This past week I’ve read several articles that have made me think even more deeply than normal about where school is headed. I’ve read articles about different kinds of schools popping up in the K-12 space. AltSchool, online enterprises, microschools, a wide variety of different kinds of charter schools are all trying to do school differently. In most public and private schools, school is still basically about learning content, about sitting in rows or maybe around a table, hearing from the teacher and eventually spitting out what you know in a one-shot test (or two). I’m being a little harsh here but this is the basic model with nods to newer methods by allowing some project-based learning or created a student-centered space, which might mean simply having a solid class discussion. There’s nothing horribly wrong with that for many people, but it’s certainly not transformative of the 19th century model of education.
Alternatives to this model include tiny class sizes that are not grade specific but are ability and/or interest specific. Students truly direct their own learning. They decide what they’re interested in and teachers assist in that learning by helping students figure out what they need to know and how to reflect on what they’ve learned in a way that makes the learning stick. Mastery-based learning is another alternative model that is popular online, but which is seeing some uptick in even more traditional settings. The idea is that students get multiple opportunities to learn skills and material. Instead of a one-off assessment, students can take assessments over and over and only move on to the next level when they’re successful at the tasks required for the previous level.
Project-based and inquiry-based learning, when properly implemented, also offer alternatives to strictly content-based education. Content is learned through the project and the project is driven by the students’ interests and questions. Too often, projects are structured heavily by the teachers or every student does the exact same project and any deviation from instructions is a failure. Inquiry-based learning is often connected to project based learning as students might complete a project in order to ask questions about certain concepts. The basic idea is not to feed information to students, but let them come to conclusions themselves. This can happen through group or class discussions, labs where students determine protocols or projects where students don’t have all the information needed (yet) to complete them.
Beyond K-12, in higher ed, which is the supposed end-game of K-12, there are lots of rumblings about whether or not a college degree is worth it. I read two articles in one day about alternatives to the college degree as employment credential. Some businesses are using different methods for assessing potential employers, such as tests that assess for the exact skills they need. Even Google has said that it no longer considers the college degree, even if it’s from a top school, as a key indicator for whether or not an applicant will be a successful employee. Other businesses are partnering with K-12 schools to provide pathways straight from high school to employment. They are offering apprenticeships for high school students, giving them the practical skills they need to be successful in a given industry.
We may see more of this as frustration with the high cost of college rises. Students have found themselves in debt and without a job that they thought they were guaranteed (The mantra, after all, has been, go to college so you can get a job). That’s leading to support for candidates like Bernie Sanders, who is campaigning on free higher education. Couple this frustration and skills gap with the actual cutting back at and even closures of colleges and universities and you have a situation that seems in real need of change. If K-12 institutions are stuck in an industrial era model, colleges are even more so and at many, the focus has not been on the teaching of undergrads. I wonder, sometimes, how long it will be before someone paying $50k for their education will rail against the 400 person lecture hall, lack of access to full-time faculty, and faculty who flat-out can’t teach (because they’ve never been taught how). Alternatives to college seem fewer than K-12. There are online options and a couple of mastery-based options out there (which means you can complete a degree in however long it takes you to master the content), but college education does not seem to be in the middle of transforming. It seems a bit in crisis.
Like I said, I don’t have answers. I can’t see the future. Research tends to support the newer models of learning. But institutions take a long time to change and often reject individuals who do change, either outright or by making them feel out of place. If you’re an educator, you have to keep your eye on this ball.