Three Reasons Why We Keep Reinventing The Same Learning Technology Every Few Years
If you're interested in changing the status quo in education, you'll need to speak WITH and not PAST these reasons.
I’m coming here today not to judge any particular learning technology, just to wonder why we keep reinventing it every few years, generally without any reference to previous versions. I’m trying to understand why its appeal seems inexhaustible and what that appeal says about popular conceptions of what it means to teach and learn.
Here is a system called Individually Prescribed Instruction from the late 1960s:
Students are provided with self-study aids, such as pre-recorded cassettes and videos, library references, computer-assisted instruction, sample tests, or programmed learning modules. [..] When a prescription is completed, the work is checked by the teacher, and if it is satisfactory, the student proceeds with the unit.
Sound familiar? You might recognize the same kind of premise with Khan Academy and the “flipped classroom” movement in the early 2010s:
She's now on her way to "flipping" the way her class works. This involves replacing some of her lectures with Khan's videos, which students can watch at home. Then, in class, they focus on working problem sets. The idea is to invert the normal rhythms of school, so that lectures are viewed on the kids' own time and homework is done at school.
Or the Modern Classrooms project here in the 2020s:
In a Modern Classroom, educators forego [sic] the traditional front-of-class lecture to provide shorter forms of direct instruction that students can access whenever and wherever they might be. In this way, educators duplicate themselves digitally, allowing them to more freely respond to the various needs in their classrooms.
In a Modern Classroom, students go at their own pace. They don’t move onto the next lesson simply because it’s time or because they completed the requisite work. They move on when they have mastered the concept and are ready to build on that skill.
If you get close to the surface of classrooms, it can seem like we all have drastically different ideas about teaching and learning. Everyone is using a different curriculum, different strategies, different stuff!
But what’s interesting to me about this same technology returning from cold storage every few years is that it reveals a secret. It reveals what a huge group of people—including large subsets of the national media, venture capitalists, startup founders, parents, teachers, administrators, etc—believe about education but don’t often say out loud or even necessarily think about consciously.
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The most prevalent of those beliefs seems to be that:
Teaching involves the transfer of extended amounts of information from expert to novice, enough information to make pre-recording it worthwhile.
We can measure teaching quality by the quality of the pre-recorded information transfer—its clarity, its engagement, its effect on learners—and we would ideally invite the people who are the best of the best at that kind of information transfer to pre-record the information.
Learning is the act of an individual and the presence of other learners with differing traits (existing knowledge, interest, participation styles, etc.) inhibits that learning. Therefore, each learner should learn from the pre-recorded information that is best for them.
You can use, love, and probably even invent these technologies without holding onto any of those beliefs exactly. I’m not describing any one person’s beliefs about education. I’m trying to describe why these particular technologies, all of which share a bunch of common DNA, become very popular every few years. That popularization is the work of a group, not an individual.
Part of my work right now is communicating the value of a very different kind of educational technology than the one we keep re-animating. Perhaps you’re in a similar position in your school, district, or board. From that vantage point, I think it’s extremely helpful to understand these enduring beliefs about education, the ones shared by lots of people you’ll need to persuade. Change requires us to speak with those ideas, rather than past them.
[s/o to basically everyone in this Twitter thread sharing their ideas on this same question.]
To answer your question directly, I believe that self-paced learning keeps cropping up as a solution because:
1. It's (kind of) a good idea. It tries to address one of the most obvious problems in conventional math education, which is that kids are forced to move on to the next topic even when they have not mastered the previous topic, which creates holes in their knowledge. Sal Khan has written about this eloquently.
2. It's easy to build. It does not require creating any new curriculum. However, it is NOT easy to implement, since it requires that teachers track and manage kids who are at different points in the curriculum. That's why it keeps failing. (Side note: English classes already allow a degree of self-pacing by allowing kids to read books at their own level, supported by a children's literature with reading-level-graded books. So it IS possible to allow self-pacing and still have the benefits of group interaction.)
3. It's easy to sell. This I think is the biggest reason this keeps coming up. I think that deeper solutions like group projects, group discussion of hard meaningful problems, etc. are far more important than just adding a variable speed knob to the assembly line, but these sorts of reforms directly challenge conventional ways of teaching math, and create a lot of resistance among teachers and administrators. So the easiest thing to sell is "let's do exactly the same thing, but allow variable pacing."
4. BUT it doesn't actually fix the problem. In the long run, doing the same thing faster is exactly what gets our society into trouble, whether we're talking about math education, energy use, global warming, or income disparity. One way or another we do need to do things very differently.
SO, I consider that the challenge for us math revolutionaries is to find ways to sell a deeper better solution in a way that it gets adopted and absorbed, not diluted and rejected.
The follow-on questions to your question are then:
Why do math reform efforts keep failing?
I've lived through New Math, Back to Basics, and Common Core, and all three have big obvious flaws in their conception or execution. The net result is mass PTSD around math education reform.
How can we create a successful math reform movement?
This is what interests me, and I infer, interests you.
Thanks for your leadership. I'm going to start a substack where I write about these issues directly.
The problem with maths eduction is it has to submit to a syllabus. I’m teaching myself and I use a non linear approach using hyperlinks.
This means that I’ll embark on a maths journey say Bayes Theorem and I’ll use a book on that subject and when I hit a brick wall (an area of maths I’ve forgotten or not familiar with) I backtrack, learn what needs to be learned and then move on.
I try to stay in the real world and apply what I’ve learned to pragmatic problems as soon as possible. Some websites use a form of hyperlink such as Maths Is Fun. I think hyperlinking could be used more extensively where at every step the student is presented with various options which take them on different routes. These routes can also be tailored to the desired outcomes of the student.
Unfortunately this type of study only works for the individual as opposed to the one-size-fits-all classroom education which is dependent on whatever syllabus demands of it. Also formal maths education is often divorced from reality to a large extent and only appeals to those type of students that enjoy theory as opposed to application in the real world. I suspect the formal classroom way of education does not encourage those that approach maths in a different way which may be a loss ot mathematics.