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The dilemma of authentic learning: Do you destroy what you measure?

The challenge of translating the educational benefits of making.

John Seely Brown tells us the half-life of any skill is about five years. This astounding metric is presented as part of the ongoing discussion of how education needs to change radically in order to prepare students for a world which is very different than the one their parents graduated into, and in which change is accelerating.

It’s pretty straightforward to recognize that new job categories, such as data science, will require new skills. The first-order solution is to add data science as a college curriculum and work the prerequisites backward to kindergarten. But if JSB is right about the half-life of skills, even if this process were instantaneous, the learning path begun in kindergarten might be obsolete by middle school.

The second-order solution is to include meta-skills into the curriculum — ensuring young people learn how to learn, for instance, so that they can adapt as new skills are required with increasing frequency. This is essential, but raises the question of how to stay ahead of the skills curve — what are the next critical things to learn, how do you know, and how do you find them?

John Seely Brown and co-author Douglas Thomas propose in their book “A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change” a third-order solution, which is to inculcate the mindsets and dispositions that will lead us, as independent agents, to the things that matter. These include curiosity, questing, and connecting.

A similar theme emerged at the Design, Make, Play workshop at the New York Hall of Science in January. Focused on the question of how the maker movement can catalyze innovation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education, participants included technologists, makers, learning science researchers, educators, and more, all wrestling with how to translate the authentic, integrated experiences that designing, making, and playing provide into something that can be measured, understood, and incorporated into education.

The primary outcomes of making, designing, and playing look much more like JSB’s dispositions than the skills demonstrated on standardized tests of reading, writing, and arithmetic. At the same time, though, practical skills are developed — the kinds of projects exhibited at Maker Faire require the same skills as many high tech professions.

This highlights the most pernicious, devilish, intransigent challenge to bringing critical learning into school. Through the lens of standardized tests, higher order skills, meta-skills, and dispositions are literally invisible. Yet, these tests are the gold standard of educational efficacy for judging schools, educational innovations, and now even teachers themselves. School boards are held accountable by property owners for such test results due to their direct correlation to property values. Innovators, researchers, and even the philanthropic institutions that fund them are beholden to education investors for meaningful results that prove innovations work — with test scores as the default.

This conundrum is well understood by the very stakeholders who are trapped by it, and there are efforts at many levels to combat it — from incorporating critical thinking skills into the core standards being adopted by most states to alternative measures of effectiveness being adopted by grant makers. At the DMP workshop, participants struggled with the very real challenge of authentically articulating the benefits of design, make, and play at different levels and the measures that would make these benefits visible. It’s a tricky balancing act to reduce something to metrics without losing its essence.

One fascinating approach was presented by Kevin Crowley about how to recognize the impact of science experiences such as those found in museum exhibits on young people. Crowley and his colleagues researched the forces and events that influenced scientists and science enthusiasts in their career/hobby choices. They identified the notion of experiences that caused “science learning activation,” which they defined as a “composite of dispositions, skills, and knowledge that enables success in science learning experiences.” The idea is that perhaps we can measure the degree to which a specific informal learning experience creates such activation and that this becomes one of the measures that shines a light on the outcomes of making.

As the gathered experts brainstormed to articulate the genuine outcomes of making for students and how to capture those, it became clear that this is a task that is both crucial and emergent. If authentic learning is to become available to all students regardless of means or zip code, the iterative and ongoing process of articulating the educational values of a world of rapidly changing expectations must become a priority for experts and lay folk alike. What are your thoughts? How do we capture and share the soul of making without turning it into something that can be tested using the No. 2 pencil?

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