Class Disrupted is a weekly education podcast featuring author Michael Horn and Summit Public Schools’ Diane Tavenner in conversation with educators, school leaders, students and other members of school communities as they investigate the challenges facing the education system amid this pandemic — and where we should go from here. Find every episode by bookmarking our Class Disrupted page or subscribing onApple Podcasts, Google Play or Stitcher (new episodes every Tuesday).
Distance learning has shown parents how chaotic learning so often is for kids, with different norms (and passwords!) for each class. In this episode of Class Disrupted, we look at how this reality grew out of a factory model of schooling, a model that may have served us once, but doesn’t anymore.
We speak with Dr. Todd Rose, author of The End of Average and a leader in the field of individuality science, to better understand what individuality in learning means — and what it doesn’t. And we look at how we can start designing better learning systems to enable both individual and collective growth.
Parent: I have a 9-year-old boy in third grade and a 7-year-old girl in first grade. And the first couple of weeks of distance learning before we sorted out all the kinks, there were just so many links and emails. I literally got a gazillion emails from different teachers saying, this is what’s going to happen. Here’s the thing they need to do: You need to log on to Epic with this password, Seesaw with this password, Rockalingua with this password. And some were using Zoom, some were using Google Hangouts and I was trying to create a Google calendar for my kids, so they could just click into each thing at the time they were supposed to do it, but there were so many different things. I had this whole list of passwords written down on their iPad that I would stick on there.
Listen to the episode below. A full transcript follows.
Diane: Hi, I’m Diane Tavenner.
Michael: And I’m Michael Horn. Thanks for joining us in Class Disrupted. Diane, I completely relate to the point about being a password manager right now in balancing all these schedules and spreadsheets. It’s completely crazy that, at the start of COVID, every teacher suddenly seemed to have their own system for giving students and parents information. It’s really challenging right now.
Diane: Michael, some teachers were emailing worksheets, some were linking YouTube accounts. They had online programs that they wanted kids to create accounts for. Parents were saying throughout this process, “we are drowning in the logistics of it all.”
And let’s be clear, we’re not faulting teachers here. In many cases, their districts were telling them, “Go figure out how you’re going to serve kids.” Teachers are working their butts off, trying to find resources and put things together in a way that makes sense. But at the end of the day, it’s a nightmare for the student because they have to cobble all of this stuff together.
Michael: This moment was instructive, though, in that it actually allowed parents to see what their children deal with at school all the time. A seventh-grader knows that she has to turn in assignments a certain way for her math teacher and ask questions a certain way for another teacher. So much energy is spent just trying to figure out who to befrom class to class and from teacher to teacher.
Diane: It really did bring home what kids are dealing with on a daily basis at school. I often talk to people about this and it doesn’t even occur to them that this could look different. They often say to me, this is just the way school is.
Michael: I hear that all the time, too. The attitude is that it can’t possibly be seventh grade if you don’t switch classes at least six times a day, get your books from your locker in between, and have all the shenanigans that happen during that time as well.
Diane: Don’t forget your little planner book that you have to write in!
Michael: Right. You have to keep track of everything. And so many people don’t realize that school hasn’t been this way for all that long. It used to be that if you went to school, it was in the one-room schoolhouse. Kids from all ages were grouped together in the same room with one teacher who, by necessity, was going around and personalizing the lessons. The older kids were helping to teach the younger ones. The learning was all very customized because it actually had to be.
Diane: And then that all changed in the 20th century.
Michael: It changed fast. In 1905, only one-third of children who enrolled in first grade even made it to high school.
Diane: Just pause there for a minute. That’s only 115 years ago.
Michael: It’s staggering, right? It’s not that long ago. Here’s the thing though, in just a few decades, by 1930, over 75 percent of students were entering high school. That’s an incredible jump and incredible achievement for the country.
Diane: What you’re illustrating is that we developed a system that we still have today in only a couple of decades. Well, we’re all about hope on this podcast. So give us some hope, Michael.
Michael: We didn’t receive this system from on high. We created it, and we were among the first countries to create a system that could handle that growth. We were among the first to move to compulsory schooling, and that was a tremendous achievement.
But when we looked at how to get kids into the educational system, and the best way we knew how was to run schools like we ran factories. We borrowed from the cutting-edge technology and techniques of that era.
Diane: In this case, there were some really significant implications of running schools like factories. When I want to talk to someone who really understands those implications and pushes my thinking on how we can do it differently and better today, I go to Todd Rose. He’s the co-founder of Populace, the author of the best-selling books Dark Horse and The End of Average, which blew my mind and changed my thinking. I’m really excited to talk to him.
Todd, I wonder if you could talk to us a little bit about the roots of the education system we’re working within and, why, from the perspective of learning science, it’s not ideal for the world we live in today.
Todd: The framing for our public education system goes back close to 100 years in terms of the current conception. It rests on some assumptions that we all would reject now. For example, the father of educational psychology Edward Thorndike, who built a lot of the standardization stuff, didn’t think that all kids should go to high school because they weren’t capable. There was the idea of the bell curve and finding the “talented 10th,” meaning identifying people who had something to offer and then allocating resources appropriately. Out of that system, we applied the same kind of scientific management thinking similar to a batch process: give everyone the exact same experience in the same way and then sort.
It sounds like a pejorative now because it is, but back then, it was pretty innovative. It was thinking, “Look what we could do in terms of productivity and efficiency.” The problem is it really undermined the basic assumptions of our democracy and the things that really made the American experiment fascinating — the dignity and value of individuals and the potential for individuality to create more positive sum outcomes in our society.
Michael: Let’s dig into that piece a little bit more because one of the common responses we’ve seen from so many schools right now is the opposite of recognizing individuality. They’ve said, “We’re going to implement blanket new grading systems of pass/fail, or everyone gets As.” Or they’re saying, “If not everyone can learn, no one will and school is out for everyone.” Or, “We’re all going to do remote learning in this exact same boilerplate way with the exact same synchronous requirements, regardless of your family circumstance.”
The big question is not only where does this approach come from, but why is it at odds with what’s best for each student’s learning?
Todd: In some ways, you can see why we gravitated toward a one-size-fits-all system, including the way we think about success and outcomes.
For all of us that care about it being about every kid and we care deeply about fairness and equity, in a lot of ways, it’s easier to understand a fair system when you have a single metric. The problem is, the idea of a single metric is completely at odds with modern science, particularly the science of individuality. Whether it’s in medicine, genetics, nutrition, learning broader human development, we’ve recognized that using group averages to understand individuals is fatally wrong and we’ve moved past that.
Michael: Can you give us an example from outside education first?
For example, for a very long time, we’ve used the glycemic index as a way to understand what certain foods do in terms of elevating blood sugar. If you go to a nutritionist now, and say, “I want to moderate my blood sugar levels,” then they’re going to say, “OK, here’s what you eat.” Well, it turns out that entire glycemic index is based on averages. There’s some history of diabetes in my family, and so I’ve always thought about prevention. One of the things I was told by a nutritionist early on was that grapefruit is almost magical for blood sugar regulation.
I had a grapefruit almost every day of my adult life in the morning for breakfast. But when I got results back, grapefruit was literally the worst thing I could possibly eat. It spikes my blood sugar worse than chocolate cake, but my wife? Not at all. Now I have an app on my phone, and I can know exactly how any food that I eat will affect me. It doesn’t matter if nobody else is like me. That’s not the point. The point is: optimizing my nutrition and giving me power to have a say in that myself rather than being dependent on the system.
By understanding my distinctiveness on those levels, at the gut biome level, blood level and genetic level, I’m able to optimize my nutrition, but so is every other person on the planet. We can get to far better collective outcomes simply by acknowledging the importance of individuality and building that into the system.
Individuality is not only important, but it gives you a better path to collective flourishing as well. And when you shift that over to education, the same thing holds.
For me, the next shift has to be the recognition of the distinctiveness of individual kids. It’s actually a design challenge, not a selection problem. When you create environments that acknowledge individuality, they can actively cultivate it and allow it to find full expression in our society.
Michael: Could you go one level deeper in connecting those dots? What is the research showing on the learning side of this of the different ways that students vary? What’s the different learner variability that matters? How should we start thinking about different approaches to reaching each individual?
Todd: I would say that learner variability is not about the traditional concept of learning styles. Intuitively, I understand the impulse. We want to acknowledge that people don’t learn in the same exact way. The problem is swapping one average model for learning for five is actually missing a lot of the point.
When we think about the way that human beings differ with respect to learning in meaningful ways, we focus on three big things. The first is that every single person shows up with a different constellation of needs, interests, preferences, and motives. People are going to be at different levels of reading ability, differences in everything else you can imagine. So, we need to design flexible environments.
With technology, like our ability to embed vocabulary and reading supports into the system, we don’t need to give kids labels. I’ve been a part of experiments where it’s incredible what you unlock in kids by simply getting out of their way and removing obstacles. If you think about these “jagged profiles” of learners and using that not as selection, but as design, that’s the first aspect of individuality.
The second aspect of individuality is that context is important. When we think about an individual learner, it is nonsensical to talk about them in isolation. It is always in the interaction with your environment, which includes resources but also other people and the relationship aspects of that. We think a lot about what we call “if/then” signatures. This is why the learning styles thing breaks down. It is absolutely the case that people have preferences for visual information or auditory information, but within any one individual that preference is not stable. It’s not as though I always prefer visual information. It depends on things like the material, my background knowledge already — interestingly enough, those preferences often change over the course of the learning itself. If we just lock in and say, “You’re a visual learner, we’re going to feed you all this way,” it’s not optimal. But if I have flexibility as a learner and can move across these styles, it’s better.
The final piece is that people vary over time as they learn. We would call that the “pathways principle.” There are two things that are really critical. One is this relationship between time and ability, pace ability. It’s baked into how we associate being a quick learner and being smart. It was assumed by folks like Thorndike that intelligence was largely how fast you could form connections. Most of our system is built around a standardized amount of time, even our high stakes tests. The times for those tests are decided based on how long it takes the average of a representative sample to finish.
It turns out that not only is there absolutely no correlation between pace and ability, but also that the same exact person will vary in how fast they learn across subjects, across time. The second issue is with sequencing — the idea that first you do this, and then there’s an optimal sequence to get to an outcome.
Michael: Todd, listening to you, it’s clear that a lot of what we do in the education system just doesn’t make a lot of sense based on what we now know from the science, but also based on the life outcomes that we want all individuals to be able to achieve in a very different society and economy from the one in which schools were created.
But we also seem really stuck here. Organizations are very durable in producing the results that they were designed for. What’s it going to take for change to happen?
Todd: That’s a great question. My think tank is dedicated to this idea of, “What does it look like to change broad social and institutional structures when the purpose is wrong and when the assumptions are wrong?” That’s not reform, that’s a transformation of systems. The good news is that we actually know a lot about how to do that. There’s an entire field of system dynamics that exists to understand how to intervene in systems. By and large, and we have a lot of data on this, the purpose of education is wildly at odds with what the public wants the purpose of education to be.
We’ve got a general public whose private views overwhelmingly look like this: they’re sick of the comparison. They do not for the life of them understand why this has to be a zero-sum game, why somebody has to lose for their kid to win. They recognize that their kid has something to offer and contribute, and they’re expecting a system that develops them as a whole child. The vast majority of American public rightly recognizes that’s not the system we have. The question is: if you’ve got a system that is built on something completely different, what do you do?
The most important thing when you’re trying to transform a system is that you need mindset shift more than anything. If you could change people’s mindset and their assumptions, that would change the system. I don’t think anyone really disagrees with that, but when are you going to get to change their minds? That’s like changing someone’s religion, saying their beliefs are wrong.
So we kind of cheat a little, meaning we’ve developed these private opinion methodologies to get at the places where what people say out loud is not what they really believe.
There’s a number of reasons why people don’t say what they really think, so we look for those places where private opinion has already changed. Then, the issue is not to try to convert people. It’s to show the majority that they’re actually a majority so that you can create the kind of pressure on the system that you’re going to need to get transformative change.
I’m excited about the threshold we’re at. We have a lot of problems in society right now, but we have a lot of opportunity to go somewhere that is genuinely better. For me, I see this as finally making good on what a great democracy really could be, in terms of human flourishing and collective prosperity. That is simply not possible in societies that want to control and manage people rather than empower them.
Michael: Diane, I loved talking to Todd. Not only did he end us on an optimistic note, which really hit home with me, but it also struck me that the three of us as individuals were talking about it, because think about it: You’re the leader of a set of really innovative schools, looking at education from the user perspective. I come at this from a business and innovation background, and I look at education through that lens. Then Todd comes at education from the perspective of a learning scientist, and it’s a totally different perspective. Our areas are all really different.
I stepped back and I said, “OK, what do we have in common?” And one of commonality is that we’re all parents, so we do have that shared perspective.
Diane: And although we come from these different places, we’ve gravitated to education because we care deeply about it. And what’s really important is that we’ve also come to the same conclusions using our different lenses and that feels really powerful to me. We’re all figuring out that the old design doesn’t make sense for today’s world for a whole bunch of reasons.
When I start to dig into those reasons, I start to anchor onto one that is really important: the old model is designed for the adults, it’s not about the students, and it doesn’t put students at the center of learning.
Michael: It’s a really important insight. The system that we have today made a lot of sense a century ago. It was wildly successful. But the parent’s complaints at the beginning of this show are not emblematic of the people in this system, they’re emblematic of the system itself — a system just doesn’t make the grade anymore. It was elegant at one time, and it produces the results that it was designed to produce, but those are no longer the results that we need for this day and age, for this knowledge economy.
The students who actually spend the time as the users of this system can articulate that better than anyone. So now, I’m excited to hear what it’s like from a student perspective. We got to talk to a high school junior who started her freshman year in a school that looked more like what we’re used to seeing in the industrial model, then switched to something that fit much better. She agreed to share her experience with us.
Student: So at the previous school, I just got a lot less one-on-one time with my teachers. And they didn’t really know a lot about your personal life and really know you too well, like classes were really big. And they had too much to focus on to, you know, hear you and support you.
It just didn’t feel like a very comforting, warm environment. It didn’t feel like that. So when I was there, I felt kind of hopeless, honestly. I don’t know, everything felt like a big workload, but at the same time, I didn’t feel like I was learning that much.
At my school now, you know all your teachers pretty well and you get one-on-one time, you get check-ins. I just think that’s really important cause I was just not doing as well at the other school, especially because I was just starting high school. I would say like the check-ins, they make sure to do those all the time to check in with you, like personally, and then also academically, like what support you need.
They let you have your own time in the mornings. And then on certain days during class to get done what you need to. You set your own goal and it’s something achievable, like within your time limit. And then you just work by yourself to complete it and you can always ask questions and you can always have support. But you are given … like, you can do things your own way. You can be at your own pace sometimes if you need to. And they’re not doing everything at once, so if you miss it, you know, it’s OK. You can learn things and work on your own. I just think that’s really beneficial. I mean, it gives you like a lot of responsibility, which is good to have in high school.
I actually like learning. I used to not. I used to be all about friends going to school … stuff like that.
But in high school I just all of a sudden got a lot of motivation to succeed in life and go to good colleges and stuff like that, and set myself up for success. So now, I really like learning and I can really appreciate learning. You can see what’s really working for you to help you learn.
At the school I’m at now, there’s a lot of good teachers and I feel like I’ve learned a lot this year, that’ll probably keep throughout my life if I keep practicing it. Because we got to work in groups and stuff like that and build on each other’s ideas. And now I think it’s gonna stick with me instead of going in one ear and out the other.
Diane: Michael, I love talking to students. They are so insightful and are able to just really capture so many of these ideas we’re talking about and make them really real.
Michael: Totally, Diane. And hearing the experience she described, the more bizarre the factory model seems to me. Especially the grading piece of it. I mean, I get why we started A to F letter grades, in a factory system where we had to sort students into different stations — some onto the assembly line, some into managerial jobs and so on. It was the only way teachers could imagine teaching subjects the same way to so many children at once. The system had this sorting role, but now that we don’t need that, grading that way just doesn’t make sense anymore.
Diane: Ugh, don’t even get me started on grades. We could do an entire podcast series about the problems with the way so many schools handle grading — especially now, in the pandemic. It has a negative impact on everything we do.
Michael: So let’s save that for next time. We won’t do a whole podcast series, but we do devote the whole next episode to grading. So join us next time on Class Disrupted.
Michael Horn is the author of numerous books on the future of learning, including Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. He works with a portfolio of organizations to help transform education so that all individuals can build their passions and fulfill their potential.
Diane Tavenner is CEO of Summit Public Schools and a co-founder of the Summit Learning Program. She is a lifelong educator and innovator and the author of Prepared: What Kids Need for a Fulfilled Life.
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