One of my favorite scenes in literature is where Tom Sawyer convinces all the boys in the neighborhood to whitewash the fence for him, a task he had been given as punishment. Not only does he not have to do the work, but his friends all empty their pockets of little boy goodies to “pay” for the right to do Tom’s job. Tom does this by talking about how much he wants to whitewash the fence, making it sound like the most desirable job in the world.

After succeeding at getting out of the work and filling his own pockets with goodies, Tom realizes a truth about work and play, expressed by Twain this way:

“in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain. If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.”

There are two realizations here:
1. Tom’s thought about making something difficult to attain in order to make it desirable,
2. and Twain’s, as the narrator, that work is what we’re forced to do; play is what we choose to do.
As educators, we are always looking for ways to improve student engagement. Let’s take a few minutes to apply the realizations from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer to this problem of practice and see where it leads.

Flexible Learning

One of the many new practices in education spurred forward by COVID is flexible learning, the practice of allowing and encouraging students to tailor their learning to their own needs, interests, and schedules. This idea isn’t new, and has been a buzzword in education at least since the emergence of the internet. However, with so many students learning from home during the pandemic, the potential for truly flexible learning has gained traction.

In order to best implement flexible learning, schools must define clear learning targets and success criteria to guide students on their learning journeys. By doing so, they set a high bar for students to meet, but also allow for choice in meeting those learning targets.

Competency-Based Learning

It seems simple to say that the goal of teaching is that students will become competent in the skills that they are being taught. However, the reality is more complicated. In a traditional school model, students earn points for completing work and turning it in. This system can sometimes skew the focus of students toward compliance and task completion instead of learning new skills or concepts. As a teacher, I often referred to this as “the game of school,” since the goal was “scoring points” in the gradebook, and learning often felt secondary.

The key to maximizing what students learn in the classroom and breaking the “game of school” mentality lies in competency based learning, which expects students to demonstrate mastery of concepts and skills instead of accumulating points. This shift in thinking requires teachers to very clearly define what their learning targets are and what success looks like for each of them. These generally come in the form of “I can” statements and rubrics. Please see this example taken from my 10th grade language arts class:

Learning Target: I can cite textual evidence to support my analysis of explicit elements of the text and inferences that I have made.


Advanced: I have presented compelling evidence for my purpose. Each piece of evidence is presented in detailed context and explained in a cohesive, thoughtful manner.

Proficient: I have presented sufficient evidence for my purpose. Each piece of evidence is presented in context and explained.

Approaching: I have presented sufficient evidence for my purpose. Each piece of evidence is presented in context or explained, but not both.

Emerging: I have presented evidence for my purpose. Each piece of evidence lacks both context and explanation.

Once the learning target and success criteria are defined, students can show mastery in many different ways. For instance, a student could show that they know how to cite textual evidence by writing a traditional literary analysis paper with evidence woven seamlessly into each paragraph. However, they don’t have to do it that way. They could show their mastery of the concept by creating a literature review podcast, creating a video that details the salient points, or a myriad of other projects. I once had a student create a Minecraft world that walked me through the important parts of a novel and analyzed their impact.

The point is that once success is defined, students can achieve it in a variety of ways that the teacher can still evaluate objectively. This not only raises the bar for students who have to understand the success criteria and push to meet them, but it also allows them choice in how to demonstrate their learning. This is the core of flexible learning.

Flexible Scheduling

Along with having flexibility with how to demonstrate success in learning, flexible learning works the best with flexible scheduling. This type of structure can take many different forms, but it turns the traditional classroom structure where the teacher dictated scheduling and activities (and all students completed the same tasks at the same time) upside down.

Many ideas in flexible scheduling deal with giving students more choice in how and when they study, but also with giving them more time to work independently, releasing the responsibility to the students to navigate their learning. Here are some flexible scheduling ideas that can be implemented in schools:

1. Block Scheduling: By having longer class periods every other day, teachers have more time to both directly instruct students and allow for in-depth, individual learning time. This type of schedule can also be modified where some classes are taught everyday while others are held every other day.
2. Hybrid Scheduling: Students attend school part of the time and complete online coursework the rest of the time. Much like block scheduling, the idea is that teachers will have time for direct instruction, but students will also have time to work individually at demonstrating mastery.
3. Flexible Scheduling: Students choose their schedule and learning type (in person, hybrid, online) based on their needs. Their work is individualized and self paced.
4. Rotating Scheduling: Students attend the same classes in the same order, but the periods rotate time slots, sometimes with one or two free days per class. This allows students flexibility for extracurricular activities and the ability to take more classes.
5. Staggered Scheduling: Students have choice in when they attend school. This could be an early out or late start or even a split day with a break in the middle. The flexibility gives students choice to tailor their experience to their own needs.
While each of these methods has pros and cons, they can allow for more student autonomy and freedom, which has been shown to lead to better engagement and better outcomes. Schools should choose which method works best for them.
In the end, we as educators can learn much from Tom Sawyer’s fence whitewashing about choice and achievement. By using competency based learning to raise the bar and encourage choice and by implementing flexible scheduling practices, we can enhance student participation and engagement, personalize the student experience, and create a more equitable environment for all learners.