Let Them Eat Napkins
Would you still drive a car if it was the Ford Model T? No? Even if the paint was new and it had air conditioning? The answer would always be “no,” said one education reform expert, because no matter how much you spruce up an old model, there’s always a maximum capacity … and the same applies to education.
During the American Association of School Administrators’ National Conference on Education Julie Mathiesen, director of Technology & Innovation in Education (TIE), a professional development organization based in Rapid City, S.D., argued that the only way to achieve true education reform is to redesign student learning from class time to curriculum, and from teaching styles to learning spaces.
A key way to accomplish this reform, said Mathiesen, is to implement “Mass Customized Learning,” in which the instruction is tailored to each student’s needs and interests. And technology helps make this mass customization possible through personalized digital learning.
“The current Industrial Age system of education is working perfectly,” she said, “if you’re looking for 25 percent skilled and 75 percent unskilled students—[or] if you’re looking to have around one million students fail to graduate high school every year. We need to completely revamp the system.”
According to Mathiesen, the old way of learning doesn’t work anymore, because students are living in a world where they are no longer “told” how to think and don’t process and learn through “telling.” Instead, students learn by doing and by learning anytime, anywhere.
“One way to accomplish this is through the use of technology. I heard a great quote recently,” said Mathiesen, smiling: “‘The web and technology are setting out a great buffet of teaching and learning tools; however, most schools are just eating the napkins.’ If schools could learn about some of the great, free resources available, and learn how to engage students, true reform could start to take hold. We can’t keep simply tinkering with education.”
Along with the Model T reference, Mathiesen also discussed the book Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life , by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
According to the theory of “Flow,” there’s a boredom threshold and a challenge threshold. For example, we’re all skilled at clapping our hands but would find this too boring to do for fun. Like clapping hands, class activities can’t be based solely on skills—they have to be exciting and engaging as well.
Now take the example of knitting: People who knit like to apply skills to a challenging task to stimulate their mind. But if you say to those people, “You must knit a sweater and accomplish it all, perfectly, in one hour,” most will find it too challenging and quit.
“The classroom must be a place that balances both skill and engagement, and it can’t be limited to a time and place. One way to accomplish this engaging, successful, 24-7 learning environment is through customization that’s currently available through a number of resources,” said Mathiesen.
According to TIE, Mass Customized Learning (MCL) is described in this scenario: “What if every day, every learner came to school and was met with customized learning activities at his or her precise developmental and achievement level, was learning in his or her most effective learning style with content of interest, was challenged, was successful, and left school eager to come back tomorrow?”
An example of MCL can be seen in this video, which theorizes what a student’s MCL experience would look like:
Mathiesen also named a number of free online resources that educators can use to reach and engage their students. Examples include:
• iTunesU : K-12 curriculum videos are also included.
• Google Earth : It’s not just a map; it also includes activities such as looking at classical art in museums in Italy and mapping shark and whale migratory patterns, to name a few.
• Wolfram Alpha : A computational knowledge engine.
• Khan Academy : Free online lectures and videos.
• CK-12.org : These free online textbooks are also customizable and include many interactive components.
A full list of online resources and tools, as well as Mathiesen’s presentation, can be found on her TIE wiki page .
More information about TIE’s approach to MCL, including a rubric to get started, can be found in the book Inevitable: Mass Customized Learning, Learning in the Age of Empowerment, by Chuck Schwann and Beatrice McGarvey. Information can be found here .
TIE also is collaborating with the authors of this book to produce a field book of resources to support educational leaders in implementing MCL. A sample of resources from the soon-to-be published field book can be found here .
“Obviously, you can’t go into your school tomorrow and say, ‘OK, let’s implement MCL in one day,’”
Mathiesen said, “but you can start by identifying important content and skills today’s students need [and] determining how best students can learn these, by customizing content and by redefining space and time constraints.”