At a Crossroads of Anti-Authoritarianism: Dismissing Far-Right School Advocates

Education is political. As Henry Giroux states in On Critical Pedagogy,

“…classroom learning embodies selective values, is entangled with relations of power, entails judgments about what knowledge counts, legitimates specific social relations, defines agency in particular ways, and always presupposes a particular notion of the future.”

Often, the Human Restoration Project find itself discussing and applauding unschooling and homeschooling — both worthwhile pursuits for families. Having a choice of attending public school or not is a fundamental choice within a democratic system. Progressive education typically wants a plethora of schools and non-traditional experiences for children to choose from. However, I want to outline the differences of thought between some libertarian homeschoolers versus ours.


To display our differences, I’ve included the Political Compass Test’s outline, which is recognized as solid footing in underlying political beliefs (although the test questions are disputed for accuracy.) I’ve highlighted (poorly) — in my view — how school belief systems align. Obviously, this is highly debatable, but these quadrants demonstrate some key differences between progressive education, unschooling, and traditional education, as well as showcase potential commonalities.

Both progressive education and unschooling are rooted in anti-authoritarianism. We both see national and state heavy-handed standardization as detrimental to student and teacher success, rooted in implications of societal control by elites. We both question the “knowledge-based” principles of defining what is important to learn versus what isn’t. And we both believe in choice/consent for learners in their education.

A fundamental difference is the left/right paradigm. Now, this is a broad brush — certainly there are left-leaning unschoolers. Essentially, this implies why progressive educators almost universally support work by say, John Holt, but not Bryan Caplan. And many will choose to homeschool while simultaneously supporting and integrating progressive education, and vice versa.

This article is not meant to assume that all homeschoolers or all unschoolersbelieve these extreme viewpoints. I believe the majority don’t and would actively call out these beliefs. And some believe these concepts for entirely different reasons. Nor is the intent to paint unschoolers or homeschoolers as “the enemy” of public schools. Further, to state that unschoolers align themselves with these views as a whole would be the same as lumping all progressive educators with those who promote SEL for test anxiety or portfolio-based learning for standardized test scores. The intention is to specifically target a small wing of this fraction.

However, there is a place for progressive education to distinguish itself from the extreme-wing within unschooling/homeschooling circles that find themselves associated with:

  • Incorporating Explicit Christianity Instruction in Schools

  • Hesitant or Seeing Social Justice Issues as Brainwashing/Propaganda/Post-Modernism

  • Ending Public Education

  • Promoting Individualism

Religious Integration

Progressive education believes in tolerance of all religions, including those who don’t believe. Many against the public school system take issue with the perceived “attack on Christianity.” Notably, they mention a lack of explicit Christian mentoring. Michael J. Metarko, an ex-public principal and current homeschooler, writes in IndoctriNation how public education is a Trojan horse:

“…what I found was indoctrination in an anti-Christian worldview called humanism…”

Later adding that a statist education system is leading to former Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network director Kevin Jennings (President Obama’s Safe School director) “possessing great power and authority over schools” — adding disparaging remarks on the “homosexual movement.” To substansiate this view, Metarko adds that schools:

  • Teach evolution

  • Teach “revisionist history”

  • Promote socialism

  • Focus on self-esteem and what “feels right”

  • Promote feminization of boys and masculinization of girls

  • Acceptance over tolerance

  • “Misguided environmentalism” (Earth over God)

  • Rebellion against the family

This tirade concludes with an attack on schools “removing God from the Pledge” and removing nativity scenes. Outside of the completely inaccurate portrayal of the Pledge (“Under God” was never intended to be included), this entire account assaults a communal vision of schooling. I don’t mean to imply that all homeschoolers, or even a majority of homeschoolers, agree with these views — but it’s worth noting that progressive education is opposed to them.

Being able to have an accepting learning community — where children value, care, and support one another is an underlying goal of the education system. This includes respecting people for who they are — being open to listening — and not fetishizing or demeaning lifestyle choices. Christians aren’t targeted in progressive schools, they’re simply accepted along with all other belief systems and lifestyles. If students cannot accept those of different beliefs, it’s up to educators to encourage acceptanceLikely, this is counter to the power structure much of “the right” implores. We want students to have authority figures who not only demonstrate accepting behaviors, but mentor and guide students down that path. It is absurd to me that we would promote behaviors that target gay, trans, or androgynous students, let alone restructure schools to make those oppressed even more so.

Sometimes these beliefs are deemed “humanist” — as they don’t allow explicit religious instruction in schools. (Although that term by militant activists seems to imply hate-mongering toward Christians, which is the fragility of power being lost by this author.) In addition, all these views tend to avoid discussing all the other belief systems students have.

Social Justice Implementation

On School Sucks (which I was just on and hope to discuss more about!), Brett Veinotte speaks with Jay Dyer about “social engineering” in schools, using the Tavistock Institute as a means to rationalize their argument. If you’re not aware, a conspiracy theory exists that Tavistock was developed to brainwash people toward statism. While I agree that schools prop up a neoliberal agenda toward accepting war and patriotism, the counter-rationale by this crowd is further including that “social justice warriors” are brainwashing children by teaching acceptance.

Sometimes used as demeaning toward these instructors, opposers call identity politics instruction in schools as “post-modern.” Progressive education explicitly notes the need for teaching acceptance, as well as the realities of our race, gender, and socioeconomic histories — which will include blatant understanding of our country’s fractured history. As bell hooks states,

“When everyone in the classroom, teacher and students, recognizes that they are responsible for creating a learning community together, learning is at its most meaningful and useful.”

In order to create a purposeful learning community, social justice will be taught in schools. Allowing for racist, gendered, or homophobic responses is unabashedly counter to principles of mutual care at the core of a human-centered education. So although progressive education is incredibly anti-authoritarian toward the state deciding what is and isn’t knowledge, and does not value a teacher enacting authoritarian control of the classroom, prog. ed. still puts a learning community at the center. That practice isn’t possible without an explicit understanding of social justice.

Furthermore, to ignore these issues is society is to simply promote the current structures that exist. I believe, as many progressive educators do, that schooling is a place to counteract hate and promote the social good. This may have authoritarian tendencies (who chooses what “the social good” is?), but societal cohesion is necessary for tearing down discriminatory practices that exist in our daily lives. Critical pedagogy opens opportunities for students to recognize these practices and act on them, without being similarly marginalized by their instructor.

Ending Public Education

Obviously, I am not for an end to public education — I am a public school teacher. One can critique and want transformation without advocating the dismantling of an entire system.

Some homeschoolers see no value in the public school system. They see it as a place for indoctrination. In some cases, that is true. Many succeed in spite oftheir education. However, to destroy the school system would further inequities in society — especially when pockets of educators are doing so much to help their students.

The school system is stuck in a loop surrounding neoliberal practice — ranking and filing kids, placing a teacher at the center, supporting “core knowledge”, judging on subjective grades, and inequitably funded. Most traditional teachers don’t see themselves doing any of these things. They don’t see themselves as colonizers — they believe they’re doing what’s right for kids. Dismantling this notion and transforming the pedagogy within schools is the cornerstone of progressive education.

This discussion between Sean Illing and Bryan Caplan on Vox, author of The Case Against Education summarizes this debate well:

“Illing: Here’s where I think we disagree: You think we have too much education, and I think we’re doing education wrong. In other words, you want less education, and I want better education.

Caplan: My response is that doing less education is easy, and improving the education system is hard…We’ve got very clear evidence that we’re wasting a lot, but we don’t have a clear idea as to what would be better. All we know is that the system we have now is grossly dysfunctional, so I don’t think we should keep pouring money into it.…

Illing: You think of education as a rote technical enterprise, so it’s all about skills and productivity and the labor market. I think a good education is about cultivating wise citizens, people who appreciate democracy, who are discerning and not easily hoodwinked. That we’ve failed to do this doesn’t mean education is a waste of time; it means we’re doing it wrong…

…I also worry that a massive public disinvestment in education would widen many of the inequalities that already exist in this country. In your ideal world, people with money would continue to receive a good education and the people who don’t would be left further and further behind.

Caplan: …Today, because education levels have risen so much and because of the power of the kind of signaling I mentioned earlier, not finishing high school virtually destroys any chance you have of getting an interview for a decent job. Employers can easily dismiss high school dropouts precisely because education levels have increased dramatically.

This is why cutting education across the board is the only way to level the playing field, because it changes what the degrees mean and the way employers think about who’s worthy of being interviewed or hired. In a world where no nurses have bachelor’s degrees, hospitals can’t say, “We only interview nurses with bachelor’s degrees…

…I’m willing to stick my neck out and say that we should have separation of school and state, just like separation of religion and state, and that government should just get out of the business and leave it to customers and charity to handle it. To be clear, this conclusion isn’t implied by the data I cite; this is my personal political philosophy.”

Much of Caplan’s calls for removing public education as he does not believe it is doing a good enough job — particularly for the labor market. We both believe that we can do better — and just as Illing states, education is about a lot more than jobs. Without public education, society would only become more inequitable. Those who can afford expensive charter schools will be placed further ahead, and those without the means or wherewithal to navigate the system will be pushed further behind. Education is meant to be a leveler in society — a way for everyone to have the same equitable opportunities as everyone else. This is not the case now, and it likely won’t be for quite some time, but our goal as educators is to make this a reality.

Promoting Individuality

As in the previous notions, this brand of homeschooling tends to place the individual at the center of everything. This is counter to progressive education, which places the community at the center of everything. As already mentioned, this means accepting others and being assumed to help each other. Perhaps this is “socialist” — but cohesive societies require caring communities.

Perhaps part of this dismissive structure is rooted in white fragility. It isn’t every case, but almost every single writer on entirely dismantling public education, promoting religion, focusing on individualism, or against social justice education is a white male. Outliers do exist, but there is a prudent point to analyze surrounding why those privileged in the United States would make claims on how they’re being “held back” by accepting and supporting those in an inferior power structure. Dismantling public education would further push an inequitable society that already festers systemic racism.

Developing Commonalities

Therefore, despite the anti-authoritarian commonalities that exist between progressive education and this belief system, it is hard for the two to coincide. While both recognize that traditional schooling is doing a disservice to the majority of students, and both want to see drastic changes to benefit the individual, we completely disagree on the means to get there.

The silver lining is there are many unschooling advocates who support public schools and progressive education. Despite neoliberal organizations profiting off their brand of “progressive schools” — there are plenty of advocates working throughout the country to build human-centered schools who don’t perpetuate a system that causes children harm.

We can build a better system together — one that has school choice, public schools, and homeschooling — where no matter who you are or where you live, you have access to a quality education system that won’t make your child hate learning. This school system will help students navigate their purpose in life, while simultaneously exposing them to diverse viewpoints and peoples to live positive lives.

The College Process & Progressive Ed: What’s Wrong

What does the college process mean? When I use that term, I am referring to an all encompassing idea that includes the primary, secondary and tertiary processes. Everything from application to enrollment deposit, and the ancillary processes like private college counselors, audition or portfolio coaches, test-prep, college bootcamps, essay workshops, case study programs, campus visits, pre-college summer programs, etc.; all of which are meant to increase the likelihood that a student will be admitted to the school of their choice. So, what does this have to do with progressive education? As it stands today, very little.

Before I go too far down that rabbit hole, I would like to mention briefly that I am an admissions officer for one of the few progressive institutions of higher education in the United States: Bennington College. I knew very little of the progressive world previous to my employment with Bennington, but as I became more familiar with the philosophical underpinnings of progressive education, all sorts of things started clicking for me in my work as an admissions professional and also in terms of making sense of my underwhelming public education experience (let the healing begin). This is also what lead me to the Human Restoration Project.

I am of the opinion that, in regards to the college process, there are three criteria that lead to success:

  1. The student has a sense of who they are and are unlikely to be influenced by outside agents. They see their community as a network of mentors or consultants to use, not authorities to delegate choice to.

  2. The student has a sense of purpose or at least an understanding of interests that have been differentiated from the dominant paradigm. Or if they have adopted those interests, can articulate why they are important to them as an individual.

  3. Have a good sense of the kind of environment that will help facilitate the meaningful pursuit of that purpose or those interests.

In a system where students are constantly compared and competing against each other, where compliance is the standard by which all are measured and external validation how one derives a sense of self-worth; few are prepared to make an educated choice about which path is the best for them. In our system, success is defined within the narrow constraints of a letter grade and a test score. So students look at the college process through that lens: what are the rules of the game and how can they be mastered so that my desired outcome is likely to be achieved and my worthiness verified?

At this point, the system becomes very self-referential. What is the desired outcome (i.e. which schools should I want to go to)? Well, what does US News and World Report tell me? What does the Princeton Review tell me? What does my private college consultant tell me? What does Bob the lawyer next door tell me? What are my parents telling me? Very rarely do students ask what they want for themselves, or if they do, it’s still within the framework of the externally validating paradigm. The logic goes something like this, “I want to be successful. Everyone who goes to Stanford is successful. Therefore, I should go to Stanford.” And then the inevitable, “If I don’t go to Stanford, I won’t be successful.”

These students have spent their entire lives in a system that reinforces this foundational proposition: something outside of myself has the answer; a system that constantly paints the world in binaries and hasn’t made room for ambiguity, critical thinking, self-awareness, risk taking, creativity, or collaboration. Is it any wonder that students flail and experience so much stress around this process? Is it any wonder they pursue name brand schools with such fervor? Is it any wonder that only 57% graduate from college within six years after starting?

What does progressive education have to do with the college process? Potentially quite a bit. If we take some of the basic concepts that a progressive education has to offer, we can see how that path would have a much greater likelihood in leading to the three foundational criteria that I laid out at the beginning of this post.

  1. Self-direction — ownership and agency of a process, allowing deep investigation into multiple areas of interest, using inquiry as a launchpad and connecting purpose to their learning.

  2. Project Based Learning — a process oriented approach where theoretical exercises are given real world applications. Failure is assured, resilience required, critique critical, navigating ambiguity essential, creative problem solving inevitable, and outcomes unpredictable. Students gain quite a bit of confidence in their ability to navigate dynamic situations.

  3. Public Exhibition — students have the opportunity to receive a response to their work from a broader audience. They publicly share their successes and failures, answer questions, defend their thesis when necessary while using these interactions to deepen their own understanding of who they are, what they are interested in, and where they are headed.

  4. Narrative Evaluations — students receive and incorporate meaningful feedback, eliminating external ego-feeding/defeating peer comparisons which activates their intrinsic motivation and provides a space where they are much more likely to make an honest assessment of their strengths and weaknesses.

  5. Dismantled Power Structures — a natural byproduct of the progressive approach, the student becomes their own personal authority (in the truest sense, not the faux confidence or obstinate sense) where they use all of the resources at their disposal in the service of facilitating their own learning. In this mode, teachers become mentors or guides, not compliance police officers, and have a much larger store of energy reserves to be applied toward helping students to become the best possible version of themselves in the world.

At a time when there is a lot to be discouraged about, I believe the progressive education movement has something positive to offer the world, especially as it pertains to the college process. An empowered individual making informed choices based on their deepest held values is much more likely to feel fulfilled, and much more likely to make a positive contribution to their community. I believe that our definition and measurements of educational success needs a radical tear down and rebuild, and that progressive education is the best place to begin that process.

Making Them All Look the Same

Schools framed as “elite”— those that often reflect the most traditional notions of education — tend to require uniforms. “Dress for success” is the mantra. And increasingly, schools are requiring “business casual.” There’s many reasons for this, from attempting to show economic equity (less chance for branding) to stopping gang violence. However, is forcing students to all look the same just a reflection of the standardized model of education? It’s not enough that students are required to attend whitewashed, water-downed classes that the masses can distribute, but now they must have the same on their bodies.

There’s a lot of research on this topic. Thankfully, the Journalist’s Resourcehas cataloged much of it:

  • Chris Baumann in 2016 found that students who are “highly disciplined” — defined as those who are complaint toward the instructor (quiet, attentive) — do better in school. These students were more likely to wear uniforms.

  • Elisabetta Gentile and Scott Imberman in 2012 found that more students attend school when uniforms were assigned.

  • Jafeth Sanchez, Andrew Yoxsimer, and George Hill in 2012 surveyed students and found they were mostly unhappy with a recent uniform policy, even though fewer disciplinary issues occurred after the policy was adopted (Notably, these discipline issues were not related to dress code.)

  • Ryan Yeung in 2009 found that uniform policy had no real impact on standardized tests or value-added achievement exams.

  • David Brunsma and Kerry Rockquemore in 1998 realized that despite claims that uniforms increase academic achievement or decrease discipline problems, they actually have the opposite effect.

  • Ann Bodine in 2003 found that a certain study arguing against school uniforms presented false data that academic achievement lowered as a result of uniform implementation.

  • Kathleen Wade and Mary Stafford in 2003 studied that teachers believed gang affiliation and activity decreased with uniform policy, but students did not. Students found less self-perception scores when required to wear a uniform.

  • Pamela Norum, Robert Weagley, and Marjorie Norton in 1998 found that uniform purchases have a negative effect on low-income households, as people do not purchase uniforms or business attire instead of casual clothes, but in addition to.

Synthesizing all this data, it’s hard for me to find a substantial causation between school uniforms and student success — at least one where benefits outweigh the detrimental effects.

Candidly, uniform policy is used as a way to “pull the wool over the eyes” of educators and establish more systems of control. Like any policy where students are told what to do, they’re more likely to obey when under surveillance but are less likely to change their behaviors — such as when a strict teacher belittles everyone to never speaking and their class is suddenly “out of control” when they’re gone for a day.

To take each of these points, it’s easy to decipher why school uniforms are perceived as they are:

Uniforms increase attendance and test scores. Yes, more students attend school where uniforms are required but the results are hazy. In the Gentile & Imberman study, they found a modest increase of attendance and test scores particularly among female students in middle and high school. For male students, especially in elementary school, there was a short-term drop in attendance and test scores. Importantly, the authors note that girls are more likely to be transferred out of the public schools studied. The area analyzed is populated with uniform-required, “high-ranking” schools that many privileged students attend. Therefore, the 4–5% higher attendance rates could be partially or wholly contributed to the highest academically achieving female students leaving for a different environment, especially considering that all noteworthy achievement gains, outside of 2-year improvement in male math scores, were attributed to female students.

If another study existed, it would be interesting to note if female students are transferring to other schools because of the uniform policy or because perceived better academic opportunities await at uniform adopted charter schools. This would correlate with ample research showing that female students perform better in all facets of academics during traditional school years. Plus, Yeung (2009) indicates that the academic benefits are misrelated.

Furthermore, the same study finds a correlation between increased disciplinary referrals as a result of uniform policy, and an increased number of minor discipline issues with male students.

At the same time, students with more discipline obviously do better in traditional academic environments, as shown in Baumann (2016.) They are more likely to wear uniforms — but again, the schools with uniform policies were more likely to be perceived high-ranking charter schools. It only makes sense that that those excelling in traditional academics, when placed together in a uniform-adopted location, had increased scores.

Uniforms cause less discipline problems. This point perplexed me. In Sanchez, Yoxsimer, & Hill (2012), there was a notable decrease in violent behavior — with 50% or more reductions in gang related activity and fights. Notably, the reason this school adopted a uniform policy was due to overwhelming gang activity. However, Brunsma & Rockquemore (1998)stated the opposite: uniforms cause more non-uniform related discipline problems. Perhaps, this was due to the first study consisting of one school with 700 surveyed vs. the later focusing on schools in multiple regions. And/or, as Brusma & Rockquemore find, the correlation of positive behavior and students was due to pro-school attitudes and peer attitudes, not uniform policy. It could be hypothesized that in the singular school of Sanchez, Yoxsimer, & Hill — students perceived a better school culture and acted accordingly.

In general, these studies reflect that a uniform dress code causes increaseddiscipline problems due to more (predominately male and minority) students being written up, but depending on the location, gang-affiliated clothing is likely unreasonable for schools. Essentially, we should aim toward common sense regulations that most students, in my opinion, would support (we couldask) while not homogenizing all culture at schools — especially when uniform efforts like these tend to target and hurt low socioeconomic areas, as Norum, Weagley, and Norton (1998) found.

Uniforms take away a student’s culture, rights, and self-value. As Wade & Stafford (2003) and Sanchez, Yoxsimer, & Hill (2012) recognized, students were overwhelmingly against uniform policies. Like most progressive practice, it makes sense to listen to students. In my view, the increased disciplinary or cultural problems are a result of perceived changes of students acting naturally within the traditional education system. When students are forced into more rigid behaviors — including all dressing the same — teachers are less likely to recognize “nonconforming” actions.

Furthermore, there are a range of cultural and identity issues that arise from uniforms that target gender nonconforming and/or minority students, as well as reinforce traditional gender norms.

Therefore, the uniform debate is misguided. Although policymakers would see test scores, violent behavior, or attendance rates as being more important than students’ feelings, the current research does not correlate that data by explicitly wearing uniforms. We want students to be treated like human beings — not making them robots. Robots look basically the same, people don’t. They have a right to expression and finding out who they are — something which clothing-choice reinforces.

I’m sure many educators would note that their uniform-wearing students are more engaged in the classroom. But I question the term, “engagement.” Are they more curious? More involved? Being more reflective on what they’re learning? Or are they simply less distracted in the non-natural standardized learning environment they find themselves in? On “dress down days”, are students wild and uncontrollable? Are they suddenly lashing out and violent? Do they suddenly start failing tests?

(As a side note, my own school requires “business casual dress” as it is believed it promotes academic achievement, and more-so “to prepare students for local jobs.” I am heavily bothered by the claim that once my students leave our school they’ll be incapable of putting on a pair of khakis because they didn’t in school — I’m going to assume they’re capable. I’d rather encourage students to dress up for certain events, such as attending a conference they’d like to go to. Professional courtesy is entirely different than compliant cohesion. The “self-discipline” acknowledged by dressing yourself in a certain fashion each day speaks incredibly lowly of what we believe students are capable of. “You understand how to put a belt on.” Really? That’s what we think they can’t do? It’s rebellion, apathy and/or affordability that causes dress code violations — not incapability of knowing how to get dressed.

Furthermore, we have “dress down days” and one can only dress down if they fit that theme. It seems a ludicrous notion that having students wear pajamas around the school is less distracting and/or socially acceptable than a student opting to wear a T-shirt.)

Are uniforms a faux sense of control? Schools (and many “progressive” institutions) describe their policy:

  • “…the uniform is a source of pride and a builder of community.”

  • “Our uniform sets the standard the school expects and is appropriate for a place of work”

  • “…uniform policy is designed to create a professional appearance among our students that supports the focused academic environment maintained…”

  • “The purpose of the dress code policy is to enhance the learning environment.”

  • “The school uniform is intended to develop a sense of pride and self-discipline.”

And most highlight how their student government voted for uniforms. I’m completely for democratic claims for students to determine their appearance, but student governments are often 1) not representative of the student body and are some of the most complaint, hand-picked children, and 2) is it really fair to the majority of students that this body has this power when they must attend school daily? As in, when one has little choice of where to go to school — and the primary purpose of school is meant to be academic achievement — is it ethical for a small group of students to instigate what everyone must do? It appears to go against the Constitutional claims of the United States. In addition, I’d be curious what happens when a student rallies others together to remove the dress code — I’d be highly surprised if this was taken seriously or listened to by administration.

The disconnect is obvious between research, practice, and implementation. I believe there’s no reason for school uniforms in any scenario — unless every student desires it. Obviously, common sense codes make sense — eliminate gang-related clothing…wear clothes to school…basic things. But enacting controls that allow for little to no selection is another instance of schools using their overwhelming power to dictate the lives of children.

Data: A New Conversation

In an era where standardized measurement is a given, and it isn’t going away any time soon — why don’t we change the data measured?

In a recent conversation on our podcast with Dr. Susan Engel, a brilliant childhood development psychologist, she mentioned — why aren’t we measuring students differently? As a jaded educator, when I hear data, standardization, testing — anything in this tone — I am dismayed and assume the worst. And if we were to measure students in another way — say creatively or by their leadership qualities — wouldn’t this be too subjective to gauge? After all, we use multiple choice tests because of their practicality (even if they’re not accurate as a means of intelligence.)

But she made me come to a firm realization: all the data we reference for progressive education — from the studies of Ruth Butler on motivation to the findings on relationships by Maddolyn Ritt — is measured scientific data. If it’s possible for data to support these findings, how could they be applied to schools? Could we change the narrative of state testing to that of measured “21st century skills” and student-centeredness?

Given the situation of the United States’ education system, it is highly unlikely that we’ll see an end to standardization soon. However, if we make the case for alternative data — it could revitalize it. Even if standardized testing wasn’t eliminated, the findings would bolster the claim that standardized testing is harmful to practically everything. Therefore, I propose we measure more, not less. It may seem counterintuitive, but if it’s not possible to trust schools without oversight (at least, beyond the community), then let’s fight fire with fire.

What could we measure?

Motivation and Curiosity

Do students want to learn? Are they pushing themselves to succeed just because they want to? As Audrey Amrein and David Berliner summarize in The Effects of High-Stakes Testing on Student Motivation and Learning, students are not motivated by achieving on tests. I mean — duh — teachers know this. And if we’re only measuring test data — who cares? Many districts are trying to stay afloat and their assessment is purely on increasing those scores.

Imagine we introduced the same measurements as Ruth Butler’s motivation studies? We’d simply introduce a 7 bubble Scantron answer at the end of the test:

How likely are you to ask questions and seek out more information on what you’ve learned? (1: not at all, 7: highly likely)

I’ll leave it up to the scientists to phrase that question better — but this is the same line of thought of any motivation study. Almost all are a pre/post study of questions like these. Yes, they’re subjective. Note: all tests are subjective.

With a heavy-handed approach, this would force schools to adapt. Professional development would situate itself on: how do we get kids to be curious? This would hopefully lead down a progressive path, as now progressive education is adapted to suit: how do we get kids to pass the test?

Social and Emotional Wellbeing

When so few students are happy at school (49% in 4th grade, 26%[!] in 8th grade, according to the NAEP), there’s a crisis. If a highly weighted question on our tests asked:

Do you feel happy at school?

Or when 41% of students feel unsafe, due to bullying, school culture (racism, sexism) or the threat of violence, why are we not listening louder? 7.1% of students in 9th-12th grade reported an attempt at suicide in the last year! While bureaucrats analyze why a district didn’t achieve 3% growth metrics on the science section of the SAT, real issues are festering. What if a question asked:

Do you feel safe at school?

Do you feel valued as a member of your school’s community?

Have you ever felt discriminated against by your peers due to your background?

Have you ever felt discriminated against by your teachers and/or school administrators due to your background?

Do you feel like you could confide in a teacher at your school?

In another podcast, I learned this data is measured by Turnaround for Education, a firm which works with schools to coach them to better practice. This is a fantastic program and I applaud those that use it — however, why must we pay this? Why is it optional? How sick have we become as a nation if we’re not at a red alert stage reacting to this data?

I guarantee if these questions were asked to most schools, a failing grade would follow. Therefore, schools would jump into support structures — they’d need to teach educators to love and care (which most of them want to, but pressures may have driven them down a dark path.) Imagine all of America’s schools competitively pushing to have the most valued, most cared for, students.

Creativity, Leadership, and other “soft skills”

If we’re to have an innovative society, we need people who aren’t robotic logicians. At the chance of sounding repetitive, why not ask?:

Do you consider yourself a leader with traits to back it up?

Do you consider yourself a creative person?

Even beyond that, although it would be insanely subjective, would it hurt to include questions that measured creativity on tests? As of now, “creative solutions” on tests aren’t rewarded — instead, students are judged based off adherence to a rubric. What they think doesn’t actually matter.

The point is, I’m not necessarily a fan of asking subjective questions via testing. In my view, we shouldn’t have testing at all — leave it up to individual communities to develop what’s best for them. But what’s realistic? If standardized testing is such a startling industry, we could integrate life-changing concepts to the field. They’d still be manipulated, profited-upon, and wildly misused, but at least we’d go beyond all of this that’s already happeningin service to multiple choice tests. It forces a conversation that needs to happen without a radical overthrow. It’s a safe change that will lead those to consider progressive thought. After all, if one starts to question these things, it opens the path to diving deeper down the rabbit hole.

HRP’s Books of the Month —February, On Critical Pedagogy by Henry Giroux

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.

On Critical Pedagogy by Dr. Henry A. Giroux inspires me to rally teachers and students and overthrow the government. Of course, that’s not realistic so I’ll start by overthrowing my classroom and work from there.

Giroux’s work aims to define critical pedagogy and the societal ailes that education should solve, but cannot due to the societal pressure and culture that drives our American system. Giroux tends to be a tough read — extensive works with a plethora of in-depth analysis — but On Critical Pedagogy is short and succinct — great for a busy teacher.

As Giroux explains,

…critical pedagogy that addresses the democratic potential of engaging how experience, knowledge, and power are shaped in the classroom in different and often unequal contexts, and how teacher authority might be mobilized against dominant pedagogical practices as part of the practice of freedom.

I was first assigned this text while working toward my Master’s in Education, but the concepts were completely lost on me. The only thing I knew about school was 1) it was “alright” and I could probably do better and 2) make sure to hit the standards and assess kids, if they do well — I’m doing well. Teacher training programs tend to teach Dewey and the like, but it’s paired with applicable student-teacher, where much is lost in traditional schooling practice. Therefore, I never thought much about what Giroux’s work was saying until well after questioning — why am I a teacher?

After all, much of what I was doing each day was having students memorize information that barely anyone remembers as an adult. I may have high “achievement scores”, but I knew education meant much more than that. There has to be a deeper meaning. The current system, Giroux states,

…[is a] much-narrowed form of pedagogy that focused on memorization, high-stakes testing, and helping students find a good fit within a wider market-oriented culture of commodification, standardization, and conformity.

I never thought much about if my classroom intentionally made my job seem worthless. As an American History teacher, much of my standards could be attributed to blind patriotism — recognizing the achievements of America with some asides to our ongoing imperialist, racist, and sexist world. There are plenty of examples of this, as in On Critical Pedagogy:

…the Arizona Basic Goals Commission urged teachers to make history more practical to place stress on ‘positive’ rather than negative aspects of the American past, eschew conflict as a theme inculcate pride in the accomplishments of the nation and show the influence of rational, creative, and spiritual forces in shaping the nation’s growth.

I’ve always tried to push back against this fact, but Giroux gives a much insight into the why — the pedagogy that deciphers all this [my emphasis],

…progressive education can begin to vigorously challenge a number of dominant assumptions all policies currently structuring public and higher education, including but not limited to: ongoing attempts by corporate culture to define education as multinational operatives; escalating efforts by colleges and universities to deny students the loans, resources, and public support they need to have access to a quality education; the mounting influence of corporate interests in pressuring universities to reward forms of scholarship that generate corporate profits…Rather than providing students with an opportunity to learn how to shape and govern public life, education is increasingly being vocationalized, reduced commodity that provides privileges for a few students and industrial training for the service sector for the rest, especially those who are marginalized by reason of their class and race.

Giroux’s vision is for schools to give legitimate power to students — to have an educator who works with them to dismantle the authoritarian nature of education (and beyond) by giving everyone solid footing to understand:

As a form of provocation and challenge, critical pedagogy attempts to take young people beyond the world they are familiar with and make clear how classroom knowledge, values, desires, and social relations are always implicated in power.

This is counter to the “knowledge-driven” mentality that all students must have a concern baseline of information to be “well-rounded” and “successful.” Many educators tout the need for a liberal arts education to prepare our students to be on even-footing with everyone else. This isn’t obscure to Giroux, who calls on Antonio Gramsci, a philosopher focused on cultural hegamony, to explain how a liberal arts education is based on the control of thought. Instead of this knowledge, Giroux argues, we need students disciplined in questioning and disestablishing power structures,

Gramsci’s emphasis on intellectual rigor and discipline can only be understood as part of a broader concern for students to develop a critical understanding of how the past informs the present in order they could liberate themselves from the ideologies and commonsense assumptions that formed the core beliefs of the dominant order…

‘We must break the habit of thinking that culture is encyclopedic knowledge whereby man is viewed as a mere container in which to pour and conserve empirical data or brute disconnected facts which he will have to subsequently pigeonhole in his brain as in the columns of a dictionary so to be able to eventually respond to the varied stimuli of the external world’…

Giroux continues by comparing this to E.D. Hirsch, whose “core knowledge” argument leans on a broad array of general content so that students are prepared to succeed:

For Hirsch, the production of knowledge by the middle class is only paved with good intentions. It seems unimaginable for Hirsch to engage critically the relationship between knowledge and power or ideology and politics. To address how culture and power combined to produce knowledge that often legitimates not the general interests but particular racial, class, and gendered interests would work against his general educational program: to teach children a core knowledge base of ‘facts.’

Therefore, our use of mandated curriculum upholds the unjust societal norms many have grown to accept. Giroux wants an education that presents the unequal aspects of American society, letting students have their eyes opened to every facet of our culture. Often seen as political, these statements imply that teachers must take a stance toward injustice. In the same sentiment of Paulo Freire, who coined critical pedagogy, Giroux sees education as a political act. As he states,

In order for pedagogy that encourages critical thought to have a real effect, it must include the message that all citizens, old and young, are equally entitled, if not equally empowered, to shape the society in which they live.

Of course, once we recognize this scenario, it’s fairly easy to complain about the problems at hand. Taking action requires guts and a vision to change the system. Although it does not offer specific changes for the classroom, On Critical Pedagogy provides an ample dosage of messages to shape a modern, empowered school. Giroux writes,

The political sphere, like most educational sites, is increasingly driven by a culture of cruelty and a survival-of-the-fittest culture.

To create a learning experience like this, we must dismantle the teacher/student dichotomy that assumes a teacher is to be automatically respected in an authoritarian way. Of course, that is not to say that a teacher should be berated or attacked on first meeting — we expect everyone in society to treat each other with a baseline level of respect — but that assumes a teacher has mutual respect for students. Too often, teachers use their power to demean children who don’t act in the fashion they would like.

In addition, a “survival-of-the-fittest” culture is upheld by grading and competitive class-rank practices. Although it would be difficult to dismantle the college admissions structure at a school level, we could rally for the elimination of grades. Ungrading is possible — schools throughout the country already do it — and their students are still successful. We cannot create a cooperative, loving school environment while having a system that says some win and some lose. We should be pushing the entire community to succeed, building an environment where we prop each other up, not promote individualistic notions.

This is backed up by Giroux, who writes,

Public schools largely inhabited by minorities of class and color fare even worse as they are subject to disciplinary ideologies and measures modeled after prisons. Consequently, there is little interest in understanding the pedagogical foundation of either public or higher education as a deeply civic, political, and moral practice — that is, pedagogy as a practice for freedom. As schooling is increasingly defined by a corporate order and a governing-through-crime paradigm, any vestige of critical education is replaced by training, containment, and the promise of economic security. Similarly, the empowering potential of pedagogy is now subordinated to the narrow regime of ‘teaching to the test’ coupled with an often harsh system of disciplinary control exerted upon not only the students but teachers as well.

For those not willing to question the system, “good teaching” is assumed as the Hirsch “knowledge-based” model. Therefore, making the proposal to ungrade or to envision a new curriculum that is not to the test is seen as radical. Therefore, this cultural norm believes the current system — the one where so many students are pushed out of schools, are labeled as failures, and are judged on assessments graded by robots (or trained-as-robotic people), is not a radical notion. And when questioned, a progressive education is deemed absurd by even thinking of such a thing.

This leads to burnout. I have no doubt that most progressive educators leave the field because they feel powerless. They went into education because the act of learning spoke to them and they wanted to share that with children. Instead, they became regimented workers who can’t dare to question what’s going on. Giroux highlights,

[Neoliberalism] thrives on a culture of cynicism, insecurity, and despair. Conscripts in a relentless campaign for personal responsibility, Americans are now convinced that they have little to hope for — and gain from — the government, non-profit spheres, democratic associations, public and higher education, or other non-governmental social forces.

Our cynical culture is not limited to teachers, as students — in my anecdotal classroom — seem much more apathetic. The world is falling apart. Media is increasingly divisive. No one is to be trusted. And education is useless. It’s incredibly difficult to engage a classroom of students — even with their best interest in mind — when they don’t trust you. And as a high school educator, I fear that for many it’s too late to have trust in a teacher. We should try as hard as possible to create these bonds, while empowering children to question usand any authority figure:

Students need to argue and question, but they need much more from their educational experience. The pedagogy of argumentation in and of itself guarantees nothing but is an essential step towards opening up the space of resistance towards authority, teaching students to think critically about the world around them, and recognizing interpretation and dialogue as a condition for social intervention and transformation in the service of unrealized democratic order.

Finally, Giroux addresses the largest criticism of critical pedagogy: is it propaganda? Are we simply brainwashing students in a different thought system? Rather than “knowledge-based” — are we just encouraging disruption?

Far from instilling propaganda in students, I think critical pedagogy begins with the assumption that knowledge and power should always be subject to debate, held accountable, and critically engaged. Central to the very definition of critical pedagogy is a common concern for reforming schools and developing modes of pedagogical practice in which teachers and students become critical agents actively questioning and negotiating the relationship between theory and practice, critical analysis and common sense, and learning and social change. This is hardly the prescription for propaganda.

I think that this disruption is justified. A simple analysis of our society is that there’s a whole host of problems to deal with, and little attention is given to most. In the education system alone, educators rarely question why they’re doing what they’re doing — and if they do, they don’t feel empowered to change anything. On Critical Pedagogy helps outline the why of education and gives hope to educators like us who want to make a change but feel powerless at times.


Experiential learning isn’t a packaged curriculum.

Social and emotional learning isn’t an expensive workshop on managing stress in a classroom.

Ed-tech isn’t meant to do what we already do “better.”

Student voice and choice aren’t concepts sold in the latest book.

There is a worrying array of progressive products that diminish meaningful inquiry. Instead of embracing a radical change that disrupts the status quo, educators turn to relatively easy-to-implement products that take traditional ideas but “make them fun” using relatively forward-thinking ideas.

  • Creating “hooks” that take boring classes and relate them to students.

  • Embracing gamification and masking standardized classes with “level ups.”

  • Providing mindfulness activities so traditional classrooms maintain order.

  • Changing a grade system to not reflect letter grades, but still issuing an equivalency that students quickly figure out (1–4, P/F, M/NM)

  • Using experiential learning as a “nice to have” activity after the “real” assessment (a test.) Usually these are more like arts & crafts.

  • Focusing on equity as a way to improve standardized test score performance, rather than connect to a community.

These neo-progressive ideas aren’t horrible — they’re certainly better than the alternative PowerPoint and quiz. I understand they offer educators a safe play in a stressful occupation, and I’ve used them. Administrators and peers tend to celebrate a “really cool” lesson plan where students pay attention, and many of them truly enjoy it. But the worrying line of thought is that these ideas undermine and ignore the pedagogy of progressive education. We’re not embracing progressive ideas of voice, choice, and student empowerment if we’re utilizing progressive techniques to actively undermine those ideas.

As in, a teacher who attends professional development on project-based learning learns all the elements of experiential learning: solving real problems, engaged in meaningful work, student choice in their outcomes, and using extensive time to solve it. However, instead of seeking out opportunities in the community that would love a school’s connection, the teacher finds ways to pair the project to content standards, restricts student choices (sometimes only allowing them to do that one thing), and ultimately makes something that no one, outside of the student, teacher, and maybe their family, sees or cares about. For some students, this may be the best class they’ve ever taken — but we must push more. After all, students may not realize that school could be done differently.

Again, I’ve made the same mistakes. It’s incredibly difficult to create a purposeful PBL experience — or practice progressive education at all in a public setting. I’ve told kids to stay on task to complete my lessons. I’ve experimented with gamification to get kids to “do the content.” I’ve gotten angry at students for not listening to me. I did all of this without asking my students why they felt this way, or really catering to their interests. And the marketing, rollout, and administrative interest in experiential learning is likely ill-suited to the possibilities it provides. Dewey would turn over in his grave to find teachers brandishing his philosophy to do week-long “projects” to display their knowledge of a specific content standard.

Also worrisome are stakeholders making to “transform” learning through ed. tech. As Mark Barnett wrote recently,

“[Seymour] Papert knew that real transformative learning required new models of teaching, where students had more control of learning, where failure was seen as a tool and where students needed to think critically about information instead of being told what to think.”

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be better. It’s our strive as educators to be curious learners, just as we want our students to be. These curriculum packages mislead us to thinking that we’re transgressing our practice, but really we’re doing traditional better.

For example, we care about social and emotional well-being. A school may purchase a web-based, video lesson guide on promoting mindfulness. At its core, it’s a decent idea, but no one questions if their practice — the classroom or institution — is the cause of these problems. In addition, is offering every student SEL web courses actually helping them, or does the connection need to be individualized for each learner? Are we attempting to solve problems with surface-level solutions?

Or we care about student choice. We receive professional development that paints choice as choosing between three outcomes for an assignment. It’s better than nothing — but certainly student choice could be choosing to do the lesson at all? Perhaps we should invite students to staff meetings and hear their voice at the school level? Why must they learn this content? Who decides?

It’s not a menu of ideas, it’s a pedagogy. If we put students at the center, they should be at the center. We must embrace the radical idea that a child is a human being who has consent in learning. This involves dramatically changing our classroom approach. It’s not what activities we do, or what buzzword is being embraced, but how we value the learner and their background. Direct instruction, online programs, and gamified options can still exist — if that’s what students choose and desire to have. For some students, that will be the case, for others, not. That’s fine, and we must meet their needs.

Dismantling the authoritarian nature of traditional education won’t be solved by making school interesting. At the end of the day, we’ll still be ranking and sorting kids, dismissing their voice, punishing them for their decisions, providing a ludicrous amount of “content knowledge”, making them compete against each other, and overall — dehumanizing them through the education system.

Traditional teachers, I believe, often don’t do this intentionally. Systemic issues — school boards, curriculum guides, district policy — dictate what teachers can and can’t do. It is the role of the subversive teacher to fight for humanity in their classrooms through calculated risk. They must push the humanization of the classroom to its brink, not stay within the confines of what their district has deemed “progressive.” Most could:

  • Shift to self-assessment, where students are in charge of assigning themselves a grade based off what they’ve learned.

  • Ask students what they want to do, while presenting to students that there are state confines they must work with. Then work with students to make that process as painless as possible.

  • Establish trust with students on a human-level. Don’t yell at them. Don’t make them feel stupid. Value them as people to learn with and treat them with respect. It’s difficult when students have no choice to be there and may not want to be, but we can be an ally.

  • If we have to follow certain curriculum guides, morph them to the needs of our class. If our students truly hate it (provide them an outlet to give feedback that matters), then devise together a way to do similar content.

Find a way to be a little rebellious in a risky, yet not completely maniacal, fashion. After all, the community you’ve built among students and their families — showing them that you care — will rally behind you.

So think twice before accepting that the latest thing in education is “progressive.” There’s a lot of snake oil and masked traditionalism out there. What should we look for?

  • A focus on motivation, curiosity, and interest over test scores and assessment.

  • Enabling students to express themselves for change beyond the little things.

  • Interesting lessons or projects that we propose to our students, but don’t subject them to.

  • Finding ways for children to be more socially/emotionally stable at a systemic level, rather than a canned activity.

  • Concepts that focus on skills, rather than content, with the purpose of building those skills because the learner finds them valuable and desires it.

Something There Is That Doesn’t Love a Grade

We try. We try all of our days to put our fingers on learning. We try to find and keep what works. We try to avoid and lose what doesn’t. And, through it all, we keep chasing the best ways to foster learning in our classrooms. We give our kids opportunities to show, to demonstrate that they are growing, that they are learning. And then, at some point, the chase has to come to an end, and we have to try to make sense of it all. We have to turn it into a grade. But…

Something there is that doesn’t love a grade.
That finds its fault, that questions its veracity
But at mid-year grading-time we find ourselves there
Seeking a number or letter
We meet there, each to a side 
Partners in the journey, the teacher and learner.
There where it is, we do not need the grade,
But the transcript looms, demanding
So fond of its tradition, so proud of its maxim,
“Good grades means good learning.”
End of term is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could plant a notion in its head,
“But how do good grades mean good learning?”
Isn’t there more to it than a number or letter?
And what of the learner? Does she know more than I?
Something there is that doesn’t love a grade.
I could say fairies, but it’s not fairies exactly
And I’d rather it said it for itself. I see it there
Data dotting graphs.
It lives in darkness it seems to me
And not only of paper and spreadsheets.
It will not go behind tradition’s edict, and 
It likes having spoken it so long. 
It says again, “Good grades means good learning.”

I do not love a grade. I do not find–never have really found–that it captures the essence, the the truth of learning. So, I do different. I seek to get closer to the truth by enlisting, by empowering learners to speak their truth when grading time comes around. For, I believe no one knows the truth of learning better than the learner herself. So I ask her. And I listen. Today, I will listen as I engage in Learning Conferences with my kids through my select-and-support approach to grading.

Here’s the approach.

Final Grades

Final grades will be determined at the end of the semester in a conference between the teacher and student (see below). Here are the final-grade considerations going into the conferences.

  1. To earn credit for the course, students must have attempted all Performances.

  2. To select an A, B, or C grade, students must have demonstrated growth through response to feedback. Basically, if a student only produces the minimum score for all performances, they will not enter into a grading conference. The resulting grade will be a D.

  3. If a student has fulfilled the previous requirements, they will get to select an A, B, or C for a final grade following the process outlined below.

Students will compile evidence from their Performances over the course of the semester. At the end of the semester, students will present their grade selections and evidence (see below) during a conference with their teacher. The students will answer two central questions during the conference.

  1. What evidence do you have that you met the priority standards.

  2. What evidence do you have that you achieved growth with the priority standards?

At the conclusion of the conference, if the teacher feels that the provided evidence sufficiently supports the selected grade, he/she will consent to the grade. If the teacher feels that the selected grade and supporting evidence do not match up, then this will result in continuing the conference until consensus is achieved between the teacher and the student. Our hope is that this is a rare occurrence, for we expect that the process will lead to grades and evidence that clearly connect. Our goal of honoring student ownership remains, but we also have to honor the necessity of providing sufficient evidence for supporting a claim. At the end of the day, it’s really about arriving at a place where both the student and the teacher are comfortable with the outcome.


Our grading approach relies heavily upon evidence that students collect over the term to demonstrate proficiency and growth with the term’s focus standards. Students will maintain an “evidence portfolio” that houses all major assignments and assessments. These documents will be the necessary formal evidence for students to support their selection of grades. However, this is not the only form of evidence that students may use to support their selected grades.

Learning Conferences

Today, we will begin our learning conferences. To prepare, kids were given the three questions below. They will each conduct a 3–5 minute conversation about their learning experience this semester, and we will leave the conversation having arrived at an end, a grade, that we are both comfortable with. Is it the best approach to capturing learning? Probably not. For I believe there’s always a “next better” around the bend. Is it an approach that gets nearer the truth? I believe so. And I think my kids do, too.

Learning Conference Questions

Please consider and answer our Essential Question. How does the human experience connect and divide us? Please provide specific details from class (content and experiences) to support your answer.

What evidence of learning do you have from this semester? Please provide specific examples from your Performances, Journey Journals, and experiences.

What grade best represents your learning from this semester? Why?

Rejecting the Huxley Supposition: Using Technology in the Classroom for Real Transformative Learning

In a 1962 interview with Aldous Huxley, (author of Brave New World) he said that “Technological progress has merely provided us with more efficient means for going backwards.” Upon first glance, it almost seems laughably absurd; how could we possibly go backwards with the advances in technology that have helped our society with medical breakthroughs, space travel, and the internet? However, I was recently at an international education technology conference where the who’s-who of technology education vendors were there preaching from podiums about how transformative educational experiences can be enhanced with the latest spherical robot, 3D printer, programmable circuit board or kit of screw-together parts. The worst part was all of the wide-eyed educators and administrators who were just eating it up, all mesmerized by the message that using these tools are how kids should be learning in the 21st Century. It’s an easy sell, because 3D printers, robots and circuit boards certainly look like lots of fun.

In reality, being sold is the same model of rote memorization, do as the teacher does model, that was happening in the 1800’s. We just have fancy new gadgets to do it with; and this is where progress only looks like progress, similar to what Huxley said. It doesn’t have to be this way and there are many educators all over the globe who know this as well. We can use technology to really leverage learning instead of just using it as a chalkboard upgrade.

In the same year that Huxley said technology was taking us backwards, there was hope that technology could be used to transform and progress learning instead of sending us back to the dark ages. This inspiration came from Seymour Papert after studying for many years with Jean Piaget; Papert was developing models of education that used technology to enhance learning where children can use math and computers to construct knowledge models with out the need to for teachers to instruct with traditional methods. Papert said that Nothing could be more absurd than an experiment in which computers are placed in a classroom where nothing else is changed. Papert knew that real transformative learning required new models of teaching, where students had more control of learning, where failure was seen as a tool and where students needed to think critically about information instead of being told what to think.

As I look across classrooms all over the globe, I see more technology in the classroom, but I still see traditional teaching methods where students are just taught to obey. The students are having more fun and it looks like students are doing really innovative work, but alas, in reality it is just more of the same. To help educators overcome this rut, I have some advice and resources that can help guide your teaching practice towards more constructive and innovative ways of learning.

  1. Encourage students to be critical

Letting students have a voice plays an important role in establishing a culture of trust in the classroom, even if students are being critical about the current lesson and their interest in it. Though, another important form of criticism in my classroom is for students to think critically about the use of the technology that we are currently using and it’s impact on the future. To help aid these discussions, I engage with student in conversations about the 150 Copenhagen Principles in order to guide deeper understanding of how technology could have positive or negative effects on society.

An example of one of the 150 Copenhagen Principles

2. Design lessons that include room for failure

Failure in the education system is typically seen as negative and educators feel the need to stray from it all costs. It may sound counter-intuitive, but I plan opportunities for failure to present in every lesson. Failure usually looks like a problem that needs to be solved, but instead of giving students the answer, I give them time to try on their own. Students learn in these moments of failure that failure isn’t the end, but just the beginning to overcoming an obstacle. One way that I help students practice the art of overcoming failure is by having them fix things that are broken and I often point student towards de-bugging projects in Scratch.

3. Let students play

In every lesson that I design, I always provide time for unstructured play with peers and I find this to be the most effective at the beginning of the lesson and especially when introducing a new technology. Building on the works of Seymour Papert and the Reggio Emila approach, the LEGO Foundation has published many great resources about the power of play in education. I recommend checking out The Future of Play and Learning Through Play. Most educators cite that time for play simply does not exist in a rigorous learning schedule, and it is true that it may be difficult to design time for play, but give it a try and you may find that it is more valuable that any rigorous learning schedule can provide.

Mark Barnett is a Learning Experience Designer, working at The Harbour School in Hong Kong at the school’s makerspace and teaches through Project Based Learning that is focused on play, exploration, solving problems and social responsibility.

Lies on Their Shoulders

In the real world…


She had a panic attack.

He was up at 5:00 AM to do his chores, so he could get to zero-hour band.

She didn’t have breakfast.

He met six different deadlines in six different classes.

She didn’t do her homework because no one was at home to take care of her younger brothers and sisters.

He thought about suicide.

She didn’t tell someone about sexual assault.

He wore the same clothes he had the three days before.

She was bullied on social media.

He lost a wrestling match in front of everyone.

She was medicated. Her anxiety is crippling otherwise.

He binged on the food he had hidden in his room. And then hated himself for it.

She silently endured racism.

He didn’t “come out.”

He did drugs again. He doesn’t know how to stop.

They broke up. They didn’t know how to make it work.

No one talked to her. They never do.

His mom died.

…in the real world.

Whether we think it or say it, when we warn kids with the “real world,” it is an affront to their existence, to their humanity, to their reality. The kids, the humans above attend Anywhere High School in Everywhere, World. And whether it was yesterday, today, or tomorrow their world feels real enough. Ask them. They’ll tell you.

Nothing is more real than now. Yesterday’s gone. Tomorrow’s not here. All we have–young or old–is today. Now. Are there things we can bring to the attention of our young from our own experiences in the world? Of course. But the key here is that they are our experiences, not theirs. And even for us, each of us, that experience was different, so when we say “real world,” whose world, which world are we talking about? We often seem to suggest there is a standardized, formulaic experience that is the real world. Maybe instead of placing some future world on their shoulders, we should just simply help them with the one that lies on their shoulders right now. Otherwise, we might be placing lies on their shoulders.

We have an opportunity to exist with and support kids as they make their ways through their worlds, worlds that are the most real they can be, for they are now. That’s the “real talk” we should be having with them.

This post is also published on Monte’s blog at


What about people who don’t believe you?

I’ve rarely discussed progressive education without this question. Yet the assumption always is that students, parents, and educators reject these ideas. I don’t think this is the case. Instead, it is a lack of understanding.

At first glance, progressive-style classrooms appear like teachers don’t care. Instead of a “well-behaved”, quiet room, students are conversing, moving around, (sometimes) quite messy, and likely taking many breaks. Without the backing of pedagogy, this would be a classic example of “bad teaching.”

This reminds me of a conversation I had with Dr. Susan Engel, a child development psychologist. While teaching an ed. class, she had her student teachers observe “engagement” across multiple rooms in a school. To her amusement — and possibly horror — the student teachers noted engagement as “sitting up straight”, “paying attention”, or “raising their hand to speak.” Conversely, disengagement was “moving around”, “talking to friends”, or “using a cell phone.” Engel reminded her students: you’re not measuring engagement, you’re measuring compliance. What about a student bunkering down on one of their passions? What about students learning for the sake of learning? What about passionate group debates?

But to all stakeholders, this requires knowledge of what we’re trying to do.

A student may believe that the teacher doesn’t care: “The teacher isn’t forcing me to behave, so they must not care about my education.” To a teacher’s horror — this will cause their disengaged students to withdraw further. Then, they’ll double down on the old ways. After all, it “worked.” There’s no risk, it looks like “good teaching.”

We must take a step further. A child needs assurance that the teacher is there for them. They need deprogrammed from the compliance-based system. This takes a lot of one-on-one discussion — but an educator must relay to students why they’re teaching this way. Constantly. “I’m not forcing you to do anything because I don’t believe in it. I want you to desire coming to school, to discover your interests, to showcase the world around you, and we’ll explore them together.”

In the same vein, parents want what’s best for their children. If on a teacher’s syllabus they read, “There are no grades.”, alarm bells may sound. “They’re not going to get my kid into college!” Again, the assumption is that the teacher isn’t doing their job properly. (A “bad teacher” at first glance may have similar ideas of a lack of authoritarianism. The difference, of course, is a progressive educator works with their students and is pushing them to succeed—they’re available, not just sitting there.)

It isn’t the parents’ fault to think this way. Most teachers don’t discover this line of thought until reflecting on their practice, so it would be ridiculous to assume that everyone else should automatically see what we mean. Instead, educators must offer assurance. Alfie Kohn opens his conferences by asking parents, “What do you hope life is like for your child in 20 years?” Responses range from “happy” to “married” to “content.” This is in stark contrast, Kohn explains, to how we focus on success in school: GPA, class rank, number of extracurriculars, AP coursework.

Therefore, teachers should open communication with families. Personally, I send home a lengthy letter explaining all the practices of my classroom, actively encourage contact, and invite families to attend. I reach out and invite questions. In addition, our “parent-teacher conferences” aren’t the traditional “Your child is doing something wrong, and that’s a reflection of you.” narrative. Instead, they’re early-on conferences that essentially explain exactly what Kohn is — “I’m doing this because I care. Let me know how else I can help.”

Changing how school works requires informing well beyond our classroom.

Changing how school works requires informing well beyond our classroom.

Finally, there are other educators. Rarely have I encountered a student or parent who isn’t convinced to this shift, however, there are certainly teachers rooted in traditional or “knowledge-backed” practice. For those who have doubled down this way, there’s not much advice I can give — it’s very difficult to change someone’s entire view. But anecdotally, the majority of educators have no idea what progressive education even is. They were never exposed to any books on the matter. They need space, time, and encouragement by administrators and peers to develop their pedagogy. In the same way as parents and students, they need assurance that this way isn’t “bad teaching.”

It’s more difficult for us — because we were brought up in environments that have framed a classroom in a very particular way. To reach beyond that doesn’t always feel right. I’ve questioned, plenty of times, whether what I’m doing is right — especially when a handful of students do close to nothing I ask of them. That being said, a quick reflection will note that similar situations happen in all classrooms — students just “appear” to be compliant. (And at the end of the day, if even one or two more students become motivated learners in my room, it’s a giant, impactful victory.)

Assurance is our first step to bringing others into the fold. Progressive education can’t and shouldn’t happen in a bubble. Luckily, we tend to develop quick alliances after we explain. (If you’d like a starting point, grab one of our free “Why Sheets” for parents/students on our website.)