Gunter Maris, Director of Advanced Psychometrics, ACTNext

ACTNext recently hosted a workshop on education design organized by Alina von Davier, with Amanda Newlin, VP of Smart Sparrow’s US Learning Studio as a guest lecturer. In the course of discussion, I offered the comment that is now the title of this post. As you might imagine, it was met with a few chuckles. Funny or not, it is a serious question. Let’s put it in perspective.

When designing a test, or a course, or anything for education, we always start with the fundamental question, “What’s the purpose?” The answer to that central question then guides the design. We reach out to stakeholders to get the context right, identify constraints, iterate, etc., but always keeping the central purpose of the thing to be designed in mind. As ACT moves to become a Learning, Measurement and Navigation (LMN) organization, does this approach still hold water? If we intend to be an organization aimed at educating and guiding people, then we are getting into the “designing an adult” business. Consider this – as a newborn baby arrives, does anyone know what the purpose of this baby is?

Everyone knows children do not come with a cookbook in which you can find the recipe to turn them into whatever you want them to become. That’s simply not how it works. As the child grows up, parents, educators, mentors —and eventually the child itself — all need to continuously make choices about what should come next in order to realize given purposes (or goals) that shift as time goes by. The resulting adult was not designed,  but emerged out of a process we call growing up.

This “emergence” is at odds with the traditional psychometric/measurement point of view, which contends that, say, general intelligence (g) is a stable property of a person that causes some people to do well (on intelligence tests) and others to do less well. Some even presume that this general intelligence is genetically encoded (the end goal or purpose is determined when the child is conceived).

As part of his PhD research my (by now former) student Alexander Savi challenged this claim, which led to an article that just got published, and puts forward an alternative theory that allows for the adult to emerge, whilst at the same time explaining the success of intelligence (or other standardized) tests, and leaving opportunity to help shape the emerging adult. As the article is open access and accessible, I will not dwell on the details here, click the link, The Wiring of Intelligence, and see for yourself.

With that we circle back to where we started from. Design. The new theory allows for growing up to be a malleable individual process, which leads to the following challenge: How do we design “things” to support all of these individually different growing up processes?

My take on this is for another post. For now, let’s look at a simple example to give you some idea of what it looks like. Parents all over the world ask their child routinely what they’ve learned at school today. Suppose you were to ask what the child did not learn but should have. If you’re a parent try it out, it’s a much harder question. Children don’t know what they don’t know, let alone know what they should know. Neither do parents, and teachers can hardly be expected to write a personal overview of what wasn’t learned for each of the children in their class with a personalized plan for what they’re going to do about it, daily. Does the question matter? I think it does. At the heart of the theory is the idea that not learning is contagious. Not learning how to add numbers, is making also not learning to subtract them much more likely.

Can we design “things” to help children, teachers, parents answer both parts of this question daily? I think we can, we only have to be there when learning does(n’t) happen.

(Listen to a podcast on The Wiring of Intelligence with Gunter Maris.)