1. Diane Devine

    I really struggled with this column. When I was a college freshman, my English Comp professor excused me from his course as soon as I had reached an advanced level in writing. It troubles me as a math teacher that the same was not true in the situation described in the column. The student’s mastery of the material was not celebrated but questioned. Do we only do this in math? My hope is that we have learned enough from the mistakes of the past and have redesigned courses like this to challenge all students who must enroll in them.

    • George

      I hope so too…we need a new model to avoid these things where teachers feel they aren’t doing their jobs because they are expected to teach compliance as part of their practice. Thanks for your thoughts!

  2. Bruce

    Depends… Is the goal learning the material and showing mastery? Or is the goal to be in compliance with the State attendance laws and mandates of the class. Maybe we need to ask ourselves what the work place requires and how a company would assess our competency based on these questions? There are many things we do over the course of our life we don’t like or agree with but we’ve learned somewhere the need to do them anyhow. I believe creating a well rounded person able to be a follower and a leader that can be relied on in the workplace is the goal. Not just someone who knows the material and shows mastery.

    • George

      That’s a great question. I actually see more places of work actually moving to an objective based model where they are not looking at hours clocked by effectiveness. It is not as rampant as a traditional business model but it is happening more and more where people are working when it works for them, not their boss, and it seems that the companies that do this get a lot out of their people. I just recently read a document on the Netflix culture and this was one of their key points.

      Do we teach both models?

      Thanks for your comment…Great addition to the conversation.

  3. Bruce

    The traditional model of school from 7:45 to 3:45 is going away faster then we think at the secondary level. And new business models are always surfacing. Top level people can work in many different environments with different guidelines and time structures and still be very successful. I have many friends that have very flexible schedules. I wonder how they’ve learned to manage time and adhere to needed guidelines within the freedom given them? It usually comes with maturity and trust that develops due to successful work over time.

  4. George

    I don’t think we should keep a kid in a class where they totally understand the objectives and have no interest in going further, especially if they are meeting their goals and have other area in which they believe they are making a difference.

    I agree that there are times that as adults we all have to be places we really don’t want to be and times that we have to do things that we would rather not, and perhaps a small part of preparing our students for adulthood is helping them develop the types of skills necessary to do this.

    However, when I think of what I want school to be for the kids in my school, I can’t help but wonder how many students we lose by forcing them into compliance. I wonder if maybe we need to redesign our system to make sure that students are not trapped in situations where they really don’t need to be.

    Maybe if we allowed students to demonstrate competency with things they understand and move on to things that challenge them and they find more meaningful, our students could see more purpose in their school experience and enjoy it more???

  5. Bruce

    I agree 100%. The problem is that we are confined by grades and time. Learning needs to happen at the pace of the individual and geared to the interest of the individual. Our system has a lot of change to undergo before this is a reality. Virtual and blended learning might be able to take us a long way in this direction. Homeschool…. done right, also allows this. Thanks for comments!

  6. Jennifer

    I’ve had some similar experiences with students who clearly had goals and dreams they were working towards outside of school that didn’t match what we were covering in class, could clearly master the material anyway, and were increasingly frustrated like your student when told it was the rules that they attend lessons they didn’t see as relevant. It didn’t happen often, but seems to be increasing. I have the joy of having a principal who doesn’t mind if we depart drastically from curriculum for students such as that, although it becomes very time consuming to set them up with individual projects – with time I got better at finding tenuous links between the material we were ‘supposed’ to be covering and whatever their outside interest was, but if there were ever more than two such students in one class I think I would have struggled a lot.

    We aren’t really encouraged, as teachers, to write assessment tasks which students themselves can make as broad as they’d like or apply to their own interests. Granted, it’s probably easier in science (my subject area) than maths, but it is a challenging line to walk to make a task broad enough that all students can take it in any direction they like, but narrow enough to meet curriculum objectives.

  7. Mike

    The more irrelevant we become, the more irrelevant we become.

    Forcing kids to come to class for compliance only neuters any argument that our class is important. Essentially we have said, this class is important because I said so. They are not buying it. We either offer something of value, or we don’t. If we don’t, compulsary attendence only serves to bring false comfort to the teacher.

  8. “The hidden curriculum” of attendance, being on time, handing in assignments on due dates, speaking when spoken too, etc. is a crutch we lean on for the purposes of “classroom management”. It will continue this way until people wake up and realize that 30 students in any classroom is wrong, and until people stop believing that teaching is “telling kids stuff and giving grades”.

  9. Kirsten

    I love this. I really do. Yes children, young people, students need to be challenged. But here you have an example of a self motivated young person who is so excited about learning and actively working on a fulfilling learning goal of their own. Isn’t that what we want for our students? As a teacher (elementary) I was always happiest working an integrated day, where the children had the opportunity to work longer on the things they found harder or were more interested in, and shorter on the things they found easier or were less interested in. I find time bound, regulated education very difficult to adapt to. If a child is high achieving in maths we send them to ‘maths extension’. Why? Why not let them have the time to explore something that really interests them. If our students are articulate, confident, numerate, literate thinkers who care about the world, why can’t we let them have more choices? We’re constantly having examples held up to us of big thinkers who changed the world, geniuses who were bored at school, and examples of ‘true grit’ and achievement. And yet most of us work in a school system which likes to keep everything tidy and ticked off. I can honestly say that the most successful people I know in life never had much of a formal education, they worked hard at what came to them, they found their opportunities, and they never looked back. Personally I think the key is asking questions, as in the example. We don’t want students who just ‘cruise’ and don’t challenge themselves either. Knowing your students and being allowed to make different choices for different needs, that to me seems ‘fairer’ in reality than keeping everyone ‘equal’ because of the ‘rules’. Well done George, for letting this young lady find her own way, and allowing her to be successful.

  10. Aviva (@avivaloca)

    I see your point here, George, but I wonder why she doesn’t care about this subject. What might have made her care more? Is it okay that she doesn’t care about a subject like math, and what does this say about how we’ve taught it and how we could teach it? It really bothers me when a student doesn’t care about a subject: not because we have to care about everything, but because I wonder if there’s something we could do to make a student feel differently. I certainly had my own favourite and least favourite subjects in school, but as an elementary school teacher now, I teach all of these subjects. If students knew how I felt about the different subjects, would they feel differently about them too? I wonder if we can even find something we love in subjects that we care less about.

    Thanks for giving me so much to think about!

  11. David

    I respectfully disagree, Avila. We are all differently gifted. Why can’t we show mastery in what is required then go deep into what we are passionate about. Is an engineering scholar required to take band? No. If we want students to be lifelong learners, we must give choices so that their pursuits are authentic and not legislated.

    • Aviva (@avivaloca)

      I can see your point, David, but I wonder what an engineering scholar might learn if he did take band. Why is he not interested in it? Is it because it doesn’t align with his passions or interests, or is it because of the way that the content is delivered? I think that there’s a difference.

      As an elementary educator now that has to teach all subject areas, I worry about how my impressions of certain subjects will impact on my students. I already hear my Grade 1’s saying things like, “I don’t like ________” or “I’m not good at ________________,” and it bothers me when students this young already have such strong opinions on their areas of need. Have they had enough exposure to these different subjects yet to make these informed decisions? Are there any parts of these subjects that they might enjoy, even if they don’t love the overall subject? How can we infuse their passions into these various subjects to make them more enjoyable, and maybe help them see the value in something that they thought they didn’t like?

      Just wondering …

      • Diane Devine

        Thank you, Aviva. As a math coach, I frequently meet elementary teachers who focus on one area of their grade level math and avoid others due to their own experiences with math. It becomes a snowball effect as the child moves through the grades and is not well-prepared in an area like geometry. Some school districts even sanction a focus on number sense and very limited work with strands like geometry. This has a huge impact on special needs students who struggle with number sense but excel in visual/spatial thinking. For them, math is never something that they feel that they understand, simply because of the decisions that adults make. All children have a right to see all of the faces of math.

        • Aviva (@avivaloca)

          Thanks Diane! I totally agree with you. As a child, I was identified with a non-verbal learning disability in visual spatial skills. I’m great at working with numbers in math, but I really struggle in geometry. If I used my struggle in geometry as a reason to “hate” math, I would never have experienced the love of problem solving that I do now. Just like in math, I think that there are many different aspects of various subjects, and before we have students “hating” any subject, I think that we have to expose them well to all of these different aspects.


          P.S. Even though I struggle in geometry, my students explore geometry a lot in math. My struggle helped me figure out some better ways to teach it to all students, and now, an area of math that plagued me in grade school actually excites me in teaching! 🙂

  12. Bruce

    I wonder if it is best to expect a well rounded education till our learners are older. I get learner choice decisions based on interest, but I wonder if that should be more of a focus in later high school, college, and graduate school not in primary grades. Some voice and choice but still expectations to experience many varied things like fine arts as mentioned above. Im not sure if 5-14 year olds are able to make these decisions in a wise manner. Just because I don’t like something does not mean it’s not best for me. I like lots of food, but I’ve learned that not all of it is good for me and that I’ve got to eat more fruits and vegetables that I’d rather skip. Sometimes our learners look at school like this. Who doesn’t like the cake and icecream?

    • Aviva (@avivaloca)

      Bruce, I happen to think that voice and choice is important for all grades, but I think there’s a difference between having choice within a subject and choosing not to do the subject at all. Maybe this choice to skip the subject is best when students do get older and can make more informed decisions. I wonder though if more students would enjoy more subjects if there was always more voice, choice, and entry points for all students.


    • Mike

      I agree with both of you that less mature students have a tough time choosing the wisest path sometimes, but this thread is really about the kids that are showing mastery, or at least able to meet the objectives of the course without additional seat time. Should that kid be forced to sit through a course they can pass but hate? Or at least not enjoy as much as another fruitful, academically desirable activity?

      I don’t think anyone is advocating allowing 2nd graders to decide between math or recess.

      • Aviva

        I understand that, Mike. I still wonder though, when can students make this choice? Would their feelings have been different if the content was delivered in a different way or additional content was included? I’m not sure. I just always wonder about this.


        • Mike

          I think they should be able to make that choice once they are able to demonstarte mastery.My 7 year old daughter reads at a 4th grade level. Why should she be forced to sit with her peers in reading groups? She reads gobs of books at home. If she wants to concentrate on math at school, I am fine with that. she will still be a well rounded kid with a strong focus on math.

          If a student is able to pass an assessment that shows she has previously attained a level of ability above the minimum in a course. Why would we ever force that kid to sit through the content they already have shown mastery in? I have my degree in Secondary Ed, please don’t make me go back and do it again.

          What about the kid who learns independently and keeps pace in the class as described in the original post? I thinnk that student is having her needs met. She is able to demonstrate mastery at several intervals and still spend time in a subject that is more relevent to her.

          What if it had been presented different? Would she be passionate about math? Perhaps, but I don’t see why we have the right to question what she is passionate about now. And that is what we are doing when we require her attendence in our class and away from where her passion lies. There is an opportunity cost to attending any class, and in her case, it is not worth it.

          It’s not like she is giving up on math, she is just learning it in a different setting than the classroom. Any desire to see this young woman put down whatever she has picked up to become an aeronautical engineer is negating a very positive thing in her life. That will shut a kid down quicker than anything (and most adults too.)

          Some may see the value of forcing her into a class to teach her how to deal with things you don’t want to do. Does she really need that lesson? At what cost?

          You mentioned that you teach all subjects. My hat is off to Elementary teachers. I think very few of us on the other side do nearly as good a job at data guided instruction as teachers on your end. I teach Social Studies. I hope we both also teach our students to follow their passions.

          Perhaps, if this young woman had you teach her math, she would be the next Madam Curie. She didn’t though. Someone else taught her and she lacks a drive for math. Perhaps that has limited her options in the calculating professions. She is passionate about something though. I say let her skip every class until she stops showing mastery and let her focus her efforts where she will have the biggest impact, which will always be where her heart is.

  13. I would hope that there would be a way to grant this student the credit without enrolling her in the course? If she doesn’t need to come to class to learn, why not give her the final exam & summative task to see if she meets the course requirements? If she does, give her the credit & let her move on. Seems silly to make a student come to class every day if they don’t need to.
    I’d argue that a case like hers is pretty rare. Most students in that course probably struggle with math & need to attend to learn the material to pass the course objectives.
    Cases like hers sound more like placement issues – I’m all for giving a kid a credit if they can prove they’ve met the requirements – even without taking the course.

    • Mike

      In Response top Laura, but also Christian below;

      What if the stduent is not able to pass the final on the first day, but is able to learn independantly away from class? Instead of a 50 minute class she hates, maybe this girl can master the material on her own in 10 minutes. This would free her up 40 minutes per day to do what she wants.

      More likely, she is catching up a night or two before assessment, I see nothing wrong with this alternative approach, as long as she is successful.

      • Diane Devine

        Learning is just as much a social process as one that generates data. If we limit learning to the ability to pass a test, we are missing the reason why we became teachers.

        • Mike

          Yes, of course it is, but how did anything I say stray from the social aspect of teaching? This child is still in a classroom, just not a math classroom. She is in one that is far more engaging and one she is probably contributing to in a far greater role. If she were in the Math room, she may very well shut down and lose that social aspect altogether. We must not hold our classess in higher esteem than our students.

          • Diane Devine

            Mike, I think that this section is what led me to that conclusion:

            “What if the stduent is not able to pass the final on the first day, but is able to learn independantly away from class? Instead of a 50 minute class she hates, maybe this girl can master the material on her own in 10 minutes. This would free her up 40 minutes per day to do what she wants.”

            I think that the teaching profession has a great challenge to redesign the classroom of the 21st century so that individual learner’s needs are met and so that the 50 minutes are engaging for all students.

      • I agree. In that case I would set the student up with a learning support teacher & instead of being on my class list, I would register them to the LST who could give them the time, space & support to learn independently & write the tests & final exam as they’re ready.

  14. Christian

    I agree with Laura. I would allow the student to challenge the learning outcomes (write the final exam) and if she passes, give her the credit to free up her schedule to do more of what she wants to do. This example is actually the opposite of what I was expecting. There are basic, foundational skills that all students need to learn (basic reading, writing, and arithmetic), but, beyond that, students should be encouraged to explore their areas of interest more than just jumping through hoops. Leave that to the universities….

  15. Adam

    I am piggybacking here but in the same sense what do we do with these students who “show up, knock it out of the park” on test day but never/rarely turn in the homework? Do we give these kids passes because they obviously know the material? Are we taking away their time that could be spent more passionately on something else by giving them 50 math problems every night when we know they could do 10 and prove they know the material?

    • Diane Devine

      Let’s hope that the days of 50 math problems for homework have been replaced with a variety of assignments that engage students for a night, for 2-3 days, or for a week or more. Students don’t need to prove their ability to endure but rather explore the many facets of mathematics with authentic, grade-appropriate problem solving.

  16. One of the biggest lessons I learned in life was at some point in early high school. I realized that, in many cases, I could breeze through a few of my classes with basically zero effort. My worst work got me a B, and–honestly–that was fine with me. Prior to this revelation, I stressed myself out (totally on my own, with no pressure from my parents, teachers, or peers) to get the highest grades I could, to work as hard as I could, and to be as perfect as possible; I also came home with a migraine or a stomach ache every night and cried a lot. Figuring out how to relax and just “get by” was integral to my journey to adulthood. By relaxing in a few classes, I could concentrate my real energy on AP classes, and–later–college courses that mattered. I didn’t need to show up every day to do well in “Math for Liberal Arts” (essentially a college course like the one you described above), but that gave me more time to focus on my major, and probably helped keep me sane.

    And this same skill come in handy when it’s time to leave work and I find myself having the ability to NOT check email all night and on weekends, when my house isn’t as clean as I’d like it to be for that party I’m having, when I got an 81% on my Google certification exam…

  17. Lisa Noble

    I’m struggling on this one. I’m on the elementary side, like Aviva, but I’m also a specialist. I teach Core French (for reference, in Ontario, where I teach, students are required to take 200 minutes of French/5 day cycle – it’s not immersion, where students actually learn many of their subjects using French as the teaching language). I have many students who are disengaged, and devalue what I teach, because they see no value or purpose for it in their lives. I also have many students who love the communicative approach in my classroom, and are thriving on learning to use their second language in real-world contexts. Both groups get incredibly frustrated with one another – one, because they have a very hard time understanding the enthusiasm of the other, and the second because they want to move forward, and sometimes that’s hard to do. There are very few pencil and paper quiz-type assessments in my classroom, and lots of rich tasks, incorporating the vocabulary we’ve been learning together. There are days when I would love to say to my students who have not mastered the material, and are making no effort to do so, that they don’t have to be there – why I am taking the time and energy to teach them when they will be exempted from it in Grade 9 (high school standards for exemption are substantially less stringent than elementary), and they could use the time to dig into something they’re passionate about, and let my kids who are showing mastery really fly. But that’s not on the radar, so challenging my students – with real-world tasks, with ways to bring in their passions, with as many integrated activities as I can possibly manage, while still striving to keep the target language the main language in the room – is something I absolutely have to do.

    In elementary, we sometimes have more ability to let the student in the original post have more independence – they can move on to other tasks, or design their own word problem, or build a more complex model, or work on their genius hour project – they can’t really skip, easily, and so they tend to be in the room with us, and we can sometimes work together to figure out what they can be working on (with those tangential ties to what the rest of the group might be doing). “Challenging” can be a good thing in that context, I think.

  18. As a student in college, I had to take a course on Microsoft Office and Excel. At the time, I was able to do those programs inside out and backwards. I never went to class – just showed up for the tests. What’s the point in forcing someone to be in a class that they can do if they are using that time for something they are doing well and learning with?

    I commend the idea of teaching supporting alternative ideas to education! It’s hard to see outside the parameters of a system. But people are always going to learn and absorb information that is much more relevant to their personal interests.

    As a homeschooling parent, it’s hard sometimes to remember to help my kids walk that balance – learn what they need to along with the what they want to.

    Great post.

  19. If everyone made a list of all the things that they thought everyone needed to know, we would quickly (I hope) realize both the impossibility and the inanity of the “must know” approach.

    Not only could this student demonstrate ability, she was also engaged in a personal learning project. The “system” placed more value on its need-to-know knowledge.

    I had a student a few years ago who often missed English class, thus missing (my) assignments. Did he fail? Nope. I found out he was busy writing and recording songs, creating a CD cover and liner and by the end of the semester, planning a CD release party. I certainly could line up his learning with the ELA outcomes, but that isn’t the point.

    The culture of schooling is not the culture of learning. We need to change that.

    • Mike

      I wish I had a better line than this “The culture of schooling is not the culture of learning. We need to change that.”

      But I don’t. Will be stealing that now

    • Kirsten Durward

      The culture of schooling is not the culture of learning. We need to change that.

      Trying! It’s a challenge because interpretations of ‘what learning is’ varies wildly.

      I would love to hear more about great truly learning focussed schools

      And as for these exams and people sitting in courses? Why not give everyone the exam at the beginning of the year, see what they need to learn and go from there? That would be true ‘assessment based practice’

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