Scheduling Experiment: Manifesto and Solutions (Competency-Based Education)

Disclaimer: I’ve been reading Alfie Kohn. You’ve been warned.

Ever wonder what kids will do in an environment that strips away all of the backwards psychology that makes school so, well, umm, school?

I spend a lot of time complaining about this ineffably negative schooliness, so let me explain with an example:

At my school we a have a science fair. It’s sort of great; students pick their own questions, staff mentor them, and they present to judges from local institutions of higher learning. Sounds great, right? Especially because we’re super heavy into inquiry.

Well, the science fair just doesn’t work. The kids hate it. Some of them even forge their data. I won’t lie, some of them get into it, but most just end up choosing a project that’s easy enough to get done in the allotted time (e.g. How does caffeine affect heart rate). It turns into the exact opposite of what we want: dull, inane, to-be-avoided next year.

Not this bad, but not good either.

Why, though? Why!? I have a feeling it’s two things: Grades and time. We have an arms race in our school, and it’s culminated with mutually-assured destruction: The kids literally fail biology if they don’t do a good project. I think we all see the issue there.

But seriously, I’ve been attacking grading heavily for the past few years, and it’s now apropos to give scheduling a look.

I Said It, I Hate Classes:

I’m much less sure about this than I was about SBG when it started out. My hunch is that, if given the time, students will naturally want to learn about things that interest them. This is where most of us fall off the haunted hay-rack ride; either you’re looking into the future and are not ok with how much marijuana it’s going to take to buy into that, or you’ve already… well, the plants are the ground, man.

We can’t just open the doors and expect them to want to learn about conic sections, but we absolutely can expect them to be interested in astronomy. We also can absolutely trust professional educators to guide students in an interesting and project-based way towards the “drier” material, by making it necessary.

This last point is sadly ignored by most teachers, and the negligence inherent is for some reason accepted by students.

I must fix this.


A New Schedule: I laid out the schedule in my last post. We’ll be doing ALOT A LOT of messing around with this.

Colluder*: We’ll be using an online Post-It board to organize student- and teacher-initiated projects. Since we won’t have classes we’ll need some way to keep track of who’s doing what and why they’re doing it. People can leave comments on projects, join them, and indicate which standards they’re addressing.

The working title is “Colluder,” but we need something a little less nefarious. Ideas? Best one so far is “Bandwagon.” (Thanks @achmorrison)

Skeuomorphic Post-It Notes! EEEEEEE!

Progress Vault*: The new version of BlueHarvest is almost here, and it’s a little better than the paperclips-and-semicolons version I wrote last summer during the modeling conference I attended. I’m not into dropping names, but JQuery just happened.

Progress Vault keeps track of feedback given to individual students. It takes native video, audio, and stills. It holds hands with FERPA. Most importantly, it lets you concentrate on assessment instead of grades. (Not the same thing, it turns out)

Misconceptions Analysis: If it’s good enough for physics, it’s good enough for anything. Without misconceptions analysis, you can be pretty sure your educational initiative will fail. Here are the ones we’ll be fighting against:

  • (Parents) Nostalgia for seat time: You can’t blame people, it’s hard to imagine a world where your kids don’t go through the same opportunity-yielding experiences. Even if said experiences barely got you ready for said opportunities. We’ll be addressing this by showing examples of how much work students will have to do in order to be considered “competent.” Documents forthcoming.
  • (Students) Let’s do nothing! Secretly, I’m most terrified of this during my two experimental days. We’re doing a lot of prep for the students in our experiment. We’re getting them mentally ready as if they’ve already been doing competency-based ed for months now. Some are even thinking of projects they can do with two free days. Also, I’m smoking ribs for lunch on the second day. How long will they do nothing? Surely they will, as their minds transition. A day? A week? How long until this “experiment” becomes a joke? I don’t know. #scared
  • (Teachers) This will be sooooo much more work (IhateyouCornallystophavingideasoratleastgotoadifferentschoolandstopusingusasyourlab): Maybe it will be. How many projects will you be mentoring? I don’t know, but *cough* think about the supply & demand implications for teacher evaluation *cough*. We’ll be videoing content and serving it from our website, so that takes out the millions-of-reteaching-moments issue. The idea is that students will generate par-boiled ideas to meet competencies, and teachers will help finish the baking of these plans. Projects will be tracked using “Colluder” and there may be even a separate assessment corps of teachers dedicated to having third party checks-and-balances–I took government in 2002!– in the competency granting process.

* These are shameless plugs for products my company best friend and I are coding. If you’re interested in using these tools in your classroom, stay tuned. We’re about to blow the lid off. Yes I want to train your staff; shoot me an email (shawn[dot]thinkthankthunk – gmail) I work for gas money and organic produce.