Updated: Apr 6
by David Irwin
In the heart of the pandemic I read an article that was making some comparisons to the Spanish Flu of 1918. The article included a picture of a New York Times front page story from 1918 about the Spanish Flu.
But but what caught my attention was an article (see above) about the appointment of a new superintendent of New York City schools, Dr. William L. Ettinger. Knowing what school districts have been going through these past two years, I was curious to see how he was tackling the pandemic at hand, but there was no mention of it.
However, what caught my attention was his referencing differentiation and some beliefs he had. He said:
“In the first six years, the elementary school, there must be a marked stressing of the elementary subjects. But differentiation, begins with the junior high school...more than 80 percent of the school children of New York must go out into life as soon as they reach the age at which the law will permit….recognizing the fact that many children will not be destined to go to high school or college, it [school] tries to differentiate to suit their needs and to make them as efficient as possible for their entrance to the workday world.”
Then I sighed.
102 years later we are still talking about the need to do the same thing and find ways to differentiate, or personalize learning for students.
A concerted movement on personalization began to take hold about a decade ago with beliefs that because enabling technology was becoming available, some of the barriers to create personalized learning pathways, like availability of lots of learning resources based on a student’s interests and much easier way to conduct formative assessments that can aid in helping navigate unique paths. I was part of this movement too and helped many districts with their plans as well as helped develop a framework for personalized learning that is still used today.
Alas, many of the things that I thought would come true a decade ago just have not materialized. It makes me think that is today any different from what Dr. Ettinger had suggested more than 100 years ago?
But I’m hopeful and encouraged now.
This pandemic has brought about so much death and financial uncertainty, as well as a total disruption of our public education system. Being the forever optimist, perhaps a silver lining of this pandemic is that school districts across the US have become creative problem solvers taking on issues they never thought they could solve before. Much has been written about this by organizations like McKinsey and the Christensen Institute.
And if there is one thing we have learned from this pandemic, it is that we quickly change and do things new.
Who would have ever thought that school districts could become world class contact tracers?
Or that all kids and teachers in a district can pivot in almost a day to teaching in person in the morning and over Zoom in the afternoon.
For me, among other new experiences, the pandemic turned me on to the Peloton bike, which my wife had had for a few years, but I never used it, I’m a runner. Fast forward to today, using a Peloton for so many is really nothing new, perhaps even a bit of a cliche. But from the stories I have heard from so many friends, acquaintances and co-workers, it was life changing.
For me, in addition to introducing me to a new way of exercising, it allowed me to learn about the love of biking and I have since bought an outdoor bike and have been an avid biker (my knees thank me often).
Right about now, I’m sure you are asking, what does this have anything to do with education?
I know much has been written about the Peloton movement and its cult-like obsession, but I think it's worthwhile understanding why (well at least from my point of view) to see how this directly relates to education.
First, it allows for incredible personalization. You can pick your instructor, the music you like, the type of ride, the length of ride and when you want to take it. You can see ratings on how others liked and how hard they were on recorded rides. You can compete against others virtually and live, those that previously took a recorded ride (like in some cases more than 500,000 people), you can even compete against yourself and your previous best output. You can join monthly and annual challenges, for yourself, or to compete against your “friends” on Peloton. You can give and receive high fives to strangers on rides with you.
Many times while I have been on rides I have thought to myself, imagine a world where many of these attributes in Peloton were in education.
What if a student had the same choice in picking what they wanted to learn, when they wanted to learn and what resources (like even different teachers) they wanted to use? What if they wanted to see how they stacked against others and compete? Or compete against themselves? What if they could get high fives from other students when they accomplished something? What if they saw peer ratings on certain curriculum choices before they decided to engage with them?
I have seen a few edtech providers claim they are the “Peloton of Education” but I don’t necessarily think that one single app or technology solution is going to create this same experience Peloton riders get. Instead, educational leaders (superintendents, school boards, principals, district leaders) should ask these same questions and ask if they have the systems, processes and people in order to be able say yes and figure out what solutions work for them.
Based on what I read in that New York Times article from 100 years ago, I have every reason to believe that the next 100 years will be the same. However, with what I have seen districts do over the last 2 years, I have faith now that a real change is possible.