PBL and Buck Institute for Education Day 2

I have absolutely no idea how I got off track in posting the second and third day of my reflections from my PBL training with the Buck Institute for Education via Twitter on my training. I apologize to my mom and the other person who clicked on the link in Google after a search for PBL. Let me get back to completing the two days before something else gets in the way. Again, since it has been so long, I am posting what I said on Twitter during the training and adding a short reflection as needed to show what I was thinking or what I wanted to better understand. It might not be the best way to reflect, but it’s my blog, so what the heck.

If you haven’t seen the RSA Animate video Drive, you really should. Like now.

This was mentioned at the beginning of the day to let us know what to expect. I really like this method of review and it helped me prepare mentally for the end of the day expectation. In other words, I didn’t want to get caught in the fishbowl with nothing to say. That’s not very productive as a learner, for sure.

This tweet was retweeted a bunch of times, and deservedly so. It was a great line by our trainer. Gives you something to think about, and I know every time I use the word grade now, I have to pause to make sure it is what I meant. Assessment is a much more meaningful word. It is also a much more meaningful process. Keep that in mind.

Read my notes above.

The fist to five was new to me and most assuredly an easy one to utilize to immediately assess each student’s comfort level with the current topic. Basically, hold up the number of fingers on how you feel you are doing with the concept being discussed (you choose what number means great or not at all). You can quickly average/estimate the scores to decide if you move on as a whole group or a small group. Exit tickets lets students share their opinion on post it notes or similar on the way out the door, at the end of the project, at the end of a lesson, etc. 

I like this part. One thing you need to make sure of, though, is that you get enough grades in they system to show the student’s actual progress. Can you really show a true average with only four or five grades per six weeks? Does it give the student and parent something to use to help the student growth? I’d say it depends on the topic(s) covered. If it is one topic covered in all of those grades, then probably so. If different topics, then most assuredly not.

This is great to keep in mind when CREATING the assessment tool(s) for the project. Don’t slap down a one size fits all rubric and force the kids to adjust their learning to your personal thoughts. That truly kills the point of PBL. What you have done at that point is just turn it into a project. Anybody can do that at a low functioning level.


Yeah, I know many of you think QR codes are stupid and a time waster, but it is a new technology that these teachers are trying out. I love the fact that they are stepping outside the box here to tie in something different. Besides, QR codes are a way of life for many marketers, fitness devices (parks use QR codes to give instructions on outdoor equipment), and information links in general. Folks should be familiar with them.

See my notes before. Maybe it is the fact that someone gave me an expectation of learning at the beginning of learning. Maybe it is the fact that I find myself excited about learning in general now. Regardless, I love the transparent process that the fish bowl activity provides. It invites anyone to be a part of the conversation…or not. Yet, we all learn from the conversation that is inherently a part of it.

Ooooo. Burnnnnn. In other words, don’t just go download a project off the web and think everything falls into place easily. It doesn’t. You have to consider many angles of where the students can take the learning. It is more time intensive in the beginning, but it pays much larger dividends in the end for you and the students.

Wow!. All I can say here is, Wow!

Okay, I caught some pushback from this on Twitter. I don’t apologize for the sentiment of it. Basically, why do we keep doing a one size fits all assessment of our students and then complain they cannot do all of these varied things requiring out of the box thinking. All we have taught our kids is multiple choice. Life is not like that. PBL is an instructional strategy. Done right, it does not take up 100% of your instructional time. You are still needed for mini-lessons, occasional short lectures, conferences, facilitating, guiding, conferences, some more guiding and facilitating. You get the point. What we don’t need more of is worksheets, multiple choice tests, and people who are NOT educators telling us the best way to prepare our students for the REAL world. Pearson’s world of multiple choice sucks, plain and simple.

Remember, I was in a district that did not allow YouTube, Twitter, or any other social networking site. Many had mastered the art of downloading YouTube videos as home and bringing them on flash drives. How stupid is it that any department forces you to use your own resources and family time to do something that should be done in the classroom?

This was an idea I threw out to some folks. I realize there are all kinds of chats available out there. I did not see one specific to PBL. It would be a nice support place for folks to go to that are new or those willing to mentor others.

Obvious, but I meant it. Check out their site. They have some work to do on the collection to better control the quality of the projects there, but it doesn’t take long to separate the wheat from the chaff.

I really liked this quote from @KubiKahn. He is exactly right. Randomly numbering kids for groups when the product results in many grades is not the fair way to do things. Match strengths with weaknesses as a group. Don’t set the group up for failure. It’s not fair, and it will only cause you grief down the road.

 Suzie is another master of PBL and a part of BIE’s national faculty. She is a published author on integrating PBL and this link was a great resource to add for the day. Looking for something new for an ice breaker? Take a look at these.

So, that’s day 2. I’ll get to work on day 3 next. I won’t make you wait long. I promise. Thanks for reading along. By the way, if you decide you are interested in PBL training from BIE in Texas, TCEA has an upcoming training scheduled in Austin October 25-27. Get in soon. There were only a handful of spots left last I checked.

53 thoughts on “PBL and Buck Institute for Education Day 2

  1. Interesting that much of this is focused on assessment FOR learning. We’ve been knee deep in this stuff since about 2003. For the most part we’re doing that pretty well. The project based approach is something we haven’t done as well as I hoped. The challenge is always segregated curricula and the will and time to bring them together to make learning whole.

    I liked how you brought in your twitter posts and expanded upon them. Twitter provides a great place for shared note taking and your blog a better place to reflect.

    Your mom and I thank you.

  2. Thanks for the comments, Dean. I can say much was discussed about assessment. I don’t think it is the process of assessment as much as it is when assessment is done. There is an overriding fear that teachers will not get enough grades for a marking period to satisfy parents, students, and admins once they embark on the PBL journey.

    You’re right. We’ve been doing rubrics and such for subjective assessment for a number of years as well. We can do that. Kids can accept that. Parents can accept that. The fear that there is a lot riding on the subjective assessment scares the teachers since they have been trained to prepare kids for an objective assessment that means pass or fail at the end of the year.

    I appreciate your comments on segregated curricula as well. Time is the first concern of all teachers. Once they see the beauty of a PBL classroom, they will appreciate that their time is better spent in the learning process instead of the teaching process.

  3. I was struck by how much time and emphasis was spent on assessment when the subject was supposed to be project-based learning.

    With all due respect to Dean, there is no such thing as assessment for learning. Assessment is always for teaching or the system. As I have said in other venues, “assessment in any form always interrupts learning.” It is up to the educator to determine the tolerable level of interruption. In any case, it has zero to do with learning.

    Assessment is about ranking, sorting, labeling, ass-covering, etc… To the extent that it must exist at all, it is the teacher’s problem and should be kept as far away from the learner as possible!

    I see a lot of professional development advertised as learner-centered, PBL or progressive where the agenda is really about assessment. This is false advertising.

    From a practical standpoint alone, if we need teachers who understand how to teach better in more authentic, learner-centered, PBL-like ways, then why isn’t the PD focused on improved teaching.

    Spending time instead of assessment (or backward design) seems like the tail wagging the dog.


    PS: Rubrics are just a sneaky form of grades that constrain the power of project-based learning, not enrich it. But of course, I may be wrong.

  4. I disagree. Assessment has everything to do with growth in learning. How do we know how much we have grown if there is no assessment? To say that it is okay to not assess ourselves does nothing to prepare anyone for the real world. No boss is going to decide that there will be no assessment of the quality of work being done. It makes no sense. If the goal is to be a hermit living secluded for life with some unknown bankroll to keep you alive, then I guess you could do without assessment.

    PBL is not about assessment, though. It is about critical thinking and learning and so much more. It is more learner centered than most other practices, and it certainly is more learner centered than what we do now with skill and drill test prep garbage. But, in the end, it has to be assessed. Parents wouldn’t have it any other way (and that doesn’t even count the politicians).

    How would you design PD to be centered on improved teaching in order to improve PBL type settings? I would think you’d put your teachers in a PBL setting and model for them. Wrong? Let me know when you offer one of those PD sessions and I will see what I can do to be there.

    As for rubrics, you could say that about any form of assessment, but the rubric gives the learners voice in how they will be assessed in the end. Do I ever think true assessment is from the final say of the teacher? Heck no. It is from the learner. The teacher can only see the outer layers of the product with some subjective growth thrown in. The learner is the only one who truly knows.

  5. Deep-fried baloney!

    I think you’ve had too much Texas Education Agency bug juice. Assessment has nothing to do with learning. Without a school system, the term assessment would never be used. It would have no meaning.

    Indeed, assessment is something done to others. Learners learn, think – perhaps even reflect, but they don’t assess themselves UNLESS coerced to do so. Learning is a natural act. Assessment is not.

    Assessment is a tool the powerful uses to assert their will upon the less powerful (as per your employer example).

    By the way, why are you justifying the argument that learning is assessment by citing a workplace example? Are you suggesting that students are workers? Employees?

    Is your view of the workplace too narrow? In other words, are there jobs where work product is not measured in the same crummy ways used by school? I don’t share your resignation about parents and assessment. I’m a parent. I don’t give an armadillo’s ass about it.

    I did not say that PBL is about assessment. I did share an observation that lots of PD ABOUT PBL seems disproportionately focused on assessment.

    I think teachers learn about PBL by learning in a setting that supports such learning. I share resources and examples here – http://constructingmodernknowledge.com/cmk08/?p=1263

    I was trying to make a point regarding truth in advertising. If a workshops is sold as being about learning or teaching, then how come so much time is spent on assessment? There is much about good teaching that can be taught.

    I describe the elements of a productive context for learning here – http://constructingmodernknowledge.com/cmk08/?p=1110 (I think this is one of my most important piece of writing in years. It has been largely ignored.)

    Rubrics are particularly dishonest and flawed. Read: http://bit.ly/vmKkyy & http://bit.ly/aevK10

    I’ll come back to my original point. Assessment always disrupts the learning process. The acceptable level of disruption is between each teacher and her conscience.

  6. Two things I forgot to say:

    1) I agree with the educators of Reggio Emilia. It is the job of a teacher to be a researcher capable of understanding a child’s thinking and making it visible.

    2) Much of what is sold as project-based learning is barely richer or more relevant than traditional school assignments. The desire to “design” a project is fraught with peril and may extinguish serendipitous learning.

    Less us, more them!

  7. One more thing…

    If teachers are required to engage in assessment schemes, they should be kept as far away from the learner as possible.

    Assessment is the teacher’s busywork, not the students’.

  8. What Scott said,

    I’m well aware of using terms to disguise sort and ranking but I’ve also been able to use assessment for learning where grades where no where to be found. I get your concerns and share some of them. But to say assessment for learning is always a bad thing is a narrow and dangerous statement too.

    If I didnt use it as a parent, I’d be put in jail for neglect. As a teacher, Im not the sole provider of that feedback either. I work hard so students learn and critique each other for the purpose of learning.

  9. I cite the workplace example because that is the lifelong assessment most will live under. If they have never been assessed prior to taking a job, how will they take the criticism when something bigger like their career is on the line?

    As for the time spent on assessment, that was at the request of those in attendance. The instructor adjusted to the learning needs of the participants. Whether you like the choice of topic or not, he modeled a great choice: listening to the learners.

    I’ll just have to agree to disagree in that assessment disrupts learners. You list reflection as okay, and that is assessment in my book. Would I prefer to do away with grades? Sure, but I’d still want ongoing assessment of my son to make sure what he is practicing is on the right track. That doesn’t mean it has to be done everyday, nor does it mean it has to be led by the teacher.

    Reggio Emilia will never be a mainstay in US public ed. While we can learn from what they do, we will never be able to model public schools after it. Politicians just won’t allow it. I know you want to argue it is the teacher who can change that, but it’s not.

    Yes, a lot of what is labeled as PBL is just a project. I prefer to make the P stand for problem instead. Force the thinking. Put the focus on the issue and less on how cute the final product can be.

    Your definition of assessment is a narrow one. It is too narrow to be accurate. It is ONE definition, but not the one most teachers would consider valid in their point of view. An employer would consider it the only way to insure he/she has the right people in the right jobs.

    As for the rest, you left me a lot of links to read through. I will. I don’t think that the link you gave is necessarily your most important piece of work. You have written many important pieces of work. To say it is the most important would have someone assessing it as the most important. 😉

  10. A third grade teacher for over 30 years, I shake my head about how I bend over backward these days, scrambling to make assessment part of the learning piece – because there is WAY too much time spent on assessment, and WAY to little time left for teaching/learning in my classroom.

    Gary is right. No time for splitting hairs here. Time for a strong push-back, or we are truly lost. Toss out the rubrics, and insert exploration. – Mark

  11. Mark,

    I won’t argue the culture of testing that’s ruining education. You’re right, it has to stop. However, the idea that feedback, critique and conversation about learning isn’t useful, seems somewhat naive and even ignorant.

    I’m comfortable using the phrase Assessment FOR learning because done to its definition, it helps you learn. Gary’s arguing something different.

    Rex Ryan talking to Mark Sanchez on the sideline is assessment. Mark Sanchez talking to Ryan is assessment too. They are engaged in improving and learning at the same time. If we take Gary’s stance, they would never talk about performance. I don’t understand how that’s a bad thing.

  12. I don’t know Scott. You seem awfully pessimistic to me.

    I didn’t say that Reggio Emilia is a model that can be transported to the US, although you could study and learn from what their teachers do for the rest of your life. In fact, the educators from Reggio Emilia are explicit in their refusal to be perceived of as a model. They prefer approach.

    That said, LOTS of people and organizations, say Buck, are quick to provide models right here at home.

    I actually think that the result of project-based learning should be a terrific product. Otherwise, you’re just playing along to someone else’s “problem.” It is through the construction of something shareable that the richest learning occurs (constructionism) AND kids are capable of doing extraordinary work. We just don’t provide many opportunities for them to do so; nor do we help them develop the fluencies necessary to achieve mastery.

    I stated clearly that assessment interrupts learning, but it is up to each educator to determine an acceptable level of interruption. Why do you find this offensive?

    If my definition of assessment is too narrow, yours and Dean’s is certainly way to broad. All human communication is not assessment. Assessment is not reflection. Assessment is something DONE TO someone else.

    Definition of ASSESS (Merriam-Webster)
    transitive verb
    1: to determine the rate or amount of (as a tax)
    2a : to impose (as a tax) according to an established rate
    2b: to subject to a tax, charge, or levy
    3: to make an official valuation of (property) for the purposes of taxation
    4: to determine the importance, size, or value of
    5: to charge (a player or team) with a foul or penalty

    Synonyms: impose, charge, exact, fine, lay, levy, put

    We can go around and around over this, but your use of the term isn’t even consistent with the dictionary definition.

  13. Dean,

    Coach Ryan does indeed assess his players. No doubt about it.

    His players are compensated for their efforts and enter freely, without coercion, into a subordinate relationship with the coach.

    How is that similar to school children?

  14. Scott,

    I’m not sure if I cut and paste the correct URL, but I am enormously proud of this piece of writing. It addresses the plethora of variables required to maximize the PBL experience.

    I’m sure if I threw IWB or BYOD in there, the blogosphere would read it.

  15. Rubrics violate my #1 rule. It is wrong to lie to children.

    In addition to the long list of important arguments made against the use of rubrics in these two fine articles, http://bit.ly/vmKkyy & http://bit.ly/aevK10, rubrics are just a dishonest form of grading that does nothing to enhance the quality of student learning.

    I’ve been in parent teacher conferences in schools that “don’t give grades,” but use rubrics. I’ve watched teachers tell parents, “Scott got an 87, I mean B+, I mean approaches the standard.” There is nothing in their thinking or pedagogical practice that changed for the better as a result of rubrics.

  16. Gary,

    Let’s avoid the term assessment for a second. I’ll get back to it in a minute.

    Do we agree that student reflection, teacher/peer feedback and critique is a valuable part of learning?

    With regards to the football coach analogy, I think that regardless of a contract or agreement, it’s a teacher’s job to build a relationship with a student that establishes trust and enables feedback.

    I’ve heard you speak about student work before. In particular you’ve talked about student videos and you telling them to make it shorter…edit some more. So I know you’re aren’t opposed to feedback.

    Thanks for the definition of assessment. I recently challenged folks on the term rigor and pulled out the definition to find many aren’t following the definition at all. As I looked at the definition you posted, I have to agree, it doesn’t truly capture my belief. Other definitions I found are better:
    Educational assessment is the process of documenting, usually in measurable terms, knowledge, skills, attitudes and beliefs.

    But I agree, the term may not be the best. The difference for me is that term is a more deeply engrained concept than rigor is currently. The issue with the word assessment is that it’s used very differently by teachers and districts. I’m trying to advance the idea to what I stated originally, that is, it should be about helping a student learn more, not rank and sort.

    So thanks for the definition, but I still want to know if you think feedback, critique and reflection is an integral part of the learning process and if teachers can be the ones to facilitate and insure it happens, whether it’s done individually, from a teacher or from their peers.

  17. I think if falling on Gary’s side of the fence here. And it’s because we’re so tied to the word assessment as something that is labeled, ranked, scored, etc. Of course feedback, critique and reflection are integral to learning. They have been forever. But that stuff doesn’t seem to count as assessment unless it’s quantified in some way.

    I find it interesting that in the definition you gave, Dean, you used the word “educational” assessment. That stuff has to be measurable, right? But how do we measure beliefs? Attitudes? A survey? Multiple choice? Are my attitudes better than yours? Are your beliefs more valid? And whose idea of knowledge are we documenting? Should we be “assessing” kids in Moose Jaw along the same lines as the kids in, say, Syria when it comes to knowledge?

    And Scott, what is the “right track”? Was there a right track before schools? Learning is natural and eternal, but schools are a construct created to solve a problem which doesn’t exist any longer. If schools went away, would there be a different “right track”?

    This is where it falls apart for me. Why do we assess what we assess? I can’t help but think it precisely because the things we assess lend themselves to being assessed. The rest of it, I would argue the more important stuff, is too messy to assess in any real way that allows us to compare and rank and sort.

    When I think about my own kids, the number one thing that I want schools to instill in them is a passion to learn. Right now, “assessment” drives that passion out of them.

  18. Will,

    The word is the stumbling block here. I don’t think it has to be measurable. The idea of Assessment FOR learning, and there is such a thing, is that it’s only purpose is to further learning. Not to rank, sort or measure. That’s what I’m talking about.

    I’ve seen the shift happening here where we aren’t measuring but still assessing. The word has so many bad connotations, I’m not stuck on the word but I am in favour of Assessment For as opposed to Assessment Of.

    I do it with my students all the time. I don’t give a grade and I ask them to do likewise. Reflect, critique and analyze. It doesn’t need to be measured.

    So I think the word is causing the issue here. I’m thinking we’re all in agreement about what is best for kids…at least I think.

  19. I agree with Dean. There is no argument that any of us want anything but the best for the kids. Regardless of the terms we use, I’d trust my kids with any of you. I know that in the end, he will learn. A lot.

  20. Dean,

    But words matter, and the definitions we assign to them matter. You’re right; the word has tons of negative connotations, so we have to be precise. And I don’t know if we can differentiate between assessment for and assessment of any longer. Regardless of the framing, “assessment,” as Gary suggests, means evaluating, not simply guiding.

    Again, this is the same thing that I keep saying about the word “learning”. It’s definition has been compromised by the suggestion that learning is what we measure. It’s way much more than that, but don’t ask Arne Duncan or Michelle Rhee or Salman Khan that.

    Right now, all of this is massively screwed up, and I wish it was as easy as saying forget the words, we know what we mean, and we all just want to do best by kids. The terms matter in the larger conversation, and I think we have to fight hard to make sure that we’re clear what we mean when we use them.

    Thanks for engaging.

  21. So, if it is a ‘words matter’ issue, then respond to these scenarios:

    1. A third grade student is struggling with multiplication. He turns in an assignment where he misses the vast majority of the problems. The teachers recognizes where the errors are occurring and conferences with the student to get him back on track. What was the teacher doing to notice the pattern of mistakes? What was the teacher doing when she conferenced with the student?

    2. Students are working on a PBL unit. The teachers meets with students to help redirect their off track thinking. Then, at the end of the unit, the student team presents its findings to a panel of experts. What is the teacher doing in the middle during the redirect meeting? What is the panel doing at the end of the unit?

    I’m happy to change the vocabulary I use in my work, but I would like to know what you feel is the more accurate terminology and I need to believe it is a battle worth fighting. I work with politicians all of the time. If I try to use terminology that they do not associate the same as I do, I’m doing nothing but muddying the water.

    I look forward to your input.

  22. So, to carry on a previous analogy…

    Mark Sanchez is struggling with his footwork. He has a game where he misses the vast majority of the passes he attempts. Rex Ryan recognizes why the errors are occurring in where he’s placing his feet and conferences with Mark to correct that and help him become more accurate.

    So what would we call that?

    As opposed to…last week, based on Mark Sanchez’s dismal pass completion rate, his quarterback rating was 53.2, which put him 19th best in the league. (Made those numbers up.)

    Is there no difference there?

  23. I tweeted out earlier this week that every once in a while, I get absolutely gobsmacked by the lack of precision in our profession’s terminology; I’m stunned we’re looking to the dictionary to describe our profession jargon. I’m as guilty as the next person because I’m fighting a one-woman battle to reclaim rubrics. Frankly, I vehemently disagree with Gary that quality rubrics are dishonest mostly because the documents that Kohn and Wilson refer to as “rubrics” don’t quality under my definition. (qualityrubrics.pbworks.com)

    Where I’m confused after reading this entry and comments: I was under the impression that a part of being a learner is about getting better. About starting at A and getting to M and eventually to Z, if we’re so inclined. We enter at different places, but our goal as learners is to improve, get smarter, be better, do better. How can you possibly get better, do better, be better without assessment? If we’re not stopping and taking stock of where we are in relation to where we want to be, how do we improve? And I’m not talking about scoring higher on tests. I’m talking about writing, speaking, building, constructing, doing all of those things that make life and learning so wondering. Perhaps I’m describing reflection, but assessing is more than that: it’s about showing what we know, what we can do, how we think.

    In a large system like a public school system, some of that assessment is generated by an adult but sometimes the students themselves make a connection, have a lightbulb moment and realize what they can do differently to improve the quality of their work, their performance, or their thought process. But not all children, much less humans, have reached that point where they can articulate the changes the need in order to make the improvement they want to make. Assessment, to me, is articulating our current state so we can see where we are, so others can see and help us.

    Gary said: “I actually think that the result of project-based learning should be a terrific product.” This goal is commendable and one we all strive for – the sticking point, though, is “terrific”. How does a child create a terrific, rather than a “good”, project? I advocate for quality rubrics, because without them, children are dependent on others for feedback. And while external feedback is probably the best means for a learner to improve the quality of their project, it seems unfair to force a child to wait for that feedback or to figure out how to reflect on something without that lightbulb moment. Assessment, to me, is the strategic act of capturing or articulating my current state.

    Meanwhile, I’m with Will, I want to set aside the words and just focus on what matters, but when the press reports that NYS is “testing” 4-year-olds when in fact, teachers will be using early childhood assessment tools that have been around for decades, we have serious issues around the language of our profession. Don’t even get me started on the word data…

    All of that said, my husband is a high school participation in government teacher. He has an obligation to make sure every one of his students knows their rights, especially their 4th amendment rights. Not only is it a part of the curriculum but his students are more likely to stopped than their suburban contemporaries. They do projects. They hold mock trials. They craft Bills of Rights. They do amazing things. Then, the moment comes when he has to look each child in the eye (or read their writing) and listen (or read) as the student explains his or her constitutional rights. He asks, not to rank and sort, but to confirm he’s prepared his students to take full advantage of their rights as an American citizen. That’s assessment. And I’m okay with it. So are they – and their parents.

  24. I can’t believe I have not contributed this thought thus far, but Piaget teaches us that it is not the role of the teacher to correct a child from the outside, but rather to create the conditions in which the child corrects herself from the outside.

    As for knowing if a project is good, we might start by allowing kids to express their satisfaction or dissatisfaction about their project, but even this is only possible if there is sufficient time for project development and no stakes attached to either the product or process.

  25. As a veteran teacher, PBL expert, and a proponent of authentic learning experiences, I would say the assessment, as defined by the educational world is for the parents, administration, the powers that are “assessing” the schools, and even the students that have been ingrained to believe assessment is meaningful. True “assessment” should, however, be about the design of the project based learning unit in question. Were the students engaged in the project? Was the project authentic? Did the feedback on the project merely come from the teacher or was there an outside audience included? The real problem with assessment is that it tends to be summative in nature. This is the case in either a traditional classroom or a proclaimed PBL classroom. Thus, while in a perfect educational world there wouldn’t be rubrics, grades, or tests, we are still far from reaching this point. Until there are enough of teachers implementing great project based learning units that are truly authentic learning experiences, we won’t ever get away from what we know as assessment in the classroom. So the question is how to start this educational movement within the context of the individual classroom?

    Unfortunately, no matter what the model, BIE or any other, there are too few examples of truly engaging, authentic projects. Teachers have a desperate need to see these projects in action, so that they can “assess” the success of it. Bring a teacher into my classroom to see my students so engaged in a project that they, their parents, and administration don’t even bother to ask why I haven’t yet entered any grades in my book this marking period! These are the students who are voluntarily working outside of class to conduct interviews and develop action plans that have reached far beyond any rubric that I have ever created. So, while in the end, they will receive a grade for which their project was “assessed”, their true learning will be rooted in the authentic and rewarding experience which became a part of their lives.

  26. Since it was my comment about grading and meat that got Scott focused on assessment during Day 2 of the workshop, I thought I’d chime in, albeit late to the party. Truth be told, I actually do devote a lot of time to assessment because as this thread suggests, there are still a lot of differences of opinion out there, and a lot of differences in practice as a result. I don’t really think we have the full spectrum represented here (there are those not represented here who don’t use rubrics and formative assessment at all!), but part of the gulf between Gary and Dean or Scott is that while we’ve had UBD and rubrics for a while, the communities of practice around them are numerous and diverse. I don’t really think we’ve established a community of best practices for PBL, and that’s part of what I’m trying to encourage in workshops.

    Let’s look at what is really happening with rubrics and assessment. Scott’s right. Whether through pressures by districts or faults of their own, most teachers are not using them to provide support and opportunities for growth along the way, but rather are using them simply to lower the boom and justify the points they distribute at the end of a project. Students are quite literally “meat” at this point, as the project is done, and they’re dead to it. That’s why I show Dan Pink’s video “Drive” to launch the assessment part. Points-based motivations are actually de-motivators, and this, to my mind, is why so many students simply choose the lowest category on the rubric. Gary and Dayna are absolutely right here, and this problem is exacerbated by the fact that most teachers still don’t seem to use rubrics to indicate mastery of content and skills, but simply label their categories with points that allow them to convert “data” from rubrics into a conventional percentile scale. We play percentages, and so too do our students. They go for the secure points in the “emerging” or “developing” categories of our rubrics rather than take the risks we know are essential to a quality PBL project. Again, I think Gary is absolutely right that rubrics are just a sneaky form of grading in most of the communities of practice I visit, but that’s due to a lapse back into old practices rather than a fault of the idea of assessment, and formative assessment in particular. It’s a form of professional malpractice in my opinion, but so too is dodging the question of assessment altogether.

    Assessment is literally all the things Gary suggests. It is disrupting, taxing and yes, at times punitive, but it is part of a long tradition in Western learning that asserts there is no learning without such work. Jennifer raises the commonplace that is borne out in Plato’s Socratic dialogues, Montaigne’s “assays” and more recently, Foucault’s focus on “askesis” or “exercises” focused on self-control and improvement. All are examples of directed, formative assessments that produce learning through a set of practices, rather than simply discover it and document it. Yes, in an ideal world, students will internalize these techniques, but they don’t start internalized, and part of formal education–to my mind the most important part–is exposing youth to, and supporting them through that process of internalization. That doesn’t happen only through discovery but also through assessment of their discoveries. Assessments are best when done by a wide community of practice, that includes me as their teacher, their peers as collaborators, subject matter experts and members of their larger community, and ultimately themselves. This however, is the result, not the means to the result. Here, I betray the theorist that I am at heart rather than the pedagogue I am in practice, but for all it’s alternative approaches, progressive education since Rousseau or Dewey has still accepted the fundamentals of this tradition.

    As a point of comparison, let’s take another profession with which we’re all familiar as patients: medicine. My physician had better not be concerned only with producing data that allows him to report the state of my health to my HMO so that it can update actuarial tables. He should be first and primarily concerned with diagnosing my health so that he can prescribe reasonable changes to my diet and exercise regime in a way that will allow me to maintain, or improve my health. He does this by requiring me to come in for a series of tests, makes diagnoses based on that data, and provides recommendations that I can choose to follow, or choose to ignore. If his recommendations were not based on such assessments, I would have no reason to follow his advice, and might accuse him of malpractice. If his recommendations are based on such assessments, I now have information that I can use in formulating my decisions. I listen to most, but not all of these recommendations, and as a result, he sometimes puts me through tests I don’t like because I don’t always follow his recommendations. This is what his profession does, and to my mind it’s a good analogy of professionalism in general. In a similar manner, I pay my lawyer to keep me out of trouble in advance, not just to defend me when I’m in trouble, and this is, in a way, also a formative relationship. Professionalism is about having the tools to promote success and avert disaster, rather than correcting or sorting disasters and success after the fact.

    Our students deserve nothing less from us than the application of these professional tools. Anything less is simply asking them to be autodidacts, and that’s not worth their tuition. Indeed, they can do that at home and, on that note, yesterday’s article on homeschooling in the NYT is instructive (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/13/magazine/my-parents-were-home-schooling-anarchists.html?_r=2&pagewanted=6&nl=todaysheadlines&emc=tha210). We are professional educators, not “anarchists,” and if we as professional educators can’t guide our students to improved self-learning by means of mastery-based rubrics, I don’t think we have any business leading them by the hand into our school buildings, which is of course the original meaning of the profession of being a pedagogue.

  27. Once again, in so much as a teacher needs to produce data for actuaries, that is THEIR problem and should not impede upon the rights or learning process of the student. It should be done on teacher time and not interfere with the learning process. Teachers should not invent clever ways to get kids to do the “assessment” for them, or worse – the bureaucracy.

    My stating that 1) assessment always intrudes upon the learning process and 2) that is up to each teacher to determine an acceptable level of intrusion is NOT laissez-faire or expecting children to be auto-didacts.

    I truly do not understand why the above is a controversial statement.

    My second thesis is that if professional development is said to be focused on improving teaching, then it is reasonable to ask why so much of the time is spent on assessment – not teaching or learning?

    The use of the term “auto-didact” is in and of itself indicative of the battle we are engaged in regarding the nature of learning. Self-teaching is not synonymous with learning. The use of “auto-didact,” (particularly in a pejorative sense) indicates a mistaken belief that learning is the consequence of having been taught.

    When an adult goes to a doctor, she does so freely without the compulsion of the state and without fear of sanction. School assessment (grading) is coercive and a form of judgement. The analogy just doesn’t hold water.

    My desire to seek clarity between teaching, learning and assessment while others perform superhuman rhetorical tricks to conflate them does not make me an anarchist. It seems that “professional” educators would understand that distinction without resorting to name-calling.

  28. Lurking, reading, thinking. The word ‘anarchy’ pricked my ears up, because I just created http://www.anarchyinlearning.com and embedded a time-lapse video of learning in action at my High School. 180

    I think it looks anarchic, hence the term, but I think it should really by called “communityinlearning”.

    When we take away controls and allow freedom the kids can go in any direction they wish.

    They spontaneously group up, de-group, re-organise, in little clusters, often around a temporary expert – you can see this happening in the video.

    I think they are getting feedback in a million different ways from each other, in unplanned interactions. The feedback bubbles up through the community. That’s how collaborative communities function, right? And they aren’t controlled. Assessment seems tangled in an effort to control. Ain’t no-one assessing, or controlling my learning, but I’m learning more now than I ever did at school.

  29. Pingback: PBL and Buck Institute for Education Day 2 « K12 TechApps

  30. No intent to be name calling in my post, so apologies if implied. I chose didactics in particular as the conversation seems to me to be based on a notion that education is about the giving, through discovery of knowledge, and that pedagogy is a necessary but unfortunate interruption of that giving and taking. Gary may not agree with that, but that’s what I’m hearing in his reiteration of his second thesis.

    I do not share this belief, because I believe that knowledge is co-constructed through a series of professional practices or techniques, rather than discovered or given independent of those techniques. This is the essence of Constructivism. Assessment, not teaching or learning iis thus to my mind the necessary and essential practice of our profession, just as diagnosis, not health, is the essence of the medical profession. learning and health are the outcomes of these practices, and so I think policy has it backwards. Formative assessment is not the documentation of knowledge, or rather should not be, but is the technique by which we help our students produce their own unique understanding of the world.

    I would agree with Gary that students can do this on their own, but I nonetheless maintain that is harder without the professional support of a teacher, and that is why teachers should remain valuable in and to our society.

  31. Just a regular old (!) elementary school teacher here, following along closely in the discussion. I don’t have the time nor the writing skills to eloquently respond to the points made here. I can only offer this.

    Assessment. Grading. Learning. Play with the nuances of words all you want. Eight and nine year old kids still come in my door every morning. Assessment is killing their souls, their drive, and their love of learning. Ditto for their teacher.

    Here are words from a path that I know a few here already follow, a recent post from Deborah Meier: “… I’m hoping that most of us push the envelope as far as we can; find the cracks, close our doors, and creatively resist the madness.” http://t.co/5oOuDJF9

    Those words describe in a perfect nutshell how I proceed every day. Know that I’m not alone.

    Resisting the madness – Mark

  32. Dead on, Mark. Sadly, it is the current reality. What we can do is provide a learning environment where the assessments we do are in authentic learning opportunities and provide formative feedback throughout the learning process while giving students every opportunity to experience and drive their own learning.

    I just shot a tweet to one of our state reps who was sending out links to his YouTube account where he hosts a series of videos on how the government wastes money. I told him if he wanted to save big money, quit paying Pearson $100 million a year to provide standardized tests in a setting where we provide individualized instruction. He said it was a great idea that he would have his staff look into. Yeah. Right.

    In the meantime, as you said, teachers and students alike lose the love of learning.

    Thanks for joining in the discussion.

  33. Steve, I agree that I’m learning more than I ever did, but I believe it is still being assessed. For instance, Gary assessed my thoughts from this post and provided feedback. Sure, there’s no grade involved, but it does help direct my thinking and learning progress. The same occurs with other things I have learned and implemented in my own district. The ability to implement ideas successfully is based on formative assessment by those involved. While there is no grade involved here either, my career path and paycheck ultimately depend on it. Quite a bit more authentic assessment, but assessment nonetheless.

  34. Tim,

    The autodidacts statement struck me as a bit offensive as well and a bit misplaced but what struck me more was the statement you made after that:

    “We are professional educators, not “anarchists,” and if we as professional educators can’t guide our students to improved self-learning by means of mastery-based rubrics, I don’t think we have any business leading them by the hand into our school buildings, which is of course the original meaning of the profession of being a pedagogue.”

    First, are you really saying that if a teacher doesn’t use rubrics that they don’t have any place teaching in a school? Surely you don’t mean that.

    Second, originally pedagogues were slaves whose job it was to ensure children were taught in the way the slave owners wanted. This makes your statement sound a bit like teachers ought to lay down any professional difference they have with the system and just do as they are told. (kind of reminds me of this clip from Inherit the Wind: http://youtu.be/3mgM1uBW3kc)

    Seems to me that taking that kind of stance toward our work truly de-professioanlizes teachers. I think it was Thomas Sergiovanni who says in his book Moral Leadership that, “It is unprofessional to let someone else tell you how to do your job.” Seems if you enter the teaching profession with the notion that your role is to help children learn and your professional judgement tells you that the use of rubrics gets in the way of that learning then to use them just because someone else in the system gave that mandate would not only be unprofessional but also tantamount to malpractice.

    What if we can guide our students to improved self-learning with the use of mastery-based rubrics? Does that teacher have any business working in a school?

    Third, lets do a little metacognitive reflection here. When was the last time as a learner you learned a great deal from a rubric other than to learn what someone else expects from you? Is that really the role of school? Wait, never mind, don’t answer that. I’m afraid of what the answer will be.

  35. correction:

    What if we can guide our students to improved self-learning without the use of mastery-based rubrics? Does that teacher have any business working in a school?

    I forgot to add the out to without.

  36. Carl– I am really trying to choose words carefully here, and while anarchy may have been a bit strong, I will defend the necessity of rubrics in our profession via the following comparison. Both Britain and America have constitutions, or social contracts if you will. In Britain, this constitution is the loose collection of common law traditions that have, over time, come to be understood as a constitution and therefore held to govern in a very traditional sense. In America by contrast, the Constitution is a written document over which we wrestle to determine the nature of our social contract. Are we slave to it as a result? If one relies on definitions of freedom as a negative (freedom from) then perhaps. But seen as a positive freedom (freedom to) that document enables us to govern ourselves in a way an unwritten compact does not.

    In my classrooms, rubrics are the transparent social contract between me and my students. I draft them, in some cases with my students, but they are living documents that evolve to clarify their function, sometimes during a project, sometimes between projects. As they are not static, I don’t see them as a kind of professional slavery–which I’ll admit they can be when handed down by districts, states, or consortia as tablets from on high. Perhaps this is what some are pushing back against in this forum?

    Regardless, I’d like to push back, Socratically, on those who maintain that they can teach without a formalized formative assessment plan. How do students in this setting know what is expected of them and understand what they’re experiencing in your classrooms? How do yo foster the sort of social transparency that rubrics provide, so that all are equal before the law, as it were? I don’t deny that learning can occur in these settings, but I do remain skeptical that it can be called a technique that forms the basis for professional practice.

  37. Tim,

    To say that rubrics are the the classroom equivalent of a constitution seems like a real stretch. To make claims that rubrics in the classroom are the agents that allow freedom to learn is just wrong. If anything, rubrics restrict a students “freedom” to learn because they narrowly define what is considered learning in the classroom.

    I would go a step further and say that not only do rubrics and assessment impede on student learning but too much planning does as much, if not more, damage. John Holt gave a great example of this in his book How Children Fail. Holt described a lesson he taught his elementary school children about balance and levers using a scale and wights. In that lesson students were supposed to learn something about leverage and weight distribution. The time he taught carefully planned and flawlessly delivered lesson on the topic he taught the class had a difficult time understanding the concepts when tested. A couple years later he didn’t “teach” the lesson but instead just put the scale and weights out for the kids to discover and play with. After they had time to discover the device and play with it on their own he tested them on the concepts he meant for them to learn with it. The group that learned first through discovery almost unanimously understood all the concepts without teacher interference.

    In the Holt case the role of the teacher in the second, more successful, scenario was to create conditions by which students would come into contact or discover the desired learning thereby learning it more deeply. I doubt rubrics would help this. Likewise I don’t see such a classroom environment as “anarchy.”

    Rubrics, even those that are co-created with the student, only really assess the learning of an imposed curriculum. In this sense their use, or the use of any other form of assessment that we might do is artificial (and yes, I do assess my students so I certainly am not completely opposed to the practice). Assessment doesn’t really measure learning, it measures level of training. To maximize the learning in a classroom (not the training) one must minimize the assessment and open the curriculum. If I tell you something there is a high probability you will forget it. If you ask me to tell you something there is an exponentially higher probability you will not forget it. One has to ask, who in the classroom is asking the most questions? If the answer is the teacher and not the student you have a problem. This problem is only magnified with the use of rubrics. I don’t want a rubric telling my students what they can and cannot learn or should or should not be learning. I want my students to tell me what they want me to teach them. I want to create environments that will lead them to ask for the kinds of lessons their parents want them to learn. But the learner has to be the one who forges the learning plan, not the teacher and not the rubric.

    If one must make a constitutional analogy, I would say rubrics most often are like arrest warrants, not a bill of rights.

  38. Scott,

    Yes I agree entirely. You’re playing with the social aspects of learning, and I’m with you all the way.


    I really like the way you’re talking. I too am highly conscious of the unplanned, unplannable nature of learning. It’s open-ended, and springs out of a confluence of elements. Most important, to my mind: community and space. I perhaps should say environment rather than space.

    I am highly intrigued at the way space codes culture. It’s like there is a feedback loop between the people and the space. Setting up a learning with rows facing the front reflects a culture, and then those rows create a culture.

    If the space + community can encode a love of learning it will be unstoppable, unbeatable. Formative assessment bouncing off peers, sages, the physical world, the computers, the outside world; bouncing in and out and changing the path in unpredictable ways.

    Throw in the occasional rubric, sure. Won’t hurt, might help, but be very very careful the rubric doesn’t poison the air.

    My vocabulary for understanding assessments and rubrics is the vocabulary of gamification. It seems to me schooling is a gamified system, and always has been. A rubric helps express what you need to win the game. Conformity helps for leveling up. Bucking the system is punished. Refusing to play (‘being off task’) will lose you XP.

    I’m not damning this – almost every social context in life can be deconstructed as a game… but if we’re talking assessment, well, I’m pretty much with Carl: explorers don’t know ahead of time where their destination will be.

    I’ve really benefited from following the discussion – thanks to all.

  39. Steve,

    Good points. I do wonder, though, how we can expect schools to just give up on the aspect of a directed assessment since that is the expectation of parents and the politicians who fund the system. I’m not against it. I’m just trying to find the best learning environment possible within the realm of the expectations handed down to us.

    Now, I can say that a rubric, when designed properly, gives the students direction in their expected outcomes, but it should not in any way spell out the desired outcome for them. I’m not holding up a sample product and declaring it the optimal goal for an A in the work. To me, that gives me lots of flexibility in deciding along with the students what is worthy of a positive assessment of where each student is at the end of the work. If I know my students as I should and assess them honestly to that individual bar, it should be a fairly accurate and beneficial resource for them to utilize in assessing their own growth throughout the year. Again, we have to work within the system that guides our schools regardless of what we feel about it as a whole. We make the best with what we have. I have the opportunity to be flexible in how I assess my students, yet I am limited to a number or a letter at the end. That’s not my problem. It’s my challenge. So, I include the students’ input and we work to be accurate and honest. Saying ‘to heck with the system’ is not an option. If I quit to go elsewhere, who would replace me and my open minded decisions? Probably a drone, and that’s not the best for the kids. I know you aren’t saying to quit, but others will. Just adding that comment prior to it happening.

    I appreciate you joining the conversation. It most assuredly had been a great one to have.

  40. If you have to use a rubric, be sure to include a blank column or row that students must complete. Call it unintended outcomes, personal learning, whatever. It encourages them to go beyond the rubric.

  41. Dean,

    That’s swell if every task is simple enough to be clearly defined in advance by a kid.

  42. Fill it in after. No need to define it ahead of time. It’s unintended outcomes you’re after.

  43. Stumbled upon this discussion through Twitter. I’ve read all of the posts. I won’t contribute to the assessment controversy except to say that I try to give assignments for projects that will lead to assessment in an organic way. Completion of the project triggers the assessment and there is zero distraction from learning from the evaluation, which does, indeed come from outside, since I’m the one who has to give grades and report to PTBs.
    Having read all of the posts, my question is, how do we communicate this to a principal or superintendent who understands basketball much better than learning? How do we actually create an impetus in a faculty that moves us away from forms of assessment that do distract from learning? I humbly suggest that Mr. Stager’s positions are so foreign to the present school atmosphere that if they were even understood by most administrators, they would be rejected outright and would produce fear and even anger rather than progress.
    Let’s pause a moment to think about how we can actually explain PBL in terms that decision-makers can understand and accept, because if we don’t do that, the whole discussion is academic–and I don’t mean in a good way.

  44. I’ve heard this notion mentioned more than once now in this thread and I think it is worth questioning. That notion is that parents care so much about assessment. I will agree that most of the administrators I have worked with don’t understand learning apart from assessment. That is a problem to be addressed. But to say that we give grades, use rubrics, test kids, give assessments, etc. because that is what the parents want is an idea I would like to challenge. I’ve heard this excuse used often to justify many different harmful and/or misguided school practices but I’ve never seen an opinion poll of parents that corroborated these kinds of statements. Is this what parents really want? I really don’t think so but then I’ve never done a parent survey to find out for sure.

    What I have heard parents express first hand are desires for their students to be able to do things like read and do math and to like doing these things. I’ve also heard parents express a desire for their children to spend time in rich learning environments and to be treated with respect. From my interactions with parents over the years I have to conclude that what parents want most is for their teachers to treat their kids in the classroom the way they would treat them themselves (in some cases they want them to be treated better than they would treat them).

    The place I hear the idea expressed that parents want their children to be exposed to external assessments is within school leadership and policy circles. The same circles that develop our school administrators, politicians, and policymakers. The concept is presented as if it were an unquestionable and accepted fact; as if it were simply common knowledge. This is the same kind of strategy we see played out on conservative radio and Fox News where they bring in someone in the morning to make a ridiculous statement, later in the morning they use phrases like, “some people say…,” or “its been said that…,” then by the end of the day they use language like, “The American people want…” I suspect this is how we have ended up with this unquestioned assumption about what parents want.

    We have a dropout rate in the US that is staggering. I believe that assessment is a major contributor to this. If we create learning environments free of coercion and serve learner needs then we will create schools where students want to be and will be less likely to drop out (or be pushed out). I also believe that in such environments students will learn more and given the choice will usually choose to learn the things they need to be successful.

    So, what do parents really want? Do you really think they want us to rank and sort their kids? If they do, its probably a very small minority who have something to gain from that practice. On what are we basing our statements about parent desires?

  45. Because I teach a dual-credit senior English course in a rural district, 30-50% of the parents of my students are teachers, usually from our district. They are usually quite happy to hear that their students are doing well, improving in their writing skills, completing major projects. Of course, they also watch closely to see the grade their child receives at grading periods. In other words, they want to know the student is succeeding with whatever form of assessment generates those grades.
    Seldom am I questioned about the form of assessment I use. I think, however, that the parents assume I am using some reasonable and valid means of evaluating progress. Because they make that assumption, they don’t often ask the question.
    Certainly Carl is correct that our dominant means of assessment is discouraging to many students, some of whom drop out. Perhaps even more than the assessment itself, students drop out because they are forced to take courses for graduation that teach skills they know they will never need after they leave school. When they fail the testing for these courses, frustration can indeed lead to simply giving up. How many special ed kids will ever use algebra after high school?
    They may see the failure as the direct cause of giving up, but there are other causes that may be even more significant.
    Certainly we need to change the whole pass/fail atmosphere of our schools and create an environment where failure is seen as an important step toward progress–as long as it really does lead to a final success.

  46. For the record, I believe that 90% of our learning disabilities and “special education” classifications are caused by schooling and don’t exist apart from our institution. [Here’s a nice video illustrating this: http://youtu.be/AY4-c7X3Qes%5D

    How many of our special education students will be considered special once they leave our institutions? That alone is a good reason for many to drop out of school.

  47. Assessment is not a spreadsheet or a rubric — it’s a conversation. There is no substitute for what a teachers sees and hears every day while the students are still learning, and yet this information is squandered as “subjective” and “unscientific”.

    I no longer differentiate assessment into formative and summative. I now have two categories – supportive and unsupportive of student learning.

    And lastly, not much will improve until we start seeing a child’s learning difficulties less as a problem with the child and more of problem to be sovled by the curriculum.

  48. Hey Scott,

    I think a great deal about exactly that – how to engage within a broken system?

    As you say, taking your bat and ball and going home, refusing to play, is hardly constructive. One reason I am such a fan of Twitter, and the teach-meet movement, is that it allows practitioners to start a kind of hippie movement from within the system, to improve it without having to wait for systematic change.

    I hope you’ll excuse a rather lengthy reply. My mind jumps in multiple directions –

    First, I take great heart that if a school community is warm and caring, with a hopeful, optimistic culture, integration with the local community via parents, social clubs, social justice initiatives, the performing arts, charities, and so forth, then the worst damage of the ‘the system’ is mitigated. I can’t help thinking of the Ron Clarke academy at this juncture. I’ve been there and spent time with the students; experienced their sense of agency, independence and dignity, in a school that unashamedly drills toward high performance in standardised tests. But that’s not all they do, they do plenty more. But it’s the community that makes that school, the community that is the salient element. In a way they’re “playing the game” but they’re doing much more than that.

    Another thought direction – I know at my school we play the system but it does not own us. We’re in Sydney, Australia, preschool to Year 12. We have nation-wide testing in Years 3, 5, 7, 9, and 12. (i.e. at age 9, 11, 13, 15, 18) and until recently in Year 10 too. Thanks to the influence of Joel Klein, the results of these tests are now published publicly at http://www.myschool.edu.au so they can form a basis for parents to judge school performance. Syllabus documents provide further constraints – read p39 to p42 of this document to see what I’m supposed to ‘teach’ my Year 8 French class, for example:http://www.boardofstudies.nsw.edu.au/syllabus_sc/pdf_doc/french_k10_syllabus.pdf

    But, if you think of the old DNA of schooling, students are a little bit like battery-hens. Each fed the same thing, each required to lay eggs. At my school we have a free-range chicken model. We create a very broad landscape, and the students are free to roam across that landscape. Not sure where the eggs fit in. #extendedmetaphorfail

    Anyway, our learning landscapes contain a very broad range of features – sequenced content-delivery in what vaguely resembles an in-house version of the Khan Academy, to a wide menu of scaffolded PBL-esque challenges, spanning Bloom’s taxonomy and multiple-intelligence theory (although we no longer bother using that topology explicitly), to pure PBL, and finally blank-slates where students can, for instance, conceive of and run any scientific experiment they want, within safety constraints. An example of the latter: I saw the bizarre scene the other day of an 11 year old flicking rubber bands. At his feet was an ice-cream tub of hot water and an ice-pack, and he had a stop-watch in his hands. He told me he was trying to figure out what affect temperature had on the distance the rubber bands went. He was timing how long he put the rubber bands in the hot water or on the ice-pack. I held back from pointing out the massive flaws in his methodology. His experience had the potential of yielding a fantastic insight into the scientific method that, in my experience, no amount of direct instruction will produce for many students.

    Meanwhile our teachers are roaming the landscape, trouble-shooting, mentoring, and running a vast range of spontaneous electives. One of them will yell out a topic and students will opt-in if they wish, and gather in a camp-fire formation for a few minutes. Topics are re-run and mashed up. The whole thing resembles something like a market-place. The students, equally, are nodes-of-explanation, and in my observation 1 in every 6 or 7 kids is an unofficial sage and go-to person for their peers.

    The point is – how do we appease the dreaded SYSTEM! Well, on this landscape, we also put gate-ways. Gate-ways are tasks or outcomes which students must address at one point or another, in one way or another. Some are flexible (addressed as groups or in a spectrum of modes) and others are strict and controlled (including old-school tests under timed conditions).

    That’s our way of working within the constraints of a broader set of non-negotiable mandates. We also exploit the gaps in what our Board of Studies mandates. E.g. there are plenty of hours left over in the age 15/16 bracket after we’ve met the mandated Maths/Science/English/History/Geography hours. You could read about our non-board-endorsed ‘GAT’ course at my blog, which is essentially a 200hr blank slate, a bit like the google 20% passion project practice.

    So I guess in my experience I think there is room to manoeuvre within the system.

    Carl mentions parent perspectives. Our parents, (to over-generalise):
    1 feel a mix of unease and delight at our innovation
    2 are indeed keen for high performance in the tests and are happy that our results are steadily improving
    3 most important of all, are happy that their kids are happy, settled, hopeful and engaged

    The trump-card in the parent market-force is #3 – they want happy, settled, connected kids. My school is enrolled to capacity due to this market force. This market force is a fulcrum for change. That also makes me hopeful about system change.

    Finally, I wonder about the cataclysmic rise in popularity of online study. Is it so popular because the system is so broken that anything is better than the current structures? To my mind, most online courses are woeful. Are they popular because they are they a lesser-evil? Even the second generation of online courses that address the lost sense of space and community seem, nevertheless, less than ideal to me. Students have plenty of complaints about online study but often still end up choosing it because it offers a freedom from an often oppressive school system.

    What if you had a digital learning ecosystem that was equal in quality to second or third generation online courses, but also had a vibrant physical campus? A kind of learning market-place?

    So, in the same way that online courses have been driven by relentless, irresistible market-forces, what if a new type of organisation sprung up to offer a third path, with the freedom of online study but without removing the in-person community and collaboration, support of experts, and opt-in direct-instruction? I constantly dream about what this might look like… would it even have paid staff? Would it end at age 18 or provide for life-long learning? Would it have regular hours at all? Would it be distinguishable from ‘real life’ or blend seamlessly with it? Think of the anarchy of a shopping centre (I should say ‘mall’, right?). People flock there in droves. What if we could boot-strap a kind of physical Wikipedia, with in-person open courseware? I’ve set this up on small scale in the GAT project – I don’t know if it would scale, but imagine if…!

    Anyway the best way to get systematic change is through a market-force, through an instinctive up-swell of behaviour. When this hits tipping point, the old goes extinct very suddenly, à la Amazon and Borders books.

    This is how I come to a hopeful conclusion: if we can maintain some small scale models (can’t help thinking of the Science Leadership Academy here), then we’re preparing the ground for a tipping point where new models could go viral, and the system would quite rapidly change gears. This brings me full-circle back to Twitter, which is also a market place of ideas, and could mobilise an initial groundswell of pressure to lead to a broad paradigm switch.

    …all reasons for me to be hopeful!

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