Author: Justin Ballou

No Laughing Matter: Productive Assessment and the Value of Taking a Pulse

September 10, 2014 by
Chris Rock

Chris Rock. Photo from Wikimedia.

Growing up, I was always a fan of standup comedy. From the comics of my father’s age, (Billy Crystal, Richard Pryor, Sam Kinison….) to those that cut their teeth more recently, (Dane Cook, Chris Rock, etc…) the comedic skills that these players demonstrate is not always natural. It takes countless hours to develop material, back stories, delivery methods, articulation, and other tools of communication that help put the audience right where the comic wants them.

In practice, the content and the strategy develop over time. Mainly, this is due to the fact that they are consistently assessing where the audience presently is and they are adapting their show to get the most engagement. This engagement becomes the fuel for the comic and helps to build the relationship between the showman and the audience that are hopefully hanging on every last drop of the experience. (more…)

The Danger of Assumptions in Innovations: A Primer on Progress

September 3, 2014 by

comfort zoneAs an educator of the behavioral sciences, the lessons I most enjoy participating in with my students are those that hinge on progress. When we look at behavior, we can identify the indicators of both success and failure as well as identify, explain, and predict how things might have been different. We do this in hopes that the mistakes of the past can be used to circumvent the pain of repeating failure or missteps. After all, humanity is addicted to progress.

At a micro level, a school is the same as society. Each has its own structure, culture, and purpose. Similar to the major historical empires of the sub/counter cultures of American society, the living organism that is education also evolves elastically.

As schools evolve, we need to adapt, shifting perceptions and changing behaviors in order to reap the potential benefits.

Many of these changes can be difficult, as we are treading into an area of less understanding and predictability. Although difficult to do at times, we must get out of our comfort zone if we are to reap the benefits of positive change. (more…)

Little Boxes: Common Assessments in the Age of Competency Education

May 8, 2014 by
little boxes

From Wikimedia Commons

I am a sucker for quality hip hop music and the art of sampling. There is something to be said about the rebirth of something into a new generation’s culture that allows the passing of the torch. Nothing can beat the opportunity to interpret the emotion and drive of the original artist’s rendition of a song and the context of the newer creation and compare how they used the same materials to paint, often times, two totally different pictures.

Personally, my respect for the art form of sampling allows me to see both sides of the coin. As I dig through old records at flea markets and basement shops or find those rare segments on YouTube, I gain a look into a time and place much different from now. I begin to appreciate the use of the same language and instruments to create scales and emotion that on the surface are quite different, but once dug into are, more times than not, closely related.

Not too long ago, I stumbled upon this little gem, Little Boxes. Some of you may recognize it from the Showtime hit show Weeds, but long before that, it was a folk jingle written and performed by Malvina Reynolds, describing an assembly line attitude toward life that involves cookie cutter education and living in “little houses made of ticky-tacky.” In listening to it, I found myself comparing the older version and the newer version that runs during the opening credits to the show. (more…)

The Paradox of Right the First Time: Transform Assessment Practices to Reflect Growth

April 16, 2014 by

examThose of us experimenting with how we accurately measure student skills and abilities hit a wonderful fork in the road the first time we experience the unintended consequences of change. The story goes something like this.

A cool Friday morning as school begins, Mr. Brock is welcoming his 11th-grade psychology class with a casual hello and a smile. As the bell rings, Mr. Brock proceeds through the daily business of taking attendance and fielding quick questions. Prior to that day’s summative assessment, he overhears two students casually conversing.

John, sitting at his desk with his materials strewn in a form best described as controlled chaos is combing through past formative work, open responses, and segments of the textbook he has identified as areas of focus. Diligently checking components off of his preparation list, you can see the hard work and time he put in to preparing for the day’s activities.

Strolling in about four minutes after the bell had rung, Timmy sits down, drops his backpack on the floor, and waits quietly. Noticing the laissez-faire demeanor of his classmate, John leans over and asks a question…. (more…)

Google’s Real Influence on Education

September 17, 2013 by

Screen Shot 2013-09-05 at 11.21.18 PMWith the education market heating up, we are beginning to see many of the big names trying to carve out their space in transforming the education system. From Apple to Microsoft, Newsweek to LinkedIn, and everything in between, it seems as if everyone has a solution or a tool that helps to streamline the process of transferring knowledge and skill-sets to the next generation to prepare them for an ever-connected world.

Many of us look to innovations as being a gadget, app, or piece of technology that helps us facilitate the learning of objectives, making more efficient use of time in the classroom and working towards actionable metrics. We sometimes do not think about the process efficiency or innovation that can allow for this and a whole lot more.

As an educator, we look at these innovations as a way to help us in our quest to educate. Understanding that there is no “magic bullet” or save all for the educational landscape, there is one innovation that I feel will have the greatest impact on my students’ learning outcomes:

Google’s famed “20% time.” (more…)

Not ‘Til the Dishes are Done: Childhood, Chores, and Constant Expectations

August 19, 2013 by

Screen Shot 2013-08-08 at 12.07.57 PMAs with many children growing up in America, we had certain things we were expected to complete. Being young, it seemed as if most days were just a stringing together of different activities:

Some preferable like playing outside or having friends over…

While some, like the dishes, taking out the trash, swapping the wash, or cleaning up the room that my brother and I just destroyed…well…Not so much.

As I aged and took on more responsibility, my parents reinforced the fact that members of the house helped by getting things done. Simply stated, if I wanted to have a friend over or go out and play, I needed to get things done. No “ifs, ands, or buts” about it.

Through the process of completing chores, if I didn’t get one of the chores done, I didn’t get the reward. Even worse, if I didn’t do the chore right and it wasn’t done to my parent’s satisfaction, I had to go back and do it again. And again. And sometimes, again.

Sound familiar? Ever hear of any similar family systems? Live through something similar yourself? (more…)

Retake Policy: Lessons Learned from Pat Benatar

July 29, 2013 by

Screen Shot 2013-07-18 at 3.08.52 PMAs an Eighties baby and a fan of sample based music, I have spent a great deal of time surrounded by crates of vinyl. The history educator in me sees these as cultural artifacts: moments frozen in time that convey the values and feelings of people willing to put themselves out to the masses.

This same act is one we see in our students every day. In their attempts to be competent, they put out their best work for all to see. Depending upon a number of factors, that work hits or misses the mark. In the competency-based classroom environment though, the expectation is that education is not a “one-and-done” event, but rather a “move on when ready” model.

So the question is posed: How do we juggle the ideal with the real in the realm of retake policy? Below is a plan that I put into place with my classes and has seen some great successes. (I would love to hear your feedback and personal ideas/experiences in the comments!)


1. For the summative assessment, require a minimum to show best effort:

By clearly stating what the expectations are when introducing the summative, we can better communicate where the line of rigor is to allow a student to show that they put their best effort forward. When used in my classroom, some of the minimums that have seen success are a minimum grade on the original summative, and the summative needing to be submitted on time. In the traditional setting, I have also seen this bar move according to the expectations of the classroom teacher—for example, the beginning of the semester may require a certain grade for the opportunity to retake and as the semester progresses, that minimum grade might be increased.



Validating Competence with Wild Pigs in the Woods…

July 3, 2013 by

Screen Shot 2013-07-03 at 10.19.09 AMWith the school year coming to an end, I have begun the yearly practice of reflecting upon all that has occurred in and out of the classroom. This past week, I have been following along with the conversation around Iowa’s Competency-based workshop through Twitter. Although I was not able to attend, it was great to see the conversations as well as the feedback on the presentations helping to push competency-based education further in active environments.

As I continue to see this grow in both my home state of New Hampshire as well as other forward thinking states, I have begun to think more about the structures of these systems and how we can show student competence. If the ultimate goal is to have our students both college and career ready, then how is it we can validate that student learning has occurred?

In the process of reflection, I was brought back to a statement that my high school math teacher, Mr. Restuccia, used to consistently say. When confronted with a problem, and we could spit out the answer, he would state the claim, “Even a wild pig will find strawberries in the woods sometimes.” Although frustrating as a student, his statement was true to the fact that, just because we had the answer, didn’t mean that we truly understood the concepts or how to use the information. (more…)

Setting up a Competency-Based System: The Authoring Process

October 3, 2012 by

If and when your institution is ready to move into the next steps of transitioning to competencies from set time, I have compiled a list of things that we have learned over the better part of a decade. I hope that these can assist your stakeholders in the authoring and implementation process.

School wide or Subject-wide:
In creating a competency based system, one of the first decisions to be discussed is the idea of school wide competencies, (the same 3-5 for all classes) or content wide competencies (3-5 for English, 3-5 for Mathematics courses, etc.) Understanding that different content structures are going to assess knowledge and skills differently, there are pros and cons to each. You should just make sure that the buy-in for the shift is there.


The Shift to Competencies: A Practical Approach

September 18, 2012 by

Welcome Back! I hope you all thoroughly enjoyed the time that you had during the summer months. It is always good to have reflection, as they say. I hope that you, as the probable influencers in your buildings, districts, and states, have been able to focus a bit on the work that we have ahead of us!

As I read through this blog, as well as some of the great literature floating around, I thought that it may be a good idea to provide a bit of experiential hindsight for those of us transitioning from the philosophy of seat time to show-and-prove academics. Many questions emerge when I speak with students, parents, and policy makers, so I thought you might appreciate a “been-there-done-that” point of view. Hopefully it can assist you in your movement toward competency.


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