Friday, April 8, 2016

Most Likely To Succeed


Social Needs -> Educational Goals -> Curricular Design -> Achievement Metrics

In Ted Dintersmith’s new film “Most Likely to Succeed” [MLTS], we learn how 
  • the social need for obedience, uniformity and efficiency in a workforce transitioning from a general agricultural to a specialized industrial economy in mid-19th century Germany gave rise to
  • the educational goal of a common core of subject knowledge which in turn dictated
  • a curricular design that divided the body of knowledge into discrete members [from which the desired core subjects were selected] and then divided students into discrete subsets [grades] based primarily on age and secondarily on ability using
  • achievement metrics in the form of percentage of correct answers on standardized subject matter tests. 
MLTS then posits that, even though the range of subjects studied has increased, this educational goal, its corresponding curricular design and achievement metrics still dominate western education … even though the social needs that gave rise to them have changed dramatically [in America at least] as the economy transitions from industrial to technological/informational. The consequence, MLTS concludes, is a growing number of “educated misfits” that are unable to find meaningful and productive places in society.

MLTS then proposes that
  • the changed social needs in contemporary America for confidence, creativity and cooperation demand
  • new educational goals of curiosity, innovation and “soft skills” reached by
  • curricular redesign around teacher-led but student-driven projects investigating subjects which are studied in integrated context as needed [rather than in prescribed isolation] with
  • the only achievement metric being the larger community response upon project presentation.
Finally, MLTS [using High Tech High as its prototype] admits that, until more time has passed and more results are tallied, this type of radical departure from the currently-accepted educational norms is not for everyone … especially those whose faith in the status quo [at the moment they must choose] outweighs their fear that innovation may fail them [which cannot be known until much later].

All in all, MLTS is systematically thoughtful, patiently logical and refreshingly honest. The questions it raises cannot be safely dismissed even if the answers it proposes cannot yet be confidently embraced. With that said, let’s turn to some specific issues MLTS raises which are relevant to what we have learned about a liberal arts education based on the trivium.

Subjects v. Projects v. Tools

MLTS asserts [and alleges there is scientific proof of] something that we all intuitively know [and should fear but often choose to ignore]:
  • that all subject [or content] knowledge is temporary unless it is periodically if not regularly used [and that this is true for teachers as well as students],
  • that as technology advances, existing subject knowledge is becoming obsolete [as a practical matter] as fast as new knowledge proliferates and
  • that in the real world subject knowledge is integrated and seldom occurs in isolation.
So, MLTS asks, why are we surprised if our students are not excited about what they are learning or the way we measure their achievement when it is no longer reasonable to make content mastery the focal point for curriculum? This is precisely the question some liberal arts advocates are asking as well.

But the next question … “what should take the place of subjects?” … is where [on the face of things at least] MLTS and the liberal arts appear to diverge. While MLTS advocates replacing specific subjects with general projects, the liberal arts proposes specific tools [specifically the trivium tools]. We might try to summarize the alternatives visually in a table.

Educational Goals
Common Core
Liberal Arts
specific subjects
primary product
general projects
no time available
primary product
specific tools
not on the radar
not on the radar
primary product

One might argue that even if content mastery measured by standardized tests was a meaningful and proper goal at some point in the past, relatively few can attain it in a modern world where knowledge is increasing and changing rapidly. And furthermore, that project learning measured by communal response is more a rejection of content mastery than an embrace of a definable alternative. It appears that tool skills judged by faculty captures every possible goal by putting them all in their proper place.

Progressive Educational Goals and Achievement Badges

But let's take it another step and consider a liberal arts education [in MLTS's context] as a sequence of complementary goals which build on one another.

social needs
confidence, creativity and cooperation
Educational Goals
institutional setting
primary school
secondary school
curricular design
achievement metrics
defined badges

 If we believe that the three elements of the trivium [grammar, logic and rhetoric] are indispensable for all learning, we would expect to see them occurring at ALL stages of education, but possibly with different emphases. Let's present one scenario.


Primary Education - Fitness ?

The foundation of good health as well as good education is robust IO which stands for input-output. Ingesting and burning calories, inhaling oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide, listening to and speaking words, reading and writing stories ... they mark the start and finish of cycles which are vital to physical and intellectual life. And when they are happening with a high degree of rhythmic regularity, the other vital life functions that depend on them can also occur resulting in a body or mind that is "fit" in the sense that it is capable of doing "work".

Secondary Education - Tools ?

And while it is true that a "fit" person is capable of doing work, it is also true that he needs to know how to use certain tools if his energies are to be spent efficiently and productively.  This is where fitness is enhanced by taking time to acquire skills. In our example of the human body, the tools reside outside the body and are used to extend the body. In education, these tools must also [in a sense at least] be "acquired" before they can be used.

College Education - Productivity ?

Once fitness has been achieved and tools have been acquired, one is ready to work productively with a higher degree of independence ... even innovation.

Badges - the Right Metric ?

If we redefine our educational goals to be fitness, tools and productivity instead of merely subject knowledge [common core] or project completion [MLTS], our metrics for measuring progress towards those goals MUST change accordingly. Grade levels based on age or GPAs based on the percentage of correct answers or communal response to projects must give way to something else that more accurately assesses the specific educational milestones we hope to reach.

The notion of "badges" replacing "grades" as an academic metric is a still new but growing notion. However, the use of "badges" is not new and extends from early human tribes to modern Boy Scouts. And although debate is growing more heated as badges challenge grades, a few things seem to be worth noting:
  • badges can bring BOTH more flexibility AND at the same time more precision to the definition and the recognition of progress by breaking "progress" down into smaller more manageable increments,
  • badges [unless awarded based on the percentage of correct test answers] require a more personalized [less mechanized] assessment procedure and
  • badges can provide the student with more concrete motivation than number or letter grades in certain subjects ... at some of which they are "good" and at others of which they are "bad".

Tradition and Innovation

One of the benefits and problems with innovation is it tends to cut one off from tradition. In education, modern day subject-based goals have cut many off from prior educational tradition leaving folks like those seen in MLTS searching for something better.

Perhaps, those of us who have been fortunate enough to be introduced to the liberal arts can appear to be innovators by simply returning to long abandoned traditions in education ... and currently neglected pathways for sound cognitive development.

Bob Love

More on Badges
A Future Full of Badges
Trending: Professors Tout Badges Over Grades