Education ∪ Math ∪ Technology

Tag: classroom practices (page 1 of 4)

The (Nearly) Paperless Classroom

I’ve been reading about people trying to implement a paperless classroom, and it occurred to me that there are plenty of things you can do to implement this type of classroom, without using a lot of technology. You don’t need a 1 to 1 laptop program at your school to make it a (nearly) paperless classroom.

First buy some whiteboard material from your local carpentry supply store. Cut it up and make pieces about two feet (60 cm) by three feet (90 cm) in size.

Here is an example of a classroom run using these whiteboards.

Having some larger whiteboards on which to share instructions or information is useful. Instead of handing out sheets of paper to students, most of what you will share will go on these whiteboards. I used to write down instructions for a project, or practice questions, or discussion ideas up on a whiteboard before school and when the particular class came in, I would put out the appropriate whiteboard. Doing this will eliminate the worlksheets from your classroom.

Next, find 3 or 4 desk-top computers to place somewhere in the back or side of your classroom, or even better separate them around the classroom so that students can crowd around them when necessary. These are your research stations and the places where students will create permanent digital copies of their work. An organization like Free Geek can help you reduce the cost of purchasing these, or you may even be able to find corporation to make a donation. It is important that at least one of these computers is reasonably decent and has an Internet connection, but the other ones don’t have to be awesome. It is amazing how much utility you can get out of an old computer when it’s running a low memory operating system like Ubuntu.

Having a document camera, or a projector hooked up to the one of the computers in the room would be useful, but not critical. You can see from the picture above that the whiteboards are large enough that when students are sharing their work, they can just hold up the whiteboard and let everyone see it. Alternatively you can treat the sharing of work as a mini-fair where each group takes a turn looking at a few other group’s work.

It would also be a good idea to equip this classroom with at least 1 or 2 digital cameras. These can be useful to take pictures of the work the students have done on the whiteboards. You can designate one of the computers as your media storage computer and upload the pictures to this computer since you will want some record of the student’s work for later.

You will also need some notebooks for the students to record other work, particularly in writing-rich classes. In some subjects you may find that the notebooks don’t see enough use to be needed, but in others they will fill up quickly. This is where most of the paper you will use in your class will be. The notebooks will be the place where individual reflection will take place and can either be shared or not shared, depending on your preference.

Another piece of the puzzle will be a library of books on the back wall, relevant to your subject area. This way students can do “off-line” research. Yes, some of the books will be woefully out of date, but if you have a variety of books, you can help kids understand that they need to examine multiple sources, and not just accept the first thoughts on a subject they find.

Most of the work students will do will happen on the whiteboards and will disappear forever after it has been erased from the boards. Some of it will be saved on the computers as a picture taken of the whiteboard. Some of it will be transcribed to the computers as you and the students decide on what summative assessments you will include.

The type of work students will do will be collaborative. Most of your assessment will be formative as you move around the room to ensure both that the students are on task, but also that they are meeting your shared expectations. Your summative assessments will either be recorded in the notebooks, or on the computers. You can use workstations as a way to differentiate your work, and to ensure that not everyone “needs” the computers at the same time.

The (nearly) paperless classroom starts with the assumption that not every piece of work students produce is worth saving forever. Most of it is just them sharing their thoughts. Think of the notebooks and workbooks your students currently have, and the notes that they take. 99% of that work will never be looked again once it is completed. It is only as small percentage of work that needs to be immortalized on paper.

Change your mindset that the paperless classroom needs a lot of technology. It doesn’t. It needs a transformation of pedagogy from teacher centred and content focused to student centred and a focus on developing skills.

Please share any other ideas you have on implementing the (nearly) paperless classroom.

Twenty ways to use video in your classroom

Here are 20 ways you can use video creation with your students in your classroom. 

1. Have students video tape themselves playing sports and use the video to analyze their performance.

2. Have a guest student just checking out your school (we have this a lot at our school). Make them the school reporter and pass them the video camera or have them interview you.

3. Have your students create video word problems for math or science.

4. Record footage of something in motion and analyze the footage to determine the physics of the motion.

5. Record your lesson and share it with students later. You could also pre-record your lesson and assign the video as homework so you have more time for guided practice in class.

6. Have students record a tutorial from a topic for your class.

7. Have students present research or the result of an experiment through a video presentation.

8. Student created documentary of another process, like getting ready to perform a play.

9. Have students create video reflections or journals.

10. Try a fresh approach to the boring book review.

11. Have students create a story and narrate/act it out. Record what results!

12. Have your students record their creative writing or poetry.

13. Create a music video.

14. Record your class doing a debate about a real life topic (like educational reform for example).

15. uStream your classroom (for example so that students who are at home ill can still participate).

16. Invite a guest speaker into your classroom, from anywhere in the world, via Skype.

17. Set up live streaming from your classroom and let your colleagues in another room observe you and give you feedback.

18. Set up live streaming from your classroom and invite the parents of your students to see what you do in the classroom (not for the faint of heart!).

19. Show a demonstration of something which would otherwise be extremely difficult to find in a classroom.

20. Let your students explore their creative side and produce a video that summarizes (in a catchy way ideally) what they’ve learned about a subject. Call this the summative assessment for that unit.

Please add any other suggestions you have to the comments (or even better help me find examples of the last 6 ideas).

Differentiating in Math Class Using Online Videos

I told my colleagues about the Khan Academy last week. They thought the idea of being able to access all these resources was incredibly cool.

One of them today built his entire lesson around the Khan Academy videos. You see he has a class with a very wide range of abilities. Some of the students know nothing about exponents, some of them know a tonne already. So he found all of the Khan Academy videos that related to the rules of exponents, organized them in order of difficulty and content area, then shared his list with his students through Moodle. The idea is that the kids get to start with the curriculum that they need rather than the curriculum which comes first in the book. It’s a great way to turn one teacher into 15.

When the students finish their video and feel that they have absorbed enough information, they were instructed to come back to my colleague and ask any questions they had and find out what problems from the text would be best for them to do. Here’s where my colleague discovered a flaw. After about 15 minutes, which is the length of one video, he suddenly had 22 8th graders asking him for problems. Wooops. Now he’s setting up the problem exercises in advance. It will blow his mind when I show him that he can use something like to automatically give the students feedback on their problems as well…

Quizzes Should Mark Themselves

Quizzes should be used as part of formative assessment if you use them at all. They are a fast and simple way to get some feedback about what lower level skills your students know. However, my recommendation is that if you are going to use a quiz, use one that marks itself. and both offer a free quiz platform which provide feedback to the students. Feedback is a critical part of the learning process, and the sooner is offered to the students, the more effective it is. Why not offer it immediately after the students complete the quiz?

The feedback from Thatquiz is pretty basic, essentially is your answer right or wrong and then a list of the correct answers at the end. You can customize the options a bit with Thatquiz and its strength is the ability to create custom quizzes, and you can even create questions with some interactivity.

Assistments on the other hand allows you to create extremely high quality assessments which can actually be part of the learning process. They provide the opportunity to create a really useful formative assessment. Students can be working on a problem (in math) and ask for a hint on a problem, and based on the work the student has done to date, the hint changes. The backend for the teachers provides a lot of useful information, including whether or not a student has asked for a hint on any particular question.

Either way, if you are going to use an online quiz, make sure it provides immediate feedback to the students.

What Does Brain Research Have to Say About Our Teaching?

My head of school started the beginning of the year by talking about brain based research.  He was told in a session he participated in during the summer that the use of sarcasm in a classroom can hamper learning. The reason for this issue with sarcasm is that, according to the presenter, negative emotional responses shut down the higher level functions of the brain and force the brain into "fight or flight" mode, during which very little learning can take place.

According to Diane Connell, there are 11 principles of brain-based learning:

1. The brain is a parallel processor.

2. Learning engages the entire physiology.

3. The search for meaning is innate.

4. The search for meaning occurs through patterning.

5. Emotions are critical to patterning.

6. The brain processes parts and wholes simultaneously.

7. Learning involves both focused attention and peripheral perception.

8. Learning always involves conscious and unconscious processes.

9. We have at least two different types of memory: spatial(autobiographical) and rote learning (taxon memory).

10. Learning is developmental.

11. Learning is enhanced by challenge and inhibited by threat.

The consequences of this theory of learning for educators are multiple. First, we need to engage student’s positive emotions in order to enhance their learning. Shout at a kid, or make them feel dumb, and you are certain to be inhibiting their learning by inducing negative emotions in the sense that negative emotions make us feel threatened.

According to this theory, learning is enhanced by the challenge of the task. Certainly we recognize this as true in our students, when we talk about pushing our students to their limits. This theory also inherently recognizes that poorly written standardized tests are never going to challenge our students’ abilities and are therefore not enhancing their learning.

There are other consequences too; the need for exercise in order to promote learning in other areas, the need to explore the whole picture as well as the details, recognizing the developmental nature of learning, and others. The point here is that the emotional connection to learning is important and if we really want to help our students learn, we need to pay attention to their emotional responses to what we do.

Sarcasm, taunting, derision, and other negative emotions have no place in our classrooms.


Connell, J.D. (2009). The Global Aspects of Brain-Based Learning. Educational Horizons, Retrieved from on September 5th, 2010

Jensen, E. (2008). A Fresh Look at Brain Based Education, Phi Delta Kappan International, Retrieved from on September 3rd, 2010

Reflection on using back-channel chat in class

Today we had a joint project in Science and English where students pitched a product they had "invented" which would help solve the global water crisis.  Their product had to be greed inducing and their pitch had to include some of the scientific background required to understand how their product works.

We styled the actual presentation space itself much like the television show Dragon’s Den.  This meant that one person was presenting an idea to 5 students, who had to judge the idea and based on its merits decide whether or not to fund the idea.  This meant that at any time, 5 students were involved in judging and 1 student was presenting.  Unfortunately this left the rest of the audience with nothing to do but watch.

Anyone who has worked with adolescents can tell you that 3 hours (which is how long it took to go through 30 presentations), even if it is broken into two 90 minutes sessions, is a long time for them to hold their interest, especially if they have nothing to do.  Traditionally teachers have often solved this problem by having everyone take the time to evaluate each presentation, which means that students have to be somewhat actively listening in order to do their individual evaluations.  Unfortunately this generally doesn’t work as well as expected given that even this task can be boring and students will often decide on arbitrary marks/comments for their peers, just to make sure the task is completed.

So what we did for this particular set of presentations was set up a back-channel chat for students to use while the presentations were going on.  The idea was, give the students something to do which is engaging and interesting and allows them to express their opinion.  Our instructions were pretty simple,  be respectful and remain on topic.  

The system we used is called "Ajax Chat" and it is an open source web script that we set up on one of our school’s web servers.  This had the advantage of being free, private, and easy to customize.   I made some small customizations before we used the system, for example I first removed the extra menu for users which stopped the students from being able to send private messages, switch channels, and add emoticons to their chat messages.  I kind of felt that all of these would be distractions from actually using the chat.  I also disabled sounds for the chat, as I didn’t want a whole bunch of beeping to  be going on all over the room as each student submitted messages.  Finally I created user accounts for all of the students and sent them individual emails (to do the emails I used Excel + Word + an email merge through Outlook, which was an enormous time-saver) with their unique passwords which I hoped would reduce the number of students logging in as someone else.

At the beginning of the chat, I was pretty lenient about the student’s behaviour because I knew that none of them had used this kind of technology in a school context before, and I wanted to allow them some room to experiment.  After a few minutes of a bit of chat chaos at the beginning, I started asserting control over the chat room and let them know which of their behaviours were inappropriate, and which were good.  When a student went off topic or started spamming the channel, or other types of inappropriate behaviour, I kicked them out of the chat room for 10 minutes, at first with 3 warnings, and then later with 1 warning.  Sometimes the other students would laugh about this, but generally they got it, if you broke a sensible rule using this tool then you wouldn’t be able to use it anymore.  Once the students came back to the chat room, they were better engaged and more respectful.


You can see from the part of the chat log up top that this was a reasonably successful test of back-channel chat with this group of students. Most of the conversation was on task, perhaps 99% of the comments were focused on the presenters during the entire three hours.  I feel like students really had an opportunity to express themselves, and some students who were normally a bit quieter in the classroom participated more in the chat.

The strengths of the chat room were that it greatly increased the amount of student engagement with the presentations.  I often noticed students asking clarifying questions and checking to make sure that they heard the information given in the presentations correctly.  One student even said, "Wow I learned something new today!" in response to another student’s presentation.  People also were generally good at giving constructive feedback, and recognizing how the students were doing during the presentations.

One of the problems was that as time went on, students would log out of the chat room and not come back. The noise level in the classroom didn’t increase much toward the end of the session, but it was clear that the level of student engagement was lower.  I don’t think that this is unusual for any kind of activity of this length with middle school students, but it does mean that the students who went up first got a lot more feedback about their performances.  That being said, those students got to see a lot more examples of good pitches and model their pitches after previously successful pitches.

I can see why educators have been raving about back-channel chat and am definitely planning on using it in the future, especially for situations where audience feedback is difficult to do and silence is expected, but where it can be so powerful.  I think in a regular classroom setting with a teacher lecturing up at the front, it’s easier for students simply to raise their hands and ask questions,  but in large lecture halls, moderated back-channel chat should most definitely be used.

For people interested in the customizations that made this activity work a bit more effectively, I’ve uploaded the script here (remember that 99.99% of this was created by the very generous programmers at  For the technically minded, you’ll need a web server capable of running Php files, and access to a MYSQL database in order to install this web chatting script.

Does testing students harm their learning?

So I had an interesting thought today.  I think that testing students, just to see what they know, can actually harm their learning.  Here’s my argument.

Let’s start by assuming that we would like students to be responsible able adults. This is not an unreasonable assumption, I’m sure that all parents want this to be true for their children, although we may disagree about the methods to achieve this end.  

Embedded in the meaning of the word "able" is the ability to learn new stuff.  Without this, students will not be able to succeed in a new global economy.  There is lots of evidence which shows that the rate at which knowledge is currently expanding, what is useful to know today, will not necessarily be useful tomorrow.  Changes in the world will require adults to be able to process and digest new information, perhaps even to reinvent themselves.

The word "responsible" in the context of our implies a certain sense of moral reasoning ability but also the ability to take care of one’s self.  In this second context, we can assume that part of taking care of one’s self is ensuring that the skills and things we have learned are relevant because if they are irrelevant, it will be difficult to maintain a decent standard of living.  In order to ensure we have relevant skills, one would have to be in charge of one’s own learning.

So as educators then, as proxies for the parents of the children in our care, as fulfilling our primary responsibility of helping students become responsible able adults, we must provide them opportunities both to learn how to learn and also how to best manage their own learning. We can easily give them many learning experiences, and teach them how to reflect upon their learning so that they are able to learn on their own.  In fact, I would think that schools which are successful do just this, and that many students come out of high school with some ability to master new material on their own.

However, teaching the ability to take responsibility for one’s own learning is not happening at many schools.  How many young adults are able to take mastery of their own learning?  One of the reasons that this happens, I argue, is that students are very rarely, if ever, put in charge of assessing what they know.  This responsibility is the prerogative of the teacher, and the teacher alone.

One of the ways in which we, as teachers, exercise our right to assess students is by giving them tests.  Perhaps students in some courses don’t do tests, maybe they do some other form of assessment, but because they are not in charge of what assessments they do, students will likely fail to learn how to take personal responsibility for their learning.  Every assessment teachers create without student input is a failed opportunity for that student to learn how to assess their own learning.

Another way in which we fail to give students the opportunity to be in charge of their own learning is choosing the curriculum they should be covering for them.  As educators, we self-select what we want to learn in many ways.  For example, we choose our professional development sessions, we decide to which conferences we want to go, and we select which books we want to read.  We even decide with which other professionals we want to collaborate.  In fact, if we weren’t allowed to do these things for ourselves, we would (and do) complain bitterly and feel as if our professional judgement was in question.

Students need to be given some of the same freedoms as educators to choose what they learn.  Perhaps initially educators would have a lot of the say in the lower age groups and could model ways in which learning opportunities can be selected, but as children get older they must have more choice about what they learn. Most schools already include some freedom of choice in terms of course selection, but rare is the school that gives complete choice over what students learn to the students.

Both assessing students and choosing curriculum for them create arbitrary boundaries on what students are expected to know and people who are given boundaries will tend to stop at them.  How often have you heard that a student has forgotten what they learned because "they didn’t need to know it anymore"?  Have you had many students come to you after a unit is complete with more questions about that topic, perhaps at a more advanced stage? Why have the students stopped being interested in your unit? The unit is over, so the need and desire to learn more about it is gone.

How can we do our secondary job, which is to ensure that our students learn the skills and content that we want them to learn?  We can start by teaching kids how to assess their learning, how to create rubrics that will demonstrate understanding, how to grade their own assignments, and how to construct assignments, tests, and other assessments, for themselves.  We can model how to construct assessments by giving some of our own we have generated.  We do not have to stop assessing our students, we just need to gradually shift this responsibility from ourselves to them, so that by the time they are ready to leave high school, they are able to reliably determine for themselves if they have learned.

Radically reform schools

Personally I believe schools are in need of deeper reforms than simply changing the pedagogy a bit can resolve.  Here are some suggestions I’ve been exposed to over the past few weeks, which could be considered radical, but might really improve schools.  I’d like to provide references for where I learned about this information, but to be honest I’m not really sure who exactly suggested what, I’ve been processing a lot of information recently.  I’m pretty sure some of this is from Don Tapscott,Gary Stager, Alfie Kohn and Joe Bower.

  1. Get rid of end of year percentage grades.

    They don’t measure what we want them to measure to measure.  Students can easily have good grades and not really get what’s going on, and similarly students who really get it might not have good grades.  Somehow we’ve managed to convert grades from a measuring tool of what the student has learned (which in my opinion should always be related to what they knew before) to a mixed measure of their work habits and ability.  Work habits are strongly related to socioeconomic status because of the difficulty poor students have in finding the space and time to complete their homework.  Ability is related to how much your personal needs are being met, and again this is strongly related to socioeconomic status.  So in other words, grades might be a better measure of how much money a student’s parents make than their true latent ability to learn your course material.

    Instead of grading students, have them produce a portfolio of tasks each year which proves they have learned something valuable.  Such portfolio pieces could be rigorous and the decision about whether they are "complete" should be a joint one between the head of school, the teachers, the student, and their parents.

  2. Stop grouping students by age and start grouping them by interests.

    This one is simple.  We group adults by interests (or jobs if you prefer) all the time.  How many places can you think of outside of school where human beings are sorted by age?  Doug Stager brought this point up in a presentation at the 2010 ASCD conference and I agree with him, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.  With multi-age groups we can now suddenly have authentic apprenticeships occur where children who have expertise can train children who are beginning.  Imagine how much the learning in schools would be amplified if instead of every 30 students having 1 teacher to every student having 1 teacher?

    If students move onto new material by demonstrating mastery of the current material, then this system makes sense, because people can take much different amounts of time to demonstrate mastery.

  3. Get rid of national standards and benchmarks for success.

    All national standards do is assume that every child is the same.  By subjecting every student to the exact same set of rules, we end up failing all of the students who do not meet the narrow definition of success embedded within the standards. If our graduation rates are too low, it is because we are unable to recognize the strengths of the children who do not fit into our neat system.

    Let’s not forget the argument, brought up by Yong Zhao, which suggests that 2nd and 3rd world nations are trying to overhaul their standards based systems and emulate our older education systems because they believe that their national standards have left them out of the running in the global economy.  Why are we trying to move toward systems we know don’t work?

    It is also possible that at the current rate that total human knowledge is expanding, it is not possible to capture all of the important parts of it which a curriculum which rarely changes.  Removing the performance standards and focusing on learning what is happening now, or what is critical to understanding the human condition, might make it easier to keep up in our rapidly changing world.

  4. Provide way more options for students.

    One of the major differences I have noticed between private schools and public schools is the amazing amount of course choices offered in private schools.  The top schools offer a wide variety of course choices because they know that this selection appeals to both parents and students.  I recommend doing away with the traditional concept of a year or semester long course completely and focus on providing individualized selection of modules students can take.  For example, Cesar wants to learn how to make an electronic generator.  The teacher and Cesar look up what is needed to be able to do this and Cesar completes those modules.  He can see that anything he is learning is going to be directly necessary for understanding how his electronic generator works, and understanding the value of the importance of learning something is more than half the battle in terms of motivation.

  5. Turn schools into places students want to go.

    When I lived in New York city, I was horrified by the appearance of the public schools and complete lack of creativity those goes into equipping the inside of many of them.  They look like gigantic prisons, with bars on the windows, and the interiors are devoid of any useful places for students to collaborate outside of class.

    Instead of this, provide spaces for students which are more organic, give them more ability to communicate with each other, and provide access to the tools students need to be successful.  Our schools, like our other important institutions, should be places full of innovative technology.  The US, for example, will lose about $3 trillion combined in taxes and expenses on medicare, unemployment premiums, etc… for the students who drop out over the next ten years.

Maybe these ideas are too radical for the current school system, and I suspect that some of them would lead to revolt from our parents, not because I don’t think they would work, but I recognize that they are very different from what most of experienced when we went through school.  However, if we all look back at our own schooling, I’m sure we remember hardly any times when we really enjoyed what we did in class, but we can all remember those courses we took which did nothing for us.  Why are we subjecting our students to an even worse experience than we had?

Teaching compassion to our students

How do we teach our students to be compassionate? I’m thinking about this idea this morning because of something that happened to me that I want to share.

I arrived in San Antonio last night as I am attending the ASCD 2010 conference.  I’m pretty stoked about this conference, it is great to have a chance to meet up with a bunch of educators from all over the world.  Although I am connected to teachers globally through Twitter, long conversations there tend to be sporadic and hard to follow.  To have a really in depth conversation with a few people, you really need to meet in person.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of #edchat, but sometimes it feel a lot like having a conversation in a gigantic room with everyone shouting, and when someone retweets someone else in the conversation, it feels like an echo.

My hotel is located right on the Riverwalk in San Antonio, which is fabulous, I highly recommend checking it out if you are ever in the area.  I went for a walk in the morning today to look for some breakfast.  After trying some searches on Yelp and Google maps, I settled on a nice Mexican restaurant and wandered over there, only to discover it was closed.  Grumbling, I looked around a bit and noticed that pretty much all of the good looking restaurants were closed.  Feeling extremely hungry at this stage, I settled for MacDonald’s.  Sigh.

As I stood in line, I noticed a man behind me was mumbling under his breath, looking at the menu, and fondling a well worn 1 dollar bill.  I glanced up at the menu, and could quickly tell that his $1 wasn’t going to buy very much, even at MacDonald’s.  I looked back at the man, and his clothing seemed like it was in okay shape, but he looked a little bit unclean, and his face looked like he was in distress.

I asked him if I could help, not specifying how I could help out of respect for his dignity, but thinking in my head that if I added $2 to his $1, he could have a meal.  He responded in a meekish voice, "Oh no, it’s okay, I’m just looking to see what I can get."  I felt bad, but having offered help and not wanting to push the issue, ordered my food.

As I waited for my food, the man slowly, and uncomfortably approached the cashier.  The cashier gave him a disapproving look and asked him in an abrupt voice, "Yeah. What do YOU want?"  The man with the $1 bill responded, almost shyly, "I’d like a lemonade please."  The cashier took the man’s dollar bill and a quarter that I hadn’t seen before and brought him a lemonade.  I felt embarrassed for the man, the cashier’s attitude was wholly unnecessary.

When I left the MacDonald’s the man was sitting on the steps looking lonely and discouraged.  I felt the same way, alone in this new city, and discouraged about human nature.

Our school systems are failing our children if they aren’t teaching the simple value of compassion.  It is so important that we respect everyone, especially people in need, while recognizing that may not want our help at that moment.  Why don’t more people see this? What can we do as educators to encourage our students to be compassionate.  I think most teachers are compassionate people, it kind of goes with the territory, but somehow this attribute isn’t always impressed upon our students.  I know that most schools are trying, all sorts of schools have community service built into their programs, but still we struggle to be a compassionate society, and I worry for our future

Making school feel more like the real world

Here’s my observation.  What we have students do during school does not at all resemble what they will do when they finish university.  In fact there is literally no relationship at all, and our students can see that and of course, they rebel.  I’ve talked about an alternate school structure before, this post is really an extension of that post.

The real life workplace does involve repetitive tasks (like school) but is also coupled with problem solving.  Actually almost all of the interesting parts of anyone’s job are when one is required to problem solve or at least learn a new skill.  We can actually be given some problems in the workplace which have no immediate solution, in fact they may have no perfect solution at all.  Solving a problem in the workplace is extremely rewarding in itself and probably leads to greatest job satisfaction for most people.  Failure, disappointment, success, creativity are all parts of the modern workplace. 

School on the other hand involves very repetitive tasks, and very little creativity.  Students are isolated from true failure through things like social promotion and minimum grade boundaries, disappointment is temporary, and the rewards for success on any one individual project are very small.  One could argue that working hard all the way through school can lead to big rewards in the form of scholarships for entrance to university, but in terms of hours worked, this can actually be considered a fairly small reward.  One of the only areas schools are like the workplace is that students get lots of opportunities to experience success.  Unfortunately these individual events are often to contrived and unlike the real-world as to lack meaning.

So what if, as soon as kids had some basic skills (like reading, writing, simple arithmetic) under their belts, they were exposed to a more realistic school where students were involved in solving real life problems and their solutions (where appropriate) were actually implemented?  There are lots of schools which implement this in various ways, and as long as the programs are structured appropriately, they seem to be successful.  I’m thinking of automotive schools, culinary schools, etc…. for middle and high school students.  So in other words, lots of schools actually do this already in various ways and are experiencing success.  All I’m suggesting is that we expand these types of programs, especially into the academic areas.

Here are some examples off the top of my head.  

Suppose, as part of learning about biology, students were involving in collecting and analyzing data from their local ecosystems.  One of the great difficulties biologists have is in collecting enough worthwhile data from a wide enough variety of places to be useful.  If students collected this data carefully and correctly, this could save an enormous amount of time for biologists and greatly expand the number of geographic environments that could be analyzed.

Students who need to learn about literature could collaboratively write a book (such a collection of short stories for kids), which they would be expected to market and sell themselves.  They would learn valuable lessons about the importance of editing one’s work, the difficulty in getting work published, and how one can successfully complete a lengthy piece of writing.  Obviously very similar ideas could be implemented by substituting book for movie, radio station, magazine, newspaper, etc…

Want students to practice their arithmetic?  Have them work together to run a store (perhaps where the products created by the students themselves are sold?) and keep track of inventory, manage their budget, and run a cash register (perhaps without the technical assistance that makes this all too easy to do?).

I think that most areas of the curriculum could be turned into more job-like projects but there might be some areas which would not lend themselves well to being ‘job like’.  Of course there are lots of other ways of approaching these topics which would be more meaningful and engaging for the students.   Learning about some topics through formal debates (and the associated research skills), write letters as if one was participating in a historical event, these are a couple of ways to increase student involvement especially in the social sciences.

In order for this type of school to work, one would really need to take a careful look at the curriculum and ask yourself, what of this curriculum is vital for the students to know, and what of it is intended to be used as a vehicle to teach skills?  Personally I think so much of what we teach is really irrelevant for students and could easily be trimmed down a fair bit.  These kinds of schools would be great for encouraging depth of knowledge and specialization of individual students instead of the generic cookie-cutter model of education.