“Fair Isn’t Alway Equal” is the title of one of Rick Wormeli’s books on assessment and differentiation, and the phrase continues to resonate as a potential, guiding principle for schools attempting to embrace more personal approaches to learning.
For many years now, teachers have been differentiating within the classroom; adjusting materials, pacing, lesson structures and assessments to meet the needs of the wide range of learners in our classrooms. Research supports the widely-held belief that this approach, done thoughtfully and well, benefits all learners. Today technology opens up access to an unprecedented wealth of information, allowing educators the potential to teach students how to critically evaluate information, identify problems, and connect to a community of experts in a bid to develop solutions. In this environment, it is possible for students to study whatever topics interest them, at a level appropriate to their specific learning needs. In this way, perhaps for the first time, schools can begin to make learning truly personal for students.
At the same time, we have learned from Carol Dweck and others that students who have a growth mindset characterized by resilience and persistence have the potential to learn whatever they possess the determination to. As Dweck puts it, “No matter what your ability is, effort is what ignites that ability and turns it into accomplishment.” Educators strive to build student tenacity and grit – characteristics key to success in a complex and changing world – and actively encourage them to embrace and learn from failure.
How can we reconcile what we know, with traditional systems that continue to act as gatekeepers to higher level content via test scores? There is another way, another mindset. We are now in a transition period, and many of our educational structures, including college admissions, have not yet begun to adapt to the modern reality of learning in the digital age. K-12 schools that are moving forward, are struggling at the crossroads, as are many students, teachers and parents.
For example, mathematics has long been used as a gatekeeper subject. Students who have the ability to succeed in higher level mathematics in high school, are granted access to a wider set of university program options. Often, whether a student will be permitted to take higher mathematics or not is decided in middle school, or at the start of high school. Of course, not all students want or need advanced math courses, despite what their parents might believe. But what can we do for that student who has, for example, a passion for architecture, and needs higher-level math for university, but has not been highly successful in the past in this subject? Traditionally, these students have been denied access to those courses, and expected to develop other, often less ambitious or fulfilling, career aspirations. What can we do about the student who has the passion and mindset to study architecture in a world of abundant knowledge and limited access? How can we reconcile this system with passion-based learning?
Universities have started looking for new ways to differentiate among the number of “top” students that apply to them. In the US, the Coalition for Access is launching a common application that has a digital portfolio component. In the UK, students who are granted interviews at places like Oxford and Cambridge are expected to demonstrate their passion for their intended area of study. There are signs that the system is slowly starting to respond.
When Scott McLeod came to our school to work with our community this year, a colleague asked him, “How can we teach like this, when we need to prepare students for external exams?” His response: “We need to decide what kind of school we are preparing our students for, the exam or their futures.” The challenges schools face are complex, and, at times, it appears easier to surrender to the understandable demands of parents and the regulations imposed from outside organizations than it is to confront the profound choice that McLeod articulates.
There are no simple answers to this challenge, but we need to have this debate. A new report from the Harvard Graduate School of Education outlines some possible solutions, including valuing a variety of ways for students to contribute to their communities that emphasize the importance of authenticity. We have a moral obligation to remain true to our students as we navigate the emerging path to new, more authentic education for all students. Have we any other real choice?