Are Predictions About College Closures Causing More Schools to Struggle? How Might Alternative Predictions Shape the Future of Higher Education?

Anyone who follows contemporary issues in higher education is familiar with the provocative prediction from Clayton Christiansen (and others like Thomas Frey) that 50% of colleges will close over the 10-15 years. Will it happen? We are already several years into the prediction, so we don’t have to wait too long to find out. Only I’d like to posit three other questions.

First, does it have to happen?

Second, is the college closure prediction causing colleges to struggle and close?

Third, could the definition of “higher education“ be keeping us from recognizing that the more likely future is one of expanded higher education?

Let’s start with the first question. Does this closure prediction have to happen? Thomas Frey, a futurist whose work I follow and admire, is known for saying that, “the future creates the present.” In other words, our visions and musings about the future shape our thinking in the present. By thinking more deeply about a particular vision of the future, we may also be helping to make it a reality.

So, does it have to happen? At this point, I suspect that some version of the college closure prediction is likely to occur. In fact, the spirit of the prediction has already occurred. The number of closures is up, and there are many colleges struggling for survival. Did this have to happen? Yes and No. There could be other data-informed predictions and ways of thinking about the future that could create a very different future for higher education. Competing predictions could have shaped and redirected the public conversation in very different ways. Some colleges would have still closed, as they have always done. For a helpful historical perspective of the wild rise and demise of colleges in the United States, check out A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education by David Labaree.

What about the second question? Is Christiansen’s prediction causing colleges to struggle and close? If Frey’s concept is accurate, that the future creates the present, does that mean that the prediction of the future is indeed helping to create the present circumstances? Or, to be fair, is the prediction of several futurists that many colleges will close soon helping to make that a reality?

Consider this example. There was recent rumor about a possible release of an article in a well known higher education news source that was going to provide a list of predictions about which colleges are likely to close in the next ten years. It turns out that this was not exactly the intent of the article and it has not released at this point, but there are indeed groups that are analyzing colleges based upon publicly available records, and they could release such a list.

What happens next? Suppose there is a college that is struggling but it is doing amazing work to stabilize, turn itself around, and re-imagine itself in ways that could be incredible, inspiring, and valuable to the world. Yet, the current circumstance of that organization is fragile. Then an article releases that predicts this college’s closure within 5-10 years. How do you think that will impact the college’s ability to recruit new students or raise new funds? How do you think it will impact its ability to build strategic partnerships? By publishing such a specific prediction, it didn’t just offer a neutral report. It helped make the prediction a more likely reality. It might have potentially undermined the present turnaround efforts of the institutions on that list. Of course, I live in a nation where there is freedom of press, and I would not want to censor such free exchange. I just want to acknowledge that such writing isn’t just describing. It is helping to create a particular future. It isn’t just informing. It is forming.

The same thing applies with broader or more general predictions about higher education. It would not be fair or accurate to claim that Clayton Christiansen’s prediction about college closures is the cause of so many recent college struggles and even closures, nor would it be accurate. There are many other factors. Yet, it is hard to deny that this prediction changed the contemporary discourse in higher education. Just scan the number of media headlines. If you go to higher education conferences, there is no doubt that you’ve heard countless people quoting Christiansen’s prediction or discussing it between sessions. Talk to groups of college presidents or to chairs of college boards, and you will find that this quote has influenced in will influence their thinking and choices. To publicly predict something is to help make it a more likely reality.

I don’t write this as a criticism. I support the fact that Christiansen wrote this. It sparked good and important conversation. It drew people’s attention to the many forces influencing the future of higher education. It also sparked new thinking and innovations.

Yet, when a well-respected Harvard professor makes such a prediction and it starts to gain traction, that is powerful force. It gets picked up by more media sources and gains the attention of people in places of influence. Just look at how Howard Gardner’s writing shifted an entire generation of educator’s view of intelligence. Ideas (and predictions are ideas) have consequences. They are never neutral. If they are shared and discussed, they influence. They influence policy. They influence the thinking and decision of key influencers in government, higher education leadership, accrediting agencies, think tanks, and more.

So, did the prediction that 50% of all colleges will close in the next 10-15 years help make that a more likely future? There is compelling case that the answer is “yes.” Would that future have occurred even without the prediction being shared? I think the answer that question is also “yes.”

This brings me to the third question. Could our definition of “higher education” be causing us to miss an opportunity to help create a possible future of rapidly expanding higher education?

Followers of my work know that I’ve challenged the college closure prediction, not because I think it is inaccurate, but because I think a more nuanced prediction could help us create a more hopeful future for learning beyond high school. I don’t doubt or question that many colleges will struggle and close, especially those resistant to fundamental changes. We already see that happening, and if they are not able to provide enough value to warrant the attendance of students and the support of donors, perhaps it is time for them to close. Yet, despite all of this, I made the following prediction in 2015:

Will that mean that only half survive? I think that is too simple of a picture. Many will have extreme makeovers, but will emerge with new life. Some will shrink while others expand. And alongside all of that, I am convinced that we will see an entirely new breed of higher education institution… I expect that, by 2030 [or maybe 2035], we might have two to three times as many higher education institutions as we have today, even as there will be more alternatives to the traditional college routes for people. Get ready for the higher education “startup” revolution. They might not all be higher education institutions as we’ve thought of them in the past, but they will be institutions [or communities] that provide education beyond the secondary level.

https://etale.org/main/2015/07/27/higher-education-in-2030-get-ready-for-the-highered-startup-revolution/

In fact, while many media sources are quick to join in helping to amplify the impact of the prediction about college closures, I continue to contend that we are missing the higher education revolution underway. People are drawn to the headlines of college closures and colleges on probation with their accreditors (I’m helping lead one of those colleges right now, and the future is admittedly unclear), and those make for provocative headlines. Yet, one need not look further than Clayton Christiansen’s own writing about how disruptive innovation works to know that the true disruptions are often missed, even ignored in early stages. Not only are they missed and ignored by the established institutions, they are also often missed by the media and larger system. That is happening today.

There is a rapid democratization of learning community creation, formation, and cultivation at work today. I’ve sometimes referred to this as “outsider higher education” because it resembles the development of outsider art. Outsider artists often didn’t (and don’t) even consider themselves artists. Yet, over time, outsider art became a part of the larger ecosystem. This is happening all over the place, especially in the digital landscape. Individual instances have an ebb and flow of media attention and discussion in higher education communities, but people rarely recognize how these individual instances represent a larger pattern and movement that is changing the nature of learning and education. Sometimes these individual instances resemble traditional higher education communities. Other times they don’t, and they don’t bother with such things as grades, transcripts, degrees, any many other characteristics that are part of our image of higher education.

As one who studies past, present, and future trends in education; I continue to be amazed at how little many of us in higher education know about our own history, and how short that history is when it comes to aspects of college or higher education experience. When we step back and look at the history of higher education, we see that change is the norm, sometimes drastic change.

The problem is that these new and emerging higher education communities look so different from what we think of as college that we don’t think to include them in our conversations about the future of the ecosystem. Yet, if we think of them in terms of the goals that they help people achieve (beyond earning a degree), there is a strong case to be made that they are indeed a part of the broader notion of higher education.

When I predict that we will have two to three times the number of higher education communities, I am not suggesting that these will be formal or regionally accredited colleges. Rather, I am suggesting that they will be communities that, at their essence, expand and extend people’s learning beyond the secondary level. If we are willing to broaden or perspective, we soon begin to see that this is a revolution that has been underway for fifty years, and it is growing exponentially.

So, while we already have predictions about college closures, I expect that the far more interesting and promising predictions relate to what forms of higher education will persist. By only focusing upon the college closure predictions, we risk contributing to a future where there are a smaller number of dominant institutions that lack the variety and diversity that exists today. If we instead broaden our definition of higher education and focus upon predictions of a rich, vibrant, diverse, and highly valued ecosystem; we have a much better chance of helping make that future a present reality.

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A 9-Stage Continuum of Teacher-Centered to Learner-Led Classrooms & Communities

Inspired by a recent thread about student-centered versus student-driven learning in a Facebook group and on Twitter, I turned to my keyboard to think through the topic. In recent years, it has become popular to champion what many refer to as student-centered classrooms and schools, often described in contrast to what people think of as teacher-centered contexts.

Yet, education is a messy field of study when it comes to definitions. Consider the phrase “student-centered learning.” One person’s understanding of student-centered learning might simply refer to teachers taking the time to get to know their students, adapting their teaching methods based upon the knowledge gained. For those teachers, student-centered learning is really a synonym for differentiated instruction. Another teacher might use the same “student-centered” phrase to describe a classroom where students are granted the authority to decide much of what and how they learn.

With so many competing definitions of the same terms, it can be challenging to make sense of the current landscape. So, I’ve decided to complicate the matter by offering my own definition of terms. I certainly don’t claim to be the definitive source for these terms. Instead, I offer them as working definitions to provide a way for us to add greater depth to the student-centered versus teacher-centered conversation in education.

While some people might think it would be nice to have a set of universally-accepted definitions, that is beyond the scope of this article. For now, it is enough for me to contrast different approaches, and I’m using the following terms to achieve that goal.

Also, while we might think of these terms as being part of a continuum, that is a bit too linear for me. The continuum construct is easier if you are just comparing and contrasting two terms, but it gets complicated when we add the others into the mix. As such, some people might choose to look at the following in a linear fashion, but in the real-world, there is often a mixture of these philosophies and perspectives in the same classroom and school. One concept might be the focus, but others are still present, influencing the culture and climate.

With that introduction established, consider the following.

Teacher-centered

Some people use this phrase to describe sage-on-the-stage teaching methods, instances where teachers lecture and students are expected to “sit and get.’ Yet, the more consistent use of the phrase in the literature relates to where the power resides in a classroom or school. A teacher-centered classroom is one where the teacher is in charge of deciding what to learn, how to learn it, what will be graded, and how it will be graded. The teacher chooses the pace of the learning as well as determines the learning pathway followed by each student.

This term is also used even when the teacher doesn’t actually have full say over what is learned or how it is learned. There are many classrooms where the teacher is given a set of standards or maybe even a pre-existing curriculum. That teacher might have some choice and voice in what to do and how to do it, but part of all of those decisions might have actually been made by an outside group or organization.

Teaching-Centered

A nuanced but important distinction from teacher-centered, the teaching-centered classroom puts the quality of teaching at the center of what happens. If you want to improve student outcomes, some argue, the best way to do that is the increase the quality of the teaching. So, while teaching-centered classrooms are sometimes also teacher-centered, the focus here is upon improving the quality of the school by celebrating and championing the quality of teaching. Get teachers to embrace and embody the best practices that are well supported by the research, and everything else will fall into place.

Content-centered

Content-centered is often teacher-led, but not necessarily. Instead, the focus is upon exposure to and experiences with a given body of content. These classrooms tend to be content heavy, but contrary to common straw-man arguments against content-centered education, these classrooms are usually about both content mastery and progress toward higher levels of thinking with that content. What is distinct about the content-centered classroom is that the focus is neither upon the teacher’s action or the student’s actions and interest. It is more about getting lost in what is being studied. Great content is at the heart of great schools.

Standards-centered

While some might think that the content-centered and standards-centered classrooms are similar, a standards-centered classroom is often agnostic to specific content (as in a set reading list). Rather, attention is placed upon concise statements (called standards) of what students are expected to know and be able to do at different stages or levels of their education.

The focus is upon student’s making progress toward mastery of academic standards in each academic area. By its very nature, this tends to put heightened attention on what is happening with each student, and assessment tends to became a greater focus. Diagnostics that allow one to track students movement toward mastery of standards gets much greater attention in this type of classroom.

Learning-centered

The learning-centered classroom makes student individual and collective learning the top priority. It could be focused upon students progressing toward mastery of standards, but it could also be about the relative progress (or improvement) of a student from the beginning of the semester to the end.

Because the focus is upon learning, there is obviously significant attention to what is happening with each learner. As such, it is common for people to describe the learning-centered classroom as also a learner-centered classroom.

Learner-centered

This is a classroom where the focus is placed upon the learner. What are the individual needs of each learner? What are the interests, goals, and aspirations of the learner? What is the prior knowledge that each learner brings to the classroom? What is the cultural background of the learner? What are the beliefs, values, joys, and fears of the learner?

Notice that this is not just about getting to know a group of learners. It is about getting to know each learner in a deep and substantive way, and then adapting the learning plan accordingly. At the same time, some who describe their classrooms as learner-centered don’t necessarily engage in an in-depth investigation of these factors. Yet, the idea is that knowledge about each learner is what shapes decisions about what students learn and how they learn it. In some cases, the teacher is still making most of the decisions. In other cases, students are given greater voice and choice (even though I’ve set aside a different term for classrooms where that is the focus).

Problem-centered

I thought twice about including this category, but without it, there is a significant gap. This represents classrooms where the focus is not actually upon the teacher, the learner, standards, or specific content. Of course, each of these are a part of the mix, but the problem-centered classroom is one that that is actually more focused upon engaging in acts of service, or understanding and engaging in solving real-world problems. Much learning happens, and in most schools or classrooms that embrace this approach, there are typically ways to document (if not assess) student learning along the way. Yet, the primary attention is upon doing something real in the world…and learning by doing that thing.

Learner-driven

In some ways, this is the most direct contrast to the teacher-centered classroom because it is about where the power resides. The learner-driven classroom is the one where learners are the primary decision-makers about what they learn, how they learn it, and maybe even how they demonstrate their learning. There are instances where each learner has almost complete control. In other instances, the learner has to fit plans within a set of standards (so a mix with a standards-centered classroom) or some pre-developed fences within which the learners are permitted to work. In other cases, the learner is co-creator of what and how to learn, doing that work with the teacher (mentor, coach, guide) and/or other classmates.

Learner-led

It is probably sufficient to simply acknowledge that there are different levels of learner-driven classrooms and schools, but I’m compelled to create this last category to acknowledge what some might describe as the most immersive expression of being learner-driven. That is when the learner (and collective of learners) not only has voice, choice, ownership, and agency of the learning process. The learner also has significant influence on what happens in the entire learning community. Learners have say on the rules, policies, practices, the physical environment, and more. In fact, while less common, there are examples of schools that are entirely learner-led, with no teachers, or where learners can vote on which teachers stay or go.

Conclusion

I’m sure that I missed other important distinctions, but my main goal here was to acknowledge and reflect upon a level of nuance that gets missed when we simply contrast teacher-centered versus student-centered learning. While breaking things into these nine categories was an exercise in organizing my own thinking as much as anything else, perhaps others will find it useful as well.

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Challenge Based Hiring: Exploring the Promise of Blending Hiring and Lifelong Learning

Recently, inspired by a group of colleagues to submitted and entry, I decided to offer a submission to the Re-imagining the Higher Education Ecosystem challenge put out by the US Department of Education Office of Educational Technology. Reading through the call for participation, I was excited by how this challenge set right at the interaction of so much of my work, writing, and research over the past number of years. There was workforce development, learn agency, learner-centered educational ideals, a sympathy for alternative credentials and alternative learning pathways, as well as a vision for increasing access and opportunity. So, browsing some of the other proposals and drawing upon some of my most recent musings, I put together the following draft of a proposal for what I call Challenge-Based Hiring. It isn’t revolutionary. It isn’t even brand new. Yet, the more that I began to pull together disparate ideas into this promising experiment, the more excited I got about the possibilities. As such, I’ve included a rough draft of the proposal below, with a few sections (like the timeline) removed. I welcome your thoughts. By the way, the challenge allows for others to join teams, so if this captures your interest and you would like to join in potentially making this idea a reality, consider becoming a partner.

The Challenge Based Hiring and Learning Platform

Elevator Pitch (it can be the same than the “Summary” section)

What if we could turn job postings into authentic learning challenges that increase access and opportunity, give rich and authentic learning experiences that lead to current or future employment, provide opportunity for anyone to show their skills (or develop them along the way) and readiness, and improve the match between employer and prospective employee? The Challenge Based Hiring Platform is designed to do just that.

Describe the Education Ecosystem of 2030

The education ecosystem of 2030 will be more open, blurring the lines of learning across context, but also blurring the lines between activities that are currently separated from one another. One such line is the process that companies use to search for and hire new talent, and the world of learning and preparation for such jobs. As such, the Challenge Based Hiring Platform is an experiment in blending these two worlds in a way that has promise to benefit both employers and individuals seeking work or just ongoing, authentic learning experiences that can build competence, confidence, and create new opportunities.

Challenge Based Hiring is intended to be an alternative to current job boards, and the standard process of job postings, applications/resumes, interviews, and then companies struggling to find the right match. Rather than focusing upon past credentials, diplomas, or degrees; challenge-based hiring is focused upon whether people can demonstrate, in the present, that they have the knowledge, skill, and dispositions necessary to do a job well. Or, if someone does not yet have the skill, participation in one or more challenges allows the person to develop new skills and document them in a sharable and discover-able online profile.

First, this platform will help employers take a job description for a vacancy and turn it into one or more authentic, tasks-based challenges/competitions. Employers agree to offer some sort of reward or prize for finalists, a small but reasonable cash prize that recognizes the time and effort devotes by one or more people, or perhaps a recognition of accomplishment or endorsement of work. Challenges can be designed where there is one winner, a select number of winners, or a large number “winners”; and awards are created and distributed accordingly. Those who take on and complete challenges also get to create profile that includes past experiences, education, credentials from across contexts, etc. However, challenges are designed so that employers/challenge creators are not able to view participant profiles until after they judge/select/identify winners. After winners are assigned (again, this can be one or more), profile data is released to the challenge organizer / employer, and an introduction is made for the possible next steps of employment.

Each challenge is designed and aligned with a core set of skills that the employer deems essential or non-negotiable to complete a current and specific job/vacancy at the company. As such, those who participate in challenges, regardless of whether they are hired, are engaging in challenge-based learning experiences that deepen their knowledge and skill, and further equip them for skills that are indeed vetted and valued in an actual workplace environment. Participants are encouraged to take on challenges that extend beyond their current abilities.

In the future, higher education partners might contribute challenges that align with common, non-negotiable skills for jobs posted in past challenges, allowing for the addition of a school-based credentials or recognition. However, this is not essential to the model or the early pilot.

As part of a challenge, participants are provided with guidelines, suggested resources to guide their work on the challenge, and sometimes learning resources, courses, and training modules provided by third parties (curated to align with the challenge).

Upon completion of a challenge, feedback is provided to finalists (and others when deemed possible and reasonable). In addition, all participants are provided with further resources, links to online courses, and other learning opportunities that can deepen their expertise in the area of the challenge. Use of these resources can be documented and added to a person’s ever-growing profile.

The participant profile will be designed in such way that participants can include information about their performance and learning from past challenges and associated courses and training. As such, those on the platform are building an increasingly substantive portfolio of lifelong learning. This increases their ability to communicate their knowledge and skills to employers. It also gives richer information that employers can use to connect with them. In future iterations of the platform, there is the possibility of using simple algorithms to recommend certain challenges to people based upon their background, experiences, and interests described in their profile.

A secondary but significant benefit of this platform is that is teaches employers to think about hiring in a new way, paying greater attention to competencies and proven skills, and less to formal but indirect signals of competence like degrees and other credentials. As such, we are focusing our early efforts on jobs with varying level of skills, but those that do not have a legal requirement for specific credentials (like some in healthcare or other professions that require licenses). With that said, future iterations could entail participation in a series of challenges that lead toward some licences and credentials in high demand fields, or at least provide early progress toward that. Successful completion of challenges could also eventually be considered as alternative evidence of learning, even used as evidence for prior learning credit that is offered by higher education institutions as part of a degree program. This allows the platform to serve and function within the current and dominant formal education ecosystem while also preparing for a more open and cross-organization ecosystem likely to develop as we look to education in 2030.

Describe a pilot or “scalable beta” that will move us toward this vision of the future.

For the initial pilot, we will recruit 3-5 companies in a highly populated area. Each will agree to work with us to design at least one challenge that is tied to the job description of a current or future vacancy. We will work with these companies to carefully design high interest, high value challenges and curated resources that could serve as learning tools for these challenges. Then we will release the challenges to the public, targeting people living within a reasonable commute of these places of employment, working with community organizations, education institutions, and government agencies to ensure that we reach a wide array of potential participants.

We anticipate that this approach will reach and motivate certain individuals and not others, and the pilot will provide us with greater insight on how to reach and engage an increasingly diverse population in the community. While future iterations can go national or beyond, we want to start local so that we can refine the process, gain actionable insight, and increase our chance of participants in the pilot obtaining valued job skills and some getting gainful employment. As such, we anticipate pursuing a series of challenges and using each one to deepen our understanding of what is working, what is not, and how to improve.

Who are the “users” or beneficiaries and how will their experience in the future of learning and working be impacted by your pilot?

Users are both employers, particularly employers who have difficulty filling vacancies for jobs, but who offer a solid, living wage, good benefits, and opportunity for employee growth and increased opportunity over time. Users are also people in the community who are already working, in school, or who are seeking new employment in the present and future. While the challenges are designed to connect people with employers, they are equally designed to deepen and promote lifelong learning that increases competence, confidence, agency, access, and new opportunities. As such, users might be job seekers, those seeking ongoing learning and professional development, and/or both.

How will your project be inclusive of a diverse population of students and their needs?

Working with community, government, and education partners will be an important part of this project. We will need to experiment with them so that we can determine the most effective ways to encourage participation from those who want to, but might lack the confidence. As such, given the necessary resources, we plan to include embedded guides who monitor participant involvement in challenges, and explore a myriad of creative, playful, and specific ways to encourage persistence in the challenges. Some computer-generated game design features in future iterations may assist with this as well. How will success of your project impact the learning ecosystem of the future and how will you measure this? Based upon insights from the pilot, the intent is to partner with more employers, working with them to design further challenges on the platform. A great success would be a growing number of employers partnering with us to embrace or at least experiment with challenge based hiring, early wins by successful matches between employers and job seekers, growing numbers of participants engaging in and completing challenges (and expanding their profiles), and either the exponential growth of this platform, or a number of other organizations creating comparable platforms. In the latter case, it would be highly desirable for platforms to build a consortium that allows the interoperability with regard to learner profiles.

Solve the Higher Education Debt Problem by Making College Less Necessary

There is a grocery store nearby that I used to frequent. It provides quality products and I valued the brands and selection. Over the years the management or ownership clearly made a decision to establish the store as a premium spot, and one of the main ways that they did this was by significantly increasing the prices. I kept going there as did many others, but we complained about the prices to one another. So, why did we keep going there? When I finally came to my senses, I looked around for other options and found any number of great alternatives with far more competitive prices.

Sometimes it seems like there is a parallel in modern higher education. Consider the countless complaints in the form of articles lamenting the massive rise in tuition over the years, the growing college debt for graduates, as well as graduates failing to find jobs that they deem as a valid justification for such cost and debt. Yet, people keep going. In fact, even as we complain about the costs, we seem to be just as passionate about advocating for even more people going to college.

While some seek a solution to at least part of these concerns by lobbying for tax-funded tuition free college education opportunities or capping the cost of college, I offer an alternative that might be even more effective at addressing the concerns about cost, debt, and employment. What if we stopped going to college, or at least reduced the role of college as the required gateway to countless careers and opportunities? There are many ways to learn a given body of knowledge and skills, and if we are willing to let go of our attachment to college as “the way” and instead recognize it as what it as “a way”, then we open up an entirely new set of possibilities. What if we invested more time and resources in creating a learning ecosystem where college is one of many learning pathways to a growing number of careers?

This removes the debt and has potential to increase access and opportunity to living wages without higher education gatekeepers holding the keys to such work. If college is less necessary and less common for getting the jobs to which many aspire, we might actually make more progress in solving the debt problem than by reform efforts.

I’m not suggesting that we get rid of college, only that we stop looking at it as the only way to accomplish the goal of reach learning goals that lead to gainful employment and the associated access and opportunity. This calls for employers reconsidering the criteria that they put on job postings. It also requires professions focusing more upon verifying that people are qualified for the profession instead of dictating the ways in which one reaches that qualification. This goes back to what I’ve called The Lincoln Test (the title of a book that I’m writing). Lincoln didn’t go to law school but he passed the bar and become a lawyer. Why can’t we do more of that for a larger array of professions? Then we can add countless and various priced learning opportunities that can help people reach that qualification. We can create a competitive marketplace for such learning that ranges from simple self-study to tutors, short courses, online learning environments, computer-aided instruction, experiential learning opportunities, and anything else that we can think up. We just have to be sure not to make the same mistake of pouring tons of public funding into these training opportunities or over-regulating them. That will just drive the price up…just like college. Instead, let the ecosystem grow a wonderful and somewhat wild garden of learning.

This doesn’t require massive or overnight changes in the short-term. It can begin with individual professions as well as employers being open to alternative pathways…eventually not even calling them alternatives. They are just pathways. As more professions do this, ecosystem will grow and we may soon find that there are far fewer concerns about the cost or debt associated with college, because colleges will no longer serve as trolls under the bridge to career and related opportunities.

Some say that such a suggestion is an attack on higher education. While this would probably result in a decline in college enrollment, I contend that in the midterm, it might actually help colleges reconnect with the greatest value that they can offer society.

How AI Will Transform Education & Why Now is the Time to Start Preparing for It

Stay with me. I want to offer a few considerations about what I consider the inevitable transformation of education by artificial intelligence, but to do so, I’m going to first invite you into my childhood and early college years for a moment. It might not seem related to AI, but if you bear with me, I promise to offer you a few important and incredibly relevant considerations, as well as an important challenge and invitation.

Mr. Bently was an extraordinary teacher. Life wasn’t always easy in my elementary school years. Many others faced far greater challenges to be sure, but suffice it to say that when I went to school, it was not easy to set aside worries and concerns from outside of school enough to get the most out of what happened in most of my classes. Nonetheless, when I walked up to the room to enter Mr. Bentley’s class, he consistently greeted me and every other student at the door. As he wished us each a good morning, he also paid attention to the little things and deliberately said something that made each of us keenly aware that he cared about us and noticed us.

During class, he applied that same care and attention to each lesson. He seemed to notice small shifts in facial expressions that hinted at frustration, fear, or confusion. Not that he always came to the rescue, but he had a way of showing that he noticed while encouraging us to persist with a challenging problem. He listened to what we said, noticed what we didn’t say, keenly observed our nonverbal messages, and clearly worked to help cultivate a positive learning environment, most of the time without giving hardly any direct instructions.

I remember many caring teachers, but Mr. Bently stood apart from the rest as I think about teachers who listened, observed, and adjusted accordingly with such care and skill. How much did he care and pay attention? Twelve years after being his student, I was going into the summer after my freshman year of college. I had a summer job, but on a whim, while driving by an insurance company in my home town, I decided to stop in and ask if they had any summer openings. The next thing that I knew, I was in a beautiful office, speaking with the branch manager. Impressed with my initiative, he offered me a job on the spot, serving in their call center, working lists of prospective customers. Using a simple script, I spent evenings calling name after name, introducing myself by name and asking if they had interest in reviewing their insurance coverage. If so, my job was to schedule an appointment between that person and an available agent.

I didn’t enjoy the job. Making the calls and talking to people was enjoyable enough, but the list that I used included some problems. First, some of the people that I called were already customers, and they were often offended that I didn’t know as much. The worst calls were when I would ask for a given person, only to find out that this person passed away in the recent past. Imagine calling a person, asking for the spouse, only to discover that the spouse died in a car accident the day before, resulting in audible sobbing as you struggled for what to say. Out of a list of a couple thousand names, I remain amazed at how many deceased people were included on that list (Note that this was in the early 1990s, long before current methods for such work). One day, working through a new list, I reached the “B”s and found myself calling a number and asking for a “Mr. Bently.” A woman answered the phone and as I said, “Hi, my name is Bernard Bull…” the woman stopped me. “Bernard? Bernard Bull?” I confirmed. “Oh, my husband will be so delighted to speak with you.” This was the wife of my 4th grade teacher, Mr. Bently!

Did you catch that? Twelve years after being in this class, the wife of Mr. Bently recognized my name in an instant, and when I spoke to him, his memory of even the smallest details about me were fully intact. In an instant, it was like I was walking into Mr. Bently’s class all over again, experiencing that incredible felling of care, recognition, and belonging. I felt noticed and important to someone else, and it felt amazing. I don’t think that I went on with the rest of my script.

It would almost sound like blasphemy to think that artificial intelligence could ever replace a Mr. Bently. A good part of me continues to believe that no non-human system will ever serve as a substitute for the incredible and formative experience of being noticed and cared for by a teacher like Mr. Bently. Beyond that, he was a master of listening and observation, and he used that to help me and countless others learn. A great teacher like him is truly gifted at the art (and science?) of noticing nuances in learners and responding accordingly.

Perhaps that sort of a deeply human and meaningful interaction is only possible between two humans. Yet, we are on the verge of an age when artificial intelligence is inching, or sometimes leaping, toward noticing countless nuances. Consider what non-human systems can extract from a single still image of a person, breaking down facial expressions into the various combinations of muscles and movements in the face, even noticing the development of some muscles over others, potentially hinting at patterns of expression and emotion over time. These systems are emerging that promise to detect lies, fear and anxiety, interest, confusion, and more. Imagine a system that demonstrates the same capacity to notice nuances in our posture, tone of voice, choice of words (spoken and written), online habits and actions over time, in person action and habits over time, or reaction to various stimuli and contexts, and our response to any other sensory experience in the world. We are already partly there. Consider this enhanced by the ability to interpret what is happening in a person on the basis on heart rate, brain wave, and eye dilation, blood flow to various parts of the body, and other involuntary physical responses; comparing all of these “data points” to a massive database in order to diagnose and adapt.

Does this seem far-fetched? Scan the news and you will find articles about AI detecting skin cancer better than doctors, AI that can determine sexual orientation through still images, experiments with AI lie-detectors for border control, and AI behavioral systems being used in schools within China? We are talking about technology that is already getting heavy use in finance, healthcare, political strategy, security, social media, and yes, education. We might not have systems in education that are as advanced as I mentioned in the last paragraph, but we are well on our way.

Consider what happens as we reach a time when such technological observation is combined with the most current research on knowledge and skill acquisition.  An artificially intelligent cyber-tutor will constantly read, analyze, and adapt learning experiences to maximize learner interest and progress. As these systems advance, they will far exceed the capacity of any human to facilitate learning for large numbers of learners, even across time and place. This is the future of adaptive learning, personalized learning, as well as individualized instruction. It is, I contend, inevitable and irreversible.

Will these systems greet students at the door? Will there even be a door or a classroom? That is yet to be seen. Will they fill the deeply human need to be noticed and cared for by another human? Even if they can, I personally hope that we count the cost before going that direction. My life today richer because Mr. Bently noticed and cared, and I’m not ready to sacrifice that at the altar of artificial intelligence. At the same time, there is incredible promise and possibility with such technology, and I’m not ready to sacrifice that on the other altar of nostalgia and sentimentality. Rather, I like to think that we can join in co-creating a future of education where the best of these two worlds come together, creating deeply human and caring communities that are transformed and enhanced by carefully considered artificial intelligence systems.

In addition, there are many learning needs throughout life that are already less high-touch and we are fine with that. We turn to online video tutorials to learn a new skill, read books and online guides, opt for largely impersonal training, use educational apps, and blend our learning throughout life with a mix of learning environments and formats. Some are human-driven. Others are not. As such, those in the latter category as well as those areas where the human-driven learning is falling short are both prime candidates for disruption, or at least significant experimentation as we explore the possibilities, affordances, and limitations of artificial intelligence in education.

There is much that we don’t know about the future of education. There are countless trends and innovations that will come and go. Artificial intelligence is not one of them. It is here to stay. It will continue to grow. It will find its way into an increasing number of contexts, eventually transforming many of them. The question is whether we are going to do the good and important work of helping to shape that transformation in positive ways, or whether we will simply let AI take the lead through lazy thinking, naivety, technological fatalism, or something else.  Getting informed and involved in the conversation now is your chance to be a co-creator of that future. Now is the time for quick, low risk experimentation, careful consideration, wise thinking, and wide-spread discussion. I offer this article as one way to help spark that conversation.

School is One Spoke in the Wheel of Learning & Why This is a Critical Insight for the Future of Education

School is just one spoke in the wheel of lifelong learning. The more that I engage in conversations about the future of education, and how to promote greater access and opportunity for life and work today, the more important this simple truth becomes to me. It is important for us to remember that most learning in life happens outside of school…without a formal teacher designing and directing the experiences. In our conversations about the future of education (or the present state of education for that matter), we sometimes lose sight of this important reality.

While sources report a range, almost all of them agree that the average person today and in the future will hold anywhere from five to fifteen different jobs before retirement. In a past study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, researchers reported over 1/4th of people having more than 15 different jobs by the age of 48. Granted, many of these are jobs in the same or a similar line of work, but we are looking at the average person changing careers five or more times, and many more making partial career shifts (like a classroom teacher going into instructional design or corporate training, or moving into a management or leadership position within one’s field). Even when shifting between similar jobs, there is often a significant learning curve. Add to this the constant change of technology and we get a clear picture that work in the 21st and 22nd centuries includes ongoing learning, re-learning, and un-learning…and most of this without a classroom or a formal teacher coordinating the learning. Consider the many ways in which people learn what they need to stay current in a job, shift to a similar job, develop skills that transfer to work environments, move into leadership within one’s field, or make a full career shift.

  • Get another degree, complete a degree, or earn a first degree while working. Some would like us to think that this is the most common route, but a closer look at the workplace and workforce of today indicates that this is the exception for many people. Or, even where it is commonplace, this is only a fraction of the learning that is taking place.
  • Taking one or more college credit-based classes in a new area (face-to-face, blended, or online).
  • Taking one or more continuing education classes from a college, community-based organization, or other provider (face-to-face, blended, or online).
  • Going through a boot camp or workshop format training experience.
  • Getting informal advice from friends and colleagues.
  • Learning on the job from a mentor, boss, or colleague.
  • Learning by trial and error, on the job.
  • Setting work goals individually or as a team, establishing plans to achieve the goals, and monitoring progress.
  • Formal training programs and initiatives within the workplace.
  • Volunteering in the community and serving in community groups, boards, and related organizations.
  • Joining an in-person and/or online community of practice that helps stay current or learn about a new area.
  • Experimenting and practicing. Plenty of people learn something new as an avocation or hobby, using evenings, weekends, and off-time to learning something new or refine a skill. In time, it might serve a purpose in paid work or even become the basis for a career shift or venture into business ownership.
  • Playing games and solving puzzles.
  • Hiring a coach or personal trainer (formally or informally, in-person or online).
  • Reading books and online articles.
  • Watching online tutorials and taking short video courses online.
  • Listening to podcasts and audio books.
  • Volunteering during free time to help and learn something new at the same time.
  • Interviewing and observing (formally or informally).
  • Joining a local club and/or meetup.
  • Journaling and writing.
  • Talking through work challenges and opportunities with colleagues over breakfast, lunch, dinner, or an evening beverage.
  • Personal research on topics of interest.
  • Attending webinars.
  • Completing projects, overcoming novel challenges, and seeking answers to important questions on the job or in another context.
  • Informal conversations, interactions with, and observation of friends, family members, co-workers, and others in the community.
  • Educational apps and software.
  • Attending conferences (online and/or in-person) and retreats.
  • Professional counseling. This is part of how some cultivate the state of mind or emotional intelligence needed for current for future contexts.
  • Building and leveraging a personal and/or professional network through social media, in-person connections, etc.
  • Drawing insights and ideas from entertainment sources.
  • Self-designing formal and informal learning pathways that leverage multiple of the above.
  • Informally and drawing upon one or more of the above over months and years, without a clear goal or plan.

Without question, this is an incomplete list, but notice how few of these learning opportunities involve a formal classroom. Notice how few include a teacher who is in charge of a group of learners and is coordinating the bulk of the learning process. Also consider how little of this is documented or easily visible. Yet, this is a realistic view of learning today. This is actually how people learn. It is how we gain new knowledge, develop new skills, shape character traits and dispositions over time, and how we build overall competence and confidence for current and future challenges and opportunities.

I think about this often, and it is what leads me to explore questions like the following.

  1. If much of formal education is structured around a teacher coordinating and directing the learning, to what extent is that preparing people for the type of learning that will be commonplace for the rest of life?
  2. What are promising examples of schools that appear to be best equipping people for this sort of lifelong learning?
  3. Given this incredibly diverse array of experiences that contribute to a person’s learning, what does an educational ecosystem look like that helps all of us look beyond diplomas and degrees?
  4. How can we help people tell a more complete story about their learning and connect with other people and organizations that resonate with part of that story?
  5. How might new forms of credentials help to tell this story through the structuring of rich and mine-able data?
  6. More specifically, what are the benefits and limitations of AI and algorithmic solutions to connecting people with other people, organizations, and employment opportunities through rich and ever-growing data sets? To what extent might this help us move beyond credentialism? How might it help is address issues of access and opportunity?
  7. How can we leverage AI, learning analytics, and adaptive learning to amplify the quality of learning that people experience throughout life? What are the exemplars today for truly personalized and adaptive systems that optimize learning for individuals and what will it take for us to reach the next generation of this work?
  8. Since so much of life is and will be focused upon learning/re-learning/un-learning, how do we infuse and elevate the human-ness of these experiences by tapping into incredibly powerful phenomenon like wonder, awe, curiosity, mystery, adventure, experimentation, truth, beauty, and goodness? How might historic and emerging insights about these phenomenon help us think about and design the lifelong learning ecosystem of the future?
  9. Given that people are constantly learning and will need to do so even more as technology (and especially AI) creates massive shifts in types of jobs and the nature of work, what are some of the more promising platforms, environments, and resources that help people grow and learn?
  10. Formal education solutions are clearly inadequate and misfits for the type and nature of lifelong learning that I am describing, at least for the majority of situations. As such, how can we nurture and expand our conversation about education to see it as a much larger and more integrated system, one that we do not inhibit by the narrow constraints, schooling metaphors, educational practice ruts that shape much of how we think about teaching and learning today?

This doesn’t take anything away from the impact that a teacher does or can have on the life of someone. It doesn’t diminish the role of schools. However, if we are looking at learning across the lifetime today, we need to think beyond the teacher/student and schooling constructs. Education is already larger than that. This is no different from recognizing that health and wellness is about so much more than a patient/doctor interaction. These professionals do and will continue to play a valuable role, but limiting many of our conversations about education to these formal contexts is inadequate for the challenges and opportunities of our age. In fact, it has always been inadequate. Formal education has a role to play today and in the future, but it is one of many spokes in the lifelong learning wheel.

This is an exciting time, but it is one that will involve significant shifts in how we think about education and about learning. It will be uncomfortable. It will challenge longstanding traditions. It will call for new ways of thinking about connecting people and employers. It will demand a much broader way of thinking about the lifelong learning enterprise. Yet, if we are diligent and persistent, I am optimistic that we truly can create a better, more hopeful, more humane, and more empowering educational ecosystem.

8 Professor Perspectives That Persist but Will be Extinct in the College of the Future

If you go to enough conferences and hang out with enough academics, you get to meet some fascinating people, some eccentric ones too (I consider myself one of those eccentrics). I also find it fascinating how unfiltered some people continue to be when expressing their thoughts about students, the state of higher education, and the “real problem” of education. Perhaps I should not, as I’ve been known to share my candid thoughts, even in places like this blog…for the world to see. I suppose that sometimes comes with having the title “professor.”

We want to be careful. though. Yes, there are some blunt people in almost every profession, but that doesn’t mean that they make up the majority. As such, following are eight quotes that I’ve actually heard from one or more professors in recent years, but I can say with confidence that each one is increasingly less common. Higher education has much room for improvement, and the future of higher education as a whole is uncertain. What is certain to me is that the perspectives represented in these quotes will become more and more rare as we move forward.

“I give them the content, and it is their job to learn it. If they don’t, that is their problem.”

This is far less common of a statement in higher education than it was even a decade ago. Some still think it but realize that it isn’t well-received. Fortunately, as with the past, there are many professors who recognize that content is not the most important thing that they have to offer. You can get much of that in a good library or even online. What they have to offer is expertise, modeling, mentoring, coaching, feedback, and even a bit of inspiration at the right time.

“Look to your left and your right. By the end of this semester, only one of those people will still be here.”

These cut-throat environments still exists and some argue that they are good and necessary when it comes to preparing people for high-stakes positions. The good news is that more people are setting this approach aside, and instead asking how they can set things up so that more students perform at a higher level.

“I am an academic gatekeeper for my discipline and field. My job is to make sure that the few and worthy make it through, and the others get started flipping burgers.”

As with the last one, some see their job as starting with a large pool and then doing everything they can to winnow it down to a small number of the best and brightest, with little concern or consideration for the rest. Again, there are some career pathways that are incredibly challenging, and not everyone will make it. Yet, there is a growing focus upon finding ways to set people up for success. When people realize that this pathway is not working out, there are efforts to guide them, give them the necessary help to turn things around,or maybe help them explore other viable options.

“I’m so excited about how this semester turned out. Look at this grade distribution. It is almost a perfect bell curve!”

I will be blunt about one. I’m sorry for those who are still stuck in the 1980s, but the bell curve is dead. It was never a useful or even humane way of thinking about student performance, and it has absolutely no connection to whether a professor’s course is the proper level of academic challenge. There are still plenty of situations where people frown on a professor when too many students receive high marks, and sometime that is because the professor is just “giving out high grades. Yet, the alternative is not to celebrate the fact that a significant number of students just earned failing or near failing grades. There is a better way and most faculty today see and embrace that.

“If you can’t handle the heat, get out of the kitchen.”

There is this persistent confusion between having academic challenge or rigor and just being a jerk. You can respect other people, challenge them, and be encouraging. Most professors are not jerks. Some really brilliant people are and candidly, as a result, we put up with them. We even seek them out and embrace their insults as a rite of passage. Honestly, I did that at times. I still do. Yet, there are plenty of brilliant non-jerks and there is no need to set up this “pompous and pontificating professor” as the model. Let’s keep this as the rare exception at best.

“If we want to improve outcomes in college, just stop accepting so many unprepared people who can’t read, write, manage their time, and do basic math.”

This remains a common approach. Just raise the admission standards and the problem is solved. Yet, some schools don’t have an exclusive or elitist mission. They want to see as much relative growth as possible. They accept students whom the school has a good chance of helping grow, persist, and succeed; and then they devise a curriculum and plan to help the students do just that. This means revisiting some of the ways that we do things, and there are many exemplars in the higher education landscape when it comes to this promising approach.

“Some people lack the family education necessary to succeed in college. The best plan is to help these people find good service jobs, and make college a place that invests in those who have a strong family education growing up.”

This statement came from a professor in a country other than the United States. She was basically arguing that the family upbringing of some students was substandard. They didn’t have parents who taught them to read, parents did not have high standards for them in school, and parents didn’t teach them the habits associated with success in college and many workplaces. As such, college was not a good option for these students, according to the professor. Only, this approach ignores some massive social considerations and implications. I will say that while it startled me to hear someone say it so directly, it was actually refreshing to hear someone say out loud what others might be thinking. It opened the door to meaningful conversation and debate.

“The problem with college today is a cultural problem. Students don’t read, don’t know how to have a meaningful conversation without looking down at their phones, are self-absorbed, and lack the focus of past generations.”

People rarely believe me, but the “kids these days” mindset goes back centuries. We can find examples of leaders and academics of almost every generation complaining about the decline of student preparation. When I point this out, people respond that this generation is really different. It is much worse. Yet, that is what past generations said as well.

There are certainly some distinct or even unique challenges of current generations, but people can and do learn, grow, and change. If they don’t, then the entire concept of college falls a bit flat, doesn’t it?

As I stated at the beginning of this article, these are real statements from real professors, but they are certainly not the norm. In fact, they are on the decline. What I see is a growing focus upon student learning, student achievement, and student success. There are many uncertainties about higher education but I am confident that this student-centered emphases is the future.

In fact, if you want a glimpse into the mindset and attitude that is far more likely to dominate the future of higher education, check out my podcast interview with Dr. Tim Renick at Georgia State University.

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The Dangers of Letting the Framing and Flaming Wars Set the Tone for Civil Discourse in Our Schools

This is not a political statement. It is a civil plea, especially for our schools as incubators of civil discourse. It is a public confession of a deep fear for our future, for my future, for the future of my children. My plea is a simple one, but it is also one that is so complex that I probably contradict myself on this point a dozen times and week, and I don’t even notice it. My plea is that we think twice and maybe three times, or four, before we choose framing tactics as our primary weapon of public disagreement. Here is what I mean by that.

The New York Times recently published an articled entitled “British Citizen One Day, Illegal Immigrant the Next.” It is a short article that highlights the complexities and pain points of immigration laws in Britain and how they impact the lives of actual people like Renford McIntyre, who came to Britain from Jamaica as a child, but only recently found himself labeled an illegal immigrant and facing the implications of that unsettling label. I’m not really writing about this article though, but instead about some of the replies in social media. There were certainly many who, prompted by the article, expressed their range of viewpoints and deeply help beliefs and values about immigration. A few went after the New York Times and the author(s) of this particular article for playing right into the hands of “the enemy.” Their response to the article was not about the many themes and issues surfaced in it, but about the choice of words. They responded by explaining that there is no such thing as an “‘illegal’ immigrant”, no more than there is such a thing as an illegal human being.

You might agree with these critics in the sense that you do not like the phrase “illegal immigrant.” You might think it dehumanizing. You might not like the way that such a phrase frames people’s thinking about immigration, leaving the door open for arguments in favor of stricter policies and practices with regard to immigrants in a given country. Only, to say that there is no such thing is as illegal immigrant is just not accurate, not in the sense that it is a phrase that has common usage and a basic understanding in the English language. People generally understand it to mean a person who is residing in a country unlawfully. The laws of the country include restrictions on who can enter the country or reside in the country, and under what conditions. The phrase “illegal immigrant” is in multiple dictionaries, including at least one legal dictionary that I found. So, as much as I or anyone else might not like the phrase “illegal immigrant” or might not want others to use the phrase, it exist in the English language. That is why it concerns me when people insist on being the word police, redefining acceptable vocabulary in public discourse on the basis of what language and framing best supports a particular person’s position(s) and desired outcome(s).

We see the same thing in public discourse about “free college.” Proponents use the phrase often, building upon the word “free” to have the literal meaning of no cost incurred by the student, but also drawing upon the spirit and power of a word like “free” in a democratic context. Only the critics like to shift the conversation by arguing against the use of the phrase altogether. There is no such thing as “free college”, they declare, because somebody is always paying for the tuition. They complain that “free college” hides the realities of the great costs to taxpayers, even in instances where those taxpayers see themselves as having little or not influence over how that money is spent. Yet, there is such a thing a “free college.” It is a straw-man to suggest that those in favor of tuition free higher education do not recognize that it costs money to implement such an effort, even cost to the taxpayer.

Then there are the even more heated debates where we have pro-life advocates and pro-choice advocates, particularly on the topic of abortion. You are not pro-life, one side argues. You are anti-choice. On the flip side, pro-choicers are really anti-life, advocates of terminating the most helpless of human life, at its earliest stage and without a voice or ability to speak up for himself or herself. You see what each side did? They make strong arguments. The pro-choice people use their framing to emphasize the important rights of women, particularly when it comes to the rights over their own bodies. The pro-life people use their language and framing to draw attention to the rights of the early stage human life. Only, long before they get into more substantive debates and discussions, there is an even more basic battle over terminology. They claim that there is really no such thing as pro-life, or that there is really no such thing as pro-choice.

I am not arguing for or against immigrants or immigration laws in this article. I’m not championing or critiquing tuition free college. I’m not using this as a time to stand in support of the collection of positions associated with those who identify as pro-life or as pro-choice. What I’m doing is pointing out the danger of using a public discourse tactic where we are not even willing to acknowledge the vocabulary and terminology at hand. Instead of saying that there is no such thing as [fill in the blank] or claiming some sort of personal right to serve as the semantic police for public discourse, perhaps we are wise to start by acknowledging that these phrases and words do indeed exist, and that they bring with them a wealth of meaning. We can critique the connotations. We can point out the history (even dark and troubling histories) of a given phrase and why we consider it problematic, unhelpful, or even dehumanizing. We can argue our points passionately and hopefully with a good measure of reason as well. Only, I contend that we are wise to be incredibly careful and sparing in our use of the framing power play that seeks to deny the very existence of the words and phrases used by other people. That risks being about silencing others, about claiming that they, their frame, and their associated positions, should not be welcome in the public debate of ideas, rights, principles, values, and norms that inform society. Framing is about power, not the pursuit of truth, justice, beauty, goodness, and certainly not about honoring the rights of those who are different from us.

Social media lends itself well to both flaming and framing wars, but we are wise to not let this be the norm for discourse in our learning communities in particular. As much as our learning communities are incubators of democracy, we should protect them as places that do not silence those with whom we disagree, but by truly modeling civil discourse. Shaming people into silence or agreement with our agendas and rebranding the phrases of “the other” as non-existent will not serve the greater goal of civil discourse or living and honoring people with differences. Our grand and persistent experiment in the United States risks becoming, once and for all, a failed experiment, if we do not embrace the value of honoring people who have very real and significant differences among them. My hope is that our learning communities have the courage and wisdom to recognize and embrace this more than most in society.

“Kids are Not Motivated” Might Say More About Your School Than the Kids: Educators with a Growth Mindset

I hear it all the time. People talk about disengaged, disinterested, unmotivated learners. “Kids are different than they used to be,” teachers and others explain. I don’t doubt the presence of generational changes, but I’ve visited enough learning communities to know that there are some communities of young people that are rich with engagement and interest. Students are taking ownership for their learning. They are challenging themselves on a regular basis. They enjoy being there. They are still young people. They experience the struggles common to being a developing young person, but the general feel of the community is largely positive.

When I point this out, there are many who want to dismiss my comments by explaining that these are different kinds of young people than the ones at their school. Some kids are just motivated and engaged, and others are not. People attribute it to upbringing, family dynamics, challenges within the community, economic status of families, the education level of parents, and all sorts of other factors. Again, I don’t deny that these factors can and do influence what happens in a school and in the lives of young people. Of course, all of of life’s experiences are formative to some extent, and it is hard to be be interested in learning when your basic needs in life or unmet. However, once those needs are met, even amid less than ideal circumstances in a young person’s life, there are models of incredibly positive learning communities. For those who take the time to 1) explore what is happening the larger education system, 2) who are open to consider the fact that there are models and exemplars from which they can learn, and 3) who recognize that everything is not just a sum of social factors beyond the control of teachers, students, and administrators; there is much that can be done to improve the state of any learning community.

As such, when we say that “kids are not motivated in my classroom” or that “the kids in my school don’t care about learning”, I’d like to suggest that these statements sometimes say as much or more about our schools than about the young people. There are countless factors within our control, and when we focus upon maximizing those things that are indeed within our control, the learning community will be better. It will not happen overnight. It will be hard work. There will be two steps forward and then one (or sometimes two) steps backward. There will be frustrations. There will be bad days and disappointments. Yet, this sort of growth mindset for schools and educators is just as valuable and beneficial as the growth mindset that we talk about as being necessary for students to thrive.

25 Things to Celebrate About the US Education System

I challenge the status quo in education on this blog, in my other writing, and in my podcast. I champion the idea of looking at policies, systems, and technologies as always having both affordances and limitations, and I can sometimes emphasize the limitations over the affordances. So, I thought I’d take a moment to celebrate what is good and getting better in modern education. Are there limitations to the ideas, innovations, and other things in the following list? Yes, because affordances and limitations are always present, not only affordances and limitations, but strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures, good and bad. Nonetheless, here are 25 things that I contend are worthy of at least a momentary celebration.

  1. We have a greater variety of school models, philosophies, and approaches than any other country in the world.
  2. Collectively, we know that great education is always about more than sorting and testing.
  3. We know that stages of human development call for different emphases and environments depending upon the developmental stage of a learner.
  4. We generally reject the conviction that a one-size-fits-all education is the way to go, even if we are still struggling to let that conviction permeate what we do and how we do it.
  5. We have an incredible variety of community-based and extracurricular learning opportunities available to people of all ages, especially in our more populated areas.
  6. We have almost 120,000 libraries (9000+ public libraries, 98,000+ school libraries, and others) in our country, representing an incredible tradition of self-education and celebration of knowledge, reading, and research. By the way, this means that we have far more libraries than we do Starbucks stores.
  7. We have a strong and ever-growing movement in open education resources.
  8. We have an incredibly impressive and ever-growing list of educational innovations who are finding ways to share their word and ideas in the digital world, and they are spreading.
  9. Our Universities, think thanks, independent researchers, and others are producing new and amazing insights and knowledge on a weekly basis. In fact, even in Michael Moore’s critical documentary Where to Invade Next, when he asks an educational leader in the renowned Finland school system where they got some of their best ideas, they pointed to research that emerged right here in the United States. There is a constant flow of new and promising education and relevant psychological research that is released, and people are striving to learn from this research, experiment with it, and use it to create better learning communities.
  10. We argue about education. When you stop caring, you stop arguing, so to me, the arguments have a good side to them. Education is something that we care deeply about.
  11. We strive to create a system of education for all children, regardless of demographic. As one example…
  12. While there is room for improvement in these areas, we invest an incredible about of time and resources to provide education that is accessible and beneficial to people with disabilities.
  13. We support and celebrate the right for families to make choices about where and how to education their children, aligned with International Declaration of Human Rights. In fact, at least 12 states even support this with vouchers or funding that helps extend this choice across socio-economic status.
  14. The micro school and small school movement is growing fast and furious, offering us some wonderful examples of compassionate, caring communities of rich and vibrant learning where each learner is known and valued.
  15. The movement around empowering learning voice and agency as part of equipping them for a full, active, and engaged role in society also continues to gain interest and traction.
  16. Adaptive learning software is getting better, and it will be incredibly powerful in a matter of years.
  17. “It is not about the technology” is now spoken in almost educational technology conference keynote in the country, and explanations of what this means are becoming increasingly nuanced, thoughtful, and substantive.
  18. There is a growing wave of awareness and agreement that schools must strive to become places that celebrate and focus upon the love of learning, and that is challenging some of the inhibitors to greatness that have taken hold of our schools.
  19. There is growing interest among educators in moving beyond grade-focused education and classes. The fact that Mark Barnes’s open Facebook group called “Teachers Throwing Out Grades” has well over 8500 followers is a good sign of this.
  20. In terms of higher education, we have over 4000 different schools, each with different emphases, research, majors, and more.
  21. The amount of education and learning opportunities beyond formal schooling has never been greater.
  22. The number of self-organized or grass-roots learning communities around everything from cooking to world peace has never been greater.
  23. We continue to make progress of recognizing learning and accomplishments that extend beyond formal schooling, allowing us to envision new and powerful reputation systems that can increase access, opportunity, and meaningful connectivity between people and organizations.
  24. The interest in global connections is education is at an all-time high, empowered by new technologies and creative teaching and learning applications of those technologies.
  25. While we have much room for improvement, words like curiosity and creativity are far from four letter words. They are generally celebrated and sought after in our best schools.

Yes, we have room to improve in every one of these areas, but sometimes it is also good to pause and celebrate what is going well. What about you? Consider adding your own “celebrations” by posting a comment.