6th & 7th grade students discussing competing utilitarian ethical claims in the “philosotree” – a tree they designated as the meeting place for their philosophy club.
When we imagine a “good student,” to what extent are we simply imagining a compliant student? Is our idea of “good” interchangeable with “well-behaved,” or even “docile”? Are our classrooms rewarding the wrong things — rewarding students who aspire to our idea of who they should be, and penalizing those free enough to insist on becoming their fuller, better selves?
I wondered that this morning as I re-read English professor Catherine Savini’s reflections on her own assumptions in an article on academic rigor and mental health. Savini noticed that, like most teachers, she inferred a great deal about her students’ character and capabilities from their in-class behavior. She was concerned that those inferences had led her astray:
But after more than a decade of teaching, I realized that my idea of the good student was standing in the way of good teaching.
This was because her preconceived notions of what a student should be kept her from seeing her students as they were. So instead of deciding that the student who left abruptly in the middle of class was inconsiderate or indifferent, Savini decided to gather more information. And by learning more about the students in her classroom, she was able to teach them more effectively. (A recent study bears this out).
Teachers know this intuitively and witness it every year: taking the time to know our students as full human beings frees them to flourish in and out of the classroom in ways we can’t predict. But we rarely look more closely at this magic. Why is it so liberating to be truly known by someone who matters to you? What happens when we step back and make space for who students are and who they can become?
I think about freedom in those terms – the powerful and creative spontaneity borne of meaningful relationships that leave room for ourselves as individuals. Philosopher Erich Fromm argues that true freedom requires the kinds of relationships that help us shed our loneliness without losing our individual selves in the process. Novelist Toni Morrison offers a similar vision of liberatory human connections in her novel Song of Solomon:
Did you ever see the way the clouds love a mountain? They circle all around it; sometimes you can’t even see the mountain for the clouds. But you know what? You go up top and what do you see? His head. The clouds never cover the head. His head pokes through, because the clouds let him; they don’t wrap him up. They let him keep his head up high, free, with nothing to hide him or bind him.
I want my students to be free: to be known and cared for by the trusted adults in their lives, yet unencumbered by the kinds of artificially-imposed expectations or demands that would constrain what’s possible for their development as thinkers and human beings. I want my students to be mountains.
At LSG, I’ve seen kids transformed time and time again because adults took the time to create the conditions for this beautiful kind of freedom. Here are some ways our students respond to those conditions:
1. Students are free to care
Knitting enthusiast and viral internet sensation Samuel Barsky.
All that I understand about what’s most precious and worthy of protection in my students is embodied in a sweater-knitting internet sensation named Samuel Barsky. I was likely procrastinating grading when I came across one of his videos last year, and I was moved by the unguarded joy of this man who knits jumpers inspired by places and then photographs himself wearing his work at the actual place. His year is ordered by the careful craft of making these sweaters he’ll never sell, and traveling to the places he’d stitched freehand. He mostly taught himself how to do this beautiful thing that matters so much to him, and he decided on his own terms the purpose of his intensive labor.
It’s obvious from the first minute of the interview: Samuel Barsky spends his time doing what is most personally meaningful to him, and he would devote himself to his sweaters even if no one else valued them. Barsky reminds us of all that life has to offer when we care with openness and depth about the thing we feel most called to do in the world. How many human beings are brave enough to be that free? And yet: can any human being do great things without being that free?
Perhaps no one at LSG is more Samuel Barsky-esque than Kamran, one of our graduating seniors.
Kamran is the sort of student who sends thousand-word emails at 2 AM about the United States’ diplomatic relations with Iran, or the shortsightedness of establishment Democratic politics. Kamran is the sort of student whose class participation consists of delivering gesture-laden monologues with little warning and no preparation, to the enthusiastic, impromptu applause of his peers. Kamran is the sort of student whose mind lights upon a detail — a nineteenth century painting referenced offhandedly in a seminar discussion, or the cycle of idealism and disillusionment present in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man — and fixates on that detail for months, building it into an original, all-encompassing theory he’ll expound on to anyone who will listen.
Kamran is the sort of student, in short, who cares unapologetically and publicly and eccentrically, in a way that few people are brave or free enough to do.
Most people walk around trying to hide who we are and what we care most deeply about, because to be truly known and then rejected or mocked seems far worse than to never be known at all. And we see this in our students: so many children come to our classrooms already having been told by the world that they must hide who they are.
But Kamran puts himself out there fully, and because of that, he learns more, does more, and leaves his mark wherever he goes. He single-handedly built one of the only student-led Model U.N. programs in the nation as a freshman, and students signed up to join him only because he cared so desperately about the team. He spent half his senior year in D.C. as an intern for the National Iranian American Counciland a communications staffer for two nationally-significant campaigns. He lobbied incessantly for history courses reflecting his personal interests and worked alongside the teacher to design them. He emailed local politicians so relentlessly that they finally showed up to speak at the school.
It’s not just his deeds but his presence that impresses people. I see it in the classroom and at school-related social events: when Kamran is in the room, everyone notices; when he is not, everyone wishes he was. There is a definitive idea of “something Kamran would say” — he has a sensibility all his own. Community leaders have remarked to me how surprised they were to learn he was in high school. Teachers and students alike will never forget him.
In preparing to write this post, I interviewed teachers who’ve worked with Kamran throughout his time at LSG to get a better sense of what was distinctive about him. Our school founder Deep said something worth sharing here because it articulates precisely what is at stake in preserving students’ freedom to care:
I think the real lesson for us as educators is: we have designed all of education to make sure that people like Kamran don’t stay people like Kamran. And we are doing our very best to homogenize these kids. And so the real lesson of Kamran is: what type of teacher or school leaves Kamran as he is? That is the challenge. And that is all we’re talking about when we talk about teacher autonomy, and by extension student autonomy.
We must build classrooms and schools that protect students’ ability to care publicly and vulnerably about the work they are called to do — both because we owe it to all of our children, and because our shared future demands it.
2. Students are free to question
Biology teacher Ashley Gam leads her Evolutionary Biology students in a discussion of pain receptors in the skin.
What I am most struck by when I observe my colleague Ashley Gam teach her evolutionary biology course is how she encourages and embraces students’ questions about the material in real time.
The excitement of great content always prompts questions for students. When kids find a way into the material that’s personally meaningful, they naturally want to know more. The difference between a good teacher and a great one is how she responds to those questions: does she make space for students’ interests, or does she stick to her lesson plan? Does she free kids to participate in the construction of knowledge, or does she constrain them to the passive role of information receptacles?
I watched Ms. Gam deliver a lesson on sensory receptors found in our skin. After reviewing the differences in construction and placement of nociceptors, thermoreceptors, and mechanoreceptors in the dermis, she began explaining what happens in your body when they are stimulated. Her explanation fascinated Cam (10th), who peppered her with questions:
Ms. Gam: I blow on Keaton’s eye. It activates specific neurons that tell whatever, tell your brain in this case, that your eyeball has been blown on. It’s immediately going to send a response. But it’s not thinking about that stimuli. If these neurons are activated, you’re automatically going to get that response —
Cam: But where is the programming?
Ms. Gam: The programming is in the structure and organization of the neurons.
Cam: So it’s in the spinal cord
Ms. Gam: In the case of your knee jerk reflex, yes. I want to get back to Cam’s question about the reflex: if it’s trainable, can you inhibit them. Can you inhibit or —
Cam: So what’s muscle memory?
Ms. Gam can barely get through a sentence without Cam interrupting her out of a sincere desire to know more.
Other teachers might see such questions as a disruption. Even in more progressive classrooms, teacher talk typically dominates instructional design. We know that students who talk more in our classes learn more, but children simply don’t spend much time using their voices at school: wondering aloud, making observations, reacting to new information, pursuing original lines of inquiry. They stay quiet because they know there is no space for them to speak up.
Here, though, I watched Ms. Gam draw on Cam’s enthusiastic inquiry as a source of engagement for all her kids. His questions were surprising and delightful detours through the content of the lesson, and the exchange created an improvisational structure that crescendoed toward shared insight.
Ms. Gam continued to respond to Cam’s question about whether our reflexes can be trained, and she marshalled memorable details (including the possibility of death) that might not have emerged without Cam’s participation:
Ms. Gam: Can you inhibit or override? I’d like us to look at this and I’d like us to look at some of these reflexes. To your question of muscle memory, of can you train a reflex: these are highly ingrained in your body. Everybody’s body. If they weren’t ingrained, you would not be here. These are highly adaptive responses. You would have things in your eye and you would die from some sort of infection if you did not have this response. If you can develop a reflex, ultimately what you’re trying to do is you’re trying to speed up a response so you’re not thinking about it a lot. That information is —
Cam: So you are thinking about it a bit though?
Ms. Gam: It’s about how fast you can process the information given a specific stimuli.
There are few things more discouraging to young learners than a teacher hearing their earnest and passionate questions and admonishing them to stick to the topic at hand. And there are obvious reasons a teacher might shut down student inquiry: the fear of failing to “cover” the material, of losing control of the lesson, of chaos ensuing. Ms. Gam approaches Cam’s questions entirely differently: she tacitly invites him to help her build the lesson, and everyone engages more deeply as a result.
Cam: Is it – if you’re playing a song on the guitar very quickly, you hear what’s happening now and you predict, you do something before there’s a sensory input, you think ahead?
Ms. Gam: So the idea is there’s a specific neural network that’s responsible for your environment, how you process it. “I just played an A, what am I gonna play next?” But all these pathways can be kind of modulated depending on how much time you spend doing them. So you can increase the neural networks to specific parts of your arm or your hand —
Cam: is that just building muscle?
Ms Gam: It’s building, and changing, and modulating neural connections in your brain and nervous system connected to areas responsible for the behavior you’re trying to cue.
Cam: So that’s purely speed or coordination?
Ms. Gam: Or sensitivity or —
Cam: That’s interesting.
Because of the space she leaves for her students to wonder aloud, Cam was able to make a personal connection between the course content and music, one of his core passions. Teachers spend months building relationships with their students so that they can facilitate these connections; Ms. Gam achieved it simply by being responsive and flexible in the moment when it mattered most. And Cam is far more likely to understand and remember what he’s learned because of this opportunity.
Ms. Gam: Yeah and a lot of physical therapy is about retraining that. Musicians trying to maintain their dexterity – you can desensitize some of those aspects, and you need to retrain them through physical therapy.
Cam: Does touch incorporate temperature, like if you get goosebumps?
Ms. Gam: We’re gonna do that in a little bit. I learned this from a crazy, wonderful poultry science teacher, but he was in love with histology which is basically cells and tissues. It’s a matter of appreciating the complexity and also the logic behind the relative position of things right on your skin. So this is what your textbook doesn’t necessarily do: it doesn’t provide you context-dependent information about what’s going on in one location and how it goes down.
When they work with Ms. Gam, students get the sense that they have this great opportunity to learn stuff with someone who clearly knows a lot more than them, but is still curious and growing, and willing to think alongside them. They feel like they’re free to — even expected to — pursue their own lines of inquiry during class, and they approach Ms. Gam as a thinker who is open to seeing her area of expertise in new ways. The freedom to question is the kind of freedom that reminds students that their ideas and interests matter in ways that can shape their world.
3. Students are free to play
Sixth- and seventh-grade Nature Writing students observe samples in microscopes to prepare for a writing exercise.
My sixth- and seventh-grade Nature Writing course this year was a beautiful mess.
The idea for the class came to me awhile ago from two sources, weeks apart: an eager pair of seventh-grade girls who’d formed a club dedicated to caring for and observing a caterpillar they’d recently acquired named “Stripey,” and a recent book on composition pedagogy by Ralph Fletcher that drew on a nature metaphor to advocate for what he termed “feral writing”: letting kids run wild as writers in their English language arts assignments.
In Nature Writing, we’ve collaborated with art teacher Danielle Ferrin to visit beautiful local sites and reflect on our relationship to the natural world. At the suggestion of biology teacher Ashley Gam, we’ve constructed Smithsonian-inspired “biocubes” and looked closely and patiently at these diminutive units of nature. We’ve read Rachel Carson and Annie Dillard and Mary Oliver and even Henry David Thoreau — and we’ve tried to emulate their styles. We’ve kept nature journals with weekly entries cataloguing minute details observed in our environments, exploring what wisdom or insight is to be found in such documentation. We’ve collaborated with history teacher Jim Percoco to write research-based personal essays grounded in a particular place that matters to us. We’ve used long walks and model texts and even actual stones as writing prompts. I never quite knew what would happen during any given class period, but it was always extraordinary.
And thanks to Ms. Gam, we also used microscopy as a tool to generate ideas for poetry, short stories, and essays.
I prepared students for the activity by asking them to think about the role of perspective in the literature we’d studied. The essential questions of our discussion were were: “How can we as writers help others see ordinary things in new ways? And why is such a thing worthwhile?” We brainstormed the different ways the writers we’ve studied — Annie Dillard, Rachel Carson, Henry David Thoreau, Mary Oliver, Sharman Apt Russell — helped us see ordinary things in new ways. Here’s what the students came up with:
By providing the hidden backstory or secrets about the thing
By using unconventional imagery which helps make the thing seem unfamiliar or new
By creating unlikely comparisons through metaphor, simile, analogy
By making personal connections through flashback, memory, narration
By shifting perspective or scale
But the exciting part was actually going into the biology lab to see our world in new ways.
Ms. Gam brought in wildflowers, grasses, and other samples from our local environment. (An insect that tagged along on one of the flowers excited the pair of boys lucky enough to find it). After a brief lesson on how to use these tools, and a mini-lecture on spring as a time of reproduction and rebirth for these plants, students were left to explore these natural materials.
Here are some images students created during the lesson:
Evalynn (7th) wrote this poem after thinking about the activity:
Thoughts on Perspective
It’s amazing how much the world changes when seen from a different perspective. There is always more to see. There is always another angle to look from. You thought with your incredible eyesight you could see all of it. Your naked eyes could see that there was texture in the center of the wild daisy, yes. But could they see that each dot was a tiny hexagon, Blooming at the edges of the center of the blossom Into miniscule golden flowers? Could they see that the seed on one puff of a dandelion had stripes running down it? Each with its own row if tiny spikes, Hooks to hold on to a landing place? No. They couldn’t. You couldn’t. There is always more to see. Don’t try to kid yourself otherwise.
And here is what the classroom sounded like:
Part of Ms. Gam’s introductory lesson:
Student group work:
As I listened to my students generating ideas and reveling in the experience of discovery, I thought of a piece by Anthony Brandt and Dave Eagleman about what they call “sandboxing”: trying out multiple ideas before getting graded and moving ahead with a longer-term project. They argue compellingly that for students (and for all of us), “knowledge shouldn’t just be a landing point-it should be a springboard. More class time needs to be devoted not just to mastering the material, but launching from it.” Indeed, we tune out and learn less when the events of our classes happen in fixed and predictable ways:
Our brains gradually tune out the predictable, making it a struggle to stay focused in the face of drills and rote learning. Surprise captures our attention.
When kids are free to play, they do sometimes make a mess – and as I said above, my Nature Writing course often felt like a beautiful mess. But the joyful depth of learning students access during these ill-structured and delightful experiences means that mess will take shape in students’ minds, anchoring their understanding and extending their skills. The poetry and stories that came out of that exercise were only possible because of my students’ freedom to play during that class period.
4. Toward a conclusion: Free to become
One of our parents recently told us that her daughter, a former LSG student, said that here, she felt free to become who she should be and not who others expected her to be. It was the most important thing I’ve ever heard anyone say about this school.
Hearing those words made me reflect on what conditions make such a personally-meaningful, student-directed transformation possible. I think a big part of it is beginning with the assumption that students’ interests, passions, and voices are worthy of our attention. All of my colleagues do this, and I am gratified to work with them everyday.
Too much instruction proceeds from the unexamined notion that there is something wrong with our children that must be fixed.
Instead, a truly liberatory and transformative education is one that takes at its starting point the act of seeing the whole child, and making space for all the inquiry and discovery and creativity that naturally follow from such recognition. The school that accommodates truly free students is ultimately one in which adults decide each day to insulate the students’ learning experiences from any short-term or narrow or bureaucratic exigency so that what matters most is placed at the center of the instructional design.
When our students are free to care, to question, and to play, they can (in the words of that eloquent LSG alum) become the people they should be instead of the people our flawed, existing world expects them to be. And it is only in this way that we can imagine and work towards a better future.
Last week my colleague Kevin asked our philosophy students a question that has perplexed great thinkers for millennia:
Crunchy or smooth peanut butter?
Here is the discussion that ensued (a group role play exchange channeling Aristotle, Descartes, and Hegel):
We talk a lot at LSG about the role of the question: how great questions open up unforgettable discussions, how a worthwhile education means confronting difficult questions, how we can help students form and pursue their own lines of inquiry.
But to be truly open to all the truth and beauty the world has to offer, shouldn’t our students also learn how to make ordinary experiences into material for great insights?
This morning, I read the latest Dear Pepper advice column in the New Yorker, and I realized that a committed truth-seeker and divergent thinker can do beautiful things with almost any question.
The question in the column is just as mundane as our peanut butter inquiry: the advice-seeker shares that her friend’s husband constantly walks around with his fly down, and she wonders how to manage the awkwardness of informing him.
The response is rich and nuanced. Liana Finck points out: such a situation forces one to choose between being a Cassandra, constantly sharing bad news, or a Jonah, who fails to warn Ninevah of God’s impending judgment. She goes on to discuss parenting choices, the gendered implications of obliviousness, and Einstein and Nabokov.
We teachers owe our students great questions and worthwhile texts. But I also want to leave my students with a sense of how to find beauty and truth in the quotidian. I want them to know there are ways of orienting themselves toward one another and the world that can enrich their lives (and the lives of those they touch). I want them to take responsibility for doing that every day, for engaging the possibility that each experience offers them (even mundane questions about zippers).
The morally reprehensible Louis CK nonetheless gave us perhaps the best statement of that responsibility when he talks to his fictional children here:
You live in a great big vast world that you’ve seen none percent of. Even the inside of your own mind is endless, it goes on forever inwardly, you understand? The fact that you’re alive is amazing, so you don’t get to be bored.
Showing kids what to do with a question is ultimately about teaching them to be responsible for their own boredom — teaching them to be grateful for all the world offers.
Tanner (12th) teaches computer science to Jack (10th) and Abel (6th)
This year, one of our high school seniors is teaching a computer science course, and our most senior faculty member is taking two high school STEM classes alongside his students.
Tanner (12th) created his year-long game design course after teaching himself AP Computer Science A last year. He worked closely with faculty mentors to develop a syllabus, select appropriate texts, and design assessments. His class of five students, grades 6-10, meets three times per week to learn basic programming skills in order to create a polished game, a non-digital prototype, and a short commercial for a broad audience. You can follow his progress on his blog.
My colleague and Philosophy Wars co-teacher Dr. Kevin Oliveau is an MIT-trained computer scientist and political scientist whose professional distinctions include founding and building a cohousing community and being awarded a patent for work he developed as a micro-coder. He is also a bit of a deity for our students, who follow him closely, challenge him good-naturedly, and meme him incessantly. But for 60-90 minutes each day, Monday through Friday, Kevin sits among the kids he teaches as “one of them” – taking seriously his role as a student in high school chemistry and an elective called Introduction to Mathematical Reasoning: Proof and Logic.
In fact, Kevin had to delay joining us for a pre-event faculty dinner this week because he had to finish his chem homework first.
Dr. Oliveau participates as a student in Mr. Ragsdale’s AP Chemistry class.
What I’ve discovered watching my student become a teacher and my fellow teacher become a student is that there is inherent value in shifting out of our established roles. We see things we’d otherwise have missed, and we empathize with people we wouldn’t have understood as well.
Here are five things I’ve learned from Tanner, Kevin, and the students in their classes about the value of these experiments:
1. Peers learn more deeply from students who teach
Jack (10th), one of Tanner’s students, shares what he loves about learning from his classmate (and also adorably assures me that I am “not old”):
I guess I can kind of connect with him a bit more because I feel like he’s more my age. Not that you’re old; you’re not. He’s more – he’s my friend, he’s more friendly and I feel comfortable around him and tell him stuff, like whether I understand.
The kids in Tanner’s class feel comfortable expressing confusion and asking for help. I watch them call him over for guidance with roadblocks. I see them attempt to answer in-class questions before they are certain they understand. Tanner doesn’t have to administer regular formative assessments to know what his students grasp; they tell him right away.
Because of their unique relationship to their students, students who teach give their peers access to the content in a way traditional teachers cannot. This is the rationale for the high school writing center movement, which draws on the university model of leveraging peer tutors to help all students become more effective writers.
The impact transcends academic discipline. The Young People’s Project (YPP), for instance, trains 500 high school students to teach math literacy to 2,000 students in elementary schools across six American cities. A Black Enterprisepiece about YPP points out that the kids teach:
in a way that is low-stress, informal, even playful, yet the results speak for themselves. According to internal and external assessments from 1997 to 2014, YPP involvement has improved test scores and increased mathematical confidence.
The measurable academic gains resulting from peer instruction have clear implications for underfunded schools and schools that serve black and brown kids. Students can get more instructional time and individualized attention at little or no cost. And they learn from people who look like them, which affects achievement and college acceptance.
2. Students who teach learn more deeply
Knowing he was going to have to teach his peers made Tanner want to learn the content inside out. He explains:
Last year I basically only had time to skim the stuff that I was learning about. Now that I’ve spent an entire summer rereading the books, teaching a subject forces you to know about it because you can’t bullcrap your way through it. I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better knowledge because I have to teach it. Probably the whole game design aspect in general, I went pretty deep into the field and learned a lot more because I had to teach it. I’ve gotten a lot more programming skills now because I’ve had to come up with new ways to teach the same stuff. It helps when you can approach it from a different perspective.
Research bears out Tanner’s insight. A 2014 study showed that students who expected to have to teach what they read in a passage had stronger recall and answered more questions correctly than students who merely expected to be tested on the passage. That was true even though the kids didn’t end up teaching at all. The mere expectation created the opportunity for deeper learning. Knowing you will do something public and social with what you’ve learned motivates you to learn it thoroughly.
And the act of teaching extends your learning. A D.C. nonprofit called Reach Incorporated identified high school students who struggle with reading and prepared them to act as reading coaches for second and third graders. Within a single academic year, the high school coaches demonstrated two years of reading gains.
Teaching well requires us to think metacognitively – to think about our thinking. To prepare his lessons, Tanner needed to reflect on his own learning: how was it that he came to understand this thing he wants to teach others? That sort of reflection makes us better and more purposeful learners. And by anticipating several different ways to teach the same concept or skill, Tanner came to understand nuances and details he missed the first time around. Teaching was an opportunity for him to do something meaningful with his learning. He explained:
I think tests are fine and all that but practical stuff that you have to actually be able to do, you can’t multiple choice or essay question that. You have to demonstrate that you know how to apply what you’ve learned. What I’m doing for myself is a huge leap, and you don’t necessarily have to teach a class on the material to demonstrate that you know the material. But you should be doing something more than just testing where it matters. Like actually going and building a game instead of just sitting through a class about game design.
Tanner reminds us here that just as we want the content and skills we teach to be important, our assessments should matter, too.
3. Shifting into new roles increases empathy
Most adults organize their lives so that they only have to do what makes them feel competent and comfortable. Tanner and Kevin chose to purposefully unsettle themselves by taking on new roles and experiencing education from a different perspective.
As with all things worth doing, the risk is huge, but the rewards are transformative.
Kevin described what he learned about being a student:
It gives me much more sympathy for my students and what they go through, the demands. If you missed what the professor said, you learn what it feels like to try and catch up. Also time, because it’s AP chem, so you have to be fast. So the quizzes are very stressful. And it’s also funny how quickly the students accepted me as a student. There was a day I didn’t notice the second page of the test, so I only did half the quiz. That rumor quickly spread through the entire school. Every quiz since then, it’s, “Oh look, Dr. Oliveau: there’s a second page.” It’s kind of humbling because you’re struggling.
Remembering what it’s like to struggle changes the way we relate to our students.
Veteran teacher Alexis Wiggins had been teaching fifteen years before she spent two days as a student, and her insights changed her whole approach to instructional design. Her entire piece is worth reading, but here are a few of her crucial take-aways:
High school students are sitting passively and listening during approximately 90 percent of their classes.
By the end of her first day, she felt mentally and emotionally drained. She also noticed the psychological impact of being constantly reminded that your personal needs or desires are inconvenient to the teacher’s aim:
You feel a little bit like a nuisance all day long.
Perhaps most devastatingly, she noticed that because teacher talk dominates classroom activities, students don’t feel like they play an important role in what happens in the classroom:
I asked my tenth-grade host, Cindy, if she felt like she made important contributions to class or if, when she was absent, the class missed out on the benefit of her knowledge or contributions, and she laughed and said no.
Shadowing for two days as a student helped Wiggins see that teachers were unintentionally placing their students at the margins of the work of the classroom rather than at the center. Kids’ voices and choices were too often a “nuisance” when they should have been the driving force of instructional design. This insight led to a dramatic retooling of her pedagogy.
And just as experiencing class as students challenges the assumptions teachers have about what kids are thinking and feeling in their classrooms, teaching has made visible to Tanner all the work that often goes unseen by students. He shares:
I spent the entire summer drawing up a syllabus and lesson plan. I was expecting some stuff to change through the course, but I was surprised by how much changed, how fluid and elastic you have to be, how flexible you have to be in order to get what you want done.
4. Students and teachers have fun shifting into new roles
Deep learning is serious and demanding work. It is filled with struggle, uncertainty, and increasingly daunting tasks. But it should be joyful, too.
The kids in Kevin’s classes delight in watching him raise his hand to talk, stress out over an exam, and make mistakes. Kevin explains why:
It’s fun for them to see a teacher struggling as a student. We’re always in this position of superiority as know-it-alls. And I’m always asking questions. I started out as the most backward student in the class. The last time I had chemistry was in 1978.
His classmates agree. Katie (10th) explains:
It’s an interesting exercise to learn with him. He makes the most interesting metaphors – he’s created this elaborate metaphor about bonding being like one atom bullying the other for electrons. And when we get tests back, it’s always fun to discuss answers with Dr. Oliveau since sometimes, rarely but sometimes he gets them wrong too. I really enjoy talking about the questions with him.
Kevin’s presence brings kids joy in AP Chemistry for a few reasons: 1) the incongruity of the role shift is just cool to see; 2) it’s genuinely fun to watch him wrestle with the material; and 3) he models that it’s possible to enjoy yourself while you’re doing something difficult. Kevin attempts almost 100% of in-class questions, gets excited as he gets closer to understanding, and finds ways to create a personally-meaningful understanding of the material.
The metaphor Katie mentions is a great example of this. In class, Clark discussed a diagram visualizing an aspect of covalent bonding theory:
Clark: No bullies to take the electrons away. (looks knowingly at Kevin)
Kevin: Right, this is all romance.
Michael (10th): Oliveau, you switched from bullies to romance?
Kevin: Oh yeah, with bonding? Oh yeah.
The class loved it. Clark plays it perfectly, and the dynamic wouldn’t work without him – it’s like watching a straight man and an end man from an old vaudeville routine.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, these teacher-student reversals are fun for all ages. Veteran teacher Tova Rivera wanted to break with the typical end-of-year activities and instead prepared her fourth graders to teach their third grade peers a preview of what they’d learned all year. The whole thing took around two weeks, and kids “had a blast” finding creative ways to share what they knew.
Routines and clearly-defined expectations can help our students feel comfortable and confident. But we all long to break free from these constraints every now and then.
5. Students who teach are empowered, and students gain confidence when they see teachers struggle
The first great piece of guidance I received as a new teacher was to ask myself during a lesson: “who is working harder, me or the kids?” If the answer is me, I am doing it wrong.
That question reminds me that the classroom is a place where kids should be the ones doing (instead of passively receiving knowledge).
And at its root, that question is ultimately about control and trust. Am I willing to cede power to my students, knowing they might not get where I want them to be, knowing we might not cover what I’ve planned? Of course these are valid concerns, but by giving up some control, teachers create space for students to do great things.
The opportunity to teach your peers sends a powerful message. It says to students, “You have knowledge worth sharing, you have a teacher’s trust, and you have an opportunity to support your friends’ learning and growth.” Students teaching students is an authentic way to build confidence, leadership, and empathy.
And that contrasts starkly with the student Alexis Wiggins interviewed, who laughed when asked whether she thought her absence from class made a difference to her peers.
By redistributing some of the authority away from the teacher and toward the student, we help kids see themselves as capable thinkers and doers. We accomplish something similar when we take on the role of student. Katie (10th) explains that when she sees Kevin make mistakes in class, it is a powerful form of humility:
It’s sort of an admission that he doesn’t know everything, even though he seems to in the courses he teaches.
When students and teachers reverse roles, it helps kids see themselves as potential experts, and it helps us all remember that no one masters anything without struggling, failing, and trying again.
Of course this all makes me wonder about the curricular and policy implications:
Should each teacher have to experience school as a student every few years?
Should we build time into the school year for each student to teach?
Should local districts interested in boosting student learning formalize peer tutoring programs like YPP and high school writing centers?
Relevant, meaningful activities that both engage students emotionally and connect with what they already know are what help build neural connections and long-term memory storage (not to mention compelling classrooms).
But before kids can appreciate why a given skill or content area matters in the world, they first need to see what it looks and feels like in the world. They need to see the abstract take concrete shape.
Great teachers do this across the disciplines, giving their students direct sensory experience with what otherwise would be intangible. One of my earlier posts showed what this looks like in an AP Physics course: our science teacher David Romero used roller skates and a jump rope to help his students feel “in their bones” the way “the universe works.”
Here are four more examples from math, philosophy, science, and English at LSG.
The concrete-repesentational-abstract instructional sequence is a “best practice” in math education for good reason: research shows the approach helps students develop their own mental representations of mathematical concepts.
In my colleague Rita Lahiri’s Algebra I course, students experienced the coordinate plane as a thing they could inhabit with their bodies.
Rita asked a student, Sera, to leave the room as the rest of the kids hid a piece of paper. When Sera returned, she had to close her eyes. Her classmate Evalynn guided her with directions: two steps forward, three steps to the right, etc. The other kids watched (and giggled), taking down their observations. After a few minutes, Sera found the paper – it was placed inside a textbook on one of the shelves.
The class repeated this experiment several times; kids eagerly volunteered to be the “finder” and the “guide.”
Once students got to see their peers move through the classroom toward a specific point, Rita gave them the chance to reflect on their experience by thinking and writing about two questions. She asked:
Each of you guided your person differently. Was one way more efficient than others?
Why is this relevant? Why are we doing this in class?
As the kids reflected, they made sense of the concept in light of their direct experience. In subsequent lessons, when her students encounter the coordinate plane as a pictorial representation, they will remember watching kids walk through space toward a fixed point.
The new, abstract concept will build on something they already had seen and understood.
The study of philosophy is often beautifully and infuriatingly abstract. What kinds of instructional approaches can make these ideas accessible and meaningful in students’ actual lives?
Here is a really cool article that wrestles with just that question. It’s about teaching philosophy to teens in Brazil’s favelas after the nationwide mandate that all secondary students learn philosophy. Check out this relevant excerpt:
But can philosophy really become part of ordinary life? Wasn’t Socrates executed for trying? Athenians didn’t thank him for guiding them to the examined life, but instead accused him of spreading moral corruption and atheism. Plato concurs: Socrates failed because most citizens just aren’t philosophers in his view. To make them question the beliefs and customs they were brought up in isn’t useful because they can’t replace them with examined ones. So Socrates ended up pushing them into nihilism. To build politics on a foundation of philosophy, Plato concludes, doesn’t mean turning all citizens into philosophers, but putting true philosophers in charge of the city—like parents in charge of children. I wonder, though, why Plato didn’t consider the alternative: If citizens had been trained in dialectic debate from early on—say, starting in high school—might they have reacted differently to Socrates? Perhaps the Brazilian experiment will tell.
Kevin Oliveau and I are co-teaching a course called “Philosophy Wars” this semester, giving students the chance to engage competing ideas about ethics, human nature, epistemology, and metaphysics. We want students to understand what it means to see the world through the lens of these various philosophies. We hope that the course helps us all develop the capacity to break out of our own particular, entrenched perspectives, finding ways to generously imagine alternate ways of seeing and being in the world.
One of the ways we encourage this is by conducting regular role-playing exercises during class. We pose a question: in the case of the video above, the question was, “Does material reality exist?” We require that students argue from the position of various philosophers rather than their own perspective. Sometimes, this means they draw an index card of their choice with the name of a philosopher, and respond in the way they think he or she would. In the video above, certain students were designated as “skeptics,” others as materialist George Berkeley, and still others as Renee Descartes.
This exercise in intellectual empathy is in the same vein as the “stakeholder wheel” approach to journalism education explained in The Elements of Journalism and the “Offend Yourself” challenge I tried with my students in 2015. These structured assignments force students outside themselves to explore the world from other vantage points.
The discussion took on a particularly concrete application right around minute 1:10 in the above video. Michael, who is supposed to be a skeptic, notices that his peer Enoch drinks mistakenly from his mug. As Michael argues against the existence of things outside ourselves, he calls out Enoch:
Michael: As a skeptic, almost like a Descartes type argument, you could say that – that’s my glass
Me: How do you know that’s your cup?
Kevin: Aha! What was the problem there? I sensed a problem. You put the cup down rather quickly, didn’t you? Why was that? You knew it was his cup!
Enoch: I did not!
The dispute about the mug revealed precisely the concrete stakes of what it would mean to sincerely doubt that things outside our mind exist in the real world. If Enoch truly entertained such metaphysical doubts, he’d have no problem drinking from Michael’s mug.
Since that exchange, the mug has become a shorthand for understanding concretely what it means to doubt. Role playing offers an engaging and memorable way to test the real-world implications of abstract ideas.
Research typically focuses on moving gradually from concrete to abstract — for example, this piece describes evidence supporting the “concreteness fading” method in STEM instruction. But my colleague David Romero points out that in his physics courses, students study abstractions so that they can better understand and describe the physical world. In other words, sometimes the concrete is the target.
An activity in his middle school science class helped students observe and experience the concept of relative motion. (Check out the video above to see part of the lesson in action.)
David sets up three groups of students on wheelie chairs and designates the other students “pedestrians” meant to observe and record. He gives these instructions:
We can run through this once or twice, and if you have a question for one of these people, feel free to ask.
We’ll have time to talk about what we’re seeing.
Both David and Rita’s lessons reveal the crucial interaction between enactors and spectators: by asking some students to experience relative motion, for example, and others to observe it, David ensures that the class works collaboratively to piece together an understanding from different perspectives. The insights of those who sat on the chairs augment the observations of those who stood and recorded what they saw.
The comments of Aidan, an eighth grader and “pedestrian” during the activity, illustrate this well:
David: Pedestrians, you want to describe what happened, what you saw?
Aidan: I saw that there was two chairs, Matt and Nadia, floor, and then two chairs, Matt and Nadia, floor. So I saw chairs, Matt, and Nadia move this way.
David: Oh and you’re using the floor to compare.
In this case, students are moving from abstract to concrete: David had introduced the concept of relative motion in an earlier lesson; in this later activity, students were able to use key terms and definitions to describe what they saw in the physical world.
High school students cut up Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” to piece together the story’s chronology.
My students are usually blown away when I explain to them that the “full story” – told in all its detail from beginning to end, with no narrative gaps – is a thing that does not existoutside their own minds.
But they think about it quietly for a bit and realize: of course it doesn’t. No story takes the reader through all the excruciating minutiae of human existence. Our narratives – whether written or oral, literary or gossip, and everything in between – contain pauses, omissions, flashbacks, flash-forward, and repetitions.
Time in narrative is complex. And temporality, as a literary concept, is also highly abstract.
Russian formalists have a complicated theoretical language that distinguishes, for example, between the order in which events are narrated (the sjuzhet) and the “actual” order of the story (the fabula – as in fable, or a thing that is not real).
Ernest Hemingway’s short story “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” is useful for illustrating the nuances of narrative temporality. The story flashes back and forth to reveal the deep roots of the titular character’s unhappy marriage and the more recent catalyzing incident: Macomber’s seemingly unredeemable cowardice at the lion hunt.
To help students see the impact of nonlinear temporality on narrative, I ask them to cut Hemingway’s story into pieces.
I print out four copies of the story and ask groups of kids to physically separate each scene from the next: make a cut where the temporality shifts to flash backwards or forwards. Then, students rearrange them chronologically along a series of desks or cubes. As the photo illustrates, this is a get-out-of-your-seat-and-work-with-your-hands activity.
Students invariably come up with different ways to order events, revealing that part of what non-chronological structure does is to render the reader an active participant in the collaborative construction of meaning.
Like the activities in math, philosophy, and science, the act of cutting up Hemingway’s story helps students see what crucial abstract concepts look and feel like. This is an indispensable first step in making classroom content relevant and personally meaningful to all students.
A good teacher is by nature a good storyteller. Short, resonant anecdotes bring abstract concepts to life; stories humanize teachers and capture kids’ imaginations. These are the things our students will remember long after the lesson is over.
My colleague Kevin Oliveau is a master storyteller.
Being in Dr. Oliveau’s World War I class is like reliving the plot of your favorite movie with someone who knows it inside-out: the history of its production, the science behind the special effects, the psychology of the characters, the philosophical implications of the unfolding events. These battles fought on distant shores a century ago are transformed into something like an epic film: vivid, engrossing, urgently relevant.
Here is what I mean: ten minutes into class, Dr. Oliveau riffs on a student’s comment about U-boats. He pulls up an image on the projector and describes what it might have been like to live inside one of these vessels:
You’re talking about cold, damp rooms where stuff drips on you all the time. And one bunk for eight people. So how do you do it? You need to sleep for 8 hours a day. It means also that if your fellow crewman has lice or nits or fleas, you have them as well. So when you climb into the bunk, it’s when someone has just climbed out of it. So these spaces are really cramped, really difficult.
[He’s gesturing at the image now.] And there’s the equivalent of an analog computer which guides the torpedo in a straight line at a fixed depth until it strikes the enemy vessel below the water line where it’s most vulnerable. And it doesn’t actually destroy the ship; it lets the sea into the ship and lets the sea do the work. Has anyone been in one of these?
As an English teacher, I’m sitting there appreciating his craft: he uses the second person to place each student in the story; he packs his description with unsettling and memorable sensory imagery; he asks well-placed questions that activate kids’ imaginations. Students’ hands shoot up to share their thoughts and questions, delving deeper into the content and relishing the opportunity to participate.
There are reasons that great teachers like Dr. Oliveau use narrative frequently: it works. Neuroscientist David Eagleman observes that stories facilitate the spread of ideas from person to person:
It’s not easy to infect the brain of another person with an idea; it can be accomplished only by hitting the small exposed hole in the system. For the brain, that hole is story-shaped. As anyone who teaches realizes, most information bounces off with little impression and no recollection. Good professors and statesmen know the indispensable potency of story.
The human need to tell and consume stories reveals a lot about how our brains work. Cognitive neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga suggests that a major function of the brain’s left hemisphere is to organize our memories into plausible stories, filling in gaps when necessary. Gazzaniga’s research supports what teachers like Dr. Oliveau intuit: that stories are how we make sense of our world when our world doesn’t make sense on its own.
Psychologist Daniel T. Willingham concurs; he explains the educational benefits of narrative and suggests some ways teachers can incorporate story into their pedagogy, focusing on the “four Cs of narrative”: causality, conflicts, complications, and character. (Teachers should scroll to the bottom of that resource for helpful suggestions using each element across disciplines).
Dr. Oliveau’s lesson showed me three ways that great stories become opportunities for deeper and more joyful learning: they inspire active participation; they reveal what is possible, and they break through the boundaries of academic disciplines. Below, I explain how each takes shape in Dr. Oliveau’s instruction.
Great stories inspire active participation.
Nobel- and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison explained her ideal relationship with her readers way back in 1984:
The text, if it is to take improvisation and audience participation into account, cannot be the authority – it should be the map. It should make a way for the reader (audience) to participate in the tale.
For Morrison, the best stories demand active participation; they map the territory and invite the audience to explore and discover. That’s just how Dr. Oliveau’s stories work: they build a highly detailed, multidimensional world around his students. It’s essentially a very low-tech version of virtual reality.
His class is a collaborative, sometimes raucous, call-and-response event. Kids chime in with details, jokes, questions, and exclamations, until the conflict-laden story reaches a fever pitch. Led by Dr. Oliveau’s prodding and momentous questions, the class delights in the process of retelling the key moments point by point, reliving their fascination by poring over each historical figure’s motivation, the details coming together to reveal a compelling portrait of history.
From the corner of the room, he shouts a question in the general direction of the back row:
Oliveau: What is the counter move the Germans fail to anticipate?
Keaton: Convoys. The Germans didn’t know that the British would use convoys.
Oliveau: Right. The Royal Navy and merchant ships don’t like this. It’s boring, not exciting. Instead of heroically charging out, it’s like, we’re going to put you on this dinky boat, and you’re going to go sail circles around these other boats, and with luck, nothing will happen. [Student laughter.] And by the way, your boat is so small that when there’s a storm at sea, everyone is going to get violently seasick. So there’s resistance. But how did convoys reduce losses?
Kids wave their hands to offer their hypotheses and help craft the story; and on and on, the process repeats.
Great stories reveal what is possible.
People who don’t geek out over history tend to think of it in the past tense: a collection of dusty artifacts and static, settled events. Why bother? But to experience history as a great story is to be reminded of the terrifying and exciting fact that many futures are possible, and we don’t ever quite know how things might turn out.
Dr. Oliveau structures his entire lesson around that insight. His essential question is: why does England’s attitude toward involvement in the war shift so dramatically? This question is great because it invites kids to examine the dramatic contingency of history: the outcome of a war is not a foregone conclusion leading inevitably toward our current geopolitical order. Things could be very different today. Dr. Oliveau’s rich and detailed stories transport his students from the comfortable hindsight of 2017 to the uncertain complexity of one hundred years prior.
As he moves through each phase of the war, Dr. Oliveau reenacts the concerns and desires of various nations’ military leaders as they would have experienced them in the moment. He explains Germany’s worries:
By 1918 they haven’t hit their goal. One of the things about war is, you’re not sure. Even if you sink the 3 million tons which they pretty much did in twice the time, it’s not enough. They didn’t think about what the British might do in response. They were sort of optimistic in their view. They didn’t think, we’re gonna try this but it probably won’t work. They needed something to work, and they convinced themselves it would. They managed to sink almost 3 million tons that year, but it wasn’t enough.
When events are narrated as if their outcomes are uncertain, it’s easy to appreciate how many things needed to go wrong (or right) to get us where we are today.
Great stories cross academic disciplines.
Students learn deeply when they understand the content’s relevance to their own lives. We educators are thankfully in a moment in which that insight is neither original nor controversial.
Stories are an effective way to bridge the relevance divide — to craft a pathway between a student’s passions and the day’s learning goal. This is because narrative weaves disparate elements into a coherent whole.
No matter what Dr. Oliveau’s students are interested in, it’s a safe bet that he at least tangentially connected it to his narrative of the first World War. In 90 minutes, Dr. Oliveau’s lesson drew together anecdotes about syphilis, trench warfare, Ernest Hemingway, the science and engineering of weaponry, behavioral economics concepts like the sunk cost fallacy, military strategy, the sociological implications of male soldiers’ absence from the workforce, and the legacy of imperialism. Students also had to perform some basic mathematical calculations to determine how far Germany was from achieving its goals in 1918. The high point, however, was easily his highly technical explanation of submarines’ limited offensive capacity:
Oliveau: Right, it’s a three dimensional problem. It’s what submariners call firing solution. You have to locate your enemy precisely enough to fire your weapon. This problem won’t be solved till the end of World War II. It gets very complicated because in the ocean there are temperature differences and salinity differences, which has the tendency to reflect sound waves in an arc. In the modern day, we have —
Will (interrupts): How do you know that?
Ben (to Will): ‘Veau knows everything.
Ben’s comment stood out to me as the moment of the class because it insightfully identifies exactly what Dr. Oliveau offers his students. Through storytelling, Dr. Oliveau becomes a sort of omniscient game master, constructing a detailed discursive world and organizing students’ play within that world, integrating each distinct part into an engaging and unified narrative. To borrow from John Keats, it is a thing of beauty.
Seller’s answer is that to know mathematics is, ultimately, to be capable of working out the relationships between numbers in your head. She explains:
Problem solving continues to be a high priority in school mathematics. Some argue that it is the most important mathematical goal for our students. Mental math provides both tools for solving problems and filters for evaluating answers. When a student has strong mental math skills, he or she can quickly test different approaches to a problem and determine whether the resulting path will lead toward a viable solution. Estimation skills require both a sense of number and facility with mental computation and can provide a ballpark answer to a problem before the student attempts to solve it. They also offer a comparison point by which to judge whether a result is reasonable for the given situation. Estimation is an important skill for inclusion in students’ tool kits, whether they perform calculations with a pencil and paper or on a calculator.
I was able to watch this in action in my colleague Rita Lahiri’s middle school math class (sixth and seventh graders). Her lesson invited students not only to master content, but to reason as mathematicians. They would multiply numbers by 11 to gather data on the pattern, and then come up with a theory explaining why that pattern happens. Her directions were concise, clear, and inspiring:
Whatever rule or strategy you come up with has to apply to every problem. Write it down, because there are some theories that when you write it down on paper, you own it. And if you own it, you can contribute to why it’s happening.
I was so struck by Ms. Lahiri’s words. You, quiet sixth grade girl in the back row, can contribute your theory to the conversation. That is an incredibly powerful invitation to offer to a young learner. You are part of the collaborative construction of knowledge, and you have something to say. It was also an immensely convincing argument for taking notes!
Ms. Lahiri began by grounding the lesson in real-world contexts. In what direction do you typically read words and numbers? (Left to right). In what direction do you typically calculate? (Right to left). Why is that? (Engaged silence!). What are some places where you or your parents might use mental math?
Then kids worked individually, computing and observing the data. Ms. Lahiri moved through the room, peppering kids with challenging questions to move them forward.
When she noticed one of the students had figured it out before everyone else, she honored the student’s abilities while still managing to keep her engaged:
We’re going to do our best not to say anything for five minutes. The goal is for all of us to come up with theories for why this happens. Another thing to consider while you wait is: how does this change when we multiply by three-digit numbers? If you’re extremely confident in what you are doing now, and you have written it all out, you can work on that next.
Those five minutes were difficult. Kids were brimming with excitement to share their theories.
Evalynn (6th) can barely contain her excitement to share her research, but she knows she must wait.
By the last twenty minutes of the period, Ms. Lahiri placed students in the teacher’s role. Each student contributed a vital part to the theory, and each was responsible for holding the group’s ideas accountable to the standard Ms. Lahiri had set (does it work for every problem or just a few conveniently selected ones?)
Taz (7th) shares his research on multiplication by 11.
While the work was rigorous and worthwhile, the biggest takeaway I had from sitting in this classroom was that every student was free to engage the content at his or her level of ability and interest, and Ms. Lahiri’s fundamental role was to methodically, humanely, and uncompromisingly push each kid a bit past where they were at the beginning of the period. No one was off the hook from having to contribute, and no one was left behind because of boredom or inability. There was a place for everyone in this work.
Ms. Lahiri’s parting words to the kids were:
Thank you to everyone for bringing enlightenment to our research on multiplication by 11.
That really sums up her work with the students that day. They were not doing worksheets or rote memorization; they were doing research. They were not checking the box for participation points; they were bringing enlightenment. And the knowledge is owned and produced collectively, just as it is in a research university or laboratory. This is a beautiful education.
Students model the directionality of RNA polymerase, to understand which strand of DNA is used as a template during transcription.
When it comes to student work, audience matters. My students simply care more when they know they’ll share their work with the school community or outside experts instead of just with their English teacher. They think more purposefully about what they say and how they say it. The extra effort and thoughtfulness show in the quality of their work, and education research bears out my anecdotal experience.
But authentic audiences also provoke fear and anxiety. What if my ideas are wrong? What if I seem stupid? These nagging questions keep students from taking risks in public. In her study of behavior in a girls-only middle school math class, Janice Streitmatter observes:
without taking academic risks, asking or answering questions in the classroom, a large part of students’ lives may be excluded from their conscious or subconscious deliberations during this period of identity.
Chase Mielke echoes this insight with a provocative question:
Imagine the growth potential if 100 percent of our students attempted to answer 100 percent of the questions we asked 100 percent of the time. But they don’t—at least not at the secondary level. There’s no physical danger in raising your hand in class, only social danger.
I remember well what that social danger felt like in high school – the knotted stomach and fluttering heart, the loud voice in my mind warning me what others might think. I stayed silent far too often.
Useful resources abound suggesting interventions to make classroom culture or assessments more supportive of risk-taking. But I was reminded last week when I sat in on my colleague Ashley Gam’s biology class that instructional delivery can make or break students’ willingness to share out their ideas.
Ms. Gam structured her lesson so that student thinking moved in stages from entirely private to increasingly public, first using individual writing, then small-group discussion, small whiteboard visualization, and finally, whole-class presentation with peer feedback. At every step, she moved through the classroom, peppering individual students with Socratic interrogation to refine and extend their thinking. Below, I look at each step and offer some thoughts about why this model is so effective at getting kids to take risks in class.
First, it always bears repeating that well-planned instructional delivery is purposeless without meaningful learning goals. Ms. Gam’s lesson forms part of an ambitious study of evolutionary history inspired by the quirky, award-winning book Your Inner Fish by vertebrate paleontologist Neil Shubin. By the end of the unit, kids will have produced a timeline tracing human biological adaptations back millions of years — and they might also come into class fully costumed as some of our evolutionary ancestors in a culminating exercise (can’t wait!).
Using trade texts instead of textbooks helps students see that what they’re learning is part of ongoing conversations by researchers and academics. By engaging this material, students are participating in the ongoing production of scientific knowledge.
Stage 1: Individual Writing
Class began with the outward appearances of a conventional high school biology class: students grouped at lab desks to record short responses to prepared questions. But as Ms. Gam walked around the classroom, I noticed that she used Socratic-style questioning to tailor this exercise to each student’s abilities. I tried to transcribe a representative exchange:
Ms. Gam: “In the nucleus, when MRNA is produced, what’s the process called?”
Student: “Transcription. But what’s the purpose?”
Ms. Gam: “What do you think?”
Student: “It’s just a copy.”
Ms. Gam: “Yes, it’s just a copy. Why do we need a copy?”
She continued prodding the student until it was clear the concept was fully understood. Ms. Gam’s parting words to the student were, “You already knew the answer.” That’s exactly how these exchanges felt: like each student was uncovering knowledge that was already hanging around somewhere in their mind, and Ms. Gam’s questions were just helping them call that knowledge up.
Perhaps best of all, Ms. Gam was visibly, genuinely excited as students happened upon new understanding.
Ms. Gam helps students construct their own knowledge in one-on-one conversations.
Stage 2: Work in Small Groups
Once she felt everyone had a working familiarity with the lesson’s key concepts, she directed kids to confer in small groups about their responses. She told them:
I’m going to assign you one of these questions to diagram and share with the class.
Ingeniously, though, she didn’t tell groups which question they’d be assigned. It seemed to me that this ensured two things: 1) students felt responsible for discussing and understanding each question, just in case; and 2) Ms. Gam was able to listen in on the group conversations and assign questions based on student ability.
Because everyone had received candid, immediate, and kind feedback from Ms. Gam already, kids were more willing to share their ideas with one another. It’s a small detail, but I was struck by how frequently students looked up from their papers at each other’s faces.
Students discuss their answers and use textual evidence to refine their ideas.
Stage 3: Small Whiteboard Visualization
Students work together to prepare their model on a dry erase board.
In his published work on the acquisition of expertise, Anders Ericsson argues that superstar athletes and musicians develop their skills by creating sound mental representations, or structures that help people encode information into their long-term memory. (Here is an interview in which he discusses potential pedagogical applications).
As Ms. Gam’s student groups discussed their answers, she handed them whiteboards and asked them to represent certain concepts visually. Their whiteboard work actively engaged students in the task of constructing mental representations for the lesson’s key concepts.
This is one of those times when tools matter. I’ve done variations of this activity with posters, graphic organizers, and post-it note parking lots. But by using a whiteboard, Ms. Gam minimizes student anxiety: mistakes can be erased effortlessly and completely, at any time. Knowing that, kids can put their ideas down with little risk at all.
The whiteboard makes student thinking even more public: it’s large enough for anyone walking by to see, and its size accommodates easy collaboration. By this point in the lesson, most of the students are confident enough in their understanding to make their ideas visible.
Groups were at various stages of the process by this point, and the classroom was a bustling and dynamic space. Some kids needed to go back to the text to rework their models; others were ready to share their work out with the class. (To the latter group, Ms. Gam suggested “If you want, take this opportunity to add to your notes in your notebook.”) Everyone was busy doing something.
The classroom was a bustling place, with students at various stages of the process.
Stage 4: Whole-Class Presentation and Workshop
Students respond to feedback on their models of key genetics concepts during a whole-class workshop.
Forty minutes into the hour-long period, Ms. Gam called the class together and asked the first group to present. She gave explicit instructions to the class to make sure everyone knew this was a workshop: everyone will be responsible for accurately constructing knowledge. She said:
The purpose of this is to review and make sure everyone’s on the same page. While you’re listening, make sure that what is being talked about is consistent with what your group identified. If there are any discrepancies between what you found and what the group is presenting, that’s your opportunity to ask questions to either help the group come to a better understanding, or to improve your own understanding.
As students shared their ideas, she’d prod the class: Do you guys agree with that? Did others have different ideas? The presenters made changes to their model in real-time.
Ultimately, Ms. Gam consistently pushed her students into an active role throughout the lesson, but she also started with lots of support and scaffolding to ensure kids felt comfortable trying. Her lesson plan methodically removed layers of support as students became ready.
Here are some ways I can imagine using this four-stage process in my English classroom:
For teaching vocabulary or literary terminology (students start with a list of words from a text or unit of study, work individually to research and understand their denotation, work together to extend their knowledge, and visualize one or more words on the whiteboard)
For studying poetry: same process, but groups are assigned stanzas
For analyzing text structures: how particular paragraph examples from genres are organized (I’ve seen a great visualization of the standard academic essay here, for example)
AP Physics students moved back and forth between theory and practice today in an exercise inspired by physics educator Eugenia Etkina, and I got distracted from Writing Lab by their awesomeness. After reading and discussing models for understanding force and circular motion, the students moved to the center of the school with a rope and some roller skates. One student stood in the middle, holding an end of the rope firmly. Mr. Romero, on skates, held the other end of the rope and directed a second student to push him at varying speeds. Kids took time experiencing both roles.
Toward the end of the exercise, Mr. Romero explained how the force toward the center causes circular motion. He reminded students:
When people hear this explanation, they hear “science science science” or the sound adults make on Charlie Brown. But the purpose of this exercise was so that you feel it in your bones. This is how the universe works.
Isn’t that the ultimate learning goal — to have such a personally meaningful experience with a concept that your understanding becomes lodged “in your bones”? What would instruction look like if we placed those kinds of experiences at the center of our planning?
Deep Sran and his middle school students discuss how to word their search queries, how to evaluate domain names, and what to look for when assessing a website’s credibility.
Are people generally capable of making sound decisions about complex problems? Given the onslaught of “fake news,” misinformation, and conspiracy theories, and given our tendency to isolate ourselves from people with different values and experiences from ours, how do we know when our decisions are right?
Cognitive research scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber suggest there is some hope. In their otherwise rather pessimistic study of reasoning’s argumentative function in human life, they note that if we work at it,we can become better reasoners:
Individuals may develop some limited ability to distance themselves from their own opinion, to consider alternatives and thereby become more objective. Presumably this is what the 10% or so of people who pass the standard Wason selection task do. But this is an acquired skill and involves exercising some imperfect control over a natural disposition that spontaneously pulls in a different direction.
My fellow faculty member and school founder Deep Sran is trying to do just that for students in his new Informal Reasoning course. The course is an opportunity for middle and high school students to practice the kind of thinking required to effectively process new information they encounter in daily life — as they listen to the news or surf the web, for example. Informal Reasoning forms part of Loudoun School’s broader mission to educate responsible and empowered citizens.
Today I sat in on the middle school section of his class, and I’m persuaded that giving kids time to “think about their thinking” with modeling and feedback can significantly improve student reasoning. I’m currently considering ways to connect what I saw today with what I’m doing in Writing Lab.
His lesson began with the question, “Should we restrict soda consumption for minors?” This question lends itself to flawed and self-interested reasoning because it’s:
controversial and polarizing
likely to matter to students personally
dependent on specialized knowledge from esoteric sources
Students recorded their thinking on a handout designed to take them through each step of an effective reasoning process, from “first reaction” to “introspection” to “research/verification” to “decision” ( as in, do you know enough to make one?) to a metacognitive question (“is there anything getting in the way of you going where the facts lead?”). The handout makes clear one of the assumptions of the course: we are better thinkers when we can honestly explain why we believe what we believe — and we’re even better thinkers when we can accurately evaluate whether those reasons supporting our beliefs are valid ones.
“Introspection” stood out to me as a particular departure from typical middle school instruction. Deep asked students to articulate what information, values, assumptions, or analysis supports their first reaction. The responses kids shared aloud were more candid and precise than one might expect:
Cavan (8th grade) noted that his personal experiences support his bias against the restriction. “I enjoy sugar, which influences me.”
Hannah (7th grade) shared that a documentary she’d watched in school helped form her opinion.
Eric (8th grade) said that conversations with his mom, a holistic nutrition consultant, had shaped his ideas about sugar.
The bulk of instructional time was devoted to a whole-class exercise in finding and evaluating sources. Though I’ve seen parts of this done in high school English classes or school library tutorials, this lesson was distinctive in several ways, and taken together, these elements are what made it successful:
Students led the process: they shared their searches, sources, and thoughts. Their ideas structured the class discussion, which led to some unexpected revelations (a source Deep wouldn’t have assumed to be reliable because of its sketchy URL ended up proving useful when students analyzed its content and transparent approach to citation).
The exercise began with how to word the search query and how to sift through search results. This is an often-overlooked stage of the research process.
The overhead projector, typically a signal that the lesson will require passive and quiet students, was instead a site of collaboration and student activity. Deep would call on a student, ask her what search query she used, and go through the entire process using the projector. We all followed along, commenting, evaluating, and reflecting throughout the process. There’s something really exciting and empowering about a student’s being able to control what is shown on the projector.
Since the lesson was process-based (“how do we find reliable sources to answer this question?”), the students thought out loud alongside the teacher. Modeling and reflection were natural outgrowths of this approach – kids benefitted from hearing Deep think aloud about source quality.
Feedback was immediate because the exercise combined written and oral participation and involved a small group of kids.
Clear guidelines emerged organically from the process. Students recorded these guidelines to apply in subsequent assessments. A list like this might go ignored if it were distributed in a handout, but because these tips emerged unexpectedly from real-time student comments, the recommendations likely “stuck” more:
“.edu” “.gov” and “.org” are better than “.com” (but this generalization isn’t always true)
Is the source transparent (about who is writing it, what sources they’ve used, etc.)?
Find out about the author of the site or article (is s/he an expert in a relevant field?)
Click on any links to sources included in the article (News media articles citing other news media articles should be viewed skeptically)
Articles that cite scholarly research are more credible, but check at least the abstract of the research to make sure it’s being used accurately
Beware sites that have lots of ads
Look at the badges at the bottom of the page (501c3 and Better Business Bureau are signs of credibility)
Students were required to reflect during the last five minutes of the period. Deep asked them to share their one-sentence take-away.
Also, Deep is hilarious. This isn’t really a reproducible element of his instructional design, but it really helped student engagement that he had a playful, teasing back-and-forth with kids throughout the period. I need to up my game.
Deep summarized the purpose of the lesson toward the end of the period by describing a process he hopes students will get in the habit of following as they reason:
We tend to come to a question like this with initial reactions. The next step, which few people do, is to see if you’re right. Then there’s a third step even fewer people do – I did the initial research, is it any good? And a fourth step — should I make a decision yet, or do I need to find out more? You can do all of this for your closely held positions: Why do I think that? I need to research that. Should I still think that?
These are the kinds of questions that make our thinking more rigorous and reliable. I hope that practicing this process makes kids more likely to apply it outside the classroom. Our future ultimately depends upon their ability to do so.