McGraw-Hill exec: tech will make us rethink age-grouping in schools

Online platforms like Khan Academy are already starting to flip classrooms across the country so that students can learn at their own pace.  But some think it might not be too long before technology pushes schools to personalize education in even more structural ways, so that students are no longer grouped by age, but by competency.

Noting advances in educational technology –- from online platforms that deliver instruction to programs that analyze student learning data -– Jeff Livingston, senior vice president of College and Career Readiness at McGraw-Hill (s MHP), said Thursday he thinks that in the next five to six years, schools and educators are going to have to rethink age-grouping as the primary organizing principle for K-12 education, especially at the high-school level.

In a virtual roundtable with reporters, he said, “What does it mean to be a 9th grader or 10th grader beyond being a certain age? … It doesn’t make sense that all the 15-year-olds are in this grade and all the 16-year-olds are in that grade. It should be where your interests, your skills and your mastery of certain concepts takes you.”

Competency-based vs. seat-time-based learning

Mixed-age classrooms, not so unlike those from the days of the one-room schoolhouse, are already espoused by many Montessori and Quaker schools. In those environments, the thinking is that real learning is best accomplished when students are motivated to progress at their own pace and help each other.

But as technology helps teachers guide students through content at their own pace -– and effectively assess their mastery of skills and concepts -– multiage classrooms could become a reality in more traditional classrooms.

Some schools and teachers already seem to be trying the model using Khan Academy. And, led by higher education, Livingston only expects that trend to pick up.

In a conversation with me after the event, he pointed to the online Western Governors University (a McGraw-Hill partner) as a model for learning based on competency, not the number of hours a student spends in a classroom. He also highlighted the growth in students taking online courses as well as college courses on campus to offset the limitations of their local schools. As more self-motivated students start cutting their own path -– increasingly with the help of digital platforms –- educators will have little choice but to figure out how to accommodate them, Livingston said.

What does the high school diploma mean?

New models of learning based on competency will also contribute to new ways of thinking about certification and credentialing, he said. That debate is already brewing at the higher education level, as startups like Udacity and Coursera start to certify students’ skills online. But Livingston said the high school diploma will also increasingly be challenged to prove its value against other kinds of certificates that are “organized around what you can do, more than what you know.”

In the past couple of years, digital education has experienced such profound growth and investment that it’s not hard to imagine that its momentum will only continue to build and re-shape schools and classrooms.  But as important as building the technology to enable competency-based classrooms is building teacher support and education for new models. The technology is increasingly there, but the challenge is breaking through bureaucracy and overcoming entrenched ways of thinking about how education is structured and experienced.