The most important problems in the field of education

in which The List, it turns out, is not where the real work lies

My list is short:

  1. Purpose. The purposes of schooling are too numerous, are often unclear, and frequently conflict with one another.
  2. One Size Fits All. Educational Psychology 101 tells us that each individual grows and learns at his or her own pace, and in his or her own ways. We then put kids in classrooms according to age and teach them the same stuff at the same time and usually in the same way.

Kind teachers, enthusiastic teachers, inspired teachers can make a bad situation better.

But so long as the school is trying to do a long list of contradictory things instead of focusing on a short list of well-conceived goals, and so long as we group students by age with little regard for individual needs, nothing fundamental will change. Amelioration is the best we can hope for.

Underlying Assumptions

As I look at that short list, I realize that it will be helpful to dig a bit deeper. What’s my beef, exactly, with the purposes of schools? And learning theory aside, what’s so bad about kids going to school with their peers?

Schools are not charitable organizations—they are instruments of the state, and are designed to benefit the state. Much as I understand this, however, I don’t much care. The interests of the state interest me very little. It’s important to the state that our children be raised up to vote for one of the major political parties, and that they be prepared to hold jobs so they can pay taxes and contribute to the GNP. Fine. Wake me up when you’re done.

I do prefer to live in a society where people behave well, and where people are well-read, thoughtful, knowledgeable, healthy, and curious. These would be the aims of my ideal school.

As for the factory model of schooling—students grouped by age and taught on a conveyor belt—well, it’s all about the money, isn’t it? An 18th-century aristocrat, say, would never have sent his child to a school; he hired teachers to come to the house and, in the best of all possible worlds, a gifted and inspired teacher sensitively guided the child to explore his interests and discover new ones in a way and at a pace suited to that particular child. Of course children benefit, too, from interaction with their peers, but they don’t really learn much (academically) from each other, not at least until they are young adults. And they can interact very well with each other by playing together, doing sports together, going to camp together, etc. The success of the home-schooling movement shows how unimportant the school is. Let’s face it: if we could only afford it, we would all hire gifted, inspired teachers to teach our children one-on-one.

However, of course, we can’t afford one-on-one teaching. So we send the kids to schools that are funded by taxpayers who want their money spent well, i.e., as little as possible and never on activities whose value is controversial. And once the kids are in school Mom can go back to work, which is pretty much required these days, and that brings us to one of the most important purposes of schools as they exist today: babysitting. (If you think babysitting is only an accidental side-effect of schooling, ask any school administrator about sending students home for a day or two so that teachers can participate in professional development workshops.)

And therefore . . .

This line of reasoning brings us back to my list of the two most important problems in the field of education and tells us that neither of these problems is actually important, because they are part of the fundamental nature of schools. Or rather, they are not problems so much as they are essential characteristics of schooling. It is possible to pursue education without schools—home-schooling being the one viable example I know of, cyber-schooling being perhaps a derivative of home-schooling or perhaps, someday, something more. But so long as we are talking about schools, the two problems on my list will never go away. For the vast majority of students, therefore, we should focus instead on the pragmatic, unglamorous work of amelioration: what can we do within schools as they exist to make them less bad?

Teachers: What are the most important problems in your field?

Browsing Paul Graham’s excellent collection of essays, I came across this passage

In his famous essay You and Your Research (which I recommend to anyone ambitious, no matter what they’re working on), Richard Hamming suggests that you ask yourself three questions:

  1. What are the most important problems in your field?
  2. Are you working on one of them?
  3. Why not?

—and it occurred to me that in the field of education we have lots of problems, but little consensus about what our most important problems might be.

So I put the question to you:

What are the most important problems in the field of education?

School-wide blogging #2: why do it?

All of us involved in using blogs with our students understand the value of the activity: students become real writers with a real audience, can read and respond to each other’s work, become a community of thinkers/scholars/readers, etc.

But is there any added value to blogging school-wide?

I can think of two advantages of school-wide blogging over blogging in a class here and there.

First, a student’s blog—including posts for all of her classes—would become an automatically updating digital portfolio. We all remember student portfolios; did they ever take off where you work? Me neither. But imagine a student’s blog including work for almost all his classes extending over several years of schooling. What a document!

Not all blog posts are equal, of course, and casual writing typically predominates in a blog. But nothing would stop students from posting more formal, polished work in their blogs as well.

And with the ability to tag and categorize and archive posts, there’s no need for such an online portfolio to become unwieldy. It would be simple for a student applying to university, say, to select posts from a variety of classes over the last 2-3 years of high school, tag them all ‘portfolio’, and send them as a single hyperlink to any interested admissions office.

The second advantage of school-wide blogging? Think of all the paper a school could save. Or a school district. Or a whole nation of schools.

That’s a lot of paper.

School-wide blogging: how would it work?

At the moment individual teachers here and there are using blogs with their classes in various ways and for various purposes, using various platforms and hosting solutions.

I’ve started to imagine how things might look in a school where students blog for almost every class, just as they have traditionally handed in assignments on paper for almost every class. If this blogging business really takes off we could have some serious scaling problems.

Imagine a secondary school in which students blog for almost every class. A separate blog for each class would soon become unwieldy, so they would have one blog, with categories or tags for posts in each subject. Each class would have its own blog, where the teacher would post assignments and links to all the blogs of the students in that class. Or would only a student’s history posts, say, appear in links on the history class’s blog? One of the main values of blogging in schools is that it allows students to read each other’s work, but what setup would make it easy for a student to see his classmates’ work in a particular subject without having to wade through 20-30 blogs searching for the history posts?

Perhaps it makes more sense for students to post all of their history work on the history class’s blog, their English work on the English class’s blog, etc. But then the student’s own blog becomes . . . what? A poor substitute for a Facebook page? It makes more sense for a student to post ALL of his or her work on his school blog, where it can remain and be easily accessed, serving as a kind of portfolio that updates automatically. But I’m not sure how these separate blogs could be linked selectively to show, say, links to all the history posts on the history class blog and links to all the English posts on the English class blog.

Here I am getting out of my depth, technically. Is there a solution for this problem already out there? Would individual RSS feeds for each subject tag show up on the class blog for that subject?

In short, if educational blogging really takes off, how will we manage it? Does anyone out there have experience that would shed light on this problem?

Blogging with students: my adventures so far

As a secondary-school English teacher, I use student blogs primarily as a form of ‘independent writing’, very similar to the ‘independent reading’ that my students have been doing for years. See the post I wrote about this in February 2007 for more details. (All links will open in a new window.)

I also find blogs very useful in higher-level courses like IB Theory of Knowledge, or my IB English A1 classes, where I hope they will help to create a community conversation among class members.

Finally, blogs make it much easier for students to read and comment on each others’ work than was ever possible using traditional methods—an occasional paper copied and distributed, or papers posted on the classroom wall for others to read.

For one example of what a class blog might look like after a year, have a look at my Grade 8 blog from 2006-07. (Note that, as usual with blogs, the most recent articles [‘posts’] come first, so to see what the students wrote at the beginning of the year you will have to dig back several pages, or use the archives links. Or you can explore by topic, or by author.)

If you are a teacher inclined to dip your toes into this student blogging pool, you may benefit from some of what follows. Please note that I am not an expert, just a teacher with a bit of experience, but I will point you toward some sources of information that will take you beyond the confines of my own limited perspective.

Getting Started

  1. Begin by reading some blogs. You can find blogs on every subject under the sun. Go to, type in a topic that interests you, and begin browsing.
  2. Do some blogging yourself. The easiest entry-point is one of several free blogging sites such as Blogger or Even if no one reads your blog, you will become familiar with the conventions of writing a new post, saving a draft, publishing, and adding tags or categories.
  3. Read some blogs about educational blogging. Try Will Richardson; Konrad Glogowski; Anne Davis; and Bud Hunt. Those four will provide you with plenty of links to other blogs about teaching and learning. [UPDATE 23 October: In a perfect example of how connections are made on the web, I discovered a great blog from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Education when they linked to one of my posts on The Good Habits Blog. Instructify is a great introduction to blogging in general and educational blogs in particular.]
  4. Start using RSS. By now you will be having trouble keeping track of all those blogs unless you use an RSS reader or aggregator. My RSS primer will show you how.

Blogging with Students

So you’ve played around a bit reading and writing blogs, you’re convinced that your students would benefit from blogging, but what’s the best way to manage a classroom of bloggers? What blogging software should you use? Where should you host your blog?

I don’t have definitive answers to these questions, but I will share my experience and the preferences that go with it.

  1. WordPress: When I started out I did a fairly extensive survey of the various blogging platforms that were then available. As I wanted to host the blog on my own site, I needed something I could install and manage myself without having to hire a web site technician. I soon found, as thousands of other users have also, that WordPress was my best option. It’s open-source, which means not only that it’s free, but that hundreds of amateurs and professionals are out there producing new themes and plug-ins and helping to make each new version of WordPress even better than before. will get you started downloading and installing on your own server. If you don’t have a server of your own, you can use, which provides hosting for your WordPress blog. I use WordPress for this blog, for my Good Habits blog, and for my English A1 blog.
  2. Edublogs. Last year I used Edublogs for my class blogs during the first part of the year. They use a special edition of WordPress, WordPress MU, designed for blogs that have multiple authors. I found that they provide an excellent service, easy to use both for me and for the students. James Farmer does a wonderful job administering the site and responds personally and very quickly to calls for help. I had problems, however, connecting to the site with a whole class of students at one time, at least from China. Even when we limited the number of simultaneous users we continued to have serious slowdowns, so I had to move all the class blogs to my own domain.
  3. 21Classes. This year, following a suggestion from Konrad Glogowski, I switched to hosting four of my class blogs on With 21Classes, each student has his or her own blog, and the class blog is a ‘portal’ where the teacher can post messages. Performance has not been a problem—perhaps because each student’s blog has its own address—and the portal can be set up to include links to all the student blogs, recent posts and comments, etc. If you come to 21Classes after using WordPress, as I have, you will notice the differences in the user interface and perhaps not always be pleased by them, but none of the site’s idiosyncrasies present more than a minor annoyance. You can see 21Classes in action on my current blogs for English 7A, English 7 B Adv, English 9 B Adv, and IB Theory of Knowledge.

My Ideal Set-up

Ideally, the school would install WordPress on its own server, ensuring that connection speeds would be as fast and direct as possible. Every student could have his or her own blog, and the teacher could link to all student blogs on the class’s blog. This would combine the advantages of 21Classes with those of WordPress. Of course, if every teacher starts blogging and each student has a separate blog, things could get out of hand both technically and otherwise, but at the moment we’re a fair distance from having to confront those problems.


I had to shut off comments on this blog following a flood of comment spam, but if you have read this far and still have a question, please use the ‘Contact Me’ link at the top of the left-hand column and drop me an email. And good luck with blogging!

Shocking results from survey of middle school students

A survey of American middle school students finds that

Being caring, attentive and friendly, and taking time out for explanations are the types of attitudes and behaviors that students value in their teachers.

I am stunned. For years I’ve believed that students want their teachers to be uncaring, inattentive, unfriendly, and to refuse to answer questions or explain things.

(And yes, for those of you lacking web cams, my tongue is firmly in my cheek.)

There’s a link to the entire survey here.


Yes, that was the sound of the summer holiday going by.

It’s gone.

I’m going to work tomorrow, and so are you, probably, but if you have a moment you might want to check out the two reviews of Good Habits, Good Students that I’ve posted on the Good Habits Blog. A couple of pretty impressive people saying nice things about my book.

Cheers me right up.

Enjoy 2007-08, everyone!

Zai jian, Werner!

Werner Paetzold is leaving Suzhou Singapore International School to become MYP Coordinator at Bali International School.

Werner is one of those teachers that no school could ever adequately thank, compensate, or honour. As English & TOK teacher, drama impresario, and MYP Coordinator he has given time to his students and colleagues with exorbitant generosity, but beyond that he has given SSIS his heart and soul. He and I did not always agree, and thank god for that: when I begin wishing for colleagues who agree with me all the time, please show me the door. When he disagreed, he did so the same way he did everything else—with passion, with intelligence, and with impeccable good manners.

Above all, he has the taste and superiour good sense to prefer Apple computers.

Werner, you are a gentlemen and a great teacher. It has been an honour and a privilege to be your colleague. Warmest best wishes as you begin your Indonesian sojourn. We will miss you.

Writing in the Garden

On June 13 about 35 students spent the whole morning in the SSIS Garden, just observing and making notes. Some sat and wrote; some walked around, exploring; others chased insects, or dug holes in search of earthworms. After lunch they sat in classrooms and wrote poems, stories, and essays inspired by their morning’s observations.

They wrote in Chinese, Korean, and English. You can read some of the English pieces on the SSIS Garden Blog. Have a look: I think you will be impressed.

Let's Abolish High School

Apart from the fact that this idea would leave me unemployed, I am inclined to agree.

Robert Epstein, writing in Education Week, makes the case that compulsory education for teenagers is a bad idea. Before you dismiss this as the ravings of some burned-out Sixties radical, have a look. High school is not about to be abolished, so it’s safe. And it’s always healthy, I think, to re-examine our basic assumptions. If they are sound, they will bear up under scrutiny. If not . . . .

Thanks to Will Richardson for pointing to the Epstein article.

The Myth of the Great Teacher vs. the Great Teacher

Teacher Magazine has a piece entitled ‘The Myth of the Great Teacher’ which quotes teachers’ responses to a New York Times article by a Bronx history teacher, Tom Moore. One of the comments, from ‘Gail, a high school English teacher in suburban Atlanta’, caught my eye:

I am frustrated with the mythology of the “great teacher” who sacrifices his or her entire life for the kids. I tell new teachers all the time: Your job is not your life. Your job is your job. Your life is the God of your understanding, your family, your friends, your pets, your hobbies, your passions. Healthy, well-adjusted teachers fit teaching into their lives, not life into their teaching. How do you think the kids of these “super-teachers” feel when their parent says, “I can’t do something with you because I’m doing something with my students?” I can’t respect that.

Great teachers are teachers who show up every day when they are well. And stay home and nurture themselves when they’re not well. Great teachers are those who do their best for their students every day by trying new things, keeping up with trends, teaching old materials in new ways, getting and giving feedback, and staying relentlessly positive. Great teachers let their kids be who they are but also push them to be better. Great teachers know their kids’ names and know them well enough to pick up the fact that something might be wrong in a kid’s life. And they act on that.

Great teachers are unbowed in the face of entrenched bureaucracy. Although they become weary, they do not give in to the cynicism that infects the mediocre teachers around them. They see the true sacredness of their job—making a difference in the life of a child. And that difference is different for every kid.

Wow. I’m guessing Gail is a great teacher.

Another use of class blogs: teach proper formatting of quotations

Bruce Schauble shows how blogging software can be used to teach students proper formatting of quotations. If you teach English, you know that students often struggle to get this right. With a blog, it’s much easier for them to get it right, so that when they are producing formal essays in a word processor they will know through experience what they’re aiming for. Brilliant!

Google Docs for class notes, group projects

My Grade 8s are reading a book called Six Chapters of a Floating Life, written by Shen Fu right here in Suzhou about 200 years ago. We’re using Google Docs to take notes collaboratively. As a maximum of 10 people can edit a Google Doc simultaneously, I’ve created four different documents, with about seven students working on each one.

This is a great way to teach students how to take proper notes on their reading. The students can edit each other’s work, correcting and amplifying as needed. In the end they will have a set of notes that represents the best their collective wisdom can produce.

To see an example, follow this link to their notes on ‘Culture, Customs, and Family Life’. (Don’t expect perfection; they just started!)

Google Docs would also be a great way for students doing a group project to produce their final report. All too often one student in the group ends up doing most of the work because they can’t get together in the same place at the same time. With Google Docs they can work from home and collaborate as well.

Google Spreadsheets works the same way.

Teachers, if you haven’t checked out Google Docs & Spreadsheets you can find an introduction here.

Student blogging as 'independent writing'

For years my students have done “Independent Reading”. Now student blogging offers “independent writing”, in which students write frequently for real audiences, read and comment on each other’s work, and can actually enjoy that indispensable element of any skill development: practice.

I began my experiment with student blogging in September without any firm ideas about how to do it. Going on gut instinct, I decided not to comment on my students’ work, nor even edit it. I check each post before it’s published, and if it’s incomplete or shouldn’t be published yet for some other reason, I let the author know. Then I wait for the needed changes to be made.

I also vet every comment. In a few rare instances, I have deleted comments that I thought were hurtful and unproductive, and have let the commenters know why their comments were unwise. But the vast majority of comments have been kind, generous, and helpful.

My guidance of students when it comes to choosing writing topics is analogous to my guidance of their independent reading. They must read novels, and I reserve the right to approve or disapprove their choices. When they get into a rut, I suggest a book or require a book or require that they stop reading, say, fantasy novels. But within those parameters, they choose their own books.

With the class blog, I usually direct students to write on certain topics. I began with assignments related to class work—personal responses to poems and other readings, pastiches of a passage from Great Expectations, profiles of authors from the students’ home countries, original stories based on a Greek myth. Then I began finding interesting articles on other blogs or elsewhere on the web, sharing them with students, and asking them to write their own posts on the same topic. Is group work a good thing? How do you feel about professions that involve working with your hands? What makes a student passionate about learning? Is it right to have a Starbucks outlet in the Forbidden City?

I also created a ‘category’ called ‘On your mind’ and regularly gave students time to write on topics of their own choice. And in December I asked them to write about blogging, to find out how the experiment was going from their point of view.

The results of this mostly hands-off approach have been gratifying. The students in my Grade 8 English class have responded enthusiastically, with just one exception (more about that in a moment). Feeling free to write as they wish, not worried about handing in paper that will be returned with red ink and a grade, they have done more writing on the class blog than they would have done on paper in the same length of time. Their readings of news items and posts from other blogs have expanded their intellectual horizons and broadened their general background knowledge. Most importantly, many of them have begun to discover their own voices, and have actually enjoyed writing.

The analogy with Independent Reading is almost perfect. Students who read only the handful of books assigned for class study never read enough to become really good readers, and students who write only the small number of assignments their teachers are able to assess formally never write enough to become really good writers.

The teachers reading this will be wondering . . . “Sounds great, but how do you assess their blogging?”

Short answer: I don’t. I read all of it, of course, note strengths and weaknesses, and address them indirectly in my choices of assignments and activities.

But when I want a piece of writing for formal assessment, I require students to print a draft. I mark these closely, and the students then produce a finished version which I grade. Keeping the “independent writing” on the blog separate from the pieces written for assessment seemed to me a good idea, and experience so far confirms it. The students, too, say that they enjoy blogging more knowing that their pieces won’t be marked up and graded. I did, however, ask them to post their finished pieces on the blog.

Another way to handle assessment would be to ask them to pick their favourite piece from the blog, revise it, and hand it in to be graded.

Of course, no single approach works for everybody. One of my Grade 8 students hated writing on the blog and having her work read by others, so I told her she could do all of her writing the old fashioned way, on paper, and hand it in to me. Similarly, my Grade 6 and 7 students who are still mastering English have not taken to blogging with the same enthusiasm as my Grade 8s. Essentially, the difficulty in both cases is the same: discomfort. When writing an English sentence is too much of a challenge, the blogging bogs down.

My new idea to help these students (and many of my Grade 8s, as well) is to add another blogging lesson to our weekly schedule. In this second lesson, students will be asked to choose a favourite passage from anything they have read recently (say, one of their Independent Reading novels) and copy it exactly and perfectly into a blog post. This will give them practice writing English sentences that are correctly spelled and punctuated and even, one can hope, well written. I hope to use this activity to build fluency and to work on specific issues like the proper use of quotation marks.

And here’s one last wrinkle: the convergence of Independent Reading and independent writing. Up until now my students have written 3-page journal entries in small exercise books about each novel they have read for Independent Reading. Over the Chinese New Year holiday I have asked my Grade 8s to choose their favourite journal entry and post it to the class blog. Only a half-dozen have been posted so far, but I like it already. When students can read each other’s journal entries, they not only learn about the novels their classmates are reading but pick up ideas about how to write a plot summary, how to describe a character, and how to explain their personal response to a story. I will wait to see what the students think, but I am strongly inclined to ditch the exercise books and have all Independent Reading Journal entries posted to the class blog.

Meanwhile, I would love to hear from teachers or students who have been involved in student blogging. What has your experience been? Any good ideas or suggestions to share? Drop me a comment.

WP Theme Essentials for Class Blogs (where my class blogs are hosted) offers a fairly large number of themes as options for your blog, but their selection is just a small fraction of the total number available for bloggers who host their blogs on their own servers.

The problem with the LearnerBlogs themes, however, is not their number. The problem is that many of them lack features that are essential for blogging with a group of students.
Here’s my first-draft list of essential features:

  1. Authors’ names attached to each post.
  2. A login link.
  3. The number of posts displayed next to each Category.
  4. A “Recent Comments” display.
  5. RSS feeds for posts and comments.

It would be good to construct a list of LearnerBlogs themes that meet these requirements. As it is now, you can spend a lot of time trying out pretty designs that don’t function the way they need to.

How about you? What’s on your list of essentials?

Smile, teachers: you may be on YouTube

From Canada comes the story of an angry teacher’s classroom rant being filmed surreptitiously by students and then posted to the internet video site, YouTube.

As the story points out, this is far from the only case of its kind. A search for ‘angry teacher’ on YouTube today produces 93 other examples, a number that is bound to grow. Comparisons with cases like that of comedian Michael Richards’ racist tirade or with the latest incident of police brutality being videotaped are inevitable.

In the Canadian story, the teacher’s union representative has leapt to the teacher’s defense in a strikingly sweeping way. “The teacher will be the master of his class — a closed class and confidential,” he says. “Master” is of course the 19th-century word for teacher (the term survives residually in the principals of private schools being called ‘Headmaster’). But I worry about its implications. If teachers are masters, what does that make students? Servants? Slaves? Do teachers have the right to do or say anything they please inside their ‘closed’ and ‘confidential’ classrooms? Surely not.

In Canada the school’s response has been to ban all personal electronic devices from the classroom—to which I say, “Good Luck!”

Wouldn’t it be easier to ban angry rants by teachers (along with racist tirades and police brutality, if possible)? Why in the 21st century does anyone still believe that teachers have a right to speak to students in ways they would never speak to anyone else? Teachers who think that such an approach is not only justified but effective would do well to read Alfie Kohn’s book, Beyond Discipline.

Or we could all just decide that it’s a good idea to treat everyone with respect and courtesy. As my mother used to say when I was going out for the evening, “Don’t do anything you wouldn’t want broadcast on television”.

Much less on YouTube, eh?

It was good advice then, and it’s even better advice today.

UPDATE 13 January 2007

Slashdot today has a piece retailing a Wall Street Journal article about people’s misdeeds being posted on the internet. The discussion is worth a look. One reader’s take:

“You don’t see a problem? The problem is How long does someone have to be ashamed for, and in front of how many people? You put something on the internet and potentially it’s there forever and can be seen by millions, like with Star Wars Kid. I believe forgiveness is necessary in society – being allowed to learn from your mistakes and move on to become a better person – but we seem to have a culture where nobody forgives and nobody is allowed to forget.”

Group Work: Good or Bad? My Gr. 8 Students Sound Off

My Grade 8 students (for whom in almost every case English is their second language) respond to a post by Konrad Glogowski on his Blog of Proximal Development in which he argues against group work in schools. They also refer to some of the comments to Konrad’s post. I am impressed by the range and thoughtfulness of their responses, and by the vigour of their expression.

Introducing the SSIS English Wiki

The SSIS English Wiki is an experiment in cooperative learning. I’ve invited my English 8 students to join the wiki, and starting Monday they will be adding to the Poetry page based on what they have learned so far this year about poetry. They will be able to add content and edit, expand, or revise content added by others.

I’ve added a link to the wiki in the left-hand column (under “My Stuff”) to make it easy for you to check it from time to time. You can also subscribe to the wiki and receive notification every time someone adds material to it. Click ‘Notify Me’ (upper right) and follow the instructions. For email notification you will need a wikispaces username, but anyone can subscribe via RSS.

New class blogs are up and running

Three of my English classes—English 6 B Advanced, English 7 B Advanced, and English 8 (Language A)—have started class blogs. You can see their first entries here:

Grade 6
Grade 7
Grade 8

For the vast majority of these students, English is their second (or third) language. I am really looking forward to seeing the progress they make through the school year.

The Homework Myth

I just learned of Alfie Kohn’s new book, The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing. Kohn has made a career of debunking widely accepted ideas about education with well-researched evidence and argument in earlier books such as Beyond Discipline and Punished by Rewards. As one teacher who is already skeptical about the benefits of homework, I am looking forward to reading Kohn’s latest offering.

Great resource: Word of the Day

Students in Grades 8-12 and even university students can benefit from the “Word of the Day” feature at A good vocabulary programme features words not often encountered in casual reading, but which occur often enough in academic reading to be useful for students. has hit this spot perfectly. In the week beginning June 28, for example, their words were venal, timorous, aficionado, plaudit, depredation, complaisant, and emblazon.

Definitions are followed by quotations from published writing and an explanation of the word’s origins.

To visit the Word of the Day web site, go here: To have the Word of the Day delivered to your email inbox daily, go here: To subscribe via RSS, copy and paste this link into your RSS reader:

Students, here’s a painless way to learn a new word every day! Even if you do no more than read each day’s entry, you will benefit. Teachers looking for an easy way to incorporate regular vocabulary work into their classes should take a look at this great resource, too.

Bye-bye April

April was extremely busy for me. On top of my normal work, I marked 212 World Literature essays for the IBO, an educational but exhausting undertaking. I also put the finishing touches on my book manuscript, Good Habits, Good Students, which is now in the hands of the designers and typesetters. My Grade 6 students created ‘heart maps’ (another great idea from Nancie Atwell), picked one item, and wrote ‘heart stories’ which I am still working to post online. Then they turned their heart stories into speeches. In Grade 9, students worked mostly outside of class to complete a biography of some acquaintance or family member who is at least 60 years old. In class, we studied To Kill a Mockingbird. When we finished, they wrote comparison-contrast essays based on Harper Lee’s novel and Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country, which they had read independently. My Grade 11s have been working on developing topics and doing practice essays preparing for their own World Lit papers (our three WL texts for Assignment 1 are Oedipus, The Odyssey, and Agamemnon). My Grade 12s worked on practice exams and are as I write sitting their IB examinations. Meanwhile, the tempo in the Garden Project picked up as warm weather arrived and seeds began jumping out of the ground. And did I mention that I have a family? Ah yes, the easy life of a teacher . . . .

MYP: Love the Personal Project, hate the way it’s assessed

Frustrated by the infernal assessment process for Personal Projects in the IB’s Middle Years Programme, I have hastily hammered out a proposal for change. I haven’t time at the moment to polish this, so treat it as a rough draft and let me know (email contact link is at left, under “Directory”, or post a comment). Here goes:

MYP Personal Project: A Proposal for Reform
by Eric T. MacKnight

I love the Personal Project. I hate the way it’s assessed.

The MYP’s Personal Project is an excellent activity insofar as it

•gives students the opportunity to pursue a topic of personal interest that is not otherwise covered in the curriculum;
•gives them a chance to use skills they have learned in school, and develop new skills; and
•gives them experience working independently.

Some of the work done for the Personal Project is truly remarkable, and even life-changing for students who discover a topic for which they have a genuine personal enthusiasm, or—at the top end—even passion.

Unfortunately, the assessment process is complicated, confusing to the point of incoherence, and ultimately counterproductive, since it shifts emphasis away from the actual project undertaken and focuses instead on evaluating a written report according to highly technical criteria (which, worse still, are often ambiguous or even contradictory).

Here is an outline of my proposal for revising the Personal Project’s assessment scheme and reviving its original intent.

What the students must do
•The project itself
•A written report of about 1000 words in which the student analyses and reflects on his or her project.
•A public display in the school. Students present and explain their projects to parents, teachers, and other students.

Marks & Descriptors
4 Very good or excellent
3 Good
2 Satisfactory
1 Unsatisfactory
0 Nothing submitted

Narrative Evaluation
•Written by supervisor
•Moderated internally
•Addressed to student
•Includes comments on

1. Choice of topic
Is the choice appropriate? Neither too broad, nor too narrow; neither too ambitious, nor trivial. Does the topic relate to a genuine personal interest? Etc.
2. Process
Organisation, time management, use of materials, choice of procedures, methods of research, documentation, etc.
3. Product
Is the final product of high quality?
4. Analysis and Reflection
Has the student thought deeply about the project, the difficulties encountered, his or her response to difficulties? What has the student learned from this experience? How has the student changed as a result of this learning? Etc.

Using this approach, students would write a report roughly one-quarter the length of the current report, and would focus solely on analysis and reflection, thus shifting the emphasis from writing a report back to the original project.

The supervisor would monitor during the course of the project the student’s choice and definition of the project; the student’s time organization, use of supporting materials, methods of research, etc.; and the quality of the final product. The supervisor would read the student’s analysis and reflection. Taking everything into account, the supervisor would then assign a mark between 0 and 4 on the scale given above.

Note that the descriptor for a ‘4’ deliberately combines ‘very good’ and excellent’ to avoid invidious distinctions that inevitably result in some students being given lower marks for comparable work.

Simplifying the marking scale also avoids byzantine calculations of marks in eight categories that more or less overlap and are open to varying interpretations, inviting prolonged debates over arcane questions in the attempt to reach consensus on whether the student should receive a ‘3’ or a ‘4’ for Criterion B.

The supervisor’s narrative evaluation, addressed to the student, would focus on the choice of topic; the process followed; the quality of the final product; and the quality of the student’s written analysis and reflection.

This narrative evaluation would be attached to the student’s written report and moderated internally. In a very small school, the MYP Coordinator might moderate all the evaluations, but in most schools this moderation would be done by colleagues working in teams. The aim of this moderation would be to produce the best possible narrative evaluations and a broad consensus for the judgments made by supervisors.

Once marks are awarded and evaluations delivered, the projects would be publicly displayed. Each school will handle this in its own way. The essential is that students have a chance to share their project with a large number of peers, teachers, and parents, and receive public recognition for their efforts.

Schools could be invited by the MYP to submit the best Project from each Grade 10 class—or perhaps more than one for larger schools—for international recognition.

If you think this plan would be a worthwhile improvement, I’d love to hear from you.

UPDATE, September 2012: I have closed comments on this post as a) I am not currently teaching in an MYP school, and b) as Liam points out, the PP has changed since I first wrote about it.