Student Agency – Reflections on a TEDx with speaker Conrad Hughes

Conrad Hughes is a principal at Ecolint in Geneva, Switzerland. In Fall 2020 he founded the Coalition to Honour All Learning, a group of school leaders representing about 50 schools across the world, all interested in rethinking the high school transcript (and assessment in general). 

Here is a reflection on his TEDx talk, The Problem with Schools, from April 2021.

“We have a problem in schools. We have a big problem. And it’s the way that we assess students.”

I’ve argued elsewhere that we should indeed take a look at how often we assess, to what extent our assessments are comparisons of students used mostly to sort them into categories, and even the need for so much assessment in the first place. In practice, I’ve had a hand in creating three programs at an international school that de-emphasize summative grading in favor of frequent and informal feedback: the summer school, 5-week exploratory courses in the middle school, and high school courses which focus on 21st century skills first, traditional subject content second. 

So it’s no surprise, I guess, that Hughes’ TEDx caught my attention.

Hughes is particularly interested in how we report student learning, most importantly on the academic transcript. He believes that school reform, including the move towards a system that promotes creativity and passion, needs to focus squarely on how we report learning to universities. We’ve all heard someone say that what gets assessed gets taught. Hughes is saying that what gets reported is what gets taught. So let’s change the reporting.

Otherwise, so Hughes, we run a great risk of squeezing out valuable learning.

Hughes reports that students he talks to – and he makes it a point to talk to each and every student in his school – report that they have lots of things they like to do, but not enough time to do them. Those things not in the school curriculum get squeezed out. 

In the end, “we’ve created a system that drowns out creativity and passion.” And it only gets worse as students move through the grades, until “so much of what students want to do they can’t do anymore, because of the way that we’ve designed high school.”

Ultimately, Hughes warns that we need to be careful what message we are sending to students. To those we might call Curriculum Different due to their personal interests and creativity, be careful of sending the message: “This is not your place. Your star cannot shine here.”

Hughes has three recommended action items: “Redesign the high school transcript (see the Learner Passport), empower young people to take ownership of their learning, and spread the word (see the Coalition to Honour All Learning). 

Here is my contribution to his second action item, empower, which he also frames in terms of assessment. The credit system – our reporting system – needs to be constructed in a way that allows students to express themselves. How things get reported also influences what gets taught, because both what is reported and how it is reported affects the relative empowerment of students. So here’s an idea our research department has been playing with this year.

What if – and here I encourage you to think in terms of “yes and …” instead of “yes but …” at least part of the curriculum was built in such a manner that students had the time and energy to pursue their interests – those interests Hughes says so many students report they don’t have time for.*

Let faculty be available to support students – by listening to student ideas, asking questions, bringing students together, referring students to other teachers, and finding outside experts and resources to support students. But let the students do the work, explore, find their own deadends, network, learn how to learn, discover what learning is lifeworthy, collaborate with others… That’s what we ultimately want for them anyway, right? 

And then, and here is the gem we’ve been returning to again and again all year, once students have shown interest and learning and progress with a particular idea, project, or innovation, recognize that learning with a credit. In other words, turn our current process on its head. Instead of finding or thinking up a curriculum we think students might like, placing them in courses, and inviting (cajoling?) them to work on that curriculum, why not ask them to work on putting together their own curriculum (work that reflects their interests and strengths) and then, once that work seems to be coalescing into ongoing learning, granting it credit?

We don’t have a whole lot of traction yet, but we call our nascent effort Above & Beyond. We have a few students demonstrating that they can create their own learning. We have a student who extended her IB CAS project by teaching computer programming to others, a pastry chef continuing the business she created in a course two years ago, a student taking advantage of online medical school workshops, a couple of guys designing and selling hoodies, and a student who formed an investment club. I bet, if you are in a high school, you also have plenty of stories of students who are pursuing their own interests. 

Help them as much as you can. Give them some more space, some more time. And give them some credit for their effort. Even an official credit. Sure, they thought the curriculum up themselves, it wasn’t our plan for them. But isn’t that the nature of lifelong learning? Learning to pursue the things you think up yourself? Schools are a great place to practice that. Why not legitimize self-discovered learning in the same way we do with class content we select for students?

Keep the faith, Conrad. A coalition to honour all learning, indeed. Change the transcript. Change how we think about learning. Grant our students a whole lot more agency.

A special thanks to Andie Flett for conversations about turning the credit system on its head, and Andie, Steve Porter, and Tom Cosgrove for their work in Above & Beyond.

*There are of course schools who have gone all in with this philosophy. One of my favorites is Agora. Let us know of other examples in the comments.

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