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Going From One-Size-Fits-All Education, To One-Size-Fits-One

We need to teach children individually, and in a way that doesn’t emphasize memorizing the right answer, but more realistically reflects how we learn and succeed in the real world.

In June of 2009, after Michael Jackson died, I decided it was time to learn how to moonwalk. I went to YouTube and found the "How to Moonwalk" video with the most hits, a simple 2:15 minute homemade job by Montreal DJ AngeDeLumiere. The video proved to be a lesson not only in a dance step but in transformative pedagogy.

Ange begins by showing us what we think is the way to do the moonwalk. He’s right. That is exactly how I used to think it was done. He then demonstrates the results of your intuition, a dorky backwards walking that looks nothing at all like the elegant optical illusion perfected by the King of Pop. "That’s all wrong," Ange admonishes us. "You don’t want to do that." Then, he shows you the right way, breaking it down, explaining the movement, the weight shift, which heel is doing what while the other foot is doing something else. He shows you slowly, then more rapidly, until, before your eyes, AngeDeLumiere is moonwalking. A few weeks later, so was I.

Alvin Toffler calls this method of instruction "unlearning." In times of dramatic change, when your old habits are preventing you from succeeding against new odds, you have to first see what trouble your old habits get you into. Before you can move forward, you have to see your best intuitions, skills, and patterns not only aren’t helping you move forward; they are what are holding you back. Proceeding in a new environment on old intuitions makes you seem (to continue the moonwalking analogy) like a dork walking backwards. Don’t do that!

Ange’s video is a great model of teaching and a great metaphor for the kind of educational change we need to embrace right now. We think teaching looks a certain way: students learning from teachers and then using high-stakes subject-matter standardized testing (Kindergarten through MCATs for medical school) to measure who is best. That’s basically how we’ve been teaching since the multiple choice test—which was explicitly designed to run students through the classroom as fast as possible during the crisis of World War I—was invented in 1914. It’s well suited to the standardized, top-down factory or corporate model of the Industrial Age. Schools did a very good job of training a certain compliance and complacency and measuring who did best at an extremely limited number of intellectual tasks in that environment of controlled instruction.

But if learning is the issue—and especially learning in an age of information abundance—then we have to unlearn that old model. It is holding us back. No research—none—on how we actually learn a new skill outside the classroom supports the practices we have institutionalized in our schools. We do not learn the vitally important skills we need in the world by all learning the same way, in a lecture model, and then being tested at the end of the course. One-size-fits-all learning really fits no one particularly well. Great learning is almost always one-size-fits-one.

Take the example of learning a new sport. If I take up tennis, I don’t want a series of static lessons or lectures (either online or in person), and then a score at the end. I want a teacher who shows me, corrects me, plays against me, challenges me, shows me again, corrects me, whoops me once more, and on and on until I can play with partners who challenge me to excel in the same way. That seems common-sensical, yet we send our kids off to school for 16 years on an educational model devised on the idea that you put them all in a room, talk at them, and then test them at the end by a standardized series of "best answer" questions that weren’t even written by the person who tested them. There’s a mismatch between content and the challenge, the score at the end and the exploratory, expansive, "search and find" world of learning that exists online or in the world of real-life employment where one is constantly tested and then needs to experiment to find the best methods, partners, and new skills to meet the challenge.

Whenever I speak before large gatherings of corporate trainers, they tell me they can recruit anyone now, in this economy; the very best students from the very best universities. And they are dismayed that it takes a minimum of one to two years to retrain them from being "great students" to being "great colleagues." These new employees are so used to getting the perfect score on the test at the end of the course that they themselves do not know how to self-correct or how to take mid-course correction from others. They have had 16 years of an education in choosing the best from among four answers to simplistic questions, capable of being answered in only one way. Not a lot of life works that way. Most of what we do is precisely about learning as we go, practicing, breaking old habits, learning something else, admitting what we do not know, finding someone who does, getting feedback on a work in progress, failing, trying again, failing even worse, trying again, and so forth. There is no end-of-grade test, there is no grade point average. There is a lot of unlearning and relearning how to learn, over and over. Like a tennis lesson. Not like our formal systems of education and their high-stakes methods of routinized, standardized assessment for "excellence."

We are starting to get online classes that are modeled not on formal learning but on the most challenging informal learning. The fabled statistics course offered by Carnegie-Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative, a free and open online educational enterprise, teaches probability or statistical reasoning through a series of lessons that incorporate explanatory content, learn-by-doing exercises, "Did I Get This?" activities that allow you to self-check your own understanding, supplementary material designed to spark interest in why you are learning what you are learning, and then checkpoints or graded exercises that allow you to see how well you are doing. To be fair, that is more interactive than far, far too many existing statistics courses being taught out there by a prof who spends more time scratching on a blackboard than finding the best way to inspire his students’ statistical reasoning.

Even more exciting, Khan Academy has some of the best artificial intelligence (AI) learning scientists in the world studying what people do and don’t get the first, second, and third times from the massive collection of instructional videos on subjects ranging from algebra to art history. The hope is that, by gathering operational examples from what is now millions of learning exercises, future students will receive highly customized, individualized learning instruction geared to their particular habits—and even able to point out bad habits and offer specific corrections to them in order to accelerate and deepen learning.

I do not believe that online learning will ever replace individualized instruction. As illustrated in the "cartwheeled classroom" of the Haiti Lab that I discussed in my last piece, there are forms of engaged, relevant, entrepreneurial theory-into-practice experiential learning that no computer can begin to challenge. At the same time, the best online learning does challenge the one-size-fits-all standardized model of education and assessment that has persisted for almost a hundred years and that no longer serves the world in which we all now live and learn. We desperately need to unlearn fundamentally wrong pedagogical principles about the role, function, and methods of formal education before we can begin to learn a better way.

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  • jcook10

    Absolutely brilliant, Cathy. It is spot on. I graduated in April from a well-respected 4-year university and was amazed at the lack of actual learning that occurred. For four years, I watched professors do the least work they could get away with, placing much of the work load on underpaid student assistants. It is sad that we are still living an old law that is outdated and ineffective in this day and age. How few are the classroom experiences today where real learning actually occurs!

  • ChemDr

    Does the author know how many students are in K-12, setting aside higher ed? Reality is that there are not enough hours in the day to give individual instruction to that many students. We homeschool our two girls so I know something about individual instruction. The school day starts at 8:30 and many days will end around 5. That model works on the small scale, but education in this country is very large scale.

    The author's examples, moonwalking and tennis, demonsrate what has to happen for learning to take place--hard work and persistence on the part of the learner. It took a few weeks of work and practice to master the moonwalk. My college chemistry students want to master the difficult subject by sitting in my class for three hours a week and doing nothing else. This education practice has worked for them for 12 years. However, it is impossible to be successful in my class without persistent hard work--day in and day out for 16 weeks. They should view it as a full time job, and it is viewed as a task to be completed the night before the exam.

    The point about testing is well taken. Students love multiple-choice tests because they are easier and they don't study as hard. All of my exams are problem solving, short answer, explanation questions.

    I wonder if the author gives individual instruction when she "speak(s) before large gatherings of corporate trainers." I doubt it. It is simply not practical. There is a huge number of things wrong with education (K-12 and higher ed), but individual instruction is not a model that has practical application in today's climate.

  • Kyle Peck

    I can see why you feel that individualization is impossible, given the numbers of students and teachers in K-12 education.  I believe that a better label is "mass customization," a phrase used by Chuck Schwan and Beatrice McGarvey in their book "Inevitable: Mass Customized Learning" (  

    If we believe that the content has to come from teachers, and that only the adults are teachers, then it may, in fact be impossible.  If, however, we do as the author suggests and "unlearn fundamentally wrong pedagogical principles about the role, function, and methods of formal education" then there is hope.  

    We need to concurrently redefine the roles of student, teacher and technologies, focusing on what students need to be doing first, then figuring out what the adults and technologies need to be doing to support the students in their work. The tools that support learning are evolving rapidly, and once we perceive and define new roles for them, the evolution will be more relevant to education.  
    I feel your pain, CHEMDR.  In the current system there is no time to individualize and the system actually prevents it.  Teachers (including home school teachers like you) are my heroes, working diligently to help learners in a system designed in such a way that it is painful for both learners and teachers.  I am an optimist, and I think things will get better.  As John Cage said, "I don't know why people are afraid of new ideas.  I'm afraid of old ones."Cathy, thank you for another thought-provoking post.

  • Cathy Davidson

     The point I'm making (and not everyone agrees) is that some forms of online learning are actually more customized and individualized than are many, many forms of K-20 instruction today.   I am sure a Carnegie Mellon statistics course, although on line, responds in a more individual way to my needs than do many huge, 300-person introductory statistics courses at major universities today.   Also, the reason I praised this particular Moonwalking video is that, although watched now by many millions of people, it is smart about learning and knows that it has to deal with our wrong preconceptions before it can teach us the right way.  There are terrible individual instructors and terrible mass lecturers--and also great ones.  Terrible online courses, and great ones.  It's about understanding how people think that is a key and helping them to achieve their goals.  In the case of Ange, there is simple genius in how he teaches, even though this is one video made in one living room by one Montreal DJ who has taught millions of us how to float gracefully on air.  It looks like magic.  The results of great teaching ALWAYS look like magic. 

  • Allen Laudenslager

    Never happen! Teachers teach the way they do because its easy to do and easy to grade. One-size-fits-one learning demands teachers do much more than test to see if students have memorized the single correct answer. The teacher must invest a lot of time reading essay type answers and not fast to grade multiple choice type tests. Classroom discussions make for great learning environments but difficult to manage for teachers.

    Teachers (like it or not) are stuck in an environment much like a call center - they have a limited number of minutes to spend on each student and each subject, if they spend more their system will hammer them! 

  • WRA Wingood

    My HS calc teacher always chided me to "Learn How To Learn."  I didn't understand what he was saying.  Now I do.  And I try to put his words into action with my daughters.

  • umbrarchist

    So how do people learn that the distributions of steel and concrete are important in skyscrapers after TEN YEARS?  It is Newtonian Physics that is 300 years old.

    Is it a matter of learning to think for yourself and not what everyone around you thinks?  What kind of social problems will that cause?

  • Uzo Olisemeka

    I don't believe the writer is insinuating we must all "think for ourselves". I think the issue is "learn for yourself".

    The difference being that thinking for yourself does not guarantee your answer will be correct. One is liable to think all sorts of thoughts. It is the ability to "learn for ourselves" that allow us to quickly find, understand and apply the right answers.

    A good example would be the multiplication table. There is only one right answer for every given question, yet how students learn the principles of multiplication and techniques is subject to variance. At the end of the day, the best way is the one that gives them the best understanding of the subject matter. May not be the best way for you or I, but that's the basis of the author's point: education should be one size fits one. Whatever route is that works best to get you to understand the concept is the best for you. 

  • Anya Hart Dyke

    I have a friend who works in an IB primary school in Dubai and when she told me about their theme-led (rather than subject-led) Primary Years Programme, I wished I'd had the same education growing up. One of their six themes is 'Sharing the planet'. It's amazing what they get the children to think about - as well as the 'action' the teachers encourage them to take. I have written about it here:http://kent.greatbritishlife.c...