Last Tuesday, Michigan philanthropist Betsy DeVos sat before the US Senate to field a lengthy and pointed line of questioning regarding her nomination as secretary of education. The highlight reel from DeVos's confirmation hearing was troubling to say the least; she appeared clueless about student loan policy, "confused" over federal versus state special education laws, and yes, she even advocated for guns on campuses... to protect students against possible grizzly bear attacks. Arguably the most noteworthy portion of the hearing, though, came during a back-and-forth between DeVos and Minnesota Democratic senator Al Franken, who questioned the nominee about the use of growth versus proficiency to measure scholastic achievement. Proponents of proficiency believe in evaluating students equally against a standardized benchmark, like test scores. Fans of growth feel that each student should be evaluated individually, based on how much he or she has progressed in a given school year.
"I would like your views on the relative advantage of assessments and using them to measure proficiency and growth," posed Franken, explaining that he advocates for growth. DeVos replied, "I think, if I'm understanding your question correctly around proficiency, I would correlate it to competency and mastery, so each student is measured according to the advancements they are making in each subject area," essentially confusing the two views altogether.
The issue of proficiency versus growth has long been debated, and will no doubt continue to be if DeVos, a staunch advocate for localized and privatized education, is confirmed. Still, it's only one part of a much larger conversation currently taking place regarding the state of our school system, and the outdated teaching models at play within it.
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In VICE's new feature-length documentary, The Third Industrial Revolution: A New Story for the Human Family, social and economic theorist Jeremy Rifkin lays out an economic roadmap for the next 40 years, and explains why civilization's next industrial revolution can only take shape if our formal education system undergoes a massive overhaul, and starts to embrace things like lateral learning and interdisciplinary teaching. In countries like France, Rifkin argues, formal assessment is slowly falling by the wayside and giving rise to a system that puts experience, socialization, and collaboration above test scores.
Changing the Structure
As part of his argument, Rifkin points out the problematic divide between how we learn inside versus outside of the classroom. Technology and peer-to-peer communication, he argues, have not disrupted the American school system enough. In spite of our ongoing move toward a more lateral dissemination of information, public school teachers still act as central authority figures and transmit knowledge vertically. During the 20th century, this mode of public education produced more literate and numerate populations, but now Rifkin says that the model is outdated, the product of a "second industrial revolution logic," where regimented rows of pupils obey a chain of command and acquire skills enshrined in inflexible syllabuses.
"It's dysfunctional," he says. "We have an internet generation that lives one way of life in terms of their mind outside the classroom and another inside the classroom. In the classroom, for example, when we think about education, the first thing we realize is the classroom looks a little bit like a factory."
In place of this top-down teaching structure, Rifkin argues for a distributive and collaborative model that mirrors the way we share information, ideas, and experiences on the internet through forums, social media, open encyclopedias, and blogs.
"By learning to think and act in a distributed and collaborative fashion, students come to see themselves as empathic beings," he says. "The goal is to encourage students to think rather than perform."
In his 2011 book, The Third Industrial Revolution, Rifkin cites an example in which teachers divide their classrooms into small working groups; each group is then assigned a sub-topic relevant to the assignment at hand, and each student is given an area to focus on. Following the group work, the individual students then guide discussions on their individual area of expertise. "In this way, students teach each other and learn how to lead without commandeering the conversation," says Rifkin.
The French Approach
According to Rifkin, peer-to-peer learning can transform students from passive recipients of knowledge to active participants in their education. One such example of this lateral learning model is the Fédération Internationale des Universités Catholiques, which was created by France's Catholic Institute in Lille and later adopted by more than 200 schools around the world. In the Lille model, students are placed in modules where they teach one another, exchange ideas, critique one another's arguments, and question concepts that are often taken for granted in more traditional classroom settings. Rather than lecturing, professors act as supervisors and facilitators—something Rifkin argues will redefine the way students acquire knowledge.
"Knowledge is not power, [nor] something one possesses at the expense of the other," he states. "Knowledge is the shared experience you have as a social being… What's the good of learning if the theory isn't brought together with practice?"
The French education system has long been a beacon of progressive thinking, often standing in direct contrast to the US. Since the passing of the Jules Ferry laws in 1881 and 1882, France's higher education system has been virtually cost-free for students. Meanwhile, the US continues to loan money to students seeking higher education, often with astronomically high interest rates attached. In the 1980s, France designated Education Priority Zones to provide increased funding to schools in at-risk communities in an attempt to equalize educational opportunities across the country. In the US, lobbyists like DeVos are still advocating for more, often privatized, education choices, thus freeing kids from attending schools based on their place of residence, and potentially increasing the divide between low-income and high-income public education.
While formal degrees still remain the gold standard across the globe, France is now spearheading change on that front as well. In 2014, entrepreneur and Free Mobile founder Xavier Niel launched Ecole 42, a tuition-free collaborative school in Paris that specializes in digital training. The school is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and does not hire professors or offer lectures. Admission is based on practical tests. Personal statements, transcripts, or letters of recommendation are not required of applicants. In 42's system, students learn from one another in project-based modules. They assimilate skills through real-life case studies, and the school promises programming language proficiency after only a month, no matter what a student's skill set or background. The system's trademark is that it does not award diplomas; it values know-how and learning over accreditations. The school recently opened a second campus in Silicon Valley.
Old vs. New
Of course, none of these leaps in abstract education reform are without their naysayers, especially in conservative camps. French philosopher and member of the Académie Française, Alain Finkielkraut—also known for his controversial views on radical Islam and the decline of French culture—has warned against a drop in academic achievement and the erosion of order in the classroom. The focus on internet and technology, he says, has had a devastating impact on primary and middle school students' command of French. He's also repeatedly railed against the Ministry of Education's decision to cut French literature and history programs in order to introduce courses on "how to live together harmoniously."
But while proponents for old school education models fight to make the classroom great again, Rifkin continues to push for a bigger picture approach: "We are so accustomed to conventional learning environments that we rarely step back and ask critical questions about the nature of the learning process," he proposes. "We simply take for granted that the way we're being taught is the fundamental way knowledge is passed on." And in that regard, the debate over proficiency versus growth seems more necessary now than ever.