All posts by Paul Magnuson

Several years 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 resident scholarships. In addition, the center works with schools and universities around the world, hosting 10 to 15 visiting scholars annually, and consulting and presenting at schools and other organizations. Paul has created a number of tools and programs, including classroom observation schemes, language immersion summer camps, the middle school at LAS, and most recently, edge, a high school program which offers an alternative to traditional school through greatly increased student agency. His current interests are the documentation of edge, pulling agile into education, and self-regulation for both students and teachers.

Agency: Reflections on an Interview with Jennifer Groff

For the past decade, I’ve focused on supporting teacher agency at my school. In the early years, our motto was “Continually becoming the professionals we already are.” 

Tim Logan, the host of the Future Learning Design podcast, recently interviewed Jennifer Groff, Innovation Fellow at WISE (QATAR Foundation). She advocates for both teacher and student agency, and since Tim ends each of his podcasts with the invitation to continue the conversation, let’s do just that.

Future Learning Design


“There’s just so much about the old model that doesn’t work and hasn’t worked for quite some time. By ‘work’ I really mean that there isn’t research to support [the old model], in fact, there’s a lot of research to support  that many of the common structures that we just assume are fine … are actually rather problematic.” 

Jennifer Groff, Innovation Fellow at WISE and experienced school reformer, is convinced our traditional model of education is not adequate. The world is changing far more rapidly than our approach to getting students ready for the world.

“The world that they are entering into, the world that they are in now, requires such a different education than we have largely structured for them.”

I think most of us who listen to Tim’s podcasts would agree. After all, a podcast about the future design of learning attracts those who aspire to something new, not to maintaining the status quo. (In fact, I’d like to challenge Tim to interview a few folks who are convinced that our education model should stay as it is. Tim? Up for the challenge?) It’s time that we concentrate on showing real examples of the change we are talking about, as well as stories about how we have moved away from the old model (what Groff refers to as a “burning platform” of education) to new models.

Their discussion does hint at systemic conditions that will provide the space for change. First, they agree that change initiatives have to be “embedded in the structure” of school, so that they “cannot be pulled out.” Innovation, in other words, cannot be an add-on for when there is time or it is otherwise convenient. Innovation must be planned and cared for just like curriculum and assessment. Tim alludes to the difficulty of getting more agile while still in the box, yet that is exactly what needs to happen. However one understands the box, it is there, and that’s where innovation leading to reform needs to be embedded in a manner that “cannot be pulled out.” Otherwise, as any reader can recall from direct experience, promising reform initiatives are quickly winnowed by the inflexible sides of the box.

And how do you get agile in the box? For teachers, Groff recommends creating a culture of quick data collection, leading to quick designs and constant piloting of new ideas. That immediately sounds like an interesting place to work, doesn’t it? Much more so than a culture which claims we shouldn’t experiment on our students – which is complete hogwash because good teachers are constantly experimenting with new ways of teaching better – and that teachers should follow outside experts who train on the implementation of the latest method or software. 

Not that the latest method or software is necessarily subpar. It’s just that teachers need agency to come to their own conclusions about how they teach. Telling only goes so far. 

What Groff is proposing has an easy parallel with business agility, in which one develops new ideas in short iterations with plenty of feedback so that bad ideas are quickly discarded and good ideas are made better. Incidentally, this hints at a solution to a problem posed in an earlier Future Learning Design podcast that I reflected on, with Andreas Schleicher of the OECD. He suggested that in education we are not good at getting rid of bad ideas and unfortunately equally not good at adopting good ideas. The opposite of agile. Groff’s solution? Get teachers working in quick action research cycles and sharing what they learn with others, debriefing (and prebriefing?) as they go. 

I’m happy to think that at Leysin American School we’ve been helping support action research cycles for several years through the support of teacher-driven projects. Our application deadline for 2021-2022 just passed. We’re set to review and hopefully approve nine new projects for next school year. That’s about 15% percent of our teachers who would like to formalize their learning and experimenting with support from the research center.

Agency isn’t just for teachers. Teachers can model and help create the right culture for students, who, according to Groff and many others, need much more agency than the old model has provided.

“It really is about student agency, it really is about getting the kids hand on the wheel and them driving the bus, which is really scary for a lot of schools …”

Having the kids drive the buses would indeed be a little scary, but of course she isn’t speaking literally. Having the kids drive the curriculum and instruction is perhaps just as scary – and one of the reasons we continually build systems that downplay student agency. But there are consequences. When do students learn to approach learning independently, without the handholding? 

Groff: “When you spend 12 years thinking that the world is chopped up into linear bits and there’s a right answer that’s that short … you are doing immense damage to these kids. They don’t know how to handle the complexity of the world.” The damage comes because we aren’t teaching in manners that build student agency, but rather “sending them out into this complex world without the agency and the self direction to navigate it.” 

Ouch. But yes. Picture a class of students at the beginning of the hour, as the teacher enters the room. What are they doing? They are waiting. Waiting for directions. Waiting to find out what is going to happen for the next 45, 60, 90 minutes. Waiting to find out what they are going to learn, and how they are going to do it, and probably whether the work will be done individually or in pairs or groups. Why is this model so universal? This is the platform that Groff suggests is burning.

“I could very easily, with a research base the size of a mountain behind me, go look at a traditional school model and say that none of this is working…” Schools “have many things that need redefining and addressing, there’s … just loads of evidence to support that.”

So there’s work to be done. Starting with a cultural shift to greater teacher agency makes good sense to me. Just remember, as Groff chuckles at the end of the interview, reforming our education models “is not for the faint of heart.”

Agency: Reflections on an Interview with Andreas Schleicher

Agency: Reflections on an Interview with Andreas Schleicher

For the past decade, I’ve focused on supporting teacher agency at my school. In the early years, our motto was “Continually becoming the professionals we already are.” While we originally focused on teachers, lately we’ve been able to directly impact students, from supporting individual passion projects to creating entire programs.

Yet I feel we’ve only just started to touch on teacher and student agency and I’m a little plagued by the thought that we might only be tinkering. What if we are so stuck in legacy thinking that we can’t even see future possibilities?

So I keep my ears open for those who have something to say about agency. Tim Logan, the host of the Future Learning Design podcast, is introducing many of us to the ideas of influential thinkers in this area. He ends each podcast with the wish that we continue the conversation. So let’s do that.

Future Learning Design

“You are not going to see student agency without having teacher agency,” says Andreas Schleicher, Director for Education and Skills and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the Secretary-General at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Exactly! Telling students they need to think and act independently, while not creating a school environment in which teachers benefit from autonomy and self-direction, is by no means ideal. Do as I say, not as I do. Yet if teachers feel their hands are tied, they are justified. There are so many constraints on teachers, including inflexible curricula, demands for grading, teacher evaluations … I don’t even care to try to think about the factors we could include here. 

So teachers need to feel and experience real agency so that students can do the same. Fair enough. Even in our traditional conceptualization of school we can find room for more teacher agency. I know that the set of alternative electives we’ve created at my school have given us teachers a significant level of space and time to practice our own agency. This is a good step forward. 

Schleicher cautions, though, that supporting teacher agency requires an environment where teachers know what is best, and just don’t suppose they know what is best based on individual feelings and beliefs. As he puts it, “The professional needs to do what they know is right, based on evidence …” Our school’s support of teacher-initiated, year-long action research projects comes into play here, as does the school’s acknowledgment that we value teachers who are constantly trying out new ways of supporting student learning. Have you ever heard someone say, derisively even, that “we don’t experiment on kids?” Well, we do. We believe all good teachers do. And we do it because we want our teachers to do what is best based on their own research and the feedback they get from others.

Often the debate between content and skills is framed exactly that way – one focus pitted against the other. Content versus skills. For Schleicher, that’s framing the problem far too simply. Both content and skills are important, one supports the other. “We shouldn’t treat knowledge and skills as two ends on a spectrum … one without the other is of very little value.” Indeed. It’s just that it seems we are so completely enamored with content. Content determines how we name our courses, hire our teachers, fashion our assessments, and report to our stakeholders. 

Perhaps Schleicher shares our bias that skills don’t get even close to equal billing with content. He mentions, as others have when reflecting on teaching during a pandemic, that “those students that succeeded were the ones … who could live with themselves, who could live with others, who could have the discipline to organize their learning independently, who could structure their learning, who could access a wide range of learning resources.” Student agency is out there, in other words, but not universally. To what extent are our students able to pick up the reins when the teacher isn’t present? Should they have to wait for the teacher to be absent to pick up the reins? Do we give them adequate time to learn how to self-direct? Are we holding their hands much too firmly?

But a word of caution: “… it’s not about less structure, it’s about an enabling structure rather than a constraining one.” Right. We want more agency for both teachers and students, but we won’t get there by pulling away all the structure. In fact, it could be that the less structure there is the more demanding the task is for teachers. How do we create the right climate for agency to thrive?

Schleicher: “You do need very carefully crafted curricula.” But these are different types of curricula he is talking about. Not the big plan before the year begins, nor the blow by blow, lesson by lesson. “It’s not about packaging exactly what you should be teaching in what hour, but it’s about providing some structure and good guidance for teachers; how to develop those kinds of thinking and reasoning skills that are of enduring relevance …” For many this will be a very different notion of curriculum. By no means is it a list of content items to cover.

And Schleicher’s use of the phrase enduring relevance makes me think of David Perkins and his suggestion that we teach lifeworthy content and skills. Content and skills of enduring relevance. That also requires a healthy reimagination of our curricula. I’m wondering if the notion of enduring relevance doesn’t also demand quite a bit of choice on the part of the student. We adults might be clever enough to select enduring skills: collaboration, innovation, and the like. But are we clever enough to imagine what content will have enduring relevance for students? Is it maybe even more complicated than just being clever? Endurance may well include a healthy dose of self-selection, choice, or as I learned in Spanish, ganas – that which you really want and what really drives you. 

Just thinking about innovation. How many of our school mission statements include innovation in one form or another? And how do we foster innovation?

“It’s about professional autonomy in a collaborative culture. And that collaborative culture in my view really depends on a good accountability system.” There he goes again, full of the pragmatism that comes with expertise. “If you are amazingly innovative in your own classroom and nobody else knows about it, that innovation will dissipate very quickly.”

This is true. And now think about our general education model. Would you say it’s default state is teacher-collaborative or teacher-alone-in-the-classroom? 

“Perhaps we should think more about lateral accountability,” he continues, so that teaching “becomes more of a public process rather than a private process – something that is actually visible to your colleagues.” I pause the podcast here to think. How much lateral accountability have we built into my school? We’ve tried with our faculty evaluation. We have some professional development that requires peer observation and feedback. We’ve even had some classes with two teachers … but it didn’t last. Teaching is still by and large an individual endeavor.

A caution and a reason for hope to wind up with. 

“We need to make sure that good ideas spread in scale and also that bad ideas disappear … we are not doing well on either side.” Ouch. We know that our current way of doing school is quite entrenched. Attempts to move away from the classic school model (kids move in groups, between rooms with one teacher, each with a desk, whiteboard at the front, not too much time for individual student input, eyes on your own paper, homework at night) are often squelched. The structure of school just isn’t set up to support much beside school as we know it. 

Might this be why good ideas are hard to spread? Because good ideas tend to fall outside the current closed circle of what works? We should have a very open conversation about what “works” means, I suspect. We are perhaps stuck in the eddy of a strange attractor that keeps school the same year after year (and even more telling, after a global pandemic), giving bad ideas a longer shelf life than reasonable, even as good ideas are pulled back to the mediocre.

But there is hope, foreshadowed in the podcast by Schleicher’s earlier comment about lateral accountability. The future of teaching and learning, he thinks, likes in lateral instead of vertical relationships. Those of us pulling agile into school thought will resonate with this sentiment, as will anyone tired of top down, carrot and stick management. “I think that the future is not command and control but about collaboration … and I believe that has a lot to do about how we educate young people.”

I’m thrilled to hear this from a person uniquely situated to have a truly international perspective on education.

And for those of us in the trenches, who might be just a little uneasy about radical change, consider these final sentiments from the interview:

“If your role is really to develop human beings rather than just to transmit a specific piece of a subject, I think the role for teachers will be far more rewarding, not to speak of more effective.”


Summer Camp: Learning without Grades

With Keri Porter, Director of LAS Summer, Leysin American School.

The two of us have a lot of experience with summer camp. Combined, we count over 35 summers as a student, as a counselor or teacher, or as a program administrator. 

Learning to cook

We’ve also spent many academic years learning about schooling – more than we are going to try to count! Of course we were students, and then grad students. We’ve also been teachers and administrators.

You would think that summer camp and the academic school year would inform each other. That each program would take the best of the other program, based on the evidence, and through doing so, improve the quality of both programs. In our experience, that hasn’t been the case. The style of summer camp learning doesn’t play a big role in the academic year. We think it might have something to do with perception. Summer camp emphasizes fun, while the academic year school is serious. There’s lots of freedom and creativity in summer camp. There’s a canon of knowledge to be learned during the academic year. 

This is an unfortunate dichotomy. Read the paragraph above again. Which environment sounds more appealing to you as a learner?

Consider grades. The academic year generally has them, summer camp generally does not. Or in the summer camps we’ve been in, if there were grades, they were there because someone thought summer camp, to be taken seriously, had to be more like the academic year. (A pity.) Even so, grades were downplayed. 

The freedom from the “seriousness” and “core” of traditional schooling allows summer camps and teachers to be more creative and to learn more naturally. The focus isn’t on a test or a grade for a transcript; the focus is more on what students are passionate about, the new experiences they can have together, and the relationships they build. The focus is more on having fun, on learning something new, and on working together and being creative. Yes, there is content, but the content is more a means to an end, where the end includes a heavy focus on the soft skills mentioned above. In summer camp there is less emphasis on quantifying growth, so there is less adult worry about whether or not the growth can be quantified, which frees one up. It opens up new possibilities for learning. In the absence of working toward a grade and deciding on a grade and valuing a grade, young people can just get down to learning – just as their counselors can get down to teaching – free of the baggage.

When a student walks into a summer camp there is a different relationship with failing. You can still fail, but the stakes are low. Failing matters less. An afternoon activity might not be something you are good at or will ever pursue. You might shoot a crooked arrow, or get lost reading a compass, or create an arts and crafts product that no one recognizes. So what? You are there to have fun and explore, the stakes are low, you learned something, and measuring what was learned isn’t very important. We certainly don’t measure summer camp learning that comes from meeting new people, staying up too late in the cabin talking, presenting skits, or having a summer romance. It would be absurd to want to measure and report on these things. Yet they are important moments of learning. As are other aspects of camp, whether it’s religion, sports, world language, or some other type of instruction. So too are the many aspects of the academic year good learning, even when not measured. 

Perhaps especially when not measured. Why do we place such a focus on grades? And why don’t we bring a little more summer camp mentality into the academic year?

Lessons from Watching Online Language Instruction

My 10-year old was a student in a five-day online language program. Overall she loved it. She learned some German and she learned, more importantly, that learning language is interesting. As a language teacher and language learning enthusiast, I recommend an online language course to the parents of any motivated child.

Personally, I learned a lot from watching her take the course, sitting at her side to see the screen or listening and observing from across the room. Here are some takeaways. 

Remote learning is different from face to face learning. We know this, but it is hard for us to let go of established routines that have worked so well for us in face to face environments for so long. But let go we must. We need to observe how students are learning without the prejudice of historically good face to face learning clouding our vision. Some practices will need to be changed, some will need to be dropped entirely. This shift will take time, but those who are quicker to adapt will fare better. 

Students are still extraordinarily forgiving with the tech glitches that we all experience. Perhaps because we all experience them. However, the patience for glitchy performances will wear thin as more and more of their online experiences figure things out. Breathe a sigh of relief that students are patient, but don’t misinterpret their patience as license not to adapt better to the online environment. Their clocks are ticking.

Language teaching still has lots of room for improvement. It’s nearly thirty years since I began graduate school to learn how to teach languages. The debate back then was essentially how much to focus on communication and how much to focus on grammar. One persistent and long lived voice stretching back to my grad school days in the early nineties (and in fact back to an early publication of his position in 1977), is that of Steve Krashen. In a nutshell, you have to to be understanding language – and making meaning with language – in order to advance.

With that background, the two most interesting observations I made of my daughter’s language learning experience are:

  • While she heard a lot of language – a lot of comprehensible input – she did not have much opportunity to talk. Sometimes she missed opportunities by not speaking up, which is partly on her and partly the way the learning environment was structured. Mostly, though, there were simply few opportunities to talk. 

Anybody familiar with a traditional language learning environment has seen this over and over. A teacher asks a question, one student responds, and the teacher comments on the student response. Let’s say that those three events – two by the teacher and one by the student – are all the same length (spoiler – they aren’t. The teacher generally talks far longer than a student). But, to keep things easy, the teacher is speaking two-thirds of the time. The remaining one-third is divided by the number of students in the room. In a 60-minute classroom with 20 students, with a teacher-student pattern of two-thirds teacher and one-third individual student, there is one minute per student to speak. As mentioned though, the teacher talk is generally longer than the student talk – and some students respond more frequently than others. The result? Many students go through a whole class with just seconds to actually speak. Crazy.

There are of course remedies. First, drop the teacher-student-teacher pattern (called initiation, response-feedback, or IRF, if you want to read more). For example, a call-and-response pattern of teacher-all students results in a 50-50 split of speaking (and all students are getting 50%, not just an individual student). This isn’t perfect – the students are not making original meaning – but it’s a heck of a lot more active than what I described earlier. A great way to do this is by teaching songs, something my daughter’s program used very effectively. Getting beyond a 50-50 teacher-student ratio requires creating situations in which students speak to each other with the teacher in s support, behind the scenes type of role. Role plays, games, debates, and other activities can get you there.

  • When the program teachers got didactic, things went downhill. Interest sunk, learning sunk. This wasn’t because the teachers weren’t good. Their subject matter was just not appropriate. Breaking away from communication, even rigidly structured communication with a question-answer pattern, into explanations about verb conjugations was a mistake. 

Here you don’t have to take my word for it. When the students were asked at the end of their time together what they liked best, they mentioned the games that they played – those activities that had less of a specific language learning outcome and focused instead on fun, which required some communication in the language. Not coincidentally, that’s also when I observed the highest motivation, the most talking, the most comprehension. 

My takeaway is this – and it is as true for this online experience as it is in many classrooms – when her teachers shifted into teacher mode, feeling like they better teach something, like those verb conjugations, learning dropped. Although it’s a little counterintuitive, it’s not unsupported in the research. (Think back to Steve Krashen, fighting a similar battle since at least 1977.) Our curriculum and our manner of assessment, among other factors, may be hamstringing us a bit.

If you aren’t a language teacher, here’s the generalization I’m aiming for. We might all do well to focus more on the doing than the tools we need for the doing. When students are doing, they may have a better chance at motivation and involvement, at constructing their own understanding as they go. They’ll ask for the tools if they need them to continue the conversation. So give them something interesting to think and talk about and then let them go. Teach your subject a bit less. Get students doing your subject a bit more. 

That’s what I learned from my daughter’s online class. 
Check out comprehension-loaded language instruction from proponents I know best – Beth Skelton, Grant Boulanger, and Liam Printer.

Reform: affordances and hindrances … and crowdsourced success

I suppose there are lots of teachers who are fine leaving schools as they are. Traditional schools have educated a whole lot of people, after all, and the world is working fine. (Or is it? Over 70 million people recently used their vote to endorse Trump’s unpresidential behavior.)

But there are also a lot of teachers who would like to reform school. To shake it up, to do things differently. The overwhelming majority of these teachers work in traditional schools, and the overwhelming majority of schools are traditional. So it’s probably not a bad idea to consider, for a bit, how to bring reform to traditional schools settings. What are the affordances and hindrances?

The affordances. I want to start with these, because so often when we talk about reform we slip into but-but-but … and then we throw our hands in the air and give up. 

So the affordances. What is working in our favor? What factors are on our side?

At the classroom level, we usually have quite a bit of autonomy. The class is usually ours to teach. We are generally allowed to try out new approaches to teaching, and often new content. We can make mistakes in our classroom that won’t necessarily haunt us – probably no other adult in the school witnessed an activity gone bad, that peer review that didn’t work, those presentations that didn’t hit the mark. That autonomy is something to build on.

A math teacher at our school experimented with standards based assessment about five years ago. Just in one class, just for a semester. She helped kick off a schoolwide switch to standards based grading. We are in the second year of that now. 

I volunteered about the same year to create a class for a group of students who just didn’t fit in the schedule anywhere but needed one more elective. Perhaps because I helped make the schedule work, I earned greater freedom in both content and my approach to teaching. We learned languages that year, any language or languages the students picked, with online tools. And I discovered eduScrum when I needed a better way to organize student workflow. eduScrum led to a focus on pulling agile into education, which is still going strong, and influencing many teachers.

eduScrum itself is a great example of a teacher using the affordances of his classroom to bring about reform. Willy Wijnands, teaching chemistry in his Dutch high school, began experimenting with his own class. The students still did well on the tests, so Willy was able to continue with his unique approach to instruction. He started sharing with others. And now eduScrum has representatives in over 30 countries. Maybe this is too big an example. You don’t have to influence other classrooms to contribute to school reform. You just have to influence your own.

The point is: We can use the autonomy given to us to experiment and create small reform. All of us can.

We have a great affordance in online professional development. It’s accessible and, now more than ever, omnipresent. And it’s often free. There are high quality podcasts and Meet Ups and webinars and other opportunities. There are social networks we can use to share ideas with people working in similar ways, puzzling over the same issues.

And there is a growing, worldwide conversation about school reform. About the need to reconsider current practices, current curricula, and beyond a doubt, current assessment policies, from the classroom level all the way to the federal government. It is easier to think and act a bit differently if you know others are trying to think and act differently, too. They are. This is a huge affordance.

Now the hindrances. There are many. There is tradition (how we were likely taught). There is inertia (it’s easy to find English, science and history teachers; but try finding a Collaborate teacher or a Growth Mindset teacher). How do you break out of the traditional set of subjects if your pool of teachers are trained only in the traditional set of subjects? There are state and federal laws, university admissions, cultural expectations, a dearth of alternate models, book publishers, square school buildings, square classrooms, square schedules … Right angles everywhere, really, in a world that is obtuse, curvy, and unpredictable.

But there are affordances. You, in your classroom, can do a little more of this and a little less of that. You can start a small shift. Your small shift can join other small shifts. You just have to take the affordances available to you and start. And tell others about it. And listen to others. 

Imagine the combined result, if each of us did just a little. Nothing short of seismic. 

The Scab Faerie

If that title doesn’t get your attention, I’m not sure what would. The Scab Faerie is a whimsical children’s book about the many fairies that visit our homes at night. It’s not just teeth they are looking for!

I had the pleasure of putting this book together with Sonia, a sophomore at my alma mater, St. Olaf College in Minnesota, USA. I studied creative writing there, among other things, and this year, 36 years after graduating, luck put the two of us together on the adventure of taking a book from start to finish, author and illustrator, combining creativity with an attempt to publish a story that might actually sell a few copies. Fingers crossed.

At the end of the project, Sonia, the illustrator, sent the most wonderful email. It took me several days to figure out exactly how to reply. I was somehow quite moved. In her mail were two brilliant nuggets for educational consideration, though that wasn’t her intention. But we teachers tend to notice examples of educational moments that truly matter. I think Sonia happened to deliver.

Sonia wrote: 

Your whimsy, open-mindedness, and abundant creativity made it easy and gratifying for me to share in such a bright creative spark. Illustrating and describing our faeries didn’t feel like a chore, but an adventure.

Ah yes. When work isn’t a chore, but an adventure. When school isn’t a slog, but a sprint. When we hit a state of flow, as Czikentmihaly puts it, and the difference between work and play disappears in the buzz of purposeful, joyful production. Are we doing school with the glow that comes from finding that state of flow for our students and ourselves?  

Sonia continued:

Having to … edit things let me know that we were treating the project seriously, as well.

Sonia does good work. And I think my text was pretty good. But of course, we had different ideas about different parts of the book. We also had ideas that seemed good when we imagined them but didn’t look as good after they were drafted, which then required flexibility on both our parts. In short, we collaborated and compromised, from a position of true investment in the outcome.

During our adventures in school, are we setting projects up so that first tries, however hard we work on them, aren’t good enough? Are we setting projects up in a way that require collaboration and feedback from multiple sources? Is feedback something that is acted on? Or is feedback mostly a mark in the gradebook?

Questions that matter

Ten years ago my colleagues and I developed a classroom observation tool. Among other data, it tracked how often teachers asked a question to which they did not know the answer.

You can probably guess how often this part of the tool was used. If the answer isn’t obvious to you, you might be in a very unique school environment and I encourage you to enjoy every second of it!

Unfortunately, many of us can guess how often we ticked that particular box during an observation. Hardly at all. In fact, that part of the observation form was so rarely used that when we moved from a paper version of the tool to an online version, we didn’t even include the option of noting such questions. In other words, although teachers asked a lot of questions, they asked so few questions to which they didn’t know the answer that it didn’t make sense to keep track of them.

You may be doubting that this can be the case in your school. And if you are lucky, maybe it is not the case. But I challenge you to look for questions that are really questions. Really things that the teacher is interested in knowing more about because the teacher doesn’t know the answer. There is an easy way for you to find out, of course. Visit a handful of classes, even for part of the hour, and make a tick for each question a teacher asks that is a true question, not a display question, not a question the teacher is asking instructionally, not a question to which the answer is already known. 

There is room for asking questions we know the answer to. I do see the value in this particular tool of our teaching toolbox. It’s just that there is also room and purpose for including questions that we don’t know the answer to – in order to explore a topic with students to find something out, together. Might this develop a classroom atmosphere of standing shoulder to shoulder to discover instead of face to face to, well, to be blunt, tell

It of course takes no small amount of confidence to set up learning in a way that allows for these types of questions. For one, teachers have to have the confidence to not know, on the spot, with students observing. We tend to shy away from constructing class in a way that exposes the weakness in what we know. After all, we’re supposed to know the subject, right? Even be experts?

Maybe we can finesse those last questions, though. As teachers, let’s suppose that one of our primary roles is to get students interested in our subject. We can’t expect to know everything anyway. And we certainly don’t want to cap what students can learn at the points where our own learning runs out. Perhaps if we focus a bit more of our teacher pride on being experts in how students go about learning and developing further interest we’d feel easier about getting into subjects at the edge of what we know. So we can explore together. So that our questions are a bit more real. So that we are all learning together.

Here’s a challenge for you. When you are teaching today – no need to wait – ask a question that you are interested in and to which you don’t have the answer. And notice what happens.

Maybe Google isn’t the issue

I highly recommend checking out the podcasts at Modern Learners. Often a single podcast spins off a number of ideas in multiple directions, under the general theme of teaching and learning more fitting for our current times.

For example, at the end of a podcast with futurist Brian Alexander (August 11, 2019), a single comment by host Will Richardson really perked up my ears. 

Will says to make sure your class isn’t “google disabled.”

Right. My colleague Bill Tihen has often mentioned Google when we talk about teaching and learning. Bill puts it this way, more or less: You have to set up class so there is more to learning than what is googleable. Will’s comment made me think of the same concept in a complementary way: Telling students they can NOT use Google might be a red flag. What would prompt us to tell them that? That perhaps what we are assessing is information retrieval (which one can get easily on Google) rather than application and synthesis of information.

So. Bill and Will are telling us not to “Google disable” our classes, or to make sure that what we bring to instruction is more than what is googleable. Googling is perhaps best thought about as where learning starts, not where it ends.

Over the past several years – four or more depending on how you count – we’ve been changing our assessment system to reflect what Bill and Will are saying. We’ve moved away from a 0-100 American scale to a 7 point scale with school level descriptors and complementary specific descriptors at the assignment level, for each of the seven possible results. There are two significant benchmarks, one between levels 2 and 3 and one between levels 4 and 5. 

A mark of 2 or less signals significant issues. A mark up through 4 includes memorization and giving information back. In other words, up through 4 is googleable. Only with the application and synthesis of what was googleable does a student encounter the 5-7 range. 

There is no reason for a teacher to tell a class not to use Google (as Will reminds us); in fact, an assessment system like the one we’ve developed, correctly understood, should put some pressure on the teacher to ensure that lessons routinely go beyond googleable thinking in order to offer the students opportunities to think and work in the 5, 6, and 7. Recall, remember (levity intended), ends at level 4. 

There is every reason to ensure that the teaching and learning we orchestrate require students to go beyond Google. Lessons that do not go beyond googleability should simply not be assessed on the 1-7 scale (since 5-7 aren’t demonstrable). 

The difference between learning and recalling facts and applying those facts is neither hard to grasp nor unknown to teachers. Getting students to think and to learn how to learn are regularly repeated goals across schools. In practice, however, if we are honest with ourselves, our school culture tends to focus our thinking and practice on recall. Our assessment practices may often be unwitting abettors, so much so, that we’ve found it surprisingly difficult over the past years to clearly articulate the appropriate use of the 1 to 7 scale with its division between recall, level 4 and below, and application, level 5 and up. We continue to mistakenly record the results of a vocabulary quiz, for example, on a 1 to 7 scale. There is nothing wrong with a vocabulary quiz. There is everything wrong with assigning the quiz anything greater than a 4, since vocabulary quizzes are not made to demonstrate application. Knowing the meaning of words will help application down the road, but alone, word knowledge is not application, so a perfect result is a 4, no higher. Use a raw score or a yes/no type of score (good enough, not good enough). 

Interested in more about standards based grading? Google it. 4. And then talk about its probable ramifications on teaching and learning, in your particular school setting, with your colleagues. 5-6-7.

Slacker or Hacker?

I’ve always thought of myself as a non-conformist, even though I have a strong inkling that others view me very much as a conformist. Perhaps this is why I feel so at home in Switzerland – I’m a non-conformist committed to following the rules. I’m willing to put up with a fair number of constraints if the train comes on time, the mountain roads are meticulously maintained, and things just plain work.

Outside Embers in Summer 1988, before moving to
Regensburg, Germany, to start slacking … or hacking?

So I’ve read with interest over the years the stories of those who have succeeded because they bucked the trend. I like reading about people who quit school to build famous businesses, who were fiercely independent and are now successful because of it. Of course, I enjoy reading about them after coming home from my comfortable middle class job with a dental plan and a pension.

I realized one day that I didn’t have to just admire the folks I knew that were hacking their own education. (Besart, you know I’m thinking about you here, the Meister of moving from one opportunity to another by working your network.) I don’t need to admire from afar and lament that I don’t have the same spirit. I actually have hacked some of my education, back in the day. I just hadn’t thought of it like that.

After a short stint as a short order cook following graduation (Remember the Embers?), I moved to Germany, enrolled in the university in order to get a work permit, and did enough odd jobs to support two hobbies: writing poetry and traveling. The experience created a second rate but well traveled poet who fell in love with a third hobby, languages.

I sort of thought I was just being a slacker for those four years between undergraduate and graduate school, but I think I can reasonably reframe that time as hacking my own education. I was, after all, a student at the university (who didn’t attend the classes in my declared major, but I did join the theater troupe, learn some Swedish, read for hours in the library, and write for many more in the computer lab). I learned German through those activities and odd jobs, and with my collection of Donald Duck comic books from every country I visited, I learned to marvel at how languages work.

The hacker mentality that I learned during those years has stayed with me. It has been second nature to me for a long time to supplement any on the job training with additional opportunities, whether related to the job or not. I almost always jump at the chance to join a professional development opportunity, even when the connection to my responsibilities is a bit tenuous. I’ve regularly taken extra computer classes, went with the yearbook crew on a weekend retreat, attended conference sessions on a whim, signed up for MOOCS ranging from chicken care (University of Edinburgh) to studying complexity (Santa Fe Institute). A professor of mine once said “You read the strangest things,” which I took as a compliment. I think I’ve also been rather adept at constantly redefining my role in my current position so that work stays both relevant and interesting.

Those hacker years, even though I was worried at the time that they were slacker years, contributed greatly to my personal drive for lifelong learning. I’m not only curious, something I may have been lucky to have been born with and to grow up with in my family, I’m also willing to find a way to learn more, in my free time or combined with my job, and to make connections between seemingly unrelated pursuits.

Now I find myself quite committed to helping students learn to self-regulate, to make their education their own, to learn when it is worthwhile to follow a pursuit that others may not be so readily supporting. In short, I’m all about helping students learn to hack their education more and follow the prescribed route less. But in a measured, polite, Swiss way.

From classroom to learning space

Sometimes a little avocation creeps into your life that you might not notice until someone else points it out for you. Maybe there’s something that you have to get done so you take care of it, and that leads to another something or other that needs getting done, and pretty soon you know a little bit about it and find you enjoy it. You might call it an interest, something short of a hobby.

I’ve developed an interest in what learning spaces look like. Not until a colleague pointed this out, though, did I step back and take some time to think about it. Had I become, in a small way, an interior decorator for the school? 

This past year I began moving a new program into a two-floor, six room building that we used to call the Math Chalet, because it has a Swiss Chalet look about it and math classes were taught here. Over the past year we turned it into the Edge Chalet to host some of our alternative programs.

I didn’t want the classrooms to look like classrooms, so room by room I removed the desks and chairs with furniture you might expect to find in your house. In fact, to keep costs down, I used a number of pieces of furniture that I got from houses, others and even my own. I aimed for a look that was less school, more house. What I didn’t know about interior design I made up for by simply eliminating the uniformity of the typical school classroom.

I started with one room, purchasing some furniture in pairs: small wooden kitchen tables with matching chairs, two blue armchairs, two tables with drawers. I set the room up symmetrically, with a view across the balcony at Le Chamossaire, a Swiss Alp which gives the room a breathtaking view.

A carpet and a bookstand split the two halves of the room. Using pictures of my own family and other household miscellania I made the room feel homey. I left the whiteboards in the room, holdovers from the math department. Behind the door I tucked a small fridge and a coffee maker. 

The room is now my office, and the office of visiting scholars, when they are on campus. It can also be a breakout room for the other learning spaces (I can’t call them classrooms, they just aren’t that) in the building. We meet here with student advisory groups, too. The room holds up to ten people comfortably.

Gradually the other rooms in our new Edge Chalet lost their classroom look to more welcoming hangout spaces. A building in town slated to be torn down gave its last furniture away one weekend. A colleague and I collected a worn wooden cupboard, full of dust and character, as well as a long red farm table and some benches. We matched these pieces with some more modern furniture, hung pictures on the wall to help the farmhouse look, and we were done. Another room became a convenient spot for me to store my old roll top desk, which didn’t fit in my new apartment anyway, and a large chest of drawers. That room had a piano, which gives the room lots of character. I hung pictures from two former art teachers and added maps to the wall (and in the cubbies of the desk) to give the room a travel theme. As an international school teacher, I had plenty of other knick knacks for decoration, including gifts from visitors.

You can tell I enjoy doing this. And when I look back, I’ve been enjoying it for a while. I just hadn’t noticed. A few years ago I took a skinny, underused classroom in a different building and turned it into what is now called the Research Lounge. I love that name. It’s also a living room and café sort-of-space with rugs and plants. It is a place for teachers and students to be that is calm, respectful, and less schooly. 

And before the research lounge, a colleague and I took two large rooms in yet another building and created a large makerspace. I remember getting inspired during a conference at the International School of Brussels. They had recently remodeled with lots of thinking space, I think they called it. So we brought in high and low tables, stools and couches, rolling whiteboards which doubled as space dividers, large screens, a sound system, and plenty of storage. We also had plants and decent wall decorations.

Why is the appearance of a learning space so important?

Most simply, because it is a place we spend time in. Better that it be aesthetic and comfortable than boring and uncomfortable. Maybe a test would be this: if you were designing an office for yourself – a place where you were going to spend a lot of time – would you design a standard classroom? Or something more inviting?

School reformers talk plenty about moving away from a factory model. Because school reform is notoriously sluggish, I imagine that reformers would like every possible advantage to help shift the way teaching and learning plays out. Here’s where I think the learning space really matters. Consider school environments that you are familiar with. Are most of the spaces filled with tables/desks and chairs? Is there an obvious power center of the room, probably in the front, perhaps filled with the teacher’s items and a space to address the whole class? Does the orientation of the room assume a specific teaching style? Does a whiteboard figure predominantly?

All of those things matter. They affect how we think about teaching and learning. And they do it perniciously. We don’t really notice how the space is affecting us because it’s just there. But the space matters.

Several years ago there was some excitement at our school because we took whiteboards to the next level, straight past Smartboards to short-throw projectors aimed at specially prepared walls which allow manipulation of the computer image through touch, as well as drawing on the walls with markers and hanging materials with magnets. Some teachers use them, some don’t, results are a little mixed, but of this I am certain: the set up reinforces, for all but the most careful teacher, a classroom of stand and deliver. The set up also makes the classrooms quite schoolish looking, since the blank white wall becomes the focus of the room and a natural station for the teacher, the teacher’s desk, the place for lecturing … you see what I mean.

Now that I think about it, classroom design started for me with my first administrative job, leading German immersion language teachers at Concordia Language Villages in the early 1990s. Folks were a little surprised when I removed the tables from the classrooms one summer. You can’t come to summer camp to learn through language immersion and then sit at a table with books and pens! Or at least that’s what my young idealistic self thought. (There may actually be some merit to the idea: I’ve noticed a few posts from teachers using TPRS – Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling – that eschew classroom tables, too). 

At any rate, if, when you were picturing classrooms in your mind, you found it hard to think of examples that don’t look like traditional school, you might ask yourself how far from the factory model teaching and learning can really hope to be. And if you have even a little interest in interior design, the next time you set up a classroom, make it just a little less school and a little more home, a unique spot, built perhaps for just a bit more creativity and collaboration over uniformity and competition.