As we approach the end of Summer and the start of school, it seems each week brings news of a new solution to problems in education. Over the past two decades various solutions have been set forth to deal with what appears to be the failure of our education system. In unacceptable numbers students have either failed to finish their education or have emerged unprepared in key subjects for either college or various kinds of employment.
Last week, attention was paid to students lack of writing ability with new methods proposed as a remedy. This past week we have heard about mastery based, or competency based learning as a solution to the growing number of students who are failing or behind expectations in various academic skills. This approach does away with traditional grading and appears to be highly individualized. It focuses on mastering a set of grade level skills in which students move to the next set of skills when they have demonstrated they are ready.
In theory students work at their own pace with ample time to practice for those who are struggling, while those who learn quickly can move ahead. They get feedback on skills they have learned and those they need to master. This approach appears to be getting wide currency – in some states voluntarily and in others through legislation.
The idea that students individually needed to show how and what they are learning before moving ahead is not new as a theory, but was not widely applied because it was so labor intensive for teachers. Now the use of the computer allows for special exercises and online lessons making the approach more manageable. The goal is to make students feel in charge of their own learning by putting the focus on individual growth and competence rather than achieving a specific grade.
The critics of this approach worry that the method is used to save costs since the use of computers may mean fewer teachers and larger classes. Some say the approach may improve math skills but is not likely to help students advance in the humanities. There has been resistance from teachers who feel more comfortable with existing approaches and find this method unworkable.
It is interesting that parents have also been resistive to the frequent progress reports detailing outcomes for individual subjects. They want the traditional grade reports that tell them concretely where their children stand. This is not surprising given the competition that exists for higher education and employment.
The conflict about using this approach has elements in common with that of how to teach students writing. The conflict in both seems to be between child based learning and more traditionally expected mastery of skills and facts. The new approaches in both involve giving students more agency rather than learning based on external requirements.
In some ways, the conflict between child based and authority based approaches appears periodically as a solution to whatever problems exist in education. It is reminiscent of the ‘50’s when the Russian success with Sputnik meant we were behind in math and science. This resulted in a focus on achievements in those areas which ultimately transformed the educational system in ways that still need to be untangled.
This also is characteristic of the conflict in approaches to child-rearing. Originally parent centered with clear lines of authority, the move was to child centered approaches which ultimately resulted in its extreme form, of children rather than parents, being in charge.
Apparently, change in moderation is difficult to achieve. Instead, the result seems to be a move from one extreme to another. Taking the best ideas from conflicting approaches may be the most desirable – but unfortunately – not the usual outcome.