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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Unbundling Coursework and the Transformation of High School

By Guest Blogger — March 03, 2017 5 min read
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This week, Rick is off talking about his forthcoming book, Letters to a Young Education Reformer. Letters won’t be officially released until late April, but you can learn more about it here and order an advance copy here. While Rick is away, we’ve got an illustrious line-up of guest stars. This week, Ed Jones, head of the Hackable High Schools initiative, will be guest-blogging.

I met Pharaoh at a Meetup on AI computer voice. “I’m so nervous,” he said in the hall. “This is my first Meetup. I’m only 18. I’ve got to find a better crowd to hang with. My friends...they just smoke so much. I taught myself JavaScript. I’m fascinated by biologic/wearable tech. My school—they had nothing.”

It’s been a great week, Rick. Thank you so much for the chance to talk unbundled learning.

It’s hard to imagine a better exemplar for LRNG‘s “People. Passion. Production. Purpose.” than the gap between Pharaoh and where he should have been—nor a better argument for a new Coherent Value Network of school for millions of teens like him.

The makerspace we introduced yesterday is just one of many possible alternative places where teens might “level up” their high school learning. In Ohio, several arts centers have already been the location of credit-bearing learning. Museums, libraries, parks, pop-up labs, medical facilities, even banquet halls might serve well. So far, just a few teens have been able to so learn and grow.

Where do teens now level up their learning outside school? My niece and nephews spent hours of their school day traveling to community college—for little relative gain. Early college has its place, but it’s too often wrongly used. And it doesn’t help many learners who need added help the most.

How can all schools offer teens a chance to meet adults, to pursue passions, and to learn more broadly and deeply than the standard course offerings allow? To add more civics, finance, and arts?

When I proposed Monday that we can double teen learning, it was via several fundamental concepts of transformation. One is the unbundling of courses into smaller chunks, represented by some kind of micro-credentials. A second is the possibility of scheduling such learning much more tightly and personally. A third was a new CVN for teens.

So, how might every teen increasingly be able to “check out” of parts of the school day and check in to a much wider variety of learning? Not by heading to a community college, but by taking advantage of a large menu of learning experiences?

I’ve urged that “Black Teens Can Code, Too. Why They Should Might Surprise You.” Yet not just code, but explore the culture of historical Africa? Or explore some issues of urban planning? Or grow in confidence in certain trades? And what about all those students in small rural schools?

Have you tried Code School? I ask not because of what teens can learn there, but rather for how Code School approaches teaching and learning. Courses there are based on mastery, not seat time. Irreverently constructed with bad musical ditties, the courses also include an element of fun missing from much online coursework. Another aspect of Code School (and mastery-based learning in general) is that it better answers a human tendency that the bell schedule does not. Namely, that people obsess about things.

The “chunking” concept we introduced is well-illustrated by Code School: A “course” there includes five hours to a third of a semester’s learning—perfect examples of chunking for high school. To progress within a course, you simply have to “level up,” as in most video games. [For more on this, see Competency-Based Learning.] Completing a level earns you an Open Badge, as does completing the course. (Didn’t complete the entire course? You can still show the world the chunks you completed.) Capstone, project-based work can be created to round out the mastery.

Thinking about more core learning? MOOCulus works great for teens. So does Khan Academy, CK12, and SmartHistory. However, we don’t yet have a consistent way of approaching these outside the traditional teacher-led class. We should.

Why formally enable this kind of learning? Especially if we’re laser-focused on closing equity and achievement gaps or when our main policy goal is to raise up the learning of teens in our most lagging schools and neighborhoods?

While many teens come to these schools with needs not prevalent elsewhere, their peers in the same schools are ready and eager to move beyond the basics, to get the deeper learning that’s available in other schools nationwide. Gifted teens in so many schools are also simply left out. Wherever they’re at in terms of vocabulary, skills, focus, and independence, teens who are ready for deeper learning need to be able to access it immediately, even when their school’s staff and resources are more focused on their peers with more basic needs.

Wednesday, I introduced Sean Wheeler and the model makerspace public school his team designed. One element that made this design so compelling was their use of micro-credentials at every stage of their teens’ learning. At the core of their model was an unbundling of coursework, allowing teens to pursue larger, more individualized learning paths. To achieve this freedom, the micro-credential-based approach would enable them to tear up the normal course-based approach to schooling.

We can, more generally, call this a new high school operating system. In the end, high school will fundamentally improve when we explosively add learning opportunities for teens.

In the hoped-for makerspace I conjured up yesterday, there’s other learning transpiring:

In a conference area, four teens learn Arabic via Duolingo, a proven language game. Their teacher of record doesn’t speak more than a few words of Arabic, but she’s not concerned. The Duolingo curriculum has been vetted by teachers across the state, and she’s confident they are learning ahead of normal pace.

Of the group, Alyssa began to study the language back in 7th grade and has leveled up since. She’s doing a great job helping the other three when they’re stuck; she has even joined the state’s Educators Rising group and earned some partial credits in educational practice. Similar approaches can help teens more interested in health and biosciences or business and entrepreneurship. The building blocks are out there.

How do teachers, teens, and schools find these? They need help.

—Ed Jones

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.