My Journey Among Checklists and Labels

by Julie Schneider

My Meander

The Michigan skies were overcast and I remember feeling tired. Tired of the grind. Tired of the social insanity of dorm living. Just tired. And I buried myself in differential equations.

I practiced solving every problem in the textbook - starting with #1 and working all the way through the unit we were learning. Then I did it again...and again and again. It became a mantra and a rather surprising source of comfort for me.

I proceeded to declare Electrical Engineering as my major because, according to my guidance counselor, it was the most math*-heavy of the engineering disciplines. (I couldn't imagine a viable career with a measly math degree.) It turned out that I couldn't imagine a viable career with any degree so after earning my BS I kept studying through my MSE. After that I dabbled in computer science and teaching at community colleges and meandered my way to a PhD program in Education.

The Answers to Life's Questions

When I started the PhD program I felt passionately that the answers to life's questions could be found in a deep relationship with math. I was determined to become an advocate for teaching and learning math as the powerful tool that it is.

However, as well-versed as I was in math and science, I was brand spankin' new to the fields of psychology and social science research. I had a lot to learn and I absolutely LOVED learning it all - from philosophy to early childhood development (e.g., work by Vygotsky and Piaget), quantitative research methods to anthropology, plus learning styles (e.g., VARK and Kolb), multiple intelligences, equity in education, and models for teaching and learning (e.g, Bloom's Taxonomy).

Clearly people had been considering the answers to life's questions from every angle imaginable.

And it wasn't just math teaching and learning being studied from all these perspectives. Every subject in every discipline seemed to be contemplated these ways. The same way I loved math, others loved history, literature, and science (and within science physics, biology, etc.). People from every department were working to support teachers and students from all walks of life. We all wanted to making education accessible to all.

Thus, the standards.


The standards of education made total sense to me. For every subject in every discipline, advocates like me had summarized and outlined all the amazing and important things to know. Each important topic was broken into parts and organized neatly. That way each part could be taught (and learned) in turn. Then (obviously) the parts would be put together so every student would have a comprehensive understanding of the subject.

Standards are basically checklists for people and I LOVE checklists!

Easy peasy.


Once the standards were written it only made sense to write tests to go along with them. We could test teachers and students to be sure that they learned each little piece of math and then test that they put the pieces together properly.

I was equally enthusiastic to learn that quantitative researchers spend an immense amount of time and energy developing questions and answers so they are valid and reliable, trustworthy. The researchers are careful about the language used in the questions and the answers. They do field testing - extensively interviewing test-takers to see the extent to which the questions and answers are understood as the test-writers had intended. Awesome, right?!


[Don't look over at the low end or the high end of the Normal Distribution. Wink, wink. So few people land outside two standard deviations of the mean (4.6% - 2.3% above and 2.3% below) that we just focus on the middle 95.4% of people. That's where we get the most bang for our buck when we want to make generalizations.]

Using Tests

By quantifying everything in a summative assessment we could get good numerical snapshots of how much (95.4% of) students learn and how well they understand what they've learned. We could rank them. We could guide them accordingly.

High-scorers could be checked off the list; low-scorers could get more instruction. High-scorers could be trusted to be good candidates for future independent endeavors; low-scorers could not be trusted to put the pieces together properly and would require more investment, more support.

It all made so much sense...

...until I had a child who lands in the top 2.3% in some regards and the bottom 2.3% in others.

Checklist, Shmecklist

Discussing the ranks of the middle 95.4% of children became inconsequential to me. Not only did it leave out my beloved child, it started to seem absurd to me to rank children at all!

Each child considered in his or her own right is amazing! Comparing just stinks and serves no one. We must simply meet a child where he or she is, connect, and explore together.

As I do this with my children, what is most fascinating to me is how learning is so unlike checking things off a checklist.

First of all, they have no interest in my checklist. Secondly, they don't even make checklists of their own. They simply play. By following their interests they learn. In fact, there is no stopping them from learning.

But then what do I do?

But if they learn on their own then what do I do? That is the question that has been plaguing me for the last year or so.

These are my answers:

1. Reimagine the Purpose of Education: To Become Learners in the Information Age

We are in the age of information. Every subject in every discipline has had an advocate insist that it be included in a top-down model of education. But that has left us with schools bloated with responsibility. Every subject in every discipline is being checked off a list, when, in fact, checklists are not representative of how people learn.

Instead, cultivating learners means letting go of top-down implementation of standards, allowing them to pursue their own interests, and providing meaningful provocations to explore deeper or discover something new. By reimagining the purpose of education, I am able to provide those provocations.

2. Using the Standards to Educate Myself in New Disciplines

Just because I say that we should stop the top-down implementation of standards-driven education doesn't mean that the Standards are useless. I think that they are awesome resources. In fact, it is where I turn to learn new things. I do an internet search for the standards for the topic du jour and read over them to see what's what. (These days I'm digging into Art.)

3. Finding My Meaningful Measure of Learning

As a parent and a homeschooler I am not particularly interested in comparing my children to other children. That frees me from looking for tests that have been developed for the general population or even specialized tests for the top 2.3% of the population. Instead, I'm looking for a more qualitative representation of what they learn.

That is because quantitative tests are created for large sample sizes - getting an idea of what a lot of different children know. I get to capitalize on the fact that I have only two students and use portfolios, stories, and the like to represent our (yes, our) learning.

Accepting and Supporting Disability and/or Hyperability

That is my long-winded answer to:

"When people hear “gifted,” they often assume that means high-achieving, especially academically. How did these two terms become synonymous?"

Rest assured that the tests are not arbitrary - the educational research community wrestles with all aspects of the tests from what topics to test to the language used to word the questions and answers and even cultural connotations implied in the text. By understanding this as well as the normal distribution for any given test, you can see that high-achievers are rare; gifted persons are rarer still. The degree to which you agree with the 2-standard-deviation cut-off to label someone as "gifted" (and the 3-standard deviation cut-off for the "profoundly gifted" label) is up to you.

Most importantly, though, is how the information is used.

"How can families, teachers, and other professionals work to change the misperceptions around giftedness to create a more accepting and supportive environment?"

I would say:

A. Understand the origins and limits of tests.

B. Use the outcomes of tests thoughtfully.

and last but not least

C. Take advantage of the intimate relationship afforded in one-on-one and small-group learning that comes with homeschool, therapy, or specialized classes by allowing children as much freedom as possible to choose their own topics of inquiry, their own ways, for as much or as little time as they choose.

As I step into the new year, I am turning away from tests, labels, and many other things, and focusing on C - my responsibilities to my students.

This was written as part of the GHF Bloghop. Click here for more!!!

*I know I should use "maths" instead of "math" but I'm not going to here.