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Leadership and Activism

Adora Svitak on the “big” changes in education

In order to make anything a reality, you have to dream about it first!
The goal is not to turn kids into your kinds of adults, but rather better adults than you have been!
– Adora Svitak, 13 years old writer, poet and humanitarian speaking to adult audience at TED 2010

Editor’s note: Ever since I joined this blog, the idea to involve the students into a democratic process where they get to shape the curriculum and the way the schools support their learning needs has been a constant tread underlying many of the discussions. Today, I’d like to bring you the feedback of one such student — 13 years old Adora Svitak, familiar to many as a writer, speaker, teacher and (I am proud to follow her footsteps on this one!) TEDx organizer — in 2010 she organized TEDxRedmond, the first conference organized by kids for kids! If this is not all, Adora recently received the NEA Foundation’s Award for Outstanding Service to Public Education — following the footsteps of Bill Clinton, Jane Goodall and others that got the award before her!

With the permission of her mom, Joyce Svitak, I am reposting Adora’s recent article from her personal blog, where she is providing feedback about the kind of “big” changes she would like to see implemented in the education system!

What do you think about the changes Adora proposes?

For those of you who haven’t already seen Education Opinions Part 1, I recently discussed “small” changes I would make in education (school start times, recess, and lunches). Today I want to talk about “big” changes I would make in education (if I were in a position of incredible power!)–age-based grades, online learning, and authority hierarchy in school.

Age-Based Grade Levels
I took two electives recently at Redmond Junior High. Everyone asked what grade I was in. It would go something like this:
“Adora, what grade are you in?”
“Ninth grade.”
They look incredulously at my apparently seventh-grade style of dress (i.e., sweaters and shirts vs. tank tops and jackets) and say, “You’re in ninth grade?”
“Yeah,” I nod quickly, and explain, “I skipped a grade.”

[Actually, it’s feasible that I skipped two grades, since twelve-year-olds are often put in seventh grade (depending on when your birthday is) but usually I say I just skipped one, since I’m now thirteen.]

One’s grade in school decides what you’ll learn and the level at which you’ll learn it. It decides when you’ll graduate from high school and even the friends you’ll make (most of your friends are probably in your grade or close to it). My question is why your age, not your aptitude, should determine your grade. I am at a loss as to the benefits of putting a group of people of approximately the same age–but of varying aptitudes–into one room where they will all learn the same thing. The quicker students will sit bored while the teacher re-explains a concept they already know from their voracious reading, while the slower students will be confused and left out by the rapid pace at which everyone else seems to be progressing.

My parents homeschooled my sister and me for many years. Why? Because the local school insisted that I, being three, should go to preschool, and my sister, being five, should go to kindergarten. The problem? You learn your alphabet in preschool, and I was already reading chapter books. At the same time, however, I was not so far along with math and science. In other words, I was not “advanced” in everything. Yet many gifted and talented programs try to put students into all-around advanced classes.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to be able to take some kind of test (oral, written, multiple choice, or informal discussion with a counselor) to determine what level you would be? Maybe then I could have taken a test which would have allowed me to learn at second grade reading and history level, and kindergarten or first grade math and science.

To me, this approach makes far more sense than sorting students into grades based on when your birthday is. Would you ever tell a son or daughter, little brother or sister, “You weren’t born before September 1st, so I’m not going to help you learn your alphabet”? Yet that is what our school system does every year.

Placement tests to sort students into levels would put students with a larger knowledge base into higher grades, but a large knowledge base doesn’t necessarily mean a love of learning. I’d propose that honors/gifted status would then be determined by a student’s desire to learn and exhibition of independent learning traits (i.e., reading a lot outside of school, tracking current events, etc.). For instance, if you’re a ten-year-old who’s been advanced to seventh-grade level mathematics, you’d be placed in the honors math class. The material covered would be the same as the seventh-grade level math (because honors classes would no longer have to serve only as a means of providing harder material–you’d be placed in a higher grade if you had that large knowledge base), but there would be more discussion, extracurricular activity, etc.

I personally think that there is no obvious benefit to having an age-based grade system. (Can anyone think of obvious pros?) But there are many obvious, compelling reasons why not to have one.

Perhaps I should add that age-based grades don’t necessarily have to be wiped out completely (as in, you could still say, “I’m a seventh grader,” “I’m a ninth grader,” etc.), but that they would be mainly symbolic and would not decide the level of classes you should take.

Authority Hierarchy in School
I definitely think that students need to get involved in decision-making on a deeper level, beyond simply being on an associated student government or student council. At the TEDx conference I organized last year, TEDxRedmond, several speakers (all of whom were under 18), spoke movingly on their opinions about education and certain ways their schools had supported and/or failed them.

In many countries, schools are preparing students to participate in a democratic environment; yet schools themselves tend to be extremely autocratic, with all high-level decisions being made by adults. Let students have a voice–use online technology to have students give constructive feedback to their teachers and school administrators. Implement student suggestions. Put students on school district boards. Allow students to help form curriculum and get their ideas on which assignments work best for them. Hold regular meetings where students are invited to speak to their school officials.

Online Learning
Every school district should have an online learning framework, so that “blended learning” (partially online, partially in-person) can be an option for students. Students could read more of the fact-based lesson material online, so that when they came to class in-person, time could be used on higher-order thinking skills like experiments, projects, and the like. A lot of excellent learning takes place when students are face-to-face with each other and a teacher, yet there are situations where students may not always be able to make it to class. Should students not be able to continue doing any of their work simply because of a school flu epidemic, school staff on strike, snow days, or absences?

Other obvious benefits of incorporating online learning:
– Teachers could post assignments, students could submit responses, and teachers could grade them, all online, without worrying about endless stacks of paper.
– Students could keep up with what was going on in class and see instant grade updates.
– Teachers could post multiple-choice tests, which can be easily computer-graded, online, and save themselves from the tedious work of checking multiple choice answers.
– Students could review materials from past lessons before a test.
– Teachers could easily post links and resources online for students to view.
– Parents could keep updated on what was happening in class.
– By using tools like Elluminate, Skype, GoToMeeting, chat, Google Voice, etc., teachers could easily stay in touch with students (particularly when students had questions).

As a student at an online public high school, I see my teachers using many of these tools. Many of my teachers have Google Voice as well as embeddable chat tools, so we can quickly get in contact.

Of course, like the “small” changes, all the “big” changes will cost money. Where will that come from?

Among other places, maybe by cutting some of the money that goes into competitive sports (could we make certain sports co-ed, for example?) They provide excellent opportunities for young people to exercise and learn, but do we really need so much expensive transportation for competitions, coaches, and sports gear? (Not to mention new research showing the dangers of certain sports, like football.) Besides, if you read my earlier “small” changes post, you’ll notice I mentioned bringing back recess and making PE a daily fifteen-minute class throughout every school year, making exercise routine and not necessarily competitive.

Finally, students should take international studies classes, since it’s often shocking how little Americans know about other countries. (Can you name all the provinces of Canada? Mexico’s president? Capital of Denmark?)

I know this post is quite long, and because of the extreme municipal-level management of schools, many of these changes are seemingly impossible. I’m hoping that we can work toward a better school system in the coming days and years.

About kima

Organizer: Father. Agent of change. I learn for a living. Curiosity is my passion. Writing is my dream. I believe in the value of social media as a way to meet new people and love double espresso as a way to feel warm with old friends ;-)


14 thoughts on “Adora Svitak on the “big” changes in education

  1. ah. the brilliance of Adora. so very glad to see this. thank you Kima.

    Adora, i esp like your view of age-based grade system, and your call out for more student voice, on a deeper level.

    thank you for all you are doing for education. especially for modeling such a kind heart every step of the way.

    Posted by monika hardy | February 25, 2011, 9:34 pm
  2. I showed my 6th and 7th grade dance student Adora’s video a few weeks ago. They were really inspired! I agree with most of what she’s saying here. I agree that age-based systems are confining and often end up holding more mature students back while dragging less mature students along. I also agree that technology is a great way to expand learning out of the classroom (just keeping in mind that even in 2011, there are many students who do not have regular access to computers outside of school). However, on the topic of competitive sports… this is tricky… As an artist, I am slow to eliminate any program that motivates students. Even though football is dangerous, many football programs pay for themselves in ticket sales, so it wouldn’t be fair to eliminate those programs based on budget. I would like to explore eliminating paper & pencil tests (not all, maybe just keep the ones at the end of the year). I would like to consider making schools more energy efficient to save costs on energy. I would like to consider having every central office employee substitute for a day – its win-win, save on substitutes and they get to remember what its really like in the classroom before they hand down more initiatives and PD on how to teach… I think we can cut out the parts of education that aren’t helping students, without eliminating the ones that keep them in school.

    Posted by dancecookie | February 26, 2011, 2:14 pm
  3. What a good start! Can you get her to do a guest post or to join the cooperative catalyst as a member! how great would that be!

    I would love to push her ideas even farther…. but these suggestion are very workable, and actually I would argue not cost any more money…just creativity and time.

    Thanks for bring this to us Kima!


    Posted by dloitz | February 27, 2011, 4:19 am
  4. Hi Adora,

    You have some good observations about changing the education system. Your observation that we would want to change the age-based system is particularly compelling, and a number of educators have proposed such a change. In fact, I think there are probably a few successful schools which have implemented your suggestions.

    I think I would like to push back a little on your final comment which suggests that students should still be grouped by age, but be allowed to take whatever they want. I think students should be in multi-age cohorts, much like the houses of the Hogworts school, which would give the advantage of each person feeling they still belong to part of a group, but also have older peers to assist them when necessary. In the Hogwort’s groupings, students are grouped according to internal attributes (difficult to do in a school setting…for obvious reasons) and then move in grades. However, I think we can all see that Harry Potter would have benefited a lot from being able to join the upper grades in the study of the Dark arts…so even Hogwart’s doesn’t go far enough.

    Alan November once relayed a story during a keynote of the one room school house, which he suggested was still the most successful (and completely underutilized) system of educating students in the United States. I wonder if your vision looks somewhat like this? Imagine the one-room school house, with multi-age groupings, supported with online learning, and real world authentic learning! What a fantastic opportunity that would be.

    Thanks for sharing your post Adora.

    Posted by dwees | February 27, 2011, 11:31 am
  5. I wanted to weigh in with my own comments too. (Unfortunately my health has had some ups and downs lately so I’m a bit late to offer my thoughts, but I hope to see more discussion going on!)

    Adora, at first, I would like to apologize to you for not being entirely true to myself and instead of asking yourself for permission to repost, I went to your mom instead! I know you both are very close, but that doesn’t give me the right not to do what I am passionate about with my own kids and are promoting through my own blog, this blog and elsewhere — which is emphasizing the importance of empowering kids from as young age as possible! I should know better next time! 😉

    The reason why I brought this post to this group was your intuition about the relationship (or lack of) between the age and the grade levels! I can’t agree more that the current system is set-up for those in the “middle” and the rest suffer. What particularly made it a compelling argument in your post was the honest assessment that while you may excel at reading and writing, your math is not at the same level — thus leading to the suggestion that even the current way of dealing with “gifted” students by expecting them to excel at all subjects at the same time is flawed. I was personally uneasy with the “gifted” idea — my daughter learned to read just before her 4th birthday (and is now up till midnight in her bed devouring all Garfield cartoons she can lay her hands on) so the thought have come to us — and your article made it clear why my intuition was right!

    I agree with David about the multi-age cohorts and believe that your argument about keeping the age-grouping needs re-thinking. (I wonder if you feel this way for similar reasons as those stated by your friend Priya on your blog when she says “I could see some self-esteem issues cropping up…”?)

    I like the way some of the activities my own daughter (almost 7) is taking, in particular swimming and ice skating, where the idea of “multi-age cohorts” and “grade-levels” seems to be working very well (with some practical wisdom from the instructors as you shall see below).

    The swimming lessons are grouped into cohorts: Preschool (3 – 5), Swim Kids (6 – 12), Teen (13 – 18), and each cohort has several skill-based levels (e.g. Swim Kids has 10 different levels.) Based on her age and her skills, my daughter belongs to Swim Kids level 3, along with kids who are a year or two older than her. When it comes to ice skating, where the organization in cohorts and levels is similar, she is far more advanced and belongs to Child level 5 (out of 7) — as you can imagine, at this level the age difference is even bigger and she’s there with some 9 and 10 years old kids.

    While I think the age cohorts have merits, the problem with any kind of age grouping is dealing with those kids at the boundaries — just because someone is 5 it doesn’t mean they can’t learn with 6 and 7 years old kids and vice versa, the abilities (and sensibilities) of some 6 and 7 years old kids may make them more comfortable learning together with 5 years old kids. This is where the wisdom of the instructors come into play and I am happy to know at least one ice skating instructor who seems to understand this very well. In September 2009, my daughter (5 and a half at the time) entered ice skating Preschool level 4. Her instructor immediately noticed that she is a strong skater — and she is quite bigger for her age too so she sticks out 😉 — so she proposed that she moves to Kids level 2 instead. As you can imagine that boost my daughter’s confidence, so she quickly nailed both level 2 and 3 before her 6th birthday, but more importantly, it built a relationship with that instructor and she’s now seeking her out every time we go to public skating together to show her what new trick she learned. 😉

    (A quick comment to the principals that may be reading my comment — I believe the example above is not only about practical wisdom, but also about empowering the instructor/teacher in making their own decisions how to support the kids’ learning!)

    I also like the idea of hybrid learning that combines classroom time with online learning. I realize that not everyone may have access to the online learning tools at home, but this is where the schools can make a real difference by opening the doors to all kids and their parents to use some of the facilities past the regular working hours. I know this requires some practical thinking, but some of us here were already thinking along the lines of merging the community centres and the schools in order to turn them into community learning hubs that are both economically viable and offer more than each of those institutions can do separately. This assume no meaningless homework, though, so the kids can engage in learning activities past the classroom hours, but that’s a big discussion that merits its own post! 😉

    Thanks so much for offering your thoughts about changing the education. I hope the NEA Award have given you an ability to raise the voice of the students and allow more and more kids to contribute with their own feedback about changing the education system!

    Posted by kima | February 27, 2011, 12:54 pm
    • Hey Kima,

      Is there a way to get Adora over here to comment our blog…. I saw she cross posted on Huffington Post :)….

      I think maybe we should make this a featured conversation also!


      Posted by dloitz | March 1, 2011, 3:43 pm
      • Thanks for making this a featured post David! I would expect Adora to weigh in soon.

        I was glad to see the Huffington Post article evolved since this post and some of the feedback from here seems to have influenced the newer version, which was one of my goals — to help Adora with focused feedback from our group as while HP is great for visibility, it is hard to weed out the useful comments from the large number posts usually get there as the audience is so broad.

        I hope she’ll take the opportunity to do a guest post in the future too! 😉


        Posted by kima | March 2, 2011, 3:58 am
  6. Although I agree with the just of it, there are some things I question.

    Such as the example with football. Although it seems that language seems to be your (Adora’s) area of focus, mine would be more science aligned, and others may aim to obtain a more fine arts education or a more motor education. I don’t know if cutting down on these other areas of funding to benefit the academic subjects that we seem to value more would be fair to these other students.

    And on the international studies classes, I can see where you’re coming from, but as a Canadian, I know that many of us cannot name all of our provinces either. And then I must wonder, is it really that important? For the people to whom it is relevant, they will realize these places over time. For people who never need to know them, is it really important that they know them for the sake of knowing them?

    Posted by Tyler | February 27, 2011, 1:00 pm
  7. Adora, would you consider joining us as a commenter and guest blogger? We would love to have you here. We need you.

    Posted by Kirsten | February 27, 2011, 6:37 pm
  8. I second Kirsten’s invitation, Adora –

    I think you have clearly envisioned readiness grouping at school; how would you change instruction – or teaching – rather than grouping, to allow for different kinds of success, expression, and advancement at school?

    All the best,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | March 1, 2011, 9:07 pm
  9. Hello Kima,
    I am a student in EDM310 at The University of South Alabama.It is surprising that a 13 year old posted this blog. She is a very impressive young woman. I agree that there are some problems with this style of grouping. I assume this practice is intended to keep students at the same educational level as their peers, but if they are gifted then they should be allowed to reach their full potential in higher level classes. Concerning students input in their education, Students’ input can positively help form better curriculum and create lessons and assignments that reflect each students needs and interests.Her discussion of Online Learning reminds me of the positive uses of Podcasts. Similar to podcasts, online learning allows students to access information when they are unable to attend class.

    My complete response can be found on my blog, and I can be reached on Twitter @NicoleWilson2. Thanks for the post, I enjoyed it.

    Posted by Nicole Wilson | March 1, 2011, 11:25 pm
    • Hey Nicole,

      I am not surprised at all that a 13 years old could write this article as I firmly believe that all kids are capable of doing amazing things, but they stop doing so after the combined pressure to comply — coming from the school, their parents and the community — turns them into us: unwilling to take initiative, fearing failure and valuing answers over questions being one of the key characteristics most of us share.

      I had a chance to meet some extraordinary kids so far and interview them at so you can see why I think kids have the capacity to do great things outside the age box we pin on them.

      I think this quote from best describes my own feelings on this topic:

      “Preschool children, on average, ask their parents about 100 questions a day. Why, why, why—sometimes parents just wish it’d stop. Tragically, it does stop. By middle school they’ve pretty much stopped asking. It’s no coincidence that this same time is when student motivation and engagement plummet. They didn’t stop asking questions because they lost interest: it’s the other way around. They lost interest because they stopped asking questions.“

      Thanks for taking the time to provide your thoughts and for reviewing Adora’s post on your own blog!


      Posted by kima | March 2, 2011, 4:12 am
    • Nicole, I would argue that school looks at too narrow a band of skills to recognize many of our talents, interests, passions, and strengths, so we shouldn’t just look for opportunities for the “gifted” kids to get out of their peer groupings; we should do away with peer groups and see what happens when schools allow kids to learn and master new content and skills by following their interests, rather than their teachers orders.

      All the best,

      Posted by Chad Sansing | March 2, 2011, 2:08 pm
  10. what i love about Sugata Mitra, he brought in resources and then left for 3 months at a time. we have such trouble giving up that management piece. in all forms.

    James Bach tells of un-schooling his own son. he says his philosophy was to just do what he loved as close to his son as he could. i’m thinking if we could model more learning along with our kids, that would be much more contagious and natural. however, that often means random, multi-directional, untimely, unexpected ahas.

    David Wiley recently said during a Future of Ed interview with Steve Hargadon, we could be educating the world right now, policy is holding us back.

    i love Adora’s title: humanitarian. that simple shift would make all the difference. we’re green about so many things. let’s be green about people. it’s really not rocket science. though, stripping away our assumed structure and policy could/would/should improve rocket science, no?

    Posted by monika hardy | March 2, 2011, 10:21 pm

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