There is, however, one thing that the twins' teachers, families and communities can do to improve their odds, no matter where they go to school: Make sure they are engaged in learning something important with someone who cares about them.

To Overcome Poor Schools, Students Need to be Engaged by Karen Pittman#

Call for Creative Educators!

Do YOU BELIEVE in US?? Then we need YOU at Building 21!

Building 21 is now hiring for Fall 2015!

Are you a creative teacher who is passionate about learning and wants to rethink what is possible in high school — or do you know someone who is?  Then Building 21 may be the place for you.  Building 21 is now hiring 9th and 10th grade educators for our Philadelphia and Allentown sites  in ALL subject areas.  We are especially looking for talented special education staff who are dual certified in English and Math.  Please apply using the following link:
Join us as we support students to connect with their passion and build agency to impact their world!

Π Day Epiphanies


On 3.14 this year, I sent an email to the team wishing everyone a Happy Pi Day. For fun, I threw in a little brain teaser: what other day of the year could stand in and serve as Pi Day and why?

I’m so glad I chose to do that. What a delight! I didn’t expect the responses I got along with everyone’s reasoning. Note to reader: if you want to play along, stop here to think about your answer. When you’re ready, continue reading to learn about the variety of answers we generated.

When I first thought of it, I knew the fraction 22/7 was sometimes substituted as an approximation of pi. So if we think about the way dates are expressed in Europe and other parts of the world, July 22nd could work as an alternate Pi Day.That’s 22/7 in Europe and 7/22 in America. So…what did my teammates think?

I knew I was in for a treat on Pi Day this year after reading the first few replies, which went in directions I didn’t anticipate at all. The 314th day of the year is November 10th, so 11/10 could stand in as an alternate for Pi Day. And June 28 is 2pi, which could also work as a substitute Pi Day though perhaps with the explanation that we’ve doubled the famous ratio of a circle’s Circumference divided by its Diameter.

There are 7 of us all together at Building 21, and the only team member who came up with the answer I was expecting (22/7 or 7/22) is the only other team member who has spent time living and working in Europe like me! Isn’t that fascinating? It made me wonder about the role traveling plays in education.

The most adorable reply I received was that Thanksgiving Day could also be Pi Day since people eat more pi(e) on this day than any other! 🙂 As I thought about it, there’s actually an aspect of this answer that makes it especially valid. Π as a number is infinite, non-repeating and therefore inexact. That’s why we use the symbol π to represent this number, because the symbol captures something that the use of numbers cannot– at least not easily. We typically chop the decimal part after two digits and use 3.14 as an approximation of pi. Thanksgiving Day occurs in the US every year on the 4th Thursday in November, but the exact date of that Thursday changes every year. We know it’s always on the 4th Thursday in November, and we always call it “Thanksgiving Day”. Well “Pi” works the same way. For every circle, pi is always the quotient or result of dividing the circle’s circumference by its diameter, regardless of those exact dimensions. Whenever we do that, we get the same, fascinating little number called “pi”. Regardless of the exact date in November, we always call the 4th Thursday “Thanksgiving Day”.

Thanks to my teammates for participating in this marvelous and fun little experiment!

Competency-Based Grading

We recently revisited the question, “Why competency-based education?” as a way to step back from our work. As Chip puts it, “Nothing is sacred.” We believe that what we are doing transcends any model or method. They are just vehicles to realize our vision. Currently, I am neck deep in the process of envisioning a competency-based grade book that thinks about grading in a very different way than other grade books we have seen. This process often leads me to think about traditional grading and the type of learning culture it creates. If you know me, then you know that I believe that traditional grading creates a very negative learning culture and I also think that many kids are hurt because of it. Here are some thoughts I recently sent to the team:

Traditional failures cripple kid’s GPA’s and hide progress under an obsession of performance. If a child gets a failing grade for a quarter then that failure is a massive hole that is rarely filled. If a child ends up passing, the GPA calculated from that course is terrible. Also, they will likely get a C or D in the course which is enough to pass but it always makes me wonder about whether or not they are ready to pass. This is one of the dangerous mechanisms of false promotion. We define passing with such a low bar that a child can essentially graduation high school without being held to a standard of gaining proficiency in anything. This is a massive epidemic. Competency-based education says that you don’t get promoted until you demonstrate proficiency in a defined set of skills. It calls for progress based grading rather than performance based. In other words, performance based grading takes a series of scores that represent discrete performances and averages them together. This is supposed to represent the child’s average performance level within a discipline. This is used as a sole metric for promotion and almost everything that went into creating that score is completely arbitrary. Progress based grading is a consistent process that establishes a baseline and then demands that a child persists until they reach the expectation. That progress is tracked and then spit out back to them. They only get promoted when they reach that expectation. One implication of this is that we don’t care about past “failures.” Past failures now get pushed out with current successes. We want to create a system that values where a child is currently rather than making them pay for past failures regardless of where they are. We also demand that a child actually demonstrates proficiency in the skills rather than get passed along.

Progress based grading isn’t without criticism but as we deconstruct school, we need to think about structures that allow us to report useful data to all stakeholders. This includes organizations that place value on traditional metrics. This is a reality of any progressive school, especially progressive schools that choose to exist within larger organizations that may not yet have the capacity to support some of the new thinking. This led me to attempt to create a story of our model so we can help people understand it. The following won’t tell you why we created this model but it will hopefully help you understand how we are thinking about different aspects of competency based education through the lens of grading.

Tenants of a competency based grade book:

  • The competency map is the bare minimum we are defining for graduation.
  • Competencies are containers that represent standards or groups of standards.
  • Each standard will be graded on a rubric that has ratings from 6-13 (6 = 6th grade level, 13 = first year of college level work)
  • Each standard will have one or more required occurrences of proficiency
  • Proficiency is defined as work that is on grade level.
  • Credit accrues when you demonstrate proficiency for all required occurrences of each standard contained within a competency.

Because we are held accountable to the same standards as all other schools in Pennsylvania, we have to convert progress into traditional course credits and grades. Here is our current thinking:

  • Progress needs to be converted into traditional grades and credit.
  • Standards are mapped to traditional courses. Therefore, a course sits across competencies.
  • When all skills for a traditional course are completed two things occur:
    • The student will get the assigned traditional credits.
    • The average grade level of all the occurrences will be converted to a 1oo point scale.
  • This is a temporary solution to fit a new model within a traditional system.

I would love to hear your feedback.

Learning Through Doing: Grammar

The Wrong Way to Teach Grammar


Boston Public Library/Wikimedia Commons

This recent piece in The Atlantic makes a compelling case for interest-based learning. Instead of forcing students to master a set of mundane grammatical rules before getting to the “fun” part of writing about things they are interested in, we should throw them in the deep end and have them learn grammar through writing.

From the article:

“Schools that have shifted from traditional “stand-alone” grammar to teaching grammar through writing offer concrete proof that such approaches work. They are moving more students more quickly into college-level courses than previously thought possible.”

Using Design Thinking in Education

If I had to pick a video that explains in an approximate way what we’re seeking to do at Building 21 in partnership with the School District of Philadelphia, this would be it. I enjoyed the entire sixteen and three-quarter minutes of it and was especially fond of Studio H’s 6 Design Directives which can be seen at 4’44” in the video and are listed below:

1. design through action.

2. design with, not for.

3. design systems, not stuff.

4. document, share, and measure.

5. start locally, and scale globally.

6. Build.

Competency vs. Mastery vs. Proficiency

I am knee deep in the competency world and have read everything I can find about how to define this work.  Is it Competency-based education, or Mastery-based Education or Proficiency-based Education?  All of these terms are being used interchangeably, but do they really mean the same thing?  I don’t think that they do.

Here is the way I am thinking about it.  The term Competency-based Education, for me, is not about “being competent”.  It is bigger than that.  It is about this fundamental shift in teaching and learning that measures individual learning rather than measuring seat time.   Competencies are created to define sets of knowledge, skills, concepts and mindsets that learners need to know and be able to do.  Learners progress once they have demonstrated mastery of competencies, not after a set amount of time in a course.

Mastery and proficiency then are about assessing and achieving competencies.  Learners must demonstrate their proficiency in a competency and multiple demonstrations of proficiency lead to mastery of that competency.

So how are we defining this work?  We are developing a Competency-based Educational Model in which students progress toward a degree or certification based on their ability to demonstrate mastery of a comprehensive set of skills, knowledge, behaviors and mindsets at multiple times in multiple ways.

Click here for a more in depth look at the working definition of Competency Education.

A Vote of Confidence and an Awesome Responsibility



Tonight, Resolution A-11 authorizing the opening of the first Building 21 high school was unanimously approved by the School Reform Commission of the School District of Philadelphia.  We appreciate this vote of confidence as well as all of the support we have received from individuals at every level of the School District.





We are excited about this important milestone for our organization, and are keenly aware of the awesome responsibility that learning with our future students, families and teachers entails.



Design Thinking Toolkit

Design Thinking for Educators Toolkit

We’re currently engaged in a design process as outlined by the Design Thinking for Educators Toolkit. This is a terrific resource that explains a process for design in very clear, concise and accessible terms. There are 5 stages of the process (see image from p.15 below): Discover, Interpretation, Ideation, Experimentation and Evolution. The toolkit is available to download for free at the website linked here.