NOTE: The current version is edited from the original. I realized the need to clarify a few points, based on some early feedback.

The 4th of July: a great time to think about independence. No, not yours or mine; the students’  independence. What curricular plan do you have for giving students increasing intellectual autonomy next year?

In all the hullabaloo about standards* and tests, a more basic aim has long been sacrificed in K-12 education: ensuring that students graduate able to handle the freedoms of college and the pro-active obligations of the workplace. As many have long heard me say, my children had more intellectual and executive freedom in Montessori School as 4 year olds than they did as high school students.

I recall my son, Ian, as a 4-year-old, pondering which ‘work’ to do that day, on the way to school: food work? sewing work? Or Drawing? Well, why might you choose one or the other today? I asked. And he proceeded to do a cute think-aloud with little furrowed brow, about the pros and cons (based on recent choices and skill deficits).

Fast forward: grown-up Ian has lost 2 room-mates as he begins senior year in college this coming fall. Why did they leave? They were unable to handle the complete freedom to set their schedule and honor their obligations.

What is wanted in education is a curriculum and assessment system that builds in, by design, a gradual release of teacher responsibility across the long-term scope and sequence. Traditional curriculum design runs completely counter to this idea, of course: the work gets harder and harder but the student has practically no executive control over the intellectual agenda up until graduation.

Making matters worse, a number of people have wrongly interpreted the Gradual Release model to say that the last step is called “Independent Practice.” This is utterly misguided. Independent practice is still scaffolded, prompted, and simplified activity in which the student knows full well what single move we want them to use. There is no strategic thinking or executive control needed. The acid test of autonomy therefore, arrives when students confront a genuine challenge requiring thought, and no advice about strategy or technique is provided or hinted at.

Real problems and questions: self-sustaining worthy work.  The big exception to unfree curriculum is in schools where projects, problems, challenges and independent study provide the framework for the curriculum (though even in some of these settings some teachers kibbitz too much).

I had the good fortune in the last few weeks of school this year to sit in on 4 different classes where such an approach was being used: a 5th-grade classroom where independent reading and choice of text is the norm; a vocational high school where the team of teachers has built a challenge-based curriculum, a local high school where two teachers have made their Honors Biology co-taught and a problem-based course, and (in the same district) 8th graders who must completely organize a full week of time, all day, during the last week of the year, to prepare for a simulation in which they propose ways of meeting the UN Development Goals in front of panels of adult outside judges. (This year they also piloted a 3rd-grade version of a creation-presentation challenge.)

What watching these diverse experiences got me thinking was: what do these experiences have in common? How have the teachers engineered freedom by design – not just behavioral freedom but intellectual freedom?  More generally, what are the optimal conditions for achieving that delicate balance of student intellectual autonomy with high levels of learning core and enabling content?

The essence of the independence design challenge is to ensure students have maximally self-sustaining and worthy work, thereby freeing up the teacher to coach. That’s what makes problem-based learning work when it works: the problems are clear, focused, rich, interesting, on point – and, thus self-sustaining. That’s what makes independent leveled reading work in the 5th-grade classroom. That’s what also makes use of ‘clickers’ in Eric Mazur’s Physics class or Socratic Seminar in my former classroom work: the students are fully engaged in a genuinely intellectual yet focused challenge that can engage them in real thought and learning for a good while – and thereby free the teacher to observe, listen, provide personalized feedback and advice.

Worthy work: back to John Dewey. The work cannot be merely self-sustaining – busywork as opposed to worthy work. No one wrote more often and more thoroughly on this distinction than John Dewey over 100 years ago:

The giving of problems, the putting of questions, the assigning of tasks, the magnifying of difficulties, is a large part of school work.  But it is indispensable to discriminate between genuine and simulated or mock problems.  The following questions may aid in making such discrimination.  (a) Is there anything but a problem? Does the question naturally suggest itself within some situation or personal experience? Or is it an aloof thing, a problem only for the purposes of conveying instruction in some school topic? Is it the sort of trying that would arouse observation and engage experimentation outside of school? (b) Is it the pupil’s own problem, or is it … made a problem for the pupil only because he cannot get the required mark or be promoted or win the teacher’s approval, unless he deals with it?…

As a consequence of the absence of the materials and occupations which generate real problems, the pupil’s problems are not his… A pupil has a problem, but it is the problem of meeting the requirements set by the teacher.  His problem becomes that of finding out what the teacher wants.

The challenge is to find genuine problems or tasks that lead to important learnings while providing room for individual and creative thought. That’s the teacher’s job as a professional designer.

10 conditions for worthy and self-sustaining work. It seems to me, then, that the following conditions have to be met to ensure that the work we give students is self-sustaining, freeing, and worthy work, in which their own thinking (as well as an effective result) matters:

  1. Rich, challenging, and meaningful (authentic) problems/issues/tasks that require core content
  2. No single, obvious, or superficial answer or solution path – yet, the task is doable
  3. Clear performance goals and criteria for judging progress and knowing when the work is “done to standard” (It helps to have a real audience)
  4. Access to appropriate and varied resources that open up diverse approaches
  5. Familiar routines/protocols that help students organize the process (with varying degrees of transfer expected, via scaffolding/explicitness provided by the teacher; depending upon level of student skill and autonomy)
  6. Sufficient choice/personalization to enable students to play to strengths/interests
  7. Self-assessment and self-adjustment guides via varied models and rubrics (to clarify goals while undercutting mere mimicry)
  8. Benchmarks, checkpoints and other formal and informal formative assessments, to ensure students are helped to be on course and on time
  9. Explicit norms of mutual respect and personal responsibility, preferably built with student input and sign-off
  10. Teacher respect for reasonable non-disruptive student “down time.”

Note: The work is sufficiently self-sustaining if the teacher can formatively assess and provide personalized feedback and advice to each and every student.

Dewey ironically warns us that getting these conditions just right as a teacher-designer requires a deep understanding of how people learn to freely consider and solve real problems – a design that makes the learner have to truly think their way through things, and thereby believe that they are creators and discoverers (even if, by design, we have made the re-discovery possible and focused on outcomes that we know are important):

The educational conclusion which follows is that all thinking is original in a projection of considerations which have not been previously apprehended. The child of three who discovers what can be done with blocks, or of six who finds out what he can make by putting five cents and five cents together, is really a discoverer, even though everybody else in the world knows it. There is a genuine increment of experience; not another item mechanically added on, but enrichment by a new quality. The charm which the spontaneity of little children has for sympathetic observers is due to perception of this intellectual originality. The joy which children themselves experience is the joy of intellectual constructiveness—of creativeness, if the word may be used without misunderstanding.

The educational moral I am chiefly concerned to draw is not, however, that teachers would find their own work less of a grind and strain if school conditions favored learning in the sense of discovery and not in that of storing away what others pour into them…. It is that no thought, no idea, can possibly be conveyed as an idea from one person to another. When it is told, it is, to the one to whom it is told, another given fact, not an idea…. Only by wrestling with the conditions of the problem at first hand, seeking and finding his own way out, does he think…. We can and do supply ready-made “ideas” by the thousand; we do not usually take much pains to see that the one learning engages in significant situations where his own activities generate, support, and clinch ideas—that is, perceived meanings or connections. This does not mean that the teacher is to stand off and look on; the alternative to furnishing ready-made subject matter and listening to the accuracy with which it is reproduced is not quiescence, but participation, sharing, in an activity. In such shared activity, the teacher is a learner, and the learner is, without knowing it, a teacher—and upon the whole, the less consciousness there is, on either side, of either giving or receiving instruction, the better.

All educational reformers, as we have had occasion to remark, are given to attacking the passivity of traditional education. They have opposed pouring in from without, and absorbing like a sponge; they have attacked drilling in material as into hard and resisting rock. But it is not easy to secure conditions which will make the getting of an idea identical with having an experience which widens and makes more precise our contact with the environment. Activity, even self-activity, is too easily thought of as something merely mental, cooped up within the head, or finding expression only through the vocal organs. (Democracy & Education, Ch 12)

That’s the key: “discovering” big ideas and seeing that important ideas are indeed important, via well-planned curricular task design and deft coaching.

Freedom for learners and teachers; learners that truly think carefully: not a bad idea on July 4th, from a book appropriately entitled Democracy and Education.

Have a Happy, free, and thoughtful 4th.

* To be fair, the Introduction to the ELA Common Core stresses the importance on autonomy in its first “capacity” of the literate graduate:

“They demonstrate independence.”
“Students can, without significant scaffolding, comprehend and evaluate complex texts across a range of types and disciplines, and they can construct effective arguments and convey intricate or multifaceted information. Likewise, students are able independently to discern a speaker’s key points, request clarification, and ask relevant questions. They build on others’ ideas, articulate their own ideas, and confirm they have been understood. Without prompting, they demonstrate command of standard English and acquire and use a wide-ranging vocabulary. More broadly, they become self-directed learners, effectively seeking out and using resources to assist them, including teachers, peers, and print and digital reference materials.”