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Personalized Learning, Flipped Classrooms, Video Watching: Last Gasps of the Old Education

As academics whose research area is K-12, we (CN, ES and the rest of our professorial tribe) have long touted the benefits of learn-by-doing, constructivist learning, social-constructivist learning, constructionist learning, etc. (Connected learning is the latest pedagogy in this family of student-centered pedagogies; it is espoused by researchers in the MacArthur Foundation network.) And we proudly point to classrooms where such learning is taking place.

But, while it pains us to say it, the reality is this:  The dominant pedagogy in the United States is still direct instruction, with a matching curriculum that was defined initially by the Committee of Ten, a national commission studying high schools that was headed by Charles Eliot, then president of Harvard University in 1893, updated by E. D. Hirsch Jr. beginning in the 1990s, and reified in today’s Common Core State Standards.  

Founding the Core Knowledge Foundation, Hirsch published a series of books starting with What Your Preschooler Needs to Know and ending with What Your Sixth Grader Needs to Know. The Common Core references Hirsch’s books; his books are its guiding light.

(FYI: We do not feel that the NGSS — the Next Generation Science Standards are cut from Hirsch’s cloth; but that’s a blog post for another time.)

The battle is the classic one: Should education focus on process (e.g., helping children to learn how to learn) or should education focus on content (e.g., there is a corpus of stuff that needs to be known). The promoters of "education as acquiring stuff" have triumphed ... so far.

No surprise: modern technologies are used in service of "education as acquiring stuff." 

  • Online/blended learning employs, for example, a curriculum developed by e2020 which has been rebranded as Edgenuity. Students watch video lectures, take multiple choice tests, and after correctly answering seven of 10 multiple choice questions that prove mastery, move on to watch more video lectures.
  • Amplify Inc., using tablets instead of desktops, and labeling their pedagogy "personalized learning" presents information to a student, tests the student's acquisition of that information, and presents new information based on the student's performance, i.e., adaptive instruction.
  • Flipped classrooms have learners watch video lectures at home instead of listening to the lectures at school.
  • Instead of amateur videos made by classroom teachers, students are being sent to the Khan Academy where the hedge-fund analyst S. Khan has posted bunches of videos on core content — with the math ones aligned squarely to the Common Core State Standards.

But, the "education as acquiring stuff" model is broken. The hordes of job hunters here in the United States are the proof that education is not preparing students — our children — for the economic realities of the global marketplace:

"The youth unemployment rate was 16.1 percent in April 2013 for those between the ages of 16 and 24, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For the 16 to 19 age group, the seasonally-adjusted unemployment rate was 24.1 percent; for those ages 20 to 24, it was 13.1 percent." From Governing.

Social learning, inquiry learning, just-in-time learning, and yes, learning-by-doing, will become the dominant pedagogies. The focus must be on process, must be on skills such as the 4Cs (Critical thinking, Communication, Collaboration, Creativity). Why? Because the kids today need to be prepared to move from job to job — to jobs that haven’t been invented yet.

We (CN & ES) fly for 26 hours half-way round the world to the little country of Singapore four times a year, not because we love collecting frequent flyer points and sitting for 12 hours at a stretch in a middle seat with Cheech on one side and Chong on the other, but because Singapore’s Ministry of Education and its enlightened educators are trying to use modern, mobile technologies to support inquiry learning. We are excited and honored that our mobile-based suite of educational apps are playing a role in school transformations there.  

Personalized instruction, flipped classrooms, video watching, etc., etc. are the last gasps of the old, "education as acquiring stuff" model; they are attempts at putting a patina of new on an old, outmoded, broken and ultimately ineffective educational model.

We can’t end on a downer note; we truly believe that an Inflection Point — a dramatic change — in education is just around the corner!

About the Authors

Cathie Norris is a Regents Professor and Chair in the Department of Learning Technologies, School of Information at the University of North Texas. Visit her site at

Elliot Soloway is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Department of CSE, College of Engineering, at the University of Michigan. Visit his site at

Find more from Elliot Soloway and Cathie Norris at their Reinventing Curriculum blog at