Reflections on “What School Could Be”

I finished reading “What School Could Be” by Ted Dintersmith on our family vacation earlier this week. I needed it. He breathed life into my teaching soul as I’ve been struggling with the loss of my beloved Riverpoint Academy which despite great community support and a focus on doing better things, was closed due to budget cuts.

I’m hurting.

I left a far more progressive school district in Spokane with a long track record of innovative programs to work at RA. I gave six incredible, (and incredibly challenging) years to it, and it’s just… gone. Promises made to “suspend” the school and to build a “Task Force” to determine how to best make something new for kids, have been left behind. Most recently we were told to wait and see if our replacement levy passes before beginning discussions on what’s next. This, was of course, a measured and safe choice on their part, but also demonstrated a lack of urgency. My heart is broken.

As our staff is working through this depressing post mortem, we’re asking lots of questions about why we were really closed. Were we not truly meeting student needs? Was our district not really ready for us? Does our conservative community not see the need for us? Did we do a poor job telling our story? I’m guessing the truth is an uncomfortable amalgam of these and more.

What can I do, now?

I think Dintersmith has answered me in his conclusion to “How School Could Be.”

“…as I learned so emphatically on this trip, once someone sees what
school could be, there’s no turning back…”

I am fueled by an overwhelming feeling of obligation to serve public school students and their families. I have experienced what school could be, and I want you to experience it too.

I’m devoted to public schools. I think this American institution is a beautiful mess, and needs people like me (and there are many others out there) to give everything we have to make it better.

What I’m doing:

An Interview with Scott Swaaley

Scott Swaaley is one of the High Tech High teachers in the film Most Likely To Succeed, from Ted Dintersmith. As I finished Dintersmith’s book: “What School Could Be”, this week I was reminded of when my colleague John Marshall and I interviewed Scott a few years back.

We first met Scott through our colleague, Riverpoint Academy’s founding teacher, Regan Drew. Regan and Scott are Allen Distinguished Educators, and their collaboration brought Scott to RA. It was amazing to have the chance to see our school through his eyes and talk shop — the literal and metaphorical kind.

Scott embodies the “Do Better Things” idea of what school could be that Dintersmith is advocating for in “What School Could Be.” Scott is a creative tinkerer and iterative thinker. He is the Founder and CEO of MAKESafe Tools, makers of the universal power tool brake. I had the chance to test an early prototype, it’s rad.

As you’ll hear in our interview, Scott’s passion, candor and enthusiasm are contagious. John and I had the chance to talk with Scott about all sorts of logistical, practical and philosophical components of teaching in a project-based learning environment. We recorded our conversation with Scott over four years ago, but we think it still holds up. Will you take a listen?

Doing Better Things AND Doing (Obsolete) Things Better

Ted Dintersmith makes a clear and compelling call to our American education system in “What School Could Be.” He bemoans “doing (obsolete) things better,” in favor of “doing better things.” I had the privilege of doing better things at Riverpoint Academy (RA) for six amazing years. More on that in a moment.

I love this book. I love Dintersmith’s clarity and focus, but I think he is missing some nuance in how we go about navigating this “entrenched system” at the classroom level. As fate would have it, I read Dintersmith’s story of his interactions with Sal Khan and the KA staff in Chapter 7 of his book on the same day I read his indictment of Khan Academy on Twitter. As a result, a few things came into focus for me. Here’s the quote from Chapter 7:

Start a lab school where kids take on open-ended meaningful challenges, drawing occasionally on KA for “just in time” learning. Complement KA’s library of lectures on low-level procedures with a repository of meaningful math-based challenges, something I called “Khan Exploratorium.” Establish a center — the Bell Labs of education — to spark global innovation.

To bring an Exploratorium to life, I described the best math challenge I’ve encountered, which was in a middle school social studies class. Huh? Students were challenged to come up with ways to predict the world’s population in the year 2100. Work alone or in small teams. Use any available resources. Compute it with paper and pencil, calculator, or spreadsheet, or write your own code (some did!). Present your work to classmates, addressing their questions. When others present, ask informed questions and offer constructive suggestions. Then, discuss the implications of each projected population (which ranged from 0 to 30 billion) for their future world. Unlike math that kids do in school, this problem requires creativity. There’s no right answer. Kids learn point concepts (curve fitting, extrapolation, eigenvalues) in a meaningful context. Often, “bad” math students thrive, while “gifted” math students flounder. In contract, our current math track has nothing to do with the creativity and conceptualization that make for a great mathematician. Students never learn to apply math to real-world challenges. Everything would be different if our K-12 schools taught math that matters, instead of symbolic arithmetic.

On my way to Sacramento, I reflected on why Sal’s outstanding team had prioritized on test prep (SAT, MCAT, GMAT) over real innovation. I thought back to our first conversation, “Sal, why produce hundreds of lectures teaching kids how to do integrals by hand? They watch your video on a device that performs these operations instantly, perfectly. Let computers do the mechanics and teach kids how to solve real problems using math — something school never gets to. Help our kids leverage technology, not compete against it.” To which a staff member offered, “We need to focus on where today’s market is.” — an odd priority for a nonprofit aspiring to improve education.

My teaching partner Rick Biggerstaff and I are dissatisfied with American public school math, and at RA we had the chance to mess with it. We were cautious though because our “market” wasn’t looking to buy what we were selling. We had to find time in the school day to support efficient student mastery of the math skills valued by their parents, school board and the colleges many would attend — in spite of our conviction that these were wholesale the wrong things to focus on.

So, we did what many innovative educators do: we did what we had to do, so we could do what we wanted to do, and at RA we navigated this challenge without losing our teaching souls. It required doing our job twice. We did the math our community expected, so that we could do real math in a way that was challenging, personalized, and contextualized.

This line is hard to walk, and requires more than twice the work we once did as traditional math teachers. I’ll admit that on some tired days, I found myself pining for the simplicity of being the content expert performing his knowledge for his students. This extra work paid off though: RA saw two years of SBAC scores on par (year one) with the two big box high schools in our district and outperforming the big box schools by nearly 10% (year two).

Now, on to the fun stuff.

What we did

The Common Core standards are split into “Content” and “Practice” standards, though most high school teachers are largely unaware of the Practice standards. They are named the Standards for Mathematical Practice (SMP) and they are beautifully written. Yes, really. They detail in eight strands what it’s like to think as Mathematicians do. Used well, they empower students to become mathematicians. Yes, really.

Rick and I love are in love with the SMP. We saw in them a way to do real math as we’ve been inspired by the Computer Based Maths organization to do. We engage students in writing code, playing with data, making & defending arguments on topics they care deeply about. Our hunch was that if we got out of the way of our students, they would naturally exhibit the SMP. They played with the structures and tools of mathematics that can be experienced by students as beautiful curiosities if we embrace technology as a creative tool, rather than a 21st century slide projector.

Our trick was to use the Wolfram Language. It was perfect for three reasons:

  1. It has a notebook based environment in which students can mix plain text, code input, and code output all together. It’s truly a sketchbook for mathematical thinking that has spawned a very popular open-source alternative: Jupyter Notebooks
  2. It has an I N S A N E amount of real data, baked right into the language. If you’ve done any data science, you know that you spend most of your time cleaning the data before you can do anything cool. Wolfram solved this problem, yes really.
  3. It is a functional programming language. This is arguably the most important reason because it allows students to see the structure of their code and the structure of mathematical statements as the same thing. It truly removes the arbitrary barrier we erected between Math & CS. Actually, we should blame technology for creating this problem — functional programming has been around for along time but was for a long time too computationally expensive (Read: SLOW) to be practically useful.

We told our story at the Wolfram Technology Conference in 2017 and we are proud of this work. Would you like to see & hear it? Wolfram Videos: Authentic Computational Thinking in a Project-Based Public High School We also wrote some follow up, you can read that here.

Everyone is doing the same thing at the same time

Q: Why do we assume that all students within a class period should be doing the same thing at the same time?

A: Because reasons…
– That’s how we’ve always done it
– That’s how we’ve always had to do it (we were hired as experts in content knowledge and distribution)
– Its easier for us as teachers (because reasons)
– It’s how we were trained as behaviorists
– It’s how we experienced classrooms as a student

Q: But what if we take an honest look at how access to resources has changed? How would that affect the constraints upon which our pedagogy and praxis are formed?

I was hired in 2004 and these were the expectations placed upon me:

  • Be an expert in the content of high school mathematics.
  • Be an expert in classroom management (behaviorism)
  • Collaborate with other educators (very loosely defined)
  • Take attendance

I used to refer to my former teacher self as, “an expert content delivery mechanism” by which I could artfully take what I worked hard to learn and make it accessible to students. I was the benevolent keeper of knowledge and I could impart it upon them.

Things have changed.

If I were hired today my content expertise is just as important as its ever been. In fact, I can argue its more important now as we think about managing 30 students in 30 different spots at the same time.

I must be an expert in differentiated instruction in my content area.

Differentiation is HARD. So hard in fact that it almost never happens for more than a few students at a time in a traditional classroom because its not possible to keep all the kids together doing the same thing at the same time while also creating a personalized experience for each. THEY ARE AT CROSS PURPOSES!

We all like the idea of differentiation but let go of it as merely an aspiration because we haven’t had the support we need to make it a reality.

Until now…

Enter Khan Academy. In my classroom Khan Academy (and certainly other tools too) allow me to let go of the content delivery mechanism. The enable differentiation because I become a content coach alongside my students.

If I only knew how to teach each piece of math content in one way, I would be worthless in this type of blended classroom. I would be ineffective as a coach for students because of my shallow understanding of the interconnectedness of mathematics.

A sad number of mathematics teachers themselves have not had the experience of mathematics as coherent Because of this they cannot approach a concept from a variety of perspectives. And this inability makes them deeply ineffective as math coaches.

We’re all math coaches now.

Or, maybe we aren’t. Maybe most of us can’t do this.

What if we just put kids in front of computer screens and hired classified (non-certificated) employees to manage them as they are trained by a machine?

How do kids lose?

The last day

I couldn’t leave, but didn’t want to stay. The ice cream was nice, and so was the lounge chair in the shade. I had a nice nap and I’m not hungry. I’ve got the weekend to myself and could literally do whatever I like.

I’m seated at my machine, organizing and feeling the joy of control… but something sits just below my chest. Sure, my stomach is still a little weird but that’s not it. It’s… over.

The job I desperately wanted and endeavored to enjoy each day. The community we built and gave so much of ourselves to…gone. Where can I put these feelings? There’s no one here to share them with, which, I suppose is for the best as all I can yet muster is a rambled muss.

I’ll grab a burger in a few minutes, drink some wine, and play some cards. I’ll insulate and distract myself for a while but on Monday… It will still be over.

“Penny wise and pound foolish.” Nailed it.

How long do I wait? Do I expect some mythical force to generate a sense of urgency for our district? How to help them see how far they have to go?

Do I serve a system like this? Do I give myself for it’s good? What do I need to see and receive and feel in order to make that sacrifice worthwhile? Am I to go without so that some students and families can be made whole and finally be served by a system that doesn’t even see them now?

Is Gizmo running away? Is running away okay? Am I kidding myself by thinking I’ll keep my foot in the door by this leave of absence? Do I want to keep my foot in the door? Will I be able to know that things are moving forward if I’m playing with Robots in CDA?

“What am I supposed to do without you?”

A bit dramatic, to be sure… but damn it sometimes the random iTunes selections really capture a feeling.

I have a lot to give, and I’m optimistic that very quickly I’ll return ready to give it and pour my excitement into experiences that are great for kids. But right now?


This sucks.