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Alex Hernandez: "Inspire Students and Families to Change Their Behavior Around Education"

Alex Hernandez

About 10 years ago, I had an epiphany that I would never pay another late fee to Blockbuster, because this upstart Netflix showed me that life didn’t have to work that way. My view of how the world should work changed at that very moment, and I never looked back.

A similar occurrence took place last year around this time. The entryway of my house began to fill up with UPS boxes in December of 2012, and I realized that, for the first time, the vast majority of my holiday gifts were purchased through Amazon. I still went to the mall, but I just chose to buy everything online.

Such changes in my behavior seem to happen with increasing frequency. Once I discover “better,” it just makes so much sense to do that “better” activity that I rarely notice the shift, nor do I think much about how I used to act.

In 2014, I’m keeping an eye out for “better” ways to learn that inspire students and families to change their behavior around education. The opportunities or trends don’t have to be perfect--just good enough to nudge people to change their ideas of how education should work.

The easy trend to spot is consumer interest in online learning resources, whether those resources are an app, a MOOC, a game, a video, a book, whatever. More and more of our “learning time” outside of school is spent online. Pundits and experts spend so much time nitpicking and criticizing individual resources, it’s easy to miss the big picture: When we want to learn, we increasingly reach for a computer.

My ears perk up when I hear parents ask what apps are available to help their child. My seven-year-old made me chuckle recently when he asked, “Dad, where’s your phone? I need to ask Google something.” This might not sound like a big deal in the moment, but in aggregate, the earth is shifting underneath us. People like good, easy-to-use resources, and more is better.

Here’s the beginning of what could be a crazy trend: hyper-personalized learning environments that are designed around individual kids, not classes or age-based grade levels.

For example, I’m watching two school openings slated for autumn 2014: Montessori for All in Austin, TX and Caliber Schools in Richmond, CA. Each is trying an individualized approach where learning activities and groupings change fluidly based on what each child needs. Imagine 30 kids working on 30 different things for parts of the day, each activity tailored for what children need in that moment.

Crazy? But which of these teaching approaches sounds better?

  • Teacher A: “Your child is doing ‘fine’ on the second grade standards.”

  • Teacher B: “We are trying to give your child exactly what she needs each day based on everything we’ve learned about her.”

For my money, this is the most interesting, complicated and messiest work going on in K-12 right now. Call it “education R&D for the next century.” And the accompanying change in consumer thinking? I’m looking for early signs that families can shift their thinking from “Will my kid fit in this program?” to “Will this program fit around my kid?”

File this more under wishful thinking, but I’m watching for signs that better, more varied assessments are on the horizon, ones that provide data that are actually useful to families. Almost every parent I know wants as much information as they can get about their children’s development. The problem isn’t with assessment, per se--it’s that the current generation of assessment is so primitive.

I hope the Common Core testing consortia are successful but I worry that they do seem a little “Healthcare.gov-ish.” So where do better assessments, Common Core or otherwise, come from? The edtech industry could be one place since it tends to focus more on students and families as end users than other parts of the K-12 sector. But assessments are expensive to develop and generally not a great use of private capital. This feels like an area where foundations could have a major impact partnering with edtech companies and innovative educators.

Improved assessments matter because students (and families) can only take so much control of their education without reliable feedback about progress. A lack of high-quality assessment puts student-directed and/or mastery based learning at major risk over time.

I know, I know. Assessing isn’t sexy. But the future is just a little dimmer if kids don’t have the tools to help them own more of their learning.


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