Assisted Accountability – The True Flipped Classroom

Eric Mazur introduced the flipped classroom to much interest a couple of decades ago. The idea—and a very good one—is that the time we have together in class is precious, and is being totally underutilized by a one-to-many dissemination of information. In the internet age, Mazur thought, why couldn’t we do the lecture outside of class, when homework would normally be done, and “work” with the concepts together, in class, when we had others around us to work with, not to mention the guidance of the expert teacher? Brilliant, no?

But I think there is an even more important flip that needs to follow. It’s flipped accountability. It’s part of a critical need to transform education by shifting the focus away from information and content (the stuff of 200 years ago) and towards skills and mindsets, to fully support development of human capacity.

Why do we need to shift? Two main reasons:

  1. The focus on information is damaging our children through the opportunity cost of what they are missing (see the work of Peter Gray on the criticality of mixed age, free play to fully develop human capacities) and because of the learning principle of “how we teach teaches more than what we teach” (“Do this math because I say so, or else, and how dare you have your own interests”).
  2. You actually learn content better when you are engaging with it as part of individually meaningful and socially relevant context

Before we move on, let’s dispel the myth that you have to sacrifice content in order to learn skills. It’s a false dichotomy that I’ve called out before. It is possible to “learn” content (or memorize, at least) without learning critical skills, but it is not possible to learn critical skills without learning content, and often much more deeply than through other means.

What is flipped accountability?

Special thanks to a colleague and friend, Yeshi Eperjsi, who led me to the term “assisted accountability” for this concept. I’m now using it, but it came from him. Assisted accountability means turning the current and damaging accountability model on its head. Currently, students are accountable to teachers (and parents). In the healthy model, students are accountable to themselves for meeting goals they set, with assistance from teachers and other mentors. Now, we are of course accountable to each other as members of a class, a school, a community…but when it comes to our own learning, we need to be accountable to ourselves. With help.

More on why it’s important

“Normal” accountability models reduce responsibility, shift drive from intrinsic to extrinsic, and decrease deep learning of content. Most students under that model are protesting the relationship deep within themselves, even if they don’t know it, which affects behavior and learning. Even the authority pleasers are not well-served by that relationship, in that it is enabling. Flipping the script to assisted accountability puts responsibility back into the hands of the learner, which allows for the learning of vastly greater lessons than just following directions, anticipating what an authority figure wants, and remembering information. I have innumerable friends who are in the business of coaching mid-career professionals in how to be more creative or innovative, better at building and leading teams and, in ever greater numbers, how to find work that is meaningful and enriching. I contend that if we flipped accountability in education early on, we would have far less of this “remedial education” to do with these later life professionals, because their efforts early on would be more in tune with their own pathway through the world and less in tune with just fitting the mold.

How do we flip accountability…?

We stop making it about cajoling students to do what we think they need and spend more time finding out what their goals are and supporting those. When you do this, you lose the weight of so much time managing discipline and you turn it into a human relationship that is fair. Children are hyper-sensitized to fairness, and when they are constantly servants to a master, it chafes them, causing them to act out. If you lose the impetus for the rebellion, you are left with vastly more energy on both sides of the equation to put into learning together. Do you lose some control over exactly what gets learned exactly when? Absolutely. But remember, if we harken back to the learning principle of “how we teach teaches more than what we teach,” we can see the tradeoff is worth it. Because mass production, assembly line learning dehumanizes, it produces resistance, outwardly and inwardly, requiring exertion of power to force compliance. What lesson are we teaching there? That how you get things done in the world is to use your power over others. That lesson is much more important and powerfully negative than any math, history, or other bit of information they would ostensibly be learning so efficiently.

An example

This seems as good a time as any to introduce a model of education I introduced at Green School in Bali, to show an example of how it might be done. My good friend and collaborator Noan Fesnoux helped shape and run run it. We called it LEAP Academy, for LEAN, ENTREPRENEURIAL, ACTION-BASED, PRODUCT-ORIENTED. It operates as a school-within-a-school and is totally independent of the regular program except where students choose to make use of it, such as taking one or two classes to help meet their goals.

The foundational way of operating in LEAP Academy is that nobody does anything that they do not enlist themselves in. Students enroll in the program out of choice, as do faculty coaches. There is no coercion of any kind. Each coach has about five students that they work with as a team on one or more group projects—with real world benefit— and individually as a personal coach for the student. Students choose what graduation and personal goals they would like to work toward, set targets and milestones, and enter into a co-created contract with their coach about how the coach will support them in meeting their own goals. It’s that simple.

See this video created by a LEAP Academy student about the experience.

You can see from the video that this was for high school age students. What might this look like in younger years? As Peter Gray describes, up until a certain age, and quite possibly for all ages, the ultimate version of flipped accountability may be simply maintaining a safe place for mixed-age free play with lots of opportunity for enrichment, investigation, and support. Even on their own, youngsters in these environments will learn not only what they need to know content-wise about the world (such as the 3 Rs), but even more importantly, they will also learn much of what school is currently teaching out of students, namely how to be nurturing, curious, adaptable, empathetic, knowledgeable of one’s own boundaries, firm in advocating for one’s needs but also understanding of and responsive to other’s needs.

Does all this mean you have to totally dissolve schools as we know them and start over? Well, ideally yes, in my opinion, but short of that there is much we can do in our own classrooms and existing structures to change the accountability model. For an example of how to still study a particular subject and yet maintain an assisted accountability framework, see the post Learning To Learn, by myself and Noan Fesnoux, located over at Eliad Group, my new education transformation consulting group.

A call for patience

Don’t expect changing the accountability model to “work” right away. I’ve seen teachers give freedom to their students and immediately claim the method doesn’t work because the students “went out of control”. As if it proves that’s the nature of children and we need to exert control every minute to prevent it. When students have been shaped and habituated by a pattern of responsiveness and extrinsic motivation during the entirety of their formative years, changing the pattern can be difficult and takes a period of “detoxing” in many cases. What can often occur is for students who have always jumped through hoops well in a normal program to do just as well in this type of environment, but for students who have not done as well, typically, to catch fire after three or four weeks and shock both parents and teachers…and themselves.

Redefining Academic Rigor

There are two kinds of academic rigor. The standard kind is measured in number of hours spent; in the amount of predetermined information memorized and regurgitated. It involves running fast to jump through the hoops put before you. It involves being handed problems and showing you can follow prescribed pathways to solve them. It involves following orders. The message to students is: “Put your head down and slog through it. One day it will pay off.” This is not the rigor that leads to a sustainable world. We need so much more.

We need to think of rigor in a different way. Engagement and effort are indeed key indicators of rigor, but what you engage in and how you engage with it are equally important. What about learning to identify on your own what is important? What about being able to identify opportunities no one else has seen? Rigor, yes—but towards the goal of creating advanced learners, not just advanced rememberers; towards fostering advanced creators, not just advanced imitators.

Children are innate learners, and the key is to build on that strength. With them. As partners. Doing real things in the real world. Modeling for them what it means to be an advanced learner, and collaborator, and doer. And helping them engage rigorously with the world around them so that they gain not only the knowledge they need to thrive in it, but the skills, and the habits, and the attitudes that allow them to use that knowledge for the most meaningful impact possible.

Pedagogy vs. Curriculum – The How is the What

The How is the What

What (content) and how (pedagogy) cannot be separated. How we teach also teaches a what.

Example 1: Coercion has no place in education.

If we use coercion to get students to study what we want when we want, we are teaching them that how you get people to do the things in this world is by using a power imbalance. We should be teaching them that respect and empathy are the primary drivers of influence.

Example 2: Students need to define what is important

Telling students what is important to learn teaches them that their own interests are not of value.

It also removes from them the ability to evaluate what is important themselves. An illustration:

“Students: We are studying American History from the Civil War to World War II. Here are the important things to know about this period, and how we will engage with learning them. And the dates we will cover each.”

An alternative how would be: “You have chosen to study this period in history. How about we start by each looking into what might be important to know about form this time period, and we’ll come back together and build that list? If you are able to convince others of the importance of the items you pick, they will more likely make it on the list.” This helps them build the skill of determining what is important and understand why. They learn the “content” while they are learning these important skills (and they learn the content better).

Example 3: Instruction can be powerfully destructive Continue reading

Concentrated Endeavor

I often get asked about the learning environments that support entrepreneurial learning/21st century skills development. There are many practices that weave together to create proper conditions, informed by guiding principles and paradigms such as:

  1. Education must be real.
  2. Primary focus should be creating advanced learners (see my Teaching Without Knowing post for more on this)
  3. We must scaffold our students towards identifying problems and architecting solutions.
  4. We need to approach education by building on strengths, instead of correcting deficiencies.

One of the most important practices is how we structure our learning experiences in time. I’ve already spoken in my post on The Entrepreneurial Learner about how endeavor relates to learning, how students should not be given an education—they should endeavor to build one (with expert support). But what is concentrated endeavor? I’ll start by illustrating it’s opposite, distributed endeavor. Continue reading

Why Graduate Profiles Feel Wrong

Let’s face it. Every school’s graduate profile sounds the same these days.

“Lifelong learner”

“Global citizen”

“Able and willing to make a difference”


You know the drill. All worthy aspirations for our students, and for what we want to help them become. All schools engage in conversations about these end goals, the programs and pedagogy that will get them there, what measures if any will provide feedback on whether the goals have been met, and how the school is doing over time at producing its product. That’s standard, responsible practice, right?

I’ve been involved in creating graduate profiles several times, and while it feels like a worthy exercise, it always feels like something is missing.

We ask: Do we not have the right descriptors? Have we worded them optimally? Do we have the right graphic to convey them? Are they in the right order? We fuss over the minutiae searching for perfection, because it is such an important thing to describe who we want our students to become. These are lives we are dealing with, after all.

So why does it never feel right? Because it’s the wrong paradigm.

It’s a deficiency mindset.

There are two ways of looking at education. The standard lens is that our children are missing something, that they need to acquire it, and that we need to give it to them—that they need to be shaped and molded to our vision of what they should become. Most education operates within this paradigm.

The other is that the job of education is to support the unique strengths and gifts of each child, and to support them in growing from there. This isn’t to say that there is nothing adults can offer to children. We can help them become the best versions of themselves, and we can do that thoughtfully and skillfully, by structuring our efforts and our environment around that sacred duty.

So if you have been struggling with your graduate profile, the problem may not be in the details. It may be with the paradigm itself. If that’s the case, I encourage you to build it from the other direction, and talk about who your students are, not who they will become. Focus your attention to the present, and trust that it’s just what it needs to be to move to a bright future.

Our students are…Exactly who they need to be at this moment

Build your program around that.

By the way, this is the latest installment of my Changing Education Paradigms series. The tally currently stands at:

  1. Education must be real.
  2. Primary focus should be creating advanced learners (see my Teaching Without Knowing post for more on this)
  3. We must scaffold our students towards identifying problems and architecting solutions.
  4. We need to approach education by building on strengths, instead of correcting deficiencies.

Special thanks to Jenifer Fox and Yong Zhao for their excellent work on strength-based and emergent education. I don’t know if either have specifically addressed graduate profiles, and should note the views above may not represent their views on the subject. Thanks also to colleagues Glenn Chickering and Dan Kinzer for insightful conversation on why graduate profiles feel hollow.

Further reading:

Your Child’s Strengths: A Guide for Parents and Teachers by Jenifer Fox

World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students by Yong Zhao

The Entrepreneurial Learner’m currently directing a program at Green School in Bali on Entrepreneurial & Enterprise Education. My experience building and describing this program has given me some new language to talk about the paradigm shifts I have been advocating in education, heretofore enumerated as:

  1. Education must be real.
  2. Primary focus should be creating advanced learners (see my Teaching Without Knowing post for more on this)
  3. We must scaffold our students towards identifying problems and architecting solutions.

I’ve started to talk about these paradigm shifts merged together as Entrepreneurial Learning, because 1) the concept crucially includes the learner as part of the equation, and 2) it describes an attitude and approach that both learner and educator can use to keep focused on the three paradigm shifts outlined above. So why the Entrepreneurial Learner, given that many may misinterpret it as advocating a focus on money and business exclusively? My application of the term to learning is very intentional here, and is meant to conjure what is conveyed by a common synonym for the term: enterprising “having or showing initiative and resourcefulness”

Those are the characteristics of an entrepreneur, and they are ones that I think most of our schooling paradigms do not currently promote—in fact actively counteract. I think we should be training learners to bring forth initiative and resourcefulness in everything they endeavor towards, including their own learning.

The definition of “entrepreneur” that I am working off of is:

“characterized by the taking of financial risks in the hope of profit”

But I’m using the French word origin, “entreprendre,” meaning “to undertake” as a mandate for latitude to apply the characteristics of entrepreneurship—indeed the habits, skills, and attitudes that help one be successful at goals of one’s own choosing—to learning. I think it’s critical that we do so. Education is so often seen as something that is done to students. I don’t think students should “receive” an education. I think they should undertake one—and take risks doing so—for their own profit and the profit of the world they live in.  As I look around, I’m also seeing this language used by Yong Zhao, among others. Here are a couple of articles for further reading:

Can Schools Cultivate a Student’s Ability to Think Differently

Why Realizing the Full Promise of Education Requires a Fresh Approach

You Get What You Design For: The Core Curriculum

Licensed under Creative Commons

Licensed under Creative Commons

Where did the curriculum used in the US for the last century plus, and now also in most of the rest of the world, come from? What were it’s goals? Why are the study areas so siloed and non-representative of the way the world works and of how we learn? This discussion in Marion Brady’s What’s Worth Learning adds fuel to the fire for why it needs to be re-examined down to its roots, not just retooled:

Schooling in America produces successes, but the general education curriculum doesn’t deserve much credit. What’s taught—the actual content of the lectures, books, instructional units, films, videos, subjects, courses, programs, and all the rest—isn’t a product of a comprehensive, rational theory or plan. It’s not a systematic sampling of humankind’s accumulated knowledge. It’s not the result of a thorough, current analysis of the needs of individuals or the larger society. It’s not a grand design worked out by our best minds. Incredible as it may seem, American education, this vast institution which consumes so much of our wealth, time, and energy, offers the young not a coherent, logically organized structure of knowledge but a random heap fashioned by ancient concerns and assumptions, political expedience, accident, intellectual fads, hysteria, special interests, and myriad superficial views of the purpose of educating.

[…] the so-called “core curriculum”—the familiar mix of math, science, language arts, and social studies disciplines now in near-universal use in America’s schools—was recommended by the Committee of Ten, appointed by the National Education Association. The Committee didn’t discuss the organization of knowledge, didn’t talk about learning theory, didn’t reflect on the needs of the Republic, didn’t speculate about the trends of the era, didn’t warn of the dangers of adopting a static curriculum in periods of rapid social change. Those and other matters relevant to what schools should teach never came up. Primarily concerned with simplifying the selection process for college admissions officers by standardizing the transcripts of the tiny percentage of students then graduating from high school, the ten met for three days in Saratoga, New York in the fall of 1892, made their recommendations, and the following year the curriculum that still shapes education in America and much of the rest of the world was adopted. Multi-layered bureaucracies quickly froze the committee’s work in rigid place.