I use evidence to inform my teaching.

Chris McNutt
March 12, 2019
There’s hundreds, perhaps thousands, of articles promoting progressive education. Research among child development psychologists overwhelming favors student choice and voice and experiential learning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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  2. Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing our kids for the innovation era. Wagner, T., & Dintersmith, T. 2015. Page 41 (Lawrenceville School).
  3. Are American Kids Happy at School? New data tells a surprising story. Strauss, Valerie. Washington Post. 2018.
  4. Spotlight on School Safety. YouthTruth. n.d.
  5. Suicide Statistics. American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. 2017.
  6. “From 2005 to 2015, depression rose significantly among Americans age 12 and older with the most rapid increases seen in young people.” Depression is On the Rise in the U.S., Especially Among Young Teens. Columbia University. 2017.
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  14. This data is taken from the Australian NAPLAN test, but shares striking similarities with any testing in the United States or Canada. The Experience of Education: The impacts of high stakes testing on school students and their families. Wyn, Johanna. Turnbull, Malcolm. Grimshaw, Lyndall. Whitlam Institute. 2014.
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Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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