A playlist is a sequence of resources or activities for a student to complete. I’ve been experimenting with the notion of learning pathways or learning playlists for a few years now. Unbeknownst to me, a pandemic would strike in the spring of 2020 and this pedagogical concept would become an easier embrace during this challenging time for teachers. I admit, it’s a paradigm shift, but bare with me through this post.
The image above represents a playlist for students in a high school geometry course. As you can see, the playlist begins by clearly stated learning targets derived from content standards. Choosing the targets, the end destination, is the first order of business when designing your own playlist. The teacher will need to consider the length of time required for students to acquire the concepts included in those targets. Is there a specific length of time that works better than others? In my experience, the longer the playlist, the more likely it is for students to lose their location or their purpose. You’ll have a better understanding of what that means in just a moment. I typically shoot for 10 instructional days.
First, let’s take a look at the research that serves as the foundation for this pedagogical shift.
Author of the book Drive, Dan Pink describes intrinsic motivation as motivation 3.0. This notion is developed from bodies of research around motivation. Dan uncovers several studies that reveal the dangers of if-then rewards, or carrots and sticks. It turns out, carrots and sticks can do serious harm to a student’s desire or motivation to learn. This seems counterintuitive doesn’t it? Education has been employing carrots and sticks for years. Wasn’t Pavlov’s dog offered a reward for behavior? Dan breaks down motivation into extrinsic and intrinsic. One such study including MIT students reveals some truth around carrots and sticks. A group of students were given some games, complex games that involved creativity, concentration, and motor skills. Their performance was incentivized based on three levels of performance. The highest performers would receive the greatest reward. The results were clear. Incentives worked as expected for tasks that required purely mechanical skill. Once the task involved any amount of creativity or critical thinking, rewards led to poorer performance. This study was repeated over and over, even in contexts where monetary rewards would mean more, but the results were the same. Carrots and sticks work for low level tasks that don’t require much thought. But if the task increases in complexity, rewards actually damage performance. As Edward Deci, Richard Ryan, and Richard Koestner explain, ‘Rewards do not undermine people’s intrinsic motivation for dull tasks because there is little or no intrinsic motivation to be undermined.’
Dan uncovers three primary drivers to amplify intrinsic motivation – autonomy, mastery, and purpose. You’ll see these drivers threaded throughout the learning playlists. It’s a misconception to think we design these playlists and set students off on an independent journey hoping they make it to the end. That is not the case. The playlists do involve a healthy measure of autonomy as we allow students to navigate through the playlist at their own place. Whole-group activities are done together as a class. Students have little say in when those are completed, but they do have some control over their independent work. In a traditional model of schooling, there are a number of constants in the learning equation. Time, practice, and assignments are all constants defined by the teacher and applied equally to the students. The teacher decides what assignments to complete, when they are due, the numbers of problems, and more. Learning is the variable in this model. Some students learn it all, some students learn parts of it, some students learn very little. The blended learning playlist flips the script. Time, practice, and assignments become a variable, and learning becomes the constant.
Checkpoints or progress checks are critical to the success of the playlists. If students are never asked for check their progress against a formative assessment, they are never informed of their location, their success, or their next steps in the journey. As you can see, the playlists offer strategically placed checkpoints that are designed to inform students about whether to move forward in the playlist, backward, or stay put. The majority of the independent work in the playlist is computer adaptive, meaning the software adjusts inputs based on student outputs. There is constant feedback provided to the learner. What might take me 18 problems to demonstrate proficiency, might take another learner 12 problems. That personalization is allowed within the system.
John Hattie’s meta-analysis of over 1200 bodies of research on instructional practices is fascinating. This blog isn’t about his research but you can read about how he determined the hinge-point for effect sizes. According to Hattie, 0.40 represents a year’s worth of achievement for a year’s input using that specific strategy. Any strategy with an effective size greater than 0.40 has an influence greater than a year’s worth of growth. 0.80 would represent a strategy that yield’s two year’s worth of growth. 1.20 would represent three years of growth, an incredible influence on student achievement.
Self-assessment and self-efficacy are among the highest influences when it comes to strategies that yield high achievement. Self-assessment is threaded throughout the playlist. Putting students in control of their pace by informing them of their progress through feedback becomes a powerful influence fueling intrinsic motivation. Self-efficacy refers to one’s confidence to complete tasks or exert control over their motivation. Students are in control of their own mastery inside the playlist. They can complete independent work until they demonstrate proficiency. They can retake progress checks, and they get at least two takes on the summative assessment at the end. The clear learning targets, the map of the journey, and the pursuit of mastery all contribute to a greater purpose. Learners become involved in the process advancing towards a specific goal.
What does the teacher do? It’s a mistake to think the teacher sits at the desk with his/her feet up. The teacher is furiously referencing the feedback provided by the adaptive platforms students utilize for independent work. The teacher is also diagnosing misunderstanding or misconceptions provided during whole-group experiences. The teacher uses this information to make decisions about small groups and seating arrangements. The teacher spends a considerable amount of time on a knee or seated at a desk beside students asking questions and listening to gauge understanding.
There is a noteworthy connection between the tasks a teacher chooses to include in the playlist and Bloom’s taxonomy. Computer adaptive platforms have their place in blended learning, but as long as teachers understand their limitations. My whole-group experiences are rich and require intellectual agility in order to complete. These tasks require students to analyze, compare strategies, evaluate work, and create.
The most common concern at this point becomes “do students navigate all playlists at their pace? How do you manage the chaos when students are working on different playlists?” Students move to the next playlist together with their classmates. I never have more than one active playlist at a time. In my experience, this is the best way to do it. What if students aren’t ready to move on? Believe it or not, that rarely happens. Why? The classroom culture transforms to a degree that classmates just don’t allow other classmates to fall behind. If I’m doing my job, analyzing the feedback, and making informed decisions about who to spend time with, and what seating arrangements would maximize students’ strengths, then the gap between the first student and the last student never grows too wide. I’ve done this in the secondary classroom with over 100 students and I’ve never felt bad about moving to the next playlist.
In conclusion, I want to wrap this up with the best representation of equality vs equity that I’ve ever seen. This is relevant to learning playlists because I hope you can see the value in giving students what they need to succeed. This is a theme throughout the playlist. Students are provided what they need to succeed, not equal portions of time, practice, and assignments.