Implementing Ideals in the real world


Implementing Ideals in the real world

“The only way to find the limits of the possible is by going past them into the impossible.”  —Arthur C. Clarke

“Idealism is fine, but as it approaches reality, the cost becomes prohibitive.”  —William Buckley

Now that you have explored the ideas of self-directed learning, it is time to contemplate the challenging task of putting them into practice.  As with any large undertaking of this nature, there will inevitably be some bumps and bruises.  No matter how well you have thought out your plans, there will be surprises when your students start to work with them.  This final chapter offers some brief, but hard-won advice about how to steer yourself through the personal and political challenges you are likely to experience.


11.1 Changing Your Practice, Changing Yourself

11.1 Changing Your Practice, Changing Yourself

You must be the change that you wish to see in the world.”     — Mahatma Gandhi 

“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”  —Anais Nin

A voluntary identity crisis.  Carl Jung believed that a person’s work is one of the two pillars of his identity.  (I’ll let you guess what the second one is.)  There are, of course, many people who feel that their job is just what they do to earn a living, but in my experience that is usually not true of teachers.  They are teachers, they live and breathe their profession.  You probably wouldn’t be reading this book if that weren’t true for you as well.

Therefore, as you embark on the journey of implementing the ideas you have read in this book, it is important to keep in mind that fundamentally changing your job is likely to be something of an identity crisis, and should be treated accordingly.  This is especially true if you have been a firm proponent of the Curriculum Transfer Model.  Our beliefs are an essential part of our identities.  Changing beliefs, which is essential to any meaningful change, can therefore have an unexpected effect on our sense of well-being.

In many conversations with teachers over the years, I have found that psychological reactions to changing one’s practice can loom large and can become impediments to that change.  Here are some of the ways in which that can happen.

Fear:  By intentionally handing over power to students so that they become more self-directed, every teacher makes himself vulnerable.  It is common to fear criticism and mean-spiritedness from students, who, after all, rarely have the ability to say what they really think about their lives in school.   In extreme cases, one might even fear for one’s safety.  These are real concerns and have to be addressed.  The task is to run the arms race between teacher and students backwards, cultivating more and more trust.  The most powerful means of doing that is by instilling a sense common purpose at the beginning of the year.

Pride:  Sometimes a teacher may feel that he already knows how to teach, and may question why it is necessary to change.  If he has an ego investment in doing his job, it takes humility to acknowledge he could be better at it.

Cynicism:  There is, of course, a stereotype of the burned-out teacher, approaching the end of his career, coasting and disengaged.  That does happen, but what also happens with veteran teachers is that they have seen many waves of reform, some of which get recycled every ten or fifteen years.  They may find themselves skeptical about yet another approach for improving schools.

Anger:  Teaching is a difficult, often stressful job, and teachers can develop an underlying anger over how they are being treated by students.  There can also be pent up frustration with decisions made by administrators. 

As you proceed with implementing self-directed learning, it is important to pay close attention to whether these counterproductive emotions are impeding your work.  When they interfere with your ability to have fun and to be excited by the work you are doing, they can do real damage to the prospects for success.  When that happens, it is important to remember that the only thing you can change in your life is yourself.  Everything flows from that.


11.2 The Pace of Change

11.2 The Pace of Change

"Anything worth doing is worth overdoing." --- Mick Jagger

The Comfort Zone revisited.  As much as I admire Mr Jagger, I would strongly advise you to ignore his advice.  In fact, one of your highest priorities while implementing changes to your practice is exactly not to overdo it.  Working within a comfort zone is as important in implementing new classroom strategies as it is in learning new content. (If you haven’t already done so, it might be worthwhile to read about the comfort zone in section 5.3 in the chapter “Differentiated Learning”.)


There are two considerations in determining the appropriate pace of change;  the readiness of your students to try new things, and the maintenance of your own well-being.  Let’s start with the latter.

For the sake of your mental health, it is important to choose the rate of change carefully —  too large or rapid a jump will overwhelm you with excessive planning and/or grading.  On the other hand, it is possible to take steps that are so small in nature that you end up feeling like you are not making progress.  The frustration that springs from the gap between what you want to be as a teacher and what you feel you are can be a powerful and unpleasant background in your work.

Putting these strategies into practice for the first time requires a lot of time and energy.  Not only are you creating new structures and forms and learning how to use them, but your students need much more feedback from you as they are learning new skills, such as self-evaluating their own work.  If the level of challenge — for you and for them — is too large relative to the level of your collective experience, you will find yourself in the panic zone, with all its attendant symptoms; feeling overwhelmed and stressed out by the workload, scrambling to get that last bit of photocopying done before class starts, or not having enough time to sit and eat lunch.  You may also feel like your classroom is out of control, that your students have been given too much freedom too quickly and don’t have the experience to know how to handle it responsibly.

Feeling harried is particularly counterproductive in moments like this, because the act of launching this new venture requires you to have a sense of balance and a buoyancy in the face of all the new experiences you and your students are having.  Being on edge can definitely get in the way of the posture you want to have in your classroom.

What to do when you’ve overshot.  When you take too big a jump, you’ll discover that you can’t keep up with the demands.  You may also experience frustration and resistance from your students if they feel you are changing the rules too quickly. In any case, it is time to stop and think about how to simplify and streamline what you are doing. First, try to modify the strategy to reduce the pressure it places on you.  For instance, if you find yourself buried in new grading you can:

  • Have students self- or peer-evaluate it.

  • Simplify the feedback you are giving.  For instance, if there are common errors, create a form that lists those errors and circle the relevant ones for each student rather than writing comments out.

  • Find ways to give the feedback orally rather than in writing, or

  • Eliminate the grading aspect of the strategy altogether.

Before modifying or abandoning a strategy, you need to explain to your students why you are backing away from a commitment that you made to them — in some cases, they may feel resentful at having new freedoms rescinded.  Explaining how you have taken on too much can be turned into a teachable moment.  You are role-modeling how to recover from mistakes while learning something new.  Ask students to work with you to help move back into the comfort zone and practice until you and they are ready to revisit the strategy you are abandoning. 

Better still, avoid the problem from the start.  When you are first introducing new strategies to them, it makes sense to express your enthusiasm.  However, it is important to not over-promise results, particularly if you are implementing these strategies for the first time.  Instead, explain that this is a work in progress, that you are learning it at the same time that they are, and that you need their help and participation to make it work.

Avoid the “Ton of Bricks” syndrome.  In addition to the maintenance of your own well-being, any structure that supports self-directed learning should be unveiled methodically and at a pace that students can absorb.  That pace will be determined, to a large extent, by how mature and ready your students are to take on new responsibilities.

The philosophy and structures of this approach will likely represent a fundamental break from their prior experience of school, and they may well find it confusing, even overwhelming.  It is  therefore important to put each structure into practice individually, with time for your students to get proficient at it, before moving on to the next structure.  In the diagram on the right, (taken from the chapter “Differentiated Learning”), your task is to introduce a new structure, represented by the first vertical arrow, then let it be practiced and absorbed by your class, represented by the horizontal arrow.  When that is adequately mastered, the next new structure can be introduced.

Being cautious with the pace of introductions is especially important if you are establishing this approach the first time yourself.  As always, you should pay close attention to how well each structure is working and adjust and adapt as needed.  Juggling too many new things at the same time will be confusing and counterproductive for you as well as for your students.  If you or they are feeling overwhelmed, slow down. 

Prior experience.  If your students have already been exposed to learning contracts or other structures described in this book, they will need little training or encouragement to use them again.  At most, you will need to teach them how you have adapted the basic principles to your course.  While the format of your learning contracts may be quite different than the ones a student used in his algebra class last year, for instance, he will have little difficulty in seeing how differentiated learning is structured in your class and adapting to it.

If, however, some of your students have experienced these structures and some haven’t, it provides an opportunity to “share the wealth” immediately.  You can create ad hoc study groups with a mix of experienced and inexperienced students.  Every time a new structure is unveiled, they can work on learning how to use it together in these groups.

Evolution vs revolution.  If you have had the opportunity to do a summer workshop exploring the ideas described in this book, you are likely to make big changes at the start of the year. The good news is that at the start of the year, when your students don't know how your classroom operates, it is possible to take major steps changing your practice. They are quite used to dealing with variations in the rules and structures they encounter in each class at the start of the year.  As far as they are concerned, this is simply how things are in your room. 

On the other hand, trying to make those same big steps in the middle of the year, when you already don’t have enough time to think through large changes in your practice, are likely to meet with more resistance from your students.  Therefore, if you are exploring this approach and thinking of implementing some of these ideas mid-year, be sure to take small steps, explain them thoroughly, and give them time to sink in before introducing something else.

The long game.  One way to find the patience you need in finding the appropriate pace of change is to recognize that you are embarking on a process that will take years to implement fully, and which you will be modifying and improving for the rest of your career.  If you are working alone, assume it will take 3 to 5 years of effort to reach a sense of stability in your practice.  If you are working with others, especially in a course team, the process can be dramatically accelerated.  I have seen course teams who are working effectively together be able to introduce unit contracts throughout the whole of the first year, but I don’t recommend this unless you have a solid commitment from everyone that they are willing to invest the necessary effort.


11.3 The Sequence of Change

11.3 The Sequence of Change

Given the range of strategies described in this book, some will clearly be easier to implement than others.  That may be because they require less preparation or less grading, because they are more easily accepted by students, or perhaps because they aren’t that big a change from your current practice.  Whatever the reason, making good choices about what order to implement strategies in is a critical part of controlling the pace of change in a way that is comfortable to you and your students. 

Classroom culture.   Of all the strategies available, building the appropriate classroom culture is the most fundamental.  In particular, developing a sense of trust and a community that is based on a common purpose is absolutely essential, a prerequisite to implementing all other strategies.  

Once the classroom culture is established, there is a set of strategies that you can implement immediately, with a large impact and relatively small cost to you in time and energy.  They are:

Ungraded feedback.  Simply increasing the frequency with which you and your students are communicating gives them a voice, allows you to be more responsive to their needs, and provides the tools they need to become more metacognitive and self-directed students.  Similarly, having them periodically write reflections on how well they are doing or how they feel the class is operating is another useful strategy that requires little of you and can positively impact your working relationship with them.  It is important to make sure these reflections are not used too frequently, lest they feel onerous or too intrusive for your students.

Reframing student work.  Even if you make no changes to the quantity of homework or classwork you assign, having students assess their level of understanding and isolate the specific difficulty they are having with the work boosts their metacognition.  Furthermore, 

having the work they do become a prerequisite to participating in conversational learning with their study groups can dramatically increase the amount of learning that results.  

Furthermore, the use of stamps (or some other means of recognizing timeliness in completing the work) is easy to implement and can have a surprisingly large effect in boosting homework completion rates.

Study groups.  Having conversational learning occur at numerous points in the learning sequence is a powerful tool that requires little effort on your part.  In particular, study groups can be used easily in the exploration of new material, in reviewing homework, and in preparing for an upcoming test.  Having students review the results of a test, while an extremely effective strategy, should probably not be implemented immediately, as it requires a level of trust and loyalty within a group that may take time to develop.  

Differentiation.  Beginning with simple, small-scale minicontracts requires little planning on your part, and you can gradually transition from teacher-controlled to student-controlled decision making.  Over time, the contracts can become more complex and more self-directed.

Protocontracts.  Because unit contracts require a great deal of planning, it is best to begin with protocontracts as a means of simply recording all the work items available in a given unit.  Initially, you may create and use the protocontract for your own purposes.  You can also hand out blank forms and periodically have students fill in the most recent additions.  That way, they can maintain their own record of the work they are doing, including their choices in any minicontracts you have created. 

Having students self evaluate how well they have done the process of completing each piece of the protocontract can be added at a later date, when they (and you) are ready to take that on.  Initially, you can grade their work in the same way you do now, if at all.

Test remediation.  While giving students the opportunity to learn from their mistakes on assessments is an important aspect of the learning process, the remediation process should begin with as simple and constrained a form as possible. 

Next steps.  Each of the strategies described above can grow and evolve over time.  In addition, implementing the full use of unit contracts, extensive self-evaluation of student work, and, in particular, developing a new grading structure that better represents your priorities are all tasks that will likely take several years to put into practice.


11.4 Finding Allies

11.4 Finding Allies

The more support and camaraderie you have while implementing self-directed learning, the better.  Therefore, cultivate as many allies and like-minded connections as possible.  Here are a few suggestions. 

Colleagues. As mentioned above, collaborating with fellow teachers can dramatically speed up the implementation process. Therefore, you want to find as many people as you can who are open to this approach, while taking care not to “sell” it too vigorously.  If you can find others to work during the summer on developing strategies — and especially if you are able to do a workshop together during the summer — you will be dramatically more effective in launching the strategies you want to implement at the start of the year.

The best of all possible worlds is to work with a course team — like-minded colleagues who teach the same course and have the same goals and priorities.  Course teams work best when they have a clearly defined common goal and when they share a common planning period so that they can meet regularly.  If that isn’t possible, finding occasional meeting times before or after school may need to suffice.

Course teams allow teachers to share materials, debrief experiences in the classroom, and simply support each other through the inevitable unexpected challenges that arise when implementing new strategies.  Course teams dramatically increase the pace and the success of these changes.

Students.  When the appropriate classroom culture is in place, the fact that you and your students have a common purpose ensures that they will quite naturally be your allies.  An example of how their support can be particularly useful occurs when your classes are observed by administrators, both because of the way your students control their own behavior and because of the answers they are likely to give when the administrator asks them questions.

They can be goodwill ambassadors in their conversations with other students and other teachers (although care must be taken, as described above).  Boosting the reputation of the course, the approach, and you as a teacher can all be useful in promoting self-directed learning.  And when students talk to their parents, which they will often do out of enthusiasm, they too can become allies.

Administrators.  How much you are able to form alliances with your department chair and/or other administrators will, of course, depend on your working relationships with them.  It will also depend on how philosophically aligned you are.  If you are interested in forming a course team with like-minded colleagues, your chair will be directly involved.  Convincing him of the importance of  implementing these strategies is a prerequisite of his support and encouragement.


11.5 Institutional Impediments

11.5 Institutional Impediments

 “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”  — Pogo

For better or worse, every teacher lives within the constraints and impositions of the institution that he works in, not to mention the dictates of the wider world outside of his school.  Like every institution, schools have institutional inertia, an inherent resistance to change.  Every school has a power structure that maintains itself.  In the name of accountability, administrations can sometimes be intrusive, even autocratic in their efforts to measure the success of students and teachers. This often leads to an ever-increasing focus on grades, exacerbated by the widening use of technology.  It can be hard to convince administrators and many teachers that too much information is actually not better.  Even the mundane, everyday structure of school — the bell schedules, the approved textbooks, the ever expanding scope of curriculum to be covered, the drive toward uniformity and common assessments — can serve as impediments to change.  

As you begin implementing self-directed learning in your practice, you will inevitably find that your priorities are in conflict with those of the educational world in which you live.  How you handle those tensions will in large part determine whether you will be successful in charting a new course for yourself and your students.

Your colleagues and the administrators in your school probably know little or nothing about the philosophy and structures of self-directed learning.  And even if they do know about this approach, they may well reject it; the belief in the Curriculum Transfer Model is widely established and often deeply held.  Here are some guidelines on how to navigate these potentially turbulent waters.

Share the wealth, but be careful how you do it.  Because the work you are doing is directly challenging the Curriculum Transfer Model, your enthusiasm in talking about your experiences can be perceived by others as condescending or judgmental of how they teach.  Be honest about what you are doing, but be strategic about it.  Read your audience carefully, and pay attention to how open they are to your ideas.  In general, let others ask you about what you are doing before you explain what it is.

Align your work with the goals of your school.  The structures of self-directed learning lend themselves to successfully meeting many common school-wide goals, from racial equity to literacy to detracking.  Articulating your work in terms that are aligned with the goals of your school can be useful in drumming up support for this approach.

Do precisely what you are required to do.  Meet the expectations of administrators to the letter.  This requires finding ways to translate what you are doing into the language of others.  For instance, if digitized grades are required at a specified frequency, find ways to create computer compatible grades from whatever format you are grading with.  If there is a way to include students in the process, let them help.

Never volunteer to do things you don’t believe in.  Many teachers feel an obligation to contribute to the functioning of the school by choosing to work on various committees.  Make sure that anything you choose to work on outside the classroom is something that is consistent with the philosophy that you are trying to realize in your own practice.

Showing is better than telling.  Observing a classroom that has become a community of self-directed learners can be a powerful experience.  There is often an immediately obvious difference from traditional classrooms — how students conduct themselves, their working relationship with you, and the atmosphere in the room can surprise and inspire guests.  The best way to share your experiences with others is to invite them to observe your classroom.  Since there often isn’t enough time for that, another option is to videotape your students at work and share them in an appropriate moment, like a department meeting or inservice day.  Even then, be cautious and methodical in describing the strategies you are using and the results that ensue.

Trust in the method — let the results speak for themselves.  The good news is that every teacher and administrator nominally wants the same thing: a more effective school that produces graduates who have mastered essential knowledge and skills.  This should, at least in theory, provide an advantage to an educational approach that is based on the primacy of learning.  As a consultant once told me when I expressed concern about the direction my school was taking:  “Testing is your friend.  When something works the way your approach does, your students will do well on tests, and then people will start to ask why.  Don’t be afraid of tests.”

Above all, be true to your beliefs, even if they are in flux.  Having a consistent philosophy and  being flexible in how it is being implemented are not incompatible.


11.6 How Ideas Spread

11.6 How Ideas Spread

“We must put our convictions into action.”  —Margaret Sanger

As you implement the ideas in this book, I hope, with all my heart, that you experience the fulfillment and sheer pleasure that can result.  I know from my own career in the classroom and from my work with many other teachers, that this can be a transformative experience for you and for your students.  If and when that occurs for you, I hope that you are fortunate enough to share that transformation with your colleagues.  

Most programs implemented in the name of school reform are put into place autocratically, from the top down.  This has the advantage of being implemented broadly and uniformly, often on a school-wide basis.  Unfortunately, such programs rarely have a lasting effect — they are experienced as one wave after another that washes over the teachers and students, only to dissipate over time and be replaced by the next.  

This impermanence, this inability to take root and flourish, occurs precisely because these ideas are being implemented from the outside in.  The motivation is extrinsic from the start, and all too many teachers resent the imposition, the additional burden on their already extremely busy lives.  As with our students who feel they are being made to learn, the experience remains superficial because it is important to someone else, someone who has power over them.  They will do what they are required to do, but it will not be particularly meaningful to them, and it will not last precisely because it is not theirs.

It is my fervent hope that the ideas in this book, dear reader, are in fact becoming yours.  And, if you are implementing them because they are meaningful to you, the changes that occur will be from the inside out.  They therefore have a much better chance of taking root and flourishing in your life and in the lives of your students.

But changes from the inside out have the inherent disadvantage that they often don’t get implemented on a large scale, but rather by individuals and small groups of teachers experimenting together.  The spread of these ideas must occur by different means than autocratically dictated initiatives;  they must be transmitted from the inside out as well. 

This can only happen if these ideas spread organically and voluntarily, and you must therefore be part of that growth in your school.  The question of sharing these ideas becomes a profound personal responsibility;  you must invent, with like-minded colleagues, the means of sharing these ideas and supporting their implementation by others.

Imagine what it would be like if a critical mass of teachers in your school implemented self-directed learning.  Imagine if students entering your classroom in the fall already knew and accepted ownership of their learning.

I started this book with a quote by Buckminster Fuller, and I think it is appropriate to repeat it at this, the end of the book.

You never change things by fighting the existing reality.  To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

I wish you success and much joy in the creation of a new and better model.

Larry Geni

Evanston, Illinois

May, 2018