Thursday, September 8, 2016

Giving every student an A on the first day

I spent a large chunk of last spring and the summer designing my new Grand Challenge Design course, and one of the sizable thought-sinks was figuring out grading.  I had zillions of rubrics I could design from, but after watching this video by Benjamin Zander, I just couldn't get it out of my head.  Skip the first 30 seconds of fluff.  If you don't have time for the whole thing, watch at least the first 5 minutes.

My college partner-in-crime, Marco, recommended it to me along with other course feedback.  Zander is a well-known conductor and music teacher out in Boston who speaks about possibilities.  His TED talk looks at the change in worldview between the approaches of:

  • "Only 3% of people like classical music.  If only we can increase that to 4%."  vs.
  • "Everybody likes classical music!  They just don't know it yet!"

The energy with that kind of thinking is contagious.  That's why his idea to give every student an A, then teach the student to become an A student, had a fascinating logic to it.  By getting the grade out of the way immediately, students could stop operating in the extrinsic / comparator mode and have nothing left but learning to seek.  The expectations do not go down in this environment -- they actually go up for everyone.  They have to if everyone is actually an A student.

As I kept thinking about it, this approach is not that uncommon.  I am given a paycheck every two weeks with the same amount regardless of the quality of my work.  When I do good work, I am encouraged to keep doing it.  When I do bad work, my peers and admin help me clean things up and make it good.  The expectation is that I do great work, and so when things falter, I get help, not a pay decrease.  If things are working correctly, except for occasional bumps in the road, I will be earning the money I have already been promised.  Even 2000 years ago Jesus started grading with this kind of system, handing out unquestioned grace first and then fixing people up from that point forward, so the idea has been around for a long time.  Despite this, it is just SO different than school has ever operated.

I have never been afraid of change or trying out crazy things, and I went into this plan feeling pretty good.  When I told the students, they were a bit skeptical, but I convinced them that all they had to do was write me a letter (that I would of course have to consider acceptable), and they would have an A for the quarter that I would absolutely not revert.  I did make it clear that, if needed, I would ask for extra time, call parents, etc. as extrinsic tools to support learning, and that if a student completely gave up I would ask him or her to drop the course.  Despite these minor caveats, after laying out the plan for them, I was feeling pretty vulnerable.

It wasn't until the second night after school started that I had a hard time falling asleep.  WHAT HAD I DONE?!?  What would other teachers and administrators say?  What would parents say?  What if students took advantage and didn't push themselves to learn and grow?  Is this the kind of thing that gets people banished to the no-friends corner for being too far out there?  I value my peers and work with an amazing group of teachers, and yet I never felt confident enough to discuss my plan with them before I just publically committed to it in front of my students.  What was I thinking?  Was I thinking?

Since the plan is now in motion, and there isn't much I can do to stop it for the next 2 months until the quarter ends, I'm going to do my best to capture the ups and down on the blog.  Today, I introduced the letter-writing assignment, the one where students date the letter at the end of the year and start with "Mr. Pethan, I deserve an A because...".  I asked them to write as much as they needed to in order to help me understand who they are and who they want to become.  I will use the letters to figure out how to best teach each person so they grow and learn and develop into that amazing person they write about.  I will also use the letters right away to find every student their own mentor for the year, a mix of awesome people that I know locally and around the country (possibly world) from college and other experiences.  Even though students are self-selecting into teams that will develop different parts of the course right now, I will use the letters to redirect and shuffle those groups to better help them reach their long-term goals.

My plan is to make sure that every student in my class DESERVES the A they received.  The fact that they knew they got it on day 1 is irrelevant.  If students all learn many meaningful skills and can tell that powerful story of transformation, nobody will question their grade.  Deep down, I know I went forward with this plan because it aligns with everything I know about human motivation, creativity, autonomy, and mentorship.  I really believe that grading in this class would have killed passion and brave new ideas in favor of checking the boxes that get an A.  This plan is the best thing I know how to do right now, and as a one-quarter pilot, I have a long-term out if the concept is truly flawed.  I'm excited, optimistic, and above-all, terrified.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Real World Learning

I am now entering the 4th of 5 courses in my Winona State Innovative Instructional Leadership Certificate program: "Real World Learning Design".  It comes at a good time for me as I am up to my eyeballs in the creation of Grand Challenge Design, a course intended to create a very meaningful and real-world learning experience for students.  Prof Jen's first task is to answer, and defend, the five questions below about the meaning and purpose of real-world learning.

What is your definition of “real world learning”?  

I liked the definitions from EdGlossary and the Schools We Need Project as starting points:

"Connecting what students are taught in school to real-world issues, problems, and applications...learning mirrors real-life contexts, equips them with practical and useful skills, and addresses topics that are relevant and applicable to their lives outside of school" -- EdGlossary

It includes the following key attributes:
"Having a real audience for work.
Contextualizing locally, but connecting globally.
Projects and problems are based on themes of social significance and personal interest"
 -- Schools We Need Project

I would extend these by saying that it is the kind of learning we would encourage others to pursue in a world without schools.  In many cases, the work would tie to industry, but it would also involve going deep into areas of passion that may not be especially useful in a profession.  Students should get out of the classroom to interact with people who are likely more passionate and experienced than the teacher in the given area.  The teacher's role in this environment is to act as the central hub of many relationships that students engage in, not the content expert in each area.

What are the specific elements that can make learning  “real world”?

The Real World Learning Network's five-finger model ( offers a helpful starting point of key elements: understanding, transferability, experience, empowerment, and values.

  • Understanding -- identify the concepts key to understanding a topic.
  • Transferability -- ensure that the topic fits in to many areas of life (this enables connections across the brain and increased relevance).
  • Experience -- touch, see, hear, smell, taste, and emotionally feel the situation (simply reading or watching is not enough).
  • Empowerment -- ability to take action around topic for positive change (understand problems AND work on solutions).
  • Values -- show empathy and care for other people, future generations, and the Earth.

What does the “real world” look like specifically (for Grand Challenge Design students in 2016)?

The Grand Challenges for Engineering include problems like "provide universal access to clean water", "advance health informatics", and "restore urban infrastructure".  They are the problems that a wide variety of future engineers will need to work on in order to maintain and improve life on Earth.  These real-world engineers come are all problem-solvers, but they may have received their training from very diverse fields.  The social sciences offer a power lens for understanding people and their experiences.  The physical sciences give humanity a deeper understanding of our environment and how it works.  Engineers are experienced in setting design constraints and designing and testing solutions to a problem.  Entrepreneurs use a value-centric mindset to identify which aspects of an idea matter to people and find a way to sustain the idea through production.

The "real world" in the GCD topic areas is not about a single field, but a team-based approach to try to better understand key challenges and work together to develop and spread effective solutions.  They need to develop the common skills that employers already value (percentages based on NACE):

  • Leadership 80.1% 
  • Ability to work in a team 78.9% 
  • Communication skills (written) 70.2% 
  • Problem-solving skills 70.2% 
  • Communication skills (verbal) 68.9% 
  • Strong work ethic 68.9%

What are the opportunities and challenges when providing K-12 students real world learning experiences?   Do all students benefit?

Often, real-world learning leaves students in charge of many aspects of their learning.  The problem with this?  A lack of control.  As a teacher, I like to keep 30 spreadsheets that track every micro-detail of where students are at in a known progression of learning, making it easier for me to provide feedback and next steps.  Planned progressions with detailed feedback have their place as efficient and effective ways to pick up a new set of wanted skills.  When I want to learn something new, nothing beats a well designed course, especially if it is self-paced and available from home on-demand.  However, in many cases students are not interested in the skills that school schedules drop in front of them, so they disengage.

When letting go, students have the opportunity to do fascinating things that you could have never planned for them, especially when they engage with expert mentors who offer guidance in their learning.  On the opposite end of the spectrum, students have more opportunities to get lost, give up, or coast without pushing themselves.  Unlike a good factory, there is a ton of variation and fewer tools to address the low-end of the achievement spectrum.

Another challenge in developing real-world learning experiences is the time required for teachers to set it up.  There is no textbook that you can purchase for meaningful opportunities in your subject area in your local community.  There is not a yellow pages for supportive mentors in every topic.  Teachers need to create and modify projects, meet many people in their community, and establish a lot of goodwill with others as they start asking for constant favors on behalf of their students.  I could not create the class I'm building right now without a minimum of 3-5 years of relationship-building in my district and community -- there are simply too many pieces that need to come together that rely on the incredible support of a village, not just a willing individual.

The upside, as a teacher, is that my work is incredibly fulfilling when I connect with experts in the community and form my own set of meaningful relationships.  At conferences, I get to talk to parents about the cool things their child is doing, not the deficiencies in their skills based on my last unit test.  I spend time with former students and local volunteers having fun while making new things on the weekend.  If I was spending all of my time focused on making sure students achieve in only a close-ended set of tasks without outside connections or creativity, I would fallen away from the profession in my first 5 years.  I've never been as excited to teach as I am this year, despite the very real possibility that it will be my hardest year as a teacher.