What Happens in Great Schools

After 40+ years of reporting about education, I am absolutely convinced that, in the very best schools, the students are the workers and the work they are doing is meaningful. What they do–their product–depends upon their ages and stages, but the concept doesn’t change.

In these schools, teachers are conductors, directors, supervisors, guides or docents.

This observation flies in the face of conventional wisdom, which holds that teachers are workers whose job is to produce capable students. That gets further bastardized when ‘capable’ is defined by test scores until we end up thinking, “The work of teachers is to add value, which is measured by higher test scores.”

If you had been traveling with me the past few weeks, you would Turkeyhave seen three examples of outstanding education: My 3-year-old granddaughter’s pre-school, a 12th grade science class in a public high school in Philadelphia, and a journalism class at Palo Alto High School in California.

The 3-year-olds were working on a project designed to help with fine motor control and decision-making (with some American history mixed in, I imagine). My granddaughter and her classmates took the work seriously. {{1}} The product, a Thanksgiving turkey, has value (perhaps priceless to the parents who receive the fruits of the labor).

The Philadelphia 12th graders were also serious workers. Their assignment was to design age appropriate toys for babies and infants, toys that will amuse and stimulate brain development. Stage two of the task: come up with an advertising campaign to sell the toy they designed.

Philadelphia 1That’s a serious project, with a real product. Science teacher Tim Best designed it in broad strokes, with some clear goals, including learning a great deal about brain development. By 12th grade at this school, students are accustomed to working together on projects; they hold each other accountable, although Mr. Best is also monitoring their progress.

Tim Best and other teachers at Science Leadership Academy told me that projects are designed to teach both content and process.Philadelphia 2

Tim explained, “I learned by memorizing science words, but I don’t ask my students to memorize science words. I’d rather them experience the science and learn science by doing science, and, therefore, they’re learning science process in addition to science content. And science process, you could argue, is almost more important for the general person who is not going to be a scientist.”

He added, “‘Reading chapter two and answering the questions at the end of the chapter’ is not teaching either science or process.”

Palo Alto 1I think the journalism students at Palo Alto High School must be the luckiest kids in the world. Their brilliant teacher, Esther Wojcicki {{2}}, and her talented colleagues {{3}}, give them the opportunity to produce meaningful journalism in a number of formats: a newspaper, radio programs, a daily television program and five magazines.

This is real-world work: The print {{4}} publications are advertiser-supported, and none can come out until the students have the signed advertising contracts in hand. “This is not selling Palo Alto 2Girl Scout cookies,” she told me. “This is how the real world works.”

With opportunity comes responsibility. At Paly the journalism students hold each other accountable, the faculty is paying attention and–most powerful of all–their work is public. Among Esther’s former students is James Franco, the actor-painter-writer. Recalling her class, he wrote, “(T)he important pedagogical aspect of working on the paper, that I understood subconsciously then, Palo Alto 3and that I understand explicitly as a teacher now, is that my work was being seen by a public, and that that changed the work. I wasn’t writing for a school grade as much as I was writing for independent readers.” {{5}}

What’s essential in all project-based learning is the absence of a ‘right’ answer or ‘right’ product. It truly is a journey, one which may also teach the instructor a good deal. Tim Best told me that projects that have a predetermined answer are merely recipes, not a journey of discovery. Good journalism is by definition an inquiry: Journalists are supposed to ask questions they don’t know the answers to.

In ‘faux projects,’ the work quickly loses meaning, and most students do not retain what they were supposed to learn. They may absorb material and regurgitate it successfully on tests, but that’s not genuine learning.

Those students in Philadelphia and Palo Alto are engaged in what’s called ‘blended learning,’ a mix of technology and human teaching. The machines and the teachers are interdependent, truly blended. Think of a chocolate milkshake, as opposed to putting oil and water in the same container.

The popular phrase, “Learning by doing,” is an incomplete thought, a phrase lacking an essential object. Doing WHAT is critical. In the three good schools I just visited, kids don’t get free rein to do whatever they feel like doing. Adults design (or help design) the projects, and they monitor progress. Teachers help students formulate questions and give guidance when they go off track or get discouraged.

“Time on task” is another incomplete phrase. What’s the task? Is it meaningful or trivial? Are students memorizing the periodic table and the major rivers of the United States, or are they measuring air or water quality in their neighborhoods and sharing the data with students in other places in order to make sense of it? Many educators make the mistake of focusing on the amount of time students are spending on the assignment (believing that more is better, of course) but fail to think critically about the tasks they are assigning.

The best schools {{6}} are serious about the ‘what’ and the ‘task,’ because the adults in charge of those schools are not obsessed about control.

Unfortunately, too many schools focus on regurgitation of information, a process that is encouraged and rewarded by the testing regime and the public focus on scores on standardized tests. It takes courage to swim against the tide, to challenge the conventional wisdom.

We need to celebrate and encourage teachers like Tim Best and Esther Wojcicki and their like-minded colleagues.

And maybe our K-12 schools should emulate what happens in the best pre-schools.


[[1]]1. If it hadn’t been Fathers/Grandfathers Day, she would have had time to add more feathers. I’m sure her Thanksgiving Turkey will be resplendent before she takes it home to her parents.[[1]]

[[2]]2. Full disclosure: Esther is a friend and the Chair of the Board of Learning Matters, my non-profit production company.[[2]]

[[3]]3. Paul Kandell, Paul Hoeprich, Brett Griffith, and Margo Wixom.[[3]]

[[4]]4. They are also on line, of course.[[4]]

[[5]]5. Taken from the foreword to her forthcoming book, “Moonshots in Education.”[[5]]

[[6]]6. Tom Vander Ark has published his list of 100 schools worth visiting. Palo Alto HS makes the list, along with a lot of ‘no excuses’ programs and some ‘blended learning’ and project-based programs.  It’s quite a mix, and ‘worth visiting’ seems to be a carefully-chosen phrase, stopping short of a full-throated endorsement. http://gettingsmart.com/2014/11/100-schools-worth-visiting [[6]]

20 thoughts on “What Happens in Great Schools

  1. John, I’m glad you’re calling attention to student voice and agency in learning. It is risky, but should it be? What are the underlying assumptions we have about school goals and outcomes? What working conditions and policy conditions make good learning risky?
    I’m in the midst of my own project to look at great teaching and public schools in California, and invite your readers to take a look at the Kickstarter link here. I’ve taken a year off from teaching (at Palo Alto HS!) and would appreciate any level of support to help me keep traveling and eventually write a book sharing what I learn.


    • I was an early supporter of David’s project and hope everyone reading this blog will help him do his important work.


    • Thirty-five years ago when the voters of California decided to limit the tax base for schools, I wound up in an independent school in San Rafael, having gotten a pink slip from SFUSD.

      The course my predecessor had taught was Western Civ [Greece, Rome, Renaissance….nothing else was really important]. I dropped that and offered World Civilizations, a thematic approach to the human experience. We started with physical anthropology, reading the latest research coming out of east-Africa. When it came time to look at the economics of survival, starting with hunters and gatherers, and the development of agriculture. When I see former students from that course, the one unit they universally remember was the one on cities. I gave them the land form of Oakland [hills, lake within the city, on the edge of a bay, and they had to design a dwelling for a multiple family building, a single family dwelling, account for 200,000 people living within the city, provide for transportation, energy, recreation, and energy. They had about six weeks to work on the project before presenting it to classmates and me. Remarkable things resulted, including a student who designed a turbine to place under the Golden Gate bridge to harness tidal power.
      In a Social Psychology class students were given $1000 above the current poverty level, and they had to find an apartment [it was ‘theirs when they were able to make an appointment to view it – and then it was gone to all the rest of the class. They also had to create a budget, shop for food, and design a week of breakfasts, lunches and dinners for the family of four. I later hired one of my former students, and she and I continued our argument about whether she could really feed a family of four on ONE chicken for dinners. This was the other most remembered component of the course. This relatively affluent group of students learned a ton about life in a world they did not know existed.

      The point: You are exactly right about the power, and staying power, of project-based learning.


      • Wonderful stories/examples of what matters. And best of all is the staying power of those projects. Thanks for sharing


  2. How about (meaningful) project-based learning as a fix for ADHD? “I think another social factor that, in part, may be driving the “epidemic” of A.D.H.D. has gone unnoticed: the increasingly stark contrast between the regimented and demanding school environment and the highly stimulating digital world, where young people spend their time outside school.” This is from an interesting essay by Richard Friedman in last Sunday’s NYT, “A Natural Fix for ADHD.” http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/02/opinion/sunday/a-natural-fix-for-adhd.html?action=click&contentCollection=Arts&module=MostEmailed&version=Full&region=Marginalia&src=me&pgtype=article

    Some of you may recall our 1995 documentary, “ADD: A Dubious Diagnosis?” The question mark was added at the insistence of corporate lawyers fearing lawsuits from the drug companies, but we nailed the case, showing how they conspired with CHADD to create an epidemic of diagnoses. http://learningmatters.tv/blog/documentaries/watch-add-a-dubious-diagnosis/640/
    And as we reported, the ADD symptoms often went away when kids were out of school!


    • John, the Minnesota New Country School has found that a number of students previously classified as ADHD do fine without ritalin when they are in a project based school with no set bell or class schedule. Students work toward graduation based on multiple measures. They make periodic public presentations.

      The school has replicated itself a number of times (including the wonderful High School for Recording Arts, an inner city school where youngsters have won numerous awards for the you-tube videos they produce.

      These are two great examples of schools working with some youngsters previously classified as ADHD who don’t need ritalin or other drugs – they do great in a different (non traditional environment that features individualization, personalization and project based learning.


  3. My best contribution to this discussion is captured in the excellent online documentary about Deborah Meier’s Mission Hill public school in Boston


    and complemented by a shorter parent and teacher made film called “180 Days Well Spent”

    I’ve had 25+ years of experience in working class schools in Brooklyn, NY and Northern California as a teacher and teacher educator, as well as a parent educator for Latin immigrant families. Before the onslaught of the corporate-driven high stakes test-and-punish regime, I participated in and witnessed many of the excellent teaching practices and organizational structures depicted in these videos, and I can testify first hand that they work when given a chance. I encourage those reading this to view and enjoy these very watchable films, and then to take the ideas contained therein to your local school boards to advocate for their implementation
    Pete Farruggio
    Associate Professor, Bilingual Education
    University of Texas Pan American


  4. Quoting from this post: “I learned by memorizing science words, but I don’t ask my students to memorize science words. I’d rather them experience the science and learn science by doing science, and, therefore, they’re learning science process in addition to science content. And science process, you could argue, is almost more important for the general person who is not going to be a scientist.”

    Here’s how I argue: Science process DEFINITELY IS more important for ALL – even those who are going to be a scientist!!! Yes, there is CORE KNOWLEDGE content that can be effectively learned prior to or during the actual effective knowledge / vision development through gathering, organizing, evaluating, understanding, documenting, and using / presenting material.

    Beyond core knowledge, however, I don’t want any reliance on knowledge from memory. As I always remind my students, “I DON’T want to travel in that vehicle designed from memory!!!”


  5. I think,sadly, that it is news to many of the people now running public education, a good number of whom are not educators or historians. Nor do they reflect on how they themselves probably learned much of what they know–by doing. We need some redefinitions, including flipping notions of ‘curricular’ and ‘extra-curricular,’ because for many it was the latter that provided the deepest and most lasting experiences (athletics, drama, music et alia).


  6. While I agree with and support the main points, it strikes me that there is an inherent risk requiring student journalism to be supported by paid advertising. This seems likely to produce work which is commerically successful, rather than of high quality.

    We bemoan that is what characterizes most professional work now. Seems to me we should not encourage students to start out that way.


  7. In response to your excellent post, here are a few self-evident thoughts. Children and students are their own protagonists in learning but teachers are the catalysts, or as you put it, the “conductors.” Parents are as well. There’s obviously a difference between your granddaughter’s turkey and the 12th grader’s educational toy for infants. The turkey is a product of a three-year old’s imagination, motor skills, and some adult suggestion; the toy rests on understanding of basic mechanics, science and product safety, learned in a classroom or elsewhere, some of it through memorization. And yes, some of it may even be “right,” notwithstanding your statement that what’s essential in all project-based learning is the absence of a “right’ answer or “right” product. Why bother to make that a condition? It seems gratuitous. The infant toy may be bound by mechanical and physical laws. Can we still say there is no “right” or “wrong” answer? These projects speak for themselves in terms of ability to teach and motivate. That is their measure and that is why they are worth writing about.



  8. John
    Projects can have wrong answers, of course. As in the example of designing toys based on neuroscience, students might get the science wrong, or they might design something that an infant or toddler could not manipulate. Other answers might be impractical or inappropriate, such as an advertising campaign for the toy that featured sexy naked people draped over sports cars, and I would imagine that the class discussion of that suggested campaign would be a major teachable moment. Process matters a great deal. Students get to test out their ideas with each other (and their teacher) during the project. That’s very real. Falling short is a huge part of the learning process.
    Not sure what to do with your use of the term ‘memorization.’ Learning basic mechanics by using them in design might lead to their being memorized, and that’s good. Simply memorizing the laws would not be a particularly effective way of teaching or learning.
    In my high school, our senior English project was called ‘the Lifeboat Theme.’ Our charge was to fill a lifeboat with a half dozen or more distinctive characters and then create a story line that required dispatching at least half of them, in order to save the others. Was there a ‘right’ answer to this? Of course not, but there were lots of ways to get it ‘wrong.’ It was, for me, the high point of my high school experience, because it invited/challenged me to imagine a world and then try to make it seem real. In that, it was real work, because the product mattered to me and because I knew there would be a larger audience for the work if I managed to do it convincingly.


    • I remember the Lifeboat project well long with Bill Sullivan. i don’t remember how I dealt with it. I would say, however, as you probably would that were some solutions better than others, and in that sense more morally defensible. Discerning the best (or better) answer was the challenge. It took me hours, part of it on my back in the school infirmary with a broken clavicle.

      some soliutikons were :mlorfe nright” thn nt; lother ansers were ;less right.


  9. Thank you for this post. I agree with Will that it is depressing to think how few educators understand all of this (or even value it, or at the very least, see the potential value in it, without quite fully understanding it). At my rural K-6 school, we are working hard to incorporate authentic, inquiry-based learning into students’ lives every day, and thank God for that. After learning about Dewey and his work with my mentors when I first started teaching over 15 years ago, I worried I would never find a school leader who was interested in making this happen for her students. Finally I have! Our work is exhilarating and exciting, but even in our small, progressive school we struggle daily with the concerns of our colleagues for whom this vision of teaching and learning is an enormous paradigm shift.


  10. Underneath all of what is noted above, you will also find a sense of hope, resiliency, persistence and that everyone matters. Can’t do any of the things noted without those.


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