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It’s Not the Kids; It’s the System

Posted in Ed Tech on June 29, 2015 by

This post was written by Jose Ferreira, Knewton founder, and Meghan Daniels, senior editor 

Winston Churchill famously said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

Until recently, the same could be said for the factory model of education. Imported from Europe and implemented at the urging of education reformer Horace Mann, the factory model puts kids into age-based classrooms and uses seat time to determine when they’re ready to move on to the next level.

In many ways, it’s an awful system, rigid, arbitrary, and impersonal. But it’s also responsible for almost every modern innovation we rely on today. The factory model reduced the per student cost of education sufficiently that wealthy countries could, for the first time ever, provide free and compulsory K-12 education to all children. Wherever the model doesn’t exist, the populace desperately wants it. Modern medicine, housing, entertainment, transportation, communication, the internet — all of it, and everything else in the modern world, are due to the factory model. That’s the good part.

Now for the bad.

The factory model requires of children that they independently decipher the world’s largest bureaucracy — replete with invisible rules, conflicting stakeholders, perverse incentives, and assembly-line product delivery. They receive no user’s guide to navigate this gargantuan meat grinder.

Inevitably, some kids are a better fit for the system than others, because of personality, upbringing, temperament, or other factors. Perhaps they thrive in highly structured environments. Perhaps the pace is just right for them. But if you are one of those people who thinks a little differently, if you don’t quite conform, if you can’t easily control your attention span, if you perceive the structure of the world in your own way and at your own pace — well, then you may be a genius, or you may just be your own dynamic personality, but you are a poor fit for the factory model. All these students have to work harder to achieve the same results as equally talented students who happen to fit the system better. Or, they may not be able to achieve the same results at all, regardless of effort. Their brains just don’t work that way.

In recent decades, society has begun to notice and grapple with a small number of the most obvious of the above cognitive differences — for example, the ill-named “Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.” Every child is unique. It should hardly be surprising that each child’s attention span is too.

Education thought-leader Ken Robinson argues that ADHD is a “fictitious epidemic,” citing the much higher prevalence of diagnoses on the East Coast vs. the West Coast. It’s a wonderful talk, but on this small point I disagree. The medical community’s reaction to ADHD is in many ways a crude reflection of the problems of the factory system. Their reactions are inconsistent across the country simply because doctors on the East Coast happen to be further ahead in their acceptance of ADHD and its permutations. That said, the treatment for ADHD shouldn’t automatically be Ritalin and Adderall. What students really need is the license, and opportunity, to learn in their own unique way.

Our education system ought to adapt to students. Instead, we force students to adapt to the system — without giving them any guidance. When they don’t, we constantly tell them, explicitly and implicitly through lower grades and lower expectations, that they aren’t smart enough or hardworking enough. And we end up basically giving up on them in different ways, at different times, and in vast quantities.

Take math, for instance. Every human being can learn math. All of us master much harder material simply by growing up and learning how to live in our dizzyingly complex society. Math is child’s play compared to that. Yet how many students give up on math, or other subjects, and are encouraged by the system to do so? Let’s stop holding our kids responsible for these “failures,” and instead hold the factory system responsible. This isn’t a minority of children we’re talking about. The factory model wasn’t designed to be the best fit for the greatest number of students. It was just optimized for low cost.

What damage are we doing to these children? What effect does this system have on their self-image? On their expectations of what’s possible for themselves? On the depth of their learning and development? Society ignores this cost, because it is largely invisible, and human beings irrationally ignore invisible costs. But the cost of this psychic damage, and the opportunity cost of this underutilization of talent, must be stratospheric.

We’ve all grown up with the factory model of education. It’s come to seem totally normal. It’s not normal at all. It’s just the only way we’ve been able to deliver free widespread K-12 education up until now.

The Teacher’s Burden

Tacitly, we ask teachers to compensate for our education system’s many inadequacies. Do your students need more, or different, content? Make it yourself! What’s that? You were trained as an instructor, not a content creator? Stop complaining. You can find it somewhere! You have students with learning disabilities? Figure out how to reach them! Your students are bored with the state-mandated curriculum? Be more dynamic! Entertain them! You want to help students who are falling behind, or who find the material too easy? Figure out how to personalize it!

Because teachers are the most visible emissaries of the factory model, we irrationally conflate them with its failures. Teachers aren’t “the system.” Teachers are fighting the system, every day, as best they can. What warmth and energy students see in the classroom comes from teachers. What supplemental content, what motivation and inspiration, what differentiation — it comes from teachers. Let’s stop blaming them for the system’s shortfalls, and let’s start helping them overcome them.

Changing the System

I can think of lots of ways to help teachers. They’re undercompensated; let’s pay them more. I know that’s expensive, but it will ultimately more than pay for itself through higher GDP. Studies have found a correlation between higher teacher pay and improved student outcomes. Boosting compensation would attract more people to the field and increase retention.

Let’s also provide teachers with more training and more time for preparation, mentoring, and professional development. Teachers in the U.S. spend about as much time working as instructors in countries like Japan and South Korea. But in the U.S., 53% of that time is spent in the classroom, vs. 26% for instructors in Japan.

Let’s provide more career advancement opportunities to prevent our best teachers from leaving education. A 2012 study from The New Teacher Project found that 20% of teachers “who are so successful that they are nearly impossible to replace” leave their school as a result of “neglect and inattention.” A 2012 MetLife survey reports that the percentage of teachers who report being very satisfied with their jobs dropped 15 points since 2009, from 59% to 44%, “the lowest level in over 20 years. The percentage of teachers who say they are very or fairly likely to leave the profession has increased by 12 points since 2009, from 17% to 29%.” Not every teacher wants to become an administrator. But many teachers do want a chance to advance within the profession.

Let’s set reasonable expectations, and recognize that teachers can’t fix in a semester societal inequities that have been festering for generations. Let’s substantially reduce the emphasis on high-stakes testing — it’s turning schools into test prep drilling centers.

Personalizing the Factory

Students all have different needs, tendencies, and interests. Let’s give teachers the tools they need to differentiate instruction effectively. By replacing traditional textbooks with data-driven personalized learning materials, we can help every student come to class better prepared and give teachers more information about how their students learn than ever before.

The U.S. has three very large K-12 textbook publishers: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH), Pearson, and McGraw Hill. Meanwhile, walk into your local CVS and you’ll find 30 different types of toothpaste, all with pretty much the same active ingredients. As a society, we’ve somehow agreed it makes sense to have ten times the product differentiation for toothpaste than for learning materials used by 55 million students across the country.

I’m happy to say that this is beginning to change. K-12 publishers like HMH are implementing data-driven adaptive learning technology into their digital materials — making it possible for students to use the same content library but encounter content and activities algorithmically selected for them based on their needs. HMH’s Personal Math Trainer Powered by Knewton, for example, is a Pre-K to 12th-grade tool that uses Knewton to create a progressive, personalized learning experience. PMT also helps teachers target intervention and emphasize depth of understanding and problem-solving skills.

Teachers also rely on supplementary materials — many of them OER resources found on the web — to provide students with alternate approaches or explanations of course material. Busy teachers spend hours searching for these materials and then figuring out which videos, explanations, or exercises will best meet individual students’ needs. Knewton’s new direct-to-consumer tool (currently in private beta) will make it easy to discover supplemental content that’s proven most effective for students like yours, and build adaptive learning lessons in just a few minutes’ time. Knewton features curated OER content created by educators, along with the ability to add your own content and have it become adaptive. With a click of a button, teachers can specify exactly what concepts they want students to learn, by when. Knewton provides students with exactly the materials they need at that moment in time. Knewton also enables adaptive assessments within lessons, meaning teachers can get more accurate data about student learning with fewer exams and high-stakes tests.

Children are innately curious about the world around them. They are learning machines. All they really do, all day long, is learn. It isn’t learning itself they resist; it’s the factory model. It has indeed been the worst system, except for every other. We can now do better.