Critical Chain Project Management for Gifted Education

I’ve been reading up on formal project management methodologies and I’m starting to view many things through the project management lens. This has led me to wonder if perhaps some of the problems we see in public education could be addressed by using a different method of managing the project of education.

Like all projects, cost, resources, time, quality, risk, and scope constrain public education.

As we have added more and more educational requirements and standards to the teaching load, we have increased the scope Project Constraintsof public education.This scope increase has occurred during a time of budget cuts so the cost and resources available have gone down and the time spent in school has stayed the same. Predictably, this has decreased public education quality while increasing the risk that our student are unable to compete globally. Because public polices and checks on education have focused exclusively at the risk to students below average, the gifted students have suffered the most. If we define a successful education as one where students learn at their maximum ability level, our highly gifted, exceptionally gifted, and profoundly gifted students have a very high risk of not being successfully educated.

While obvious solutions include increasing funding and lengthen the school year, political constraints make those ideas virtually impossible to implement. Besides, by themselves they won’t solve the problems with public education. Instead we need to look at how we are managing the project of public education. To the extent that we are managing it at all, we seem to use a traditional critical path management method.

In public education, students begin in kindergarten and steadily learn their education tasks in a rigidly defined sequential order until high school graduation. In critical path project management methodology, if a task in the critical path is delayed, the entire project is delayed by the same amount of time. Unfortunately in our public education system, we do not have a good way of delaying the entire educational project. When a student fails to complete an educational task in the allotted time, they end up with permanent gaps in their education, become discouraged, graduate with a GPA that is below their innate potential, or even fail to graduate at all.

The problems with critical path management for the project of public education include:

  1. Grade level educational requirements are based on projected average “optimal” learning and fail to account for resource availability. By setting a learning schedule and then trying to fit all students into that schedule from the beginning, we fail to account for the vast differences in resource availability between the students. These resources can vary with each student throughout their education and include family support, financial stability, educational support, emotional/social security, existing subject knowledge, innate learning ability (giftedness), and available study time.
  2. Student Syndrome. Teachers and students know they have a set period of time to teach specific subjects and concepts.  If the actual learning task will take 5 days of study for the student but the teacher has allocated 10 days, the student will slack off for the first 5 days and only put in effort for the second 5 days. This creates two issues. First, many of our students, especially our gifted students, waste a significant amount of their potential learning time because they are unable to work at their natural pace. Second, if the student guessed wrong and it will actually take them a bit longer to learn a concept, they fall behind.
  3. Bad Multitasking. In critical path management students and teachers work on several ideas and subjects in short periods of time. Teachers must constantly show all students making progress across a wide spectrum of knowledge areas. This leads to the school day being split into multiple, short chunks of subject time which negatively impacts deep learning  — especially during the elementary school years. It can also lead to time being wasted on non-critical learning tasks.
  4. Parkinson’s Law. Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. Regardless of the time it may actually take for a class to learn a concept or body of knowledge, the class will work on the subject matter for the length of time the teacher or the school district have blocked out for it on the schedule.

As opposed to critical path, critical chain project management directly addresses many of the above issues. It takes into account that fact that some tasks will take longer than anticipated and others will go faster. It allows any unused “buffer” time to accumulate. The fast tasks balance out the slow tasks enabling the project of educating our students to a certain level to finish on time or early. Switching to critical chain project management for gifted education will allow our top students to excel and if we implement it across the board it has the potential to improve outcomes for all students, without increasing costs or lengthening the school year.

Critical chain public education will enable students to work at their own pace, move ahead when they personally are ready, and focusing in detail on one subject at a time. This will virtually eliminate student syndrome, bad multitasking, and Parkinson’s Law. It also may push us to flip our classrooms. Many computerized educational programs from Aleks to the Khan Academy already are using a critical chain approach to education. In these, students work at their own pace on one educational task at a time until mastery, without regard to a set calendar learning schedule or the mastery level of other students in their class.

We should change how we write educational standards. Instead of stating when students will learn a specific topic, the standards should define the critical chain order of subject mastery. We need to become comfortable with the idea that not all kids learn at the same pace and that there will be wide differences in knowledge. In reality, these wide differences already exist but they are hidden from us in most public schools. We rarely explore the depths of individual student knowledge, we only focus on the specific bits of information in the standards. Critical path education will allow all students, gifted and average, to dive deeply into subjects and even indulge their passions. Within a classroom, one student may spend a year immersed in American history and fulfill multiple “years” worth of requirements in just one year while their classmate may spend the same year focused on math. Similar to college undergraduate degrees, students will know what they must learn for each say, 4-year chunk of education. They will need to show progress each year through standardized testing, papers, and presentations. However, what they learn at any given time and how fast they learn it, is in their control. They can slow down for subjects that are personally confusing and speed up for topics that come to them naturally.

Yes, our gifted students may finish standard materials early, perhaps even years early than other students. This isn’t a negative. Our schools should maximize the potential of all students, not just educate everyone to the same, generic level each school year. By defining a critical chain of educational requirements, letting students know what those requirements are, and letting students work at their own pace through those requirements, we will improve educational outcomes for all our students.



Continuing Education

When I was growing up, I viewed continuing education as either non-credit classes for adults with extra time on their hands or very specific classes with continuing education units (CEU) required for professionals to maintain their licensure. Most adults had a definitive end to their serious education. Once they received a high school degree or completed a college degree program, they were basically done with formal education.

While most people continue to learn new things throughout their lives, syllabus-driven learning with specific reading assignments, due dates, and tests usually ends in their late teens or early 20s. This is unfortunate because it makes formal learning seem more and more daunting the older we get. When learning stops, it impacts the mobility, flexibility, and performance of individual workers. It also hurts our economy, especially in industries that are undergoing rapid change.

Better educated individuals have higher earnings and lower unemployment rates and the gap between the economic success of the highly educated vs the less educated is increasing. Given that most people will work into their 60s, it is increasingly unrealistic to think a few years of school will give them all the all the information they will need for the next 40 years. The job that you have in your 40s, may not even exist when you are in your 20s.

What does this mean for today’s children? We need to cultivate within them a joy of learning and the attitude that their education should never end. I believe that in the future, adults will almost seamlessly move from traditional college and university programs to online self-study and back again. Learning will be much more continuous and something that people choose to do to maximize their employability and because learning is fun.

Most people have had at least one negative school experience. Mine was freshman calculus. I barely passed and to this day, when I think about it I get a bit queasy. The information I was supposed to learn still seems just barely out of reach and it has made me wary of other educational challenges. At the time I took the class, there wasn’t a good way for me to go back and actually learn the material properly. I had my grade and it was time to move on to the next semester. True understanding never happened — making it impossible for me to continue to build knowledge, when the new information required a solid foundation of calculus. Gaps in education like these can build over time and can contribute to the stagnation of kids and adults alike. We as a nation need to look at  how we can improve education both during the traditional school years and throughout a lifetime.

For myself, I’m going to be checking out the Khan Academy precalculus and calculus classes to see if I can learn it again for the first time and continue my education.

Does Michael Jordan Make You Insecure?

Last week’s TIME magazine, dated July 9, 2012, has a multi-page article on Salman Khan and Khan Academy. Our family has used Khan Academy videos to supplement school work for over a year. As Khan Academy has expanded their offerings to include more subjects, exercises, and tracking we have played with the idea of using Khan Academy as the primary material for some subjects.

The entire idea of letting kids learn at their own pace seems to still be controversial. I’m not sure why this is. We as a nation have a huge hangup about difference in academic potential that we do not have when it comes to sports. In sports we love the stand-out players and eagerly pour extra time and resources into those players that we think have the potential to be great. We never worry about whether by helping one athlete succeed we are forcing another to fail. In fact, we frequently feel that having a star player on a team working to their full potential inspires the other players to work harder and reach a higher level than they would otherwise.

American education however, is treated too often as a zero sum game. We feel that resources are so limited that by helping one group of students succeed, especially if they are exceptionally bright, we short-change another group. The TIME magazine article, when addressing the reluctance of educators to let students learn each at their own pace states that, “In the worst case scenario, high-achieving students race ahead while low performers languish.”

How is this a worst case scenario? The sports equivalent would be, “The best high school players of high school “X” all receive full college sports scholarships while the worst players become fat and unhealthy.”  If that happened we would never view it as a worst case scenario. We would applaud and complement the school on the high achievements of their best players and perhaps investigate how we could better server the lower level players.

The article also states that some educators see a risk in letting kids work at their own pace. The risk is, “that two students will reach graduation with very different skill sets. One may have mastered everything from calculus on down while the other made it only as far as algebra.” What exactly do they think is happening now? What do they think is the real harm in some kids knowing calculus and others only algebra? In college and in life people have different interests and bodies of knowledge. If people love what they do, they can achieve success in nearly any occupation. We all know folks without college degrees that are more financially success than some with college degrees. Our country needs to be concerned with equality and fairness in opportunities and stop feeling so insecure about the fact that some of us are more intellectual than others of us.