The Paradigm Shift of Student-Centered Learning
By Charles Sosnik
So what is a paradigm anyway? The short answer is a widely-held set of beliefs, a philosophical or theoretical framework from which to understand, interpret and act on data and events.
In the education biz, we have viewed events and acted based on a very old and widely accepted definition of education. Children are to be educated. They are to follow a set path and receive a certain body of knowledge that designates them as “educated.” This body of knowledge is to be disseminated during structured time frames by educators, the keepers of the knowledge. That’s how we did it. That’s how our parents did it. And their parents. And theirs.
As an institution, school is somehow sacred. A right. Until the age of 18, children are wards of the state. Four out of five are expected to successfully traverse this system and come out the other side educated and conditioned for success in the adult, or real world. And the other 20 percent? Well, four out of five ain’t bad.
Of those 80 percent of children that graduate our well-honed system, 2/3 are not proficient in mathematics or reading and writing. Breaking it down, out of 50 million school-aged children, 40 million will graduate the system and, after 12 long, structured years of training, 26 Million will not be proficient in math and language arts. Of the 14 million who are proficient, many will enter college and get a further body of knowledge and a degree stating that they were there for four or five years or more. And some of those will become teachers, keepers of the knowledge to impart on future generations.
I don’t know about you, but I’d like to explore a new paradigm.
Peter Haapala is the superintendent of Warroad Public Schools ISD 690 in Warroad, MN. He is a long-time friend and contributor to the Learning Counsel. Recently, he sent us this note as he was thinking through his district’s transition to a student-centered and more personalized approach to learning. “As we are beginning the formation of Cohort 2 in our Personalized Learning journey, I have been reflecting on the past year and wondering why Cohort 1 has had some of the struggles observed over the past months. Perhaps it is because the paradigm shift from school-centered to learner-centered is hard and most of us are still using the school-centered paradigm and talking across paradigms.” Peter is one of the most thoughtful educators I have met in my years of covering the education space, and his point is insightful.
We all see things through a lens that was ground and polished by years of personal experience. It is our own unique perspective. Since we all grew up in a school-centered system, we believe that this is the way education is done. It is our perspective. It’s not a view we came to after years of careful consideration. It just is. That’s why the school-centered paradigm is such a powerful one. We were raised on it, steeped in the belief that this is what education looks like. We can’t see changes from a new set of eyes. We see what we see. And that’s the rub.
I tried to think of anything that looks the same as it did 150 years ago. Prairie life is all but gone. Plumbing is indoors now. City factories no longer are made of individuals laboring for 40 years in the same repetitive activities. The West is won. The family farm no longer feeds the world. We can travel more than 15 miles in a day. The mail no longer takes three weeks to travel 300 miles. We have 50 states. Neighbors rarely come together for a barn-raising. We can eat anything we want due to refrigeration. Most of your children will live past 30. In fact, the only thing that looks the same as it did 150 years ago is education.
Let’s look at the world that our kids will enter in 20 years and put aside the fact that the world is already changed. Technology, automation and robotics are expected to eliminate 50 percent of current jobs. Many of us have heard that and we shake our heads up and down, yet why that doesn’t scare us silly I have no idea. I’m just a simple journalist, but if I were responsible for making decisions about education, I would think that would create a little more urgency. So why are we still having the same old arguments? It’s because we all tend to see solutions through our individual frames of reference. If you have a back ache, a chiropractor will prescribe spinal manipulation. A surgeon will recommend surgery. If your children have a deficiency in learning, the education community will prescribe more versions of the same education. It’s our paradigm. And it’s a very slow one.
A more modern paradigm, and one that will prepare our children for the world they will assume, is student-centered learning. Districts like Warroad Public Schools ISD 690 are already making the transition. But it is a process. Peter Haapala is seeing struggles, and he is right to publicize those struggles and bring them to the light of day. He is transitioning from a widely-held set of beliefs to a system that is unknown and untested. I’d be suspect if he didn’t have challenges. Even the terms that we use have different meanings and different expectations of outcome. That’s what Peter meant by “talking across paradigms.” For example, in the school-centered paradigm, personalized learning means to individualize learning opportunities to a child so he or she can move through grade levels to amass the predetermined body of knowledge. In the student-centered paradigm, personalized learning means to work with the child to decide a path of learning with no predetermined outcome. With even the basic terms of operation up for grabs, it’s easy to see the confusion caused by talking across paradigms.
But the paradigm shift may not be as difficult as one might think. Learning is becoming consumerized. There is actually more money being spent on learning swag on the consumer side of education than in schools.
Much of this swag is built from the ground up to be sophisticated, learner-centric programming that allows for learner choice without a predetermination of outcome. These learning programs are finding their way into schools, allowing technology to do the heavy lifting so teachers can do the actual job of teaching. Children can already access all the knowledge in the world. The job of teachers as repositories of knowledge is outdated, much like the horse and buggy. No one decried the lack of horses in transportation. The world was changing, and people bought cars. Transportation was improved. The Internet has forever changed the role of teachers. The career choices of our children will require certain skills, chief among those are the ability for our children to plan and execute ways of figuring things out, creating their own pathways of knowledge acquisition.
Even warehousing children for learning may become outdated. Time will tell. But even now, more than 10 percent of school-aged children are matriculating at home. And that number is growing.
Imagine a world where education was a leading industry in the use of technology and student learning was the primary goal. In other industries, if it were assumed that 20 percent of existing customers were going to fail and only 33 percent of the remainder would have a good user experience, that industry would be out of business. What if 20 percent of its stockholders went belly-up and only 33 percent of the remainder made any money over time? It wouldn’t be much of an investment. But education is an investment. Or at least it should be.
It’s something to think about.
Charles Sosnik is an education journalist and editor-in-chief at the Learning Counsel.