Sandy’s take on why to teach autonomy, how to get Common Core right, and the origin of joy and despair.

Last week’s post included Sandy Merz’s musings on teacher-driven change. This second half of the interview focuses on how to teach autonomy, Sandy’s take on the Common Core, and the origin of joy and despair in his identity as a teacher.

Special thanks to the remarkable educator Bill Ivey for taking this exchange deeper with his thought-provoking questions and insights over the past month.


What is your philosophy/approach to teaching 21st Century/non-cognitive abilities like creativity, ingenuity, perseverance, and collaboration? 

I think autonomy (which didn’t make your list) is the critical skill for long-term success and fulfillment. My approach is to provide broad spectra of content and means of access so that kids can find out for themselves what they’re good at and what they like to do.

I’ve written (here, here, and here) about the impact that the Arizona K-12 Center’s Lesson2Life has had on my outlook to the questions you ask.

Specifically, In Drive Time Musings – Do Soft Skills Belong in the Common Core, I asked, rhetorically:

Who is better prepared for college or a career: The candidate who can solve a really hard math problem, or the candidate with integrity and a positive demeanor who listens, adapts, collaborates, and can also solve a really hard math problem?

I give my students maximum autonomy in their projects so that creativity, ingenuity, perseverance, and collaboration become an implicit requirement.

Here’s an example. I wanted an introductory project for my new engineering students this semester and thought a poster about engineering would do nicely. Normally, instructions would read: “Working in groups of three create a poster that lists the kinds of engineering, the education of engineers, four great engineering accomplishment, …” A check-list rubric would include parameters like the number of pictures, sources, and the like by which I’d assess the projects.

But this semester each table had two big sheets of paper with “Engineering” written across the top, two computers, and a set of art supplies. On the board I wrote, “More is better, share the computers and materials.”

Almost everything I would have required appeared on some poster somewhere.  And as I hoped a lot of surprising things happened, one group did a poster on materials engineering, a student (working alone) listed the skills – including creativity and collaboration that an engineer needs (instead of the education), a final group struck close to my heart by writing “Process the Question” prominently on their poster.

Teaching like this requires a kind of engagement from me that I’m not close to mastering. How can I assess “More is Better”? And what about follow up and feedback? Students did a gallery walk and answered questions like, “What would you do next if you were working on this poster?” But that was hardly an adequate reflection. And don’t students ever benefit most from direct instruction?

Yet my philosophy is that finding a sweet spot between my content’s canon, maximum student autonomy, direct instruction, and meaningful assessment is a challenge worth meeting.


Many teachers support the Common Core because they believe it brings greater rigor as well as greater coherence across schools, districts, and states. Other teachers have expressed fears that common standards will lead to standardization that suppresses creativity, love of learning, and professional autonomy. A blog post I wrote earlier this year, Is Common Core the Enemy of Autonomy?, laid out my own view and elicited a firestorm of criticism.

From your perspective, does Common Core do more good or harm?

I’m a cautious supporter of the Common Core. The academic standards certainly raise the bar on what’s expected of teachers and students. If, in some future year, even half of my students can pass tests like those on the Smarter Balanced web site, they will be far ahead, academically, of where they are now.

But it’s far too early to know if, taken as a whole, the Common Core does more good than harm. One of my conservative friends has it about right. In conception, he says, it’s pretty benign. What he and I worry about is the execution.

One irony in the debate is that the most aggressive arguments for and against the Common Core don’t need the Common Core to come true.

Does the profession really need the federal and commercial coercion attendant to the Common Core to bring greater rigor and coherence to curriculum across schools, districts, and states? Can’t those aims be met through professional conferences, research, and me in Arizona paying attention to you in Arkansas?

On the other hand, any governing body can handcuff the creativity and innovation of members in the bodies over which it has authority. A school district, for example, can impose a scripted curriculum on its students easier than the Department of Education can.

A second irony is the alignment of the Left and the Right regarding parts of the debate such as federal intrusion into local authority and whether the federal government is capable of rolling out such a massive program. Even NEA president Dennis Van Roekel wrote recently, “I am sure it won’t come as a surprise to hear that in far too many states, implementation has been completely botched.”

Another example, illustrated by the unlikely pair of Diane Ravitch and Michelle Malkin (writing separately), would be objections to private entities (like Smarter Balanced) acquiring vast power over our students’ privacy and for commercial gain.


What advice would you give to administrators, legislators, and policymakers about ensuring that Common Core is implemented in a way that benefits students?

I’d give two pieces of advice to administrators, legislators, and other policy makers. First, slow down and go small. Baby steps. Start with a small assessment of maybe one standard in each content area. Look for the signal in all the noise, as Nate Silver might say. For example, how much does testing on a computer compromise students’ ability to show what they know? I don’t think for a minute it would take longer or cost more to move to the Common Core incrementally than it will to rush into it and then have deal with the potential mess it might leave in its wake.

Second, to all sides, listen to and make allowance for the doubts of your adversaries – particularly the teachers, students, and families that will have to live with the choices you make.


Moment of greatest joy as a teacher? Greatest despair?

The greatest joy returns each day anew whenever I get to say or think, in any context, “I am a teacher.” You can derive from that what will be my moment of greatest despair.


Share this post: