Building Motivation, Instilling Grit: The Necessity of Mastery-Based, Digital Learning

The potential of a competency-based (or mastery-based) education system powered by digital learning to customize for each individual student’s needs and bolster learning excites many. A question some ask though is: What about the unmotivated students? Won’t they be left behind?

Furthermore, in light of the recent publicity around the research on the importance of grit—defined as “sticking with things over the very long term until you master them”—to life success, some further suggest that although competency-based learning and blended learning are nice, unless we solve the problem of instilling grit or perseverance in all students, isn’t it true that those next-generation learning things won’t matter?

These questioners raise good questions. As we discussed in the Introduction to Disrupting Class, the fact that our education system does not intrinsically motivate a large percentage of students is a root cause of the country’s education struggles. Solving this is imperative to improving the nation’s schools.

The tenor of the questions, however, suggests that those asking them don’t understand the purpose and potential of competency-based and digital learning.

Competency-based, digital learning executed well is tailor made for the purpose of intrinsically motivating all students. This doesn’t mean that all digital learning does this well, but the best blended-learning schools today are great because they reach the students who appeared to be “unmotivated” in the old system. And if we hope to instill grit in every student, a requirement for doing it at scale is competency-based learning—in which students only progress once they have truly mastered a concept, not based on time—most likely powered by digital learning through which students come to take ownership over their learning.

A brief overview of a chapter from Disrupting Class offers some insight into motivation, which helps explain why this is (a version of the full chapter is downloadable here). With that understanding in place, we’ll turn to the question of instilling grit in students at scale.

Through the prism of the “Jobs to be Done” theory, which identifies what causes people to “hire” something through the use of their money or time in a given situation, we see that a core reason why so many students languish unmotivated in school is that education is not a “job” that students themselves are trying to do. Education is something they might choose to hire—as indicated by where they spend their time and attention—to do the job, but it is not the job.

Students broadly speaking appear to have two core jobs in their lives. First, they want to feel successful and make meaningful progress. Second, they want to have fun with their friends.

As a result, schools compete against many outside things that students can also hire to help them do those two things. Some of these include gang membership as something that students can hire to experience success and to have fun with friends; dropping out of school, buying a car, and cruising around town; joining athletic teams; and video games.

Too often schools fare poorly against these competitors as something that students can hire to be successful and have fun with friends. The primary mechanisms in most schools for doing these jobs are explicitly separated from education. Activities such as athletic teams and musical and dramatic arts performance groups, which are mechanisms for feeling successful and making progress, are “extracurricular” activities rather than “curricular” ones, which speaks volumes. The key events embedded within curricula that could help students feel successful—examinations—occur every few weeks. Students generally don’t receive feedback on how they did for another couple weeks while the teacher grades them. And when the grades are handed out, the privilege of feeling successful is reserved only for the best students. By design, the rest experience failure.

We often conclude that the top students succeed because they are motivated, and the rest languish in the middle or the bottom of the pack because they aren’t. The jobs-to-be-done perspective leads us to a different conclusion. All students are likely equally motivated to feel successful and make progress. For some, school is a viable candidate to hire for this job. This group likely includes those whose parents provide a clear link between academic achievement and career success, for example.

The students who do not hire school to feel successful are not unmotivated. They just don’t or can’t feel successful at school— often it makes them feel like failures. School does not motivate intrinsically. For these students, schools just can’t compete against other vehicles that they can hire for feeling success.

Even when children listlessly spend hours each day watching television, this is not evidence that those particular children don’t have the “feel successful” job to do. Rather, there likely isn’t anything in their lives—given their circumstances or context—that they can hire to do the job. School might cause them to feel like failures; athletic team membership might similarly cause them to feel like failures; and so on. The fact that there is no “market” in those particular homes for academic, athletic, or work activities whose “wages” include feelings of success and accomplishment does not mean that the job doesn’t exist in the lives of those children. Motivation operates through a different causal mechanism than most of us have assumed traditionally.

So how do we help students who aren’t buying what schools are selling?

Digital learning coupled with mastery-based learning is likely necessary to solve the problem at scale.

By the very nature of online learning software, achievement can be integrated seamlessly with the delivery of learning experiences in ways that help students feel successful while they learn, every day. Often this comes in the form of reviews or assessments that are built into the software, which require students to demonstrate mastery before they can move to the next body of material. Feedback can be delivered frequently and in bite-sized pieces, as necessary, to help each student feel successful.

Implementing digital learning within a competency-based learning system—where a student keeps working on a concept until she masters it—is key. There is a strong body of research summarized in Delivering on the Promise that supports these points. What it tells us is that feedback by itself is not useful—and in fact has a negative impact on student learning. Providing feedback to students, explaining why their answers were right or wrong, and then allowing students to continue to work on a problem until they have it right and master the concept produces statistically significant gains in student learning. Blended-learning models that create time for teachers to provide this type of meaningful and actionable feedback are vital.

There is also significant evidence that students’ learning is maximized when content is delivered “just above” their current capabilities—not too much of a stretch, and not too easy. Customization to the “just above” level—with the occasional stretch challenge to keep things interesting and help students feel a true sense of achievement and progress (rewarded with a healthy dose of dopamine upon solving the problem)—for each student is naturally achieved in a competency-based education system powered by digital learning. As digital learning improves and becomes more adaptive, this ability to assist each individual student in finding and working on the right learning experience for her will improve. By contrast, the current monolithic education system creates a system that contradicts both pieces of research for optimizing student achievement.

Furthermore, today’s monolithic, seat-time based system in which students progress from concept to concept based on time, not mastery, signals clearly to students that grit does not in fact matter. Today students make progress from concept to concept regardless of how much effort they expend and how well they do. When a unit is over, students take a test, move on, and receive feedback only weeks later. We send an unambiguous signal that it doesn’t matter if you stick with something because you’ll move on either way. This undermines the value of grit, de-motivates students—as many either become bored when they don’t have to work at concepts that come easily to them or fall further and further behind once they don’t understand a building-block concept and yet the class continues to progress and they develop major holes in their learning—and shreds student achievement.

A competency-based learning system on the other hand literally embeds grit—sticking with things until you master them—in its DNA. Thoughtfully executed, in which students from an early age tackle complex projects and problem solving over time, it creates a causal link between hard work and progress. Embedding these experiences in digital learning makes it far easier to scale the good experiences across a mastery-based system, which would build student motivation for and ownership over learning—all of which the research says bolsters learning.

And that’s an outcome that would nail everyone’s job to be done.

-Michael Horn

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