Life’s dashboard [#NYTEdtech]


Think of something complicated that all of the competent adults in your life are equally good at.

Having trouble?

Consider the following possibilities.

  • Parallel parking
  • Reading maps
  • Folding maps
  • Making risotto
  • Growing tomatoes from seed
  • Doing laundry
  • Consoling friends

So what would your life’s dashboard look like?

Three stages of mastery in the new Khan Academy dashboard for teachers. Students are organized into rows; content in columns.

Three stages of mastery in the new Khan Academy dashboard for teachers. Students are organized into rows; content in columns.

Is your goal for every adult in your life to master each of these skills? Is it OK for the adults in your life to attain some familiarity with each and to improve throughout their lifetime? Or must the dashboard be solid blue?

Additional question: How would you behave differently if life’s dashboard were available on your mobile device or desktop computer?

Much of the rhetoric at the New York Times Schools for Tomorrow Conference this past week was based on individualization. The mantra here is alluring.

We have been treating time as fixed and mastery as variable. We need to flip that so that everyone attains mastery and the time they take to do it is variable.

This was a much retweeted component of Sal Khan’s keynote address (see it at 12:56 in this video).

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Instead of holding fixed how long you have to learn something and the variable is how well you learn it, do it the other way around. What’s fixed is every student should learn; we should all get to 100%, or 99% on basic exponents before moving on to the negative. And the variable should be how long we have to learn it and when we learn it.

The larger idea of which this is a part is competency-based education.

Perhaps the principle here is too broad for meaningful debate, but I do think the assumption is worth questioning. My Life’s Dashboard thinking is one way of doing that.

Another would be to state some explicit areas for concern. One is equity. We can imagine students cycling endlessly through arithmetic content deemed foundational, and never being given access to (say) algebra.

Another area for concern is the power that is given to those who create the knowledge map. A careful look at the KA knowledge map, for instance, reveals that the prerequisite knowledge for adding decimals consists of addition and subtraction skills together with additive whole number and negative number relationships.

No knowledge of fractions is necessary; no knowledge of the multiplication and division relationships underlying place value, decimals and fractions is necessary.

These assumptions about how people learn decimals are flawed, and they are known to be flawed. But powerful people are creating flawed knowledge maps, which then form the basis of the appealing fixed mastery, flexible time meme.

I have written multiple times about Cathy Fosnot‘s idea of the landscape of learning. This is a useful metaphor that conflicts in some important ways with Khan Academy’s more linear knowledge map metaphor (and at 9:21 in the video).

So I get how appealing this flexible time/fixed mastery thing is. I understand its allure. And the idea that we can summarize this information for teachers in a tidy array? Also appealing.

But it just isn’t that simple.


6 responses to “Life’s dashboard [#NYTEdtech]

  1. Chris (@absvalteaching)

    Is your goal for every adult in your life to master each of these skills? Is it OK for the adults in your life to attain some familiarity with each and to improve throughout their lifetime? Or must the dashboard be solid blue?

    Oh boy, now I’m starting to feel like I’m connecting the dots between you and Pershan. My comment at his place.

  2. My 100% is going to be different from your 100% when it comes to mastery — unless we limit things to “HOW MANY PROBLEMS DID YOU GET RIGHT” (and I get to pick the problems).
    And… when your chart of my ‘mastery’ is still grounded in instruction that is full of fundamental mistakes (“we know the sum is ___” as he points to a multiplication problem, and never *does* explain why or how we should know that, or why it matters – that’s in the average “lesson”), all the data in the world only tells me that students who can learn despite bad instructional materials (for a variety of reasons) are doing fine.

  3. Interesting reflection. I’m curious to hear you expand further on why you see competency-based education as being different from the landscape of learning. To me, I agree with both ideas and see them as quite complementary. As Geonz says “My 100% if going to be different from your 100%” and to me this is the beauty of competency based education- it defines a benchmark, but not how you need to get there. It can accommodate multiple approaches and student understanding to a problem, and so for this reason is can accommodate and recognize students that are on different parts of the landscape. Of course, direct facilitation between a student-instructor is most ideal but simple switching from grades to competencies can go a long way towards improving education. I’m curious to hear you expand further on the differences you see here.

    Also interested in why you have categorized the knowledge map as “linear.” It is quite literally anything but linear- it is a tree. A text book is linear, a traditional lecture is linear, and actually gives a student little power to move out of the linear progression- sure a student can skip ahead in the textbook, but how do they know which of the many skills in the previous chapters is needed to understand a new chapter? Not only does a knowledge tree allow for a student to choose what to study next, but it empowers them to do so by being able to judge whether their current skills are adequate for this new skill. If a student doesn’t understand a concept, the knowledge tree indicates where they might go for help. A knowledge tree gives a student so much more control over learning than a textbook. Sure the KA has some power in defining the tree and may get some parts wrong- but so might a textbook writer or teacher. On a very high-level, a knowledge tree is clearly meant to be a learner-empowering device, and I find your criticism of it as a creator-empowering device (and the implicit assumption that the KA is some power-hungry, controlling beast) a little confusing, to say the least. I’m curious- are you opposed to the idea of a knowledge map guiding learning, or opposed to the Khan Academy’s specific implementation of their math knowledge map?

  4. @Christopher, when it comes to your equity issue, I’d like to point out that KA does not in any way lock a student out of algebra even if they still need work on arithmetic. They may recommend that you master arithmetic first, but they student can always go to any topic they choose.

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