First Order Negative, Second Order Positive

Scott McLeod, U. Colorado education professor, co-creator of the “Did You Know? (Shift Happens)” video series, and edtech guru, has said,

“The biggest challenge for teachers is really around the dynamics of agency. More than anything else, that seems to be the sticking point—whether or not we want to give up control and hand it over to our students. […] [W]e violate that on an hourly basis in every school, everywhere.”

One reason we avoid student agency may have to do with the business model: a school is designed to issue credentials.

In that system…

  • Issuing credentials is easier when we rely on grades.

  • Relying on grades is easier when we assess students efficiently.

  • Assessing students efficiently is easier when we control the curriculum.

What if we were to reverse that polarity?

  • Curriculum gets messy when students tell us what problems they want to solve and what they might need to know to solve those problems (credit: Jaime Casap).

  • A messy curriculum creates friction for assessments, and therefore grades.

  • More friction in producing grades means more friction in generating credentials.

In other words, designing with the student at the center is harder.

But it’s better for the student.

Shane Parrish, the creator of Farnam Street, has noted the colossal power in accepting a “first order negative” to achieve a “second order positive,” because second order positives compound over time.

Allowing students to drive the learning process is a first order negative—not just for teachers, but also for high-achieving students who have mastered the “game of school.”

But designing for that first order negative allows for a second order positive—robust, resilient learning that compounds over time.

Where is the first, simplest place in your school to make this shift?


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Christian Talbot