“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” — Buckminster Fuller
“If you are on a road to nowhere, find another road.” — Ashanti proverb
“School is a good idea being badly executed.” — Noah L., student
Imagine a classroom humming with activity. Scattered throughout the room, students are intently working. Some are by themselves, others in small groups actively teaching and learning from each other. They have chosen who they are working with and what they are working on. Some are practicing a new skill. Others, already proficient, are engaged in more challenging material. The teacher is sitting with a small group in the corner, running a workshop that they have chosen to attend. Everyone is busy. Everyone is learning.
A student in this room is self-sufficient. She has become a metacognitive learner — she pays attention to whether she has mastered new material and independently chooses to continue practicing new skills when she needs to. When she has achieved mastery, she will often choose to do enrichment activities, even though she won’t be rewarded with extra credit. She seeks out more challenging work simply because she wants to push herself. She is intrinsically motivated to learn and to excel.
In most cases, she grades herself. She participates in making decisions for herself. She feels a sense of ownership over how she learns. In her study group, she is skilled at asking questions when she doesn’t understand something and teaching others (rather than just giving answers to them) when she does. She feels that the academic and personal growth and success of every person in the room is a goal that she shares with the teacher and all the other students.
Does this sound like a utopian fantasy? It isn’t. This kind of learning environment is immensely practical and attainable. It is already happening in real classrooms in a wide range of disciplines — remedial algebra, A.P. psychology, reading and writing classes, physics, history and ESL. It is engaging rich and poor students, black and white, students who are academic superstars and students who otherwise hate school.
Here is a short video of a physics class where this kind of engagement is visible.
This can, in fact, be your classroom.
I know this is possible. During the nearly 30 years I taught in the classroom, my students and I experienced exactly this transformation. In these sidebars, student reflective letters describe their sense of what they felt and accomplished.
Following my career as a teacher, I have worked as a consultant with dozens of teachers in nearly every discipline. I have seen them use and adapt many of these strategies with transformative results.
This book is dedicated to helping you transform your classroom into a place where students are engaged in genuine learning, where they take ownership of the process, where they are committed to the mutual success of everyone in the room — in short, a classroom that has become a community of self-directed learners.
Implementing these changes begins with rethinking the basics. What are the impediments to creating this type of classroom? How can we get there from here? Let’s begin by looking at how you perceive your own experience as a teacher and explore why it is the way it is.
Let's start with a check-up on the state of things in your day-to-day teaching practice. How many of the following situations feel familiar to you?
So, how did you do? If more than a few of these seem to describe your experience as a teacher, you are not alone. The reason these issues are so widespread is that they all spring from the same ubiquitous source, the fundamental philosophy of education as it is practiced in most schools today. That philosophy, although rarely, if ever, explicitly discussed, is based on a misguided and deeply counterproductive premise. It is a house that has been built on the wrong foundation.
How can we tell what true foundational philosophy of school currently is? The answer lies in how success is measured. The result of decades of school reform is this: the success of a school is measured by standardized test scores. And what do those tests measure? How well the students have mastered a broad and rigorous set of standards. For all practical purposes, there are no other yardsticks for assessing whether a school is working well or not. And this, in turn, reveals the true current purpose of school, whether or not it is stated explicitly: to have every student master all the standards.
Let’s call this the curriculum transfer model of school. No matter what we would like to believe about what we teachers are doing in the classroom, this is the functional reality in which we operate.
To solve the problems found in so many classrooms, this approach must be replaced. But first we need to see it clearly, with fresh eyes
For the sake of clarity, I’d like to restate the dominant philosophy of education today.
Many assumptions flow from this central premise. It is assumed, for instance, that students will in fact be prepared for college or a career, if only they master the curriculum.
Furthermore, because the task of transferring this curriculum is considered to be a chore — after all, who really wants to learn how to factor quadratic equations or memorize all the detailed chemical processes that occur in photosynthesis? — students must be made to learn. This is why the whole range of external motivators — all the carrots and sticks, the grades and the detentions — must be used to compel students to learn.
This aspect of the curriculum transfer model puts you, the teacher, in the middle of a systemic power struggle. It shapes your role; you are now the content deliverer and the enforcer of the curriculum transfer process. Your relationship with your students becomes one in which you cannot easily trust them (and vice versa), and one in which you often find yourself in an adversarial position, particularly with your unsuccessful students.
Even if you have never said it aloud to your students, your position has morphed into this: “My job is to make sure that you learn all of this curriculum, whether you want to or not.” You may not subscribe to this bleak definition of teaching, but it is almost certainly the perception of many of your students. Just ask them.
This diagram, adapted from Parker Palmer's book "The Courage to Teach", illuminates this model quite succinctly. It shows a flow of information in one direction, from the curriculum being studied through the teacher to the students.
It's easy to see from this diagram why the school reform movement over the past few decades has been so relentlessly focused on defining and improving curricular standards and devising assessments to measure how well they have been transferred. Over the past few years, reformers have also been increasingly focused on making teachers accountable for how well they transfer that curriculum, to the detriment of teacher morale.
And what of the students? In this structure, the students are passive recipients of knowledge. They are amateurs, instructed by an expert, and their job is to absorb as much of the curriculum as they can.
Of course, in most classrooms, the teacher doesn’t stand in front of the class and lecture constantly throughout every period. There are often activities in which the students are working on problem sets or discussing something they have read. Indeed, in many well-run classrooms, students are actively engaged in the learning process. But even so, the purpose of the work is to get students to master the curriculum.
According to this model, if only the curriculum could be defined rigorously and precisely enough and teachers could deliver it effectively enough, the process would become much more successful. In truth, this approach to education is, at its very core, doomed to fail.
To begin with, humans don’t learn well by being told. Teacher-directed activities, such as lectures, can be a good first step in introducing new ideas, but to truly learn anything, students must actively process those ideas. They must be given a chance to struggle with the material, to make mistakes and learn from them, and, above all, to talk about it with each other.
More importantly, however, the students in the diagram above are passive. This passivity precludes their developing essential character traits, such as self-directedness, responsibility, and the skill of collaboration. Even if the curriculum were transferred successfully into their minds — a big if — they still will not have the experiences necessary to acquire these fundamental traits. In short, the curriculum transfer model is a deeply flawed approach. It must be replaced.
How can you and your students get out of this trap? By changing the foundation. We have to rethink the very purpose of school.
We can get there from here. But where do we start on such a voyage? We start at the beginning, with our beliefs.
If you want to change your classroom, you need to plan backwards from the foundation of what you want to accomplish. If we are going to change schools, we have to ground what we do in a bedrock philosophy that is simple and attainable, one that we can all agree on.
The basis for everything you will read in this book is simply this:
There. How can anyone argue with that? Let’s call this the preparing for life model of education.
If we take this statement seriously, if it becomes the foundation of our conversations about how to make school better, it will lead us in new and better directions. It is the philosophical bedrock that informs every decision and reshapes everything that we do.
You’ll notice this statement is about students. There is no mention of how rigorous the curriculum should be or how high the scores on standardized tests should be. Rather, we start by focussing on the people for whom the school was built.
The first thing we should ask is this: what does a person who is well-prepared for life look like? What are the core skills and knowledge she must master to be able to enter and navigate the world? What is the role of school in guiding each student? Furthermore, in a world in which no one can even predict what jobs will exist in the near future, how can school prepare her for the workplace she will be entering?
To answer these questions, we must recognize that who our students become in school is as important as what they know. Attributes like self-directedness, creativity, tenacity, and the ability to work well with others are critically important in achieving success and happiness in the world they are entering. We must therefore seriously consider how their education shapes them as people, how it affects their character.
Redefining the purpose of school in this way affects every aspect of the classroom. We must rethink our curriculum to ensure that it is preparing our students to live life well. (Much more on that later). Beyond shaping what we teach, our new definition has serious ramifications for how we teach. It affects the roles and the working relationships of teachers and students. It alters the way we think about basic classroom structures, like homework, group work, testing, and grades. We have to redesign these structures so that they prepare students to be self-sufficient in life, to be responsible citizens.
First, we have to recognize the entrenched habits of mind and classroom structures that will be impediments to the change we are seeking.
I have always done high school for grades and I have never really enjoyed the academic experience of this school. I make good marks, but this has mostly been to be in the top ten percent of the class, and to be accepted to a college I will love. For the first time in high school, I am learning because I want to, and for the very first time, I am in a class supporting that goal. —Marianne S., student
Because of their academic experience, students often develop deep-seated habits of mind that are counterproductive to becoming prepared to live life well. Successful students are often successful because they have learned to game the system: doing what is asked of them, answering test questions correctly by successfully cramming (as opposed to learning), and getting good grades. They are successful, in other words, because they have mastered the art of “doing school”. Unsuccessful students, on the other hand, are often those who are either unable to compete in the game of doing school or have rejected it as meaningless and refuse to participate. In fact, the ability to do school is often the central difference between successful and unsuccessful students.
Teachers often make the mistake of believing that their successful students are proficient at the skill of learning. After all, they have many of the superficial attributes of success: they do their homework, they do well on tests, they are engaged in discussions. Unfortunately, what they are truly proficient at is merely the skill of getting good grades. Academic success — excellent grades and high test scores — is no guarantee that genuine learning is taking place. Doing school is a very convincing simulation of learning.
An essential component of good teaching is helping students learn how to learn effectively. But we have to be very clear about what we mean by the word. What is genuine learning?
Think about how you learn something when it is important to you, say mastering a new piece of technology or a sport or some new skill. If you care about it, you put everything you have into the task of learning this new thing. You are learning it with the whole of who you are, not just, in the words of Sir Ken Robinson, “from the neck up, and slightly to one side.”
In this book, the phrase “genuine learning” means much more than successfully transferring the curriculum into the mind of a student. It also includes the engagement of the whole person doing the learning. It must entail her learning not just about the subject at hand, but about who she is, what she is capable of, what she cares about and is good at. Genuine learning is about her becoming who she is as fully as possible. By definition, genuine learning is what a student does to prepare to live life well.
Genuine learning has the following attributes:
If students are experiencing this kind of learning, they will integrate the knowledge and skills they need to live life well. The learning process will feel much more authentic and meaningful to them.
From this definition of genuine learning flows a new idea that steers everything we and our students do. It is the lodestone that guides us, the rule that helps us prioritize our actions. Like the Prime Directive of Star Trek, it is not to be violated. This is the Prime Directive of education:
The application of the Prime Directive can be summarized like this: if an action enhances genuine learning, we do it, and if it detracts from genuine learning, we stop doing it. Again, this may seem like an elementary idea, but it has a profound effect on what we do as teachers and what our students do as learners. If we take the Prime Directive seriously, it requires us to create new classroom structures, redesigning the day-to-day activities of discussions, lectures, homework, and student activities so that they actively serve this underlying philosophy.
As an example of the way in which the Prime Directive requires us to change what we do, consider the ubiquitous practice of “cramming.” If a student is preparing for a test at two in the morning by jamming as much of the material into her mind as quickly as possible, she is not expecting to actually learn anything. She knows full well that most of what she is “learning” will be forgotten shortly after taking the test. Her purpose for studying is to maximize how many points she will get. How she gets those points — whether she is genuinely learning the material — is secondary, at best.
Cramming violates the Prime Directive. We must therefore work to eliminate it from our classrooms. In order to do this, however, we must explore what causes this unwanted behavior. This small example of an everyday school experience —cramming for tests — highlights deeper and broader changes that must be made.
So why does a student cram? Because her goal is to get the highest score possible, and she understands that the test can’t distinguish between what she has genuinely learned and what she will only “know” for a few days or weeks. To get a good grade, cramming, regurgitating the correct answers on the test, and forgetting the material is fair game.
If we follow the dictates of the Prime Directive, we arrive at an inescapable conclusion: we must redefine the purpose of tests so that the act of cramming no longer makes sense. Instead of giving a test at the end of the unit, grading it, and moving on, we must make test-taking an essential component of the learning process, fully integrated into that process. Rather than a mechanism for accumulating points, it must become a powerful form of feedback; it tells the student (and the teacher) specifically what aspects of the content she has not learned yet. What is needed is a well-designed remediation process that is individually tailored to the work each student still needs to do. If testing is combined with such a process, it can become one of the most potent tools in the learning process. Once the test has shown her precisely what she still needs to work on, a student can focus intensively on learning just that.
Repurposing test-taking in this way directly undermines the extrinsic motivation of collecting points. The student can continue learning after the test, and in the end, her grade will be improved because she has achieved more mastery. It also puts the focus strictly on genuinely learning the material, which is where the Prime Directive insists that it belongs.
Structural changes such as these are discussed throughout this book. But before those changes can be implemented, the Prime Directive requires the creation of a new classroom culture, one that is dedicated to the learning process and to a sense of community that is authentic in the eyes of students. Creating such a culture is a prerequisite to serious student engagement and ownership of their own learning experience. I cannot overemphasize how essential this is. No matter how thoughtfully you construct your classroom structures, no matter how charismatic or dedicated a teacher you may be, the true promise of an effective classroom cannot be realized unless your students become active members of a culture of learning.
Beyond transforming the culture and the classroom structures, the Prime Directive requires finding a new purpose and meaning for grades. As we shall see, grades are one of the central driving forces of the bad habits of doing school. Fortunately, the Prime Directive leads to a healthier way to think about grades that is dramatically better at nourishing learning.
All these changes will result in a redefinition of the role of teachers and students, a shift in the balance of responsibility and power towards the students, and a liberation on the part of teachers from providing external motivation for their students. It is a win-win situation.
“A house divided cannot stand.” — Abraham Lincoln
It’s tempting to consider making changes to one or two classroom strategies to improve our schools somewhat, while continuing to work within the curriculum transfer model overall. Unfortunately, such efforts almost always fail to deliver real change because the beliefs of students and teachers about why they do what they do haven’t been touched.
For example, putting students in cooperative groups should improve student success by increasing the amount of conversation learning taking place. But all too often, such efforts founder because successful students, still in the thrall of doing school, feel like they are having to do the work for struggling students, and they resent it. And struggling students, who have internalized years of failure, are uncomfortable exposing that failure to others. As a result, they cannot learn from their mistakes through conversational learning, an essential strategy in the classroom.
Then there is the question of differentiated instruction: an attempt to have every student work at the appropriate level of challenge. This, too, is an excellent idea that may founder without proper philosophical underpinnings. The teacher often remains in control, making decisions about what each student should do, leaving the student in a passive role. Unfortunately, this approach leaves unchallenged the ubiquitous problem that teachers are telling students what to do all day long, which is a common source of resentment among students. Even worse, the opportunity of students acquiring the skills of self-directedness has been wasted.
Wave after wave of such well-intentioned reform strategies have washed over schools, only to dissipate over time and be replaced by the next well-intentioned effort. If a teacher stays in the profession long enough, he is likely to find himself saying, “Oh yes, we did something very similar to this twenty years ago.” It is deeply discouraging. It leads many experienced teachers to become cynical about the very idea of change.
Implementing strategies in isolation doesn’t work. What is needed is not a change in this strategy or that, but a change in the very foundation of what happens in school. What is needed is a paradigm shift. Changing why we do what we do changes everything. The way people behave within any organization is shaped by that organization’s fundamental philosophy, whether they are aware of it or not. Embedded within every philosophy is an interpretation of human nature. It is precisely in this regard that the curriculum transfer model and the preparing for life model are utterly incompatible.
Human beings have an innate drive to be autonomous, self-determined, and connected to one another. And when that drive is liberated, people achieve more and live richer lives. — Daniel Pink
If given the chance, students can actually have a desire to learn through self-motivation.
—Emma K., student.
In his book Drive, Daniel Pink describes a recent revolution in the understanding of what motivates people. He argues that, since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, the dominant view of human nature has been that people are solely motivated by external rewards and punishments. We need carrots and sticks to be compelled to do anything, because it isn’t in our nature to accomplish things for the sheer pleasure of doing them. We can’t be trusted to work unless we are bribed or compelled to do so.
That made sense in an age when no one would do tedious factory work unless they were paid — certainly, no one would volunteer to do it for free. Fortunately, human beings also have a different and much more self-directed form of motivation. Over the past few decades, behavioral scientists have discovered ample evidence that humans have an intrinsic drive to work and learn out of enthusiasm for the task at hand, without external rewards or punishments. We are hardwired to strive for excellence for its own sake. New businesses, particularly in the high tech world, are actively cultivating that drive. They have discovered that when people are given autonomy to decide what they want to work on and how they want to do their jobs, they become much more productive and creative.
Studies have also shown that providing external rewards and punishments for people who enjoy their work is, with few exceptions, counterproductive. Such efforts generally backfire and can actually sabotage people’s intrinsic desire to work, to learn, to excel at something new. People become less enthusiastic, less productive, and less happy as a result.
Pink describes how the gap between what science knows about human motivation and what most businesses continue to assume about their workers — that they need carrots and sticks — actively squelches people’s creativity and their engagement. Given the realities of the rapidly changing nature of work, it is ludicrous for a business to ignore and even inadvertently suppress people’s intrinsic drive to learn, to create, to master new skills. To do so is to to squander its most powerful resource.
But if it is bad for business, this mistake is catastrophic for schools.
I think it’s fair to say that a common view of students is that they don’t learn because they want to, but because they are made to. If you doubt this idea, imagine a school in which there were no grades. Would students still be motivated to do the work of learning? Would they still do homework? Would they study for tests? The working assumption is that students must be rewarded and punished through the use of grades, and if that doesn’t work, through other external punishments like detentions, suspensions, or, in extreme cases, expulsions.
Unfortunately, given the basic premise of the curriculum transfer model, this attitude about students’ motivation makes sense. The model’s central task — the importing of curricular standards into students’ minds — is directed from the outside in. It is an external goal being driven by external incentives. Furthermore, since the breadth and rigor of the curriculum standards have been created without asking the question of whether they are relevant to students’ lives, a great deal of the curriculum that students are being compelled to master is not particularly meaningful for them.
People have long described the current structure of school as “the factory model”, and it’s easy to see why. Students marching from English to math to history class as the bells ring every 43 minutes looks a lot like the classic image of an assembly line used to make cars. But there is a deeper connection as well; like factory work, a student’s task must be driven through external rewards and punishments.
Yet what science is telling us is that every person is born with a nearly unquenchable desire to learn and to excel. This is a fundamental part of human nature. Watch any two year old, and you can have no doubt about her intrinsic drive to learn about the world. By the time that same child is in third grade, however, it is hard to find the same enthusiasm about learning in an academic setting. The relentless external motivators that drive student behavior in school actively train them to game the system. Carrots and sticks stifle the intrinsic drive to learn.
It is time to reject the untrusting and negative working assumptions about our students. We have to replace the classroom structures that have been shaped by the curriculum transfer model with an approach that trusts in students’ intrinsic desire to learn and allows it to flourish. We must focus on our students as people, and, in particular, what character attributes they acquire in school.
I have yet to talk to a recent graduate, college teacher, community leader, or business leader who said that not knowing enough academic content was a problem. In my interviews, everyone stressed the importance of critical thinking, communication skills, and collaboration. — Tony Wagner
Character is not developed individually. It is instilled by communities and transmitted by elders. — David Brooks
Walk into almost any classroom and you will find a teacher working to help students master well-defined curricular standards. But the deeper priority should be helping students to become proficient in the skill of learning. Still deeper must lie the ignition in students of the desire to learn and strive for excellence. And underneath that lies the cultivation of the whole person.
The character attributes that are essential for success in school and in life include self-directedness, creativity, self-awareness and other metacognitive skills, as well as the ability to work well with others. The student should integrate the qualities of curiosity and optimism, persistence and fearlessness, self-knowledge and the ability to think and express herself clearly. She should have integrity, generosity of spirit, an internal sense of responsibility, and a concern for the good of the group. She should be internally motivated, compassionate, and a good citizen in any group of any scale, from a school club to society at large.
As it happens, these attributes are not separate from intellectual growth, but are intimately interwoven with it. They support and are often a prerequisite to genuine learning. And intellectual growth, in turn, reinforces and makes possible further personal growth.
Cultivating these attributes prepares a student for life in a way that merely acquiring knowledge of curriculum does not. How these traits can be cultivated in students is the focus of much of this book. For now, we need to understand that:
Many people believe that personality is “baked in” at an early age, perhaps as early as three years. But modern research shows that this is simply not true. A range of character traits including optimism, tenacity, resilience, empathy, and self-awareness can all be learned well into young adulthood.
They aren’t learned in the way that, say, knowing the causes of the Civil War is learned. Students can no more learn these skills by being told about them than they might learn to shoot free throws or play Mozart on the piano by hearing these skills described. These traits require extensive practice. They require making mistakes and learning from them. Practicing these skills must therefore be woven into the daily fabric of the learning process, so that students live them in their everyday experiences.
The attributes of success are sometimes dismissed as “non-cognitive skills” or “soft learning goals.” They are sometimes relegated to the category of “student well-being”— a good thing to strive for, but a side issue as far as the real work of school is concerned: the mastery of the curriculum. This dismissive attitude towards the development of character is deeply shortsighted. These attributes are essential for success in school and in life, and therefore should stand at the heart of what schools are for.
The problem is not that most teachers and parents don’t want the best for their students; it’s that schools do not have the explicit goal to train students to be creative, self-directed, and tenacious, to be good collaborators and citizens. If we are going to prepare our children well for life, that has to change.
To be creative, for instance, requires being willing to make mistakes and learn from them, to have the tenacity to keep trying, especially after you fail. However, most students do not have practice with any of these things in the classroom. Instead, an academically successful student learns to ask, “What do I need to do to get an A?” The thought of intentionally attempting work that she will fail at is almost incomprehensible. Successful students often learn to be risk-averse “Excellent Sheep”, as William Deresiewicz argues in his book of the same name. Risk aversion results in lives and careers that are less creative.
We have to teach students how to fulfill their potential, to become who they are most fully. In the process they will learn more, and the learning will be more meaningful to them.
They may even learn to love school. Imagine that.
The alternative to the curriculum transfer model is a classroom that cultivates the true attributes of success and liberates students’ intrinsic drive to learn. This requires students to play a much more active, less managed role in their own learning.
Acquiring the trait of self-directedness cannot happen in isolation, however. A piece of this character attribute has to do with relationship skills — the ability to collaborate, a concern for the good of the group, the skill of self-organizing, the ability to lead — and this can only be learned through practice with other students.
But another, equally important reason to have students work with each other is that, for most people, it is simply more effective to learn that way. Conversational learning engages students more than listening to a lecture or doing homework alone at night. Working with others is more fun, which, as we shall see, is no small consideration.
In order for students to learn the skills of independent learning and to do so with other students, a classroom must become a community of self-directed learners. The image below, adapted from "The Courage to Teach", shows what such a community might look like. Here, the teacher is a member of a group of people who are exploring a subject. The teacher knows much more about the subject than her students, but she is, in fact, still learning about it. The connections between the members are myriad and robust. Everyone is an active participant in the process. The subject — physics or history or a short story being discussed — is what the group is talking about while they pursue the goal of growing intellectually and personally as much as possible.
Every person takes responsibility for her own learning. Every person contributes to the good of the group. The act of learning with others, of contributing to the understanding of others, adds another level of richness and meaning to the classroom experience. It contributes to the personal growth and maturity of each individual member. When new knowledge is experienced as a shared enterprise, it fosters a sense of belonging.
An effective classroom is one with a common purpose: the success of every person in the room, both academically and in terms of personal growth. Having this common purpose means that the teacher and the students are “on the same side”.
Instilling this purpose in the hearts and minds of students requires rethinking a great deal of what we otherwise take for granted about how school operates. The chapters throughout this book describe how everyday classroom structures — student work, study groups, learning contracts, tests, and grading — can be redesigned to unite and motivate students.
This model does not negate the need for teacher-directed activities, of course. Introducing new material will often involve a lecture or demonstration, and whole-class discussions, led by a teacher, are often essential in exploring a concept or summarizing what has been learned at the end of a unit. In other words, there are times where the first diagram — knowledge flowing from the object through the expert to a group of amateurs — is still an appropriate model for classroom activities. But this should not be the model for the classroom culture itself.
Like all people, students have different forms of intelligence, different ways of processing and learning new information, different inherent strengths and weaknesses, different interests, drives, and abilities. If we are to prepare students to lead fulfilling lives, those individual distinctions must be acknowledged and even fostered. Schools must become more responsive to the needs of students.
This responsiveness begins by placing the students and their learning and growing at the center of the conversation. They are the subject. As important as curriculum and instruction are — what is taught and how it is taught — students must be seen as a means to an end. And the Prime Directive defines what that end is.
In order chart a new path in improving schools, we must also be clear about what we want to leave behind. As we have seen, the curriculum transfer model has a number of unintentional consequences, some of which are counterproductive and must be challenged directly. Here are two of the more ubiquitous and damaging aspects that result from that model.
Distributing students along a bell curve is a dominant feature of many grading schemes. On most tests, for example, there are some A’s, lots of C’s, and a few failures. Once students get their grades, there may or may not be a review of the test, and the class moves on to the next unit, leaving the wreckage of failure behind.
This practice defines one of the unstated functions of schools. A bell curve distribution systemically sorts the “good” students from the “bad”. Despite the fervor over creating standards that every student theoretically should meet, it remains hard for teachers to imagine all of their students getting A's on their tests. In reality, the breadth and rigor demanded by the curriculum transfer model assures that not every student can be successful.
This does real damage to students. Those who consistently find themselves at the bottom of the bell curve in their test scores and their grades internalize the sense of failure. After years of finding themselves at the failing end, they become fatalistic about it; they identify themselves as "bad" students, and all too often they come to believe that there is nothing to be done about it. This is one of the biggest factors in creating a fixed mindset in students. As a result, they can become disengaged, apathetic, angry, or depressed. They may come to hate school. They are unlikely to believe that they are smart or capable of success. The internalized ceiling that is formed is self-fulfilling and can haunt them for the rest of their lives.
Nor do successful students escape the sorting process unscathed. The risk avoidance and loss of creativity described above are part of a system of self-limiting behaviors that arise from regularly being placed at the top of a bell curve.
Simply put, schools should not be in the business of systemically sorting students.
What to do about it: Dismantling the bell curve requires a multi-faceted approach. Both students and teachers must unlearn years of training in the acceptance of traditional sorting mechanisms. New ways of thinking about grades, and particularly about the centrality of genuine learning, can help replace these old habits of mind.
An explicit goal of the classroom must be to replace that bell curve with something that gets as close to universal success as possible. That means there must be lots of “sharing the wealth”, where students who are successful work with students who are struggling. It also requires differentiated learning, so that everyone is challenged at an appropriate level, so that successful students can move on to exciting enrichment work and students who need more practice to learn can take the time they need and get necessary support.
We have a moral obligation to eliminate the bell curve from schools as much as possible. Teachers cannot do that unilaterally — it can only be accomplished as a priority that is deeply embedded in the culture and the structures of the classroom. Teachers and students must collectively rethink the meaning of grades and the purpose of testing. The strategies for attacking this problem are described throughout this book.
When students adopt the bad habits of doing school, they learn undesirable character traits. Here are some of the most common:
Compliance and institutional passivity. Because so much of a student’s experience is teacher-directed, there is a widespread sense of passivity and compliance. To put it bluntly, students aretold what to do all day long. There is no question about who has the power in most classrooms. And, in the name of classroom management, many teachers use that power without compunction. In order to be successful in such a situation, students must consistently acquiesce to a teacher’s decisions — in other words, they must be compliant. A student who has an opinion about what should be happening in the classroom that differs from that of her teacher (and is willing to say so) is generally considered disruptive.
Compliance is the opposite of good citizenship and is bad for democracy. Compliant people don’t challenge existing power structures, even when these systems need challenging. If a student learns to do what she is told, to perhaps complain privately but never to rock the boat, she is learning a kind of institutional powerlessness. This also robs her of the experience of making independent decisions or learning leadership skills. It takes away her voice.
When a student is doing school, she is motivated externally. “What do I need to do to get an A?” is the underlying refrain. A successful student is often in the thrall of “academic materialism”; she is motivated by the acquisition of points, the boosting of her grade point average, the status of her class rank. The more points she receives, the better, regardless of how those points are obtained. This kind of motivation supplants the desire to learn with the desire to get good grades, and redefines what success means. For some students, this drive to accumulate points can even become an obsession.
As described above, a successful student is often intent on doing exactly what is necessary to get the right answer or do exactly what is expected of her. She will not take chances if it means risking a good grade. As a result, her learning process is truncated, and her ability to be creative is reduced.
For an unsuccessful student, different forces lead her to the same conclusion. She may beinsecure about her understanding, which causes her to avoid any display of her vulnerability. So she, too, is unwilling to take any risks. She cannot learn anything that is challenging without working outside her comfort zone and sometimes failing.
Finding ways to value and use mistakes, rather than fearing them, is an important part of the learning process. People who are afraid of making mistakes are limited in how well or how deeply they can learn.
For a successful student, particularly one who is college-bound, the competition for the best grades and the highest grade point average can be intense. In class, she is unlikely to “share the wealth” unless she sees what is in it for her. She does not recognize or work for the good of the group. Her ability and desire to collaborate is therefore severely constrained. In addition,her ability to learn through teaching, a powerful tool, is undermined.
Competition can be a healthy thing in life, but only when it is tempered with a sense of belonging to something bigger than oneself and with compassion for others. A lack of these things can lead people to become bad bosses and managers.
Because of competitiveness and externalized motivation, a student who is doing school is more likely to copy homework, cheat on a test, or otherwise do what is necessary to improve her G.P.A. All’s fair in love and grades.
The hollowness of the experience of doing school teaches many students that education is a game that they play with teachers, against one another. The idea that learning is what school is about is regarded with widespread cynicism.
These undesirable attributes can be replaced with positive character traits by means of specific classroom strategies that are described throughout this book. For now, here are some initial ideas on strategies to counter the attributes of doing school.
The antidote to powerlessness is power. The antidote to the passive, compliant state of many students is to offer them the experience of being responsible, self-directed learners. Students must be given a voice, a sense of agency in steering their own learning. They need the freedom to make good choices for themselves.
Academic materialism can be discouraged by reminding students that there are no points outside of school. They must be taught that externalized motivation is actually an impediment to true success in most areas of life. They must be taught how toto learn for the sake of learning, to grow as a person, and to help others learn. Students need to believe that if they excel at genuine learning, they can trust that the excellent grades they want will follow. Helping students to internalize their motivation requires a serious and sustained effort. Without constant reinforcement, they will revert to old habits that undermine how much genuine learning they are doing.
For an unsuccessful student, the challenge may be even harder. She cannot challenge her self-protective posture—withdrawal, anger, refusal to do homework—until she starts to believe she is capable of success. She must be given academic challenges that meet her at the appropriate level of difficulty, so that she can experience success and build on it. This is one of the reasons that differentiated learning is so important.
All these transitions take time. Students have had many years of training in the bad habits of doing school. Promoting genuine learning takes patience and tenacity on the part of teachers. Confronting doing school and replacing it with genuine learning is addressed in all the structures described in this book. The most potent tool in challenging doing school, however, is the classroom culture itself. This is explored in depth in “Creating the Classroom Culture”.
As we work to replace the curriculum transfer model with our new approach, we immediately bump into the topic of standards and standardized testing. If you are a classroom teacher, you are undoubtedly enmeshed in this issue. Perhaps you have a standardized semester exam and you can’t seem to cover all the material. Or you are required to spend a week every year preparing your students for a state-run standardized exam, like the ACT, at the expense of the content you want your students to be learning. Perhaps you have had disagreements with colleagues or a department chair over what should be included in the standards for a course that you teach, or you have a difference of opinion about implementing the Common Core curriculum in your classroom.
Over the past decade or so, this issue has become ever more acrimonious, pitting school reformers against teachers’ unions, charter schools against public schools, and administrators against teachers. Yet, we must address the problem of standards, because, like everything else about school, curricular standards must obey the Prime Directive and serve the new fundamental purpose of school. Resolving the tension, and even hostility, between the various factions on this issue is a critically important task. Without it, no true improvements in school can take place.
The reason this issue has become so problematic is that, over the years, standards have been made to serve the purposes of the curriculum transfer model, with all its attendant consequences. Here is why that must change.
The question at the heart of the school reform for the past quarter century has been: “What must every student know and be able to do?” This is the essence of the Standards Movement.
But the Prime Directive says otherwise. Now that we have our new purpose as a philosophical ground, this question must be revised to: “What must every student know and be able to do in order to be prepared to live life well?”
The difference between these two questions is of profound importance. The first doesn’t offer any guidelines as to why the standards must be mastered. As a result, it fails to distinguish between content which is important to the course being taught and that which is essential for every student’s preparation for life. The Prime Directive requires us to make this distinction. We must ensure that the skills and knowledge that every student is required to master are chosen specifically to serve her needs.
Let’s be clear: dismantling the curriculum transfer model does not mean abandoning curricular standards or lowering our expectations. It simply requires us to redefine those standards so that they contribute to preparing students to live life well. To accomplish that, we need to liberate standards from the curriculum transfer model. In so doing, we will make them more meaningful and effective.
This task of defining what constitutes essential content is both critically important and extremely challenging. The problem is further complicated by the fact that what students need to know and be able to do is changing rapidly. How much content they must know is continually becoming less important as the availability of information through technology continues to explode. As such, the definition of curricular standards, which has been such a central feature in conversations about education, is becoming less and less important in preparing students for life, exactly as the skill of learning and the desired character attributes discussed above are becoming more important.
Resolving the problem of standards is beyond the scope of this book, which is designed to provide teachers with the theory, strategies, and tools needed to transform their classrooms. It is, instead, a task for the entire school community.
Fortunately, we do not need to solve this difficult systemic problem before we, as teachers, begin to make our own schools better. No matter where you find yourself in relationship to standards and standardized testing, the strategies described in this book will be useful in the changes you are looking to implement.
The current state of affairs in school reform is fraught and not particularly effective. It would clearly be more productive to have a common purpose that can bring all the feuding parties back to the table; we need to solve the problem of improving schools together. Surely we can all agree that there must be clear standards for what students should know and be able to do when they graduate. If we can also agree on our new fundamental purpose for school, then we can create a mechanism for building a new standards framework as well.
To truly improve education, we begin at the center of the universe: a single student walking into a classroom for the first time. She is uncertain about what this experience will be. She is overwhelmed. She is also full of potential she doesn’t yet know she has. Our goal is to shape everything she will experience in this room toward one end. Every activity, every bit of homework, every interaction with the teacher and other students will contribute to her intellectual and personal growth and prepare her for life. She will learn the essential content of this course so that it is integrated into her being, so that it has meaning for her, so that it is useful to her.
Beyond this, she will learn the skill of learning, becoming conscious of the process, knowing and working with her own strengths and weaknesses. She will learn to trust her own intrinsic drive to excel at what she does. She will learn the pleasure of learning with others, of socializing with a purpose, of belonging to something larger than herself.
If we do our jobs right as teachers, she will become a resilient learner, willing to push through new challenges, recover from failures and learn from mistakes. When she leaves school at last, she will be a self-directed, metacognitive learner, able to read deeply, think critically, and express herself clearly. She will be a trustworthy team member, able to collaborate well. She will be a good citizen who takes her responsibilities seriously and uses freedom wisely. She will, in short, be prepared to live a productive, engaged, and satisfying life.
Our goal is to be constantly aware of the learning process she is experiencing, and to be responsive to what she needs to continue growing intellectually and personally. All our decisions must be seen through this filter.
What must we change to accomplish this goal? Everything.
Every classroom structure, every strategy, every lesson plan, every test, every interaction—all of it now has a new purpose. All of it is driven by a new set of beliefs. All of it must therefore must be shaped accordingly. How that will happen is what this book is about.
If this sounds like a daunting task, don’t panic. This book will walk you through the biggest structural considerations with lots of examples from teachers in a wide range of disciplines. Here, you can read stories and reflections about and by other teachers and their students. You can also watch video clips of classroom activities, teachers implementing new strategies, and workshops in which these ideas are being discussed. And if that doesn’t suffice, this website also contains “This Changes Everything”, a book of stories about my experiences as a classroom teacher, which may be helpful in giving you more perspective on this transformation and the language I used in conversations with my students. Also on this website, you can find is “Dispatches: An Educational Blog”, an ongoing series of reflections on educational issues.
You will find that much of what you already do — your activities, materials, textbooks, etc. — will still be useable throughout this transition. Often, there will simply be a shift in focus and intent in how your materials are used. All of it will be grounded in the Prime Directive, an excellent and trustworthy guide.
You should assume that this process will take several years, and perhaps much longer. How much time will depend a great deal on how far you dive into this new approach and how much support you have among your colleagues and administrators. It will depend even more on how much you trust your students to give you advice and feedback on the transition you are implementing. The best evolution is co-evolution.
There is no reason to wait. This transformation is practical and doable. It is based on decades of experience in the classroom, working with dedicated, creative teachers in every discipline. Once you begin this process, it will become self-propelling. The most serious challenge confronting you is that this change requires rethinking your very beliefs about school and about human nature — no small matter. But with courage and perseverance, it can be done. There is no more important task.
Let’s get started.
Beliefs shape reality. If we are going to replace the curriculum transfer model with the preparing for life model, we must first challenge the unexamined beliefs that are the foundation for the old way of doing things. We must replace them with new principles that will become the basis of the classrooms we want to have. At the end of this — and every — chapter, there will be a list of such tenets.
Transforming schools begins with aligning everything we and our students do in the classroom with this central purpose. It must replace the Curriculum Transfer Model of education.
To prepare them to live life well means to cultivate character traits that will serve them throughout their lives.
It is more than successfully mastering the curriculum. It is also how a student becomes a responsible, self-directed learner.
This rule, which guides everything described in this book, is similar to the Golden Rule in several ways; it looks simple, possibly even simplistic; it is very difficult to hold true to it in the onslaught of real life in the classroom; and it could not be more important.
The use of carrots and sticks to externally motivate students is deeply counterproductive; it stifles creativity and independence. The use of grades must therefore be redefined to avoid their warping student motivation.
A student can do all her work, do well on tests, and get excellent grades, and still retain little of what she has “learned”. Doing school — gaming the system to accumulate points — looks just like learning, but is ultimately a meaningless activity.
This transition requires unlearning years of training in superficial, meaningless behaviors. Successful students will be particularly resistant to giving up something they know how to do and have been rewarded for in the past.
As important as any curriculum may be, it is essential for teachers to always remember the true purpose of school: the personal and intellectual growth of every student. All aspects of genuine learning serve that purpose. When a classroom culture based on that priority is well established, students are more apt to learn the curriculum, not less.
It does untold damage to both successful and unsuccessful students. The bell curve is immoral, and it must be dismantled at every opportunity.