Power of a Student-Designed Curriculum

“Children should be given a voice not only about the means of learning but also the ends, the why as well as the what.” — Alfie Kohn


In an education world dominated by mandated curricula and standardized testing, it is often difficult to imagine the effectiveness of a student-designed curriculum.

Prior to my days as an administrator of an elementary school, I had the privilege of working as a high school math, science, and physical education teacher.  As I currently try to get back into shape, I have begun to reflect on the motivation to be healthy as well as events that took place during my final year of teaching high school; in 2006, I was involved in one of my proudest accomplishments as an educator.

At my previous school, grade 10 girls’ physical education classes were the classes that PE teachers were not requesting to teach.  The students were labeled as challenging, unmotivated, often absent, etc.  These classes were often given to new teachers or temporary teachers (this is a whole other topic).   I, too, struggled to find ways for these students to become motivated to participate in the various athletic units that we were supposed to be teaching.  We tried many different strategies (many of them ‘carrots’ that just wore off and when the rewards disappeared, so did the motivation) including co-ed PE and different streams of PE.   After a few years of observing and participating in this challenging class, I decided to do something that should have been done many years ago – instead of trying to change the students, I would try to change the way PE 10 Girls was taught.

In the spring of 2006, I was teaching 2 blocks of PE 10 girls and instead of forcing them to do things they disliked, we spent a few classes focused on the following question:  “If YOU could design a physical education class for girls, what would it look like?”  They had to describe scheduling, activities, assessment and any little details that came up in discussions.  At the end, the goal was to actually implement the class the following year.  The students knew that they were in grade 10 and therefore, the class they were designing was unfortunately not going to be open to them the following year.

I was overwhelmed by the discussions that took place during the few weeks that this went on (in between classroom sessions, we actually began to implement some of their ideas too).  Following the first dialogue, here are the thoughts about the problems with the current program that the students came up with:

  • they don’t like to sweat first period because they just got ready for school; they also don’t like to sweat too much during 3rd period as then they would have to sit through 4th period “all sweaty and red in the face” (note: we were on a linear schedule so students had PE every second period; the blocks also tumbled so they would have it on a different period each day)
  • they were sick of being forced to learn rules and participate in sports they disliked; they felt these sports had no relevance to them
  • they did not like being assessed on skills for sports – the girls who were already involved in those sports outside of class just got the better mark
  • they did not like being forced to run — there were other ways to get in shape!
  • they liked it better when the teachers were involved in the class rather than sitting on the sidelines
  • most were not motivated by grades — many just wanted to get a high enough mark to get credit for the course
  • they did not like the feeling of not being good at something and then forced to participate in an activity in which their lack of skills were ostracized; they would rather not participate than be out there and look silly

As you can see, there were some definite problems with the current curriculum.  Following this discussion, they had to come up with answers to the original question.  Here are the strategies that they came up with:

  • more individual activities (less focus on zero sum games – win/loss)
  • they wanted to stay/get in shape but in ways of their choice (ideas included more dance, gymnastics, aerobics, power walking, stretching, yoga, pilates, circuits, etc)
  • they wanted to see lighter workouts in periods 1 and 3 and harder workouts in periods 2 and 4
  • they would rather focus on heart rate than times during runs, etc
  • they wanted say in the activities that were offered
  • they felt they should be assessed on effort and projects (projects on issues that matter to their health), not on skill level (they said some people came to class with more skill than others and they should not be punished for not being taught those skills earlier)
  • they liked the idea of guest instructors from the community
  • they weren’t sure but pondered the idea about students teaching mini-classes
  • rather than wait and see if this worked the following year, they wanted to see if it worked NOW!

Immediately following this discussion I started to become a PE facilitator rather than the PE teacher.  I organized the schedule 2 weeks at a time (1 week in advance) and included the students in all decisions.  I brought in university students, community members, senior students, and businesses to teach dance, yoga, pilates, gymnastics, and aerobics.

The rest of the year was a phenomenal success!  Attendance was rarely an issue and students were pumped to see their ideas implemented!  I became more involved in the classes as I took the classes with the students – I think I was able to actually touch my toes after a few yoga sessions!  I also taught a few classes of box aerobics, circuit training, core strength and gymnastics.

As we neared the end of the year, a student said, “I never thought about this until now but… what is my mark?”  I responded with “what do you think you should get?”.  This conversation happened with each student (most were harder on themselves than I would have been so we negotiated a “better grade”).  In addition to this, I was there participating with the students in each class so I was continually assessing the efforts and participation of the students.  I had students fill out a ‘course evaluation’ at the end of the year and every one was positive; the only feedback they wanted to see was a class like this offered for them in grade 11.

We decided to change the name of the class from ‘PE 10 Girls’ to ‘Lifestyles Fitness 10’ and it was offered to the current grade 9’s to select for the following year.  Over 75% of the girls wanted to take the class but I only had one period scheduled for me to teach and no other teacher wanted to do it… we accepted the first 35 students.

The next year built on the successes as I continued to facilitate with a new group of students.  I brought in members from outside the school to guest teach, I had students bring in fitness DVD’s, and we also participated in projects and presentations about information that was important to the students (crash diets, eating disorders, peer pressure, bullying, nutrition, impact of media, etc).  We scheduled activities like power walking, yoga, stretching, pilates in periods 1 and 3 and activities like jogging, aerobics (Tae-Bo was a fave!), dance, and circuit training in periods 2 and 4.  Assessments were based on student conversations around their efforts in class activities as well as projects; we also came up with criteria at the start of the year about what good learning and participation would look like.  The schedule continued to be decided weeks in advance (especially to schedule guest teachers) and a few students stepped up as representatives to help with scheduling.

As a teacher, I don’t think I realized how great this class became until after it was over.  The best compliment came when a group of students approached me after school one day and said, “we want to start a LifeStyles Fitness 11 class next year”.  I approached my department head and he said as long as the numbers were there, he would make it happen.  When the course selections came back in to the counselors, we were able to offer both classes for the following year!

I wish I could take the credit for this… but this was all from the students.  It is amazing what students can accomplish if we just listen.  The grade 10 girls PE students weren’t the problem; the PE 10 Girls class was the problem.  Once the real problem was determined, we could work on a solution.

I realize that I was able to do this because I was teaching a course without a standardized test; however, this is yet another example of how effective learning can be if we moved away from a world of mandated curricula and testing to a world in which students and teachers had more voice and flexibility into the means and ends of learning that takes place in a class.

*Notes:  By no means was this process perfect; there were a number of learning conversations that took place with the students (although I think the learning that took place – both my learning and the students’ – made it perfect to me).

At the end of the school year, I accepted a job as an administrator so I was not able to teach the classes.  I had lunch with a PE teacher from the school last week and I was saddened to hear that the course is not offered anymore.

I have to admit that I did not look at the ministry curriculum once during this process… oops!  Sometimes we need to put the official curriculum aside and make decisions on what’s best for kids; we felt this change was necessary.

Thanks to Joan Young and the Twitter Exercise Motivation Team (#temt on Twitter) for the inspiration to remember the importance of physical fitness and the motivation to write this blog.


10 Skills for “Doing” School

I think it was Mark Twain who wrote, “I never let schooling get in the way of my education”.  Unfortunately, Twain had a point; there are skills that you need to do well in order to “do” school well in the current system of education.  If a student is unable to polish up on these skills it becomes difficult to achieve success in today’s schools.

Here is my list of the 10 skills (in no particular order) that students need to work on in order to become good at “schooling”.

  1. Stay in your desk – do not get up to talk to anyone, go to the bathroom, or get a drink unless you ask.
  2. Put your hand up to speak – do not call out.
  3. Do what you are told; comply – do not question what is said or how things are done; do not be different.
  4. Do your own work – do not collaborate as we need to know what you know not what your partner knows.
  5. Memorize – do not apply learned knowledge beyond what is needed for the test.
  6. Do your homework – and do all of it, even if you understand it – or worse, you do not understand it.
  7. Line up and walk down the halls quietly – order is important, other people are watching how you act.
  8. Stay on task – do not focus on thoughts other than what is being taught, or until the bell rings.
  9. Excel at numeracy and literacy – do not worry about the arts, PE, or the trades as they are not important.
  10. Strive for rewards – stickers, percentages, letter grades, awards are all important.

Alright, so you can hopefully read the sarcasm in the above list.  I have to admit that as a teacher, I have unfortunately overemphasized these skills many times throughout my career (and still catch myself doing so).  The aforementioned skills will help students to do well in school; if they hone all of these skills, they most likely will get good grades and make their teachers and parents happy.  What being successful at these school skills will not ensure is that the student is educated and will prosper beyond formal schooling; in life outside of formal schooling, there are more important, deeper learning qualities such as collaboration, critical thinking, problem solving as well as character skills such as love, care, compassion, and empathy that will help students to truly flourish in life.

Unfortunately, we have all been raised in a system that places emphasis on these skills so we all think this is the norm.  We are also in a system that has high class sizes, low teacher support, and a broad and demanding curricula that forces many teachers to have to maintain control and order of their classes just to survive the day.  There are, however,  teachers and educators that are trying to change the system; they are trying to create a system that places more emphasis on student learning and education and less emphasis on schooling.  It is important that we start hearing the success stories of these educators – teachers that are spending less time on rewards, grades, memorization, tests, and control and more time on student engagement and learning.

What it comes down to is determining how we define the purpose of school. David Coulter, at the University of British Columbia, speaks of how schools should be there to help students create their path to lead a good and worthwhile life; how the “good and worthwhile life” is defined is up to each individual.  If we define education this way, we need to question if the skills that are emphasized in the current system encourages students to develop their own path toward a worthwhile life.

The biggest frustration for me is that schooling and learning are not the same things – a student who struggles with the skills needed for school often begins to believe that they are unsuccessful learners.  We need to start focusing on the individual strengths and interests of our students and start putting learning, rather than schooling, at the centre.  By doing this we will hopefully move toward an education system in which schooling, learning, and educating are all synonyms – a system where “doing” school has a much deeper meaning for our students.

For some quality work on this topic, please read the writings of educators/authors David Coulter, Guy Claxton, Sir Ken Robinson, Alfie Kohn and Joe Bower.


A deeper look into school rankings

As a teacher I never paid much attention to the annual Fraser Institute Rankings; when our school did well, people applauded and when our school fared poorly, people raised questions.  The interesting part for me was that we had the same staff and same curriculum, yet our rankings changed year over year.

When I became a principal, parents began to ask me about our FSA results and Fraser Institute Ranking.  I cannot say that I am now actually interested in this harmful process but I do feel I need to comment.

The latest rankings state that our school is ranked 761/876 schools in the Province of BC.  Lets look a bit deeper into the “data” the FI has used to determine this ranking.  The primary piece of data that is used for these rankings are the results of our FSA tests that our grade 4’s wrote in February of 2009.  Last year, parents had the option of requesting their children being exempted from writing this test; a letter was sent home from the Teachers’ Association explaining this.  Many of our parents were concerned about the educational value of this test so only 27 out of 58 students wrote the test; LESS THAN HALF of our students were included in the data used for the FI rankings.  On the FSA reports website, it states that only 29% of our students were meeting /exceeding expectations; in actuality, 17/27 students that wrote were meeting/exceeding.  I am no statistician but I do know that 17/27 is much higher than 29%!  In addition, a large number of the students that did not write were students who, on their report cards, were in the C+ or higher range – meaning that they were meeting expectations – so if they had written this test, it would have helped our results and our ranking, although it still would not change my view of the rankings.

Each year, the principal works with parents to develop the school goals.  Our main goal is to help each student to ‘develop his/her unique talents and interest and leave our school as a confident learner’.   Spending weeks on a test does not really align with our goal and we could not even use the resulting data from 2009 because we know that with that few students writing the tests, the data had little use.  ( I will avoid sharing my views on the test itself but if you would like to discuss this with me, please contact me at any time!).  Using this data to represent our school makes it seem like we have taught all our students for a number of years.   We had 4 students register at the school in January and February of 2009 and they wrote the FSA for our school.  How can we use the data that tests students who we have barely had the chance to work with?  A more valid and reliable form of data to assess literacy would be to test the students who have actually been at our school for at least 60% of the education.  If we looked at these students, they would have had the opportunity to obtain support to increase learning through a variety of teaching methods.  (Having said this, if we tested our schools/students this way, we would also be testing the impact of remaining in the same school for a number of years.)

I am not opposed to using data/evidence to help determine school goals but this data must be valid, reliable and not used to rank schools.  Michael Fullan, a respected author and educational researcher has been working with the Ministry of Education in Ontario to develop valid and reliable assessments; he has an agreement that any data from schools is NOT to be used to rank schools due to the harm that it creates in the system.

Looking at the rankings on a broader scale, schools are expected to maintain/improve their test results year over year; this becomes a challenge when, at our school, the school counseling position, learning assistance teaching support time, administrative time (principal and vice principal’s opportunity to work with students), special education assistant time, library teaching time, the lunch program, field trips, and learning resources have all been cut to an all-time low.  At our school, we continue to do more with less and I am very proud of what all our staff and students achieve.  Our successful art, physical education, science, music, culture, and extra-curricular programs are not included in the rankings and these are some parts of education, in addition to numeracy and literacy, that we truly value.

Someone once said that “ranking schools based on a test score is no different than ranking dentists based on the number of cavities”.  What they were commenting on is the fact that so many other factors come in to play when assessing children and their schools: socio-economic status, access to resources, funding, student nutrition/health, urban vs suburban vs rural schools, student transition rate (how often students move to and from schools), parent education, home situations, etc.  How can schools accurately be ranked when there are so many variables?  I teach my grade 5 science students to always ensure their experiments are a “fair test”; even they would tell you that there are far too many variables to consider the assessment of schools (based on one test) a “fair test”.  With this, comparing schools throughout the province is not helpful at all; can our school be effectively compared to a “choice” school in Abbotsford, a rural school in Fort St. James, a school in the British Properties, or a private school with a tuition of tens of thousand dollars a year?  We always look at ways to improve our school but we do not look at schools that are that dissimilar and say ‘we need to do what they are doing’.

We have a school, like most others, that has a number of unique challenges; many of these all help to make our school so great!  As the saying goes, “the greater the challenge, the greater the triumph!”.  I, along with the staff, look forward to coming to school every day to learn alongside with the students and work with other staff, parents, and community members to continue to increase student learning.

There is no ranking for student happiness nor is there a ranking for true education (one that leads to a healthy, worthwhile life); what I can tell you is that Kent School is a great school and if you ever want to rank us, spend a week, month, or year with our staff and students – you will never rank us that low again.  Better yet, if the Fraser Institute actually spent time in a school, they would soon realize that it is better to not rank at all.