Unpacking the Learning – Part 6



Test anxiety is real!


  • Physical symptoms. Headache, nausea, diarrhea, excessive sweating, shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, light-headedness and feeling faint can all occur. Test anxiety can lead to a panic attack, which is the abrupt onset of intense fear or discomfort in which individuals may feel like they are unable to breathe or having a heart attack.
  • Emotional symptoms. Feelings of anger, fear, helplessness and disappointment are common emotional responses to test anxiety.
  • Behavioral/Cognitive symptoms. Difficulty concentrating, thinking negatively and comparing yourself to others are common symptoms of test anxiety.  Test Anxiety

Life is full of tests – driving tests, health exams, academic and professional assessments, and athletic/endurance testing just to name a few. Most of the time, preparation and practice factor into the testing equation. For school-aged students, taking a test can be the single most anxiety-ridden activity in their academic career.

It really doesn’t have to be that way.

One of the main reasons that test anxiety exists in the school setting is due to the rigid grade level time table and pace of instruction. We assume that all students will learn at the same rate in the same way and demonstrate that learning in exactly the same manner via a paper pencil test. There is little room for deviation and hardly any exceptions to this rule.

Sir Ken Robinson puts it this way, “Learning happens in the minds and souls, not in the databases of multiple-choice tests.”

In particular, high stakes testing seems to drive the pace and delivery of curriculum because we tend to assign those results so much weight and credibility. Both state and federal laws demand that we administer yearly assessments based on the states standards. This practice is explained as a way to ensure educational quality and equity. In reality, it ensures neither. However, it does provide test publishers a certain level of job security.

testing instuments dreamstimesmall_5908127

“It is not unrealistic to consider assessing students, but to what end and for what purpose? Informal classroom assessment is needed, and it is very likely that students themselves can help in the development process. However, the assessments must make sense and be utilized for learning, not grading. This can be very liberating for both the teacher and the student.” (Learning Unleashed pg. 97-99)

This type of assessment is known as formative, which means that the evidence gathered is used to adapt the teaching to meet the needs of the students. Studies show that strengthening the practice of formative assessment produces significant, and often substantial, learning gains.  (Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam in Learning Unleashed pg. 129)

Formative assessment through student observation, demonstration, or some type of performance with relevant teacher feedback enables students to self-assess their own growth and learning. It requires coming alongside the learner as a coach providing feedback and support as needed. It also takes into account that we all learn differently, and at different rates.

When we provide ongoing and specific formative feedback, without the imposed artificial deadlines, learning is inevitable. I refer to this as “goal to goal” learning.


I have heard it said, (and at one time I’ve said it myself) that interim, end of year, and high-stakes assessments are valuable tools for data analysis and reflection. The data analysis and reflection may serve some teachers, school boards, or those who rank school districts, but there is little to no value for the individual student. They typically can’t review the actual test to see how they performed or how any mistakes might be corrected. In some cases, they may receive a composite score highlighting areas of strength or weakness, but the results are not very informative.

What is even less informative, and generally a waste of time, is when schools/teachers set their yearly goals based on previous year student assessment results. This really makes no sense at all and yet it is often a common ritual as teachers return for a new school year. Proponents believe this type of goal setting practice will increase student performance and teacher effectiveness. My apologies to those I’ve led in this endeavor during my years as an educational administrator. We can all learn from our mistakes. I know I have.

Common Sense Alert: Current students don’t perform better on tests by using former students results and teacher don’t teach better using results from students they no longer have. 

Teachers access plenty of relevant and meaningful evidence every day in their classrooms. Unfortunately, many are under the assumption that almost everything must be tested, scored and averaged together for the purpose of grading. Their teacher prep courses are geared toward that paradigm. Teachers also encounter an almost audible clock ticking away the minutes as they rush to complete the paced curriculum and standards.

When we genuinely examine and understand the realities and nuances of authentic and individualized learning, we might begin to question many of the current school assessment paradigms that tell quite a different story. For too long, the story sounded like this: teach, test, repeat. A new generation of learners demand a different and more relevant approach and outcome and we would do well to listen to them.

Up next in this series: Grading.


Unpacking the Learning – Part 5

School Buildings

one room school


“Do we really need to go to a place called school?” Pg. 94 Learning Unleashed Re-imagining and Re-purposing Our Schools.

This one sentence, among others in my book, may cause some bewilderment within the schooling community. Parents and students themselves will have questions. Don’t we need school buildings? Where would students go to learn? Don’t we need facilities in which to feed, teach, test, and conduct various school activities? Shouldn’t there be a safe place where students and teachers can meet to learn?

From the home, to the one-room schoolhouse, to the most expansive and modern school buildings today, schooling has evolved to meet the perceived need of the times. Early on, parents taught their children at home – many still do. As communities grew, schoolhouses offered another option for families. With the industrial age factories came the industrial model of schooling. Over time, school buildings increased in size to handle hundreds and even thousands of students.


school bldgs new1

New and spacious buildings equipped with plenty of natural light, modern amenities, attached playgrounds, and various sports fields are quite enticing for a family interested in providing the best for their young ones. Often times, these new schools are options for those fortunate enough to live within certain zip codes across the country. Others have no options apart from aging school buildings with multiple structural and cosmetic obstacles. It all depends upon where one lives.

Communities that are able, continue to pour thousands of dollars into erecting the most modern and functional buildings in which to conduct school. Exorbitant amounts of funding are set aside in school district budgets to build these new schools along with the promise of new housing developments to help offset the costs. Parents flock to move into these districts if they can.

In the age of rapid technological discoveries and advancements, it is possible to imagine that school buildings as we know them now, may eventually become obsolete much as the one room school house did. We cling to this model in spite of the current technological and global signs pointing us in a different direction.  Parents may be the most difficult to convince simply because its the model in which they are most familiar.

However, let’s consider an idea that literally takes us out of the proverbial school house and into the world.

When we shift to the coach/facilitator model of teaching where parents and students seek and select “teachers” for their known expertise and success with students, we also open multiple venue options where they might meet as needed. This could  include local places of business, the library, community centers, community colleges, other appropriate partnership locations or the school building itself. Older students may also determine that in some cases online projects/research, apprenticeships, community service or study done at home are viable options.

When we think of learning as only happening in a place called school, we limit the the ways in which students can access information. At one time that made sense, it no longer does. Ideally, a drop-in learning community center where anyone who wants to learn something can go would address a multitude of needs. In addition, anyone who wants to offer classes can do so. Students would sign up to participate based on their interests or needs.

Simply put, learning can now happen anywhere, at anytime, with anyone. This is the school of the future. One, or a few teachers per grade level at a local school with a fixed curriculum, will soon become an archaic educational option. No matter how hard they try, schools will not be able to sustain the industrial-aged model of learning much longer. Informational technology is ushering us into another time and another place in history.

We can drag our feet, kicking and screaming, or we can accept the inevitable and adapt our one-room schoolhouse roots to the new world in which we live.

This is a world where in the blink of an eye we can access almost anything we want to know, understand or learn. It is a world where information changes so rapidly that textbooks are outdated the minute they are printed. It’s a world where teacher preparation courses can’t possible keep up with the most current brain and learning research, scientific advancements or the newest innovations in technology, medicine or communication.  It’s a world where class rank, grades, and GPA are becoming meaningless indicators of an old school paradigm.

The world has changed. Our students have changed. Access to knowledge has changed. Our schools have not changed. They continue to apply well-meaning but band-aid approaches, while offering an ever-decreasing educational benefit.  These valiant efforts take their toll on an institution that can no longer be the main source of knowledge and learning. It’s an unsustainable expectation.

A new vision and reality awaits those who are willing to embrace it.

“Educational visionaries are few and far between, but when you find yourself looking into the eyes of a young person and seeing their incredible future, you have arrived.”  Evonne Rogers



Unpacking the Learning – Part 4

Class Sizes


There is a known phenomenon that occurs when you cram too many people into a small space.  It gets crowded, uncomfortable, and makes it hard to breathe.

“Phone Booth Cramming was a late-1950s fad with a simple premise: cram a phone booth full of dudes (and/or ladies) and take a picture before the people on the bottom suffocate.” Words to the wise from a student who participated…”People at the bottom were really laboring to breathe.” More info here click link

The same outcome occurs when you cram too many young people into a small learning space and think its okay. Psychological studies have indicated that overcrowding can cause chronic stress, increased irritability and aggression, as well as lack of privacy which can lead to depression. While most studies examine living conditions, one could make an argument that classroom cramming can also have negative effects.

No one knows the magic number when it comes to determining the optimal amount of students in any given learning environment. In most schools, this determination is usually based on a district’s yearly budget. There are so few studies on this topic, more than likely due to the budget implications, so we just accept the status quo.  Even when the mid 1980 STAR studies (pg 92-93 in Learning Unleashed) did demonstrate a strong correlation between smaller class sizes and student performance results, it was not embraced by most schools around the country.

From a parent and teacher perspective, a small class means more attention for all students, especially those who may need more support. Having fewer students offers a multitude of student learning benefits that are absent in larger classes. At least in some states, legislators have decided that younger children may need more attention and therefore they provide funding for smaller class sizes in the early years. Wisdom occasionally surfaces at the legislative level.

The large class conundrum forces teachers to employ various “behavior management” techniques in order to keep the classroom running smoothly. Bribery tactics and coercion are in full force to maintain calm and ease any distractions. Children are programmed early on to know and understand that they are “good students” if they accept the bribery du jour and adhere to the coercion efforts.

In my book, Learning Unleashed – Reimagining and Repurposing Our Schools,  I propose class sizes of around 15 students. I am sure that any school board member, superintendent, or district office manager knows this is next to impossible. I thought this when I was an assistant superintendent.  On the surface, and given the budget constraints, it is impossible within our current schemata of school.

The costs of running a school district are staggering. Most of those costs are regulated by unfunded or far less than fully funded mandates. Our federal and state legislators continue to write laws that place extraordinary burdens on the average school system. Money that is allocated is earmarked for specific purposes leaving a school district’s hands tied.

A good example is the federal Title I dollars that schools scramble to spend before the imposed deadline. The federal guidelines strictly states that it cannot supplant programs the district normally operates within their own budget. The allocated funding can only supplement these programs. It also outlines specific ways in which this funding can be spent. There is little choice for local school districts.  Elected officials continue to dictate what they believe is best for our schools and our students.

In addition, certain school programs have exorbitant and sometimes unknown expenses that the district must absorb. Yearly school budget proposals are developed to plan for the worse case scenario while the district waits and hopes for the best. Therefore, local schools are left with a constant leaking faucet, often forcing them to make the most cost effective decisions rather than more learning effective ones.

The “seeing is believing” phenomenon is another drawback which proves an even larger impediment to changing anything in schools. Trying something different or new is often seen as a waste of time. It is easy to understand why school folks are less than enthusiastic with new initiatives since they tend to surface about every five years or so accompanied by a sometimes painful training process. It is important to note that most of these changes have little to do with the basic structure of schooling. That is an untouchable.

Credit to Tom Guskey below.Guskey innov

Within public schools, the best we can hope for is to stay afloat while ever-increasing external demands suck the life and joy out of real, individualized and authentic learning for every school aged young person.

In the perfect world of anytime, anywhere learning where parents and children chart their own journey, attending a public school becomes a choice not a mandate.

For those of you who hate to read long blogs, I apologize now. For those of you who don’t mind reading on here is how this might play out on any given school day. Cost savings are noted with an asterisk. *

  • Students are not assigned to teachers. Teachers are chosen by parents and students for their coaching/content expertise and rapport with children.
  • Teachers are not solely evaluated by the school district but included is an effectiveness rating from their clientele (former and current students and parents). High stakes test results are not used to evaluate teachers.*
  • Teachers provide an online presence to families that include but is not limited to the following: educational philosophy, copy of credentials, professional resume, samples of successful school projects, informal student performance data, etc.
  • Teachers who do not have a track record of success via district, parent/student evaluation are then offered support by the district. If support has not improved agreed upon results within an agreed upon time frame, then teachers are terminated. Teachers agree to this process when hired.*
  • Teachers work in teams to carry the daily case load of up to 15-20 students each but can work with as many as 60-70 students a day depending upon age level as they rotate among the team of teachers.
  • Newer teachers are paired with seasoned teachers.*
  • Students are not assigned letter or number grades which allows the teacher more direct contact with students.  For the Love of Learning – Not grading – click here Students self evaluate at regular intervals.*
  • Parent conferences are scheduled at regular intervals as needed.
  • Students stay with this team of teachers for at least four years unless parents choose other educational alternatives or teachers change. Students are not grouped in grade levels.*
  • Teachers utilize the non-student contact hours (remember from my previous blog there are shorter hours that students attend school) for professional development (PD) that suits their particular need not a district mandated in-service, except those required by law. Teachers share their learning with their team. They may also choose to record their PD efforts and subsequent change of practice or enhancement to their practices on their websites as reflection or to provide updates. *

This scenario empowers the families, students and teachers by creating the conditions for more ownership, personalized learning, and academic growth. It also assumes that our current school system structures are re-purposed to accommodate this model. For those of you wondering how this could ever happen in a public school,  please read further.

When you empower teachers with built in accountability, there is less need for management or an elaborate evaluation process. There is also less need for teacher unions. When you trust the teachers you have hired, there is less need for oversight and control. When you offer your community a proven commitment to ensure that student learning is your top priority, there is more likelihood of continued success.

Over time a district hires less managers (district and school level) and more teachers as the priority shifts. A district pays less for PD and costly data management systems as well as the central office staff to plan and implement.

We tend to think that new and shiny buildings equate to a better learning environment with smarter and happier children who will then perform better on tests. Learning can happen anywhere at anytime so there is less need to build newer and more expensive schools. Maintaining current buildings is costly enough. Utilizing partnership facilities such as the local library, community centers, religious facilities, or community colleges opens up a whole world of possibilities.

This type of school can exist in the publicly funded version of schooling but it would take some time to convert all the skeptics and to pry ourselves loose of crippling regulations. It would require out-of-the-box thinking, something very foreign in school systems.  In addition, we must stop spewing our arrogant notion that parents are not educators, have not been formally trained, and therefore can’t possibly know what’s educationally best for their child. Unfortunately, we have convinced them of that. Parents as partners must become more than just a catch phrase or school PTA slogan.

We have to embrace a new kind of thinking where schooling no longer exists to educate the masses for the work world that awaits them. The work world has changed and so should schools. For it to survive, it must totally transform itself – now.

For those who can’t wait any longer, you might try other options like homeschooling, co-ops, Sudbury, a good charter school or democratic/progressive schools. Sadly, many of us just wait and hope.

The bottom line – public schools must change or be left behind.  In their present state, they are grossly out of touch with the new kind of learner and forever doomed to the lowest common denominator mentality. Forced grade level curriculum, a massive obsession for testing, and the need to rank, sort, and compare students, teachers and their schools guarantee this result.

“I am entirely certain that twenty years from now we will look at education as it is practiced in most schools today and wonder that we could have tolerated anything so primitive.” – John W. Gardner





Unpacking the Learning Part 3

Length of the School Day and School Year


Q: How long is enough time for a child to learn?

A: As much time as they need.

I wish it was that simple. In reality, we have determined that the old agricultural calendar still serves a purpose in the big scheme of schooling.  Many believe that tampering with this archaic relic is a waste of time and energy. Time-honored traditions are hard to change, especially when the alternatives seem so daunting.

Obviously schools have tried variations on this theme with a modified school calendar hoping that it will yield good results for all parties involved. However, there are problems inherent with modified calendars as well as traditional ones. They suggest that the time allotments make sense for everyone. They don’t.

Time to learn is so unique that we can’t even imagine what that might look like apart from the current 6-7 hour grade level, compulsory school day and 180-185 school days a year mindset.  The rationale that says more time in school equals more learning is widely accepted as fact.

In a cursory review of the main research studies done on the correlation between more time or extended time in school and its effects on student achievement, one finds a common thread. More time in school such as preschool or all day Kindergarten, does not translate to lasting benefits much beyond the primary grades.  It is also noted that the quality of time is the most reliable indicator of success. 

Of greater interest to me is how we use the time we already have in school. Schools are “childcare” institutions, sports arenas, social events magnets, health, welfare and nutrition monitors, technology advancers, curriculum police, student sorting and comparing culprits and the one-size fits all organizer of information. We have all acquiesced to this belief system, so schools work tirelessly, on a daily basis to ensure they operate with all this in mind.  It’s no wonder people think more time is needed. How do we fit it all into a day?

In order to effectively teach “all” the current standards for each grade level subject, a teacher would need a solid block of uninterrupted daily time with nothing else scheduled.  I have heard that in order to present all the material in most grade level standard documents, one would need about twenty three years to cover it. There is always a sense of urgency to keep moving forward for fear of lagging too far behind. The evidence of this delay will no doubt appear obvious on end-of-year assessments, therefore teachers are forced to keep the determined fast pace.

Teachers, whom I highly respect, often tell me that this is one of the most frustrating parts of their job. They wish they could spend as much time as each child needs.  They see time slipping away and can’t do much about it apart from offering their own lunch or planning time to help their students. This is not a fair fall back and is totally random depending upon teacher willingness. Sometimes after school or summer programs are seen as the answer to this problem of time, but are they really effective and how do we know?

Additionally, teachers say they need far more time to collaborate with their colleagues than their current schedules allow. This is why there is often teacher burn-out or the need for a “summer vacation” to recoup. This is also true for students and one of the many reasons why after-school and summer school programs often have low attendance rates and less than reliable data to demonstrate their worth. Parents have also come to rely on the summer months to plan vacations, summer camps or other family oriented outings.

In my book, Learning Unleashed, I propose a radical, but doable solution to the question of time. “Minimize the school day to four or five hours…Non-mandated schooling hours and days per year allows parents the freedom to choose other appropriate options for their children without the threat of punishment by law.”  (Pg. 90) Fewer hours for all students and less hours for younger ones aligns better with results found in developmental psychology studies that rarely find their way into our schools. Wait, doesn’t less time in school seem counter intuitive? Let’s unpack these ideas a bit further.

As stated in one of my earlier blog post, getting rid of grade level configurations would greatly address the problem of time. If teachers could utilize pretests, both academic and interest-based, to group students for learning without the age requirement, the likelihood of greater teacher and student engagement in learning would be increased. Teachers and students would be able to stay with the learning until evidence proves that learning was achieved. The concept of individualized mastery learning would take on a whole new meaning.

For example, a typical third grade curriculum mandates that every student masters certain multiplication facts with automaticity by the end of a grading period. We know that all students don’t meet this performance level within the given time frame. So we just march on to the next set of facts and grade students accordingly. Those who have failed to meet our deadline are now overwhelmed with more facts to keep straight and a failing grade as incentive to do better. This is often an irretrievable downward spiral that resurfaces each year thereafter. Junior high teachers are left scratching their heads wondering how these students got this far without knowing their multiplication facts.  It soon becomes apparent that something is terribly amiss. How can they do Algebra when they can’t multiply?


It is true that multiplication involves memorization, but for so many students this is where the breakdown and math anxiety begins. Statistically, there is a notable drop in math scores across the country in fourth grade. If we could stop the practice of timing when the learning should occur and just stay with the child for as long as it takes without punishment, they just might experience success. It may take 2 months, 10 months, 12 months or longer for a student to master a particularly pesky challenge. We don’t make those kind of exceptions in schools, we just pass them on to the next round of grade level standards hoping they’ll manage to catch up somehow. Or worse, we retain them to repeat the grade level they just managed to botch.

I have heard teachers tell their students and parents that they will not be spending any class time beyond the basic introduction to the multiplication facts because students just need to memorize them on their own time. Maybe students really can teach themselves.

Helpful Reminders  (click on the link)

Attention spans, interest levels, need for rest, exercise and play all point to a shorter school day. Tapping into peak learning times by starting later and ending earlier might address the early morning/late afternoon slump syndrome, a low energy issue that so many children experience. Ask any teacher to gauge the productivity level of the students in his/her classroom at the beginning and towards the end of a long day and hear a common response, “It takes a while to prime their pumps in the morning and at the end of the day they are so DONE and so am I!” Having students practice, for 12 years, the endurance test of long hours in school as preparation for the real work world is cruel and unnecessary punishment.

Not rushing to cover all the grade level standards within a ten month time frame is exhilarating. Not having to assign a failing grade to students who don’t meet the deadline, values and redeems learning whenever it happens. Less grading and less recording, allows more time for engaging with the students who are there to learn. It’s what every good teacher wants and what their students desire.

Schools must be willing to adapt to a new world, one where young people can access information on demand. They must also pry their hands loose of strict time constraints and allow for flexible learning time and space. They must seek authentic learning opportunities that take children and young people out of the four walls of a classroom as often as possible. They must also give up the dictatorial mandate of compulsory schooling recognizing that a menu of educational options is more in keeping with where we are headed in every other quest for knowledge and information. Simply put, they must relinquish CONTROL.

If school were not compulsory and parents could access it as one of many options for getting an education, re-imagining school time might look something like this.

  • Younger students, (6-11) can choose to attend school between 9:00 a.m and 1:00 p.m. this includes 20 minutes for lunch and frequent short free play breaks.
  • Older students, (11-15) can choose to attend school between 9:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. this includes 20 minutes for lunch and at least one or two quick, unstructured breaks.
  • Students 16-17 years or older might spend their last “school” year(s) in an apprenticeship, mentorship, work study, or travel study program. This is a parent and student choice with teacher input as needed.
  • When teachers are not in direct contact with students, time for planning, collaborating, communicating with families, and in some circumstances, attending school or district meetings will fall within their regular 7-8 hour negotiated work day/year.
  • Students (6-11 yrs old) are matched (with parent input) with two or three teachers that stay with them for the entire time. Mastery goals are set by the teacher and student with incremental check-ins, not by age or required end of a school year deadlines. Student progress is monitored and communicated via parent/student/teacher conferences, not report cards. If a student meets all the mastery goals before the five years, they are free to join the 11-16 groups.
  • Students (11-16) are matched (with parent input) with three or four teachers that stay with them for the entire time. Mastery goals are set by the students with teacher feedback. Progress is monitored and communicated via parent/student/teacher conference, not report cards. Students are free to choose independent study research/projects, etc. if they reach mastery goals before they are 17.
  • Parents may choose, in combination with school or not, other educational opportunities as well. These might include online courses, home schooling, community college classes, experts in their fields for mentoring, neighborhood service or religious oriented clubs and organizations as well as a myriad of other learning venues.

This scenario would work best in a school structure that values learning above sorting and testing. It presumes that children are more engaged when they have more control over their own learning without threat of punishments or bribery with rewards. It assumes that teachers nurture and follow the student in the natural flow of learning. Teacher teams share the coaching based on their expertise. It functions as a vital opportunity for those who choose to access it. It’s purpose clearly becomes student-centered and student driven. Teachers are sought out for their value as a coach/facilitator/mentor and are recognized as such with a salary that honors their contributions.  (I am not referring to merit pay here.)

This scenario also assumes that school does not exist to provide free child care for working families. That is not its purpose, nor should it be. It embraces the notion that parents are responsible for the education of their children, not the school. Parents are vital in this equation: Parent + Student + Teacher/Mentor = Learning.

For families living in poverty who may need extra support from their community, schools could partner with existing child care entities who offer supervised play, activities, or field trips before or after school times.  This partnership would be locally determined and locally funded. Many already exist in our inner cities as well as rural areas. Some offer low cost options and some offer scholarships that are funded through grants, endowments, and donations.

Many believe that universal preschool would level the playing field and address a pressing problem for low income or poverty level families. However, years of data collected on Head Start and similar preschool programs has not shown any significant long term learning benefits for its participants.  As stated earlier, studies have shown the quality of time spent is far more impactful than the time itself.

As long as public tax dollars support public education, there will be those who demand strict accountability. Rather than high stakes tests, punitive teacher sorting, or infighting over school choice options, can’t we all agree on one important factor? The best evidence of accountability is when we have effectively prepared young people to become productive and contributing citizens in their communities and world regardless of which educational avenue they access to get there.

This kind of accountability can only be measured one young person at a time in a culture that values all kinds of learning and all kinds of students. Anywhere, anytime learning is the future.        

Time Tolkien)