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“I never allowed my schooling to get in the way of my education.” - Mark Twain

A free and appropriate public education is a cornerstone of our American society and continued support for a public educational system that supports each learner is warranted. There are many interesting discussions about the purpose of public education. You might check out https://www.huffpost.com/entry/what-is-the-purpose-of-pu_b_774497 or https://study.com/academy/lesson/what-is-the-purpose-of-public-education.html for more about that. The mistaken paradigm, though, is that everything important to learn is learned in school.

Mark Twain said it best. School can and should be a place where each attendee is truly a learner, but there is much to be said about learning that happens outside of school, formally and informally. Passions, opportunities, and sometimes simply exposure fuel learning outside of school. And this learning is equally valuable, perhaps even more valuable, than the learning acquired in school.

Consider, for instance, Easton LaChappelle, the kid who loved to tinker, taking apart all kinds of devices. His interest turned passion when he realized that prosthetic devices were far too expensive for the general population and he developed an affordable alternative, which he submitted to his 8th grade science fair. Microsoft capitalized on Easton’s passion and out-of-school learning and asked him to join their Advanced Protoyping Center at a very young age.

And then there is Catherine Wong, who at 17 years of age developed a way to monitor heartbeats on smartphones.

These are exceptional children, you say. Perhaps. But, the work of Sugata Mitra demonstrates again and again that children, even those in some of the most unfortunate circumstances, can learn amazing things…on their own! You can find quite a collection of videos about Sugata Mitra’s work on YouTube.com. This one, while older, makes the point quite well:

There are all sorts of resources out there that kids are tapping into today. Techwise Academy promotes free coding lessons for “students and DIY learners”. Or, for a small fee, kids can go to DIY and earn badges related to science, inventing, coding, cooking, photography, and more. An internet search reveals a plethora of resources to inspire young minds. And, millennial parents are opting more and more for DIY learning. Read “Millenials and Their Kids: Why They’re Choosing DIY Education” for more on this.

The point is, kids are doing a lot of learning outside of school. And, we should encourage this even more!

The challenge is, how do we validate that learning to help future learning institutions, employers, and other interested parties connect with individuals who are a good fit?

One answer is through badges or micro-credentials. These competency-based mechanisms can provide a means for learners to demonstrate their mastery of competencies, making it easier for consumers and learners to find each other efficiently.

“People who hold important positions in society are commonly labelled "somebodies," and their inverse "nobodies"-both of which are, of course, nonsensical descriptors, for we are all, by necessity, individuals with distinct identities and comparable claims on existence. Such words are nevertheless an apt vehicle for conveying the disparate treatment accorded to different groups. Those without status are all but invisible: they are treated brusquely by others, their complexities trampled upon and their singularities ignored.”

Alain de Botton, Status Anxiety

The traditional school model is designed to ensure that some students are winners and others are losers. Grading on the curve is a perfect example of this mentality. By design, some students get As and others get Fs. Proponents of this approach argue that this is preparation for life, where it’s all about winners and losers. And, at one level, that may seem to be a realistic perspective.

But is it really? I don’t think so. Once we remove the bonds of the K-12 school system and the requirements to learn the standardized content, we begin to find our way in the world. And, to do that we consider what we are good at…our strengths. We consider our passions and opportunities, as well. What we don’t do, though, is say “I’m really not very good in math, so I think I will be an accountant.” Instead, we say “I’m good in art and I like to design things, so I think I’ll go into graphic design.” Or, “I really like to study the weather and I’m good in science, so meteorology sounds like a good career path for me.” The point is, in the real world, we can all be winners by leveraging our strengths and pursuing those things we are passionate about.

Schools that continue to insist on a system of winners and losers, then, are doing students a disservice. Sure, everyone hits some bumps in the road and students need to develop perseverance, but promoting stick-to-it-iveness is different than insisting that the “school of hard knocks” is good for kids. It isn’t.

In a mastery-driven personal learning system that is strengths-based, students all build a solid foundation of literacy and numeracy, but they might not all do it in the same amount of time. They can then focus on developing their strengths while shoring up any weaker areas that they need for their personal goals, but let’s be honest, not every graduate needs Algebra II to be successful in life. Binomials, trinomials, polynomials, recursive functions, and quadratic equations aren’t requirements for all career paths.

Greatness comes from developing personal talents and turning them into strengths. To be a great society, we must develop greatness in all of our children. For this to happen, schools need to shift the focus from deficit-based to strengths based and support this with a mastery-driven, competency-based approach. Chris Wejr says it really well in this video:

Learning Continuum. Learning progression. Learning trajectory. Aren’t they all just referring to the same thing?


Learning continua and progressions organize learning outcomes into a hypothetical model for how learning develops vertically and typically expects students to progress through the learning phases at a particular age and within a set period of time. Learning trajectories a la Michael Battista, have two unique attributes that distinguish them from these other models. Learning trajectories involve researching each student’s cognitive performance, documenting the historical thought processes used by that student, and then supporting more sophisticated levels of reasoning by providing a personal learning experience for each student. That isn’t to say that instructional activities can’t be provided to groups of students. They can. But, students are grouped according to what and how they need to learn next in a cognitive-based approach to learning.

Check out this YouTube video to hear from Dr. Battista directly: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_tYSB1J4iiE.

Given that the important distinction is that the focus is on how students are thinking or reasoning, we need to engage with and assess students differently if we are going to get into their heads. This might involve very informal interactions, such as just asking students to explain their thinking. It could also involve using journals in the classroom, a la Dr. John Collins, founder of Collins Education Associates. Dr. Collins understands the value of having students put their thinking into written text and advocates using a journaling process to capture this thinking in domains such as math and science. You can learn more about the Collins Writing and Thinking Process at https://collinsed.com. Another approach to assessing students thinking is through the use of cognition-based assessments. Battista’s book on this type of assessment is published by Heinemann (see https://www.heinemann.com/products/e04346.aspx).

Regardless of how we understand their thinking, the important thing is that we seek to understand it. Only then can we provide the support needed to help all students progress. As noted in Battista’s books, traditional practices are leaving 80% of our students behind. We need a personal approach to learning for each student that begins with understanding the cognitive processing of each learner.