My Issue With Standards

On Friday, October 4, our school participated in the Day of Play, inspired by the Caine’s Arcade and the Cardboard Challenge. This was our second year to participate, and the kids absolutely love it.

Earlier in the week, we had decided that our focus could be a Rube Goldberg Machine theme with cardboard as the main building focus. As I talked with my kids about Rube Goldberg, they grew more and more excited to create their own. We watched a LOT of videos about Rube Goldberg Machines (RGM), including these:


From one video in particular – Andrew’s Rube Goldberg Simple Machine – my kids heard some simple machines vocabulary. Some of the students had been exposed to this language before, and some had not. They started asking some really good questions about levers and inclined planes. I asked them if they thought it might be helpful to learn about simple machines before we started planning our own RGM. They agreed and starting researching different types. They broke into small groups, each taking a different component, and even built prototypes to share with the class.

After we shared our discoveries, I asked the kids to start designing a plan for our RGM. As is typical for my class right now, there were a lot of leaders, and not enough “listeners.” When it came time to actually have a plan, there were a lot of great ideas, but no plan. I agreed to act as facilitator, since we were limited by time- being ready for Friday’s Day of Play.

On Friday morning, we jumped into a learning lab room and used a whiteboard to sketch out our major plan. We had decided that 5 components in our machine would be a good limit, since we only had a few hours to build and test the machine. Additionally, we knew that we would connect ours to Miss Nancy’s class machine, and that her class had already planned for a ball to roll down an inclined plane to then initiate OUR machine.

The kids chose to stick mostly to inclined planes and levers for our RGM. This is the design we started with:


After spending most of the day building, we were able to get a few good tests in before we had to share with the whole school. A couple of components failed, but the connection to the other class’s machine did function properly, and the end of our machine worked exactly as we had planned! (The last part was a chain reaction of books – levers – falling onto a Hoops & Yoyo button that made a lot of noise.)

Building our Rube Goldberg Machine

Building our Rube Goldberg Machine


Some of my students were upset.

“It didn’t work!” “We failed!”

I asked them if they thought they could fix the components that failed if we would have had more time. They all agreed that they could easily fix those pieces.

“So, then did we really fail, or did we just run out of time?”

What a lesson that was in that short conversation! On Monday, they’ll write some reflections about what they learned last Friday, their favorite part of the activity, and how they feel they could improve the next time. We’ll probably write a class song about the machine we built. My kids think differently about their learning when they put it into verse, especially with a kickin’ beat in the background.

My favorite part of this entire activity? I didn’t plan A THING for those kids to learn. They did this all on their own. Everything I contributed was “just in time” learning.

Is learning about simple machines a standard in most science curricula? Absolutely. Did I plan for my kids to learn that? No. THEY were the ones who sought out that information through their own curiosity.

Now… let’s back up and pretend this entire activity never happened.

Let’s say I plan a lesson on simple machines. I deliver the vocabulary and explain to the kids how the machines work. I assign them an activity where they build prototypes, and MAYBE then I introduce the idea of RGMs and try to hook the kids.

It might still be a successful learning activity, but the difference here is that it is all teacher-driven.

When we depend upon standards to tell us what to teach kids, the kids don’t own the learning. 

When we give kids the ownership of what to learn and let them run with it, we find that they naturally hit standards without us having to plan for it.

In this one activity, my students hit multiple standards, across multiple grade levels in science, math, language arts, and maybe a few I haven’t even noticed yet.

They measured. They drew blueprints. They collaborated with each other. They learned about trial and error. They wrote down what was working and what wasn’t working, then shared hypotheses with their group to plan for the next success.

Most of all, they had so much fun building and playing. Our school provided an opportunity for them to see each class’s RGM. They were so excited about this day!

Shouldn’t ALL kids have an opportunity to learn like this? Or are we content to sit back, deliver content, and ensure we’re hitting all the standards?

Sometime next week, I’ll be able to list all the Common Core standards, as well as those outside the Common Core, that we “hit” during this activity. I won’t do this to prove that the Common Core works, but simply to show how limiting the Common Core can be.

When we allow ourselves to be driven by standards someone else imposes upon us, and then TEST the kids on those very standards, we limit what our kids are able to do. I refuse to be bound by those constraints, and most especially refuse to limit my students’ curiosity.

6 thoughts on “My Issue With Standards

  1. Hey Michelle – sounds like an awesome learning experience! My thought, though, is that your criticism seems to be less about standards and more about what we do with those standards. I hear you on the problems we have with too many standards… And I Am excited that we are moving to significantly less in BC; however, I also believe that we need some standards in education and these are just simple goals/outcomes that a child should learn regardless of which teacher they have. Do we have too many standards? Absolutely… But if there were fewer standards and they were less focused on content and more focused on skill, and teachers taught just how you described, I think we could have an effective mix. So, to me, it is less about the standards and what we do with them. Unfortunately, the US policy makers’ focus on testing and common core as THE solution has made ideas like “standards” and “assessment” a negative… When I think effective teachers and coaches always use goals (standards, outcomes, intentions, etc) and them use in a more balanced way – as guideposts to learning (rather than the end goal). You are right, though, if there are so many standards that these become the sole focus… We miss out on so much in time learning in our journey along the way.


    • Michelle Baldwin

      I think part of that is exactly my point, Chris. What would happen if we DID throw out all the standards? What if we provided meaningful learning experiences for kids to explore, create, etc. – and then just noted all the skills and concepts they learned along the way?

      As the teacher (or facilitator, or simply the person in the room with the most experience), it’s my job to make sure the kids are not limited in what they are learning. On top of that, I also need to ensure they’re exposed to ideas, experiences, etc. of which they might not naturally encounter, but SHOULD encounter. If I’m a good teacher, I will do that naturally.

      I feel like we put standards into education to 1) fool-proof the curriculum, 2) to ensure teachers know what they’re doing, and 3) to have SOMETHING convenient to measure against. I’m not entirely convinced that these things are best for kids.

      I appreciate your pushback! If we’re going to have standards, I agree with you entirely. Skills over content are most definitely the way to go. Thanks for your comment!

  2. Michelle-

    I think your students demonstrated the wonderful potential of “backwards” design. By starting with the end product, “what we can do”, the kids were able to step backwards through their learning process. But it was their learning process, not the teacher directed learning process.

    I think that we need to promote what we “can do” which includes standards, competencies, skills, performance measures and attitudes along the way.

    For example – if they got “stuck” on the designing their RGM on the board, they would realize – in that moment – that they needed to go and develop their understanding on that topic. You didn’t have ton”realize” it for them – they realized that they needed to learn something – because the pieces were missing.

    That’s the beauty of this type of learning design – the students realize what they need to learn. This will naturally include numeracy and literacy. We don’t need to tell them they need to read, write and connect numbers – it happens as a result of learning.

    I don’t think we need to provide standards – they are already written into the story, we need to inspire what is possible – and figure out the steps to get there.

    We have to be careful to promote evidence of learning over evidence of meeting standards. In your case – you met and exceeded standards, shouldn’t we all be doing that?

    Standards are the guidelines for teachers to use as benchmarks – not as the finish line.

    Am I making sense?

    Verena 🙂

  3. This is so creative, Michelle. It’s great that you work in a place that values this creativity.

  4. Justin (@newfirewithin)

    BUT, if we didn’t have common, unified standards, then it would be much more difficult for publishers to $ell text books and test prep to us. 😉

    Really, really love this, Michelle. I hate that learning gets reduced to hitting the standards as well. It is so much more.

    Teaching is a tough gig. Thanks for being awesome.

    —Justin – @newfirewithin

    • Thanks, Justin. That is exactly the issue we need to address. Are we really going to let corporate interests corrupt our schools? I had to leave teaching public school for this reason. I could not, in good conscience, do that to kids.

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