AUBURN — Bea McGarvey looked at her audience at Edward Little High School on Monday night and said, “I'm cranky.”
The reason? School reform has been talked about for decades, but schools look the same, she said.
McGarvey, a former Maine educator, a consultant and co-author of “Inevitable, Mass Customized Learning,” said no amount of changing standards, assessing or instruction will reform education “because we come up against this industrialized age delivery system.”
Until schools change that, schools will continue to generate some students who do well, but some who do not.
Auburn Superintendent Katy Grondin introduced McGarvey, whose book helps explain the direction of Auburn schools. In Auburn, 70 percent of students are doing well, but 30 percent are not, Grondin said. “That's not OK.”
McGarvey offered reasons on why decades of school reform has done little. Today's design of schools goes back to 1892 when a 10-member committee designed school systems for the masses. It looked like this: 12 years of school, eight years of grade school, then four years of high school. High school students would be taught English, math, history, biology.
The goal then was to teach the masses for the industrialized age, where the majority, the workers, needed some education, and only a few, the thinkers, needed to be highly skilled, she said.
That meant some would drop out of schools, which was fine because they could get jobs that supported their families. It worked well for that era, but not today when every student needs to be highly skilled, she said.
That's not happening, McGarvey said, because learning is still taught in “assembly-line” schools, where teaching is dictated by grades, schedules and bells, not whether students learned.
Teachers are “killing themselves” trying to teach so all learn. “The problem is the structure gets in the way,” McGarvey said. “The schedule drives us.”
A student may need more time to learn fractions, but the bell has rung. It's time to move to a new lesson, she said.
“Kids learn in different ways and in different time frames. We all get that,” McGarvey said. “Yet we don't deliver that way. Instead we mass produce it.”
What's needed is a major shift in schools to mass customized learning. Mass customized learning meets the individual needs of learners all the time. That wasn't possible 10 years ago, but is possible with today's technology.
The premise of her book is that the world is customized, except for schools.
Examples of how technology customizes individual needs include how Amazon tracks individual purchases and suggests new products, or how an airline tracks individual customer flights and automatically corresponds with individual customers.
Every adult — parents, teachers, city councilors, school board members, educators including Maine Commissioner of Education Stephen Bowen, who McGarvey said “really gets it” — has a role to make mass customized learning happen, she said.
Customized learning happens by teachers grouping, then regrouping, students around learning goals, not ages or grades.
“This is not tracking kids,” McGarvey said. “This is not saying, 'You take the fast learners and you take the slow learners.' It's saying, 'Who needs (help with) fractions right now? Give them to me.” That group might include students who are eight, nine or 10 years old. They would get specific instruction on fractions for a short period of time, just a couple of weeks, McGarvey said.
Teachers still teach, but can rely on technology to help deliver learning. Students can learn about the Civil War by reading about it online and watching videos. It's the teacher, she said, who explains concepts about oppression that relates to the war. When students use technology to learn, teachers are freed to work with other students.
McGarvey couldn't offer specifics on what schools would look like under mass customized learning. Much of that depends on what individual communities come up with, she said.
But communities need to generate visions of what they want to achieve, and that vision needs to include “that every kid will learn in his or her own way in his or her own time.”
When that happens students take ownership of their learning, become enthused, and their learning picks up speed. There is a groundswell of support for mass customized learning in Maine, McGarvey said.
Any education reform that retains the assembly-line delivery of instruction, “grade 1, grade 2, the bell schedule . . . is most likely tinkering and perpetuating an outdated organizational structure from 1892,” she said.