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Leadership and Activism, Philosophical Meanderings

Challenging Authority

As part of the great conversation that followed Paula’s Joy in Standardized Tests? post I put forth an idea of developing a new system of education. That idea deserves a post unto itself, for now I want to isolate a singular idea.

In our current system of educations students are the subject of multiple layers of authority-teachers, principals, school boards, state and federal departments of education,  and legislators. To be successful in school a student has to win passage from these various authority figures. Most notorious of late is the standardized test, a stand-in authority figure for corporations, politicians, and department of education heads.

My question is if we want to shift our educational system to promote authentic learning and securing that students are proficient learners and able citizens, who is the authority figure that deems that a student is so? What does it look like when we localize authority instead of exert it through proxies (tests) for distant figures (federal government employees and legislators)? Can we trust students and teachers to make the decision that a student is ready to move onto an “apprentice” stage of learning? Does more of the community need to be involved?

Where do we even look to figure out what a proficient learner and able citizen looks like? Can do? Knows? Perhaps its these seven traits?

Then what does the gateway look like for a student to pass through to demonstrate that she is these things? A test? A portfolio? An interview? An obstacle course? A recommendation from teachers?

I appreciate your help in unraveling this knot.

With joy,



About Adam Burk

Adam aims to serve the greater good; alleviate unnecessary suffering; and create beautiful, sane human communities in concert with the living planet. Recently, he has helped to rebuild local food systems in Maine in large part through school food services, organized the TEDxDirigo conference, and is a digital organizer with the Institute for Democratic Education in America (IDEA).


9 thoughts on “Challenging Authority

  1. Deborah Meier wrote a book called The Power of Their Ideas, about a small school in Harlem, Central Park East, that didn’t use grades (or standardized tests). They had (have?) a portfolio system. One of my favorite education books…

    Posted by Sue VanHattum | May 28, 2010, 6:10 pm
    • Sue, I haven’t read the book, but I am very familiar with the idea. I just finished a graduate degree at Goddard College where there are no grades, just pass/fail and narrative evaluations. Furthermore, for my teacher’s license I completed a portfolio to demonstrate my competency in areas determined by the State of Vermont. And this experience is one of the very reasons I came to the questions I did in this post.

      The portfolio became this obtuse task that became something that needed to be done for its own sake, not because it relevant to my learning, but because it was my key to unlock a gate that someone I will never meet guards. I worked at a top-notch school with a master teacher and a principal with a sturdy history of supporting a very successful school. They were the most familiar with my work and gave me feedback that said essentially-you are a great teacher, you are doing the things we value well and have habits to continue being successful in growing as an educator.

      Almost regardless of this feedback, I had to complete a portfolio ultimately for the purpose of an outside reviewer to look over and judge my ability as a teacher without ever interacting with me. My problem is that in the end, this person, an agent of the state, is the authority figure that I have to prove myself to in order to “pass.”

      So, the thrust of my questions in this post, is where should authority lie? Who should students have to demonstrate their abilities to and it what way? Who is the ultimate gatekeeper to a student “passing?”

      Posted by Adam Burk | May 29, 2010, 11:39 am
  2. An excellent and messy problem, Adam – thank you.

    I think of Aaron’s recent work on engagement. Authenticity may be a word over which we would argue less. Is it possible to devise a system of that lends authenticity to students’ work by ceding some measure control over curriculum, instruction, and assessment to kids? Absolutely. We all know of schools doing this work.

    I also think about school choice and its real purpose. School choice shouldn’t exist only to provide students with several different paths to college. School choice should exist to provide kids with several ways to find themselves and the education and livelihoods that will bring them, their families, and their communities health and joy.

    Maybe we need exit requirements that are authentic to the choices students make regarding their educations. Maybe we allow students to exit through all kinds of rituals with all kinds of artifacts depending on their chosen paths. Maybe we decentralize “graduation” from schools entirely and free kids to move on as soon as their work is acceptable to the businesses, institutions, organizations, or master craftspeople who agree to take on our students as apprentices, employees, researchers, or scholars. Maybe kids have to present performances or portfolios to the gatekeepers of their chosen fields and return to us with proof of their readiness to graduate or with a request for more help based on authentic feedback from their expert audiences.

    The problem with this kind of differentiated graduation and the differentiated schooling it would require is its decentralization. The decentralization required to truly differentiate education and produce a democratic citizenry is an affront to authority, its myopia, and its wealth.

    Imagine if state education money didn’t just follow a kid out of one classroom to another, but from one classroom to a local business or service organization accepting apprentices. Imagine if textbook money went to student entrepreneurship. Imagine if a student was free to invest her per-pupil allocation into learning what she wanted, where she wanted, from whom she wanted. The level of trust in students would have to be tantamount to the level of trust placed in teachers and schools to help kids make healthy and wise decisions appropriate to their ages and levels of readiness.

    So forget all that and let’s begin with this: to reform education entirely, we’re going to need to find and scale up schools that trust teachers to be more than gatekeepers and kids to be more than students.

    We’ve found the schools. How do we organize and attract the venture capital needed to scale them up? How do we find KIPP-sized money for antithetical educational experiences?

    Yours in choosing this work and learning,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | May 28, 2010, 9:11 pm
    • Chad,

      This paragraph really excited me:

      Imagine if state education money didn’t just follow a kid out of one classroom to another, but from one classroom to a local business or service organization accepting apprentices. Imagine if textbook money went to student entrepreneurship. Imagine if a student was free to invest her per-pupil allocation into learning what she wanted, where she wanted, from whom she wanted. The level of trust in students would have to be tantamount to the level of trust placed in teachers and schools to help kids make healthy and wise decisions appropriate to their ages and levels of readiness.

      That would be an amazing use of resources. It would facilitate bonding students with their passions rather than severing them. I think the capital can be raised through community-financing and slow-money investment, in addition to philanthropy.

      I dig the decentralized and personalized curriculum, and the relevant markers for graduation dependent upon what makes sense for a particular student. One thing I am going to try to flush out more in another post is what is the marker that deems a student has “foundational knowledge” and s/he and the community know that s/he is now ready for this apprenticeship or as Monika’s program calls it “quasi-college.”

      Loving it Chad. And if people haven’t seen or read it yet, take a moment to read Chad’s Green Paper: Shoestring Democratic School.

      With peace,

      Posted by Adam Burk | May 28, 2010, 10:09 pm
      • Thanks, Adam – I think the foundational knowledge piece is important to articulate. We do have a responsibility to ensure all kids have those basic skills they need -perhaps framed by the seven skills you cited – so they can accomplish their goals.

        I kept wanting to write, “of course, this will be harder,” or “of course, this will cost more,” but I couldn’t explain why. Happier and more engaged children will require less baby-sitting. Community-based education will require fewer “classroom teachers, but more teachers who are expert facilitators. Managing such differentiated curricula to better serve students will likely take more time and therefore cost more money on the assessment end of education, but assessing differentiated products could be done less frequently if we’re after foundational knowledge and graduation portfolios assessed in part or whole by experts outside the schools.

        As is often the case, the most difficult part will be helping ourselves realize that we can do this.

        Let’s keep imagining,

        Posted by Chad Sansing | May 29, 2010, 5:01 am
  3. gosh guys… i didn’t sleep much before i happened upon your conversations here. ..

    wagners 7 skills is great. thank you Adam.. off to read the green paper just now.

    would love any insight you guys might have on this beta tool to develop/facilitate and validate what we think is the new standard.. a fixed process (of personal learning networks) vs a fixed content. we hope to refine this over the summer and then use next year with our innovation lab… via a sophisticated video logging.

    absolutely love the idea that school becomes real life…Chad – i think the hard part is convincing people that it would be simpler – that we wouldn’t need more resources – just need to start spending time and money in completely different ways.
    our thoughts on that..

    Posted by monika hardy | May 29, 2010, 6:34 am
  4. I really like the idea that Chad touched on with decentralized and distributed learning and advancement when the student shows sufficient total proficiency.

    Adam, for your final question, “What gateway should students have to pass through….,” every single one possible. Segmenting, insulating, and packaging each chapter of each year’s segment of each subject prevents the associations our brains rely on for thought. I still can’t get in my head that Mendel or Milton or Einstein were historical figures, and so we would need as many out-of-the-ordinary capstone experiences as possible to have the students personally interconnect content relationships hidden by the silos of the educational institution.

    Further, a multitude of capstones that are “structurally different” are critical too. An interview, a portfolio, and (even) a proficiency exam would engage different personalities. Even if you take for consideration the somewhat outdated MBTI extremes, you need something that will engage the future meticulous busisnessfolk [ST], artists and theologians [NF], social advocates [SF], and researchers [NT]. Perhaps the students themselves can choose how to weigh them.

    Posted by Kevin | May 29, 2010, 10:02 am
    • Kevin,

      I like the idea of students designing for themselves what their “gateway” will be. As you detail, different people prefer different means of expressing knowledge, think of it in terms of personality types or multiple intelligences, either way, the point is personalization.

      Thanks for adding this to the conversation.

      Posted by Adam Burk | May 29, 2010, 10:56 am

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