Why What Happens in K-12 Matters to Higher Ed

I have spent a lot of time looking at the 9-14 space; the space where students who got a 3.0 in high school find themselves in developmental math.  The space where B students in high school become second semester drop-outs in college.  This space that has a very rickety bridge over a very wide gap.  K-12 is working hard to change the path for many.  The growth of early college, dual credit and AP courses help prepare students for college rigor—and for more than just our honors students.  The catalog of K-12 online courses continues to grow, offering everything from previously unavailable courses (e.g., Chinese, Coding) to easier ways to recover credit.  Maker spaces are springing up across the country, and teachers are flipping their classrooms. Charter schools and academies are growing, helping students to explore new interests and pathways.  But what is happening on the Higher Ed side to continue these pedagogical advances?   Not much. 

As I read more headlines like “87% of College Students Perform Better with Access to Immediate Feedback on Performance, New Research Finds,” it is clear that Higher Ed continues to trek on believing that students are the same as they were 50 years ago, 30 years ago, 10 years ago.  They aren’t.  I don’t need a study to know that my kids (14, 15) are continually looking for and getting feedback every day.  Every morning they look over their grades at breakfast and check them again at dinner.  They practice their math questions on their phone and get immediate feedback.  They collaborate on lots of PBL (project based learning) with feedback at every stage (from teachers and peers).  After three years of more rigorous standards (from CCSS to home-grown state versions), our middle and high schools students are changing the way they learn.

Enter Higher Ed.  These same “maker-space, ongoing feedback, learning outside of class” students are now expected to sit still in a lecture hall while a tenured professors fills them with knowledge.  How do students know they are struggling?  They get a bad grade on an assessment (which screws up their GPA).  That’s their feedback.  How do they practice what they are learning? How are they growing their 21st century skills like problem solving and collaboration?  Certainly not by using the tools and teaching methods that were available to me and my generation.  And yet, the refrain I still hear from the hallowed halls is “They should be able to do this level of work. This is college.”  No, not all professors.  But many more than there should be.

The problem runs deep.  It is not just our institutions but our content providers as well.  Yes, there are lots of digital products out there, but few of them (at least the ones that are commercially viable) are designed to take advantage of and build upon what students are doing in middle and high school.  Yes, they provide feedback.  But, for the most part, they are not built for targeted practice activities on the go, project-based and collaborative learning or for flipped classrooms.  They don’t focus on competencies and practice but rather reading, learning objects and assessments.  And in defense of publishers, it is a chicken and egg scenario. If professors continue to push back on transforming teaching in spite of what is happening in our K-12 system (and in the world of work), there is little incentive to change the development model for our major publishers.

Case in point:  I recently worked on some training materials for digital content development in the Higher Ed space (aimed at the freshman/sophomore level).  I spoke about the need to have a working knowledge of the new rigorous standards, 21st century skills, and the movement towards blended learning in our middle and high schools.  Not surprisingly, the first comment back was, “While that is interesting, I really don’t think we need to worry too much about it.”   

And that is where Higher Ed goes awry.  We DO need to worry about it.  We do need to make sure that every educator—whether teaching new freshmen or building new learning materials—is working to successfully get our students across that bridge and into a lifetime of learning.