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.  Here are the tenets found in each chapter of "A Teacher's Handbook".


 A New Direction

The purpose of school is to prepare students to lead satisfying, engaged, and productive lives. 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.

Who students become in school is as important as what they know. To prepare them to live life well means to cultivate character traits that will serve them throughout their lives. 

Genuine learning is the intellectual and personal growth that prepares students for living life well. It is more than successfully mastering the curriculum. It is also how a student becomes a responsible, self-directed learner.

The Prime Directive of education:  Genuine learning is the ground on which all classroom decisions, large and small, must rest. 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.

A student’s intrinsic motivation to learn must be consistently reinforced. 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. 

Doing school is a compelling but hollow simulation of genuine learning. 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.

Replacing a student’s bad habits of doing school with genuine learning is of the highest importance. 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.

The curriculum is the language being spoken while students grow. 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. 

School should not be in the business of sorting students into successes and failures. It does untold damage to both successful and unsuccessful students. The bell curve is immoral, and it must be dismantled at every opportunity.

Creating the Classroom Culture

Establishing a culture of learning is a prerequisite to a classroom that works. Being part of a culture of learning motivates and engages students. The most appealing way to draw them into a culture of learning is to intentionally replace the pointless activities of doing school with meaningful ones. When a teacher explicitly renounces busywork and cramming for tests, she sets the stage for true collaboration with her students to focus on the common goal of learning. 

Members of a community internalize the ethos and the goals of that community. When that community fosters students’ intrinsic drive to learn and to excel, when it is dedicated to a posture of engagement towards the act of learning, then they, being social creatures, internalize that posture.  For this reason, a community of self-directed learners is an optimal school structure. 

The Prime Directive in the classroom is this:  Our purpose is for every one of us to learn as much and grow as much as possible.  Everything we do in this room is based on that purpose.  

No student has the right to interfere with another student’s learning.  This is the basis of all classroom discipline.  

Change the structure, change the culture. When you walk into a typical classroom, there is a front to the room where the teacher stands and places for students to sit, much like a theater has a stage and an audience. What if a room had no front?  What if students learned from each other as well as from the teacher?  What if they graded themselves?  The hierarchical structure of most classrooms, with the expert teacher delivering the curriculum to the amateur students, can be replaced by a community of learners, in which the common goal is the success of all its members in learning about the curriculum and about themselves as learners. 

Enjoyment enhances learning. The standard posture towards socializing and having fun in a classroom is that they interfere with a student’s ability to pay attention and do the work of learning. The truth, however, is quite the opposite. Emotionally pleasing activities — having conversations, getting out of the seat and doing a physical activity, occasionally talking about things which matter personally — make an activity more meaningful and memorable, not less. The idea that having fun in school and doing the work of learning are mutually exclusive is simply not true.

Student voice opens student hearts. We all know how it feels to be made to do something and not have any say in the matter—it is a motivation killer. When students gain the ability to talk about their experiences, it relieves their all-too-common frustration and brings them a sense of being part of something. School is now being done with them, not to them, or even for them. Student voice is an essential component of a culture of learning.

Student well-being and goodwill are precious assets that must never be squandered. A healthy working relationship between teacher and student relies completely on student goodwill. There can be no true collaboration without it. And students can only afford that goodwill when their fundamental human needs are being met. 

This is the glue that holds the community together. Whenever a teacher makes decisions that will affect students, it is of the utmost importance to prioritize their sense of well-being.

The use of force is counterproductive. The power struggles that do so much damage to the emotional well-being of teachers and students also damage the student’s intrinsic motivation to learn. Above all, it is essential for students to feel like their teacher is on their side and that they share a common goal of student success. 

Establishing a classroom culture in which students act responsibly, without the autocratic use of force by the teacher, is role-modeling of the highest order. It is teaching students a posture towards life that will help them be successful in any endeavor, in any career, in any community. It will prepare them, better than anything else, to be good citizens in a democracy. 

Teachers are ultimately responsible for the safety and well-being of their students, but when the appropriate classroom culture exists, the responsibility of maintaining a safe, effective learning environment gets distributed. It is much easier for a teacher to maintain that environment when his students support him in this effort.

When the whole person is engaged in the act of learning, new knowledge becomes more meaningful. The meaning of a new idea or skill is based on how it relates to the rest of a student’s world. The more connections there are, the more context and relevance the new knowledge has to the learner’s life. 

Learning is often considered a strictly cognitive function, but it runs deeper and is more resilient when new knowledge is connected to the emotional experiences of students. When a student brings his sense of humor, his personal perspective, and his history into the conversation, learning becomes deeper and richer. The sense of community is also deepened when whole people are actively engaged in learning together.

The Role of Student Work

Internalized motivation is the key to genuine learning. Excellent teaching is necessary, but not sufficient. The best teaching in the world becomes ineffective when students are working for points at the expense of working to learn. The difference between doing school and genuine learning is not whether students are doing their work, but why they are doing it. It is essential to replace the habits of gaming the system with an internalized motivation to learn. 

When a student does individual work to prepare for a conversation with other students.  . It is more appealing to have work lead to socializing than to do it for points. When a student begins to feel peer pressure from his study group to do the work and engage in the learning process, it supplies a natural compulsion that, for once, is not coming from you.

Well-designed student work fosters metacognitive skills. The boundary between what a student knows and what he doesn’t is where all his learning takes place. As a teacher, you can ask a lot of questions to assess what he currently understands, but but only he can truly know where that boundary is at any given moment. This is something that, with training, he can get very good at. It is an important life skill in and of itself, and it is an essential component ofself-directed learning. If he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, how can he steer himself to learn it? 

Self-evaluation boosts an internal sense of excellence. When a student assesses his own learning, he begins to take responsibility for how well he is learning. He internalizes the question of whether he is doing excellent work. This is a powerful tool in cultivating self-awareness, and it helps him also internalize the motivation to do the work of learning. 

Students should self-evaluate their own work as often as possible. Unless there is a compelling reason for them not to — say for security reasons when reviewing a test — the default position should be self-evaluation.

Students must be taught to be honest and accurate in self-evaluating their work. It is a skill, and like any skill it requires modeling and practice. Learning this skill is also a means of undoing the adversarial, dishonest, and sneaky posture students often have when they are doing school.

Like everything else in school, homework must serve the Prime Directive. The costs of assigning mandatory homework are real and must be weighed against the benefits. One must always ask “Is this enhancing both the intellectual and personal growth of my students?”  

Homework can and should be differentiated to meet the needs of students. While it may sometimes be useful to have every student do the same homework at the same time, there will also be occasions where the learning needs of students will vary and will call for them to do different homework. Whenever possible, the students should decide for themselves what they need to do.

Study Groups:  The Heart of Conversational Learning

Listening is not the same as learning. Even if a student is fully attentive during a lecture, the real work of learning occurs when he is actively processing what he just heard. Most of us learn best when we are talking to each other. Learning is the active engagement of the mind with new ideas. It is antithetical to passivity.

Conversational learning is active learning.  In conversation, students are forced to ask and answer questions of each other. Students who master the material quickly are required to slow down and listen to a different point of view. Answering questions means reworking and deepening their understanding. Students who haven’t mastered the material yet must ask questions and listen intently. The exchange is more personal than other modes of learning, and therefore more likely to be internalized. Conversational learning deepens the learning process.

Students must be taught the skill of appropriate socializing. This skill requires a commitment, both by the individual and by the whole group, to staying on-task while enjoying the moment. This is good training in the art of self-governance.

In an effective classroom, teaching and learning are ubiquitous. Not only should there be more than one teacher in the room, but teaching and learning should be happening everywhere, all the time. This is the goal toward which the community strives. 

Learning and teaching are different aspects of the same activity. The engagement of the intellect with new ideas can take many forms, but being engaged in conversation requires both teaching and learning, the give and take of meaningful dialogue. Teaching doesn’t have to defined as an expert holding forth. It can be the subtle activity of a student expressing a new idea in his own words and causing another student to see it in a new light.

Sharing the wealth through conversational learning is an antidote to the bell curve. When students teach each other, the rich get richer and the poor also get richer. It should be considered preventative medicine, to be applied frequently.

In a properly functioning study group, collaboration is the normal mode of activity. The skills of listening, teaching, and leading are all built into the everyday activities of the group.

Study groups engender loyalty. This is a trait often found in teams, but rarely in an academic setting. When combined with a sense of common purpose, loyalty provides a strong and positive motivational force.

Differentiated Learning: Building the Responsive Classroom

Classroom structures should be designed to respond to the needs of every student. Because students have different ways of learning, every student should be able to learn in the way that is optimal for him. Because students learn at different rates, they should be able to pursue mastery at the rate they are capable of, not one defined by the needs of the class as a whole.

The student (with some training) knows best. In general, it is appropriate and effective for students, rather than teachers, to steer their own learning.  Internalizing the decision-making in the learning process is a worthwhile skill, regardless of the content being learned. It is a life skill that is useful not just in high school and college, but in any job worth having. 

Differentiated instruction is what teachers do; differentiated learning is what students do. The difference is whether the student has agency and ownership of the learning process. Who makes decisions truly matters.

Not every student should be expected to master the same amount of content. Some students will always learn more than others. No matter what standards we impose, this has always and will always be true. No one should be penalized for that fact.

Students who learn more quickly should have more challenging material available. Enrichment activities are necessary so that students who have mastered the essential learning goals will be able to continue pushing themselves at an appropriate level of challenge.

Feedback steers differentiation. In order for a student to know what to do when there are options available, he needs feedback that explicitly shows his status in mastering the material.

Feedback steers the learning sequence. Feedback is how you know when the divergence in student understanding is becoming significant and must be addressed. A mechanism for differentiated learning is necessary at every juncture where such divergence occurs.

Learning Contracts:  The Structure of Self-Directednes

Learning contracts make authentic student choice possible. They can be used to teach students the qualities of self-directedness and personal responsibility.

Busywork kills motivation. Students, especially successful students, resent the amount of busywork they have to do. Busywork breeds cynicism and is corrosive to student motivation. It undermines the working relationship between student and teacher and should be avoided at all costs. Fortunately, the contract system makes it possible to eliminate busywork. 

Student ownership boosts motivation. Student self-directedness reinforces internalized motivation. The drive to accumulate points and high grades is displaced by the desire to become better at learning.

Boredom is a choice. For many students, boredom is a regular feature of school. Students commonly blame teachers for being bored. Learning contracts eliminate this problem. When a student has chosen to do work that is repetitious or too easy, it’s no longer possible to blame the teacher: it is a bad choice, no more, no less. Discovering that boredom is no longer required or necessary undoes a common source of student resentment. 

When a student steers her own learning process, she learns more, both about the curriculum and about herself as a learner. Because she can learn to pay attention to what she needs and to make good choices, she can become much more effective at learning. And at the same time, she is learning to become more a responsible and self-directed individual.

Unit Contracts

The process of designing a unit contract begins by articulating the essential learning goals. This requires challenging the notion that all goals are equally important. It requires asking the questions “Does this piece of curriculum help prepare a student to live life well?” and “Can every student can realistically master it?” There are, of course, ramifications to answering these questions honestly, both inside and outside the classroom, but it is a necessary task if we are obeying the Prime Directive.

Learning goals can be sorted into essential and above and beyond. Essential goals are required of everyone. Above and beyond are available for students who are able and willing to explore them.

Unit contracts provide a consistent structure that promotes student agency and accountability. It lets students practice the skill of time management and gives them the ability to self-evaluate their entire learning process. It gives them the scaffolding they need to become truly independent learners.

Unit contracts can help teachers organize their courses. It forces the evaluation of the relative importance of the content throughout the year in order to establish priorities for students’ learning goals.

Making Tests Meaningful

Tests should be designed to let students show what they know.  When this is the fundamental purpose, the need for questions that will sort students along a bell curve of mastery becomes counterproductive.  

Tests alone are not a reliable measure of genuine learning. They do not distinguish between material that has been learned and that which will be forgotten in a short while. Genuine learning must be evaluated through a range of activities and assessments, of which tests and quizzes are only a part. 

Tests are best used as an integral part of the learning process, not an after-the fact status report. They tell the student what they have learned so far and what they still need to learn. Redefining tests as feedback for the student helps make tests meaningful and useful. When there are comfortable and practical ways to learn from his mistakes, a student can appreciate a test as an important part of the learning process. 

All tests should be formative, unless there is a compelling reason for them to be summative. Why not let them learn from their mistakes?  It’s how they learn.

The remediation process is as important as the test itself. It is how students learn from their mistakes.

Test grades are not final until a student has mastered the material or stopped trying. No student should be forced to leave the wreckage behind. On the other hand, there have to be practical limits as to how long the remediation process can take.

Time pressure should never be a part of testing unless you are explicitly testing students’ ability to work under pressure. Time pressure adds to test anxiety, especially for students who are struggling or simply work more slowly. Tests should be designed so that the slowest students have enough time;  the test is more likely to show what they have learned.

If you can’t say it, you don’t really know it. Asking students to articulate what they have learned is a legitimate function of tests.

The habit of cramming, regurgitating on tests, and forgetting can be unlearned. When the techniques of genuine learning are functioning well — e.g., the appropriate classroom culture exists, the work students do trains them to be metacognitive learners, and conversational learning is commonplace— the test becomes a check-up of how well the learning process is working for each student. If it is working well, a student may not need to review much before taking a test because he has actually learned the material. Cramming is superfluous. 

Formative testing cultivates grit. By encouraging students to continue working through difficulties and failures, the remediation process helps them internalize a growth mindset and a trust that if they keep working they can become successful.

Reducing test anxiety makes for better education and more accurate assessments. There are ways to make test-taking less stressful. Eliminating time constraints, reducing tight control over student behavior during the tests, and reminding students that they can recover if they don’t do well are all helpful in reducing test anxieties. Relaxed students show what they have learned more accurately, and they are happier in the process. There is no reason why they should have to suffer while they are showing how much they have learned.

Grades Reconsidered

Grading schemes must obey the Prime Directive. Any use of grades that encourages “doing school” must be eliminated. Some common strategies, like offering extra credit, must be checked to ensure that they are stimulating genuine learning, and not just the accumulation of points.

Learning is analogue, grading is digital. Grades cause learning to be quantified. Breaking currency into discrete dollars and cents is appropriate. Breaking the learning of a new skill or concept into such pieces is not.

Hold grades lightly. Grades can be most useful if they serve not as the end of the learning process, but rather as the starting point for discussing your students’ progress. Pretending that grades are objective and not open to discussion undermines your authenticity as a partner in your students’ learning process.

Grades should be actively deemphasized. The focus in every conversation about evaluation should be shifted from “Did I get an A?” to “Have I learned it?”  Our job is to liberate ourselves and our students from the tyranny of points.

Feedback works best when it is ungraded. Grades have a corrosive effect on motivation. Removing the lure of grades frees the student (and you) up to truly pay attention to what the feedback is saying about steering the learning process.

Feedback is more important than grades. Giving useful feedback to students is an essential aspect of teaching, but giving feedback and giving grades are not synonymous. Good feedback is an integral part of the student’s learning process, and helps the student know how to steer that process. Grades, on the other hand, are a way of evaluating the success of that process and ultimately reporting about it after the fact. 

Share the process of grading whenever possible. Having a student assess her own work increases her “buy-in” and reduces potential power struggles or resentment about grades. Students can also give feedback to their peers. Self- and peer-evaluation requires a level of responsibility that many students have never experienced. 

Trust, but verify. Students need to be taught to be honest and accurate in assessing their own work. Most of themhave had no experience in this essential skill. Giving them freedom therefore requires checking up on how the self-evaluate, particularly when they are first learning how to do it. It must be done in a way that trusts the student’s integrity; verifying their self-evaluation should be seen as feedback on how to do it more accurately.

Self-evaluation helps diffuse the traditional classroom power structure. Self-evaluation helps students reclaim a sense ofself-reliance and responsibility for the quality of their own work. They feel a sense of ownership that is missing when teachers give them grades. Self-evaluation replaces their dependence on the teacher’s doling out of points, a process that is fraught with real and perceived injustices and abuses of power.

The assessment of genuine learning requires more than numbers. Multiple formats with multiple inputs from multiple sources make assessment more robust and accurate.  Student reflections and self-evaluations can serve an important function in making grades more meaningful.

Grades are unreliable measures of learning, and are always subjective. No matter how precisely grades are computed, they are still crude measures of the infinitely complex process of learning. No matter how complex and rational a grading system is, there are always alternatives that are equally valid, even if they are very different.

Grades can be the basis of worthwhile conversations. When the weight of grades has been reduced by focussing on genuine learning, they can lead to useful conversations with deep and meaningful feedback for the student. They can direct the topic from mere scores to a discussion of the how a student can steer his own personal growth.

Giving students a voice during grade conferences boosts their self-awareness, both academically and in terms of their personal growth. It is a powerful tool for instilling a sense of ownership and responsibility. 

Putting It All Together:  Designing the Learning Process

Learning comes first. A focus on the learning process is the most important factor in determining what excellent teaching looks like. Therefore, designing the learning sequence that students experience precedes designing lesson plans.

Planning a learning sequence requires empathy. Determining what activities are most useful at any point in the sequence is based on what a student needs. That is best accomplishedby leaving the teacher’s point of view and entering that of the student. Understanding the reality of a struggling student or a successful student at any moment requires an understanding of their emotions. What does it feel like to be panicking or to be bored?

A well-designed learning sequence serves every student optimally. It provides the appropriate level of challenge and support, regardless of the student’s level of readiness to learn. 

Good feedback is specific and timely. If it is too vague, it doesn’t help the student isolate the difficulty. If is too late, it undermines the motivation to learn from mistakes.

As many forms of feedback should be used as frequently as possible. Feedback should be ubiquitous in the learning process. Having it show up in a wide range of forms ensures that it will be useable for a range of students. In a high-functioning learning environment, feedback is woven into the fabric of every activity in small ways and large. It is informal and formal, it is verbal and written, it is between every person in the room and every other person in the room. It is the language a community of learners speaks.

Listening to feedback is essential for both you and your students. When you listen, you become a more responsive teacher. Feedback is your fundamental tool in responding to students’ learning needs. It also allows you to set the pace of the class appropriately. And students must listen to feedback in order to become self-directed learners.

The more you talk, the less they listen. Keep lectures simple. After ten minutes of your talking,  students should have an opportunity to actively process the new material. In general, lectures should be restricted to introducing work that students cannot effectively discover any other way.

The more you write, the less they read. As tempting as it is to spell out written instructions in great detail, keep it as concise as possible. To paraphrase Einstein, instructions should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.