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.

Students on Stage

Image from https://assignmentpoint.com/invite-student-or-participants-on-stage-for-speech/.

We’re in the school auditorium. Before class starts a few boys come in to get a table. They leave with it. Then their teacher comes in to ask the drama teacher if he could have his real table back, not the table the boys found, but the table in the center of the stage. He leaves. His students return with the first table, swap it out for the table on the stage. The type of thing that happens when we share spaces in schools. The drama teacher has a little laugh with the students, all easy going, moving from the table swap into talking about a recent performance. 

There are only four students in this auditorium, which looks to hold nearly 300 people. The students sit in a row across the front, feet up on the seats in front of them, relaxed. They do the talking, the teacher is the listener. He gives feedback with a “right” or a chuckle. He writes a few words on the whiteboard based on what the students say.

I do not follow the discussion about the performance well, I haven’t heard of Things I Know to Be True before. I’m not sure if the play was something specifically for class, I think it probably was. The students are very animated as they describe the relationships between the characters.

Except for one. She sits with two empty seats of space from the others. When I asked her name, before class, she responded so softly that I had to ask again. Now she contributes to the discussion, in that soft voice. The teacher leans in to hear. It is good of her to push herself to contribute, especially when it is difficult. She might be new at the school, she might not be as proficient in English as some of her peers. She is putting herself out there, the teacher gives her space and time.

While the students continue to discuss the play, I scan a quick synopsis on Wikipedia. The play is about the Price family. They did not have an easy time of it, the Prices. I suppose a family without troubles, without secrets, wouldn’t make much of a plot for the stage.

When we give students lots of agency, it sometimes feels like the control they assume pushes us to the side. We teachers are used to being in control, it’s a little uncomfortable being on the side. Yet our job is to put the students in control, to support their own agency. This teacher is giving them that space. He lets them be in charge, he is not hung up about his own power, I admire that. When he thinks it’s time, he pulls them back to where he’d like them to be. If we are going to share ownership with students, we are also going to share the direction of the conversation, the power, the amount of time on task. In fact, we’re going to have to think about what time on task really means. Knowing how much time to talk, and how long a sidebar is acceptable, is part of the learning. We find that balance through trial and error. The teacher lets them practice.

And then says: “OK, let’s get back to the play. Was she a believable character or not?” This is perhaps one of the first questions he has asked. The students start to analyze and the teacher restricts himself to saying “Interesting” and nodding at the student comments. A casual observer might think he doesn’t have a plan, but I think he is a master of letting the students take the stage. Ha! Nice metaphor for a theater class. His agenda has wide parameters, which is allowing the students to have such agency as they critique the play. 

I think about the lesson plans required of adult students in teacher certification programs. They are very detailed. I myself don’t use much of a detailed lesson plan, usually just some bullet points or some notes at the bottom of a slide. I’m pretty sure there is not a written lesson plan here at all. There would be little need. What would it say? 

  • Have a discussion about the play.
  • Remember to give the students the floor 90% of the time.

Thinking back over the first 30 minutes of the class, I guess the teacher might add:

  • Make sure the talkative student doesn’t talk too much, make sure the shy student speaks a little more.

Now the teacher asks all of them to get up. He has spread photographs of people across the front of the stage. The students are told to pick a photograph, think about the character, perhaps become that character just a little bit. He gives them time to choose, they are enthusiastic. The atmosphere remains light and casual.

They sit down with their pictures and he writes a few questions on the board. The students have to create the character they have adopted. Who am I? Why am I here? What has brought the character to this moment? Three of the students use their phones for notes. The teacher then poses a few questions:

What do you want? What will you do to achieve what you want? 

Ah, the power of imagination. I wish I had one of those photos, that I was creating a character. I have to go, but they, after the break the teacher just announced, get to act. How lucky these students are!

The Platonic Academy is Alive and Well

I love when seemingly separate strands wind together like Wittgenstein’s rope. Here are reflections while observing the first of several classes at Akademeia High School in Warsaw. I’m posting this while two visiting scholars from Akademeia are at my school, in their first class observation here. AND a third visiting scholar, here with her family, will continue her European travels to Athens because her children are so interested in the ancient Greeks and Greek mythology. Good teaching, good parenting, good learning, strong rope.

I wait outside my first class visit at Akademeia with just a touch of self-consciousness. I sat down on a bench outside the room with a student, who promptly got up and left. I’m the new kid here, so to speak.

The teacher opens the door and we stream in, eleven of us, 9th graders who must be 14 or 15 years old, and me at 57, grandpa-age for these kids. I’m feeling my age, actually. I’ve definitely got a few years on the teachers I’ve seen here so far.

We start with a quick review of philosophy terms. Do you remember the branches of epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics? The students do.

We are at an oval, blonde-wood boardroom table. Students take notes – with no prompting – as the teacher begins her lessons. There is quite a bit of terminology: secular, anno domini, atheist … Most students write with pen and paper, a few on tablets. The teacher creates openings for students to contribute, which they do, some more than others. And then a map of Ancient Greece on the screen – this is the main focus of the lesson.

Students make fun connections with Ancient Greece. They mention the gods, the Mediterranean, the economy (I’m interested in learning more about that), and sports. She has focused their attention, drawn them in. Not bad for first thing in the morning and the study of ancient civilizations.

I’m struck that we are thinking about a time period three thousand years ago. Will there be anyone thinking about us in three thousand years? 

A meta moment: the teacher asks the students about their process. “From the discussion so far,” she asks the students, “what have you written down as notes? How do you know what is important?” This is nice, we’re talking now about how to learn. Skills that transcend the subject matter, another way of making three thousand year old Greek history relevant this September morning, in Warsaw.

We make the switch to reading, an excerpt from “The Philosophy Book: Big Ideas Explained Simply.” One student remarks that he’s seen this book in the library. Another student says he read a different book about philosophy, the teacher recommends he brings the book to class. Affirms how great it is that he has encountered philosophy before.

The students copy five guiding questions from the screen. What marked the birth of philosophy? What was the main concern of the early philosophers? I’m guessing the students will answer these as they read. I’m guessing, too, that they will read independently. The teacher takes a moment to discuss study skills again. “Reflect on the questions first, before reading,” she offers as a tip. “Be ready to annotate, to read carefully. This year is about getting ready to handle the IGCSEs.” 

The student who has been most active in the discussion so far offers to read out loud. Her English is excellent, she only stumbles over the Greek names, Thales, Pythagoras. The teacher takes over again when she finishes reading and leads the students to answers for a few of the guiding questions. 

During the discussion one boy defines empirical as “God-like.” The quick-thinking teacher replies, “I wonder where you got that connection?” in a face-saving way, a way that says to the student that he is making connections, albeit not always the right ones. I’m sure the other students notice they can be factually wrong but still right, in the sense that being a learner is about being both wrong and right and learning which is which. She straightens out the meaning for the class, ties the empiricism back to the early philosophers.

The lesson has been teacher directed, with seamless movement between the course topic and an emphasis on developing academic skills. Students contributed the whole forty minutes, flagging just a bit toward the end of the lesson. I can’t ask them, but I imagine they feel very good about themselves. 

Observations in a math class

After the midpoint break in the first block of classes, I join a grade 12 math class. They are looking at inequalities. The graphs look familiar, they bring back to me the smell of the dusty math classroom at Cooper High School, they make me think of my friend who never brought his math text to class. He borrowed one of the texts in the room instead, and for some inexplicable reason kept it after class to store it in the bottom of my locker. Every now and then we cleared the locker of math texts. His record was 12.

To get the students restarted after break, the teacher projects a problem on the board, gives a brief explanation, and lets the students know they have five minutes to work it out. They are looking to find the equation of the quadratic in the form y = ax2 + bx + c. A hint of recognition flickers in the back of my mind. 

The students work mostly alone, on paper or tablets. After a few minutes the teacher moves to one student to help him out. “You’ve made it a bit too complicated,” he says matter of factly, as he helps the student get back on track. Other students check in with each other. The tables are arranged in a rectangle and we are sitting on the outside perimeter. The student in the middle of a group of three confers with his colleagues to the right and left. He has the luckiest position for getting help, or for helping others, it occurs to me. The teacher takes a look at his work, saying that it is the same answer he has come up with, the student goes back to conferring with his friends. 

The teacher writes out his solution on the board as the students finish their own. This helps me remember a bit more, it must help the students, too. The teacher gives a couple of hints, gives the students a bit more time, lets them know they’ll be looking at a second problem in a minute. As the students finish their work I take a look around the room.

Rectangular, exposed concrete, big windows that go all the way to the floor, it is wonderfully sunny outside and nicely cool inside. One entire wall is white board, from floor to at least a meter over the teacher’s head. I believe this wall folds together to combine with the classroom next door. If I remember correctly, a third room has a similar configuration so that all three rooms can be combined. That’s flexible. And from other math teachers I’ve worked with, I bet the teacher appreciates all that white board writing space. I wonder if the students solve problems at the wall, too?

The teacher works out the second problem, speaking aloud as he writes each step on the board. Students ask questions without raising their hands, there are only seven of them and they are obviously used to this approach of discussing problems, taking turns politely, seemingly willing to ask questions when they don’t understand.

Apparently the teacher has been prepping the students for a bigger assignment, a handout  labeled “classwork” with six graphs. He leads a discussion about the first curve. I love his constant smile, how he leans toward a student when asked a question. Now, in fact, he just stepped over to the student so that they are looking at the problems, projected on the white wall, together. This isn’t a know-it-all teacher, even if he does know it all. This is a colleague who shares an interest in math and is willing to wonder along with the students. 

He leaves them to their work. The student next to me, in a red Audi cap and gray sweatshirt, is already finishing. Other papers in front of other students, from what I can tell, are not nearly as complete. The teacher circulates, but hasn’t made it to our side yet. Red Audi has a question, though, I’m anticipating it’s going to be to confirm his thinking, to make sure he’s done things right. I wait for the teacher to finish helping another student …

And then Red Audi asks his question. The effort of formulating the question is enough to give him the answer before the teacher can reply. So the teacher waits, listens, and then says “Exactly” with that big smile. And then he calls the attention of the class to the front to check the answers to each problem. He asks if they have understood, if they got it right. I suspect it’s possible that some haven’t, but aren’t admitting it. Or maybe I’m just thinking back to my own unhelpful strategies when I was in high school. To sort of pretend I knew what was going on. A horrible strategy. The teacher is satisfied with their answers, the students look as if they are tracking, and now in the last ten minutes of this 80 minute block, the students are given a packet of problems. They all begin working immediately. 

I haven’t thought about discipline issues at all. There are none. There is no shushing, no silly rewards, no cajoling, no shaming. No permission to go to the bathroom. Just discussion about math problems, respectful assistance between some students, and a palpable interest in math. It almost makes me nostalgic for Mr. Omen (I’m not making that name up), my math teacher when I was their age. Almost.

The making and teaching of history

Blogging while observing class – here is another post in the series. The photo is a doorway in Stare Miasto, the old town in Warsaw. Not much remained from 1666 when this house was rebuilt in 1953.

The students are on break, one student mentions the long wait at the border over the weekend, coming back from Lviv to Warsaw. The war in the neighboring country feels suddenly very close.

I’ve grown accustomed to the physical space of the school. Oval tables with students bunched on the side furthest from the whiteboard, the teacher right next to the whiteboard with empty chairs to both his left and right. I know a number of these students now, I’ve interacted with more than half of them during my week-long visit here at their school. Many of them say hello when they see me, one tall boy waves at me through the glass wall. 

Like in other classes, there isn’t much time for rapport. Class gets underway directly and the students start taking notes on their tablets or computers as the teacher begins reviewing the lesson from the last class. I chuckle to myself a little. Not because the teacher is being funny, but because he’s explaining the incredible gray blur of history while dressed in a white shirt, black jeans, and white Adidas with black stripes on his feet. His coffee cup is white. There is a black screen behind him, a whiteboard next to that. Everything here is black-white. Everything in history is anything but. 

Apparently there was a Moroccan crisis in 1905. This is new territory for me, I admit to knowing little about Morocco. I need spellcheck to even write it correctly here. Three o’s, not a single a. I know Casablanca, the city, and Casablanca the movie, and the incredible destruction in the country by the recent earthquake there. I know that the Moroccans I’ve met speak Arabic and French.

We move to the subject of the day, Germany’s dependence on the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The teacher introduces (or perhaps reintroduces) me to the Schlieffen plan, named for Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen. The students are familiar with it, they have done the reading. The plan details the invasion of France, arriving in part through Belgium, the takeover swift, just a couple of weeks. The plan is preemptive, although one student feels differently. Now the discussion takes off, several students start debating at once.

These students are discussing military tactics. What-ifs. Manners in which to win a war, to take over a country.

One student has been trying to get the floor, but too subtly. Her hand is up, sort of, it’s next to her face, unmoving. I haven’t noticed students raising their hands in the other classes, they usually just join the conversation. I wonder if she is somehow feeling good by not being recognized by the teacher. When he does call on her, she declines to take the floor. Little things that might not mean a thing. Or might indicate something that should be addressed. Or I’m reading too much into it. She  leaves her hand next to her face, and a few minutes later the teacher calls on her. Now she states her opinion confidently. There really is no way teachers can know all that is going on with students, know what they need, know what they are struggling with. Something is going on there.

The discussion turns to a few influential figures who contributed to the notion that the expansion of the German Volk beyond Germany was justified. I learn of Max Weber, who preached liberal imperialism, justifying the German Weltpolitik, and Kurt Riezler, a journalist and an advisor in the foreign office, who also justified German colonization. Another German mentions needing more land in order to support growth, I missed the name. All of this smacks of Lebensraum, which I associate more with the Second World War. The notion was incubating, growing, setting the stage for atrocities of a scale we still cannot comprehend. 

I can’t help but think about the tours I took this weekend, here in Warsaw. The Jewish ghetto, the Polin Museum, the Umschlagplatz from which so many innocent people were removed from Warsaw and killed in Treblinka. We are learning of the past to prevent repeating our mistakes, yet CNN online, at this very moment (I switch from my document to a browser to check) leads with the story: 

Strikes cause ‘significant damage’ to Odesa port.

These students are studying history, yet they are also studying people, what they think and how they act right now. I don’t know if they realize yet that history is also today and tomorrow, despite the refugees from Ukraine who are their classmates, despite the daily news, despite a weekend spent waiting at a border of a country at war.

Bonjour !

Je suis toujours un peu nerveux, quand j’observe un cours de français. C’est normal que le prof me demande quelque chose pendant l’heure et je sais que mon niveau de la langue n’est pas très bon pour les quinze ans que j’habite en Suisse romande. Mais voilà, c’est comme ça. 

“On commence,” says the teacher, as the screen comes to life. Students take out notebooks or tablets. The assignment is to connect a phrase in the left column with its logical continuation in the right column. Un terrain ー de sport, for example. Une école ー privée. There are a few questions about vocabulary as the students complete the activity. The teacher writes on the whiteboard facultatif ≠ obligatoire. I’m pleased that he runs the class in French, far too often world language classes are conducted in English, with the result that leads many of us to say,  later in life: “I had three years of French, but all I remember is “bonjour” and “ça va.

One of the students to my left has a beautiful French accent. There must be a story there. Lived in France? Mother is French? She entered the classroom speaking Polish with her friends, the school is run entirely in English, she’s well on her way in French and who knows what other languages. These students are really something.

There’s a chance for a vocabulary twofer that we missed. A student asked what améliorer means. The teacher explained, in French, making a connection with the word meilleur, or best. But ameliorate is a nice, highbrow English word, too. The high falutin’ words in English are so often connected to French. I remember studying for the graduate records exam before learning any French. The fancy words I learned, like ameliorate, keep popping up now as I read and hear more French. The word fenestration came up just last week in an art class. Listen for them, English is full of them: rendez-vous, coup de grâce, promenade, coup de grâcedéjà-vu. See what I did there?

The students listen to a recording of young French voices explaining why they like cultural exchanges. Then the teacher gives everyone the transcripts and the students, in pairs, find and correct the errors. Now they are ready to move on to an exercise in the textbook. (Except that one student asks to go get his textbook, he didn’t bring it to class today. He’s gone for a few minutes to fetch it.)

The students turn to a cloze exercise. It’s about exchange programs again, the teacher is working this theme from different angles, but this time words are occasionally deleted from the text, leaving just a blank space. The missing words are provided, randomly, at the bottom of the page. Cloze exercises were first described by Wilson Taylor in 1953, but you can bet the basic strategy here is a time-eternal way of learning a foreign language. 

Tutor: “So the girl picked up a …. 

Tutee: Pen! 

Tutor:… and took out a piece of 

Tutee: Paper!” 

At least, that’s how it sounds when the tutor is working with an informed tutee. If the tutor picks vocabulary that is too advanced, or if the tutee doesn’t really care to learn, you are left with the tedious:

Tutor: “So the girl picked up a …. 

Tutee: [silence]

Tutor: …. a …

Tutee: [continued silence]

Tutor: pen and took out a piece of …

Tutee: [silence]

Tutor: … a piece of …

Tutee: [continued silence]

Tutor: paper. 

Luckily, in this class, the teacher is working at the right level and the students are applying themselves. The teacher assists when necessary, the cloze exercise seems helpful. I do the exercise along with them, in my head, happy that I don’t need the random cue words at the bottom of the page to get the right answer. In the study of French, small victories are important to celebrate, because there are so many ways to get things wrong. Just ask my own French tutor about me.

I wasn’t asked to speak, and now the lesson is done, so I don’t have to share my accented French with this group. There are always plenty of opportunities for that at home.

Au revoir !

The child has precedence in this relationship

Thoughts while observing a Year 13 English class.

Very little preamble here! The teacher, his beard and ruffled hair absolutely fitting for a professor of English literature, as fitting as his soft English accent, jumps right in. Wordsworth.

A student reads the three lines that form the epigraph to an ode:

The Child is Father of the Man;

And I could wish my days to be

Bound each to each by natural piety.

The poem continues after these lines, Wordsworth is being a bit tricky here, since these first three lines are from an earlier piece of his own. The teacher reads the original aloud:

“My heart leaps up when I behold

  A rainbow in the sky:

So was it when my life began;

so it is now I am a man;

So be it when I shall grow old,

  Or let me die!

The Child is Father … “

The teacher reads it as one who has read lots of poetry, as a person fascinated by a single word, by the sound of its syllables as they are formed in the mouth, by all the shades of meaning a word assumes when all its speakers give it life.

The teacher asks the students: “How is it for you when you see a rainbow?”

I feel a pang of homesickness for Leysin, for my adopted corner of the Swiss Alps, for the view from the living room. In 15 years I have not grown tired of the mountain view, I’m still in awe. And now in this prep school classroom I vow anew, as I get older, not to forget to look, to be amazed, to feel the weight of all that rock for its strength and beauty.

The teacher leads the students in a discussion about the parallel structure of the three lines starting with So. A student comments on Wordsworth’s deliberate choice of verb tenses: past, present, and future. He is playing with the twist that is coming, that thing that a poem can do that science struggles with. He will make the child the father of the man, help us re-see the world, help us shift perspective, not by truth, not in a factual way, but the truth that comes from a love for words.

The teacher asks what technique is being used here, with this line in which the father is the child of the man. Is it a paradox? Students share their thoughts. One suggests it is a metaphor, that the line is connected to the rainbow. She comments on the capitalization, reads too much into it, perhaps. The teacher reminds students that capitalization rules were less standard during Wordsworth’s life. But yes, he says, the child, the Child, is perhaps closer to nature.There is perhaps a metaphor here. A student asks if Wordsworth knew German. I think: How can the teacher possibly know that? But the teacher answers that Wordsworth was familiar with German, and certainly influenced by German thought, but that he didn’t know German that well. German generally capitalizes nouns, the student is making connections, playing the detective.

It’s fitting in a school that “the child has precedence in this relationship,” to borrow words from the teacher, that the child is “above in the hierarchy,” as he writes on the whiteboard. While schools serve adults (it is their career, a significant part of their social life, their grounding, their paycheck), schools exist for the students, the Children.

Those who become the future.

Trabeation, Fenestration, and Useful Changes to our Minds

This fall I spent a wonderful week at Akademeia High School in Warsaw, Poland. I met new friends and colleagues … and discovered a new way to observe classes. Maybe you’d like to try it, too. I set myself the challenge of writing a blog during one half of the class. 40 minutes from start to finish. I just wrote what goes on in my head as I watch high school students learn and the teacher teach.

This first classroom observation is of an art history class for Year 13 students.

I didn’t expect to be learning about trabeation. It took going on a school visit in Warsaw to hear this word for the first time. We’re looking at Queen’s House in Greenwich, a symmetrical three story building painted in white. The building is constructed with load bearing beams. “Post and lintel” is written on the board, along with other terms. Trabeation. I look for the word’s etymology. Latin for beam, timber. Trabeation goes back to the 16th century. For me it goes back a few minutes.

There are only three students sitting on one side of an oval, boardroom style table. The teacher stands on the other side, between the table and the large screen on her right, the white board on her left. 

The conversation moves to materials. Roman concrete, I learn, is made using volcanic ash, it actually gets stronger when exposed to salt water, and the Romans would often mix in chunks of sand, gravel, stone, or broken pottery. Whatever they did seems awfully clever for two thousand years ago.

The architecture of the school building we are in relies on exposed concrete, stainless steel, exposed ventilation systems, and blonde wood. It’s beautiful, in a Chipotle-industrial-look sort of way. The teacher steps to the concrete wall in the room and points out the imperfections. They are part of the beauty. And it is, in its way, beautiful. I see that.

We move on to the Royal National Theatre, built of reinforced concrete and glass. The teacher calls the style brutalism. Square, strong, solid, unforgiving. 

I suppose when the students leave a class like this, if it’s made an impression at all, they look at buildings a bit differently. As they move about the city, do they start to form classifications and categories in their minds? This building looks a bit brutal, and that construction relies on trabeation. This building’s aesthetic works for me, that one’s doesn’t. Do they start experiencing the world in a richer manner? They might start looking at more than buildings in a different way. They may start looking for patterns they didn’t notice before, in streets, in forests, in texts, in ideas and hypotheses.

The teacher reviews the term fenestration for the students. Fenestration describes the window system. I like the word, as a linguist, because it’s yet another example of borrowing from French, with a strong whiff of Latin, to make something fancier, more important, perhaps more elite. It’s a window system, but saying it that way is so … brutal. So uninteresting. Let’s look at the fenestration, now there we have something. This is not part of the class discussion, just me ruminating. There you go again. Why think when you can ruminate?

And isn’t this what education is about? Getting ourselves to think. At the moment it happens to be a residence, a theater, and now on the next slide, the Villa Savoye by Le Corbusier. Looks like an updated queen’s house, symmetrical, white, rectangular, but modern. A student points this out even as I’m thinking it. The teacher knows what she is doing, she selected these similar but dissimilar buildings on purpose. We are thinking, the students and I, we are making useful changes to our minds, that’s how David Perkins defined learning once. At least I think they are useful changes. With art I sometimes don’t really know. The words art and useful are uneasy bedfellows. 

Inconvenient Truth – Uncomfortable Reality

Source: https://www.co2levels.org/.

As we come back to another school year, I’m sure that more than a few international schools have strengthened their commitment to teaching about the climate crisis. For those schools that have not, please consider doing so. We are in the midst of an existential crisis, there is no getting around that. The last thing we need is another generation of adults willing to deny our climate emergency. The challenge ahead of us is difficult enough without debating whether a challenge exists. 

Increasing the curricular focus on the environment is doing the right thing, the necessary thing. We have to teach ourselves and our students about the seriousness of our actions, the harm each political setback causes, and the startling trajectory we are on. (Look at the graph again and make the obvious comparison of the last 100 years to the 900 years before that.) We are living in the first and only time that a species on Earth has such an obvious capability to eradicate itself and others entirely. An inconvenient truth, as we know from Al Gore. 

Soon students will arrive at international boarding schools across Switzerland and the world. They’ll fly in, many of them from incredible distances. They’ll often come with parents and siblings. As my mind wandered during the first day of our faculty orientation, I imagined an interactive world map showing this incredible movement of students, driving and flying, arriving at their international school. It is all very exciting, quite wholesome, really. Yet it is not sustainable.

Completely distracted by that point, I missed whatever came next in the presentation. Not only do students cover large distances to arrive at school in the fall, many repeat the trip (there and back) for fall break, Christmas break, spring break, and summer break. During the school year, parents often travel to the school to visit their children. There is, again, nothing malicious in any of this. Nobody is at fault. But that doesn’t make it any more sustainable. 

This is a very uncomfortable reality. Let’s just imagine a single international boarding school, anywhere, it doesn’t matter which one. On the one hand the faculty commits to raising awareness about the climate crisis, making it part of their curriculum. On the other hand, their business requires students to fly in (and out and in and out and in and out …) to learn, among other things, about the climate crisis.

The situation is inconvenient. Is our example school willing to advise their families to keep their students at a school they can get to with public transportation? Is any school willing to do so? 

Quite simply, the answer is no.

Where does that leave us?

Adventures in Ungrading – an Overthrowing Education Podcast

Image from Overthrowing Education at www.overthrowingeducation.com.

On May 30, 2023, Batsheva Frankel, the host of the Overthrowing Education podcast, reached a milestone by uploading her 100th episode. I’m a little late, but I’d like to honor Batsheva and all those involved with the podcast with a short blog.

The episode highlights the efforts of Canadian teacher Stacie Oliver and some of her students: Pauline, Drizzle, Ella, Fahmi, and Katie, to go gradeless. It’s worth a listen for the points it raises about the effect of adult judgment on student learning, even if you feel you have little control in matters of grading.

Additionally, the wisdom and maturity of all five students should make you feel very good about tomorrow’s leaders. Give them a listen.

Overthrowing Education Episode #100: Adventures in Ungrading 

I’ve been attracted to ungrading and gradeless teaching (or more mildly, grading-less teaching) for quite some time. Teachers Going Gradeless is a nice resource if cutting down on the amount of rating, comparison, and adult judgment via grades intrigues you, too. 

I think perhaps I’ve gotten to the point where you could describe my general education mindset as Bottom Up. I’m going to have to save that idea for a future blog – I need to think about it more – but Bottom Up is probably a good starting point.

For the last fifteen years I’ve worked on bottom up professional development (PD) meaning PD that teachers choose and direct themselves. It is effective, it is respectful, and it naturally differentiates. The same notion transfers to classroom instruction, but more on that in the future. For the last ten years I’ve been pulling agile into education. Agile is a mindset and set of suggested practices which flatten the hierarchy of power and control, putting real decision making power into the hands of those actually doing the work, encouraging both autonomy and collaboration. As my own mindset grew more agile, education materials we developed here in our research center grew less prescriptive, student curriculum and instruction focused more on process and skills, we began emphasizing pulling over pushing, and the teaching I do on the side for international teachers evolved as well. Now I find myself most often having a conversation with, instead of a presentation to, my students. My teaching is more joyful – sometimes incredibly so – and my results are better.

During those last ten years a group of us at Leysin American School initiated a shift in our grading practices. Energized by Vanisha Gorasian’s pilot of standardized-based assessment in grade 10 math and the simple rubric of our progressive middle school (4 – I can teach to others; 3 – I am confident and can move on; 2 – I need to work on this more; 1 – I haven’t really gotten started), we abandoned the American A-F grading system. We replaced it with a 7-1 scale aligned with the IB diploma programme, with a nod to Bloom’s hierarchy, reserving (supposedly) 7, 6, and 5 for work that went beyond rote memory: analysis and synthesis, that sort of thinking.  I also created a gradeless alternative program in some grade 8-10 elective courses. There was feedback, yes, but no grades. 

I’m not satisfied with the result of either effort. Teachers last year formed a self-directed group to work on the problems they find with our new 7-1 sort-of-sort-of-not standards based grading. Some of our standards are a bit iffy or missing completely. You can hear students talk about getting a 7 on a vocabulary quiz, which for me at least is a definition of rote learning. Something isn’t working. Nor has the shift in assessment systems radically changed instruction, for example, consistently allowing students to redo work until they’ve mastered the material, something that Vanisha and the middle school had built into their earlier systems, something that was for me a major goal. 

The completely gradeless alternative program we developed worked for some students, not for all. I suppose one can say the same about the A-F system the school used for its first 55 years, as well as the 7-1 system it has moved to. One student council president told me that motivation doesn’t work without grades. I countered that we just don’t have enough practice developing other means of extrinsic (and  intrinsic) motivation apart from using grades. We didn’t come to any particular resolution.

But it’s not until you have a course without any grading that you really feel a different type of learning, a different relationship between teacher and student. As my colleague, Bill Tihen, has said more than once: As soon as you have overt adult judgment about student work, students gear their work to that adult opinion. There is less autonomy, less innovation, and certainly less agency. Learning starts to include best guesses and strategies to please the teacher for the highest grade. Those who can game the system do best (in terms of grades, perhaps not in terms of learning). The rebellious students who ignore the chase for high grades may be cast in a negative light – they are after all bucking the adult system. But then later we might paradoxically recognize them for their independence, if they succeed in spite of us. 

Back to the podcast. There is an interesting discussion about how the students were attaching a GIF to their work to represent how they felt about it. Their teacher, Stacie, decided to do the same by way of offering feedback. The students called that out as, even as simple as it was, a form of grading. Stacie agreed and quit using it. As you are able in your context, talk with the students about their work, side by side, looking out at the horizon together. Judge it less.

One of the students mentioned he never really liked English class until he was with Ms. Oliver. Why? Because with other English teachers he had to figure out how to write to please them. There you go. Work out what the adult wants and do that. For students being judged, this is a good strategy for getting, on average, better grades. But better grades aren’t actually the intended outcome of schooling. Better learning is. 

A big thanks to Stacie Oliver’s students! And to Stacie for her innovation and Batsheva for the Overthrowing Education podcast.

“Your job is to facilitate peer learning” – Reflections on an interview with Justin Reich

“Your job is to facilitate peer learning”

For the past decade, my colleagues and I at Leysin American School have focused on supporting teacher agency. In the early years, our motto was “Continually becoming the professionals we already are.” 

We’ve supported teacher agency with the belief that innovation and substantive change in the way we do school will come directly from educators in action research cycles of teaching and reflecting, day after day. 

In this EdSurge podcast, host Jeffrey Young speaks with Justin Reich about what Justin argues is the only way for teaching and learning to get better at school: “The way [teachers] change their teaching practice is by experimenting with stuff and then sharing the results of those experiments with their colleagues.”

Reich is the director of the MIT Teaching Systems Lab. He’s held many positions, including ninth grade world history teacher and wilderness educator. The ideas in this podcast are also presented in his latest book, Iterate, available November 2023.

EdSurge Podcast


“Presently, there are many teachers who think professional development is pretty boring and pretty lame, and that is an unfortunate indictment of our education system.” 

Oh yes. Professional development (PD) often misses the mark. Sometimes it’s the wrong topic at the wrong time. Sometimes it’s just plain boring. I’m sure that Reich would say one reason for this is the manner in which PD is structured. As an example, he explains that a sports team would not just listen to theoretical explanations of a new play before running the play in a game. No way. They would instead experiment with the new play, try it out, reduce the complexity of the new play to practice it. 

Our professional development center at Leysin American School (LAS) bases its work on this notion of experimentation and collaboration. We try things out, share things with others, reflect and replan, and experiment some more. We learn in short iterations, we make little bets, we fail early and safely (which isn’t really failure at all, it’s called learning), and we adopt a mindset of action research. We get better at what we practice – and we get even better when we reflect on what we practice.

That is key. 

“Most teachers are patient pragmatists … [they are] waiting to see if there is some evidence – not in the abstractions of research articles, but if there is evidence from their colleagues that these things help students.”

Of course we are. We are patient and pragmatic because we have experienced more than one initiative that, although well intentioned, missed the mark. “Most teachers are naturally suspicious about new ideas that come from on high, because there is a new idea that comes from on high every year or two.” Or we have heard that something is research-based and best practice when, based on our own experience, we know better. At least in our context, with our students, with our personal professional abilities.  

Reich continues: “If you want to get teachers to do something new, you have to get them to learn from one another …  That is the main way that teaching and learning actually changes at schools.” And “If you are a school leader, this is essential information, essential framing for you, because essentially your job is to facilitate peer learning.”

This last statement is so important. A leader’s role is to create a culture in which teachers can learn from each other, because that is indeed the main way teaching and learning actually changes. The leader’s role is not to know more – that isn’t possible – nor to identify the best external provider of professional development, the best materials, the best whatever. No, no, no. The goal of the leader is to help teachers learn from teachers, in iterations. In his words: “The job of the school leader is to try to spin that process as quickly, as efficiently, as joyfully as possible.”

There are probably many ways of spinning that process. For us at Leysin American School, the process has been defined by asking teachers to identify the professional development that is right for them, working together with colleagues on campus and outside people or programs that they identify themselves. Sometimes this is through informal group meetings over the course of the school year, sometimes this is as a passion project supported with a stipend and the help of a colleague in our research center. Often we make introductions to bring people with similar questions and interests together, in person and online. We ask teachers to talk and reflect and try things out and to talk and reflect some more. 

Reich: “So things that school leaders can do is … make it easier for teachers to conduct experiments.”

As a school leader, are you helping teachers conduct experiments? Does your mindset, your schedule, and your PD program support teacher-led experimentation? Ask yourself the questions that Reich poses in the podcast:

  • How am I helping teachers … invest in innovations?
  • How am I creating “the conditions where teachers get a chance to learn from one another?”
  • How do you make sure that all that experimentation doesn’t happen in a thousand different directions, how do you help … encourage a community to pick a few different things ….?

It isn’t easy, as a leader, to get past the confirmation bias that comes with the position. School leaders generally got where they are because they have demonstrated serious ability and motivation in more than a few areas of education. There is a natural tendency to want to direct, to tell, to lead in the manner we are often told a leader leads. But when it comes to the professional development of teachers, we need to be very humble. As one professional training book puts it, “Telling Ain’t Training.” Building capacity for shared efficacy is training, or at least a necessary condition for training to thrive. This is quite different from “telling.” 

Let’s have Reich summarize for us:

“Teacher leadership is essential for school improvement. You cannot improve schools without empowering teachers to be trying to generate new, better practices, going through these iterative approaches of trying one thing, seeing how it works, trying a little bit better things, and then sharing what they are learning with others. That’s the only way that teaching and learning in schools gets better.”

Resources

Leysin American School Educational Research

Design Thinking for Leading and Learning

Launching Innovation in Schools