self-directed

7 Ways For Promoting More Choice within “Compulsory Schooling”

This story first appeared here. Connect with Mary at @mary_teaching!

In John Taylor Gatto’s book, Dumbing Us Down, he contends that compulsory education impacts children in the following ways:

#1: It confuses students.

“I teach the un-relating of everything, an infinite fragmentation the opposite of cohesion.”

#2: It teaches kids to accept their rigid class & grade-level placement.

“The lesson of numbered classes is that everyone has a proper place in the pyramid and that there is no way out of your class except by number magic.”

#3: It makes them indifferent.

“The lesson of the bells is that no work is worth finishing, so why care too deeply about anything?”

#4: It makes them emotionally dependent.

“By stars and red checks, smiles and frowns, prizes, honors and disgraces I teach kids to surrender their will to the predestined chain of command.”

#5: It makes them intellectually dependent.

“We must wait for other people, better trained than ourselves, to make the meanings of our lives. The expert makes all the important choices.”

#6: It teaches provisional self-esteem.

“A monthly report, impressive in its provision, is sent into students’ homes to signal approval or to mark exactly, down to a single percentage point, how dissatisfied with their children parents should be.”

#7: It teaches them that they cannot hide, due to constant supervision.

“I assign a type of extended schooling called “homework,” so that the effect of surveillance, if not that surveillance itself, travels into private households, where students might otherwise use free time to learn something unauthorized from a father or mother, by exploration, or by apprenticing to some wise person in the neighborhood.”

While I don’t necessarily agree with all he writes, he makes a pretty solid case regarding these consequences of the institution of school. Despite the fact that he wrote it in 1991, we are still seeing similar consequences today.

Nonetheless, here in 2018, we have so many opportunities to address these issues, even within the construct of “compulsory schooling.” I would like to visit how we might address each one today.

#1: Confusion  Seek out inquiry & concept-based learning in which students start with the big concepts. Start with the student by provoking thinking and connections. See my list of provocations here on concepts ranging from empathy to color to how we organize ourselves. And check out Laura England’s fabulous recent example with her students’ big thinking.

#2: Accepting class/grade-level placement  Encourage student voice & global collaboration. Solicit their feedback & regularly meet in class meetings to ascertain their feelings about “how things are” and whether they have ideas on how it might be better. And if they want to talk with students or experts beyond their assigned grade level, facilitate that! See amazing examples here.

#3: Indifference  Make time for student inquiry such as Genius Hour or Passion time for students to pursue personally meaningful learning over the longterm. See AJ Juliani’s guide.

#4: Emotional dependence → Reject trinkets & prizes in favor of intrinsic motivation. See this great example of how we can do so with regards to reading from Donalyn Miller.

#5: Intellectual dependence  Put students in the driver’s seat as often aspossible, from planning their day to self-regulation (see more details).

#6: Provisional self-esteem  Implement Student-led conferences &blogging to allow students to clearly recognize and share their own learning.

#7: Lack of privacy  Ask what parents need (& otherwise view ourselves as support/appendages to the family, rather than family as an appendage of school).

There will always be limitations within the rigid public school system. However, especially as we make advances in technology that provides more opportunities for personalized learning and agency, there will always be ways to find flexibility to help learners take more ownership over their lives as learners. It may be the next best thing to fully self-directed learning.

Being That Teacher: Shifting Towards Student-Centred Learning

We will know we’ve been successful as educators if a student we taught can at age 30 pursue any option in life they desire — Ira David Socol.

As teachers, it seems the system measures us by the “success” (see standardised test scores) our students achieve while in our care, but perhaps the truest measure of an educator should be defined by the number of options our past students have available at age 30. What job opportunities exist for them? What kind of adults/partners have they become? What kind of parents may they have turned out to be?

Do you ever pause to wonder about your past students? As I prepare to farewell my current crop of young learners, my mind has drifted to students of years past. Where are they now? Did I have a positive impact on their lives? Did I help steer them towards finding their purpose in life? Do they remember school fondly?

Jack*, a former student who has just finished high school, popped into my room recently for a visit. While we were catching up, he shared that I had been his “best teacher. I made a “did you drop out after year seven?”wisecrack, but I was humbled to hear it. And shouldn’t this be our aim as educators? To be that teacher? We all have them. It’s rarefied air to belong to the select group of educators that another person carries around with them for the rest of their days.

I had some amazing teachers over the years, but large chunks of my school experience were still pretty miserable. The recurring theme on my report cards growing up was “he has the ability, but needs to apply himself”. Actually, what I needed was learning that had meaning. What I needed was a sense of purpose and control. I needed to move & create. I needed adults who believed in me.

Deliver the best curriculum content the world has known and it won’t rate a mention against the educator who believes, who champions, who sees the potential of a young person and inspires them to pursue their purpose and passions above all else.

“He has too many of the wrong ambitions and his energy is too often misplaced.” (John Lennon)

“He has too many of the wrong ambitions and his energy is too often misplaced.” (John Lennon)

This got me thinking about the experience Jack had in my room as opposed to his sibling who I’m currently teaching. Seven years ago I was a very different teacher. I epitomised teacher-centred practice. I decided what content and skills mattered and how each would be measured. I created the assignments and assessments which were completed in lockstep. I wielded strict deadlines, zeroes, and a trove of one-size-fits-all summative assessments to keep kids “accountable”. I got really good at getting kids to do my learning, now I’m trying to get better at helping kids find purpose and meaning in their learning.

Even though I cringe when I recall many of my past methods, my classroom wasn’t a bad place for kids and I wasn’t a bad teacher. Jack is a testament to that. I just had a lot of unlearning to do. I still do. Early in my career, I was mired in the left-hand columns of this continuum.


EdPartnerships International: I think graphics like this can be valuable for educators who want to create more opportunities for student agency, but don’t know where to start.

EdPartnerships International: I think graphics like this can be valuable for educators who want to create more opportunities for student agency, but don’t know where to start.

By viewing growth along a continuum, it gives us actionable feedback and invites us to continue growing in an authentic and natural way. Instead of seeing co-design as a scary choice that we either plunge into head first or not, we can now see it as an extension of what all educators already do — helping students grow in capability and independence over time. - David Ng commenting on In Search of a Co-Design Continuum

Every educator offers a different experience and it’s this diversity which creates rich learning environments and school cultures. There is not one best way to teach and educators should be allowed to stay true to their authentic pedagogy. But to paraphrase Monte Syrie, one end of this spectrum relies heavily on compliance, the other end relies on commitment. Doing school tokids is easy. Doing school with kids, that’s where the artistry of teaching comes in.

Many teachers equate developing opportunities for student autonomy, purpose and meaning to “letting ’em do whatever they want”. They can’t fathom how student-centred learning can be rigorous, challenging and engaging. During a recent podcast (Things Fall Apart: Human Restoration Project, S2: E18), Tony Wagner, suggested that when it comes to innovation, teachers are highly risk-averse. According to Wagner, we “teach in the ways we’ve been taught, it’s not our fault, it’s all we know” and “you’re not going to change your teaching because you’ve read a book…or seen a movie”.

I agree that educators are unlikely to find their “why” for change in the pages of a book, but the rest of this quote, I’m not so sure about. My school experience mostly served to inform the type of teacher I didn’t want to become. We have to overcome the limitations of our own experiences if we are going to transform school for all learners. We could change nothing and a large percentage of students who play the game of school just fine will find success and purpose in life. But all means all. Be that teacher.

Escape from Reality: The Apathetic Adolescent

Easily the most daunting challenge I face is the apathetic teenager, one who is disheartened, disengaged, or likely distracted by something much more appealing: Clash of ClansFortnite, Snapchat, the latest memes — what have you. How can I possibly design a curriculum that conquers instant gratification? Especially when this content stands to be delivered no matter what (as it is a “standard”) and students have no choice in coming to the building?

Perhaps the place to start is figuring out why teenagers love these activities. Teachers tend to jump to conclusions — that these ideas are dumb, lack brain cells, or are pointless, often forgetting the presumed retroactively viewed-as-silly behavior they engaged in. I believe engagement like this is valuable — it offers something teenagers are missing. People don’t engage in behaviors en masse unless they’re deriving pleasure from it that they can’t access easily somewhere else. What do they offer? Community, belonging, commonality, entertainment, and friendship: they’re all activities that anyone can enjoy, engage with, and bring people together. Just like sports or box office movies, games like Fortnite and Clash of Clans are the go-to way to connect with your friends. It is on rare occasion that students solely “zone out” — they want to be around others doing the same thing — it’s social behavior (or in some cases, a desire for social behavior such as via social media).

Therefore, the place to confront these possible barriers is to change how our engagement looks — if students want attachment and a feeling of belonging, we must build a curriculum which fosters that. A school built on trust — real trust — that listens to student input, allows them to take control of initiatives, and directs itself on their interests, will lend itself to learning. We must stop pulling our hair out — or worse, punishing and demeaning students who would rather do what they enjoy — and restructure what a modern curriculum can be. If we judge, control, and limit them, students will no longer see our points as authentic nor justified. It’s not a place for learning, it’s now a prison.

I struggle with any label placed on gamers or phone users — “they’ll never amount to anything”; “that’s all they ever do”; “can’t they just live in the real world?”; “they’re going to rot away doing that.” etc. Although addiction is incredibly serious and we must be steadfast in acknowledging that — it’s rare in comparison to the assumption that students are addicted to their screens. It’s because they’re not engaged, not because they’re incapable of letting go. I should know — I spent most of my formative years playing World of WarcraftCounterstrike, and The Sims. I don’t regret any of it — I built friendships, learned about graphic design and computer coding, learned valuable skills of compromise and leadership, and how to manage my time so I could meet bare-minimum requirements at school. Throughout, it wasn’t that I couldn’t detach myself — it was just my detachment was more engaging — more connected — and more purposeful than anything school would offer. This is common — 40% of online video game players say they play to escape the real world. This may an element of addiction — but I see it as a problem of what our world is offering.

There is no sustainable focus on children to find their calling. An aside question of “What do you want to be when you grow up?” or “What college are you planning on attending?” does little to spark the imagination. Despite the overhanded use of “job-readiness” in schools — this takes the form of qualifying a workforce of boring, uninspired pupils that can master Algebra II and AP British Literature rather than people who are clamoring to work passionately. If I have nothing to connect to — nothing to works toward in the first eighteen years of my life — what’s the point? Disillusionment is the natural result: children work toward the next-step without qualifying why they’re taking the next-step. As William Deresiewicz notes, they’re zombies.

And after they realize how far removed they are from a meaningful life, they become grossly disengaged. Anxiety and depression rates are rising at alarming levels — doubling in the last 30 years. Coupled with less certainty in every arena: political divisions, economic worries, lack of a safety net, higher divorce rates, and “tougher standards” in schools — there shouldn’t be any surprise: our world is a scary, uncertain place. However, as teachers we have so much control in helping to change this narrative — even if it’s only for the short period of time in our room, it matters.

If we’re okay with our classroom being a place that is entirely based on relationship building — meeting students halfway — and meaningful connections to content and student agency — then we’re designing a path for purpose. Meaningful time, coupled with learning that attaches to student aspirations and experiences, will begin to establish meaning. And that may sound contrived, but there is a worrisome lack of meaning across almost everything in middle school and beyond. Initially, these changes will be hard — it’s not what students expect: the class will be less structured, less competitive, and therefore “not as serious.” And it wouldn’t hurt to make our classes fun as well — interesting, sure — but there’s nothing wrong with enjoying the space you’re in. Overtime our consistency in making connections — loving students — will give rise to a community which is what we were all looking for in the first place.

The logical conclusion many teachers come to is to pair what students like with their traditional coursework: make a meme of neuroplasticity!; how would this Fortnite situation be calculated? I applaud any educator willing to meet students in their space, but endeavors like this tend to simply rationalize a system of control: get students to do the work we want by manipulating what they like to do. And as a result, our outcomes are short-term and marginal — the lesson may go well, students may be incredibly excited that day, they probably will learn a lot. But this isn’t a sustainable practice, because our content isn’t what students are always doing — and we can’t pair an entire subject area to Fortnite. We’re just updating to Teach Like a Champion 3.0 — finding new ways to dish out antiquated work.

Our ability to design a better future is based entirely on our willingness to completely change how our classroom works. To design meaningful experiences, we shouldn’t look at ways to pair our curriculum (usually, it’s a stretch anyways). Instead, we should be creating a curriculum that is engaging to students in the first place. Children want to learn — they care about knowledge — just not what we’re giving them. The only way to find out is ask — help guide their journys — and build a better, purposeful future together.

My Pragmatic Journey to Voice & Choice in the Classroom

I thought I was doing everything “right”.

I had prided myself on unpacking standards, planning engaging, performative lessons and units that were well-paced and tech savvy; putting together complicated, ambitious projects and writing prompts with standards-referenced, multiple-tiered rubrics and criteria for students to meet or exceed.

Yet my journey to student voice and choice in the classroom was born out of an intense frustration that what I and my co-teacher were spending hours planning, and daily troubleshooting, just wasn’t having the impact we were intending. Students frustrated with technology, bored with a topic, or just not feeling like learning about the Reformation for three weeks would act out, speak out, lash out, just anything to get away from a classroom that, now, so obviously demanded that students care and learn about and think important what I, an adult with a history degree and a shelf full of history books, cared and found important and demanded they learn about.

But they didn’t care and didn’t think it was important and they weren’t learning (which is kind of the point of teaching) and by October I went home almost every night wondering if I was going to be a casualty of fifth-year teacher burnout. So out of that frustration I did what every tired parent has done in a moment of exhaustion and said “Fine, what do YOU want to do?!”, and it turned out to be the most important decision of my teaching career:

It turns out that, if you let themstudents will partner with their peers to research, create, and send a presentation to the school board about Eurocentrism in our history curriculum (and fume over the board’s complacent response).

Students will interview a local funeral director and present to the class a history of American attitudes toward death, dying, and an overview on the science of embalming and preservation, if you let them. (the same student later presented on existentialism and Jean-Paul Sartre and read from Nausea in French and English so we could hear it in the original language)

Students will teach a lesson to their peers about the technological advances of the Roaring 20s, complete with a pre- and post-quiz Kahoot to demonstrate their classmate’s learning, if you let them.

Students will blog openly about controversial and deeply personal topics, post their work to an online audience, and solicit feedback from friends and strangers alike, if you let them.

What do you want to do?” was followed by “How are you going to do it?” and “With whom?” which was then followed by “For whom?”, “What will the impact be?”, “What tools or resources will you need?”, and “How will you know when you’ve gotten there?”

This kind of problem-solving questioning is how I learned to make molasses cookies and the same line of questioning that put human beings on the Moon. Too often, student voice and choice is singled out as an idealistic pedagogy, but it turns out that this simple set of questions can be used as a lens to look at almost any issue, topic, or problem imaginable, and with that set of questions came the simple but powerful permission to imagine.

I couldn’t let grading and evaluating and points and what was exceeding versus meeting and not-quite-there-yet interfere with deep, meaningful student learning because it didn’t matter what the rubric said or what the levels were: students were more motivated to learn, were more engaged in their learning, and sharing in their learning together in a way that hadn’t existed in my classroom before.

So how did I grade all of this? Well, I didn’t, really. I didn’t need to, and I couldn’t let grading and evaluating and points and what was exceeding-versus meeting-and-not-quite-there-yet interfere with deep, meaningful student learning because it didn’t matter what the rubric said or what the levels were: students were more motivated to learn, were more engaged in their learning, and sharing in their learning together in a way that hadn’t existed in my classroom before. I went from being a micromanager of student behaviors directed at teacher-focused outcomes, dreading each class period and waiting to see how these students could screw up my lesson plan, to a learning partner, sharing in the joy of learning with students, talking openly with them about their learning with no evaluative agenda, and learning alongside and from them as a result. I did less, students did and learned more; we were happier and had a healthier classroom culture.

I did less, students did and learned more; we were happier and had a healthier classroom culture.

Being the Serious Teacher Who Doesn’t Take Traditional Seriously

When your classroom doesn’t look like any other classroom — students are often overjoyed, but also bewildered. Why would I do anything when it’s not for a grade? If they’re not going to lecture, why wouldn’t I just goof off? If there’s not a test, is any of this information relevant? Educators face this scenario daily: by doubling down on progressive practice, their unwillingness to embrace the traditional delegitimizes their class.

In most schools, there is a small cluster of teachers thinking different — they’re letting students run their experience, they’re stepping back from the front of the room, they’re rethinking grades toward legitimate assessment, and they’re not cramming state-mandated standards. When a student reaches these classes, there’s a stark shift: no forced respect, no falsely perceived narrative of what one “needs” to know, no grades. This is a frustrating scenario — schooling has made many students unaware of what schooling should be. It’s not about them — it’s about passing a test, scoring top of their class, and dominating the ever growing college resume checklist.

Therefore, when progressive educators begin to embrace these methods — they feel like they’ve fallen short. As bell hooks explains in Teaching to Transgress, teachers attempting radical pedagogy fall into a trap —

“…when students did not appear to “respect their authority” they felt those practices were faulty, unreliable, and returned to traditional practices.”

After all, students are essentially holding everything back. It could be that the majority of each day — a very draining day — that teachers are beholding them to notes en masse, harsh solitude, and mind-crushingly boring topics. So yes — if you give students a break, let them be kids, and give them a lot of exciting things to do…they’re going to get really excited. It’s obvious when you reflect on it. However, in the moment it’s a grim reality — all of these well-researched frameworks are just turning my room into a circus!

via  Flickr

via Flickr

It’s a challenge — and one that I’ve learned to love: educating children who have to come to school without forcing them to learn, and the majority of the time they’re ruled in other rooms. Every single year I deal with a sizable minority of students who will play video games in the corner for weeks — completely adverse to any content — because “well, it’s not for a grade, so I don’t care, I hate school!” I don’t shame or blame them, it makes sense. As a high school educator, I’m well aware of how ridiculous some (even most) of the content students are tested over is. While in this classroom, respect is earned, not given. That’s usually something teachers say to children — but it should be the other way around. We’re earning the respect of them — convincing them that we care, appreciate, and love them — that we want to guide their journey toward even more positive outcomes.

To accomplish this, I talk a lot about school. We have passionate discussions on what a grade really is, how sarcastic comments by teachers hurt their feelings (after reading through Alfie Kohn’s ‘Corridor Wit’), the history of our classrooms, and what our goals at school should be. Most students love this (they’re finally able to trash talk school!) and they’re also willing to give me a chance. There’s something to be said about being the “popular teacher” — often equated to the “easy teacher” (more on that later) — it shouldn’t be a contest, but when students see you legitimately as a trusting, caring individual who understands their situation — they’ll do what you suggest. And there’s a few who struggle to get there — students completely disillusioned will take weeks — even months — of one-on-one conversations and sparks of interest to participate. But all of this is better than the alternative: forcing them to care. After all, it would defeat the entire purpose of educating for positive change if you force them to.

It’s worth noting that “4.0 students” seem the most prone to rejecting a progressive mindset. My most daunting challenge are the ~20% of students who complete homework, read for other classes, and “get ahead”, rather than explore ideas in my class because it’s “not real” without a traditional playbook. For me, outside of just building solid relationships, the only solution is to design the most absurd, relevant, and over-the-top PBL scenario: designing works to help the community and having every professional I can think of come in; raising awareness for the undocumented laborer program who was willing to visit our classroom; building and designing mock rollercoasters for a local theme park contest. If the classroom is doing legitimately fun, relevant, and interesting work — everyone tends to jump on board. And ever present in any scenario in my classroom — students can opt out. Interestingly enough, the more I’ve given opportunities to not participate, the more participation I’ve gotten in return. When your classroom knows you’re doing all this for them, they’ll stay by your side.

Furthermore, letting students guide their path instantaneously makes your classroom relevant. I always mention that if you want to do something different, just ask! This leads to a lot of interesting — and not always fool-proof ideas — but that’s sort of the entire point of teaching. We’re here to guide, mentor, and assist through learning…which includes failure and ridiculous ideas. Therefore, it’s not uncommon to see kids doing a lot of frankly bizarre things in my classroom: building a life-size Barbie doll box, writing a (not-so-well researched) play on drug usage in the United States, or researching local golf courses and their impact on our community’s economy. These might seem random — but they’re all relevant to learning the history of our area. And each leads to a learning opportunity: why not connect this Barbie doll box to the exoticism of Human zoos of the 19th/20th century — this time related to body image and the role of women?; why not connect with a member of the local police to learn more about the opioid crisis?; why not make a proposal of how golf courses can improve the economy, and see why our lower-income areas never seem to have them? Each one of these micro learning opportunities sparks a unique desire to engage and foster a purpose to these projects.

Making connections to deep points of understanding in history, such as the horrifically racist Human zoos of the 19th century, are easily connected and synthesized when connected to student’s experiences.

Making connections to deep points of understanding in history, such as the horrifically racist Human zoos of the 19th century, are easily connected and synthesized when connected to student’s experiences.

Motivation feels different. You have to know your students. Sadly — this gets conflated online to knowing their names, greeting them at the door, or recognizing them on their birthday. I would hope the majority of educators show basic human-to-human interaction with people they spend hours each day with. Instead, by knowing students I mean you learn about their goals in life, what drives them, what small and large events have happened recently or in the future, their family life, their struggles and successes. It’s very complicated and time-consuming — but this is the entire purpose of education. If you spend all your time doing this, your classroom will transform. The bonds of trust will drive students to work with you rather than for you — they’ll see you as a mentor, not a military sergeant.

And you’ll sometimes have to accept the situation you’re in as the progressive educator. There have been “free days” — where multiple tests were given in other classes, the day was long, it’s frankly just “boring” today, etc. “Let’s doing something small, or nothing at all, and play a few games. Spend some time with each other and talk.” Doing this may make you the “easy teacher” — but really you’re the teacher forming bonds. The break is just as important as “core class time.” I’ve never had as much engagement — in serious discussions or free play — after our class has just bonded together and relaxed. Learning communities aren’t entirely formed by “learning” together, at least not in the traditional sense — we form these communities by learning about everything: social interactions, getting up and moving, doing something entirely random, and of course — coursework.

Rebranding learning in the classroom is a necessity. Without doing so, you’re setting yourself up for failure. I know far too much teachers who attempt progressive ideas and give up after a month — the kids were too rowdy and well, rebelled. Mistakes will be made along the way, but the fight to implement progressive education will take a lot of unorthodox classrooms, willpower, and commitment to positive relationships. Once you double down and lead the way, you’ll reap the rewards.

“Let’s get to work!”

“On day one, I’m going to learn everyone’s name and play a game. After all, the binders and syllabus can wait!”

Students love school the first day and begrudge it the rest. Teachers plan their beginnings to be engaging, then “get to work.” Isn’t it odd how easily this aligns? When a child is not forced into endless, substantiated curricula and learns about their peers, moves around, and is excited to be there — they’re engaged.

Perhaps the most egregious claim made by traditional educators is the equation of work and learning. “If you want to succeed, you need to put the time in!” Of course, the implication is that any success in life is due to a 4.0 GPA, perfect attendance, and a “do what you’re told” mentality. Most define learning this way — even subconsciously. Often I’ll find myself telling students to “stay on task” without recognizing the hidden message that I’m managing workers, not leading a community.

The connection between labor and learning is as obvious as it is damaging to everyone. A child begins to see imaginative, creative thought as “extra work” and adults are slow to pursue taxing new endeavors. What used to be a place of wonder, a classroom is a production center. When adults come across a row of books, they think of the time commitment and workload rather than the mysteries that are kept inside.

In reality, we’ve conceded that learning is not energizing — it is the antithesis, something categorically lumped in with doing the dishes. Sure, many teachers believe their commitment to fostering engagement, but how many of us reinforce workplace policies and terminology? Get to work, be on task, sign in on time, don’t fall out of line, ask questions (but don’t waste our time), do everything you’re told to. To imagine a place beyond this is actually quite difficult — would a compulsory public school be able to “control” without these policies? Is “control” — the center of workplace protocol — inevitable?

Why do almost all students show up day one engaged and ready to learn? Many are happy to see their friends — but there’s also a willingness to try something new, a desire to go beyond a 24/7 life with one’s family. It’s a new opportunity, a new community and space to explore. No matter how many times they’re let down, I find students excited on their initial return. Therefore, public school educators are assigned a difficult endeavor — we must create a learning community without corporate foreboding…when our children did not agree to be there. How can we redefine our classroom?

Let’s reimagine how we view learning. Even the most apt teachers still see their “course load” as such. Not a lot of interesting things, but myriad work. First, that mindset must change. An educator goes into their room to inspire through passionate claims and a desire for their students to change the world. Instead of day two being a return to reality, why not develop a place where we fight to keep day one spirit alive all year? But being passionate is just the start. A spirited teacher without any changes to traditional protocol is essentially a master of manipulation — they find ways to make children learn. Engaged teaching is more “fun”, but results are a mixed bag if they actually makechildren learn more (Motz et al., 2017). However, when we begin to change systems, we truly enact change.

Here’s what we’re going to do today.” > “What does everyone want to learn more about?”

“You need to get this done by the end of the period.” > “Here’s something you may all like to look at.”

You definitely need to know this, it will be on the test.” > “What questions do you all have? We have tons of time to explore.”

A substantial change relies on shifts. A movement from tests to creative assessment, grades to feedback, standards to learning, compulsion to inclusion, production to community. Each is in opposition to the desires of the mainstream traditional framework. Realistically, it is impossible without masking the components of what’s really going on in your classroom. After all, if you didn’t hit 80% of “your content” and had zero grades in the books, what would a principal think?

Imagine a start to the school year where, with a circle of new acquaintances, you develop the baseline expectations for the room. Together, you discuss and form the basis of your class, explaining your expertise but provide decision-making to the room. This serves as your community, and as a collective you organically move from interest to interest — providing ample time, discussion, and freedom to move and explore, taking steps forward and backward. You still factor in interesting activities, readings, and projects — but it’s a result of what your students are interested in that day, not something predefined. Everyone doesn’t always agree, but there is time for self-expression as well as communal compromise.

When grades are due, you assign everyone an A (or if that’s too noticeable, let students self-report.) When it’s standardized test season, give a “crash course” on test skills. (Students will perform shockingly well with no content knowledge, which should provide a solid basis on why these tests are ludicrous.) When an administrator is present, throw in a lesson plan — students are always observant in the atmosphere of an observation.

Students simply learn more this way. Retention is maintained when students see value in what they’re doing as they’re using it — either mentally or experientially. Although teachers may recall tidbits of what they learned in school, they don’t generally find a purpose to explore these ideas further. Most would find our content completely relevant and worthwhile, while other subjects are circumstantially important at best. After all, we took the time to specialize and major in it. However, we must step back and let students utilize our knowledge and the many resources at their disposal to explore what they want to. It’s a ridiculous assumption that every student will find all our content eventful when most adults in the building don’t remember much of it. We must see learning as a process happening all around us — weaving from topic to topic with no hierarchy of deemed importance due to a particular mindset of “schooling.”

The change that’s central to all this is trust. It’s relatively easy to dismiss all protocols of traditional education and “cheat” the system. There’s rarely someone actually keeping track of what’s going on day-to-day — as long as test scores remain relatively normal and no one is screaming in your room, it’s all fine. A real barrier is recognizing that you’ll trust children enough to do this. You must innately believe that students desire learning, will work without commands, and care about their education. The negativity that surrounds most teacher workrooms would wholly communicate that we can’t. They’re rowdy, they don’t listen, they’re “low”, they won’t do anything. As prefaced, they are not willing to “work.” But in this radical shift, would students revolt without control or morph into a learning collective?

Recognizably, not all are going to comply without forced compliance. Removing the reigns will allow a complete rejection of authority and a chance for these students’ voices to be heard (often for the first time without being instantly silenced.) We mustn’t be afraid of critical voices, thought, and actions when we create a space that desires exactly that. It would be futile to imagine a community of learners who are open to expressing their ideas while simultaneously expecting that they all never reject the compulsory nature of their experience. This isn’t a sign to give up, it’s a sign to formulate more ways of building community. We must listen and compromise, not reject and control.

A community is something lost in schools — a faux sense of learning has gone the way of completing as many tasks as possible to please an ominous government-mandated presence. We must recreate the adage of “work” and push toward authentic thought.

The Path to Discovery: Providing Real Choice in Schools

When I first left my teacher training program and joined the “real world”, I was accompanied by myriad papers to guide my quest of inspiring new thinkers. Drilled into my brain were the concepts of differentiation, student choice, and formative/summative assessment. My reigning document was a salmon, double-sided wall of text which was comprised of tech tools, artistic endeavors, discussion types, and more to engage and excite students. Routinely I went home to diligently plan each lesson, connecting at least two standards (from both Common Core and social studies), selecting at least one new tool from the toolbox of my document. As far as I knew, this was “great teaching” — not only had I known my students “were learning” but often my lessons were engaging and at least better than what I remembered in school.

However, the more I reflected — and most importantly, the more I listened to what the majority of students actually felt about school — it seemed my exhaustive nights of planning were going to waste. Was it really that engaging to fit in “cool” technology or was I simply masking something students didn’t really want to do? I felt I was designing the airplane to feed my students peas and carrots. It was a faux choice: by giving my students the opportunity to select “interesting” ways of doing their work, I neglected the choice of doing said work(And it is telling that we tend to define “disguised tasks” as “work” rather than “learning.”) Why can’t students choose what they learn?

Choice is more than fitting options into a curriculum, it is a reimagined system of education — one that replaces the traditional teacher-led dictatorship into one of democracy. At its core, democratic classrooms provide students with authentic power — not the safe “choice” of what task they’ll complete by the teacher that day. This transformation is as daunting as it is unrecognizable to most schools. To give away your power as an educator is a terrifying feeling. After all, most classroom settings are fundamentally shaped by compliance — a teacher assigns work, students do said work, a teacher grades and returns it. Even when given some freedom, there is a common understanding that the teacher commands — no matter the task, a teacher will ultimately decide the outcome, including giving the power (temporarily) to students to choose that outcome for themselves.

Deborah Meier engaged in a democratic classroom at Central Park East in the 1960s.

Deborah Meier engaged in a democratic classroom at Central Park East in the 1960s.

Philosophically, there is a major problem with the teacher/student dichotomy: exposure and discovery are much different than listening and complying. Although a student may take away some knowledge, the lack of choice, self-actualized applicability, and credence to further inquiry destroys the process of natural learning. Of course, entire school networks operate democratic classrooms, from self-directed education centers to Alternative Schools such as Deborah Meier’s Central Park East project. These schools were built with student empowerment in mind, but what about the vast majority of traditional buildings that aren’t? Is it possible to have a democratic classroom or even school transformation?

Any teacher could return from summer break and say, “Okay everyone, you have total control. Do what you want!” and then panic as mass chaos ensues. However, this misconception misses how a democratic outlook is formed. These schools still have educators and tons of planning. Instead of looking at each lesson or purchasing massive curriculum packages, teachers develop frameworks for students to move within. The level of freedom will differ from school to school, based on the community and what students want — perhaps from total self-guidance to certain degrees of organization by instructors. As Paulo Freire stated,

“The teacher is of course an artist, but being an artist does not mean that he or she can make the profile, can shape the students. What the educator does in teaching is to make it possible for the students to become themselves.”

Universally, these frameworks allow students voice. The framework systemically outlines how students present their voice and provides near universal ways to do so. After all, how would one know what students want if they’re not listening to them?

Given all this, common reactions one might have is: “won’t students just play games all day?” “how will they pass the test?” “I’m a professional, students need to learn from me!” Ingrained in many mindsets are children not capable of learning on their own nor having the maturity to do much at all. Placing students in a compulsory, “no nonsense” setting for years of course has manifested this. There’s no denying that older students would have difficulty adjusting to this system — but that’s not a strong argument to dismiss it. After all, students brought up in these systems are more than capable of critical, open dialogue on designing their education. Do we not owe it to our students to acknowledge and build structures that permit their learning rather than what we want them to learn?

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It isn’t always in line with content standards or standardized testing. We know testing isn’t a valid measure of intelligence. (Most I’d argue could not pass tests given to their students in other subject areas. I know I would fail math and likely, science.) Furthermore, it is difficult to pinpoint the relevancy of many content standards. All things considered, it’s not that students will completely dismiss everything. Children — especially those not disenfranchised by schooling — find a lot of what is typically traditional schoolwork exciting: books, lab experiments, robotics, historical reenactments, and much more. People naturally want to learn, grow, and develop. We know this as it’s human nature, but further obvious proof is that democratic schools already exist — and they aren’t 24/7 Fortnite centers — they’re filled with exciting projects, discussions, and even (opt-in) traditional coursework. Core subject areas are interesting in many ways, but when students are forced to do everything their intrinsic desire to learn is often lost. It’s not that they don’t care about the teacher’s subject, they just disregard how the curriculum forces compliance. And surely many will ignore many aspects of traditional subjects and gravitate toward those deemed less important by the testing industry (and therefore, schools): art, music, theater, and many others.

Furthermore, chaos is not normal for a classroom embodying freedom. Perhaps if no structures are in place — if students aren’t involved in planning nor have a clear understanding of what their place is — it may happen (a Lord of the Flies moment.) But as stated before, students thrive in open learning environments. And no, a teacher’s role is not lost. Yes, one will earn respectrather than assume it, but children still see an expert in the room. Usually, students want a teacher to provide them with lessons, even voting to give them power on what to do next. Sometimes classrooms just look like traditional classrooms. However, the incredibly acknowledged differentiator is that students chose this for themselves — it is remarkably different than a prescribed list that is handed down.

Dismally, creating these structures go against most school policies. Accepting this transformation will likely mean students are not prepared for traditional tests — which ties to funding and is realistically very important. If a teacher adopts this solely, they will more often than not face the wrath of administrators who see this as an act of rebellion, and many teachers will disparage their actions as “bad teaching.” Just as a democratic revolution of the classroom involves student empowerment, the process of getting there requires teacher empowerment as well. They must demand change through banding together, presenting their ideas, and even possibly making threats. Revolution isn’t safe — all major changes require sacrifice.

If a group succeeds in beginning change, any step forward is worth taking. That step must be large enough to matter, but not so much that the movement falls apart. Teachers must understand the pedagogy of democratic education — reading authors such as John Dewey, Deborah Meiers, Paulo Freire, bell hooks, John Holt, and A.S. Neill. Progressive education is more about why we do things rather than what we actually do — frameworks are organic more than step-by-step. They must design a curriculum not based on what specific content students will learn, but how they’ll make a space where everyone’s voice is promoted and heard. This involves inviting students, teachers, administrators, parents, and the community to the table — and a lot of powerful, tumultuous conversations. (Almost like the Constitutional Convention itself, albeit hopefully with representation of all.)

For most, I fear this isn’t possible — encouraging a group of teachers to look into experiential learning is already a tough task in many areas, let alone banding together and starting a freedom revolution. But again, any step is worth it — even if it’s just in your classroom. How much of a mitigated risk can you take and give power to your students? How much “creative manipulation” can you enact to “pull things off” at your school that administrators and state watch dogs may not know about? I hate to promote deceit — but revolutions are started by those willing to do whatever it takes, often in the shadows.

So, where do you start if it’s just you? I’m not an expert on transforming democratic classrooms (as stated before, it’s more about the why we do this, every community will look different), but there are some potential ways to get started:

  • Explain to students the “what” and “why” of what you’re doing. Having the classroom on your side cannot be understated.

  • Let students construct their own syllabus — their own rules, schedule, ideas. Remove as much forced curriculum as you feel comfortable, while ensuring you can answer to the “higher ups” (Or if you’re feeling extra rebellious — be willing to accept termination.)

  • Establish some form of daily meeting where students are free to talk about what they’re learning, what they want to do, or anything they’d like to change. Importantly, students actually have control. As a teacher you can still have suggestions, but it’s imperative that students don’t think (or worse, actualize) that you have the final say.

  • Reinforce to the point of near-monotony that students can choose what they want to do. Students need to be reminded that this isn’t traditional school — they can change course, work together, vote, and speak up at any time. This may be more structured at first (e.g. calling for a class vote), but providing every opportunity — developing that framework for democratic voice — is paramount.

  • Accept that discipline and grading will look different. A student may choose to never do anything at all. This shouldn’t be seen as a sign of disrespect or unwillingness to learn — it’s guaranteed that this student has deeper troubles that need to be explored further.

  • Don’t be afraid if the class is “off-task” at times. Learning isn’t passive nor silent. I’ve never seen a teacher utilize all their planning time without goofing around or browsing Instagram. (In general, we need to rethink education as “tasks” and “work” and recognize learning is a constant, blossoming process. It’s not being “off-task” — it’s waiting for thoughts to gather, relaxing, and possibly learning something else.) A class may decide to do nothing at all on certain days. I’ve had a class play Jackbox Games all period…and the next day we had one of the most in-depth, focused discussions I’ve ever heard.

  • Transparency is key. Nothing brings a classroom together like leveling — especially a teacher to their class. If I know that we have to do something on a certain day or else I’ll certainly be fired, I’ll tell my students exactly that. If we must hit certain points in the curriculum or the school will be shut down, I’ll let them know up front. If you treat students with respect, they’ll respect you in return. It isn’t disguising anything, it’s facing an actual dilemma that you solve as a learning community.

You’ll likely find that older students are perplexed or humored by these ideas. They’ll feel it’s either a trick, a farce, or an opportunity for exploitation. I remember a time when I allowed a classroom of seniors to make their own rules and the first suggestion was to start each class with a whistle (for no apparent reason outside of the ridiculousness of it. *Interestingly, this lasted every day of the semester and students would be upset if we forgot the whistle, even going to lengths to restart class if warranted.) Silliness, weariness, or even indifference shouldn’t be surprising. And we can’t tell students to “take it seriously” — doing so is reinforcing that we’re at the front of the room, commanding on how to do everything. If we prefabricate what our room will operate like, that defeats the entire purpose. Students have been taught that the adult is in charge and school is supposed to be this way. Heck, the majority of my students initially want me to just make all the rules and curriculum decisions. However, by opening the door to democratic participation — students will take steps, just as you did, into the realm of inquiry and intrinsic learning…even if it’s just a few times.

Therefore, moving to a democratic classroom can be as large of a leap you’re willing to take. From letting students speak openly about what they’re doing to transforming an entire school to let students vote on policy decisions, any step we take to the change the mindset of compulsory education is worth it. For far too long we’ve accepted the status quo of stand-and-deliver passive classrooms. We can make learning matter, so why the masquerade of trivial work? Let’s move toward a system where students care about what they’re doing because they want to do it — not us.

Innovative Classrooms of the Future

Technology envelops a classroom: full of iPads and laptops; all students have access to augmented reality contraptions and virtual reality headsets; a group of students is being led in a coding session in C++; flexible seating arrangements allow for everyone to feel comfortable; students submit work through an advanced online LMS; students connect with peers via webcams.

In most cases, one would describe this scenario as an innovative classroom — by using the most advanced tools, we’ll effectively prepare students for the future. Well-to-do educators promote their use of the latest coding app. to get students interested early on — even offering credit as second language! Companies are propping up everywhere to offer new flexible seating solutions. Each of these improvements come at a gigantic cost. However, all this is hardly innovative.

What do these tools do but allow us to do “old things” better? We’ve transitioned from paper and pencil worksheets to an iPad for math homework, but discourage, block, and don’t modernize in the age of Wolfram Alpha; we no longer need paperback books for the whole class and encourage eBooks, but don’t allow students to read whatever they want from vast online catalogs (including audiobooks!); we push coding as innovation, but ignore that the future will have something new to behold.

Every time we propagate innovation as technology improvements, we’re ignoring the vast changes needed in the education system as a result of technology. Most information learned in school can found in the blink of an eye — and most rote knowledge has been replaced (or will soon) by artificial intelligence. Why would we not change the entire math curricula now that machines can solve almost all high school math equations? Of course, many teachers would respond: “so they understand the process” — assuming that students understand this from regurgitating step-by-step instructions. Rather, we could develop a math curriculum that uses these tools to creatively solve real problems.

What is a truly innovative classroom? It is one that disrupts the outdated current system and places emphasis on the needs of a child — starting with rewriting all curricula to incorporate the modern world:

  • Reframe math as a relevant and authentic skill by using tools available to solve and think about real world problems (such as personal finance decision-making and building).

  • Work with local research firms or organizations to study and predict real data in science.

  • Be given ample time to read for pleasure from a vast array of media in English.

  • Navigate complex issues, be empowered, and understand the past using purposeful discussion on tolerance and activism in social studies.

  • Utilize technological tools to assist learning a second language.

  • Save coding (and other extracurriculars) as passion-based classrooms focused on students who want to learn more (of course — all classrooms should be framed with this in mind).

The world no longer needs a robotic, rule-obeying workforce to supplement a growing industrial zone. Instead, we need creative, passionate people who come up with innovative solutions to problems, fight for social equity, and are able to cooperate and lead. We need students who love to learn — notably this does not mean agree to listen. Students who excel at following directions and doing just as their told, in trival step-by-step form, are at a huge disadvantage. And as educators, we are doing these students a disservice when we congratulate them with high grades and praise. Instead, a classroom could look like this:

  • Large amounts of time given to flexible, self-directed learning. Students are given a variety of options — such as laptops, books, and activities — to develop their own projects.

  • Students are not confined to one location, and are taught responsibility by acting freely.

  • Cooperation and collaboration are encouraged through students being empowered to organize activities and tackle greater objectives. The school (and its students) work with the local community to bring in professionals to assist in teaching, learning, and partnerships.

  • Teachers assist students in finding their passion and purpose in life: devoting the majority of their time to one-on-one or small group sessions to build relationships and mentor.

  • Instructional time, beyond simple arithmetic and literacy, is devoted to teaching students how to learn through finding and organizing information — as well as teachable moments in tolerance, empathy, and communicative skills.

  • Students are constantly learning by doing. There is little to no time being devoted to lectures — unless prompted by students or general housekeeping.

  • Discipline is through elements of restorative justice — all infractures are based on talking with everyone and making it a learning experience. There are no “zero tolerance” policies.

  • Administration is open and present — connecting with teachers and students — and constantly providing support.

  • There is no homework. If a student wants to learn more (which they most likely will when not being drained nor disparaged by traditional schooling) — they will. Teachers model a love of learning by actively reading and encourage mindfulness through constantly reflecting and taking breaks.

  • There are no grades. A school is a place of learning: not competition. Students will learn without being pitted against each other. Assessment still exists in the form of constant feedback and narration between teacher, student, parent, and community.

  • Standardized testing is eliminated.

  • Above all, a student’s happiness and safety are what’s most important and emphasized.

  • …and so much more (a resource we’re releasing next month outlines all of these, research surrounding them, and how one can implement them!)

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These aren’t easy solutions. Innovation isn’t an easy task…it requires risk and determination. “Grit” — as it’s often used in the classroom — is not about doing what you’re told and pushing through (despite hating it), it’s pushing through a daunting task that you want to accomplish, even when faced with adversity. Adopting innovative tech tools are actually very simple: in fact, it’s not really innovative at all. It’s just three things: 1) finding out about them, 2) purchasing them, 3) reading instructions. That’s not to say technological tools aren’t useful (of course they are, a lot of progressive practice are amplified by them!) — it’s just that their purpose being changed for a modern education is when the going gets tough.

We need to stop focusing so much energy on improving outdated practice. So much time and money is wasted on hatching out the newest “trick” to solving the education crisis — without taking the time to question the system we’re using. And yes, it is possible to change that system — schools throughout the country have already taken the plunge towards invigorating learning. Organize and politely demand action through comradery, research, and determination. It doesn’t have to be all at once: every aspect we adopt and implement is to the betterment of children’s lives.

Let kids be kids: allowing for freedom and teaching responsibility

How do schools expect students to develop ethics: responsibility, tolerance, acceptance, cooperation, trust — if they refuse to usher in school policies that allow for it?

Anyone in education would state that responsibility is a key notion to teach children, whether in elementary or high school. But, how does a school go about this? Typically, it is by restricting access to whatever a student could do irresponsibly. It is not acceptable for a student to perform any irresponsible actions; therefore, they should never have the ability to do them. Doesn’t this just encourage students to be irresponsible — just to see what it’s like — when there aren’t rules governing over them?

For example:

  • When students use their phones in class, they play video games! Okay, let’s enforce a no cell phone rule!

  • Students spend all day watching YouTube videos in my class. Install a web filter that blocks most websites.

  • Kids are skipping class! Design a hall pass system where students can never leave the classroom without explicit monitoring.

  • Students are “goofing off” when given work that requires movement in the school. Ensure that all students are constantly accounted for in a set, small space. Double check attendance often!

  • A student does something heavily against school policy(smoking, dealing drugs, sexual activity) while out of class. Red alert! Shut down the entire school. No students can do anything anymore!

Do note, I’m not stating that rules should not exist, instead — I believe that students should be taught the conscious decision to make good choices. Will this lead to more students making improper choices? Probably. I would argue that most students would do these things irregardless from policy via web filters or just skipping class. However, what about students who are deterred by these rules? Are they actually learning responsibility or just terrified of the ramifications?

This has a direct parallel to parenting. Parents who tend to reinforce strict rules and guidelines usually almost manifest some of the most rebellious actions by their children. Or, their children grow up and take a “rule-breaking” action (i.e. smoking) and realize that nothing happened! That must mean…all these other strict rules have no purpose! Because no one in this equation ever learned responsibility: how their actions have consequences — for them and possibly others — they don’t know why their making these decisions.

This obviously applies to school as well: if a student does something improper on their computer — what a great time for a discussion on proper Internet usage — how it would impact your job performance, your digital literacy, even your Internet bill! If a student is running through the hallways and breaks a student’s project in their moment of exuberance, then it’s time to teach apologies, personal accountability, and moments of reflection. The point is, without an opportunity to fail, you can’t have teachable moments. It’s the same as writing a paper for a student in English class.

And, of course, this has to be reinforced across the entire school. Teachers have to recognize that all students are their students. It’s not “your students” when they’re in one class — everyone in the school should want everyone to succeed. If you see something, you can teach it — we’re equally responsible for everyone. Administrators also need to reinforce this culture and encourage proper behavior of students and staff.