Kickin’ it old school and inventing the future

My friend Andy Rotherham is old school–and that goes for many EdReformers.  They want the best version of old school for every student: talented teachers, high expectations, quality instruction, curriculum alignment, strong accountability, and enough standardized tests to verify all of the above. They support old school reforms because there is good data to support the no excuses teacher-centric model.  Every school district should have an old school reform agenda–they should be trying to get the most out of the old model classroom by classroom.But there are three problems.  First, it’s hard to pull off.  It’s a real execution challenge to do old school well classroom by classroom.  Second, even the best version of the batch-print system (i.e., grouping by birthday and marching through a print curriculum) doesn’t work very well for many kids.  And, third, it’s hard to scale up.  As Public Impact pointed out in Opportunity at the Top, we can’t put a great teacher in every classroom–not with the current version of school. Public Impact concludes, “Our largest opportunity is to extend the reach of the best teacher.” That means a new version of school that leverages technology and talent.Gov. Bob Wise came to the same conclusion: the only possible way to meet the triple challenge of stagnant achievement, a shortage of skilled teachers, and a fiscal crisis is blended learning–new school models that combine the best of online and on-site learning.These new blended versions of school have four distinctive features

  • customized learning: students learn at the right level, pace and mode
  • competency-based: students progress based on demonstrated mastery
  • productive staffing: teams of teachers work together for student success
  • expanded opportunity: more time and more access to good teachers/content/courses

Innosight Institute summarized some of these new models in The Rise of Blended Learning.  With Gov. Jeb Bush, Gov. Wise chaired a policy development process called Digital Learning Now that outlined the new policy framework for the transition to blended learning.
Andy’s blog this week (with the ridiculous title, Can Computers Replace Teachers?) suggested that technology was a distraction from the real work of improving instruction–a decidedly old school view.  There is some benefit to using technology to try to improve the old version of school (and, by the way, a lot of education technology initiatives sound surprisingly old school in their ambitions).  But the real benefit of technology will be in the development of new learning progressions–pathways that combine adaptive learning, social learning, and project-based learning–that are engaging, efficient, and effective.
An inter-agency military group announced a $20 million blended learning award yesterday. They weren’t planning on improving classroom instruction, they were planning on inventing rapid pathways to mastery.  We need more of this thinking in K-12.  It’s time to invent the future of learning.
In addition to an old school reform agenda, every school district needs an innovation agenda.  They build a five year plan that brings the benefits of personal digital learning to every student.  The challenge for school leaders is to find the right balance of execution and innovation–running a good school today and phasing in the future.
Most states will be adopting online assessment in the next three years.  That’s an appropriate timeline to fully embrace Digital Learning Now agenda and for schools to adapt blended learning models that extend the benefits of personal digital learning to every student.
This blog first appeared on Huffington Post. 

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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