Do we give our students enough credit? #WhatIfWeekly

Do we give our students enough credit?

What are the traits and characteristics that we hope students develop most deeply? What knowledge and understanding?

Certainly, those schools that have engaged in exercises like “Portrait of a Graduate” have wrestled with such considerations as an entire community. A number even work to structure program and experience in such ways that there is intentionality around the development of the graduate, not only the delivering of a curriculum.

Are these some of the attributes you would name?

  • Curiosity
  • Development of a passionate pursuit and constructive interest
  • Persistence and deep practice
  • Responsibility
  • Creativity
  • Multi-media communication skills and language competency
  • Enthusiastic connection with joy-producing activity
  • Autonomy and initiative
  • Scientific knowledge and understanding
  • Presentation capabilities

What do we credit?

Do all of the credits awarded by a school – to determine successful completion – have to be curated and generated by the school, and only by the school?

Certainly, when a student enters a school from another school, credits can be granted by the receiving school – credits that the student actually earned elsewhere, namely, the previous school.

Occasionally, at the school where I worked last, we awarded credit for summer study, particularly for programs earmarked “Talented” or “Gifted Youth.”

With the rising tide of Khan Academy, badgification, MOOCs, and online learning, surely the time is not too far away that a school will award a seventh grader or eleventh grader credit for completing a physics course via Coursera or Udacity or iTunes U.

Even independent study is not too far afield from what I’m about to ask next – I mean, many schools have systems for students pursuing “independent study.”

So what would it say about a school if the school granted credit for a body of work that a student created on his or her own? Something not originally located in the course catalog. With all of the talk and movement around “student-centered learning” and “student-directed learning,” I would hope and imagine that at least a few schools are contemplating how they might formally recognize student learning pursuits that don’t necessarily arise from the school itself as originator or curator.

Don’t we want to give credit to those students who can show evidence of developing the traits and characteristics named above, even if the body of work in the “course” was not created by a faculty member or administrator? Isn’t that the whole point in the first place – to nurture life-long learners who self-initiate curious pursuits of persistent development of brain cells and heart cells?

Three Quick Examples


When I moved back to Atlanta to teach middle school, a high schooler had converted his Ford truck to run on used cooking grease. He would go to local fast food stores and ask if he could transfer their waste grease to his tank in the back of his truck. He had modified his truck so that it was actually fueled by this recycled material.

Today, why would we not grant credit for such demonstrated learning?


A high school sophomore earned his student pilot’s license for single-engine aircraft. See one of the articles here. In addition to joyfully pursuing an interest, the accomplishment demonstrates admirable persistence, commitment, and strong knowledge in a variety of scientific topics.

What if the student could apply – if he wanted to do so – and receive credit for this work in a way that would result in its listing being included on a transcript?


Another high school sophomore writes, directs, produces, and hosts a cooking show called the SWAGourmet! Along with the multiple episodes bundled on YouTube, the SWAGourmet also maintains a blog, from which people can link to the show, request recipes, and connect to related news stories.

When I saw this former student of mine last December at a Sunday brunch, SWAGourmet was the first thing he mentioned when I asked how he was doing. I loved hearing that genuine and non-bragadocious pride in his voice. And, I now love following his work, thanks to his multi-media  sharing.

Anticipated Criticism

“But if we absorb that personal-hobby stuff into the credit system, we’ll set a precedent we don’t want to be burdened with. We’ll have to credit anything and everything.”

“Making it for-credit will remove some of the joy from the activity. You know, Bo, not everything has to earn quantified credits.”

“Does that mean that students could forego the course requirements in the course catalog and replace or substitute the entire curriculum with their personal interests? You’ve lost your mind, Adams.”

“Sure, Bo, and we’ll give credit for going to the bathroom, too. And holding the door open for someone… and taking out the trash. … No, that’s not ‘school’ and it shouldn’t be.”

“But what about the NCAA clearinghouse? What about the colleges and universities? They don’t want to see such ‘soft’ work on the transcripts. We’d never get that passed.”

I’m sure there are other criticisms. Those above are just the ones I’ve already heard from actual educators as I brought up the topic in casual conversation – as I was just pursuing my own curiosity.

Yes, and…!

And there were others that loved the idea. They immediately started to think about how such a system could work in conjunction with the current offerings – just like MOOCs, online academy offerings, summer credit, independent studies, etc.

The dreamers seemed to believe that by organizing such a system – granting credit for work not included in a school’s official course catalog – a school community could communicate to students that their self-curated learning and persistent pursuits MATTER. Such a hybrid could show students that their voices and myriad interests can equally contribute to the development of those “Portrait of a Graduate” traits and characteristics. One person I spoke to even suggested that a committee of faculty, parents, admin, and students formulate the process by which a school could launch such a program.

And we all enjoy getting a little credit, now and then, for things that we are excited about doing and becoming, don’t we?



13 thoughts on “Do we give our students enough credit? #WhatIfWeekly

  1. Pingback: QUILT POST: One patch… “we need to change our present concept of education” – Wendell Berry | it's about learning

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  3. Bo, here’s one more student to add to you list: Superawesome Syliva, an 11 year old who just met the President. I’ve watched a few of the videos, and they’re amazing—better than much of the science coursework I’ve seen (and taught). This is clearly a student that independent schools would easily arm wrestle each other to enroll, but at the same time Gary Stager’s post on how many teachers and schools aren’t worthy of students with her gifts makes me wonder whether a school giving credit for her obviously incredible work that has already drawn national recognition is just a school trying to gain a bit of credit for itself via association.

    • Thanks, John. The first link took me to a game theory piece – loved it, but it wasn’t about Superawesome Sylvia. I love the Gary Stager piece. It’ll be in the #MustRead shares on Sunday for sure.

      I so appreciate your perspective and additions, as always. Great to hear from you! I know what you mean about the potential school motives. However, I am thinking more and more about NUDGE – small steps that can cause big shifts. It seems to me that granting credit for passionate, vigorous work by students “outside of school” is a nudge step toward schools being more holistic about their education of the whole person. If we believe in those portrait of a graduate exercises, then we should be more willing to acknowledge the acquiring of those traits even if they come from formalized work “outside the curriculum.” Know what I mean?

      • Bo, here’s the corrected link to Superawesome Sylvia. I’m still thinking about your other point. I agree that it’s a nudge, and one I’d love to make, but I don’t see how it fits within the existing structure of most schools.

    • I’m not completely trying to “fit within the existing structure of most schools.” Part of my role, I think, is to encourage us to challenge the existing structure of most schools. In fact, NAIS and the Commission on Accreditation seem to have challenged and charged us to do that for years. (These are points from my talk last week, and I may not be providing adequate context here.)

  4. Sounds fun! What if we invited them to co-lead, co-create, co-teach a class where they shared their expertise, or in the case of the boy and his truck, explore social entrepreneurship models and concepts that could impact the world positively. It could even fit under the current rigid and boring (oops, did I say that?) scheduling. A little shifting in the budget would be required, but I think it is possible.
    So many schools now have a broadcasting program, where they do “News”, why not give up the rigid, boring control (oops there it is again!) and have a more interesting and sensory-based line of options. It would be an amazing way for young people outside the US to learn English in an interesting and developmentally appropriate context. Not to mention, it is a great opportunity to positively influence younger people on eating habits and personal responsibility.
    Finally, designing, prototyping and testing airplane models (on a smaller scale, of course) would be a great way to honor the pilot’s knowledge. (This one is trickier…)
    While giving them credit is a terrific first step, joining them in their passion, inviting them to share their expertise, exploring it and furthering it together, while mentoring them to lead with impact keeps their passion, dedication and interests alive.

    • Lisa, I love your ideation and enthusiastic thinking here. Thank you. And I appreciate your additions about joining them, inviting them, exploring, furthering, and mentoring.

      Just to clarify, I didn’t see giving them credit as a first step, but as a consequence of them creating a plan of action to incorporate their “outside” efforts as “school learning.” However, I’m now thinking about the standards that you raise and how we apply such standards to the current school-curated work. Do we expect that kind of vigor from the students in their current school-based work? You’ve raised some interesting questions for me based on the juxtaposition.

      Loved meeting you in person on Friday.

      • Hi Bo,
        I didn’t mean to shorten your wonderful idea to a “first step”, I apologize. What I meant to imply was that we need that “ecosystem synergy” where everyone contributes and benefits from the energy created, where everyone’s input is needed for the ecosystem to thrive and survive. If the student’s cannot factor into the equation in making school “cool”, they will go and thrive in another ecosystem where they are able to chase their passions. Likewise, if teachers cannot grow into a new role alongside the students, the current model of governance will be perpetuated.

        Really enjoyed your presentation and meeting you as well!

    • The power of dialogue is that we can reach deeper shared understanding through exchange! No worries about shifting or shortening an idea. Challenges or re-articulations of an idea lead to better ideas, if we remain open minded in the exchange. You always seem to do that. Thank you.

      I agree with your thoughts about the ecosystem (syn)energy and the power of contributory participation. Often, when people are overcoming the inertia of an existing system, they need to feel invited and encouraged to put forth their contributions – rather than assuming the cultural norm is in place that “I am just supposed to sit and get.” I certainly want to point to and move toward a system that fosters and desires people (students and teachers… and others) bringing their passions and interests into school. In a more integrated way that connects personal pursuits and curriculum. I think curriculum comes from Latin for “track.” Maybe we need to move to curriculum vitae in schools – track of life content that weaves together curiosity, creativity, passions, and content tracks.

      Thanks for thinking with me on this. With the “What If” series that I started with 60 posts in 60 days last year, I mean to spur bigger thinking – and with practical changes that could be implemented immediately. I think this entry is being made better with your riffs.

  5. Obviously, I agree, Bill. In this particular case, it just seems that so many bridges are already constructed, or, at least, scaffolded. It would not be a big leap, and we could learn so much from integrating these types of self-regulated learning from/with our students.

    Enjoyed seeing you Friday at SAIS.

  6. I like to think of why and how we can do this, rather than creatively devise reasons for not at (the very) least sliding in this direction. We ask students to take risks. We can be smart professionals and adults by modeling risks at our levels of responsibility. Let’s intelligently, respectfully invent–based on acknowledged shared values–rather than un-invent or dis-invent.

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