Category Archives: General Musings & Reflections


I’m thinking about the bravery required of teachers when they decide to take a hard look at their own practice. Trying something new- in front of not just me, but their students and peers- that requires courage. But here’s the thing about risk:

“Ask yourself for one moment what your feelings have been on the eve of some act involving courage, whether it be physical courage, or moral or intellectual…what has happened to you? If it has really called forth courage, has it not felt something like this: I cannot do this. This is too much for me. I shall ruin myself if I take this risk. I cannot take the leap, it’s impossible. All of me will be gone if I do this, and I cling to myself.

And then supposing the Spirit has conquered and you have done this impossible thing, do you find afterwards that you possess yourself in a sense that you never had before. That there is more of you?…So it is throughout life…you know ‘nothing ventured nothing won’ is true in every hour, it is the fibre of every experience that signs itself into the memory.” (J.N. Figgis)


Talk about your problems to solve…

100_2030 I’m pretty certain that I won’t be the only person to notice that yesterday was a pretty big anniversary. It’s amazing to me that we managed to solve a problem this big before the internet, HDTV, Twitter, Facebook, cell phones or velcro. Reading the coverage this yesterday and today, I’m struck by Kennedy’s challenge to NASA on May 25, 1961:

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.”

Talk about your learning by real world problems. Here’s hoping that we keep pushing ourselves to go farther, to rise to the challenges given to us, and to inspire those around us for the next 40 years.

Standards, Shmandards

From the “topics I always mean to touch on but never do” file…

This and this from Eduwonk have had me thinking a lot lately about the whole national standards debate. I don’t think the good folks at Eduwonk are wrong when they say that:

One of the problems with standards now is that they’re often vague, vacuous, and/or voluminous and impossible for a teacher to possibly cover.

I think we’d all agree that that’s true. The flip side, though, is that teachers like us- Critical Skills teachers who see the linkages between content and process and who manage to teach holistically rather than from a discipline-based perspective- really manage to teach a lot more than our more traditional peers. While the national standards debate (which seems to be emerging as less “debate” than “railroading on the part of the folks with the power”) will continue, I think there must be some comfort on the part of CS teachers. The model was created with an awareness that some sort of externally imposed, required curriculum would always exist and have to be adhered to. Now, I wasn’t at the table in 1985 when the matter was being discussed, but I am flabbergasted by the foresight of those who were. By not hitching our pedagogical wagon to any one curricular star, they created a model that can teach the Maryland State Standards as well as the Vermont Frameworks- and the same can be said for every district, state and national curriculum out there (as we’ve seen in the UK and Lebanon lately). It works in Los Angeles, it works in Sanborn- not because it’s so universal, but because it’s so flexible. I guess Critical Skills is really the Little Black Dress of pedagogy- it goes with everything because it’s classic and timeless and well- designed.

Did Critical Skills Kill the Status Quo? Does it need to?

This post on Eduwonk from guestblogger Ted Kolderie of Education|Evolving raises an interesting point.

Think about most any field: Something new appears, the ‘early adopters’ pick up the new model, those uncomfortable with the change stay with the traditional model. Nobody is coerced into change; nobody is prevented from changing. Both models run along side by side. Over time people move as they are ready. Tractors replace horses; computers replace typewriters. (The country has just finished its transition from analog to digital television, right?)

Gradually one system after another evolves; some new model replacing the old. Often the transition is not without political controversy. But the policy of gradualism, tolerance, holds the conflict to a minimum. We could do this with K-12, too, couldn’t we?

Can innovations like Critical Skills co-exist with the status quo? Why should it be necessary for the status quo to give over to the new- be it Critical Skills, SmartBoards, or differentiated instruction? Can’t the early adopters do their thing and get started, resting assured that others will come along as they see the positive impacts of something like Critical Skills? We’re all logical, thoughtful people- right? Shouldn’t logical, thoughtful people be able to look objectively at the efforts of others and make a logical, objective choice to either change or not- based on the evidence?

Ah, if only that were the case. The answer, put simply, is no. Well, yes- we should be able to. Unfortunately, logic flies out the window when we start messing around with classroom practice. You see, teachers don’t say “I teach” when you ask them about their day jobs. They say “I’m a teacher.” It’s who they are- not what they do. So anytime we start suggesting that they could do something differently- perhaps even better, then they may be hearing us say that who they are should be different- perhaps better.

Now we’re getting onto risky ground. If I’m a teacher and I believe I’m a good teacher (’cause really- who believes otherwise?) and then something comes along that threatens that belief (’cause if there’s a better way to do this and I haven’t been doing it, then does that mean I’m not a good teacher after all?). If I’m given the choice between this difficult and painful reality (“I’m not as good a teacher as I thought I was”) and the easy comfort of denial (“this is just a fad”) then I’m going to do what I have to to preserve my reality and protect myself.

Unless it was my idea to begin with- if I noticed something wasn’t quite right, did a little poking around and then made changes because I recognized a problem. That makes me not just a good teacher, but a great teacher! This is why Ted Sizer’s admonition many years ago that schools “Go so far, so fast, that there’s no way you can go back” is so important. There can’t be room for early adopters and late adopters and so on. If we’re going to change schools and change the lives of children, then we don’t have time to wait around on folks to get really comfortable with the new idea- because they never will. We have to be willing to acknowledge that we’ve all been doing the best we can for many years, but that the status quo just isn’t working for all kids- and that it needs to change.

This is why the two things- the old and the new can’t just get along. You can’t stand in the middle of the road, can’t do the old and the new at the same time, can’t keep your foot on the dock and also onboard the ship, blah, blah, blah. It’s time to stop continuing to do what doesn’t work simply because it’s familiar and comfortable and already planned. It’s time to start finding things that work for the kids we have today- not the kids we had in 1979 or 1989 or 1999. The days of Random Acts of School Change are over. We need to get past the one-day workshop that provides a few new ideas and the polite relationship we have with our peers which keeps everyone happy but doesn’t push anyone to do better. We have to turn over our pedagogical rocks, shine the light on the beasties and bugs that hide there, and find solutions. Now. Together.

Being a Student Today

While this video is largely about the experience of being a college student, I think a lot of it is appropriate for high school students as well. What do you think? Could Critical Skills change this experience at the college level? Could kids from Critical Skills Classrooms change it?

The Sound of Collaboration

Apparently, this group of 200 dancers put this together in less than 2 rehearsals. If this doesn’t speak to our ultimate innate desire for our students- that they gain the visceral, powerful rewards of collaboration and risk taking- I don’t know what does.

Extending the Learning

I’ve written before about the New Hampshire Department of Education’s Extended Learning Opportunities (ELO) initiative. Today, ANE is lucky enough to host a group of 60 or so folks connected with this work from around New Hampshire. Aside from seeing some familiar faces, I’m seeing a really amazing level of energy among the group. If you don’t know the ins-and-outs of ELOs, trust me when I say that they represent another avenue for us to use Critical Skills in real world settings. A good ELO has the same elements and outcomes as a good challenge: it enables kids to learn content and process at the same time, in rigorous, empowering ways. I’d love to see some of you- the CS community- intentionally tying your work into the ELO work. Then again, maybe you already are. Share you stories in the comments!

It’s not just us

Edutopia is highlighting High Tech High’s amazing work with hands-on learning. It feels a lot like what we do in Critical Skills, doesn’t it? One can’t help but wonder if, like any really, really good idea, there are lots of folks trying to figure it out at the same time. I was lucky enough to be a part of a book talk last week. A group of us gathered to discuss the Wagner text I mentioned below. I think the most interesting thing for me was the universal agreement that this way of doing school- hands on, problem based, rigorous and engaging- was just better. It was delightful- and I’m thrilled to know that my colleagues at the New Hampshire Staff Development Council have agreed to host similar books talks around the state. Interested in hosting your own talk? Let me know and I’ll forward our discussion questions and format your way!