Category Archives: 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.

Low Stakes, Easy Entry, Effective PD

with Jennifer Carlson, Hamline University

Recently a group of colleagues and the two of us, Jennifer and Paul, experimented with what might have been the easiest PD experience we ever set up. 

A half dozen of us, from Minnesota to Malaysia, agreed to meet on Zoom over a month’s time: three Saturday afternoons, every other week. We chose the topic, Uplift, in advance. During our first Zoom we talked about what Uplift in education might be. During the following two weeks we used WhatsApp (1) to share moments of Uplift in our teaching and working roles and (2) to reflect about the role of Uplift in learning. After two weeks we checked in with a Zoom, then spent two more weeks on WhatsApp before finishing with the final Zoom. Four weeks, one topic. Free and entirely voluntary.

We did not start with a firm definition of Uplift, nor for that matter did we all end with the same definition. Not everyone who participated was able to be at every Zoom. Some contributed a lot to the discussions, others little. We benefited from the experience in different ways and to different degrees. The process was self-organized, easy, non-threatening, and we loved it. 

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Here’s why:

Paul: My colleague Bill Tihen first introduced me to the notion of Uplift to address the uneasy feeling that teaching often feels like a deficit model. Students are missing knowledge, points are deducted, and we tell students they need to catch up. Learning, however, is an additive sort of thing. We enjoy discovering, questioning, hypothesizing, catching on, seeing something from a new angle, having a sudden insight, and gaining a new perspective. Especially perhaps when we are furthering our knowledge about something we know about, or getting better at something we already do well. 

So how do we shift from a deficit to an additive model of learning? Well, in part, by identifying and practicing Uplift. We talk about it as a practice, something that you need to continually work on, intentionally. It is a practice in the way that a painter works on their art, a writer on their craft, a Buddhist on their meditation. We think it’s a practice that teachers should think about and do more of. The WhatsApp messages focused me on Uplift as a practice. My awareness of Uplift increased and I began to look for it consistently each day. My awareness also brought into relief moments when I chose different paths – ones that had nothing to do with Uplift. 

The experience made my interaction with students and colleagues a bit better. I am willing to say that it made me a better and happier person. It also piqued my interest in sharing this model, since a small group can pick any topic they would like to think about, for any length of time, for no cost. It’s a Meetup with support between sessions; it’s a support group; it’s a community of learning; it’s a reminder to reflect; it’s an essential question. And the format is nearly universally available.

Jennifer: When I learned of and joined in with Paul and Bill’s interest and work with Uplift, I made the connection that I had been doing Uplift in my university courses. For the last few years, I have been consciously making the commitment to inject each class session and module, whether face to face, blended or asynchronous, with positivity, hope, joy and … well … uplifting moments. My version of Uplift provides defining moments of happiness. This has taken the form of photos, positive quotes from diverse authors, filmmakers, artists, and poets, notes of encouragement, and reminders to students to take a moment to be good to themselves. I have thought of it as an approach to a hopeful humankind, yet very person-focused, and a celebration of positive personal experience. 

This additive approach to learning and collaboration shined through in the messages from colleagues in the Whatsapp messages and Zoom discussions. Suddenly, for me, Uplift was everywhere. I realized that it was simply being open to seeing it, feeling it, and sharing our experiences and noticings of it. My heightened awareness of Uplift caused a shift in how I communicated, collaborated, and communed with others. There was much more joy, happiness, and a greater willingness to let the small challenges slide away. 

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Where do we go from here? We have run a successful trial of an easy approach to focus attention on a specific area of teaching and learning. The approach can be adapted to any topic, led by any colleagues who can agree on a time to meet, and without cost. 

We could defend the approach by referring to the literature. We could replicate the process with our same group, exploring a different topic. We could each create a new group, with new colleagues, on new topics. We could suggest a PD model for schools in which each participant creates a WhatsApp group, on a theme, with colleagues elsewhere in the world. 

Or, in the spirit of Uplift, simplicity, and collaboration, we could simply share with you how good it feels to be in charge of your own professional development, in a non-judgmental, self-selecting community, on a topic of your own choice.

Give it a shot!

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We met in Summer 2018 in the visiting scholar program of the Leysin American School Educational Research Center, Jennifer as a visiting scholar, Paul as the host and director. The Center’s motto is “Continually becoming the professionals we already are.” Its main theme is self-regulation. And its guidelines for effective professional development include these four attributes: classroom-based, collaborative, autonomous, and on-going.

“We hope to be half as good as the world thinks we are”

In 2015, in the first year of our progressive middle school, we screened the film Most Likely to Succeed at the movie theater in our Swiss village. I remember being delighted with the positive reception of the film’s ideas by many of my colleagues. 

Students at Leysin American School designed and built marble runs in the Edge program’s Da Vinci Lab. Their ideas, their work. As it should be.

The film critiques the current state of K-12 education: the type of school that we can all readily imagine, no matter where we are in the world, since schools are so strikingly homogenous. Students are divided by age, then assigned to a narrow and predictable set of subjects and taught by a single teacher in a model that is mostly transmission of facts. The curriculum is more often than not determined before the teacher meets the students, sometimes locally, sometimes by the national government. As Kurt Vonnegut wrote over and over in Slaughterhouse 5, “And so it goes.” 

And so it goes indeed. But not at High Tech High, which the film presented as an antidote to all that seems a bit toxic about education today. Students learn how to learn with a focus on deeper learning, accompanied by highly transferable skills. They take fewer subjects at one time, going into greater depth, favoring collaborative group work and Socratic seminars over teacher lecture. They create projects which they share publicly. 

In the film, one highly motivated boy ultimately learns about collaboration, from failing to collaborate, and one timid girl blossoms as the director of a play, caught up in her leadership role. Her mom cries when reflecting on her growth. I cried right along with the mom. If I weren’t sitting here with my laptop at Gate B51 in the San Diego airport, I might let myself cry right now, just remembering the impact those scenes had on me.

That is education. That’s how good it can be. 

But so often it is not.

I wanted our middle school to have an environment like I saw portrayed in that movie. We didn’t try to become High Tech High, of course. Our setting was different, the constraints were different, a lot was different. But we created our own brand of progressive education and I’m proud of what we accomplished. Unfortunately, the effort lasted three years before various forces molded the middle school back into traditional school – the kind you’d recognize anywhere. 

Out of its hubris we had the chance to start another program. Feeling wiser, I dared a bit more, no longer hiding that subject content was a secondary goal. We were going after constructs like collaboration and imagination instead. Where we had softened grades in middle school, we now ditched them entirely. We openly talked to students and parents about why we did things differently. We shared with other educators in conferences and meetings. 

And then COVID.

Perhaps there’s a bit of irony that my visit to High Tech High, something I’ve dreamed of for years, came in the context of one of the first face-to-face post-COVID (knock on wood) visits they hosted for outsiders. Sadly, it was also post middle school and, at least for me, post experimental programs after middle school. The sudden work stoppage due to COVID served to reorient me, like many of us, and I ultimately passed the progressive torch to others. I was worn out, simply put. Too much like wading in mud, no matter how convinced I still am that it is the right thing for kids and education. 

But there I was, at High Tech High, my lighthouse, my north star. I listened with interest to our host, Kelly, who introduced our agenda and then quickly moved us out into school visits. I went with the group going to the original school, since I figured it was the one in the film. Whether I should be embarrassed about it or not, I felt a bit like I was stepping across the threshold of a religious shrine as we stepped into the school.

The walls were covered in projects. Through the glass on my left a class was in session. Or maybe on break, it was hard to tell. We stepped down the hall and into a biology classroom that quacked so much like a makerspace that it was a makerspace. Biology wasn’t visible in the student project of building self-designed wooden tables, but the teacher assured us there were connections. Who cares, really, these students were working together on some pretty good looking tables. That is, most were working, some were sort of tagging along, and a few were on their phones. They could have been researching wood or tensile strength or something else table-like, I didn’t ask them. 

We view through our own lenses no matter what, I guess, and I jumped right away to the conclusion that this looked very much like the makerspace created by my colleague, Tom, at our school.  When the teacher said that they would sell their tables, I thought of Tom’s student, Ola, who sold her table this semester. Tom doesn’t claim to be teaching biology. He does claim to be teaching student agency, something the High Tech High teacher is deliberately doing, too. 

I know he and his colleagues are teaching agency because my tour guide, a sophomore, explains in her ultra mature and friendly manner that while there may be a few gaps here or there in her subject knowledge, she is sure that High Tech High is providing her the soft skills she’ll need to succeed later. She is walking proof of what she says: articulate, poised, professional, and 16 years old. Exactly what I would like for my own daughters, my own students. The knowledge gaps, if there are some, can be addressed with tutoring or classes as needed, our tour guide tells us. I absolutely agree. Soft skills would be harder to address later, because they are habits, ways of being.

Students focus on fewer classes, with more time for each, with an intentional interdisciplinary focus. Collaboration and creativity are nurtured. I see students in traditional looking classes, students in small groups, students reading individually. I also see many young teachers. The two teachers I speak with tell me that they have lots of freedom with the curriculum and lots of freedom with how they teach. Their students tell me that they have lots of voice, that their opinions about what they are learning and how they are learning matter. I think about a social studies teacher I knew that created a semester-long simulation of countries vying for economic and political power … and the criticism he had to fend off for going off script. That wouldn’t happen here. I think about a student I know who, after discovering during COVID that she had learned more online and enjoyed online learning more than her previous experience of face-to-face learning, was told she couldn’t continue with a self-designed hybrid of in-class and online learning because “she had to learn to learn she wasn’t special.” I don’t think that would happen here at High Tech High, either. At the very least, student input would be taken seriously. Perhaps that alone makes the school standout.

I didn’t leave at the end of the day ready to apply for a teaching job at High Tech High. (I had worried that I might be so compelled by my visit that I might not be happy unless I applied for a job!) In fact, in a strange way, it was comforting to see that within our traditional school mindset we have been able to emulate, in our own style, some of the ideals of High Tech High. It seems even High Tech High has to be content with more or less the same measure. As Kelly said, quoting one of the influential founders of the school, We hope to be half as good as the world thinks we are.” 

I hope High Tech High keeps striving to meet our expectations – I think they can be as good as we think they are. And you and I need to keep trying to be half as good as they are. Our students deserve it.

Sailing the Indian Ocean … in Room 26

A student buys goods from harbormaster Bilge in a simulation for tenth graders at Leysin American School

Ah, simulations. They can be such good learning experiences. 

But they require creative thinking, repackaging content, pre-planning, finding materials, perhaps  a lot of cutting and sorting materials into envelopes. They make you have to think like someone developing a new board game. They make you have to guess what will happen, what the learning might be, what might be productive to debrief. And above all, they require the teacher to take a risk because, after all, the whole effort might just cross over into chaos, observed by every student in the class. 

But they can be such good learning experiences. 

Bilge, a visiting scholar of Leysin American School (LAS) Educational Research, and I recently had the opportunity to participate in a simulation for a grade 10 English Language Acquisition (EAL) Pre-AP History class. Brian, the teacher, was looking for some help managing the simulation, so we jumped in. We got so interested we thought we would share the experience and reflect a bit on the value of making the effort to create, and improve over time, a simulation for the classroom.

The setting is the Indian Ocean in the 1400s. Ships are sailing between China, India, and the city-states on the east coast of Africa. Their holds are full of iron, pottery, silk, and other commodities. The distances the ships sail are incredible and the amounts of money enormous – at least when all goes well. The trading brings together people of different languages and religions, a mixing of cultures made tolerant through the promise of a healthy profit.

The students have read about trading during this era in their book. Now they are going to live it.

In total we visited three classes, seeing the simulation improve with each iteration. In the first version, with a dozen students, Brian, Bilge and I each worked as a harbormaster at a port, noting purchases and sales on accounting sheets. Because we were all busy managing our own ports, a bit of the overall coordination was lost, as Brian tried to be both simulation facilitator and harbormaster. The directions had taken a long time, Bilge and I were new to our roles, and time ran out before Brian could debrief the students about what they learned. However, the simulation was a valuable experience for the students since they were actively engaged and had the opportunity to use communication skills during negotiations with the harbormasters. The three of us talked about how it went, brainstormed some ideas, and Brian prepared for a different EAL Pre-AP History class the following day. 

In the second iteration, there were four adults. (Daniela the librarian joined Bilge and me as harbormasters so that Brian could focus on overall facilitation.) There were only four students in the class. We recognized that the student to teacher ratio wouldn’t be sustainable in the long term, but it was helpful for the simulation. Brain added in a few more hindrances (theft in the ports, ship repairs, and changing wind directions) and replaced the accounting process from the first iteration with images of coins and commodities to allow for “real” transactions. Now the students, as sailors and traders, had a clear goal: earn the most money. Buying low and selling high mattered. Developing efficient trade routes was obviously a plus. Avoiding thieves, repairs, and bad weather saved time and money. And bartering took on new urgency.

The second iteration ended without time for debriefing, which wasn’t ideal, since taking time to discuss what happened – and how it reflected the actual situation in the 1400s – is a key piece of the learning. However, the students enjoyed the simulation while performing their roles and got a general idea of the Indian Ocean trading of the era. We teachers debriefed one more time and Brian prepared for a third round, this time for a longer class period and in a larger room, and with a few more tricks up his sleeve. 

The third iteration was again with about a dozen students, but now just two adults, Brian and me. I was the harbormaster in China again, but the other two harbors were run by students in the class. Our materials were all ready ahead of time. Brian also set more specific conditions before we began. For me, in China, that meant I would only accept coins, no goods in trades at all. 

Brian started the simulation as the facilitator. The first traders in my harbor bartered hard. So hard they were a bit impolite, so I refused to trade with them. They left unhappy with me as a teacher, I think, though I was hoping they recognized they were actually upset with me, the offended Chinese harbormaster. Brian introduced some further fun into the simulation, requiring the crews of some ships to eat oranges (real oranges he had brought along) to battle the scurvy they were suffering from. Sometimes a ship got damaged while at sea and the crew, the students, had to sit for two minutes, symbolizing the need for repairs, and losing precious trading time.

Brian also stopped the action along the way (1) to quickly debrief and (2) to change the prices of some commodities. All those students who had been buying ivory tusks for the huge profits they expected in China were suddenly disappointed – the ivory market had crashed! I didn’t buy any of their ivory at all, making a face when they showed me their pictures of ivory tusks they thought were going to bring in so many coins. Brian’s short stoppages of the action were brilliant, introducing variables that changed the game and provided new material to debrief. And debrief we did, during this third iteration, because the simulation took place during a class period long enough to run the simulation and talk about what happened and how it was similar to the real trade that happened in the Indian Ocean.

Wow. It goes without saying that the students were actively engaged the entire class period – in all three iterations – that they actually made a bit of an emotional connection with trading that happened in the Indian Ocean over 500 years ago, and that they were able to connect trading back then with commerce and economics today.

To summarize, we paraphrase Polina, a Ukrainian student, who said this:

History isn’t about the past. It’s about understanding more about what is happening right now, and what is going to happen in the future.

We agree, Polina.

And would you like to buy some rolls of silk? Or some crates of tea? Get them now while the winds and the prices are in your favor!

Authors

Paul was joined by:

Bilge Kalkavan of the Faculty of Education at Hasan Kalyoncu University, Turkey. She became a harbormaster for this simulation during her stay at LAS as a visiting scholar; and

Brian Tynan, a grade 10 history teacher, who himself has sailed to many ports in his career. Kudos to Brian for taking the risk (and the time!) to run simulations in class.

Student Agency – Reflections on a TEDx with speaker Conrad Hughes

Conrad Hughes is a principal at Ecolint in Geneva, Switzerland. In Fall 2020 he founded the Coalition to Honour All Learning, a group of school leaders representing about 50 schools across the world, all interested in rethinking the high school transcript (and assessment in general). 

Here is a reflection on his TEDx talk, The Problem with Schools, from April 2021.


“We have a problem in schools. We have a big problem. And it’s the way that we assess students.”

I’ve argued elsewhere that we should indeed take a look at how often we assess, to what extent our assessments are comparisons of students used mostly to sort them into categories, and even the need for so much assessment in the first place. In practice, I’ve had a hand in creating three programs at an international school that de-emphasize summative grading in favor of frequent and informal feedback: the summer school, 5-week exploratory courses in the middle school, and high school courses which focus on 21st century skills first, traditional subject content second. 

So it’s no surprise, I guess, that Hughes’ TEDx caught my attention.

Hughes is particularly interested in how we report student learning, most importantly on the academic transcript. He believes that school reform, including the move towards a system that promotes creativity and passion, needs to focus squarely on how we report learning to universities. We’ve all heard someone say that what gets assessed gets taught. Hughes is saying that what gets reported is what gets taught. So let’s change the reporting.

Otherwise, so Hughes, we run a great risk of squeezing out valuable learning.

Hughes reports that students he talks to – and he makes it a point to talk to each and every student in his school – report that they have lots of things they like to do, but not enough time to do them. Those things not in the school curriculum get squeezed out. 

In the end, “we’ve created a system that drowns out creativity and passion.” And it only gets worse as students move through the grades, until “so much of what students want to do they can’t do anymore, because of the way that we’ve designed high school.”

Ultimately, Hughes warns that we need to be careful what message we are sending to students. To those we might call Curriculum Different due to their personal interests and creativity, be careful of sending the message: “This is not your place. Your star cannot shine here.”

Hughes has three recommended action items: “Redesign the high school transcript (see the Learner Passport), empower young people to take ownership of their learning, and spread the word (see the Coalition to Honour All Learning). 

Here is my contribution to his second action item, empower, which he also frames in terms of assessment. The credit system – our reporting system – needs to be constructed in a way that allows students to express themselves. How things get reported also influences what gets taught, because both what is reported and how it is reported affects the relative empowerment of students. So here’s an idea our research department has been playing with this year.

What if – and here I encourage you to think in terms of “yes and …” instead of “yes but …” at least part of the curriculum was built in such a manner that students had the time and energy to pursue their interests – those interests Hughes says so many students report they don’t have time for.*

Let faculty be available to support students – by listening to student ideas, asking questions, bringing students together, referring students to other teachers, and finding outside experts and resources to support students. But let the students do the work, explore, find their own deadends, network, learn how to learn, discover what learning is lifeworthy, collaborate with others… That’s what we ultimately want for them anyway, right? 

And then, and here is the gem we’ve been returning to again and again all year, once students have shown interest and learning and progress with a particular idea, project, or innovation, recognize that learning with a credit. In other words, turn our current process on its head. Instead of finding or thinking up a curriculum we think students might like, placing them in courses, and inviting (cajoling?) them to work on that curriculum, why not ask them to work on putting together their own curriculum (work that reflects their interests and strengths) and then, once that work seems to be coalescing into ongoing learning, granting it credit?

We don’t have a whole lot of traction yet, but we call our nascent effort Above & Beyond. We have a few students demonstrating that they can create their own learning. We have a student who extended her IB CAS project by teaching computer programming to others, a pastry chef continuing the business she created in a course two years ago, a student taking advantage of online medical school workshops, a couple of guys designing and selling hoodies, and a student who formed an investment club. I bet, if you are in a high school, you also have plenty of stories of students who are pursuing their own interests. 

Help them as much as you can. Give them some more space, some more time. And give them some credit for their effort. Even an official credit. Sure, they thought the curriculum up themselves, it wasn’t our plan for them. But isn’t that the nature of lifelong learning? Learning to pursue the things you think up yourself? Schools are a great place to practice that. Why not legitimize self-discovered learning in the same way we do with class content we select for students?

Keep the faith, Conrad. A coalition to honour all learning, indeed. Change the transcript. Change how we think about learning. Grant our students a whole lot more agency.

A special thanks to Andie Flett for conversations about turning the credit system on its head, and Andie, Steve Porter, and Tom Cosgrove for their work in Above & Beyond.


*There are of course schools who have gone all in with this philosophy. One of my favorites is Agora. Let us know of other examples in the comments.

Teacher Agency: Reflections on an Interview with A J Juliani

For the past decade, I’ve focused on supporting teacher and student agency at my school. For teachers, our motto is “Continually becoming the professionals we already are.” I’m realizing that for students we don’t have a particular motto. Help me out! What is a good student agency motto for a school?

Tim Logan, the host of the Future Learning Design podcast, recently interviewed A J Juliani about curriculum. Curriculum is so often developed before teachers even meet the students that we assume that’s a good idea. But is it? 

Future Learning Design


Tim and A J begin their talk with a mention of A J’s annual “failing report.” If I understood correctly, A J writes up his failures at the end of the year, presumably to see how much he has learned from them and how much he can continue to learn from them. Seems like a pretty good idea, actually. Is it a good or bad sign that I can immediately think of a number of things to put on my own list!

Juliani is an entrepreneur, and a list of failures is probably something entrepreneurs get quite adept at collecting. The ability to look that list straight in the eye and learn from it is for sure a trait of someone who has embraced entrepreneurial thinking. 

“We don’t think that everybody is going to have to be an entrepreneur when they graduate,” says Juliani. “But everyone is going to have to think like an entrepreneur.” So what might some entrepreneurial ways of thinking be and what might we question about the way we do school (if we want to get our students thinking entrepreneurially)?

Here’s a few ideas.

Maybe our adherence to tests as assessments could loosen a bit. Juliani asks point blank: “Who told politicians that tests work?” Well, they work for many things, but point taken. Tests have limits, over reliance on tests can form mindsets that might not be compatible with quality learning, and the way we tend to use tests doesn’t always encourage perseverance and grit (study-sit the test-get a mark in the gradebook-move on). 

So yes, we could look at assessment. Especially the ones that discourage risk taking (assuming there are some that don’t discourage risk taking). Ultimately, you want “to get students to care about the learning and not the grade. You don’t want kids just doing something for marks … we want them learning because they like learning.” 

Logan mentions a bit of a meme we’ve been seeing lately and something colleagues and I have written about: We should consider focusing on “a pull system instead of a push system. Everything gets pushed on kids, the master schedule, content, [it all] gets pushed on kids. And actually what we need to switch to is a pull system.”

This is a big ask for schools, since they are about the biggest push system around. I remember in grad school taking a curriculum course in which we worked on a needs assessment for several weeks. It seemed like a really good idea in the antiseptic setting of a grad course. But how many times since have I encountered a school context in which teachers had the luxury of time and flexibility to do a thorough needs assessment before jumping into the curriculum? At best it’s done for them. At worst it’s not done at all.

Juliani suggests three basic shifts in our thinking and practice:

  1. when planning the curriculum, “DON’T start with the standards – start with the reason for learning. You want to get interest and buy-in, not compliance;
  2. build a curriculum that has performance tasks … [as] assessment.” Don’t just give students one way to demonstrate learning. If the curriculum only has a test, then maybe you haven’t finished building the curriculum;
  3. We need to have windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors (see Rudine Sims Bishop) – in other words, the curriculum needs to be full of resources and materials that students relate to personally and that allow them to relate to the rest of the world, too.

Do that, so Juliani, “then your curriculum will be adaptable,” And maybe even reduce how often we push curriculum on students. Going further, “I really think that every community’s curriculum should look different.”

That’s a theme we can chew on for a long time. What would happen if the curriculum were different from community to community? Would society fall apart? Or might we be enriched as a whole through the interlocking weave of know-how? Might we even reach a heck of a lot more students by making many more local decisions, relevant to the folks right there in front of us?

Juliani claims that the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development found that locally created curriculum is more successful. Intuitively I can see this. Teachers can learn and adapt as they go, fit curriculum to the students they work with, and keep it alive. “They owned it, and they made it theirs, and they cared about it … They thought about instruction and assessment instead of just following a curriculum.”

This is an interesting question to pursue, since results that indicate the effectiveness of locally created curriculum calls into question a whole lot of currently accepted practices. More than likely, I suspect, there are good reasons for off-the-shelf curriculum and locally created curriculum to co-exist, depending on a slew of factors. That’s where it gets interesting. What are those factors and what blend of curriculum might be appropriate in all the various contexts in which we have teachers and learners? And if we’re aiming to develop entrepreneurial thinking, does a locally created curriculum serve us better?

A nice metaphor that Juliani and Logan pursue is the difference between “cooks and chefs.” 

Cooks follow a recipe given to them. Chefs experiment and put new things out there. They create, take risks, deal with failures, and hopefully learn from them. So the question is, how do we bend curriculum, and our approach to thinking about curriculum, to produce more teacher-chefs? And for that matter, more student-chefs?

Project based learning, genius hour, and choice are good starting points. Juliani points us to those themes in his own research. “We are going to lose our relevancy very quickly .. if we don’t shift much of our instruction, much of our assessment, to these types of practices.” 

And then he reminds us that we have to reconsider our assessment practices. Many current assessments, focused on content, will miss the benefits gained in inquiry based and project based learning. “If you take an inquiry based unit and then you test them in the same way as a traditional unit, I think that’s a flawed approach …”

Logan ends the interview by asking what positives there have been in the pandemic. 

Educators are flexible, but the curriculum doesn’t tend to be. People realized that our system of schooling is not flexible. Thank goodness we had people that were flexible …”

“We have a broken idea of what it means to learn, what it means to teach, and what it is to measure academic achievement.”


See www.ajjuliani.com/blog/research to pursue these ideas further.

Student Agency: Reflections on Liam Printer’s Podcast “The Motivated Classroom”

For the past decade, I’ve focused on supporting teacher and student agency at my school. For a few years I had the pleasure of working with Liam Printer. His independent drive to be the best teacher and colleague possible was inspiring. Liam continues to inspire at the International School of Lausanne, where he is a Spanish teacher and the teaching and learning research lead, as well as the host of The Motivated Classroom podcast.

The Motivated Classroom


Liam Printer lays out a simple and compelling argument for motivation. Students – and I would add teachers, too – need self-determination to build intrinsic motivation, and building intrinsic motivation in our students – and again, our teachers – should be our goal, since intrinsically motivated learners are often those who learn more.

Light a fire, in other words. Enlist the help of those you want to teach by getting them so interested they not only learn, they keep learning, and they start to teach themselves through their own investment in the good feeling that accompanies good learning. 

Liam encountered Deci & Ryan’s self determination theory after speaking with his advisor about the success he was having with Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS). My first encounter with Deci & Ryan goes back to the early 1990s, when my colleague and friend KimMarie Cole, at the Monterey Institute for International Studies, confided that she thought their theory was one of the most important things we had studied. It seems Liam agrees with KimMarie. It’s time, perhaps, to go back and do some more reading myself.

“It does come down to intrinsic motivation,” Liam says, and “we need to learn about how to motivate students and [about] what motivation is.”

Deci & Ryan lay out three conditions that need to be satisfied for a learner to experience self-determination, and through self-determination, intrinsic motivation:

  • autonomy;
  • competence; and
  • relatedness.

If these needs are met, then you are likely to have greater intrinsic motivation and the potential for greater and deeper learning.

Liam words it this way: You see intrinsic motivation when people are learning out of love and personal interest. You have extrinsic motivation when people are learning for awards or to avoid punishments. While both have a role to play, the goal is increased intrinsic motivation.

If we think about a good learning experience we’ve had, as Liam suggests we do, we will probably realize that we didn’t feel “externally controlled.” In fact, we probably felt good with what we were doing, energized by it even, and we probably had a good relationship with our teacher and colleagues as we were learning.

I love this line of thinking. A J Juliani (see my blog about his conversation with Tim Logan) mentions how lectures sometimes get a bad rap. A J points us in the same direction as Liam, saying that if we want to go to a lecture because we are fired up about the topic, then that lecture can be a great way to learn, because we are there in the context of intrinsic motivation. Why lectures get a bad rap is probably because they are often delivered to an audience that is not intrinsically motivated. In other words, learners will give us teachers a bit of leeway with the mode of instruction, IF they are intrinsically motivated.

Liam goes on to mention that intrinsic motivation seems to decline as our students get older. We tend to see eager elementary students, basically, and disengaged secondary students. Deci and Ryan’s explanation includes the possibility that schools are not creating the conditions that support autonomy, competence, and relatedness, i.e. self-determination. I think Liam might add that schools are less focused on autonomy, in particular, as students get older

In his third podcast, Liam starts by reassuring us that building autonomy into the classroom doesn’t mean a laissez-faire, anything goes approach. “It’s not just free choice and free rein,” he says. The teacher can still direct learning toward course goals while creating conditions for greater autonomy. Better said: the teacher can be more successful in reaching course goals because there is greater autonomy.

We all need “opportunities to behave according to one’s interests and values.” Think about this statement for a minute in your own context. Do you get opportunities to behave according to your own interests and values? Do you get enough of them? To what degree are those opportunities, and the rate at which you have them, related to your job satisfaction? 

Students need to have “a sense of ownership,” Liam continues. He recommends that we, when possible in our classrooms, make sure students aren’t forced into doing something or coerced to do something for rewards or punishment. If you get rid of those things, then you are raising autonomy.”

What I particularly like here is that Liam is saying that teachers can begin immediately to create more autonomy, and therefore a greater chance for intrinsic motivation. Though he recognizes that traditional instruction in the language classroom (and I would add, in many classrooms, and in curriculum and assessment in addition to instruction) tends to suppress autonomy, we can do something about it. In fact, with greater autonomy we can improve both our student results and our personal job satisfaction. Improving one will improve the other.

As an example, Liam cites assessments. Simply having a variety of manners through which students can demonstrate their learning introduces greater autonomy. This opportunity is open to every single teacher, today. Perhaps you can’t change a final test, but you can change a formative assessment leading up to that final test. You can also, as Liam did when he taught at my school, have short assessments at the end of a class period, using simple cards handed to you by the students as they leave the room. Ask them to write down one thing they learned, or one way in which instruction could be changed so they could learn better, or one question they have for the next class period. Simple to do … and yet introducing just that much more autonomy in the classroom experience of your students.

“I wish,” Liam concludes, that “we didn’t have such prescribed curriculum to work within,” but even if we do, we need to think “Is there a better way for me to get this across that has the students’ interests, students’ lives, their hobbies … all part of the learning?”


I mention parallels in Liam’s comments with an interview of A J Juliani. Listen to A J and host Tim Logan on the Future Learning Design podcast.

Liam mentions being introduced to TPRS by Grant Boulanger, a Spanish teacher, trainer, and potter from Minnesota. World language teachers in particular will enjoy learning more about Grant’s work.

Agency: Reflections on an Interview with Matt Barnes

For the past decade, I’ve focused on supporting teacher and student agency at my school.

Matt Barnes recently shared some of the thinking that led him to start the Global Education Movement, a bottom up organization with no less a goal than implementing a radically different vision of education. If you are a reformer at heart, but perhaps plagued by doubt in the context of so much inertia of the educational status quo, this is a podcast for you (Overthrowing Education).


Matt Barnes lays out the three central ideas of the Global Education Movement (GEM) this way:

  1. the parent’s role is central;
  2. student agency and autonomy are required as soon as possible; and
  3. we need a radical redefinition of educational success (focusing on one’s ability to learn).

The parent’s role is central for a couple of reasons. 

First, the dream is for education to be constructed by the student. A student should learn to create an individual learning plan in which they can pursue their own interests. The people who know the student best and can be the best advocate for the student are the parents. 

“Let’s explore the different areas of interest of your child and build a learning plan around that rather than a learning plan around getting to x, y, or z college.”

When you consider that school curriculum is determined before the teachers who work with that curriculum ever meet a single student they are going to teach, well, you can see where personalization isn’t the first priority of a school. Teachers may want to personalize, but they are highly constrained. Administrators may say they are all for personalization, but there you should push back. What exactly is going to be personalized? To what degree is that really personalization?

Secondly, the parent’s role is central because to actually affect change, teachers need to actively recruit parents to be champions for change. “Parents are going to win every time,” says Barnes. “If you want to really anger somebody, start to mess with their child in a way that they don’t think is right.” 

In other words, “the power lies in the parent,” so Barnes’ goal is “to get as many parents as possible to realize that there are ways that they can pursue some of what I’m addressing while still keeping their kids in the system … and that requires the parent to be activated in a way that most schools don’t actually want.”

Student agency and autonomy

Right at the top of the podcast Barnes presents two key questions:

  • what is the definition of success?
  • what is the definition of learning?

You might think it odd that many parents, teachers, and administrators don’t have an immediate  and clear answer to these questions. Perhaps you might forgive the parents, but certainly the educators should have a clear definition, right?

I assure you it’s not that easy. Will Richardson has been railing for years that schools need to start with their definition of learning. Why? Because a definition brings clarity – and because most schools don’t have one. Think Richardson doesn’t know what he’s talking about? Well then consider that the New England Association for Schools and Colleges, a major accreditor of schools, introduced an accreditation protocol in the last few years that starts with the requirement for any school looking for accreditation to create a definition of learning. Further, as a member of a school that has gone through this process, it’s neither easy nor is the end product universally accepted. It certainly isn’t rapidly adopted into the school’s culture, either. 

So parents, you’ve got to help your children forge their definition of success. By doing so, you are contributing to their sense of agency and their ability to take responsibility for their actions and to direct themselves. You are giving them an ability to learn how to learn – that skill that supersedes most others since it is broadly applicable across all circumstances one encounters.

Barnes believes that “by 12 years old, usually 11 or even 10 in some cases, the child can actually become so independent in their learning that they can begin to build their own learning plans.”

At home, I agree. My youngest, at 11 years old, is learning German and touch typing with apps, knows nearly as much about Harry Potter as Rowlings herself, thanks to endless YouTube videos, and cooks or bakes for us on Friday afternoons with her friends. She creates her own dance choreographies and trains for artistic gymnastics. She is the one who remembers her school schedule, what needs to be signed, and what homework and tests are coming up. I could go on, I’m the proud dad, of course, so more than a little biased. 

And I do have lots of contrary evidence at my school. Plenty of students 13 years and older routinely fail when given the space and time to self-regulate. They have lived command and control for so long that many of them don’t even realize they aren’t up to self-guided learning – at least in the school environment. I bet when they are at home on their own they are indeed able to pick up this or that and learn how to do new things. At school, though, they’ve been trained to wait for the teacher. This is a terrible thing to teach our young people.

So I try to create experiences at school that allow students to practice having the freedom of their own choices. And I have in the past done exactly what Barnes recommends: get the parents on my side by informing them exactly why we are doing what we are doing. 

“The parent can give the teacher cover,” in other words. Otherwise teachers who are trying to operate in a way that privileges a high degree of student agency will get negative feedback from the school itself (a strange outcome, but true) and quite possibly leave the system. Through doing so they perpetuate the command and control system they were working against.

A radical redefinition of educational success (focusing on one’s ability to learn)

Schools have a limited amount of time. (Actually, 12 years is massive, but it is at least a finite amount of time.) So to what degree should schools use that time to introduce as much content as possible versus focusing on a student’s ability to learn … well, to learn whatever?

Barnes reminds us that one hundred years ago, teachers had a certain amount of information in their heads that simply wasn’t available to students elsewhere. So they were teachers. Now that information is ubiquitous, students need coaches more than teachers. They need practice in separating knowledge from noise and they need folks who believe in them and ask questions about their work (see my blog about an interview with Sugata Mitra).

And this is what teachers want to do, according to Barnes. “I ask teachers all the time what they want, what is the dream environment for their learners … They want learners to be independent, they want learners to be excited about learning, curious, to be autonomous and have a high sense of agency. They want that. But the system they are in doesn’t. The system they are in is built to create dependent learners.”

Aargh! If that’s only partially true – that our schools are really very good vehicles for creating dependent learners – we have got a whole lot of work to do. Perhaps we can take solace in pinning our hopes to the content coverage – that knowing all that content will in fact lead to success. Well, ask yourself again what the definition of success should be. And imagine that Barnes is also right that universities are “actually not looking for the straight A / perfect SAT / volunteered at the Children’s Hospital type of student. They are looking for kids who actually know who they are, that have demonstrated that through their activities, that are creative and open and thinkers, not just rule followers. That’s what universities actually want.”

And if you are still holding out hope for that part of universities which IS looking for top grades, consider the extent to which a future boss is going to worry about top grades versus creative problem solving, ability to collaborate, and seeing another’s viewpoint. 

The host, Batsheva Frankel, ends the podcast by reminding Barnes about one of his own quotes. “Why normal is broken and you want to be weird.” Barnes restates the quote as “Normal is broken in schools; from now on weird wins.” Barnes defines weird kids as those “who don’t need an adult to hold their hand or look over their shoulder. Weird is about creating kids who fit [today’s world], not fit in schools from previous generations.”

“If your child’s school looks, feels, tastes, or smells like the school you attended when you were a child, then you have a big problem.”

Consider your child’s school – or your own, if you are a teacher – with this last nugget of wisdom in mind: “You never ever ever do for others that which they can do for themselves. Because the minute you do that you are creating a dependency.”


If you’d like to hear more from Matt Barnes, check out his interview with Tim Logan on Future Learning Design.

What if … ? Student voices at the NEASC annual conference

Our students are telling us what we need to do. Are we listening … and are we ready to act?

I listened with interest to students who spoke at the beginning of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges annual conference on December 8, 2021.

The moderator asked a simple question, one that NEASC had undoubtedly shared with the student panelists ahead of time:

If you could redesign your education, what would it look like?

The answers come from half a dozen students, paraphrased here. The few quoted remarks are direct quotes.

Well, I think someone has to deal with the “cut throat culture” and the “toxicity that comes with that.” I’d like to see a greater sense of collaboration, with more small group time in the classroom and a way to get unengaged students engaged.

I’d like to work on personal organization in order to handle everything I’m supposed to do. It might help to have more “student paced learning” and for students to have a voice in how they learn and how they demonstrate their learning.

I agree that self-paced and personalized learning is important. Learning should not be “one size fits all.” Students need to be able to learn at their own pace in class.

Students of color also need to see teachers of color in their schools. It matters. 

Maybe teachers could focus on having us solve a problem instead of answering questions and trying to get a better grade. And we should focus more on abilities that you can use every day, like learning to communicate. 

If students had more of a say in what classes they took it would be good. I’d like to take more classes I want to, not just those that I have to take because of my age. It would be nice to have “a more individualized plan” for each student.

After the first round of comments, an assistant superintendent from Boston followed up, asking for suggestions about approaches to teaching and learning.

Teaching should be creative, I don’t want to just listen and take notes. Like one time a science teacher made a classroom into a living cell and I still remember the parts of the cell really well. It was creative. We should be able to “get our hands dirty” with project based learning.

And the creativity seems to go away as students get older. I think education should stay creative, even in high school. Field trips and seeing “actual things” is better. I want to experience things, not just see them in a book.

I really think schools need to address stress and anxiety. More work needs to be self-paced and “customizable.” 

Yes, I have a math teacher that gives different levels of work to students in the same class, so that you are working at the right level. Sometimes students can help each other. In fact, students can do a lot on their own, maybe “studying oneself” and then getting help from the teacher when you need it.

Here is my challenge to NEASC and all their member schools. Students are very clearly stating that they would like to have the space to develop greater agency. They would like to have more choice and more control. 

How are you going to answer them? 

Duolingo teaches language – and perhaps a bit more

In January 2013 I started my first language course on Duolingo. Little did I know just how many hours I would spend over the next eight years! Right up to this morning, in fact, during my walk with Gilligan, our koiru … chien … Hund … cachorro … perro …

Along the way I’ve used Duolingo with high school students in language classes, with graduate students in courses about language classes, and as support for forays into language, by using Klingon, High Valyrian, and Esperanto as examples of constructed languages. It’s a fantastic hobby.

Every now and then it strikes me that something or other that Duolingo is doing with its app leads to a good thought about how education works. And why not? Duolingo has a huge database of user experience, coupled with their inspiring mission statement: to develop the best education in the world and make it universally available. Here’s a few examples of some recent insights.

Motivation. Duolingo uses gamification to keep me doing Duolingo. This morning I was reviewing Italian with the standard short quizzes on the platform. I kept failing to complete the lesson I was working on, but I kept trying to redo it. Why? Because I failed to finish (by making four mistakes) only after I had done enough of the lesson to earn 20 points. Silly? Maybe. But the fact that my fail – as low as just over 50% correct – still earned me positive feedback (20 more points added to my total XP) was enough to get me to try again.

How often is 50% right rewarded in our classrooms? How often does 50% right get communicated as 50% wrong? What does that do to motivation?

There are many other clever tricks to motivate Duolingo learners. I’ll mention one. The podcasts Duolingo has produced in Spanish and French are on a par with shows from National Public Radio in the US. They are really well done. I’ve listened to them all. With a recent platform update you can now earn points for listening to a podcast. So, yes, I listened to them all again. I’m essentially putty in their gamified hands. But I’m getting a whole lot of language practice.

Does this mean that education should be based more on points? No. The lesson for me is that education should be more about value-add and less about how far students are from getting 100% on their work. The podcasts don’t grade me for misunderstanding 30% of what was said (oh, a C!). My work does not become a result on a rubric (Student understood 70% of the information; oh, a 3!) The podcasts simply reward me for listening to them.

Short and often … and choice. The language learning on Duolingo is broken into very short segments. The podcasts are arguably the longest single learning exercises, running around 20 minutes. The other exercises are generally very short. Learn a little, get some feedback, learn a little, get some feedback. Tight iterations of learning, with feedback, under my control. 

You can choose to do a successful lesson again, which is arguably a bit harder because the next level will use harder skills, e.g. asking you to produce more language instead of reacting to language the lesson produces. But it’s your choice. You can also move ahead to a new set of exercises at the easier level. Or you can review lessons you’ve already completed at all levels. Or you can switch the activity type … or even the language. Or you can quit because you’ve used up your energy for language learning. What are the parallels here we could explore with the way students all over the world are doing school right now? Even more interesting, what about the way we do school is not parallel with Duolingo’s user experience and what can we learn from that?

I’d share more, but that’s enough for now. I’m feeling the need for a little time with the silly green owl … and all those wonderful words and interesting grammatical moves I discover along the way. And of course some pretty darn good insights for my personal philosophy of teaching as well.

Agency: Reflections on an Interview with Sugata Mitra

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 Sugata Mitra, Professor Emeritus at NIIT University. Mitra has advocated for much less teaching in favor of much more self-organized learning since at least 20 years ago, when his Hole in the Wall experiments first garnered international interest.

Future Learning Design


I met Sugata Mitra at an ECIS Conference several years ago. After his keynote, I followed him to his breakout session that was, predictably, in the largest conference room available, with twenty or more tables that each sat eight people.

He started the session by presenting a problem to all of us in the audience. He told us we would have the entire session to wrestle work on our solutions. He added that we could use anything at our disposal, that we could switch groups if we thought it best, and that at the end of the session we would be able to share some of our solutions. Then he sat down. 

And didn’t speak. Just sat there. Quietly. I loved it.

About self-organization

My colleagues and I have frequent conversations about teach and student agency. We do so because we are working together with a set of creative elective courses within our traditional school. We call our program Edge, because it is a bit on the fringe, perhaps even a little edgy. There are no grades and we let the students self-organize. 

Well, mostly. Often we get a little uncomfortable as we watch our students struggle to self-organize. They don’t take the opportunities given to them (at least from our perspective) and instead seem to waste a heck of a lot of time. I’ve argued elsewhere that this time isn’t necessarily wasted and that slack time, as we’ve grown to call it, is needed for students to learn agency. My reasoning is that students can’t learn agency if we show them what to do every step of the way. They actually need to discover and practice agency themselves. 

But we teachers sometimes still go a little crazy watching this process. 

It is therefore something of a relief to reconnect with Mitra’s thinking and his gentle way of doing – or not doing. Learning (certainly he means some kinds of learning?) has to be undirected, he claims. Like when he put computers in poor areas of India and just watched what happened. (Learning happened, by the way, although I’m pretty sure you are already familiar with his Hole in the Wall projects.) 

Mitra remains very confident that students need the space and time – like the teachers needed the space and time in his workshop at ECIS so many years ago – to work things out for themselves. They need to get all the way back to self-organization as a starting condition to work on developing agency. I like to picture children when they are not in school, say on a Saturday at home with friends. They are often quite good at practicing self-organization then, because we leave them on their own and are happy when they work things out themselves. 

Maybe there is something artificial about our approach to learning during the school day. Mitra’s genius is his ability to make us worry about that possibility.


Speaking about curriculum, Mitra suggests that knowing why one is learning something is a necessary step in the process. If you think we already do this in school, well, here’s something to try. Roleplay a doubting, persistent student and a teacher from any subject. The person playing the student role should ask “Why is this necessary to learn?” The person playing the teacher should try to give good answers. Is it easy for the teacher? Do any of the answers ring a little hollow?

“When we make a curriculum … we have to tell the children WHY we had to learn this. It’s not okay to answer “You will understand when you grow up… or because it’s good for you.” So what do we really answer?

I think it might be interesting as well to ask the person playing the student role to bring up subjects that are not taught in school and ask “Why don’t we teach this?” Can the person playing the teacher give a good answer? Hint: Answering “Because that hasn’t been in the curriculum before” is not an allowable answer. “Because it’s good for you” neither.


Mitra also raises questions about our underlying mindset about what school is. “Within a school, unfortunately, people don’t really admire children’s ability to learn. It is often the reverse. The system seems geared towards pointing out to children what they need to improve in.”

Ouch. Are we doing that? I’m immediately reminded of those times I’ve heard, as a student or a colleague of a teacher, the speech at the beginning of the semester that goes something like this: “You all have an A right now. It’s yours to lose.” And I think of worksheets and papers and rubrics (some that I used just this morning as a teacher) which may encourage us (me) to find things that are wrong so that not everyone gets an A. In fact, I recently heard the admonition that not all students can get the highest score so their work shouldn’t all be graded at the highest level, even in the context of a rubric which allows unlimited redos in order to get the highest score. Are we in fact geared mostly to pointing out what needs to be improved and not lifting up what is good and interesting and insightful? 

I think again about when we leave our own children alone to self-organize their play (their learning, really). When we observe them for a minute our tendency is to comment on what is going well, what is interesting, and what is fun. Do we too readily swap that mentality when we enter the context of school, where a mindset of pointing out errors takes over? 

Mitra continues by noting that we tend to have students practice the stuff that is hard or not going well or is, to the students, less interesting. He muses that if our focus is often the hard and uninteresting stuff, the eventual result can be students who are not interested even in the stuff that was originally interesting to them.

In short: “If you admire children, they start doing better at the things they are really good at, just to show off. So I thought, can I get someone to admire them ….”

For Mitra this led to a program of volunteers called “the Granny Cloud.” Their purpose was not to teach, but simply to ask and be interested in what the students were doing. This sounds like a breath of fresh air. Wouldn’t it be fun to imagine your relationship with students along those lines? And if you already do – well, more power to you.


And a few words about assessment.

“If you allow students to use the internet during an exam, then that is called cheating … if you use Google Maps while driving, that is not called cheating.”

Indeed. The world of information has shifted faster than schools have kept up. I don’t see that as the problem. It’s just a statement of what has happened. What might be more problematic is recognizing the fundamental recalibration and not addressing it seriously. Yes, we can get away with slow change (or even digging our heels in), mostly because there are so many other slow changers to hang out with. But is that the right thing to do?

Mitra is telling us, like many are telling us, that we need a switch from what students remember to how students use the tools that are out there in order to actually do something. So he suggests we give the students their cell phones back and measure just three things:

  1. do they comprehend the material;
  2. can they transfer that understanding to another person; and
  3. can they use the internet well in order “to be able to figure out when it is leading you astray.”

Maybe his advice sets the stage for some backwards design planning on a very global scale. As a thought experiment, imagine that your school, your district, or your region adopted Mitra’s three areas to measure. Now work backwards to how the curriculum and instruction would need to change. For the curriculum, what stays and what goes? For instruction, what might learning look like?

In a nutshell, Mitra is telling us to do this: “Instead of saying solve this equation, change it to: how would you go about finding the solution to this equation?” 

And then sit down.