reform education.  Having digested the words of these powerful men, now it’s time for this spider to spin her own vision for The Future of Education:

Education finally has a common road map.  Can we use it to create an educational GPS so students, parents, teachers & administrators across the nation can Map of the United States of Americatrack a student’s progress? And will we figure out how to send the educational journey into warp speed without killing our drivers (teachers)? I predict that both are possible if our leaders have the courage to transform the industry on a large scale.

1. We have well defined common goals!

I am personally thrilled with the creation of the Common Core State Standards and their adoption by 45 states.  With all the kerfuffle over teacher’s unions dominating media’s coverage of education, we’ve managed to overlook and under-celebrate this outstanding achievement that took years to develop with open input from all levels. By 2014 the standards will be shaping our benchmark assessments including state achievement tests, high school graduation tests, and the GED test. More importantly, now we have a common national language and vision for what it means to be a high school graduate in the USA. This is monumental, and we shouldn’t squander this potential.

2. Benchmark standardized assessments should not be the driver of education; Garmin should be.

Teaching to the test doesn’t work.  This should be a “duh,” but for some reason we still have whole institutions still allowing and encouraging it! Teaching to a high stakes standardized test is like trying to walk across a continent while only being allowed to see the map once every few years. I’m actually not against standardized assessments–you need to have a shared ultimate destination & methods of measurement. Still those educators & administrators who focus so completely on some vague destination are losing their skills at tracking incremental progress, and not recognizing that the test is just a benchmark, not the ultimate goal.

In-game screenshotGames, project based learning, communities of practice, inquiry-based learning…these are some of the superhighways of education. The effectiveness of these methods lies in built-in checkpoints or constant feedback about performance.  Basically, they’re like a GPS that lets you choose your course, and then lets you know when you’ve strayed from that path. A game is like an intellectual GPS: it’s motivating because you often know how you are progressing against the goal (like earning badges) and you can adjust your performance accordingly. At the same time, ideally you have a wide range of extensions to go above and beyond for those who have reached mastery and want additional engagement (like if they’re addicted to Angry Birds Rio and want to find all the hidden fruit).

In a world of instant access to endlessly quantifiable information, the field of education needs to dramatically change its view of assessment. Embedded in the very servers and communication networks you are using to read this blog post lies the potential for constant and nearly instantaneous streams of feedback on our activities. Many educational leaders may be oblivious to this gold mine they surf through every day.

Author’s Note (3/25/2012): Since writing this post, I’ve been introduced to a community of education leaders using these free resources to collect & utilize learner data to improve instruction. Also, I was introduced (via Twitter!) to Daniel Edwards, a very cool middle school teacher in the UK using Socrative in a trial of a “flipped” classroom using an iPad2 for every student.  After presenting the trial to parents, he said: “Parents very quickly understood implication of assessing students at any point in a lesson and the feedback was extremely positive. In fact, I believe they would have signed up purely so their child could use Socrative in lessons!”  Hopefully, we won’t continue to force our innovative teachers to spend their own time & resources with trial & error in isolation, but instead support them to become the standard of quality for the field of education!

In the realm of social media, for example, we can map out Foursquare checkins, Facebook page insights, Klout scores, Google analytics…whole companies are built on algorithms that quantify things we used to think of as barely definable: social networks, influence, relevance. Even defining physical location used to elude the human race and now GPS and cell phone towers can track every car, phone or mobile device. Social media is so addictive in part because it is like this giant game where you can check your progress at any time, as often as you want. The stats are easy to understand and make it fun. If tech start-ups can give this kind of constant feedback for free to every single participant all day, every day, so can education.

Let me put that in stronger terms: the whole field of education needs to invest in formative assessments embedded in every single learning activity to create a continuous feedback loop so that every teacher, student, parent and administrator can daily monitor and comprehend progress on educational activities and learning.

pink tower cakeMaria Montessori did this a hundred years ago without web 2.0 technology by developing an entire curriculum based on controls: each activity allowed the child to independently determine if they were doing it right or not. If the pink tower is upside down, it will fall down. That’s how the Montessori system creates independent, confident learners: it’s like a giant game where students can do endless repetitions until they’ve achieved mastery. Students get the internal satisfaction of seeing for themselves when they’ve done a good job.

This approach of built-in controls for performance feedback is not limited to Montessori-certified schools: anyone can do it. And now we can power it with 21st century communications technology to share this critical information. Without even realizing it (I think) Khan Academy has found amazing success applying this Montessori philosophy to their knowledge map, instructional videos, practice problems, and coaching analytics. Now that the U.S. has a shared “knowledge map” in terms of the Common Core Standards, there’s no reason we can’t capitalize on that shared vocabulary to create a type of educational GPS, where every learning activity builds in feedback on progress towards mastering the standards. This feedback will create algorithms (dear God, please let them be open source) so students, parents, and teachers can all figure out if their kid is trekking towards Reno or Rome. We need educational leadership who will obsess over the algorithms as much as Mark Zuckerberg and Larry Page.

Geeks, our education system needs you.

3. Industrialize the education sector.

Ford plant with diversity peopleI don’t mean we need to replace teachers with robots. We just need to learn from how Henry Ford made cars so accessible: transforming the workforce through division of labor (and let’s not forget a commitment to inclusion!).

The job description of a K-12 teacher is absolutely ridiculous to me. How are we getting away with asking almost 4 million U.S citizens to be experts in content, technology, facilitation, administration, community engagement, fundraising, and parenting? All while squeezing in professional development? In 9 months out of the year because they still need the summers off to farm?

Let’s face it: Most passionate teachers have to tap outside sources of income to fund the supplies and activities that our schools won’t or can’t. Then they work a third shift just to keep on top of lesson planning and homework. Teachers generally work in isolation with little helpful feedback themselves, and the evaluation they do receive is tinged with punitive and political overtones. Education is an industry that is trying to increase quality & production by demanding too much of its workforce. We know this doesn’t work. Something has to give.

Instead of focusing on performance pay, replacing poor teachers, rewarding the best teachers, and other blah blah blah nonsense, let’s step back and rethink what exactly we’re asking teachers to DO. It’s insanity, people! Forget about it! Distance education and corporate training figured this out year’s ago: the single room schoolhouse doesn’t work any more. We need to parse out the job descriptions and let people specialize.

Let master teachers provide the strategy and oversight for a crew serving 150 students. Some teachers who are never destined to manage others can choose specialties including instructional designers, facilitators, content experts, quality assurance, data management/formative assessment, community-engaging-resource-finders, or technology specialists. Schools should be contracting with lots of part-time facilitators for real world expertise (or full-time shared across districts/regions), investing in a host of pre-fabricated learning units (embedded with analytics then customized & curated by master teachers), and treating their entry-level workforce more like graduate assistants in higher education. The current approach to giving first year teachers responsibility for an entire class with little support is ludicrous.

It would be the same kind of dramatic transformation of the licensing system and professional education that shook up the field of medicine a century ago. Would it be tough? Yes. Has it been done? Yes. Industrialization and specialization makes a LOT more sense than one teacher doing everything for 25-40 kids. If taken to scale and managed appropriately this approach is much more cost-effective and can significantly increase quality. There’s potential here for transformation, instead of just reform.

In summary, the future of U.S. education is not to catch up with the technological & economic changes of the last decade or two. We need to look further back at the lessons learned over a century ago by Ford, Montessori, and the fields of distance education & medicine. Next we can use the tools (like Garmin) of the last couple decades to apply those lessons. What would that algorithm look like?

Common Core Standards + Embedded Trackable Assessments + Specialization = Higher Quality Education

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