Thursday, September 16, 2010

Making the Standards Fit the Technology

Diana Senechal:

Now, what would “mass personalization” look like in education?

We already have an example in the the School of One, piloted in New York City and now undergoing expansion. In this system, teachers receive computer-generated lesson plans based on computerized analyses of student skill mastery. Instruction is modular and ever-changing; one day a teacher may teach three topics to three groups, and the next day the groups and topics may be shuffled.

The new assessments based on the Common Core State Standards may end up resembling this model. According to Resnick and Berger, the American Examination System would “mass customize a much wider range of formative assessments at the student and class level.” The technology would figure out “which formative assessment to give and when”—thus relieving teachers of the burden of such decisions.

Moreover, each assessment will be personalized “so that the enhanced resolution it provides is targeted to an individual student’s current learning level as well as to appropriate standards of reliability and validity.”

But here’s the catch. If a test is so closely tailored to a student’s needs, what happens to the subject itself? What would happen to a course on lyric poetry? How could a teacher focus on Tennyson when required to give five different formative assessments—none of which have anything to do with Tennyson—to five groups of students? How would teachers teach complex topics in mathematics or history, topics that require time, thought, and struggle? How would students learn to strive for things beyond their immediate grasp?

Customized assessments are likely to fragment instruction. With different students in the same class taking different tests, and all the pressure on teachers to raise scores on these tests, there will be little room for literature courses at all—or for anything that requires sustained instruction and study.

Students will likely receive profiles of their abilities, progress, learning styles, learner types, and more. Their assignments and class work will be matched to their profiles. Schools may even go further; in an effort to motivate students, they may purchase “relevance engines” that match reading passages to students on the basis of their interests and moods. Students will expect the passages to appeal to them immediately.

I share Diana's general concerns, but would focus the blame on the new standards, not the technology. As a technology, I'm actually kind of bullish about School of One, as long as you don't tell me it is "disruptive."

My concern is that we've adopted educational goals that are so limited that a School of One type model could encompass the entire English Language Arts curriculum. And that, in fact, the peculiar organization of the standards (e.g., recapitulating the full set of reading standards for both History/SS and Science/Technology) either intentionally or purposefully advantages a strong online component.

For example, the Über School of One system will, in the future, be able to seamlessly blend evaluation of the science literacy standards into its science instruction, and vice versa, adapting both the content and difficulty level to the student's level. Given the de-emphasis of the more human parts of the humanities, it will be difficult for humans to compete with that.

On the other hand, I can envision a nirvana where the computers pick up the more mundane, rote parts of education and leave the best parts for teachers. Right now, we're instead taking the approach of just defining the less assessable parts out of the educational process.

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