By Michael Horn
The potential of a competency-based (or mastery-based) education system powered by digital learning to customize for each individual student’s needs and bolster learning excites many. A question some ask though is: What about the unmotivated students? Won’t they be left behind?
Furthermore, in light of the recent publicity around the research on the importance of grit — defined as “sticking with things over the very long term until you master them” — to life success, some further suggest that although competency-based learning and blended learning are nice, unless we solve the problem of instilling grit or perseverance in all students, isn’t it true that those next-generation learning things won’t matter?
These questioners raise good questions. As we discussed in the Introduction to Disrupting Class, the fact that our education system does not intrinsically motivate a large percentage of students is a root cause of the country’s education struggles. Solving this is imperative to improving the nation’s schools.
The tenor of the questions, however, suggests that those asking them don’t understand the purpose and potential of competency-based and digital learning.
Competency-based, digital learning executed well is tailor made for the purpose of intrinsically motivating all students. This doesn’t mean that all digital learning does this well, but the best blended-learning schools today are great because they reach the students who appeared to be “unmotivated” in the old system. And if we hope to instill grit in every student, a requirement for doing it at scale is competency-based learning—in which students only progress once they have truly mastered a concept, not based on time—most likely powered by digital learning through which students come to take ownership over their learning.
A brief overview of a chapter from Disrupting Class offers some insight into motivation, which helps explain why this is (a version of the full chapter is downloadable here). With that understanding in place, we’ll turn to the question of instilling grit in students at scale.
Through the prism of the “Jobs to be Done” theory, which identifies what causes people to “hire” something through the use of their money or time in a given situation, we see that a core reason why so many students languish unmotivated in school is that education is not a “job” that students themselves are trying to do. Education is something they might choose to hire—as indicated by where they spend their time and attention—to do the job, but it is not the job.
Students broadly speaking appear to have two core jobs in their lives. First, they want to feel successful and make meaningful progress. Second, they want to have fun with their friends.
As a result, schools compete against many outside things that students can also hire to help them do those two things. Some of these include gang membership as something that students can hire to experience success and to have fun with friends; dropping out of school, buying a car, and cruising around town; joining athletic teams; and video games.
Too often schools fare poorly against these competitors as something that students can hire to be successful and have fun with friends. The primary mechanisms in most schools for doing these jobs are explicitly separated from education. Activities such as athletic teams and musical and dramatic arts performance groups, which are mechanisms for feeling successful and making progress, are “extracurricular” activities rather than “curricular” ones, which speaks volumes.
The key events embedded within curricula that could help students feel successful—examinations—occur every few weeks. Students generally don’t receive feedback on how they did for another couple weeks while the teacher grades them. And when the grades are handed out, the privilege of feeling successful is reserved only for the best students. By design, the rest experience failure.
(Click here to continue reading this article. Permission to publish this article was granted by Michael Horn, co-founder and Education Executive Director at the Innosight Institute. This article was originally published on Forbes.Com.)