Imagining School

Boldly Reshaping Education

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Data vs. Heart

By: Alex Wenzel

It was hard for me to pinpoint exactly why I hated all the ‘high-stakes testing’ in education today.  That was until I read Diane Ravitch‘s book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System:  How testing and school choice are undermining education.

Here’s the reader’s digest:  Tests don’t always test what we think they do.  Material on tests becomes valued more than all other knowledge and skills.  It’s impossible to make a perfect test.  How do you test creativity, cooperation, communication skills, and critical thinking?  Judging teachers and students based on test results is meaningless.  In this scenario, teachers and schools learn to cheat or ‘boost’ scores.  Students learn there is nothing more important than a score on a piece of paper.  Good teachers burn out and leave.  The heart of teaching is gone.  Judging teachers based on scores also undermines the most important factor in a student’s success; their home life.  High-stakes testing is a gross oversimplification of good teaching and learning is.  There are no shortcuts or magic bullets.

These are quotes I found powerful from the book (all supported by research):

“The intense pressure generated by demands for accountability leads many educators and school officials to boost the [test] scores in ways that have nothing to do with learning” (Pg. 155)

“The biggest risk is in forgetting that tests scores are an indicator, not the goal of education. When the indicator becomes the target, we lose sight of other, more important goals, such as the ability to understand and apply what is studied, to expand one’s knowledge, and to develop good character and ethical ideals” (p. 280)

“When tests are the primary means of evaluation and accountability, everyone feels the pressure to raise the scores, by hook or by crook”

“Our schools will not improve if we continue to focus only on reading and mathematics while ignoring the other studies that are essential elements of a good education.”  (pg. 226)

“As every educator knows, families are children’s first teachers, on the very first day of school there are wide differences in the children’s readiness to learn” (Chapter 13, 51:11).

”One problem with test-based accountability…is that it removes all responsibility from students and their families for the students’ academic performance.” (p162)

“Of what value is it to the student to do well on a state reading test if he cannot replicate the same success on a different reading test or transfer these skills to an unfamiliar context?” (p. 160)

“ The fundamentals of good education are to be found in the classroom, the home, the community, and the culture, but reformers in our time continue to look for shortcuts and quick answers” (p. 225).

“Good education cannot be achieved by a strategy of testing children, shaming educators and closing schools.”(p.111)

“Between 40 and 50 percent of new teachers do not survive the first five years (p.177.)”

“In education there are no short-cuts, no utopias, and no silver bullets, and for certain there are no magic feathers that enable elephants to fly” (Chapter 2, 06:59)

“Accountability as we know it now is not helping our schools. Its measures are too narrow and imprecise, and its consequences too severe” (p. 163)

How do you measure the heart in education?  Teachers that care.  Students that are inspired.  Lives that are changed.  I fail to envision a test that could actually improve education.  Can you?

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From the Factory to the Drawing Board

By: Alex Wenzel

“School buildings mirror our educational concepts.  America has a predilection for straight lines, rectangles, squared-off blocks, and nowhere is this more true than in the usual schoolhouse.”  — J. Lloyd Trump

In the physical sense, school buildings certainly model straight lines, rectangles and blocks.  The organization of classrooms, hallways, offices, etc. models this exactly.  In my opinion it mirrors our traditional model of education as well.  Students move vertically from Kindergarten to twelfth grade.  They are boxed in to batches that move from one square room to the other.  They are separated from the other grade levels and classes by square walls and long, linear hallways.

Traditionally, we think of curriculum, teaching and learning in this way as well.  We categorize learning by subject and we organize it into linear sequences of knowledge bits.  Once students acquire the first piece of knowledge in the order, then we can feed them the next one.  Theoretically learning progresses in this way until students complete the acquisition of all the linear knowledge bits and graduate from high school.  The entire idea of standardized education captures this idea of ‘straight lines, rectangles, squared-off blocks’.

This model also extends to the bureaucratic organizational structure of most schools and reminds me of the Weberian model of bureaucracy described in the text.  The characteristics of the model include, “a division of labor and specialization, an impersonal orientation, a hierarchy of authority, rules and regulations.” (Hoy, 2009, p. 95)  Nearly all schools hold some resemblance to this.  Teachers and staff specialize in a certain level and/or subject.  They represent the ‘squared-off boxes’ that students move through in ‘straight lines’ through the educational system.  The hierarchy of authority represents straight lines as well; “the superintendent at the top and assistants, directors, principals, teachers, and students at successively lower levels.” (Hoy, 2009, p. 96)  The rules and regulations that are part of the organization provide the continuity and uniformity that stabilize this model.

This quote reminded me of the TED talks and writing of Sir Ken Robinson who would disagree with our ‘straight lines, rectangles, and squared-off blocks’ in education whole-heartedly.

(If you haven’t seen these TED talks yet, they are well worth it:  How schools kill creativity – and How to escape education’s death valley –

Robinson’s views resonate with the original quote.  He remarks in his book, The Element:  How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything(2009), that “Public schools were not only created in the interests of industrialism—they were created in the image of industrialism. In many ways, they reflect the factory culture they were designed to support.”  If viewed in this way, we can see that schooling does represent an assembly line (students) with division of labor of the assembly line workers (teachers).   “Schools divide the curriculum into specialist segments: some teachers install math in the students, and others install history.”  Even the daily time schedule at schools fits with this model with bells marking the beginning and end of work.   “Students are educated in batches, according to age, as if the most important thing they have in common is their date of manufacture.”  We seem to altogether ignore the students as individuals in terms of their skills and talents. (Robinson, 2009)

I do believe that this model of education is changing.  Current trends in education strive to deviate from the traditional model.  For example, the idea of competency-based learning avoids the ‘batches’ model by advancing students based on acquisition of skills and knowledge rather than with the grade level.  Cross-curricular integration, project and challenge based learning attempt to more appropriately unite different subject areas and skills as they natural occur and are acquired through experience.  We now recognize the vast importance of skills students will need in jobs of the future.  Largely know as 21st century skills, schools all over the world are striving to foster abilities such as communication, collaboration, information literacy, and creativity to create global thinkers prepared for jobs outside of the ‘factory model’.

“The future for education is not in standardizing but in customizing; not in promoting groupthink and “de-individuation” but in cultivating the real depth and dynamism of human abilities of every sort.” (Robinson, 2009)

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What is ‘Good Teaching’?

By: Alex Wenzel

Although I have had a number of great teachers throughout my education, I want to start by reflecting on my cooperating teacher during my student teaching experience.  This was one of the first times I observed and analyzed teaching practices and started answering the question for myself:  What is good teaching?

His name was “Mr. Ritz” and he had a big effect on the type of teacher I try to be.  He taught high school life science in a suburban school outside of Milwaukee.  He was a very popular teacher (even at 61 years old!), in tune with student needs, rigorous, and effective.  I can summarize his effectiveness as a teacher as one important quality:  He Cared.  He cared about his students’ academic success as well as their personal health and happiness.  He called home, made personal visits, and planned all sorts of enriching activities outside the classroom.  He listened, researched and connected with his students.  He provided a chance for meaning making and for students to volunteer and give back in the community.  He was there for every student that walked into his classroom and they knew it.

When I first brainstormed how to answer the question, “What is good teaching?”, I thought my answer would start with things like classroom management, content knowledge, application of learning theories, etc.  But reflecting on a particular teacher has caused me to start out this response differently.

We all know intrinsically that students don’t learn from teachers they don’t like.  How they feel when they enter the classroom is probably the biggest predictor of learning.  Good teaching has and always will begin with a caring, honest, and respectful student-teacher relationship.  This is what Mr. Ritz did so well.  Good teaching looks like relationship building, empathy, emotional intelligence, and understanding of child emotional and social development.

But of course, that’s just the starting place.  Mr. Ritz cared about his students, but he was also an excellent teacher in other ways.

I believe the other major factor in good teaching is understanding and application of learning theory.  Good teachers understand components of student behavior and use reinforcements and punishments effectively to promote desirable behaviors.  Effective teachers ensure that all students and participating and getting feedback.  They also apply other theories of learning to lesson planning such as cognitive and constructivist views.  In practice this looks like activating students prior knowledge, student-centered learning approaches, inquiry learning, etc.

To summarize, my ‘non-negotiables’ are:

  • caring
  • relationship building
  • empathy
  • emotional and social development
  • effective use of reinforcements and punishments
  • student participation and feedback
  • connections to prior knowledge
  • student-centered learning approaches

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What do you think about the Common Core?

By: Alex Wenzel

The Common Core State Standards Initiative asserts that the standards are important because, “High standards that are consistent across states provide teachers, parents, and students with a set of clear expectations that are aligned to the expectations in college and careers. The standards promote equity by ensuring all students, no matter where they live, are well prepared with the skills and knowledge necessary to collaborate and compete with their peers in the United States and abroad” (Common Core, 2012)

Defense #1:  Shared standards create consistency for comparisons

States previously developed their own standards independently.  This made it difficult to meaningful compare one state’s results with another.  Now this will be easy to do.

The standards are also internationally benchmarked.  Comparing U.S. scores with other countries will be easier to do and provide more meaningful results.  We will now be able to accurately see how U.S. students are performing in comparison with students in other countries.

Defense #2:  The standards were developed through an informed process

“The standards are evidence-based, aligned with college and work expectations, include rigorous content and skills, and are informed by other top performing countries … International benchmarking played a significant role in both sets of standards.” (Common Core, 2012)

Collaborations of different states worked together to develop standards that are based on research, current standards, and international standards.  They compared different standards as well as the needs of the work force and college readiness.  The standards reflect the results of a well-informed process and are believed to prepare students for rigorous content knowledge as well as skills such as critical thinking important for jobs and college success.

Defense #3:  Common standards promote collaboration between states

“Unlike previous state standards, which were unique to every state in the country, the Common Core State Standards enable collaboration between states on a range of tools and policies.” (Common Core, 2012)

States can now easily collaborate on

  • Teaching materials
  • Common Assessments
  • Teacher Preparation

The saying, ‘two heads are better than one,’ seems appropriate.  States working in collaboration can create higher quality tools for teaching, learning and assessment.

By having the states themselves collaborate on this, it takes away some of the power and money companies that create assessments and instructional material for profit.  “States … are currently collaborating to develop common assessments that will be aligned to the standards and replace existing end of year state assessments.” (Common Core, 2012)  As we have been discussing the ‘testing controversy’, it is great to see that the control of these assessments will now be in the hands of state collaborations with a sole focus on learning, rather than independent companies with a focus on profit.

Counter Arguments:

The standards are still vague and broad.  Like any attempt to create common standards, it is highly political and controversial.  This forces creators of standards to make them very broad and open to interpretation.  Being too specific creates a lot of conflict.  Because the scope of these standards is now national, it makes that problem even more prominent.  Hence the standards remain vague.  So is this really that meaningful of a tool to inform what is happening in the classroom every day?  As teachers do now, they will continue to rely on the instructional materials such as textbooks to determine what to teach.

By design, the standards may not be rigorous enough.  They were developed to meet the middle of the road and are less rigorous than some state standards.  Combined with the lack in specificity, they may not be an effective or practical resource for many states and schools.

Another major issue is the Common Core only covers English and Math.  The problem is implied in this quote by the Common Core State Standards Initiative:

“English language arts and math were the subjects chosen for the Common Core State Standards because they are areas upon which students build skill sets which are used in other subjects. They are also the subjects most frequently assessed for accountability purposes.” (Common Core, 2012)

The problem created by No Child Left Behind is a testing culture that has many negative impacts on education.  Common standards for testing will only amplify this problem.  As English and Math skills are the only ones being assessed, they are then the only ones that matter.  We have seen the negative results of this emphasis already as arts programs close and more and more time and money are invested into Math, Reading, and Writing programs with little evidence of success.


Frequently Asked Questions. Common Core State Standards Initiative. National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers.  2012.  Retrieved on October 7, 2013 from:

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Studio Schools: Is the UK on to something?

By:  Alex Wenzel

If you haven’t heard about them before, check out the Studio Schools popping up all over the UK.

Why they exist

High school students are bored, teachers are frustrated, parents don’t know what to do.  The modern high school model simply doesn’t work with all students.  Set up for university admission and conformity  to a body of knowledge that is outdated and often useless, our modern high schools today fail to answer the questions of ‘why is this important?’ and ‘why should I care?’

Employers are disappointed with the results.  Students entering the job force lack the skills they need to be successful.  They lack the non-cognitive skills such as motivation and resilience as well as communication, collaboration, and problem solving skills.

Studio Schools exist for these bored students, giving them an entirely different approach to learning and work.

How they do it different

Among the elements of a Studio School are small school sizes that make the learning environment more supportive and personalized.  The curriculum is almost entirely project-based.  The project have extensions into the community and students are often commissioned on real projects for businesses like a health report for their local hospital or a business brief for a local employer.  The curriculum is still based on national standards and can prepare students for university or for employment and entrepreneurship.

What I think is the most critical part of their innovative model is the non-cognitive skills for employment that are woven into the curriculum.  Among those, ’emotional intelligence’ and ‘relating to others’ stand out for me.  The technology age has posed a real need for these skills as well as empathy, understanding, and honesty.  Studio Schools respond to this growing need articulated by employers and put it at the forefront of their model of education.

Authentic challenges, team work, and the support from a community of other teachers, students, coaches, and professionals, make Studio Schools a model for student success.  The research is there to support it.

Is it working?

Two years after the opening of the first two Studio Schools academic results showed the poorest performers jumping to the top quartile.  Here Geoff Mulgan talk about it on TED:

The popularity of Studio Schools is spreading quickly, mainly by word of mouth, and transforming the lives of teenagers that are really bored in traditional school.  This may not be the universal answer for every student, but it certainly serves some students very well.

What if we imagined school is small pockets like this?  Unique, small communities serving small populations of students.  Let’s let go of our ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach.

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Why don’t we allow Innovation in Education to happen?


By:  Alex Wenzel

Sir Ken Robinson, Sugata Mitra, Geoffery Canada and nearly every big name in education are talking about it.  In fact, everyone’s talking about it.  My co-workers, my neighbors, politicians, hollywood figures.  The news, internet, and media sources.

The education system needs to change.   At least we all agree on that part.

Why?  The traditional system is a one-size-fits all model designed for a different era.  Students are educated in batches receiving the same content at the same time and at the same pace.  The system demands conformity in a factory-like setting.  But the western world today isn’t setup for production and manufacturing like the traditional model was intended.  Professionals today agree, we need creativity and innovation in our markets.  Students need flexibility, critical thinking, collaboration and communication skills to be successful in jobs of the future.

Children today grow up in a connected, rapidly changing world of abundance.  Traditional school models don’t matchup with students’ daily reality.  As a result, our students are demotivated, disenchanted, and uninspired by what schools have to offer.

What should education look like and how do we make the transition?

As a group of educators from all over the globe, we’ve decided that we can and will imagine schools differently.  This blog is our brainstorming canvas.  We embrace the impossible, unlikely, and far-fetched  ideas.  We listen to the needs of our students, our schools, our communities, and our world.

We are Imagining School as we would dream it so we can create it.