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.

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 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.

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?