Unpacking the Learning – Part 9

Norman Rockwell teacher1

Teacher-centered Instruction

Let’s face it, most teachers are not shy. In fact, they enjoy being center stage and often like being in charge. Their stage presence commands attention and drives out dissension in all its forms. Their repertoire includes various facial expressions, voice intonations, and ability to hover over those trying to steal the stage.  This hasn’t changed much over the years.

Although advocates tout the benefits of self-directed learning, it is typically slow to take root in schools. Many believe that relinquishing the teacher’s reigns is a recipe doomed to failure.  It is supported by the notion that children can’t be trusted in these matters. Teachers have to direct the learning endeavor or it won’t happen. An unyielding school system just can’t seem to wrap its heads around any other way to educate young people.

Teachers were taught to stand and deliver. Teachers are told to make their classrooms inviting. Teachers are expected to maintain control at all times and to ensure that their students are indeed learning as evidenced on a test. Most of the time teachers are evaluated on these expectations.


Unfortunately, most classrooms are either too sterile or too stimulating. They are too sterile in the configuration and rigidity. They are too stimulating with every single wall space covered with posters and pictures.  These practices are not necessarily bad; they are just not necessary for learning. (Learning Unleashed Re-imagining and Re-purposing Our Schools, pg. 108.)

Making a classroom look exciting and it actually being an exciting learning place can be two very different realities. (LU pg. 108) When teachers continue to do most of the talking and most of the work, the students will be less and less involved and invested in their own learning. They become consumers waiting for someone to tell them what they should buy.

Contrary to what we are led to believe, most children and young people don’t need a total reliance on a teacher. It is true that we have trained them in that manner, but given the opportunity, children can discover and learn without prompting. Self-directed learning requires a shift in thinking as well as a shift in hierarchy from the teacher being the most important person in the room to the student being the most important. (LU pg.109)

Young people learn best in an authentic setting where they find relevance and meaning for themselves. They learn best when they can choose topics to study, ask a variety of questions, make mistakes free from judgement or evaluation, work alone or choose to work with others, play with an idea and be creative. They learn at different rates in different ways.

Schools in their present form don’t often accommodate that kind of learning, nor are they really interested in doing so. It takes too much time away from the grade level curriculum which requires rigid pacing and reporting periods. It could dismantle the revered pecking order of grades. It would require a competent and energetic teacher who wasn’t afraid to color outside of the lines.

For just a moment, imagine a child teaming up with a teacher-coach to design a specific learning plan based on the student’s interests and talents. Imagine a teacher or set of teachers coaching and guiding students to reach their goals utilizing multiple resources; i.e. math, science, technology, engineering, geology, archaeology, botany, chemistry, literature, drama, music or art, field trips, community resources, etc. Imagine students demonstrating what they’ve learned through a performance, presentation, or a particular school or community problem solved?  Imagine this cycle of goal setting, inquiry, learning and demonstrating, occurring several times over the course of a few years.  What might be the outcome?

student eyes

We often hear folks say that schools prepare young people for college, careers and citizenship. However, communities, universities, and businesses frequently tell us a different story. From what I have observed, read, and experienced over the years, many of our K-12 schools fall short of this goal. They do produce a few great test takers, rule followers, and school dependent learners ready for a work world that may no longer exist.

When teachers become true learning coaches, whose primary focus is to come along side students as resource providers, we just might see student learning reach new heights. Teachers who step off the stage, give up the power and control, and truly know and respect each of their students are HERO material.

Coming in my next and last blog in this series: Teacher Tenure and Unions


Unpacking the Learning – Part 8

class MSlarge

Restrictive and Limited Academic Curriculum

It is time for an honest Q&A discussion!

Q: What happens when a student obviously understands the math lessons well enough to consistently demonstrate mastery on almost every assessment the teacher provides?

A: We give them “extra” work to keep them busy. We label them gifted and group them with other gifted children. We call them good students and present them with honors and rewards by way of grades, certificates, or other forms of extrinsic recognition. By the way, none of these address the student’s need to set their own learning goals.

Q: What happens when that same student says she/he is bored or wants to move ahead in the math book or use the next grade level math book?

A: We tell them they can’t go ahead in the book because we can’t accommodate a personal curriculum. We tell them they have to stay in their grade level book because we can’t teach them the next grade level standards yet. We give them extra worksheets hoping they’ll just stop asking. By the way, none of these address the student’s need to set their own learning goals.

Q: What do we do with a student that comes to our classroom already knowing or very quickly grasping most of the grade level standards?

A: We may recommend them as gifted. We may do nothing. We may ask them to help others in the classroom that don’t understand. We may reward them with good grades. By the way, none of these address the student’s need to set their own learning goals.

Q: What do we do with the student who needs to spend more time on particular standards and less time on others?

A: We typically tell them it’s their job to catch up or to accept a poor grade. Sometimes we identify them as “at-risk” or Tier 2 or Tier 3 kids and refer them for intervention. Sometimes we offer them a little extra time or extra help but we don’t usually allow them time beyond a normal grading period.  We have to move on and provide a final grade on their report card. By the way, none of these address the student’s need to set their own learning goals.

Q: How much classroom instructional time is spent on art, music, drama, play, or physical activity?

A:  Occasionally or if time permits. It depends upon the teacher and the school schedule. It depends whether or not their are specific teachers for these classes. Sometimes more frequently if it is a district priority. By the way, most students are left with very little time to explore creativity, imagination, or physical activity; all known to have a direct impact on learning.

Q: How do we individualize and plan curriculum to meet the needs of every student?

A: We typically don’t with the exception of students who may be identified as gifted or special needs. With these students, we still adhere to their assigned grade level curriculum, without much deviation. By the way, all the other students are heaped into their respective grade level baskets leaving them dependent upon those in charge to determine their learning goals.

Q: How do we demonstrate integration of thought and connectedness across the various curricular disciplines?

A: Typically we don’t. Teachers are not trained that way. It is a difficult practice to integrate “subjects” without time for planning in that manner. Grade level curriculum, textbook reliance, and publisher assessments are not designed with integration of thought across “so-called” disciplines. It is easier for everyone involved to teach discrete and separate subjects with accompanying resources. Quite literally, grade level curriculum comes in its own box and it is meant to stay that way. By the way, this practice does not help students to think critically,  be innovative or creative, or be in charge of their own learning. It does help them to complete workbook pages, worksheets, and tests. It helps them to find the right answers and to be a “good” student.

Limiting my list to seven questions was a difficult task as I have several others swirling around in my mind. For the sake of time, and your willingness to read this blog, I decided to stop at lucky seven.

The answers to the above questions are based on my 35 years of direct observation, implementation, and forced adherence to the system’s rigid and restrictive practices. I wrote about these and other practices in my book Learning Unleashed Re-imagining and Re-purposing Our Schools and I write this blog to further examine, question and encourage others to consider options to the one-size fits all schooling model.

As long as we continue to hold young people hostage in a very unyielding, archaic, and compulsory schooling model that does not really serve the children it claims to serve, I will advocate on their behalf.  Fortunately,  there are many others who realize this blatant educational injustice and are not afraid to question the status quo. You may be one, so please share my blog.

Others cling to their rigid ideology of schooling, specifically public schooling, claiming that it is the best hope we have to produce well-educated citizens ready to enter the work force. In theory, that may be true. In actuality, it is debatable.

Next in this series: Teacher Centered Instruction coming soon!


Unpacking the Learning – Part 7


letter grades

Based on your schooling years where would you fall on this line-up and how do you know?

One of the many and most harmful, misguided practices in schools today, is the inaccurate art of grading. It is an art because it is subjective, even though we may use a combination of qualitative and quantitative measures to determine worth or value. One’s view of art compared to another’s is based on their interpretation of the piece. It often depends upon personal preference and experience.

Grading students based on scores collected on a number of miscellaneous pieces of work does not signify or reflect true learning. It just quantifies numerical averages.

Here is the scenario: We teach subjects, students listen and learn. We check to see if they got what we taught. They show us on a test. We reward or punish them with a report card grade that we determine using scores we’ve gathered along the way. We move on to the next topic and repeat the process until the school year is finished. Students get to keep their grades forever. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

What really goes into a grade? Classwork, homework, tests and quizzes are typically the bulk of grading criteria. However, there are those who strongly believe that attendance, behavior, and effort are viable sources to consider when determining a student’s grade. In fact, there are efforts to quantify levels of “smartness” by using grading practices such as this below.


Any score of 63% or below skews your chances of upward movement thanks to the honored practice of averaging grades. Two or more zeros ensure that you’ll never catch up or redeem yourself. It’s a done deal and one reason why so many students disengage or quit school. They have lost hope. More importantly, we have given up on them by allowing them to fail our unforgiving system that equates good grades with learning. This happens too frequently.

Even with the newer standards-based grading there are subjective factors and uncertainties. We just can’t bring ourselves to say a student either met the standard or they didn’t. That dilemma is in part because we are so conditioned to rank students, especially to honor those who respond quickly and accurately to our teaching. What exactly does well above standard mean? It depends upon who you ask.

standards grading

If students were able to self-assess and access what they needed to meet their goals and then work toward that end, it would simplify and perhaps minimize the need for a massive and cumbersome grading process.

“We have done an effective job programming our students to work for rewards by way of grades. Students soon learn that only what is tested or graded counts; the rest is optional.” (Learning Unleashed pg. 103)

Parents expect grades and will balk if there are attempts to change the system. It is familiar and what they know from their own schooling experience. “They also believe that grades tell them how well their child is doing, except when they get a lower grade and question how it happened.” (Learning Unleashed pg. 104)

“Many parents have come to think that how well their child does on their report card has a direct correlation to their status as a parent. We’ve all seen the bumper stickers that say, “I am a proud parent of an Honor Roll Student.” Rarely do we see bumper stickers touting the slogan, “I am a proud parent of an average student.” (Learning Unleashed pg. 104)

honor roll bumper

Grading is one of the sacred school cows that is undergoing more and more scrutiny these days. Many brave teachers, schools and school districts are working to address the inherent flaws with this type of cumulative categorizing, ranking and evaluating.

In my book, Learning Unleashed Re-imagining and Re-purposing Our Schools, I ask this out-of-the-box question.

“If we never had grades and were never told that grades were important, would we still learn anything and how would we know?”

My book offers a reasonable and doable solution. Stop giving grades! Provide written or verbal feedback during the learning process. Stop the practice of telling students what “counts” for a grade. Provide opportunities for students to build their own portfolio of work showing progress and creativity and allow them to explain their growth and goals to others, especially their parents or guardians. Let them own their learning.

This kind of change only comes with consensus and trust on the part of the entire educational community. It is hard work and not for the faint-hardhearted. However, our students need and deserve it. It is long overdue.

no grades

Next in this series: Restrictive and Limited Academic Curriculum