The more I read and witness the rapid changes that are evolving around us, I am convinced that ‘average’ will not get anyone very far in life. In a recent article, the Financial Times reporting on the boom in robotics investment in 2015 (http://on.ft.com/26NvonM) made it clear that manufacturing is increasingly, indeed almost exponentially, becoming more automated, with minimal human intervention or supervision. As we are all aware, many, many jobs and career paths are being eliminated in the process.
How we structure education needs to take into account future career demands.
There is a seemingly universal perception that resources such as tablets, laptops, and iPads are naturally positive additions to the array of teaching strategies used in the classroom. These devices are amazingly powerful, but I need to see data, supported by practice, of their effects, both positive and negative. Likewise, as we enter another season of MAP testing that benchmarks our students against their own prior personal performances as well as those of other students in many other international schools, I again question who decides what the ‘average’ performance should be in any particular grade level. If, for example, the population of students in grade 3 around the world are all underachieving, then any ‘average’ will only be relative to a skewed population. I have an inherent dislike of the word ‘average’. What parent relishes the comment in their son’s or daughter’s report card that says, ‘there has been average performance this semester,’ or implied comments that their offspring are just ‘average’?
As I question the current use of technology in classrooms, and its effects on learning outcomes, I do recognize the power of the Internet; it gives access to a plethora of amazing articles, which enable me to read a much wider range of material on educational research than ever before. One such paper, on the topic of ‘average’ that hit my inbox a few weeks ago, was entitled, ‘What Do We Lose By Measuring ‘Average’ In Education?’ (The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness by Todd Rose. 2016).
… During the Age of Average we have defined opportunity as “equal access”—as ensuring that everyone has access to the same experiences. Of course, equal access is undoubtedly preferable to older alternatives such as nepotism, cronyism, racism, misogyny, and classism. And there is no doubt that equal access has improved society immensely, creating a society that is more tolerant, respectful, and inclusive. But equal access suffers from one major shortcoming: it aims to maximize individual opportunity on average by ensuring that everyone has access to the same standardized system, whether or not that system actually fits.
… But now we know there is no such thing as an average person, and we can see the flaw in the equal access approach to opportunity: if there is no such thing as an average person, then there can never be equal opportunity on average. Only equal fit creates equal opportunity. Equal fit may seem like a novel idea, but it is ultimately the same view of opportunity expressed by Abraham Lincoln, when he declared that government’s “leading object is to elevate the condition of men—to lift artificial weights from all shoulders, to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all, to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance, in the race of life.”
We understand that the education of our students must change, but how? At a recent conference in Bucharest I listened to a representative from Google who talked about their corporate strategy being tied to trying to imagine what adult life will be for our present-day kindergarteners. It is this mind-set that we need to adopt to ensure that changes that are made are relevant and as well informed as we can, given the unpredictability of what is before us.
To create a curriculum that has closer alignment with the concept of equal opportunity, the educational buzzword at the moment is ‘personalized learning,’ or as some like to rephrase it, ‘learning personalized’. However, I see education evolving in two directions. Firstly, knowledge, skills and concepts that everyone should be taught, independent of personal attributes and characteristics. Not personalized at all, but a common set of learning outcomes that all must be taught; traditional basic skills in traditional subjects need to be learned and mastered by everyone, be they in Math, Science, Humanities or any of the other liberal arts subjects. Students must learn fundamental knowledge and skills through conceptual understanding and skill repetition and retention. Not just to an ‘average’ level, but to mastery: competence to a very high level. Technology can definitely help in this regards, but some of the more traditional learning styles have their place here too.
Secondly, to echo the sentiments above, a curriculum needs to give students a chance to become ‘the very best we can be, and to pursue a life of excellence’ (Todd Rose). Our curriculum, therefore, must also address the concept of ‘equal fit’ – a curriculum that more closely meets individual student’s attributes. A curriculum that fosters creativity, invention, product design, technology, and allows our students to express and validate their own particular passions and inclinations.
Hence a curriculum that merges the strengths of the past with the demands of the future, yet plays into the inherent strengths and aptitudes that we all possess is paramount; a curriculum that does not acknowledge the concept of ‘average’ but appreciates individuality; that uses the latest and ever-changing technologies with purpose, not just hope that it might somehow improve learning; a curriculum that benchmarks itself against any student’s personal potential; that demands certain mastery of certain skills and knowledge understanding; a curriculum for the future.