Supporting Student Choice in Course of Study Planning

During course of study planning, students have a golden opportunity to shape their secondary school experience. Yet, fully supporting student course choice requires well-aligned processes of course design, course requests, and staffing. Otherwise, obstacles can rise and disrupt students’ ability to guide their academic programs.

Like many schools, the U Prep course of study is fairly prescriptive in the early years and very flexible in the later years. The schedule has seven periods. Middle School students take six required classes, and Upper School students must satisfy graduation requirements: 4 years of English. 3.5 years of history, 3 years of math, science and languages, 2 years of fine arts, and 2 years of P.E. Elective flexibility increases from ninth to twelfth grades, by which point many students can take up to six elective classes.

Some graduation requirements are fixed, whereas others provide options. In the Middle School, sixth grade students choose between instrumental music and a fine arts rotation, as well as selecting among three languages. Seventh and eighth grade students have those choices as well as quite a few additional courses in the fine arts and general studies. Ninth grade students choose a language and two elective courses, and many students satisfy all but their English requirement by the end of junior year.

Here’s where things get interesting. The student who applies correct foresight can craft a course of study with a particular emphasis. Most choose a balanced program that demonstrates a high level of achievement in many subject areas. Others deviate in interesting ways:

  • Taking a free period each semester to allow for depth or slower pace of study, or to accommodate a busy extracurricular pursuit such as dance or club athletics.
  • Playing in symphony or jazz band every year, or working for the yearbook or newspaper, in order to attain a particularly high level of accomplishment in that area.
  • Take as many electives as possible in one subject area in order to satisfy a known disciplinary preference and nicely set up the start of college.
  • Preferring applied courses such as architecture, computer science, journalism, and biotechnology.

Students need specific kinds of support from the school in order to design and craft an intentional course of study. Without these supports, students will end up having to take other courses than their preferred selections, which will diffuse the consistence and intentionality of their program.

1. Build flexibility into graduation requirements

As described above, the academic program should include choices within subject area graduation requirements, as well as free choice beyond subject area requirements.

2. Give students their first choice as often as possible.

This is harder to do than it may first appear. Course scheduling is driven by constraints, such as available staff, classrooms, courses that must meet at the same time, teachers who much teach during certain periods, timing of lunch periods, and so on. In general, the more constraints, the more difficult it is to give students their first choices. Reducing constraints requires reducing accommodations for staff and facilities.

This year, we paid particular attention to the number of sections available to oversubscribed courses. In some cases, we were able to shift teachers accordingly. In other cases, we were not. In the end, here’s how we did. How does this compare to your schools?

Grade First Choice Scheduled
6 100%
7 92%
8 91%
9 82%
10 84%
11 92%
12 94%

3. Allow student preference to inform program change

This is a tricky one. We give very nearly all students their first choice when they are required to choose among few options. 100% of sixth grade students receive their first choice because we honor all requests for instrumental music, fine arts rotation, and choice of language. Sometimes, student preference causes significant changes in program, such as the number of supported languages, a wide range of sizes in musical performance groups, and varied class sizes in fine arts and general studies electives. Changes in program can cause changes in staffing (i.e., our colleagues’ jobs), yet a truly student-centered institution must allow for such changes over time.

For student choice to inform program adjustment in the short term, instructional leadership must be able to see course request data before finalizing the staffing arrangement. A high quality course requests system allows the systematic, rapid collection and analysis of student selections.

Students also collectively help inform the long-term direction of the overall school curriculum. Over years, consistent trends in student choice make plain the changes we should make to course offerings. Recent trends include: increasing interest in Mandarin Chinese; a trend toward applied disciplines, such as architecture, journalism, graphic design, and computer science; increasing requests for English elective courses. This helps the school curriculum stay contemporary and authentic, which in turn improves student motivation and quality of work.

4. Reduce obstacles to new course approval

Does your course proposal process encourage creative course design, or does it put up obstacles? Our Instructional Leadership Team approves new courses, yet we emphasize the constructive process when fulfilling this responsibility. The members of ILT are themselves department heads and are thus on both sides of the process. We check for the thoughtfulness and strategic consideration of course proposals, but overall we work to support the generative work of all subject areas in the school as they refine their course offerings. After ILT approves a course, then the larger, more broadly representative Academic Council considers it. Generally, AC supports the recommendation of ILT.

Course proposals are extremely well vetted within departments before appearing at ILT for consideration. Our courses belong to departments, not individuals, so that they fit within a subject area scope and sequence, are designed collaboratively by multiple teachers, and can be taught by more than one teacher, creating staffing flexibility. Thorough department consideration of new course design increases the chances of approval by ILT.

5. Provide high quality academic advising

Students need help to understand the design principles underlying the course planning process. Fulfilling graduation requirements early and thinking ahead about goals for one’s course of study are two simple recommendations. Tracking courses that are only offered some years, effective use of independent study, strategic selection of alternates, and making course requests in an appropriate order require further insight. Advisors need a lot of training to do this job well, and ideally the registrar and/or the scheduling team should review all student course selections in order to guide students away from course choices that they are unlikely to get for one reason or another.

6. Use a powerful scheduling system

The process of determining when, where, and by whom classes are taught is a multivariate process, requiring a team of people to track its many components. Quality training is required for how to gather student course requests and teacher preferences in structured formats that can easily be used later, and then schedule courses in a manner that creates the maximum flexibility for circumstances that are difficult to schedule. The use of scheduling software is practically a requirement, as it is unlikely that a manual process can adequately analyze the massive amount of data, select optimal options, and make visible issues that need to be resolved. However, avoid scheduling software that tries to do all of the scheduling for you, as the complexity of the full problem exceeds the capabilities of most software packages. (I do know one school that distributes a job to a 16-computer cluster, and runs the program for three days to produce its schedule.)


Library Commons In Higher Ed

I recently had the pleasure of attending a talk by Jim Mullins, Dean of Libraries at Purdue University. Jim described the process by which Purdue Libraries developed their new Active Learning Center, a concept and $70m building described as, “a learning commons for the 21st Century.” The following ideas from the talk stuck with me.

The library commons concept, a “noisy” library in which students study, work in groups, access resources, and relax has reached the university level. Purdue, with the support of the State Legislature, is transforming their main libraries to keep pace with how students now use information and technology.

Purdue feels that their concept is unique in that it more fully blends classrooms with libraries than they have seen at any other institution. At Purdue, pilot classes have their regularly scheduled meetings within these flexible library spaces. The library isn’t just a place to occasionally hold class. It’s the main space where class takes place.

The Active Learning Center project includes intensive support and mentoring of professors to make their instructional techniques more generative and collaborative for students. Each professor was provided with an instructional expert, technology expert, and librarian to support curriculum transformation. A number of teams work successively with a series of instructors, expanding the number of instructors and courses that feature active learning. The main examples shared in the presentation showed students working in small groups at tables, while instructors roamed the room listening in and providing suggestions.

Minimal user technology is provided by the school. Students predominantly use their own devices to access information repositories and audiovisual displays using their own devices. Basic needs are emphasized: food, coffee, comfortable seating, and power are thoughtfully incorporated into the physical design of the spaces.

An anthropologist provided key findings that played a large role in the design of the Active Learning Center. Hiring an anthropologist, or at least adopting an anthropologist’s mindset, is becoming more popular as a core method to inform design.

Having just finished our second year with a library commons, we at U Prep can heartily endorse this approach. The Purdue initiative to create new spaces, support teachers with instructional coaches, and fully consider student experience has the shape of a well-coordinated school initiative. At least one of our teachers has started to schedule classes in the library during ordinary weeks, not just research projects, in a manner similar to the Purdue Active Learning project.


EdCamp Sessions Impress Again

Last week, over 70 educators from 50+ public and private education institutions, from Kindergarten to School of Education, gathered on a Saturday to explore topics of interest. Participants proposed and led all of the discussions, and all attendees actively participated. U Prep hosted the fourth edition of EdCamp Puget Sound.

I was uniquely impressed with the range and thoughtfulness of sessions. Titles included:

  • Teach (blank) Through (blank); Integrating Interests and Project-Based Learning
  • Twitter 101
  • Lecture-less, Screencast-based Learning in the New Technology classroom
  • Painless Failure, Practice, Revision & Creativity
  • Learning from and teaching 2E (twice-exceptional) kiddos
  • Construct meaning through experience; Service learning & moreSupporting
  • Stem & First Robotics: How is Special Ed Suppose to support?
  • Not “Mad Men”: Use advertising techniques to communicate like a leader
  • Content-area disruption: New school subjects?
  • Online Discussions & Journaling
  • Mentoring: What does it mean?
  • Let’s All Learn About #MysterySkype
  • Effective Group Work and Accountable Talk
  • Conversation Around Blended Learning
  • Teacher Leaders; Teachers of the Year; Tech & Learning
  • U Prep Ac. Tech Q&A:Device Program, Comp Sci, Maker Lab (etc.)
  • Engaging social justice w/all students (not just the ones who opt in!)

I also benefited from the vast range of perspectives and life experiences present at the conference. EdCamps truly bring together a vibrancy of shared ideas unmatched by other education professional development events.





Insurance’s Outsize Influence on Global Travel

It seems that each year, insurance requirements increasingly affect our school global programs in a way that threatens their emphasis on social responsibility and global citizenship. This year, our school cancelled its annual student trip to Colombia because our insurance company would not cover travel to a country that is on the U.S. State Department’s warning list. From the State Department:

Tens of thousands of U.S. citizens safely visit Colombia each year for tourism, business, university studies, and volunteer work. Security in Colombia has improved significantly in recent years, including in tourist and business travel destinations such as Bogota and Cartagena, but violence linked to narco-trafficking continues to affect some rural areas and parts of large cities.

For the insurance company, this is a blanket rule. If the country is on the warning list, for whatever reason and region, the company will not insure the school for travel to that country. From our point of view, no insurance results in no trip. This was difficult to swallow when we had been traveling to Colombia for years, in partnership with a local school, and in a manner that maximized student safety. It is not easy to sever the close, personal relationships among staff members of these schools for these reasons.

Presumably, the Hotchkiss suit of 2013 played a role in changing insurance company attitudes toward global student travel. One $41 million case likely had an outsize effect on their practices, and consequently, school travel abroad. On the optimistic side, a business opportunity now exists for an insurance company to design travel insurance that considers the nuances within the State Department travel warning list.

I am also seeing these effects as I organize the fifth U.S. tour of the Maru-a-Pula Marimba Band. This year, schools have inquired whether Maru-a-Pula School holds international travel insurance. I also had a college theater that we are renting require liability insurance, to protect the school in case an audience member were injured at our show. It appeared that we might have to cancel the show, until we discovered that the college also provides a one-time, $50 liability insurance purchase option. I have a hard time understanding how our $50 purchase protects the college from a million dollar lawsuit, but clearly the insurance industry is operating on its own particular economic models. Each trip, it becomes more onerous for a volunteer such as myself to bring a marvelous student marimba group from Botswana to the U.S.

Twenty years ago, independent school global travel was dominated by language study and cultural immersion to Spanish and French-speaking countries. Since then, most independent schools have completely transformed their global travel programs, updating their missions for social responsibility and global citizenship. This has resulted in travel to Asian, African, South American, and other destinations. Most destinations are selected because a school community member has a personal connection with the target country. Will insurance companies adapt to the travel patterns of independent school global programs, or will schools have to adjust their destinations to stay in line with State Department warnings?

Course of Study Communications

In place of the customary evening parent meetings, I have produced two videos to orient U Prep families to the process of course of study planning. I hope to ultimately reach more families by producing a talk that parents can view at any time. I’ll also leave these videos on our online Course of Study pages for prospective families to view in the future.

Data Visualization For Learning

While written and oral language dominate instruction, the explosion of visual information has created new opportunities to represent complexity, reveal themes, explore data, and communicate information in powerful ways. Here is an overview of some of my favorite examples of visual data representation for education.

Molecular Models

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Image from

Students cannot see individual molecules and are normally confined to shaded textbook illustrations and small plastic model building kits. Molecular modeling software represents data from crystallographic analysis of substances as 3D graphics. This allows students to more fully develop their mental concept of molecules through zoom, rotation, color, and different representations (line, spheres, mesh, etc.). Students can quickly load and manipulate dozens of different molecules (e.g., amino acids), or large molecules with interesting symmetries and structural regions (e.g., DNA, proteins).

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An alternate representation of water (

Graphs and Charts

Most of us cannot discern patterns and trends in numerical data and instead rely on graphs to reveal them. Commonly available graphing tools have continued to improve in sophistication and integration with specific types of data sets.

GapMinder opened many eyes to the explanatory power of visually representing a huge variety of demographic data. Trends in HIV infection rates, distribution of wealth, and dozens of other data sets become visible through bubble charts. Animation makes visible trends as the data changes over time.

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HIV Epidemic 1980-2009, GapMinder

Logger Pro draws line graphs of experimental data collected from Vernier data probes. This creates nearly instant visual representations of physical phenomena as they happen.


WorldMapper displays international demographic data differently, by distorting the sizes of countries based on different demographic measures. Map mashups have taken social networks by storm in the past year, whether in the more complex form that shades states (or even counties) based on different measures or the simpler form that simply labels states with words or visuals to reflect a trend.

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The D3 JavaScript library likely represents the future of mainstream data visualization. Anyone with a command of programming fundamentals can use the library to create stunning, animated representations of custom data sets. Such animations now occur commonly in mainstream publications such as the New York Times. The D3 website contains over 200 examples with source code, which one can download and modify for personal use. The range of visualization formats is stunning, driving home the idea that a practically infinite series of graph types exists beyond the usual bar, line, and pie charts. Interactive animation allows the user to see relationships and themes within the data in a manner that goes far beyond static charts.

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Word Clouds

Word clouds represent text information in a simple way, by having the word size reflect its frequency in a body of text. Its effect is very direct, albeit limited, as single words lose a lot of their meaning out of the context of phrases and paragraphs. The word clouds of all of the State of the Union addresses is an effective example of making themes in history visible through word clouds.

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2013 State Of the Union Address, ABC News

Concept Maps

Concept mapping has been around for a long time but hit its peak with the use of Inspiration software. Learning specialists have advocated concept and mind mapping for years to allow students to visually organize concepts for pre-writing as well as conceptual understanding. When paired with high quality questions and feedback, concept and mind mapping can encourage critical thinking and direct study of the relationships among concepts in a topic.


Example concept map from

Earth and Space

I recently saw one of the old “Puget Sound From Space” posters hanging in a classroom.The qualification from space seems quaint now that our students can smoothly pinch and zoom satellite databases using their own phones and tablets. Thanks to Google Earth, perhaps we no longer consciously realize that most geographic and stellar imagery is a visual representation of satellite and telescope data. Radar and spectral data is combined with colorization to represent distant or very large objects as if we are viewing them with our eyes. We would also do well to remember that the objects we “see” are also only the mental representations of the patterns and qualities of light passing through our eyes and interpreted by our brains.

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Dark Sky app updated

Dark Sky still gives a pacific northwesterner what he needs: expected rainfall for the next hour. The new update nudges the app in the direction of fully featured weather apps but with a design that Jay Z would love.

20140208-212852.jpg  20140208-212907.jpg  20140208-212928.jpg  20140208-212942.jpg  20140208-212954.jpg

Reflections on Computer Science

We at U Prep are partway through the redesign of the school’s computer science program, to reimagine it as the study of foundational principles of computational thinking, accessible to all students regardless of prior background, and inclusive of highly engaging specialities such as robotics and website development.

The full plan includes three computer science elective classes, the integration of computer science activities into required middle school classes, and advising student clubs in robotics and other technical pursuits. This way, we will give all students the opportunity to do computer science and also provide those interested in further study an array of engaging opportunities at more and less technical levels.

While we put the full plan into place, we decided to offer a computer science course to students this year, even though our new model was not yet fully developed. Student interest was very high, and teaching a class would give us first-hand experience with developing curricula around these new principles. We staffed the course by hiring a subject-matter expert to partner with me as the experienced teacher. At the same time, we began the search for a full-time computer science teacher for next year.

We designed the course to teach fundamental concepts in algorithmic processing and data structure design through programming activities, so that students would receive explicit instruction in foundational principles of computer science while also learning programming skills. Programming was the most common learning activity, and key concepts included use of functions to repeatedly perform tasks, thinking logically and sequentially, breaking a problem into smaller parts, and figuring out how to organize real world data into structured elements. We made explicit links between the problems students were solving and the underlying concepts and thinking skills that are used throughout computer science.

We wanted students to learn to program in an environment that they would be able to use subsequently in future courses and their personal pursuits, to mirror how computing is now used in all fields of study and professions. We chose JavaScript as the development language for several reasons. The web-based applications that students commonly use (e.g., Facebook, Google Drive), are written in JavaScript. Study of JavaScript helped demystify software development, as students recognized the input elements and output formats that they created. While not an entirely strict language, JavaScript has consistent enough structure and data typing that we could teach these principles perfectly well. The development environment (Komodo) is free and multi-platform, ensuring that students could develop using their own computers and continue to use what they learned after the course was complete. The output environment (Chrome web browser) is familiar, yet students gained a new level of understanding of web page structure and performance as they created website software and debugged it using Chrome’s developer tools.

Most class time was spent writing code to solve specific problems, small ones at first and larger ones later. Students analyzed grade level enrollments, Sounders FC player salaries, and animated bouncing balls and streaming bubbles. Each activity built up students’ understanding of programming constructs, input and output, functions, parameters, and return values, conditionals and loops, arrays and objects, speed and memory usage, and more.

Students completed both a substantial individual project and a self-designed group project. In each, we explored how to analyze a real-world problem and design a solution, how to create, test, and refine software, and how to bring a project to completion. The group project introduced new dynamics: how to share, divide, and reconcile project design and development tasks among team members, and how to use an online, collaborative development environment to work on a project within a team.

Students also completed an individual research activity, in which they found and interview a computer science professional and made a short presentation to their classmates. This helped broaden students’ concept of what it means to do computer science work. Not all interview subjects were software developers, and a number applied computer science to other fields. Students learned that computer science is useful in all pursuits.

Bubbles activity
Practice with arrays, objects, Canvas, loops, and functions

Seahawks’ Keys to Success Work in Schools, Too.

The Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks are known for their confidence, speed, and defense. They are also known for running the most innovative coaching program in the NFL. How radical are their techniques? Not very, if you are an educator. Many of the strategies that Seahawks coaches use to get the best from their players are generally practiced by good teachers.

Treat each player as an individual

Head coach Pete Carroll: “I wanted to find out if we went to the NFL and really took care of guys, really cared about each and every individual, what would happen?” This detailed ESPN Magazine article describes the many different ways that the Seahawks take care of their players, including individual “status profiles” and counselors who check in with players after a bad practice. Individualization recognizes that each person’s circumstance and pattern of strengths and weaknesses are unique.

The best schools are built around teacher-student relationships. Students are known as individuals, with their unique personalities, interests, and learning dispositions. Students feel valued because teachers know them well and follow their development through years of study. The smaller the school, the most personal this relationship can become. Student support services, through advisors, teachers, counselors, and learning resource specialists, provide a nurturing, personalized support structure for each student.

Allow players to be themselves

A number of the Seahawks players have strong personalities. Some previously toiled within a poor team climate or openly clashed with past coaches. Those players have thrived in the Seahawks’ supportive system. When Marshawn Lynch refused to speak with reporters, and Richard Sherman delivered his famous rant on national television, the Seahawks did not penalize them (as far as we know) but rather seized on the learning moment for the players. The Seahawks organization also did not rush to the defense of those players but rather allowed them to feel the consequences of their actions from the NFL and public opinion.

At the best schools, students feel able to fully be themselves within school. They don’t have to check part of their personality at the door or conform to a school’s social norms. The best schools enforce enough rules to provide structure and also leave plenty of space to students to express themselves. Some students express learning challenges in ways that might be mistaken for obstinance, laziness, or defiance. Skilled teachers cut to the heart of the issue instead of heavily penalizing the overt behavior.


Have Fun

Coach Pete Carroll is well known for showing “boyish” enthusiasm on the sidelines and in practice. He has also encouraged playful contests during practices, pick-up basketball games for his players, and has a DJ play music during practices. He makes training fun, as many good teachers make learning fun, because happy people tend to perform better. Positivity is also part of the plan. Carroll and the rest of the coaching staff recognize positive play and encourage players to think optimistically about their potential and future performance. The Seahawks play from a position of confidence and strength, not fear of consequences.

The best classrooms are energizing places of enthusiasm. Teachers share their own passion for the subject and for their students. They understand that the social environment of school is absolutely vital for kids, and that a positive, inclusive social climate can enhance, rather than inhibit learning.

Experiment and iterate

The Seahawks organization has been labeled “new age” for their integration of yoga and meditation into the practice routine. However, the most significant aspect of this for me is the habit of experimentation and iteration. The Seahawks are eager to give new techniques a legitimate chance, including yoga, nutrition, social events, counselors, and more.

Pete Carroll has refined his approach through the years. Remember that he started as an assistant NFL coach and was fired twice from head coach positions (Patriots, Jets). Carroll continued to develop the model while at USC and took four years to fully refine and implement it with the Seahawks before winning the championship this year. Throughout, he undoubtedly made countless small adjustments to the approach and no doubt will continue to do so in the future.

The best schools are constantly making small adjustments to their program to sustain excellence during rapidly changing times. All members of the community contribute ideas for iterative program improvement. Innovative schools learn by doing, trying new ideas and seeing how they go.

Celebrate success

Carroll is known for leaping into the air on the sidelines, hugging his players, and even jumping into practice himself. These unabashed celebrations of success fill his players with the confidence that the head coach believes in them and recognizes their accomplishments.

The entire Seattle community, perhaps the entire northwest region, has joined in the celebration. Huge numbers of Seahawks fans attended the game. Crowd noise gave the Seahawks something of a home field advantage during the big game. An estimated 500,000 people will descend on the celebration parade downtown today.

Community celebration is self-reinforcing. Healthy schools recognize moments of success through community celebration.

David Malan on Teaching Computer Science

Three of us from U Prep attended a talk by David Malan, noted Harvard computer science instructor, at the UW school of Computer Science and Engineering. Malan walked the audience through noteworthy insights gained from teaching one of Harvard’s most popular courses, CS 50. The course has received national attention for making computer science accessible to both computer science majors and non-majors.

The national story on Malan has emphasized his personal magnetism and engaging presentation style, but Malan took his talk in a completely different direction. He presented a systems analysis of the course, students, and content, emphasizing the structural conditions that the teaching team has designed to support student success. Malan hardly mentioned his distinctive lecture style at all, instead noting that the team has reduced weekly lecture time in the course. Anyhow, only 70% of the students watch the lectures, increasingly on video as the term progresses. The core of the class, Malan states, is student work on authentic problems.

The keys to CS 50′s success, according to Malan, are the huge team of teaching fellows and alumni who provide small group and individual instruction, the focus on “memorable moments” during lectures, and the two capstone events that ground project development within a highly social, memorable context. The course provide 100 Teaching Fellows for a student enrollment of 700, and course alumni volunteer further support. Most students spent 10-20 hours per week working on the course, and a small number fall outside of that range, above or below.

Malan believes in mental reference models for concepts in computer science. At the start of the course, students build programs using Scratch (I thought that was for fourth graders!), providing a visual reference point for later programming in code. Lectures include kinesthetic demonstrations, during which students stand on stage and represent such concepts as bits in a byte or iterations of a binary search.

Later in the course, assigned problems become more challenging and complex, allowing students to engage with them at their level of mastery. Cryptography, digital forensics, spellcheck, breakout, a stock trading game, and a virtual drive through campus stretch students’ skills and knowledge. All this in a single semester course? No wonder students do so much work each week.

Malan underscored what we have also found the most interesting challenge in teaching computer science: how to engage and effectively teach students with novice, moderate, and significant experience in the field. Computer science is based on abstract principles of logical and sequential reasoning. These can pose a significant challenge to new students in the field, and yet tracking alone only serves to reinforce perceptions that only a small number of people can master computer science. We are working hard to develop the teaching techniques to make computer science accessible, relevant, and understandable to all, since computer science is now important and useful in all fields of study.