Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Reforming Reform - Five Ideas for Improving Education

Vickie Bergman blogs about education and parenting at Demand Euphoria.

A train has advantages over other types of vehicles. It is a highly efficient, consistent, and relatively cheap way to get a lot of people to the same place at the same time. If schooling is like riding a train, as I described in my last post, then schooling is an efficient way to make sure that all students will "get to the same place," educationally, riding on the same tracks at the same pace, right?

Most top-down education reform plans take for granted that the "train model' of schooling is inherently all right. They assume that tweaking the current system will be enough to fix it. The plans usually include at least one form of each of the following points:
  1. More time on the train: start younger, extend school days, extend school years, more homework, etc.
  2. More rigid timetables: more standardized tests, harder standardized tests, more focused standardized tests.
  3. Fancier trains: better technology in classrooms, think "smartboards."

But what if the problem is the model itself? Then no amount of tweaking will make the kinds of big differences people are hoping for.

Even if it were an achievable goal, to make sure all students actually learned and retained everything they were taught in school, and could all end up with the same base of knowledge, would it be a desirable goal? Why do we want everyone to know the same things? To think the same way? Some people think a goal of education is to produce creative, innovative individuals. If this is true, then it is difficult to see how the train model would get us there. Is it possible to encourage students to think creatively while insisting that there is only one right path to follow?

It reminds me of my college application process. If I wanted to go to the college of my choice, they told me, I had to have perfect grades, excel at a sport, be a leader of a club, participate in community service, and hold down a job. Oh yeah, and also be unique. As if it was another item on the to-do list. What time did I have to "be unique" in between all the activities I was doing so I could be easily compared with everyone else? Even when I was sleeping, I dreamed about school. A lot.

The changes that are needed to improve the school experience for our children are big changes, mostly requiring that the train model be thrown out. Speaking as a former child, I can think of a few changes that would have actually made school better for me.

Five ideas for improving education
  1. Make school less "all-consuming" of a child's life. Try LESS time in school (rather than longer days/years) and NO homework. Children could have time to find out what makes them tick before they turn 22 and are expected to be supporting themselves.
  2. Expand the list of subjects deemed "appropriate" for study and give children freedom to choose how they spend their time in school.  Each child could spend more time getting really good at the things she really likes to do, and waste less time struggling with subjects she doesn't care about at all.
  3. Give children freedom to choose their teachers. There is no reason any child should spend time in a classroom with a teacher he doesn't like, or one who does not like him. Imagine if teachers were not judged by standardized test scores, but instead by how many students would choose to spend time with them. I know which teachers from my past would have had full classrooms, and which ones would have no longer had jobs (deservedly).
  4. Give teachers freedom to teach things they are passionate about. This might make school more interesting.
  5. Stop expecting everyone to be good at all things academic, and STOP giving grades! Especially before high school. This might encourage kids to try different things without being "failed" for making too many mistakes. Remove the culture of fear around making mistakes.
My highly idealistic list of changes would not work with the train model, because all of the children would not be moving in the same direction at the same pace on trains. But I don't see any problems with that.


  1. Thanks, Vickie...and Lisa.

    So what's wrong with idealistic. I have a bit shorter-term vision as well. Here's a few things teachers can do RIGHT now to change classroom structures:

    1. Replace Completion with Creation
    2. Switch homework and schoolwork (I know this goes against your "no homework" idea)
    3. Have students create for authentic audiences and purposes
    4. Promote peer reliance (have students create and share course content)
    5.Instead of "covering content" let's "uncover passions."
    6. Let kids pick their own mode and tools for projects. No more "You'll make a Powerpoint on..."

    Stay idealistic...


  2. We are doing our best to put your ideas in place at my school. We have even made progess on Jon's list. The one that I have been thinking about lately is grades. We don't have grades until Middle School (and there is some momentum to eliminate it there too.) My question is can we get away with eliminating grades in high school? We are a very small school and class rank will be irrelevant for college anyways. Would graduating with a resume and portfolio but no GPA harm their college applications?

    On the other hand, a project-based and passion driven approach can really be hampered by forcing a grade onto each learning experience.

  3. It seems to me that we have to change the way we think about learning, full stop. It's no longer a lifestage - this generation will have to learn to reinvent itself many times, and be flexible in their skillsets. Which is exactly why Vicky makes really pertinent observations in that students need to find themselves, what makes them happy and then be empowered to follow their goals.

    If they don't possess the ability to morph to their environments, they'll be left behind. It's time to deliver education as a blended, integrated life tool and expand choice. We'll be doing just that in the UK very shortly!

  4. @Jon, I'm curious about your "switch homework and schoolwork" idea. Can you explain that one a little bit?

    @Mr. Misterovich, I think colleges are figuring out how to look beyond the grades. Especially in a small, "alternative" school, you could get away with not having grades. Another idea might be to make grades optional. In every class. Let the kids choose what they want to be evaluated in. That way, if any kids are more comfortable having grades for college app purposes, they could still get them.

    @Sean, I totally agree. Why can't more adults (most of whom have probably repressed how much they hated school) jump on board and take care of this problem?

  5. Using a screen capture tool, teacher records short direct instruction, and posts on a content management system (Blackboard, Moodle, etc.) Students view the direct instruction at home, replay, review...Then at school the next day, kids practice in class with help from peers or teacher. So in essence, what was normally done in school, is now done at home, and vice versa.

    Advantages: 1.Replay instruction if you missed something.

    2. At school, when it's time to practice, you have support when you need it, instead of being home and alone.

    Math and Science depts in our district are doing this and we have data to support the success.

  6. Flipping instruction works quite well. There are still issues with this however, such as what do you do if all students don't have tech access and why are we making students spend more than 6.5 hours learning instead of exploring their own passions or being with friends or family. What I recommend instead is giving students more independent time during the day where they can do activities that we're now asking them to do at home.

    That said, here is a post I wrote that provides more info on the Flipped Classroom.
    Flip your instruction for real learning -

    If there has to be homework, this makes sense to me. It also doesn't require families to invest time in tutors. Teachers should be there to support learning. Parents shouldn't be required to teach what schools dictate nor should they be required to hire tutors.

  7. "Even if it were an achievable goal, to make sure all students actually learned and retained everything they were taught in school, and could all end up with the same base of knowledge, would it be a desirable goal?"

    Have you ever tried to have a discussion with someone who doesn't share some of your basic knowledge? Say, someone who thinks children are born as blank slates, rather than having a passing acquaintance with what modern psychology says about inborn temperament? Or someone who believes passionately in the talent mindset: that what you're good at and enjoy when you first try it is what you "have a talent for" and that some people are just not talented and will never amount to anything? Or someone who thinks that the world is less than 7000 years old and every truth and guideline for living can be found in their particular translation of a multiply-translated holy book?

    Personally, I find it extremely difficult to have productive conversations with people who don't share some core knowledge and ways of thinking with me. In fact, it's about as easy as having a productive conversation with someone who thinks raising their voice will make me more likely to understand them when they're speaking in a language I don't understand.

    IMO, one of the core functions of education is to give citizens a shared core of knowledge. Without that core, we're not a single society but a bunch of splinter groups occupying vaguely similar territory. Of course, this should be doable before the age of 15 for most people, and after that, having been exposed to a wide range of ideas, kids should be able to choose their own paths.

  8. Thanks for explaining. I'm wondering... what do the kids do who already "get" whatever the lesson is, and don't need the help in school? And on the flip side, what happens to a kid who doesn't even care enough to watch the lesson at home?

  9. @Vickie, a benefit of this type of learning is that the students who get it or don't care don't have to watch the instruction. I think that's also where parent advocacy or student agency need to come in like I share in my "Fix the School, Not the Child" guide . In it I suggest that students be able to design their own plan for their learning of choice. Interestingly, I was talking about school with someone who believed it was quite valuable but it soon was revealed that he actually was allowed to sit in a corner of the room doing his own thing. Ha! Funny! His wife said, "Oh, but you were unusual." Not true. I've heard this story time and again. Multi-millionaire Aaron Iba ( told me his best year in school was 5th grade when his teacher let him sit in the back of the class working on his computer. Later that computer was the key to his company being acquired by Google. Deven Black ( shared that he made an agreement with the head of his high school to be able to never show up, but just take the necessary assessments. He spent his days learning in the world. Personally, when I didn’t care about what I was learning or it was irrelevant (i.e. most of what I call my high school daze) I slept, skipped class, talked in class, or day dreamed.

    All this to say, irrelevant material is still irrelevant, but at least with this model, when teacher and students are together they’re actually doing stuff rather than reading about doing stuff or listening to someone talk about doing stuff.

    The guy who wrote the book on this type of teaching blogs at You might want to take a look and get more clarity there.

  10. I love the idea of empowering students to control their learning. I do a fair bit of that in my 5th grade science classroom, and I think it would be mind-blowingly (its a word - trust me) effective if more of "school" was student directed, but to do this won't we need more facilitators? Its kind of like going from a train to the freeway; one engineer can ferry many people on a train, but on the freeway you have to have many drivers. Actually, that isn't the best analogy because the freeway implies were all headed to the same destination at different speeds, but its the best thing I have at the moment.

  11. @SciGuy, I don't have a lot of time to respond, but I think the most important thing is to get away from the idea that kids need to be driven everywhere. Think "bicycles." I don't think it would require a lot more facilitators. It would be harder to measure, which would require a huge shift in thinking from everyone involved.

  12. @Vickie I like the bicycle metaphor better also.
    Funny thing is, I'm not as concerned with measuring, although I know a lot of people who are. I find that the best assessment strategy is to allow kids to show others what they know.
    In terms of facilitators, my classroom experience has shown that its more than a full time job just helping them find the bike trails. Of course, I'm thinking about being transformative within the system, while you're talking about transforming the system. If everyone were on the same page, students would have lots more experience (and wouldn't be so afraid of) blazing their own trails.

  13. @5th Grade Sci Guy, lessons learned from unschoolers/alternative schoolers is that the teacher doesn't own the learning. Let students find their own experts and resources. If the parents can help all the better! When I visited the Manhattan Free School last month I saw a kid with two adults sitting around a computer with him. He wanted to learn a type of computer programming. He put the word out asking for volunteers. He found them and they helped him learn. Another few students were playing instruments in a room with some older adults. Turns out they were professional musicians that the students knew of and asked if they'd come to their school and jam with them. There were older kids working on art projects with younger kids. There was a student sitting on her own doing an online SAT study course.

    Sometimes teachers can serve as detours for students trying to blaze their own trails. Sometimes the best thing a teacher can do is get out the way and let students learn.

  14. @Innovativeedu My original contention was that we would need facilitators and lots of them. I stick by that. Two of the three examples you cited from Manhattan Free School had a two to one ratio of learning facilitator to student. Facilitators don't have to be teachers in the professional sense of the word. Older students, community members, parents, even peers can be facilitators, but you have to get them connected to the student and committed to the process. The example of Manhattan Free School, or Brooklyn Free School, or any of the other "unschools" out there is that it is possible for students to direct their own learning more effectively than anyone else can. Fortunately, these institutions exist. Unfortunately, they are rare. I realize that there is student directed learning without an institution, indeed most students who have this experience are not affiliated with one, but the institution does provide some advantages when it comes to students finding their own resources. Although I teach in a setting with a well-connected student/parent base it has proven difficult for students to get human resources into the classroom. I think that in part this is because it isn't the norm for students to be allowed to work this way, and also that the adults don't realize how serious elementary kids can be about things they really want to learn. Having an institution (like Brooklyn Free) legitimizes the process (not that it should need legitimizing, but you know....) The other challenge that I've faced is that, even in the 5-7 short years of formalized education leading up to fifth grade, students' trail blazing spirits have been significantly dampened and they want(even if they don't need)someone to help them find the trailhead or at least push them away from the curb.
    In my humble opinion, you will need more facilitators as you make a transition off the train and onto the bicycle. It's perfectly fine to let learners fall down, but it's our responsibility to remind them to wear safety helmets and show them where to find them.

  15. @SciGuy, You are right about the transition period. It would be messy for a little while, as students got used to riding bicycles.

    Wouldn't it be so wonderful though?

  16. Hey again 5th Grade Sci Guy!

    So, my examples were of the kids that had “facilitators,” but the rest of the students did not. They were working independently, in pairs, or groups. The kids who did have “facilitators” were empowered to connect on their own. One of my contentions is that we should be helping students develop personal learning networks. This would enable them to own the learning. They could learn alone, with peers, with the help of their parents or teachers or they could find others (if necessary) to learn from/with. I know many teachers who have their own strong PLNs and are great at sending out some tweets to get students mentors. Skype now has a educator network that provides experts to connect with students too. And, perhaps most exciting in the 21st century is that kids can connect with others with common interests, talents and abilities. Also, with all the free resources on the internet in general and the OER movement in general there are limitless resources available for free and on demand.

    It is well know that dependency learning dampens students desire to own learning and become trailblazers in pursuing their passions, but I’ve seen first-hand what happens when we empower students to discover their talents. Sure, in the beginning, for SOME, we may need to discuss safety gear, and ensure there is someone to push them away from the curb (it doesn’t always have to be the teacher), but at some point we need to let go. As I’ve shared here on my blog, at first they’re scared and don’t believe in themselves but at some point during the year, they are excited and take great pride in sharing their talents. Isn’t that the learning we want for our kids?

    For an example of this listen to Phil At 00:51 he shares that when he first got to The Island School which follows a talent model, he was afraid he wasn’t going to find anything that he would be able to do. The school tells students they’re all talented, even if they’ve never been told and don’t know it yet. Most kids shared the same sentiment when they initially arrived to the school. No one had ever told them they were talented. They were taught not to believe. Listen to how the school embraced Armond’s passion for busses Our kids ALL have talents, drive and initiative. Unfortunately, in many cases, the issue is that the roadblock is actually school.

  17. I can be on board with not giving grades, but instead giving feedback that highlights the things the student does well and the areas they need to make improvements on. I dislike grades simply because there is nothing that describes what an A is and how it relates to an A anywhere else. (Other places have national rubrics where an A means this, and a B means this, so it means more to the university entrance process than here and actually describes what the student can do - I'd be for instituting something similar)

    I disagree that students should act like a free market and choose which teacher's classes they will take. There are plenty of very good teachers out there who don't try to make their classroom a song and dance routine who would probably not be chosen in this model and a lot of students who would miss out on their expertise because the "fun factor" would win out over thorough learning. I know plenty of students at my last school who would have chosen my classroom over my department heads, but she was definitely the better teacher. I myself choose "easy" professors for courses when I had the choice instead of the one who I could learn the most from.

    There has been a plethora of innovation in today's world from students who sat in classrooms much like the ones you want to get rid of - so I don't think this is any sort of panacea. I also think you too often highlight the exceptions, rather than the rule.

  18. @Jessica,
    What is wrong with a fun teacher? I would pick that over one who knows it all. It's not the 19th century where I need my teacher to transfer information into my head. I want to learn cool stuff and have fun doing it. There may be students who want the expert teacher. That's okay too. Why not let them choose? Who cares if someone chooses an easy professor. The student owns the learning. If they want to learn, the professor is just a part of the equation. Perhaps like me, you choose an easy professor to have some autonomy in your learning. Kids spend 12 years in mostly classes they never signed up for taught by people they never selected and may not connect with. Why not give them some freedom and choice. Most schools/teachers have never tried so they make the worst assumptions about students.

    Did you know there are many schools where students do get to choose their teachers and that it works really well?

    You talk about the classrooms I want to get rid of. What I want to get rid of is environments where kids don't have the opportunities to explore and develop passions talents and interests. Much of the innovation in today's world did not come from test-prep mania classrooms of today where in communities like mine about 50% of the kids there drop out, many who stay are there but find learning irrelevant and boring.

    You think I highlight the exceptions rather than the rule. You are absolutely right. The rule today is traditional schools that are disconnected from the world. I highlight many connected and passion-driven learning environments. This is the exception today, but I hope that will change.

  19. @Jessica, I know the free market system for teachers sounds crazy, but I also know that it works, as Lisa pointed out. An expert does not necessarily make a good teacher, and in fact, I believe the only person who can judge whether a teacher is good is each learner himself. Some children would choose to learn from someone who didn't do a "song and dance," others wouldn't. But no child should have to try to learn from someone who is mean or extremely boring, whether that kind of teacher is the exception or the rule.

    Also, "easy" wouldn't be an issue if there were no grades. All that would matter would be interest!

  20. I just thought of something else also: if teachers were only teaching to kids who wanted to learn the material, they wouldn't have to try so hard to make it interesting. All they would have to do is not ruin it by being unpleasant!

  21. Schools are used as propaganda houses for all kinds of interests, creating less light and more heat totally contrary to an atmosphere appropriate for actual, you know, learning useful skills like critical thinking, scientific discovery, or appropriate personal interaction for productive project creation.

    Maybe public education, not governmental education, is what we need. Anyone else remember the "Free Schools" -- people who actually care enough to put action to their concerns can put together teaching cells, mutual homeschooling, neighborhood learning centers -- whatever you like.

    We ought to be heading toward a time when no one goes to college, but we have facilities for lifelong learning.

    The basics, structures for hanging learning – reading, writing, basic math, critical thinking, legal philosophy, cultural history, citizen responsibility, scientific method, business practices, resource management, interpersonal behavior, physical training – team projects that utilize the skills being modeled and explained, team teachers available to work with students individually and with teams to help them organize, acquire resources, find answers to their questions, mediate disputes, give encouragement and useful critique. Make use of the resources available in the immediate environment (libraries, museums, infrastructure, parks, businesses, government offices, natural environments, people willing to share their knowledge).

    Develop flexible structuring; respond to the immediate; keep it real.

  22. How come the only person I really agree with is named ANONYMOUS (who said "IMO, one of the core functions of education is to give citizens a shared core of knowledge...") Is this view taboo? Will such a wild thinker be fired?

    Seems to me all the reforms for the past 100 years have all added up to the same thing: "THAT?? We don't need to teach THAT."

    Bruce Deitrick Price

  23. @Bruce, Are you saying that "to give citizens a shared core of knowledge" is already the goal of education, or that it should be?

    If you are saying it is the goal currently, it is not evident to me that it is doing a very good job. First of all, the "core of knowledge" it tries to give every child is way too large. Why does everyone need to know how to do polynomial long division or how to balance a chemical equation? Also, schools don't evaluate very well who knows what. Many tests are poor indicators of knowledge. I can sit with a child during a tutoring session, and see that he "knows" the material, and then he brings home a failing test grade. There is something wrong with that. The other problem is, schools don't even make sure that everyone knows the material they teach. They check the students with tests, but even if some students supposedly fail to learn a topic, the class still moves on.

    If you are saying it should be the goal of education, I disagree. I don't think it is possible to "give knowledge" to someone else. I think we can offer information or access to knowledge, but the amount of knowledge a person actually "gets" will be limited by what he wants to know.

    What are these things that have been taken out of the curriculum by reform over the past 100 years? It seems to me that we are basically teaching the same things, in mostly the same ways. Most of the "core curriculum" doesn't look that different to me, and if anything I think we are teaching even more things that are unnecessary for most people to know, as the school days and years have been extended.

  24. So interesting how paths cross.
    I found this blog by Googling REFORMING REFORM which I liked as a new strapline for my project ChangeTheFuture.

    I really like your ideas Vickie! And those of many of your readers :]
    I went to one of England's 2 democratic schools. Not Summerhill, but the lesser-known Sands school in Devon.

    There, adults had absolutely no more power than the students in any decision making. A weekly school meeting was chaired by a student (as young as 11) and then agenda (which anyone can write on at any point) is read out and the floor is handed to whoever raised the issue. Anyone can propose anything, so long as it's not illegal, it will be voted on; with one vote each.

    I remember discussing at great length whether or not we should do GCSEs. In the end we realised that while our school didn't have to be a train, many of life's opportunities were only accessible at train stations, using train tracks.

    Now I've left the school, my life ambition is to dissolve the entire education system as we know it. The entire thing; I want it all to be up for debate. Too many people who play a part in UK education have forgotten how different it could be, because it's difficult to imagine what you've never seen.
    However, I don't have all the answers...
    I just know there's a better way of creating answers, and that's by organizing the only group of people who are qualified to do this:
    And the way of organizing them is ChangeTheFuture. I hope : ]

    Despite having worked on a voluntary basis for about 5 years on this project, it's still mostly just an enormous collection of website designs, algorithms, research and sketches, but we've finally got funding now to build a prototype and we'd love the input of anyone interested in how we're harnessing the modern internet to create a viable tool for reforming reform! x