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How I was seduced into trying to fix education

Driven to learn…Image by: Theo Dawson

It all started in Toronto in 1976…

Identifying the problem

During the 70s and 80s I practiced midwifery. It was a great honor to be present at the births of over 500 babies, and in many cases, follow them into childhood. Every single one of those babies was a joyful, driven, and effective “every moment” learner. Regardless of difficulty and pain they all learned to walk, talk, interact with others, and manipulate many aspects of their environment. They needed few external rewards to build these skills — the excitement and suspense of striving seemed to be reward enough. I felt like I was observing the “life force” in action.

Image by: Theo Dawson

Understanding the problem

Following upon my midwifery career, I flirted briefly with a career in advertising, but by the early 90’s I was back in school — in a Ph.D. program in U. C. Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education — where I found myself observing the same loss of the love of learning I’d observed as a midwife. Both the academic research and my own lab experience exposed the early loss of students’ natural love of learning. My concern was amplified by the newly emerging trend toward high stakes multiple choice testing, which my colleagues and I saw as a further threat.

How learning works

First, I needed to understand how learning works. At Berkeley, I studied a wide variety of learning theories in several disciplines, including developmental theories, behavioral theories, and brain-based theories. I collected a large database of longitudinal interviews and submitted them to in-depth analysis, looked closely at the relation between testing and learning, and studied psychological measurement, all in the interest of finding a way to support childrens’ growth while reinforcing their love of learning.

  1. a safe environment that is rich in hands-on learning opportunities and healthy human interaction,
  2. a teacher who understands each child’s interests and level of tolerance for failure,
  3. a mechanism for determining “what comes next” — what is just challenging enough to allow for success most of the time (but not all of the time),
  4. instant actionable feedback, and
  5. the opportunity to integrate new knowledge or skills into each learner’s existing knowledge network well enough to make it useable before pushing instruction to the next level. (We call this building a “robust knowledge network” — the essential foundation for future learning.)*

Identifying the solution

Once I understood what learning should look like, I needed to decide where to intervene. The answer, when it came, was a complete surprise. Understanding what comes next — something that can only be learned by measuring what a student understands now — was an integral part of the recipe for learning. This meant that testing — which I originally saw as an obstacle to robust learning — was actually the solution , but only if my colleagues and I could build tests that would free students to learn the way their brains are designed to learn. These tests would have to help teachers determine “what comes next” (ingredient 3) and provide instant actionable feedback (ingredient 4), while rewarding them for helping students build robust knowledge networks (ingredient 5).

Developing the solution

Over the next few years I put together a research team to work on reinventing testing. We eventually founded Lectica, Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to this mission. We knew that reinventing educational testing to serve robust learning would require many years of R&D. In fact, we would be committing to possible decades of effort without a guaranteed result. It’s the vision of a future educational system in which all children retain the inborn drive for learning that compels us to keep moving forward.

  1. make a deep study of precisely how children build particular knowledge and skills over time in a wide range of subject areas (so these tests could accurately identify “what comes next”);
  2. make tests that determine how deeply students understand what they have learned — how well they can use it to address real-world issues or problems (requires that students show how they are thinking, not just what they know )— which means written responses with explanations; and
  3. produce formative feedback and resources designed to foster “robust learning” (build robust knowledge networks).
  1. A learning ruler (building on Commons [1998] and Fischer [2006]);
  2. A method for studying how students learn tested concepts and skills (refining the methods developed for my dissertation);
  3. A human scoring system for determining the level of understanding exhibited in students’ written explanations (building upon Commons’ and Fischer’s methods, then refining them until measurements were precise enough for use in educational contexts); and
  4. An electronic scoring system, so feedback and resources could be delivered in real time.

What we’ve learned

  1. As shown in the figure above, students in schools that focus primarily on building deep understanding (high VCoL) graduate seniors that are up to 5 years ahead (on our learning ruler, the Lectical Scale) of students in schools that focus primarily on correctness (low VCoL). After taking socioeconomic status (SES)into account), the difference drops to around 2.5 years. See paper.
  2. Individual students who learn robustly today, develop faster tomorrow. See paper.
  3. On average, students in schools that foster robust learning produce more coherent and persuasive arguments than students in schools that focus on correctness.
  4. On average, students in our inner-city schools, which are the schools most focused on correctness, appear to stop developing (on our learning ruler) in grade 10.
  5. The average student who graduates from a school that strongly focuses on correctness is likely, in adulthood, to (1) be unable to grasp the complexity and ambiguity of many common situations and problems, (2) lack the mental agility to adapt to changes in society and the workplace, and (3) dislike learning.

Where we are today

Lectica’s mission is to foster greater individual satisfaction and fulfillment while preparing learners to meet 21st century challenges. We do this by creating and delivering learning tools and educational programs (ViP) that help people to learn the way their brains were designed to learn. And we aim to ensure that children and adolescents who need our learning tools the most get them first by providing free subscriptions to individual teachers everywhere.

ViP info | ViP rationale



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Theo Dawson

Award-winning educator, scholar, & consultant, Dr. Theo Dawson, discusses a wide range of topics related to learning and development.