Continuous feedback


A problem:

Feedback is necessary, but terrifying. 

Feedback is crucial for building skill and understanding. A school that takes "mastery" seriously has to not just endure feedback, but embrace it (teachers and administrators as well as students!).

Yet receiving feedback is famously difficult. Every piece of feedback threatens our sense that I'm just fine, thanksverymuch. And if we build lots of feedback into a school and it doesn't work out, school could become Hell.

We need to proceed cautiously, but forcefully.

Our basic plan:

  1. We make a ritual in the school: every assignment and production gets feedback. 
  2. The feedback should be specific. Getting a "B" is unspecific feedback; getting a suggestion for precisely what to consider doing differently next time is specific feedback.
  3. The feedback should be succinct. Being told five things to do differently next time is too much for most people to focus on; being told just one thing is more helpful.
  4. The feedback should be a suggestion. Because no one is innerrant, feedback shouldn't pretend to be authoritative; feedback should (usually) be given as advice — "why don't you try this next time?"
  5. The feedback should prompt a response. Students shouldn't be expected to take feedback passively; they should respond to it, perhaps commiting to trying it out next time, or explaining why they'll go in a different direction.
  6. The feedback should come from the community. Teachers should be wiser than their students (otherwise, why are we teaching?), but they aren't the only sources of wisdom. Suggestions should come from teachers, from other students, and from the student him or herself.
  7. The feedback should accumulate. Advice should be collected, and students should be prompted to see if they're incorporating it into their recent projects. (This can serve as an ego-builder: "I may still be struggling, but not with the same old things!")

Our goals:

We hope to...

  • Create a culture of mastery.
  • Create a culture of embracing criticism. When we hear a kid say, "Sure, I know that this is good — but tell me how I can improve!", we'll know we've succeeded.
  • Create a culture of mutual help. When we hear one kid tell another, "I was really impressed by how you've changed in x," we'll know we've succeeded.
  • Build resilience. Kids are not these fragile things; they're strong. They don't need to be fazed by criticism. (But the only way to learn that is by dealing with criticism.)

If you walk into our classrooms, you might see:

  • Students scribbing down brief feedback after another student completes a speech, or a piece of art, or a meal.
  • A student and a teacher conversing — and maybe arguing! — over the quality of a recent assignment. (When we get a frank but respectful exchange of views, we'll know we've succeeded.)
  • Students spending a few minutes each week reviewing previous feedback about (e.g.) essay writing so they can incorporate it into their new essay.

Some specific questions:

  • Should we aim for a specific ratio of positive to negative feedback? There's a danger in getting too much negative feedback. There's a danger, too, in getting too much positive feedback. Perhaps it would be best to allow the student to say how what ratio they'd like to receive. (That might make students feel more in control, and thus make them more likely to embrace the feedback they receive.)
  • How should we store this feedback? Should a regular assignment be that students copy in their feedback (or a segment of it) into a year-long Google document?
  • Should students give teachers feedback? Doing so could help teachers (and thus everyone) improve more quickly. It could demonstrate our respect of our students.

Cooking lunch together


A problem:

Kids don't know how to make delicious food for themselves — or for others! Instead, we "feed" them: culinarily, our schools guide children into a learned helplessness. Meanwhile, commercial food scientists develop ever-more-brilliant recipes for hooking children into less-than-healthy fare.

At the same time, the act of making food can be incredibly educational: cooking, baking, and eating can provide questions of chemistry, biology, physics, and culture.

Our basic plan:

Kids cook their own lunch.

We can start with simple (but delicious) dishes — easy soups and breads — and gradually move up the ladder of complexity until students are routinely creating complex dishes — like "Stir-Fried Asparagus with Shiitake Mushrooms" and "Quinoa Pilaf with Herbs and Lemon".

Kids will get experience in setting up a kitchen, cooking the food, cleaning up, and devising a shopping list.

They'll also get experience in enjoying food — not just wolfing it down, but in savoring it, and critiquing it. (At some point, a heated argument will break out as to whether the dish needs more or less tarragon. At that point, we will know we have succeeded!)

We'll encourage kids to ask scientific questions about what's happening to the food as they cook it — why are parts of the egg different colors? Why's the albumen turning white? Now why is it turning brown?

We'll also encourage cultural questions about the food — where does this pho recipe come from? Does it have anything in common with the other Vietnamese dishes we've cooked? Where is this chili pepper native to? (Hint: not Vietnam!) How'd it get there?

Our goals:

Kids will gain competence (and ultimately mastery) of one of the most fundamental skills: making food that nourishes and delights you, and the people around you.

Through this, kids will raise questions about chemistry and culture that can be investigated in other parts of the school day.

If you walk into our classrooms, you might see:

Kids measuring, chopping, stirring, planning, and cleaning. And eating — delighting in the food they and others have made, and making plans to make it even better next time.

Some specific questions:

  • This is a situation in which fine-tuned mastery is key — and in which badges seem the natural measurement. Should we have cooking badges for each kitchen skill? (E.g. a badge for dicing, a badge for slicing, a badge for properly washing a pan, a badge for roasting garlic, a badge for leading a team of people through a complex soup, a badge for properly setting the table, a badge for making a grocery list…)
  • Should we have a test for each badge?
  • How should we rotate the roles? For example, should a group of students spend a week on prep work, then a week on cooking, then a week on cleaning up?
  • Should teams of students stay stable for a semester?
  • What food restriction issues should we be prepared for?
  • Should we ethically source the food? (I'd love to be able to visit the actual farm, so the students can see where their food comes from.)
  • What specific skills should be on our list for the first year? (E.g. slicing, dicing…) Where do we learn the Official Best Way to learn these? (YouTube? A book like The Professional Chef?)
  • What specific recipes should we tackle the first year?
  • How much time will this take at the beginning of the year? How much time will it take by the end of the year, as kids get more accomplished?

A song a day


A problem:

There's so much humanity squeezed into every song — ideas, stories, and feelings! Music activates some of our deepest cognitive plumbing. It draws us into the inner experiences of other human beings, some very unlike us.

Music contains multitudes. And what do schools use? Textbooks!

Even worse: Music divides people. What music we each listen to becomes a tribal shibboleth: high school classes split into rock, hip-hop, and country. We use music to divide others into "like us" or "not like us". Our culture makes us musically insular.

Our basic plan:

Each day, our classes will listen to a new song — and we'll use it to do wonderful things.

Songs will reflect much global diversity — we'll have a cappella and acid rock, alternative country and bluegrass, blues and boogie, bossa nova and breakbeat, calypso and classical and country music. And that's just up to the letter 'c'!

Over the course of 12 years, at the rate of 1 new song per day, students will become acquainted with something like 2,000 new songs — some they'd have run across anyway, but many they wouldn't have.

After students listen to the song together (perhaps twice — once without lyrics, once with), the song will be added to a "music station" in the classroom: a set of headphones and a iPod. There, in independent work time, students can re-listen to the songs they'd like and carry out a series of works.

Students can choose to listen attentively, paying close attention to a single facet: the rhythm, the instrumentation, or the melody. Can they tap out the beat? Can they name all the instruments used? Can they hum the melody, or re-create it on a synthesizer?

Or they can put everything they hear together and focus just on the feeling that the song evokes. Could they express that feeling in non-representational drawing? Could they try to explain how the song makes them feel that way? (This would be an excellent entrée to music theory.)

Another series of options would allow students to focus on the lyrics. What do the lyrics say? What do they mean (can the student summarize them)? Can the student pull a Weird Al, and write a hilarious parody of them? Can the student use the melody to write a song that helps other students memorize some aspect of the curriculum — the names of all the nations or the parts of a cell?

Or students could go beyond the song, research the story behind it (how was it conceived? how did people take to it?), the story of the people who created it, and the story of the genre as a whole. They could also critique it. Is it a great song? Why, or why not?

Our goals:

Part of our goals is to forge a common culture in our schools. We want to make it easier for kids to connect with each other across the usual lines that divide people (socio-economic class, ethnicity, religion, age, etc.). We also want to make it easier for students and faculty to connect together, and cultivating a common culture. We want to help students connect with adults outside the school — their parents' and grandparents' generations in particular. Finally, we want to help kids connect with people across the world.

Shared musical experiences can play a part in accomplishing all of this — a small part, to be sure, but a meaningful one all the same.

If you walk into our classrooms, you might see:

Kids liking, loving, and occasionally hating music — all together, or all by themselves.

Some specific questions:

  • How should we pick the songs? I see three major options:
    • Option A: Each teacher decides. If we go this route, each day's song could become a means for the teacher to share her/himself with the students. Love is a virus, and spreads through people.
    • Option B: The whole staff decides at the beginning of the year. If we go this route, each day's song could help knit together students across age ranges.
    • Option C: It's centrally decided for the whole school. If we go this route, we relieve teachers of the responsibility to pick out songs. If we consult with some musical experts, we could also ensure a greater diversity of world music.
  • A song every day, or every other day?
  • How many times a day should we play the primary song? One seems too few.
  • Are there legal issues here we should be aware of?
  • It'd be cool to offer access to these songs to parents, so they can use the songs to bridge the generational divide as well.



A problem:

Human cultures have evolved an amazing tool for binding together groups of unrelated people. This tool creates trust among strangers, trains the body, and increases happiness. (It might even fight depression.)

It's dancing. And schools hardly use it!

Our basic plan:

Every day in our classrooms, we'll dance. When children are young, we'll capitalize on their desire to be wild — to wiggle, giggle, jump, and twirl. As they get older, we'll capitalize on their emerging desire to master precise movement. We'll engage a multitude of dancing styles from around the world.

Our goals:

Moving in synchrony has been shown to create trust, so we'll use dance to create bonds among students and teachers. Dancing is exercise, so we'll use dance to improve student (and teacher!) health. And dancing has been shown to increase happiness (and lower measures of depression), so a goal will be to cultivate happiness!

In addtion, dancing is deep cultural stuff: we hope that students will be able to engage with many diverse cultures (African, Asian, Polynesian, folk American…) through dance.

If you walk into our classrooms, you might see:

Once or twice a day, teachers will put on loud music, and everyone'll break into dance. That's right: it'll be like living in a Broadway musical!

You might see a video being projected that shows others engaging in the dance, to make it easier for our kids to learn the style.

Some specific questions:

  • I conceived of this first for our future-Seattle-area school, which will open only with little kids. Island Academy, however, will be opening with mixed ages (grade school through early high school). If the older students balk at dancing, should we abandon it?
  • Should we look to get community volunteers for this?
  • I'd love to lay out a progression of types of dance that we do, but I've absolutely no expertise here. Anyone interested in talking about this?