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Step 1 – The Starting Point

Under construction – DRAFT and working notes for Step 1

Step 1 is based on a program called CHIP that ran for two years in a public secondary school. You can read more about it here, but it is recommended that you first familiarize yourself with Step 1.

This section on Step 1 is quite lengthy because it lays the base for the steps that follow it. It includes some anecdotes to help convey the value of democratic learning, and to heighten the desire for change, it presents some of the drawbacks of traditional schools.


Step 1 demonstrates how democratic schools can exist under the same roof as traditional ones, and its main goal is to give people a chance to become comfortable with the idea that students can excel in the absence of age-segregation and mass scheduling.

It is these two practices, age-segregation and the scheduling of students, that most constrict public education, to the point that there is almost no wiggle room for real reform efforts. It is these practices that most lead people to agree with George Leonard, author of “Education and Ecstasy”, when he says public education is “a vast, suffocating web of people, practices and presumptions, kindly in intent, ponderous in reality.” In this age of growing diversity these practices continue to perpetrate uniformity and conformity. By eliminating them, as is done in Step 1, the doors become open for pioneers to enter the learning frontier.

The Step 1 program is small. It is housed in a single classroom and it serves a cross-age mix of approximately twenty-five secondary students. Students enroll in the program for one semester, or for a year in unsemestered schools. At the end of the semester they choose to continue in the program or to return to the traditional program. Outside the classroom, the students are subject to the same rules as students in the main school. They are also entitled to participate in all of the extra-curricular activities provided to other students.

The big difference with Step 1 is that students work independently on courses prescribed for their grade level. They are required to cover the curriculum of the same number of courses they would take in the traditional program, and some schools may have them write the same final exams as their counterparts in the traditional program. This means that the students have more control over how they learn, but no greater control over what they must learn. The teachers act as facilitators, guides, coaches, mentors and co-learners as they helped students individually or in groups.

This idea of giving students more control over how they learn, but no more control over what they learn, is not new. It is the basis of many successful programs that have been created for students at risk of dropping out of school or to recover students who have dropped out. It stands to reason that if we know how to prevent dropping out, and how to recover students who have dropped out, then we know how to avoid putting students at risk in the first place. Applying the same practices with students in mainstream programs can do it.

“Andragogy” is a little used word. It refers to the education of adults as opposed to pedagogy that is about the education of children. In the realm of andragogy, studies have been done on people who were dropouts and then returned as adults to complete their schooling. In his book titled “The Modern Practice of Adult Education”, Malcolm Knowles sums up the findings with a list of principles of adult learning. He says adults learn best when:

  • they are treated with respect as self-directing persons
  • the learning situation is related to their past experiences
  • they have participated in the planning of the learning activity and set their goals
  • they are physically comfortable and can socialize with those in the learning group
  • they are with their peers, freely learning in groups
  • there are opportunities for a variety of learning activities
  • in a problem-centered situation where a question needs resolving or a task needs doing
  • they see progress, immediate results and some rewards for the time they put into learning

With the realization that young learners are no different from adult ones, many of the public school retention and recovery programs apply these principles, as does the Step 1 program.

With respect to pupil/teacher ratios, Step 1 has the same ratio as that found in traditional classes – approximately 25:1. Two teachers work with the students. Only one is on duty at any given time, one is assigned to mornings, the other to afternoons. When not on duty in this program, the teachers work as they normally would in the traditional program.

Are Children Capable of Self-Direction?

There is a saying: “I was such a great learner, and then I went to school.” Most people laugh when they hear it, but beyond the humor is a sad condemnation of our schools.

Children are innately capable learners. For proof, we only need to look at what they informally master before they go to school, and something that stands out in these early years is the uniqueness of each child. Some like to dance and sing, others want to chase a ball. Some play with trucks, others with dolls. Some do puzzles and others play “pretend”. People often note how distinctly different even siblings can be despite being born and raised in very similar conditions.

When children go to school, two big things happen. Teachers take control of the children’s learning and adults determine the learning agenda. It doesn’t matter if you are a child or an adult, whether it is your boss at school, or your boss at work, if you have little influence over what happens to you, you will abdicate responsibility and simply expect to be told what to do. If what you are required to learn is of no interest to you, you will lose interest in learning.

Schools consequently do the opposite of what they are expected to do. Instead of cultivating the joy of learning, and developing responsible problem-solvers who exercise initiative, they produce people who are turned-off learning, who dependent on others for direction, who lack confidence in their ability to learn, who are afraid to make a mistake, and who are alienated from themselves – from what interests them.

Traditional schools create the climate that begs the question: “Are children capable of self-direction?” The fact that people ask this question gives evidence of how much they are the victims of autocratic schools. They have been so indoctrinated that they see no other way, and there-in lies a big problem for children. Marshall McLuhan said, “We don’t know who discovered water, but we know it wasn’t the fish.” We need people who have been swimming for ages in the sea of traditional education to discover the fresher waters of democratic learning. We need for them to ask not if children are capable of directing their own learning, but rather how has it happened that they have become incapable of it. Step 1 puts students on the path of recovery. It hands back to them a degree of responsibility for their learning and acts to restore a confidence that not only are they capable of assuming this responsibility, but that no one else is better suited to do so.


The Step 1 Lifelong Learners Curriculum

Malcolm Knowles:

“It is no longer functional to define education as a process of transmitting what is known; it must now be defined as a lifelong process of continuing inquiry. And so the most important learning of all, for both children and adults, is learning how to learn, the skills of self-directed inquiry.”

Most students who have been dependent on teacher direction for years will not suddenly thrive when given control over their learning. A period of adjustment is needed during which they learn how to take charge of themselves. To speed the transition, the Step 1 teachers promote what can be described as a curriculum for lifelong learning.

This common curriculum contains much of what educators are defining as the 21st Century skill set, the skills students need for success in the modern world. The goal is to provide for these skills to be acquired through what Seymour Papert called “Piagetian learning” – learning without being taught. In the early stages of reform, however, these skills are dealt with more formally, and with some sense of urgency.

Achievement levels in the prescribed courses taken by the students in Step 1 will be scrutinized, especially by skeptics, as a measure of whether or not students can be given control over their learning without falling behind students in the traditional program. The expectation is that in addition to adjusting to independent learning the students will maintain their grades. In a semestered school this level of success would have to be achieved in just a little over four months. It seems unfair to expect this much from students, but in fact it is quite doable. In the end they not only maintain their grades, but they also benefit from everything they learn about being self-directed.

In Step 1, the skills of independent learning are put into practice as students work on their mandatory courses. Knowledge of the course materials develops as a by-product of students effectively applying these skills. For presentation purposes the skills are divided into three categories: tools for self-direction, skills for individual achievement, and skills for group achievement.

A)   Tools For Self-Direction

These tools are documents created by the students. They are used to structure the learning process and to help ensure that goals are achieved.

–       Long-term plan

It is recommended that you just skim through this curriculum and return to it for details when starting Step 1.

Governments provide syllabuses for their prescribed courses. Working with these documents teachers then structure the contents of the courses and create timelines for completing the various tasks. With some courses the timelines can be very precise. Math courses may have a detailed day-by-day list of the concepts to be taught along with the related exercises to be assigned. Courses like English literature may have a more general timeline that simply indicates blocks of time for the study of different authors’ work.

In Step 1, students determine how they will spend their time. Instead of working on math daily for one period, they can decide to work on it all morning twice a week. Students studying Shakespeare may team up for a few days and put on a play. Art students can spend all day on some creation. Without the bells interrupting their day, students’ can manage their time to maximize learning and to make school more fun.

The program also permits students to be more spontaneous. If something is happening one day that captures their interest, they can put their planned work aside and live the moment. Their timelines are viewed as fluid documents ready to be altered when good reason presents itself, but they also demand vigilance. If a task is postponed, it needs to be re-scheduled. This promotes advanced time-management skills as it forces students to assume responsibility for themselves and to not lose sight of their end objectives.

The students are required to create their long-term plans at the beginning of each semester or school year. This results in them obtaining good overviews of their courses and helps to establish that time needs to be well managed.

–       Short-term plan

The short-term plan is essentially a day plan. It is similar to the long-term one with respect to the onus of responsibility and the development of time-management skills. It also has the flexibility of the long-term plan. If a math session is going well one day, a student may decide to extend it. If a discussion is taking place that a student wants to join, there is nothing to stop him or her from doing so. As with the long-term plan attention to the end goals of the prescribed courses is ever present with postponed work needing to be rescheduled.

Students are encouraged to get to know themselves as learners and to practice designing their days to best work for them. Those who like structure can establish routines with one day being similar to the next. Students who like a freer approach to learning can build variety into their days and allow for more spontaneity.

Students are required to create their short-term plans for the following day at the end of each day and to submit them to the teacher before leaving. Having students create them on a computer and submit them electronically is recommended. (These daily plans are not fixed – change on the fly as appropriate – like a good teacher will scrap a lesson plan to follow student interest, but with the idea that missed work has to be made up.)

–       Daily log

Students are required to maintain logs of what they accomplish each day. These logs are updated at the end of the day when the students make their plans for the next day. An electronic spreadsheet with a column for each prescribed course plus a column for other learning is a good way to manage the information. Logs would only be submitted to teachers when requested.

There are a number of advantages to having students keep logs. They have a motivational value. Knowing that you have to provide a record of what you do helps to keep you doing what you need to do.

There is an overtone of accountability to logs that would not resonate well with advocates of democratic learning, but logs are part of the big world. People travelling on business need to maintain them for reimbursement of expenses or for tax deductions. Others like lawyers and accountants keep them to provide a record of the amount of time and the tasks accomplished when they bill their clients.

Students in even the most democratic schools will be going on to other things and they will need to sell themselves on their accomplishments. Knowing how easy it is to forget, it would be sloppy of someone not to keep records, ones that are considerably more detailed than resumes, of what they have done to make themselves valuable to others or to appear deserving of being given an opportunity. These records can be reviewed for talking points before interviews. Portfolios containing photos, sheet music, artwork, published articles can also provide reminders of accomplishments and be useful when selling yourself to others.

Step 3 ?? is when students are given more control over what they study of the transition to democratic learning, students are not required to take prescribed courses, but they are required to demonstrate significant learning in an area that interests them. If they want credit for their learning, they are going to have to be able to verify that the learning has occurred and logs will help them to do it.

It all comes down to responsibility. In traditional schools it is the teachers who are responsible for providing records of students’ learning. This is done through teacher-made tests and assignments, and the measure of a student’s learning is summed-up with a number like 72, which describes a student as mediocre, or 80, which describes him as possibly hard working, but maybe not too bright, or as bright, but not committed. If an interviewer were to ask one of these students what he or she learned in a particular course, the answer would probably be something like, “I don’t really remember.”

Being self-directed carries with it the responsibility for being able to demonstrate learning. The goal is to move beyond using unreliable numbers to describe students to the point where students articulate meaningfully a description of themselves.

B)   Skills for Individual Achievement

–       Analytical Reading

The deciphering kind of reading that requires point-by-point understanding is described as analytical reading. It is the most empowering of self-directed learning skill. It corresponds to being a good fisherman in the context of the saying, “You can give a man a fish and feed him for a day, or you can teach him how to fish and feed him for life.” Likewise good analytical readers are independent. They can teach themselves just about everything they will need to know for the rest of their lives.

When students come to Step 1 teachers wanting help with a math concept, the first order of business is therefore not the math. The teachers could teach a concept, but that is just like handing the student a fish when they need to learn how to fish. Consequently the exchange might go something like this.

“Sir, I don’t know how to do this kind of problem,” says the student.

“Did you read the explanation in the textbook?” asks the teacher.

“Yes, but I didn’t understand it,” the student answers. “It wasn’t very well explained.”

“Well let’s see where you start to not understand the explanation,” the teacher says.

The student and teacher then work through the explanation deciphering what is being said. The result is that the student gets a reading lesson with the math concept being learned as a by-product. In this way the mental agility to view written explanation from different angles is expanded and the student’s confidence in his or her abilities is given a boost.

–       Self-Discipline

Most proponents of democratic learning believe that we don’t need to worry children about self-discipline, that their drive to survive and their natural curiosity will provide all of the necessary motivation for them to learn what they need and want to know. This may be the case with young children, but as the following story suggests, self-discipline becomes more of an issue as we grow older. (Lead in with Math boys needed.)

Dr. Cowan was a professor of electrical engineering at a prestigious university. He obtained his training in analog electricity before digital electronics was big, but as digital grew in importance he increasingly felt the need to update his knowledge. Eventually he decided he had to do something about it, but then, like so many of us do, he procrastinated until he was thoroughly disgusted with himself. When he could tolerate inaction no longer he took himself to the library and signed out several books that would teach him what he wanted to know.

For about two weeks he hurried home after work and studied into the night, but then he began to falter. He studied less and less until he was studying no more. The books started collecting dust, yet he was still far from having the knowledge he wanted.

A phenomenon known as the novelty effect motivates us to learn about something new, but as the freshness of the topic wears off so too does the motivational power. For young children the novelty effect works well as they move from topic to topic becoming introduced to all sorts of things that over time help them to learn what truly interests them. As they grow older though, the need to pursue things beyond the novelty effect manifests itself. Professor Cowan knew this and he decided to take charge of the situation.

He was a family man with young children and spending a significant amount of money was something he and his wife had to agree on. So he went to her saying, “Darling,” as he asked if he could spend $800 on a digital electronics kit. It was a kit full of little component and instructions for all sorts of hands-on experiments that were supposed to teach everything anyone would ever want to know on the subject. His thinking was that by making himself accountable to his wife and by combining mental work with hands-on activities he would have the motivation needed to achieve the learning he wanted. Knowing how important it was to him, his wife agreed, and within a week he had acquired the kit and was working with it well into the early morning hours.

This lasted for about six-weeks and then he began to slack off. Soon he was again doing nothing, the kit was sitting unused, but still he was a long way from knowing what he wanted to know.

In a state of desperation he decided to back himself into a corner that would give him no choice but to succeed. He went to the dean of his department at the university and asked to be assigned to teach a first year digital electronics course. The dean agreed and Dr. Cowan went on to learn what he needed to know to teach that course. His sense of duty to the university along with his self-respect and respect for his students would not permit him to enter class unprepared. Week by week he labored to stay ahead of his students, and when it was over he asked to teach a second year course.

When Dr. Cowan told this story to a group of his students, he had become an expert in digital electronics. He hadn’t done it with the intestinal fortitude that people think others have, certainly others like university professors, but the admirable thing is that he did find a way to get the job done. Essentially, he accomplished the task by coercing himself, and from this perspective the Step 1 program introduces self-discipline as the art of self-coercion, or of self-imposed incentives. Step 1, being only the beginning of the transition to democratic learning, does have its limitations with respect to how much students are prepared to coerce themselves. An exchange I had with three 15-year-old boys who were enrolled in a Step 1 type program reveals a major limitation of it.

Real world feedback is considered important for people to find success in life and I wanted to give the boys some feedback I thought they needed. (I was chatting with them about their math course and it was obvious to me that they were not putting the required effort into it.) They had conveyed to me that they wanted good marks in the math course they were all taking, but my view was that they weren’t putting in the required effort, so I told them the story of Dr. Cowan. (They were kind of slouching in the seats the way Putin does when he sits with Obama in front of cameras.)

When I finished recounting the story to them I said, “We need to find some incentive that will make you work harder on math. Maybe money can help. If I paid you, would you work harder?

“Oh, for sure,” said one with the others quickly agreeing.

“Ok then, how much will it take to make you work hard enough to get the marks you want? Would a hundred dollars do it?” I asked.

“Yah, I’d work pretty hard for a hundred dollars,” another said with the others nodding.

“Let’s be serious here,” I said as they sat up straighter. “Would it be enough to guarantee that you would work hard enough to achieve them? Let’s get a number that we know without doubt will work, one that absolutely guarantees that you will pull out all the stops and make it happen. Will a hundred dollars be enough?”

“Well, maybe two hundred,” one answered.

“Yah, two hundred,” the others echoed.

“Alright,” I responded, “let’s make it two hundred dollars for a mark of seventy. Would that work?”

They thought it would, so I then asked, “What about an eighty? Would five hundred buy enough effort for you to get an eighty?”

There was hesitation. Eighty was not a mark they had contemplated. I assured them they were capable of it if they put their minds to it, and they agreed with me, but they didn’t want to work that hard.

“Two hundred for a seventy sounds good to me,” said one.

“Yah. Two hundred for a seventy is good,” said another.

“Well we’ll stick with two hundred for a seventy then if that’s alright with you,” I said.

“Oh yah,” they said, excitedly dreaming of some easy money.

“Now, we’re talking about your grades, your future, not mine, right?” I challenged them.

“Well, yes,” they said hesitantly, sensing that they were about to get the curve ball.

“Why would I pay you to do something for yourselves,” I asked them. “There’s nothing in it for me except feeling good because you feel good. I’m not going to pay for that. We have established though that two hundred dollars would motivate you to get a seventy – that is something we can build on. The problem now is how can you harness the motivating power of two hundred dollars without someone having to pay you? Do you know the answer?”

Of course they didn’t know what I was getting at, so I told them, “You risk the two hundred dollars. Each of you brings in two hundred dollars tomorrow. We will deposit the money in the school account and you will be given a receipt along with a signed statement of conditions. If you achieve a seventy, you get your money back with interest, if you don’t, the money gets donated to a charity of your choice.”

Their body language was worth a study as I continued. “A nice thing about this arrangement is that you can’t lose. You either get your money back or you make a nice donation to a worthy cause. Either way it’s a positive result. So what do you think? Are you willing to bring your money in tomorrow?”

A spontaneous and emphatic “Nooo!” emanated from all three at once.

“I don’t have two hundred dollars,” one added.

“I could probably get it, but I’m not going to spend it like that,” another said.

“Spend it!” I responded. “We’re not talking about spending it. It’s an investment. The money is only to guarantee you get at least seventy percent in the course. Like the professor did, you are just backing yourselves into a corner where you have no choice but to accomplish something you say you want and are capable of doing.”

As you would expect, they didn’t go for it. A mark of seventy wasn’t important enough for them to take the risk, and they didn’t value a better knowledge of math as being worth the trouble. Despite what they said, all they really wanted was the course credit and a less than mediocre one was good enough for them.

Great effort is expended to get students like these to improve their grades, but the students are often not the ones expending it. Adults revamp curriculum. They try different delivery methods. They develop remedial programs, provide tutoring, and obsess over how to motivate students with assessment and evaluation techniques, all in a search for something that works. They are the committed ones while students practice the skills of deception, happy to be labeled average or incapable as a way of dealing with adult expectations that they don’t buy into.

The difference between the professor and the over abundance of this type of student is that the professor wanted the knowledge he pursued, while these students saw no real need for what they were required to study. It’s a difference that goes a long way to explaining why students are not more engaged in learning. They need to see value in what they are learning. When they can pursue knowledge they want, not only are they more likely to learn it, and retain it;(check quote from Chris M) they are also more likely to appreciate that making an effort is worthwhile. It becomes a game changer. Instead of students honing their skills to avoid learning, they hone them to become better learners.

Knowing this, you might think that Step 1 should give students more control over what they learn, not just over how they learn. In his book titled Drive, Daniel Pink calls for people to be given more autonomy. He says, (Used below)“Perhaps it’s time to toss the very word ‘management’ onto the linguistic ash heap alongside ‘icebox’ and ‘horseless carriage.’ This era doesn’t call for better management. It calls for a renaissance of self-direction.” Although he advocates this, he warns that we cannot “pluck people out of controlling environments, when they’ve known nothing else, and plop them into environments of undiluted autonomy.” Some kind of support mechanism, something he calls “scaffolding”, is required to help people make the transition. In Step 1, the prescribed courses are retained as scaffolding to avoid overwhelming students with too much change all at once, and there are additional benefits.

The first is that they permit students to focus their adjustment on developing the skills and attitudes required for self-directed learning. One semester is too little time for most students to effectively take control of both the what and the how of learning, and the how is the logical starting point. Once they know how to direct their own learning, they will be in a position to succeed at taking control of what they will learn.

Another benefit is that students gain experience with how to design learning projects. Curriculum developers working for ministries of education create the courses students must take to graduate from secondary schools. They determine the various topics to be covered in each course and they produce the course syllabuses. Teachers then build on these syllabuses deciding how to present the topics to their students within the timeframes of their schools. In Step 1, the students do the teachers’ job. They take the syllabuses and decide how to learn the material before the end of the established time period. By doing this they get to see how the curriculum developers present a course, the quantity of material they believe is appropriate and the sequence of topics they think are relevant.

The students may also work with course outlines that teachers have produced for students in traditional programs. This gives them examples of how to turn a syllabus into the learning activities that accomplish the goals. By working directly with course syllabuses and using examples of how teachers apply them, students gain first-hand experience with how large learning tasks are broken down into a sensible series of activities. This is experience that they will improve their ability to attack learning challenges of their choosing. They also benefit from having to confirm, other than by constant teacher testing, that they have learned what they think they have learned, and how they can verify for others that the learning has indeed been accomplished. The role of the teacher in Step 1 becomes on of empowerment. Instead of lecturing and testing, they to help students to develop and execute learning plans that works for them.

The requirements that students submit their plans to the teachers and keep logs of their work are not only to encourage an orderly and focused approach to learning projects. They also form part of the scaffolding. They keep some of the external pressure on students, some of the coercion they are accustomed to teachers providing, to help ensure that they stick to their plans. With the plans and logs, the teachers hold students accountable for accomplishing what they, the students, have committed to doing. The teachers are not heavy-handed. Their role is to help students to develop the habits and attitudes required for them to meet their own objectives. Although plans and logs are somewhat coercive when required as they are in Step 1, they are in fact useful tools for independent learning. By having to apply them as daily routine, they are developing habits that lead to successful living for life.

Remember that at this stage we are talking about older students who must complete prescribed courses. You will see in later Steps that the external coercion inherent in the plans and logs of Step 1 is not applied to younger students nor to older ones who are good at self-direction.

Thirdly, another benefit to retaining the prescribed courses is that they increase the likelihood of people participating in this effort. to accelerate the redesign of public education. The more radical a reform effort is, the fewer the number of people willing to support it. Step 1 is intentionally far from being radical. It only breaks the barriers to learning that are inherent in age-segregation and scheduling. The fear is that students would be less likely to obtain credits in all of their courses with the result that graduation day for them would be delayed, but under the watchful eyes of the Step 1 teachers, this is unlikely to happen. With the help of the daily plans and logs, the teachers will be monitoring student progress and offering guidance where needed. Most students, even the three boys mentioned above, are going to do the necessary work to maintain some minimum grade that has become part of their self-concept and that will permit them to graduate with their peer group. This means the risk of falling behind is far less than imagined.

A final reason for keeping the courses is that ministries of education would have to approve of them being eliminated, and they would be reluctant to do this. If they didn’t outright deny such a request, they would likely impose some requirements that could discourage and ultimately derail the reform efforts. By adhering to ministry curriculum directives, the Step 1 program is kept within the jurisdiction of school boards, and this makes it considerably more likely to get a go ahead. As Step 1 programs build public confidence in students’ ability to direct their own learning, ministries of education will be more likely to support reforms that give students far greater control over what they learn. How this can come about is described in a later Step.

Evaluation Overview

Not long before starting to write this section on self-evaluation I watched a Youtube video ( of Guy McPherson, author of Going Dark, giving a talk at the Bluegrass Bioneers 2012 conference. At one point in his presentation he displayed this quote fromArundhati Roy’s book Power Politics.

“The trouble is that once you see it, you can’t unsee it.

And once you’ve seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing

becomes as political an act as speaking out. There’s no

innocence. Either way, you’re accountable.”

 He was referring to environmental concerns, but the quote applies equally well to educational concerns. This section is therefore included as a prelude to how evaluation is conducted in Step 1. The intent is to raise peoples’ awareness of the extensive damage and waste occurring in public education as a result of current evaluation practices. The hope is that people who cannot unsee this damage and waste will appreciate the alternative applied in Step 1.

We have probably all heard someone say, “Keep your eye on the ball.” If the underlying thought is applied to education, we get: “Keep your eye on the learning”, and what we see when our eyes are on learning is that testing in traditional schools has little to do with actual learning. We see instead that it is mostly about controlling and ranking students, not about helping them, and the more we see it, the more words like ill-conceived, unproductive, inhuman and destructive come to mind.

As we begin to look at the evils of testing, it is worth noting that it is undergoing a name change. Educators have started referring to it as “Assessment and Evaluation”, or “A&E” for short. It suggests that they are sensitive to the growing criticism of testing, but that they don’t understand the fundamental problem behind it. Fussing with details and giving it a scientific sounding name do not change the fact that it is testing as usual. A&E is still the old accountability engine that determines if students are failed or passed, if teachers are fired or praised, and if schools are closed or kept open.

As an instrument of accountability it is used to maintain control over students, to keep their noses to the grindstone. The teacher’s warning, “You people better get busy; you’ve got a test coming up,” resonates long after school is left behind. This has been the case for so long that we now act like children will not learn without testing, but we know they do. We see them driven to learn from the day they are born, and we chuckle when someone says, “I was such a great learner, and then I went to school.” (Already used above)

This disconnect between great learners and school can be corrected. Instead of commandeering learning, schools can simply allow children to continue being great learners. Admittedly, it is a big leap for people bred in traditional schools to accept that the best person to manage a child’s learning is the child himself or herself, but this is the challenge we face. As we conquer it, money spent on coercive testing can be redirected to enriching the learning environment, and time consumed by tests can become time for learning.

The other big function of conventional testing is to create student transcripts (which means to rank students). Scores on class tests are combined with exam marks to provide final grades in subjects. All of the grades, in all of the subjects, through all of the years of school are compiled and maintained by teachers and administrators in what amounts to a gargantuan clerical undertaking. Like the tests themselves, this creating and updating of student records is an enormous drain on learning resources.

The worst aspect of these student records though, is that they are used to determine a student’s future. It might be said that this was a reasonable practice at a time when career options were very few and people could learn almost all they needed to know for life in the first twenty years of life, but it is not reasonable now. And we can excuse the educators who applied these methods when they did not know what we know now about child development, multiple intelligences, the ill effects of erroneously pigeonholing young people, and the need for everyone to be self-directed, life-long learners if they are to be equal members of a democratic society, but they are not excusable now.

The problem stems from schools assuming the responsibility for putting price tags on the students they turn out. They slap their transcript stickers on kids’ declaring them to be worth something between 0 and 100 percent. It’s a brutal, discriminatory custom, and in time we can expect it to become seen as a gross violation of human rights. Educators are not, and never can be, in a position to put a value on children, and they have to absolve themselves of that responsibility as quickly as possible to avoid massive class action lawsuits. The solution lies in students assuming the responsibility of making their own price tags. It needs to be seen as their job to sell themselves. It’s part of what it is to be responsible for self. No one else should have that duty. No one should have to expose himself or herself to the liability that’s inherent in deciding someone else’s future.

Despite how it looks, teachers are not the culprits in testing. They too are victims of current practices. Few, if any of them, are teachers because they like to give tests. First of all, tests add to their workloads. Teachers have to create tests, mark them and tabulate students’ grades, duties that are often done at home at night. When people don’t like tasks imposed on them they are apt to cut corners. Teachers are no exception and it impacts the quality of their work. Workloads are lessened by creating short tests with fast-to-mark questions, by putting less than a conscientious effort into providing comments on students’ answers, and by making tests easy to avoid having to provide retests.

Also, testing is not fun. Most teachers would rather be working directly with their students or planning good lessons. There is little joy in creating tests, standing around bored as students write them, and then marking them at home at night, but there is something far less desirable. Tests create an unhealthy tension between teachers and students, a tension that is rooted in the dual role teachers play. On the one hand their job is to help students, and on the other it is to judge them. These are conflicting roles that often lead to unpleasantness and distrust. Teachers prepare students for tests, but then if a test contains questions that students did not expect, or if students are given marks below what they think they deserve, they feel deceived. It’s a teacher’s dilemma. They get caught between maintaining high standards and fostering the student/teacher rapport that maximizes learning. An experience I had exemplifies the problem.

I had been teaching tenth grade math for a number of years and I was getting by without drastically compromising my sense of professionalism, but then I inherited a class that shook me. The students lacked the prerequisite knowledge for the tenth grade course, but their ninth grade marks were high. My first thought was that their previous teacher wanted too much to be popular and had sacrificed standards to gain it. When students receive high marks they are happy, their parents feel relief, and the teacher is thought to be good.

My predicament was that I had to bring the students up to speed and cover the tenth grade curriculum in the time allotted. Making matters worse was that the students thought themselves to be good at math. I had to first convince them that they couldn’t breeze their way to high marks, that they had to apply themselves.

It wasn’t long before I was seen as the problem. The students started comparing me unfavorably to their previous teacher, but I couldn’t say he had let them off too easy. Criticizing a colleague is considered unprofessional and can result in a reprimand, so I just said that they had to expect grade ten to be harder than grade nine, and that together we could conquer it.

Well, we didn’t conquer it. Things got worse. The students weren’t strong enough, or they lacked the attitude, to handle the pace of catching up and doing the new work. Their tests marks remained lower than they were accustomed to achieving and the parents began to complain believing their children’s claim that I didn’t explain things properly. Making matters worse, a fellow teacher who had a child in the class sided with the students. She let it be known through her husband that she thought my standards were too high.

I didn’t give in immediately. I tried to maintain the levels I held with previous classes, and I tried like never before to explain the concepts as clearly as possible, but the grades didn’t change. My teaching increasingly became the issue and my rapport with the students was deteriorating making the classroom less conducive to learning. I had to do something, and I chose to do what was probably behind what the previous teacher had done. I sacrificed standards. I created an easy test. It couldn’t look too easy or people might fault me so I included some challenging questions, but I taught to those questions. I actually did a couple of them in class before the test, and later when I corrected the test I generous with marks. In this way, I manipulated the class average to match that of the previous year, and virtually overnight everyone was happy again.

My actions were to me so blatant that I expected at least some blowback, some indication that someone saw through me, but I heard nothing. It felt like I was part of a big conspiracy that keeps the system trucking along with marks, not learning, being what matters most.

This kind of malpractice is commonplace in public education. It’s one of the things that contributes to the subtle dumbing down of students that people like John Gatto, author of Dumbing Us Down, or David Blacker in The Falling Rate of Learning write about, and it helps to explain why colleges and employers complain that students graduating from twelve years of public schooling lack even basic skills. Lately, powerful people have been touting standardized tests as a way to correct the problem. These tests take the construction and correction of them out of the hands of classroom teachers making it more difficult to manipulate marks, but they don’t fix the problem.

In The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch writes, “Given the importance of (standardized) test scores, it is not surprising that teachers and school officials have devised various ways of gaming the testing system: that is, tricks and shortcuts to achieve the desired results, without improving education.” She goes on to describe how the intense pressure created when the purpose of testing is accountability, instead of being informational and diagnostic, “leads many educators and school officials to boost the scores in ways that have nothing to do with learning.” She supports her claims with examples of outright cheating by teachers, such as changing students’ answers after the tests have been submitted, and with accounts of students being denied entrance to some schools because they may not score well on tests.

It is not, however, this gaming that is the biggest drawback to standardized tests. These tests constrain learning even more than regular testing practices. Standardized tests generally focus on English, science and math skills. The result is that schools concentrate on these areas. Teaching becomes test preparation for a very thin slice of knowledge. Other subject areas get neglected and the idea of a well-rounded education is out the window. The overall result is more anxious learning environments where the joys in both learning and teaching have been greatly diminished.

Another reason teachers don’t like tests is now evident – test results reflect on them. Students’ poor marks are seen as poor marks for teachers, and more than their reputations can be at stake. Marks from standardized tests are resulting in teachers being fired, and even schools being closed where they are deemed to be underperforming.

If the results of these tests were reliable, then there might be some argument for maintaining them, but they are dull instruments, broad stroke actions arising from the one-size-fits-all mentality that so destructively rules our schools. Extenuating circumstances are not taken into account, which means the futures of students and teachers are being decided with faulty data. The human rights of both groups are being violated. The right to be judged fairly isn’t happening in our school systems.

Tests, both standardized and otherwise, make teachers perpetrators of this injustice which is another reason they don’t like them. They are put in the position of having to give tests to students who they know have no chance of passing them. Young people are being made to perform something that can only end in failure. Worse still, when the class average on a test meets some minimum standard, the whole class is marched on in unison with the under-performers left to fall by the wayside. It’s a system that rejoices when the dropout rate decreases from 29% to 27%, as if a single dropout is acceptable. In medicine, such disregard for people would lead to lawsuits, but in education it is treated like a fact of life.

And it is not as if the kids who pass tests are receiving what they need. There are those who get promoted with 50% only to be buried in failure and frustration later by their lack of foundation for higher learning. At the other end are the 80 and 90 percent students, many of them bored and also frustrated by a learning agenda that is paced according to the class average. Teachers know that students are suffering and they would prefer not to be party to it, but they have yet to embrace the reforms that overcome the problems.


We now turn to a solution that eliminates the waste of time and money found in the way testing is done today. It is also a solution that does not lead to students being labeled; cheating becomes purposeless; the joy of learning is not ravaged, and the unhealthy competitiveness fostered by ranking students gives way to cooperative learning.

The core of this solution is expressed by the words of Tapscott and Caston. In their book Paradigm Shift, they say, “If you want to control, you design organizations for accountability. If you want to accomplish, you design for commitment.” Daniel Pink adds to this line of thinking in Drive, a book promoting autonomy. “Perhaps it’s time to toss the very word ‘management’ onto the linguistic ash heap alongside ‘icebox’ and ‘horseless carriage’,” he says. “This era doesn’t call for better management. It calls for a renaissance of self-direction.” These statements link management/control with accountability, and commitment with self-direction. These perspectives support the notion that “the only valid form of evaluation is self-evaluation,” and self-evaluation is the solution presented here.

In a non-coercive learning environment self-evaluation is natural and on-going. It determines what is known and what is the next best thing to learn. Much of it is informal and instinctive, as we see with children playing. They watch each other for new things to try, and they determine if they are ready to try them. There is much trial and error, much room to make mistakes and to learn from them. The commitment to learning is unquestionable, and through the unbridled activities we see the development of the attitudinal differences that distinguish children who learn freely from those whose learning is controlled by others.

Fully democratic schools are like playgrounds. Children self-direct and self-evaluate. It is not the job of the school to assign grades to students. The onus of responsibility is on students to establish their own worth. Graduating from a traditional program with a transcript of grades, the transcript widely regarded as unreliable, is replaced with students having to represent themselves. It is their job to apply whatever it takes to convince institutes of higher learning or potential employers that they are capable of succeeding in the roles they aspire to play. The assembly line approach to education that turns out widgets with their price tags attached thus gives way to individuals who assess their own worth and who can effectively communicate it to others. In other words, students in democratic schools learn how to affix their own price tags, and how to defend them. This is essential learning if students are to be responsible for themselves.

Step 1 makes a big move in the direction of self-evaluation in that the teachers are not responsible for formative evaluation. Their role instead is to advise students about how to conduct self-evaluation that supports the learning they are required to do for their mandatory courses. Most of the time this self-evaluation is straightforward. Old tests with answer sheets can form the basis of it. In subjects like math and grammar, students can do representative textbook problems and check their answers in the back of the book. They might also enlist the help of other students to give them questions then discuss their answers.

The evaluation of writing skills and essays is more involved. It is not about right or wrong answers, but rather about the quality of communication and the depth of thinking. These are not things students can evaluate for themselves. Older students can help, but ultimately the students need to be exposed to a higher level of expertise. This means the teachers must continue to evaluate some of the students’ work.

Time is always a factor. Expressions like, “time is money”, and “time is all we really have”, give a sense of its importance. It needs to be regarded as a personal possession and that we have a right not to have it stolen or wasted by others. Traditional schools are dreadful when it comes to abusing students’ and teachers’ time, and Step 1 works to overcome it. The value of time is discussed and students are urged to be respectful of people’s time by putting in their time before requesting help from others.

A story about a student named Chris provides some background for this discussion. During his final year of school, his class was assigned several essays to write. One Saturday night while he was partying with his peers there was talk about their current essay assignment. It was to be a minimum of 1000 words in length, and it was due on Monday. Chris and some of his friends had not even started to work on it, but Chris wasn’t concerned. He told his worried friends, “I just set my word count, and then I ramble. As soon as I hit a thousand, I finish my sentence, and that’s it. Done!”

Other students who want more than just a passing grade fake it more than Chris. They may attempt to create good opening and closing sentences and add a little structure. Others may plagiarize or buy an essay off the Internet. Whatever approach they take, one thing is for sure; students who work conscientiously on essays in an effort to maximize self-improvement are very rare birds. It is easy to blame the shirkers and slackers for their shoddy ways that squander time, but from their perspective, they’re being smart. They have been made to do something they see as a waste of time and they have decided to waste as little as possible. The hidden effect is that students are learning how to avoid doing their best instead of how to accomplish their best.

Teachers assign these essays and so you would not think that they too are being mistreated by them, but that is what happens. Their job compels them to inflict misery on themselves. A class set of these essays amounts to a colossal abuse of their time. Once submitted, the rubbish has to be marked. At a glance, teachers can tell that a so-called essay is not worth a minute of their time, and some teachers may return it with no comment other than to say, “If you want me to spend my time marking this, then you have to spend more of your time writing it.” Most often however, teachers don’t do this. They don’t do it because it doesn’t produce the desired results. Students would try just a little bit harder at playing the game of “Fool The Teacher” and then they would resubmit the essay pretending that they had given it their best. If the teacher again rejects it as unworthy of consideration, the student might get indignant saying, “But I tried my best. How am I supposed to improve it?”

In this situation, teachers might stick to their guns and say, “If that is your best, then you are going to have to repeat this course.” They might even go a step further and contact a student’s parents asking them to encourage their Johnny to put more effort into his assignment, but this can get complicated. The parents might give it their best effort and the teacher is then going to have to give it his or her best. The essay the student now submits has to be marked diligently with well-considered comments. If parents do much of the work on the essay, they can be offended by the teacher finding fault with it. They then might side with their child in defaming the teacher as incompetent or expecting too much.

Still the teacher might take the professional route and work with the family to keep relationships good and the focus on learning, but you can see where this is going. Parents and teachers don’t have the time to sustain this level of involvement. It might be done once or twice, but with other demands on the adults, and students too overwhelmed with too many assignments, it doesn’t last. What happens is that teachers become begrudging cultivators of mediocrity. Early in a course they judge what they think are the marks students are shooting for, the marks that won’t create a backlash, and they put just enough comments on many essays to avoid bringing their professionalism into question. Chris would get a passing grade with a few little comments, and almost none of his essay would get read. A student with a good opening sentence followed with ramble would get a slightly higher grade, one or two more comments, and a little more of the essay would get read. Teachers still try to inspire their students to do their best, and those who do usually get the teachers’ full attention, but there is a strong propensity for teachers to match their efforts to the ones put in by their students. The game is about survival, not learning, in a system designed for accountability, not commitment.

To help correct this problem an idea is borrowed from the Sudbury Valley School. It has required students who want a graduation certificate to write just one superior essay. In Step 1, students only have to write one great essay instead of several lesser ones. Quality overrides quantity. Mastery of the craft is the goal, and so students learn what’s involved in producing good work. The current practice of requiring students to write several essays without the demand for perfection reinforces what has already been said about coercing students to work and the need to obtain marks for transcripts, marks that we see even better with Chris’s story categorize students according to effort more than ability. With very little extrapolation we see also that it is a practice that cultivates the habits and attitudes where second rate is good enough.

Students in Step 1 are told of the reasoning behind the one essay requirement and how it can benefit them. To further foster commitment and a dedication to excellence, they are permitted to do their essay on the aspect of a course that most interests them. It is expected that related readings will be done conscientiously. Brainstorming, outlining, writing, and rewriting again and again – often until the finished product bares little resemblance to the first draft, are treated as facts of life. To help the students understand what quality means, they are given, or are required to find, articles setting out the standards for good essays. Many of these can be found on the internet. To help them get a feel for what they need to accomplish, the students are also provided with exemplary essays written by former students.

With this one essay students can prove to themselves that they are capable of great work, work to be proud of, work that boosts their confidence and self-esteem. The mediocrity and deception we see cultivated in Chris’s work are thereby turned into a striving for mastery, which leads to good attitudes and good work habits.

It’s true that there are different types of essays and creating just one that approaches excellence does not make an accomplished writer. The skills acquired through producing the one essay though are sufficient for most adult writing needs, and if students graduate with only one great essay under their belts then we will be much further ahead of where we are now.

Digressing for a moment, Step 1 students could be required to have a classmate critique their essays before submitting them to the teacher. It could save the teachers some marking time and help to develop the culture of a learning community. As with all peer helping, it is a two-way street. Much can be learned from critiquing other people’s writing. The general essay writing skills of the critiquing students get reinforced and they can get to see more clearly than with critiques of their own work how essential details can get left out by writers who are too close to their work. Similarly they could learn from seeing how sentences might read well for an author, but leave the reader confused. The communication and interpersonal skills needed to effectively share knowledge with another person are also put into practice.

Despite the expressed desire for mastery, a certain reality stands in the way of the Step 1 students achieving it. Their mandatory course load demands of them more than they have time to do well. According to Mimsy Sadofsky, a founder of the Sudbury Valley School, it’s a situation encountered by students after they leave Sudbury. On the school website she writes, “kids who go to the school here are used to doing their best and when you go to college you can only do your best some of the time. You can’t do your best all the time because you have to balance a lot of pressures. So they have to learn how to not always do their best.” She sees this as quite ironic, but also thinks it “okay,” adding, “it’s something you have to learn in life. You have to learn to set priorities in life and they do that.” The Step 1 students are like the college students; they have to set their priorities, and when they do they need to have marks in mind.

Priorities and Price Tags

Final grades for all of the courses the Step 1 students take have to be submitted for their school transcripts. A portion of these grades, usually 20 to 50 percent depending on the course and grade level, is derived from the final exams. The remainder is based on what is called formative evaluation, assessments that take place in class during the course. Although this kind of mark keeping conflicts with the ideals of democratic learning, it does create the conditions for students to learn how to put a price tag on their work and how to defend it because it is the students, not the teachers who have to come up with the number. The teachers’ job is to help the students to develop the skills they need for the task.

First comes the priority setting where students need to decide what mark they want to achieve in each of their courses. Most of the students will have been in traditional schools for years and it will have shaped their self-concept. Many will have bought into their assigned rank and see themselves roughly as average, or above or below average, and they are apt to pursue marks that simply confirm how they see themselves. If they are students who generally score around 75% in a course, that is likely to be the mark they set as their goal if they are not coerced to do otherwise. Some might decide that they want to do better and shoot for 80%, but what you will find in most cases is that the students set their priorities to match how they have been labeled.

Striving for a mark significantly higher than the usual involves changing more than that mark. It requires students to change their self-concept, to see themselves as capable of better work, and it involves overcoming some bad habits. There is a comfort zone for students who settle-in at 75%, or whatever their number is, and changing that number means getting out of that comfort zone and establishing a different view of yourself. It’s not an easy thing to do. People struggled when they try to break a habit or re-work their self-concept, and this is what students are up against if they decide to up their marks.

Obtaining higher grades also involves changes to more than the relationship students have with themselves. It also affects their relationships with other people. First of all, people tend to gravitate to others who are like themselves. It’s common therefore to see friendships being formed with those of similar rank. The average ones hang out together, as do the above average and the potential dropouts. Changing ones performance level consequently impacts friendships. A study done of under-performing students concluded that some students were deliberately failing because they feared being rejected by their peer group. If students decide that they are going to strive for significantly higher grades they may need help understanding that it could have an affect on their friendships and how they might deal with it.

Secondly, parents may have become accepting of their children being less than they had hoped. They may have resigned themselves to their children being only “average” and at least some students won’t want to see that change. If they start achieving higher grades, then the parents might come to expect it, and that increases the pressure on students. If life at home is good, students may not want to risk stirring it up.

Another factor that will influence students’ priorities is seen with the math boys mentioned above, and with Chris’s approach to essay writing – students may see little value in the course material they are required to study. They may therefore want to minimize the time they spend on it and aim for grades that are merely good enough.

All of this is in play when Step 1 students set their priorities. The teachers do not expect the students to do their best at everything, but there is a pressure on them to maintain their grades at previous levels. As already stated, a drop in students’ grades could result in school authorities dropping the program. The students are consequently encouraged to see it as their responsibility to keep their grades up to avoid jeopardizing the program.


The Teachers’ Role in Students’ Self-evaluation

Although the students are not expected to do their best at everything, they are encouraged to do their best at some things. They need to know what it is to excel, what it takes to produce great work. Too many students delude themselves with the thought that they will be able to produce quality when they decide they want to, and then when the time comes their bad habits and lack of skill defeat them. In Step 1 students are made to think about this and to ensure that they are not cultivating an illusion. They are encouraged to make it a priority to do their very best with a substantial learning task, substantial enough that it challenges their stick-to-itiveness and forces the learning of the skills of accomplishment. It might be that they have been struggling with math and that they are going to put a supreme effort into firming-up their grasp of it. They might decide to write the perfect essay. Also, they can be given the option of saving some time by putting in a minimum effort to maintain their course grades, but then using that time to build the skills of excellence in the pursuit of learning that interests them.


The word “encouraged” is a soft word, but it is the vocabulary of coercion. In later Steps students are not required to take mandatory courses. This frees them to pursue their interests, and that generally leads to them wanting to do their best. The coercion in Step 1 is therefore a temporary condition, something that might be regarded as a piece of the transitional scaffold provided not only for the students, but also for the program itself.


A big contributor to the workability of Step 1 is the relationships between students and teachers. Teachers are with the students half a day, every school day, and they are not pre-occupied with running the show. They have lots of time for one-on-one and small group interactions. They get to know the students far better than teachers in traditional programs can know them. This puts them in a position to know how well the students are progressing with their course work without formal testing, and to provide timely advice when students appear to be falling short of their goals. A conversation I had with a CHIP student I’ll call Bill gives an idea of how a student/teacher exchange might go.


Bill was a student who had struggled in school. He said he would have been a dropout had it not been for the CHIP program. He was a twelfth grade student by age, but he was working on credits from younger grades. One of his mandatory courses was a tenth grade one and he felt stigmatized by it. He thought other students would regard him as a dummy for working below grade level. One day he came to me with a request that made me wonder if he was embarking on something beyond his capabilities, and maybe for the wrong reason.


“Can I install Turbo C+ on a computer,” he asked in the presence of others as if to impress us all.


“Where would you get the program,” I inquired.


“I would buy it out of my own money.” He explained that he had seen it on sale at a local retailer and that he could afford it.


“What about your computer course?” I asked.


“That’s no problem. That’s just baby stuff,” he replied.


“I know you can handle the course, but are you fulfilling the requirements,” I queried because I had not seen him spending a lot of time on that course.


“I’ve already done most of it. It’s a waste of time,” he said bristling with attitude.


“Let me see what you’ve done with it so that I can better advise you about the C+,” I said.


We took an outline of his course requirements to a computer and he happily showed me what he knew. In no time he laid bare the lie that public education with its lock-step, controlled approach to learning is somehow efficient. We were not even a month into the semester and he had covered the bulk of the course. Unleashed from the trudging class pace of a one-hundred and ten hour course, he had sped through the material.


“I’m amazed,” I told him after a short period of him showing me what he knew. “I didn’t realize you had covered so much of the course. You already know enough to deserve a decent grade in it, a seventy, maybe even an eighty. Have you decided what you are going to do about the parts of the course you still need to master?”


“I’ll keep working on them, but I don’t need all my time for them,” he said.


“A problem with C+ is that I have no experience with it. I might not be able to help you much if you have trouble with it,” I confessed.


“That’s OK,” he said. “There’s a tutorial with the program and I have a friend who uses it. He can help me.”


“Well I think you can go ahead with it then. Maybe you can make a project out of it that will add to your mark for the course,” I suggested.


“Can I get the credit for the grade 12 programming course if I use C+ to learn the stuff for that course,” he asked thinking of credits he had to catch-up and how he might graduate with his peers.


“No,” I said. “I’ll check, but I’m pretty sure you’re only allowed to get four credits per semester. Sometimes you can get another one through night school or an after hours program, but I think four is the limit for a regular school day.” Later I confirmed this to be the case, that students in traditional schools are being held back by design.


“Let’s check the computer to see that it can handle the program before you buy it,” I said.


“Oh that’s OK. I’m going to buy it for my computer at home anyway and I know it will run on it,” he answered.


“We might not be able to install it here if you have it installed at home. Would you check the licensing on it,” I asked.


“I won’t install it at home while it’s installed here,” he responded, anxious to do whatever it took to be working on it in the CHIP room where he would be seen.


“You know others will want to use that computer too,” I told him.


“That’s no problem. I can use it when they’re working on their other courses,” he said. “They can even use my Turbo C+ if they want to.”


“Well I don’t see why you can’t go ahead and install it then,” I said.


“Great” he answered, and soon after Turbo C+ was running on the computer.


(Include here the idea from Chris’s book about “special times”). This exchange with Bill provides a glimpse of how teachers know if students are progressing, but it was happenstance. Step 1 requires teachers to be systematic about( move this to after Lord of the Flies) meeting with students individually to monitor their progress. Repeating what has already been stated – the purpose of this monitoring is to provide some scaffolding for students as they adjust to self-direction when they still have to work on learning that is not their choosing. This monitoring involves tracking how the students are doing in each of their courses. Some students require closer monitoring than others. The students’ short and long-term plans along with their logs provide the starting point for “chats” about marks. Remember that it is the students’ job to make the case for the mark they think they deserve. The teacher’s role is to confirm that a student is on track and to provide the guidance that might be needed for students to accomplish their goals. It is also an opportunity to talk about all sorts of other things for the good of the students. These chats can be initiated quite informally when opportunities present themselves, and they will vary considerably depending on the personalities of the students, their needs, and the content of the course being considered.


The nit-picking of marks is kept to a minimum. No attempt is made to define them precisely. They are considered in increments of 5, like 60 or 65 – nothing in-between. The sixty would suggest barely meeting a threshold, while the 65 would mean solid performance in the 60’s range.


Digressing for a moment – this example shows expanding resources and the sharing with the less fortunate.



Didn’t cover as much, but what we did cover we know better. Of math – we didn’t cover as much, but what we did cover we knew better.



A short account of a happening that occurred in the program that the three math boys mentioned above were taking helps to give a feel for the relationships and atmosphere of a more democratic learning environment. That program had a cross-age student mix ranging from grade 10 to 12. As part of their English course, the tenth grade students were required to read Lord of the Flies and they were collaborating with each other.


One day after lunch the tenth graders got together to discuss the novel and no sooner had they started than an older student joined in. Within minutes almost the whole class had become involved. This book about children being fully in charge of managing their own affairs had been incubating in the minds of the older students since they had read it, and they had opinions. These were students who had opted for a program that gave them more control over their lives so they may have had a greater interest in the book than most students would, but whatever the cause, a long and inspired discussion ensued.


It was a spontaneous exchange of views that the teacher, being careful not to spoil the moment by taking ownership, got to observe. He could tell that all of the grade ten students had read the book, but some of them talked more than others. The teacher was now in a position to follow-up individually a day or two later with some of the quieter students by saying, “I noticed you didn’t have a chance to say as much as you may have wanted to when everyone was talking about Lord of the Flies. What did you think of the book?” It is from this kind of conversation that the teachers are able to get a good handle on how students are progressing and how to facilitate their learning.

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