B is for Ron Berger: Building An Ethic of Excellence In Education

Ron is a generous and gifted educator who has enabled many people to develop as people and professionals.

He is the Chief Academic Officer of Expeditionary Learning. The organisation aims to inspire and empower teachers to unleash the potential of their students. You can learn more about their work via the following link.


The video above takes us to the small school in Massachusetts where Ron used to teach. It shows the humility and craftsmanship he and his colleagues employed using the Expeditionary Learning approach to education.

Here is what Howard Gardner, professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said about Ron’s book An Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftsmanship with Students.

Ron Berger is one of the most remarkable teachers in America today.

He sets incredibly high standards in his classes and his students measure up to those standards.

Yet Ron Berger’s authentic standards bear little resemblance to what passes for standards in today’s test-obsessed America. 

For a reminder of what education can and should be, read this passionate book – and give it to every policymaker whom you know.

Here is Ron talking about the importance of making an emotional connection with students.

Ron describes his approach to education in an article called Fostering an Ethic of Excellence. Here are some excerpts from the article, which you can find at:


Fostering an Ethic of Excellence

For 25 years I’ve led a double life. I’m a fulltime classroom teacher in a public school. 

To make ends meet for my family, I’ve worked during the summers, and sometimes weekends, as a carpenter.

In carpentry there is no higher compliment builders give each other than this: That person is a craftsman. 

This one word says it all. It connotes someone who has integrity, knowledge, dedication, and pride in work—someone who thinks carefully and does things well.

I want a classroom full of craftsmen – students whose work is strong, accurate, and beautiful; students who are proud of what they do and respect themselves and others. 

In my classroom I have students who come from homes full of books and students whose families own almost no books at all.

I have students for whom reading, writing, and math come easily, and students whose brains can’t follow a line of text without reversing words and letters.

I have students whose lives are generally easy, and students with physical disabilities and health or family problems that make life a struggle.

I want them all to be craftsmen. Some may take a little longer; some may need to use extra strategies and resources. 

In the end, they need to be proud of their work, and their work needs to be worthy of pride. 

The key to excellence is this: It is born from a culture.

When children enter a family culture, a community culture, or a school culture that demands and supports excellence, they work to fit into that culture. It doesn’t matter what their background is. 

Once those children enter a culture with a powerful ethic – an ethic of excellence – that ethic becomes their norm. It’s what they know.


Creating a Culture of Excellence: 
Five Pedagogical Principles

1. Assign work that matters.

Students need assignments that challenge and inspire them.

At the Raphael Hernandez School in Boston, for example, middle schoolers took on a study of vacant lots in their Roxbury neighborhood.

Students researched the history of the sites and interviewed neighborhood members regarding what uses they would prefer for the lots. 

Their proposals were formally presented to the mayor of Boston and his staff, and one of the sites was later converted into community gardens.

2. Study examples of excellence.

Before they begin work on a project, the teacher and students examine models of excellence – high-quality work done by previous students as well as work done by professionals.

What makes a particular science project, piece of writing, or architectural blueprint so good?

What was the process of achieving such high quality? What mistakes and revisions were probably part of the process?

3. Build a culture of critique.

Formal critique sessions build a culture of critique that is essential for improving students’ work. The rules for group critique:

“Be kind; be specific; be helpful.”

Students presenting a piece of work first explain their ideas or goals and state what they are seeking help with.

Classmates begin with positive comments and phrase suggestions as questions:

“Have you considered … ?”

The teacher uses the critique session as the optimal opportunity for teaching necessary concepts and skills. 

Through this process, students have regular experiences of being able to improve the quality of a piece of work as a result of feedback from others. 

4. Require multiple revisions.

In most schools, students turn in first drafts – work that doesn’t represent their best effort and that is typically discarded after it has been graded and returned. 

In life, when the quality of one’s work really matters, one almost never submits a first draft. 

An ethic of excellence requires revision. 

5. Provide opportunities for public presentation.

Every final draft students complete is done for an outside audience – whether a class of kindergartners, the principal, or the wider community.

The teacher’s role is not as the sole judge of their work but rather similar to that of a sports coach or play director.

Here is another link to where you can read an extract from An Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftsmanship with Students. 


Below is a video in which Ron describes how a First Grade boy called Austin was helped to improve his scientific drawing of a butterfly. It has some excellent lessons about how to help a person to develop through feedback.

Again, you discover more about the work of Expeditionary Learning via the following link.


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