How to Help Students Cope with Testing

It would help students cope with testing if they could actually benefit educationally from the tests they take. I sent three children off to school this morning to take standardized tests. I gave them a good breakfast and told them to do their best. In all likelihood they will take the tests and then forget all about them. We usually receive the scores over the summer, when kids have long forgotten about them. 

Since many of the tests are now done on computers we should be able to receive results almost instantaneously. Wouldn’t it be great if my children’s teachers could actually use this data to help my kids understand where their strengths are and where they need to focus their learning?  Yesterday Mission 100Percent, a website that shares video clips of teachers, featured this video of a teacher using data from standardized tests to help his students understand where they are and where they are going. I watched and felt jealous that more teachers don’t have access to testing data in a timely manner to use this data with students. I especially liked the subtle way the teacher rewarded the student with the highest rate of growth.

Data from testing is useful for schools, districts and states to see how they compare to their peers. Why not make this data available to empower our students to examine themselves as learners as well?


Questions Unite Us; Answers Divide Us

It is absolutely critical that teachers ask good questions. A good question is one that prompts discussion and elicits more questions from students. 

It is not enough for teachers to conduct a “Q & A” in the classroom. In this scenario students compete for who knows the most answers the quickest. Students learn that the teacher is the one with the answers and that there is only one correct answer. This leads to a divided classroom, in which some students feel smart and others feel like they don’t know. Students feel powerless and passive in the learning process.

When teachers ask good questions all students become engaged in their learning. Good questions help students relate to the material, become personally invested in seeking more information, and provide students with the opportunity to think, reflect and ask. Good questions unite students, inviting them to work together, to struggle and take time to figure out complex problems. 

Warren Berger, innovation expert and author of the book A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas  writes, “One of the most important things questioning does is to enable people of all ages to think and act in the face of uncertainty.” Isn’t this exactly what we want our students to be able to do? To be successful in college and career people need to take initiative, think and act when the answers are not evident. 

Teachers must model great questioning and help students hone their questioning skills. Whether teaching science or language arts, second grade or higher ed, all teachers must develop the ability to ask great questions to unite their classrooms and model problem solving skills. 

Asking great questions is an art that needs to be developed. The Right Question Institute provides wonderful resources to help educators nurture their ability to question. Educators must invest in becoming great askers, and they also must embrace as a critical part of their job helping students learn to ask great questions.

Happy Mother’s Day!

My mother was also a teacher. She taught in the New York City public school system for her entire career, spanning decades. The attributes that made her a great mother also made her a wonderful teacher. Here are some of the life lessons I’ve learned from her:

1.    Live in the moment and enjoy every moment to the fullest. My mother doesn’t spend her time yearning for what was or worrying about what will be. At the age of 75 my mother enjoys each day immensely and fills her days doing what she enjoys.

2.    Play. My mother is one of the most playful people I know. Whether she is competing on the tennis court or letting one of her 7 grandchildren lead her in a game of make-believe my mother loves to play. She often says she still feels like a child.

3.    Never stop learning. My mother reads a lot, follows current events, attends lectures and enjoys learning from everyone around her, including her young grandchildren. 

4.    Keep your heart open. My mother loves her three children fiercely. She also loves our spouses and her 7 grandchildren. After my father passed away she was not afraid to open her heart and find love again.

5.    Be positive. My mother is extremely optimistic. She always looks on the bright side and focuses on the positive.

I know my mother positive impact on many students’ lives. Words can not express my gratitude for all she has given me.

Happy Mother’s Day!

Reflections on Teacher Appreciation Week: We Could Do More

Truthfully, I think Teacher Appreciation Week is a missed opportunity to improve teaching and elevate the profession. 

Let me start by saying that I really appreciate teachers and hold them in the highest regard for working so hard for so little money and I’m aware that a great deal of what teachers do goes unnoticed.

That being said, I think a week of appreciating teachers is just too much. Can you think of any other profession that has a week of appreciation for doing their jobs? Is there a doctor appreciation week? A police officer appreciation week? Mother’s Day is just one day and many mothers pushed something the size of a watermelon out of their bodies and are responsible for another human being for…ever (or at least for 18 years)! 

Parents from my children’s three schools organized lovely ways to demonstrate gratitude for teachers, preparing delicious lunches, delivering beverages, collecting for gifts and writing cards. I know my kids’ teachers appreciated how much they were appreciated. However, as a parent and someone who thinks constantly about how we can improve teaching and learning, I can’t help but think this week was a missed opportunity to get parents, students and teachers focused together on this question:

What does great teaching look like and how can we do more of it?

Here’s what I propose: What if there was one teacher appreciation day and the rest of the week was devoted to the celebration of various qualities or actions that help teachers succeed? It might look something like this:

Monday – Love of learning day: Teachers, students and parents celebrate and share something that they love to learn. This would demonstrate and model the importance of lifelong learning, beyond the four walls of the classroom.

Tuesday – Teacher/parent partnership day: Teachers and parents celebrate and share ways they can support one another’s work. This would encourage parents to think about the role they play in education and how they can support teachers throughout the year.

Wednesday – Reflections on great teaching day: Teachers, students and parents share a story or one way that a teacher has had an impact on them. Teachers can share some of their best tips and strategies for effective teaching with one another.  Perhaps schools would select a ‘teacher of the year’ on this day and give specific examples of what makes this teacher have such a powerful impact on student learning.

Thursday – Open classroom day: This is a day devoted to opening up classrooms and learning about what happens there. Parents would be invited to sit quietly inside classrooms, and teachers would be allocated some time to visit one another’s classrooms to observe and learn from peers.

Friday – Teacher Appreciation Day: This would be a great day for all those lunches, treats and gifts to shower teachers with much deserved thanks.

What do you think? Am I being a killjoy or is there a place for encouraging educational excellence in Teacher Appreciation Week?


Dear Mr. Grosso,

Thank you for your high standards, your relentless challenges and the passion with which you taught AP US History and Shaping of Western Thought at West Orange High School in the ‘80s.  I was a good student, accustomed to earning As and I was rattled, but not discouraged, by the C I received in your class as a sophomore. History was probably my least favorite subject, and I initially found you intimidating, but there was something about the way you conducted that class that made me redouble my efforts and try harder. 

I remember how you roamed around the classroom during engaging student discussions as we debated the causes of the Civil War. I remember numerous revisions to 2-page position papers, agonizing over each word since there was precious little space with which to persuade you. I recall the smile behind your serious face as you constantly challenged us to carefully consider others’ points of view and the ways our own perspectives have been influenced. You spoke quietly; we engaged in heated discussions.

I’ll never forget what you wrote in my yearbook, how it was a gift to see me become a better thinker. I am eternally grateful for the spark that was lit in your classes. What a gift for me to learn how to think critically, question, and synthesize multiple sources of information. I use these skills every day.

Thank you!


Amy Satin Spinelli

How will we know when our profession is respected? 

1.     When teachers are asked to sit on reputable panels to discuss issues outside of education

2.     When K-12 districts (and not just non-profits) carefully source, select and recruit only the top graduates to consider teaching in their schools

3.     When unions are replaced by associations focused on collaboration, networking and professional learning

4.     When a former teacher is elected President

5.     When people actively seek out the opinions of practicing teachers when making policy and programmatic decisions

6.     When there is real accountability for student outcomes using a variety of measures, however imperfect


…the most important job.

In 1903 George Bernard Shaw famously wrote, “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.” In 2015 this could not be further from the truth. It is clear to me that the most accomplished and important individuals we have in modern society are, at their core, teachers, whether or not that is how they refer to themselves professionally.

First, let me say that I believe teacher is among the most important occupations in our society. I can imagine no role more powerful or significant than helping our youth learn (except perhaps that of being a parent, which is also, in many respects, being a teacher).

However, what I mean here is that the job of teaching (as separate from being a teacher in title) is increasingly important in modern life.  Ask any lawyer, doctor or executive what the greatest challenges are at work and you are likely to hear “attracting and retaining top talent.” This is not because there is a shortage of intelligent and capable people to fill roles. Rather, it is because not enough professionals are trained and skilled in the art of teaching. People don’t just magically become good at their job and fit into a corporate culture. People need to be mentored, coached, guided, given feedback and support to grow and thrive in any industry. Teaching is the magic sauce to attract and develop talent.

Success in any field today requires more than repetitive ‘factory line’ type activity. To succeed our work force needs to adapt, communicate, and synthesize; we need to learn and to be taught. Great employers understand this and lead with the same skills great teachers possess—a drive to listen to and connect with people, the ability to motivate others, a contagious love of learning, and a gift for helping others realize their own strengths and abilities.

Great leaders are often the head doctor in a teaching university hospital, the technology executive who takes sharp young talent under her wing, or the movie director who can elicit the best from his cast to bring a script to life. In other words, “She who can teach, succeeds.”

What do you have to celebrate today?

I lost my cell phone after parking in downtown Seattle for a morning meeting. It must have slipped off my lap when I got out. Being so attached to my phone these days (who isn’t?) I noticed its absence right away and chided myself for leaving it at home or in the car, especially since my 9-year old son was left sick at home for the day.

I didn’t panic. There are neighbors in case of any emergency. Plus, my son’s situation seemed more like Ferris Bueller’s day off ruse than a legitimate illness (as evidenced by the cereal bowls and warm TV).

 Later that day I received an email from my husband: Someone found your phone on the ground. It will be at the Compass Center.

 Where is the Compass Center? How did this person get a hold of my husband? How do I get it back?

My husband (a teacher) was unable to talk so I spent the next coupe of hours tracking my phone and trying to piece together answers to my questions.

The Compass Center turns out to be a homeless center. My transit pass was a attached to my phone the person who found my phone used it to traverse the city, as you can see on the map below.

For hours I made up hilarious stories in my mind about the adventures my phone must be having. In the end, my husband met Kyle, the nice man who found my phone at the homeless shelter and gave him $15 for his trouble. Kyle said he saw a text I wrote to my husband letting him know about our son staying home from school and was concerned. When they parted, Kyle inquired about where my husband was headed next. “Home…to my family…you?,” he replied. “Man, I’m just heading down this alley,” said Kyle. Being reunited with my phone was a huge celebration.

What’s your biggest concern about teaching and what can we do about it?

I posed this question to my 13-year-old daughter, who is currently in 8th grade and she answered unequivocally “Make it less boring!” I have to agree. School is boring. Kids enter formal education filled with wonder and curiosity and then they are told to sit still and listen. I am concerned we are passing up an important opportunity to capture the attentions and imaginations of generations of individuals who have great potential and instead we are shutting down ideas and making learning feel like a chore.

When my kids are not in school they are drawn to screens—Minecraft to build whole worlds, Instagram to connect, Xbox to play, and Google to find out answers to their endless questions. Children are surrounded by engaging sights and sounds. They are inspired by exploring what others have created. They can find out what they want to know immediately, and they can move as quickly as they are able. 

School is nothing like this. When they go to school they sit in uncomfortable chairs or in rows on the rug. They learn together in groups of 24-34. Sometimes they already know the answer and they are bored waiting for the teacher to explain a concept to a classmate. Sometimes they don’t fully understand what’s going on, but the class marches on. The teachers have the information, and the students must all work their way through to get to the answers together. This is boring. 

Here’s how we can make school more interesting: let’s harness kids’ natural curiosity and encourage them to ask questions. Let’s coach students to ask difficult questions and struggle to figure out the answers. Let’s have students work collaboratively with other students, in small groups, and share their ideas. Let’s stop fearing technology and tap into interesting resources available on the Internet. 

Let’s ask students how to make school less boring and let’s really listen to their answers. My daughter did not hesitate before she responded, “Less lectures and more interactivity!”

Why We Love Spring (And You Should, Too!)

Ah, spring. Budding fruit and flowers, buzzing bees and warmer air. Who doesn't love the season of rebirth and reawakening? There is another reason to love spring: the struggle and muck of spring! Part of spring is confronting the dirty work of building nests, plucking warm worm fingerlings from deep in the soil and reaching back into closets to vacuum up the accumulated dust.

It's a clearing, replenishing and refocusing season. As a startup company, we are doing a lot of building and a lot of purging simultaneously. We start one project and inevitably it sparks a great new idea...we follow it for a few minutes...and then remember that we have only enough capacity to focus on one nest, not two.

What are you building this spring? How are you staying focused on its success?


Why Is Blogging Important to Teaching and Learning?

Happy May Day! Not only is May 1st the day I pluck the finest bouquet of flowers from my neighbors' yards and present it to them at their doorsteps.* Today, also marks the start of an ill-timed but dogged commitment to blog every day for a month (When is there ever a good time?).

Why is blogging important to teaching and learning? 

This is a leading question; but a good one. Perhaps it's not so much "blogging" that is important to teaching and learning as it is reflecting on an experience and sharing it with someone else.

I re-read one of my favorite poems (Cavafy's Ithaka) out loud to my family tonight before dinner. My sister asked what I thought it meant. I told her that it reminded me of the hero's journey; how we all have to metaphorically leave home, confront and slay our dragons, and then return 'home' (and this is the important part) to share our story. Blogging for me is about trying to share all of these elements in one succinct post. Even if my journey was a 15-minute trip to the store to pick up a prescription or working with a group of high school students (one of whom, I'm not proud to report, fell asleep during my lesson today) or trying to recover a glass from the sink disposal.

Thank you for the nudge, Chris. And I hope you, dear reader, will join me on this journey. A new Ithaka awaits us all...tomorrow!

As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean. 

Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard (C.P. Cavafy, Collected Poems. Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Edited by George Savidis. Revised Edition. Princeton University Press, 1992) 

*You should be relieved to know that this practice finally stopped around the time I entered middle school. However, before we weren't so cute anymore, my sisters and I performed this ritual every year on May 1st. We would hide behind large rhododendron bushes to watch our neighbors bend down to pick up a lovely bouquet only to realize it came from their own yards! Their reactions were a mix of happy, perplexed and angry...usually in that order. It was a series of rare facial expressions that I have a hard time replicating now.

Stop Wasting Time at School!

Our education system is based upon the notion of “seat hours”. Depending on which state you live in, children in public school are required to spend 175-180 days or 900-1,000 hours per year in school. Most four- year public universities require 120 credit hours to earn a degree[1]. When you think about it, it doesn’t make much sense that we measure education by the amount of time a student spends in a classroom. Other models are emerging—Khan Academy and Western Governor’s University have shone a spotlight on mastery or competency models, and even the Carnegie Foundation, the original creator of the framework for 120 credit “Carnegie units” for secondary education, is re-thinking whether this is the right model[2]. But, for now, America’s public schools still focus on the amount of time students spend at school.

Putting aside the issue of whether we should be focused on student attendance for a certain number of hours a day and days per year, what I’d like to know is: Why are we wasting so much of this time?

It’s strange because we hear so much about all the pressures exerted on teachers right now. Teachers are supposed to cram more information into more students to prepare for more high-stakes tests. Common Core…PARCC…Smarter Balanced…AP…IB…SAT…ACT… Increased homework load…It seems there are not enough hours in the day to fit it all in, and yet, every day we are wasting huge amounts of our students’ time!

I implore you to glance into our classrooms—whether it’s first grade or 11th—what you’ll find in almost any classroom is a certain percentage of the students completely tuned out. They are staring out the window, fiddling with their water bottle, or asking to be excused to the restroom even though they took a trip there last period. There are at least a couple of these kids, if not more, in most classes. Maybe they are bored; maybe the work is too difficult, or too easy; maybe they are just tired of the same routine, of the sound of the teacher’s voice. This is a huge waste of time and resources!

Just to put some figures to this: In the US there are approximately 56 million students enrolled in K-12 school[3]. We spend an average of approximately $13,000 per student per year in public district schools, which works out to roughly $73 per student per day, or $14 per hour. If every day 10% of our students are not paying attention and not learning for 20 minutes (conservative assumptions which I think grossly underestimate this figure), we are wasting $1.6 million each year. Compound this figure by kids not paying attention over multiple years, the dropout rate from kids who are not engaged, the unemployment rate of students who do not have sufficient education or skills to be productive members of our workforce, and I’m sure the figures are staggering.

Then there are the kids who can’t sit still and focus. Putting aside the controversial issue of ADD and ADHD as an epidemic, I’m talking about kids who just have a lot of energy and struggle to sit in their seat and listen. One reason this is so prevalent is the decrease in the amount of arts and physical education happening at school. With so much attention given to math and ELA and ‘core subjects’ taking on increasing importance in the Common Core, Race to the Top, and other high stakes tests, there is less and less time for quality art, music, movement, theater, and physical education in most public schools. These are classes that students typically get to move around, use their senses and get out of their seats to do. Lately it seems as if, even when kids have access to these subjects, they are often doing a lot more listening and testing and a lot less moving around.

Then there are the endless celebrations. I don’t mean to sound like the Grinch here, but do we really need to celebrate so many holidays, birthdays and school spirit days? Can we really afford to take time away from learning to have parties at school? My daughter’s middle school in Seattle, WA has homeroom period for 30 minutes every day in which the students hang out or work on homework. What’s the point of that? Most of this stuff has little educational value; I think teachers and students just need a break every now and then from the mundane school day.

Which brings me to my point…Why does school have to feel like such a chore? Why is it so boring? Why do we expect people to learn while sitting at a desk for 900-1,000 hours per year?  Learning is exciting. Human beings want to learn; we want to be around our peers and interact. School should be engaging, relevant and interesting. Students should connect with each other, with their teachers and with the material.

Our public school system is large and complex. We have many reasons why we are ranked 27th in math and 17th in reading on the most recent Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings[4]. Experts are challenging the notions that our schools perform poorly because students spend less time in school than their counterparts in India and China,[5] or because our schools are overcrowded or underfunded. It’s time we stopped making excuses and took a good look at what goes on inside our classrooms.

What would happen if we empowered students to take charge of their own learning? Rather than being tasked with showing up, sitting down, listening and being prepared for a test, what would our classrooms look like if students were challenged to shape their own learning, ask good questions, listen to one another, and collaborate? What would schools look like if students were encouraged to follow their natural curiosity and find evidence to support their ideas? Instead of valuing being quiet and sitting nicely, what if we valued nurturing a love of learning? Students who already have a knowledge base could do more research and help others learn. Students who are struggling could feel safe to speak up and get help from teachers, fellow students or technology.

To do this would require all of us—parents, students, teachers and administrators—to shift our mindsets away from the ‘seat hour’ view of education. Let’s stop treating education like prison where you ‘do your time’ and then get liberated. Quality education means creating environments where there is trust, where students’ voices are valued, and where everyone feels empowered to learn. Only when we invest in developing schools as places where students are interested and engaged will our performance improve, not only on high stakes tests like PARCC, Smarter Balanced, and PISA, but also we will help our economy since graduation rates will improve, students will be more employable, and we will create generations of people who continue to love to learn.

[1] Program Requirements for Associate’s and Bachelor’s Degrees, Complete College America, 2011

[2] “More Cracks in the Credit Hour”, Inside Higher Ed, December 5, 2012

[3] National Center for Education Statistics, 2009-10

[4] OECD PISA Rankings 2012

[5] Center for Public Education

Hey Ed Tech Companies: You Will Not Disrupt Education

I am an idealist. For the past couple of decades I have dreamed about ways that technology will radically improve the way people learn. Since 1998 I’ve worked at businesses with grandiose visions of how their software would transform education as we know it.—from the scrappy start-up to the multinational corporation. My three children have attended schools around the world ranging from having almost no modern technology to tech-focused schools. I’ve seen the spectrum of what’s out there and I can definitively say that THE TECHNOLOGY DOES NOT MATTER.

Given that there is now a very large and growing field called ed tech, with its own media outlets, meet-ups and even venture funding and research groups, I imagine there is a large group of people whose lips are poised this very moment to tell me why their venture is disruptive and will change everything. Believe me, I’m rooting for you. I’ve staked my career on this very premise. I’m sorry to be the one to break it to you, however; it won’t.

The only thing that will improve education is people

We learn from and with people. Throughout history education has been largely a social exercise. Plato conducted his dialogues with the people of Greece. Reading is largely a solitary exercise, but I urge you: take a moment and reflect on something you learned that has made a profound impact upon your life…Did it involve just yourself? I’m wagering that there were others involved in this experience for most of you.

When we talk about genuine learning, the kind that stays with you, there must be some kind of connection taking place. There is an emotional component to learning. Students form relationships with teachers, with other students, with the material, and that is when engaged, authentic ‘minds-on’ learning happens. It may be a connection to a teacher, or to the content written in a book (whether digital or old fashioned), or with people connecting online across the globe. 

When someone is engaged in learning it is exciting and challenging. It doesn’t matter if this happens in a flipped classroom, using wearable technology, or in a treehouse. Tapping into people’s natural curiosity and desire to learn engages learners beyond just being able to regurgitate material for a test. Furthermore, what students learn seems a lot less important than how they learn. I’m not advocating that multiplication tables no longer matter; of course, there is basic material we need to cover. But, let’s face it; by the time kids who are in 2nd grade right now graduate from college they probably  will just have to think “When did World War I take place?” and the chip implanted in them can send the data directly to a retina display. 

Despite all this, I still believe technology holds great potential for transforming learning, such as:

  • Engaging learners using multimedia and gaming
  • Individualizing learning
  • Facilitating communications
  • Providing access to resources
  • Connecting people
  • Automating jobs to enable humans to focus on important work

But perhaps the most promising aspect of technology is that youth are digital natives and can take ownership and control over this aspect of learning. Technology can shift the dynamic between student and teacher.

Back in the 1970’s when I was in elementary school, technology consisted of filmstrips and overhead projectors. The only ‘grown-up’ role for students was the AV squad. Giving young students this responsibility was actually profound, and we have many opportunities to build upon this model. Empowering kids to take responsibility, to lead and become the experts--this is the stuff that proponents of constructivist learning, project-based learning, constructionist learning, experiential learning—basically, sound pedagogy—have been espousing for a long time.  When children have important roles and are empowered to take control over their own learning, genuine engagement happens. In my experience, evidence of my kids’ engagement in school can be seen, not by whether they have ipads or smartboards, but rather, whether they lead (or are even invited to) parent/teacher conferences to discuss their own education.

There seem to be fewer opportunities for children to take on real responsibilities. Parents shield their kids from working, recognizing that teens are too busy juggling homework and extracurriculars, worrying about college applications to work regular after-school jobs. Having a job, with people relying on you, is an important part of growing up. And taking responsibility for your own learning is critical for success as an adult in the 21st century.

Of course, there are ed tech companies developing some interesting stuff, and there are some less-sexy tech developments, such as learning tools interoperability. But in many ways, it matters less which technology can claim it has succeeded in disrupting education. Historically it’s not always the coolest—or even the best—software that wins massive adoption (remember how much better Word Perfect was versus Word?). I’m just glad there’s so much technology out there. The real challenge is getting teachers to be vulnerable to not being the ones with the answers and empower students more to lead their own learning journeys. Technology still holds great promise to help that happen.

What Really Matters?

What Really Matters

Spring came early to Seattle this year and my daughter and I went out to play tennis this week. Our balls flew high in the air, hit the net and landed outside the court...a lot. We murmured ‘sorry’ to each other and players around us. We didn’t even attempt to keep score. Sure, it may have improved our skills to play a proper game, but keeping score would have ruined the experience. As we laughed and loped after our rolling balls, I remembered something a fellow funder said at the foundation where I worked as a program officer. I cannot attribute it, nor write it verbatim, but it went something like this:

If you’re not keeping score, you’re not playing the game.

The comment was made to stress the importance of evaluating impact. How do our investments and partnerships move the needle on eradicating malaria, improving maternal health and raising student test scores? If the influx of significant dollars does not change outcomes, and relatively quickly, it is cause for concern and possible grant reallocation or termination. I remember vigorously agreeing to this statement at the time. After all, keeping score or ‘formative assessment,’ if we relate this to education, is a critical component of the academic learning and improvement cycle, for both students and teachers. This thesis is hard to argue with (see research like Black & Williams’ The Black Box).

Standardized tests administered more infrequently by larger systems like districts, states, provinces and nations are a different animal altogether as they serve to hold investments and programs accountable, but equally important. Governments have a responsibility to track the impact of taxpayer dollars and we have a moral obligation to ensure that all students, regardless of racial/ethnic background and social status, achieve. What bothers me with tests now is that they measure some but not all of the right things.

In other words, we’re not keeping score of the game we’re actually playing in a much different world today than even a decade ago.

The tennis game with my daughter wasn’t really a game of skill, strategy or endurance. It was more of a game of grit, patience and humility. Schools are still, and rightly, assessing core academic knowledge and skills (the new Common Core exams are a huge improvement over previous exams especially in measuring critical thinking skills; the OECD’s PISA exam is another admirable example of a 21st C measurement tool). Don’t believe me? Try it for yourself! Progress, perhaps...but are we really measuring what matters in the end?

So, what really matters in the end? And how do we know what matters?

As this is a blog post and not a scientific journal, I’m going to tell you what I think matters from the perspective of an educator and parent. As one of my favorite edu-blogger and inquiry kindred spirit writes, “I could write a formal post using fancy language, quoting research about coaching if I wanted to, but I choose not to! (There are plenty of those around, just Google.)” I feel the same.

The Coalition of Essential Schools and International Baccalaureate nurtured me as a young teacher and principal. They (and their associated common principles and learner profiles) are where I still go for inspiration and direction. Mine is a bit shorter.

What Really Matters: What Students Would Be Doing, What Teachers Would Be Doing

1. Joy


Speaking to one another throughout the class period on relevant work; Smiling and generally looking happy to be there; Showing excitement and passion for their work, sharing and talking about their work outside the classroom


Talking less; asking more (we could create an voice-recognition app for this!); Creating emotional bonds among students and the subject; students and the teacher; students and other students (eg. storytelling); Designing work that is meaningful, integrates the environment/tech and offers creative choice (PBL)

2. Sticking with Difficult Problems


Everyone is participating and taking risks with ideas; Collaborating with other students and utilizing resources (not just the teacher); Asking great questions


Celebrating “mistake-making” and staying neutral when students take risks with conjectures/thoughts
Roaming around asking questions and helping students come to own solutions; 
Taking time to train students on how to ask great questions (Blooms, Webb, RQI, etc.)

3. Getting Along with Others (and Feeling Good about Oneself)


Building on and debunking others’ ideas in respectful ways; Balancing and taking good care of mind, body, spirit through physical activity, art, music, relaxation and good food; Noticing when someone is in need or hurting and taking action; Listening to others with full attention and respect; sharing the stage with other voices


Offering lots of instructional conversation and discussion time; and reflection on the discussions
Creating a schedule and environment that intentionally nurtures what really matters; 
Noticing/acknowledging when sharing, helping and kindness are happening; modeling and talking about these behaviors in real contexts; Setting up conversation norms and listening to students intently and with an open-heart

4. Analyzing Knowledge Sources


Citing sources of information unprompted; Asking “How do you know that?” or “What is your source of information and do you trust it?” of one another regularly; Accessing and analyzing sources of information from a variety of places; online, in person, through experiences


Frequently citing their own sources of information unprompted; Asking “How do you know that?” or “What is your source of information and do you trust it?” of students regularly; Providing opportunities to access devices and analyze sources of information

What if, upon being hired at a school, you were told that nurturing these four things with your students was your real job (the actual game you were playing)? The vehicle with which you teach these four things is the content; whether it was calculus, culinary arts or literature. Sharing the cannon of your subject area was secondary to teaching these four things.

Or, what if we taught these four things explicitly at times? An entire course on joy and finding one’s passions! An entire course on how to be a good friend or handle enemies! Or a course on analyzing and making sense of the vast and overwhelming amount of information available to us now! Imagine if for an entire semester students delved into the "The fundamental problem of communication.”

It matters that children enjoy school, stay curious about the world around them and find learning stimulating and worth the effort. Too many children are getting really good at

complying with school. My own children have become dutiful little worksheet-fillers and holiday-celebrants (they attend “great public schools”).

That’s not on’s on us. We don’t regularly offer students the time or the experience of working on meaningful projects and problems together. Yes, the exceptions are there and they are wonderful. Thank you, wonderful, exceptions! One might argue that the curriculum is so tight that teachers cannot possibly deviate and provide the time needed for this type of instruction. That’s fair, but there are strategies one can overlay even the dullest of lessons. A question like “What makes you think that?” or “What do the rest of you think about what Jake just said?” can be applied to any setting or curriculum and offer students the opportunity to communicate and think more deeply.

When one is 30, 60 and 90 years old, these are the things that will matter more than the periodic table. Keep the new tests, but let’s not forget to keep looking at the things that really matter. 


I'm going to spill my guts tonight. I'm heartbroken; not in an angry way, but in a sinking slow-motion to the bottom of the ocean way. Heavy. Reflective. Sad. 

I've spent the last year and a half working on the board of a statewide non-profit organization whose mission is to elevate and amplify great teachers' voices so that local districts and state legislatures can get a more balanced and nuanced understanding of what impacts their students and how to improve policy, especially on behalf of low-income students and students of color. It was the very organization I needed as a young teacher, but never found.

Most teachers, as readers of this blog already know, can't find time to water their plants let alone worry about the political maneuvering involved with improving statewide standards and assessments (as an example). Teachers aren't expected to do this, nor are they well-informed (outside of 15-minute monthly union updates). The alphabet soup of advocacy groups, organizations and associations means nothing to teachers - just as the zone of proximal development and Bloom's revised Taxonomy are gibberish to policymakers.

By handing their individual voice over to one entity (even if they don't always see eye-to-eye with said entity) feels like a workable trade-off for many teachers. Someone else will handle that 'stuff.' The problem is that we miss the nuance that comes from differing points of view and we miss the voices of those who, I would argue, are our most dedicated and talented teachers out there.

Our non-profit invited some of the best teachers and thinkers from the state to gather together - to choose and rigorously study the issues that most interested & impacted them - to learn from and strategize with policy experts and political players - and finally to take real action through testifying, writing Op Eds and fighting for what they felt was right for their students.

They did this. Some were ridiculed, harassed and threatened by their peers. More found solidarity with like-minded teachers. They chose policies that were fairly uncontroversial but immediately relevant to their work; things like changes to professional development and early learning expansion. They were slow and cautious and methodical. They weren't terribly bold. And they let down their funders. 

And I get it. As a former funder, I totally get it. But I also get these teachers and the time it takes them to truly understand the game that's being played and how they are being played. I understand how perplexed they are when I tell them what the legislature is hearing vs. what they experience in their classrooms every day. I understand that trust is a serious issue, esp. when you've heard only one point of view on politics your entire career. I understand the risk they take by sticking their necks out on hot topics when they have to collaborate on lesson planning the next day.

I know this can work. It's just not working here in my state. And it's not working at this moment. Or, we haven't quite figured out how just yet. There is a ray of great hope with a group of teachers in one of our districts. They will undoubtedly lead the way.

My heartbreak is that we (funder, union rep, teacher, administrator, advocate, legislator) still don't truly understand one another and what we actually do. We respect one another from a distant and dissonant place. We remain oceans apart from one another. We must find a better way of finding our way from the statehouse to Room 303, because only then can we do what is truly best for our students. Heartbroken...but still hopeful.

How do you know that?

A great question has tremendous power. Questions are invitations; a serve waiting for a return, a sound calling for an echo. Classrooms, in my view, are the best places to watch questions influence learning.

Questions aren’t created equally. Some questions have power no matter the age level, subject area or context. One of my favorites is “How do you know that?” Adults tend to bristle at this one as it’s interpreted as a suspicion or threat of a claim. But younger people don’t have this baggage. Instead, they pause and really think about it. People don’t often ask this of them. Their answers are hesitant yet thoughtful and unconstrained by ego.

Those who have this question asked of them frequently tend to preempt the question by citing their sources immediately. “The major source of power in an airplane is electricity…and I know that because my dad works at Boeing.” 

Teachers have tremendous influence on this skill as well. I’ve seen many insert sources onto their PowerPoint slides or mention their source while sharing something. It’s also refreshing to hear teachers admit that they don’t always have a good source (yet).

Try asking your students today how they know something and take stock of their answers. Are they personal experiences? A source from the internet? Can they analyze the source for bias? Are students aware of publishing dates and author background?

One simple question: How do you know that? can indeed change everything.

Pedaling (sic) Change

15768439134_d54117f834_q Tight shirts, three-bolt cycling shoes and 0% body fat are not my thing. And that, my friends, was the humorous but lame excuse I used for years when asked why I wouldn't just ride my bike in a city notorious for sluggish traffic. The truth was that bike commuting felt like too big of a behavioral hurdle and identity change for me. I felt intimidated by cars and faster bikers. I wasn't sure I was in good enough physical shape. Planning my day with a car was hard enough. In short, biking felt insurmountable. So instead of conquering it, I ridiculed it.

I remember this feeling while working with teachers on incorporating more inquiry into their teaching practice. Why change when current behaviors have essentially "worked" for so long? What will instructional changes mean in terms of identity and relationships with students, colleagues and parents? What is the risk involved regarding student performance on assessments and performance evaluations? Like bike commuting, inquiry teaching can seem insurmountable.

Influencing change in human behavior requires many things, but first and foremost it requires a belief that the new behavior will yield some sort of tangible improvement and that one is even able to change at all.

Biking has some obvious benefits: increasing fitness levels, helping the environment and saving time & money. The benefits of changing instructional practice are similarly obvious: higher rates of student and teacher engagement, deeper understanding and satisfaction. But even these super juicy carrots, like carrots themselves (sorry Carrot Association), they aren't always enough of a motivator for people to change.

So...what is the motivator for change?

Being part of a community of people who are making the same changes is vital. This is where the research around peer pressure is especially interesting and relevant. Tina Rosenberg, author of "Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World" writes that we often view peer pressure only in its negative form. However, peer pressure is used with terrific success in such activities as weight loss (Weight Watchers), alcohol cessation (AA) and social change (mass boycotts). It works in education, too.

1) Being Around Others Who Do It - and Watching Them

Anne is one of the black swans of the biking world. Low-key and soft-spoken, Anne festoons her bike basket with colorful Christmas lights. She rides in fashionable boots and a cute trench coat. She moves at her own speed. She rides her bike to pick up her kids, her groceries and her dry cleaning. It's just no big deal. Watching Anne move around my neighborhood motivated me. Turns out, Anne was willing to bring me into her circle of biking enthusiasts.

It wasn't until my fourth year of teaching that I learned about and experienced inquiry-based instruction. I was teaching at an international school in Quito, Ecuador and attended a session where a physics inquiry lesson was simulated for a group of teachers. This experience was a revelation to me and I spent as much time as possible with these inquiry gurus. I soon abandoned the 'command & control' approach I was taught in my education courses. I watched videos on inquiry wherever I could find them and continued to seek out and surround myself with colleagues who were doing the same.16364865046_8b0ccceaf4_q

2) Real Time Coaching After understanding my goals and preferences for riding (in my case, commuting to and from work), Anne came to my house, showed me city bike maps, gave me a book (the supremely readable Just Ride by Grant Petersen) and handed me a Washington Bicycle Law pocket guide. She took stock of my bike and gear to make sure it was minimally functional and then we were off and biking together, Anne leading the way.

She assessed traffic patterns, distance, hills and even mapped out great coffee shops, finding the route that would work best for me. She shouted out pieces of advice during our journey: "Stay away from parked cars in case doors open." "Make eye contact with the driver here." "Put just one foot down at this stop sign." The lessons came quickly; we dealt with impatient drivers who wanted to pass, faster bike riders, car doors, parallel parkers, pedestrians, lights, crosswalks and even pouring rain – all within a 24-minute ride. I learned how to be predictable and when not to be predictable (a little wobble every once in awhile keeps drivers on their toes apparently). The chaperoned ride experience helped me conquer any doubts I may have harbored about my ability to do this. I could and I did.

This year a few high school teachers allowed me into their classrooms to do some real-time coaching. Students were engaged in the lesson coaching and analysis as well; answering questions like like: "Do you need a minute to reflect here?" or "Which of these questions do you want to tackle the most/least?" Rarely do they see their teachers being coached or reflecting on their craft. Suddenly, their own teacher was making mistakes, learning and growing right before their very eyes. The lesson became a backdrop to other, more enduring, lessons and the energy in the room shifted, opened and yes, a beam of light shone I'm sure through the windows.

3) Practice and Reflection (and some Accountability)

Following someone was one thing. Leading was another. I led the ride home, Anne following close behind like a trailing security blanket. Real time coaching continued but less urgently and often came in the form of questions like "What do you think you should do here?"


When I get off my bike, I feel a sense of real accomplishment. I’ve cleared my head and pushed fresh air in and out of my lungs. I’ve taken charge, made big decisions and been brave. It's how I feel every time I teach, too.

We all need "Ride Guides," and not just for biking but for any significant behavioral changes we want to make in our lives. If you don't have any yet, how can you find them? Bike commuting and inquiry instruction both still feel 'fringy' to me. How can we support one another so that inquiry teaching is more the default pedagogy rather than an edgy alternative? Who are your instructional "Ride Guides"? 16204656399_a8c01fef32_q

Teaching As A Subversive Activity: My Favorite Education Radicals

teaching as subversive activity cover I don't remember who gave me my first copy of Teaching As A Subversive Activity (TASA); but I do remember it sitting on my office bookshelf for at least a decade before I ever cracked it. Presciently landing in my suitcase during a move to Buenos Aires, Argentina, it slipped onto yet another shelf. Soon after learning that checking my cell phone on crowded commuter collectivos in the Paris of South America wasn't the best idea (I watched at least a dozen phones stolen right out of people's hands during my two years there), I read books; the kinds printed on real paper. I read an hour every morning and an hour every evening standing up with sweat trickling down my back and a heavy backpack strapped to my chest. Having finished all the fiction I brought down with me, I desperately plucked TASA off the shelf. Published the same year I was born, 1968, TASA promotes such outlandish ideas as "requiring every teacher to provide some sort of evidence that s/he has had a loving relationship with at least one other human being" and "limiting each teacher to three declarative sentences and 15 interrogatives per class." I suppose every year in human history can be described as radical...but 1968 seemed to really go for it. The authors, Drs. Neil Postman & Charles Weingartner, serious academics and men of their time (Postman an English professor at NYU and Weingartner a lecturer at Queens College), entitled their apple bomb's first chapter "crap detecting." What??!! This was NOT the book I was expecting at all. And I loved it. On page 60 (opening the "What's Worth Knowing?" chapter) the authors challenge their readers to "suppose all of the syllabi and curricula and textbooks in the schools disappeared...Suppose you decide to have the entire 'curriculum' consist of questions... What would you do?" Page 61 is blank. I have to hand it to the authors to offer us physical space to conceive of questions before providing some of their own. Radical at the time.

What is 'change'? • What is 'progress'? • How do you know when a good or live idea becomes a bad or dead idea? • What are the greatest threats to all forms of life? • What's worth knowing and how do you decide?

Nearly 45 years later, a young teacher named Sergio Juárez Correa was called "radical" because he dared to implement inquiry-based instruction and other outrageous practices straight out of TASA and the Hole in the Wall experiment in a very traditional Mexican school culture. His students soared - even measured by traditional tests. Where are the radical ideas in education today? Are they all focused on "edtech" disruption? Are they radicals with fires in their bellies about equity and excellence or are they savvy entrepreneurs just making things easier and more efficient for everybody? Who are your favorite radicals calling for specific, actionable major changes in education? Are the egg-breakers of 1968 still out there?

Is This Idea Seat Taken?

My most creative thinking occurs while doing the dishes, unpacking groceries or shuttling my kids to and from various sports practices. Mindless, repetitive activity spurs me. These creative thoughts often radiate directly from personal pain points and, when I'm  feeling productive, will transition into dreamy "What if..." scenarios and eventually some tentative problem-solving. It's magic...and fleeting. Soccer practice super shuttles. Self-cleaning refrigerators. Elves that grade essays for tired teachers. World peace through inquiry teaching.

I'll come up with all sorts of potentially disruptive ideas, daydreaming about an honorary doctorate. My next move is deadly. Instead of writing the magical thinking down or pursuing it with any seriousness...I consult my computer. As soon as as I see the long line of "o"s in flash across my screen, my creative thought balloon pops before it even had time to lift off. Apparently, I  quickly confirm, thousands of people around the world have either started non-profits, written books or delivered engaging TED talks about the exact same idea. Who am I to pursue this idea?

In fact, I am willing to bet that the content of this blog post has already been written before, several times over. Pop!

Should we abandon all these unoriginal ideas, assuming they've been reserved like a sweater assertively draped over theater seat ? No. We cannot be intimidated by the fact that we are all iterating and riffing off similar ideas all the time. Perhaps that seat's really not taken; it's a lost sweater or belongs to the person sitting in the seat behind. Or maybe it is taken...but that doesn't mean I cannot sit in the theater, too, right? Right.

seat taken

Upon launching a new organization this year called Inquiry Partners, I've learned to come to peace with iterating on others' great ideas. Inquiry-based instruction is not new. Not even close. I'm in awe of Hattie, Stigler, Dweck, Dewey, Willingham, Mazur, November...and on and on and on. But my take on their work is unique and how I present and communicate inquiry to those who have not heard of it yet...well, that is new. So, until every classroom sings with creativity, hums with student inquiry, and vibrates purpose and joy, I will not rest. Instead, I will learn from the best, iterate and share what I've learned with others.

No seat is taken. Join me.

The Problem with TED Talks

TEDTalksTop100 I watched the #1 most-watched TED talk today...again. Sir Ken Robinson, as wobbly on his feet as he is unfaltering with his words that one day back in 2006, made me smile and nod...again. He gets an audience belly laugh within 30 seconds of lumbering onstage. This particular talk has been viewed more than 29 million times since then. Why? Well, we all love a good British brogue (I've witnessed it move audiences easily through twenty minutes of nonsense), but it's more than his adorable accent: Sir Ken is a marvel.

Unlike most TED talks he uses no media whatsoever. He's a stand up comic with a serious message and impeccable timing. He weaves hilarious stories with wonderful metaphors and holds up a (fairly non-judgmental) mirror to the absurdity of our global obsession with "core subjects" and traditional schooling. He's measured and folksy, referencing prior talks from the week...seemingly making connections right there in the moment. His conclusion is fairly incontrovertible: we need to promote more creativity and honor student individuality in our global school systems Yes; genius! I don't even really care that Sir Ken offers no solutions (though he follows up with concrete ideas in a subsequent TED talk). All I want to do is sit in the comfort of a worn Starbucks lounge chair, earphoned head in hand with a silly grin on my face, and listen to him entertain me.

The #2 most-viewed TED talk belongs to a vibrant researcher, Amy Cuddy from Harvard, who makes full use of a her PowerPoint slides with stock photos, funny video clips, high-level statistics and text. She gets emotional and shows vulnerability (the theme of another highly-rated TED talk, incidentally). I could listen to these great talks for hours; and often have. I love me a good TED talk is my point. Judging by the popularity of TED...we all do...and ideas are spreading. But what are we really learning?

We are getting better at listening and assimilating new information. And, we are all too often confusing a super TED talk with great teaching. And that, my friends, is my problem with TED talks.

In countless classrooms around the United States, I see teachers appropriating the TED talk format to perform in front of a passive (if happy) audience of students. However, unless the audience is interacting and practicing skills (communication, critical thinking, problem solving, creating), these replicated TED talks are not helping people develop new skills.

A TED talk is scholarly entertainment and should probably have more of a supporting, not starring role, in the classrooms of the 21st Century. We know who learns the most from a great TED talk: the TED talker! So, in addition to cutting back on the 6-periods of TED talks many students experience, let's ask students to research and create their own TED talks. Or, let's start to suggest that TED talks incorporate some audience participation; you know, insert a "Turn & Talk" every now and then; ask the audience to read or write and make claims and conjectures; ask them to go home and conduct some research and do something with whatever it is they are 'learning' from their chair. Now, that's a TED talk I can really get excited about.