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.

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Shawn Cornally • November 11, 2012

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