Time, Space, and Assessment

mind blown

In the words of my fellow Iowa BIG faculty, “We are no longer bound by time and space.”

For me, this has always been true, but it’s finally been honored as a part of my work day! I’d like to take some time to unpack what may be the most ridiculous comment I’ve ever believed in.

Ed reform is a wasted effort. Every ed-leader-thinker-guru wants to tell you how outdated our school model is, but discussion on transformation is often nebulous at best. At its worst, it’s a drawn out conversation in hotel ball room that ends with everyone wondering if an “action item” is a concept from a dream and not reality.

For Iowa BIG, the discussion of education transformation begins at about 10,000 feet. We feel that we need to address fundamentally different solutions to the sociology of human groups, and then observe the kind of educational experiences that fall out of those solutions.

Here’s the list of design areas that we focus our fidelity towards:

  • Time: How do we ration the uncontrollable 4th dimension?
  • Space: Where physically are the humans in our school, and what do those spaces inspire us to do?
  • Assessment: How do the humans in our school know that they are on track, and whose track is worth being on?
  • Basic Needs: Do our humans feel safe, actualized, fed, and listened to?


In most schools, time is defined by classes that govern the rest of the day. Choice is the scarcest commodity and therefore the most valued and hoarded. This does result in an apparently efficient delivery of content and an insurance-pleasing level of control.

At BIG we try to make “class time” the scarce commodity, thus increasing its value. Our students have about 50% of their time left to their own devices. The other 50% is scheduled into team meetings (usually about 3/week for each kiddo).

We allow our students (until we can’t) to use that 50% time how they wish. We also help them reflect on the use of that time. What does studying look like for you? Why are you coming to group meetings with little done? Why is “waiting for an email response” a terrible way to spend a day?

Students also spend their time identifying what percentage of our 3-pronged content delivery model they prefer. Students interact in varying quantities with content delivered in context through projects and initiatives, teacher-led seminars, and flipped video content. Again, reflection on these choices is as important as the actual content.


Iowa BIG’s main campus is located in a co-working space. We share that space with dozens of entrepreneurs, real estate agents, lawyers, accountants, graphic designers, and many others.

The larger building that houses our space is home to a $20M web design firm, a cafe, and a start-up accelerator.

The neighborhood that houses our building is home to an open market, locally-owned businesses, restaurants, and a bike/pedestrian centric lifestyle.

Choosing the space where your school lives is not as arbitrary as finding the cheapest land on which to build a beige-and-brick box with a gym; you have to pick an ecosystem that will persistently deliver the vibe you want your students to adopt.

Finally, and this is touchy, I have to admit that our use of space quells 99% of any behavior issues that may otherwise have arisen. The building’s student:adult is something like 1:2. BIG’s student:teacher is 32:1, but it’s the building that matters. The sociology of teenagers never dominates. The groupthink of the 16 year-old never (well, almost never) overpowers the palyful-yet-get-it-done mentality of the entrepreneur.


We index all of our students directly (with no abstraction layer or curriculum mapping) back to the standards adopted by our state and district. In our case, we’re beholden to the Common Core, Iowa CORE, and the NGSS. We also use home-brewed maker standards, the Universal Constructs, and the national art standards.

This is often a huge sticking point when explaining BIG to other educators. They generally can’t imagine how a student’s spate of initiatives and projects could possibly deliver the same content that their AP class delivers. This leap of imagination often manifests as curiosity and less often–but more unfortunately–as derision.

Every morning at 9:00, the Iowa BIG staff assesses a minimum of three students. We crawl through the list of all 400 standards for each kid. We discuss the evidence we have in our BBQ system, our anecdotes, and our professional observations we’ve amassed on each student, and make a choice about each standard: “attempting”, “validated”, “validated twice”, “validate thrice”, and so on.

In this way we map standards validation back to “courses” e.g.: What one of our mothership high schools would call “Physics I” for us is 75% validation of NGSS “Motion & Stability”, “Energy”, “Engineering Design”, and a smattering from other lists.

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The beauty of this is that we track this data over the course of the student’s entire secondary career. We never reduce it to a letter or a number, those data are produced directly from our standards data, and the core data is never obscured. That’s a transformation, folks.

Basic Needs:

I can’t understate how much teachers care. The area that needs the least transformation from education professionals is Basic Needs. Teachers and Admins everywhere care. That said, certain solutions to Time, Space, and Assessment can undermine that.

We ask our students what their wins and worries are, daily. We ask them what’s on their resume, and what they want to tell potential interviewers. We ask them to think as far in the future as their maturity level can handle. All of these things complicate the goals of our projects and initiatives, but they create an army of lesson planners, so that’s cool.

We also cook and eat with our students. Our cafe is shared by our building, and is used by dozens of students, teachers, and professionals each day. The cafe has a full service kitchen. We make things. It smells like roasting vegetables. Ramen gets boiled. Bread gets broken. I underestimated how important this aspect would be, now I couldn’t live without it.

We can do it!

So, if you’re unhappy with your school, or deliriously happy, either way, I challenge to you define your solutions to these four design areas. It helps us stay truly parallel to the existing system without giving in too much to institutional inertia.