I was listening to a TEDTalk recently about education. One of the ideas in the talk was that children are not receiving the education they need. Many of the education programs, especially at the federal level, try to force a common structure, standardized tests, on students and this has the effect that teachers teach to the test. By teaching to the test, the curriculum normalizes to a focus on the test content. Essentially this has led to the same curriculum for all students. After all, they all need to take the test.
The logic reminded me of healthcare conversations. Today, medicine, by and large, is applied across wide swaths of people. But a funny thing happened along they way to medication heaven–some medicines worked better in some individuals than others. Over time, it was found that the more complex the medicine, the more that it worked well in some and not at all in others and perhaps even hurt the patient.
This created an opportunity for tests–tests that could determine when a medicine would well in a patient. These tests suggested that medication had to be personalized to an individual based on their specific chemistry and more importantly, their specific genetic structure. While the differences in a human being’s genetic structure is rather small, its significant for the medicines we create.
The field of personalized medicine was born. While the concept of personalizing medicine to a specific patient is age-old, personalized medicine today really implies the use of newer technology or processes to customize treatment for a patient. It recognizes that many complex human diseases and issues require a deeper understanding of what will work on a patient and that each patient is different.
And if we look at the area of customer marketing, where the most important trends in the past 20 years has been around taking marketing efforts down to the level of the individual. To know as much as you can about one person in order to better communicate with them, is all based on the idea that if you can personalize the messages based on the actual marketing target (the shopper for example) then that message will be heard and be much more effective at changing behavior–which in this case is to purchase a product.
The iphone is another example. The iphone is really about mass customization–the ability to create a platform that can be further customized by “apps.” The apps are the customization that tailors the phone to the needs of each individual. The iphone’s success is testament to this core idea.
But in the education area, according to the TEDTalk, its all about standardization. What is needed, according to the talk, is personalized education. In the same way that healthcare, customer marketing and many other areas of human endeavor have found, when something is personalized, it often performs better or is more relevant or is more beneficial.
What is stopping personalized education? Is it the bureaucracy? The teachers? The principals? The federal laws?
Surely, all of these probably play a role. But perhaps the larger issue, and one that underpins healthcare, customer marketing and the iphone is that there has to be a platform of productivity behind the customization. Education has none, but one is on the horizon.
Healthcare has a platform of science, with a fairly rich (and growing) backbone of chemistry and genetics. Healthcare has fundamental tools that can be manipulated like building blocks to work through the discovery process. It can run many experiments to optimize itself to the problem.
Customer marketing, often driven by digital marketing, can run thousands of experiments (placement, color, message, etc..) as well as fairly solid technical commonality around message delivery and presentation–the technology is fairly mature and continually maturing.
The iphone is an obvious platform that others can innovate on directly. Its pretty obvious.
What about education? Can it rely on a few building blocks? Is there a mechanism by which the productivity of teachers or of the education process can dramatically accelerate? Does it have to be the same chalkboard and lecture format?
There are positive signs of a “platform” on the horizon. In my opinion, the highly disruptive power of digital based education (video lectures, tests, etc.) could be the platform that is needed. By siphoning off core learning activities of the mechanics in some fields, for example, addition and subtraction, calculate and many other areas, the education process’s productivity could rise. Teachers need to focus on the hardest educational processes and the toughest subject areas and customize the dialogue with the student based on what the student needs. But all of this customization, this personalization, takes significant amounts of time. Where will that time come from? It’s not going to come from teaching a standard curriculum using traditional techniques. We know that this does not work.
What is clear that teacher engagement makes all the difference. And teacher productivity is key. Yes teacher’s need better oversight, just as principals need better oversight and the school bureaucracy and school boards are neither healthy or make sense. But the largest impact we can have and the most important impact is to give teachers a productivity boost. And the best way to do that is to let the easy stuff be handled through other teaching techniques and focus teachers on the student’s at a more personalized level.
We see this in colleges today. Despite the incredibly poor management at colleges and universities today (it really is quite disappointing), they do have one thing right although for the wrong reasons. There is a shift to computer based training for standard material. This frees up the professor’s time. Of course, most universities should just be shut down for being so poorly managed but that’s another story. Clay Christensen talks about disruption in the education market at the senior educational level. It could wipe out many inefficient and ineffective universities today (hurray!) and actually improve education for all of society instead of the few that can pay increasingly large amounts of money.
We need some of that disruption at the elementary and high-school levels as well in order to allow personalized education to be used at the level where it can be influential. We need that today.