Tuesday, April 21, 2015

What are we teaching and why: #educolor and literary choices

At long last, I've been looking through notes from #EduCon 2015 in January, and recently on a session facilitated by Jose Vilson and Rafranz Davis (filling in for Audrey Watters) called The Privileged Voices in Education. The discussion turned in that session toward something I've been discussing in schools for some time...

If you look over a standard high school literary curriculum you'll find...

  • Romeo and Juliet
  • Macbeth
  • Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
  • Of Mice and Men
  • Julius Ceasar
  • To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Lord of the Flies
  • The Scarlet Letter
  • Hamlet
  • The Great Gatsby

One thing stands out... they are great books.

Two more things do too... they are authored by white (1) men (2).

As I researched this more around the web it's been written about a lot and discussed a lot. Many have posted variances of that list.

What I'm not finding though are a lot of schools that have shifted from this predominately white centric literary practice.

Don't get me wrong, they are great books. But... what if we helped many more students identify with a wider, more diverse array of authors as part of required courses and not electives?

What if we...

  • Required a few less of these 'traditional' readings
  • Required more ethnic and gender diversity
  • Encouraged more teacher and student choice by 'what resonates'

and we asked for...

  • more reading and reflective discussions on topics of social justice?

Here are a few examples I've seen some schools require as I've looked about:

  • Not Without Laughter, Langston Hughes
  • Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, Langston Hughes
  • Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
  • House of Spirits, Isabella Allende
  • Chronicle of Death Foretold, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • The Famished Road, Ben Okri
  • America is in the Heart, Carlos Bulosan
  • The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison
  • If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, Italo Calvino
  • Makes me Wanna Holler, Nathan McCall
  • For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf, Notzake Shange
  • Assata, Assata Shakur
  • Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I'd love to hear recommendations for others to include in this list.

I've had many discussions on this over the years. Some say that more diversity should be introduced into 'the classics.' Some others say that classics should stay as is and another course should be required introducing more diversity.

I feel like the latter is, once again, an add.

There's got to be a better balance.

Traditions often get in the way of need.

from The Transition Network, Washington, DC

My upbringing consisted of mostly white, male authors. I did learn some great lessons there with the encouragement of some very good teachers. Star Trek, the original show, was the first shift to introduce any diversity discussions into my life. From there I challenged myself to step outside that mostly white, and male writer genre was I able to see the world in far broader terms.

It's time for more discussions in education on white privilege, racism, hate, oppression, and gender equity and the call toward social justice.

So... is your school having discussions on this topic? Are you / is your school rethinking the time we spend on traditional 'classics?'' How is your school promoting more discussions on diversity, social justice in literacy? 

What if more schools truly made greater strides to promote diversity... beyond Martin Luther King Day, and 'Black History Month?' What if promoting social justice was a core value in schools?

It's tough for some schools and teachers to take this on. Its uncomfortable. It requires discussions that are open, honest, challenging... and ongoing. And that's just what we need.

If you have references for places / people who've changed this practice, please do send them my way. Add a comment to this post or send me an email. I'd love to speak with them.


Previous posts on this topic 'What Are We Teaching and Why?

7. #educolor and literary choices
6. Positive ripples of student choice
5. Common roadblocks
4. Student pursuing their interests
3. The Other Math
2. Rethinking Math Requirements
1. AP Classes

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

What are we teaching and why? The positive and challenging impact of student topic choice programs

Student choice programs can be disruptive to traditional education structures and mindsets. Personally, I've always seen that as a good thing if such things are done thoughtfully.

Having started and mentored a program where students choose their own topics to study, I've learned a thing or two. In 9 years we covered over 1000 projects and made connections with professionals around the globe.

Opening Multidisciplinary Doors

The simple rubric above was developed as an entry point with students to begin and develop interdisciplinary ideas. Students drafted each stage of the rubric and kept revising through the entire process their own evaluation criteria on what they perceived as beginning through expert work. It's simple but it proved very successful over the years.

Many teachers from different disciplines started to stop in the Lab to help students or made themselves available to Lab students by appointment. Many of those teachers started to have conversations with me about introducing more student choice into their own courses.

Many discussions started brewing about how multidisciplinary courses could be scheduled. As usual, time and conventional schedules proved to be the biggest obstacle.

Expanding Thee 'Course of Studies' 

When the Lab started quite a few students chose to pursue extensions of existing 'tech centric' courses and 'tech' themes. i.e. Digital Photography II, Advanced Digital Design, Architecture II, etc.

Things got interesting when students wanted to pursue course extensions in other departments. The school didn't offer an AP French program and a student came to the Lab with aspirations to conquer this AP course, self paced, with outside mentors. With some reservation, the school administration approved the project. The French department assisted in mentoring, and we hooked the student up with online resources, a local french speaking mentor and two abroad. All said and done the student aced the AP French exam in one semester.

Then things got interesting.

Three more students requested the opportunity to take AP French in the Lab. A few others came forward and wanted to take existing courses in language, and mathematics courses at a self-directed, faster pace. The school administration intervened. Students would not be allowed to take existing courses in self paced fashion in the Lab. Additionally, the interest in AP French spurred the French department to create a new AP French course offering. Students could no longer take AP French in the Lab.

While progress was made... traditional structures and battles over territory did as well.

Of course, some students would choose conventional courses... but what about students who would like other options? Should students be denied such opportunities?

"Student inquiry into the educational process"

To create some scaffolding into project based learning I asked students to work collaboratively on three projects: How has technology impacted the news, healthcare, and education... the latter we called 'Education Revisited.'

The work in the education project often stirred up the most intense debates. We started out the project by asking students what their strengths and weaknesses as learners were and devised strategies to improve. We dove into cognitive learning theories, and then on to school structures. Many students saw immediately that how they learned best might not always fit in with traditional school structures, and the strengths and weaknesses technology brings to the table. From there, students examined current practices in their school compared to innovative schools around the globe. Putting all the pieces of that puzzle together helped a lot of students take deeper strides into their learning motivations - or lack thereof, and buying into their own pursuits.

It was challenging to existing systems and practices at the school, especially ones that the majority of folks felt didn't make sense or had lobbied to change for extended periods of time. That's a good thing, a healthy thing. Inviting student inquiry into the educational process is important. Why do systems work as they do? Have these systems or practices been evaluated from the student perspective?

As a result of this 'Education Revisited' work, students often made proposals to improve systems and options within the school.

The Student for a Day Project 

BBA Student for a Day Project from Adam Provost on Vimeo.

The Student for a Day Project was one of our most successful and certainly the highest profile group projects in the Lab. When we were discussing 'the school schedule' and how it impacted families one student simply asked, I wish teachers could see this schedule from our perspective. "Great idea," I said. "How can we do that?"

Through class discussions we decided to invite teachers to become students for a day. We'd do pre- production interviews, run time during the event, and post production interviews... with the story told through the participants words. Students in the Lab chose teachers, setup schedules, gathered materials, and arranged all the shooting and editing work.

It proved to be great PD for all involved, students and adults alike. Many teachers came forward and asked to participate when we did the project again. Many discussions started on school start time, class duration, transition times, lunch time allocation, and workflow.

We've passed the full production notes on to many schools. If you'r interested in discussing the project just let me know.


Opening the door to student topic choice and inquiry into the 'educational process' will create ripples. It will challenge traditional school structures.

What would your response / will your response be to some of these challenges? How many traditional hurdles will you clear? How many will you continue to stumble over or just ignore for more 'business as usual?'

Posts on this topic 'What Are We Teaching and Why?


Previous posts on this topic 'What Are We Teaching and Why?

7. #educolor and literary choices
6. Positive ripples of student choice
5. Common roadblocks
4. Student pursuing their interests
3. The Other Math
2. Rethinking Math Requirements
1. AP Classes

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

What are we Teaching and Why? Student Topic choice programs: Common roadblocks

Why don't more schools offer student topic choice via courses or capstone programs?

Here are the most common roadblocks I've run into thus far.

School Size is Often a Factor

Many smaller schools that struggled to provide diverse course offerings went student choice courses / capstone routes long ago. Far less mid sized to larger schools have created personal choice threads for students.

Shifting programs in larger schools often creates many other ripples. Room scheduling, personnel shifts, etc. Unfortunately many larger schools stop there rather than seeing the changes through.

Union Labor Issues

'Union and labor issues' came up as a significant roadblock in some school struggling to create capstone programs. Their common questions they were debating were:

  • What discipline are these teachers teaching? 
  • What certification do they have?
  • Are they teaching something outside their certification?
  • How many students will they be supervising as part of the contract? 

Compartmentalized departments, carnegie units, student to teacher ratio have all been rethought by so many schools running successful capstone programs.

If union issues are the most significant roadblock, please go see a school with a robust course based / capstone program and their organizational structure to make it work. I can help you make contacts.

Finding Someone Willing to Mentor (Almost) Everything

Finding a teacher to 'teach anything' can be daunting. Don't think 'teaching a subject.' Think mentoring interests.

What skills do some of the best capstone mentors I've seen have? Here are a few:

  • diverse tech skill helps, no doubt
  • ability to develop / mentor personalized learning plans... in most any subject area
  • pedagogical development understanding / skill
  • mentoring skill
  • communication skill
  • writing skill and writing mentorship skill
  • good sense of humor
  • a growth plan

In 8 years in the open lab where I taught offering student topic choice I learned... a lot. I was determined to offer student choice... and to never let my inexperience in a given subject limit anyone. Learning along with students taking on projects for the first time was key, and endlessly interesting.

I mentored over 1000 projects... and a ton of experience mentoring students with all different goals and at different stages of learning. Each project I mentored in solar energy provided me with more and more resources to pass on. But... I wasn't the only one who passed on ideas and materials.

Students Build Off Work of Their Peers

In the topic choice courses I mentored students contributed their work to an archive for future students to build upon. Each student could choose if they wanted to publish to a worldwide audience, but publishing in the class archive was not optional.

Growth was often exponential. I absolutely loved this element in the Lab.

Connect Students with Professionals

We too often limit students to only studying what we have expertise for 'in house' or what's in the 'course of studies.' Imagine...

"No, you can't study solar energy until we have an expert on site."

Yup. Sounds crazy to me too. Especially when they can connect with experts outside school.

Connect students with experts! Break down the school as a citadel model.

Marvin Minsky, professor emeritus from MIT explains eloquently...

"Never worry about solving a problem. Just find the right person."

Promote students to connect with mentors in the real world in their field of interest. Promote collaboration outside school walls. There's a long list of benefits. Create some scaffolding to facilitate this or borrow from many schools that have already have it.

Wait, How Will this Appear on a Transcript?

I visited a three schools who said they didn't promote student choice or capstone programs because they couldn't settle on how it would appear on a transcript.

A lot of schools struggle with crafting course titles for college admissions. Here's are a couple  suggestions I've seen that work well:

Title the course well on a transcript:
Tech Research: PROJECT TITLE
ie. Tech Research: Independent Study, Solar Energy

If you're School Management System has character limits related to course titles, here's what colleges I interviewed (27) labeled unanimously as most effective:

Capstone: Solar Energy

Making the Choice: Course/s or Capstone?

I've advised some schools who proclaim they are on the fence to start with topic choice based courses that allow students to pursue personal choice. Offering the course multiple times per day is best... it will make it available to more students and you'll really be able to gauge interests.

The rLab model I developed and worked in featured 2 semester classes and two year long classes that met every other day all year.

Why choose one model or the other? Why not do both? Create a course based model as a pre-requisite to an advanced capstone program? I always felt the student choice lab I started could / would / should lead to a robust capstone program.

How valuable would this two phase approach be... compared to some of the requirements we have in place?

Valuable. Very valuable. Challenging. Rewarding. And the students in the program will constantly try to help it evolve.

Next up... some challenges you'll see in offering student topic choice.


Previous posts on this topic 'What Are We Teaching and Why?

7. #educolor and literary choices
6. Positive ripples of student choice
5. Common roadblocks
4. Student pursuing their interests
3. The Other Math
2. Rethinking Math Requirements
1. AP Classes

Thursday, March 26, 2015

What are we teaching, and why? Students pursuing their interests

Why don't more schools offer students the opportunity to pursue their own interests?

A simple and sensible question...

What if 'the course of studies doesn't have what a student is looking for?

If we don't offer students to pursue their ideas... it does seem like were asking students to mispredict their future.

It's certainly cheaper to promote this kind of exploration in high school instead of asking students to pursue different career paths / switch majors in college.

Here's a list of the topics that students chose to pursue in the rLab where I used to teach.

If you glanced at it... there's no way you could cover those interests in a typical course of studies.

What do these programs look like in schools?

Two Most Common Models
Visual of student topic choice in one semester, 2010 rLab.
T Left to right: PhotoShop and GIMP lighting effects, batter powered
cars,marine biology, C++ programming, Online Education comparisons,
adaptive camouflage, tattoo technology, MIDI and music scoring /
transposition, swimming tech and training, road cycling tech
and pricing, iOS and mobile technology, Facebook addiction,
the future of travel,PhotoShop customizations and workflow

1. Course based

Create a course where students choose their own topic / interest to pursue.

Course based works best if it's offered multiple times per day... but even once per day is a start.

I spent 9 years developing this model where I used to teach. The freedom to choose immediately put pressure on existing curriculum offerings and conventional constructs of 'time in schools.' We typically think of school in semester and year long blocks. I chose a model where a student could explore a topic for a minimum of three weeks before moving on to another. Many showed full semester mastery in far less time.

Mentorship and facilitation was key. I couldn't be an expert in everything students would cover... but you don't need to be with the right scaffolding. Inquiry, Research, Collaboration, Presentation, and Reflection were all important elements to develop with students. Students developed their own rubrics (with me) to help identify successful traits. We got pretty good at it.

On many occasions, students delivered to me by guidance as 'the last resort' found footing. They often desperately needed to find some spark in 'school.' Once they were 'given permission' to pursue their interests, introducing other interdisciplinary elements became easy and the students were willing to pursue them instead of the usual... threatened by grades, punished by detentions, etc.

2. Capstone Program

Require students to demonstrate learning on a personal choice for graduation.

Same deal as above... connect with community consultants, demonstrate interdisciplinary learning, etc.

Many schools go this route. This changes the 'senior experience' significantly.

Some struggles of the capstone model?


Is the capstone an 'add' to all the other student curricular and extra-curricular work? If so, it can be troubling and limiting for students, especially those with family / work demands.

The best capstone projects I've found are integrated into the day via 1/2 and sometimes full day release for seniors. The demands increase, and the work becomes significantly more thoughtful as participants have time to pursue goals, get help, meet with advisors, etc.

Two Essentials for Choice Courses or Capstones That Pay Immense Dividends

1. Community consultant connections

Community consultants helped students with heavy lifting often. They pointed out directions, and hared experiences readily. We actually never had a bad experience with this in the Lab in 9 years.

Each student was required to connect with an professional mentor in their field of study. We made over 1000 connections across the globe.

2. Insight Into 'Their Education'

Many of the best students at 'school' struggled mightily in the Lab at first. They were used to following scripts, decoding textbooks, doing exactly what they were told as long as it was delivered in a scripted format. As you might expect, many students who struggled in traditional school flourished once personal topic choice was introduced into the equation. And their were many in between both spectrums. All of them though, searching to find interests and meaning.

Learning how to learn, and identifying your strengths and weaknesses within should / could be part of every good course based or capstone program.

The stories from the lab students tell me, and how it impacted their high school experience, college experience, work experience and lives has been truly humbling to hear over all thee years.

Schools that Run Both... Student Topic Choice Courses and Capstone Program?

I don't know of any at this time. But...

I often felt the course based model I was started and developed should be the precursor to a robust capstone program. Sadly, it never came to fruition. I'm anxious to work with a school on developing this model though.

Topic choice courses that lead to a full capstone...

Interdisciplinary mentors within the school...

Community Consultant requirements for your project... connect with professionals...

Capstones could get more and more robust and meaningful.

Capstone could be archived year to year... and students could develop their online personal / professional website...

I digress... ; )

It's All Out There...

Many schools have gone this route already and have tons of experience and they can help. I'd encourage you, if you haven't to start a program at your school if it doesn't exist.

And if it does... bring in some outside eyes and figure the student experience and interdisciplinary opportunities even more meaningful.

If you don't... you're missing a great opportunity to pursue 'learning' that's not scripted. Learning that' messy, challenging, interdisciplinary, and very personally rewarding. We're missing the chance to connect students with professionals around the world.

There are always ways to make programs better.

What's holding so many schools back from offering students time to pursue their interests?

I'll toss some of those up tomorrow.


Previous posts on this topic 'What Are We Teaching and Why?

7. #educolor and literary choices6. Positive ripples of student choice
5. Common roadblocks
4. Student pursuing their interests
3. The Other Math
2. Rethinking Math Requirements
1. AP Classes

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

What are we teaching and why? 'The other math'

What if we made some of those upper level math classes electives… and focused on something else?

What threads have the most value?

In travels around the globe to take a look at this (and many other things), here's what I discovered.

Statistics (and probability)

Statistical analysis… the ability to collect and synthesize data is already an important skill today. Imagine it's value say… 10 years from now. 20?

As requirements go, is 'Calculus' or 'Algebra' more valuable than skills from a 'Statistics' class? Some schools think so. Some even shifted requirements toward two statistics classes for each graduate.

Is Calculus more beneficial to a physician than a statistics course? I haven't met one yet who said yes. 22 and counting ; )

Paraphrased from Arthur Benjamin from Harvey Mudd College:

Risk, reward, randomness, understanding data. Mathematics of games, gambling, analyzing trends, predicting the future.  
Understand what two standard deviations from the mean, means...

Some would argue that teaching statistics requires certain Calculus applications. Ok... that depends on how you teach it. The difference there too is… that Calculus is 'integrated' into something.

Programming as a standalone, it's integration into Maker, and Robotics

Is there a beneficial form of logic reasoning that programming brings to the table that a traditional math curriculum does not?

Personally, I'd say yes. That's a lengthy topic to break apart here though.

What if:

We taught programming and integrated it into Making and robotics in, say, grades 3-12? Then what if we offered programming also as a standalone too?

What if we expanded these types of programs in many high schools with the resolve that we give to teach Algebra II, Pre-Calculus, and Calculus?

How about the value in teaching kids to write simple code to solve problems? Results may vary, but it's a cool option to have in the pocket when you need it.

Interesting debate.

Or better put, are you discussing this at your district / school? Why not?

CS Classes?

Arkansas announced recently that CS classes must be offered in their schools. Students taking the CS courses are also eligible for 'math' credit.

It's an interesting move... requiring it. But I do like the idea that these programs should be available to students who have interest.

Many students I've spoken with, officially 47 out of 50 to date, would prefer to have CS classes available in place of extended math requirements.

Web development skill and Digital Art

I see a large number of kids graduating with little to no web development skill. Many kids get a little Google Sites experience, perhaps a run with a basic blog or two, some video editing, different kinds of presentation software, and some social media exposure. Mostly though, social media is discussed in terms of 'basic digital citizenship' and then restricted.

Challenging and creative web development often is usually and sadly reserved to one elective class… or not at all.

Personal web site development I'm thinking more of here, not just another class blog where kids make a few contributions. Your site, your portfolio, your developing thoughts.

Vermont has something on the horizon called Act 77 legislation that will require every student to have a Personalized Learning Plan. With that comes the possibility of each student having a building their portfolio, their plan... and building some development and creative skill to bring that to fruition.

Why is web development (and digital art) skill important? I think it:

  • gives students a powerful canvas to develop their written and artistic voice
  • helps develop voice for a larger audience
  • emphasizes synthesis and reflection
  • builds skills in self and business marketing
  • builds digital problem solving and mashing (apps services, aggregation, social media, etc)
  • expands creative design palate, digital citizenship, technical troubleshooting, problem solving, and collaboration. Just a few that came to mind.

Manage your dough

Financial Literacy?

It's difficult to argue that 'managing money well' isn't an important skill.

Financial literacy… say Senior year, when it's becoming relevant? Yup, I'd say that's important. How about:

  • How credit ratings work
  • Credit cards and interest
  • Student loans
  • Business loans
  • Car loans (the good, bad, and ugly time to take these on)

Required practice? Just a few schools I've seen require a 'financial literacy' proficiency for graduation.

Computer Based Math: De-emphasize 'Hand Based Calculation'

from computerbasedmath.org

Why do we emphasize the act of 'calculation' so much in math curriculums?

By hand, on paper...

What if we emphasized less 'calculation' and more problem solving, especially with computers?

What we're talking about in many aspects here is a shift to / inclusion of 'computer based math.'

Statistics, simulation, data, programming...

I've thought many times about how reclaiming some of those hours dedicated than based calculation might do.

That shift will take some PD time for teachers. We've been emphasizing hand based calculation for... a long, long time.

Many schools have computers. Many schools have 1-1 computing, one device per child. Shouldn't we be investing a lot more time into using these devices in a math curriculum?


It's a debate that is uncomfortable for math teachers certainly. I get that. I'm certainly not saying math is not important. I am saying though, what math requirements are cast upon students in the main can and should be revisited.

Off to work for the day... ; )

More ideas 'what we teach and why' coming in posts here on this blog.


Previous posts on this topic 'What Are We Teaching and Why?

7. #educolor and literary choices
6. Positive ripples of student choice
5. Common roadblocks
4. Student pursuing their interests
3. The Other Math
2. Rethinking Math Requirements
1. AP Classes

Monday, March 16, 2015

What are we teaching and why? Next up: Math requirements

Calculus Derivaties… Ode to Joy? Not for many.

Math in high school…

How many students do algebra II, pre-calculus, calculus actually benefit?

It's a debate that's gone on for years.

That's my point I guess. I remember this debate at a school board meeting I attended as a student in 1986.

How many math requirements should a student 'actually' have?

One high school I visited had a peculiar approach to 'required math' and also on how they approached 'electives.'

The school required students to take a "mandatory elective in each core discipline each year." I had to read it twice too when I saw the explanation of...

"Mandatory elective." Hmm.

At this school you had to take a 'math class' your senior year, regardless of how far you'd gone in the curriculum path, or what post secondary or career plans you had.

The reason for this "mandatory elective?" I was told it was… "Tradition, I guess. It's what we've always done. Our math scores are always very high."


Kirk: "If we play our cards right we may be able to find out
when those whales are being released."

Spock: "How will playing cards help?"

Star Trek IV, The Voyage Home
Many math teachers and administrators I've spoken to about 'math requirements' cite 'process thinking, discipline, and rigor' as reasons its good for students to take multiple years of math after Algebra I.

So I ask folks who take that route… what if we taught classes in, say, scrabble, chess, or card playing to accomplish the same goals? Many shrug their shoulders and / or their eyebrows and say that those would have a lot of value.

The only reason I can find that most agree upon why we require so many math classes?

Attend a 'college prep night' in most any high school and you'll hear it… an emphasis on Pre-Calculus, Calculus, and even AP Calculus are emphasized for "top schools." And "if you can go further, take a college level math class too."

"Calculus is the introductory math course at MIT. Freshmen arriving for their first year are expected to have already taken calculus. Highlights for High School offers many calculus resources, listed below, as well as some additional math courses appropriate for high school students."MIT Highlight for High School

Of course, some colleges and universities require advanced mathematics for different majors. Understood and logical. Well, in most cases it's logical. I have yet to meet a physician (MD) who claims calculus was a game changer.

So, if I'm a, let's say, 'Literature' or 'Philosophy' major at MIT… Calculus is required. It's MIT though… we can cut them some slack. There are a lot of other places in the world to go to college that don't require Calculus for this majors.

Back to that question for so many other students… how much math should be required?

I decided to take a small survey to see what students thought about taking 'Calculus.'

I visited four high schools that taught Calculus and asked 25 students in each school (100 total): Why did you take Calculus?

It will look good on a college application: 100
It was the only math class left in the curriculum I could take: 61

Digging a bit deeper from the student perspective, here's where the numbers drop off a bit:

I do / thought I would like Calculus / the challenge of Calculus: 5
I wanted the challenge: 4
I might need calculus for a potential job: 5
I'm sure I will need Calculus for a potential job: 2

Of the 5 who said they might need Calculus:

  • 2 were headed toward potential engineering majors
  • one toward a CS degree program that required Calculus
  • two more toward 'math' majors

I asked one more question…

If Calculus wasn't favored in college admission would you take it?

  • 91 out of 100 said "no."

When I asked why they might have said yes… the same five spoke up about future goals. The others 4? They cited 'teacher' and 'friends' as reasons they took the class.

Like AP classes we spoke about earlier, there are advantages to taking classes with great teachers, and / or with groups of friends. Shared experience, taking a journey with peers. I still wonder if AP and upper levels of math could be 'the right' classes for students.

Of course, numbers may vary at your schools, but I wonder by how much? Feel free to let me know.

"Wait… great teachers inspire new paths!"

I have yet to meet a student who said... "You know, I loved Calculus so much that I decided to become a…(insert profession)."

I'm not saying math isn't important of course. Just asking why is there 'really' so much emphasis on it for so high school students?

What if we really did require less math? What might students take? What, if anything, might prove more beneficial?

I'm thinking about time here. Replacing old requirements in favor of new ones instead of 'adding more.'

We'll unpack some ideas on what those other requirements might be in the next post.


Previous posts on this topic 'What Are We Teaching and Why?

7. #educolor and literary choices
6. Positive ripples of student choice
5. Common roadblocks
4. Student pursuing their interests
3. The Other Math
2. Rethinking Math Requirements
1. AP Classes

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

What are we teaching… and why? 1st up, AP classes

I decided to take a break, have lunch and read a few articles while I ate. From the NY Times feed I read the article called 'After the Jobs Dry Up, What Then?'

So much for a 15 minute respite from deep thinking.

It cast me back to one nagging question...

Is what we're offering preparing students for the times ahead?

This is hopefully a hot topic in every school.

I've spoken and written often about how some program and schedule structure changes can open up innovation in schools, most recently for EduCon in Philly.

How about some of the other routines we hang onto in secondary ed?

We know that pre-requisites for college entrance drives much practice in secondary schools.

Let's unpack a few that I routinely question...

Advanced Placement (AP)

Like many others, I've often wondered what the relevance of AP classes are to a kids future. Relevance beyond many college and university entrance requirements of 'proving yourself worthy to the challenge of rigor of post secondary education,' I mean.

That 'proving yourself worthy of rigor' factor is pretty subjective. Here's one take from Denise Pope, Senior Lecturer and Researcher of the effectiveness of AP classes at Stanford University from an article called 'Are AP Courses Worth the Effort":

"To the claim that they help students in college, it is true that students who take AP courses are more likely to succeed in college. But when you look deeper into the research, it's really hard to establish causation. It could just be that kids who take APs are kids who come from better high schools or high schools that better prepare them for college work, or they have better teachers or they're naturally more motivated. Very few studies use methods where they take these factors into account."

Many, many, many progressive and schools have dropped 'AP.' More are following. Some more traditional schools are just starting to as well.


I've debated with many who say the value of AP classes is the intense memorization involved, the rigor, and pressure. More form Denise Pope:

"Frankly, many high-achieving high school students are really stressed out. They have a lot to do between extracurricular activities and homework and also trying to get the sleep they need. They need to be prepared for what an AP course involves. The extra tests, extra homework, on top of an already demanding schedule, can be brutal. And a very low grade on your transcript from an AP course may hurt you more in the long run than not taking an AP in that subject at all."

I keep seeing that there's far too much emphasis put on AP courses and for questionable reasons. I do see that these courses often add to stress, fatigue, and is in many cases restricts kids from being involved in other sports, community service… and that friendship / family thing.

One AP class may be worthwhile with the right conditions.. which I'll talk about below. Two AP classes… you're setting yourself up for some pain. Many students, who feel that need to take these courses to prove to colleges that they are worthy take more than two AP classes.

I interviewed one student who graduated about their intense AP experience, taking three AP classes their senior year to "look good for college admissions."

"I took three AP classes. I knew that was a lot. I was stressed all the time and buried in work. I lost a lot time with family and friends I wished I could have back. I wish now I never did it. After all that work I was burned out and not ready to head off to college. I decided to take a full year off."

I've studied this at length over the years and interviewed many... AP teachers, folks who don't teach AP, parents, students, and college folks from admissions on through faculty to researchers. The only consensus I can find from those folks I've spoken to are "AP classes can have the most value if…"

  • the student has the right teacher
  • if the material is relevant to an interest they'll pursue later on
  • they are with friend or friends they can form meaningful, collaborative study groups

"they can teach discipline and time management."

Ok, I can live with that. That could beneficial with those conditions. But here's why I still struggle with that 'why' question: 

'Rigor' in an AP class is centered around scripted and fast-paced curriculums centered around memorization / retention and focused toward performance on a high stakes test.


What if a student directed all those AP hours into an exploration of potential careers? Capstone programs? Perhaps gaining many more hours of expertise in an interest they already have?

So, why are AP classes running at your school?

Parent pressure?

College pressure?

Always have been so we'll just continue?


Is it time to assess 'why' those classes are being emphasized?

Ok, lunch is over. Time to head off to other appointments.

I'll post more thoughts on other system questions over the next few days.


Previous posts on this topic 'What Are We Teaching and Why?

7. #educolor and literary choices
6. Positive ripples of student choice
5. Common roadblocks
4. Student pursuing their interests
3. The Other Math
2. Rethinking Math Requirements
1. AP Classes