It’s Not a Matter of Time

Mrs. Knoll teaches third grade.  She is supposed to help her students meet state standards in math and English (among other responsibilities).  Some of her students are emerging readers; some read at the sixth grade level.  Some of her students are pre-arithmetic, some are pre-algebra.  It’s an impossibly difficult job and a crazy way to organize learning.
There’s a better way to organize education—kids should progress when they’ve learned what they are supposed to learn.  But for a century we’ve grouped kids by birthday and marched them through the same print-based curriculum; some kids get it, some don’t.  It’s a difficult system for teachers to manage given the wide range of skills in each classroom.
The state chiefs (CCSSO) and the online learning association (iNACOL) hosted a Denver gathering of 100 smart people to discuss competency-based learning.
The sponsors said, “If we operate schools the way we have, we will not reach out goals.”  And “We need to shift from a time and experience-based system to one that sets clear expectations, has robust instructional options, and verifies that students have met expectations.”   The current system is focused on time and adults; we need to build a system based on students and learning.  Making this transition is, “A national priority.”
The system of grades credits and 180 days of seat time is deeply ingrained, but around the edges, the system is based on learning and time is variable

  • · Success for All has been grouping kids by reading level for 20 years; Wireless Generation’s Burst is automating the process of differentiating reading instruction using open content.
  • · Dropout recovery academies like Performance Learning Centers and AdvancePath use computer-based instruction to accelerate student learning in a supportive academy setting.
  • · Many online learning students can work at their own pace

Batch processing age cohorts doesn’t work; most kids don’t get what they need, many are bored because they are so far ahead or so far behind.  The solution is personalize digital learning.
The historic shift from batch-print to personal digital leaning will also enable the historic shift from time to competency.
The slow adoption by traditional schools is being bypassed by charter schools, online schools, informal learning tools, and the viral adoption of learning apps.
The Race to the Top assessments, to be introduced in a few years, will either speed or hinder the shift from time to learning.  Right now, they sound more like the old system than the new system.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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