« The Hat of Random Names | Main | Alan November: "We are using $2,000 pencils." »

May 23, 2007



This reminds me of a depressing conversation I had with a teacher friend last week. Well, actually, he's not just any friend -- one of my oldest, best friends I've known since first grade. He's become a fantastic teacher, guaranteed to be a principal by his late 30s. I've sat in on his lessons and he's just a total natural in the classroom; the kids love him and he's totally committed.

He was telling me about this new grading system he's implemented -- identical to what is described here. Every test broken down into its component learning outcomes, with remedial steps and re-tests only on the parts the students haven't performed well on. At first I was thinking, "wow, pretty innovative and individualized." Then the reality of it hit me, and I blurted out, "that's pretty much the opposite of my educational philosophy!"

He was stunned, because he's made a bit of a splash in his division with this system(of course the administrators adore it, the teachers...not so much). It helps individualize assessment, yes, but the entire focus to ensure that students perform well on the standardized test, covering all areas of the standardized curriculum. It's a "better" way to do something that I don't think should be done at all.

So my friend was a bit irritated with me, understandably, and he asked what I would propose with my opposite educational philosophy. So I described, off-the-cuff, what I would like.

I want students to arrive in his classroom in September and sit down individually with him to figure out the overlap between his abilities/knowledge as a coach and their interests in the subject. Not doing away with disciplines, necessarily -- he's still a history teacher. But maybe the course is called World War 2 (because that's his area of passionate historical interest), and maybe the students' goal is to study some aspect of it that topic interests them...maybe two projects for the whole year that have to be somewhat different. Go REAL deep on one or two things they care about and really DO history, learning the skills of investigation, research and collaborative work. Let them work together. Let them choose how they want to present their findings. Give them great resources and teach them how to use them.

He looked skeptical as I started talking, but I saw the lights coming on...and then he interrupted me: "I've done exactly that before."

So I questioned him on it, and he used to do a unit on land mines -- basically chucked the curriculum for a month and let students explore the topic of land mines through whatever lens they chose, and had them present to the class. He said he learned more from those presentations than he ever learned in school. One techie-type kid researched the cutting-edge of land-mine detection using different frequencies of radio waves. A kid who was really into animals discovered a reabilitation program for elephants injured by mines in war-torn regions. Another who liked working with his hands learned everything he could about the actual construction and technology used in the mines themselves, building a scale model of his own. Another looked at the medical and economic challenges facing amputees injured by mines.

So instead of crafting individualized strategies for acing the test (covering 487 topics at the shallowest depth possible), he got 30 entirely different projects, each with a focus reflecting the motivation and interests of each student. Taken together, they covered the topic in a way that made the kids care about history and geography, curious about geopolitics, and wanting to know more. Assessment took care of itself because they were truly engaged. No need for micro-re-tests because what they presented reflected something they cared about.

Unfortunately, this teaching approach is nearly illegal, and people could argue that his students suffered (on their standardized tests) as a result...but which system would you rather have your kids learning in?

Dan Meyer

Seems rather inegalitarian to compare assessment models across two totally different educational paradigms, don't you think?

Though I can't speak for your friend's motives, "... covering 487 topics at the shallowest depth possible" isn't anywhere close to mine, nor is my goal to churn out good test-takers.

Assessment's status quo says test the kids once and test 'em when the teacher's ready. My ethos isn't as wholly student-centric as the one you describe, but I _do_ assess students at their convenience rather than mine, customizing the assessment process to meet their needs.

Interesting long-tail comparison, Christian. I'll hafta ponder that one.


Sorry, I didn't mean any offense, but I thought it was a fair comparison considering that this was the same teacher in the same course in the same school trying radically different approaches in different years. I was exaggerating with the "487 topics", but try counting up all of the expected topics and learning outcomes in an average high school history curriculum. 60? 80? I'd prefer 6 or 8.

Yes, existing assessment is borderline useless. These improvements to it will ensure that students are better able to prove they've been exposed to the entire curriculum and probably helps them remember more for the tests. But whether they get traditional assessment or some new micro-assessment, how many of them will remember even 20% of it within a year of the final exam? I doubt it will make any difference. How many will be able to apply what they have learned to new problems a year later? Will any of them care more about the subject as a result, or be compelled to learn more? If not, I can't really consider it learning at all.

I think it's unfortunate that the system rewards my friend's hyper-assessment approach, while his land-mine project had to go under the radar. But you're right, the issue is in those competing paradigms.

When I was taking graduate courses with mostly teachers, I was astounded that none of them were even interested in considering other paradigms -- the focus was on trying to do assessment and classroom management better, without ever considering why those things might be problems in the first place. Could it be because the topics are irrelevant, the format of classrooms fundamentally mismatched to the needs of children, and the standardized outcomes misaligned with anything they care about?

It was just too threatening to their worldview to imagine that students should be able to learn only what they were interested in at their own pace. Or that teachers weren't in control of the information anymore. Or that the goals of their administrators were probably at odds with what they believe at the core about what constitutes real learning. There seemed to be a total lack of reflection about what the point of the system should or could be -- as if the only goal was to speed up the assembly line, instead of questioning whether the assembly line itself was the best approach.

Kelly Christopherson

I read the post. I see that the idea is really great but instead of focusing on just one subject, maybe it could be done in such a manner that students work on a number of objectives from different subject areas with the teacher helping and working with them as they need help. Teachers would be assisting the students but the students would be working on something that they find interesting while meeting objectives and, in some fashion, building understanding that could be used on the standardized tests. Got to get me the LongTail book!

Dan Meyer

Thanks for getting back on this one, Jeremy. In my ongoing consideration of this paradigm shift to letting student self-select their learning, I wonder a) what keeps students in the game who don't want to learn, and b) as much as I want to acknowledge the end of the industrial age, I'm not sure how freeform blogging and style-less wiki-ing is going to keep our kids literate at early ages. Or is this just a high school ed thing? Thanks in advance to anyone willing to take those up.

Dan Meyer

How very mysterious.


Sorry for the delay in responding -- one of the weaknesses of this medium is that it is difficult to follow up comments on sites other than your own, especially when the proprietor posts as often as Christian does and pushes posts off the map. I did catch the nudge/slam/pointer in your recent post.

Your first question is spot-on: "What keeps students in the game who don't want to learn?"

First, a question. What keeps those students in the game now? Mandatory attendance, punishment (threatened and real), parental pressure, and caring teachers who keep them hangin' in there...I'm sure there are others, all of which have varying degrees of success with different kids.

I think that in a system that gave them a lot more autonomy in choosing how and what they were learning, there would be less need for the "sticks" in that list because the learners would be more interested and engaged to begin with. The parental pressure (or better yet, support) and caring teachers could be focused on helping these kids find and develop those interests. Ideally, other people in community help out too...and the learning takes place in that community. Through that process, they're going to learn all kinds of "collateral" material they would otherwise have balked at...and it probably won't feel like school. They won't cover all the curricular outcomes in every subject area, but I don't think that should be a requirement.

Maybe some teachers are jaded about student's interests because they've been hired to teach them things almost nobody is interested in...and years of doing that convinces them that a lot of students aren't interested in anything. But I don't buy that. Kids are SO into the stuff they care about, whatever it is -- music, art, dinosaurs, cars, the environment, war, building things, taking things apart, animals, whatever. My five-year-old can barely be coaxed into going to sleep at the end of the day because there's so much she wants to learn and do and build.

Instead of getting the same 30 kids of the same age in front of you at the same time each day to be taught the same bit of math, what if you (as one of your school's math coaches) supported the kids who were working on projects that required math to really do the project well (that would likely be most projects, and a math component could be worked into just about any interest-based project)? So instead of you developing lessons for each class, students came to you because they needed help with calculations for something they were building? One at a time, or in small groups. You could REALLY teach in those situations.

I know it all sounds pie in the sky because it's so different from what we're used to. Some schools are trying these things in different ways with some success: http://www.themetschool.org/education

I'm not sure about your second question. Blogs and wikis are new(ish) tools with some cool applications for learning and connecting people. They could be used with hundreds of other tools, environments and connections, but don't have much inherent value. Maybe I'm missing a connection somewhere.

Dan Meyer

The Met School has an About Us page that sends an inspired shiver up my spine. I like the ethos. I like the pie-in-the-sky ideal of students pursuing their own interests, but I can only see it functioning within a tightly wound infrastructure.

Even while compulsory education falls increasingly out of favor, no one hassles parents for their compulsory dietary restrictions. Just because my students often don't want to learn what I'm teaching, doesn't strip its value.

It's obvious to me now you're not seeking an either/or solution. The line separating the two -- the point when a student is or is not ready to have the constraints lifted -- is still unclear to me.

e.g.: I imagine third grade is an inappropriate time to take a project-based approach to reading.

Hope your reply didn't feel too forced, Jeremy. Certainly, it cleared a lot up for me.


It is inspiring, isn't it? There's something right about it.

"...I can only see it functioning within a tightly wound infrastructure."

I think you're probably right -- this approach couldn't really be layered over the existing system because it changes the rules on most of the things that constitute school. To do this would require systemic change.

It sounded to me like the "School 2.0" evangelizing you've objected to is often technology-focused, but more importantly, the evangelists are being critical of teachers for not instituting change within the constraints of the existing system. I guess that's why I've been thinking more pie-in-the-sky (chuck the curriculum, make everything interest- and project-based, change the role of teachers to mentors and coaches, etc)...rather than wishing teachers would get excited about wikis and blogs or e-portfolios or game-based learning whatever the latest ed-tech flavour of the month is.

When the constraints are lifted? Probably when (like you implied, I think) the supporting infrastructure is in place to do it right -- community support and involvement (manifested in internships, mentors and project panels at The Met School), parental engagement, teachers knowing their roles and embracing them, and students who want to be there to learn. The Met School has waiting lists to get in, and students sign contracts promising to engage and do well.

Like I said before, I don't know if the Met has it all figured out either, but it's the model that's fascinating to me, and the successes they've had. The other thing is their level of rigor -- it's not a free-for-all or scene where kids are just floating around doing whatever. It sounds like they're still meeting the learning outcomes and writing the standard tests and going to college after high school. It's intense.

Further "out there" on the spectrum of student choice and individualization would be Sudbury schools the Fairhaven School in Maryland:


Take away the academic rigor and remaining structure from The Met, and you get a free-for-all. And it looks really cool, too...very rich potential for engaged kids, and it seems that most do engage at some point...but it's definitely not school.

I don't know much about project-based learning, but I've seen how my daughters learn, and it's all project based (pre-school and kindergarten). Ivy (aged 5) basically taught herself to write before Kindergarten because she needed to make signs and labels for her imaginary games. In the context of something she wanted to be doing, the reading/writing was something she demanded in order to make her playing/projects work better.

Maybe put another way, in these different approaches, you'd never have a class focused on "reading"...reading (and math, and geography and music, I suppose) would be a skill required for almost every project someone cared about. Reading is one way to find out more about the stuff you already care about, and discover new things that fascinate you. So why not at Grade 3?

The comments to this entry are closed.

My Photo
Blog powered by Typepad
Member since 08/2005