Nobody knows ahead of time how long it takes anyone to learn anything

Ruminations on the AMLE conference October 2015

I attended and presented at the national AMLE conference October 2015. Over the past couple of years I have been working more with middle level (note the proper use of terminology here!) amle representeducators at my own school, at our professional develop academy, Kupu Hou Academy ( and with other activities I do throughout the state. I thought it would be worthwhile to share our work in developing meaningful projects as well as get a better sense of the emerging consensus, issues and challenges in middle level education. On our own campus we have seen dramatic shifts in professional learning communities and a real change in philosophy – more teaming, less emphasis on textbook with lower level learning and more on challenging long term projects.
When we started the MPX program in 2010 there was a lack of coordination between our middle and high in both explaining and shaping kid’s options as they moved into the high school. I was hoping I would get a little more insight, therefore in these areas and more….
Boy did I get that!

One of the things I heard from folks coming in was to make sure to see Rick Wormeli, one of the champions and leading voices and expert on the issues of middle school. I saw Rick’s keynote, and went to two sessions – one on standards based grading and one on redo’s and retakes. He was provocative, funny as hell, passionate, energetic and most importantly intellectually insistent on a many issues that we are in the midst of in our high school and middle school. His work covers a wide range of issues but I want to focus on  2 here:
– measuring and reporting student outcomes
– the philosophy about reaching mastery/proficiency

The past few years we have been working with Sandra Herbst and Anne Davies on our campus this year to better align our assessment practices and reach a better understanding of both what and how we assess learning. Rick’s sessions really zeroed in on this same work and reinforced and broadened my thinking in this regard. In a nutshell, if we a lead on what our learning targets are, our assessment (including the report or grade)  for a student MUST be based on whether they have attained that goal. That sounds simple enough, but most of us spend a lot of time building up other measures of student work, behaviors and actions – homework, practice problems, attendance and attitude even. NONE of these are typically listed in our learning outcomes but they become a significant part of a student’s grade. So we often end up in education with two scenarios
– a kid doesn’t do the compliance work over the course of a semester but can demonstrate proficiency – but their grade is not reflective of that and…
– a student who does all the work, but in the end still has not reached a proficient level but is moved on because their grade is in part on “trying hard”.

Neither of these assessment practices (or classroom design 
features) are intellectually honest or in the best interests of the child. Just as importantly, there should be every opportunity to allow a learner to show what they know through a wide range of assessment options (are they able to explain it orally well, and maybe not write it as well? Can they show it by doing it in action?). We typically in education only allow for one mode of assessment (the classic example the multiple choice test) when we KNOW that instrument already favors some kinds of learners over others.

This also lends itself to the challenge of how much time we give students to reach proficiency. If the final report from the school is a measure of what the student can know and do, the simple argument is that they should be given as many opportunities to show that proficiency until that report has to be final. If a student can show in December that they masted a concept that in August they struggled with isn’t it fair and honest to give them credit, even if it is inconvenient to reassess? There was a beautiful TED talk shared that illustrates this point from physicist and skateboarder Dr Tae:

His best line: no one knows how long it will take anyone to learn anything. 

How does this play out in a student’s life? Let me give you the most egregious example in my professional life, which I hope will change. In most schools if a student fails a class like geometry they need to retake it. The grade (let’s say it was an F) goes on their transcript. If they get a B the second time, that goes on their transcript as well. The F however, stays. WHY? If the report if truly about what they learned, the only grade that should count is the B. I have known this to be true a long time, but it is still revelatory – it challenges and exposes some very ugly truths about what the grade really means on a typical report card. I could go on about this topic, but Rick shared a writing in response to push back on this idea that does a far better job then I here:

On another topic, my session on “designing meaningless projects” Slide deck Here:

went very well – it was not surprising to hear the are lots of schools trying and struggling with implementing powerful appropriate deeper learning experiences (pbl being one common variant of this). Lots of people agree it is the right way to go, know what they are shooting for but lack the time and the resources and most importantly (in my opinion) the structure/framework to get there. Our work with Kupu Hou Academy  has helped us refine the language and support to move teachers along the process. I hope the teachers I met with at the conference find these resources helpful in their quest.
There was lots more of incredible conversations and topics at the conference that will leave a lasting impact on my work. But the last thing worth mentioning for this post is the beautifully crafted “in this we believe” document that. AMLE has developed to support their work towards a better middle level experience for all.


Looking at the 16 characteristics, it is hard not to agree with what they say about what good learning environments (ok, let’s call it school) should be at EVERY level – not just middle. The real work is in implementing it. In much the same way that faithful go to their place of worship to strengthen their faith and reaffirm their beliefs, conferences like AMLE serve much the same purpose. The real challenge for a person of faith is living your faith every day. The real challenge for schools and their staff is much the same – we need to live these values and put them into place because they are the truest expression of what “we believe”.