It all starts with Literacy.

Meet Michael Horn, education disrupter


Michael Horn Michael Horn, activist and writer, is spearheading efforts to turn the education system on its ear: to move away from the familiar old classroom, in which students learn in large groups and advance from grade to grade, too fast for some kids, too slowly for others.

That’s been called “the factory model” of education. And just as the factory era has given way to the information age, Horn argues, it’s time for teaching methods that are far more individualized and geared to each student’s specific capabilities and learning pace.

Co-founder of the Innosight Institute, in San Mateo, Calif., he’s the co-author of Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. BusinessWeek named it one of the 10 Best Innovation & Design Books of 2008 and Newsweek placed it 14th on its list of “Fifty Books for Our Times.”

“There’s a lot of reason for optimism now,” Horn says.

“I see so much innovation coming from the ground up. I see so many entrepreneurs coming out with solutions for students. I see teachers eager to make a change, and I see school leaders knowing that the current systems don’t work and looking for different ways of doing this.

“And online learning is growing very, very rapidly across the world, and so that presents itself as an opportunity to transform our education system into something that’s far more student-centric. Which is exciting.”

We spoke to Horn recently by phone.

You talk a lot about assessments — especially, competency based assessments. Why is that so important?

Basically, we know that everybody learns at different paces. We have different learning needs. And the way today’s education system works, subjects go by and you catch something at the time. And that creates this hole in your learning.

Think of the way we do assessments now. We test and measure at the end of the course — or the end of the factory line, if you will. We find, Oh my goodness, you didn’t understand the concept introduced back in Week Two, which then affected your understanding of the rest of the course, and it created just a spiraling effect — and we wonder why we have such high failure rates, and so many people who are turned off to learning, and so forth.

And a competency-based learning system, with competency-based assessments, really flips that around, so that you have assessments basically in real time as you’re going through the curriculum or learning. So you have assessments on the spot, so you master it. And if you didn’t get it, OK, we’re going to kick back in, until you really do get it.

Rather than assessment being an autopsy, to figure out the percentage of students who didn’t get it right, now assessments are being driven to inform learning and push every child forward.

Are there schools now that are doing it this way, and are we seeing good results?

Yeah, we’re starting to see some really bright lights around the country right now. There’s a lot of schools that have adopted blended learning — a combination of online learning inside of the school. To make that work and unlock the promise of online learning to individualize the learning for every student, you really need a competency-based framework.

So, for example, there’s Carpe Diem, a school based in Arizona and Hoosier Academies, in Indianapolis, where they’ve really adopted this mindset. Students don’t progress to the next units unless they truly master where they are, they’re getting outstanding results. Carpe Diem is one of the top schools in Arizona, with a pretty marginal population.

The state of New Hampshire is starting to take some big steps forward toward competency-based education, and it’s interesting, they needed to get waivers from the No Child Left Behind Education Act. Because to truly do competency-based learning you need a totally different assessment paradigm to go along with it.

In many states now, assessments are equated with standardized tests, which result in grades for schools. How would competency-based assessments satisfy  people who have pushed that kind of testing in the name of accountability?

I think if we’re being honest, we’re not quite sure exactly how some of these things will change, but we have some ideas. Today in a way, testing is based on this one snapshot in time. it’s sort of a top-down way of going about it.

With a competency based assessment we’ll have a much more bottoms-up, granular view of where every student is on any given day. So it will far more accountable, far more transparent. And we’ll start to look at true growth of each student and start judging schools, not on where all their students are at a given point in time, but based on are they truly able to make great progress with these students — which is a much more accurate measure of how good a school is, right?

I’ll give hypothetical. A student at a 2nd-grade reading level but is quote-unquote in the 5th grade based on age — if you improve them to a 4th-grade reading level, but give them the 5th-grade test, they’re still not going to look terribly good. But that school just made enormous progress with that student! And we ought to capture that and appreciate that.

I’d rather have an accountability system that actually could tell me that, and — even deeper than the way I just framed it — what concepts is he or she actually struggling on? I think that that would be a much more transparent system for parents, for schools, for teachers, for principals — and much fairer, as well.

Where does digital learning play into this?

I think it’s awfully hard to imagine how you’d do competency-based learning at scale unless you have digital learning. Competency-based coupled with digital learning just totally complement each other.

Digital learning allows you to give unbelievably rapid feedback to students in almost real time on lots of concepts. It allows you to individualize far more affordably and easily for students. And you can have assessments almost interwoven in some ways into content that students are working with, to constantly assess where they are and then planning what they do next.

So those things are really just two peas in a pod with each other.

It sounds like we’ve arrived at a point where technology and ideas on where to take education are coming together.

Yeah, I think that’s right. At long last, right?

Do you find that school districts are receptive to change?

It seems to me school districts are very receptive to these ideas, that they want to make these changes, and that they get excited by this vision. But the thing that I always see with districts though, is they can’t always figure out how to get out of their own way.

And I think the reason is that they’re running huge legacy systems that have built on themselves for years and years and years. Part of the shift is, you’re going to have to stop doing some things you have been doing, and start doing things you haven’t done before. And it’s hard because it requires different ways of budgeting and paying for things, and on and on.

I’m encouraged because the majority of districts are using online learning in some ways, whether it’s for credit recovery or advanced courses or foreign languages, things of that nature. Which is great, because I think it’s getting a start and it’s growing.

What I think the next step for them to do is to accelerate that adoption and to start asking the question, are we doing this just to save money or are we doing this to transform into a student-centric system? And that second question is going to be really the tough one to answer, I think — and where we’ll need the most work.

Do you see instances in which reform is headed in the wrong direction?

I think so. I see some credit-recovery courses [for students to make up courses they’ve failed] that are not particularly good. They’re just doing it to pass students on, and using the teacher in a passive role.

Trouble is, the teacher has to be involved, but the role is different. It’s not lecturing, but mentoring, answering questions.  This tends to be more rewarding, but the teacher needs to understand that the role is changing.

You’re saying teaching is becoming more interesting. Does this mean the profession will attract better people?

Yes, I think there’s a real possibility. While it’s true you may have larger class sizes, I think we’ll be able to pay teachers more under some of these models.

I think you can imagine some really exciting differentiated roles from teachers. For example, you can have some people who are good as content experts, and they can work from almost anywhere to answer students’ questions. And you can have some teachers on the ground who are mentors. And you can have case workers who can handle non-academic problems.

So you can allow for a lot of specialization for teachers to do what they’re really good at, and you can have team-teaching models that can make the profession a much more rewarding and exciting thing for a lot of people to get into.

(Interview conducted by staff writer Howard Goodman. It was edited for space and clarity.)


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