Ban the average. Design to the edges. Nurture talent.

Most days, at some point in the day, I am prompted to think about a Sir Ken Robinson quote that goes basically like this:

School should concentrate on identifying “How are you smart?” instead of concentrating on “How smart are you?”

This morning, as I watched Todd Rose’s TEDxSonomaCounty talk “The Myth of Average,” I was again reminded of Sir Ken’s challenge to all of us school people. As Rose detailed a U.S. Air Force issue and used it as an entry analogy for school, I pictured, among other things, the traditional school report card, filled with subject-area course titles and numerical averages listed to the right of each.

I am increasingly uncomfortable with that progress monitoring construct. At the very least, shouldn’t our progress reports disaggregate the averages and make visible the essential criteria, traits, and characteristics that we say we hold dear in a person’s learning and schooling. If content knowledge or mastery is a critical component in one’s school, then by all means report on it. But don’t skew the report by boiling together all of the dials and gauges that belong as separate meters on the proverbial dashboard. If work ethic, as represented by certain observable traits, is a critical component, then give it it’s own dial on the dashboard. And let the previously mentioned content knowledge component be a truer indicator of that unencumbered domain. And if classroom participation and collaboration are critical components, then allow them to be visible well beyond wondering what that “Math….88” means, in all it’s jumbled complexity, on a semi-annual report card that may have actually outlived its usefulness, given our more modern means of communication, digital exchange, and 2.0 capabilities.

Yesterday, I was privileged to be in a professional learning session with Jeff Moore of Moore Leadership and the Striver Quotient. Moore explained that Strivers feel an almost continuous sense of “incompleteness” – that they find it reasonable to be in an “uncomfort zone” as they strive to make things better and to make themselves better. Also, yesterday, I was blessed to be a part of the Innovation Diploma team as they worked through their Gallup Strengths Finder results, as individuals and the collective team (see here and here), with Ed Psychologist and Strengths Coach Elizabeth Payne.

Those threads of striving and building strengths are wonderfully tangling together for me with Sir Ken’s quote, Todd Rose’s ban-the-average-and-design-to-the-edges message, and my near 40-year history with the traditional report card. What if we designed progress monitoring systems – whole, coherent systems – that more fully demonstrated what we value in learners and want to make visible for further striving and strengths finding?

Moore also shared that Strivers are motivated by a purpose that transcends winning. Well, I’d love to work the progress monitoring system with a team of other strivers who see the immediate and critical need to ban the average and design to the edges – for the benefit of helping all of our learners see more fully how they are smart, rather than worrying about how smart they are.

A 21st century framework for designing student success and demonstrating student mastery requires Mount Vernon to develop a [v]igorous, relevant, and innovative learning and assessment map for each student…. (from Mount Vernon Presbyterian School’s (i)Plan17)


Hat tip to Lawrence Smith, at St. Paul’s School, for sending me the Todd Rose TEDx talk and sparking this morning’s reflective writing for me.

Assessments that overvalue and undervalue – what are we doing about them?

I’ve changed my routine for watching TED talks. Because I have pivoted from viewing one a day, I watch a few on the weekends. As I was “catching up” this morning, Susan Etlinger’s talk, “What do we do with all this big data?,” stopped me in my tracks.

He was teaching himself to communicate, but we were looking in the wrong place, and this is what happens when assessments and analytics overvalue one metric — in this case, verbal communication — and undervalue others, such as creative problem-solving. Communication was hard for Isaac, and so he found a workaround to find out what he needed to know. And when you think about it, it makes a lot of sense, because forming a question is a really complex process, but he could get himself a lot of the way there by putting a word in a search box.

I am thinking a lot recently about assessment, progress reports, and how we communicate about what we most deeply value in schools. Etlinger poses such a powerful challenge: “This is what happens when assessments and analytics overvalue one metric and undervalue others.”

What are we overvaluing and undervaluing on our school progress reports? If we look at our students’ report cards, do they express what we most deeply value? Across the city, state, country, and world, we should be deeply involved in resolving such a question.

My main blog’s 2013 in review – and a brief spur of reflection on “report cards”

While I am fascinated, in some ways, with analytics like the one below emailed to me from WordPress, I can’t help but think that “the numbers” only tell part of the story for me – a minor fraction. They certainly don’t tell the most compelling parts of the story, in my opinion. Not by any stretch.

So much more than the number of views or most-read posts, I care about HOW the writing-as-thinking represented here has changed me, and, hopefully, how it has potentially helped change others.

In this regard, such analytics and report cards make me think about what our school report cards lack and suffer from, as story tellers. If I look at my collection of report cards, I see mostly quantitative analytics – proxies for some measurement of my learning and development. Inadequate dashboards claiming to summarize me as a learner of math, English, science, economics, etc.

Perhaps these quantitative measures must play a part in telling my learning story. I’m not convinced. But certainly, we in education can devise better proxies for telling the stories of human development, deep learning, and awe-inspiring growth.

+ + +

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 26,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 10 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

CHANGEd: What if students self-assessed more and initiated progress reporting? 60-60-60 #28

I know what it’s like to be “talked around.” You know, when others discuss your strengths and/or shortcomings, but they leave you out of the conversation…the one who needs to be involved the most is more “third party.” When school progress reports initiate with adult-to-adult conversation, I wonder if we are talking around our students. What if students self-assessed more and initiated progress reporting? What if the driver’s-seat learners took the wheel and posted updates about how they are performing relative to the learning standards? What if teachers and parents then JOINED the conversation started by the lead learner in the equation? I bet the long-term benefits would be profound!

CHANGEd: What if…60-60-60 Project Explained

Empowering and Guiding Students to Take Charge of Assessment – Synergy 8 Example

For many, many years, at school “marking periods,” I have written narrative comments regarding eighth-grade student progress. Typically, these comments have been summative and brief in nature. They generally covered work habits, class-participation trends, and performances on quizzes and tests. When I completed such a comment, I recorded my progress report in a school database, where it was reviewed and proofed by a grade-level administrator. Then, after about a week, the comments were sent – now emailed – home to parents.

When we (Jill Gough and Bo Adams) inaugurated Synergy 8 in 2010-11, we decided to use this non-departmentalized, non-graded, community-issues, problem-solving course to run some “pracademic” experiments in a number of areas, including assessment and student-progress reporting. Now, instead of an adult (teacher) writing a static comment to another adult (parent), the Synergy 8 students utilize moderated journaling to prepare their self-assessment reports. The student learners take primary responsibility for preparing their reflections about their own learning and growth. The student learners initiate the communication of this self-generated progress report to their parents, their teacher-facilitators, their grade chairs, and their director of studies. Before the published draft is sent, student learners peer review other team member’s reports, and they engage in a series of iterative prototypes, enhancements, and revisions.

The student learners “live” at various stages of maturity regarding their capacity to self-assess and initiate their own progress-report discussion with adults. BUT…they are practicing this incredibly vital, life-long skill of evaluating their own learning, performance, skill development, and growth. They are precipitating virtual, student-led conferences when they send their reports to the adults who serves as guides and coaches. Unlike the database-housed comments of the past, these student-based comments stir responses from their parents and the adults at school to whom they write. During the course, we see growth and progress in EVERY student’s capacity to engage in such self-assessment and progress reporting, and we believe this is a critical skill to develop at this middle-school age.

Obviously, because of the relatively private nature of such progress reporting, I cannot publish one of the student samples here. However, I am pasting below what now goes in the school database, so that you can see additional context about this student-centered way of reporting progress, learning, and growth.

From Midterm Marking Period (Friday, October 14, 2011):

Since we last wrote to you, the Synergy 8 Team has been hard at work, engaged in the KP Challenge. At the same time, we have been focused on communications, presentation, and design. Additionally, our team members have collected almost 300 community observations on a tool called Posterous. At this midterm, we will be transitioning from the KP Challenge alpha project to projects conceptualized and organized by the Synergy 8 student learners – projects that will be born from the Posterous observation journals. Expect more project news and updates as those projects get underway.

At the first-interim marking period, Mr. Adams and Ms. Gough concluded their comment this way:

“As we dig deeper into our projects and learning rubrics, you can expect more information coming to you. Much of the assessment will be relative to the “essential learnings” expressed on the course logo – the Synergy 8 Light Bulb and Gears ( At the midterm, you can expect more self-assessment from YOUR CHILD, and Ms. Gough and Mr. Adams will provide more feedback from their seats, as well.”

Working intensely and introspectively for the past two weeks, our Synergy 8 members have been preparing a “bright-spot” reflection regarding each person’s deepest learning. YOUR CHILD will be presenting that evidence-based, essential-learning story to you soon. You can view a short movie (, password: provided only to parents and school personnel due to new school policy) to see an overview of our approach, and you can access the originating rubric ( from which the stories emerged. As you receive an email summary from YOUR CHILD, Mr. Adams and Ms. Gough will respond to that communication so that all of us – student-learner, teacher-facilitator, and parents – can engage in a discussion about YOUR CHILD’s learning and growth.


From 1st Interim Marking Period (Friday, September 14, 2011):

When Ms. Gough and Mr. Adams conceptualized Synergy 8, we envisioned an interdisciplinary, problem-based course rooted in student-directed inquiry. Now that the course is underway, we increasingly desire to share responsibility from teacher to student, so that the eighth graders can practice being even more involved in their own learning – similar to the powerful, self-directed learning that children engage in before and after formal, traditional schooling. Synergy 8 possesses many elements of experimental design, and progress reporting in a non-graded course is one such element. Ms. Gough and Mr. Adams expect Synergy 8 students to take a more active role in the assessment and evaluation of their own learning and growth. Therefore, you can expect your child to send you more information about Synergy 8 and his/her experience thus far. At this marking period, you should have already received a progress report via email.

As we dig deeper into our projects and learning rubrics, you can expect more information coming to you. Much of the assessment will be relative to the “essential learnings” expressed on the course logo – the Synergy 8 Light Bulb and Gears ( At the midterm, you can expect more self-assessment from YOUR CHILD, and Ms. Gough and Mr. Adams will provide more feedback from their seats, as well.

[Cross-posted at Experiments in Learning by Doing]