Learning to relearn in a digital world

There are three main types of knowledge that can be taught and learned in schools:

  • Content: facts, concepts, and processes that are the stuff of instruction
  • Tools: classes of devices (including software) used to manipulate, remodel, re-purpose, and re-imagine facts, concepts, and processes.
  • Skills: procedures required to use those tools efficiently and effectively.

Of the three types of knowledge, skills are the most important for teachers to teach and students to learn.

Content expires quickly

Having content at one’s fingertips is probably useful for people who create bubble tests, but for most people remembering the factual material taught in school isn’t useful in the long term.

Content is primarily information we can look up as needed. Content is just stuff: It comes and becomes obsolete faster than entries in the Urban Dictionary.

For example, for decades there were nine planets. Then Pluto was demoted for not being good enough, and we bought T-shirts saying “In my day there were nine planets.”  Two years later, scientists found what they think may be a genuine planet at the edge of our solar system. Overnight our knowledge and our T-shirts were obsolete.

Similarly, this years’ PD on mindfulness and PBL will be replaced by PD on some other buzzwords and acronyms next year.

Tools become obsolete

In the last 30 years, the tools we’ve used to work with facts, concepts, and processes have become outdated almost as quickly as our content.

For example, the entire tool class known as word processors emerged and disappeared in a quarter of a century.  (If you remember using stand-alone word processors, you probably should be reviewing your Medicare coverage options for 2017 instead of reading this post)

Search engine AltaVista  and web host GeoCities—big names in the information sector 20 years ago—have become Jeopardy questions for nerds. Yahoo, which purchased both companies, seems to also be disappearing into technology’s sinkhole.

In five years we may be asking each other, “Do you remember when we used Twitter and Canva?”

Skills have durability

In the midst of all the degradable knowledge in our information age, skills still have remarkable staying power.

Chances are, if you learned how to use AltaVista in the ’90s, you learned how to use at least one other search engine since then.

If you created websites with GeoCities back in the ’90s, you probably have learned how to use several tools for creating websites and digital presentations since then.

Certainly, many tool-specific skills that were essential 20 years ago have practically disappeared—using a card catalog, writing a paper check, or operating a mimeograph machine are skills the under-20 population has not experienced—but the meta skills for retrieving information, transferring money, and making printed duplicates of written material have not changed.

Twitter may die off, but people will still use tools for interpersonal communication across distances.

The ability to learn to use a new digital tool with which to manipulate content to produce original outputs is a learning skill that can transfer from old tool to emerging tool and from old content to new content.

In my next post, I’ll explore what we need to teach (and what we shouldn’t bother to teach) to enable students to become good re-learners.

If you’re one of the 1,200+ people who subscribe to this blog by email (you wonderful people!) or one of the equally wonderful people who pick it up through RSS or through postings on Twitter or LinkedIn, you know that skill learning is one of my soapbox issues. Here are some of my earlier posts on the topic:

Reflections on learning from work experiences

Learning when those who can, teach

Work experience as education

Use your bloomin’ mind; get some bloomin’ skills


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Rural school-community relationship not black-and-white all over

Cover of Why Rural Schools Matter shows small school lit at night in dark surroundingsI’d been chewing over Why Rural Schools Matter for a few weeks when I saw a news release from Bates College where the book’s author, Mara Casey Tieken, currently teaches.

There’s nothing like providing a news peg to make an ex-journalist feel the need to start writing.

The release said Tieken had been awarded the 2016 Lyton Award from the New England Resource Center for Higher Education for her research on rural schools and their relationships with their communities.

Comparison portraits

Tieken studied the experiences of two Arkansas communities and their schools: Delight and Earle. Race played a significant role in each community through the years, but in rather different ways.

In Delight, the school is the center of the 311-person community; people have learned to put community ahead of racial considerations. Both blacks and whites united against consolidation, which they saw as the death-knell for their community.

In Earle, the community was divided along racial lines when desegregation became law. Whites fled. Blacks gained political power. But economic power has remained in the hands of the whites, who don’t have children in the schools.

Good reporting, well written

Tieken writes well. I don’t mean just that she writes well for an academic: Her writing is good by literary standards.

If anyone needs exemplars of good nonfiction, they’ll find plenty in Why Rural Schools Matter. Tieken uses all the tricks English teachers talk about—from vivid word pictures and engaging narrative to variable sentence lengths—and makes them disappear into seemingly effortless prose.

Tieken also reports well. She tells both sides of a story, withholds judgment until the facts are in, discloses her affiliations and biases.

What’s not said

The communities Tieken chose are unique and their situations complicated. Delight and Earle feel almost like two ends of a spectrum. That sense of divergence makes the issues stand out in stark terms, but it also makes the possibility of middle ground seem remote.

I can’t help thinking that if Tieken  had picked two rural school districts in South Dakota, for example, the book would have been very different, that there might have been a greater sense of optimism among the community members about their long-term survival. (Disclosure: I was born in rural New York and after college lived in rural communities in Kentucky, West Virginia, and Virginia before coming back my rural NY roots.)

My sense is that by choosing schools with such distinctly different racial experiences, Tieken unwittingly shifted the focus from why rural schools matter to why race matters in rural schools.

Of the two questions, why rural schools matter is the more difficult to answer to the satisfaction of anyone outside rural schools.

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Good enough writing is a good enough standard

Reading a blog post by George Couros about the role of writing in education recently made me get out my soapbox.

Couros began by referring to a teacher’s account of a student named Maddisyn who in her third grade class blogged about The Dot and got a response from the book’s author, Peter H. Reynolds.

Four years later, when the student came back to share her experience with her third grade teacher’s current class, Couros quotes the student telling her listeners, “It was a really big deal for me … because most creative writing you do in grade 2 and grade 4ish, doesn’t really get out there, doesn’t really make a difference.”

From there, Couros segues to wondering:

Do we teach students to write in compelling ways that someone would actually want to read what they write, or do we teach them to write in a way that we can say we have simply taught to the curriculum?

Is “good enough” our standard or are we reaching for something much deeper and much more profound?

I don’t know what the answers are in Canada where Couros works, but here in America the answer to his first question is that we scarcely teach writing at all.  If teachers spend any time on writing, they typically present what the curriculum says about writing.

Quote: An English teachers' classes generally consiste of students who don't want to write, or don't have the skills to write, or don't have the home environment to learn to write.

The Maddisyns who want to write and have the skills and home environment to learn to write by imitating professional writers come along perhaps once or twice in an English teacher’s career.

The rest of the time, an English teacher’s classes consist mainly of students who don’t want to write, or don’t have the skills to write, or don’t have the home environment to learn to write.

Those are the students the English teacher must teach to write because they aren’t going to learn to write on their own.

I believe that “good enough” is a sufficiently high writing goal for the general English classroom provided teachers teach so every student writes competently.

Quote: Good enough is a high writing standard when it is the standard every student is expected to meet.

Most English teachers don’t want to hear that. They want to think their job is to inspire the Maddisyns, the 1–3 percent of students who could get along without them.

But teachers who aim to get every student to write competently find that a surprising number of the students who don’t want to write, don’t have the skills to write, or don’t have the home environment to learn to write turn out to write far better than they or their teachers could ever have expected.

At least that’s been my happy experience.

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Grade incentives for learning that don’t suck

Andrew Miller posted a piece on Edutopia almost a year ago titled “When Grading Harms Student Learning,” which he ends with “an essential question to ponder: How can we grade and assess in a way that provides hope to all students?”

By the time Miller’s post showed up in my Twitter feed this week, it had drawn 31 responses.

Polar positions on grading

As you might guess, the comments on Miller’s post ranged from a recommending that grades be eliminated entirely saying indirectly that grades—or at least the standards they seem to represent—are an essential part of the school’s role in preparing students for life after school.

Mark Barnes takes the first position:

“Have you considered eliminating all number and letter grades? Is it possible that if a child does not complete an activity, there’s a problem with an activity? Number and letter grades lie about learning. Learning can never be measured.”

Mrs Hitchcock, an 8th grade science teacher from Eagar AZ leans, somewhat reluctantly, toward the tough love approach:

“On the one hand, our kids are more than just grades. On the other hand, we ARE still trying to teach kids to be responsible adults…Compliance is a HUGE part of being an adult, and public school is the only place a lot of kids will ever be held accountable for anything.”

Her sentiment was echoed by Kimberly Livaudais, who has taught 7-12 and at the college level.

“[college] students are so used to being able to turn work in late or re-test that many of them fail their first year when they have that rude awakening.”

Grades aren’t going away

I see no chance that schools will get rid of grading systems any time soon: They are too convenient.

(Convenience is one of the most desirable characteristics of 21st century products and services)

Nor do I see large employers abandoning grades as a hiring consideration, even while deploring the fact that grades are meaningless.

As an employer who also worked in human resources, I know employers who need staff ASAP are not going to look through electronic portfolios at least until they’ve narrowed the candidate pool to between three and five people: Portfolios aren’t convenient.

I also don’t see digital badges gaining traction among employers hiring for low-end, no-degree-needed jobs for the same reason: convenience. Employers hiring for those jobs aren’t going to click a half-dozen links to see what Josh’s badges mean.

And a surprising number of employers who ask applicants to email a letter of application don’t know those blue underlines in email messages indicate a clickable link.

My position on grading

My own position on grading sits somewhere between the two.
Don Doehla stated my position better than I can:

“We should have grading systems which honor growth, which empower, and which help support reflective practices.”

Such grading systems would accomplish Miller’s goal of providing students with hope that they aren’t doomed to a life of failure without encouraging students to think effort is the same as accomplishment.

Iteration is key to deep learning

I decided 40-some years ago that grading systems “which honor growth, empower, and support reflective practices” are incompatible with teaching content by units and with arbitrary marking periods. Even semester grades are a stretch for many subjects.

The most important concepts rarely can be mastered within a single unit: Important concepts are important because they apply to a great many specifics and have wide applicability.

Students need to be exposed to multiple examples of a concept and often need to be exposed to the concept in multiple ways. Squeezing a half-dozen examples shown via a half-dozen techniques into two class periods is not nearly as useful as spreading the material out in smaller doses over a period of weeks.

Teaching important skills requires even more iterations—which means a longer time frame—than teaching concepts.

The total amount of class time required for iterative teaching can be less than the time required for the concentrated focus, but is may very well need to extend over several marking periods.

Ditch the unit mindset

Shaking off the unit mindset allows teachers to work in environments employing procedures and processes such as:

  • annual outcomes
  • competency-based learning
  • mastery learning

I suspect many teachers would have no trouble getting rid of units if they could figure out how to grade a student’s achievement on a particular annual outcome when learning activities aimed at helping students master the outcome extend over months.

I do a couple of things in first year college English classes that may offer some insights.

My practice for grading

I set as my writing goal getting every student to write nonfiction competently. I call that C-level.

All topics that need to be covered in the curriculum are evaluated by means of written (“essay”) tests done in class.

All of the formal writing and informal writing (ungraded) assignments are about communications topics in the curriculum.

I evaluate each week’s formal writing—one paper is required each week—in terms of a list of characteristics of C-level writing. I word each characteristic so a student’s work can be assessed as meeting or not meeting the standard.

I tell students that once they reach C-level, I will drop all their grades to that point, even if they had straight F’s to that time.

Empower growth

With students writing just three days a week, I know it’s probably going to take a full semester before most students get to C-level.  That long slog is discouraging, so I provide a way for students to see measurable progress in one area that will contribute to their overall grade: writing mechanics.

Every student in the class has the same number of specific errors to master (usually three; never more than five),  but each student has his or her own list of habitual, serious errors in their writing to master during the course.

One student’s individual mastery plan might look like this:

  • put comma after introductory element
  • separate clauses in a compound sentence with a comma
  • distinguish between its and it’s

Each student gets a percentage of the paper’s total grade for having no more than X total errors of the types listed in their IMP.

I don’t grade informal writing, but I sometimes give bonus points—I call it an easy A—to  students who do all the informal, in-class writing every day they don’t have an excused absence from class.  For struggling students, the prospect of a few extra points may be enough to get them to engage with the informal writing, which will have more impact on their grade than the bonus points.

Hold students accountable

Students are responsible for mastering their own habitual errors. I have students graph their progress in eliminating their errors, and I keep track both of each student’s writing grade for the week and the part of the grade that is represented by the writing mechanics.

Once students see that their writing mechanics have improved enough that they could get higher than a C in the course, they are motivated to keep plugging away on the writing.

In my classes, no student ever fails just because of errors in writing mechanics, but no student gets higher than a C on a paper with more than the acceptable limit of errors from their own IMP.

Honor growth

When a student has performed at C-level or higher on three formal weekly papers in a row, I consider that student competent.  I strike through all previous grades and let the C stand.

The C represents what the student learned in my class. All the earlier F’s were for what the student learned in other teachers’ classes.

If they are happy with a C, students can stop turning in formal writing and still have a C for their grade.

Nobody has ever stopped working after earning their C.

For the final grade, I average the last three weekly papers, which approximates their performance level at the end of the class.

What’s your grading practice?

Have you found some ways to assess and grade without falling into the twin traps of giving away grades or punishing students for their prior teachers’ failings?

Please share.





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Filed under Assessment of students, Teaching methods

Why most parents’ kids are from Lake Wobegon

Photo from stage showing Garrison Keillor telling stories

“The Lake Wobegon effect” is a term for the tendency to overestimate one’s abilities relative to others.

Why do parents have such unrealistically high assessments of their students’ academic performance?

That’s a question Michael J. Petrilli asks at EducationNext in a blog post titled Common Confusion.

The Common Core was supposed to be associated with tests that showed more accurately the relationship between stated standards and student performance. As those tests have been used, student test scores have gone done—way down, in many cases—but parent’s reports of how their students are doing remains high.

A study released in May reported 90 percent of parents believe their children are performing at “grade level” or higher in their schoolwork.

In New York State, where I live, about a quarter of students fail to graduate on time. Of those that graduate and go on to college, about a third end up taking at least one remedial course in college. I can tell you  from my college teaching experience, if a student can’t pass the test to escape remedial English, that student hasn’t been at grade level for about eight years.

Chart showing2012 HS graduation rates in New York State and percentage of graduates that are college and career ready.

New York State’s report of college and career readiness of 2012 cohort of students.

Petrilli suggests giving parents more direct information about their kids’ performance on the report results, possibly even offering resources for concerned parents to use.

Peter Greene on his blog Curmudgucation takes issue with Petrilli’s comments, which Greene reads as being about Grade Inflation. Greene argues that if grade inflation exists in K-12 education, it’s allowed to happen because there’s no objective standard for what students should really be getting as a grade.

I find myself in agreement with both men on certain points: in particular with Petrilli on the need to report test results in ways that will make sense to parents, with Greene on the deleterious effects of the commodification of education.

That said, however, I think there is another factor that could be the causing parents’ assessment of their kids’ achievement to be way off:  The teachers could be accurately assessing what students have learned in their class, and the tests could be accurately assessing how well the students’ learning matched the standards but the material being taught and the material being tested may be very different.

I don’t have any hard data as to whether that is the case, but my observation of such things as topics for Twitter chats and for professional development workshops for teachers lead me to believe a great many teachers are focused on teaching such things as a growth mindset and grit, which can be acquired while engaged in activities that require developing those dispositions.

I think today’s educators spend way to much time attempting to teach things that they wouldn’t have to teach if they did a really good job teaching their academic content.

I don’t mean stuffing students with facts.

I mean teaching students to read, write, compute, listen, speak, and think in each of their academic subjects and giving students work that gives them the opportunity to exercise creativity, to be innovative and entrepreneurial, to treat others with respect, to make the world a better place.

To that end, it might not be bad if parents did ask their local school boards what they are doing to make sure teachers are teaching the right things.


Filed under Assessment of students

A new way to think about literacy

Literacy = reading and writing, right?

Technically, yes.

But suppose we broadened the skills that we include under the literacy umbrella to include speaking, listening, and thinking.

Then we’d have a suite of skills that people use to learn complex material.

Broadening the definition of literacy is where Mark A. Forget begins teaching any subject, from the humanities to vocational courses.

 Red umbrella labeled LITERAACY over 5 gears labeled reading, writing, speaking, listening, thinking

An expanded definition of literacy facilitates teaching in the content areas using both reading and writing.

Skill acquisition during content learning

Forget (pronounced forzháy) stumbled over some good ideas that he later built on, drawing on research into how people learn.

Forget flips the classroom, using the class time for reading text material that typically is assigned for homework and giving as homework activities that encourage higher order thinking about that same content.

Forget uses textbooks the school provides as the reading material. Students acquire reading skills in the process of reading those texts strategically and collaboratively discussing their reading, defending their interpretation of it by reference to specific passages in the text.

Forget teaches strategies that students can use for the rest of their lives.

Forget varies activities to prevent boredom. He  has about two dozen activities that he picks from to accomplish specific objectives, such as learning to preview text, for example. Having those choices lets him insert some variety into the classes without changing his overall procedure.

Forget uses in-class writing every day. Usually the writing is informal (i.e, ungraded), a tool to help students “generate ideas, become engaged through concrete commitment, clarify their own thinking, or otherwise organize ideas in useful and meaningful ways,” Forget says.

MAX teaching strategies

After testing the procedures for years in a variety of school settings and in many different disciplines, Forget wrote Max Teaching with Reading and Writing: Classroom Activities for Helping Students Learn New Subject Matter While Acquiring Literacy Skills¹.  The “MAX” in Max Teaching stands for Motivation, Acquisition (learning that happens without instruction), and eXtension.

Forget does for reading what I attempt to do with writing: Use it as a tool for teaching content and developing the skills Forget includes under the literacy umbrella: reading, writing, speaking, listening, thinking.

What makes Forget’s method brilliant is less his originality than his consistency: He figured out how to teach so that students learn subject matter content and acquire literacy skills—reading, writing, speaking, listening, and thinking—and he stuck to doing that class after class, week after week.

I don’t recall who recommended the book to me, but I wish I did so I could thank him or her.  If my colleagues in other disciplines used Forget’s methods, teaching writing to their students would be a piece of cake.

I’m sure I’ll be writing more about Forget’s ideas as I work through the rest of the book.

¹ I got my copy of Max Teaching with Reading and Writing through an independent bookseller at Alibris.com

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Reading, readiness, and unreadiness

I sat down to write a bit about three nonfiction books I’m reading.

That led me to wonder if there is a word that means the state of having started, but not yet finished, reading a book.  Unreadiness gets things wrong end round; nonreadiness is no better.

Probably the Germans or Japanese have a word for it that an alert reader will share.

But I digress.

3 books: Why Rural Schools Matter, The Physics of Business Growth, Max Teaching with Reading and Writing

Books I’m reading

The nonfiction books I’m reading are

  • The Physics of Business Growth: Mindsets, System, and Processes by Edward D. Hess and Jeanne Liedtka,
  • Why Rural Schools Matter by Mara Casey Tieken
  • Max Teaching with Reading and Writing: Classroom Activities for Helping Students Learn New Subject Matter While Acquiring Literacy Skills by Mark A. Forget.

Despite their quite different subject matter, they have a few common elements. Each is

  • written by people who write well
  • written by people who have lived the subjects they write about
  • written with the expectation that readers will do something based on their reading.

That last point is what’s keeping me from finishing them.

Why I’ve not finished

When I get to the end I’ll need to do something with what I’ve learned, something that’s likely to be uncomfortable, possibly difficult.

I’m ready to learn about.

I’m not ready to go try.

This is the central problem of professional development for educators: Moving from readiness to learn to readiness to apply.

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My students explain

While looking for some papers I needed, I ran across a folder of items I’ve culled from student writing over the years. Here are a few  of their observations to remind you why your work is so important.
Pencil with slogan "student expectations"Students know what they expect:

I expect my instructor to follow the KISS formula: Keep It Simply Stupid.

Can you do that?
Pencil with slogan "good writing"They may not be good writers, but students know what good writing is.

In a place of business, writing effectively means coming to a clear and concise point in as few words as possible in order to prevent wordiness.

Writing can also produce an emotional response.

I feel that one main characteristic of writing is the ability to convey ones message in a way that capsizes the audience.

Pencil with slogan "thesis statements"

Students have had the importance of a good thesis statement drilled into them for years:

A thesis sentence or statement is one or two sentences giving the reader information, a brief interdiction of what you are about to read. A thesis sentence is essential for the following reasons: so the reader will know what the paper is about, let’s a reader know what your poison is on the paper and when this is provided a reader will have some idea as to whether or not to contuse reading that paper.

Pencil with slogan "student weaknesses"Getting started writing is hard for many students:

It is hard for me to begin writing my assigned papers even after I have an idea. I guess you might call me a procreator.

Finishing on time is hard, too.

Due to some insinuating circumstances this weekend, I will not have my first paper ready.

Pencil with slogan "students learn"It can be hard to believe, but students are learning.

I see now that the brain is a mussel, the more you use it the stronger it gets.

Pencil with slogan "teachers matter"Your work is valued by your students.

Teachers are put on a much higher pedistool than other professionals because they are taking care of our children and, they should be.

Have a great year, good students, lots of chuckles—and don’t fall off your pedistool.

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Lessons about school improvement from a business book

dust jacket of Smart Growth by Edward D. HessI recently read Smart Growth: Building an Enduring Business by Managing the Risks of Growth by Edward D. Hess.

In it I found something I wasn’t expecting: Principles from business that apply to school settings.

Hess’s thesis is that the Wall Street model in which successful businesses grow smoothly and continuously with increased dividends every quarter is just plain nuts. (He phrases it more politely, but that’s the gist.)

Here in bite-size chunks are a few observations Hess makes in Smart Growth that struck me as applicable to schools as well as corporations. Unless otherwise indicated, the visuals are direct quotes from Hess.

Growth depends on people having time and learned knowledge to grow.

Substitute “school improvement” for growth and you have an often-overlooked fact about school reform: It depends on school staff having time and learned knowledge.

Schools can’t improve overnight, nor can they improve based on nothing but intuition.

People "act inconsistently and unpredictably, failing to learn…"

Much of school reform work is based on the assumption that educators will act consistently, predictably, and learn from instruction and mistakes.

That’s an unwise assumption.

Organizational growth is far from a smooth process.

Expecting 2016’s test scores to be better than 2015’s, and 2017’s to be better still?

Don’t count on it.

No matter how you measure it, student learning isn’t a smooth process.

Neither is school improvement.

People make growth complex and difficult School improvement can’t happen without people.

People don’t always cooperate in making school improvement happen.

You’ll save yourself a great deal of frustration if you don’t expect them to.


Change may carry unexpected negative consequences as well as the expected positive ones.

Innovation often brings something new, which we may find we didn’t really need, at the expense of something old, which we may later find we undervalued.

Quote: For companies to grow, their people must grow.For schools to improve, their people must grow.

Staff must experience intellectual, social, and emotional growth—none of which occurs in orderly, linear fashion.

Quote: People can change only so much, so fast, and so often.

School improvement depends on people. Administrators should remember people have limited ability to change—especially while they are being expected to carry on with other tasks that aren’t changing.

Quote: Any change will generate mistakes.Mistakes happen.

They happen every day while we’re doing routine things.

It’s foolish to assume mistakes won’t happen while schools are trying new procedures, new programs, new curricula.

Quote: Small changes can add up and have a big impact.

To avoid wasting time on trivia, schools often attempt big, broad, across-the-board changes.

All too often staff are not adequately trained for the big, broad, across-the-board change. (Remember New York State’s roll-out of Common Core?)

Time and resources for implementing the big, broad, across-the-board change may also be missing.

Small changes—even one teacher in one classroom implementing a better way of teaching—can add up to a big, broad, across-the-board improvement in a school over a period of time.

As you settle in to your fall teaching routine, which of these observations will help you avoid the frustration of trying to change your school by next Friday?

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Encouraging news for CTE

In the rural area where I live, getting high school graduates “college and career ready” is shorthand for getting graduates ready for college which will lead to a career.

photo collage of photos representing four CTE fields with slogan Hands and brains CTE

Career and Technical Education students who want the career without a four-year college degree get no respect.

Quite the contrary.

CTE students are mocked, bullied, and generally discriminated against even while stories about how adolescents without college degrees are building wildly successful businesses are discussed over coffee at Bob’s Diner.

I read three articles this week that made me think the tide might be turning.

Financial aid for nontraditional students

A month ago Microsoft launched a series of classes in data science through edX.org, the nonprofit online learning destination founded by Harvard University and MIT. The entire Data Science course costs $516.

Data science is are one of the hottest professions, with more job offerings than candidates, and median salary around $90,000.

This week eCampusNews reported a federal Department of Education experimental program will make financial aid available nontraditional students to take courses including coding boot camps and online courses offered by nontraditional training providers in partnership with colleges and universities.

Sounds a bit like the classes Microsoft has started, doesn’t it?

Such aid for nontraditional training would make good, twenty-first century jobs possible for CTE students in my area.

Auto mechanic changes oil on vehicle on lift

CTE can lead to a career in auto mechanics.

MOOC with graded paper option

Shortly after massive open online courses appeared on the educational scene,  providers of the free courses began offering students who participated in discussions and passed multiple choice quizzes the opportunity to buy a certificate as documentation of their experience.

Certificates for MOOCs I’ve taken have cost about $30—and I’ve taken MOOCs that were as good as the best traditional university courses for which I paid considerably more than $30.

Here’s the other thing: Students taking a MOOC don’t need to make any financial investment until they are sure they are going to get through the course.

Now MIT is offering a MOOC with more scholarly twist.

The 12-week course “Introduction to Philosophy: God, Knowledge and Consciousness” will enable students to obtain a verified ID certificate by writing a paper which will be graded and commented upon by professional philosophers. For the MIT philosophy course, the verified certificate is $300.

In effect, students learn for free;  they pay only if they choose to take the final exam.

As competency-based programs become more common in higher education, I think we’ll see more MOOCs on the MIT pattern.

The MOOC format would essentially allow students to take a required course in a subject that’s difficult for them more than once, from different instructors from different universities, until they felt confident enough to do the exit activity.

That could be a boon for CTE students going after two-year degree in a competency-based program, for example.

Young woman with blonde ponytail lies under truck in parking lot making a quick repair.

CTE skills also come in handy in everyday crises.

Expanded CTE concurrent enrollment

To strengthen and expand dual and concurrent enrollment and early college high school options in Perkins-supported career technical education (CTE) programs, introduced Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) introduced the Workforce Advance Act.

Strengthening concurrent enrollment programs for CTE students is essential if they are to get advanced training.

Most concurrent enrollment courses in rural areas are taught on high school campuses by high school teacher, but CTE students from those schools are often bused to regional centers for CTE courses.

CTE instructors there may not be qualified to teach non-CTE courses, such as English composition, that their students would be required to take their first semester of college.

The Workforce Advance Act would allow school districts to use funding to support teachers pursuing the credentials needed to teach these courses in their high schools, helping to remove a barrier to providing access to college credit.

Finally, the Workforce Advance bill would allow the Department of Education to use national CTE activities to help identify successful methods and best practices for providing dual or concurrent enrollment programs and early college high school career and technical education opportunities.

Finding out the best ways to provide both CTE  and general education credits is important.

As I explain in another post, assuming the CTE students’ high school background is good enough that they don’t need to take remedial courses (a big assumption) first semester,  students would be taking primarily general education requirements.

Through dual enrollment, the academically oriented students usually get those requirements out of the way, but the CTE student may not receive that benefit.

I don’t expect any of these developments to earn CTE students the respect and support they deserve or help them acquire the skills their home communities desperately need, but I’m pleased to see a few signs that the issues are beginning to be noticed.

Acknowledgements. Thanks to the folks at Scoville-Meno in Bainbridge for letting me take photos on the shop floor. And I hope the woman with the ratchet wrench who was making a quick repair to her truck in the municipal parking lot got to her destination safely.

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