No Objectives; No Standards

I’ve been taking a lot of brain trips through lesson planning and trying to visualize what certain things might look like before I start jumping into them next year.  As a simple example, how do I want to introduce myself to my students?  How do I want them to introduce each other?  Just running through the logistics in my head.  You all do that, too, right?

Here’s a tougher example–one that I’ve really been wrestling with this summer.  Follow standards, or follow competencies?  Guide students with objectives, or let them reach their own goals?  It’s so tough because I’ve heard lots of brave teachers and principals discussing project-based learning and authentic assessment, which are (at best) loosely aligned to state standards and are never planned around a specific and thoroughly thought-out objective.  And it hurts a little to deviate from the way that I was brainwa– er, trained to teach.

My best evaluations from administrators came when I had the day’s objective conspicuously posted somewhere in the room and I continuously referred to it throughout the lesson.  I even had a little strip with each standard written on it, so I could post the standards we were learning that day, and they fit right next to the objective.  I would give little informal quizzes at the end of the period to help me gauge mastery and the need for further learning of that objective.  It was all very classic, very textbook, and administration just loved it.

There was one person in the room who didn’t like the way it felt–me!  Sure, the accolades were nice and the pats on the back were reassuring, but my reflections made me feel like I had missed an opportunity.  There are so many times I have cut off a curious child who wanted to dig a little deeper into something; and there are many times when I really wanted to go in that direction.  But then I would look at the objective posted on my wall, which would remind me that we had to get on task.  We had an objective to accomplish!  So I became, at that moment, a cog in the wheel that Line Dalile described in her recent blog post, where she suggests that schools are actively killing curiosity in kids, right?

Now, I look back and I wish I had given all of my students the opportunity to go in a new direction.  I’ve had so many of those moments come up, where I wanted the students to think about something individually, talk about it as a group, and see where it all ends up.  No coaching, just a little bit of guidance to stay in the general field of the discussion.  But then I was stopped and reined back in by the objective on the wall.

Tell me some stories–both supporting and negating the idea of throwing objectives and standards in a desk drawer and letting the students’ competencies and curiosities take over.  Can’t we make the objectives much less specific and see how many different answers come from the same question?  Is there solid research here?  Let’s talk.

Statistics For All!

As a good introduction to this post, watch the following three-minute snippet from TED, featuring Arthur Benjamin.

In that short clip, Dr. Benjamin (yes, he really is a Ph.D., I looked it up this time) suggests that we wouldn’t be in the economic mess we’re in now if more American adults had a basic understanding of statistics.  Then, this article came out recently asking if algebra is necessary, which struck a nerve with many, many people from all walks of life.  One commenter on the article stated something (in an angrier tone than I will) that I agreed with: how can students appreciate statistics without a basic understanding of algebra?  And then, I’ll add a word: linear.

What this is really about is the lack of differentiation we offer to students.  Math is a notoriously cookie-cutter subject, with teachers, parents, and politicians chanting that all students must have calculus by their senior year in high school.  My question is: Why?

To back up a bit, let’s look at a little bit of general history. Keep in mind, the public education system has historically educated our people to the extent of the technological needs. For example, in the agrarian societies of the 18th and 19th centuries, it was only necessary to learn the basic arithmetic that would help a farmer geometrically plan and maintain crops, be able to deduce and predict output from what he planted or grew, and be able to calculate in terms of decimals and money. In other words, the mathematical needs for the average 18th and 19th century citizen were, at most, roughly equivalent to the middle-level math we teach today.

As the Industrial Revolution began transforming our country (and the world), there was an obvious need for a more mathematical society. With the growing technological needs of the nation, the education system found a need to educate its citizens up to a (current) high school level. Engineering and manufacturing proficiencies became the new standards by which to match math education. Therefore, the studies of motion and forces—and therefore algebra and eventually calculus—became the pedagogical goal of the public school systems.



The Cold War boosted this need even further, as America strived to maintain competitiveness within an increasingly technological and scientific rival. It was calculus that got us to the Moon, the planets, and beyond (and created methods for launching fiery death around the globe). Thank goodness for calculus!

But it wasn’t for everyone. Not everyone had a hand in the travels among the stars or the planned annihilation of enemies, and those who didn’t still typically only achieved a 9th or 10th grade math education. In order to be part of an economy based on financial growth for the middle class, the skills needed were vastly differentiated, but they didn’t include calculus for much of the population. Those who did use algebra and calculus became proficient in using prescribed algorithms to reach a desired solution to a problem (or creating new ones for Wall Street hedge funds companies).

Which brings us to the present. We no longer live in a manufacturing or industrial world—to clarify, most citizens will not be working in the manufacturing or industry sectors. Calculus is still widely used in the scientific, engineering, and financial sectors. But most citizens in the 21st century now live in what the researchers call a “knowledge economy,” where a citizen’s worth is based on what that citizen can understand, analyze, predict, and conclude about a problem—and then solve that problem. This set of skills is becoming increasingly reliant on the tools and processes that citizens should learn in their K-12 and postsecondary education.  Included in that skill set, as Dr. Benjamin asserts, is the ability to think digitally.

The digital world runs on data.  Data is analyzed using probability and statistics.  Every citizen should know how this works and, vastly more important, how to make sense of it.  So the culminating event in a typical high school senior’s mathematical career should not be calculus; it should be a deep understanding of statistics.  If a student is on track to enter a STEM field requiring calculus, then by all means, offer that student high school AP courses in calculus.  For the rest of us, it’s essential that we not waste time (or students) on trying to force something that cannot be and should not be forced.

However, I also believe that basic linear algebra is essential.  Understanding how data behaves against a line of regression and calculating changes in that data is important.  If we teach Algebra I (or its equivalent) by 9th grade, then there is no reason our 21st century goals can’t be met.

Where Do We Put the Middle?

In 1909, the first American junior high schools—grades 7and 8—opened in Columbus, Ohio, with the idea that there needed to exist a transition period between elementary schools and the college-prep years, known as high school.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The junior high model spread rapidly, with the intention of preparing students for the more complex world of high school by offering dedicated core classes, standalone electives, and sports.  By 1950, it was becoming widely accepted that students who were entering 6th grade needed to be removed from the confining curriculum and basic social structure of the elementary school as well and into a more “adult” structure.  In Bay City, Michigan, the first middle school opened and welcomed grades 6 through 8, a model that also spread quickly.  By the 1980s, almost every public middle-level institution was either a junior high school (7-9) or a middle school (6-8).

So, enough of the history lesson; let’s get to the new stuff.  There hasn’t been very much scientific research done on our nation’s schools that leads to data to compare the models.  The research that has been done is snapshot and leads to the assumptions that the 6-8 model is actually not very effective compared to the K-8 or the very few 7-12 modeled schools.  Unfortunately, much of the data from these studies is heavily weighted by standardized test scores, so take that as you may.  What I want to talk about is developmental readiness and where the middle fits in.  The rest is up to the serious discussions that must happen in a community of educators, parents, students, and leaders to determine what’s best.

Proponents of the K-8 model point to behavior as the biggest benefit of their school structures.  It is suggested that the presence of younger children keeps preadolescents “in check” and less likely to engage in inappropriate behavior, since they are basically serving in a role-model capacity.  This is an interesting and hopeful notion, but the evidence to support it is scant.  As any statistician will tell you, correlation doesn’t always mean causation, and not all K-8 schools report these correlations.

Others report that keeping young adolescents in the same building with the same “nurturing” environment keeps them grounded and less likely to become anxious about the big changes that come with starting middle school, which means more independence, more teachers, more homework, and the adjustment of a new system with new rules and expectations.  The evidence to support this argument is certainly anecdotal and, again, spread thin.

Critics of the K-8 model will generally refute the points I’ve listed above, using the arguments I’ve listed above, and I will list a few more reasons I’ve heard in a moment.  The K-8 school inherently teaches and treats these young teenagers as though they are, as Rick Wormelli puts it, “slightly more complex primary students,” which they are not.  The 7-12 model suggests that middle school students are “immature high school students,” where perhaps the upper grades peers will lead them by example (which, in my high school, may not have been a good thing).

What do you think?  Does your school incorporate a non-traditional model that is working (or not working)?  Does the middle school model work the way it is now?

Let’s (Re)Start at the Beginning

The first days of a school year have always been a little nerve-racking for me.  Not because I’m scared of young adolescents, but because I’m a little nervous about my ability to do all the things I want to do and set up all the expectations and impressions I want.  Most (if not all) teachers agree that the first days of school are the one chance you get to set the tone for the entire school year ahead.  There’s a just a bit of pressure there.  Because of that, there have been countless articles, books, lectures, workshops, and trainings created just for the purpose of helping teachers–old and new–succeed on their first days of school.  I’ve been to these trainings, I’ve read Dr. Wong’s book, and I follow this blog with care and attention. And then I spend weeks preparing.  It’s never been the same thing two years in a row, and it will be different this year as well.

I’ve already mentioned that I want to use Common Sense Media’s Digital Citizenship Package because it includes community building activities and lessons in addition to the digital theme.  It’s not enough, however, so I want to list some things I’ve never tried before or things I have tried before but have added or deleted something.  Feedback is very, very welcome here, since I’d love to hear experiences with the items in the list or new ideas that may work even better.  There are several ways to give me that feedback underneath this article!

Formal Introductions First 

In the past, the first time I was introduced to my students was during the initial roll call.  I tried to pronounce a name and looked for the hand in the air.  Then, I wrote what the student preferred to be called next to the official roster name before quickly moving on to the next name.  And that’s what my students were at that point: names.

What if I were able to look at all of my students as I talked to them for the first time?  I’m thinking of having them wait outside my room against the wall so that I can shake each hand, introduce myself, and hear them introduces themselves.  That way, I know the name, the face, and the nickname up front.  I might even have a couple of people next to each other introduce themselves to each other.  This idea could also be done in the classroom, as I move table to table, so I will need more time to consider each scenario.  Please leave a comment with your ideas!

Either way, I believe this will achieve an important effect: every student coming into my class will know that (1) I know who they are from that point on and (2) every one of them is important to me.

The Old “Answers On an Index Card” Trick…Digitally

Is there a teacher who hasn’t used a variation of the get-to-know-you method of having students fill in answers to trivial questions on an index card and turning them in?  What if it were digital?  I’m currently creating a Google Docs Student Survey that my students next year will complete on their digital devices during the first few minutes of class.  Then, I would like to create a digital survey where students can select responses to question that are related to community building.  This will open up early discussion and, hopefully, the creation of a learning community.

I think I will leave off the favorite food and color questions.  We’ve got to keep something open to talk about!  Actually, one of my brighter students last year asked why I needed to know what they all like to eat.  I finally faced the truth that I didn’t need to know that and that I was simply filling a response space.  That’s a bad habit.

Get Them to Collaborate…Like, NOW!

I will find a way to get groups of students working together on the first day.  I hated listening to my teachers drone on for most of the block on the first day about procedures, rules, schedules, grading policies and scales, discipline, their kids and pets, and how they can be bribed by chocolate/coffee/cold, hard cash.  I also don’t really like being the teacher who drones on about those things (and I totally don’t take bribes).

So, this year, I will ask my students to find the items in that list as a collaborative team and prepare a short discussion to share with the class.  This will get my students started right away using the technology and each other as important tools.  I would like to see it also open several discussions so that we may further get to know each other.

Assign Homework

I know what you’re thinking: “Real original there, Nielsen,” and “That’s a great way to get them to like you.”  I love irony, too, so thank you for sharing!  Anyway, I want them to get geared up for the global learning experience I have been building, so I want them to work as a global student.  I will start simple by having them comment on a blog post, an online discussion, or other collaborative effort.  I want these students to be comfortable sharing their ideas and creativity with other people, and not just the people in the classroom with them.  Pretty soon, they will be creating their own blog posts and online documents.  Get ’em started early!!

What Else?

Give me some more ideas that have worked for you.  Let’s share!

Student-Led Conferences and Authentic Assessments

Student-led conferences are a growing trend in late-elementary and middle grades, since they have been shown to boost parent response and attendance to conferences and increase student sense of responsibility for their own work.  Using a portfolio of collected work and performance, students follow guidelines that lead a meaningful discussion for all involved.  It also creates a unique opportunity for students to leave the comfort zone of their classroom to communicate with an adult audience.  It creates an opportunity where students must prepare, plan, and present.

These presentations should be a time to showcase the performance of skills and knowledge instead of tests and homework.  Authentic assessment is a showing that the student has taken what she has learned and used it to create something new or to solve a complex problem.  This is what students should be discussing with parents.  And they should discuss the successes as well as the failures.  Sometimes, the failures are even more important and glorious than the successes, since that’s where true learning comes from.

This practice should start to become more standard and not simply trendy.  With the help of classroom technology, it should be easy to adapt student work to eportfolios and LiveBinders, which are magnificent tools for collecting, presenting, and showcasing student work and progress.  The work in setting up the practice is minimal and the rewards and benefits are so very worth it.

What’s better is the idea that student-led conferences pave the way nicely for those end-of-the-year portfolio presentations for grade-level promotion, which we all know should be one way to replace standardized testing!

Check out this resource from to learn how to get started:

Problem-Based Learning


I only taught them the tools. They answered the questions. Imagine what this would look like if technology were available, from the data collection to the presentation?

Mr. Nielsen’s Class

They spelled my name wrong, but the sentiment is there. They told me they drew it because it was the one class they had where everyone got along and worked together. Made me smile!

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