Evolution for Education Systems?

SXSWedu 2016 underscored the importance of personalized learning. In fact, the conference came to a close with a series of sessions on this topic. Among many substantial lessons, the value of serving the learner on an individualized level may have been my greatest take-away from SXSW.

I’m not a leading researcher or academic in the field of education, but it’s hard to disagree with the notion that education systems worldwide must evolve beyond the old factory model. One-size-fits-all scalable education made sense in the context of the industrial revolution, but it is increasingly raising eyebrows in today’s context. “We would never use the same treatment and length of stay for hospital patients irrespective of the ailment with which each individual patient presented,” Paul Reville, the Francis Keppel Professor of Practice of Educational Policy and Administration at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, said at the conference on March 10.

For children and adults alike, there are so many factors that can shape an individual’s ideal learning environment and path including everything from health and social wellness to learning opportunities outside of school. In fact, research demonstrates that affluence directly correlates with increased learning opportunities beyond the school environment, placing families with fewer resources at a disadvantage. Taking these differences into account, and in an effort to level the playing field, there are schools that have begun to embrace wrap-around services that provide students and families with access to social services, after-school tutors, recreation, and more.

Innovative programs that recognize the unique needs of students as individuals cannot be embraced fast enough. In a SXSWedu session with Todd Rose, author of The End of Average, he said that education personalization at scale is hindered by what Rose calls “the myth of the average.” Learning is often designed around the idea of the “average person,” but this person doesn’t actually exist. The average is merely a combination of a wide range of data that fail to capture the reality for any one individual.

One poignant example outside of education of the problem with catering to “the average” comes from researcher Gilbert Daniels with regards to the evolution of cockpit design in fighter jets. There are ten measurements of a pilot’s body that are required to determine the correct design of a cockpit. In order to fit all pilots, early jet cockpits were designed to fit the averages of these ten body measurements across the entire air force. An important problem arose when not one pilot properly fit in the average cockpit design. When they went back to the data, ”not one single pilot was actually average,” Daniels says. Every pilot had what is called a jagged profile–there was not one pilot with more than two body measurements that fit in the average measurement profile.

There was a time when we were forced to use the average to inform systemic education decisions because we didn’t know how to service individuals. Technology, psychology, and self-directed learners, and much more are challenging our shortcomings.

We must ask ourselves how our understanding about these methods and their effectiveness has changed? We need to apply the context today’s realities to our education decisions or we will lose learners to potentially low quality self-driven solutions like YouTube and Wikipedia.

Throughout history, we have often only provided students with one path. For example, we’ve conveyed the idea that smart means learning something quickly. In other words: if you complete a test in the smallest amount of time with the best results, you’re the smartest. Research challenges this premise. Edward Thorndike, the father of education psychology, taught that the relationship between pace and intelligence has been misunderstood. Tests assume that kids who are unable to complete the test in the allotted time will be unable to reach the correct answers with additional time. But when researchers tested this theory, they found that the top performers in a timed class exam scenario are not actually the top performers when students are allowed to work at their own pace. And the worst performing students in a timed class exam scenarios can actually be the top performers in a self-paced scenario.

While many students enjoy educational success, many more are left behind. Teachers often fill the gap by caring and catering in ways that break the mold and “fix” the systems on an ad hoc basis (at least for some students).

We are using an education system built on a context that is likely past its usefulness. This begs the question: are education relics creating hurdles in today’s classrooms? “When you take context seriously, it clarifies and simplifies what averages obscure,” said Rose. By looking deeply at the context of learning and learners today, solutions organically arise.

I will never pretend to have all the answers. But I believe it is up to individuals like you and I to raise awareness and express urgency on this topic. We should challenge the notion of child as a learning receptacle. I believe if we looked to other innovation educators and youth in the very classrooms whose needs we are failing, we will find many of the answers we need. We must review our education systems and evolve to best serve each and every learner in Canada and abroad.


Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not of The HR Gazette or its team members.

Author: Juliana Trichilo Cina

I’m an academic at heart with a love for the practical. My time at the University of Toronto and Queens University were some of the best years of my life. Today, I am deeply involved with my work, family, friends, and insatiable need to learn. While my love for tradition runs deep, as a first generation Canadian, I am eager to usher in new ways of thinking. I love communications, gardening, technology, and folk music—I was once called a bundle of contradictions and I couldn’t agree more. I’m a daughter, sister, wife, mother, friend, reader, animal lover, and wannabe comedian. I live in Toronto with my husband, son, and pet rabbit.

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