This month, school districts across New Jersey are once again administering PARCC, the state-mandated assessment designed to measure the progress of students in achieving the Common Core standards in language arts and mathematics. And, once again, there will be vigorous debate about the potential merits and misuses of this new, computer-based test.
The Princeton Public Schools have proven to be a safe space for healthy debates on topics such as standardized tests and we want to continue to honor that openness. We also, however, want to shift the overall conversation in education from one focusing on standardization to one focusing on innovation. And to shift the conversation, we must shift the paradigm.
The current paradigm in education is based on the factory model of the 19th century. Students are viewed as products and move through a K-12 assembly line of learning. Students who need more time are taken off the assembly line. Students who need less time generally continue at the same pace as everyone else. Specialization by subject matter is seen as the most efficient way of imparting information. Hence, students spend each day moving from science to social studies to English to math. And since standardization is essential in the factory model, tests are administered at the end of each year to ensure the quality of the product.
Of course, students are not products. They are people, individuals with unique interests, abilities, and hopes. So what paradigm for learning works better for them?
Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline, has suggested the paradigm of the video game, and he believes it serves as a model for the next revolution in education - one based on personalized learning.
The first feature of the video game model of education is choice. Students playing video games can, within limits, choose what they will learn, when they will learn it, and what might happen during the game.
The second feature of the video game model is readiness level. Players are assumed to be at different levels of competency and can select the readiness level with just the right amount of challenge. As they gain ability, they move up levels. This can take as much or as little time as needed. There is no expectation that players learn at the same rate.
The third feature of the video game model is the value placed on mistakes. In the factory model, with a strict emphasis on producing a quality product, mistakes are generally seen as “bad.” In a video game, however, mistakes are the only way players learn. Mistakes provide the immediate feedback that allows players to continually revise and improve their performance. And the feedback comes without judgement. Players can assess themselves according to their own performance, but the system does not label them as good, bad, or average.
Fourth, the video game model places an emphasis on integration. The most engaging video games are often complex simulations integrating science, math, history and art, and requiring students to read, evaluate, think creatively and make a wide variety of strategic decisions to solve real-life problems.
Fifth, and finally, the video game model provides the opportunity for collaboration. Players can choose to play alone, but they can also collaborate with others in the same room or around the world. And such collaboration can foster better learning, deeper friendships, and much more fun!
Minecraft and Mario Brothers are certainly not the answer to improving education in America, but they do provide a model for learning that invites us to expand our conversation beyond a critique of standardized tests and towards a discussion of high-quality, personalized learning for every child. They invite us to shift our paradigm. Standardized tests are likely to be with us for a while, but good instruction always leads to good test results, and it is on the former that we must maintain our focus.