All posts by Paul Magnuson

A decade ago, Paul Magnuson founded a research center at the high school level in collaboration with colleagues at Leysin American School. The center supports professional learning through a variety of programs, including year-long action research projects by faculty who receive competitive scholarships. In addition, the center works with schools and universities around the world, hosting up to 20 visiting scholars annually, and consulting and presenting internationally. Paul has created a number of tools and programs, including classroom observation schemes, language immersion summer camps, and programs supporting greater student agency. Paul is also an instructor at Moreland University for teacher licensure and international education.

A lesson on electrophilic addition reactions

In the TV series The Big Bang Theory, an atomic model of the helical structure of DNA, a structure of hundreds of plastic balls, stands in the background of the main set for several seasons until it finally, predictably, falls apart in a cascade of colorful balls that pour across the hardwood floor.

The models on the teacher’s desk are nowhere near as complex, but they are just as mysterious to me. They look neat, that’s all the further I get. The teacher holds one of them and in his excitement (yes, excitement) waves it around to underline the most important points of his explanation. He demonstrates how bromine is pushed to the side and the bromine becomes negative and floats away in an aqueous solution. There is an inductive effect, electrons are being lost, the plastic model soars back and forth, the teacher elicits the word carbocation (yes, I looked that up). 

The teacher places the plastic models on an empty desk and turns to the whiteboard. There in 2D marker is one of those diagrams that makes chemistry look like chemistry, Cs and Hs are connected with each other and sure enough the bromine, what else could Br be, looks to be leaving, just as we saw with the plastic model.

“Okay?” the teacher asks. Hats off to the students, they nod as one, they seem content, goodness gracious humans are good at learning stuff. There are only four human students here, kids in their last year of high school. Two want to go to medical school, one is interested in nuclear physics, the other in electrical engineering. How do they know this at 18 years of age?

The teacher passes out plastic models, gives the students a task, and they set to work taking Hs and Cs apart by breaking bonds. “Where does the bromine go?” asks the teacher as the students hold up their models. “Thank god you got different answers,” he adds, “because this is what I’m teaching today.” 

1870. Markovnikov’s Rule. One student has heard of him, a student from Poland. The teacher celebrates. “Yes!” He continues, almost thinking aloud: “Why is it that schools in the former Soviet Union were so good at teaching chemistry? Perhaps because the periodic table was part of the proud heritage of Russian thought. And by the way, why were the Soviets less interested in biology? Because Darwin’s theory of evolution didn’t fit so well with the communist message. And you think science is just facts?” 

So Markovnikov’s Rule. The teacher shares the English idiom about the rich getting richer. He relates it to Matthew 13:12: For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance. An abundance of hydrogen attracts more hydrogen, I think that is his point. The information is coming fast and furious and I can hardly keep up. This is chemistry, but also history and philosophy. It’s been so long, but there were Kuhn and Popper in college, and the unsettling realization that at the top of our human fields of understanding there is a whole lot of debate about how to go about understanding. 

The performance today is masterful. We are watching 25 years of experience compressed into 45 minutes. 

The teacher looks at the pre-med hopefuls. “Do you know the number one reason med students don’t make it through med school?” 

The students laugh. “Organic chemistry?” 

“Right,” says the teacher. “But one time I asked my doctor how much organic chemistry he actually used. You know what?  He rolled his eyes, my doctor, and said ‘not much.’”

He shrugs, a non-verbal it-is what-it-is, the world is sometimes hard to explain. Then he tells the students that he will be on duty in the residential hall this weekend. 

“Come and get free tutoring,” he advises. He walks to the back of the room and sits down behind his desk. I can almost feel the curtains meeting in the middle of the stage, the house lights coming up. There will be an encore tomorrow.

Spectroscopes and What We See

I’ve arrived to the physics class late. I was talking with a biology teacher who offered me a cup of tea, one of those nice moments in a hectic school day.

The students are standing, looking through a prism or something to do with spectra, I missed the introduction. Whatever they are doing, it involves their phones, and I believe the instruments they are holding are splitting the light into pieces. This is discovery, they mill about, drawing their own conclusions. I think we call this activating prior knowledge. It’s a hook, basically. He’s getting the students interested in what is to come.

The teacher has already got them thinking about the color of light. Inside the room, the lights in the ceiling: what color are they? A student answers, “White.” The teacher points out the window, another student answers, “White.” The teacher pauses. 

“Really?” Longer pause. “If you were in art class painting the sun, what color paint would you use. “Yellow.” “OK,” says the teacher, so …. “ The students start using their simple spectral light splitters, looking at the wavelength of the sun and whatever chemicals there are in the suspended lights in the class. The sunlight is an almost continuous spectrum, the classroom lights are not, spectroscopy, spectrographs … 

As usual with science, I’m both interested and lost. 

But not entirely lost. The teacher has discharge tubes set up in different parts of the room, high voltage stuff. Each tube is a near vacuum with gas of a single element inside. I think. The students are going to determine, by using their spectrographs and mobile phones, what gases are in these tubes. (I’ll check all that with the teacher later, but I think I’ve got it.)

He turns off the lights, the students spread out around the room and go to work.

“Oh, and don’t touch the apparatus,” the teacher warns. “That one gave me a shock. I don’t know if the other ones will do the same.”

Next to me a student gets a good image on his phone, the light is split, bands of light in a particular pattern associated with that particular gas. He takes several pictures, capturing the gas’s signature. (Again, I’ll have to check this with the teacher.)

Now we have a periodic table projected on the screen. You can click the element to see its atomic spectrum. Aha, match your picture with the picture of an element … detective work. I wonder if they have to go to every element? What patterns are hidden behind the periodic table in these patterns of light? How does this physics teacher see the period table differently than I do? Me? Just a list of abbreviations that I once memorized with my high school friend Shawn. AU is gold. Ow! Gold hurts if you hit your head with it. Au! The teacher sees more – patterns, connections, and perhaps these spectra lurking there, behind the letters. Mr. Pibb tastes like lead. Pb. Was it my grade 11 chemistry teacher that failed me, or my way of seeing the world that failed my teacher?

The teacher explains why looking for spectra was so interesting, for a time, in science. If you found a new spectrum, well, you may have found a new element. That’s pretty exciting. Where does it fit in the table? Better: What does it say about our understanding of the world? What if a new element didn’t fit in the periodic table? And … you might get to name the new element after yourself. Magnomium. Sounds nice.

We live in the same world, but we all see the world differently. I’m a bit in awe of this teacher, how he must see things, how the world reveals itself to him, how he is able to pull the curtain on a stage inaccessible to me. 

We all went through it

I recently responded to a couple of my online students – early career teachers – about classroom management. Instead of focusing on tips, I thought I’d focus on the relative confusion I felt in those first years.

Dear Teacher,

I once taught German to native English speakers at a private school. The students were grades 6-8 and wild – out of control, basically. I tried things that didn’t work and some that maybe weren’t totally wrong.

1. I told them I would just wait until they got under control. Nope.

2. I brought fortune cookies and awarded them prizes if they were under control. Really bad idea.

3. I ran around outside the school with them to burn off some energy. Fun, but still out of control, and it was German class, not PE.

4. I ignored some of them who weren’t paying attention but weren’t causing a problem. Well, partial solution, but they weren’t learning German.

5. I called the parents. You’d think this was a good idea … maybe it helped?

6. I changed the seating. That helped some. 

7. I got them back up out of those seats and started doing active games that included German. This was better – at least I couldn’t tell they were out of control because running around and moving was built in.

8. We learned boisterous songs together, using call and response. This worked. Unfortunately I chose German drinking songs from Oktoberfest and that did not fit into the Waldorf curriculum.

9. I wondered a lot why this particular group of students should be learning German in the first place. Good question, but it did nothing for the behavior problems.

I don’t really remember how I got through the two years I was there – but I did. Pretty sure they didn’t learn much German. Sigh.

With all of that I’d like to say that as young teachers sometimes things seem really unclear – sort of a fog of “what is happening and why?!” that is pretty hard to see through. It gets better with time. You learn to create classroom management through the activities you are choosing and through developing rapport, individually and collectively, with the class. You can start to conduct like in front of an orchestra, where you don’t always have to be looking at everyone, where the music becomes a focus for everyone, where sometimes it’s the violas that need all the attention.

But this isn’t easy. It takes time and patience. It takes experimenting. Give yourself lots of time for that.

And … decide right now that what you will never do is yell at the students or shame any of them to exert your will. What you might gain for a moment you’ve lost for the rest of the year.

So don’t be hard on yourself. But experiment, ask others, observe classes when you can, get to know the students, don’t be afraid to have a laugh. You’ll get there.

Go!

Go!

I read a social media post that implored us not to give up on direct instruction, that it, too, is useful. I agree. And I saw a science teacher last week masterfully weave direct instruction and quick moments of student group work together. My reservation, though, is that we depend on direct instruction, in a teacher-tells-student kind of way, too heavily and too often.

So it was with a lot of interest that I went to the Innovation Lab yesterday, to see how the teacher was running the class. I was pretty sure it wouldn’t be direct instruction.

______________

It’s five minutes into class here in the Innovation Lab, a large space with drills and saws and screws and hammers and tape. I’m sitting in the couch area, I’m not sure what the teacher calls it, but it’s an area with four couches and some chairs and a chess board made with a 3D printer on a wooden table that someone else made. There’s a big screen, too, with whiteboards that fold out. On one white board there’s a list of student names – individuals, pairs, or threesomes – and the project they are working on. I believe you could call that the syllabus: just the projects the students chose. 

Curriculum Lite. When I was young Miller Lite ran a string of commercials with the tagline “Tastes great. Less filling.” This lab tastes great. And it is indeed less filling, in the sense that the approach isn’t the filling of a bucket, but rather the fanning of a fire, to paraphrase the popular quote. 

The lesson plan today is as light as the curriculum. After introducing me and my colleague, a professor of education, the teacher says, “Go!” And the students went. The teacher’s role here is to move from group to group, individual to individual. I just heard him ask a student: “What can you do while you are waiting?” So add coaching to the teacher’s role. Coaching the type of skills that transcend any particular class. 

I can’t just sit here in the corner with all this independent action going on. I’m going to ask students what they like about the Innovation Lab.

“I like figuring stuff out by myself,” says the student nearest me. “When I get stuck I get to figure things out myself.”

“There’s not a lot of homework, we get to do projects, and there are a lot of resources here,” say three young boys sitting in a row on a couch. Huey, Dewey, and Louie, I think to myself. One of them is holding a lego car with an EV3, which allows them to actually drive the car. They are on the Lego website, searching for something.

“You basically get to build whatever you want. You create whatever you want,” This from a boy making a guitar out of wood. The body looks good, if a little uneven around the edges. He’s going to attach a neck he removed from a broken guitar. 

“Hanging around next to my best friend,” a girl answers, with a glance at the girl next to her. A third girl says “Learning new skills, like I learned how to sew.” I look past her to a row of Bernina sewing machines. Like the previous student said, there are plenty of resources here.

The last group I talk to are three boys modifying a pair of old skis. “We get to make stuff.” I prod just a little, asking if class always runs this way, with the teacher saying “Go!” and everyone getting to work. “We had to have a plan first, like an image or something on a Google doc,” one boy answers. “The teacher needs to know what we plan on doing.” I notice they are the ones telling the teacher what their project will be. Nice.

The time has flown, the luthier (heck, when else do you get to use that word specifically for someone building a string instrument?) and another boy I didn’t manage to talk to are using hand vacs to clean up their work area. The teacher is walking past students reminding them to leave enough time to clean up. Students crisscross the room, returning tools, hanging things up, storing their projects below the work tables.

My colleague, the visitor from the university, asked me before class if we’d be seeing project based learning. Not really, I told him, more like learning while doing projects. It’s not what educators might identify as PBL. I’m not sure what education term would be appropriate for this class. Maybe people working in makerspaces have a term for it. 

The Lego car drives into my foot. Lego is from the Danish leg godt meaning “play well.” Maybe we could call this type of learning something along the lines of good playing. For example: “Free play with power tools.” Makerspace folks, what do you call this?

Leg godt!

I’m treated like I’m an adult

Image by upklyak on Freepik

In an email exchange with a friend, I ask about his kids, his new job, the usual catching up. His response appears in my inbox. I begin reading and catch my breath on one short paragraph. It’s about his new job, the first time in decades he isn’t in a classroom.

So different from teaching, as you  know. I’m treated as if I’m an adult – trusted – as if I’m an adult. And the work feels good. Have you seen the legislation I’m executing?

What’s that? I sit back in my chair and reread.

I’m treated as if I’m an adult – trusted – as if I’m an adult.

This is a teacher approaching 50 years old. His first teaching experience was with me when he was 22. He’s been in multiple schools, a variety of roles, worked as a trainer, presents at conferences, was once a finalist for national teacher of the year in his subject speciality. And he had to leave teaching for a bureaucratic job with the State in order to feel trusted? What is going on?

I wonder if those outside of schools know that trust, mostly the lack of it, is an issue shared by many in the teaching profession. Or at least the perception of not being trusted. You can bet feeling untrusted affects how your children are being educated. Learning from a teacher who is looking over their shoulder, who doesn’t feel fully in charge, who is on their heels, well, you should expect that the mood in the classroom is different. That instruction is affected. 

And certainly don’t expect much out-of-the-box creativity. A non-trusting environment tends to make us crawl into the box, not get out of it.

For those of us inside education, my colleague’s new sense of freedom (in a state bureaucracy, no less) in comparison to his previous experience as a school teacher may not be all that much of a surprise. Attendance is taken at faculty meetings, classroom observations often feel like oversight more than professional development, we have to submit lesson plans, schemes of work, documents that show alignments with standards. We live in a highly hierarchical environment, controlled by department heads and a number of layers up to the principal. We get assigned to bathroom duty, hallway duty, bus duty, we’re asked to chaperone dances, all with little choice. Often there is also little choice about what you are teaching and how you are teaching, depending on the curriculum and the philosophical bent of your school. All the while students are weighing in with surveys or other mechanisms, some that teachers see, some perhaps that they don’t. (I’ve heard of anonymous reporting of teachers in both academics and other areas). 

So no, teachers might not be too surprised that changing professions might be accompanied by a sudden feeling of freedom, self-direction, and trust. If you agree with me that teachers who are not experiencing a sense of freedom, self-direction, and trust may find it difficult to be effective in the classroom, we should perhaps also agree to do something about it. Even if the performance of untrusted teachers (or those feeling untrusted, there is little difference) in the classroom is not affected (but it is), anybody in a job feeling low trust is likely to look for something else to do. Those who can find a different way to earn a living will. And so we lose phenomenal teachers to other jobs. 

Last year, in fact, I read a book written by a teacher working in the same metropolitan area as the friend I was corresponding with. The author was very fired up about being a teacher. He worked with all sorts of kids with all sorts of issues. He took on those issues, he described how hard he worked, he sent a strong message of “buck up, everyone” to his readers.  I was inspired and worried. Was his full on approach sustainable?

His contact information was in the book. I emailed him. He wrote back with a short message that he was no longer teaching, but thanks for reading the book. Was it a trust issue? Was it just “regular” burnout? Can we afford to see these teachers become bureaucrats, programmers, real estate agents?

I am happy for my colleague personally.  I’m not happy that there is a better place for high quality teachers to be than in a classroom with kids. And I’m convinced we should be actively developing environments for teaching and learning that treats teachers as adults. Kudos to those of you who are.

Student Voices: Talking Education in the Swiss Alps

A sleepy morning starts another day of school in the Swiss Alps.

Nine students in their final semester of high school, the teacher, a visitor to the school, and me, seated around tables that make a rectangle in the room.

The teacher invited us, the visitor and me, because he knows we’re interested in how we do school. That’s the topic today. The students have watched a film about homeschooling. The teacher suggests an open discussion, an informal Socratic Seminar. We’ll see how it goes.

We start with the tried and true. Homeschooling might be good for academics but might not be so good for socializing. I can almost hear homeschoolers the world over starting to protest, but that is often the discussion, isn’t it? The either/or mentality we often get trapped in. But these students are just warming up.

A girl to the right of me suggests there should be more time outside of the classroom. Time literally outside, outside the building. Not inside “like traditional schools.” The school offers two cultural trips, one week each, during the academic year. She says these trips are great, but wouldn’t it be nice to have a weekly something or other that is outside, that is in the community. Ahhh, indeed. I think about how challenging it would be for most schools to make this adjustment. Being outside just doesn’t fit the schedule, the rules, the syllabus. You’d have to tear a few things down to make way for a new build, so to speak.

And then the student to the left of me makes the argument that students need to be given the experience to work by themselves, to do their own labs, to be in charge. She is singing my tune. She compares her experience now to what she remembers from her previous school, where students weren’t given much freedom, where the teacher was an authority figure beyond reproach.

The teacher in this class has heard students making comparisons to their previous schools before.  He picks up on this theme. “How is it different here?” A student jumps in quickly. “It’s a thousand times better.” He lists the variety of experiences that are available, he mentions the benefit of boarding school. Another student confirms that there are a number of academic choices. He mentions, however, that the international standardized curriculum, in this case the International Baccalaureate, can be limiting, too. “You have to follow the given curriculum that every student has to do.” The room gets quieter and some students nod thoughtfully.

I love how the teacher listens to the students. All three of us teachers in the room have been doing a good job of staying silent. The teacher often responds to a long comment with a “Mmmm.” This invites the students to keep the conversation going. “The system is made to keep you as a sheep,” one student comments about her school experience in her home country. She relates how mistakes, at this school, are opportunities to learn. How this school is opening up lots of possibilities. She is thinking about jobs and future choices. If I asked her, I bet she would also say that the day-to-day options are much more fluid here. A student from another European country lists the classes that aren’t offered in her country, there are new opportunities here.

We move on to assessment, or perhaps we return to the idea of learning through making mistakes. Teachers here allow students to redo work to get a better grade. Why not, after all? I imagine a teacher saying “No, you can’t redo that work, please stop learning.” I can also think of teachers that would argue that students need to learn to get things right the first time, that they need to learn discipline, yada yada in my opinion, to be frank. But there are plenty of teachers out there who think like this, and there is merit in that line of thought.

It’s so rewarding to listen to a good student discussion (and its complement, to watch teachers keep themselves out of the conversation). When we hear students voice their opinions we learn about them, from them, and with them. As I’m thinking about this, the teacher mentions a student survey from the past. Some students wanted more time to talk, probably like class today. And some wanted the teacher to talk more. 

I’m reminded of the study at MIT, if I remember correctly, in which students professed they learned more from lecture, but, in a controlled study, those same students actually learned more in groups. Perhaps a certain number of students would like the teacher to talk more to take the responsibility for learning off their own shoulders? Is lecture the easier path, one that requires less heavy lifting, and therefore preferred? Or do we have a bias for the expertise of the teacher over our peers? One of my university students once audibly groaned when I introduced a new topic by having students share in groups what they already knew, what their own experiences were. She wanted to hear it from me. 

“I wish we could vote on the books we have to read,” says one student. “If we were given a list and we could choose as a class.” Well yeah! Why not?! (Ok, I know about syllabi and teacher planning and inertia and all that.) But really, why not set up learning with more student choice? We’d have to adjust how we structure things, but we might get more motivation … and more learning. Isn’t that what we’re after? 

“How do you grade art?” Ah, that’s so nicely provocative. I would add “Why do you grade art?” A student extends my thinking with a laugh: “Then maybe you can’t grade English.” I love these students. Why do we grade English? How much is inertia, how much is supporting learning, how much is passing the buck? (“The universities want grades.”) I’m so interested here I want to jump into the conversation. The words are sticking in my throat, I feel them, I clear my throat in fact. I start bouncing my knees. But the teacher is so good at keeping himself out of this, who am I to jump in? And as I contain this feeling a student who hadn’t contributed to the conversation yet lays out a new argument. Brilliant of him. I almost stepped in and took that opportunity away. Close call. I just keep bouncing my knees, but now I’m feeling a little smug.

The conversation about art, and how you evaluate it, has gotten philosophical. We are still collectively wondering about how one grades art. We’ve talked less about the purpose of grading. It would be nice to hear more about that. Our visitor contributes for the first time. A student loses no time in disagreeing with her, followed by another student who disagrees with the disagreeing student. All very polite. Respectful. 

I’m going to end with these questions for you:

How would you grade this 45-minute conversation the students just had? Would it be appropriate to grade? There has been a lot of learning, I’m sure of it, and I bet the students and teachers would agree there has been a lot of learning. But assigning this experience a grade? What do you think?

Simulating to get real

Ceci n’est pas une pipe. 

I’ve been working with a teacher for two or maybe even three years now. He invites me to his class when he is running simulations. We’ve done some joint planning, some joint debriefing. This school year he is getting financial support from the school to further his work. He has presented his work at two conferences. I’m ready to support him with writing and publishing. He’s ready.

A student asks what a pipe looks like, so the teacher projects images of pipes. One of the photos of pipes is the Treachery of Images, painted by René Magritte in 1929. 

This is not a pipe.

What a perfect way to think about a simulation. These students are not really shipping goods from England to the colonies in the New World. There is no ocean here, no ships, no money. There is a certain treachery, because everything is make-believe. But because of the treachery, this trickery, the learning will be, in fact, very real. We simulate to get real. These students are, I predict, going to feel this lesson emotionally. That is, they will be trying to make (fake) money with (fake) exports, in competition with each other. 

The teacher just announced there are going to be times when he introduces Breaking News. This is his method of making the simulation more interesting, of including more historical context. And of incidental English teaching. 

Breaking news! Britain is distracted by wars back in Europe including an English Civil War (1642-1651). They’re happy with the wealth they are gaining from the colonies, but take a hands off approach to working with them. This is known as “Salutary Neglect.”

Questions: 

  1. What does “hands off” mean?
  2. What are “colonies?”

Brilliant. There was history teaching there, just what was needed to support the simulation. And there was English teaching there, none of the students here are native speakers of English. “Colonies” is subject specific, but there isn’t getting around needing to learn that word. So teach it. “Hands off” transcends any particular class. Fantastic.

He helps each group allocate some of their initial money. They are playing a game. They are getting ready. And then he steps back and explains the context of what was going on, historically. More of the history lesson, embedded in the game. He’s onto something here. He’s making history real, through all this deception.

Ceci n’est pas une pipe.

So I mentioned there is no water here, we are in a classroom. But! The teacher plays a video of waves hitting the beach. He turns up the volume and asks the students to shut their eyes and smell the salt in the air. They are getting ready to set sail. He explains how they are going to sell their products. They have a sheet to keep track of their transactions. I’m not sure I understand what they are going to do, but the students seem comfortable. They begin rolling in order to know how much money they make. Some get good rolls, some less good. A roll of 6 is celebrated, they get a premium price for their goods. A roll of 1, well, it was a long trip across that ocean to make so little money.

Now the students have to sail back to England, back to France or the Netherlands. But, the teacher explains, it would be terrible business to sail back with empty holds. Instead they load up with materials. He plays the video of the waves hitting the beach. I smell the salt, feel some sand between my toes. We sail back to Europe.

Breaking news! The English civil war is coming to an end. This means the Crown has more resources to start making sure taxes are paid. There is a slight risk to do business with the Dutch or the French.

What does this mean for you? 

  1. To do business in the Netherlands or France, you must smuggle.
  2. What does smuggle mean?

So the students choose whether they sail to England, for lower prices, but with lower risk, or if they sail to France or the Netherlands, where the prices will be higher but, as smugglers, there is greater risk. 

Two groups choose to sail to the UK. One group accepts the risk and sails to the Netherlands. The teacher puts up the prices. If our smugglers are successful, they’ll make nearly twice as much as the other groups. But, of course, they could lose it all, too.

There are things to work on here. We’ll be able to make things better, or “more intuitive,” as the teacher says. Exactly. That’s why the school is supporting his use of simulations. By trial and error, over multiple iterations, the simulation will get better and better, more effective. The job of the school administrator, Justin Reich of MIT says, is to give teachers space to try things out and to talk to other teachers about what they are trying out. I wish Reich were here, I want to share this moment with someone who gets it. 

The group in port in the Netherlands rolls the dice. Oops, bad luck. They have been caught smuggling. They lose their load, they’ve lost a lot of money. The two groups that chose safe trading in England look a little smug. 

Teaching and learning can be very creative. History can be lived. A bit of context, the sound of waves on the beach, the desire to win a game, all providing context to learn terms like salutary neglect. Faking it in order to understand trade across the Atlantic in the 1600s, to learn transferable expressions in English. No one had their head on the table, no one asked to go to the bathroom, no one snuck a look at the phone or checked their GPA on their computer.

This is not a pipe (dream)!

Perception

Holland Hall, St. Olaf College, where I tried to be a philosopher. Long hair and going barefoot to class weren’t enough. But I loved this building. Who wouldn’t?

I haven’t been in a philosophy course since my undergraduate university, where I did the minimum to get the degree. It feels a little funny to admit that minimum thing, but there you go.

The discussion begins with Berkeley. I wrote a poem about him for the philosophy newsletter, way back when. Something like:

The matter of matter is simply a smatter

Of Berkeley’s insidious plot.

The matter that matters is simply the latter:

Everything that which is not.

The poem jogs my memory just a bit, actually, since at this point in life that poem is all that I remember of Berkeley. I do not remember arguments of perceptual variation and perceived qualities. The students do, they seem to be all over it. An example: the size of an object, which looks smaller as you back away from it, larger as you grow near. The teacher uses the example of riding in a car. Close objects move very fast, or seem to, and objects in the distance seem to move slower. Of course they aren’t moving at all, the person riding in the car is moving. 

Pretty interesting. We assume the objective size and shape of objects is not changing, even though our perceptions of them are constantly changing. How often do we even think about that?

Now to Locke. Primary and secondary qualities. Is this how an object really is, a primary quality? And how we perceive it through our senses, that is a secondary quality? I might have to ask the students after class.

One of the young philosophy professors when I was an undergraduate was Dr. Taliaferro. In a chance conversation in the department office he told me what was, for him, the purpose of philosophy. I wrote a poem about that, too – I remember it because I included it in a book of poems I self-published.

Dr. Taliaferro

The goal of all philosophy, 

he tells me,

is to see things differently.

I tell him he looks like a duck.

So I wasn’t much of a philosopher and certainly not much of a poet. More of a smart aleck. Perhaps I was using poetry to deflect my insecurity. Perhaps I still do, I realize, writing this. That I must think about more later.

The teacher winds up the conversation, I realize now that up to this point the lesson has been review for the students. She projects on the screen for the first time, it’s a piece by Berkeley. Philonous and Hylas are in dialogue, the students select who will read what role. They begin. Philonous pushes Hylas into absurdities. He uses the argument for perceptual variation, the size of things as seen by animals of different sizes. He makes Hylas claim, sort of, that objects are at the same time different sizes. “From perceptual variation it follows,” summarizes the teacher, “that what we perceive is nothing like the real thing. Berkeley will always try to make the positions he is criticizing seem much more absurd than they really are.” If you get to make both sides of the conversation, you certainly can make one side look particularly good and the other particularly bad. It’s a move on Berkeley’s part that I resent a bit. 

I believe I first read Berkeley – and this dialogue – in the student lounge of Thorson hall at St. Olaf College. The college mentioned in The Great Gatsby. It was a late night, perhaps one of the few times I stayed up past midnight working on a paper. I felt that this was something one should do as a college student, as a philosophy major. No one else was in the lounge, I had a large table to myself, the tall ceiling and wood paneled walls were all there for my personal ruminations, me the thinker. The paper I wrote wasn’t great, I’m sure. One of a million philosophy papers that philosophy professors have read while berating themselves for becoming a philosophy professor.

“I can see you find Berkeley unconvincing,” says the teacher. “I can’t blame you too much.” The students continue to read.

“Philonous: Can a real motion in any external body be at the same time both very swift and very slow?”

Here we go again. Hylas has to say that it cannot. The student reads Hylas’s line:  “It cannot.” And now Hylas is on record and soon will be caught in another bind, for later he will have to admit that speed is also perception, like the teacher’s earlier example of the person riding in a car. 

I feel for Hylas. I really do.

Tracking and Monitoring: Reflections on an Interview with Devorah Heitner

The EdSurge podcast is one of my favorites. In the episode Can Kids Grow Up If They’re Constantly Tracked and Monitored? host Jeff Young talks with Devorah Heitner about the degree to which we track and monitor kids. My biggest takeaway? The way we track and monitor matters … a lot. Like the Hippocratic Oath for physicians, teachers need first and foremost to be sure that they do no harm.

The podcast is available here.


Jeff Young and Devorah Heitner discuss ClassDojo at length. Heitner is careful to state that no one at ClassDojo is out to do harm, but … Well yes, but.

My first encounter with ClassDojo was quite a while ago. I’m sure it has evolved a lot since the day I watched a teacher give (and take away?) points for student behavior. So-and-so is sitting quietly, here are some points. So-and-so raised their hand before speaking, please have these points, good job.

I regularly discuss this sort of classroom engineering with my students at Moreland University. Many of them use ClassDojo. Some of them have felt that my cautions about creating classroom culture through points was misplaced. I’m pretty adamant that it should not be our default for classroom management, perhaps that it should not be any part of our classroom management. When one of my daughter’s elementary teachers started using it during Covid, I watched over her shoulders as a quite skeptical parent. My daughter doesn’t need points for being well behaved and liking learning. Giving her points for what she is already might start to erode her curiosity and joy at school. I took a leap and explained to her what I thought of ClassDojo, and why. She told me that the other kids didn’t like it. (Whew.) I suppose even at a young age we don’t like to be manipulated.

Although she is a techno-optimist, Heitner voices concerns, too.

Though teachers might call it a classroom management system, ClassDojo is, in her words, a “behavior monitoring app.” One feature of the app allows teachers to give children – their avatars anyway – points for good behavior, for sitting quietly and raising your hand, as mentioned above. It’s a carrot and stick system that, on its surface, may not seem terribly harmful, but I’m as uneasy as Heitner about this. As she said, even if there aren’t negative points given to students (and I sure hope that isn’t going on), the lack of getting points, especially while one’s peers are getting points, is another way of losing points. One of the children in our own community where I live experienced exactly this sort of stick, but academically. The rate of progress for all students was posted in the classroom for everyone to see. Her progress was slower than everyone else in the class. Even though there were no negative points, she found it very difficult to earn positive points, not nearly as fast as her peers anyway. Eventually she had chronic stomach aches and couldn’t go to school. Eventually her parents put her in a different school. The teacher was well intentioned, but this is nothing short of an embarrassing fail.

But back to using points to manage behavior. Heitner says:

“What we see with these apps, they kinda just tell us what we already know. Like if you have this child struggling to self-regulate, they’re going to have a hard time getting points in the app, or not losing points. And if you have a kid who is good at self-regulating, they’re going to keep getting the ‘quiet table’ points or whatever …”

The problem is, such compliance systems do bring about short term, well, compliance, which is helpful in managing a classroom of students. In that way they are successful. But is this the success we are looking for? Compliance? And these apps, and the teacher practices they reinforce, may be less likely to bring about lasting change while more likely to cause harm.

For example, it’s not a great strategy to shame children. Shaming heightens anxiety for children, and now with apps that quickly relay classroom information to parents, it can raise parent anxiety, too – anxiety that may well be passed back to the child at home. In the end, the use of such apps are “problematic for neuro diverse kids, it’s problematic for kids who may have other things going on.” I would add, based on my daughter’s situation, it’s just plain problematic for everyone. Why?

A compliance system is likely to work only when continuous compliance is demanded and continuous threats and rewards are present. An educational system built on threats and rewards seems less likely, at least to me, to create lifelong learners. Once students are conditioned to learn because of threats, it’s easy to imagine learning stopping as soon as the threat is removed. It is also possible to imagine, and I thank Alfie Kohn for his writing in this area, that when a child conditioned to learn for an award loses that award, the child won’t be motivated to learn. See Kohn’s book: Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes.

Put simply, a student might think that if there are no points to get, what is the point? Well, learning was the point … but we’ve unwittingly conditioned our students away from the thrill of learning to a search for points. Later in their schooling, their drive might well become the search for a higher GPA, for rating systems instead of learning, in general, for the approval of others. 

So, caution is warranted not only with apps like ClassDojo, but any similar orientations to learning and school. Take grading. While the intended outcome of school is learning, grades can very quickly become the desired outcome, even to the detriment of learning. A sane person isn’t going to be too experimental if they are striving for top grades. Experimenting more often than not leads to setbacks and false paths, which we (perhaps mistakenly) call mistakes, and take off points accordingly. Experimenting should actually be supported in school. And experimenting here I mean both little and big risks. The little risks that one can take in a class discussion, on a worksheet, on a quiz, the classroom-based things. And I also mean bigger missed experiments like when students select easy courses in order to get a top grade while avoiding interesting classes that might challenge them more. 

ClassDojo, at least the behavior management functions, is all about getting students to do what we want. It’s about compliance. It creates a tone, as Young says. I’d call it creating a culture – a culture of compliance. Compare that with what ClassDojo advertises on its web page: Where classrooms become communities. Yes, but what kind of communities? Inclusive ones? Ones that understand not all students find it easy to follow someone else’s rules? That not all students are going to react the same to compliance? That the very nature of compliance can be harmful to further learning?

Also according to their landing page, the app is Loved by more than 50 million students and parents. I know it’s advertising, and I’m not sure how they came up with those numbers, but let’s say an awful lot of people are using this app. Not all of them use the behavior compliance structure, I’m sure, but I think we can still say that an awful lot of people do.

Is that what we want? Couldn’t we do better?

Students, you give us hope

Another classroom observation, allowing myself to observe while I reflect, personally, about teaching and learning.

This is my second full day as a visitor here. I’m greeted by a student as we reach the school’s main entrance together, then I have a chuckle with two faculty members who are trying to squeeze through the security turnstile together. One of them has forgotten his school badge. I’m feeling less new to the school. I don’t even get lost on my way to the classroom.

The first student to enter the classroom is working to complete a lengthy essay, the EPQ of the British A levels. She tells the teacher she lost some of her computer files. She has asked for an extension. The teacher is empathetic, but also takes the opportunity to mention how students were advised to finish the essay far in advance of the deadline. The student isn’t completely ready to accept responsibility, she shifts the blame, at least part of it, to technology, our modern day scapegoat.

Students sit at tables forming a U. The teacher is at the board. She starts. The topic is industrialization. Names I’m not familiar with: Bello, Bauer, Rostow, Shiva. Concepts I can’t say much about: neoliberalism, ecofeminism. The teacher is leading a review, she asks questions as she writes on the board. Students take notes, mostly on computers or tablets. The only one using paper and pen is the one who lost some of the files for her essay. Coincidence? A few students tend to answer the majority of the teacher’s questions, like almost always in a lecture punctuated with questions along the way. About half of the students have been quiet so far. 

I wonder if students know how impressive we adults find them. Intimidating, even. Generations are a bit like waves hitting the beach, music genres, new iPhone models. We older folks don’t get replaced, at least not immediately, but we get less relevant, less looked to, our ideas grow old, we ebb. Here we are, teaching the next generation that will replace us. These students, in their last year of prep school, are applying now to universities with names we likely recognize. These folks are impressive. Do they know how impressive they are? How much they know? They certainly don’t know how much they are going to forget, that’s something we come to terms with later in life.

I’m at the school this week as a researcher, investigating the extent to which the school has a university feel. The website declares: we believe that a good university experience starts in school, which is why Akademeia looks, feels and operates like a university. Sure enough, you could drop this class into any self-respecting university and no one would bat an eye. One student came late, entered without disturbing the flow, students get up when they need a break. There was no drawn out attendance-taking at the beginning, no school announcements. Students take notes, contribute, occasionally introduce sidebars to the conversation. I didn’t know that Amazon was in legal trouble over draconian practices regarding employee breaks, for example. And while this class is solidly teacher led, student input is not blocked, there is flow back and forth.

A student enters thirty minutes into class. The teacher greets her with a hello. “I’m so sorry,” the student says. “That’s okay.” The other students don’t miss a beat, they continued their discussion. It has shifted to racism, not the teacher’s intention, but important to the students. The teacher waits for the right moment to redirect. It’s so subtle I miss it. Then ten minutes later she announces a break and hardly anyone leaves. They want to return to their discussion of racism.  

They give us hope for the future, these students. And they are going to need to be every bit as clever as they are.