School innovation

A day in the life – Shadow a Student Challenge

As part of the international Shadow a Student Challenge, last year I blogged about my experience of shadowing a grade 9 student, Grace, throughout her day at the International School of Prague. In a very positive sense, I got much more than I bargained for.

This time it was Maria in grade 4 whom I had the pleasure of shadowing throughout her day of learning at ISP. I can truly say that while I was exhausted at the end of our day, I was also energized by what I observed and learned with Maria and all of her grade 4 classmates.

Maria – Grade 4

From the moment I entered Mr. Ryan Malone’s classroom, I was struck by how students were engaged and had considerable choice in how they were learning. At the same time it was clear that the structure and purpose of what students were learning was clear and well structured. What follows is a short version of my day of shadowing Maria primarily told through pictures and video:

The morning began with students rotating through the classroom reading through poems they may wish to learn and present. There was a palpable sense of focus as the students absorbed different styles of poetry.

Picking a poem

After that it was off to music class with Mr. Allen. The class was filled with a variety of engaging musical activities from vocal warm ups, to singing Solfègeto composing our own rhythms, to performing on Orff instruments. Mr. Allen’s music class was active, fun and focused.

Visiting Mr. Allens music class

After returning to class we were off to PE with Mr. Choudhury. First we warmed up with some dodge ball. Here I must mention that the students were intent on hitting me with a ball but then politely handed me another ball so I could join in again, only to be “attacked” once again. It was fun! Then we got into an introduction to badminton by watching some footage of professional players. After some conversation about our observations, it was time to try it out for ourselves.

Once back in Mr. Malone’s class, students led by fellow student David, took turns nominating people, parents or friends, who had something positive and special. For example:

Sam said. “I nominate my dad for playing the Math game with me yesterday.” and then David asked the class to give “3 snaps for Sam’s dad.” What a great way for these young students to think about and recognize how others help or support them.

Next the class smoothly segued into math learning, beginning with some sequential math problems.

Then the class tackled a conceptual problem, The Box Factory.

After working individually, students took turns describing how they would represent a crate of oranges with numbers.

Later the class continued its study of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. To introduce this part of the unit Mr. Malone had announced to the students that they were going to watch a video about “Fuzzy Bunny’s Magical Trip to the Human Rights Forrest,” but they were in for a surprise. As the class gathered around the screen, they were startled to see an ominous “hack” of the internet by an interplanetary alien, STHGIR (“rights” spelled backward) who posed a challenge to the students. After the startling appearance of STHGIR, Mr. Malone explained that there wasn’t a real alien but that his challenge was for students to see if they could come to agreement on what they believed were the five most important human rights.

Students first reviewed and rated the rights individually and then worked in pairs and then groups to see if they could reach consensus on five rights. This was an excellent way to get the students to better understand all the rights in the declaration through considered debate and discussion.



Working to reach consensus

Even though it was a bit cold outside, it was now time to go outside in search of “metaphors.” Once outside we were asked to find an object which students could describe from a variety of perspectives and to write descriptions of each in the appropriate “room,” such as the Sound Room or the Feelings Room. This was a wonderful way to allow students to discover the concept of metaphor without simply telling them what it was.

Looking for Metaphors

I am a rock?

Learning about metaphors

Once back in class, students excitedly presented their own creations as part of the Class Economy unit. Here they had a chance to “sell” and “buy” items they created to one another. The activity required creativity, thinking about marketing and entrepreneurship, and through the process the students learned about commerce.

So that was our day in a nutshell. What is hard to convey is how much fun it was to learn in this dynamic and focused environment, where the learning of each student was nurtured and supported and where the students could safely take risks and learn from their trials and errors.

Agenda for our day with Mr. Malone

Oh, I forgot to mention, recess and lunch. They were fun too!

Thanks to Mr. Malone, Maria and grade 4 for an amazing day! I learned a lot!

With Mr. Malone and Grade 4

Thanks Maria!

Maria and me

How do you learn to cook?


I recently attended the ECIS (Educational Collaborative for International Schools) Educators Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, with the theme, Cultivating Curiosity.


The theme of cultivating curiosity reminded me of one of ISP‘s (International School of Prague) strategic goals,

Curiosity drives what and how we learn.” 

It is through curiosity and personal relevance (another ISP strategy!), that all students, young and old, will be deeply engaged in the learning process. For students to take their own personal paths to learning in school, teachers must create rich environments and multiple learning paths to encourage and nurture curiosity.

The first keynote speaker at the ECIS conference, Dr. William Rankin, highlighted the paradigm shift schools need to make: From teaching and learning as a linear activity, to contextualizing learning within an ecosystem.

Bill Rankin

“Dr William Rankin is a speaker and independent consultant focusing on the impact of emerging educational technologies.”

In his talk, Rankin pointed out that the more educators and schools try to reduce information into easily “manageable” and discrete chunks, the more we actually reduce engagement, because this “goes against the way our brains were formed to work.” Rankin argues that learning requires an ecosystem, which similar to the world of nature, is Diverse, Relational, Balanced, Torsional, Dynamic and Substantial. Such a learning ecosystem is where relevance serves as a catalyst to stimulate curiosity and engagement.

Learning Ecosystems - Rankin

Learning Ecosystems – Rankin

To illustrate how the lack of relevance can be a mind-numbing experience, Rankin demonstrates how not to teach cooking. Each week the class is informed that they will learn about a different cooking tool: Week one is spoons; week two is knives; week three is pots and pans etc. By the end of the semester students don’t have the time to actually cook. Rankin asks his audience, “How many of you have been in that course?” Sadly, many hands are raised.

So “How do you learn to cook?” Rankin asks, “By cooking! You learn all that information, not first but while you are doing it.”

In the school of the future?

“Always cook from day 1!”


You can’t teach people everything they need to know.


As the school year begins, it is fitting and timely to call attention to an educational visionary and provocative thinker who recently passed away. For over a half century Seymour Papert led the call for schools to empower students to have greater control over their learning.

Seymour Aubrey Papert (February 29, 1928 – July 31, 2016) was a South African-born American mathematician, computer scientist, and educator, who spent most of his career teaching and researching at MIT.[1] He was one of the pioneers of artificial intelligence, and of the constructionist movement in education. He was co-inventor, with Wally Feurzeig, of the Logo programming language. (Wikipedia)

In the early 70s, long before laptops or even desktop computers,  Papert saw the enormous potential and power of young people freely exploring and learning from and with this powerful new technology.

Beyond his advocacy for the integration of technology in schools, Papert vehemently believed that in any context, learning must firmly be in the hands of the learner.

The scandal of education is that every time you teach something, you deprive a  student of the pleasure and benefit of discovery.

Papert was a visionary who had and continues to have a profound influence on the progressive direction schools have taken. The more we understand the workings of the brain and how learners learn best, the more Papert’s ideas about learning by doing and student empowerment take hold.

In the tradition of the great educational minds like John Dewey, Seymour Papert challenged educators to rethink the traditional school model, to “break away from the old patterns, where children were born as learners, they learned from their own energy until they went to school,  and when they went to school, the first thing they had to learn was to stop learning and begin being taught.”

You can’t teach people everything they need to know. The best you can do is position them where they can find what they need to know when they need to know it.



The Nature of Nurture

RSA Journal Issue 1 2016 Cover

I was recently invited to write an article for the RSA Journal on the topic of school change, innovation and creativity. The resulting article, The Nature of Nurture (RSA Journal, Issue 1, 2016) talks about the importance of bringing all stakeholders; teachers, students, parents and the broader community, into the school change process as well as present some of the concrete steps ISP is taking to move the school closer to its mission of Inspiring, Engaging and Empowering Learners for Life. 

“A key step towards meaningful school transformation is a concerted effort to educate, not only teachers, but also parents and students, about why creativity, innovation, entrepreneurship and life-worthy learning must be an integral part of a child’s education. Beyond enlightening all stakeholders about why change is necessary, schools must find ways for interested individuals to try things out without, in the process, draining human and financial resources. “

To read the entire article, click here: The Nature of Nurture

The RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce)  is a dynamic world-wide organization with a network of 27,000 fellows. Many have had their first contact with the RSA through their ubiquitous “RSA Animate,” series, “conceived as an innovative, accessible and unique way of illustrating and sharing world-changing ideas.

Established in 1754, the RSA’s mission is “to enrich society through ideas and action.”

We serve this mission by acting as a global hub, by enabling millions of people to access the most creative ideas, by nurturing networks of innovators, and through researching, testing and sharing practical interventions.

Click below to learn more about RSA’s history and the influential role it plays on bringing about innovative change.



“The Shadow Knows”… a day in the life of a student

Screen Shot 2016-03-11 at 11.24.13

As Director of the International School of Prague (ISP), I like to believe that I work hard every day, but yesterday I gained a new perspective on hard work, having “shadowed” Grace, a grade 9 student at ISP, for a day.

While I often visit classrooms and observe kids learning and teachers teaching, spending a full day shadowing one student, from class to class, as well as lunch, is a very different experience and one I highly recommend, especially to other school decision makers.

I decided to shadow Grace as part of an initiative called Shadow a Student Challenge sponsored by SchoolRetool. Here’s how they describe what shadowing is: “Just like it sounds, shadowing a student is the process of following a student to gain empathy and insight into their experience. ” And that’s just what the day of shadowing gave me, some unique insights into the life of one of our students, as well as some real empathy for their experience.

Our day started at 8 am for an 80 minute block of Mathematics. The focus of this class was on factoring and I was impressed with the focused yet caring tone set by their teacher, Mr. Rops, and how physically active the class was. For the first 20 minutes, enthusiastic students worked on a variety of warm-ups and problems, standing throughout the room and writing on the various white walls, desks and even windows. There was a lot of cross discussion and kids checking and helping each other out throughout the class.

Maths in action!

Maths in action

Grace and friends problem solving

Grace and friends problem solving

After Math, things really got physical, as I participated in a PE class in the school fitness center. While I didn’t come dressed or prepared for a work-out, I decided to join in at the invitation of PE teacher, Ms. Shaw. I think I got more than I bargained for! After some strenuous warm-ups, the students were given the task of creating their own workout regimen based on exercises they have been using over the past few weeks. I buddied up with another student,  Alisa, who really took us through our paces with a regimen of plank walks, crunches, side squats, bicep curls and something I think was called the Bulgarian squat! Suffice it to say, I learned a lot through the pain, but felt kind of virtuous, if exhausted by the end of class. Again I was struck by hands on learning taking place and the willingness of our students to help each other throughout our time together.

PE Fitness class

PE Fitness class

Feeling tired and virtuous with Ms. Shaw

After fitness workout with Ms. Shaw’s PE class

After PE it was off to lunch with Grace and her friends. This was a chance to unwind, chat and laugh while enjoying some great food. I appreciated how Grace and her peers included me in the lunchtime conversation and banter.

After lunch and some welcome down time, it was back to it with social studies. This is a class in which lots of different things were happening at the same time. Students were working on their presentations, others went off to prepare for a theater production while others were involved in leading an activity with grade 3 students. Grace worked on her presentation whose topic focused on the impact of  oil on WWII.  During the class, students conferred with each other and social studies teacher, Ms. Fleming, about their individual presentations.

Grace working on her presentation

Grace working on her presentation in Social Studies

The final class of the day was grade 9 science with Mr. Morrison. We started off with an active warm-up, followed by a short lab experiment in which we explored the “specific heat capacity” of various metals. “The specific heat is the amount of heat per unit mass required to raise the temperature by one degree Celsius.” By placing a metal in boiling water, measuring the temperature with a probe and then placing the hot metal in room temperature water and recording the water temperature increase we used the data to apply the appropriate formula and compare our results for various metals.

Understanding heat capacity

Understanding heat capacity

As you can imagine, my retelling of my day of shadowing and the classes I attended only skim the surface, but I truly did come away from the experience with a deeper appreciation of what a school day is like for a grade 9 student. The life of a high school student is chock full every day and the range of learning activities required from students as they move from class to class is considerable. It’s also important to bear in mind, that while the school day schedule goes from 8 am to 3 pm, most students have after school activities and homework to contend with before their day is truly over.

What impressed me the most about our school was the overall welcoming and nurturing learning environment, how supportive our students are of each other and the way our teachers are able to develop an ethos, where students feel highly supported and safe to take risks, can work independently or collaboratively and truly have the opportunity to learn by doing.

I want to thank Grace for her willingness to share her day of learning with me, and I certainly plan on making shadowing a regular feature of my work in the future. I may have ended the school day a bit sore, but I learned a lot, and it was fun too!

Thanks Grace!

Thanks Grace!

The Fourth “I”

ISP Graduation, Palac Zofin, Prague

ISP Graduation, Palac Zofin, Prague

Each year, at graduation time we ask ourselves, “How well have we prepared our students for the future?” Given the unprecedented rate of change in the world, this is a question with no easy answer. My graduation address to the class of 2015, at the stunning Palac Zofin in Prague, was an attempt to perhaps point them in the right direction:

Every parent wants their child to be happy and successful, or as we say at ISP to “lead healthy, fulfilling and purposeful lives.” Each year when graduation time comes around, we consider how well we’ve been able to prepare our children and our students for the future. These days we may also wonder, “What does it take to live a successful life in the twenty-first century?”

10 years ago, two books which became international bestsellers, attempted to articulate how the world had changed, as well as identify the skills necessary to navigate today’s new world. In The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century, Thomas Friedman argued that the twenty-first century is more than an evolved twentieth century, but is a world transformed.

 medieval depiction of the Ecumene (1482, Johannes Schnitzer, engraver)

A medieval depiction of the Ecumene (1482, Johannes Schnitzer, engraver)

Friedman begins his book with a sense of discovery:

Columbus reported to his king and queen that the world was round, and he went down in history as the man who first made this discovery. I returned home and shared my discovery only with my wife, and only in a whisper. “Honey,” I confided, “I think the world is flat.”

Friedman goes on to explain:

“It is now possible for more people than ever to collaborate and compete in real time with more other people on more different kinds of work from more different corners of the planet and on a more equal footing, than at any previous time in the history of the world.”

In other words, how we interact and how we work has turned each of us into global neighbors and has irrevocably altered how we communicate and how we relate to one another.

Roughly at the same time that The World is Flat was published, Dan Pink, in his book, A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future, set out to articulate the new 21st Century skills that are required to function in the flat world.

Here’s how Pink put it:

“The last few decades have belonged to a certain kind of person with a certain kind of mind—computer programmers who could crank code, lawyers who could craft contracts, MBAs who could crunch numbers. But the keys to the kingdom are changing hands. The future belongs to a very different kind of person with a very different kind of mind—creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers, and meaning makers. These people—artists, inventors, designers, storytellers, caregivers, consolers, big picture thinkers—will now reap society’s richest rewards and share its greatest joys.”

The Human Body and Health 1908

The Human Body and Health 1908

Pink challenged us to question whether the traditional paths to success are still viable. He challenged us to question whether today’s graduates can really map out and predetermine their future paths.

What does this mean to you, our graduates? You have a better grasp of the world you are entering than any generation before you. You are tech savvy and well-connected to the digital world and to each other. You are interconnected in ways we could only dream of just a short decade ago, when the World is Flat was written. But the world requires more than technologists and well-connected digital citizens, and it also requires more than the 3Rs, reading, writing and arithmetic, that were considered crucial when my generation went to school.

France 1901

School of the Future, France 1901

To be clear, I still believe that the traditional literacies are important. But I would argue, that in today’s world where change is the new normal, what you might call the 3I’s, Imagination, Innovation and Initiative, is imperative.

  1. Imagination, to foresee and dream about what might be and to think creatively
  2. Innovation, to prototype and take risks with new ideas
  3. Initiative,taking an entrepreneurial approach to one’s endeavors.

Now more than ever, the new literacies such as the 3I’s can open new pathways to not only how we work but even how we live our lives. Over 50 years ago futurist Alvin Toffler foresaw the new literacies when he said: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

 Gary Waters/Getty

Gary Waters/Getty

But dear graduates, there is a critical 4th “I” which I believes carries even greater weight, and that is Integrity, or as the dictionary defines it, “the adherence to moral and ethical principles.” Of course maintaining a moral compass is not a new concept, in fact it is as old as humanity. But while change is everywhere, a consistent set of values and principles, will not only keep you afloat, but like a ship’s rudder will help guide you and truly serve you well in good times and in bad.


Graduates, in the rush and excitement to get on with your lives and succeed, don’t lose sight of your values. Know what they are and hold them dear like a precious jewel, especially when you are challenged with the inevitable moral dilemmas that you will face in the future. This I believe is the main ingredient of a healthy, fulfilling and purposeful life.

Guiding Light Lost – Grant Wiggins

Grant Wiggins

Grant Wiggins

I was saddened to learn that a great leading light in the world of progressive education had passed away, Grant Wiggins. Although I had the opportunity to meet Grant on a few occasions, I did not know him well. Nonetheless, his work had a profound impact on me and my work and the work of thousands of educators from around the world. Grant was an educational leader who was willing to “tell it like it is.” Among many other important contributions, Grant was a highly respected expert on learning assessment and with his colleague Jay McTighe originated the concept of backward design in teaching and learning — Understanding by Design, as they called it, an approach to learning design used by thousands of schools around the world.

My major impressions of Grant came primarily from his writings. Grant and Jay’s Schooling By Design had a profound impact on my thinking especially around the concept of the mission-driven school. When our school, the International School of Prague, embarked on creating a new mission, I recalled Grant’s words about most school missions being as a collection of “vapid platitudes.” This simple phrase steered us away from a generic mission towards one which we could truly use as a standard by which we would measure our school. It motivated us to create a mission which would hold us accountable and compel us to “walk the talk.”

Moving Toward Mission: How to Design Schooling to Make It More Coherent, Engaging, and Effective

Moving Toward Mission: How to Design Schooling to Make It More Coherent, Engaging, and Effective

I was also greatly influenced by Grant’s article A Diploma Worth Having, in which he challenged us to transform our concept of the high school curriculum and the purpose of the high school diploma. The article begins with the following provocative statement:

“I have a proposal to make: It’s time we abolished the high school diploma as we know it.”


March 2011 | Volume 68 | Number 6
What Students Need to Learn Pages 28-33

Grant Wiggins

There’s only one valid measure of the high school curriculum: How well does it prepare students for their adult lives?

I have a proposal to make: It’s time we abolished the high school diploma as we know it. In a modern, unpredictable, and pluralistic world, it makes no sense to demand that every 18-year-old pass the same collection of traditional courses to graduate.

Instead, we should do away with most course requirements, make all courses rigorous, and simply report what students have accomplished from year to year. Students should prepare for adult life by studying subjects that suit their talents, passions, and aspirations as well as needs. They should leave when they are judged to be ready for whatever next challenge they take on—whether it be college, trade school, the military, or playing in a band. Let’s therefore abolish the diploma, if by diploma we mean that all students must graduate as though they were heading for the same 20th-century future.

This plan would enable us to finally deal with the key weakness of high school, summarized in that term virtually all students and adults use to describe it: bor-ing. High school is boring in part because diploma requirements crowd out personalized and engaged learning. It is also boring because our graduation requirements have been produced the way our worst laws are; they are crude compromises, based on inadequate debate. Because of arbitrary policies that define preparation in terms of content instead of useful abilities, schools focus on “coverage,” not meaningful learning.

A Historical Perspective

Our belief in lockstep adherence to rigid curriculum requirements appears especially myopic and misguided if we look through the lens of the fundamental question, How well does the high school curriculum prepare all students for their adult lives? The Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education thought that asking this question was not only sensible but sorely needed—in 1918! Its report, Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education, yielded a sound set of criteria by which to rationally judge the high school curriculum. The commission underscored that these criteria must flow from the mission of schooling:

Education in a democracy, both within and without the school, should develop in each individual the knowledge, interests, ideals, habits, and powers whereby he will find his place and use that place to shape both himself and society toward ever nobler ends. (p. 9)

The Cardinal Principles were a deliberate counterbalance to the policies that had arisen from the work of the Committee of Ten in 1892. That group had famously argued that a college-prep education, including multiple years of Latin and Greek, was appropriate for all students—even though fewer than 10 percent of high school students went to college. Chaired by the president of Harvard, the Committee of Ten was organized into subject-area groups and staffed by professors and teachers of those subjects. (Our current system, with its attention to a narrow collection of “traditional” academic subjects, still embodies the worst consequences of the work of this group.)

The Cardinal Principles, in contrast, were intentionally external to the traditional subjects and were based on an understanding of the broad mission of schooling as enabling individuals to better themselves and society. They proposed the following “main objectives of education”: (1) health; (2) command of fundamental processes (reading, writing, arithmetical computations, and the elements of oral and written expression); (3) worthy home membership; (4) vocation; (5) citizenship; (6) worthy use of leisure; and (7) ethical character.

It’s a bit startling to see health first in the list, ahead of “readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmetic,” isn’t it? But that shock is also a helpful reminder of how much schools have lost their way. What could be more important in moving into adulthood than learning how to lead a healthy life, in the broadest sense?

This idea actually has much older roots. Herbert Spencer arguably wrote the first modern critique of out-of-touch college-prep education in his famous essay, “What Knowledge Is of Most Worth?” Spencer (1861) asserts that school exists to help us answer the essential question of how to live. Under this vision of education, health as an area of study rises to the top. Spencer writes that

as vigorous health and its accompanying high spirits are larger elements of happiness than any other things whatever, then teaching how to maintain them is a teaching that yields in moment to no other whatever. (p. 13)

Spencer anticipates the protests with rapier wit:

Strange that the assertion should need making! Stranger still that it should need defending! Yet are there not a few by whom such a proposition will be received with something approaching to derision. Men who would blush if caught saying Iphigénia instead of Iphigenía … show not the slightest shame in confessing that they do not know where the Eustachian tubes are, what are the actions of the spinal cord, what is the normal rate of pulsation, or how the lungs are inflated. … So overwhelming is the influence of established routine! So terribly in our education does the ornamental over-ride the useful! (p. 14)

But Spencer saves his greatest scorn for the failure to make child-rearing a core subject:

If by some strange chance not a vestige of us descended to the remote future save a pile of our school-books or some college examination papers, we may imagine how puzzled an antiquary of the period would be on finding in them no sign that the learners were ever likely to be parents. “This must have been the curriculum for their celibates,” we may fancy him concluding. (p. 20)

Spencer wisely notes that every subject will, of course, make a plea for its importance. Therefore, a curriculum can only be fairly justified using criteria about the purpose of schooling that are outside all “content.”

In other words, we need to decide to include or exclude, emphasize or deemphasize any subject based on criteria related to school mission— a mission centered on improving the behavior and lives of students. Otherwise, our curricular decisions are arbitrary and school is aimless. Indeed, when we fail to seriously question the inclusion of algebra or the exclusion of ethics from graduation requirements, we can only fall back on custom: “We’ve always done it this way.” But if that were the only real argument, we would still be requiring Greek of all graduates, as the Committee of Ten recommended.

The Unwitting Harm of the Standards Movement

Our current situation is no better than when the Committee of Ten did its work. Think about it: We are on the verge of requiring every student in the United States to learn two years of algebra that they will likely never use, but no one is required to learn wellness or parenting.

The current standards movement, for all its good intentions, is perilously narrowing our definition of education, to the great harm of not only students but also entire fields of study: the arts, the technical arts and trades, and the social sciences. Gone are excellent vocational programs—as powerfully described by Matthew Crawford in Shop Class as Soul Craft (Penguin, 2010), arguably the best book on education in the last five years. (See the review on page 92 of this issue of Educational Leadership.) Threatened are visual arts, theater, music, and dance programs despite their obvious value. Indeed, there are more musicians in this country than mathematicians, but you would never know it from the work of standards committees.

Not Which Standards, but Whose Standards

At a meeting many years ago, I heard Ted Sizer respond to a proponent of national standards, “It’s notwhich standards, it’s whose standards!” In other words, don’t make this sound so objective. It’s a political determination, made by whoever has a seat at the table.

And who sits at the table? Representatives of all the traditional academic subjects. When have standards committees included working artists, journalists, web designers, or doctors who could critique the usefulness or uselessness of traditional content standards? When have professors of bioethics, anthropology, or law been invited to critique content standards? Rather, the people who care most about their little corner of the traditional content world dictate that it is required.

True story: When I did a workshop as part of a standards-writing project in a large eastern state, I mentioned the problem of arcane elements in the history standards, in particular a mention of an obscure Chinese dynasty. A gentleman cried out, “But that was my dissertation topic, and it is important for students to know!” Worse: The speaker was the social studies coordinator for the state and had made sure to put this topic in the previous version of the standards.

Having worked with three different states on their standards writing and revision process, I can say with confidence that the way we organize standards-based work at the state and national levels dooms it from the start. The committees reflect typical people with typical backgrounds in education, charged to tinker with, but not radically overhaul, typical schooling; no criteria for choices are ever put forward to weed the document of pet topics. In short, these committees merely rearrange the furniture of the traditional core content areas; they replicate the past that they feel comfortable with rather than face the future that is on its annoying but inexorable way.

A Case in Point: Mathematics

For proof of the lack of forward thinking, look at the Common Core math standards. The recommended high school mathematics is unchanged from when I was a kid in prep school 45 years ago: four years of conventional topics in algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus. The only improvement is greater emphasis on modeling and statistics. But the laying out of the standards in isolated lists of content (as opposed to summarizing the kinds of performance standards student work must meet) undercuts the likelihood of vital reform to make mathematics more engaging and useful to the majority of students.

Consider this dreary summary of a high school strand from the Common Core:

Trigonometric Functions

  • Extend the domain of trigonometric functions using the unit circle.
  • Model periodic phenomena with trigonometric functions.
  • Prove and apply trigonometric identities.

This is a standard? With what justification? It almost goes without saying (but in the current myopia, it needs to be said): Few people need to know this.

Today, algebra is the new Greek that “all educated persons” supposedly need. This is clear from the work of the American Diploma Project (2004), launched a few years ago by Achieve, a group created by governors and corporate leaders. Achieve deserves credit for taking the idea of “backward design” of high school requirements from college and workplace readiness seriously, buttressed by research and analysis. But we should be cautious about accepting its narrow view of the high school curriculum, especially its claim that advanced algebra should be a universal requirement (Achieve, 2008). The data Achieve cites to justify this claim include the following:

  • Completing advanced math courses in high school has a greater influence on whether students will graduate from college than any other factor—including family background. Students who take math beyond Algebra II double their chances of earning a bachelor’s degree.
  • Through 2016, professional occupations are expected to add more new jobs—at least 5 million—than any other sector; within that category, computer and mathematical occupations will grow the fastest.
  • Simply taking advanced math has a direct impact on future earnings, apart from any other factors. Students who take advanced math have higher incomes 10 years after graduating— regardless of family background, grades, and college degrees.

But hold on: All that this really says is that people who take advanced math courses are more likely to do well in college and be prepared for jobs that involve advanced math. But that doesn’t mean that broad success in life depends on those courses. I have no doubt, for example, that most students who study Greek or astrophysics also end up in satisfying careers. Algebra is not the cause of adult success any more than Greek is. It is most likely the reverse: Those who take advanced courses are smart, motivated students who will succeed in any career they choose. As a recent study pointed out, only about 5 percent of the population actually need algebra II in their work (Handel, 2007).

Much the same criticism was made by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (2010), whose critique of the draft Common Core math standards asserted that the standards should include more emphasis on practical mathematical application (for example, analyzing financial data); include statistics and probability in the elementary grades and emphasize these areas more in the secondary grades; and focus less on factual content mastery in favor of better integrating higher-order thinking skills throughout the curriculum.

Lerman and Packer (2010) remind us that employers tend to call for something far more general and useful than advanced algebra skills:

Every study of employer needs made over the past 20 years … has come up with the same answers. Successful workers communicate effectively, orally and in writing, and have social and behavioral skills that make them responsible and good at teamwork. They are creative and techno-savvy, have a good command of fractions and basic statistics, and can apply relatively simple math to real-world problems such as those concerning financial or health literacy. Employers never mention polynomial factoring. (p. 31)

For a more enlightened approach to mathematics instruction, there is a fine body of work developed over the past 15 years under the heading of Quantitative Literacy (or Quantitative Reasoning). The Quantitative Literacy Manifesto (National Council on Education and the Disciplines, 2001) shares the concern of organizations like Achieve that most U.S. students leave high school without the math skills they need to succeed in either college or employment. But this report proposes a different solution—one better suited to the goal of universal education in a modern society:

Common responses to this well-known problem are either to demand more years of high school mathematics or more rigorous standards for graduation. Yet even individuals who have studied trigonometry and calculus often remain largely ignorant of common abuses of data and all too often find themselves unable to comprehend (much less to articulate) the nuances of quantitative inferences. As it turns out, it is not calculus but numeracy that is the key to understanding our data-drenched society. (p. 2)

The Quantitative Literacy Manifesto calls for developing in students

a predisposition to look at the world through mathematical eyes, to see the benefits (and risks) of thinking quantitatively about commonplace issues, and to approach complex problems with confidence in the value of careful reasoning. (p. 22)

Alas, the Quantitative Literacy movement simply has less political clout than Achieve does. Again we see: It’s not which standards, but whose standards.

Revisiting High School Requirements

Mindful of the mission of schooling to prepare students to prosper in and contribute to a pluralistic and everchanging democracy, I humbly offer my own update of Spencer’s proposal and the work of the Cardinal Principles group. I think that if we consider future usefulness in a changing world as the key criterion, the following subjects represent more plausible candidates for key high school courses in the 21st century than those on the Achieve list:

  • Philosophy, including critical thinking and ethics.
  • Psychology, with special emphasis on mental health, child development, and family relations.
  • Economics and business, with an emphasis on market forces, entrepreneurship, saving, borrowing and investing, and business start-ups.
  • Woodworking or its equivalent; you should have to make something to graduate.
  • Mathematics, focusing primarily on probability and statistics and math modeling.
  • Language arts, with a major focus on oral proficiency (as well as the reading and writing of nonfiction).
  • Multimedia, including game and web design.
  • Science: human biology, anatomy, physiology (health-related content), and earth science (ecology).
  • Civics, with an emphasis on civic action and how a bill really becomes law; lobbying.
  • Modern U.S. and world history, taught backward chronologically from the most pressing current issues.

Instead of designing backward from the traditions of college admission or the technical demands of currently “hot” jobs, this list designs backward from the vital human capacities needed for a successful adulthood regardless of school or job. How odd, for example, that our current requirements do not include oral proficiency when all graduates will need this ability in their personal, civic, social, and professional lives. How unfortunate for us personally, professionally, and socially that all high school and college students are not required to study ethics.

The financial meltdown of recent years underscores a related point: Understanding our economic system is far more important than learning textbook chemistry. In science, how sad that physics is viewed as more important than psychology and human development, as parents struggle to raise children wisely and families work hard to understand one another. (The principle of inertia from physics may explain it!)

Do not misunderstand my complaints as somehow too utilitarian or opposed to the liberal arts and higher math. I was educated in the classic tradition at St. John’s College. I learned physics and calculus through Newton’s Principia and geometry through Euclid and Lobachevski—in a college program with no electives—all based on the Great Books. I had arguably the best undergraduate education in the United States, if the aim is intellectual power. But would I mandate that all colleges look like St. John’s? Absolutely not, any more than I would mandate that all schools adopt my proposed course list as graduation requirements. On the contrary, my advocacy for injecting philosophy, economics, and human development into the terribly narrow conventional curriculum is a call to bring a richer array of options to students.

Everyone agrees that high school needs to be more rigorous. No one wants to perpetuate inequity of opportunity. But can’t there be greater student choice that opens up rather than closes off opportunities? Can’t vocational courses and courses in the arts be as demanding as upper-level courses in math or chemistry?

Setting standards in the way we do—mandating requirements for all by looking at our own generation’s academic experience rather than forward to the developmental needs of all students— impedes progress rather than advancing it. Then, we add insult to injury: a one-size-fits-all diploma. In sum, it seems to me that we still do not have a clue about how to make education modern: forward-looking, client-centered, and flexible; adapted to an era where the future, not the past, determines the curriculum.

What Do Our Students Need from School?

I am not arguing for throwing out the Common Core Standards. At least they will impose reason on the current absurd patchwork of state standards and finally make it possible for authors, software designers, test makers, and textbook publishers to provide the most resources at the least expense. But let’s not treat these standards as anything more than a timid rearrangement of previous state standards, promulgated by people familiar only with traditional courses and requirements.

Instead, let us face the future by pausing to consider anew the wisdom of Herbert Spencer and the authors of the Cardinal Principles. Let us begin a serious national conversation (all of us, not just the policy wonks, selected employers, and college admissions officers) about the questions, What is the point of high school? What do our society and our students need from school, regardless of hidebound tradition or current policy fads?

Then we might finally have a diploma worth giving and receiving in the modern age.

Editor’s note: The print edition of this article contained an error in the following sentence on page 31: “As a recent study pointed out, only about 5 percent of the population actually need algebra in their work (Handel, 2007).” This statistic has been amended in the online version as follows: “As a recent study pointed out, only about 5 percent of the population actually need algebra II in their work (Handel, 2007).”


Achieve. (2008). Math works: All students need advanced math. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from

American Diploma Project. (2004). Ready or not: Creating a high school diploma that counts. Washington, DC: Achieve.

Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education. (1918). Cardinal principles of secondary education: A report of the Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education, appointed by the National Education Association. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of the Interior.

Handel, M. J. (2007, May 23). A new survey of workplace skills, technology, and management practices (STAMP): Background and descriptive statistics. Boston: Department of Sociology, Northeastern University.

Lerman, R. I., & Packer, A. (2010, April 21). Will we ever learn? What’s wrong with the common-standards project. Education Week, 29(29), 30–31.

National Council on Education and the Disciplines. (2001). Mathematics and democracy: The case for quantitative literacy. Princeton, NJ: Author. Retrieved from Mathematical Association of America at

Partnership for 21st Century Skills. (2010). P21 comments on Common Core state standards initiative—mathematics. Retrieved

Spencer, H. (1861). What knowledge is of most worth? In H. Spencer, Essays on education and kindred subjects (pp. 1–44). London: Author.

Grant Wiggins is the coauthor with Jay McTighe of Understanding by Design (ASCD, 2005) and Schooling by Design: Mission, Action, and Achievement (ASCD, 2007). He is president of Authentic Education in Hopewell, New Jersey;