HRP’s Books of the Month — May, Why They Can’t Write by John Warner

Each month, the Human Restoration Project chooses books that we believe are paramount for progressive educators to read. These are not necessarily categorized or numbered by importance, relevance to a certain topic, or release date. Instead, these are the books we’ve read recently to inform our own practice and publications.


“In theory, it was the training wheels that allowed me to ride freely without help not long after my father released his grip and yelled at me to ‘pedal, pedal, pedal.’ In reality, we’ve learned over the intervening years that those training wheels were far more hindrance than help when it came to learning to ride a bike.

The reason? Training wheels actually prevent young riders from practicing the most important skill for riding a bike: balance. For sure, training wheels make it safer for kids who don’t know how to ride a bike, but when it comes time to ride for real, they haven’t spent quality, focused time on that much more essential skill.”

John Warner’s message is clear in Why They Can’t Write: we need to restore purpose to writing (and all curriculum) by removing antiquated “structure.” Hence the subtitle: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities. Like most books rooted in best practice, it’s supported by hundreds of sources. Warner has written extensively on writing instruction, both with classroom strategies (The Writer’s Practice) and now, pedagogical change.

Warner’s inspiration was seeing students in his college English course always knowing “how” to write (i.e. standardized writing) but not why they write:

“When I ask students what they’ve been told about writing, they can list rule after rule. When I ask them where these rules come from, why these rules are rules, they shrug. Because the teacher said so.

He emphasizes that writing instruction (that prepares students for standardized tests) is doing it all wrong:

“Don’t be a writer, we tell them, just do some things that make it look like you know how to write. And when in doubt, at least sound smart by using words like ubiquitous and plethora. If you want to really show off, try myriad.

These words resonate not only with English educators, but with everyone involved in the lives of students. Students seem to not know how what they do matters — or if it should matter. No matter the subject, the purpose of education lags behind the need to perform well for an all-knowing standards model. Therefore, it shouldn’t be surprising how apathetic and lost many students are in their lives — especially when it comes to huge issues (military intervention, healthcare, rights advocacy.) This isn’t to imply that young people aren’t advocating for these things — but to acknowledge that traditional schooling is detrimental to supporting the will to make change.

Interestingly, Warner notes that our culture’s obsession with what students can’t do, and therefore must focus more on: grammar, spelling, literacy — are not sincere problems. He references Andrea Lunsford, whose research found that students are writing more than ever. Further, research highlights how students make the same amount of errors in writing as those of any other documented area (albeit, the type of errors have changed.) Warner states,

“I am not concerned about students’ basic writing skills. Put students in the right situations and they will write clearly, persuasively, even beautifully. But what students are asked to do in school rarely showcases them at their best.”

A restoration of purpose to writing is in-line with critical pedagogy — work by Paulo Freire and bell hooks implores educators to give students voice in the classroom — while simultaneously providing tools to empower in their communities. Indeed, Warner is trying to shift the focus of writing instruction to that of “why do students write?” versus “how to teach students to write?” — where the second question will be answered by teaching the first.

The Council of Writing Program Administrations came up with habits of mind for every writer: curiosity, openness, engagement, creativity, persistence, responsibility, flexibility, and meta-cognition. Warner adds empathy, accuracy, obsessive (over persistent), and able to be comfortable with complexity. Of course, there are systemic barriers to actually teaching this in a classroom. A grade-obsessed culture, “data-driven” practice, and inequitable, imperialist tendencies in writing rubrics prevent us from fostering a learning community — and Warner highlights all of these.

In addition, Warner criticizes the education community of its obsession with fads — specifically the “hype cycle” — where when a new research study concludes something (especially increased test scores), everyone jumps at the opportunity to integrate a ridiculous practice. No one is taking the time to analyze, review, and integrate solid pedagogical changes. This is ironic, given that this is the same problem our students face in their assignments. (Perhaps a connection is to be made in how we educate kids to how adults behave in curriculum-development circles.)

Warner states these changes are for naught without societal change,

“Addressing the underlying conditions of poverty and inequality directly will have a far more beneficial effect, far more quickly than any curriculum could ever hope to achieve.”

This line (my favorite of the work) emphasizes this concretely:

“As for writing instruction, the first step down the road of progress is to spend much less time worrying about the writing as demonstrated through largely meaningless assessments, and instead pay attention to the writers themselves.”

As for making meaningful writers, Warner offers a range of advice: give agency and control to students, make their work relevant and important, provide a connection between a prompt and the writer’s life, establish the purpose of communication and goals of a writer’s practice. Throughout, Warner troubleshoots questions on “how about?’s” and “what if?’s” backed in documented evidence. The Human Restoration Project firmly supports this work for any educator — even those who don’t teach writing — as it provides so much documentation for real change. Gift this one of your school’s instructors.

What do you value in your space and how do values guide your practice?

I recently visited Bangkok, Thailand for an educators conference and spent some time visiting school makerspaces and learning labs, of which now I have visited dozens around the world and have helped schools, museums and libraries design their own spaces. I have seen everything from spaces that have fifty 3D printers and a Goliath share of tools to spaces tucked in the back room of a recreational center with a hot-glue gun and bin of scraps. What I have learned is that the tools, equipment and walls do not make the space, it is the people who direct the space and even more than that are the values that drive the space. What I have found in most cases is that the smaller, less funded spaces seem to be more value driven, purposeful and goal oriented, while many of the larger, well funded spaces seem to just be a showroom floor of the best technologies and equipment. This is not always the case, so let’s take a look at some examples.

Inside the makerspace at The International School of Bangkok

Inside the makerspace at The International School of Bangkok

While visiting ISB in Bangkok I noticed that they had a well equipped space with a plethora of tools and technologies with a well educated and passionate staff. There were amazing examples of student work and there was plenty of evidence that meaningful learning was taking place in the space and that students were learning to use equipment in creative ways. I have to admit that I was even a bit jealous of their space and could easily see myself spending hours there. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this space, the staff or the tools and usage of the space, it was actually highly impressive. However, in my next example, from a school not far away in Bangkok, things looked a little different.

Inside the DSIL school in Bangkok

Inside the DSIL school in Bangkok

From the photo above you can notice that the tools and materials at the DSIL School seem to be on the scrappy end of the spectrum and many of the materials are cheap, have been re-purposed or picked from a bin. At first glance, you might assume that this is nothing more than what you might find in grandpa’s garage or basement. What I found is that the students were producing some of the most amazing projects that I have ever seen in all of the makerspaces that I have visited around the world. I met a grade 4 student who had designed and built a custom holographic projector to show the planets of the solar system that had included an embedded Arduino controller and an aplication that controls the user interface. I met other students working on projects like studying auditory hallucinations with sound sensors on a Raspberry Pi, robotic arms being used to help people make breakfast, camera sensors on canes to help the blind and other inspiring work. The more that I talked to students, the more I learned that they were all deeply engaged in long-term projects that tied to multiple areas of study and were articulate about their accomplishments.

Graphics on the front door of the DSIL FabLab showing MIT professors and researchers Edith Ackermann, Mitch Resnick and Seymour Papert.

Graphics on the front door of the DSIL FabLab showing MIT professors and researchers Edith Ackermann, Mitch Resnick and Seymour Papert.

So, what makes the difference between these two spaces? They both have access to 3D printers, laser cutters and other tools and are both staffed by highly trained teachers and professionals? The image above might point to the major difference between the two spaces that I have described. The DSIL FabLab starts with a vision, a set of values and a pedagogy that directs all of the activities in the space.

“The Darunsikkhalai School for Innovative Learning is one of the most innovative constructivist schools in the world. This new kind of fabrication lab is especially designed for schools and children to investigate, explore, and express science and mathematics from making things following the students’ interest. The innovative learning space is designed to be equipped with cutting edge making technology… at the same time provide material flexibility, low cost implementation and low cost of materials”. - from the DSIL website.

The simple act of having a set of values, goals, mission and pedagogy to guide your space can be completely transformative and provide a greater purpose and clarity for your school’s makerspace or tech lab. Like the DSIL FabLab that is focused on Constructivist, student-centered, Project Based Learning which points the way for all activities and operations in their space. So, what are your values, mission, vision or guide to your space? While at the EARCOS conference in Bangkok, I gave a presentation that focused on defining a vision and set of values for your space.

Slide from my presentation about setting the purpose of your space

Slide from my presentation about setting the purpose of your space

In the above image, you can see the many values that drive the makerspace that I teach in at The Harbour School in Hong Kong called The Foundry. I even have some of these values outlined on the door to my space. With these values in mind, everything that we do or design in the space reflects these values and we practice living up to these values by sharing them with students and involving them in our understanding of how to make value-driven decisions.

My suggestion is to brainstorm with your team about what is important to you, what do you want your students to learn and how will you present your values? Make a simple list like the one shown above and use it as a guide when you design lessons and meet with staff and visitors. I also want to share some other examples of organizations and groups that have a clearly defined set of values that might be of inspiration to help you think about how you can form a set of values for your space or lab.

I want to give a special thanks to Nalin Tutiyaphuengprasert for allowing me to visit the DSIL FabLab School in Bangkok, a truly inspiring place! More educators from around the world should see your space and meet your amazing students.

From left to right Cora Yang (Harbour School), Nalin Tutiyaphuengprasert (DSIL) and me.

From left to right Cora Yang (Harbour School), Nalin Tutiyaphuengprasert (DSIL) and me.

Dispelling Illusions

On Current Affairs, Episode 19, Noam Chomsky states:

As soon as you begin to look at the actual world, the illusions collapse pretty quickly…[when you look at] hegemonic common sense and ask how it’s established — what happens when you investigate it?

Chomsky relays how our society holds up its “truths” in an Orwellian fashion — each idea is how it has always been, and changing it would be neigh impossible (despite, of course, these ideas changing overtime. “We’ve always been at war with Oceania.”) Of course, this is no truer than in education, where the traditional system is seen as unconquerable and the way it’s always been. Looking at the educational record beyond compulsory, standardized, rote-learning classrooms is edgy and radical and simply put, a pipe dream. To revolt against the system and change anything instills a serious case of apathy and dread as the wall to climb is so vast and bewildering.

When we ask: “why do we use state standardized tests?”, Occam’s Razor calls for us to assume it’s to measure student progress and hold accountability to the education system. Obviously, there are many problems with framing “accountability” in this sense, and even more with believing that standardized tests actually do this. When we challenge this illusion — we realize soon that there are ample, obvious problems with assuming that standardized tests actually work as intended. They were built out of good faith — ensuring that everyone is successful — but don’t work as a measure of achievement when applied to the our ever-growing population (Gawthrop, 2014).

Rather than going through every problem in the education system, I’m noting that most teachers know of these problems. It pains me when a teacher says, “because that’s just how things are” to back up de-humanizing practice. The majority of educators believe one-size-fits-all tests aren’t appropriate (Walker, 2016) — so why are we using them? Further, when teachers discuss grades, mandated curriculums, project-based learning, and the like — they fall to the same defense: “I like what you’re saying, but it’s just not possible at my school.” If we know better, why aren’t we pushing back?

Chomsky continues by saying that if everyone believes something, but it seems contentious, then it’s likely not true. The underlying purpose of this statement is to question authority. To practice critical thinking is to look at systemic problems and take a stance, often against the status quo. If we want to teach “21st century skills” — wouldn’t it make sense to actually use those skills in our practice? Creativity, ingenuity, and problem-solving is the enemy of traditional education practices — yet if we don’t push back against a brick-walled system aren’t we just victims of our demise?

The point is that it’s not enough to believe in the pedagogy — one has to take action. We can sit around and debate facets of progressive education all day, but unless someone is actually taking steps to implement anything, children will never actually benefit, defeating the entire purpose. And if the current system is so contentious, so undeniably hurtful, then why can’t we band together and do something about it? All it requires is the majority to redefine the status quo, take purposeful action, and dispel the illusion.

The Cult of What

(Note: all enrollment data is from the National Center for Education Statistics.)

With the recent revelations regarding the nefarious underbelly of highly selective college admissions practices, I thought it might be pertinent to take a closer look. I’ve read through a number of responses and do feel like there are some additional takeaways that haven’t necessarily been investigated. For me, there were three moments that stood out as significant, and that I will get to later, but I think I should disclose from the outset that I do not believe this is a college problem. It’s bigger than that. This is a problem generated by the Cult of What. Let me start there.

What = the collection of objects that are assigned value by our culture. These objects can be material, something that can be touched; or conceptual, something that is purely an object in the mind. There are definitely gradations as any material object will have a conceptual component and vice versa. As an example, if we were at a cocktail party, someone might ask, “what college did you attend,” or, “what kind of car do you drive?” The college is a more conceptual object and the car is a more material object.

The value of the what in our culture closely correlates to its availability. The more scarce the what, the higher its value. As in the above example, if you attended Harvard and own a Tesla, it positions you differently than if you went to the University of Idaho and own a Buick. The more one is able to accumulate scarce whats, the higher social status and privilege they receive. In fact, wealth is essentially access to scarce whats, and in a weird way, the more scarce whats one accumulates, a gravitational force seems to develop which pulls more scarce whats into its orbit.

How = a process. The how can be object oriented, like how one goes about accumulating whats; and it can be subject oriented, like how one treats other people or themselves. How two people interact with each other will determine the quality of their relationship. How someone goes about getting a what will determine how they come to view and feel about that what.Another way to say this is that quality hows lead to quality whats. Maybe another way to express this concept is that hows are more internally focused and whats are more externally focused.

Collectively, we are a what obsessed culture. It is so pervasive that it is very rarely questioned or noticed. There are reminders everywhere about the lack of whats we have in our lives (phones, cars, sexy bodies, white teeth, it’s all fair game). Public transportation is now subsidized by advertisement for whats. There is a what reinforcement device in our pocket that we spend countless hours on each day. It not only reinforces our own what (ego), but delivers a constant stream of whats for our consideration according to whatour browsing history is like.

How you get to what is given littler consideration and has virtually no space in the larger cultural conversation. It’s basically an afterthought. That is why I don’t see the current admissions scandal as a college problem. It’s a cultural one. College hasn’t become commodified. Everything has.

On the college side we ask, what is your GPA, what is your test score, what is your high school ranking, what is your rigor? Rarely do we ask how did you get to that GPA, test score, ranking, or rigor (Bennington does have a veryhow focused application in addition to being test optional, but students very rarely take advantage of it). On the student side they ask what is your ROI (return on investment), what is your college’s ranking, what is your acceptance rate (is it not ironic that we celebrate those institutions that deny their education to the most)? The more you deny, the more you are wanted.

Rarely do students ask how our alumni are manifesting in the world other than the degree of their whatness, never their howness. Rarely do students ask how current students are treated on campus or how they approach the world or how they approach their work. These factors have caused some colleges to enlist questionable how strategies to climb the rankings, and as this recent scandal has demonstrated, parents and students are not immune.

#1 Did he just say that?

We just met with (our older daughter’s) college counselor this am. I’d like to maybe sit with you after your session with the girls as I have some concerns and want to fully understand the game plan and make sure we have a roadmap for success as it relates to (our daughter) and getting her into a school other than ASU!” — Mossimo Giannulli

The above excerpt is from an email that was scooped up in the recent investigation. On the surface level, this says a lot, but it also points to something much deeper which gets to the heart of the Cult of What.

If you don’t already know who Michael Crowe is, he is the President of Arizona State University and author of, Designing the New American University. Although he is a somewhat controversial figure, the one thing he has done is to dramatically increase ASU’s educational offerings to a significant number of traditional and non-traditional students, reaching 100,000 students in total enrollment in 2017. With multiple campuses and a robust online infrastructure, ASU is able to deliver education to more and more people.

For Mossimo, he couldn’t imagine his daughter attending a university admitting 84% of their applicants, a university that was working to be more and more inclusive, not more and more exclusive. Mossimo’s daughter, Olivia Jade, was already a social media star with 1.9 million YouTube subscribers. In terms of building her brand (i.e. her what), she needed a what school. The Cult of What demands scarcity at the expense of everything else. Mossimo and his wife were willing to spend $500,000 in bribes to ensure this exclusivity. Therefore, an institution like ASU, whose mission is to increase access, unconsciously threatens the very foundation on which the Cult of What rests, and was a perfect target for Mossimo’s jab. In contrast, USC has increasingly become more and more exclusive. Consider the following, the admit rate fell from 25% to 16% between 2007 and 2017, and this past year, they only accepted 13% of their applicants. Scarce whats attract more scarce whats.

#2 Re-defining winners and losers.

We need to rethink the winners and losers narrative. One of the common threads I have seen over the last few weeks points out the discrepancy between winners and losers in education and the privileged who are disproportionately granted access. Those who have wealth (extreme whatcollectors), attend the best schools, hire outside college counselors, spend thousands on test-prep coaches, etc., which then sets their children up for a lifetime of success. Those who don’t have wealth are at an unfair disadvantage as a result of them being unable to access those same resources. Shouldn’t we level the playing field and offer more access to the best-of-the-best to those students coming from the least?

While on the surface this logic seems sound, but I think it depends on our definition of best-of-the-best and what it means to win. If you are at all familiar with Palo Alto and Henry Gunn High Schools, you will know that they are in the same neighborhood as Stanford, consistently ranked as some of the best public high schools in the country, and who send their students to some of the best colleges. If we look through the what lens, they are the best of the best. But did you know that they are also famous for their suicide clusters? What would happen if we looked at the schools through the how lens? How do students perceive themselves? How do they treat their peers? How do they achieve their top what status? It seems to me that there is a correlation between culturally defined “great” schools and hows that produce unhealthy psychological pathologies. Why is it when we think of “winners” we only think of whats and rarely of hows?

To illustrate this point, I googled “best US public high schools” and found this list on niche.com. From there, I searched for articles online relating to mental health issues at those schools. I was able to quickly (first page search result) find articles for three of the first four on that list (Walter Payton College Prep, #3, passed my test).

From the Niche.com’s website - “ranking is based on rigorous analysis of key statistics and millions of reviews from students and parents using data from the U.S. Department of Education. Ranking factors include state test scores, college readiness, graduation rates, SAT/ACT scores, teacher quality, and high school ratings.” Below are the school’s rank with a link to the article about their mental health challenges.

#1 Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy — A quiet crisis. A conversation on mental health, suicides on campus. The Daily Illini.

#2 Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology — I survived college mania at America’s most stressed out high school. CNN Money.

#4 Stuyvesant High School — Confronting mental health issues at Suyvesant. Voices of NY.

If all of these schools are the best-of-the-best and collectively produce what we considered winners, I would seriously challenge the idea that we need to expose more students to this kind of education. They are totally what focused whose how have the inconvenient byproduct of producing serious mental health challenges for hordes of young people. I do recognize there are real inequities in the system that need to be addressed, but I see very few howwinners in our current model and don’t believe that this is necessarily the place to try and address those inequities.

Related to this is the misguided attempts to address these problems on campuses by trying to use social emotional learning techniques, or progressive tokenism, to mitigate the effects of the Cult of WhatThat is to say, instead of addressing the underlying issue, which is systemic, we throw GRIT at the problem, we throw MINDFULNESS at the problem, we throw GENIUS HOUR at the problem. We are “what’ing” how techniques in an attempt to offset the detrimental effects of our what approach. We are not looking to change the underlying how. That’s like trying to cure lung cancer by starting to run 5K once a week while continuing to smoke.

3. What about collegiate athletics?

It is possible that I missed this so please forgive my oversight if I did, but it seems to me that people are upset because someone posed as a potential student athlete being recruited by a coach and then a coach subsequently took a bribe to corroborate the lie, not that athletic recruits get preferential treatment in the admissions process. I am not, nor have I ever been, involved with a college or university with sports teams so my knowledge is limited. There could be a compelling reason that I am missing here, but from where I sit it seems the only reason to give athletes preferential treatment is to increase the institutional visibility through the potential accumulation of rare sports whats, which collectively adds to the what of the institution, leading to more applications, leading to more exclusivity, leading to more whats…ad infinitum.

To take an extreme example, let’s look at the University of Alabama. When Nick Saban took over as the football coach in 2007, they received 14,313 applications and enrolled 25,544 students. Ten years later (2017), total applications had reached 38,129 and total enrollment was 38,563. They increased their applications by 166% and enrollment by 51% in ten years! 63% were admitted in 2007 (9,017 admitted and 5,295 denied) and then 53% were admitted ten years later (20,208 admitted and 17,920 denied). SIDE NOTE: Yield on admitted students did drop from 49% to 36%.

In those ten years, the Alabama football team won five national championships. It is an indictment of our culture, and how that informs many student’s college process, that there is a correlation between astronomical application and enrollment growth and a successful athletics program. It’s an indictment in the sense that we are conditioning students to generate their self-worth extrinsically (i.e. whats) in the deployment of our standards based, extrinsically focused educational approach; where policy makers, in their what wisdom, are turning all of the people downstream into whats. How this manifests in the college process is that students all over the country want to associate themselves with an institution’s whatness rather than their howness.

While most colleges won’t ever have the profile of a national football championship, fielding a competitive athletic team that collects trophies does increase your what, whether you are division III or division ISo much so, that coaches have unnecessarily gotten involved in the admissions process. It was an easy loophole for a few “bad actors” to take advantage of. However, the long term solution isn’t to fix the loophole, it’s to dismantle the Cult of What.

Admittedly, I am unsure of how to propose any meaningful solutions without an overhaul of the dominant what focused paradigm we are all living in. And in full disclosure, I am not immune to or above the Cult of What. I do my best to be conscious of it, but am not always successful. I do know the following: Critical pedagogy is a how approach. Teacher autonomy is a how approach. Narrative evaluations are a how approach. Self-direction is a how approach. Voice and choice is a how approach. Project-based-learning is a howapproach. Recognizing the inherent dignity in all human beings is a howapproach. It is my fundamental belief that focusing on a quality how will lead to a quality what, where human beings are intrinsically motivated and manifesting positively in the world. Progressive education is a how paradigm.

Perhaps education could be a place to start, where infusing young people with a how approach will be the seeds that bear fruit for the larger how revolution to take place. In the interim, I guess I would ask of myself and my community the following: MORE HOW. LESS WHAT.

HRP’s Book of the Month — April, The Inner Level by Kate Pickett & Richard R. Wilkinson

The Inner Level: How More Equal Societies Reduce Stress, Restore Sanity, and Improve Everyone’s Well-being by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson demonstrates a fundamental element to education: we can’t fix the system solely by making schools “better.” Whether it be quality of instruction, teacher pay, or changing pedagogy — the systemic inequalities that exist must be lessened for schools to make a substantial change in society at-large.

This work is important both as an analysis of why we need a more fair society, as well as showcasing various elements of critical pedagogy and progressive educating. Pickett and Wilkinson highlight how the sheer thought of changing our society seems out of reach:

“What stops us for realising these possibilities is that our societies have developed what psychologists call an ‘external locus of control.’ Instead of believing what happens to us is under our control — a matter of our own decisions and efforts (called an ‘internal locus of control’) — we see the future as if it were imposed on us by external forces beyond our control. It is as if the course of technological change and how it shapes the future is determined not by human beings, as we know it is, but by some unknown power of fate.”

Whether it be in school reform or solving wide-spanning cultural disparities, our neoliberal society has (intentionally) made many of us apathetic and disheartened. Both students and teachers alike are depressed, anxious, and lack purpose. Many have given up — or feel progressive education is “too big” of a change. It’s not “realistic.” Of course, this is exactly the point of a neoliberal society — make change seem so incredibly difficult that no one ever attempts it. (Although, many have demonstrated that it is possible to implement radical progressive policies one step at a time. Look at all the fantastic work being shared on social media by Pam Moran, for example.)

The struggle between the “haves” and the “have-nots” is the cornerstone of the book’s highlighted studies — demonstrating how all walks of life: both rich and poor — are negatively affected by the ever-widening gap. Throughout, it is impossible to not see the parallels at a micro-level in our education system. For example,

“…a substantial body of research showing how well-being and satisfaction with our own pay depends substantially on how it compares with other people’s pay, rather than whether it provides us with what we need. Our argument is not that there was a time when people did not make social comparisons, but that they have become more important to our sense of ourselves than they once were.”

Substitute “pay” with “grades” and we’ll be presented with a modern peril of schools. (As, sadly, our society has branded academic achievement with economic advancement — and therefore, our students see this connection.) Further:

“Today we live in societies in which worries about how we are seen and judged by others — what psychologists call ‘the social evaluative threat’ — are one of the most serious burdens on the quality and experience of life in rich developed countries. The costs are measured not only in terms of additional stress, anxiety and depression, but also in poorer physical health, in the frequent resort to drink and drugs we use to keep our anxieties at bay, and in the loss of friendly community life which leaves so many feeling isolated and alone.”

Depression and anxiety rates are at an all time high — especially among adolescents. It’s fearful to note that not only are students faced with a school system that often steals their passion for learning, but live within a society facing so many existential threats: coopted politics, growing income disparity, racism, sexism, classism, ableism, hypernormalization, climate change, and more.

Hypernormalisation (2016) by filmmaker Adam Curtis shows how society has been fooled into a false reality of “2 sides” or “right vs wrong”— and that everything is actually run entirely by corporations and financiers.

The Inner Level demonstrates that unequal societies cause problems ranging from jealousy and greed to overvaluing hyper-masculinity (doing anything to get ahead). On the flip side,

“People in more equal societies are more likely to be involved in local groups, voluntary organizations, and civic associations. They are more likely to feel they can trust each other, are more willing to help one another, and rates of violence (as measured by homicide rates) are consistently lower. People get along with each other better in more equal societies.”

Education is a reflection of society at large, and much of this work parallels the same events educators see in their classrooms. Building a community is more important than drilling content, yet standardized testing hampers educators to truly build viable connections. And every example The Inner Leveldemonstrates for society is true for school:

“…insecure striving, a fear of rejection, of being overlooked and losing out, linked to a tendency to seek validation from others, feel inferior, shame, and submissive behavior — and increased stress, depression, anxiety, and self-harm.”

Our classrooms build on behaviors like these and play into them, and little is done to empower students to recognize these behaviors, take action, and see change in their world. By perpetuating this system (via neutral interactions, non-questioning of the curriculum, encouraging teacher-centric lessons, and emphasizing “classroom management”), we do close to nothing in educatingstudents.

That’s not to say students aren’t “learning” — many focus on college readiness — demonstrating their 100% college acceptance rate, or career preparedness — showing all of their career certification programs and fancy coding computer lab. Yet through this process there’s little in the way of student empowerment. Yes, students are taking away skills that will help them achieve in the system — but without understanding the system itself, the points made in The Inner Level on being a cog in the machine, will our students be content? And despite of “mindfulness” and “social and emotional learning” being increasingly buzz-worded into schools — are they actually empowering students or just helping them cope with a perceived as powerless situation?

By student empowerment, I’m referring to actually letting students choose what they want to learn, giving true freedom in curriculum development, and reframing the role of a teacher from authoritarian to guide. There’s still a place for an educator, but that role is shifted from “master of content” to “friend, coach, and navigator.” Otherwise, we end up in this scenario:

“And when feel looked down on by others, and we start to feel worthless, incompetent and rejected, drugs, alcohol, immersion in fantasy worlds of video games and television, comfort food, retail therapy or the possibility of a big win become more alluring and draw so many of us in. We are endlessly tempted with products which promise to create for us the identities we desire, with activities and purchases that provide short-term fixes for our chronic stress and anxieties but nothing more.”

Critical pedagogy demands that students have this voice and educators empower (and deprogram) children to recognizing their inherent potential. This includes gradeless classrooms, experiential learning, student voice, emphasis of learning over college/career readiness, and human-centered practices such as restorative justice. We must be careful in believing that one pedagogical shift (e.g. not giving grades) will innately solve the array of problems that arise from such an inherently repressive model.

Further, we must also recognize that educators can’t solve all these problems through school reform. Often, the problems even the most sensible educators endure are beyond the scope of the classroom. As Pickett and Wilkinson state,

“Vast numbers of studies have now demonstrated the cognitive damage that living in poverty does to children. They also provide strong evidence that lower levels of ability among children in poorer families reflect the less stimulating and more stressful family circumstances that poverty produces. The cognitive deficits found in studies of children from poorer families show clearly that they are created, rather than being innate and unalterable givens…

Bigger income differences in a society not only make inequalities in educational performance larger, they also lower the average levels of educational attainment for children across the whole society…Income inequality affects the educational standards of whole societies because bigger income differences depress performance at each step down the social ladder.”

Educators have an obligation to become politically involved in supporting candidates and movements that reduce inequalities — especially for those most discriminated against. It is obvious that the common anecdote — test scores are indicative of zip code not academic achievement — is not something that is solvable in the classroom alone. We must look to educators rallying together to both save education as well as promote humanizing policies in our neighborhoods (e.g. equitable government spending, progressive taxation, neighborhood revitalization projects not centered on gentrification, local community organizations, universal healthcare, college tuition coverage, multiple pathways to high school graduation, etc.) As stated in The Inner Level,

“Researchers have shown that if children are already behind in terms of school readiness and cognitive development when they started school, then unfavourable educational outcomes are much more likely, in spite of good schooling. And the challenge for individual life trajectories and well-being is compounded by the fact that when children are not ready for school, this puts the school and all its pupils, as well as each deprived child, at a disadvantage.”

Finally, educators must recognize the perception that inequitable societies have engrained to its inhabitants:

“They [researchers at the University of Bristol] found that children from poor neighborhoods were consistently given worse grades by their teachers, compared to children from affluent neighbourhoods. Black children were also systemically marked down by their teachers, while children of Indian and Chinese origin tended to be marked upwards. The researchers interpreted these findings as an indication of unconscious stereotyping by ethnicity and class, and found that discriminatory marking was most pronounced in the areas with fewer black or poor children.”

Tolerance and anti-bias education is paramount to schools in every region of the country, as even well-meaning educators are subject to inherent biases. Schools must support their teachers through autonomous policies in the classroom, while constantly reinforcing a human-centered pedagogy that employs equitable actions and human-centered practices.

We recommend that educators read The Inner Level to arm themselves with a plethora of research (~700 sources!) demonstrating why inequitable societies exist, how it affects us as people, and what we can do to change it. It’s not only schools that need solved — society needs equitable reorganization to realize that outcome.

Making Progress on Progressive Education: First Empower Teachers

At the heart of progressive pedagogy are questions about student motivation: How can teachers best motivate students? How can schools best motivate teachers? The ultimate goal of progressive pedagogy is to maximize the intrinsic motivation of students to engage with ideas that matter to them and their communities. Research tells us that for this to happen, schools must first maximize the intrinsic motivation of their teachers.

Progressive teachers center their teaching around their commitment to the growth of students as individuals and as part of a larger community. However, many teachers struggle to do this in environments that stifle their own motivation and capacity for self-determination through coercive employment practices like merit pay, evaluations based on test scores, micromanagement, and overt and subtle hostility to unionization.

Ample research illustrates that these practices, ostensibly designed to motivate teachers through competition and incentives, actually corrode intrinsic motivation. In the 1970s, psychologists developed a theory of human motivation known as self-determination theory. The theory, backed by considerable evidence, indicates that in order to develop a student’s interest in learning, a valuing of education, and a confidence in their own abilities and attributes, students must experience autonomy, relatedness, and competence (Deci and Ryan, 2000).

Put briefly, autonomy is the feeling that we are in control of our own behavior, competence is the ability to master the tasks that matter most to us, and relatedness is the sense of belonging and connectedness that we feel with others (Deci and Ryan, 2008).

Teachers who are respected, trusted, and experience autonomy in a deeply connected community are better able to respect, trust, and foster autonomy in their students.

Research indicates that it is unlikely that a school will foster self-determination in its students without first developing it in their faculty. For example, researchers in Quebec discovered that the less capacity teachers felt for self-determination, the more likely they were to exert coercive control over their students (Pelletier, et al., 2002). On the other hand, when teachers work in an environment that contributes to higher levels of teacher autonomy, relatedness, and competence, they are more likely to foster classroom environments that promote self-determination for their students (Leroy et al., 2007). Encouraging teachers to be self-determined enables students to develop and experience autonomy, relatedness, and competence.

What does this look like in practice? Creating spaces in which trained and experienced teachers have the autonomy to use their professional judgment. Teachers and students can build connections by cooking and eating together. Teachers who collaborate with one another to develop knowledge and techniques become more competent educators.

Studies show that students are aware of their teachers’ efforts to support their autonomy and intrinsic motivation for learning. Researchers have found a positive correlation between teachers’ perception of their autonomy in their work and both students’ perceptions of their teacher’s attitude and their own intrinsic motivation and autonomy in the classroom (Roth et al., 2007).

For the past forty years, most American schools have chosen to pursue a narrow path of standardized testing and top-down accountability measures, thereby inhibiting teachers’ self-determination and diminishing their ability to support the development of autonomy, relatedness, and competence in their students.

There is a clear link between intrinsic motivation and learning environments that support autonomy, relatedness, and competence (Bosso, 2014). Truly progressive leaders chart a bold course, respecting and supporting the autonomy of teachers, and creating the space for them to facilitate classrooms where students make meaningful decisions about their learning as part of a deeply connected and capable community.

References

Bosso, D. R. (2015). “This is what I am”: Teacher motivation, morale, and professional identity in the context of educational reformDissertation Abstracts International Section A: Humanities and Social Sciences. ProQuest Information & Learning. Retrieved from http://proxy.mtholyoke.edu:2048/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=psyh&AN=2015-99190-119&site=eds-live&scope=site

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2008). “Self-Determination Theory: A macrotheory of human motivation, development, and health”. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie Canadienne, 49, 182–185.

Leroy, N., Bressoux, P., Sarrazin, P., & Trouilloud, D. (2007). “Impact of teachers’ implicit theories and perceived pressures on the establishment of an autonomy supportive climate”. European Journal of Psychology of Education, 22(4), 529–545.

Pelletier, L. G., Séguin-Lévesque, C., & Legault, L. (2002). “Pressure from above and pressure from below as determinants of teachers’ motivation and teaching behaviors”. Journal of Educational Psychology, 94(1), 186–196.

Roth, G., Assor, A., Kanat-Maymon, Y., & Kaplan, H. (2007). “Autonomous motivation for teaching: How self-determined teaching may lead to self-determined learning”. Journal of Educational Psychology, 99(4), 761–774.

Ryan, R. and Deci, E. (2000). “Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions”. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25(1), pp.54–67.

On failure

There are lots of platitudes and Pinspirational quotes about failure. We’ve all seen them; we’re probably guilty of using them or even have a few posters in our classrooms about them.

But this past week, as I sat in front of my gradebook and frowned at a 6% (6% of what?), I realized that although my grading practices have evolved, my definition of failure has not.

So I ask you: what does it mean to fail?

When I think of failure in my life, I reflect on all the ideas or thoughts or plans that I had that haven’t panned out: I haven’t published a book. I haven’t left the country. I am not working on my Ph.D. or opening my own yoga studio.

But does that mean I’m a failure?

I’d like to think not. I don’t feel like a failure. I know I don’t always get it right, but I definitely have a collection of wins under my belt: a stable and challenging job, a beautiful and close-knit family, a curiosity and ambition that drives me to grow year after year.

I have crippling anxiety, yet I get up and go to work every day, where I stand in front of adults and teenagers alike even though I detest being the center of attention. That’s a big win.

I wonder if another adult looked at my life, how I would be graded?

And if I received an “F,” what would that mean?

Coming back to my gradebook, I asked myself what that failing grade meant. This student is capable and intelligent. I have no doubt he would perform well on any assessment of standards I placed before him.

The problem is, he simply refuses to do them.

You know this child. He’s in your room too. Sometimes he comes to class prepared and engaged. More often than not, he slinks into class quietly with earbuds tucked under his hood, hoping to fly beneath the radar. Occasionally, his temper flares when he’s asked to complete a task.

I’ve done a deep dive getting to the root of the problem. I’ve spoken with his mother, spent time going over his troubling history with the school psychologist, teamed up with our interventionist to support him with extra time, additional copies of assignments, and alternatives. Most importantly, I’ve spoken with him. I’ve asked his opinion, listened compassionately to his input, and have worked hard to establish his trust in me.

So is it failure when a student can perform but chooses not to?

There are so many things about our old-school educational system that are flawed, but none break my heart as much as this: if this child does not pass my class, if he fails, he doesn’t graduate.

What an incredible burden to put on his shoulders.

What an incredible burden to put on mine.

But more importantly, how infuriating is it that we are setting our children up to fail in this way?

I see this child winning in so many ways. He wins every day that he shows up as he lives at least 30 minutes away from the school. He wins every time he focuses long enough to read on his own, even just a few pages. He wins every time he moves a toe just one inch closer to graduation, an accomplishment that very few in his family have achieved. He wins every time he controls his temper and lets someone else’s snark slide off his back. He wins every time he asks a thought-provoking question in class.

There are other teachers who would say he should suffer the consequences of his choices, that if he couldn’t do what little work was asked of him while he was here, then he doesn’t deserve a diploma.

There are other teachers who tell me not to stress because we gave him so many chances and opportunities, but he chose not to take them.

But I refuse to give up. Because this kid is not failing.

We have failed him.

We have shuffled him along a conveyor belt of schooling not tailored to his interests or skills whatsoever. We have pigeonholed him into a reputation he didn’t deserve because of his family legacy, so what choice did he have but to mold himself into what we expected? We have punished him over and over again for not complying instead of actually teaching him what’s expected of him during the school day. We have taught him that he cannot trust us because at the end of the day, he will only get a detention or fail our classes anyway.

He and I are both trapped in a system that sets us up against each other. I can sit next to him and offer guidance and reassurances as much as I want, but when I am forced to align with grading policies and practices that go against my philosophy and my words to him — in other words, when I say one thing and do another — then both of us fail.

In my heart, I feel like I’m the one with a 6%. I represent a tiny number of adults who have seen this child for who he really is and have patiently persisted.

I have failed this child with thinking I was providing him with voice and choice, when really, I was only giving him choices to perform in ways that Isaw fit for him. In all of those conversations with both him and the other well-meaning adults in his life, I never once asked him what ideas he might have to show me his mastery of the skills he had been taught. Because my very traditional preparation for teaching taught me that I am the master who must be in charge of creating choices and options for the students rather than asking them to be part of the process, I had still only been asking for his compliance under the guise of choice.

To be frank, I want to slap a big red “F” on this system. As angry as I am about this one little letter, I am even angrier that so many teachers still do what works best for them and not what’s best for their students. I still don’t have a clear definition of this word failure, but I do have clear images of ways we can fail our students. And if we’re failing our students, then how do we pull ourselves back up to passing?

There are so many practices that need to be reimagined here, but a good place to start is to fold students into their own learning and assessment. Rather than making decisions for them and doling out grades to them, let’s be clear and concise about the skills we are looking for students to master and then ask, “How can you show me you have mastered this?” Bring students into this conversation before it’s too late.

I use evidence to inform my teaching.

It takes at least 22 years to meet standards, and try as they might — students fail to retain the majority of what they learn (1, 2). There’s certainly a dismal picture: 51% of students in 4th grade are unhappy at school, 74% are unhappy by 8th grade (3); 41% feel unsafe at school, 34% feel unsafe in their classrooms (4); 7.4% of 9–12th graders attempted suicide in the last year (5).

Yet, as these problems grow ever more problematic, the system continues to promote standardized testing (6). Testing hampers motivation, discourages critical thinking, discourages student choice, and reduces teacher autonomy (7). Yes, students do learn when taking tests, but only recall-based facts which is not a requirement for critical thinking (8). In fact, testing does little more than highlight the inequities in our existing culture, rather than measuring any meaningful difference in intelligence (9). The practice may even make the inequities worse (10).

When teachers are burdened with a standardized testing culture — one that does anything to increase scores: cutting the arts, doubling down on preparation, enacting strict discipline policies — little is done to focus on the aforementioned problems above. The pressure associated with this culture completely diminishes any academic gain that could be achieved (11). Although we want learners to make meaningful connections and experience learning — testing just gets in the way (12). It even gets in the way of teacher and parental relationships with children (13, 14).

But it’s not only standardized testing. We continue to prop up systems that don’t work because that’s just the way it’s always been. It’s what our favorite teacher did. It’s what everyone else does.

We want students to be prepared, so we assign homework. But homework does little to motivate or enable further learning — it may even reduce it (15, 16). The marginal at best results are only found in high school, with none elsewhere (17). However, what homework does cause is increased stress at home and increased familial tension (18). And no, we’re not falling behind other countries. The countries that assign the least homework perform better on any international achievement test (19). The only benefit? Students perform better on state-driven standardized tests (20).

We want students to know how they’re doing, to ensure they understand the material, so we give them a grade. Yet those who receive a grade are much less motivated to continue learning than those who are simply given feedback (21, 22, 23). Students who focused on their grades learn less and are more stressed (24). And when their groups are graded, students are less likely to contribute (25). Without a grade, students still are motivated to take tests, as long as they see the applicability (26). Those who see relevance in their learning desire to find out more (27).

When a student performs poorly, they don’t desire to achieve — they are pushed out of school (28). When a midterm grade card is released, those with low grades do even worse — they’re demotivated and disengaged (29). Even those doing well tend to avoid any educational risks — chances of innovation — due to fears of a low grade (30). Further, students fearing a stereotype threat (e.g. women in STEM fields) perform worse with competitive grading practices (31).

The more students have a seat at the table — power in their learning, their choices— the more driven they are to remain in school (32). They are willing to set their own standards for understanding and remain intrinsically motivated while setting their objectives (33, 34, 35). When not highly controlled, children have an innate desire to learn and express themselves (36, 37). Of course, those that see meaningful actions in their classroom are engaged (38). To find meaning, schools need time to let students ask inquisitive questions (39, 40). Otherwise, our classes are subjugated to a singular identity to aim towards — one that takes away or dismisses students’ innate knowledge and abilities (41, 42, 43). Often, we conflate students working on what we want with grit, but grit is obtained by students working on what they want (44).

Further, the more active and experiential the classroom, the more students are motivated (45). Project-based learning (PBL) or experiential education has various linkages to increased traditional academic performance, as well as cognitive development and social/emotional wellbeing (46, 47, 48). When engaging in experiential learning, we work together and solve problems, leading to substantial gains across the board (49). And when we care about each other and build a lasting community, our students are better off (50, 51).

In addition to caring for each other, students who practice self-care and self-regulation feel more attuned to their learning (52). If we wish school to be a haven from whatever personal problems a student has — to enable them to succeed despite their difficulties in a learning community — then we must give them the tools necessary (53, 54). This isn’t to make traditional learning more manageable, but to enable students to deal with stressful times in their lives (55).

Those who self-regulate have greater life outcomes (56). With less structure and direct instruction, students naturally become better at self-regulation (57). And there is still room for an educator — with various techniques and tools to connect with students during this process (58, 59). Of course, more time provided to students means more play and socialization: both vital components of brain development (60). Recess and free time is not disposable or less important than class time, it is quintessential to learning (61).

Throughout, our goal should be to instill a sense of purpose in our children’s lives. Students are more satisfied, content, and less depressed when they embark on purpose-finding (62). They have greater agency and push harder toward their goals (63). They overcome obstacles and are more likely to choose pro-social behaviors (64, 65). And as they work toward greater meaning, they understand their place in the world and reap rewards academically, socially, emotionally, and sustainably through life (66, 67, 68).

There’s hundreds, perhaps thousands, of articles promoting progressive education. Research among child development psychologists overwhelming favors student choice and voice and experiential learning. The research supporting test preparation and traditional academia is centered on making said system stronger (recall, increased test scores) — continuing to bolster a dehumanizing model. Those of us adopting progressive models — rooted in philosophies of 100+ years ago — are not reinventing the wheel (69, 70, 71, 72, 73). Our imaginations aren’t running rampant, our ideas aren’t radical — they’re grounded in research. If we want to transform our schools, let’s use the facts.


References

  1. Awash in a Sea of Standards. Marzano, Robert & Kendall, John. McREL. 1998.

  2. Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing our kids for the innovation era. Wagner, T., & Dintersmith, T. 2015. Page 41 (Lawrenceville School).

  3. Are American Kids Happy at School? New data tells a surprising story. Strauss, Valerie. Washington Post. 2018.

  4. Spotlight on School Safety. YouthTruth. n.d.

  5. Suicide Statistics. American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. 2017.

  6. “From 2005 to 2015, depression rose significantly among Americans age 12 and older with the most rapid increases seen in young people.” Depression is On the Rise in the U.S., Especially Among Young TeensColumbia University. 2017.

  7. The Effect of High-Stakes Testing on Student Motivation and Learning. Amrein, Audrey. Berliner, David. Educational Leadership. 2003.

  8. Comparison of Standardized Test Scores from Traditional Classrooms and Those Using Problem-Based Learning. Needham, Martha. 2010.

  9. The Testing Culture and the Persistence of High Stakes Testing Reforms. Moses, Michele. Nanna, Michael. Education and Culture. 2007.

  10. The Development and Impact of High Stakes Testing. Natriello, Gary. Pallas, Aaron. 1999.

  11. High-Stakes Testing and Student Achievement: Problems for the No Child Left Behind Act. Nichols, Sharon. Glass, Gene. Berliner, David. The Great Lakes Center for Education Research & Practice. 2005.

  12. The Impact of a Junior High School Community Intervention Project: Moving Beyond the Testing Juggernaut and Into a Community of Creative Learners. Nelson, Larry, McMahan, Sarah, & Torres, Tacia. School Community Journal. 2012.

  13. The Impact of High-stakes Testing on the Learning Environment. Ritt, Maddolyn. School of Social Work. 2016.

  14. This data is taken from the Australian NAPLAN test, but shares striking similarities with any testing in the United States or Canada. The Experience of Education: The impacts of high stakes testing on school students and their families. Wyn, Johanna. Turnbull, Malcolm. Grimshaw, Lyndall. Whitlam Institute. 2014.

  15. Testing a Model of School Learning: Direct and Indirect Effects on Academic Achievement. Cool, Valerie. Keith, Timothy. Contemporary Educational Psychology. 1991.

  16. Testing a Model of School Learning. Contemporary Educational Policy. Cool, Valerie & Keith, Timothy. 1991.

  17. Does Homework Really Improve Achievement? Arkansas Tech University. Costley, Kevin. 2013.

  18. End Homework NowEducational Leadership. Kralovec, K. & Buell, J. 2001.

  19. National Differences, Global Similarities: World Culture and the Future of Schooling.** Baker, David & LeTendre, Gerald. 2005.

  20. When is Homework Worth the Time?: Evaluating the Association Between Homework and Achievement in High School Science and Math. Maltese, Adam. Tai, Robert. The High School Journal. 2012.

  21. Task-Involving and Ego-Involving Properties of Evaluation: Effects of Different Feedback Conditions on Motivational Perceptions, Interest, and Performance. Butler, Ruth. Journal of Educational Psychology. 1987.

  22. Enhancing and Undermining Intrinsic Motivation: The Effects of Task-Involving and Ego-Involving Evaluation of Interest and Performance. Butler, Ruth. Journal of Educational Psychology. 1988.

  23. Response to Assessment Feedback: The Effects of Grades, Praise, and Source of Information. Lipnevich, Anastasiya. Smith, Jeffrey. ETS. 2008.

  24. The Relations of Learning and Grade Orientations to Academic Performance. Beck, H. P., Rorrer-Woody, S., & Pierce, L. G. Teaching of Psychology. 1991.

  25. Grading Hampers Cooperative Information Sharing in Group Problem Solving. Hayek, Anne-Sophie et. al. Solvay Brussels School Economics & Management. 2015.

  26. A Second Look at Grading and Classroom Performance: Report of a Research Study. Moeller, Aleidine J., Reschke, Claus Modern Language Journal. 1993.

  27. Quality of Learning With an Active Versus Passive Motivational Set. Benware, Carl, Deci, Edward American Educational Research Journal. 1984.

  28. Failing Grades for Retention. Natriello, Gary. School Superintendents Association. 1998.

  29. Do Grades Shape Students’ School Engagement? The Psychological Consequences of Report Card Grades at the Beginning of Secondary School. Poorthuis, Astrid et. al. Journal of Educational Psychology. 2015.

  30. Why Grades Engender Performance-Avoidance Goals: The Mediating Role of Autonomous Motivation. Pulfrey, Caroline. Buchs, Celine. American Psychological Association. 2011.

  31. Assessing does not mean threatening: The purpose of assessment as a key determinant of girls’ and boys’ performance in a science class. Souchal, Carine et. al. British Journal of Educational Psychology. 2014.

  32. Self-Determination and Persistence in a Real-Life Setting: Toward a Motivational Model of of High School Dropout. Vallerand, Robert. Fortier, Michelle. Guay, Frederic. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1997.

  33. Student Self-Assessment: The Key to Stronger Student Motivation and Higher Achievement. McMillan, James & Hearn, Jessica. educational HORIZONS. 2008.

  34. Student and peer assessment in action. Logan, Elaine. University of Cumbria. 2009.

  35. Assessment Matters: Self-Assessment and Peer Assessment. Ako, Wahanga. The University of Waikato. 2012.

  36. Autonomy in Children’s Learning: An Experimental and Individual Difference Investigation. Grolnick, Wendy, Ryan, Richard. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1987.

  37. Motivation and Education: The Self-Determination Perspective. Deci, Edward et al. Educational Psychologist. 1991.

  38. Classrooms: Goals, Structures, and Student Motivation. Ames, Carole. Journal of Educational Psychology. 1992.

  39. Children’s Need to Know: Curiosity in Schools. Engel, Susan. Harvard Educational Review. 2011.

  40. The Blue Blood is Bad Right? Simon, Katherine. Research and Theory on Human Development. 2012.

  41. Education, Politics, and Social Transformation. Apple, Michael. University of Wisconsin. 2006.

  42. The “Banking” Concept of Education. Freire, Paulo. 1968.

  43. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. hooks, bell. 1994.

  44. Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals. Duckworth, Angela et al. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2007.

  45. Motivating Project-Based Learning: Sustaining the Doing, Supporting the Learning. Blumenfeld et al. 1991.

  46. A Review of Research on Project-Based Learning. Thomas, John. 2000.

  47. Project-Based Learning for the 21st Century: Skills for the Future. Bell, Stephanie. Taylor & Francis Group. 2010.

  48. Experience and Education. Dewey, John. 1938.

  49. Making Cooperative Learning Work. Johnson, David. Johnson, Roger. Theory into Practice. 1999.

  50. Community in the Classroom: An Approach to Curriculum and Instruction as a Means for the Development of Student Cognitive, Social and Emotional Engagement in a High School Classroom. Jones, Tammy. University of Hawai’i. 2012.

  51. Deep, Deep, Deep Inside We’re All Friends. McGraw, Sheila. Rhode Island College. 2012.

  52. Mindfulness for Students Classified with Emotional/Behavior Disorder. Malow, Micheline & Vance, Austin. Manhattanville College. 2016.

  53. Mindfulness Practices and Children’s Emotional and Mental Well-Being. Peacock, Jennifer. Brock University. 2015.

  54. De-stressing Stress: The Power of Mindsets and the Art of Stressing Mindfully. Crum, Alia & Lyddy, Chris. The Handbook of Mindfulness. 2013.

  55. The Effects of Mindfulness on Students’ Attention. Bringus, Rose. St. Catherine University. 2016.

  56. A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety. Moffitt et al. PNAS. 2011.

  57. Less-structured time in children’s daily lives predicts self-directed executive functioning. Barker et al. Frontiers in Psychology. 2014.

  58. Classroom Applications of Research on Self-Regulated Learning. Paris, Scott & Paris, Alison. Educational Psychologist. 2001.

  59. The Role of Goal Orientation in Self-Regulated Learning. Pintrich, Paul. Academic Press. 2000.

  60. The Value of Play I: The definition of play gives insights. Gray, Peter. Freedom to Learn. 2008.

  61. The Role of Recess in Primary School. Pellegrini, Anthony. 2005.

  62. Character strengths predict subjective well-being during adolescence. Gillham, Jane, et. al. The Journal of Positive Psychology. 2011.

  63. Understanding the pathways to purpose: Examining personality and well-being correlates across adulthood. Hill, Patrick, Sumner, Rachel & Burrow, Anthony. The Journal of Positive Psychology. 2014.

  64. Adolescents’ purpose in life and engagement in risky behaviors: Differences by gender and ethnicity. Sayles, Martha. Dissertation Abstracts International Section A: Humanities and Social Sciences. 1995.

  65. Buffering the Negative Impact of Poverty on Youth: The Power of Purpose in Life. Machell, Kyla, Disabato, David, & Kashdan, Todd. Soc Indic Res.2016.

  66. The Development of Purpose During Adolescence. Damon, William, Menon, Jenni, & Cotton Bronk, Kendall. Applied Developmental Science.2003.

  67. Persevering with Positivity and Purpose: An Examination of Purpose Commitment and Positive Affect as Predictors of Grit. Cotton Bronk, Kendall, Hill, Patrick, & Burrow, Anthony. Journal of Happiness Studies. 2014.

  68. The role of purpose in life in healthy identity formation: A grounded model. Cotton Bronk, Kendall. New Directions for Student Leadership. 2012.

  69. The Psychology of a Child. Piaget, Jean & Inhelder, Barbel. 1969.

  70. The School and Society: Being Three Lectures. Dewey, John. 1899.

  71. The Discovery of a Child. Montessori, Maria. 1909.

  72. Johann Bernhard Basedow and the Philanthropinum. Raumer, Carl Georg. 1858.

  73. Elements of morality for the use of children. Salzmann, Christian Gotthilf. 1799.

Improvisation and the Transformative Potential of Play

Schools are often exceptionally competitive places. There are so many mechanisms to compare and sort students that it can be difficult to encourage a spirit of togetherness and cooperation. Improvisational theater and its underlying progressive principles have the potential to transform school culture and reorient students and educators towards a more human and democratic approach to education.

Although it exists outside of the contemporary education sector, improvisation has deep roots in some of the foundational theories of twentieth-century progressive education. Viola Spolin, the founder of American improvisation, considered her teaching methods non-authoritarian, non-verbal, and non-psychological. Spolin was a student of the education theorist Neva Boyd, a contemporary of Jane Addams and John Dewey at the Hull House in Chicago. Boyd believed that the democratic potential of education could be achieved in part through non-competitive play.

Boyd and Spolin believed in the power of games to teach language skills, as well as encourage strong, prosocial behaviors among students because everyone must agree on the rules and follow them for a game to be any fun. Play can be transformative, both for the individual student and the group. Improvisation, a form of play, builds confidence and community.

In improvisation, there are three basic rules: first, support your scene partners; second, completely commit to what you are doing; and third, say “yes, and…” make a contribution to the scene. Classrooms should be spaces for spirited discourse and freedom of thought and expression. A shared understanding of core community values makes it possible to foster this
critical engagement. Support, commitment, and a willingness to say “yes, and…” are the building blocks of a safe, supportive, and critically engaged community.

When I talk about the value of games in the classroom, many people assume I mean competitions. That is, games with clear winners and losers. For high achieving students with a healthy sense-of-self, it may be possible to separate the outcome of a competition with their sense of self-worth, but for students who struggle academically and socially, losing a game is just another confirmation that they will never measure up to their “smarter” and more “talented” classmates.

Therefore, the games that work best are those that everybody plays and no one loses. These are games based on improvisation with clear and flexible rules that enable students to engage one another without fear of judgment by their teacher or peers. These games encourage students to take risks, look silly, and support one another. In doing so, they create the conditions
necessary for deliberate democratic decision-making. By agreeing to abide by a shared set of rules, students develop the capacity to cooperate and engage one another constructively. A return to the progressive pedagogical values embedded in improvisation and the use of improvisation games in the classroom can help build confidence and community among students and enable education to fulfill its role in fostering a healthy democracy

Tracing Letters

At our son’s preschool, the kids have been learning how to write by tracing dotted lines in the shapes of letters. They do this every day, four days a week, and then they are sent home with a similar worksheet for homework over the weekend. To put it mildly, he doesn’t enjoy doing this. To put it mildly, I don’t enjoy trying to make him do it.

I was explaining this scenario to his preschool teacher and she told me, “He’s just being lazy. You have to sit him down and make him to do it.” I immediately went to that dark future place where my child is diagnosed with ADHD at 4, medicated and turned into a zombie, sorted into remedial classes where the student teacher ratio is 50:1, eventually dropping out, self-medicating, and in prison by 18. When I ask him what went wrong, he’ll say, “you made me trace letters.” (SIDE NOTE: For the student perspective on the worksheet approach to education, I suggest checking out the Jeff Bliss video.)

I’m thinking a lot about this right now as I am at the end of the college application reading season. In many ways, the college application highlights much of what is wrong with our current approach to education. When I see anxiety, depression, bi-polar disorder, self-harm, or other disclosures that have become so common in this population, I think about my son and how the “sit him down and make him do it” approach impacts the development of an individual over the course of their young lifetime.

If a child goes off the rails a bit in our system early on, the approach is usually to try and re-engineer the student through pharmacological intervention and/or behavioral remediation without questioning the contributions the system may have made. I am not suggesting that our schooling approach is the cause of all mental health issues; clearly there are other factors. But what I am saying is that the system, at the very least, exacerbates mental health issues and could very well be the source of some of them.

In higher education, there are many discussions around this issue, mostly about how to best support students with mental health challenges on campus. Unfortunately, colleges are mostly on the intervention side of the equation (students come with these challenges), focused on campus services that treat symptoms, but don’t/can’t address the underlying causes. One study found that 45% of college students reported feeling hopeless with another 30% experiencing such extreme depression that it was difficult to get out of bed in the morning. Consider this:

“While depression and anxiety consistently rank as the most common mental disorders treated at college counseling centers, an often overlooked but equally serious problem is the rising number of students struggling with eating disorders, substance abuse and self-injury. The NSCCD study found that 24.3 percent of college counseling center directors have noticed more clients with eating disorders, 39.4 percent have noted an increased number of clients suffering from self-injury issues and 45.7 percent have reported an increased number of clients struggling with alcohol abuse.”

There is quite a bit of evidence that our schooling approach is failing on multiple levels, but the most alarming indicator to me is the mental health crisis. If your inner life is a mess, there isn’t a major, career, car, house, spouse, child, dog, vacation that is going to resolve that. That’s why I think the work that’s being done at REEINVISIONED is so important. They are starting with the “output” side by asking what is the good life and what is the role of school in achieving this?

I would propose that as we move forward in re-envisioning what education could be, we include mental health/well being as part of our teaching and assessment model. If students are spending 6–8 hours a day in a school environment for most of their young lives, it would make sense for us to have some checkpoints along the way. If the assessment shows cause for concern in an individual, it would allow us to intervene and work to identify a cause. We do that academically so why not socio-emotionally? If we made positive emotional wellbeing a priority on the output side, we could be intentional in our construction of learning environments that worked towards that outcome.

There is at least one school that does a version of this. One Stone in Boise, ID, has built a socio-emotional component into their assessment model. It is a tuition free private high school (10–12) whose Board of Directors is 2/3 students. Their growth transcript uses something called the BLOB (Bold Learning OBjectives) and is divided into four quadrants under which nine areas are to be developed and measured. These quadrants are Mindset, Knowledge, Creativity, and Skills. Under Mindset, the following nine areas are empathy, grit, humility, desire to grow, vulnerability, gratitude, mindfulness, reflection, and fail forward. One Stone not only measures and tracks growth, but provides meaningful feedback and direction about how students can work towards achieving that growth.

I could envision a curriculum that begins much sooner than 10th grade, laying a foundation for individuals to effectively navigate and make sense of their inner world. Susan David’s Ted Talk, The gift and power of emotional courage, highlights a number of findings she and her research team have unearthed in their studies, but in terms of this conversation I felt particularly drawn to this one:

“When people are allowed to feel their emotional truth; engagement, creativity, and innovation flourish in an organization.”

This is also something I believe Paulo Freire points to in his philosophy:

I am dealing with people and not with things. And, because I am dealing with people, I cannot refuse my wholehearted and loving attention, even in personal matters, where I see that a student is in need of such attention.

I could imagine a world where we help students hone their “epistemological curiosity” (Freire) and point it inwards; empowering them to understand emotional experiences that feel overwhelming, creating a space between stimulus and response, a space that Viktor Frankl described as containing our freedom and power. Susan David speaks of “premature cognitive commitment” which is its conceptual sibling. This includes being able to “name your story” when unhealthy habitual narratives arise, but also honoring your emotional experience by not trying to disassociate from unpleasant feelings. None of this can happen in the banking model of education. None of this can happen if your response to a 3 year old who doesn’t want to trace letters is, “he’s just being lazy.”

As I think about my son and his education, I would love for him to excel in his socio-emotional intelligence, effectively navigating the complexities of his inner world and how he relates externally. I believe having this level of self-awareness also cultivates empathy as one finds the commonalities between themselves and others. It seems to me that a progressive classroom is the most conducive to this idea, where the inherent value of each individual is not a privilege but a right, teachers are empowered to respond to each student where they are at not where we think they should be; a place where an individual’s success isn’t measured against their willingness to trace letters.