Dealing with the fear of being a boring teacher.


Competency-Based Education in Iowa, Down the Pike it Comes

This Tuesday I’ll be meeting with a legislative committee dedicated to bringing about some mind-blowingly progressive changes to the way we teach here in Iowa.

Just to be clear, they asked for crazy; so they gon’ get craycray.

Here are the problems we want to solve

  1. Students find little academic agency in the school day. To the point of rejecting it when it’s finally offered to them (college)
  2. Students do not find anything interesting, even when it is, in fact, something interesting.
  3. Teachers believe that students automatically care about their curriculum for a myriad of psychologically baffling reasons.
  4. Despite most educator’s best efforts, public school manages to come across as a place to learn and repeat procedures rather than to explore ideas.
  5. Parents have no idea how to help their students learn, so they’re forced to rely on crappy metrics like grades and ACT scores to somehow feel involved.

Legislation, Really? Yes:

  1. Students need to be free to use their school day to complete narratives. This implies blowing up the traditional schedule and its associated Carnegie credits.
  2. Students, from an early age, need to see a system that goes something like:
    1. interesting idea → good question → work that’s fun → failure → more work → some mix of demonstrable and ineffable learning → educator helps systematically record this → possibly repeat.
    2. We currently use the following system: teacher initiates content → some students memorize this random content because they have fast brains, most flounder → teacher assesses → grades demoralize or embolden students depending on the speed at which they learn (not their actual potential)
  3. Legislators need to free up money and resources to help teachers become more interesting, varied, and less tied to classroom management and assessment. We need more educators with varied roles. Some people who only help with instruction, some who only help build/program, some who only help assess, some who only deal with psychological issues. I currently do all of those things, and I take home (after taxes and benefits) about $650/month to show for it.
  4. Students do not have time (again, bell schedules) to investigate anything. Teachers often attempt to let this happen–I know, I try–but we are often crushed under the weight of what we must “teach.” Let’s take a hint from Singapore and gut our curricula. Yes, I’m looking at you Regent’s test-writing “accountability” hawks; you’re crapping the bed.
  5. Finally, parents need to regain their station as primary educational officer in their students’ lives. The school is, at best, a supplement for the experiences that only a parent can tailor for their child. The way that we present curriculum forces parents (and other community members) out and creates a babysitting mentality for schools. What if my job was redefined as someone who gets to know families, so that I can support what they’re learning/doing at home? That’d be awesome, no? Finally, so much ink has been spilled over test scores that I refuse to write about them, here. Just go read Hooray for Diffendoofer Day (Seuss)

Ok, let’s put down the peyote long enough to explain what this would actually look like. Ok, fine.

Here’s what teachers do:

On a daily basis, teachers would monitor an online post-it board where students develop projects and teachers raise their hands as experts. Community members and parents have access to this board as well.

Students have access to a database of all the best ideas, papers, derivations, etc… indexed by learning targets and content standards.

Teachers also spend a huge amount of time presenting fundamental questions from their fields. At 9:00 Mr. Cornally will be attempting to answer the question of why bacon is so awesome. The answer is interesting from a chemistry, marketing, food production, and evolutionary stand point. After this session, students are free to pose questions and investigations, and Mr. Cornally is free to sign up as their expert guide. These questions turn into investigations, and last something from 2 days – 2 weeks, depending on the depth of the question and content standards attached. This is the quanta of what we’re talking about: teachers and students decide what and how much work needs to be done to get kids to point that is proficient, but it’s bigger than that; to get to a point where a question is answered.

At 10:30, Mrs. Shizek will be talking about the election. At 11:15, Mr. Brown on ACL tears; 1:30, Star Wars and the Odyssey. It’s endless! All of the prompts are recorded and served by the school.

Teachers prep these inspirational stems and work with groups of students all day. I can get behind that. WoooEeee!

Teachers may also work on an assessment corps. These teachers are not the people who taught the students, these teacher’s goals are to give a third party critique of the student’s abilities so that there can be checks and balances in a system that so badly needs them. So, I’ve been working with this group on rainwater reclamation for weeks, and we’ve neglected to measure pH. Someone aught to be in on that doing a little quality control. The assessor also decides who gets what credit, but more about that later.

Here’s what students do:

The student’s job is the most natural. Just ask good questions. Come to school and wonder about something for a hot second. Go seek out people who can help you answer your questions, and spend your time building a portfolio that shows you know what you know. Grading and ranking become obsolete in favor of a much more rigorous form of binary assessment. Students don’t stop working until they’ve actually satiated themselves on a topic, which is what most people call, um, learning.

Students still go to school from 8-3, but their time is used more naturally. Meetings with teachers are scheduled as needed instead of lock-step daily, whether the student is ready to move on or not. A school might wish to add a little more dreadlocks-and-flower-power to this, and choose to have open hours; maybe daily from 6-9, and teachers and students schedule everything online. That’d be fun too.

Sure, some students may do nothing, but these students are already doing nothing and getting credit for it under the guise of seat time. What a joke. Let’s identify those kids, get them the psychological help they need, and then plug them in to something awesome as soon as possible.

Here’s what parents do:

Parents design experiences that spark their kids’ interests. Students can easily miss a day of school for something useful, like job shadowing or taking a trip. Students learn to see these not a reprieves from drudgery but as experiences that can enhance the projects they’re currently working on.

Going skiing in Colorado? That’s a physics project, son. Doing something in your “real life?” Let’s honor that with credit in school.

Parents will have to give up GPA as a way to monitor progress, but modern IT has fantastic ways of communicating large amounts of data.

Here’s what admins do:

Admins spend their time with the students who don’t get it. They already do this, but they have the wrong conversations. Currently, admins spend a lot of their time doling out punishment for less than complicit behavior. Now, they spend their time finding out what’s wrong with students who “don’t like anything.” These students are easily identified because their portfolios are empty, and they project boards are bare.

They also allocate funding for projects that are awesome. Instead of spending the same budget on the same crappy books and labs, they hand out money as student projects blossom under teacher guidance.

Oh, you need $500 for some Helium and a weather balloon? Done. I bet you can guess how something like this gets done currently. (my paycheck)

Here’s what assessment looks like:

In the end you’re all going to say the same thing: They won’t do anything.

First of all, yes they will. Second of all, have faith, yes they will.

When students are assessed humanely, that is, given a chance to show what they know, and given the chance to work on negative space they may have, it’s astonishing how quickly school stops sucking.

Assessment in this system is binary. Students either get it or they don’t. Students become inspired by something (teachers, lectures, online resources, parents, the news, whatever), they work with a teacher to bring their idea to fruition, and practice skills needed to do so. Assessors identify negative space, and the original team works to put something together that an audience would actually care about.

Students are given periodic reassessments to check for retention of key ideas. These reassessments are generated by assessment corps staff, and are administered semi-randomly. Students are always free to initiate a reassessment. Schools would control this, but I imagine a three-and-you-got-it system, where the first is the initial project.

Students are given final transcripts that list the amount of experience they’ve gained in the common areas. Students don’t graduate until these experiences match up to what we think of as competency in our current four-year track. This may take some students 1 year and some 6, but the goal is not speed, it’s quality.

Student’s experiences are translated, by educators, into credits of Physics, or English, or whatever, and then a transcript is calculated. This system can be tinkered with by individual districts, but the beauty is that they all share the Common Core (or Iowa Core) and they all are eventually beholden to the ACT or SAT, whose parents companies are working diligently to write better tests. I know, I live less than a mile from ACT HQ.


A rural school, with limited human capital, gains a lot of their inspirational material from online sources; mostly other schools in Iowa whose educators are posting lectures, demos, questions, and what have you.

A student watches a TED talk about video games and psychology. The students gets a group of his peers together and approaches a social studies teacher about replicating the study that the speaker mentioned. They want to see if people who play more video games are more persistent at novel tasks than those who don’t.

At first the teacher balks, because she thinks video games are lame, but then realizes there’s a metric boat-ton of stuff to be learned here. The teachers asks the students to make a list of all the learning targets they think this study will touch. The teacher makes a list too. They vet the lists between each other, and they refine the investigation to attack those better:

  • Physiology of the cardiovascular system – measuring heart rate and sweat gland responses as participants attempt the task. Students are also asked to prepare an introduction that explains why these measures are worth taking.
  • Conditioning – the students connect central psychology vocab through this obvious connection to their investigation.
  • Confidence intervals, averages, stdev – Tons of stats become necessary to analyze their data.
  • Not to mention the ineffable standards that include: organizing, teaming, planning, and other logistics which are so central to actually being a functioning human being (and are often left out of normal schooling.)

As high schoolers tend to do, the first go-round has by far too few subjects and has a few glaring procedural errors. Not to mention their introduction to the cardiovascular system is obviously lifted heavy-handedly from the Wikipedia.

The assessing teacher (not the instructing teacher) points this out either in person, or through an online environment (Like BlueHarvest or Canvas), and the students set off to fix their issues. Students are prevented from laundry-list spamming this system by having to schedule into limited blocks of the assessing teacher’s time.

The project eventually finishes, and is published and sent to the original TED talk presenter. The presenter Tweets the project, and it gets several hundred YouTube comments, most congratulatory, some negative, and some genuinely helpful for extending the project into other content standards.

See You on Tuesday:

You wanted crazy. Short of living in a commune, this is what I’ve got.

Shawn Cornally • November 11, 2012

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  1. 2000 dollar loan July 18, 2013 - 1:02 am

    thanks for all your efforts that you simply have put within this. Incredibly exciting facts. He whom despairs above an event is any coward, but they who holds a cure for the specific condition could be a fool. by Albert Camus.

  2. Hollie Dresel July 17, 2013 - 6:55 am

    I think other site proprietors should take this site as an model, very clean and great user friendly style and design, let alone the content. You are an expert in this topic!

  3. Cate Barker January 14, 2013 - 4:23 pm

    Sign me up!

    – Parent of a 17- and 21-year-old who haven’t enjoyed school since 5th grade.

  4. Sherrie Nackel December 2, 2012 - 9:35 am

    You’ve blown my mind, in the best way possible of course!

  5. Adam C November 22, 2012 - 4:39 pm

    Cornally: I’d love to take part in these conversations with you if there is open invitations??? Let me know if I can help be a voice.

  6. Angela Olsen November 15, 2012 - 9:38 pm

    Have you given much thought to the state eligibility requirements? What if a kid takes the “longer” track to get there? Say perhaps a student takes the 6 year route, as discussed in your article…are they ineligible at any point by the state standards? Just curious how you will address that? Will kids still be able to fail (transcript) wise? I LOVE the ideas you have presented and hope the legislation goes as maybe that would solve some of these “old school” issues – like a transcript, credits, letter grades for GPA, etc.

  7. Keshia Fields November 15, 2012 - 12:05 am

    I definitely agree to changing the education system and the environment in how students learn, but I am on the fence about the different teachers that would be assisting the student. One or two that is fine, but more than that may result in the student not knowing who to turn to, or who does what, what they can ask or say to that individual, etc. This may result in the student being closed off instead of being open in an environment which calls for active participation. Besides that, I am totally open to your proposal! Sounds like it would promote interest which is key in learning. If you are interested, you want to learn!

  8. Justin Lanier November 14, 2012 - 7:04 pm


    Can’t wait to hear how it went, Shawn!

  9. Julie November 14, 2012 - 2:12 pm

    My now 15 year old son was one of “those kids” who didn’t like anything about public school and was constantly shamed and punished because he wouldn’t meekly conform and color inside the lines. We left the public school system 7 years ago to homeschool and ended up with an education designed very much like what you’ve just described.

    We’ve tapped all sorts of community resources, relatives, online classes, and books galore to answer his questions and follow his lead in learning and discovering what he is interested in. He doesn’t know how to raise his hand to ask a question, sit criss-cross applesauce, or bubble in little circles on a scantron sheet, but he’s curious, polite, happy, well-adjusted, and yes, educated.

  10. Nick November 14, 2012 - 11:11 am

    After sitting through a presentation about the new Ohio Teacher Evaluation System, I wanted to smash my face into the brick wall. For some reason this post made me feel better about education. Thanks.

  11. Christian Renaud November 14, 2012 - 9:18 am

    You just described the startup environment we created downtown. Start a school like that, and I’ll transfer my kids from Johnston tomorrow.

  12. Kelly Holman November 14, 2012 - 1:39 am

    This rocks. I can’t believe they asked for crazy. I sure hope they listen.

    It sounds like you’re saying the adults should all have compartmentalized roles. It seems like it would work better if they all overlap, especially the instructing teacher and the assessing teacher. I’ve noticed that tutoring makes me a better teacher, and vice versa, and I think the same would apply here. Not instructing and assessing the same students, but you instruct some groups and assess others.

    When kids are working in a group, do you expect they should all learn the same things? I imagine them possibly focusing on different aspects of the project and earning credit in different areas. Teams in the real world are heterogeneous, because otherwise why would the members need each other?

    And yes, absolutely, to parents being the primary educators. Sometimes parents try, and are pushed out, because no matter their talents or insights, they’re not Certified Teachers. That’s so wrong-minded it makes me want to scream.

    • Brendan Murphy November 14, 2012 - 1:30 pm

      Perhaps for one group you can be the assessing teacher, but for another group you can be the instructing teacher.

      • Leif Segen November 16, 2012 - 6:35 am


  13. Deron Durflinger November 13, 2012 - 12:54 pm


    Love the post. Let’s pretend there is a school willing to try to make this type of system a reality (Van Meter), what do you think should be the first three things the district should put in place to make this happen?

    P.S. I hope you are more energized about the potential changes after your meeting today as you were going into your meeting.


  14. Kieron Boyle November 12, 2012 - 9:42 pm

    Inspiring. This is what I want my classroom to become . . . thanks for letting me in to see the possibilities . . . very motivating!

  15. Kate Nowak November 12, 2012 - 6:34 pm

    Ummm I might have to move to Iowa.


  16. Janet Rundquist (@ProfeJMarie) November 12, 2012 - 6:54 am

    I love this model and currently as an online teacher, I feel like this is just the sort of shift that could get me back into the face-to-face classroom. I definitely appreciate this comment in your “assessment” section: “In the end you’re all going to say the same thing: They won’t do anything.First of all, yes they will. Second of all, have faith, yes they will.” I agree.

    I am inclined to believe that most student projects/investigations naturally lead to covering most standards, but in those high school years, especially, students will continue to gravitate towards similar questions, which will expand their depth, but not necessarily their breadth.

    So here is my short-sighted question. What if, in the student-initiated questions and projects, certain standards continue to get overlooked? What is our role as teacher, facilitator, third-party assessor, or whatever, to guide students in this direction? What is the vision for this?

    • Shawn Cornally November 12, 2012 - 11:41 am

      I think that’s an awesome question. I see the role of the teacher switching from presenter to instigator. I don’t see why a teacher can’t just have an Arduino set up one day with a sign that says, “Hey, this is freaking awesome. Want to learn how it works?” This touches a lot of open nerves, because people have all sorts of prejudices about what kind of student will attempt certain kinds of work. In the end, we’re all beholden to list of common content standards, and the students know that too, to me, the freedom of when and how are enough for me to learn, and my students seem to like it too.

      • Janet Rundquist (@ProfeJMarie) November 13, 2012 - 6:35 pm

        Ah – and then our related instigation step might be, what do you think about the novel, The Bar Code Tattoo by Suzanne Weyn and her vision of how science and technology could determine our fate in the future?

        I can see this.

  17. Fawn Nguyen November 12, 2012 - 12:46 am

    Good luck and have fun, Shawn. My favorite: “When students are assessed humanely, that is, given a chance to show what they know, and given the chance to work on negative space they may have, it’s astonishing how quickly school stops sucking.”

  18. algebrainiac November 11, 2012 - 11:09 pm

    Wow!!!! So well said and organized. I LOVE it! It might actually help me explain it better to parents and students who are currently confused. Good Luck with your talk!

  19. Sean Wilkinson November 11, 2012 - 10:37 pm

    Go get ‘em!

  20. Jason Ellingson November 11, 2012 - 10:32 pm


    I want to sit at your table on Tuesday!

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