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Transmit, regurgitate. Transmit, regurgitate. Transmit, regurgitate…

Radio tower

The teacher transmits information to the student.

The textbook transmits information to the student.

The online tutorial or learning software or YouTube video transmits information to the student.

  

The student’s role is to be the recipient of what is transmitted.

The student’s role is to regurgitate what was transmitted with enough fidelity that the teacher or software system can check off that the student ‘knows’ it.

The student’s role is to be obedient and compliant.

 

It doesn’t matter if what is transmitted and regurgitated is of interest to the student. 

It doesn’t matter if what is transmitted and regurgitated is meaningful or relevant to the student.

It doesn’t matter if what is transmitted and regurgitated can be found with a quick Google or Siri search.

It doesn’t matter if what is transmitted and regurgitated can’t be applied beyond the narrowly-conscribed classroom setting.

It doesn’t matter if what is transmitted and regurgitated is forgotten by the student just a few weeks later.

 

What matters is that the student holds in her brain what was transmitted and regurgitated long enough to get the grade. We need to check the box. We need to move on. We have things to cover. Hopefully, enough of what is transmitted and regurgitated will stick – individually and collectively, across all students and all buildings – for those end-of-year assessments of factual and procedural regurgitation that we use to determine educator and school ’success.’

 

Transmit, regurgitate. Transmit, regurgitate. Transmit, regurgitate… Why do we believe that this model is adequate for the demands of a complex, global innovation society?

 

Image credit: Transmitting, Tim Haynes

The importance of common, shared understandings

Fortune cookie: We all have extraordinary coded within us, waiting to be released

I had the chance recently to work with an awesome teacher-led school here in Colorado. Because the school already is pretty amazing, we spent most of our day and a half together fine tuning a few aspects of its work.

One of the core values of this school – stated front and center in its mission statement – is its commitment to guiding students to become self-directed learners. However, although the school had been working on this front for several years, there was still a lack of agreement across faculty about what that really meant. There were some great student projects occurring, but there weren’t common understandings across classrooms and grade levels. So we spent a significant amount of time in a structured process that allowed them to pin down a definition that they could all agree on (woo hoo! success!). Now in this school, if they’re going to call a student experience ‘rock star quality student self-directed learning,’ it’s going to have most of the following 7 elements (each of which they defined in detail) most of the time for most students:

  1. student choice
  2. student voice
  3. student as director of own learning
  4. student engagement
  5. student risk-taking
  6. student reflection
  7. teacher as facilitator

If the student experience doesn’t have any of these elements, it won’t be considered ‘self-directed learning.’ And if the experience only has some of these elements, it will be considered one that is ‘working toward’ the end goal of ‘more student self-directed learning, more often.’

What was important about this process was not the variety of different facilitation techniques that we used or the ‘correctness’ of the end result. You might define ‘rock star quality student self-directed learning’ differently, for example. What was important was the productive, goal-oriented dialogue and that the school faculty was able to come to agreement about what will work for them so that they then could identify concrete ‘look-fors’ and action items. In other words, common, shared understandings are prerequisites for common, shared commitments.

I love doing this kind of facilitation work with educators. Too often in our schools we use big, important ideas or terms – critical thinking! technology integration! student inquiry! academic rigor! social justice! – that mean widely different things to different people. Because we never take the time to really pin down and define common, shared understandings (or, worse, we try to impose our understandings on others), we see significant variability as educators attempt to implement those ideas in their day-to-day practice. If we want to get an entire system to extraordinary, we have to get everyone in agreement about what that means…

As a school leader, when was the last time that you engaged in a structured dialogue that allowed you to see if your staff really agrees on what some big ideas mean in your school and what they look like in practice? Are you just assuming or hoping that everyone has common, shared understandings? 

Is there room for creativity and sharing in a professional preparation program?

Shannon Falls

[I’m one of five Digital Pedagogy Faculty Fellows this year at the University of Colorado Denver. I’ll be sharing my thoughts all year on this experience, starting with my time at the Digital Pedagogy Lab in Vancouver, Canada.]

I help prepare principals and superintendents. Like other educational leadership programs across the country, my program is supposed to prepare teachers and administrators to take on new leadership roles. Students come to us with expectations that they will learn how to be successful in new, usually very challenging, administrative positions. Sometimes we do that well, sometimes we don’t. 

One of the biggest complaints about many educational leadership courses and programs is that they’re too theoretical and not practical enough. This is true. Many of us faculty aren’t as connected to the day-to-day work of practice as we should be. The most common rejoinder – particularly from research faculty (folks who literally are paid to think) – is that narrow, time- and context-bound leadership preparation doesn’t foster graduates’ ability to work in different settings or across varying policy and practice eras. Both sides are right.

I wonder if there’s a third dimension – beyond the thinking v. practice dichotomy – that’s also worth considering. When I think about the times in my life when I feel most energized and ‘in flow,’ many of them revolve around opportunities to be creative. I write, I take photos, I create slides and presentations, I design a new course or workshop experience… and I usually share those publicly with others. As I was driving up and down the Sea to Sky Highway yesterday attempting to capture the natural beauty with my camera, I began to wonder what skills and talents, interests and passions, and professional and hobbyist expertise the students in my new Boulder principal licensure cohort will bring to our collective learning experience. And whether they feel as energized when they do those things as I do when I do my stuff (no matter how amateurish).

Can we bring in students’ “outside,” perhaps non-education-related, expertise and experiences into a professional preparation program that’s designed to get students ready in real, practical ways for incredibly complex and demanding jobs? I’m not sure, but I’d like to try…

[cross-posted at Thinq.Studio]

The hidden cost of an achievement-oriented curriculum

Rainesford Stauffer said:

As children, we’re trained to avoid failure, not learn from it. It’s presented as a sign of inadequacy, even worthlessness. I think this is the hidden cost of a K-12 curriculum that is achievement-oriented. Failure is never presented to us as a different kind of educational experience, a universal (and ceaseless) part of being human.

via https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/17/opinion/dropping-out-of-college-into-life.html

If I was teaching Social Studies today…

Chichen Itza

Some folks know that I started my education career as a middle school Social Studies teacher in Charlotte, North Carolina. If I was still doing that now, I would be incredibly excited because so many wonderful resources would be available to my classroom. For instance, if I was teaching Social Studies today…

My students and I definitely would be tapping into an incredible diversity of online resources. The American Historical Association offers over one thousand Civil War newspaper editorials, for example. It also offers a YouTube channel on which historians discuss their work, making history come alive for contemporary youth. The UC Davis California History Social Science Project frames current events within their historical context, connecting students’ present to the past. Like many teachers, I would tap into the the Library of Congress, which would give me tips for teaching with primary sources, including quarterly journal articles on topics such as integrating historical and geographic thinking. We’d also have access to historical documents from the British Museum – such as notes from an English merchant in Syria in 1739 – and to the prisoner of war archives from the Red Cross. Washington University in St. Louis has an amazing collection of interviews from the Great Depression. And, if I was stuck for an idea for class, I could access the Social Studies lesson plans at Educade or the 400+ lesson plans at the EDSITEment! web site from the National Endowment for the Humanities, including a very popular set for AP U.S. History.

Instead of being limited to my teaching and our textbook, we’d have access to an entire planet of experts. We could participate in a number of free Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs), including over a dozen on Chinese History from Harvard University. We could listen to podcasts on the geography of world cultures from Stanford University. We could learn about maps and the geospatial revolution from a professor at Penn State University. And so on… 

Without a doubt we would be living on Pinterest since it has dozens of pinboards – and tens of thousands of pins – related to history, including awesome resource sets from the Stanford History Education Group. We could search for pins on Native American history, Middle East cultures, Japanese history, government, geography, sociology, psychology, economics, and numerous other topics. Additionally, we could make our own sets related to local class topics and presentations using a friendly curation tool like Educlipper

My class would be in YouTube heaven. Whether we were watching National Park videos from the 1930s, digging through World War I and World War II videos from the National Archives, or perusing the channels of the Presidential Libraries, we’d tap into the incredible diversity of historical sources that can be accessed with a few clicks of the mouse.

Over on Flickr, my students and I would be looking at Industrial Revolution photos from the University of British Columbia, Matthew Brady’s Civil War photos from the National Archives, news photos from the 1910s from the Library of Congress, and Great Depression photos from the New York Public Library. We’d also check out the historical photos of Texas, Mexico, and Teddy Roosevelt from Southern Methodist University and the World War II advertisements and posters from the Library Company of Philadelphia. We’d examine historical images of Native American life from the Museum of Photographic Arts, other historical photos from the U.K. National Archives, and maybe dig through the 5.3 million book images from the Internet Archive. 

We’d have a variety of Social Studies simulations and games available to us. For instance, we could use the Civilization video games to learn and blog about political power and civics. We could find history games at Playing History or Flight to Freedom. We could engage in government simulations at GovGames or iCivics or Cyber Nations. We also could learn through ‘serious games’ about world issues, including poverty in Haiti, farming in the developing world, the impacts of the oil industry on our environment, or the 1979 revolution in Iran.

Even more exciting than what is available for us to peruse and consume, however, would be the technologies that allow us to interact, create, make, and do things together. Let’s take maps, for example. As fun as it is to explore the maps collection of the British Library, it’s even better when we roll up our sleeves and get to work. So I’d acquaint my students with mapping tools like OverlapMaps to improve their geographical sense of scale. Or I would send them to interact with the historical geography atlas of the United States from the University of Richmond, where they could trace the geography of the women’s suffrage movement over time. We could explore the Farm Security Administration photos from Yale University, perhaps drilling all the way down to a particular county. We’d learn how to make our own maps using Google’s mapping tools, then check out the maps that others have made. We’d add photos to our maps and investigate other mapping tools as well, including possibly making floor plans of locally-significant buildings. We might even take a cue from Michael Hathorn’s high school history students in Hartford, Vermont and use tools like Google SketchUp to make a historical model of our city or town.

On the podcasting front, we would listen to Social Studies podcasts such as Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History and Mr. Hunt’s Geography podcast. We’d subscribe to feeds and listen to podcasts from the U.S. government as well. As part of our class, I’d model to my students how to set up RSS readers and subscribe to podcasts, which they then could extend to other classes and their extracurricular interests and hobbies. We also would watch TED and TEDx talks like those from David Christian, Niall Ferguson, and Kirk Citron. We’d learn about historical 3D mapping from Eric Sanderson, the digital re-imagining of Gettysburg from Anne Knowles, escaping the Khmer Rouge from Sophal Ear, and the decline of violence from Steven Pinker. We’d also look at some teacher- and student-created video channels like HipHughesHistory and the Lens on Climate Change project. Then we could either host our own TEDxYouth event or perhaps create our own podcasting and/or video channel.

Other initiatives might include participating with other youth across the country in KQED Learning’s Do Now Roundups, discussing important political and societal issues. Like the 4e Gymnasium school in Amsterdam, we could use Facebook’s Timeline tool to make historical timelines on topics such as the Soviet Union, inventions, fashion, or Magellan’s voyage. We could use Minecraft to design our own self-sustainable towns. We could play Fantasy Geography. We could create our own social justice project like Bill Ferriter’s middle schoolers. And we could go on virtual field trips to expand our global awareness, visiting famous government sites as well as places like Pompeii, Stonehenge, and Colonial Williamsburg. We also could immerse ourselves in virtual reality stories from the New York Times.

Indeed, the more I could put my students to work, the better. As John Dewey noted, we learn what we do. So my students would do Social Studies, not just read about it. One inspiration would be the entirely-student-run Online Model United Nations. Another would be Wayland (MA) High School’s yearly student history projects, in which students engage in digital storytelling projects, scanning historical images and creating audio podcasts, interviewing local Vietnam-era veterans, and analyzing the papers of the commander of the Dachau concentration camp after its liberation. Maybe my students would write their own textbooks like those at Beachwood (OH) Middle School. They could make a local history wiki or, even better, make contributions to our global information commons by directly creating and editing Wikipedia pages. They could participate as ‘citizen-historians’ in crowdsourced projects such as those from HistoryPin, the University of Iowa Libraries DIYHistory project, or the Washington State Historical Society’s Civil War Pathways Project

As a teacher I’d have numerous resources available to help me use all of these technologies and digital environments effectively. From Jeremiah McCall’s book and website, Gaming the Past, to Historical Thinking Matters to TeachingHistory, I would have access to incredible thinking and teaching from educators, historians, geographers, and other social scientists. I could utilize the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media software tools for historical research. I could incorporate Stanford University’s amazing library of historical critical thinking assessments at Beyond the Bubble. I could garner ideas from the City University of New York’s American Social History Project. And I could tap into the American Historical Association’s suggestions for teaching difficult legal or political topics or teaching with new media

If we want our students to understand and appreciate history, they need to DO history. If we want them to learn and care about government, they need to DO government. If we want them to be good citizens, they need to BE active citizens. As Dan Carlin noted, we have a tremendous ability (and obligation) to energize and engage our students in Social Studies. It’s never been a better time to be a teacher in this area and I could easily share numerous other resources on these topics. Many Social Studies teachers aren’t aware of the vast diversity of online resources to them. What are your favorite online Social Studies resources that we could share with them?

Image credit: Chichén Itza, Daniel Mennerich

The opposite of boredom is not entertainment

Boredstudent

George Couros recently wrote about an article in the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Ed. Magazine titled Bored Out of Their Minds. He included a quote but I would have picked a different one:

But the biggest shift we need,” Rose believes, is much more elemental. “We need to get away from thinking that the opposite of ‘bored’ is ‘entertained.’ It’s ‘engaged.’” It’s not about pumping cartoons and virtual reality games into the classroom, it’s about finding ways to make curriculum more resonant, personalized, and meaningful for every student. “Engagement is very meaningful at a neurological level, at a learning level, and a behavioral level. When kids are engaged, life is so much easier.”

Confronted with the apathy of their own students, I have heard countless educators do everything possible to point the finger elsewhere. They blame digital technology and television, they complain about ‘this generation of kids,’ and they say stuff like “What do they want me to do? Get up there and dance?” All of those are the wrong focus.

As teachers, we are primarily responsible – along with our students and with our administrators – for creating learning environments of relevance and meaning. That doesn’t mean ‘entertaining’ kids. That means engaging kids by giving them work worth doing. That means addressing the age old student questions of “Why do I need to know this?” and “Why should I care about this?” and “How is this relevant to my life, now or later?”

Robert Fried stated:

[A]mid all the accounts … of kids complaining to each other about how bored they are with many of their classes, why do we accept this so passively, without arguing for the right to be learning something of value? [The Game of School, p. xii]

We can do better.

Image credit: Konrad-Adenauer-Gemeinschaftshauptschule Wenden

Bribing children to take our tests

Bribe

It’s standardized testing season again in American schools. And that means it’s also time for many schools to bribe and punish their children into submission because those tests are ones they don’t want to take.

Over the past couple of decades, the political stakes attached to standardized testing have accelerated greatly. So too have teachers’ and administrators’ concerns about their schools’ scores. As a result, there now exists a staggering range of ‘motivational’ efforts that attempt to get students in a positive mindset about testing. For instance, a search for ‘test prep rally’ on YouTube returns over 250 videos of school plays, lip synced songs, and ‘Slam the Exam’ concerts. On Pinterest and at Teachers Pay Teachers, educators can download and attach to candy over 40 different cute, motivational phrases such as ‘You were MINT to succeed’ or ‘You’re a STARBURST of knowledge’ or ‘It’s CRUNCH time. Show what you know!’ At Minds in Bloom, schools can get tips about costuming, audience participation, songs, dances, cheers, jokes, skits, videos, and slide presentation decks for their own test prep rallies. They also can hire the Morris Brothers to perform original songs and share their testing strategies and stress reduction tips. Or they can tap into the numerous other web sites that will help them implement raffles, revise song lyrics, make posters with test taking tips, and stage Are You Smarter Than Your Teachers? game shows.

More troublesome are the post-test ‘celebrations of learning’ that are available only to certain children. A Colorado school made the news recently for its plans to reward those students who show up for every testing day and ‘try their hardest’ (one can only imagine how that will be measured), despite state laws that allow students to opt out of state testing without penalty. As Alfie Kohn reminded us long ago, the withholding of a reward is most certainly a punishment, particularly in the eyes of young children. Is it kind and sensible for educators to preclude from the fun those children who exercised their legally-protected rights? Similarly, I know of a school in Iowa that kept half a dozen of its eight hundred students back from its trip to the video game / bowling / laser tag center because the principal felt that they hadn’t given their best effort on the state exams. Do you think those students ‘learned their lesson’ and will ‘try harder’ next year? Or will they merely be resentful and see the punishment as just another example of their school’s lack of support for their learning challenges?

The justification in all of these cases is that the tests are ‘important,’ that the schools can face potential penalties for poor performance or lack of participation, and that students need to take the assessments seriously. But how seriously should the students take them? After all, our children don’t get any noticeable, tangible benefits from these exams. It’s not as if they can get the questions afterward, see what they missed, get timely feedback on how they did, and get learning assistance from their teachers. All they receive is a meaningless-to-them set of numbers, bar charts, and percentile rankings 4 to 6 months later, typically in their next year of schooling when it’s much too late to really be helpful. And if they attempt to discuss in any way what the questions were and how they think they should have solved them, they get in trouble for ‘cheating’ or ‘violating test security.’ Moreover, the testing windows are artificial events that get inserted into – and usually disrupt the pacing and flow of – the school year. They also often suck up all of the school computers and Internet bandwidth for weeks on end, taking away technology-enriched learning opportunities.

Let’s face it, these assessments are rarely seen by children as a natural outgrowth of their learning. Instead, they are high pressure, high stress activities that are forced upon them by their school systems. These tests are for adults, plain and simple. And while some students may be eager to please their teachers or ‘help out’ their school, it’s hard to argue with those who weigh differently where they want to place their time, effort, energy, and attention. After all, if we have to bribe or punish our students into taking our exams, that’s probably a sign that we need more meaningful assessments…

What do test prep and student ‘motivation’ efforts look like in your school?

[A modified version of this post is at TrustED under the title, Test prep rallies, ’slam the exam’ concerts, and other testing season follies

Image credit: BRIBE, Alpha Bravo Foxtrot

Lecturing v. active learning

Annie Murphy Paul said:

a growing body of evidence suggests that the lecture is not generic or neutral, but a specific cultural form that favors some people while discriminating against others, including women, minorities and low-income and first-generation college students. This is not a matter of instructor bias; it is the lecture format itself — when used on its own without other instructional supports — that offers unfair advantages to an already privileged population.

The partiality of the lecture format has been made visible by studies that compare it with a different style of instruction, called active learning. This approach provides increased structure, feedback and interaction, prompting students to become participants in constructing their own knowledge rather than passive recipients.

Research comparing the two methods has consistently found that students over all perform better in active-learning courses than in traditional lecture courses. However, women, minorities, and low-income and first-generation students benefit more, on average, than white males from more affluent, educated families.

via https://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/13/opinion/sunday/are-college-lectures-unfair.html

“I tried giving my students some agency two years ago and it didn’t work”

Basalt

A couple of months ago I keynoted a STEM conference in Syracuse, New York. I talked a lot about the power of student agency and tried to give numerous, concrete examples of student-directed project- and inquiry-based learning in practice. We discussed the idea that the global innovation economy is pushing the skill sets of creativity, communication, critical thinking, and collaborative problem-solving much deeper into the labor pool than ever before. I also shared that the research on motivation and engagement from Deci & Ryan, Hallie, and others shows quite clearly that autonomy and self-direction are fundamental human needs that we violate to the detriment of both our students and our proclaimed academic goals.

During one of our conversation periods a secondary science teacher said to me, “I tried giving my students some agency two years ago and it didn’t work.” I did my best to quash my initial reaction of dismay that students lacked more opportunities for autonomy in his classroom and instead asked some follow-up questions. He shared with me that he taught earth science, that there was a mandatory segment of the curriculum on rock identification that was a significant component of the state exam, and that every year students were less than enthused about the unit (to be charitable). Two years ago he apparently had tried to give his students some choice in terms of both how they learned the material and their final work products but apparently student disinterest in the unit topic and/or how he framed the work were enough to overcome his early attempts at giving his students some agency and it went miserably. So he shut it down, returned to a very traditional structure of presentation and examination, and now was very skeptical of claims by myself or others that giving kids some voice and choice in their learning could be productive.

I couldn’t help but feel sad for this teacher. He took a small risk and it didn’t go well so he retreated back to his age-old practices, frustrated and resentful of others who preached something different. Numerous questions and concerns flashed through my mind as we interacted, few of which could be addressed in that venue at that time.

As school leaders, we must provide much greater support to our teachers as we ask them to initiate new instructional practices and ’transform school.’ I hear repeatedly from principals and superintendents that they supposedly have given their educators permission to be risk-takers. But it is not enough for school leaders to just give encouragement or permission. Our teachers deserve specific, concrete instructional (re)design strategies and techniques; short-cycle feedback loops; ongoing conversation with teaching peers about successes and failures; and long-term, follow-up activities that ensure implementation success. We also have to create organizational systems that foster ongoing innovation cultures rather than momentary risk-taking, including educator resilience and learning from failure. And we have to continually and critically interrogate our own internal culture, climate, messaging, reward systems, and other leadership practices that reinforce the status quo and mitigate our alleged ‘permission to take risks.’ During my short conversation with this teacher, it became clear that very few of these were in place in his school, which meant that from the start he was almost certain to fail. None of that was his fault, of course; it was the fault of the system in which he was embedded and the leaders of that system.

That science teacher in New York – the one who didn’t really know how to implement what he was trying and also didn’t have enough resilience to learn from his attempt and try again – represents countless other teachers all across the country. We have well-meaning educators everywhere who want to do right by kids and who want to innovate but lack the essential supports necessary to move their practice forward in ways that we are asking of them. Combine this lack of leadership and organizational support with compulsory topics of study (rock identification!) and compulsory exams (accountability!) that often don’t intersect with students’ interests or passions and it’s no wonder that we see so little innovation in our classrooms.

Dr. Richard Elmore, Gregory R. Anrig Research Professor at Harvard University, has written extensively about the concept of reciprocal accountability. Essentially, the idea is that for every increment of performance that school leaders and policymakers demand from teachers, they have at least an equal responsibility to provide them with the capacity to meet that expectation. We violate this capacity requirement daily in our school systems, piling mandate upon expectation upon wishful thinking without ever creating the concurrent support systems. Until we leaders take seriously our obligations of reciprocal accountability and capacity-building, we’re never going to see wide scale implementation of the changes so desperately needed in our classrooms and school systems.

Image credit: Basalt, David Ellis

Is the emphasis in your school on punishment and compliance or autonomy and dignity?

Deluxe teacher grading kit

When I was in high school, we didn’t have an ‘open campus.’ We were supposed to stay at school and eat our lunches in the cafeteria. Many of us would drive off anyway, hoping that we could make it back in time for our next class. We often were late because of the distance between our school and the fast food joints. But since I ran with a crowd of ‘good kids’ who got high grades and were heading off to college, we could stroll into class late – sometimes with coffee or an ice cream cone for our teachers – and suffer no adverse consequences. At the time I was blissfully unaware of the privilege I enjoyed simply by being a white, male, middle class, high-achieving student (or that I ‘earned’ by being mostly compliant).

Fast forward thirty years… Today we see a number of ‘no excuses discipline’ schools – particularly in urban school districts – that punish students for the slightest noncompliance. Tardy to class? Shoelace untied? Not walking quietly enough? Failing to follow the taped line in the hallway? A stripe on your sock? Slouching? The wrong color undershirt? Not raising your hand with a straight elbow? Rolled-up sleeves on your school uniform? Not tracking the speaker with your eyes? ‘Willful defiance,’ however arbitrarily defined? Yelling, shaming, assignments that get ripped up, public tracking charts, demerits, detention, suspension, expulsion, and numerous other academic and disciplinary punishments await…

Critics of these schools note that the children who attend them invariably are ‘other people’s children.’ They’re not the children of the white middle class. They’re typically black, brown, and poor. And the folks who often are the strongest advocates of these kinds of schools would never, ever send their own children there. But, you know, ‘those children’ need more structure. ‘Those children’ need that kind of discipline because they don’t get it at home. Hey, don’t blame us, those parents ‘chose’ that kind of environment for their children. And so on…

But here’s the thing: educators and parents who are aghast at these ‘no excuses’ schools need to recognize that most traditional schools aren’t much better. The discipline may be slightly less draconian for most students, but the heavy emphasis on punishments and rewards remains for virtually all students. In most schools students lack significant agency, are told what to do nearly every minute of every day, rarely have meaningful choice or input into their own learning environments, and are punished by teachers and/or administrators if they don’t comply with whatever is demanded of them. Students can tell you how disrespectful, disempowering, and apathy-inducing these environments can be. It’s pretty stifling to have so little choice in what you learn. And it can be soul-killing to be 17 years old and still need permission to use the bathroom. So, yes, like for myself, the ‘good kids’ may be afforded a smidgen of leeway and autonomy that seems utterly lacking in the ’no excuses’ schools. And, yes, traditional schools – back in my day and now – may be a little less worrisome because the penalties usually are slightly less severe. But when it comes to our disciplinary practices, we need to climb down from our pedestals because the differences are mostly a matter of degree, not orientation.

My University of Colorado Denver faculty colleague, Dr. Manuel Espinoza, has been talking with us about the concept of student dignity – about the idea of affording students basic, inalienable rights of autonomy and respect. Not because they comply with our demands. Not because we bribed or forced them. Not because the economic need for self-directed workers has never been higher. But simply because our children are human beings – precious, unique individuals – who deserve to be cherished and treated as such rather than as mere objects of our desires for control and order (no matter how well-meaning our motives are). To quote Manuel, “What would it mean for schools to treat children as if they were of supreme value, of invaluable exchange?” And, no, this doesn’t mean chaos and anarchy in our schools…

Learning environments that empower students as meaningful contributors and choice-makers – that recognize and treat students as worthy of basic dignity – look very different than those that view students as unable or unwilling partners and/or problems to be managed. Which views predominate in your school system? And before you answer, ask yourself 1) what alternatives to punishment/reward disciplinary systems do you see around you, 2) how many times a day and in how many ways is a student’s basic dignity disrespected, 3) what happens when a student disagrees or doesn’t comply with a classroom or school behavior policy, and 4) who gets to make and enforce the policies in the first place.