Michael Horn on ‘Failing Fast’ and Why Companies Should Understand Competency-Based Learning

By
EdSurge

Michael Horn, co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute, believes in the power of competency-based assessment--that entrepreneurs, educators, and administrators should be celebrated for the specifics of what they do. So when he took some time to sit down with EdSurge for a Q&A, we were curious to hear about his thoughts on the Digital Innovation in Learning Awards (co-hosted by Digital Promise and EdSurge)--and get his impressions on the realities of “failing fast, failing often” in the edtech world. Here’s what he had to say.

EDSURGE: What’s your background in education and the marketplace?

HORN: My background originally started from a public policy angle when I was working for [CNN senior policy analyst] David Gergen and we did a fair amount of programs with superintendents. Then, when I went to the Harvard Business School, I had the opportunity to take Clayton Christensen’s class, and jumped at an opportunity to co-author a book with him. I spent a number of years deeply immersed as a researcher in education, scouring all the angles, and out of that work, I started the Clayton Christensen Institute. We work with innovators, and are trying to shape a student-centered education system that works for all students.

And what sorts of products and initiatives are coming out of the Christensen Institute, which really functions like a think tank?

That’s exactly how we categorize ourselves, like a think tank. There’s three categories of work that we do. The first is research--we do whitepapers, policy briefs, books, all where we really dive in but take it from a very unique angle, which are our theories of innovation. 

Second, we play a role of really shaping the dialogue in terms of how all stakeholders--teachers, school leaders, policymakers, others involved in education--really see past a lot of the present-day fights and move forward towards that student-centered future, and how digital learning can bring us there. 

And the third thing that we do is connect innovators in the field; we get tons of folks to reach out.

On that note of creating connections, do you face any challenges at the Christensen Institute when it comes to balancing the desires of educators and individuals in entrepreneurship or business?

I think it has been a problem historically, and I think it’s been created by a lot of things. The marketplace of education operates by a predictable set of regulations, and  those regulations are not often reflective of the perspective of teachers. That’s led to fracturing. The second thing is, educators don’t always like to think of what they do as an industry or enterprise, and entrepreneurs and investors don’t always understand that perspective. That’s why trying to connect around student outcomes first and foremost is really important in this work.

When you’re focusing on outcomes, how do you find that companies can qualify themselves as “disruptive”?

Actually, a bit of a myth in the field is that innovation requires “big failure.” Sometimes, people say, “When you hold us accountable for outcomes, there’s no way we can innovate because innovation is inherently risky. We need time to fail and improve.” There’s a logic to that. But, setting the marketplace so that we’re clear upon what we’re innovating toward is really important.

A competency-based learning world or mastery learning world, as Sal Khan would call it, can allow for different pathways and free us up from certain constraints, iterating really quickly and failing fast--but not failing in major, spectacular ways. It can help encourage innovation, but is fair to educators, entrepreneurs, and students involved.

The Digital Innovation in Learning Awards (DILAs) are also structured around competency-based learning. Delving deeper, how do you feel about competency-based assessment, like with the DILAs?

I think competency-based education is one of the key lynch pins--maybe even more so than digital--in moving towards a student-centered system that we would hope for. It’s insane if you step back from it and realize that our system is a seat-time one in which you progress, regardless of what you master, and then we act surprised if students drop out…

Competency-based assessment and a growth mindset, that shows what you know and what you do, just makes all the sense in the world. Folks who are worried about that sort of an assessment being less than accountable are missing the point. If you have a fifth grade student doing trigonometry, the fifth grade test isn’t going to pick that up. In general, competency-based assessment that’s showing where people are is a much more transparent and truthful picture of what they are learning.

When it comes to companies, what do you think the DILAs will accomplish in terms of competency-based learning?

I think we’ve done ourselves a disservice in the past. When we say “Educator of the Year,” it somewhat misses the fact that there are a lot of different ways to excel, and it’s the same with companies in this competition. There are a lot of different ways to show what they are doing on the ground, and this competency-based structure is exciting. It’s a more honest way of rewarding what’s going on in the field and showcasing what’s most meaningful.

Are there specific qualities that you are looking for in those companies that are applying for these awards?

What I’m really interested in at the end of the day is boosting student achievement from a growth mindset. Helping teachers to be more productive and make better use of their time, or save schools resources--those are the types of things that get me really fired up.

Looking at the DILAs, are there any particular awards that you are most excited about?

I get really fired up about the data piece, like the Mindful Data award. This year, the dialogue has really focused on the privacy angle and and protecting student identity. But we haven’t paid enough attention to all the exciting things you can do when you have data about students and better serve their learning needs.

And one more thing for applying companies: Don’t just give us anecdotes, but real, concrete metrics that allow us to see the impact that you’re having. “Open the kimono” if you will, so we can really understand what’s going on underneath.

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