Teaching Opinion

The Promise & Challenge of Student-Centered Learning

By Tom Vander Ark — September 24, 2018 13 min read
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In the old days (like 3 years ago) we told computers what to do, now they increasingly figure it out on their own. Artificial intelligence--code that learns--will prove to be humankind’s greatest invention. It will help cure disease, create clean energy, produce cheap safe transportation. It will also displace jobs, concentrate wealth, and create new existential risks. AI will have more influence on the lives and livelihoods of young people than any other factor.

Our #AskAboutAI investigation identified eight key trends shaping the future of work:

  1. Change is exponential but we still think linear.
  2. Every field is computational, everyone is augmented.
  3. Most work delivery by diverse teams (complexity > experts).
  4. Majority freelance/gig workers in 10 years (now for high school grads).
  5. Everyone experiencing novelty and complexity at work and in life.
  6. AI will eat the middle of the job market, unemployment and income inequality will increase.
  7. AI creates employment and contribution opportunity for people and communities that skill up and support entrepreneurship.
  8. AI will outstrip the civic capacity to deal with rapid-fire complexity.

The World Economic Forum calls this bundle of AI-driven trends the Fourth Industrial Revolution (the first three were steam, electricity, and computers). It demands a new approach to learning and living together in community.

AI will steadily improve teaching and learning as well as most back office services. Following right behind it will be improvements in security, portability, and efficiency using distributed ledger technologies.

We see a dozen trends shaping the future of learning (particularly P-12):

  1. Personalized skill building
  2. Community-connected projects with public products
  3. Dynamic grouping (skill, interest, theme, age) and scheduling
  4. Progress on demonstrated mastery with teacher and machine-scored tasks
  5. AR/VR + Voice as the new interface for a 4 screen day
  6. Interoperable formative provides composite real-time status
  7. Expanded (official) student records and portable (curated) learner profiles
  8. Smart recommendations provide informed options
  9. Stackable micro credentials (earned anywhere) signal progress
  10. Rapid pathways to good jobs and affordable postsecondary
  11. Space that supports dynamic models (with cheap, safe transport)
  12. Talent development is personalized and competency-based

Given the extraordinary opportunities and challenges of the world of work and the new chance to personalize learning, it’s a good time to reconsider what it takes to be successful.

What Should Graduates Know and Be Able to Do?

This year’s first graders are the class of 2030. Those graduates will live in a very different world with new challenges and opportunities. We owe it to them to discuss what graduates should know and be able to do.

There is a broad movement to expand the definition of success from basic literacies to work and life readiness. In the last few years, a number of outcome frameworks have been introduced that value success skills including:

  • NGLC MyWays: a well-developed framework from Next Generation Learning Challenges that builds on David Conley’s Think, Know, Act, Go framework. Stressing applied knowledge, MyWays includes “wayfinding” and “creative know-how.” NGLC provides lots of resources and some assessment strategies across the framework
  • ACT Holistic Framework: early learning to job training, has assessments behind most dimensions
  • XQ Learner Goals: a composite framework that provides guidance to 19 super school grantees. To “creative and generative thinking,” XQ adds “Learning for life”
  • KnowledgeWorks’ Foundation of Readiness puts social and emotional at the heart of an outcome framework focused on the future of work
  • Vermont’s 7 Transferable Skills include 34 sub-skills with enough detail to guide assessment. Schools and districts can modify and expand
  • Battelle’s Portrait of a Graduate: with a nod to the 4Cs from P21, Battelle resources include a gallery of sample graduate profiles and a roadmap for how to construct them

It’s time for communities conversations about an updated set of goals for school--goals that reflect the future of work and life. With those new priorities in mind, the next question is what kinds of learner experiences will produce the knowledge, skills, and dispositions for success?

4 Tenets of Student-Centered Learning

Self-direction and project-management can be learned by engaging in extended challenges. Individual needs can be addressed through personalized learning. More time and support can be provided through competency-based progressions. Social capital can be developed by supporting rich community connections. The Nellie Mae Education Foundation calls this approach student-centered learning.

With new practices, tools, and structures, student-centered learning holds the promise of providing powerful learning experiences for every student while developing deeper learning outcomes. The four tenets of student-centered learning (see the Students At The Center Hub) are described below with associated trends and challenges.

Personalized learning recognizes that students engage in different ways and in different places. Students benefit from individually-paced, targeted learning tasks that start from where the student is, formatively assess existing skills and knowledge, and address the student’s needs and interests. Working together, educators, parents, and students customize instruction as much as possible to students’ individual developmental needs, skills, and interests. Students develop connections to each other, their teachers, and other adults that support their learning.

Signs of progress and key trends include:

Barriers and equity challenges include:

  • Technically challenging: apps, Wi-Fi, and schedules
  • Inadequate learning platforms limit individual pathways
  • Can’t combine formative (weak interoperability)
  • Sameness reinforced by structure, staffing, testing, and tradition
  • Class management challenge: lots of activity, new roles
  • Struggling students require more time and support
  • Risk of small tasks focus on low-level skill building (and no extended challenges that promote higher order skills)

Competency-based learning enables students to move ahead in the curriculum based not on the number of hours they spend in the classroom but, primarily, on their ability to demonstrate that they have reached key milestones along the path to mastery of core competencies and bodies of knowledge.

Signs of progress and key trends include:

Barriers and equity challenges include:

  • Technical, structural, political and talent challenges
  • No consistent way to measure learning
  • Inadequate learning platforms limit individual pathways
  • Can’t combine formative (weak interoperability)
  • Low stakeholder demand (from higher ed and parents)
  • Struggling students require more time and support
  • Risk of skills checklist with binary assessment (no extended integrated challenges)

Anywhere anytime learning creates equitable options to learn outside of the typical school schedule and away from the campus. Whether that means studying online, completing an internship over the summer, or taking advantage of some other out-of-school opportunity, they can receive credit for the knowledge and skills they master.

Signs of progress and key trends include:

  • More organizations using badging platforms to certify learning
  • LRNG badging for out-of-school learning
  • Place-based and project-based learning are spreading: schools in libraries, zoos, museums, manufacturing plants, micro-schools (15-150 students) are spreading

Barriers and equity challenges include:

  • Need consistent ways to measure learning
  • Districts guard budgets, resist portable funding
  • Challenge to fund equitable access to quality out-of-school learning
  • Risk of low-level field trips, bad online choices
  • Quality guidance is key to equity as options expand

Ownership (Agency, Growth Mindset) is developed as students gain an increased understanding of and responsibility for their own learning via frequent opportunities to decide such things as the topics they study, the books they read, the projects they pursue, and the curricular pathways they take en route to meeting college and career-ready standards.

Signs of progress and key trends include:

  • Growth in project-based learning with more voice and choice (e.g., New Tech Network assesses agency in each project)
  • Widespread recognition of growth mindset: effort matters
  • Secondary advisory (distributed counseling) is key but idiosyncratic
  • Advocates: “learners are active participants in their learning as they gradually become owners of it.” (Education Reimagined)

Barriers and equity challenges include:

  • Standards-based reforms reinforced teacher-directed cohort learning which may improve test scores but can reduce self-direction and persistence
  • Challenging to integrated standards-based and interest-based learning (i.e., where/how to add voice and choice)
  • Most teachers not trained in student-centered learning
  • Risk: interest isn’t always the best next step

How to Promote Student-Centered Learning?

Projects can be a great way to promote extended community-connected challenges that uniquely produce deeper learning. Some projects can be individual, some team-based; some with a specific product and some that require an iterative solution; some teacher-directed but with increasing voice and choice; and some community-connected projects resulting in public product.

Individualized skill-building strategies before and during projects enable equitable participation.

Next generation assessment, as David Conley describes it, promotes student ownership of learning and help students identify interests and develop self-knowledge. By producing actionable information, assessment profiles guide development and goal attainment.

Improved data interoperability will allow many forms of assessment to be combined. Smart tools will allow different learner profiles to be compared.

Advisory systems in secondary schools are a distributed modeling of counseling that provides a daily check-in for academic and personal growth. They often provide opportunities to build social and emotional learning skills.

DIY doesn’t work

Most schools cannot figure this out on their own. Personalized and project-based learning is complicated. Developing aligning structures, spaces, schedules, and staffing is hard. Building an integrated technology stack is complicated. Most measures are immature and hard to combine.

As discussed in Better Together, networks can reduce complexity and improve effectiveness in every classroom.

Some networks share outcome frameworks (IB, Building 21). A growing number of networks share learning models and platform tools (New Tech Network, Summit Learning). Curriculum networks share partial school models and digital tools (PLTW, AVID). Regional collaborations like the Pittsburgh Personalized Learning network and leadership networks like the League of Innovative Schools share best practices and attack common problems.

School visits are the best way to learn. Check out 100 middle and high schools worth visiting and 85 K-8 schools worth visiting.

10 State Policy Levers for Boosting Student-Centered Learning

States that want to advance student-centered learning have at least 10 levers: standards, assessments, accountability, funding, certification, authorization, resources, infrastructure, incentives, and partnerships.

Standards. State learning expectations are communicated as student learning goals (standards), summative assessments, graduation requirements, and occasionally as graduate profiles (like Virginia and South Carolina). Potential next step:

  • Express career ready aims but avoid incorporating immature measures into accountability systems.

State assessments (and accountability) most concretely express what’s really valued. Potential Next Steps:

  • Subsidize climate and SEL surveys (PanoramaEd)
  • Create plans for skinny summative (banking on cumulative validity and interoperability)
  • Pilot diploma networks with assessment systems proven reliable and comparable

Accountability systems reinforce grade-level proficiency, dampen competency progressions and reduce the focus on career-ready outcomes. Potential next steps:

  • Consider a performance assessment pilot (like New Hampshire)
  • Pilot addition of work-ready skills to an extended transcript (24 states already use climate survey as an early proxy)

Funding signals values. In many states, funding remains unequal and reinforces inequitable practices. Potential next steps:

  • Increase weighted funding to support equitable learning
  • Pilot prepaid accounts for out-of-school learning (could make it a blockchain pilot)

Certification is the talent gateway. Potential next steps:

  • Increase alternative certification flexibility
  • Sponsor (then require) personalized and competency-based preparation

Authorizing new schools can target types, locations, and student groups. Potential next step:

  • RFP for student-centered schools in underserved areas (supported by grant funding).

Resources. States can subsidize or provide important resources such as curriculum and guidance information. Potential next steps:

  • Sponsor open curriculum units (e.g., Louisiana) and guidance programs (e.g., Washington)
  • Subsidize personalized learning platforms (e.g., Canvas in Utah)
  • Sponsor robotics activities (e.g., FIRST)
  • Sponsor maker activities (e.g., MyMachine in Belgium)

Infrastructure. Access to devices and broadband facilitates anywhere anytime learning. State data systems can be a barrier to SCL. Potential next steps:

  • Check for equitable access: ask your education department for a report on broadband in schools
  • Consider partnerships to expand family access at community hotspots
  • Modify data systems to support nontraditional grading and progress reporting

Incentives. State grant programs can be helpful in scaling innovation:

  • Straight A Fund in Ohio ($280 million) resulted in networks
  • Texas High School Project (now EdTx.org) yielded 135 STEM and early college high schools
  • Virginia awarded 10 $50,0000 high school innovation grants

Potential state sources of investment: reserving a portion of federal Title 1,2 or 4 grants; seeking national grants, and partnering with nonprofits that run statewide programs (eg, Highlander Institute in Rhode Island).

Partnerships can expand learning opportunities, improve college access, and improve youth/family services. Potential next steps:

  • Require Higher Ed to accept competency transcript (could expand homeschool provisions)
  • Support College Promise Campaign (based on Tennessee Promise)
  • Encourage district-charter collaboration (eg, Texas SGS)

The dominant philanthropic view has a strong point of view on half of these levers: Common Core aligned standards and assessments; strong accountability; weighted, flexible, and portable funding; and cities as multiple-operator portfolios with equitable resources and access.

Diploma networks are an alternative way to spread student-centered learning. As the Building 21 network illustrated, diploma networks are schools that work together with a shared outcome frameworks and assessment systems, and platforms including curriculum materials and professional learning opportunities. As schools join geographic or thematic diploma networks, states could reduce required summative assessments.

Student-centered learning is promising but challenging in many respects. It requires new goals and new roles; new incentives and new supports (for both teachers and students); new partnerships and new measures of success.

Well implemented, student-centered systems will produce more equitable results --more young people prepared to contribute in this age of innovation.

For more

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The opinions expressed in Vander Ark on Innovation 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.