“It is so boring”

The blog below is a response to a NYT article titled:

“How will America recover from a broken school year

As an educator for over forty years–a teacher, a principal, a professor—I will act as the 800 pound gorilla in the closet. Yes, no doubt students suffered social, emotional, and intellectual loss from a year of uneven schooling. But, let us be candid that the form of schooling many are lamenting was a century old model of teaching and learning that aimed at achieving institutional goals—custodial care and credentialing–but were far from the engaged learning environments school officials and parents like to believe were happening on a daily basis in our schools. I had hoped, actually still hope, that this year long break from our factory style model of schooling would motivate school administrators to rethink and redesign a model of schooling that lived up to educational goals and values written into their school mission statements. I understand the urgency of parents wanting to get their children back to structured educational experience. At the same time, however, we as educators, need to redesign our turn of the century schooling platforms that place an emphasis on experiences that are truly educational, rather than a grammar of schooling that in my grandson’s words is so boring.


“Preparation is a treacherous idea”

(John Dewey)

Companies need to prepare their people for a future where new and evolving skills and ways of working are a given and where an embrace of continuous learning is the key to relevancy in the workplace.

(McKinsey Quarterly)

Prepared for Tomorrow

  The fundamental educational goal listed in all school mission statements is preparing their student bodies for “tomorrow.” Tomorrow in these mission statements is defined as being “well prepared for career pathways in a modern and globalized world.” What follows in these same mission statements is a list of skills that parents assume will prepare their sons and daughters for careers in the twenty-first century. Although these skills on their face would appear as a valued competence in the occupational world of the twenty-first century, an examination of these skills from an employer’s perspective finds a wide discrepancy between schooled skills and real-world skills.

Schooled and Real-World Skills

  Critical thinking is an excellent example of the wide gap between how schools and employers define the concept. From a school perspective, educators would turn to Bloom’s taxonomy and cite the ability to analyze, to evaluate, to interpret, and to synthesize information. Within the context of a school classroom these abilities are applied to academic subjects where students are asked to interpret passages from literature; to evaluate the significance of an historical event; to write a term paper on an academic topic or question. While all of these assignments are legitimate applications of critical thought, none of these assignments are transferrable to what employers mean by critical thinking.

  While school definitions of critical thinking are information based, employer definitions of critical thinking are problem based. Employers value employees who are able to recognize problems, prioritize problems, gather evidence to solve problems, recognize many solutions to problems, and most importantly, to anticipate problems. School officials would respond to this charge by pointing to numerous examples in their curriculum where students are asked to solve problems. Employers would point out that school problems are contrived by teachers to align with content material and testing configurations and ignore the all-important contextual, logistical, and monetary variables that real world problem solving must factor into their decision making.

The World of Soft-Skills

  Putting aside the definitional problems with educational goals listed in school mission statements, the foundational problem with teaching future occupational skills is institutional schooling commitment to teaching hard academic skills as opposed to occupational soft skills. The chart below, shows the results of a survey of 18,000 people in 15 countries identifying the foundational skills that will help citizens thrive in the future of work. None of these soft skills are taught, much less appear, in our nation’s classrooms. The goals, vocabularies, and strategies of institutional schooling value and promote hard academic knowledge and skills. Any mention of “storytelling,” or “creativity and imagination,” or “resolving conflicts,” or “breaking orthodoxies,” would be greeted with confused stares and curt “thank you for your input.”


Problem Solving
Logical Reasoning
Understanding Biases
Determining Relevant Information
Translating knowledge into different context
Adopting a different perspective
Work-Plan Development
Time Management
Achievement orientation
Resolving conflicts
Asking the Right Questions
Synthesizing Messages
Active Listening
Computational & algorithmic thinking
Data literacy
Digital collaboration
Cyber security
Tech translation and enablement
Smart Systems
SOURCE:  Dondi, M., Klier, J., Panier, F., Schubert, J. Defining the skills citizens will need in the future world of work. McKinsey & Company

The World of Hard Skills

  Why do hard academic skills continue to dominate school curricula when employer surveys are asking for entirely different set of real-world soft skills?

  Hard academic skills are easy to measure & report

  The organizational structure and pedagogy governing the transmission of academic knowledge and skills lends itself to the multiple-choice test on Friday and letter grade report cards. The soft skills listed in the chart above require an assessment system that evaluate the quality, not quantity, of a student’s behavior. The assessment of a soft skill employs rubrics describing gradations of a performance that only experts or employers in a particular field would understand and appreciate. Parents look for an A or B or the dreaded F on a report card. They would be utterly confused receiving the following assessment of a public speaking assignment:” Eagerly initiates speech, utilizing appropriate attention getting devices. Easily asks questions and speaks spontaneously.”

  Hard academic skills are easy to teach

  Teaching hard academic skills lends itself to a transmission pedagogy composed of a teacher telling or showing definitions, facts, and procedures. The teaching of soft skills requires students to construct knowledge from problems that do not have clear goals, solutions paths, or expected solutions. Lesson plans for the teaching of hard academic skills follow a series of steps that begin with an objective and ending with independent practice. Lessons plans for teaching soft skills begin with a problem, a scenario, a story, and ends with some form of performance.

  Hard academic skills document institutional outcomes

  The primary goal of institutional schooling is to document for other institutions of learning the completion of prescribed sequences of knowledge and skills. Institutions accomplish this goal by reducing disciplinary knowledge into subjects—algebra, biology, U.S. History. Each subject, is then, assigned a unit or credit based on specified amount of time “seated” in a classroom (i.e. In the united states a “Carnegie Unit” equals a total of 120 hours in one subject). There are no subjects, or specified amounts of “seat time,” or letter grades, or credits.” There are knowledge and skills. All of these knowledge and skills, however, are contingent upon a problem or process that draws upon multiple disciplines to develop a tangible solution or performance. All the markings of institutional schooling—classrooms, periods, semesters, credits—become irrelevant in the soft skill world of problem solving, of active listening, of time management, of teamwork, of coaching, of collaboration, of determining relevant information, of implementing workable solutions to ill-defined societal problems.

Preparation is a treacherous idea

  The governing narrative of all school mission statements is preparing children and adolescence for successful careers in the occupational world. In order to achieve this goal, schools, lay out a sequence of courses in the K -12 schooling system that administrators and teachers believe will best achieve this goal.

  Putting aside the lack of emphasis on the other goals of schooling—civic, humanistic, personal development—the sequence of courses ostensibly designed to prepare student bodies for success in a twenty-first global economy, are in reality designed to prepare students for the next level of schooling. Yes, hard academic courses fit well into a school report card and transcript, but, would find little attention on a job resume.

  What employers are looking for in the candidates seated in front of them are soft real-world skills that will add value to their company. Among all of those soft real-world skills listed in the chart above, the one behavior that is the foundation for all of these real-world skills is the commitment to continuous learning.

  The generation in school now and all of those that follow will work in a world where occupations will be in constant flux. In this new world of work, there will be to no permanent careers, or training regimes, or diplomas, or established school curricula. They must be places, or rather, venues, where young people are acculturated into continuous learning environments—where their individual interests, talents, and abilities are honored and fostered.

“Everyday Should be a Snow day”

The Relentless Monotony of Schooling

During those long Chicago winters, there would be those days where heavy snow falls would begin during the school day. As I walked through the building during changing periods, you could feel a palpable excitement in hallways and commons area. I would be bombarded with the question on the minds of teachers and students: “are you calling school off tomorrow?”

What is it about snow days that transforms the daily routines of schooling into a magical Disneyland? The answer to that question is best answered by John Goodlad’s study of classrooms over thirty years ago, which he termed, the “relentless monotony of schooling.”

..The teacher explaining or lecturing to the total class or a single student, occasionally asking questions requiring factual answers; the teacher, when not lecturing, observing or monitoring students working individually at their desks; students listening or appearing to listen to the teacher and occasionally responding to the teacher’s questions; students working individually at their desks or reading or writing assignments; and all with little emotion, from interpersonal warmth to expressions of hostility. (Goodlad, 1984, p. 230).

The Four Impulses of Children and Adolescents

Announced Snow Days offer a brief respite from the “relentless monotony” (Goodlad, 1984, p. 335) and enforced conformity of crowded classrooms. But, Snow Days, offer more to children and adolescents than relief from the daily grind of schooling. Snow Days provide student bodies with the time and venues to connect to the “four” impulses of children described by John Dewey:

  • THE IMPULSE TO CONVERSE: meaning conversation and communication
  • THE IMPULSE TO BUILD: a child’s impulse to construct and be creative instead of being passive and conforming.
  • THE IMPULSE TO INVESTIGATE: the way children like to do things and watch to see what will happen.
  • THE IMPULSE TO CREATE where children tell or make to express and represent.

The Foiling of the Four Impulses

Schools are specifically designed to foil all of the impulses described by Dewey. The impulse to communicate is constrained by classroom configurations and school rules blocking any form of unregulated communication. The impulse to make is constrained by projects and activity structures composed of contrived school projects or problems that exhibit little resemblance to real world projects or problems. The impulse to investigate is constrained by the “one right answer” mindset. The impulse to create is constrained by assessment formats prescribing acceptable school products.

Everyday Should be a Snow Day

If schools are serious about creating engaging learning environments, they should turn the snow day mindset on its head. Instead of deeming snow days as a waste of valuable instructional time, they should be examining pedagogies and organizational structures that make every school day a snow day.

What does a Snow Day Classroom Look Like?

Each of the activity structures and instructional moves listed below fulfill all of John Dewey’s four impulses of children and adolescents. All of the impulses make every school day, a snow day.

  • Teachers elicit students’ ideas and experiences in relation to key topics, then fashion learning situations that help students elaborate on or restructure their current knowledge.
  • Students are given frequent opportunities to engage in complex, meaningful, and problem-based activities.
  • Teachers provide students with a variety of information resources as well as the tools (technological and conceptual) necessary to mediate learning.
  • Students work collaboratively and are given support to engage in task-oriented dialogue with one another.
  • Teachers make their own thinking processes explicit to learners and encourage students to do the same through dialogue, writing, drawings, or other presentations.
  • Students are routinely asked to apply knowledge in diverse and authentic contexts, to explain ideas, interpret texts, predict phenomena, and construct arguments based on evidence, rather than to focus exclusively on the acquisition of predetermined “right answers.”
  • Teachers encourage students’ reflective and autonomous thinking in conjunction with the conditions listed above.
  • Teachers employ a variety of assessment strategies to understand how students’ ideas are evolving and to give feedback on the processes as well as the products of their thinking.

(Source: Mark Windschitl, “Framing Constructivism in Practice as the Negotiation of Dilemmas,” Review of Educational Research. Summer, 2002, Vol. 72, No. 2, pp. 131-175)


(Source: Hansen, Exploring the Moral Art of Teaching)

   The philosopher, Richard Rorty, draws a distinction between MORAL AND EPISTEMIC PRIVILEGE. Rorty writes that MORAL PRIVILEGE is the right of every person to speak about and talk about his or her own life and outlook. The privilege comes along with being a person. Moral privilege, according to Rorty does not mean EPISTEMIC PRIVILEGE—I should be respected as a person, but my claims are not automatically worthy of respect. Those claims must be talked about, examined, or tested, to be considered in a public way.

   The moral/epistemic privilege distinction defined by Rorty is continually confused by media outlets and political operatives. The talking heads of our major news media outlets, along with local and national political representatives, assume EPISTEMIC PRIVILEGE when they are really exercising their MORAL right to speak about their own outlook on life. Not only do these commentators assume EPISTEMIC privilege, but they generously share the privilege with men and women on the street, consultants, former business and government officials, or whoever else has ready access to a studio.

   Rarely will national or local media outlets critically examine the explanations of the “experts” tye invite on air. Instead, the public receives a steady diet of MORAL PRIVILEGE — how one individual is making sense out of a dramatic turn of events.

   This phenomenon is particularly disturbing for practitioners in a field that is being analyzed by a media spokesman or governmental representative. Practitioners in whatever field has risen to the top of the media food chain are subjected to descriptions and explanations for their reality that bears little resemblance to what they experience on a daily basis. What is even more disturbing to practitioners is the solutions offered by an “expert” for the real or imagined problems in their field. These off the cuff “solutions” reflect little or no understanding of the complexities of the jobs they perform each day.

   In the field of education, for example, media spokesman and politicians are pretty much in agreement that schools are miserable failures. The failings of our public schools is blamed on three primary causes: incompetent teachers; low academic standards; calcified school bureaucracies. What follows, then, from media pundits and political operatives are their moral solutions: eliminate tenure; raise academic standards; incentivize privatization. In practice these moral solutions have resulted in decades of policies attempting to quantify teacher performance (“valued-added teacher performance evaluations”), hold schools accountable for student performance (“no child left behind”); and allocating public monies for a variety of private school models (“charter schools”). Although there is a wealth of research critically examining the claims of school failure and their solutions, these sources of information have been largely ignored, and at times,even vilified as apologies for a broken system.

   If the problems of education in America were examined critically or in an EPISTEMIC WAY, other issues would have to be placed on the table. To name a few: lack of resources; the growing diversity of our student population; the disparities in social capital offered to children; the general disrepair of school facilities; the wage structure for teachers; the changing face of the America family; the role technology is assuming in and out of schools; the changing nature of occupations. There are many more “trends” in our country which are having a deep impact on our ability to educate young people. These complex social, political, cultural and economic problems surrounding the schoolhouse doors of our country are rarely, if ever examined, by media outlets. Instead the moral right of media representatives and politicians to speak out on the problems of schooling will claim privilege over epistemic responses to purposeful strategies for improving the educational experiences of young people in our nation.

“From Data to Connoisseurship”

Data-Driven Schooling

In the 1970’s a group of educators developed the “effective schools” model. The model identified six characteristics of schools that correlated with instructional programs that were improving or declining. One of the characteristics listed was “frequent monitoring of student progress,” or, in the vocabularies of that day: “what gets measured, gets done.”

At that time, the effective schools model interpreted the “monitoring of student progress,” as teaching models that employed a variety of feedback tools to assess student understanding. In the nineties, however, the “monitoring of student progress” morphed into “what gets tested, gets done.” The transformation of the feedback function from formative assessment to summative assessment was in direct response to business models claiming that private sector methods of continuous improvement and total quality management could be adapted to educational settings. Among those private sector tools, the use of data to drive quality services and products, redefined the “frequent monitoring of student progress,” into “data driven instructional programs.”

In today’s schools, entire office suites are populated by all manner of data management specialists, who, turn out mountains of data on every conceivable component of a school’s educational program. You cannot attend a conference of professional administrators without the bulk of the program being devoted to gathering data, recording data, tracking data, and analyzing data. The remaining program options offer administrators a variety of managerial tools—programs, templates, plans—to implement all the data flowing into main offices.

Putting aside the reality that in most central and main offices, most administrators neither have the time nor expertise to make sense out of all the data pouring in their in-boxes. Even if administrators had that time and the academic background to make sense of the data in their in-boxes, rarely, if ever, are administrators asking fundamental questions about what that data is measuring and the processes that generate the data.

What are we measuring?

The assumption made by school administrators and the public is that a number or set of numbers published in district handbooks, school report cards, or various media outlets, reflects the achievement of the educational goals written into school mission statements or achieves a national standard published by professional organizations.

A common educational goal written into mission statements and state standards, for example, is critical thinking. Among the numerous qualities embodied in this educational goal is the ability to “evaluate evidence, “to “reason from evidence,” and to “apply substantive concepts to solve open-ended problems.” Although most educators would shake their head in agreement with these qualities, few in the same community would agree on how these qualities are defined across subject matter fields, or, more importantly, the different meanings these qualities assume in the occupational world. The lack of agreed upon indicators of complex student learning—critical thinking—renders meaningless all the numbers buried in central office data sources.

The inability to agree upon definitions of what we are measuring in classrooms becomes more muddled when we examine the various methods we employ to gather data:

Method #1: Standardized Tests

Although standardized tests are inexpensive, convenient, and perceived as valid indicators of student learning, researchers have found moderate correlation between test scores and complex educational goals.

Method #2: Classroom Observations

Although detailed descriptions of classroom lessons would appear to be an accurate assessment of a classroom teaching model, researchers have been unable to determine what particular teaching techniques correlate with the educational goals listed in school mission statements. Added to the problem of cause and effect, researchers have found that what administrators observe in classrooms says more about an administrator’s favored teaching model and very little about the effectiveness of the pedagogy they are observing.

Method #3: Teacher Surveys

Although self-assessment of job performance—reflective thinking—is considered a worthy professional goal, researchers have found a slippage between teacher’s exposed ideas about teaching and learning and how they actually teach in classrooms.

Method #4: Testimonies

Although testimonies from teachers regarding the helpfulness of a particular policy or program maybe an effective public relations technique, researchers have found large gaps between changes teachers state they have made as a result of exposure to a new teaching model and what they are actually doing in classrooms.

Method #5: Valued Added Scores

Although the development of mathematical algorithms that profess to isolate an individual’s teacher’s contribution to student learning may appear to place a number on teacher effectiveness, researchers have found that VAM results are unstable over time, subject to bias and imprecision, and rely solely on results from standardized tests that were not designed for that purpose.

The problem with approximations

I could continue to list the managerial tools that school administrators are employing to measure student learning, to judge teacher performance, or to rank school quality. As the list above already explains, at best these measures of school performance are weak approximations of relationships between organizational and instructional configurations and student performance. At their worse, main offices design organizational structures and instructional regimes that will generate a particular number that the public believes measures educational quality—what gets measured gets done.

What then does it mean when a school is doing well?

Given the difficulties with finding a number that would accurately quantify the approximate relationships between an instructional regime and student learning, what, then, is a good school. The answer to that question will not be found in the search for another number, or algorithm, or survey, or tests. It will be found in how school administrators answer the questions posed below by Elliot Eisner.

I know exactly what school administrators are saying at this point: “Yes, these are certainly mission driven questions, but, how would I quantify the answers, and, realistically, how would I gather the data on these questions. Within the margins of institutional schooling, school administrators are correct in saying they lack the managerial tools to quantify or gather data on the answers to any of these questions.

Becoming an Educational Connoisseur

Although these questions are unanswerable using established managerial accountability tools, they are answerable administrators assume and develop the role of educational connoisseur. I will elaborate on this role in coming blog posts. Suffice it to say now, that educational connoisseurs develop a fine sense for the subtler forms of classroom instruction. An educational connoisseur, for example, would be able to detect patterns of teaching where students are able to “formulate their own purposes,” or “work in depth in domains related to their aptitudes,” or “participate in the assessment of their own work.”

As already noted, no institutional accountability tool exists to document these subtler forms of classroom instruction. What does exist, however, are venues and discourses where these forms of classroom instruction can be observed and discussed. While these observations and discussions may be unable to be placed in an employee’s file, they will, over time, define a school’s instructional worldview, and more importantly, will become the normative model of teaching.


(Eisner, E. W. (January 01, 2001). FEATURES –
What Does It Mean to Say a School Is Doing Well?. Phi Delta Kappan, 82, 5, 367)