The Weird Marriage of Standards and Computers: 9 Lessons, 9 Postulates

The last two decades were shaped by the odd confluence of two historical forces: the shift from print to digital and the shift from local to federal control of K-12 education. In some ways, they were complementary (who could keep track of 4,700 learning objects without a computer?).

But in many ways, they were at odds with each other. Here are nine things I learned watching this odd couple lumber around on the dance floor:

1. Managed instruction (‘95-05) was well intentioned but stifling (for kids & teachers).

2. “Tech integration” (‘95-05) didn’t deliver results.

3. The mobile inflection (lots of mobile devices and apps starting 2010) made it harder to impose a top-down agenda, brought new options and mix & match solutions to kids, teachers and parents….but brought forth a big barf of confusion.

4. Blended learning (‘09-14) takes leadership: explaining, provisioning, deploying, integrating, allocating, supporting, etc.

5. The promising bipartisanship of NCLB (‘01-15) ended in unintended consequences–so don’t expect congress to iterate a well-intentioned idea into a good solution. But don’t worry, they’re largely out of the picture now.

6. If we’re a quarter century into the “anyone can learn anything era” why isn’t the world smarter? We’ve tried blended learning and online learning and it turns out that, for most of us, growth is activated by relationship–learning happens in community.

7. The tools aren’t transformative, it’s the learner experience (LX) you create with the tools.

8. This stuff is hard. New models take inspiration, incubation and intermediation.

9. Again, (note to self) humility is warranted, beware of unintended consequences. Neerav Kingsland recently noted:

  • The more strongly held beliefs you have on education policy, the more likely you are to: (1) be wrong; (2) find it hard to admit you’re wrong; and (3) mandate broad solutions that don’t work in many circumstances.
  • The more strongly oriented you are toward solving problems, the more likely you are to: (1) be right in your specific circumstance; (2) change your mind if you’re wrong; and (3) be willing to admit that your solution might not work in other contexts.

Going Forward

So, as Kingsland suggests, let’s all try to be a bit less doctrinaire and a bit more solution seeking going forward. Here, with less humility than is warranted, are a few postulates:

1. Personalized learning is the promising new frame. Unlike the political frame of standards, assessments and accountability, the new meta-meme seems to be a hunch that we can do a lot better by co-constructing learning pathways with kids (that unique path, pace, place that Christensen has been talking about).

2. The collision of globalization, urbanization and automation suggests we should expect the unexpected–more mental model molding events that nobody predicted. If that’s true, it makes me wonder, how could schools introduce more novelty and complexity to boost wayfinding skills?

3. Artificial intelligence is rapidly reshaping lives and livelihoods. We launched a conversation to #AskAboutAI because it looks like like working with smart machines will the norm for our kids.

4. Design thinking is a core navigation skill–listen to Sandy Speicher from IDEO discuss why.

5. Project management is core value creation skill. It’s how leaders manage a change agenda. It’s how most young people will earn a living.

6. That stuff we called curriculum (standards and instructional materials) is now more complicated–which could be a good thing if you work or learn in a system attempting next generation learning. This new frame requires distributed leadership, a dynamic phased approach and focus on learner experience.

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7. Competency-based progressions where learners show what they know and progress on mastery is inevitable, but a shift likely to take a generation to fully figure out. Keep plugging and sharing what you’re learning (and try not to get fired for a dumb implementation of standards-based grading).

8. School networks, particularly those that share a platform, will scale new models. Don’t go it alone. Find your tribe, join a network.

9. There’s never been a better time to make a difference–for young people and educators. It’s never been easier to solve a problem, start a business, code an app or launch a movement. It’s never been easier to pick a problem worth solving (see #GlobalGoals), learn fast and aim smart tools and big data sets to build scalable solutions that promote access and equity (we call it cause + code).

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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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