Monday, January 30, 2012

Performance-based learning and youth civic engagement

In recent years there has been a movement in K-12 education in the U.S. toward what is known, variously, as “performance-based learning,” “competency-based learning” and “proficiency-based learning.” What these three terms all describe is an educational approach that values outcomes rather than inputs.

If you work in K-12 education you have undoubtedly heard the term “factory model.” This refers to the fact that American schools use essentially the same approach to instruction and learning that they did during the Industrial Revolution. Students are assigned to grades based on their ages rather than what they know. They spend most of their time in classrooms with some thirty same-aged peers while one teacher transmits his or her knowledge to them. Students advance through the system by accumulating credits, or Carnegie units, which they earn for completing required courses. All students without some sort of disability are expected to learn at the same pace.

Public K-12 education is primarily the responsibility of states and local school districts. Most states maintain policies mandating that students complete a certain number of hours to receive credit for courses. These rules are known as “seat-time” policies.

Seat-time and Carnegie units are inputs. They prescribe what students must do, not what they learn. Of course, most states have academic standards that prescribe what students should learn at each grade level, along with the relevant learning objectives. But most state standards also prescribe a sequence of learning based on age. Seat-time rules and Carnegie units reinforce a rigid approach to learning that does not allow for differences in student abilities and interests. This results in many students who do not “fit” the system either being passed along while falling further and further behind, or simply dropping out.

An educational approach tailored to individual students’ needs, one that does not force students to proceed in the same way and at the same pace, would also help reduce inequality and facilitate the development of more engaged citizens. Many students learn better through hands-on activities either in school or in the community. Some might prefer to spend their time in a traditional classroom. Others might do better with online instruction. Most would probably benefit from all three.