Have we reached the point where each learner can learn at their own pace? I hope so

Crystal BallIn spite of what I have achieved, I am not a fan of the entire education system; I believe, as do others, we can do better. Before our educational system was established, individuals would learn a subject on their own pace often under the tutelage of an expert. As the Industrial Age settled in, we thought it was best to group learners together and “teach” them en masse. Learners no longer had control of their learning; they moved together through a set curriculum on a timetable. They moved from one subject to another regardless if they understood the subject or not. Some topics were too basic for one set of learners but they had to stay on the timetable rather than work on more challenging material. Learners who struggled were left behind to become more frustrated and possibly drop out of the system. The problem is people do not learn this way. Hopefully, we have entered an age where learning can be on the learner’s pace and choosing. “A system that was truly designed to maximize learning would not force learners to move on before they had learned the current material, and it would not force faster learners to wait for the rest of the class” (Reigeluth, 2012, p. 75).

 “A system that was truly designed to maximize learning would not force learners to move on before they had learned the current material, and it would not force faster learners to wait for the rest of the class”

As Reigeluth (2012) continues to point out, the education system was created to and currently remains a mechanism to sort learners into categories. It was not designed to help everyone reach their fullest potential. The current system is not designed for learning. Fortunately, there is movement to design a system that will truly help learners reach their true potential — regardless of how long it may take. This means a group of learners who begin a subject at the same time may be working on different topics in a very short time. Faster learners will move faster through familiar material, and slower learners may take more time to digest a topic. How is this possible? I believe it will take a system similar to the Air Force’s on-the-job (OJT) training program with an application of technology.

On-the-job Training

When I was a supervisor in the Air Force, I was responsible for a team of 7-10 members. Each had a different level of experience, served a different amount of time in the Air Force, and had a different learning ability, yet, I was responsible to help them move through their OJT program. This program consisted of a correspondence course and hands-on training based on a Career Field Education Training Plan. This is the training plan that I used for my career field. The supervisor and trainee would identify tasks (roughly page 25 in the training plan) that would be focused on for a week or so . The supervisor would then ensure that the trainee knew the material and could perform the tasks unsupervised. This all occurred through competency-mastery.

Competency Mastery

Over the past couple of months, there has been a number of articles focusing on competency mastery in higher education. Fain and Shapiro list a number of higher education institutions who have or are moving to a competency-based learning model. Some of these institutions include Western Governors University, Southern New Hampshire University, Excelsior College, University of Wisconsin system, College for America, Capella University, and Northern Arizona University. As the authors of these two articles point out there has been some push back and concerns from traditional educators and administrators. However, we already have a model for competency-based learning. As Shapiro notes many institutions already give credit for experiential learning such as internships. Since the institution of the Carnegie unit, much has changed. We now have technologies that can help facilitate  personalized learning to include tracking and assessment. In order to move to a competency-based system, many things about our current education system will need to change such as grades, time to complete a course or subject, and assessment methods. According to the New York Times, the Department of Education has encouraged institutions to bring forward programs that do not adhere to the credit hour and seat time. Basically, if you are competent, you can move forward otherwise you continue to learn until you are competent. Initially, I personally believe there will be a lot of push back until the public understands what is actually occurring. We are so in grained with the present system, that requiring someone to continue to develop their skills while peers are advancing may cause some heartburn with parents.

What will 21st Century Look Like

Earlier this morning, I found two new blog posts that discussed this idea of 21st Century Learning. The first one I read was “Why 21st Century Learning Should Be More Like the 19th Century” written by John Warner, it is a response to “Five Ways that 21st and 20th Century Learning Will Differ” written by Steven Mintz. Personally, I find favor with both of these articles because they talk about disrupting the current system with one that is more responsive to learners. Mintz began the discussion with his predictions that learning will be competency-based and exploit what we have learned about the science of learning. Additionally, learning will leverage technology through the use of big data to help personalize learning for each learner. As Mintz noted, dashboards will help instructors provide necessary support as learners work through material at a pace of their choosing. Warner added to the discussion by pointing out that Dewey had already been advocating for this type of learning experience. While I agree with Warner that technology cannot predict learning outcomes with 100% certainty, I do believe technology can rapidly identify gaps in learning that need to be addressed. I regularly use technology to help identify training needs for a 3,300 member organization. It is a matter of collecting and using the right data. The Khan Academy, as an example, uses technology and dashboards to help keep learners on track and instructors appraised on learning efforts. While I believe learners can learn a great deal using technology, I agree with Warner that learning must also be a social activity. Learners must work with a mentor, instructor, or coach to make sense of material. This is definitely a Dewey concept. Learning is achieved through dialogue with the material whether it is a personal discussion with a book or in a classroom discussion while working through a problem.

If I Could Remake Education

In a previous post, “How I would remake grad school if I was king for a day“, I advocated for four changes:

  • Assign a mentor
  • Change curriculum to one of objective mastery
  • No classes
  • More student projects for publication

Where Warner believes Mintz is trying to leverage technology to reduce the number of instructors, I feel instructors or mentors are a crucial to learning. By bouncing new ideas and concepts off another person does true learning occur. I would like to see a master task listing for a graduate student discipline. I would then like to see learners navigate through the master task listing with the support of their mentor. The mentor and learner would decide on the course of instruction to achieve mastery. Some of this may be technology-based while other pieces may not. But I do see technology being used to track progress.

What I really believe is that we need to help learners learn, and not just sort them.


Reigeluth, C. M. (2012). Instructional theory and technology for a postindustrial world. In R. A. Reiser & J. V. Dempsey (Eds.), Trends and issues in instructional design and technology (3rd ed.) (pp. 75-83). Boston, MA: Pearson.