Category Archives: solitude

More on Competency Based Education

While I wait to see what, if anything, comes out of the SF 2284 conference committee this week, I have been giving further thought to competency-based education.  (See previous post here.)

Competency-based education presents an opportunity to re-examine how students spend time in school and who directs the use of that time.  As a Montessori advocate, I am interested in seeing schools be able to move away from strict seat time requirements.  This could allow students to flexibly allocate school time among areas of study according to how much time they personally need to master content and skills in those areas.  In addition, CBE could allow students to allocate more school time to areas of personal interest.

I could see CBE potentially opening the door for the expansion of public Montessori programs in Iowa.  I could also see CBE supporting the use of blended learning environments which could allow students to move along at an individual pace in some areas (math, spelling, grammar, decoding, or writing, for example) while still offering group instruction in others (literature, history, music, art, science, or physical education, for example).

While I can imagine CBE done well, I sadly have no trouble imagining CBE done poorly.

Matt Townsley raises one possible pitfall, when he suggests that students, who have mastered basic competencies in the curricular area, could be assigned more complex or challenging competencies to master (teacher directed use of time freed up by earlier demonstration of competency rather than student directed use of that time).  Townsley notes, rightly I think, that students may find that to be a disincentive to earlier mastery of content and skills, which a reader described to me as turning learning into a Sisyphean task.

Another possibility is that CBE could reduce K-12 education even further to little more than test preparation.  That is, the focus on assessment (and individualized pace) may crowd out the immeasurable or less measurable aspects of a good education.  Is there value to moving through the curriculum with a cohort?  Is there value in the opportunity to discuss literature or history or science with other students reading the same literature, studying the same history, or doing the same science experiments?  Is there value to spreading out coursework over a semester or two to allow students time to develop thoughts rather than just rushing through to pass the CBE test and then moving on to something new?*  Do seat time requirements provide space for the less measurable aspects of a good education to happen and can we preserve those aspects while moving towards a competency-based education program?

I do think there is value to moving through a curriculum with a cohort and making the time for thoughtful study.  I also think that CBE can be accomplished while preserving opportunities to form cohorts and provide time for thoughtful study (see Montessori).  What competency-based education ultimately will look like in Iowa remains to be seen.

*I recommend Diana Senechal’s Republic of Noise on these points, including the measurable and immeasurable aspects of education, benefits of thoughtful study, and the importance of testing ideas in both the private and public spheres.

The Cult of Success

In reading Diana Senechal’s The Republic of Noise, I found a framework for thinking about the direction of Iowa’s education policy, including current reform efforts.  We, or at least Iowa’s education policymakers, are succumbing to, or have already succumbed to, the cult of success.

Senechal observes that the definition of success has been narrowed to focus on visible, external aspects of success.  Success and achievement are talked of without much mention of what we are to succeed at or what we are to achieve and whether those are meaningful successes or achievements; the important thing is to outrank others and earn money.  As a result, there is a great “devotion to metrics: the modern “science” of measuring everything we do, in order to increase our chances and our profits.”  (p.117)  Which, in turn, can cause us to focus too narrowly on only those aspects of education that can be measured.  This is unfortunate because, as Senechal notes, “we need a mixture of the visible and invisible, the measurable and the unmeasurable–and that the former sometimes gives us a glimpse of the latter.”  (p. 125)

This grasp of the mixture of the visible and invisible, the measurable and immeasurable, was at one point a central aspect of liberal education, part of every study and part of the spirit of study.  In mathematics, one wrestled with abstract concepts that did not translate immediately into practical examples; in literature, one tried to grasp what made a passage particularly beautiful.  Such efforts varied, of course, from school to school, teacher to teacher, and student to student, but learning went far beyond the literal and immediately applicable.  Teachers and professors delighted in the students who pursued subjects out of interest, not just for a grade.  A lecturer could make artful use of a digression, and at least some students would listen for the connections and the meaning.  Today the teacher who digresses is frowned upon; everything in a lesson is supposed to move toward a specific measurable goal.  Teachers are supposed to announce the objective at the start of the lesson, remind students of the objective throughout the lesson, and demonstrate attainment of the objective at the end.  (p. 126)

It isn’t difficult to find evidence of the influence of the cult of success on Iowa education policy.  Consider the vision, mission, goals, and guiding principles of the Iowa Department of Education.  Iowa students are to be “productive” and “successful.”  The Department is to champion “excellence” and students are to “achieve at a high level” and “pursue postsecondary education in order to drive economic success.”  How exactly students are to be productive and successful and what they are to be achieving at a high level is unclear, except that they are to be economically successful.

Current reform efforts have been driven by Iowa’s slipping rankings on the NAEP exams compared to other states.  The Education Blueprint  looks to set goals for graduation rates and top statewide performance on national standardized assessments and to focus on creating economically successful students:

Whether our children succeed in a global economy depends on whether we create world-class schools.

This blueprint is an urgent call to do just that. We must work together to transform schools so our youngsters are better prepared for a competitive international marketplace.  Setting higher expectations for all students is essential so they are equipped to someday meet growing demands by employers.

As many old jobs become obsolete, getting students ready for new jobs requires more than raising achievement in subjects like math and science. Students today also must learn how to quickly assimilate new knowledge, solve problems, and be innovative.

We are going to out rank other states (and nations) on standardized assessments and ensure economic success through measurement.  The plan is to add more assessments and evaluations: more standardized exams for students; personality tests, content tests, and new evaluations including value-added measurement for teachers; and new evaluations for administrators.  We are going to create new accountability measures for schools and data-driven decision-make ourselves to high standardized test scores and economic competitiveness.

Sadly, there is little concern for what actually happens in the classroom and little discussion of the content and skills that make for a well-educated person beyond what can be measured by current standardized exams or is likely to result in a paycheck.*  Will Iowa students graduate capable of signing their own names in cursive or having studied Shakespeare?  Who knows.  Current education policy is about measurable results and not the mix of measurable and immeasurable benefits of a liberal arts and sciences education.  Shouldn’t we expect more than a focus on rankings and job skills from “world-class” schools?

*For more evidence of the Department’s fixation on students as future workers, consider, for example, the Iowa Core: Birth to Five Essential Concepts and Skills (identifies employability skills for infants, toddlers, and preschool-age children) and I Have a Plan Iowa  (career interest quiz and career exploration for elementary-age children featuring an animated puppy as the children’s guide through Jobland).

Education Technology

I sometimes joke that I am a Luddite, but the truth is that I am an enthusiastic user of technology; I am simply not an early adopter.  I use GPS navigation in my car, carry a cellphone, and haven’t used a typewriter since 1990.  I don’t miss film cameras and while I am occasionally nostalgic about mixtapes, I wouldn’t trade iTunes for my old Sony Walkman.  I appreciate blogs, online shopping, and checking library catalogs without leaving home.  I appreciate being able to listen in on the Iowa House and the relative ease with which legislative bills, government documents, and journal articles can be found online.

Still I remain skeptical about the value of technology in education.

Sometimes the technology seems to be just a more expensive way to perform a task that less expensive technology can perform.  Like interactive whiteboards being used to perform tasks that ordinary whiteboards, overhead projectors, or DVD players can perform.

Sometimes technology causes us to overlook the fact that the lesson or the work produced is otherwise unimpressive.  For example, an Iowa district posted links to student created websites to promote a special academic program.  Upon inspection, one of the websites amounted to several tenth graders working together to write a few paragraphs citing two wikipedia articles and pasting in a few images.  Surely no one would boast about having tenth graders working as a group to write five paragraphs citing a few World Book Encyclopedia articles, which is all this project ultimately amounted to with the technology stripped away.

Worse, sometimes the technology becomes an obstacle for effective or efficient instruction.  For example, the Iowa Core considers effective use of technology an essential characteristic of a world-class curriculum in mathematics, which is in direct conflict with the expectation of the University of Iowa that entering students will be proficient in arithmetic with integers and fractions without the use of calculators and the observation that “[students] need to develop a good number sense and the kind of familiarity with numbers that comes from use of paper and pencil techniques for acquiring skills in arithmetic.”

As another example, the Model Iowa Core endorses the use of technology to engage and motivate students, apparently based on the work of Professor Chris Dede of Harvard University, who suggests that “[o]lder students could participate in a Star Trek [multi-user virtual environment](Dede and Palombo 2004) that integrates mathematics as they navigate the Starship Enterprise, engineering as they maintain the warp engines, and anthropology as they learn to communicate with alien species.”  (See this blog post for further details and citations.)  This might be fun for a few students, but it is surely a grossly inefficient way to learn content and puts the focus on the technology rather than on serious study of the subject matter disciplines.

In Republic of Noise, Diana Senechal highlights some other potential pitfalls of the use of technology in education.  Chapters 3 and 8, in particular, are worth reading on this issue.

Certainly, I am giddy at the prospect that before too long, technology could put an entire reference library and collection of classic literature in every child’s pocket.  It isn’t hard to see that technology could streamline administrative tasks and improve transparency of school district operations.  But I just can’t work up any enthusiasm for classrooms transformed by technology into video arcades or telemarketing cubicles.  To me, that feels like spending a lot of money to eat off trays in the living room while we watch HDTV and send texts to other people instead of making the effort to sit around the table together for a meal and conversation without distraction or outside interruption.



I just finished reading Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture by Diana Senechal.

The book touches on themes I have been thinking and reading about: common standards, relevance, busywork, group work, the use of research in setting education policy, and the use of technology in education.  The book has provided me with words and frameworks for thinking about what have been formless, nagging doubts about various policies:  mass personalization, solitude, and public versus private purposes of public education.

The book also touches on themes I haven’t been thinking or reading about (but perhaps will now): discernment, loneliness, solitude, how we define success and achievement, and the twentieth-century reform movements that have shaped current practice in schools.

My first read of this book was a bit rushed, as I was anxious to see all of what Diana Senechal had to say.  I will be thinking about this book and rereading it more carefully.  I suspect it will spark some writing related to Iowa education policy in upcoming weeks (time permitting).