2013-14 Microsoft Expert Educator

Along with 256 colleagues from 158 countries around the world, 30 of which are from the U.S.A. I am honored to have been invited to spend the next year working with some of the most innovative teachers on the globe. These teachers see a different way forward in education and have found ways to push the envelope in their own schools.

My project submission was based on “The anti-exam”. It is one of the things I am very passionate about. I think that the way schools tend to do exams is a system which does not meet most of the objectives we say/think/assume it does.

Here is the video submission I made as part of my application.

Wanna know more about the Expert Educator Program?

What is my philosophy of education and what do I believe is the key to striving towards excellence in the classroom?

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The Role of the Teacher

I have a very simple question for you: “What is your job as a teacher?”

Is it to teach the kids math formulas, battles dates, English literature, or vocabulary words? They will learn whatever you ask them to…in fact they have to because you are going to test them on it. Is it success if your kids come through your class, do well on every homework and test and make an A, yet have no connection with what you teach? How many of your students walk out of your class after the exam thinking “thank God that’s done!” ? In the same spirit, have you ever had a student who struggled in your class, but loved it and left class every day with a smile?

is math class simply learning formulas?

If you are a math teacher, the reason you are teaching them Algebra is not to prepare them for Algebra 2, it is open up their eyes to the beautiful world of math. If you are a language teacher, the reason you are teaching them French 1 is not so they can enter French 2…it is so they see the beauty of speaking another language, and the culture that surrounds that language. If you are a Computer Science teacher, the reason you teach them for-loops and arrays is not so they can do well on the AP exam, it is so they can create things and turn their ideas into something real on the digital screen in front of them.

If our job as a teacher is simply to tell them what to know, when to know it, and even how to know it, then where in that do we allow learning for learning sake? In fact, if that’s all you do, put it all on handout and just pass it out early in the year and don’t make them come to class. Are state standards what drive your lessons and lesson plans? Where is the passion, both for the teacher and student? “Kids today are not passionate about anything”, you say? Maybe that’s because you’ve never given them a chance to dive into your class. Maybe it’s because in their classes— standards, quizzes, and grades are what drive the class—not passion. How often do students leave you class, even when it’s really hard, thinking “Wow, that was awesome!”

Can they feel the electricity in your classes?

It’s easy for some students. They love your subject area and there is not a bunch you can do to mess that up. You could not show up to class for a week, and they would still love it. But what about that next group below that? What about the kids who have not yet embraced what is so wonderful about your discipline? Do you think the questions at the end of the chapter will seal the deal for your history students? Do you think your popquiz that you gave because you know most kids did not read the homework will really turn them on to English? Do you think having them memorize a huge list of words and definitions for the test will bring out their passion? I am not suggesting we do not bring rigorous content and material into the class…in fact quite the opposite..I am suggesting if your kids are motivated and passionate..they will thirst for more than you ever gave them. They will stay late, come early, and do more than you ask.

Your role as a teacher is not simply to transfer knowledge from your mind into their mind like a dump truck.

Your class has to be much more than a dumping ground of content

It is to help them acquire that knowledge and understanding. And depending on the situation, that may include lecture, group work, demonstration, field trip, speaker, project, homework, video, article, textbook, a phone conversation, a website, heck…even a worksheet if it helped them understand….but not just understand WHAT it is, HOW to do it, or WHEN it was……..the goal of that lesson must also include WHY they are are doing it. I’ll argue that the WHY is more valuable than the WHAT. The HOW will come when they see the WHY. Any teacher striving for excellence knows that application of understanding is the gold standard of learning. If your kids can take what they’ve learned and apply it to a new situation to solve a problem, then they have truly “got it”. That is when you see lightbulbs go on. Great teachers know that the lightbulb will not turn on for every student, and the lightbulb rarely turns on when you, or they, expect it to. Some of those light bulbs are instant on and some take longer to get to full power. That rare “thank you” may show it’s face when a returning students pops into your office years later. And as teachers, if our role is to produce lifelong learners who love what we do and what we teach, that late “thank you” is perfectly timed because our role as a teacher meant that they appreciate and value what they learned in your class LONG AFTER class was over.

There is a different way to approach education. If something I said in this post makes sense to you, please browse my other posts…you will most likely find that we have a tremendous amount in common–in which case we should connect.

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Ben: Why teachers do what we do

It’s the end of the year, exams are coming, teachers and students are a bit cranky and stressed, spring fever is still lingering as students are exhausted from a long year of rigorous academics. AP exams have wreaked havoc on schedules. Everyone is ready for the year to end. Except Ben.

These past couple years have been inconceivably rough for him. Within a few short weeks, he went from being a typical teenage to being a human being on the verge of a future unknown. It was discovered that he had cancer. And so as the rest of the world went about its business of homework, quizzes, reading novels, and presenting projects, Ben set out to survive. And survive is what he has done.

But, this is not a story about his ordeal in the hospital, but it is a story of what came next, and what is coming next.

I had the honor of being involved in two events recently which are quite simply amazing.

Hunting Island class camping trip

Our 11th graders decided to put together a class camping trip down to a beautiful state park near Beaufort, South Carolina. It was a sunny day full of beach soccer, Frisbee, beach football, playing in the waves, walking in the sand, building sand sculptures, bon fires, and ‘smores. But, the defining moment was when the class officers split up the grade into 5 teams, and created an obstacle course race that would pit wit vs. wit, speed vs. speed, and agility vs. agility. One of the events involved running 100 yards at full speed out to the surf, collect a bucket of water, balance it on your head as your ran back to deliver and dump it through a hula-hoop, then run back, dip your face in the ocean water yet again, and sprint back to the finish line. I had been helping to manage and keep score, so was not necessarily playing attention to who was actually competing…but more so that people were competing and following rules. And then, I looked up and saw two people sprinting towards the “finish” line. One of them was Ben…a huge smile on his face, chest out like Coach Salley and Coach Knight teach in cross country and track practice. Yes, there he was, head full of hair, barefoot in the sand, and running towards us. I am glad no one was paying attention to me because they would have seen a 46 year old man tear up and just stare in amazement. Only an English teacher could lead us through the many levels of symbolism and meaning in that sprint.

As if that needed a follow-up, I had the privilege of witnessing yet another powerful Class of 2014 event: Honor Council elections. I remember several years ago, when Ben was voted by his classmates to be the class representative to serve on the Honor Council, a student-led organization that helps promote and enforce the school’s 100+ year old honor code. It’s one of the most important, yet gut wrenching and challenging jobs at our school. Once you are elected to the council, you serve for the remainder of your time at the school. Anyone would surely understand and even support Ben stepping down from that role to focus on more important things, such as beating cancer.

Nope. Far from it.

Each spring, the members of the Honor Council vote for who will lead them as Honor Council chairperson the following year. It was a not a sprint down the beach like before, but instead it was a sprint of honor, integrity, dedication, commitment, and perseverance. Ben was elected to serve as the 2013-2014 Honor Council chairperson. Here is a boy who has survived perhaps the greatest ordeal possible to humankind, and yet one of his first acts of survival was to step up and lead his school.

That’s leadership; that’s humanity at it’s best and it is because of students like Ben that is why teachers do what we do.

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Overheard in a Computer Science classroom

Bored Student

We’ve got to do better than this

It happened again.” “What?” “I was in a meeting a few days ago and they were talking about Tony and his lack of energy, effort, attitude, effort, and performance in his other class. But, Doug, this kid is one of my top, most engaged students in the class; maybe even my best student. I’ve never had a behavior issue; in fact he is often helping other students in class, even coming in outside of class to work on class projects.

How can that be that in other classes, he is disengaged, uninterested, acting up, and performing badly?

So, let’s think about it.

A 13 year typical middle school boy, overflowing with energy, curiosity, and questions is told to sit down behind a desk, told to be quiet for 7 hours per day, and told to write down everything that the teacher says. He’ll have a chance to regurgitate that information back to the teacher, probably exactly as he wrote it down, on the homework and upcoming quiz. Every day, all day, all semester.

Hmmmm. I just can’t figure out why we have not reached him.


(sorry, OK I am back now)

Is that really our best educational model? Is that what we are doing in our classroom? Really?

If we made teachers sit through one day of professional delelopment in the manner that we structure our regular school day, every teacher in the country would abruptly quit.

I’d like to let you experience a different model. That same student comes into the Computer Science classroom and the moment he walks in the room, everything changes….

Students, you are going to need to be out of your seat during class. Someone may come over to you to ask for your help. Hey, class, did you see what Suzy got working after 2 days of struggling with it? Suzy can you show us that and tell us how to figured it out? Gosh, Ronny, that’s a great question! Larry and Ken have been doing something a little bit like that…why don’t you work with them to figure that out. Class we are having a speaker tomorrow via Skype, don’t forget to think about what question you are going to ask. Remember, if the speaker ever comments, “Wow, that’s a great question”, you get a badge point. So, think of some good questions. Eliot, you are going to need some really good characters for that part in your game, maybe you want to run down the art classroom, and see if there are kids down there who might be able to draw those for you? Fran, don’t forget our business manager said he could meet with you tomorrow to review your game design business plan. Presentations are next week…are you ready? Class, can I get your attention, we are going to watch a short Youtube video, so find a place where you can stop in your project, so we can watch it together. William and Ed will be leading the class discussion as well as the online discussion.

Engaged Words

How many of these do your students experience every day?

You are really gonna love the topic they picked for this week’s discussion topic—perhaps you read about on Reddit- Can Blackberry really come back? Andy, I know you spent a couple days photo editing that image, but that picture is just not quite the quality it should be for your simulation. Why don’t you get your iPhone and go outside to snap some better photos for your project. Oh yeah, class I heard back from the guy I was telling you about. He said he would love to have us all come on Thursday to their company’s office for a demonstration. That will be fun letting you guys experience what it’s like to be professional software testers. Jack, I feel like that line of code might be in the wrong place, do you think it might better sense to move that before this section? What effect will that have on the output? Hey guys, don’t walk behind Richard when he’s testing his Kinect game, the sensor will pick up your skeleton instead of his. Mary, that Xbox controller might have a bad trigger button, go grab another one…..your code looks like it should work; maybe that’s the problem? If not, maybe put this project on hold for a couple days, and work with Cindy and Lizzy on your group project—speaking of which–have you Skyped with the teacher in Michigan to run your ideas by her? Don’t forget to upload your game code so the kids at our partner school in Uganda can test the game you’ve created so far.

Students don’t mind workin hard if they are engaged…

I’ll be anxious to see what feedback you get. Students, remember for homework you’ve got to explain the Ender’s Game story you read to your parents and ask them a few questions to get their thoughts. Margaret, did you ever get that accelerometer app finished for the Nexus tablet? I remember you were struggling yesterday with the list iteration code block. Attention all students: I am sending all games for review to Microsoft next Wednesday; please submit your final version by then. We’ll Skype in a few weeks with their Kinect team for their comments. Group leaders, make sure you’ve practiced logging into the CHAT room, you will be leading the CHAT discussions tonight with your groups about the iRobot story we read. Sam and Ben, I feel like you’ve practiced enough and have a good understanding of where all the hardware parts go and what they do; I think you are ready to go after the record for building a computer blindfolded—the record so far is 1 minute 30 seconds. Can someone grab the box of robots? Today we are going to try to write code to access the temperature sensor and also simulate battery charging. Any ideas on how we might do that? Wow, Lucy, that 3D model you made is awesome! Hey class, if you want to see an awesome effort, check out her project—you might get some ideas for your own. How did you get such incredible detail, especially if we zoom in? Can I have everyone’s attention for a moment? I wanted to remind you that presentations start at 5:30 pm tonight. Please have your table displays ready one hour before. Parents will be arriving at 5:15. Make sure you have your demonstrations rehearsed and don’t forget to video record each other and submit that. Mr. Baylis, can I go out in the hall to test to see if my robot is sensing light correctly—oh yeah where are the batteries? BLOG responses are all due Sunday night. You’ll need to address those questions I sent you, plus start to plan your schedule for the next few weeks. Since this is a dual credit college course, I’ve invited the Department Chair of the Computer Science of the College of Charleston to come in as “guest professor” so you can have a real college class experience. He’ll be leading you for 2 days about O.O.P. polymorphism and inheritance; so please complete that practice exercise on the test site; you can run it as many times as you like until you get it– the error messages should help you troubleshoot. But if you still can’t get it, it’s certainly ok to call a classmate. Mrs. Clair could use some help at the 3rd grade Lego Robotics competition this weekend, if any of you want to volunteer. Our own competition is coming up in a couple weeks; have you been able to solve the challenges yet? If you’d like to join us on our summer Silicon Valley I.T. trip, the deadline for signup in in March; we’ve only got 2 spaces left. We’ve arranged private tours at NVidia, E.A., Microsoft, Google, and Intel. Hey Anthony, I love the topics, poverty and hunger, you chose for your game design project–how do you think you will blend the educational value and the fun factor into that design? Mr. Bergman, you mentioned that in addition to the Kinect camera sensor and Xbox controllers, there is a foot controlled “dance mat” that can be programmed. Can we order one so I use that as the input device for my game? Mr. Zaubi, I think my program is ready to be tested on an actual iPad instead of the emulator, can I use it?

Problem Solving…Collaboration…Hands-On

Those conversations happen in our Computer Science classes every day. Notice how grades were not the focus of class. The words “multiple choice test” were never spoken. The questions at the end of chapter were never assigned. Students were active participants in their own learning. You noticed the role of the teacher more along the lines of a guide and group leader than as a deliverer of content. You noticed we were focused on what students can DO, instead of what students KNOW.

My class happens to be a Computer Science classroom, but I’ll argue that any Math, Science, History, or Foreign Language class could be structured the same way.

Many teachers have heard me get on my bandwagon about classes like this. They hear this and give me 20 reasons why they cannot have this style of class in their department. There is a big difference between CAN NOT and DO NOT. It’s a completely different approach to education. It involves schools accepting that the world we are preparing our students to be leaders in is NOT the world we grew up in.

Is there a place for this type of class in education?

I propose that there is a different way forward. If something you heard in this article makes sense to you, I’d love to connect. Find me on Facebook, Twitter, at a conference, or the web.

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Who’s on First: Microsoft version

OK, I know I usually address some pretty serious topics here, but just wanted to have some fun…..
(I am sure there are many variations of this out there, but here’s my version)

If Bud Abbott and Lou Costello were alive today, their infamous sketch, “Who’s on First?” might have turned out something like this:

(TOM is a not-so-tech-savvy customer calling the computer salesperson, ABBOT)

ABBOTT: Hello! Computer Store! Can I help you?
TOM: Thanks. I am setting up an office in my home and I’m thinking about buying a computer.
TOM: No, the name’s TOM.
ABBOTT: I meant your computer?
TOM: I don’t own a computer. I want to buy one.
TOM: no, it’s TOM.
ABBOTT: You want Windows?
TOM: You mean in my office?
ABBOTT: Yes, do you want a computer with Windows?
TOM: No, I want a room with windows. And I want a computer in the office on the desk.
ABBOTT: Do you want virus protection?
TOM: For me? You mean like a shot?
ABBOTT: No, for your computer. In case you leave Windows open. Your computer can get a virus
TOM: My computer can get sick if I leave the window open?
ABBOTT: Yes, if it gets a bug. And if does get a bug, it might crash.
TOM: A bug will crawl inside my computer and cause it to crash on the floor?
ABBOTT: No, Windows will crash on your desktop. Just make sure to close Windows
TOM: In the office?
ABBOTT: Yes, in your office while sitting in your chair
TOM: But I cannot reach the windows from the chair
ABBOTT: Is the computer not going to be on your desktop in front of you?
TOM: Yes it is. Ok, fine. Look. After I close the windows by standing on the desktop, can I lock the windows?
ABBOTT: Yes, but you’ll need a password to unlock Windows.
TOM: Can’t I just use my hand to unlock the lock on the windows?
ABBOTT: Well, you’ll use your hand to type the password
TOM: On my window?
ABBOTT: Yes, in Windows, but don’t tell anyone your password
TOM: What if it gets HOT and they want to open windows?
ABBOTT: Oh, there’s a fan in your computer to keep it from overheating
Tom: Wow. So, my windows are connected to my computer?
TOM: Cool.
ABBOTT: Sir, I am setting up your computer now. What pictures do you want for your wallpaper?
TOM: You mean the wallpaper on my walls in my office? Thanks anyway, we are going to just paint the wallpaper.
ABBOTT: You mean with Microsoft Paint?
TOM: Microsoft sells paint?
ABBOTT: No, it comes free with your computer.
TOM: Cool. On the new computer, I need something I can use to write proposals and run my business. What do you recommend?
ABBOT: Office
TOM: Yeah, for my office. Can you recommend anything?
ABBOTT: I just did.
TOM: You just did what?
ABBOTT: Recommend something.
TOM: You recommended something?
TOM: For my office?
TOM: OK, what did you recommend for my office?
ABBOTT: Office.
TOM: Yes…..I said Yes…. for my office!
ABBOTT: I recommend Office with Windows.
TOM: Of course my office has windows. We’ve gone over this.
ABBOTT: No, I recommended Windows for your computer with Office.
TOM: the computer in my office?
ABBOT: No, Office is in your computer. Just click on it.
TOM: With my finger?
ABBOTT: No, with the mouse.
TOM: A mouse is used to click things? Do I keep it in a cage?
ABBOTT: No, it will stay by your computer
TOM: Do I buy it at PetSmart? Do I have to feed it?
ABBOTT: No. It also comes with your computer. Do NOT put food in it. It will die if you do.
TOM: Wow. OK, let’s just say I’m sitting at my computer and I want to type a proposal. What do I need?
TOM: What word?
ABBOTT: Word in Office.
TOM: The only word in office is “office”.
ABBOTT: Word in Office for Windows.
TOM: Which word in “office for windows”?
ABBOTT: The Word you get when you click the blue “W”.
TOM: I’m going to click your blue “w” if you don’t start giving me some straight answers. Ok, look…..what about financial bookkeeping? You got anything I can track my money with?
ABBOTT: Microsoft Money.
TOM: Microsoft prints money, too?
ABBOTT: No, they just put it in Windows.
TOM: So, I when I buy a computer, I get money?
ABBOTT: Yes. No extra charge. It comes bundled with your computer.
TOM: I get a bundle of money with my computer at no extra charge?
ABBOTT: Yep. But you only get one licensed copy. You can’t sell it
TOM: sell my money?
ABBOTT: Correct.
TOM: Ok, I won’t. OK, let’s just say I wanted to turn the whole thing off when I’m done. Do I just hit the power button?
ABBOTT: No, it will shut itself down by closing Windows
TOM: It will close the windows by itself? Wow. How does it do that?
ABBOTT: Just click the START button
TOM: You mean we click the START button in order to STOP it?

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The Value of Innovative Education

Over 100 educators invited to Redmond,WA

I had the pleasure and honor of being a judge at this year’s Partners in Learning (Microsoft) Innovators Forum. What exactly is it anyway and what is the value of innovative education to the world?

Well, thousands of people in the U.S. submit applications for consideration to be one of about 100 educators who will be invited to attend the US Forum. There are similar events held all year all across the globe (over 250,000 people worldwide submit applications).

Teachers connect with other innovators from across the country

At each event, these educators spend a few days getting to know each other, sharing ideas, making connections, getting ideas, presenting their projects, working together, hearing incredible speakers, seeing cool demos (this year, we got our private Windows 8 live demo) and celebrating education…..but at the core of each event is the idea that they themselves are being honored and celebrated for their true spirit of innovation in the classroom. Teachers spend a few days being truly recognized for their awesomeness (for lack of a better word). Sure, there is a common tech-thread in the projects that were submitted, but technology was only one aspect. What is being identified is teachers who are designing lessons that quite simply are at an entirely different level than most.

Teachers bring together digital learning, true 21st Century tools, and innovation

How are they doing that? They are having their students tackle real world problems through collaboration, problem solving, building and creating knowledge based on real hands-on experiences, integrating digital learning, and extending learning far outside the classroom….and it truly takes an innovative teacher leading the way…..being a true agent of change. As you can imagine, this type of out-of-the box approach is sometimes a fish out of water….NOT HERE….this type of out –of-the-box style is exactly what these projects and teachers have in common.

Can ideas such as the Flipped Classroom really impact education?

What we find across the world is that teachers like these tend to be “islands unto themselves”. Teachers that are doing things that are innovative, creative, and out-of-the-box sometimes don’t necessarily get the support you might imagine. These are teachers who are doing what they do not because they are trying to increase test scores or to get a better parking spot…these are teachers who are trying to develop students with the necessary skills and confidence to solve problems in the world they are going into. It’s a much higher calling. And they crave others who see better and different ways forward in their classrooms, in their schools, in their districts, in their states and counties, in their countries, and in OUR world.

How do they do it? They ask different questions; they find reasons why they CAN do things; they figure out how to make things happen; they find people who say YES when others say NO; they find people who will help them when others will not; they find ways to inspire and engage their students in 21st Century ways as opposed to traditional methods, they use a variety of tools to plan and design experiences that will allow their students to use their minds to think and apply that learning…not simply give back what they’ve been told or shown; they believe the days of a teacher-centered classroom no longer have a place in our education institutions; they believe students best learn by using their hands to experience their learning—not just to take notes; they believe there are other ways to evaluate classes besides outdated traditional methods.

Students: Does that sound like a class you’d like to be in all year? Parents: Does that sound like a class you’d like to have your own children connected with? Administrators: Does that sound like a teacher you’d like to have in your school? Policy makers: if there were schools which embraced that philosophy…wouldn’t you love to call those yours? Politicians: If all of our schools were full of teachers like that, wouldn’t that be a way for the United States to reclaim our lead in education across the world?

True passion for education and learning is the only "common core standard" in this group of teachers

Ahh, but we would not be reclaiming that lead based on test scores…not because we met some minimum national standards…we would be claiming a lead based on actually developing students who come out of schools ready to address the problems with confidence and a large repertoire of tools– digital, mental, and physical.

OK, back to the Innovators Forum and the value of innovation to the world.

What was incredible was there were teachers from every grade from Pre-K all the way to 12th, teachers from subjects ranging from Art to Physical Education to Science to Math to Computer Science to English to Foreign Language, teachers from public and private schools, teachers from urban and rural schools, teachers from well-to-do as well as poverty-stricken areas; and teachers from huge and very small schools. My point being is each teacher had plenty of obstacles to go around, plenty of hurdles to jump, plenty of reasons NOT to do what they did—yet they found the one reason to do it. And they did it in style. And that’s why they were in Seattle for the Partners in Learning Innovators Forum.

And out of that group of incredible innovators, an even more select group was then selected to represent the United States in a similar Forum but at the global level. Last year, the United States had several teachers who were award winners at the Global Forum—we look forward to seeing how we’ll do this year (to be held in Prague in Czech Republic). This global forum is a week-long event hosting over 75 countries that bring some of their country’s most innovative teachers. The impact it has is truly world wide.

Ok, back to my original prompt: What is the value of innovative education? Education systems all across the world, including our wonderful country of the United States, find themselves stuck in antiquated, outdated, ineffective, boring, out-of-focus, test-centric, and broken systems. And we need educators who are willing to break down stereotypes, barriers, and obstacles…to take chances…to take some risks…and we need administrators to support them. We need students to value entering those classrooms because they want to learn—not because they want a grade. We need parents to support their children when they select courses based on love and passion—not based on what looks good on a transcript. We need administrators to look past standardized tests as a basis for school evaluation, curriculum development and schedule creation. We need politicians to give teachers and schools the authority and power to make their own decisions and the chance to let excellence develop. We need colleges to allow entering freshmen to be selected based on hard work and passion and curiosity, not on a rigid checklist of standardized criteria. We need fellow teachers not to be intimidated by innovation happening around them…but to ask how they can be a part of it. And if we all embrace what MUST happen, we can take our entire education system to entirely new levels. Looking ahead, if we truly want the best for our students, then we must find a different way forward.

If this post makes sense to you, I’d love to connect. Find me…

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I am right where I want to be…

The 2012 Microsoft Partners in Learning Innovator Forum.

Last year at this time, I was as excited as I’d ever been in my professional career. I had been selected as a first round selection in a nationwide search for teachers who are bringing innovation and technology in new ways into the classroom. There would eventually be over 100 selectees. We had been working hard at our school to develop a leading edge program, so that recognition was confirmation that we were on the right track. That in itself would have been one of the highlights of my career; to have gone on and been one of eleven award winners who would then represent the United States at the Global Forum was an honor unlike any I’ve ever had.

That experience was one of the most incredible in my life.

So, why am I as excited now as I was then? One of my fellow award winners, Lou Zulli, and I were honored to be asked to be judges at this year’s event. I’ve looked through this year’s selectees and the projects they submitted…wow…another incredible set of teachers and ideas. What I love about this group (and last year’s group), was that the selectees are from all across the country, from all levels of education, from all disciplines, and from all types of education institutions.(Check ‘em out) What that means is, despite what we hear on TV and read in the papers, there ARE incredible things happening all around us in classrooms. There ARE administrators who equip their teachers with the tools they need to come out of the 19th century style classroom and enter far into the 21st century. There are teachers who hear a higher calling and are not just wishing and hoping to change the world—they have chosen to be part of that change.

In a few weeks, I’ll have the chance to spend 4 days at the Microsoft headquarters in Redmond Washington (I’ve requested lunch with Bill Gates, but that has not been confirmed yet) at this year’s Partners in Learning event. Of course, my main responsibility will be to work with the other 29 judges and determine the 10 most dynamic, incredible, innovative, and reproducible projects from a set of projects that have already been through a rigorous selection process. I can’t wait. I’ll have the opportunity to study in depth many of projects submitted by some of the most incredible teachers in our country…and then I’ll have the chance to interview many of them to find out what’s “behind” these projects. And that’s what I am so excited about. One of my passions in life is helping to change our definition of great education—to redefine what we teach and how we teach so that we are preparing our students to be leaders in academia, business, research, politics, and entertainment—to redefine what parents expect in their schools—to redefine how students are engaged in their classrooms. The walls that have traditionally been up need no longer be there; the time constraints that have traditionally been in place need no longer be there; the measurements and evaluations that have traditionally been used need to change; the expectations teachers have of themselves must change.

Microsoft has been instrumental in the commercial space to helping to bring technology to a place in society where the average person now has a wide variety of digital tools to help solve their problems. In the educational space, they have an entire education branch of their company that has not just talked that talk…they are walking the walk. They are reaching out to schools, teachers, districts, students and actually being part of “making a difference” all across the world. Amongst many ongoing efforts, their Partners in Learning initiative has reached millions of educators and schools—it is an incredible resource available to anyone. Join a world wide community that has dedicated itself to making serious changes in education. Check out https://www.facebook.com/partnersinlearning and join a true grass roots revolution that has been happening, is happening, and will continue to happen.

If you are an educator, and are in the Computer Science discipline and would like to connect — Please contact me! I am always interested in working with teachers from all across the world who see a different way forward.

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GRADES: Do we know what they really mean?

Tests 50%
Quizzes 30%
Class Participation and effort 10%
Homework 10%

Does that look like a typical weighted grading system for a class?

But, what does the grade we give at the end of the class mean?

Weight Grading Scale Options

Weight Grading Scale Options

Is it supposed to reflect the learning that has occurred? If so, then maybe we should only count the last test. Is it supposed to reflect the improvement? If so, then a student who does really poorly on tests and quizzes for the first half of class, but that figures it out by the end should get an A (but will not). Is it supposed to be a reflection of the day to day work and effort that they do all year? Then our daily participation and effort percentage should change to 75%. Should we even grade homework? Is it important that they do it? If so, shouldn’t it be more of a part of the grade? Is that homework graded based on attempt or only correct answers? Is the grade supposed to be a reflection of the regurgitation of content? If so, give a huge multiple choice test with no discussion. Is it supposed to be an analysis of content? Then let our exams be all essay and short answer instead of multiple choice, matching, fill in the blank. Is it supposed to be an application of understanding? Then an in-depth project that incorporates and requires application of a variety of cumulative skills should be a majority of the grade. Students say a teacher gives a grade, but teachers say students earn it. Which is it? Is there any truth to what the students say? Teachers, have you ever given a pop quiz because you know most kids did not read? Teachers, have you ever made a test harder than usual, or worse…..easier than usual? Why? If a student bombs one major test, but gets A+ on everything else, what grades does he earn? If a student is apathetic every day in class but gets A+ on all tests and quizzes demonstrating unquestionably that she ”gets “ the material, what grade does she get? If a student works hard all semester, participates in class, tries hard on all homework and assignments, but in the end just not quite “get it” so does poorly on tests, what grade does he get? Teachers, have you ever curved a test? Why? How does that sync up with you grading system? Teachers, if test grades do not follow a standard Bell curve, is that OK? If all students have mastered the material and demonstrate that effectively on an a solid evaluation, is it ok if all students get “A”s?

Grading Scale Sample

So, you see, a grade is actually very complex, yet there is no standard at any school, in any district, or college. Schools even use different number systems to define letter grades. Some school use + and -, some don’t . Some use larger bands for B and C. Some allow D as passing, some do not. Some high schools “weight” Honors and AP class grades, some do not. Teachers even within the same department have very different scales and weight percentages. Teachers sometimes even have completely different categories. I am not suggesting that this is necessarily bad, just something to consider. And maybe something that may push us into considering that we move away from looking at(and using) grades like we do. Teachers hate when students only seem to care about the grade, yet don’t we dangle it in front of them all semester long?

Another Grading Scale

So how can we possibly compare a grade from one school to another, even for the same class? When we know the classes are probably far from similar in the first place and most likely the grading as well. And if the answer to that question is that we really do not have to compare them, then I’ll re-ask my original question, what does the grade a student gets in a class mean?

So in conclusion, I’ll ask the same question yet again in the biggest sense: what does the grade a student gets in a class really mean?

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24/7/365 Schooling

Can we use the calendar differently?

I’d like to bring up a topic that, while maybe a hot potato topic, is certainly worth thinking about and discussing. For the most part, most school systems in the U.S. follow a similar yearly calendar: school starts in early fall/late summer (Aug or Sept), we take a long 2-3 week holiday break during the end of December and early January, we have a spring break in March or April, and we end in late May or June for a 2-month summer break. School starts some time between 7am and 8am and we go until 2pm or 3pm. Extra help, sports practices and games, and play practice and performances are all after school and into the evening. This is basically true for all levels of education in the U.S. even at the college level.

I’d like you to think about the yearly, monthly, weekly, and daily schedule of a typical school year. I submit that it is time we look at making not just subtle, but dramatic changes to not necessarily how we educate students, but when we educate them. And when we think about that, there are many opportunities which come out of that discussion, if we are just willing to think out of the box.
In a world of instant access and immediate feedback, it does not make sense that we limit ourselves by the traditional clock and calendar, when every other aspect of life is not limited.
Probably one of the first things we should do is completely abandon our system of school holidays. (Woah. Did he just say what I think he said? But that would be going against the status quo. Why would anyone do that? That would involve change! What we’ve got is working ok now, right? I mean I got through school and I turned out ok. Why change?) Especially in a world in which religion, economics, business, family priorities, weather, culture, expectations, and personal preference are so varied, perhaps a different model can fit better. There was a time when it made sense that school followed a calendar that synced up with the farming & agriculture calendar. After all, it was a major part of the economy and many people were involved with that. There are a variety of possibilities that might incorporate that same 24/7/365 world I mentioned before.
There is evidence which suggests that our current model of a daily schedule does not fit the best time of day for learning for students. For example is the 8am-10am starting time slot of any value for middle school and elementary school aged kids? It’s certainly convenient, but is is smart?

We find many M-F 9-5 business people spending a few hours here and there on a weekend, or weekday evening catching up on work, corresponding to some emails, or working (without typical distractions) on current projects…why not take that same attitude and apply it to education. Why not have classes which are offered in the evening, on a Saturday morning, Sunday afternoon, or during the summer. It would allow students to be able to take classes they normally could not, or could free up some time during the regular day to focus on other equally important efforts. It would allow business people an opportunity to teach. It opens the doors for an entirely new style of teacher. It would allow many students to be able to maintain a part time job throughout the year—something which many adults agree is a valuable part of growing up. And, it would allow flexiblity with our existing teachers; your classes might be spread out more giving you time during the day to collaborate, research, plan presentations for conferences, keep current in your discipline, visit other schools, and develop higher order curriculum.

Part of the issue is that we still insist on having definite beginnings and endings in a very traditional sense. I also agree that psychologically they are important, but our beginnings and endings tend to be based on grade level only. If you talk with most teachers, many will agree that seldom does age, grade level, maturity, and intellect ever intersect together. So, one possibility is that we base the school model of advancement (at least in part) on progress and demonstration of ability….. as compared to age. Age is simply a measurement of how many days that you have been alive, hardly a system to base a curriculum, learning progression, and an entire school system on. Intelligence, maturity, and problem solving skills are earned and learned through experience and by acquiring understanding. I think there are certainly some places in a system like that where age would play a part, but maybe just not as the primary basis for advancement. I am not suggesting it would be easy to do this, but just that our current model is not the only one. And just because we’ve always done it this way does not mean that we should continue. I realize that there are numerous issues, problems, obstacles, and reasons why altering our model would present. But, maybe that is the exact reason WHY we would consider it in the first place; not because it is easy, but because it would be hard. I’ll argue all day long that even if it is hard, if we as a collective society deem it worthy of that effort, then it is truly worth whatever we go through. Our country has never stepped down from a challenge before…and for a challenge with the potential to make our country better able to compete on the national and international level, why would we not explore this with great energy?
One way we might define a beginning and ending is not by a date on a calendar, but by accomplishing a required set of tasks and demonstrating proficiency, similar to the capstone projects in the I.B. program, but on a more regular and smaller scale throughout the educational process. And we know there are successful models of a system like that; Montessori education has elements of that approach built in to their educational model. The Boy Scout program has a model like this where students work to accomplish a required set of tasks, events, and activities, and when they do, they receive their “badge” and they move on to the next series. There are students of all ages interacting together in both of those internationally proven systems. Not that w would follow them exactly, but we study them and extract what elements fit our school system. Sure, it involves us having to redefine how we administer and offer school, but is that necessarily a bad thing? In a corporation or business, if the current model of success is starting to not meet the needs of the customers, community, and business itself, then the business would determine what model has the most successful chance of success and work towards that.

Is standardized testing really the best motivator for excellence in education?

In our current system, it seems that no matter what change we talk about making or what needs we have, or what desired outcome we want to work towards, it seems as if our answer to that is always a new version of a( or simply more) standardized test(s). And, so over the last 50 years, we have seen education reform make giant circles over and over again eventually coming back to the same place we when we started.

In the spirit of looking at time and scheduling and, there are some interesting areas where we might see some positive changes.

• Consider a typical day. If I said to any of you that you were going to go to 7 meetings per day every day for a year(many of which you would simply take notes and do worksheets) you would laugh loudly in angry disgust, then kill me. Yet, that’s what we do each and every day for many years of our student’s lives. Is that truly the best we can do? Is there not a better way to use the time we’ve got? There are so many options for us to consider if we can just get ourselves to think outside the standard school model.

• Consider exams. Normal policy calls for each class to offer a 2-3 hour culminating test during a 1 week period at the end of a semester. Doesn’t it make better sense to administer exams at different times, rather than all at once? After all, if they could really focus on one subject area at a time, wouldn’t they study harder deeper, and better? I might even add, that if we were to make every test they take cumulative, then their final exam is really no different that a regular test.

• Consider summertime. Summer school traditionally has been only for those who need remedial work…perhaps it is time to flip that on it’s head and let summer be the time for the normal and even high-achieving students. Schools offer remediation in their schools all summer long, but for students who want to challenge themselves and learn more, we make them pay lots of money and travel far away to attend programs. Shouldn’t our own schools be centers of excellence and achievement for our own students?

• Consider field trips. What if every discipline took field trips throughout the year. Currently, it is not possible , but with an extended year and multiple breaks along the way, trips of all kinds suddenly become not just possible, but probable. Travel, life experience, cultural education, global education can become not just a luxury for a few can become opportunities for many.

• Consider distance education. Perhaps 10 years ago, the idea of distance education, online classes, and even on-line degrees was a joke. Suddenly, with technologies to support those types of efforts, as well as the culture starting to realize that the office and classroom are no longer defined by a Monday-Friday, 8:00 – 5:00 regiment…these ideas make sense.

• Consider family time. Not every family has a schedule which is in sync with the time structure of the school day. Families with moms and dads who work in restaurants, work in retails, are self-employed, travel through the week, work 2nd or 3rd shifts. A school schedule which was spread out more with opportunities throughout the year (not just during long summer breaks) would allow families to have more time together throughout the year.

• Consider PBL (Project-Based Learning). Few teachers disagree that PBL is a great tool for learning The hands-on experience provides a chance for students to “feel” content, not just hear about it and regurgitate information on a test. But, sometimes we are limited in what we can do as struggle to get through material (perhaps in order to prepare students for a standardized test? Sorry, I had to sneak that in). Teachers: think about a schedule which allows you a chance to plan this (even cross-curricular), allows you the chance to let it go long enough for the learning to happen, and allows the students a chance to work together outside of school to get it done. Some of the breaks throughout the year can be academic in nature.

• Consider the summer break. Families with parents in business get no summer break, so having children home for 2+ months is often times a very challenging scenario. For many destinations for family vacations, the summertime is the most crowded, most expensive, most challenging weather.

• I know the nay-sayers are already asking me to provide standardized test score which prove that a year long school year is more effective that the current norm. Sorry, gang. I am proud to say that even if there is (and I am sure there is), I am not going to use it in this argument. Please tell me our motivation is not a multiple choice test. If it is, I’ll ask you not to read the rest of my BLOG, nor anything else I’ve ever written.

• Consider multiple daily schedules. With some much time to accomplish our goal (to lead students through the educational process), schools could even alter the daily schedule throughout the year, for example, maybe in the fall and spring when days are longer, we do one schedule, but during winter months, we alter that with another schedule, and during high heat summer months, we use yet another schedule. In the same spirit of rotating schedules during a standard school day at many schools, a rotating schedule of a higher level might also provide opportunities for us all.

Now, don’t misunderstand what I mean here. I am not talking about suddenly requiring teachers to work longer hours and more days for the same salary. I am not talking about throwing away textbooks and lessons plans. All those hours teachers have spent developing great lessons will finally have better chances of being received like you hoped. I am not necessarily talking about more days in the classroom(although that is probably something we should also look at….however that is NOT part of this BLOG); I am talking about rearranging how and when we have kids in the hallways and classrooms. Have we ever thought about how important time and management of time is? It is not something to be taken lightly. Consider the various sports out there. Competitions range from an hour to many hours in length for a “match”. But, each one is completely different in how (if at all) they structure their time; so the “how and when” their players work is intentional, planned, managed, and taken advantage of. In football, there are four 15-minute quarters—in fact management of time in the last minutes often times decides winning and losing; in soccer, you’ve got two 45-minute halves;

Time is used in many ways in sports

in Greco-Roman wrestling, you’ve got two 3-minute periods, in boxing, you’ve got fifteen 3-minute rounds; in tennis, there is not time at all –it is simply the first person to reach an objective (best of 3 or 5 sets, with lots of opportunities for both players to win and lose throughout the match); in baseball, there is also no time limit, it is also determined by the highest number of accomplishments (runs) that are earned after 9 innings; sumo wrestling bouts tend to last a few seconds but can last for minutes, yet the entire “match” (tournament lasts) 15 days—and even more spectacular…the beginning of each bout is never specified in advance..it is decided by the two competitors meeting eyes and without verbal communication; in basketball, you’ve got four 15-minute quarters; cricket has many forms of time ranging from 2 ½ hours to 5 days. So you see my point, there are dramatically different ways of using time depending on the needs of the situation. Some of the greatest activities do not even have time as a component of the event…wow now there is something to consider….what if students simply advanced to the next level in education when they were ready?
Teachers: think about this: Imagine several multi-week holidays from school; those holidays could be of varying lengths depending on the needs of each community. Camps and other educations activities pop up for students to attend during the off time. Remediation could happen during part of the time off… giving students help WHEN THEY NEED IT, not after the class is finished or have failed the class. Schools could alter how they schedule classes. We could have classes which meet for 2-3 hours per day for a month. For classes which need time to let the material sync in, we stretch those courses over multiple sessions. There could be classes which meet 8 hours a day for a week. We could attract different types of, and more varied teachers, as we open up our schedules to evening and weekends; thus allowing eager business men and women the chance to teach. It also opens up options for teachers and school to make extra money as well. Schools could have staff which are in charge of the off-season holidays, recruiting teachers to teach classes, tutor sessions, lead academic travel excursions, take students to tournaments, lead a touring choir, lead grade-level trips with some power behind them(service oriented , out of comfort zone culturally and physically, not just going to an amusement park). Student council and other student led organizations would actually have time to plan events and learn how to lead. Teachers would actually have time to plan collaborative lessons, inter-disciplinary projects, and exploratory lessons in the midst of their year. Teachers and admin will vouch, once the year starts, it’s nose to the grindstone until you look up in May. Little time to plan something like once the school year starts.

So, whether you agree or disagree with some of the ideas presented here, I beg you to start a discussion with your colleagues and co-workers, family friends, academic leaders, politicians.

There is a different way forward in education.

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The elephant in the classroom: AP

The elephant in the room, image from: http://thewalkingelephant.blogspot.com/If you know me or my writing, you know I have strong opinions about standardized anything and standardized curriulum. So with spring around the corner, no BLOG of mine would be complete without a post regarding the AP. This BLOG is targeted towards United States readers, but I’ve tried to include enough details for international peers to understand the topic because I am assuming other countries have some similar efforts in their country. I will try to keep this as unbiased as I can, but will likely fail.

In the United States, we have a “system” in our high schools called AP (Advanced Placement). They are courses, in over 20 subject areas, which are taught by high school teachers, but the content is college-level and at the end of the academic year students who are taking classes take a standard test in each discipline. The tests cost about $75 per test. Each year in May, all across the country, all the AP tests are administered in each discipline. That test is not published in advance, so student and teachers will not know what will be on the test until test day. The possible scores are 0 – 5, where 5 is the highest score possible. Most of the students who are college-bound will find themselves taking numerous AP classes in order to have a really competitive resume as they compete for admission spots at the colleges across the country. Ideally, students who do great on the exam will “exempt” that same class when they go to college. Their high school resume, as well as performance on a national standardized test called SAT (coincidentally also offered by the same company), will have a tremendous impact on determining where the majority of students attend college.

In any high school and around many dinner tables, there is a fundamental debate that is publically and privately played out year after year in the spring. As schools decide which classes to offer, and students and parents evaluate which classes to take, there is an elephant in the room: AP

Just so you understand my context, I am a teacher in a college-prep private school. Most of our students take numerous AP classes in high school…in fact students will go to college with anywhere from 3 to 30+ college credit hours. We offer many AP classes, and usually see good results on the tests.

But what was the original idea behind the AP program?

Originally: For those unique students around the country who have mastered what the typical high school is able to offer, and wanted to explore a higher level of content, then there is a recognized system to allow students to take the next level of a discipline, giving them a taste of college while still in high school.
Currently: Some schools sell themselves as “AP schools”. For example in the city I live it, we have a school “ranked” as one of the best high schools in the country based on how many AP courses it offers. Is that really what determines excellence? Some schools selectively pick who can take the test, then use their successful results on the tests to attract new students each year. AP has become a perceived “required” criterion for admissions into college.

AP classes from the perspective of the teacher do not offer flexibility in deciding what content to teach. It is a class which no one, not the students, teachers, or schools are able to know in advanced what exactly will be evaluated or the questions/problems that will be used on the test. (Of course the general topics are made available, but the specifics are highly confidential.) We say it is bad teaching to teach to a test, but it is simply not possible to offer an AP class and not teach to the test. You’ve got to expose your students to the terminology, design, layout, and approach that College Board uses in the administration of their tests.

The dreadest multiple choice test. Does it really evaluate in the way we want it to?

Due to the volume of students taking the tests, tests must be offered only on paper, even for lab-based classes such as Biology, Physics, Chemistry, and Computer Science. So, while the labs are an integral aspect of class throughout the year, it ends up not being as much of a part of the final evaluation. (evaluating what we think is important: there is another BLOG post coming up)

I’d like to throw this out there as food for thought: What is the real purpose for schools to offer AP? What is the real purpose for students to take AP? We know the motivation from College Board. While it is a non-for-profit institution, it is a money making machine. My hats off to their marketing team; they somehow became the standardized test king; and have schools all across the country selling their products (yes, the have more than just AP). They additionally sell books, offer classes, charge you to take their test, and yes students can even pay an extra fee to find out their results a day early. It’s the Sally Foster of education. If they went public and sold stock, it would be a cash cow.

Surprisingly, AP test scores are not uniformly accepted across the country at the college level. Every university and college has its own policy, specific to each discipline whether it accepts it for credit or not. Some accept and give credit for any score 3 or higher, some only accept 5, some only accept 5 on the harder of two offered tests, some do not accept any tests, some accept only as electives, some say they do not consider AP in the admissions process but actually do, etc. Some kids use the taking of the AP class as a resume building tool and do not care how they do on the actual test or even in the class. Some want to enter into college with many credits already completed. Others take the AP class because they love the subject area and/or teacher and just want to learn more, regardless of the AP signature. But what’s our goal here? College is one of the most enjoyable, full of academic and life learning, experience of our lives. Why would we want to shorten that experience?

As far as students go, there are 2 motivations. One: Some students love learning, love challenge, love pushing themselves, and will take the hardest path possible. They do that not to satisfy anyone but themselves. While it certainly helps them get into the best colleges, that is not the sole purpose of taking the AP classes. Two: Students and parents have heard “through the grapevine” that you’ve got to have many AP to even have a chance to get into the schools of their choices. The perception is that it does not even matter what grade you get in the class, or even on the test, but that you are in the AP course to begin with. It does not matter if the class is something they are passionate about or not, they just take it because it fills periods of the day and stacks the resume.

As far as teachers go, there is a huge grey area. We tell teachers not to teach to the test, but if your kids don’t do well on the test, that is a reflection on the teacher. (teacher evaluations: that’s another BLOG post coming up) Some students just don’t do well on tests like these, but do fine in hands-on classes. Those students tend not to do well on standardized tests, so the grade they get may not reflect their actual understanding and ability to apply their knowledge. Have you ever had a bad day, a busy week, a few hours in the day where you were just not there? Don’t let that happen in May or you will pay for that and perhaps undermine 12 years of hard work. An AP teacher is said to be an excellent teacher if their students do excellent on the test. So, the end would certainly justify any means for a teacher. Do we get excellence in teaching with our AP classes, or do we get excellence in test preparation?

Here is an interesting way of looking at the AP program from the student point of view: (Woah! Stop right there! I can tell he is going to suggest something that is different than what we normally do. You stop right there young man. Don’t you dare suggest something outside the box) for a student going into a specific discipline ( for example Biology , History, or Computer Science), and they have decided on pursuing that discipline as a possible major and/or career, and they have spent a couple years researching higher education institutions to find the best choice for them, then I argue that they should experience the entire program that the college has to offer. Don’t skip over the first year or two because you did well on one single test when you were 16 years old. If you are going to major in Biology from U.N.C. then you want to immerse yourself in the entire program they have to offer. Additionally, despite how wonderful we high school teachers think we are, the experience of taking an AP class in a high school is dramatically different than the experience of taking the same class in college. Every teacher teaches a class, even one with a predetermined curriculum and syllabus, with their own spin to it. Each teacher brings their own focus, passions, and interpretations(which is a good thing). Now, to a certain extent, we can assume that the teacher is working under the umbrella of their department and their school, so we know it is in sync with the objectives of their schools and departments, so there is some commonality and expectation of excellence. But, we can all agree(?) that the objectives of a high school are dramatically different than the objectives of a college. High Schools have to prepare students as best they can for the world, but their immediate focus is to get the kids ready for the next step, which is college. Colleges have to prepare students to enter into the marketplace and beyond, standing on the shoulders of what the students have learned and accomplished in their secondary and even primary education. So, even the best of AP high school classes cannot accomplish the same objectives and goals of the comparable college level class…nor should it. At the high school level, we have assemblies, pep rallies, dress down days, halloween costume days, senior cut days, ½ days, field trips, detentions, shirts to tuck in, early dismissals for sport….and parents are still heavily involved(far too much…that is another BLOG post) in the academic life of their kids and also their kids teachers. None of that exists in a manner even close to that at the college level.

Keep in mind, university students in those 100 level classes (first year college) do NOT take the AP test that all the high school students take for the same class. At the college level, in Computer Science 101 and English 101 in hundreds of colleges across the country, each teacher teaches the class and evaluates the class differently. In that same spirit, I’ll throw this out there as well: college professors would go ballistic if they were forced to require students take another exam in place of their own to determine passing or not, and with what grade. Yet, the high school teachers who (supposedly) teach the same class for the same credit, must. So we know right there that the experience is a dramatically different one.

Here are some ways of breaking this down as we go forward

Option 1: With most high schools in the country offering AP, then I argue that what has happened, which is not necessarily unusual nor is it even bad, is that what we were teaching in the first year of college has simply moved up in the curriculum. This happens all the time. Especially in my area, Computer Science, we move content up to earlier grades somewhat frequently to keep our curriculum fresh and relevant. So, I suggest we stop calling those classes AP, and just let them be what we study in high school. Let colleges and universities push their curriculum up as well to meet the needs of their incoming students.
Option 2: Change the way we offer AP (WHAT? Is this guy suggesting that we alter the way it’s worked for decades? OH MY GOD! Surely the status quo cannot be wrong). Here are some possible ways of looking at this:
• AP classes are extremely challenging: For those students who have always taken the hardest classes, challenged themselves, followed their natural curiosity, and performed well , then they can apply to be considered; and it would be a real honor to be accepted into the class. And isn’t that a system that makes sense. This is geared more in line with the early years of the AP. It allowed for students to distinguish themselves by simply doing what they do naturally.

Can we ever evaluate this kind of learning?


• Any student who wishes to enter an AP class can try his/her luck and are encouraged to do so. In this environment, the teacher has to make a choice. Either you go through the material at a relatively standard rate, knowing the lower end kids will either not be able to keep up, or will require additional assistance. Or, you realize that you will lower the pace of the class to make sure that what they do get through, they are comfortable with, and the advanced kids will need to learn some on their own in order to be ready for the test in May. Also you would have to decide whether to make all kids who are in the class take the test. This allows a student to try something new (and maybe not do well in that attempt…they might fail sometimes along the way….they might even fail on the exam…is that ok?)


• Offer both styles and let the students decide which to take. (and do not distinguish the two on the transcript):

  • Test-Focused-AP, where the goal is simple: prepare for success on the test. Lots of practice tests, every assignment in line for the test, only addressing that which is on the test. All students are expected to not only take, but do well on the test. These require admissions application and only proven students with recommendation can be accepted.
  • Content-Focused-AP, where the teacher teaches the content of the AP, but students do not actually take the AP test itself. This allows the focus of the class to shift from preparing for a test to simply immersing in the content area. Still requires applications to get in, but appeals to a different type of student.
  • Exploratory AP: For students who may not meet any criteria, but are wanting to challenge themselves with a college level content class. Any student can take the test


• Don’t offer AP classes at all. Let your faculty design curriculum around the mission statement of your school. Understand your student and teacher populations, as well as the culture of the school, and let your curriculum reflect that. Provide curriculum which is rigorous, challenging, engaging, hands-on, and prepares students for the world.


• Offer the IB program, which is a standardized methodology, like the AP, but has more depth and individual responsibility for the student. Tends to be more portfolio-based, where students earn credit by presenting and applying what they’ve learned.

Ok, so are there any other viewpoints to consider? I mean what’s the issue and why even have the conversation at all? After all the system seems to be working, right? Kids are getting into college and the sky is not falling. (I might argue that it is academically)

If you do not separate students like this, then the advanced students are stuck in classes with students who are not able to do well or are not as interested/motivated thus slowing down the classes and not challenging our best students. Welcome to school since the first grade. That’s not an ideal scenario, but one that is ever present.

If you do not allow students to try something a little beyond their comfort and aptitude level, knowing they may fail along the way, how can they learn? That flies in the face of our grading system which frowns on anything less than a B.

Anyway, there are some serious philosophical discussions, as you can see, that are fun to have with your colleagues in your schools. I encourage you to have them. Regardless of which argument(or none or all of them ) that you support, it is crucial that we as a country look at everything we do, including traditional programs like the AP program, and evaluate it and make sure it allows us to succeed in the ways we want to succeed. And , in the end, whatever our view, we must make sure that whatever we do is for the long term good of students to allow them to enter the world after school and be active contributors and engaged global citizen in the world. See you online!

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