These Misconceptions Are Keeping School in the 1960’s

Voices from the Field   25 February 2016
By Shawn Cornally

This post originally appeared in ThinkThankThunk

AS I FROTH THROUGH THIS POST BELIEVING I AM IMPORTANT, I’d like to remind myself that this is the Hubble deep field and each of those is an entire freaking galaxy, so, scope, Shawn.


I’m angry because the system of schools is based on fear—fear from parents that, without the repetitive yet ineffective experience of school, kids won’t be “successful;” fear from teachers that some magical administrator will judge their coverage of standard A.1.34.3; fear from students that we won’t validate their naive assumption that they’re an “A-student.”

No one is an “A-human.”

So, I’d like to share a few misconceptions that have come from the assessment crucible that is Iowa BIG.

Misconception #1

Colleges care what you cover in high school.

Nope. We gathered the admissions directors of the major institutions in Iowa, and guess what they said? Don’t worry about coverage, just make sure the student can think, handle adversity, and can ask a question without blushing. Also, bonus, it’d help if they had a passion for something other than just getting out of high school.

My favorite quote from a Regents admissions admin, “We have to reteach everything anyway, do you think even the best high schools from across the state align what they cover?”

Misconception #2

High school should make college easy.

Ha! This is the fake promise of every AP course (although not made by every AP teacher, please note the difference). The overlap between content in high school and content in college—in something even as well planned out as a physics major—is miniscule.

Misconception #3

Research paper-type assignments trump strategic communication in English.

Strat comm is the new English, deal with it. Recently one of my students was derided by their counselor for getting English credit at Iowa BIG. Her point was that the student needs more practice at writing MLA-style papers and 5-paragraph essays, rather than writing: press releases, constant emails to professionals, research summaries, website copy, and short pitches and speeches promoting her project. You pick.

Misconception #4

Computer programming comes after basic math instruction.

How many times can I link this? Being able to code software solutions is the new math. Algebra II died with the 17th century. Why? Because those techniques answer questions that are still questions, but computers answer them better and in more interesting ways. No, there’s no research showing that pre-calc II is somehow better quantitative weight lifting than anything else. So saddle up. I’d recommend using: Processing, Java, Jquery, and getting into the open source community with GitHub et al.


Strat comm is the new English, deal with it.

Shawn Cornally
Headmaster, Iowa BIG

Misconception #5

Economy of scale in student body size.

Grouping teenagers is a huge mistake. Not because they’ll, like, kiss and stuff but because the psychology of teens is deleterious in numbers. All of the hallmarks of adolescence: fear, identity finding, risk taking, pathological acceptance seeking; they all get amplified when there are more teens than adults in a group. In other words, almost every school. BIG has the luxury of being located in a business space. While our student to teacher ratio is 33:1, the building’s adult to minor ratio is often 1:1 or better. I cannot explain how this changes every type of student, from your burned out school-hater to your valedictorian; it re-norms them.

Misconception #6

More class time = more learning

This one surprised me, but it’d make a good Freakonomics chapter. In the chronic model of school, where students attend the same classes every day, the economic value of that class time is positive but low. Just like any high volume product, you tend to tolerate its existence and take it for granted, like apples or rice. Changing the economics so that traditional direct instruction time is available but is significantly rarified causes students and teacher to pack it better. Acute educational experiences are also easier to remember and easier to tie to emotional responses that get encoded in memory.

Misconception #7

Teachers can differentiate well on their own.

Man, there are a lot of teachers with ulcers. Somewhere along the way, we convinced every teacher that they’re the god of their classroom, and as that benevolent force, you have to create every experience for every kid. The combinatorics on that are obviously staggering. Utilizing a community-focused curriculum goes a long way into changing this. When the ideas for initiatives come from outside the school, and graduate from chintzy to economically valuable, suddenly the teacher can be free to respond to students instead of getting stuck on the low-creativity cycle of daily lesson planning.


Somewhere along the way, we convinced every teacher that they’re the god of their classroom, and as that benevolent force, you have to create every experience for every kid.

Shawn Cornally
Headmaster, Iowa BIG

Misconception #8

Grades motivate learning.

Grades motivate getting grades (and the contrapositive). That is all.

Misconception #9

Economics classes should be a semester long.

And by “Economics” I mean, look at every class you offer and decide how much con-tent is actually best delivered with direct instruction on chronic timing. There are a lot of students who can’t do simple supply and demand thinking because the semester had to be filled with wonky theory from the mercantilist era.

Misconception #10

You know what students need to know to be successful.

The most important thing about BIG is that we know we’re wrong. We don’t know what a student should know. We can’t predict the future. When working with a group, we allow the needs of the group to dictate the instruction and curated content we provide. This has two effects: I like my job and am happier, and the students are never hidden from the planning of learning.

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