The Myth of Average

Todd Rose’s brilliant talk at TEDxSonoma expands on a startlingly simple point:

When you design for the average, you design for no-one. He suggests instead we to need design for the extremes.

For anyone who has worked with students, it is an intuitive enough concept, in theory. Yet in application, it has proven challenging, especially in a climate fixated on norm reference test scores, where average is king (or queen). How do we design and deliver for the wide variability of students’ learning profiles when there is so much pressure to get all students to the same level in all subjects?  The default has become education policies that claim to race to the top, but instead stagger for the middle, effectively limiting the extremes.

As Rose so eloquently demonstrates with a story from military history, in trying to target the average, we invariably isolate everyone.

What makes him an expert in this topic? He was a high school dropout with a 0.9 GPA who is now an author of “Square Peg” and a professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education.

He says,

I’ve been to the very bottom of our educational system. I’ve been to the very top. I’m here to tell you that we are wasting so much talent at every single level. And the thing is, because for every single person like me, there are millions who worked as hard, who had the ability, but who were unable to overcome the drag of a educational environment designed on average. And their talent is forever lost to us.

Watch his talk above for more. We guarantee you will be even more inspired to cultivate that which makes your students unique, wonderful, and valuable to the well being of our communities.

RSA of Steven Johnson’s “Where Good Ideas Come From” Talk

3036254720_052d0020ccIn the video below, the clever folks over at RSA Animate give visual engagement to Steven Johnson’s brief talk on Where Good Ideas Come From, an excerpt from his TEDtalk.

One of the things we love about this talk is that it confirms what we intrinsically know to be true — innovation is more about interaction and engagement than sitting and listening.

Why is this important?

When we think about involving and investing all learners in education, we run up against the contrast between the traditional practices that sustain a factory “batch and queue” model of education with the reality of how people actually learn. Out of this contrast is born the dichotomous tension between focusing on efficiency and “teacher effectiveness” (an inherently top-down approach geared toward achievement on standardized tests) with that of focusing on the learners and their strengths/affinities/needs as a starting point (an inherently bottom-up approach focused on the whole child).

That the top-down version is currently the dominant paradigm is easy to see. There is more talk about accountability and outcomes than student engagement or motivation. Yet this video lays out the simple truth: innovation, via creativity, necessitates interaction and connections. If we want the strengths of dyslexia and other learning differences to be harnessed and applied, we need to think differently about how we involve students in learning. What is the role of the teacher? What is the role of the student? What patterns, norms, and habits of mind do we want for our graduates and what kind of learning experiences will help cultivate those?

Such questions will not be quickly answered. So, in the meantime, check out the clever video below.

 Photo Credit: zetson via Compfight cc

The Toll of High Stakes Tests on Non-Traditional Learners

This guest post by Bobbi Snow, co-founder of The Community Public Charter School in Charlottesville, VA, exposes the impact high stakes testing has her school’s neuro-diverse students and the teachers who work with them. It was originally published on Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog


He was already exhausted and had 58 questions to go. On the second problem of the 8th grade math exam he was stuck for almost 30 minutes.  This is the state standardized test given to all 8th graders in Virginia. Jim is a visual learner and needed to draw the answers for each possible option. Pausing a moment Jim reached into his snack bag and announced “Help me out here Pringles.”  Turning to me he commented, “I hear salt helps the brain.” I smiled.

I was drained watching Jim’s agony, as he thought out every problem and bounced from question to question.  But if I was drained, Jim was miserable.  He wanted to do well.  He stayed at it for five hours. The computer doesn’t fit Jim’s style of learning or showing what he knows. He is a hands-on, multitasking young man who likes to verbalize aloud what he thinks and figure out multiple solutions. He is an outside-the-box big thinker.

Melissa had a similar experience taking her SOL test.  Melissa thinks like an artist and has the kinds of skills we will need in this  century.  She asks questions that connect to other questions and has trouble with information that is separated into decompartmentalized chunks.  She just kept drifting off the test into some other world more interesting to Melissa.  She tried to engage me in pondering some of these bigger interesting questions but I am a seasoned proctor and I gave my Buddha look and reminded her I could not have discussions during the testing.  I brought my sewing in to establish a calm environment and stitched away.  In the middle of the test Melissa said in a panic, “What if I fail this?”  My heart felt touched knowing how scared she was at that moment. She returned to the test muttering, “This is a disaster.”

These are two students who do their work, have good analytical skills, and an intense desire to do well in school.  Their families support them to use their minds well. Teachers did adequate review and they were well prepared for the tests. They both felt like terrible failures. So many of their peers felt the same.

And so did I.  I know as a charter school we are being judged by the outside world to do well on high stakes testing.  The mission of our school is to help students who have been unsuccessful in their previous schools become thinkers and creative problem solvers.  Our goal is to prepare young people for the real world and as a public school we also accept the responsibility of preparing students for their testing lives.

But there are so many consequences that come with this acceptance.  One of our first year teachers reviewed the results of the writing tests and felt devastated by a few of her student’s scores. She felt that she had let them down by not preparing them well enough to pass. She sunk into her own feelings of failure as a teacher and considered shoring up the curriculum to be more aligned to the test.  This was because three perfectly wonderful students who are able thinkers and creative beyond what most adults we know could ever contribute to a conversation much less a class were deemed not worthy of scoring the necessary 400 points to pass the essay test. They were close. But no cigar. Was their prompt they were given too off target for their life experience?  Was it their anxiety that day that kept them from a good sequencing of ideas?  What exactly was their issue?

One test, one day of a test, made this gifted teacher second-guess her whole year of teaching.  How will it affect her next year when she has to make decisions about our arts infused project-based activities?  Will she want to reduce the class to worksheets and drill to review concepts and skills?

I believe in accountability and knowing what works for students to be successful. There are better ways than this one-size-fits-all testing to assess and record what students know.

As educators, are we seen as so limited that we cannot be trusted to create our own rigorous assessment tools and be judged by them?  Let us become the agents of our own work and design how to define mastery and be held accountable to our standards.  We will invest ourselves to figure out the mysteries of what a quality education means and can provide.  Until then we are held hostage to a system that is archaic, harmful for many students and teachers and missing an opportunity to involve local stakeholders in addressing the crisis in education.

For now we will just have to hope that Pringles can help.

Photo Credit: albertogp123 via Compfight cc

11 Characteristic of Meaningful Work (and Learning)

Meaning_People_700x300In a recent repost of Shawn Murphy’s “11 Characteristics of Meaningful Work,” the editors at QED’s blog noted that,

While this piece by Shawn Murphy is related to business practices and targeted to managers and business leaders, the parallels to education and student learning are striking. Teachers, curricula developers, and education leaders can find plenty herein to ponder, reflect on, and apply in practice.

We couldn’t agree more. Switch a few key words (for example: “work” to “learning experiences,” “employees” to students,” and  “the organization” to “school.”) and, voila!, some great advice for educators and education leaders.

Below are the 11 characteristics of meaningful work in title only. To read the explanations for each, you can visit Shawn’s original post here, or QED’s repost here

1. Basic needs are met

2. Strengths are leveraged

3. Pull personal satisfaction from work

4. Being in on things

5. Treated with respect by peers and managers

6. See how one’s work fits into the bigger picture

7. Personal sense of independence and interdependence

8. Employees believe they are valued by the organization, by management

9. Opportunities to know self

10. Promotion of other’s satisfaction

11. Recognized — give recognition for good work

Image: Shawn Murphy

Words that Ignite Learning

Below is a guest post by Kevin Washburn, Ed.D., author of “Architecture of Learning” and Executive Director of Clerestory Learning. His most recent recording at a Learning and Brain Conference can be found here

3184815166_1b775d1817It seems like a ridiculous question: Can a teacher’s words influence student learning?  Of course, we’d respond, how well a teacher explains new ideas naturally influences student learning.

But what about the words that are less planned, the comments teachers make in response to students’ ideas, efforts, and results? Can they make much of a difference?

Research suggests they can and do, probably to degrees we’d be surprised to discover.

Words reinforce beliefs, and beliefs, especially those about intelligence, influence learning. Students can hold or lean toward either believing intelligence is something you’re born with (or without), or intelligence is something you gain through effort. A student who believes you’re born smart—or not—is less likely to put forth effort to learn. This student seeks to convince those around him that he is one of the chosen who were given the gift of smart at birth. Either that, or the student may believe he is not among the chosen so effort is futile. The same belief interpreted differently yields the same result: a student who is unlikely to work to learn when learning does not come instantly or easily.

This mostly erroneous belief can be slippery. A student may believe it is true in one discipline but not another. For example, the same student can believe that you are/aren’t born smart in mathematics, but that you get better at reading through effort.

Where do these beliefs originate? Many times in the home. We’ve probably all heard a student say something like, “My dad said that I’m probably not good at math because when he was my age, he wasn’t good at math either.” The father’s words conveyed, confirmed, and/or introduced the wrong belief. When adopted by the child, the erroneous belief becomes an obstacle to learning.

However, communicating the wrong idea about intelligence is not usually so overt. In fact, it can show up in a statement intended to encourage learning: “Wow, Sam, you’re really good at math.” Such a statement emphasizes a belief that intelligence is something you are/aren’t born with because it suggests innate ability rather than drawing attention to the effort-result relationship. “Wow, Sam, you worked hard on this and look at these results!” is better because it reinforces the idea that we get smart through effort.

Just how much of a difference can this make?

In one study, some teachers used comments that suggested intelligence as inherited (“You’re smart at this!”) while others phrased comments that emphasized effort-result relationships (“You worked hard and look at the results!” or “We didn’t work very hard at this and the results show it. How can we make this better?”)

The results reveal the power of words that suggest both the right and the wrong beliefs. Students praised for innate ability put forth less effort, avoided challenge and feedback, and lost 20% of their achievement between pre- and post-testing. Not only did they not learn much, they seemed to lose ⅕ of what they knew prior to instruction.

In contrast, the students praised for their efforts sought challenge, desired feedback, and had a 30% gain between pre- and post-testing. Think about that—a 50% difference existed between the two groups at the study’s conclusion, and the defining factor was the teacher’s words.1

Neurobiology plays a role in this effect. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter that influences emotion, provides a sense of pleasure when what we anticipate happening matches reality, but when our expectations are not met—when our actions do not produce the desired result—we feel disappointment. Jonah Lehrer explains, “The problem with praising kids for their innate intelligence—the ‘smart’ compliment—is that it misrepresents the neural reality of education. It encourages kids to avoid the most useful kind of learning activities, which is learning from mistakes. Unless you experience the unpleasant symptoms of being wrong, your brain will never revise its models.”2

Through disappointment, we gain an opportunity to literally rewire neuronal connections, to learn, but only if we attend to our mistake. The student who believes intelligence is genetic loses this opportunity because he generally refuses to attend to his mistakes.

Our words can influence the belief students hold about intelligence, and that belief influences the effort students apply to learning. We need to pause and think, “How can I phrase this feedback so that it emphasizes an effort-result relationship?” Our students may have to wait a moment for our comments, but what they receive may actually make them better learners.

A wise writer once warned that words can be so destructive they burn down entire forests. But fire can also ignite rockets.

Let’s intentionally use our words to ignite learning.


  1. Mangels, J. A., Motivating Minds: How Student Beliefs Impact Learning and Academic Achievement. Presented at Learning and the Brain: Using Brain Research to Enhance Cognitive Abilities and Achievement (Nov. 2007).
  2. Lehrer, J., How We Decide (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2009), 53-54.

This post was originally published at Ecology of Education

Photo Credit: DailyPic via Compfight cc

How the Brain Retains (Infographic)

The folks over at mindflash developed this infographic about how and where the brain stores it’s information. While much of the brain’s information storage system remains a mystery, it is important to remember (see what we did there?) that memory is varied, nuanced, and often associative. Working memory is different than short or long term memory and what students take away from an experience or recall about it later, cannot be dictated by anyone else. They construct knowledge and memory themselves. It is why, as educators, we must be conscientious of providing environments and experiences that are meaningful, relevant, and engaging to them.


Anxiety and the Mind

Below is an image from a Time Magazine article on the “Anatomy of Anxiety” from a few years ago. While the article is a bit dated, the relevance remains, especially for educators.

Students need to feel relaxed, safe, and welcome in order to learn effectively. If we focus only on content and raise the stakes of assessments, we increase some students’ anxiety and make it more difficult for them to learn. A reminder that our job in working with students begins, and is sustained, through relationship building and trust.



Image: Joel Ertola via Time