New Lease on Life for Old Innovations?

Are you a fan of online learning?  Or, more generally, what is now being called “digital learning?”  Many schools and districts are jumping on this bandwagon, and those who believe the solution to our educational problems lies in the marketplace say online learning is the disruptive innovation that will trigger sea change in how we go about schooling kids.

Recently, as I read a policy brief on the topic from the Innosight Institute, it struck me that so many of the concepts and positive features associated with “digital learning” are not at all new.  In 1970, at UCLA’s lab school, teaching interns learned to “individualize learning.”  That meant pre-testing students and tailoring learning activities to reflect what students already knew.  We used a variety of “programmed” materials for independent work.  We grouped students with shared needs.  We re-assessed progress frequently and regrouped students as needed.

At the lab school we were also taught to “personalize” learning, though we did not call it that then.  We were told to make instruction “meaningful” to the students.  In practice, this meant getting to know your students well and then designing learning activities that would appeal to their interests and make sense to them.  We were also taught to vary the amount of pressure we put on individual students; the theory was that some students needed more prodding and structure while others might wilt or withdraw if pushed too hard.

My first teaching job was at a non-graded elementary school.  Instead of the usual first grade, second grade, etc., we had three school divisions: early elementary, middle elementary, and upper elementary.  A typical student might spend three years in early elementary (including a kindergarten year), two years in the middle level, and two years in the upper level.  However, we had the option of moving students earlier or later without having to make a decision to hold back or skip a student until what would have been 5th or 6th grade—a point at which you had a lot more information about a student then you would have when making a repeat-kindergarten or repeat- first-grade sort of decision.

In the 1980’s, the district in which I worked launched a new initiative in outcomes based education.   Of course that quickly became referred to as OBE.  The district hired William Spady, the “father of OBE,” to come and indoctrinate us all in the concepts and practices of OBE.  The gist of his message was that schools should focus on what students will face after graduation, and then “design down” from the outcomes for all other aspects of educational delivery.  He presaged the idea of learning as “the constant” and time “as the variable” with his emphasis on “expanded opportunity and instructional support.”

It was also during the 80’s that I was introduced to competency-based learning systems in the form of criterion-referenced assessment.   Define what students needed to know and/or be able to do in order to demonstrate mastery.  Then test them.  They either met the bar or did not.  If they did not, give them time and opportunity to learn some more and test again.  William Glasser’s approach in Schools Without Failure depended on such assessments.

In their time, each of these practices—individualized instruction, non-graded schools, outcomes-based education, criterion-referenced  assessment—were considered “innovations.”  I guess they were never disruptive, though.  Certainly, they did not spread and become the norm.  Perhaps digital technology will give them a new lease on life.

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