Tom Hoffman about Essential Schools 10 common Principles

Since Tom Hoffman has never liked me too much, I dropped by his session to learn more. I want to understand his viewpoint and see if there is something I’m missing in my own learning.

This session has a wiki and focused on discussing the The Coalition of Essential Schools 10 Common Principles and School 2.0.

I watched the ustream (which took a while to get up) and watched Ryan Bretag’s live blog (until it started playing music!)

The presentation (which was really more of discussion) and the chat is archived on the wiki. ( I suggest that you fast forward to 5-10 minutes into the preso.)

Have a Backchannel!

Before I give you a few of my thoughts, I want to point out the importance of having a backchannel. This was a facilitated discussion, however, there were one or two people who dominated the conversation. With a backchannel, this is less likely to happen. (And I know it was blocked and asked to be unblocked, however, this is an important point to make.)

There were some amazing people in that room who didn’t get a chance to speak (or weren’t willing to push themselves into the limelight.) I wish that they were heard. One person spoke for at least 10 minutes! There were 50-60 people in the room. Will Richardson only spoke for 2! We must include people in the classroom and at conferences and backchannels let you do that!

My opinion on the Preso and 10 common principles
As for my own opinion, I’ve shared it considerably through the chat. But here are a few highlights:

“1. Learning to use one’s mind well
The school should focus on helping young people learn to use their minds well. Schools should not be “comprehensive” if such a claim is made at the expense of the school’s central intellectual purpose.”

This is the first principle. The thing that scares me here is “who defines the good use of the mind?” One might say video games aren’t a good use of the mind, another might say they are. It depends. Fuzzy terminologies like this scare me a bit. (Kristin Hokanson asked this for me, however, this was not what they wished to discuss so it wasn’t addressed.)

The other principles sound pretty good to me until we get to this one. And lo and behold, Gary Stager and I agreed.

5. Student-as-worker, teacher-as-coach
The governing practical metaphor of the school should be student-as-worker, rather than the more familiar metaphor of teacher-as-deliverer-of-instructional-services. Accordingly, a prominent pedagogy will be coaching, to provoke students to learn how to learn and thus to teach themselves.

There are several things I don’t like about this. I agree with Gary Stager that the term “worker” isn’t the right one for here. It does invoke thoughts of repressive sweatshops.

Meet the ProLearner
I like and use the term “prolearner” in my classroom, adapted from the term “prosumer.” It is a mashup of the words “producer” and “learner” in which the learners are producing as they are learning. Whether it be podcasts, blog posts, wiki projects, or the like, they are producing and as they produce, they are communicating.

Additionally, I like the connotation of the word “pro” because to me it means “professional” and I teach students that professionals have peer review and communicate and discuss “professionally” with a demeanor of open minded, amenable communications. I also teach them that they are a prolearner for life — they are a professional who learns whether they are a student, college student, or in a career. Prolearner is what they are. Produce and behave as professionals is what they do.

Prolearner = Producer + Professional + Learner

Just my own thoughts. Worker is just not the word there.

I also like the other items until we get to point 10, which I like mostly.

Democracy and equity
The school should demonstrate non-discriminatory and inclusive policies, practices, and pedagogies. It should model democratic practices that involve all who are directly affected by the school. The school should honor diversity and build on the strength of its communities, deliberately and explicitly challenging all forms of inequity.

I like the idea of democratic practices. I believe in giving my students a choice about WHICH method they would like to do an assignment. However, to give them a choice of WHETHER to do the assignment would be educational suicide.

In the real world, we have a boss and the boss tells us what to do. The boss often gives unrealistic deadlines and it often “stresses us out.” Learning to function effectively in such a world is important. There are times when I unveil projects (even Flat Classroom) when the students say “I don’t know if I want to do this.”

Initially, that is their response. “It is too big, too hard, and too difficult and I’m afraid I cannot do it!” We have to push them on towards what they can be and this requires not being democratic.

When I first got to Westwood and had very high standards, some parents didn’t like it and just plain old fought me. “Let them play. Why should they have to work so hard. You’re asking to much.” The process of moving the students forward (and a different teaching style) was difficult. Any change is tough and we naturally don’t like it.

So, democracy is good where practical.

But functional authority and accountability must go hand in hand or it is a recipe for disaster. (From my favorite professor of management at Georgia Tech, Dr. Phil Adler.) This is why we have so many problems today, teachers are given accountability and NO authority!

I use the word functional authority because there is a difference between KNOWLEDGE authority (being the purveyor of all knowledge) and FUNCTIONAL authority. I believe that we should allow students to become an expert on their topics and become knowledge authorities also. In that way, the teacher’s role has changed. However, we need the FUNCTION of authority in the classroom. (This is a clarification spurred from the comments on this post.)

Beware of such statements. Democracy is good but we also must have people in authority (who use it well, mind you.)

And remember, there is a BIG difference between having authority and being authoritarian. My classroom often looks on the verge of chaos, we rarely lecture and are always doing projects. However, if I say something, the students listen and do as I ask. In a well run classroom, the teacher often does not have to invoke this “I’m in charge” sort of thing, however, there does have to be someone responsible for what is happening in the room… and that is me.

This was my first time seeing the 10 common principles. Some seem good, however, I could see that a quite literal interpretation could be unworkable in the classroom. It takes balance.
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13 thoughts on “Tom Hoffman about Essential Schools 10 common Principles

  1. On your observation of point 10 as it pertains to the classroom, for the most part I agree with you, however, as I am sure you understand, the premise behind the democratic school is to promote buy-in, accountability, and interest.

    Yes, in real life most will have bosses who will tell them what to do on a daily basis, but does that mean we should not challenge our youth to think for themselves and understand the idea of choice and consequences?

    I, like you, do not necessarily believe we should hand the keys to the inmates so-to-speak, but if the students truly understand democracy, they will understand that even in democracies you must do things you may not want to do.

    Thus, my thinking on this would be that by being willing to carry on two-way discussions with the students throughout the year as to course expectations and goals, that if I give options on assignments I am in essence giving them the ability to chose those assessments that are of most interest to them as an individual. There would most certainly be accountability, but my hopes would be that they would be more interested since they could play to their strengths.

    I am slowly trying to integrate this form of instruction in select classes using Layered Curriculum from Dr. Kathie Nunley.

    The discussion on how democratic practices can effect the building or district as a whole would be an entirely different discussion 🙂

  2. Perhaps unfair, but I watched about 11 minutes of this and wondered how much more boring could it get. If this is an example of the power of web 2.0 no students I know will want it. Too harsh?

    Again, just because the tools are used does not mean the content is valuable. I have tuned this class out. I gave him 11 minutes to hook me. Nothing came close. Yikes. Surely someone can do better.

    A backchannel would have allowed me to discuss something else entirely. Did I catch him on a bad day or what?

  3. Vicki,

    To me a democratic classroom does not mean they decide what knowledge they need, but rather how to acquire that knowledge, or at the very least how to demonstrate proficiency.

    For example, in my economics course this year I discussed with the students the fact that we WOULD be studying demand in the next unit. That fact was not open for dialog, however, I gave them a voice in how they would obtain the information. There were lectures, group and individual work, research, and projects from which to choose. Some students used technology, others the pen. I had cartoons drawn, presentations created, as well as other things. Regardless of how they demonstrated to me that they received the information, all students were held accountable with oral defenses and a traditional test.

    Of course I also held review sessions and through the oral defenses and classroom discussions was able to guide them towards where I wished them to go. Through this process the majority of students were able to master the information, and this was demonstrated in our short cycle assessment that was given at the end of the nine weeks.

    In the scheme of your post, and reply, you are absolutely correct in your premise that total freedom would not be the perfect solution. We just shouldn’t forget that there is a very doable middle ground.

  4. Shane –
    There is a big difference between two way dialog on the course as you go through the year, just remember, students don’t know what they don’t know. My 7th grader thought he knew a lot of math until he took the SAT today. And students need to know some things. So, democracy is fine. Students need to have buy in, know that they can make a difference, and be a part, however, my toughest teachers also ended up being some of my favorites. There is a balance and life isn’t utopia. So, we can strive for these things but understand we still need some order.

    Ric- We were chatting in the ustream and that is why I really stayed. It wasn’t really a presentation so to speak but supposed to be a discussion. I really stayed b/c I wanted to see what he had to say. HOnestly, I feel like many who have never been in the classroom except as a student have grandiose ideas of what the classroom should be like. However, I put more credence with those who have been in the classroom (as some of the commenters on the session have).

    But no, it wasn’t a steller preso by any means. Not sure if it was intended to be.

  5. @downes — A bit quick. I’ve reread the post and don’t follow you there. Is it not OK that the teacher is an “authority.” Can’t teachers be the authority without being authoritarian.

    There is a time and place for each of these roles in the classroom and the teacher wears many hats.

    I’ve seen several teachers who say that they practice “democracy” but that is an excuse for uncontrolled, unpurposed chaos.

    At least my chaos has purpose. 😉

    I still feel that you are somehow judging me when I know not what for? For saying a teacher is the authority in the classroom?

  6. @downes- I’ve been mulling over your comments as I cooked dinner and think perhaps I should clarify. There is a difference between authority in KNOWLEDGE and functional authority.

    I’m not advocating that the teacher is the purveyor of all knowledge here. I am saying that there has to be functional authority in the classroom. There is a difference and I used the word authority to mean functional not in the “knowledge” sense.

  7. @shane
    “I gave them a voice in how they would obtain the information. There were lectures, group and individual work, research, and projects from which to choose. Some students used technology, others the pen. I had cartoons drawn, presentations created, as well as other things. Regardless of how they demonstrated to me that they received the information, all students were held accountable with oral defenses and a traditional test.”

    Yes! I agree with you totally — that is what I do in my classroom. I have seen news specials on schools where the students decide EVERYTHING that they learn. However, I think that we need to make sure that we include some things compulsorily. There are things they need to learn!

    And I agree there IS a middle ground between the autocratic high schools most of us attended and a laissez-faire “do as you wish” environment. There is definitely a medium.

    Good assessment gives choice and allows students to use their strengths. Good teaching also helps students work on their weaknesses as well.

    You and I see eye to eye on this one.

    Vicki

  8. One of your comments implies that Tom Hoffman does not have practical experience in the classroom. I have had the opportunity to visit Tom while he worked at Feinstein High School in Providence and also while he provided support for the students and teachers at Fortes Elementary School in Providence. These are both public schools with real students. I believe Tom has a unique perspective to bring to our conversations and hope you do not discount his ideas or opinions because of some misdirected notion that he is not a teacher. He is one of the best teachers I have ever met. Thank you for allowing me to comment… I also understand the Tom Hoffman has posted a comment to your post about his session at EduCon. Am wondering if you have seen the comment and when it might come out of moderation?

  9. @timlauer- I haven’t met Tom, I hope to. I dropped him a line at NECC last year, but didn’t get the opportunity to meet him. I truly want to understand where he is coming from.

    As for implying practical classroom experience — it is not only Tom but others. When I mean classroom, I mean teaching in a K-12 classroom of younger students… not adults. I’m sure Tom is extremely distinguished at what he does, it was not meant to diminish his own ability in a classroom with adults. I’m glad to know that you think so highly of Tom, I hope I get to see him myself.

    And remember, just because a person has NO k12 classroom experience doesn’t mean that we cannot learn and discuss, it just means that we need to involve people who HAVE had that experience. As a teacher who taught adults first, I can tell you that there is a big difference.

    Also, I will contact Tom about the comment he left over here. I haven’t seen a comment. I have nothing in my pending queue. I publish ALL comments unless they include profanity. I welcome his comment and wonder why he has not commented anyway. (Usually he’s pretty vocal about these things.)

    I guess I’ll have to check his blog about this whole thing, certainly there is something over there.

  10. @timlauer – Just passed along this message to Tom via e-mail:

    “Hi, Tom.

    This is Vicki Davis. Tim Lauer made a comment on my blog about me posting a comment that you had left on the post I wrote about your session? I have no such comment in moderation.

    Do you have a copy? I would be more than happy to post it. Please let me know.

    And also understand this — my comments about the classroom were really directed to some of the thoughts of the intepretation I’ve seen on the 10 principles. As with anything principles can sound good, however, implementation is the key. There are some out there who might not understand the realities of the classroom and that is my concern with the principles… implementation at the elementary, high school, and middle school level.

    My post was not to discredit or say anything unkind about you or the presentation. I appreciate the hard work you put into it.

    Please forward your comments, I will be happy to post them.

    Vicki”

  11. Like any short (or long!) description of principles, the CES principles are open to interpretation and vulnerable to willful mis-interpretation. Local discussion and interpretation is key to the implementation of these principles, and there are plenty of related texts to give greater context to the authors’ original intent. There is a clear point of view here, but room is intentionally left for local variation.

    Regarding principle #1, “using one’s mind well” is closely associated with the idea of “habits of mind,” which a little googling leads me to believe that Sizer lifted from Mortimer Adler. Of course, exactly what habits of mind you value is also up for discussion, but personally I don’t think you can do better than Ted Sizer and Deborah Meier’s take. Overall, I’m strongly in favor of framing a school’s mission as fundamentally intellectual, focused on the student in the present.

    I think Gary’s objection to the “student-as-worker” metaphor in #5 is somewhat different than Vicki’s. It leaves open a Dickensian interpretation for Gary, who would probably prefer more of an emphasis on student agency and “play” in contrast to “work.” Vicki’s objection seems a bit more based on class-anxiety. She’s trying to bring up managers, not mill hunkies. Either way, I can’t think of a better term. “Student-as-player?” No. “Student-as-doer?” Eh. “Student-as-active-learner?” Too vague. I think if you look at the broader textual context it is pretty clear that “student-as-worker” does not mean “students-mutely-bent-over-their-worksheet-looms.”

    Regarding #10, the simplest answer is that Coalition schools have a broad range of interpretations of what “democratic practices” are, most of which Vicki would find amenable.

  12. I found your perspective an interesting one, Vicki, primarily because it took me by surprise – I see the CES concepts as aligning perfectly with so much that interactive, engaging learning is trying to accomplish.

    I’ve been familiar with the Coalition principles for about 15 years, and have always found them to be pretty solid guideposts to schooling that puts learning before teaching, empowers both students and teachers, and keeps the focus on the “big ideas”, not the little logistics that so often take over schools (especially high schools).

    You’re absolutely right in your reference to so much being left open to interpretation or implementation – but that, too, is a hallmark of CES. It’s never claimed to be any sort of prescriptive approach to what schools or classrooms ought to look like, but instead is a set of guiding concepts that will look different in different places.

    While that may lead to misuse or abuse, I’ll take that flexibility in making core concepts appropriate to individual needs, rather than prescriptive or canned approaches, anytime!

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