Accountability and Projects Time

This post is the second in a series about Projects Time. Here’s a link to the first.

Unless people saw it in action, Projects Time could be hard to explain.

Colleagues at my own school understood, pretty much. They had given my students years of similar experience in younger classes, that helped them be ready to make longer-term choices, and choose on the basis of activity more than work-partner. They sent me students proficient in physical problem solvingprojects tsongas canal adjustment cropped, making things work and getting a kick out of the effort. They sent me students with their natural curiosity and creativity still very much intact, full of the energy and momentum for inquiry. (Museum teachers–here at the Tsongas Center in Lowell–always marveled at the hands-on cleverness and persistence of our students.)

My colleagues also sent me students who knew a lot about working with each other. By the time they reached me, most students already knew how to exercise individual creativity in the service of a group effort—contributing ideas, but not needing to have them adopted by the group every time, and increasingly able to listen to each other.

buildersIn Projects Time, kids could show leadership in many ways. For one thing, they could help to support collaborative working skills for their classmates who needed more time to develop that particular skill set. (After all, nobody has an aptitude for everything.) Year after year, I could count on finding at least one child who would be especially helpful to students brand new to the school–who didn’t know everybody yet, of course, and typically had had fewer opportunities to practice both group skills and hands-on problem-solving.

I loved watching what could happen with minimal adult intervention. I could exercise my care mostly in the background, choosing the groups at the beginning of the year with particular mindfulness, providing appropriately-leveled background reading, giving the most inexperienced students the comfort of a group of two.

In these small interventions, I followed the example of the colleagues from whom I had learned how to teach. Projects Time used and stretched skills the teachers of younger classes had been building for years, in both kids and adults. So they understood it—teachers and students both.

projects out mini buildingsTo the left, a group of students have been exploring construction techniques, ways of supporting weight for example, by creating miniature buildings with natural materials from the slope near our deck.

Still, people who didn’t see it in action found Projects Time perplexing. Parents new to the school sometimes expressed bafflement, until they had an opportunity to join us–or until talkative kids came home bubbling over. If new administrators never came to observe, they might be reassured by the testimonials of other staff, or by reading my parent letters–or they might not.

Most challenging of all, though, for me and for them: teachers from other schools might never have observed projects learning, let alone our situation of groups working parallel on different activities. When I talked with them at conferences and workshops–or family reunions, train rides, all those informal workshops teachers create for themselvesthey said, projects giggling group“Wait– if kids are working away from you, in a small group by themselves or with another adult, how can you be sure what they’re learning? If they’re not all following the same activities, how can you control what’s happening? What do you put on tests?”

projects marble chutes editIn the early years, faced with questions like these, I had to work hard not to get defensive. (It didn’t help that I had no idea how to explain serious playfulness. I just knew it felt right, and worked.) Then, as I developed more and more confidence in my students, I struggled to suppress anger at what I saw as lack of respect for kids.

Eventually, though, I felt sympathetic. As years went by, I increasingly wanted to do one of two things.

  • I wanted to wave a magic wand and give these other teachers my opportunities for knowing students well. My class size, for starters—never more than 18, and more typically 15. Also, my self-contained class, together and with me for most of the day, except for specials and in some cases math. We shared a continuity, richness, and intimacy of group experience increasingly uncommon in the school lives of ten-to-twelve-year-olds. I could know both individuals and the chemistry of a groupknow them really well—and that let me sense the ways I could trust them, and then build on that.

  • projects river model0001Sometimes I just wanted to loan out my inquiry-proficient students to these other teachers, as an example. You have to watch kids who are accustomed to belonging to themselves (like Mister Dog in the wonderful Little Golden Book by Margaret Wise Brown) in order to realize what they can do—what challenges you can give them, and what motivation they will bring to open-ended opportunities.

We did have in place a number of routines to keep me informed about how things were going, for groups as a whole, and for individual kids, and for the other adults in the situation.

  • Whenever possible, I built in freedom for myself to move from group to group, for at least some part of every time block, taking both notes and photographs as I went. (Otherwise, would I have this treasured shot of Lucy Candib and her group digging a hole under the deck, in which to bury various materials, which next year’s class would dig up again, in an ongoing year-after-year investigation called What Rots?)

  • projects Lucy burying rotprojects volunteer notesI asked assistants and volunteers to fill out a quick question sheet at the end of each session, to help keep me informed. (They had time to do this while I led the final wrap-up.)

  • projects Fermi question notes editStudents took notes and made sketches during Projects Time, and then wrote more afterward, summarizing what they’d learned, making additional drawings, listing questions. Sometimes I saw this writing over their shoulders, as groups shared at the beginning of the next session. Sometimes I collected students’ writing, to look for growth and for areas of confusion that needed support. When Sally Kent told me about lab notebooks with carbon sheets that could be torn out, we began using those, and kids could keep the original in their notebook for future reference, and give me the copies.

Still, our ways of observing and guiding students were premised on trust, meant to help us support students in their learning, not grade them on it. (Here’s more about that.)

Looking back, in the light of the current obsession with accountability, I realize that skeptical questioners were asking, ‟How do you keep the kids accountable?”

We worry about holding people accountable when we don’t think they’re likely to stick to their side of a bargain, or approach their part of a task conscientiously, or own some effort. We worry about accountability when we think people are likely to cheat—and people cheat when they don’t feel ownership of the results. Many things can lead to that lack of ownership—some of them outside a teacher’s power to intervene. People cheat when they’re depressed, when they’re overtired, when they lack confidence in what they can really do. There’s a lot to understand in that vicious circle, but demands for accountability don’t change it in any useful way. Or that’s how it looks to me.

Recently, I reread an essay in The Atlantic about why it’s so hard for American educators to understand the success of Finnish education. The article, by Anu Partanen, quotes Pasi Sahlberg, speaking to an audience at Teacher’s College in New York City in 2011. ‟Accountability,” he said, ‟is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted.” 

I keep mulling that over. I still have questions about Projects Time, and plenty of ideas for changes I’ll make and new things I’ll try if time travel ever becomes available. Still, Sahlberg’s statement helps me understand why Projects Time worked so well almost all the time; why my structures and routines for staying informed were secondary, in fact, to the most important part of the dynamic.

In Projects Time, students were genuinely responsible to each other. They were mutually responsible for the thoroughness and spirit, the seriousness playfulness, of their own groups’ inquiries, obviously. Beyond that, because they so often carried out different inquiries, in parallel, they were learning on each others’ behalf. They put creative thought and boundless energy into the ways theyprojects transportation wheelcha would demonstrate their methods and summarize their outcomes. For example, often they set up stations for other students to try out. To the right, a skit created by a group who’d been researching transportation access issues for people with physical disabilities.

And then there were the puppet shows about water power, or future careers in transportation planning, or… 

transportation puppet shows

So there it is: Irony Alert. The same five-ring circus, the same level of complication that stretched the adults’ ability to be everywhere at once, meant that we didn’t have to.

We didn’t have to hold them all accountable, minute to minute. We held them responsible, instead, and they rose to that, for themselves and for each other.

And, as Robert Frost would say, ‟that has made all the difference.”

For this post, I’ve scanned in some older photographs I found when I went hunting for artifacts from the early years of Projects Time. These kids are now very grown-up grown-ups–finishing med school, having babies, beginning careers in agricultural engineering, as many stories as people. I look at the photographs and grin, and feel–for the millionth time–how incredibly lucky I was to know them when they were prototypes of the energetic, engaged adults they’ve become. So, all of you, thank you again.

projects at the beach

Five More Thoughts About Grading

The story so far: If the product of a learning experience takes the form of a grade, other possible products and outcomes have less reality and less power for the learner.

Voices speaking out against grades want to shift the focus of learners and teachers, to give priority to those other products and outcomes. I’m going to focus on just a few.

# 1  Teacher support, and student goal-setting, guided by targeted, individualized, meaningful assessments

Focused effort matters, and thoughtful assessment can support that. Very briefly, here are some of the kinds of feedback individual kids could come to expect in my classroom, in place of grades:

  • one-on-one working conferences to look at pieces of writing, reading comprehension progress, math quiz outcomes, etc.;
  • group mini-lessons based on common confusions or not-quite-there efforts or emerging possibilities or spontaneous break-throughs, acknowledging and moving forward from all those;
  • quick skills checks in the form of miniboard warm-ups;
  • written responses to specific assignments;
  • long narrative progress reports twice a year;
  • conversations in preparation for portfolio sharing, and the portfolio conferences themselves;
  • feedback from classmates, students in the wider school community, parents, and other adult audiences.

The previous post has examples of some of these. The feedback for students in younger classes varied from this in developmentally appropriate ways, but always with the same goals: not judgment, but celebration and support.

Each of these activities provided an opportunity for student and teacher to observe patterns in comprehension and skill, or difficulty, and to set goals both short-term and long-term. At the same time, each of these assessment activities was an opportunity to revisit, share, and reconsider the important questions inherent in our content.

#2  Learners who belong to themselves

I remember a conversation with the high-school-aged daughter of a friend. She told me about her classes for that year by telling me her grades. She couldn’t tell me what was interesting to her; couldn’t say what she wanted to learn next; couldn’t describe anything about her learning process. Her grades were high overall, and she assumed that the subject in which she was getting the highest grades should be her major in college.

This young woman didn’t belong to herself as a learner; she belonged to her grades, and to the people who were giving her those grades–even the people who were celebrating those grades.

Especially once we were able to keep students until they were ready for high school, people observing the graduates of my school have been struck by the way graduating 14-year-old kids belong to themselves–how clearly they know and understand and respect themselves as learners.

fall projects NateInstead of pinning their student identities on their GPA, students in ungraded situations learn how to work with their real identities as learners. They learn how to choose meaningful and sustainable challenges for themselves. They know how to manage their own attention, and what to do to sharpen their memories. There may be passages through which they struggle, but a lot of the time they’re having a blast. Above all, they know, for themselves, why it matters. To the left, checking and graphing temperatures.

#3  Authentic and rewarding group learning

Teamwork flourishes best when grades are out of the picture. When I’ve talked about the amount of group work happening in my class, people have often asked, “Don’t kids get distracted by working together? How can you tell who did what?”

I’d have to be crazy to deny that distraction happens sometimes, or that timid students can become dependent on others. Still, young adolescents are ready and eager to learn how to be teams.

as Tsongas 3At Tsongas Industrial History Center, these girls are constructing a working canal system model. As usual, museum educators  commented on how well students worked together–incorporating everyone’s ideas, sharing the dirty work on the floor.

At any age, effective group work doesn’t happen automatically. In order to get the huge benefits of several minds focused on the same task, complementing and helping and challenging each other, kids have to learn how to be task-focused and team-focused both at once; how to do the social work, the intellectual work, the creative work, and the procedural work all woven together.

Kids exposed to plenty of group projects in an ungraded situation get a terrific head start. Without grading to tell them they’re competing instead of collaborating, they learn how to stay balanced within the group process, and how to help the group stay balanced so it keeps on working for everyone.

If you want an argument against grades, focused on future success, you could start with that.

tracing watershed pathway croppedAbove: Working with a parent volunteer, students help each other figure out which direction the rivers are flowing on topographic maps.

Meanwhile, freed from generating grades, I could put time into helping groups design and choose tasks that would engage them, with topics and audiences that mattered to them. The resulting energy helped their bicycle built for two (or three or four) keep momentum.

Often, when sharing work in a portfolio conference, students mentioned their partners and teammates, and told about what each of them had contributed, as I set off quiet internal fireworks of celebration. Yes!

# 4  Deep meanings held in community

As humans, we seem to have evolved to construct meaning, and experience meaning, collectively.

Stonehenge.arp.croppedMany groups of students have been inspired by the collective power of the communities that built Stonehenge, and archaeologists’ ideas about the community events held there.

Archaeologists and paleo-anthropologists have found evidence of the power and importance of community life and community understanding, deep in the past history of our species–and even for the other hominin species before us.

Young adolescents work hard to begin to understand huge things: life and death, economic reality as they observe it, the concept of scale, the notion of one image symbolizing whole realms of experience. Whenever I asked groups of students what they’d like to understand better about the world, I was astonished anew at the ambition of their questions, knowing this at the same time: the really heavy lifting they can’t do alone, any more than adults can.

Lizzie Bright croppedIn my own most emblematic image of this, a group of learners listens to a challenging novel read aloud. As I write, I realize that I’m thinking particularly of Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, a novel about racial prejudice in early 20th century New England, beautifully written by Gary Schmidt. Sharing a novel like this, the students build understanding together through their various comments and questions. Sometimes I sense their collective bravery in their silence for a tricky passage, or just after.

If somebody out there knows a way to assign grades to the quality of a shared group silence, let me know.

Now hold that in contrast to this: When individual achievement is the only test of an experience; when shared learning is considered cheating; when it’s constrained by the “level-playing-field” concept that requires teachers to do exactly the same things for every student; when teachers face such large classes that they have no way of knowing who’s doing what without completely isolated graded assessment–the deepest and truest parts of learning are hobbled, compromised, or outright lost.

It’s not impossible to nurture community, and the deep meanings community can hold, in the presence of a grading system–just harder. In fact, in my experience, over-emphasis on individual outcomes in any form–either grades or some supposedly benign substitute–works against the development of community, and the construction of shared meaning.

#5 Powerful connections with content

When grades aren’t the focus, content itself–the world!–gets more attention. The world is alarming to young adolescents–and to all of us–but also fascinating. Grades wind up being a smokescreen in the way of that fascination.

That’s what broke my heart about my friend’s daughter, mentioned earlier. She was experiencing very little actual engagement with the world and how it works and what we make of it. Her grades were like junk food, no fit substitute for actual encounters with the depth of time, or the mysteries of prime numbers, or the relationship between surface area and heat loss, or the way human history offers such contradictory evidence of both altruism and cruelty.

I think of a student long ago who wanted to read novels about the Holocaust. She had no assignment. She just kept coming back to me for more books, and talking about them to her classmates and parents. She was choosing her own path to a deeper understanding of the world.

Or I think of a student, now grown to a man, who used his sketchbook, during morning sketching time (which was completely open, unassigned), to make a very long narrative map, which continued from one two-page spread to the next, and the next, for months. The map as a whole incorporated everything that kid was noticing about the world through which he traveled: about geography, transportation, and the designs of buildings and other systems; about humor; about continuity and discontinuity.

Looking back, I remember now that this student’s family had just gone through an unusually messy divorce. His rehearsal of continuity in the built and natural worlds, page by turned-over page, feels tremendously poignant to me now. At the time, I was focused on his thinking and processing and creativity. But it seems likely, now, that the mapping was working for him on levels I couldn’t even guess. He gave himself the assignment that let him live in his intellectual strengths, and use those strengths to help him live through his family’s troubles.

Although he made me copies of some of the pages, I have no idea where they are. Hooray for memory so vivid and dear that it doesn’t need props. Hooray for learning so rich that no grade could encompass it. Hooray for the safe haven, also a highly effective launching pad, in which such work could happen.

I have a feeling I’m still not done with this topic…

Taking Temperatures

insulation mittsSomeone, in a long proud parade of projects time parent volunteers, knew she would be doing temperature experiments with her small group, and arrived carrying these perfectly designed mitts.

(If you know where the credit should be assigned, please comment!)

using temperature mitts editThe mitts are made of plastic baggies, filled with puffy stuff for insulation. For the plastic peanuts and the fleece, there are two bags, one inside another, flipped edge to edge so they could zip together and contain, between them, a consistent depth of insulation.

Into the baggies, kids inserted a Vernier temperature probe, a specially designed thermometer with a line to attach it to a computer interface. Measuring the temperatures of small buckets of ice or heated water, they examined the data on real-time graphs, which were created by Vernier software on the computer. Students could see the curve as the temperature rose or fell. The mitts let them compare the effectiveness of various kinds of insulation.

Without a live demonstration of the use of real-time graphing using probes of this sort, I find it difficult to convey the dramatic POW! of the experience. The whole activity of graphing suddenly makes more sense. Kids see clearly the relationship between the x axis (usually time) and the y axis (measurements of temperature, light, force, gas pressure, sound, proximity…or any of a number of attributes for which probes have been designed.)

Here’s a graph of a very simple trial, in which a student held the temperature probe directly in her hand. The graph rises gradually to a peak, then falls off quickly—but not instantly—when the person’s hand is removed.

heat graph

Sometimes we compared: which hand was warmer, right or left? Did that correlate with the person’s handedness in any way? Could we be sure of the correlation, or were there too many other variables, not controlled?

(In many programs, it’s possible to graph several trials on the same screen, using different colors. For example, we could graph the data from the right hand in red and the data from the left hand in green, or graph multiple trials for each hand in assigned colors. The software also provides a full table of the data, and instant statistics including the range and the mean.)

We did experiments of this sort before we had computer probes, of course, just using regular thermometers. In the very earliest years of using The Voyage of the Mimi, thinking about whales and the insulating effect of blubber, we found ways to test the effectiveness of insulation, and these mitts would have been perfect.

More recently, working with the occasional use of a small classroom set of iPads, we used a Vernier temperature probe along with a interface called a LabQuest2, to let us gather and graph temperatures outside, streaming the graphs, as they were drawn, on multiple iPads.

Here’s a group who’ve come inside to debrief. (You can see the temperature probe in Abi’s hand.) They were playing a game called Microclimate Tic-tac-toe, and looking at the tic-tac-toe grid on the small whiteboard in Patty’s hand, to review what they’d found. For now, it’s enough to say that they were searching for microclimates: localized, specialized conditions of temperature, light, and moisture.

microclimate group with Patty

ipad temp workThis group has found very hot temperatures on a large black tire on the playground. They can feel the high temps even with their fingers.

Another student uses a second iPad to watch the graph  as it’s drawn from the probe data.

temp work damp soil

Meanwhile, there’s a much cooler place nearby, in the shadowed, moist soil next to the tire.

The very compact LabQuest2 device is just visible in the lower left corner of the photo. It communicates with the iPads using one of the school’s WiFi networks.

fall projects Morgan

Here are members of another group working inside, finding the coolest and warmest temperatures they could locate in the classroom.

John reaching edited

What did we want the kids to get from all this data collection? We wanted students to join the admirable horde of humans who’ve started out understanding the world by figuring out how to measure it. We wanted students to feel comfortable describing the world in quantitative terms, in numbers with a unit of measurement attached.

In this case, measuring temperature, we wanted students to become flexible about using either Fahrenheit or Celsius, and we wanted them to operate at an intersection between data collected with appropriate measurement tools, and the testimony of their own senses, so that the numbers acquired sensory meaning.

I’m working on this post on a perfect day for searching for microclimates outside: a chilly wind, bright sun. In conditions like these, kids could easily find temperatures varying by as much as 20 degrees Fahrenheit, often within a few feet of each other.

And if students were hungry for something really dramatic, we’d send them off to check the hood of a black car in the parking lot. They might never look at a black car on a sunny day in quite the same way again.