My Top 7: Changes every school should make now

My job is to think about and to improve the design of secondary education. After teaching in college and graduate school, including teaching pre-service teachers, and working in an instructional and administrative role at an urban public charter high school, I founded a small independent school in northern Virginia with the modest goal of saving the world by improving how education is done. In this role, I am fortunate to be able to ask fundamental questions about the goals and purposes of formal education, and then, with my fellow teachers, to design solutions to learn what works best for students and for teachers.

I work in an independent school, instead of in a public or public charter school, because I want the intellectual and institutional independence that only an independent school offers its teachers. The point of founding a school is to share what we learn with other teachers, who may not have the freedom to experiment and innovate as we do.

Sharing What We Learn

 With this in mind, I have tried to distill what I have learned so far into a useful list of what works for our independent school and could be adopted in public and public charter secondary schools. For example, our class sizes, teacher to student ratios, and total teaching load per teacher are much smaller than are economically feasible in publicly-funded schools, so I will not make any recommendations that could not be deployed in any school in America.

While I now work at an independent school, I am a product of public schools and am committed to their success. I completed thirteen years of primary and secondary education in public schools in Maryland and attended the state university. My daughters attended our local public elementary school. In my role as the Co-Founder and Chief Academic Officer at Actively Learn, which is an educational technology company working to improve student learning when they read digital texts, I have had the privilege to work with teachers in public schools and public charter schools across the country. It is with this experience, and with them in mind, that I offer my recommendations.

My Top 7 Changes to Make Secondary Education Great

So, here are the top seven changes I believe all secondary schools, including public schools and public charter schools, should make now:

  1. Hire people who know and love what they are teaching, and then get out of their way.
  2. Choose content and design instruction that are important to learn and worthy of student time and attention.
  3. Keep the work challenging for all students.
  4. Improve the quality, timeliness, and usefulness of instructional feedback.
  5. Teach students to reason effectively.
  6. Use educational technology to strengthen, not to replace, teachers.
  7. Spend as much time on social climate as on academics.

As you can see, many common recommendations to improve formal education are missing from my list. I am not going to rail against standardized tests or push for smaller class sizes or promote choice. Each of these could help, but I do not want to offer suggestions that require legislative action that will slow our progress. Everything in my list, except maybe how teachers are certified, can be done without waiting for policymakers to act. I will expand on each of these below, and in subsequent posts that explore each of these areas more deeply (pun intended).

1. Hire people who know and love what they are teaching and get out of their way.

This is the most important and most difficult goal, and it is the only one that might require the direct involvement of elected officials, in terms of changing the teacher certification requirements for a specific jurisdiction. For now, I am going to assume that elected officials want to do what is best for their constituents, including children, so I am simply going to explain what we need and leave it to them (and to us) to make it happen politically.

To hire people who “know and love” what they are teaching means hiring subject-matter experts who are curious, creative, and enthusiastic about the subject matter they teach. Teachers should have a college or advanced degree in the subjects they teach, or a college degree in another subject but considerable professional experience in the subjects they teach. Additional licensing should not be required if this requirement is met. This addresses the knowledge component.

As for the love, this has to do with what a teacher reads and does on their own time to deepen their knowledge about their subject and its connections to and application in the larger world. A teacher’s love of a subject is shown by how much time they spend trying to get to the bottom of it, to looking at it from multiple angles, and to wrestling with its complexities. These traits come out when you ask teachers why they love their subject, what they continue to do independently to learn more, and why they think the subject is critical for their students to learn.

The final part of this first recommendation has to do with getting out of the way of qualified teachers, or, in other words, making teaching great for teachers. If teachers are happy and engaged, students will be happy and engaged.

With few exceptions, teachers are teachers because they want to help students learn. If you only hire teachers who know and love their subjects, they are experts who deserve room to design and to deliver the instruction they have learned will be most effective. Teachers know their students well, and are far better positioned and equipped than remote administrators and policymakers to determine what content the students will find important to learn and will be worthy of student time and attention.

2. Choose content and design instruction that are important to learn and worthy of student time and attention.

The work we assign has to be worth doing. It’s that simple.

We need to assign texts, tasks, and problems that we, as adults, would find interesting and important, and that we know to be valuable for the parents, citizens, and wage-earners our students will become. We need to assign only authoritative texts and to ask more ill-structured, engaging questions that promote thoughtfulness and connections across content.

A corollary of this is “Explain to students why what they are learning is important to learn and make sure it is.” In other words, we have to be able to tell students why they are learning something and why it should matter to them, and actually know that what we are saying is true out in the world. This does not mean students have to believe immediately that what they are studying is important, only that students will only believe it after we believe it and show them why we believe it. If, on the other hand, we give students texts, tasks, and problems we find numbing and pointless, it will show in our work and our students will see us (fairly) as frauds and hypocrites. And, we will fall out of love with teaching. If you cannot stand behind the work you assign, throw it out and start again.

Every hour we take from our students, in the form of class time and homework, is precious and never to be recovered. Is your work the highest possible use of each one of their hours?

3. Keep the work challenging for all students.

If every one of your students is not struggling with the work you assign, you are going too easy on them and, if this is the case, you are of no use to them. It is the teacher’s role to make their students work hard to succeed, because it is only with this mindset (a nod to Dweck here) that they will accomplish anything meaningful with their lives. This is a particular issue for “gifted” or bright children who too often do not need to work to get good grades. They learn bad habits that can be difficult to shake when they are older and are in a more competitive setting where the only way to add value is to struggle and to persist with difficult assignments and projects.

4. Improve the quality, timeliness, and usefulness of instructional feedback.

Students need to know why they are doing what they are doing, what they are expected to do, and how well they are doing against some meaningful (to them) standard. And this feedback must be timely and useful, so it actually improves student work going forward.

The challenge of providing quality, timely, and useful feedback is often a shortage of time. The answer is to be more efficient and strategic about the feedback we provide. We can provide less total feedback, if we make sure the feedback we provide is timely and clear, and addresses the one or two most important things students need to know to improve their work.

5. Teach students to reason effectively.

I would argue that the greatest failure in most schools is that we are not teaching students anything important, because we have not decided for ourselves what is most important for our students to learn. I submit that the most important thing for students to learn is how to reason effectively about complex problems they have not seen before. Accordingly, at our small independent school, our goal is to teach students to make important (read complex and consequential) decisions well, which requires being able to reason effectively. This means we have to teach them directly how to reason effectively. This is something it took me a few years to learn, even though my academic research is in judgment and decision making processes.

We hired teachers who knew and loved their subjects, we assigned high quality content, and we did all of the other things on this list, but we only taught reasoning indirectly, by assigning texts and by asking questions that would promote inquiry and thoughtfulness, for example. Now, we aim directly, in all of our subjects, to teach students how to think like an expert about the material they are working on in the subject. For example, in history we do not focus on students’ memorizing people, dates, and places; instead, we ask students to evaluate how the people, institutions, ideologies, economic pressures, and technology in a given place at a given time can explain why events unfolded as they did. By having students focus on key dimensions of historical processes, and doing this consistently across events, we are more likely to help them reason about any new event they encounter in school, as professionals, and as citizens.

I believe if more effective reasoning is not the ultimate goal of every secondary school, we are simply wasting our students’ time.

6. Use educational technology to strengthen, not to replace, teachers.

As long as there are humans, they will need humans to teach them. This is particularly true when you challenge students.

In my experience, it is misguided to try to replace effective teachers with technology, and I see daily the benefits of live, synchronous discussion about academic content in the same physical space (as opposed to online). As someone who co-founded an educational technology company, I know technology can do what teachers cannot, but this is only in the service of making teachers more effective at what teachers do best: showing students why what they are learning is important, providing effective feedback, increasing the level of the intellectual challenge, and making visible to students the reasons they should invest the time and effort to learn more deeply, among other things. The poor completion rates among adults of online courses is evidence that people need people to learn difficult things. So is the fact that every expert today is working with another expert to produce better work, and can recall how one of their teachers inspired them to become who they are today.

The proper goal of educational technology, therefore, is not to replace the teacher but rather to help the teacher focus on the higher-level design, feedback, and meaning-construction tasks for which they are critical, and irreplaceable.

7. Spend as much time on social climate as on academics.

What I mean here is that teachers and other educational designers need to spend as much of their time thinking about what it is like to be a student at school as they do on what their students should learn in their classes at school.

If the quality and humanity of a student’s daily experiences at school, inside and outside class, are not a priority for teachers and administrators, school will continue to be a miserable place for many students. Students will learn cynicism, pessimism, helplessness, and isolation, instead of learning justified optimism, simply because the adults are not paying attention to their experiences everyday, in their classes and in the spaces in between--at lunch, at their locker, in the gym, on the bus, in the bathrooms, on social networks, and so on. As educators, we are here to help the whole child, and to leave them whole when we are done. This requires an equal or greater attention to social climate and to students’ emotional well-being and development than to academic standards and expectations.

Arguably, the most important thing any secondary student can learn from teachers is that he or she is a person with something important to contribute, as an individual and as a member of their larger community. Every student matters, and it must be clear to each one of them that we, as educators, are doing our best to make sure they experience this at school everyday, in every class and in all the spaces in between.

A child who leaves us whole will leave us with everything they need from school.

A beautiful education

In the end, a beautiful education is my goal. I did not add this to my Top 7 list here because it may be too vague and ephemeral right now to be useful in larger schools. And, it is not really a single change we make, but rather it is the aim of all of our efforts to improve formal education.

Still, I want to share this goal because I believe it should be your goal as well, and, fortunately for you, my colleagues and I, and many other committed educators across the globe, are working to make plain what a “beautiful” education looks like and how it can be delivered.

Stay tuned.