Barnes: On The Results Only Learning Environment

RoleReversal.inddHe had performed this dance fifteen times, but after a particularly frustrating year of teaching, Mark Barnes wanted to quit.

“They weren’t interested in being bored,” says Barnes, who teaches middle school language arts. “They were looking to be engaged, and they weren’t getting that. At that point, I just didn’t know how to handle them. Every day was just a babysitting job. It was me telling them to sit down, to be quiet, don’t move. Writing-up office referrals constantly. Sending kids from my room because they were making little mistakes that, I learned later on, I needed to just look past a lot of those. I felt like I didn’t teach them anything.”

That summer, Barnes did some serious soul searching and found inspiration from a number of sources, especially Daniel Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. He returned to school in the fall reinvigorated and excited, with a fresh idea on how to educate with a Results Only Learning Environment (ROLE).

In February, Barnes published ROLE Reversal: Achieving Uncommonly Excellent Results in the Student-Centered Classroom. This is a brutally honest account of Barnes’s mistakes and successes as a teacher, and a helpful guide for new and veteran educators seeking to excite students about learning and mastering 21st-century skills.

“In a ROLE, students collaborate daily, and various activities take place at the same time,” he writes. “A student-centered, collaborative learning community does not need a sage-on-the-stage traditional teacher.”

In Barnes’s classroom, there are also no grades or summative assessments. Instead, he gives ongoing verbal and written feedback about student progress on activities and projects. He also practices competency-based learning, with students working at their own pace.

To an outsider, Barnes’s classroom might looks like chaos—but it’s successful chaos.

“I’ve got kids in bean bag chairs, and they’re reading books,” he says. “I’ve got kids at tables, and they’re talking to each other, and kids on their cell phones doing something, using a tool, and then kids on computers. It looks like it’s crazy, but really it’s just kids engaged.”

I tell Barnes that students in my journalism class—which looks much like a ROLE classroom—are the most productive. Kids are always active, taking photographs, writing articles, interviewing sources and updating The Falconer, the student news site of Palmer Trinity School in Miami, Florida.

I also embrace project-based learning in my history and government classes, but I assign homework—something Barnes avoids, or so I think. I ask Barnes to explain his views, and he says that he’s not against students working outside of class—it’s worksheets, text assignments and rote memorization that he considers unhelpful.

“Those things, I think, are useless, and the research basically says they’re useless,” Barnes says. “But I would never tell kids not to work outside of class. In fact I encourage it, but I want them to choose the kind of work that they do.”

Barnes explains the “reading all year” project, in which students decide which books to read.

“The goal is that they read at least 25 books, feature-length books, whether it’s fiction or non‑fiction, by the time the school year ends,” he says.

Barnes takes issue with English teachers, mostly at the high school level, who have “tunnel vision” about what books they assign.

“Our kids read books they choose all the time and then they get to high school and it’s ‘no, no, no, you can’t do that anymore,’” Barnes says.

But Barnes’s students aren’t just engaged in reading projects. His kids learn to blog, mastering an important 21st-century communication skill. This also allows Barnes easier access to student work online, where he provides timely and helpful feedback.

I’m thrilled to hear that Barnes also teaches niche-blogging, which involves an informed person conveying online her opinion on a particular area of interest.

“We learn different kinds of research—how to identify good sources, how to credit your sources—then, as they’re blogging, they’re employing those skills, especially in their niche area,” Barnes says, noting that most of his male students are covering the NBA playoffs.

Barnes and I also discuss the changing role of teacher into coach, and of the need to rethink constant assessment.

“I could go on and on about the deleterious effects of measuring everything,” Barnes says. “I don’t evaluate everything the kids do every day. I constantly coach, number one. I’m moving.”

I think Barnes would enjoy observing my classroom. I’m always moving, constantly shifting from station-to-station. I also don’t grade every piece of work, especially in my production classes. I prefer to hold-off on giving a formal assessment—at least until I’ve had ample time to speak with a student and allow him time for self-reflection.

Barnes goes a step farther. At the end of each quarter, he asks students to grade themselves.

“I find the kids who are in honors classes are the ones who are more likely to say, ‘I did everything great and I should get an A,’” Barnes says. “Kids who are not used to getting A’s and B’s are the ones who are tougher on themselves because they’ve been used to seeing low grades, and they say this is what I deserve and this is what I don’t deserve.”

I ask Barnes if ROLE would work with any grade level. He teaches middle school, but he’s confident that with the right teacher, success would follow.

“This is where, as much as I said the teacher is less important and move the teacher to the side and create a student‑centered classroom, the success of that classroom and of results‑only learning is all about how well a teacher coaches it,” Barnes says. “It’s just ongoing. You just cannot stop.”

Teaching is a labor of love, after all.

Interview transcript

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As a coach, history and journalism teacher at Brimmer and May, a wonderful independent school in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, I have the absolute best job in the world. I am thrilled to get up every morning to engage with interesting young people, and I'm equally fortunate to have such amazing colleagues and mentors. As the founder of Spin Education, I encourage you to check-in frequently and submit posts and lessons—all in an effort to better our practice as teachers.

1 Comment

  • Reply May 16, 2013

    Hudson Baird

    Thanks Mark and Dave for this piece, it’s timely and encouraging. Thank you Mark for risking a new approach and sharing your journey with the rest of us. Excited to try some of your strategies on this end.

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