Three Revised Things to Unlearn About Learning

Tina Barseghian wrote a nice piece today for Mind Shift about Will Richardson‘s 2012 ISTE presentation.  I often find myself disagreeing with Will’s posts on his site and this time is no exception.  My biggest point of disagreement with Will typically has to do with our different opinions about data-based and evidence-based approaches to education.  My position is that we can measure all of the important things that students know…we just need to be creative and inventive about how to define them so that they can be measured.  And I would venture to say that Will feels differently.

Nonetheless, Will’s articles, opinions and tweets are always good food for thought and there can be no doubt that he is committed to kids and education.  In Tina’s piece she reviews Will’s recommendations of “Three Things to Unlearn About Learning.”  So, with due respect to Will,  and the sincere wish not to represent his opinions in any way, I’m going to tackle those three suggestions here, with my recommended modifications.

1. DeliveryWill’s position: We have to stop being in charge of the curriculum and allow kids to create their own education. 

I can get on board with kids controlling the delivery devices, but being in charge of the whole curriculum and creating their own?  Many have proposed this over the years and I’ve never really understood it.  Kids go to school to learn skills that we, as a society, have decided are important for them to have as functional, contributing adults.  Kids come in as novices.  Why would novices be allowed to decide what is or is not important about a subject?  When I go and take classes, be it golf, or computer programming or tap dancing (and yes, I’ve taken them all), I go with the expectation that the teacher is the expert and will decide what I need to learn and whether or not I’m doing it properly.  That’s why they’re the teachers and I’m the student.  Moreover, and as I’ve said in other places in this blog, most of us prefer to do things that we’re good at.  How does this play itself out when kids are allowed to create their own education?  Are they allowed just to do things that they like?  Do we not require them to learn things that they don’t like/aren’t good at?  So my revision of Will’s statement would be:  We should design the curriculum and arrange the learning environment to allow kids to think creatively and problem-solve as they acquire new skills and achieve mastery performance of those skills.

2. Competition- Will’s position: Rather than comparing test scores and grades of schools and of teachers, we should drive education forward on the basis of cooperation.

I couldn’t agree more that comparing kids to each other and teachers to each other is counterproductive. And cooperation among kids and teachers is great.  Who could argue with something as basic as that??  But I think this is sort of a straw-man argument to support one of Will’s major crusades…fighting standardized assessment.  So let’s set aside, for the moment, whether or not we agree or disagree with standardized assessment.  Let’s instead examine the issue of competition. Competition is caused, not by testing itself, but by the way the tests are scored and used.  And the way tests are scored now is in a norm-referenced way.  In norm-referenced testing, by definition, someone has to be below average and the test is designed to indicate whether a test-taker did better or worse than other people who took the test.  This always makes me think of Garrison Keillor‘s joke, “Welcome to Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”  The way to eliminate the competition, and, by the way, improve the usefulness of tests, is not to eliminate tests and focus on collaboration.  It is to switch from norm-referenced tests to ipsative testing that is criterion-referenced.  In ipsative testing, each student competes with him or herself; the score achieved by the test-taker is compared to his/her previous performance, not to the scores of his/her peers.  And criterion-referenced simply means that the student’s performance is evaluated against a fixed mastery criterion, not a shifting ‘norm’ that is generated by the population that took the test.  Encouraging collaboration is important, but it’s a separate issue.  In this case, my revision of Will’s position would be: Rather than using norm-referenced tests that create competition by comparing students to each other, we should drive education forward on the basis of ipsative, criterion-referenced tests that allow every student to achieve mastery.

3. Assessment- Will’s position: “If we don’t assess what we value, we will end up valuing what we assess,” he said. “As a system, we’re not assessing what we value.”

I actually completely agree with these two statements.  That said, Will and I don’t end up with the same conclusion.  Will’s position, if I understand it correctly, is that we should eliminate standardized tests.  My position is that standardized tests have gotten a bad rap.  Before you throw rotten fruit, let me tell you why.  In the US education system the term “standardized test” has become synonymous with “multiple-choice, fill in the bubble on a computer or scantron” test.  There is no question that such a format limits the possible types of questions.

But the actual definition of the term “standardized” is “to compare with or test by a standard.”  There is no requirement in the definition around what that standard is.  But for reasons having to do with convenience and time savings, the current standard seems to be multiple-choice.  We absolutely need to have standards, or criteria, against which to evaluate student skill acquisition.  But, to Will’s point above, we need to define the standard according to what we value in student performance.  And I would hazard a guess that Will and I would agree that what we value is the students applying skills in situations that resemble how they will use those skills in real life.  I think where we diverge is that Will appears to suggest that individual students should be allowed to demonstrate a given skill differently, whereas I think there should be a defined criterion by which every student’s performance is evaluated.  So, no revision to Will’s statement is necessary.  My position is also: If we don’t assess what we value, we will end up valuing what we assess.  As a system, we’re not assessing what we valueBut with the caveat that we still need criterion performance standards and that all kids should be required to demonstrate the performance in the same way.

What do you think?  Are you closer to Will’s “unlearning” goals?  Or mine?

The image here is the one that originally appeared with Tina Barseghian’s article on MindShift.

About karen mahon

i am a behavior and learning scientist. i hold an ed.d. in educational psychology and am trained as an instructional designer. i have spent more than 15 years working in education and instructional software design.
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28 Responses to Three Revised Things to Unlearn About Learning

  1. @shaunluehring says:

    Your thoughts are spot on. Considering your post under Delivery, I’ve often contemplated where the balance is in student-choice in the curriculum if it even needs to be balanced. I think the teacher has to be the leader. If students aren’t challenged to do things in many different ways (not just the most comfortable way for them) their overall growth is limited.
    The counterpoint might be however, how do we teach children about life-long learning? — do we need to? As adults we continue to learn but we pick what interests us or we feel we need to learn. Does that process always have to happen outside of the school day? and should it?

    • karen mahon says:

      Good questions, Shaun. I don’t know if we have to teach kids about life-long learning. It does seem like the natural consequences involved in doing what we like maintain our behavior as adults. And I don’t necessarily think that student learning should NEVER be self-directed. Heck, we all had electives in high school and college. But to rely on students “opting in” to what we deem critical just doesn’t make sense to me. I agree with you that the teacher needs to be the leader. Students can also lead, but it should be within the boundaries that are set by the curriculum. In my opinion. 🙂

  2. Gord Holden says:

    Hey Karen. Think I’ll stick up for the underdog on the first point. lol. I don’t believe Richardson means to abrogate oversight of student learning, just that we need to extend a bit more opportunity to students to participate in learning that makes sense to them. True personalized learning demands both some trust that students will consider setting personally relevant goals, as some adult supervision (as required) to assist in making it so. I have not been disappointed by this arrangement with my students.

    As for the last two points, glad to see any move away from the spirit-busting strategy of teaching and testing that which has little to do with the students’ connection to their world. It’s just wrong, and counterproductive as well.

    • karen mahon says:

      Hi Gord- I’m sure if you and I dug into this, we would end up agreeing. My effort in this post was mostly to add some nuance to the conversation. It seems that so often I hear very black-and-white statements from the the big names in education and ed tech. (BTW, Will’s following and readership is much larger than mine…I think I’m the underdog!) But of course, like anything, the devil is in the details. Sweeping statements like “standardized testing is bad” or “we need to let students take control of their own learning” are very good for soundbites and bullets on PowerPoint slides, but I think it grossly oversimplifies the situation. I’d like to see the “talking heads” (if you will) of ed tech take a more functional approach, focusing on what it is we’re trying to accomplish, with operational definitions of such so that I know whether or not what we’re doing is working. Otherwise it seems to me that these soundbites are basically the education equivalent of “I love Mom and apple pie.” (Of course, nuance is also the reason John Kerry wasn’t electable, so there ya go!)

  3. Karen, another thought provoking post. I thought your post asked some good questions and made some solid points, however I do disagree with your interpretation of a couple of Richardson’s points.

    Student Designed Curriculum
    While I can not speak to Richardson’s exact point, I can simply express my view on curriculum and who should be designing it. I feel that school should not be something that should be “done” to a student, it is important that they have a stake in it. I agree with your statement that “Kids go to school to learn skills that we, as a society, have decided are important for them to have as functional, contributing adults.” My argument is that why should teachers dictate the lens that these skills are demonstrated. If we want students to demonstrate an ability for applying historical events to today, should it matter whether they study World War I or the Renaissance? Could different students not demonstrate these important skills through vastly different lenses or events?

    Competition Between Schools
    Here I think you mischaracterize Richardson’s position, you move directly to assessment and the merits of some sort of standardized criterion based assessment, once again I can get on board with this. What I think Will is speaking to has more to do with the underlying sense that districts, schools, and teachers are constantly being pitted against one another. Test scores are used for evaluation of schools and teachers in many districts (thankfully not mine). Let’s assume that tests are here to stay in their present form, it would be much more beneficial if school funding and teacher performance were not tied to the results. This could lead to a greater sense of collaboration amongst teachers, schools, and districts. Instead of competing with one another, we would be working together to further student learning.

    Happy to continue the discussion, I never would have been able to say all this in 140 characters.

    • karen mahon says:

      Hi Matt-

      Thanks for all of that good stuff! I actually agree with your goal in the first point. I don’t care if students apply their skills to World War I or the Renaissance. What I care about is the definition of the application itself. What would the application need to look like in order for you and I to agree that the skill “applying historical events to today” was mastered? How we operationalize “applying historical events to today” is where I think the teacher should be setting the boundaries for what is/is not considered criterion performance. I think that distinction…that students are not controlling WHAT they are required to do, just that they may choose from an array of topics, or whatever, is important. Advocating that students take control of their own learning, I think, implies a much larger shift.

      On the second point, I think you are right that Richardson is saying that schools are pitted against one another. My point is just that “encouraging” collaboration isn’t the solution; rather, changing our approach to testing is. I am wholeheartedly in FAVOR of frequent “testing,” but in a manner that is much different from what we do now. Frequent, criterion-based tests in which improvement in individual student performance is measured over time would be awesome. And if that were the way testing was conducted then I absolutely think school funding and teacher performance should be tied to those results. A one-time “snapshot” of what a student “knows” on a norm-referenced, annual test? Definitely not. But something that demonstrates whether or not students are making ongoing skill improvements through the year and gives the teacher every opportunity to modify and improve the instruction? Absolutely.

      • Suzanne Segady says:

        I found this post to be a thoughtful response to Will Richardson’s piece overall. I would like to take issue with one of Matt’s points, however. He stated, “If we want students to demonstrate an ability for applying historical events to today, should it matter whether they study World War I or the Renaissance?” It does matter — and the students should be learning both. I shudder at an entirely skills-based education. Students need history and literature, not only for the “skills” they learn through them, but for the connections to humanity they create. Technology has allowed this generation to become the most self-referential ever seen. They are good people — I love my students — but they focus on the moment and their own generation even more than prior generations. In order to become adults in this society, they need to know what has gone before them: what understandings, learnings, changes, ideas have come before them. They need to see themselves as a part of a continuum. It’s about more than just skills — it’s about true

        • karen mahon says:

          Thanks for chiming in, Suzanne! I think you raise a very good point. Certainly, if the topic is part of the overall objective, then I would agree it does matter.

          I’m hoping you can help me understand your point about skills-based education. To me, all of the pieces that you reference above as being ‘beyond skills’ (if you will) are still skills. Interpreting history and literature, relating them to current experiences, understanding the importance of what came before, etc. But I have heard others object to “skills-based education” before and it’s confusing to me. Can you help me understand how you define what is a “skill” and what is sort of “beyond a skill?” Thanks!

  4. Matt Armstrong says:

    I think there is a bit of a misunderstanding. I am not suggesting that history and literature are not crucial. My point is that historical thinking and making connections are essential, but should we be dictating what students study to demonstrate this. Essentially, should everyone have to study World War I or could others demonstrate these same skills studying another historical event?

    The world has changed drastically and we are able to access unlimited information. I personally feel that a 21st century education should be competency based with students working towards mastery. How they demonstrate mastery can be flexible.

    • karen mahon says:

      I’m not sure that the two of you actually disagree, Matt and Suzanne. I think it just depends on what the learning objective is. If the objective is to demonstrate mastery of a particular skill that is not topic-dependent, then perhaps students selecting their topic of choice is fine. If, however, the objective is to demonstrate mastery of a particular skill as it applies to World War I, for example, then obviously they can’t choose their own.

      To me, this is exactly why precisely-written learning objectives are so critical. BTW, Matt, I completely agree about competency-based with students working toward mastery!

      • Suzanne Segady says:

        I also agree with working toward mastery; however, I doubt most young people can ever reach such a lofty goal. After all, most college students never reach true mastery of a subject and its attendant skills.
        Let me explain what I mean by skills-based, since that was my initial training and introduction to teaching. As an English teacher, I was instructed that students needed to understand the elements of drama. In doing so, it didn’t matter whether they read Shakespeare or their friend Bob’s play about hamsters. All that mattered was the “skill.” I object strongly to this. Quality matters. And, yes, content matters. Students shouldn’t choose between the Renaissance and WWI. They need to understand both well — not only to “make connections,” but to become educated people. They need the great literature of times past and present, not the stuff that mirrors their own experiences (that’s fine for independent work, but not for instruction and true learning). Now, once they’ve demonstrated strong knowledge and skills with these, if there’s a capstone or final project, choice is valuable.
        In other words, along with “skills,” students need to know that they’re standing on the shoulders of giants.

        • karen mahon says:

          Thanks, Suzanne, for helping me understand. Let me make sure I understand: so skills-based education refers to the “what” (if you will) and your point is that the context is also critical. I love the point about Bob’s play about hamsters…certainly brings your point home, I think. Is the distinction that you make representative of others who refer to “skills-based” education, do you think?

          This is really helpful to me because I often find that when I have these kinds of questions about the terms I can’t find someone to explain it to me as clearly as you did here. So it’s not unusual for me to think I disagree with people, when, really, I’m just not understanding what they mean. I agree with your assertion about context being important in many instances. Oddly, I also find myself agreeing with Matt, conditionally, that when and if context is less important, it’s okay to let students choose a preferred context to which they apply the skill.

          Suzanne, can we connect on twitter or LinkedIn? I’d like to talk with you more. My email is Thanks!

      • Suzanne, I have to disagree with you. I think it is unfortunate that we don’t expect students to meet “such a lofty goal” I work for a board that not only asks this but expects this. Does it work for every student? No. Is it something to aspire to and push students further? Absolutely!

        On the second point, I think it is indifferent whether I teach World War I, the Renaissance, World War II, the Vietnam War, the War of 1812, The Civil War, the Korean War, The 100 Years War, or the Boer War. All of the above are subjective (and important). However, the skills learned are essential and transferrable. The idea that teachers would go and teach something like “Bob’s Play about Hamsters” is either offensive or indicative about the state of teaching in you district. I find it insulting that you would view teachers as people that would prefer a shortcut vs. furthering understanding or fostering critical thinking.

        Perhaps I am off base (it is possible), I do not agree with the idea that students learn best when a reward or consequence is involved. I think the best learning happens when students are intrinsically motivated, coached, and challenged. Standardized learning (in whatever form), awards, etc… may improve results, but it turns kids off of school and the desire to be life long learners. The more I talk with businesses today they talk about the importance of collaboration, problem solving, and the ability to ask questions. None of these are measured in current standardized assessments. Can we alter assessment? Absolutely, but until I see an assessment in practice that can do this, I have to agree with Richardson.

        I don’t care if I stand on the shoulders of giants. I just want to know that I can view things critically, objectively, and come to my own conclusion. Obviously drawing on others experiences are important (historical thinking), but you cannot tell me that it is “essential” that every student in North America understands Shakespeare and if you disagree, I would love to hear why?


        • Suzanne Segady says:

          Matt — I don’t think we’re really that far apart. Let me clarify a point — my reference to “Bpb’s play about hamsters” was not from a teacher; it was from a professor of mine. Fortunately, I have yet to meet an English teacher who agrees!
          I am in absolute agreement with you as far as critical thinking; however, I do believe that the best critical thinking comes from material of depth and richness. Students now have little patience for that — they skim an scan, generally speaking. I also agree with you in the area of standardized tests. While I think it is possible to create assessments that measure the ability to analyze, synthesize and contextualize texts, it is time-consuming and not likely to be implemented on a large-scale basis. Nor should it. Learning the confidence to create good questions is also invaluable.
          The area in which we do disagree is contextualization, I think. While you may not care if we’re “standing on the shoulders of giants,” students need to. They need to understand the cultures, ideas, discoveries of the past in order to understand who they are as a generation, as well as individuals. I’m not talking about rote memorization here (although there is a place for learning by heart — when literature becomes a part of your being). I have seen students absolutely come alive when they realize that other people in other times also struggled with many of the same issues. How did they handle it? What conclusions did they discover? Did they succeed? Fail? Why? At the heart of critical thinking is a deep understanding of the past, as well. An engineer without this knowledge amy critically think her way to a solution that utterly failed in the past. The failure may not have been structural, but cultural (why, for example, did alternating current become the standard rather than direct current? DC is safer and more efficient. The answer is very human and very political.).
          Why should all students know Shakespeare? His work is a cornerstone of our culture. Allusions abound and are an integral and subtle aspect of our communications. Even popular movies are replete with references to Shakespeare! Shakespeare’s use of language is masterful, as well, and a brilliant example of rhetoric and grace. Do students need it — for survival? No. Do they need it for depth of understanding? Absolutely. I also agree strongly with Carol Jago: when we deny students the best literature, we deny them access to advancement. The privileged students in private schools around the world study the greats of literature and history. They, too, learn to think critically, but they do so with the finest materials.
          I guess the question comes down to whether education is merely about the skills or also about the content we use to teach those skills. Learning about the past — wars, successes, thought, plans — places us in a continuum of human learning. It gives students a perspective on their place and ideas now that they need in order to become educated world citizens. For me, it is that context in which critical thinking must take place.

          • karen mahon says:

            I just want to thank both of you, Suzanne and Matt, for having such a rousing and civil debate on this. It’s fascinating for me, because I didn’t know there were such diametric views on context!

            Here’s my angle on the whole thing: whether context is critical or not, I want to see definitions of “success” for student goals. What does success look like? Can we define it in a way that two or more people can agree that it has been achieved? I’m not advocating for multiple-choice standardized assessments. I’m simply saying that we need to have performance objectives and definitions that students (and their teachers) are working toward.

            I wrote another post about the false dichotomy of intrinsic vs. extrinsic reinforcement, so won’t repeat that here, but if you’re interested in reading it, check it out.

  5. Another great post Karen…just showing another side and angle to these arguments raised in education. I wonder if your reference to criterion-based testing leaves room for single-subject data collection? I like the idea of a student’s own performance before and after learning being the reference point. A student whose baseline was zero, then after X amount of teaching can now demonstrate the skill 50% of the time still made progress. On a standardized test however, they’d appear as a failure. I think this approach also leaves room for differentiated instruction and individualization of a student’s learning program.

    • karen mahon says:

      Hi Tricia-Lee- I think criterion-based testing and single-subject design are perfectly compatible. The fact that criterion-based testing is amenable to single-subject design manipulations is part of the appeal, for me.And you’re exactly right in your point about a student moving from a baseline of 0 up to 50%…a HUGE gain for an individual learner, but unimpressive in a norm-referenced evaluation. Thanks for adding your thoughts!

  6. karen mahon says:

    I’m posting this comment on behalf of my twitter pal, Andrew Coy, who had a wordpress snafu with my blog. You can reply to Andrew’s comment here, or follow him on twitter @andrewcoy.

    “As one who was in the audience at ISTE for the presentation Will Richardson gave titled (, and as an educator in Baltimore’s inner city, I strongly feel that there are numerous things that we do indeed need to “unlearn” about education. In most of the US, the education system is for all intents and purposes functioning normally and fulfilling the purpose it did 100 years ago, or so it would seem. Looking down the road to the 5, 10, 15 year mark out of school, however, and there is a much different picture. Systemic unemployment that does not seem to be abating is devastating the lives and dreams of countless individuals and families. While countless Americans can’t find jobs, however, countless companies can’t find workers. In the greater Baltimore region alone there are close to 40,000 jobs in the Cyber Security profession that pay close to or more than 6-figure salaries and across the nation, for every single unemployed person there is an average of two tech-related job openings. The problem this country faces is not a jobs problem, it is an education one — and unless we unlearn some of the systemic assumptions we have surrounding education this gap will only grow wider. In more suburban school districts, everything seems to be progressing normally and fulfilling its purpose for society. In urban and extreme rural settings, however, there are ever-growing stress marks of a broken system that is failing the individuals it purports to serve. As Yong Zhao recently spoke about during his ISTE keynote (, perhaps America is further ahead of other countries not because we are better at taking tests but because we are simply less efficient at driving out the creativity of our students. Which brings me to the question you asked rhetorically “How does this play itself out when kids are allowed to create their own education?” but that you did not sincerely look to answer. What does happen when we free students to create their own education? As Dale Stephens and others advocate at and even more in the unschool movement are demonstrating, the educational system as it stands today does not own the corner on the market of why students learn. What would happen if students created their own learning opportunities? Would it create more life-long learners if school was not something you “finished” when you earned a degree or wished you could go back to later in life? What would happen if you let a student’s passion drive their learning? I recently met with the head of a department at a major international internet company who told a group of teachers I had brought to tour their facilities. He told us that he did not need an employee who had a set of skills but rather that he wanted one who had the passion — the skills could all be taught if there was passion. So I ask, sincerely, what if we let students discover and explore their passions? And this does not negate the need for structure and for students to be exposed to a constantly new array of opportunities for them to “accidentally discover” their passions as so many of us do at some point in our lives (hopefully), but this does necessitate the need to fill a student’s day so full with things that they have no time to develop and explore what motivates them intrinsically. And this exploration should be inherently social — which is actually where I take issue with your comment “Rather than using norm-referenced tests that create competition by comparing students to each other, we should drive education forward on the basis of ipsative, criterion-referenced tests that allow every student to achieve mastery.” This mindset is still operating under the paradigm as a student as an individual. All of the companies I look at and see being the most successful, however, do not operate under similar constraints of individual metrics. In a factory, each task is separated sufficiently to merit such measurements, but in a knowledge-based economy we need teams of individuals working seamlessly together. The problem of the “free-loader” betrays to me more about the problem of the design of the assignment and the ensuing engagement of the students’ passions than it does the failings of group work. And I worry that in our desire to standardize all aspects of learning — in the effort to arrive at the place where “there should be a defined criterion by which every student’s performance is evaluated” — fails to address the need we have in this country for new ideas that don’t fit into old molds. I don’t want every student knowing the same thing, I want every student being passionate about learning and engaged in solving real-world problems. And this brings me to my last point for what has turned into a rather lengthily reply to your post — the old factory model of education born in the industrial era is broken. In a knowledge-worker economy you need the apprenticeships of an earlier era coupled with self-discovery through readily available tools. You need passion and determination. The rest you will learn along the way to accomplishing the challenge you choose to accept in life.”

    • karen mahon says:

      Andrew, I really appreciate your taking the time to think this through and respond. I’m going to attempt to be as thoughtful in my response.

      First, let me take a stab at what I agree with you about.
      1. I agree that school requirements are not the only reason that students pursue learning opportunities.
      2. As someone who has hired many people, I agree that there are certain “qualities” that I look for in a new employee that trump their having a particular skill set that I can teach them as part of the job. (More on that in a bit.)
      3. I have no problem with part of the school day being devoted to students exploring topics that they like.
      4. I agree totally that kids need to be taught to work in teams, socially and collaboratively, not just taught to work as individuals.
      5. I agree that kids need to be taught to be creative and innovative.

      I think where you and I are likely to disagree is in the “implementation details.”

      Let me elaborate on my statements above:
      1. In my opinion, the purpose of school isn’t to LIMIT learning opportunities. It is to provide, minimally, a generally useful skill set that can then be used to springboard into other opportunities. I learn a TON of new stuff on twitter and blogs every day. And the fact that I learned to decode and comprehend text in school is what gave me the core skills that allow me to read twitter and blogs. I consider myself a life-long learner, for sure. But the explanation for that is not just that I am “passionate about” what I learn about on twitter and blogs… that explanation is confounded by the fact that I am a highly capable reader.

      2. I actually really like this example because I think it’s so fallacious. The department head said he could teach a new employee all the skills he needs, as long as he has passion. But of course that’s not what he really means. It’s unlikely that the department head is going to hire a “passionate” person who can’t read, write, communicate clearly, etc. etc. He’s really just talking about hiring a person who lacks some finite set of skill that can be trained. I do the same basic thing…I hire people who are excellent writers, who are good problem solvers, good critical thinkers, take instruction and feedback well, etc. I can teach them the other things I need them to do. But there is a wide range of strong, composite, generally-useful skills they need to have in order to be hired in the first place.

      3. No elaboration necessary, except to say that the part of the day when students explore topics they “like” is in addition to, not in lieu of, the arranged curriculum.

      4. If I suggested that students should ONLY be taught as individual learners then that certainly isn’t what I meant to suggest. Certainly kids need to be taught to work together collaboratively in effective ways. That said, I think the collaborative work is an extension of the primary instruction, not the core. I don’t think the comparison of companies is a good one. In companies, you have individuals who come together and, with plenty of well-established skills sets already under their belts, combine their capacities with those of their peers in order to form something new. But the key is that they are bringing those well-established skill sets to the table. Kids who are acquiring new skills are not. And it is during this acquisition period that they should be evaluated individually. Not because individual learning is inherently “better” than learning as part of a team, but because individual learning is easier to measure, thereby allowing us to ensure that ALL learners have the requisite skills. I’m sure we all have been part of a “group project” either in school or at work in which a couple of people did all the work and the others just cruised? That’s why individual evaluation is so important…to reflect the skills of the individuals, not just the whole, which may not be representative. But beyond skill capacities, kids definitely need to be taught the skills to work together collaboratively and socially; how to share with others, how to listen to others, etc. But these are still skills that need to be defined and taught; they don’t just emerge on their own.

      Finally, of course we want kids to be creative and innovative. Again, those are skills that can be defined. Creativity = the invention or origination of any new thing (a product, solution, artwork, literary work, joke, etc. Innovation = the creation of better or more effective products, processes, services, technologies, or ideas. We can teach these skills; we can teach critical thinking and problem solving. These skills and capacities are too important to let kids flounder, trying to “discover” them on their own. We know how to operationalize these categories of skill and we need to own that responsibility.

      So here is my thing, at the end of the day, Andrew. When I hear broad terms like “passion” and “determination,” my questions are: What is that? What does it look like? What does a kid have to do so that you know he has passion? What does a kid do to demonstrate determination? If those are the targets you want to achieve, I’m on board. But I am all about definitions that help me measure outputs and outcomes. And it’s not ONLY because I’m pedantic. 🙂 It’s because we have a responsibility to these kids to make sure they are as fully-equipped and skilled as we can make them before turning them loose into the world. And if we don’t measure that stuff, we have no way of knowing (not just wishing and hoping) that we have, collectively, done our job.

      • I really like the approach you took in this email to first identify the areas where you agree! I think this provides a good framework for advancing the discussion towards a positive result. Another thing that I have been thinking about is whether the overall school system could also benefit from a very similar approach in how it guides and assists the teachers. If the system supports teachers, then teachers will be better able to support students. So, what about taking your five points and applying them to the teachers?

        1. Student achievement and standard test scores are not the only reason that teachers pursue teaching opportunities.
        2. There are certain “qualities” that schools look for in new teachers that trumps their having a particular skill set.
        3. Teachers would benefit from part of the school day being devoted to allowing them to exploring innovative tools and figure out ways to improve their teaching.
        4. Teachers can benefit from collaborating with other teachers in other schools.
        5. Teachers need to be taught to be creative and innovative.

        If the system helps teachers to thrive, then I believe that school will be a much different experience for students.

        • karen mahon says:

          Why Brad, I do believe you are providing me with positive reinforcement! 🙂

          I like your proposal about extending the 5 items on which Andrew and I agreed to teachers as well.

          My struggle, however, is that Andrew and I have significant disagreements. The areas where we agree are pretty general…so general, in fact, that I think it would be difficult for anyone to disagree with them. The more challenging task would be to find ways for us to reconcile the areas where we disagree!

  7. Paul Genge says:

    Hi Karen,

    I’m with Will
    I get where you are coming from. Objective measurement and scientific thought have brought immeasurable gifts to modern life. We no longer fire canons on city outskirts to scare away a threatening pandemic and doctors don’t prescribe bloodletting when we’re sick. I think we’re all deeply grateful for that. The fruits of modern medicine and technology have given us a breath taking quality of life. There’s no question. I have a background in science, including Psychology. I have written up enough lab reports to understand the importance of objective and measurable observation in the ways that science builds evidence-based knowledge about the world. Educators see problems in education. We are born with a love of learning but how many of us loved school? Some of us wonder if standardization impedes our own highest professional standards as teachers. Will Richardson is contributing to a vision that educates students for a world that will require very different ways of working and being than those we are used to.

    Make Schools Different (Seth Godin)

    So what is this broader vision of education?

    Eric Hoffer said, “In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”

    “Teach a kid to fish and they’ll feed themselves – and those skills will last a lifetime.” John Seely Brown and Doug Thomas point out that “in a world of constant disruption, the pond is providing us with fewer and fewer things that we can identify as fish.” A defined skill set would once last a career. When was the last time you didn’t feel some pressure to rapidly “skill up” to better serve students? The argument goes beyond a simple focus on skills to the types of learning dispositions today’s youth will need to thrive in the fluid world of flux we expect they will live in.

    There’s no way that I can absorb and describe the whole of the conversation out there about this new vision of education. But here’s my (frustratingly diminutive) brain-sized chunk of some of what I understand it to be. Because we “lock in” outcomes and assessment ahead of student engagement, we seek to educate children from the “outside in” instead of from the “inside out”. Your blog and this conversation are based on our common personal interest. If we were forced to discuss a topic neither of us was interested in, how engaged would we be? This is precisely what we ask our students to do! You minimize the importance of collaboration in favour of individual ipsative and criterion based testing. Collaboration and networking are the very principles that are driving your investment and learning through your blog and Twitter. Yet you deny their value for students who would be better served by improved forms of testing. Against what external standard would you base the merits of points made in our discussion? How would that standardized measure offer anything of value beyond the feedback of our peers with the same interest?

    This new vision of education does not start with a recipe of long lists of content outcomes for students. It does not apply a “one size fits all” template to every student. Rather, it starts with student interest, and focuses on helping students to find and develop their strengths while giving them the agency to do real-world, meaningful work. Give students choice and voice and they will vault over the standards we set for them! Think of how the learning as demonstrated in interest groups around the Harry Potter novels engaged so many young people. Knowledge economies grew up where students created wizard music and debated every aspect of the novels’ plot, character, writing style, etc. There was an available community based on every conceivable interest around those books. “Genres”, online interest groups with a better culture, inform the discussion. How these students learn is affirmed by an amazing synthesis of research across so many fields of at least the last two decades. Richardson’s TED Talk gives the example of how his daughter was adeptly playing a Journey song on the piano, with a lesson and sheet music she found on the internet. When her piano teacher arrived she exclaimed, “But she’s not ready!” His second example is of how high school student Mark Klassen, has become an exceptional cinematographer through participation in an online interest group who have guided and provided feedback and “taught” him all that he is able to do, today. Learning is not necessarily linear, especially with a read/write web and the networking opportunities at students’ disposal today.

    What If?

    What would happen if we asked students to solve real and authentic problems? What if we connected them to other students and teachers around the world in a vibrant community of learners? Can we not introduce students to communities of practice where their work will make them feel what it is like to be a scientist, an entrepreneur, a citizen committed to a social issue, a doctor, a designer, a tradesperson, a writer, a city planner, etc? Don’t we underestimate student capabilities? Can we try to serve the pluralism of our students with a framework that allows students to come more self-aware, that expands their personal boundaries, broadens their sense of community and has the potential of being transformative? Could the solutions to problems they are seeking cross disciplines? Every field of study has its own particular ways of viewing the world, of building new knowledge and solving problems. Do you not see the benefit of students exploring how different disciplines inform their inquiry, making use of the best of what each has to offer? Won’t students learn more about these fields by going deeper in their understanding and knowledge in fewer areas than just scratching the surface of so many? Education seems more than a product to be delivered. It is not an information packet we transmit and some basic skills to apply them. We wish to create a space where students can participate in a process of disciplined inquiry, where they unravel a mystery of personal interest, or come closer to understanding the essential arguments and perspectives that inform us in those questions to which a solution or “truth” is not completely knowable. Schools could be shrines to curiosity, wonder and personal development.

    Not a Free for All

    Your concern about students completely building their own curriculum is unfounded. There might be a small minority of students who can direct their own learning without a great deal of supervision. The proportion of students able to do this might increase for High School students of Richardson’s experience. For that minority there is the Sudbury Model of self-directed learning to consider. For most students, this would be an obvious disservice and a recipe for a lot of wasted time. Teachers know that the level of autonomy and support that teachers will give students depends on their ability to direct their own learning. You have to realize that teachers get excited about students learning things deeply. We usually have a love of the disciplines we are exploring and have high expectations in relation to the learning that takes place in our classes. “History” won’t be reduced to what happened on last season’s “American Idol”,Scientific thought won’t be limited to popping a Mentos in a Coke bottle, Language Arts will not be reduced to texting acronyms. The conversation is about creating a space where students can engage deeply in more experimental and error-welcoming forms of engagement. Look at these problem-based, collaborative inquiry schools where teachers, students and parents are pioneering these ideas. See if you can find signs of a lack of focus on quality learning: Expeditionary Schools, Dennis Littky’s Big Picture Schools, Envision, The New Tech Network, Science Leadership Academy or The Calgary Science School.

    Personalization > Standardization

    No educator would argue with being provided with information that helps to understand how students are doing. You argue for improved standardized assessments. In reality, current assessments focus on lower level cognitive skills. Forcing students to perform their skills in the same way, which is important to you, might be an improvement over tests. But it takes away from the personalization of learning. Mark Klassen, for example, might be able to make a visual argument that lasts thirty seconds and has more impact than any of your other standardized instruments ever would have. His video could demonstrate valuable real life skills, provide an outlet for creativity and have him participating in a caring community. Because there is some freedom that starts with his strengths and passions he finishes high school with real confidence about his abilities and how he can make a contribution in many situations. But, unless a video was the standard way of demonstrating skill development in relation to a skill for all students, then it would not be accepted. That opportunity is lost. Conversely, if an essay were the way students would demonstrate learning, Mark would write several practice essays each year. We all need to learn to communicate and write but why lock this student into one medium or format when there are so many obvious benefits to making learning personal? Would his performance in relation to standards be as strong as if he had been permitted to create the visual argument? Multiply this by all the students in the school and think about how liberating and rich this environment would be for learning, if you allow for the creation of different products to demonstrate learning! A standardized system does not lend itself to the type of learning that we aspire to encourage in our schools.

    My Objection to Objectivity

    I know your appeal in this debate will be to objectivity and measurement. You’ll ask for a definition, say that it is not operational and then dismiss it as being unenlightened. But what is it about quantification that is so decisive? Can you quantify how your favourite song makes you think and feel? Do you have a favourite novel, poem or musical? What grade would you give it? Explain how that data captures the meaning of that experience to you in any way that is of value. Some of our biggest decisions are made based on our subjective feelings and intuitions about them. My decision to get married and have kids wasn’t based on data. The proof of student learning is in the work itself. We know when compassion, empathy, resilience and drive are “present” in a student’s work. Why would we need a number to measure them? Why would we bother? Whose interests are served? I don’t understand how measurement is some form of ultimate appeal that ends all debate in your mind. We cannot devise objective measures of all that we aspire to achieve with students. There is no scheme that will allow us to capture all of the subtleties of learning among individuals in any objective or standardized way. This does pose a dilemma. Teachers are keen to discuss ways of knowing how large numbers of students are doing across states or provinces in a reliable way that does not suffocate learning. Authentic and local assessment is all that we need to be helpful in providing nuanced feedback for our current students.

    Learning as Behaviour?

    Defining learning as behaviour seems inadequate. Take the multiplication and division of fractions for example. To multiply two fractions we have to multiply the numerators and denominators of each to come up with the product. To divide fractions we flip the numerator and denominator of the second fraction (a reciprocal) and then perform the operation of multiplication. Students can perform this behaviour without understanding anything about what is happening when we multiply and divide fractions. But remembering the behaviour of creating a reciprocal when you notice the division sign will get them full credit on any standardized test they are asked to do. The teacher is encouraged to teach for understanding so that students might build on these concepts later. But that teacher has an over prescribed, content overloaded curriculum to “cover” where the state test at the end measures “mastery” of that concept as a behaviour. What are the government policies regarding curriculum and assessment telling her are important? Are they promoting deep understanding? Culture trumps all and a key element of culture is what we measure and celebrate. What is in the culture of the school and learning framework, other than that teacher’s personal responsibility and beliefs that will encourage her to devote two or three times the class time and effort that this would take to help students experience and come to understand what is really happening when we perform these operations with fractions? Why do our policies fail to reward initiative? Standardized tests and, likely, improved standardized measures that you encourage, are distancing and demoralizing. Coverage is encouraged. In an age of information abundance, social media and a computer in many pockets, students will come to see school as being increasingly irrelevant to their learning and to the world that they live in. Data driven accountability, or precisely, our obsession with it, reinforces this classic system that prepares students for our past and not their futures. It discourages us from living by our core values and brightest lights in schools.

    I believe there are fields more fertile than Behaviour Analysis for informing a vision of education in the 21st century. There seems to be an air of superiority in providing a carrot here, a stick there until a behaviour is reliably conditioned. It doesn’t seem to honour the wholeness of what students experience as learning. You reject any definition of learning that is not “operational. Is it possible that this Behaviour Analysis lens through which you view the world has become a screen? BA seems to say, “We’ll examine a bunch of operational data to see what works functionally for people. Then we’ll create an environment of incentives and consequences where there will be an increase in the desired behaviours we have targeted.” You might as well be standing above a maze figuring out how to get more rats to learn their way through. This might work for “stand alone” software delivering some type of content and basic skills. But it seems an unlikely and barren landscape that has little to offer a vision of deep seated and overdue change in the culture of learning in schools.

    • karen mahon says:

      Hi Paul- I thank you very sincerely for your comments. This clearly took a lot of time and effort and I appreciate it. I need a couple of days to process everything you wrote and compose my response to it. But wanted to thank you right away and let you know that I’m working on it!

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  12. Douglas Hainline says:

    Do look at this link, and in particular at the video to which it links at the end.
    Little children, 6 and 7 years, not from privileged backgrounds, doing algebra.

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