Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Learning Events vs Environments: A Case for Putting the Learner in the Center

Malcolm Gladwell, the bestselling author of TheTipping Point, has come up with another book that has created plenty of buzz. Outliers is a fascinating exploration of the factors driving outstanding success, presented in a nice storytelling fashion.

Among other things, the book mentions a study on learning effectiveness by Johns Hopkins University sociologist Karl Alexander. It has some very useful insights for professionals involved in learning initiatives in organizations.

According to Gladwell, Alexander tracked the progress of 650 first graders from Baltimore public school system, looking at how they scored on a widely used math and reading skills exam called the California Achievement Test. These are reading scores for the first five years of elementary school, broken down by socioeconomic class – low, middle and high.

As you can see, the differences in first graders across income groups are meaningful, but not overwhelming. This modest gap, however, widens as you go from year 1 to year 5. What causes this achievement gap? Is it because the disadvantaged kids aren’t as smart? Or is it because somehow the schools do a better job with kids already in a position of advantage?

To answer this, Gladwell provides another interesting data set. Kids took these tests not just at the end of every academic year. They also took them at the beginning of the school year. Which means you could calculate school-year gains.

This gets interesting. Now, all income levels are making comparable gains during school years. So, we can safely absolve the schools. But then, why was the achievement gap widening? Obviously, we need to also tabulate the summer vacation gains.

The gains show dramatic differences here. Some kids are gaining in summers, others are losing what they learnt in school.

What is going on? Presumably, the affluent kids get to engage in useful activities in summer, including reading at home, summer camps and what have you. They not only hold on to their gains, they even go further. Poorer kids don’t get to do those things.

Clearly, when you put the school in the center, every school year is going great, and schools are doing a good job. When you put the learner in center, you can see that the some learner groups are missing out.

Indeed, this rings true beyond K-12, for a broader range of learning initiatives. Time and again, focusing on formal learning events alone turns out to be myopic. A more complete goal is to improve the whole learning environment – pre-class, in-class and post-class - through a variety of modalities, such as online self-study, virtual classes, reference materials and social informal learning. Only then will all learners have a shot at holding on to – and furthering - their gains made during discrete learning events. Otherwise, end-results will vary depending on who has the most opportunities outside of formal classes.

Interactive learning cannot possibly limit itself to making learning events more exciting. That is part of the game. The architecture of a learning initiative should encompass what happens beyond formal learning events, to get consistent outcomes.

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