Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Early Learning Later

There’s a lot of energy and conversation in education circles about the power of early learning—from head start to advanced early childhood development programs. In short, I’m a fan. However, what I’m talking about here is opening the doors to early learning options for students further along the path. As we continue to break through the boundaries of time-based learning – argued for so well by Terry O’Banion back in the Learning College for the21st Century days – we have to continue to push the boundaries all along the K-20 pathway. One particular boundary to push is bringing even more early learning later.

Clearly competency-based programs like Western GovernorsUniversity, Southern New Hampshire’s College for America, or the emerging programs such as the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s initiative with South Texas College and Texas A&M Commerce, are going to make acceleration more common. By allowing students to advance based on learning-competency achievement as opposed to 16-week-calendar advancement, they’re helping earlier learning take shape. More integrated and accelerated programs in developmental/college readiness programs like MathMyWay at Foothill-De Anza College District or the soon-to-be “largest math emporium in the galaxy,” as Austin Community College president Richard Rhodes calls it, are using early learning to bring more students into their purposeful education pathways sooner by helping them engage learning on demand, show what they know, and then go on to the next learning challenge. But there are still too few of these options.

But the story of Alexander Gilman, a 15-year old from AZ, struck me this morning. At 15 he is graduating with multiple associates degrees thanks to the early college programs in place through the Maricopa Community Colleges and is now poised to enter Arizona State University’s honor’s college as a junior! As you read the story you realize that we have to do more to help bring early learning to those ready for it. The Early College High School movement has been around for some time now and is taking clearer shape across the country. The folks at Educate Texas have been a key catalyst for these here in Texas – and have helped bring together the insight from rolling out over 100 of these schools over the last decade. But, again, there are still too few of these options.

What we’ve learned from the competency-based, accelerated developmental education, and ECHS work is that there are thousands, if not millions, of young people ready to be challenged to learn earlier. There are thousands, if not millions, of returning adults that are seriously delayed or derailed on higher education pathways because of course-based, calendar-tied curricular paths. They too are ready to learn sooner. Early learning matters to both of these cohorts—and more--and we need to do even more to make it more common.

Of course there are lots of questions and key issues to consider. How do we effectively identify the students ready for early learning options? How do we tune and time their learning journey’s to make sure the moments that require more capstone experiences and reflection are met? How do we balance these efforts with or weave them into the necessary efforts to help students who are falling behind or completely off their educational path? How do we fund these models with secondary and postsecondary funding formulas and financial aid models? What is the best facilities and technology mix to make it happen?

No easy answers to these, but there is exciting early learning happening on these fronts as well. From the emerging Competency-BasedEducation Network to continuing work of Educate Texas, there are a growing number of voices in the chorus asking how we bring more early learning later! 


Mike Wesch said...

I was once an unequivocal supporter of self-paced programs, but lately I have become more hesitant as I read a bit more broadly and encounter some of the products of these self-paced programs. I'll give one example of each in hopes of starting up a conversation about it. Are you familiar with Heckman's studies of GED recipients? In short, he found that people pursuing a GED instead of a High School Diploma could cover all of the high school material in a matter of weeks (vs. 4 years) and demonstrate cognitive equivalency with high school graduates. However, this did not equate to positive outcomes later in life. This is one example that opens up Paul Tough's book in which he takes on what he calls the "cognitive hypothesis" as a bit too narrow a view of learning - or at least - too narrow a view of the human / personal / social development needed to be happy and successful in life. The second piece that gives me pause is my own experience with students who are racing through the curriculum on cognitive merits alone. We are just now seeing the first of them to come through the university ranks, often graduating at 19 or 20. My frank assessment of them is that they are stunted in multiple aspects of their growth. They are set up for failure in the real world. They are good at solving prescribed problems but have no idea how to face ambiguity. There are probably a few counter-examples that can be raised, but I have a fairly decent sample size which I have studied carefully (interviews, etc.) - nothing publishable yet - but enough to be concerned. To your nice list of thoughtful questions, I think we should add something about how we might help such students nurture other aspects of their development and set them up with tools or mentorship to succeed as they enter the "real world" earlier than normal. I also worry that they simply are not getting all that they can out of higher education. A 16 year old just does not encounter World History, the Great Books, Anthropology, Sociology, Psychology, etc. (to name a few) in the same way that a 21 year old does. They may (and in fact often *do*) lament how they flew through such subjects without really learning or contemplating the broader lessons. I am tempted to recommend that we actually require a gap year or two before college - to slow people down - to allow them to mature a bit and find their passions and be ready to truly encounter (in the deepest sense of the word) new knowledge and perspectives.

Mark David Milliron said...

Mike, Thanks for the very thoughtful comment! I share many of your concerns. Done sloppily or simply deploying technology-driven, self-paced instruction against this challenge is a road to ruin. It’s why I tried to frame the questions about which students would this work, what infrastructure is necessary to do it well, and at which times might students need to slow down and/or even stop. Returning adult students are somewhat distinct, however. They are often radically held back when they are ready and able to accelerate. Also, I regularly see students bored out of their minds in high school, absolutely ready to take on a greater challenge and easily able to complete college level course—most often in their traditional delivery formats. The big challenge is probably how we tune, test, and deploy more nuanced educational options so more students are challenged at higher levels, allowed to slow down when they need to (my head explodes when I hear college completion advocates say that all students should be full time, taking 15 hours!), enabled to accelerate where it makes sense, and able to connect more deeply with people, projects, and possible futures. Technology can probably help, but it’s not the savior in this situation. It’s going to take good observation of the challenge, a community of practice to test and try, and some continuing conversations on these and a range of other issues. But I’m increasingly convinced the traditional time-based model is not the best option for all students – at both the low and high ends.

Mark David Milliron said...

Mike, BTW, I love your idea around waiting and/or finding the right time to learn/encounter. In my mind it really is about readiness and purpose. It's amazing how magic learning can be when these two things are in place. The challenge is these come into place at different times for different people -- some early and some much, much later.