Social promotion and the direction of schools

The following was a response to a comment on my posting about Ombama’s education agenda (at the time of publication). Given the length (it wouldn’t completely publish in the comments), I thought that I would just make it a post.

It reads a lot like a comment. The organization could use a lot of work, but this isn’t a paper now, is it? 🙂

The original comment was criticizing social promotion (age-based grouping) in schools.

I agree that age-based tracking is the wrong approach. The justification is that students who are in classes with younger OR older students have affective issues. This is certainly possible (and even likely), but I feel that the greater good will be served by ability-based tracking. This is also an issue of socialization. When this becomes the norm, those affective issues with fade to a large extent.

Of course, we could just do nothing, just stay the course. We can continue to sail straight into the abyss 🙂

I’m not one of those people who scream 21ST CENTURY SKILLS down the halls of the schools. I don’t really believe that 21st century skills are fundamentally different than 20th century skills. The tools are certainly different, but the skills of critical thinking are the same now as they always have been. The greatest difference is the ability to filter out all the junk. However, I do believe that 21st century schools should/will be significantly different than 20th century schools. This view comes from the landscape of changing technologies, societal needs, and global competition/resources.

Changing technologies enable, and even promote, decentralized learning. 20th century schools were about aggregation of staff, resources, and students. This model was based on logistical realities of the time. Resources had to be localized in order to interact with them. Great teachers in Paris couldn’t serve students in rural Illinois. Schools, therefore, had to do their best to bring the mountain to Muhammad.

The costs and skills necessary to do this required increasing amounts of money and education’s version of mergers and acquisitions. Districts (School Corporations) grew increasingly larger and more complex to manage these items and issues. At this point, we are seeing the fallout from this model. Districts are finding that they cannot continue to fund everything that they need to do to keep going. These massive organizations are finding that they are top-heavy, but there is nothing that they can to to solve this. It is the natural progression of the business model. You can restructure the business as much as you want, but aside from completely systemic change, the business will never recover.

21st century schools will be about accessing the widely distributed knowledge and abilities of the global populace. Information is no longer scarce and, thus, schools are no longer the owners of that information. Schools will be more about decentralizing education, thus localizing education. This localization, however, comes in the context of access to global information and interaction.

So, what does a 21st Century school look like? I don’t know. Why don’t you tell me.

My vision would be a flexible space that is both virtual and real. The “classroom” would cease to be a room and more of a concept where people gather to share information. Classes in this view are more about collections of diverse lessons, tasks, projects, and so forth. The class then becomes an aggregation of activities than address standards as well as steps to achieving short and long-term goals.

The greatest change, though, must be the change in social expectations of what education is. For instance, standardized assessment and social promotion must die. As long as these exist, the above changes can never succeed. These are the tail wagging the dog. Standardized assessment is not inherently problematic. The implementation is the problem. Standardized assessment encourages educational systems to strive for improvements on test performance. Therefore, you get test effect on curriculum. When this occurs, the freedom of exploration necessary in my vision is not possible.

As for social promotion (age grouping), this approach assumes that learners benefit most from learning with their age grouped peers. This is certainly possible in my vision and could even be implemented in some ways, such as “homerooms” or classes that focus on making sense of the learners’ places in society. These kinds of age-based striations could be beneficial for establishing a sense of community and for socializing students (still a role for schools). Aside from these, strict, curriculum-wide age-based grouping stifles flexible learning initiatives by effectively requiring that age, not ability/interest/goals/etc drive grouping.

This is much more than I intended to write and the organization is terrible as it is largely stream of consciousness, but my thoughts (in a rudimentary form) on the direction of education are here. Let me know what you think.

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