Cohort Learning

I want to share some more thoughts on my posts “the under-challenged kid” and “Just In Time Learning“.  In the first post, I wondered about potential benefits of unstructured learning, where the emphasis is on the play (constructing and deconstructing arguments) instead of the rules (material to be memorized).   In the second post I reminisced of my own experience learning just in time.  The second post also revisited my suggestion that standardized testing and common core appear to be copied from industry certifications.  

I’m uncomfortable applying a useful adult certification approach in the context of childhood learning.

One thing about standardized testing of certifications is that the individuals setting up the standards and setting up the tests are very distant.   Nearly no one taking the certification will ever meet them.  They tend to be very well esteemed in their professions and attend international conferences.   This is appropriate for job-specific certifications because the emphasis is on accurately disseminating that knowledge to the practice of the profession.   I have no problem with this.

I have a problem when this model is applied to education at the primary, secondary, and undergraduate level.

There is another even more crude analogy I take from my software engineering background, and that is of test-driven design.  Test-driven design suggests that building the tests first and then designing to meet the tests (as well as continuously retesting) is a very efficient way to produce software.   The practice of test-driven software design and standardized test learning are creepily similar.

I mentioned in my last post that it seems we are trying to train our children to compete against software websites (instead of the companies).   Now I wonder if in fact we are treating children as software projects.

Increasingly, global competition comes down to software competition.   Sometimes it is direct competition of software products or services, other times it is behind the scenes using software to gain competitive advantage.    Are we now equating global competition to software and then equating preparing tomorrow’s citizens to become competitive software?

The last post on just in time learning reminded me of another thought that has intrigued me for a long time.   It comes from two experiences.  One is the experience of my parents and grandparents talking about the phenomena of one-room classrooms where a single teacher would oversee the learning of a room of children of various ages and numbers of years at the school.   The other one is my observations of some very large families approaching a dozen children where the parents were frequently not around.

The second example I directly observed but as a child looking in interest in the differences of their experience from my experience.  The differences went far beyond family size, but the family size did stand out.   What I recall noticing is how the large family organized into subgroups based on age.  A family of twelve kids may have kids ranging in age from 3 to 22.   What I saw was perhaps three groups: the older group who spent little time at home, the younger group who spent most of their time at home, and the middle group.   The relationships within a group were fundamentally different from the relationships between groups.  The groups did not ignore each other but they did distinguish among their siblings in terms of “no you can’t join us” and “can we help you”.   Within the groups, there was cooperation of whatever they were doing at the time.

I have no idea how a one-room classroom would operate.  It would include some who are still trying to learn how to write the alphabet in close proximity of the ones learning literature.  This was going on at the same time and within earshot of each other.  In my imagination I can see the classroom organizing itself into age-specific cohorts who concentrated on their learning objectives and thus tuning out the noise of their neighbors.  (Hmm, this is a lot like a modern workplace cubicle environment).  The teacher would have a role to pay to prepare and present material, but from an individual student’s perspective most of the time the teacher would be talking to the other group.

I can even imagine that there were days when the teacher’s job was just to show up and watch.   It seems to me that such an environment would naturally evolve into one where the cohorts would start to teach each other or that the older cohorts would test or correct the younger cohorts.   They did this for their own benefit of honing their skills as well as the sense of community.   For example, perhaps the cohort learning the alphabet have one student interrupt the other and say “move your hand this way for this letter”.   Perhaps the older cohort would (perhaps playfully) challenge the younger cohort to spell harder words or helpfully show them how to do harder tasks.

Although I am drawing out these examples from my early childhood memories, my imagination is undoubtedly influenced by experience in the workplace.   At least in terms of office work (knowledge work, or software work), the work is divided into teams and there are both intra- and inter-team relationships.   The relationships are overseen by management to periodically review progress but on a day-to-day basis don’t interfere with the teams except to maintain a certain decorum.

It is not hard to imagine that the single-room school could be better preparing the students for actual work environments.   If we want to model school-age education on the realities of modern workplaces we may want to look at how work is actually performed.  It does seem that the focus of education is preparing for knowledge workers, so the office environment may be a good model.

The parallel with modern work environments is a digression.  My central idea builds on my last post where I talked about just in time learning as an individual self-directed effort.    The above examples of large families or single-room schools suggest the possibility of cohort learning.   Cohort learning is where a group helps each other learn new material.   The teacher may provide the material and set the expectations, but a significant amount of the teaching may occur among the peers and even between the peer-groups.

It seems to me that the dynamics of this learning would be very different.   Instead of the authoritarian teacher demanding the entire class to devote all their attention on the teacher for long lecturers, where the student is only permitted to contribute when specifically granted by the teacher.    The authoritarian model must move the entire class as a single unit.   I imagine the class as a train car where the teacher is pulling the car.  The speed of the car depends entirely on the strength of the teacher compared with the dead weight of the car.   

That is not a bad analogy.   A class is dead weight that needs to be pulled an external teacher.   This complements the idea of test-driven design of making the software that passes all the tests.  

The juxtaposition of software with dead weight is odd in a way that I like.  It returns me to much earlier posts about the real motivation for a student to learn is for him to gain acknowledgement of being a peer with someone he looks up to.   This is a live interactive relationship that permits a point to occur where there is a convincing acknowledgement that the elder accepts the younger as a peer.

This kind of dynamic it a lot easier to create in a cohort learning.  Even within a peer groups, there will be ones who are struggling more than others.   But certainly between peer groups there is a sense of advancement.

I return to my example of the large family with a wide range of ages among siblings.   The younger group strives to reach that point where they can join the activities of the group ahead of them.

Contrast that with being just one of many millions trying to pass standardized tests graded only be computers and where only the aggregate statistics get the attention of some unknown and unknowable bureaucrat.


2 thoughts on “Cohort Learning

  1. Pingback: Thoughts on experiential approach to education | kenneumeister

  2. Pingback: Agile model for higher education, learning in sprints instead of semesters | kenneumeister

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