A New Lens for Learning: What if We Tried Trusting People?

Voices from the Field   25 February 2016
By Ed Jones


Something that’s worked before in other realms? What if we tried trusting people? Including…teens.

If you’re reading this, you know about competency-based learning. The future of high school is to let learners choose what competencies they’ll master from a far larger list—a list from which they also choose how, where, when, and from whom they master these competencies.

Trusting the Crowd

We of 2016 are accustomed to a new age of trust. An age not just of trusting your Uber driver but of trusting diverse strangers via AirB&B, HelpX, CouchSurfing.com, and even that ancient service—Ebay. People working both together in crowds and alone with great lent power have changed the world for twenty years now.

In 1990, nearly no one envisioned that volunteers and free contributors would build entire computer operating systems, programming stacks, and code libraries…Or that strangers would help fund $5 billion a year in projects and programs via KickStarter and its kin. Certainly, no one anticipated that crowds of strangers could solve massively complex protein-folding mysteries via games like Fold.IT.

When I code web pages, I use millions of dollars of software; I pay for none of it. Nearly all of it comes free from the sharing economy of volunteers and free contributors. (Many volunteers, in fact, are teens). I fully trust those contributors. As do governments, hospitals, and corporations. Who knew?

Giving power and responsibility and trust to individuals can be done in ways never before envisioned. How do we now bring this disruptive power to innovate high school learning?


His personal learning plan spanned from planting to marketing his product as a retail business. For doing it, he earned high school credit in agriculture, business, botany, and engines and machines.

Give Power at the Point of Teen Choice

Where do teens actually have choice in learning once they’re already enrolled in a public school? Where do they themselves (not parents) make a decision? Where do teens— at some level — contract to provide something (effort) in return?

Today, when  teens agree to contracts about their learning, it’s nearly  always at the course-level: “I agree to take Band first period, Ms. Tipton’s Psychology second, Spanish II third,” etc. Or, “I’ll load my courses in the morning so my free period is in the afternoon.” And lately, “I’ll take two dual-enrollment classes when I’m a senior.”

For most teens, course choice is the only point of consumer choice. Teens can’t choose if they go to school and only rarely can they choose where they go. The when—and for how long and how fast—constraints are usually set by adults. The what is almost always limited to content/skills the school wants to teach. To give teens more power, we should give them far more choices at the level of the semester course. 2016’s connected world offers an opportunity to give teens this fine-grained control. How?

Custom Learning Contracts

Sophomore Andy McCauley grew popcorn. His personal learning plan spanned from planting to marketing his product as a retail business. For this, he earned high school credit in agriculture, business, botany, and engines and machines. Unusual?

I believe the future of school can be found in Custom Learning Contracts (thanks to KnowledgeWorks for the name). Custom learning contracts can obliterate the old time/place/staff restrictions—transforming the learner’s day.

Such custom contracts already exist in Ohio. Thousands of teens have used them to change up their own learning experiences.

Custom Learning Contracts can be remarkably simple or quite rich and detailed. In the simplest contract, MJ might agree, “I’ll take and pass OSU’s MOOCulus online class. I’ll get extra help if needed from the help community there.” Or, Bekah might agree, “I’ll take the Improv class at the community arts center”. Demari might commit, “I’ll complete the Algorithms section at Khan Academy” and “I’ll complete Code Camp next summer hosted by Girls Who Code.” The contract need document little more.

Yet, we believe true innovation will come when contracts can become more complex. Olivia’s might combine bits from several sources, as well as leave time for a good bit of student-initiated exploration—perhaps from a SOLE option, like School in the Cloud.


Before they can propose such contracts, learners must know of the options available.

An Expanded Learning Ecosystem

Before they can propose such contracts, learners must know of the options available. They need a way to find and evaluate these and many more great learning opportunities. Too, teachers, parents, administrators, and the public need a way to quickly make sense of what the student will learn. Mentors are also key.

Andy McCauley’s first challenge was finding land to grow the popcorn. Grant Douglass, a local school board member, stepped forward with two acres of land in Ross County. Douglass also served as Andy’s mentor throughout the project.

Obviously, projects as unique as Andy’s won’t be the main path to scaling custom high school learning. It will be far more common to include drawing lessons at the local art center, welding at a nearby factory, running a theodolite with a land surveyor, or taking a MOOC on Justice from Harvard/edX. If we build ecosystems around these contracts—if we make them a possibility for tens- and hundreds-of-thousands of teens—we can truly change how all students approach their education.

A Half-Built Option

Such was the vision when custom-learning contracts became a universal option in Ohio in 2010. Called Credit Flexibility, every student has the right to present a plan to a teacher or administrator and elect to learn in a fashion of their own design. How was the envisioned option to work?

From the beginning, the state’s design team recognized that students, teachers, parents, and districts would need sustained community help if this were to be of use to students at scale. They called for “an ‘open source’ platform where sites submit and reviewers access, rate, and share” courses and custom plans…“to provide consistency or quality assurance.” But, it was never built.

Learning Blueprints and Blueprint Exchanges

In 2011, I began looking deeply at the credit flex opportunity. From the beginning, it seemed clear: This should never be just a gifted option. To give many students such wide- ranging options, teens must be able to share with each other—and with adults—the learning contracts they envision.

Four years of research later, we’d iterated to a result, dubbed the Learning Blueprint. In such a blueprint, students and others document a basic (normally semester’s or quarter’s) learning path. Learning Blueprints can be simple or complex.

The Learning Blueprint would be the unit of exchange necessary to transform high school. Elaborate or simple; using Open Badges or no; including experiences of in-person, online, independent, or a combination of learning, Learning Blueprints offer a vetted template for students to craft their personal custom learning contract.

Where will these blueprints be exhibited and found? We generically call them Learning Blueprint Exchanges. One prototype can be found at badgehs.com; in time, many will evolve to meet different cultural community’s needs. Regardless of the platform designs, Learning Blueprint Exchanges will be where both teens and adults evaluate, rate, and share all different kinds of learning blueprints. And, as this innovative approach rapidly evolves, we believe Open Badges can help document and aggregate achievements. By sharing custom learning contracts, teens themselves can evolve the next generation high school.

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