Is your lesson relevant?

I get frustrated when I’m asked to do something irrelevant. Don’t you? And yet, many teachers dread when students ask, “When am I ever going to need to know this stuff?” It’s a rather obnoxious way of asking, “Is this lesson relevant?”

Now, picture this. You craft a lesson that is so relevant that you hope some kid inquires! This episode is designed to help you create such a lesson. To help in this mission is an awesome primary source.

Mitchell Charles

Mitchell Charles is an articulate young man destined for academic brilliance.

In World Civilization, we were meandering through a unit on the Industrial Revolution. This topic typically leaves some students cold. My challenge was to make it relevant.

I did this with the help of Elon Musk and Peergrade. Below is the lesson that Mitchell evaluates. Please feel free to commandeer some of it, or all of it!

Applying the Industrial Revolution via Elon Musk

History students often complain that what they study doesn’t seem relevant. You may have heard the cliche, History repeats itself. You may, or may not be persuaded by this idea, but hopefully you’ll concede that the study of history at least gives us templates through which we can better understand the present, making a lot of subject matter relevant.

Technological changes that are at work today have the potential of reshaping the world along the lines of the changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution. Studying how that unfolded has the potential to make a young person more adaptable.

Elon Musk is one of the world’s most interesting and perhaps most impactful citizens. Musk is determined to improve the way you live. He also is determined to help the USA win back it’s manufacturing advantage.

This man has the potential to create products and systems that are as impactful as anything we’ve studied so far. He was born under the yoke of Apartheid in South Africa and as soon as he was able, he migrated to Canada and then the USA. He’s now a US citizen.

I first became interested in Musk when I saw him appear on the Big Bang Theory years ago. 

We’ll focus on 4 of Musk’s objectives:

  1. SpaceX
  2. Tesla
  3. SolarCity
  4. The Boring Company

Job 1: Make it relevant: Become familiar with your topic by reviewing the links and conducting online research.

Job 2: Meet with other students who’ve been assigned the same focus. Dialogue about the company. You certainly don’t have to agree, but consider the views of your classmates.

Job 3: Individually, Respond to the prompts on the appropriate doc on Google Classroom.

Hacking Engagement Again

Click image to peek inside

Job 4: Upload your views to Peergrade.

Job 5: Evaluate your peer’s ideas via Peergrade.

Each student has been assigned a focus. Here are some links, but please don’t limit yourself to only the links I provide.


Start your research by visiting the company website. Then navigate to this objective article. Conduct research on this entity including a video search.


Start your research by visiting the company website. Then, navigate to this objective article. Finally, conduct research on this entity including a video search.


Start your research by visiting the company website. Then, navigate to this objective article. Finally, conduct research on this entity including a video search.

The Boring Company

Start your research by visiting the company website. Then, navigate to this objective article. Finally, conduct research on this entity including a video search.

Elon Musk Reaction Prompt

Build your responses based on your research. Each prompt is worth 10 points. Elaborate on your ideas. Don’t just give 1 word, or 1 phrase answers. Compose a narrative for each prompt.

  • Pretend that you are Elon Musk. You’re appealing to a number of venture capitalists with the goal of having them invest. Provide your audience with a sales pitch. This has nothing to do whether you…as in you personally, not as in you pretending to be Elon Musk…think the venture will be successful.
  • Indicate whether you think this venture is feasible. Don’t just respond yes or no. Explain why, or why not, you think it’ll work.
  • The inventions of the Industrial Revolution changed people’s lives in fundamental ways. Do you believe this venture will change lives and if you do, in what way and if you don’t, why not?
  • Pretend that you’re in this class and it’s 200 years in the future. Your instructor, who is a remarkably improved version of yours truly, asks you to describe Elon Musk, place him in context, and describe his significance.
  • Indicate something that you would like to see invented. This needs to be an innovation that will dramatically improve life on earth. Describe it, explain how it works, and predict how it will improve life.

click image to learn more

Apply the Hack Learning Formula

The Problem:

Students often feel lessons are not relevant.

The Solution:

Craft lessons where kids are challenged to apply what you’re teaching to their lives.

What you can do Tomorrow:

  • Brainstorm real world applications for tomorrow’s lesson
  • Break your students into 4 topics or problems and then challenge them to respond to provocative prompts
  • Have kids submit their work to Peergrade and then watch a virtual Socratic Seminar unfold before your eyes

Teaching relevance is the responsibility of every educator. Teaching relevance will empower you to embrace the question, “Why do we have to learn this?”

Listen to “94-Usher in Relevance Courtesy of Elon Musk and Peergrade…Starring Mitchell Charles” on Spreaker


A version of this first appeared at

Why grading and evaluating are not assessment

Hack Learning’s Mark Barnes wrote about revolutionizing assessment by going gradeless in Education Week’s 10 Big Ideas special report. Some readers are intrigued, and some are pushing back.

In Episode 110 of the Hack Learning Podcast embedded above, Mark takes on the pushback and explains why grading and evaluating are not parts of effective assessment.

No, Students Don’t Need Grades, excerpted from Education Week’s 10 Big Ideas article

Technology and social media continue to disrupt education. Classrooms are morphing into maker spaces; STEM labs and media centers are filled with fascinating electronic gadgets. Teachers spend less time in front of the class and more time in the middle of the action. Schools, teachers, leaders, parents, and students across the country are embracing this brave new world.

In the midst of rapidly changing technology, and consequently, pedagogy, there is another fundamental change I would argue more educators need to embrace. It’s a growing movement to alter the one function of education that most stakeholders steadfastly refuse to revise: how we assess learning.

If you’re interested in disrupting education far more than the 3-D printer or smartphone ever could, consider schools and colleges where there are no grades. Imagine classrooms where teachers never place numbers, letters, percentages, or other labels on students’ work; where report cards don’t exist; and where the GPA has gone the way of the dinosaur.

In a gradeless classroom, the perpetual lies that numbers and letters tell about learning would cease to exist. Honor and merit rolls would disappear. There would be no school valedictorian. Clubs that celebrate high performers would disband. Many colleges and universities would change how they admit incoming freshmen, and academic scholarships would need a makeover.

Moreover, teachers would learn how to effectively assess academic performance, and students would become independent learners, driven by curiosity and inspiration rather than by the empty promise of a “good” grade or the threat of a “bad” one.

Now, this may sound like only a big, perhaps even unrealistic, idea. But the gradeless classroom already exists in schools worldwide. While I don’t claim to be the creator of no-grades learning environments, I and thousands of my colleagues across the United States and around the world have turned it into a movement that is helping educators reimagine how they assess learning.

Read the rest of my EdWeek article, part of the 10 Big Ideas in Education special report, here.

Mark Barnes on grades, feedback, and evaluation

  • Grades and feedback are not the same. Grades are numbers, percentages, and letters that label students and mislead stakeholders about what has or has not been learned.
  • There are many factors that impact learning, and teachers must have a conversation with students about those factors.
  • It’s crucial that teachers ask kids questions: Why did you do this? Why this way? What if you had done this instead? What don’t you understand? How can you better understand this?
  • Education needs to eliminate evaluation from assessment. Evaluation is about judging performance, and the only shareholders suited for this type of judgement are the learners. Teachers should relegate their feedback to observations and questions and teach kids how to judge their work.

More on going gradeless

Click image to look inside Hacking Assessment

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30-second assessment

13 Thirty-Second Assessment Strategies

I know a few teachers this year who are committed to assessing students without testing them. That’s right: they’re not only ditching grades, they’re trying to ditch the tests that produce them too. They’re confident that the data they’re gathering provides far better information than those tired instruments used to, particularly when it comes to understanding when learning is happening, when it isn’t, and why.

They’re doing this without adding “one more thing” to their curriculum or extending their preparation time, too. How is this possible? In addition to making learning visible and documenting it in a variety of ways, they’ve created a toolbox of 30 second assessment strategies. They’re putting these strategies to the test before, during, and after instruction.

You’ll find a collection of the most popular strategies below, but know that this isn’t a definitive list, and each strategy can and should be adapted to fit your purposes. It’s one that teachers are adding to over time, and as they test approaches in their classrooms, they’re discovering that some work better than others, depending on their needs.

I’ll add this reflection as well: when learners are invited to bring their cell phones into the classroom, they power up the documentation process. Gathering and curating the right data at the right time becomes far more efficient as well.

Of all the work I’m facilitating this year, these projects are my favorite. If you’re interested in collaborating with me and the teachers that I  support, just drop a line in the comments below or connect with me on Twitter. The more the merrier.

30 Second Assessment Strategies

1 – Tweet at Me: Before they walk out the door, ask your students to send you a tweet that states the most important thing they learned that day, one thing they are confused about, or how they know they met the instructional target.

2 – Monitor Your Frustration: Use a simple frustration scale to keep tabs on how learners are feeling and why. I use one that looks similar to a hospital pain scale, and I ask students to track their frustration levels several times throughout a day’s lesson. When I ask them to reflect on this data, I always learn a lot.

3 – Cool Review: Ask your students to shoot you an email, a text, or a handwritten review of your instruction that day. Make it clear that you want to know what you can do better.

4 – Flashback: When the day’s learning should remind students of something they learned previously, challenge them to frame out a flashback by making clear comparisons and providing a reason why.

5 – Show Me You Know It: Challenge students to complete just one task that proves they know what you taught them that day.

Make Writing

6 – Shoot Your Data: Invite students to review the day’s work and take three photos using their cell phones: one that reflects the best learning they accomplished that day, one that reflects the highest moment of frustration, and one that reflects another moment of their own choosing. They may text these to you, archive them in a space that you create, or establish their own album to expand upon over time.

7 – Record Your Reflection: When you ask reflective questions, ask students to video tape their responses rather than writing them. This is a time saver, and it allows learners to focus more on reflecting than on producing perfect written pieces for critical eyes.

8 – Headings and Subheadings: Provide learners with sticky notes, and ask them to create a headline for an article about the day’s learning. Require them to post their headlines on the board as they leave the classroom that day. When they return the next day, warm up by reviewing the ideas shared and if necessary, debating a bit in order to choose the most appropriate heading. As learning continues, challenge them to check out of class by sharing subheadings. Build your class article over the course of several days or weeks, as learning deepens (okay, so this will take more than 30 seconds, but it’s one of my favorites, so forgive me).

9 – Four Corner Feedback: Post four posters, one in each corner of your room: I’M CONFUSED/I’M CURIOUS/I’M QUESTIONING/I’M CLEAR. Ask students to reflect on the day’s learning. Are they confused about something? Curious about some aspect of what you are studying that was not discussed? Questioning what was learned or even disagreeing with points shared? Clear and ready to move on to the next phase? Once they know what they’re thinking, they should visit one corner of their choice on the way out the door. When they arrive, they must leave a note on the poster that explains their thinking.

10 – Analogies: Invite learners to create an analogy for some aspect of the day’s learning. They should share these in an open Google Doc, where they can see how others respond and push their peers’ thinking.

11 – Red Flags: If the lesson included the production of notes or other products, ask students to review the work they created and place red flags on areas that reflect where greater clarity or reteaching is necessary. Consider using colored sticky notes, dots, or red pens or markers.

12 – Collaborate, Cluster, Categorize: Provide learners ten slips of paper or sticky notes. Ask each learner to brainstorm ten things learned during the day’s lesson in thirty seconds or less, placing one item on each note. As a warm up the next day, challenge students to form teams and spill their notes into a shared space. Once all notes are visible, the team should work to cluster the notes and then categorize them.

13 – Plus/Delta: What’s working, helping, clicking, sticking? What needs to change? Ask learners to reflect on these questions, and ask them to add their thoughts to a plus/delta chart like the one featured in the photo above.

So, how do teachers use what they learn about students from these assessments to speak with parents or other educators about their strengths and struggles?

self-assessment - Hack Learning Podcast

Hacking Assessment: How to Improve Learning and Cure a Stomach Ache

Kerry Gallagher’s daughter had a stomach ache. As a longtime educator and mother, Kerry is well equipped to handle a 7-year-old’s aching tummy, but this one was a little different.

She gave herself a 90. That 90 made her stomach ache. It isn’t her teacher’s fault. Maybe it is my fault. I’m her mom and I knew how to play the grades game in school.

In the Hack Learning podcast episode embedded above, teacher, digital learning specialist, and mom Kerry Gallagher and Hack Learning creator Mark Barnes share some simple ways that both teachers and parents can eliminate labels and inspire children to think about learning, without the hindrance of a grade.

What parents and teachers can do tomorrow

1 — Gallagher and Barnes suggest that parents emphasize the value of learning over grades to their children. Tell your child that the process of learning and the joy of exploration are the most important things–much more important than a grade.

2 — Teachers should invite students to assess their own learning, while discouraging labels. Any sort of number or letter grade attached to the activity after self-assessment can undermine the learning experience.

3 — Make learning inspirational and fun. If the activity and the assessment do not bring joy, rethink both.

For more from Kerry Gallagher, check out Why Our Grading System Is Failing Our Kids, on her Start With a Question blog. Don’t miss Kerry’s tweets on Twitter @KerryHawk02.

Share your own success with self-assessment by your student and/or your child, in our comment section below and on Twitter at #HackLearning.

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8 Takeaways From Hacking Assessment

Takeaways from Go Gradeless

8 Takeaways From Hacking Assessment

By Melissa Pilakowski

Starr Sackstein’s Hacking Assessment not only revolutionizes education, but it gives step-by-step instructions on how to do it. That’s what makes this book so powerful.

Not only does Starr describe her classroom, but she also gives some strategies that readers can start implementing tomorrow. The infographic above outlines eight key takeaways from the book.

What I especially liked in the book was Starr’s description of her process of “going gradeless” in her school that requires grades. That’s certainly the boat that I’m in, and that most teachers in America are in, too. But she provides details on how she still met her school’s requirement for a “grade” through student conferences.

The strategies of conferencing with students and teaching them to grade themselves are two directions I’m following in the coming months.

Going gradeless will be a process for me. I won’t get there overnight, but my goal now is to “grade less”—to focus more on giving narrative feedback during the process, to conference more with students about final grades on papers, and to focus on students meeting standards rather than earning that A.

Are you going gradeless, or even shifting the conversation about learning? Please tell us how.

Melissa Pilakowski is an 11-12 English/Language Arts teacher in Valentine, Nebraska, as well as a passionate lover of language, technology, and gaming in the classroom. Follow her on Twitter at and read her latest adventures in teaching at .

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