Methodological and Philosophical Pathways in Traditional K-12 Schools & Universities

Over the last fifteen years, I’ve visited many distinct and diverse schools. I’ve visited self-directed learning academies, classical schools, project-based learning schools, STEM academies, place-based learning schools, game-based learning schools, and many more. These experiences are largely what inform my conviction that there is no one perfect model for all students. Many models work, but none of them are the right fit for all students. Because education is values laden and shaped by our beliefs and philosophies, it isn’t adequate to measure the efficacy of the modern school system by some single set of outcomes. This is because not everyone agrees upon the outcomes, but also because much of what people value about learning communities is not what we often think of as traditional educational outcomes. Too often, we’ve oversimplified our definitions of success to the point of meaninglessness, or at least perceived irrelevance to certain stakeholders. We’ve also largely seem the pathway to a given learning destination as far less important than the destination as defined by some set of measurable outcomes.

As I speak at various conferences, many are intrigued by my stories of these incredible and distinct schools, but most struggle to imagine how to do something similar in their own school. I continually suggest that start by simply getting informed about the possibilities through as many direct experiences with different types of learning communities as possible. Some do that, but then what? Unless they are going to start a new school or maybe content themselves with a few tweaks to their current system, most struggle to figure out what to do with this newfound insight about what is possible.

Some high school districts offer a creative solution to this. They create multiple schools within the larger school. For several years, I served on the advisory board for a project-based learning school housed in the same building as the “legacy” high school. Yet, there was also a arts immersion school in that distinct along with another school that focused upon those aspiring to future careers in health professions. Students can apply to one of these schools, but still have access to some of the AP courses, extracurriculars, and other benefits of the legacy school, all while being part of a sub-community that better connected with a particular student’s goals and values.

The idea of choosing a major in college functions a bit like this in most US higher education institutions. Students typically complete general education requirements with students from other majors, but they have a distinct and specialized learning pathway when it come to the major. This is a distinct disciplinary pathway. One student focuses upon biology while another American literature, graphic design, or chemical engineering. Each of these disciplines also often have certain philosophies of teaching and learning that are more dominant than others.

There is yet another possibility when it comes to higher education “pathways”, however, one that I am beginning to explore and hope to have the chance to help experiment in the future. Consider a model where are not only distinctions by content or discipline, but that there could be another way to categorize courses, by the dominant educational philosophy and pedagogy (or choose your favorite -gogy substitute). In this sense, there might be some who value project-based learning. Others value experiential learning. Still others are champions for service learning, place-based learning, Socratic dialogue, adaptive learning, game-based learning, writing-intensive learning, or a hundred other potential emphases. A community could emerge around one or more of these, establishing a shared vision and set of standards. Then, imagine a situation where courses can be designated and designed to align with a particular approach. At a college, you might have ten sections of a general education course like world history, but one could be taught as part of the adaptive learning pathway, another as a service learning course, and still another as a game-based learning course. Students could choose to navigate their way through college by selecting courses that fit a particular pathway, or they could go the eclectic route. Not only that, but it would provide a means by which teachers and students could form sub-communities around a set of shared educational values and philosophies.

The seed for this idea was first planted when I listened to a presentation almost a decade ago from some faculty at Dominican University in Chicago. They created a “service learning” designation for courses that agreed to function by a shared set of practices. When students went to sign up for courses, they could see which sections of a particular were designated as service learning, and opt for that section…or opt for a more traditional approach.

This is not entirely new. I’m sure that there are ample examples of this practice already at work on some schools, but rarely in this more formal method. I’m excited to explore this further. My own University is already doing a bit of this, and I look forward to learning about others who are doing something similar.

This strikes me as an incredibly promising approach to valuing different educational philosophies and practices, but doing it in a more school-wide, systematic way. This would leave room for requirements or planned experiences distinct to a given philosophy bout extracurricular or non-credit. There could even be some sort of badge, endorsement, or designation upon graduation if a student meets a certain set of expectations set within a given pathway. This doesn’t call for everyone to be on the same page, but it empowers a small or large group within the larger school community to create something truly distinct, capitalizing upon the many benefits that I’ve discovered amid my visit of distinct schools over the years.

I’ve represented the concept in the rudimentary visual below. At this point, I’m posting this to get insights from readers like you. I would love to hear from people. What thoughts, questions, potential challenges and opportunities come to mind for you with this approach? Also, have you seen something like this already in place at a school?

10 Steps to More Humane Final Exams

As this is the time of year when teachers and professors are writing final exams and students are studying for them (at least some of them), it is the opportune time to offer a few suggestions on how we can make final exams more humane. I am not convinced that most traditional final exams are a valuable part of education. In fact, the culture around final exams often distracts from the type of virtues that most of us want in our learning organizations. I’m especially critical of the traditional, time-based, and allegedly “objective” assessments that often take the form of multiple choice, true and false, and fill-in-the-blank questions. They do little to nurture an authentic culture of learning. Nonetheless, I’ll save that viewpoint, one that many in traditional education might consider more extreme, for another time. Instead, this article assumes that people are working within the dominant and existing system of final exams. Given that context, here are ten simple but significant ways to create a more humane context and culture for students taking final exams.

Test the Test

Is your test fair? Is it clear? How are you checking to see that the word choice and format of the text is not an unnecessary barrier for students? If the test is about finding out what students have learned, then it should not be a test-taking competition. Work WITH the students to devise a test that is fair, challenging, and has a good chance of measuring student knowledge and skill.

Go Easy on the Drill Sergeant Approach

What good comes from scare tactics? Some think that being extra tough and scaring people into studying is the way to go. In general, this will simply add more anxiety, reducing student ability to concentrate and prepare to the best of his or her ability. Why not take a more encouraging and coaching demeanor? Try being a compassionate coach and cheerleader more than a drill sergeant when it comes to test preparation.

Distinguish Between Rigor (Painful) and Rigor (Academic Challenge)

Rigor has multiple definitions. I’m all for creating challenging academic experiences, but there is no need to make it unnecessarily painful. If you go to the doctor to get a shot, they typically try to use the smallest needle necessary, and they have strategies to make it as quick and painless as possible. They don’t sadistically jab you with the largest needle that they can find. Let’s keep this in mind as we think about our test creation, how we prepare students, and how we deliver the tests.

Be Clear About Your Expectations

What will it take to be successful? Why not be transparent about that? What good comes from making it a guessing game?

Reconsider the Notion that Memorizing the Textbook is the Goal

I sometimes talk to teachers who like to throw obscure and “gotcha” questions on the exams to see if students read and nearly memorized the entire textbook. Is that really the goal of your class…textbook memorization? If not, go easy on this approach. The goal is not to trick or fail students but to measure what they have learned.

Check That You Are Assessing What You Said You Would Assess

If you provided students with a list of course objectives or outcomes at the beginning of the class, does your test align with those? If not, that verges on a bait and switch tactic. Test them on what you said they needed to learn.

Offer Tips for Success and Invite Students to Share What Works for Them

Why not offer some coaching and wisdom on what, based upon your experience, works best to prepare for the exam? You are not spoon-feeding students by being a coach and mentor. You are setting them up for success.

Find Ways to Celebrate Diverse Gifts and Forms of Growth Among Students

Sometimes tests are biased toward certain aspects of a course, but they don’t leave room for students to display other valuable learning from the course. Consider how you can design a test that gives all students a chance to demonstrate as much of their learning as possible.

Distinguish Between Worth and High Grades, as Well as Learning and High Grades

A person’s worth is not measured by final exam scores, so why not remind students of that? Also, I cringe when I hear people take an entire semester of rich learning and then reduce the whole thing to a score on a final. School is not primarily about getting passing or good grades, and when we make it about that, we are reducing the entire learning community to something far less relevant and meaningful. The goal is not to get a good grade. It is to learn what is important to learn, The exam is just a time to demonstrate what you learned. When we choose language that makes it all about getting good grades, we are cultivating a culture of earning over an authentic culture of learning, and that makes school ultimately less humane.

Make Student Success the Goal, Not Some Absurd Bell Curve

I remember talking with a professor who was delighted to see the even distribution of As and Fs, seeing this as a sign that his course was designed and taught well. I suggested that this might actually be a cause for alarm. Why didn’t more students reach high levels of mastery? Wouldn’t we rather that everyone learn a great deal and demonstrate that? The curve has no place in most learning communities. Maybe there is justification for it if there is some sort of exam that is part of selecting a few people out of a larger group, but courses are usually supposed to be about setting up a context where as many students as possible can learn and thrive.

Our classes are not factories. They are communities of people, and these ten tips are a good way to emphasize that fact during this final exam season.

This is One of the Most Important Educational Stories of our Generation

Late last night, after returning home from an inspiring conference on disruptive innovation, I was exhausted but my mind was swarming with thoughts about the future, inspired by countless conversations and presentations at the IBM iDisrupt Executive Summit. I drove into the driveway a little after midnight and found a small package by my front door. I picked it up, carried my luggage inside, and opened the package, excited to find a copy of a brand new book. I’d read this book a few months before, getting a chance to review it prior to publication, but I soon found myself sitting beside my luggage and reading it a second time. I read it from front to back before settling into bad in the early morning hours. Satisfied, inspired, and no longer thinking about the wonderful conference that I just attended, I instead found myself repeating a single sentence to myself. “This might just be one of the most important educational stories of our generation.”

I’ve followed Acton Academy for many years and had the honor of visiting the school a couple of years ago. When I speak at conferences and to school leaders in the United States and around the world, I almost always find myself referencing this student-driven learning community at some point. If you’ve read this blog for more than a few months, then you know that I make frequent reference to it here as well.

I’ve visited and studied hundreds of innovative models of schooling over the past decade, and Acton continues to be one of the most promising models. From their grounding the vision of the school in the metaphor of the Hero’s Journey to their humane and mission-inspired approach to assessment, their distinct and compelling vision for what it means to be a learner-driven community to their wonderfully reflective and emergent approach to nurturing a rich and compassionate community, Acton is a truly inspiring and exceptional school.

Even if one does not embrace the entire vision of Acton Academy, it has so many positive attributes  and innovative practices that can be applied in a variety of traditional school, homeschooling, and emerging school contexts. Instead of shaping their school by standard or commonplace practices in other schools, the founders take the time to learn from others, consider the breadth of possibilities, apply what they learn, but they do so with the humility, intellectual rigor, and reflection necessary to constantly review, revisit, and revise what they are doing. I believe that they are able to do this in part because they have refined a clear and compelling mission, established a list of core promises and beliefs, and hold firmly to a succinct educational philosophy (“We believe clear thinking leads to good decisions, good decisions lead to the right habits, and the right habits forge character, and character determines destiny.”). When you have these in place, and you actually use them to direct your thoughts and actions, good things are likely to follow. Acton Academy is certainly a testament to that fact.

It is with this context and background that I am incredibly excited that Laura Sandefer, co-founder of Acton Academy, displayed the courage, commitment, and conviction to put the Acton story on paper, writing what is soon to become one of my most recommended books to anyone who cares about the future of schooling. I am not exaggerating when I state that Courage to Grow: How Acton Academy Turns Learning Upside Down is one of the most important educational stories of our generation, and it is now in print, ready for you to read.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to consider a compelling possible future for education. In fact, it is not a future. It is a present reality. What I love about the book is that it is inspiring, fresh, authentic, and practical. Laura is not just writing about dreams and ideals. She tells the story of how they actually made such a distinct and compassionate learning community a reality, and she offers sage advice on how others can do the same. She tells the personal and important story of how the idea for the school came into existence. She tells the story of humble inquiry combined with bold action that led to first experiments and soon a new school. She tells the story of their struggle with rules and assessment. She tells the moving and wonderfully candid story of her own son’s search for the right learning community. She tells the honest story of a school, a learning community, that is continually learning. She tells the story of how this school emerged as what I’ve come to call one of the most compassionate learning communities that I’ve ever studied or witnessed. She tells many other stories along the way as well, each written with what seems to be the same care, reflection, and careful attention that went into the founding of the school.

Not only that, but the book includes some of those simple and practical components as well, everything from what tools they find helpful to some of their core documents (like the student contract). It includes their recommended reading list for parents, their use of badges, and reflections on the Socratic teaching that informs what they do.

If you are in education or care about education, this is a must read text. If you want your mind expanded about what is possible, this is the book for you. If you want to expand your sense of what is possible, this is also the text for you. If you are jaded by the current system, perhaps wondering if there is hope for anything else, this book might just take you down the road toward renewed hope. I read widely and pride myself in being well-informed about the most important and influential education texts of our age, and this is one of them. The stories are deeply human and humane. They call upon us to consider how we might nurture a better, more hopeful, more humane, and more inspiring educational ecosystem. It is my sincere hope that the stories in this book will shape and inspire the education of the future.

How Schools Can Contribute to Much Needed Civil Discourse in Society

Regardless of where you fit on the political or ideological spectrum, it is hard to disagree that we are in turbulent times. I am not about to point us to some mythical or idealized past moment when everyone was empathetic and civil, respecting the dignity of all people, regardless of race, creed, or convictions. Yet, there certainly seems to be a change. On the rare occasion that I listen to a morning news show (usually just when I’m grabbing a quick breakfast at a hotel buffet), I hear people arguing their position on the television,buying into one or more civilly destructive playbooks proposed by liberals and conservatives alike, political playbooks that describe everything in terms of framing, positioning, marketing, and winning over a genuine pursuing of insight, understanding, and a search for truth. In my search for insight about the landscape of such public discourse, I’ve scoured dozens of books over the past year, reading “advice” on how to win the day by framing and re-framing. Here is the sort of advice that I read:

  • If you can’t win on logic, then turn the conversation to a moral frame that will resonate with the listeners. In fact, logic is just one tool. Find the tool that gets your side the wins needed.
  • Don’t doubt your position, especially not in public. Stand your ground. When it is hard to do so, become skilled at shifting your position so you have a better chance of winning the listeners over.
  • Metaphors are powerful tools for communication and influence. Never give into the metaphors of the other side, or they will have the upper hand against you.
  • Some groups don’t deserve the same rights as others. They deserve your lack of respect and ridicule. Anything else might risk justifying their cause in the eyes of the public.
  • The person who tells the best stories wins (which happens to be the title of an article that I wrote almost eight years ago), so learn how to tell stories that resonate with people and draw them to your agenda.
  • Don’t answer the questions that people ask you. Stay on point with your main message. Repeat it and illustrate it over and over again. That is what wins people over to your side, or at least secures those who are already leaning in your direction.
  • Don’t give the proverbial microphone to the other side. Their ideas don’t warrant your attention or listening ear.
  • Put the best construction on your side and ideas, and draw out the worst in the other side, making sure that everyone sees it.
  • Don’t bother talking or engaging in discourse with those who are most secure in their position. They are a lost cause. Instead, focus on those who you have a realistic chance of converting.
  • The goal is to win, and while the end doesn’t justify every means, it sure gives you a great deal of leeway in what you do to get there.
  • This is a war more than it is a debate, so we must act accordingly in our tactics (but usually not going so far as violence).

I’ve read this and much more such advice and it is personally troubling to me. It is not a path to a more humane, compassionate, or civil society. Neither is the opposite view where we disingenuously treat everyone’s words, ideas, and actions as good and acceptable; appealing to some sort of unrealistic relativism or fair-tale version of tolerance.

There is a different way. It is not a simple or clearly defined path, but it is one characterized by some key elements.

  • People commit themselves to a genuine value for understanding, and a recognition of what it takes to understand diverse people and viewpoints.
  • We embrace the idea that people have inherent worth and that they are, “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Every person matters.
  • Truth matters. While I’m one of those traditional people who actually believes that something called absolute truth exists, it seems to me that civil discourse depends upon some measure of conviction that some ideas are better than others; that the classical notions of truth, beauty, and goodness continue to have value in guiding our discourse and decisions.
  • Public discourse is more than just a political game that we play to win.
  • We need a shared commitment to a truly grand experiment in what it takes to sustain and grow a truly diverse nation without demonizing the sides with which we disagree or with whom we are convinced are wrong.
  • We work toward a commitment to rekindling the ability to have deep, rigorous, sustained debate and then go out for a jog, a good meal, a shared beverage, a game of golf, or something similar with that person.
  • There is a critical need for cultivating a set of intellectual virtues that better prepare us to engage in civil discourse. These include traits like humility, compassion, empathy, a love for wisdom, disciplined and critical thinking, and the ability to set aside personal interest amid the exploration of ideas and analysis of situations.

These are not absent today, but they are also not what we celebrate or highlight in much of the media. This is not what is modeled in much of society, but it is something that we can embrace in education. In fact, I believe that education should be well-positioned to nurture such traits, as long as we don’t give into the temptation to politicize our communities. This means that we must commit ourselves to the sort of elements that I just described.

Unfortunately, heated debates and dissension in education often resemble the troubling traits of the larger public discourse. That means that we are modeling uncivil, power-based, less humane discourse for a next generation. This is a dragon that needs slaying in our education system. Each person in education has a challenge to ask how they can contribute to the cultivating of truly positive, substantive, civil discourse. We don’t do this by silencing voices or driving people to conformity. We do it by nurturing those intellectual virtues that I described above, modeling civil discourse amid truly diverse beliefs and values, and showing what it looks like to live in community, respecting diverse people, demonstrating a love for wisdom and a humility to learn from others, but also learning to deepen our own convictions. This is not about everything agreeing on all matters. It is about learning to live in a diverse community, country, and world. We learn together. We explore together. We experience life together. We even care for one another.

If we can commit to making schools places where this is commonplace, we will have achieved something far more important than anything that we are currently measuring in our effort to assess the quality of one school over another. Forget college report cards and standardized tests. How are we doing in helping people learn how to embrace civil discourse, nurturing intellectual virtues, being strong advocates for causes and convictions, but also showing a deep respect for the inherent value in others, as well as their rights? Math and language arts are valuable. STEM education and coding is pretty useful as well. However, if we are really interested in contributing to a better future for young people, we are wise to think about what we will contribute to the future of civil discourse.