Learning’s New Horizon: An Interview with Michael Horn

Michael Horn is passionate about the future of education. He is the co-founder of and a distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, a non-profit think tank. He authored and coauthored multiple books and articles on education, including Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns and Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools. His expertise is in disruptive innovation, online learning, blended learning, competency-based learning, and student-centered education systems.

Horn serves on the board and advisory boards for a range of education organizations. He is on the board of Fidelis Education, Education Elements, Global Personalized Academics, the Silicon Schools Fund, the National Association of Independent Schools, and the Minerva Institute. He is an advisor to Intellus Learning, Pedago, Knod, Everest Education, AltSchool, Degreed, the Education Innovation Advisory Board at Arizona State University, and the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media at Teachers College, Columbia University, as well as an executive editor at Education Next.

He was selected as a 2014 Eisenhower Fellow to study innovation in education in Vietnam and Korea, and Tech&Learning magazine named him to its list of the 100 most important people in the advancement of the use of technology in education.CC-Institute-Gala-9-of-321.jpg

A fully educated population is essential to any healthy democracy. That being said, is the institution of compulsory schooling one factor that contributes to a general discouragement of lifelong learning? Are people less likely to fall in love with learning if their association with learning is through mandatory education?

That’s a really intriguing question. I don’t think I know the answer. Although I’m not sure whether schooling is mandatory or not would have a universal impact on all citizens in the same way in how they view learning, I do think there is something important in reframing learning. We should reframe learning away from something that happens just in school at discreet times in. We should do aways with the sense of school as a ladder, as something you eventually ascend and do away with, and begin to see it instead as something that you do your entire life, driven by need and curiosity.

When I was in Korea on my Eisenhower Fellowship, even though I had heard about it, I was still stunned to see scores of students sleeping during their formal schooling and then awake late, late at night in their hagwon after school programs where they did their actual learning. I remember being surprised when a teacher said to a student, “Oh, you don’t know that? Tonight at your hagwon make sure they teach you that.” And it became clear to me that if formal public school wasn’t mandatory, I was pretty sure the majority of the country would instead make their hagwon their primary mode of schooling. Of course, in Korea, there is a lot of extrinsic motivation to study and learn to pass a test and get into a good university because historically that was the only way to get a good job and move into prosperity. That is changing so it will be interesting to see if the intense interest in hagwons does as well.

 The measurement of achievement is important data to understanding how students can improve their work and how schools can improve their instruction. Is the act of measurement, mandatory testing, grading, etc., discouraging to the lifelong-learning prospects of disadvantaged students? If some student are told they are failures, do they internalize the grade they are given in a way that negatively inhibits their desire to pursue more scholarly activities?

This is why moving to a competency-based learning system is so important.

In today’s system, time is held as a constant and each student’s learning is a variable. Students move from concept to concept after spending a fixed number of days, weeks, or months on the subject. Educators teach,  administer a test, and move students on to the next unit or body of material regardless of results, effort, or understanding of the topic. Students typically receive feedback and results much later and only after they have progressed and, by design in many cases, many of those tests are graded on a curve and so students are told in clear language that they are failures.

The system signals unambiguously to students that it doesn’t matter if you stick with something because you’ll move on either way. It sends a signal that is the opposite from the growth mindset that would combat the phenomenon you’re talking about. This approach undermines the value of grit along with the development of non-cognitive skills like agency and curiosity; it ignores the potential to reward students for spending more time on a topic. It also demotivates students; many either become bored when they don’t have to work at concepts that come easily to them or fall behind when they don’t understand a building-block concept and yet the class continues to progress. As a result, they develop major holes in their learning.

Contrast this with a competency-based learning model in which time becomes the variable and learning becomes the constant. Students only move on once they demonstrate mastery of the knowledge and skills at hand. If they fail, that’s fine. They stay on task, learn from the failures, and work until they demonstrate mastery and then move on.

Without talking about grit or perseverance or a growth mindset, competency-based learning systematically embeds the building of those skills into its design and fabric, which combats the phenomenon you’re framing.

The Bronx is home to roughly a million and a half people and has exactly zero bookstores. Is the asymmetrical distribution of educational resources–namely books, experts, lectures, seminars, etc.– a serious hindrance to the lifelong learning prospects of disenfranchised populations? How do we fix the problem?

I didn’t know that – that’s unbelievable. I think this historically has been a major hindrance, which is why online and mobile learning is so potentially exciting. Geographic bounds need no longer be a reason someone can’t learn, as access can be everywhere. That said, this is why social capital is so important: because you need to have influences in your life that will show you what you can learn through these mediums, inspire you to do so, mentor you to stay with it through the tough times, and so forth. Just because you have a device doesn’t mean you’ll take advantage of all the learning opportunities, but with learning at your fingertips geography doesn’t have to be destiny.

The American criminal justice system holds more than 2.3 million people in various prisons and detention facilities. How can we encourage lifelong learning as a preventative measure for at-risk populations? How do we engage the millions of people already incarcerated in continuing their education? How do we set up the institutional structures to properly educate such a large number of people?

Educating those who are incarcerated through online learning is actually a massive opportunity to innovate. There are huge pockets of non-consumption where those populations don’t get access to valuable learning opportunities, and as such, we can really change how learning happens from what would otherwise take place in a school environment. There have been some exciting efforts taking place to put learning squarely in a prisoner’s experience to help them out for when they exit the prison system. We need to be doing a lot more here.

In terms of how do we make lifelong learning a preventative measure—I think again this has to do with transforming learning into something that is intrinsically motivating by fundamentally leaving the factory-model system behind and moving to a student-centered one where the learning is personalized for each student based on what they need when they need it. And I think we need to think a lot about thoughtfully helping students from low-income neighborhoods build social capital around them to help them see and create opportunities they never otherwise would have to motivate them to learn and make progress in their lives without having to resort to criminal acts.

From 1995 to 2015 the average tuition and fees at private national universities jumped 179 percent, out-of-state tuition and fees at public universities rose 226 percent, and in-state tuition and fees at public national universities grew the most, increasing a staggering 296 percent. Does the rising cost of education seriously cripple the prospects of lifelong learning for lower and middle-class people? If people begin to see their education as a financial investment does that discourage people from understanding their education as an invaluable, lifelong process? How do we fix the problem?

 No question about it—this is a big deal. To combat it, we can’t take the approach of trying to help people afford an expensive education though. We need to make the education fundamentally affordable, and that means launching disruptive innovations that fundamentally change the cost equation to deliver learning opportunities. We start by having those disruptive innovations serve people whose only access would otherwise be nothing and then fostering the disruptions to improve. I think a lot of the free college movements that are sprouting up amidst this time of innovation in education are really dangerous because they could crowd out the opportunity for those disruptions to take root and fundamentally transform our education system. That would be very dangerous for helping make learning more accessible, affordable, personalized, and bite-sized such that it could be consumed flexibly and fluidly throughout one’s life to continually skill up to match the pace of change in society.

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