If competence is the core business of schooling then why does it seem like a new idea every time it emerges as a topic of reform, debate and consideration?
Part of the answer could be linked to the most important aspect of any venture – its core purpose. The core purpose of education has long been defined by a contradictory set of principles: one explicit and noble, the other tacit and more base, but seemingly (or at least historically) practical.
The explicit and noble espoused purpose of public education is often paraphrased as being about opportunity and equity – the chance on a level playing field of making more of oneself – the chance to beat the odds of upbringing and class. Some believe you are given your lot and you have to wait for the next time around to get a better one. In our society there is a presumption that given certain opportunities people can exceed these pre-determinations and better themselves, their families and thus contribute to the progress of society as whole. This is a good set of principles and it has served some leading societies well – including a good part of almost every generation of Americans.
The trouble is, in our system of public education, there is a contradictory purpose in juxtaposition to the opportunity purpose – sorting and culling. The competing notion – more implied or tacit – includes the idea that there are really only so many high-end life opportunities available. While you can earn your way “up” in our culture, the structure is a pyramid with less “room at the top.” The apex of this pyramid, educationally, has long been access to prestigious citadels of higher education.
In some ways our current educational system can be seen as a well-designed endurance test – rife with cleverly designed tasks and challenges – not all of them about achieving the standards and competencies we champion. These challenges demand their own competencies, however they crowd out the ones we say we aspire to and often they are counterproductive in terms of achieving the ones we say we want.
Endurance is a useful competency – how to get through and how to tough it out in less than ideal conditions. Shackleton on his polar voyages is one example. This courageous explorer’s eventually stranded and ice-crushed ship was named “Endurance.” His crew endured months in frozen weather, enclosed in a tight, dark and smelly space – quite an accomplishment all its own, achieved through essential competencies for that situation.
But endurance gets too much of a focus in our schools. Enduring boring engagements that go over material one has already learned, sitting through instructional approaches that do not link with how the brain works, and enduring unprepared and unmotivated teachers are just some of the endurance tests we put young people through as some sort of additional “passage” to achieving outcomes.
Wouldn’t Shackleton and his crew have preferred good weather and smooth sailing to their destination? They may have demonstrated and honed their fortitude, but at what cost? And at what cost do we continue to challenge learners with often irrelevant demonstrations of “endurance” to guide a selection process that we as a society can no longer itself endure? Furthermore, why do we confuse our learners, teachers and communities by saying we want them all to succeed while we continue to organize for choosing and sorting? The answer may show itself if we consider this question in its historical context.
In a less competitive world where we could suffer and maybe need to limit the number of people in management roles defined by “executive skills,” society may have been best served by a combined effort to grow skills and limit success at the same time. Many of our recent ancestors did not need too much “school learning” for their success. Hard work and driving more basic skills learned in many places may have sufficed – but not today.
Today we need more learners learning more. The skills and knowledge reserved in the past for the few are now fundamentals for the many. What makes the challenge harder is that the growth in numbers of the successful must come from a growing base of those learners our current system serves worst – low-income learners of color. There is some somber irony here.
While we must have broader success, this is not a suggestion for just making things easier. On the contrary, learning is hard and learning the things the future will demand is more challenging than surviving the drill and kill of the “basics.” The formula for success must still involve hard work, motivation and some luck as it has for a long time, but today the “new basics” include deep math skills, analytics, problem solving and inter-personal communications about complex topics – things that need to be taught, practiced and refined with support.
These outcomes are not going to be attained by improving the assembly line that defines schools today. While there is evidence that current efforts to improve educational batch processing garner some results when placed in the context of a rising bar – in terms of the nature and level of skills needed for success – sticking with our current approaches is like hoping we can retrofit a car for flight.
We need an approach that maximizes success for the same learners our current system discards and eschews a normal bell curve for a crowded, tall peak where the right tail used to be. Where selecting might have been utilitarian in the past, the new utility is making sure more do well. This seems to make for an easy choice, but embracing the noble – and now practical – purpose of education at the expense of the culling purpose will demand some big uncomfortable, but feasible, changes.
In order to complete a successful shift in purpose through action, we can no longer simply wish for community commitment, parental support, student drive and even financial equity – all persistent challenges – it is also a matter of rethinking our approaches. As with remodeling a house, the time has also passed for a new coat of paint, new appliances, or even a new addition appended to the old. Rather, it is time to get down to the weight bearing walls, redesign and rebuild for the new mission.
This means intentionally and systematically moving away from the assembly line batch processing that defines schools today. We need to build and tune an orchestra with students at the center – each section of the orchestra representing an aspect of a well-aligned system of education – with competency as a central instrument.
We are already invested in a competency-based system defined by three of four defining features of such a system – high stakes outcomes, assessments and accountability measures that matter. However, there is a fourth, as of yet unrealized feature that may be the most important – high-quality diverse educational experiences that are somewhat tailored to student need and interest and equitably available. One size may fit for a culling purpose, but for a broader achievement purpose, we need variety.
This last defining feature of a high-quality competency system has a couple of its own essential, discrete dimensions that are worth a deeper review. First, let’s tackle the notion of diverse experiences somewhat tailored to meet students where they are.
People are so much the same in so many ways. We share a majority of DNA. But we are all different. We take pride – especially in our culture – in individual differences. While there is some debate about the significance of multiple intelligences and learning styles, there is little debate that different students benefit from different approaches.
The idea of tailoring approaches to learners is not a new one. It is a core design principal of our current system, but the breadth of variety we can get through differentiated instruction within a traditional classroom is too limited to bring us meaningful results. While we all listen, watch, read and learn through practice, reflection and revision – a more diverse combination of doses of these educational medicines are indicated by science and logic.
The prescription here is not for each learner having a completely distinct and customized education, but for reasonable attention to what we have learned about how people learn. Attending strategically to variety is different from trying to custom-make every aspect of a learning plan. Learners learn well together. The innovations at School-of-One, an interesting effort originally piloted in New York City, include individually analyzed performance followed by a menu of learning opportunities – some one on one, others in small and larger classes that look familiar. What is different about this kind of balanced, feasible approach to more tailored opportunities is that the learners in the smaller and larger classes are grouped based on common needs, not because of their assignment to the same homeroom in September.
Strategic variety based on learning profiles is different than appropriate attention to relevance or student interest, voice and authorship. But all of these are essential links in a chain to assist learners in making purposeful meaning of content. Our lack of attention to student voice explains in part why the number one descriptor of high school among surveyed students is still “boring.” This must end.
Nicholas C. Donohue is President and CEO of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. Previously, Nick was Commissioner of Education in New Hampshire. He holds a M.Ed. from Harvard University School of Education and a B.A. from Wesleyan University. Follow him on Twitter at @NickDonohueNMEF.