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, 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.

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?

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'


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?

Off to work for the day... ; )

More ideas 'what we teach and why' coming up shortly.

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.

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.

Friday, March 6, 2015

#dancingman: Standing up to bullying

If you haven't followed the #dancingman story on Twitter recently... you're missing something special and very heartfelt.

@CassandraRules on Twitter discovered this picture below on the web web of a fellow dancing, who then stopped when he discovered some people laughing at him. The person who picked on him felt the need to post before and after photos of the fellow, clearly effected by their bullying.

From there, @CassandraRules started an internet social media hurricane to not only find this fellow, but to create a dance party in his honor in LA. 

#finddancingman !

Followed by a post with more detail announcing the intent of the party:

An an invitation with even more detail:

And with the power of social media in about 12 hours...

From there Cassandra made contact with this fellow in Kiev and the party planning kicked into high gear.

Someone started a donation fund online at in his honor to get him to the party and to provide funding. It's growing exponentially...

Shortly thereafter, more and more people took notice, including singer Pharrell Williams...

and Moby...

It's great to see people stand up to bullying, body shaming, and cruelty. 

My gratitude goes out to @CassandraRules for standing up to bullying, for taking action, and turning this into something great. To all the folks who have contributed... keep it going. Keep spreading the word.

Reminds me of that Men Without Hats Song...

"We can dance if we want to 
We can leave your friends behind 
Cause your friends don't dance and if they don't dance 
Well they're, no friends of mine"

Who knows, maybe Men Without Hats will join Pharrell and all these other folks at the party ; )

It's a great story to keep using social media for good, and to stand up to bullying.

Talk about it with kids...

and we'll all be better for it.

note: When I started writing this today the fundraising started at around $4000. By the time I finished... it's over $8200 ; )


Friday, February 27, 2015

To Boldly Go… RIP Leonard Nimoy

My sincere condolences to the family and friends of Leonard Nimoy on his recent passing… and to the many 'Trekkies' out and about as well.

As a 'trekkie,' Nimoy's passing makes for an especially sad, reflective day. It still does feel weird when an icon from your childhood passes away. 

Star Trek had a huge influence on me in my childhood, opening doors to me about issues of the times and debates in a much larger world. To name just a few...
  • The first truly interracial cast
  • The first interracial kiss on prime time television
  • Women in expanded roles 'the military'
  • A Russian and Japanese character in protagonist roles instead of the usual antagonist roles of the time
  • A show that routinely cast questions on the existence of God, other dimensions, and realities.
With any little bit of research it's also easy to see how the show had a huge impact on technology in our time.

And Nimoy as Mr. Spock… 

Pointy ears, grim visage… a study in the struggles between logic, duty, humanity, love and passion… and all the banter between Spock, McCoy, and Kirk and the endearing friendship too. The show was constantly filled with hope for humanity.

It truly did take a sense of adventure to boldly go into that role as Spock as an actor, especially back then. So did sticking with the role amidst some scathing criticism and then turn it into such an endearing character.

One moment in particular, the story back then of Nimoy going to producers and demanding equal pay for co-star Nichelle Nichols as her male counterparts was also an eye opening moment for this then young boy.

An excerpt from a Walt Mossberg tweet it summed it up so well a few minutes ago...

"For me and many others, both Nimoy and Spock were inspirations."

That does sum it up well for me as I sit here.

Nimoy's last tweet does too… reflective, poignant, and fitting...

So long, Leonard. We'll miss you here…

and please do say hi to Bones (DeForest Kelly) and Scotty (James Doohan) for us too ; )


picture credit:
from informed Comment, thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion

Thursday, February 26, 2015

From One Second to the Next

I still see a lot of kids texting and driving still these days as I travel about. In my work in schools, I kick up conversations on occasion with kids on the topic. I hear a lot of stories from kids about close calls they've had personally and with friends. Many share stories with me about how their parents text and drive.

Yup. I also see a lot of adults texting and driving too out and about. Likely you do as well. I've personally almost been hit by a few.

The video above, a documentary called From One Second to the Next was played recently at Essex High School and featured in the Colchester Sun community paper, both in Vermont. The short film tells us a series of heartbreaking stories about lives that have been forever changed by the consequences of texting while you're at the wheel.

Real stories that address statements or thoughts like:

"It'll never happen to me."

"It'll only take a second."

"I do it all the time, I'll be fine."

"I need to answer this right now."

Let's face it… for some, laws prohibiting texting and driving won't be enough to curb some peoples impulses to do so. Nor will tragic stores others tell. For some it'll unfortunately take a gut wrenching close call or sadly something very tragic to change their mind. That's why it'll take a discussion and plenty of reminders. Week after week, month after month, year after year… with kids and adults.

How frequently or infrequently you text and drive isn't the issue. All it takes is 'once.'

Please share the video above and encourage people to take the 'It Can Wait' pledge with loved ones, in your homes, classes, schools, and communities.

My thanks to the folks in the video who decided to turn their tragedies into something we can learn from, and to the director Werner Herzog. Thanks to the folks at Essex High School for discussing this with students again, and to the Colchester Sun newspaper for their story.

Keep trying to change things for the better.