Everybody gets an A


Grades in a World of Competency-Based Learning

On the one hand, we’re beset by the “Everybody gets an A” blight that is grade inflation. On the other hand, we have voices like that of Mike Barnes saying in Education Week, “No, students don’t need grades.”

So, what to do?

On balance, Barnes has it right. To be sure, there’s a need for accountability on the part of learners, teachers, and administrators. I won’t pretend that I know how to deliver on that accountability. Ultimately, though, we should be shifting formal education from a seat time model to one that’s competency-based.

In the seat time model, learners earn credit for each hour of learning. No real accommodation is made for people who start with very different levels of understanding. (One such accommodation, coarse as it is, is placing out of college classes via AP testing.)

Imagine two learners exiting a course that’s a prerequisite for a follow-on course. One learner has earned an A+, the other a C-. On paper, both meet the requirements for the follow-on. In practice, though, the A+ student may have mastered the content while the C- student barely scraped by.

What happens when even the best student only earns a B? The instructor might apply a curve to boost everyone’s grade. The objective should never be to compare students on an artificial curve–rather, it should be to help each learner to an absolute level of mastery.

In a competency-based learning (CBL) model, on the other hand, learners take as long (or short) as they need to demonstrate mastery. Within reason, CBL works. Learners don’t have an infinite about of time–if a learner who struggles takes years to master what most learners manage in months, the mastery bar may have been set to high.

I subscribe to a “competency-plus” model. Define mastery at a level manageable by most if not all learners in a practical amount of time. For learners who achieve mastery quickly, move them along to “plus” content in elective or optional areas.

If we equate mastery to the letter grade A, and if every learner achieves mastery, then “Everybody gets an A” isn’t grade inflation, it’s delivering on the learning objective.



The reading blip


Our eyesight has evolved over time. Same for our hearing. And our other senses. But a skill like reading? Natural selection simply hasn’t had enough time to do its work.

According to estimates compiled by Bruce L. Gary in his book “Genetic Enslavement,” only 5% of the global population was literate 500 years ago. The rate hit 10% in 1650, 20% in 1750, 50% in 1850, and currently sits at a 60% plateau first reached in 1900.

What will it take to jolt the system and restore the climb toward 100%? My bet is nothing.

In fact, I’ll double down and bet that a hundred years from now, fewer people … perhaps substantially fewer … will be reading in any sense that we currently associate with the term.

I won’t be surprised if reading eventually takes its place alongside arts like calligraphy as a practice of hobbyists but not a path to learning. As a means of receiving information, reading will give way to high speed video, immersive VR simulation, skill-on-a-pill, direct neural implant, or mechanisms we can’t yet imagine.

Don’t get me wrong–I love to read and have spend a considerable portion of my professional career helping educators help children learn to read. If I’m right and around long enough to see the decline, I’ll shed a tear.

But if you want to know what I think about the development, don’t come back here expecting an update. Instead, just tune your neuroport’s ultrabluefli scanner to //dieffenblog{history>arcane>reading}//.

Elements of effective learning


Multiple conditions contribute to successful learning. Intuition alone is insufficient to guide the understanding of these conditions—they must be backed by evidence. A key element of the mission of the MIT Integrated Learning Initiative (MITili) is to develop, collect, and share this evidence to improve learning.

“Making learning more effective” is too broad a challenge. To make the collection of evidence practical, MITili frames learning at three levels as shown in the illustration above: learner, instruction, and policy. Each of these levels can be broken down further to suggest research questions that can be asked and answered—the breakdown is not so much definitive as it is directional.

The learner, the instruction, the policy

The more that the learner, the instruction, and the policy are each set up to succeed, the more likely it is that learning will be effective.

learner1. The learner


If a learner has the right prior knowledge, motivation, interest, and physiological readiness, he or she will be in a good position to learn.

  • Prior knowledge
  • Motivation
    • Motivation as used here reflects external reasons for learning—to earn a credential, receive a promotion, or otherwise further a career. The topic might not interest the learner, but it could still be motivating.
  • Interest
    • Interest as used here regards internal reasons. There may be no external professional value to the topic, but it might still be intrinsically interesting.
  • Physiological readiness
    • The learner needs to be well-rested, well-fed, otherwise in good physical shape, and as important, in a good mental state that includes such traits as grit and growth mindset.

Having the right learner conditions in place isn’t sufficient for effective learning, however. Instruction must be right as well.

instruction2. The instruction

If the instruction has the right content, delivery, and assessment, the odds of effective learning improve.

  • Content
    • Content includes the breadth, depth, and accuracy of the subject matter and the production value with which the subject matter is configured.
  • Delivery
    • Delivery variables include human vs. digital, synchronous vs. asynchronous, duration of learning, user-requested vs. pushed-to-user, and device through which the learning is consumed.
  • Assessment
    • Assessment has to do with the frequency and depth with which the learner is assessed and the formative manner in which the responses are used to guide the next piece of content and delivery.

Having the right learner and instruction conditions in place also isn’t sufficient for effective learning. Policy must be right as well.

policy3. The policy

If the policy has the right law, access, funding, leadership, and measurement, the prospects for effective learning are better still.

  • Law
    • Laws and regulations must be conducive to learning.
  • Access
    • Learners must have access to learning. This isn’t access via funding, but rather, access via circumstance. For instance, a K-12 student who is prohibited from going to a better school by virtue of geography/school/district boundaries might have an access problem.
  • Funding
    • Funds have to be available to pay for the learning experience. These funds may be provided by the learner or the provider of instruction.
  • Leadership
    • Leaders of those providing instruction must have a philosophy conducive to/supportive of learning.
  • Measurement
    • Measurement as used here is different from the formative level of assessment guiding the learner’s next instruction. Rather, it addresses the summative level of what learners come to know, how their behaviors change, and what organizational improvements those behavior changes drive.

This working paper outlines a framework—one that’s a work in progress—with which to think about specific research questions that can be asked and answered to improve learning effectiveness.

For instance:

Q: What impact does prior learning have?
Q: How can motivation be increased?
Q: What’s the role of better content?
Q: What’s the right duration for learning?
Q: How much funding is needed?
Q: What influence does leadership’s embrace of learning have?


Middle Run, White Clay Creek State Park, DESTEM–the combined educational disciplines of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics–“was first ‘coined’ as an educational term by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the early 2000s.” [William E. Dugger, circa 2011]

Of course, science and math have long been part of the school curriculum. STEM, then, arose out of the desire to apply science and math in the form of technology and engineering.

More recently, a move has been afoot to introduce a more creative element to STEM in the form of Art. The result, alternately designated STE(A)M (somewhat patronizingly, I contend) or STEAM. Two sites that elaborate on this introduction are STEM to STEAM and STEAM Not STEM. As STEAM Not STEM’s home page suggests, the addition of Art is both for its value and to stave off the decline of art in our K-12 curriculum.

I’m on board with the spirit behind STEM and equally on board with the spirit by the extension to STEAM. But at some point, we run the risk of diluting the attention we’re attempting to draw.

With STEAM, do we really mean to exclude Reading/Literacy (the R in the titular STREAMS) and Social Studies (the S)? And once we include them (and foreign language, and electives, and …), aren’t we just talking education as a whole?

STEM Education is Dangerous?


Fareed Zakaria attempts in his book “In Defense of a Liberal Education” to make the case explicit in its title.

Based on his Washington Post treatment of the subject, he fails.

In a March 26, 2015 opinion piece, “Why America’s obsession with STEM education is dangerous” in the Washington Post, he writes:

Every month, it seems, we hear about our children’s bad test scores in math and science — and about new initiatives from companies, universities or foundations to expand STEM courses (science, technology, engineering and math) and deemphasize the humanities.

This dismissal of broad-based learning, however, comes from a fundamental misreading of the facts — and puts America on a dangerously narrow path for the future.

Zakaria’s critical error lies in his pivot from “liberal education” to what he asserts makes for a success in the global economy.

He cites the following as example elements of a liberal education: anthropology, English, philosophy, ancient Greek, psychology, and sociology. No disagreement there.

And he cites the following as example characteristics of a strong workforce: innovation, entrepreneurship, critical thinking, creativity, flexibility, social skill, confidence, self-esteem, problem solving, critical thinking, writing, design, marketing, and social networking. “Critical thinking is, in the end, the only way to protect American jobs,” he claims. Again, no disagreement.

Zakaria goes astray, however, in his inability to show liberal education as the better path to the important workplace characteristics he touts. These characteristics emerge as likely from a “technical” education as from a “liberal” one.

So, let the job market speak. Arguably, in today’s economy, technical jobs offer more openings and command better compensation than liberal ones (absolutely no substance slight to the latter intended). Look to medicine. Look to finance. Look to the biological and information sciences.

But should preparation for the workforce drive education’s primary purpose?

No less an authority than ASCD weighs in. Formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, ASCD serves as “global leader in developing and delivering innovative programs, products, and services that empower educators to support the success of each learner.” In a July 2012 article “What is the Purpose of Education?,” they write:

In the United States, historically, the purpose of education has evolved according to the needs of society. Education’s primary purpose has ranged from instructing youth in religious doctrine, to preparing them to live in a democracy, to assimilating immigrants into mainstream society, to preparing workers for the industrialized 20th century workplace.

And now, as educators prepare young people for their futures in a world that is rapidly changing, what is the goal? To create adults who can compete in a global economy? To create lifelong learners? To create emotionally healthy adults who can engage in meaningful relationships?


Consider the skills that make one successful in the workplace. Critical thinking. Problem solving. Creativity. Teamwork. Communication. Unquestionably, these same skills form the foundation to rapidly change. To globally compete. To continually learn. To meaningfully relate.

Sadly, workplace success offers a tenuous hold in the current economy. A liberal education educates. It fascinates. But as an on-ramp to the workforce, its risk outweighs its reward.

“Job” may sound mundane. But try to imagine a more enabling power. A job puts water in our bodies. Food in our stomachs. A roof over our heads. Medicine in our cabinets. A job–at present, the province of the technical and not the liberal–provides the security and stability to contribute to family, community, and society in the most aspirational of manners.