Category: Education

High School Startup Talk (how-to)

This past Friday was Career Day at Ankeny Centennial High School (the high school near me). They invited me to talk about what I do in my career. I gave them several options (software engineer, consulting, entrepreneurship/startups). I was asked to speak on entrepreneurship.

Rather than just talk about me, I thought it’d be more fun (for me, but especially them) to show them how to create their own successful startup businesses.

In one of the three sessions I told the students that I was considering setting up some kind of extra-curricular “create your own startup” class, where I would mentor high-school-level students and help them create a business over the course of a semester. There seemed to be a lot of interest in it, so we’ll see where that goes.

The slides for my entrepreneurship talk are shared for viewing on Google Drive.

Feel free to use that for the basis of your own discussion of startups.

I won’t go further into the content of my talk here because I’d really rather devote several blog posts to the various points in the future.



Hour of Code wants YOU to code.

I’m glad to see that‘s “Hour of Code” seems to be a hit. :)

To go along with Computer Science Education Week (this week 12/9-12/15), everyone is encouraged to spend one hour learning to program.

If you’re an educator, hopefully you already have your students fully engaged in this effort. If you’re anyone else, I encourage YOU to accept the challenge, if you haven’t already – it’s way easier than you think.

Computers are ever more important to our society, and everyone should improve their literacy in this area.

Watch the video below, then turn off distractions, set a timer for one hour (or more), and click this link:

“Everybody in this country should learn how to program a computer.” – Steve Jobs

Standards-Based Grading (in Ankeny)

Ankeny Community School District


I live in the city of Ankeny, Iowa. So my kids will (most likely) be going to schools in the Ankeny Community School District (ACSD).

Ankeny’s a bit behind in implementing the Common Core curriculum and is trying to get everyone up to speed on Standards-Based Grading (SBG). There have been a lot of rumors going around and some mis-information on the topic. Understandably, some parents are concerned about how this will impact their students. ACSD recently published a blog post all about SBG, why we’re doing it, and the process of implementing it in Ankeny. Rather than drone on, I’ll refer you to their full post here. (I thought it was very well written.)

Iowa Student Learning Institute

ISLIIf you’re interested in improving education (and you live in Iowa), there’s an event coming up next Saturday, October 5th, you should check out.

It’s called the Iowa Student Learning Institute (ISLI). It’s a conference that was totally spearheaded and organized by students – specifically Ian Coon and Jack Hostager. I think they did a pretty impressive job getting it all setup. I’m also just impressed that they did this at all. It really shows some great initiative. The idea behind it is to get input from students on what’s happening (or should be happening) in transitioning schools to 21st century teaching/learning practices.

In their own words: “ISLI is like an edcamp- except for students. ISLI is a day being planned by a group led by two Iowa teens designed to enable students, with the support of their teachers, to make their voice heard by sharing ideas about improving education. ISLI will combine presentations from education leaders with edcamp style breakout sessions.”

Next Saturday, follow the #isli hashtag on twitter to join the conversation.

You can also follow the conference on facebook and twitter.

Here’s the full schedule.

I (Jake Kerber) will be on a panel from 12:25-12:50 (during lunch) entitled, “What I Wish I Knew in High School”. I’ll also be giving a talk that I call, “Put Students in Charge for Success”. (I originally thought of calling it “What Monkeys, Marshmallows, and Games Can Teach Us About Education”.)

Here’s what my talk will be about:

I’m a businessman, technology entrepreneur, parent, and researcher on the psychology of education.

In my talk I’ll enumerate the problems I see in the current education system:
– Students aren’t properly prepared for college (or careers)
– Students aren’t happy
– Some students are held back from achieving and others are forced through the system
– Student creativity is crushed

I’ll explain the science that tells us what schools should be doing instead and present a possible comprehensive solution.

Finally, we’ll discuss how we can work together as a group to make the change to a better system.

The Homework Debate


photo credit: Anthony Kelly (apdk on flickr)

People who are new to the concepts of differentiated instruction can get pretty concerned when you say that homework shouldn’t count towards a student’s “grade”. This post is an attempt to alleviate that concern.

If homework is assigned to a particular student, that homework assignment should definitely be checked by the teacher (what some people call “grading”) and feedback should be given to the student as to how well they did on it, where they need work, etc. That’s not the issue. What we’re talking about here is only whether homework should be mandatory and whether the scores for homework assignments should be calculated into students’ course grades.

As I stated in a recent post, “students should be graded solely on whether they’ve mastered, or learned, the particular standard, or competency they’re working on”. The methods they use to reach the level of mastery can vary.

I think some of the confusion around homework (whether it should be required, included in the grade, etc.) comes from thinking that all students are working on the same thing at the same time and that all students would get the same homework. In that case, people might think it only fair that all students should be required to do the homework.

However, with differentiated instruction, different students will need different homework assignments. A great homework assignment for teaching one student might be totally inappropriate for another student. The reason for assigning homework – or any “practice” work to be done during class time or outside – is for the student to reinforce, through practice, what has already been learned and to help shift the new skills into more long-term memory. One student might need (or benefit more from) more practice than another student.

If a student can pass an assessment on a concept and prove he/she has mastered it, it shouldn’t matter whether they did any homework or what style of learning they used to reach that accomplishment.

Here are the main concerns I’ve heard from people about not grading homework:

1)      Fairness

If all students were being taught the same things in the same ways all at the same time, it might seem only fair that all students should be required to do the homework. But that’s not how things work with differentiated instruction. Different students will need different homework assignments – and some students might not need any homework. Imagine if a student did poorly on a homework assignment because he didn’t understand the standard it covered. Then imagine that student working hard to fully understand the material and eventually master it. I believe it would be unfair to penalize this student by incorporating the earlier poor score into his grade, since that doesn’t reflect his true current level of understanding.

2)      Increased workload on teachers

I think it’s more of a shift in how teachers spend their time and not necessarily an increase in workload. Whether homework is graded should have no impact on a teacher’s workload. The teacher is already differentiating instruction for their students based on their individual needs – it has nothing to do with whether homework is counted in the grade or not.

Much of the extra work from instruction differentiation (not homework grading) can be automated with technology and online teaching resources, assessments, etc. The teacher should already have a large collection of teaching materials (worksheets, practice problems, assessments, videos, websites, educational games, etc.) for the concepts that they are responsible for teaching. If not, things should be moving in that direction.

3)      Getting kids to learn (force them to do homework)

A concern a parent might have is that, “if my child doesn’t do the homework, how will they learn? I don’t want them to fail the test or get a bad grade.” As stated earlier, different students need different homework – and some may not need any. Much of this concern comes from thinking about non-differentiated instruction. The teacher will work with your child until they understand the material and can pass the relevant assessment.

4)      Students falling behind if they don’t do homework

If my child doesn’t do the homework and thus doesn’t learn and thus can’t pass the assessment for that standard, won’t they fall behind the other students and not get through all the standards they should for the year?

I understand this concern, but I don’t think this problem will be as prevalent as some people think.

First of all, just by having homework required and graded, it doesn’t mean all students will do it.

Second, if a student doesn’t understand the concept and you force them to do homework they don’t know how to do, they can develop bad habits that will have to be un-learned and/or they can also grow to resent school if the challenges they’re faced with don’t match their skill level.

Third, students (and people, in general) want to learn. They want to accomplish goals. They want to succeed at challenges. It’s why we work on puzzles and play games. As long as the student has learned the pre-requisite concepts, they should have the skills they need to learn the new one. The new concept should be just the right amount of challenge – not too easy, but not too hard – right in the goldilocks zone. This situation – in which skill level and challenge level are matched can increase the student’s intrinsic motivation for learning.

The peer pressure of their friends moving on to new concepts will also be a factor.

Ultimately it should be up to the teacher and their experience with the student to decide what the best approach is for teaching the concept to the student. And the teacher will use her/his skills and experience to help motivate the student as appropriate.

5)      Keep parents informed about what their students are learning

Parents want to know what their children are working on in school. Some parents may fear that if their child doesn’t have a homework assignment to work on, then they won’t see what it is they’re learning in school.

My hope is that teachers will have collections of learning resources online each linked to the different standards. Each student should have a list of the standards (possibly including dependency relationships) and where they stand on each of them (which ones they’ve already mastered, which ones they are ready to work on, etc.). Ideally this system could be a tool to facilitate discussion between a student and their parents about what they’re learning.

Then if a student is working on a particular standard, all they (or their parent) need to do is look up the standard and find a learning resource that fits with the student’s learning style.

6)      Keep parents informed about their students’ behavior

Some parents express desire to hear from teachers as to whether their children are doing the homework assignments.

I agree with parents who want to know whether their children are exhibiting desired or undesired behaviors in school. However, doing homework isn’t necessarily a desired behavior.

If however, a teacher seriously recommended that a particular student do a particular assignment and then the student refused, then that could be a behavioral issue – if the student was simply “acting out”. However, in my opinion, a more common reason would be that the student didn’t understand the homework, needed some different instruction, felt overwhelmed from other school work or a home situation and didn’t have time, or perhaps needs some time management instruction or more in-class work.

Behaviors (good and bad) of students should be reported in some form as feedback to the students themselves and to their parents, but student behaviors should not be a part of grading.

Testing for Competency

I just wanted to make a quick note about Testing, or Assessment, as it relates to standards and competency-based grading with differentiated instruction

In the old (non-differentiated instruction) world, there were magic dates when the teacher would plan a test and you had to know all the material/concepts that would be covered on the test by that date, or else. With standards-based grading, a test, or assessment, is just a means to determine whether you’ve mastered the concept yet.

With differentiated instruction (possibly in a more competency-based approach), students will each take an assessment on the concept when they’re ready. The assessment is checked to see if the student did it correctly (preferably immediately after taking it). If they find they’d misunderstood something, the student can get some help in whatever form is most appropriate. Then the student can take another assessment to prove they’ve now mastered it. If a student already learned a standard/concept outside of school (from an older sibling, on an internship, etc.), he/she could take the assessment right away (a pre-test) without wasting the teacher’s or student’s time (and becoming bored and possibly disruptive). Maybe the student would “test out” of the standard or the pre-test might give the teacher some insight into exactly what the student needs.


Why We Need Differentiated Instruction in Schools

In standards-based grading, one of the key ideas is that students should be graded solely on whether they’ve mastered, or learned, the particular standard, or competency they’re working on, rather than on how well they conform to a system.

Differentiated Instruction

Since students learn at different paces (depending on the particular concepts they’re working on) and in different ways, in order for standards-based grading to work, we must have differentiated instruction. I see differentiated instruction as giving each student what they need, when they need it, and how they need it in order for them to be successful in learning the particular standard they’re currently working on.

Without differentiated instruction we have what most of us grew up with – a teacher explaining the same lesson to a room of 30 students all at the same time – even though a third of us might already have mastered that concept and a third of us might be totally lost because we don’t yet fully understand a prerequisite concept.


Here’s a great video about this:

(This video happens to be from, but it’s just about differentiation and not necessarily anything specific to their work).

We need to quit thinking of a classroom as a place where a teacher stands at the front of the room and “teaches” to a bunch of students. We should instead think of a classroom as a bunch of students individually learning in different ways (possibly different things), who just happen to be in the same space.