Educational Lessons from Chinese GDP Projections

The Economist recently ran a story based on a Duke/University of Colorado, Boulder study that found a correlation between reported population growth and promotion of Chinese bureaucrats. It seems that the bureaucrats most effective at suppressing population growth had a higher chance of being promoted. The only problem is that the figures reported by the bureaucrats to their higher-ups didn't align with the census data. Essentially, the government officials were fudging numbers to make it look as if they were doing a better job than they actually were--and were being rewarded for it. The extrapolation of this information leads to questions of whether the country's reported GDP is subject to the same fiddling of statistics in order to appear more prosperous than it really is, which would spell major problems for the global economy.

I wonder if the moral compromises or frustration shown by our children comes from the same pressing for results by promise of reward or threat of punishment illustrated here. 

You cant go out to recess unless you finish your homework; you get to go on the field-trip once you have read fifteen books; if you don't change your behavior I'm going to call your parents.

When we make freedom, play, enjoyment, contingent on performance, does it result in a less than desirable product? In the same way, does harshly punishing stealing or lying prevent it's resolution? I would much rather have a child confess to lying or stealing than keeping it hidden. I want that because it encourages the development of character, what David Brooks identifies as an individual's strategy in overcoming their internal weakness. If the punishment is too harsh or the reward too great, it seems that we deny children the opportunity to develop that character by facing their weakness and choosing to overcome it, instead forcing them into a punishment-avoidance or reward-attainment state. The means get lost in the end. 

Pasi Sahlberg, in Finnish Lessons 2.0 argued the same thing to a degree. He stated that the absence of attaching raises, school budgets, job security, and praise to standardized testing, is one of the factors that has lead to Finland securing some of the top scores on the PISA assessments during the last decade. The Finnish school system, he argues, is a system built on trust, not accountability. 

Perhaps its a issue of giving too much weight to data or asking students to perform tasks they don't have the skill sets or scaffolding to achieve. I'm learning that a good amount of student frustration, "apathy," and cheating that I witness in class is due to my lack of equipping or preparing them for a task, not their actual unwillingness. They just don't know how to begin and so then sit there, staring. 

The Fourth Way

The Fourth Way is a way of inspiration and innovation, of responsibility and sustainability. The Fourth Way does not drive reform relentlessly through teachers, use them as final delivery points for government policies, or vacuum up their motivations into a vortex of change that is defined by short-term political agendas and the special interests with which they are often aligned. Rather, it brings together government policy, professional involvement, and public engagement around an inspiring social and educational vision of prosperity, opportunity, and creativity in a world of greater inclusiveness, security, and humanity.
— Hargreaves & Shirley, 2009, p.71


Finland went through three phases of educational change since the 1980's. The first, and the one that Pasi Sahlberg identifies as "foundational," dealt with rethinking the theoretical and methodological foundation of schooling.  Out of this came the belief that the role of public education was to educate citizens to thinking critically and independently. Sahlberg states that questions like, "How do schools change?," "What is knowledge?," and "How do pupils learn?," were common themes for discussion at teacher inservice and school improvement meetings.

I think that is a profound component missing from U.S. schools and why we aren't seeing systemic improvement. We haven't had those discussions. 

In my teacher trainings so far, we haven't gotten near to any of these ideas. It has largely remained in the realm of superficial topics like curriculum delivery and our discipline policy. We have singularly dealt with the "how" before addressing the "why." 

I think this insight can even be applied to an individual school site. Our staff meetings feel unproductive and uninspiring. It may be because we, as a staff, have not established the foundational educational philosophy that determines our actions in the classroom and school policy. We are unknowingly acting in the assumption of those answers.

Pasi goes onto cite another educator, Eno Lehtinen, who says that the Finnish discussions around conceptions of knowledge and learning "[were] reflect[ed] in implementation of the new curriculum in the mid-1990's at all levels of schooling, and also in the national curriculum reforms in this new decade." Establishing a philosophical consensus amongst teachers in regards to these ideas seems to be a foundation for other educational decisions like curriculum, discipline, technology use, etc. We jump to those questions without have a common group-established framework for answering them. That possibly is what leads to teachers feeling disenfranchised from their leadership, a feeling I'm realizing is common. 

I want these conversations to happen. 


I went to a friend's magic show on Thursday. He's a pretty good magician. In the middle of his performance, he told us he was getting into motivational speaking. I was a bit skeptical, but after he made his case, I realized he had great insight into the human condition that was worth sharing. 

He essentially revealed that magic is about creating moments of delight, transporting someone out of time and into a moment. Most people, he claimed, want to learn magic not because they actually like the magic tricks, but because they want the reaction that magic creates. To create that moment, doesn't need magic, he argued. You just need to break people's routine.

This got me thinking. As adults, it seems like that is where delight breaks in--when routines are interrupted, when anomalies occur, when the unexpected strikes. Adults get into habits and patterns of living that can start to feel monotonous. We feel the need to alter routine with vacations, new jobs, and new experiences. The adult routines feel like something humanity bucks against. 

But then I compare this with our knowledge of a child's development. Children need routine. I have both been told this repeatedly by educators I respect and have seen the need first-hand. My students freak out when a subject goes overtime or I deviate from the schedule written on the board. If a meeting runs longer than the anticipated time, and I get back to my class in an hour rather than the expected thirty minutes, the rest of day looks like the Lord of the Flies. Routines, knowing what is going to happen next, seem to provide a degree of safety. When they aren't in place, there seems to be anxiety.

There is also this--I have a series of what I believe are engaging, entertaining, and extremely productive activities that I intersperse throughout the school year. One for example includes learning how to use Google slides and then creating presentations on a variety of topics. I can do about three of these before they start to lose interest and I have to change it up somehow. So here, they seem to get tired of the routine, of knowing the steps and outcome. I have to modify the activity to include a novel element, such as turning it into a group project or changing the audience from their classmates to the sixth grade class. It seems as if routine has its limits.

I need to change desks periodically, introduce new cooperation games, new comprehension activities for our reading, and a variety of other changes to maintain engagement and excitement. 

So I have these two human needs--routine and novelty. Holistically, we probably need both as humans. We need an idea of where things are going to go but also hunger for novel experiences that stimulate us, and consequentially, lead to our growth. That boredom on my student's faces that forced me to stop daily oral language four weeks in could just be a manifestation of their minds needing to discover and learn something new.

Side note: I believe that school can always be exciting. Through relevance, real problems, and instruction that has been planned in response to watching and knowing your students, education can always be exciting.

So, it seems like the answer is an amalgamation of both. It's like the paradox of education Locke identifies; that children need government (structure) but also to be prepared to govern themselves as rational and free adults in society. Is that a good example? Is the entry into self-governance what I am seeing when they get board with an activity? Maybe children transition into the freedom of adulthood on their own account. Maybe the desire for freedom is natural and drives them to obtain it. Freedom seems like something you never need to sell a kid on. So that transition to self-governance that is endemic to adults is initiated by the child, but then given in manageable increments by adults. Like the loosening of a leash, based on what the governing adult feels they are equipped to handle.

This makes me think of my family's cat, when we brought her home for the first time. She stayed under my bed for the first day without moving, then began to leave for short periods of time as she became acclimated to the sounds and smells of the new home. If there was a new noise or person, she would quickly dart back under the bed. After a few days though, her times out became longer and longer until she didn't return to the bed, wandering freely around our home at ease.

I wonder if this a good analogy for children. They need the structure of routine only so they have a safe place to rest in before their desire to grow forces them to venture outside of it. They need routine as a place to return to for reflection and safety when the learning feels too much. Maybe routine is this support structure that needs to always be present in a child's life, always being reworked to fit the growth of the child, so that child has a safe foundation for taking risks, learning, and growing. 

The application for education is that teachers would need routines perpetually in place, but also the flexility for them to be broken or reworked. This would also mean the routines are flexible in the sense that teacher is always gauging whether the routines are a good fit for what the students need at that stage of development. 

That feels more settled. Children need routines and opportunities to depart from them. 

I wonder though, what routines exist in schools out of the need to manage large groups of children with limited adults. To say that a different way, what routines are in place to support our industrial educational model? What routines are in place not for the welfare of the child, but to help teachers maintain control? 

So, can we create a safe environment for children that facilitates risk-taking without routines?

Ability: Strategic Problem Solving

Parent conferences started this week.

I was sitting down with a parent of one of the most academically advanced students in my class. All of her tests looked great, her writing was sound, and her disposition towards academia had solidly placed her on a trajectory towards life-long learning. It was a great conference that celebrated a student whose hard work was easily apparent (there are students who work hard, but whose effort sadly doesn't show up on tests). After I left for the day, I found myself thinking about her conference more than all the others. I realized I wasn't excited about any of the "academic" things I got to show off to her mom, but one project she did that wasn't easily distinguishable as impressive.

A few weeks ago, I told my class that their only homework for the week was to make or learn something, then present it to our class on Friday. No direction and no boundaries aside from making or learning something. I was careful to not attach the label "cool" or "exciting" to it for fear of those words limiting or directing what a student may chose. I was excited though to see what they would come up with.

This student built an iPad in Minecraft. She brought in her iPad, displayed it under the document camera, and took us on a tour. It wasn't just an iPad, but a house. She had made it large enough that the app icons were easily discernible. I was impressed with it.

I was impressed with it because to make that it took a few things. It took foresight, a vision for what she wanted. It also took strategy. She had to plan it out to make it symmetrical, to make it noticeably like an iPad, and to ensure the spacing between apps/the border/the bottom would be uniform. In a way, she was thinking along the same lines as a chess player when setting up their board and choosing a strategy based on their opponents stance. In her case, the opponent wasn't a person, but the requirements of good design. 

I want that ability for all my students--the ability to strategy and systematically pursue a vision or solve a problem. Im calling this strategic problem solving. It combines both the mental piecing together of a problem or project with choice action that sees it carried out or solved. I want that because that seems to be an essential function of healthy adults in society, both in the interest of production and living life. If one wants to remodel their bathroom, provide clean water for children in a third world country, create a new iPhone app--you have to strategically envision and then act. I see that skill leading to my students being able to live well and more effectively in reality.



...a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.
— Jeremy Bentham

The Panopticon was a prison concept designed by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century. It's goal was to make prisoners feel continuously watched (or seen) by the prison authority. If the prisoners felt constantly watched, he believed, they would be more inclined to control their own behavior. 

Though the idea wasn't a wild success in the penal system, it seems to have fit quite well into education. It feels like a great amount of energy is exerted by teachers and administrators to make children feel like they are always seen by authority. The way teachers walk their students through the halls, at the front of the line, facing backwards, is so the students see that the teacher sees them. A book on creating class literacy centers advises to not make eye contact with students who are having difficulty focusing during read-to-self, not mentioning their behavior in the moment but instead opting to make note of the behavior and conference with them later about it. This is so they would be given the impression that even though you aren't looking at them, you see them and know what they are doing. Give children this impression, the book states, and they will develop their own reading stamina. Another book on creating a classroom culture at the beginning of the year says that early on, the teacher should call out all student behavior, good or bad, to set the understanding that the teacher sees all so that students conform their behavior to the teacher's expectations without a reminder or explicit instruction to do so. 

I have to wonder if the impression of constant observation is the tool we want to use to conform student behavior. There is something that doesn't feel ideal about it. Some questions:

  • What happens when they realize they aren't being watched, or even better, they realize they aren't actually being watched when the teacher is pretending they are? Sounds kind of like ripping back the curtain to find the wizard is just a man. Would that break faith in the teacher? Do students need to trust their teacher?
  • What sort of people will children grow up to be if their "good" behavior is predicated on being seen, and by default, the fear of being punished. Is being seen effective in controlling behavior because it implies more consistent and sure punishment for wrong behavior? If thats true, do we want students behaving in accordance with authority out of a desire to avoid punishment?
  • Is there a more effective/more beneficial/more caring way to achieve positive student behavior than creating the perception of always being watched? How do we decide what positive behavior is? It feel like so many expectations we have of student's behavior is rooted in needing to control a large group of children, not because it is actually good for the individual.

I want to explore that last idea--what is "good behavior" and how did we come to agree on what it is? That feels like a big question that I don't have the resources to answer. But I see a problem when we tell children to tell the truth so that we as the teachers can have an easier job of figuring out "who done it" and therefore who needs to be punished. I asked a co-worker the other day to give me the reason we tell students stealing is wrong, and she couldn't come up with anything substantial (I couldn't either). But the point of that is that we ask students to demonstrate or suppress behaviors that we have agreed are "wrong" or "right" as a society for reasons that seem to often be merely self-serving. I don't want to have to mediate disagreements between students, so I insist that they not tattle and learn to resolve their own conflicts. I don't want to hear from parents or have my principal think I have a problem controlling my students, so I tell them stealing is wrong. 

Now, if the desired student behavior is there, does it matter what my motives as a teacher are for instilling it? I would argue yes. Yes because the way I present it, talk about it, and instruct it will be fundamentally different depending on my motivations. If my motivation for getting the students to resolve their own conflicts is so they grow up to be people that care for others, are able to express their emotions, and make peace so that they find greater happiness, rather than reconciling their own problems because it makes my job easier, I am going to have (what I believe) are good reasons when explaining the desired behavior to my students. I feel like students are able to distinguish between good reasons and bad ones. If not now, especially when they get older. 

Also, if students see that I believe something is inherently valuable, whether that is academic or social instruction, I have noticed that they are more likely to listen and receive it. 

But back to being watched. My biggest concern is whether the behavior actually sticks (is internalized) if it was created by extrinsic pressure rather than internal desire. Can we get children to internalize ethics? This is a question I am intent on exploring. I think though that it starts with figuring out exactly what ethics are and whether we agree on them socially. We talk like there is an implicit understanding, while that conversation hasn't really happened yet. Without that conversation, we find ourselves stumbling over words when a student looks up at us and asks, "Well why shouldn't I take his eraser?" I feel like I owe my students, real answers that I have arrived at through committed thought, answers that make sense to their reasoning. 

So maybe the question of "what is good behavior" isn't really a digression. Before we get into how to teach "good behavior," maybe that's where the conversation needs to start.



The Finnish recipe for good education is simple: Always ask yourself if the policy or reform you plan to initiate is going to be good for children or teachers. If you hesitate with your answer, don’t do it.
— Pasi Sahlberg

This sits contrary to the American motivation, which he claims can be defined as "trying to be the best." Another way to illustrate the American educational psyche is the juxtaposing statements made by Japanese and American mathematics teachers, illustrated by Phil Daro. The American mathematics teacher asks themselves, "How can I get my kids to answer this problem correctly?" while the Japanese teacher asks, "What are the mathematics my kids are going to learn when working on this problem? How can I get them to learn mathematics?"

Student-centered education is hard to stick to unless you are willing to be humbled by the shedding off of old ideals and expectations of what education is supposed to look like. Is really interesting how the system can be elevated over the children it is meant to serve.

Homework and the Purpose of School

Paulo Friere

Paulo Friere

I sit on a homework and grading committee for my district. Our job is to help decide what homework in our schools looks like. There is a general sentiment that it is too much, or not beneficial like we previously thought. But we haven't really stopped to define homework or consider where it came from.

It seems like it's rooted in fairly fundamental understandings of education, learning, and the school's role. Traditionally, homework is school work done at home. But under that definition, there are many different types of homework. The forms fall into two categories: practicing of taught skills and acquisition of new information to be used in class (flipped classroom). Reading, essay writing, projects, completing math problems, and writing sentences with spelling words in them, sit under these headings.

The purpose of homework seems to be multifaceted. Below are several motivations I can think of.

  • Acquisition: Teachers give homework because they want their students to have material for classroom activities. This includes front-loading reading/watching something to gain new information.
    • To make more efficient use of time in class.
    • Because the curriculum can't be covered in class alone.
  • Reinforcement: Teachers give homework because they want students to practice skills/demonstrate understanding that they were taught already in class.
  • Rigor: Teachers give homework to prove their instruction is rigorous to administration/parents/students. 
  • Responsibility: Teachers want to provide the opportunity for students to develop and practice responsibility through independent work completion.
  • Babysitting: Homework is given to occupy students after school. It is used/given to fill time outside of class.

To figure out which of these motivations are better than others, it takes examining what the purpose of the education system is, which is a vast question. To answer that, we have Paulo Freire, the author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed. He pursued education as a practice of freedom that leads to individuals truthfully seeing and understanding reality. This sits in contrast to the economic motivation that our current system was birthed out of--the need for skilled laborers that would drive our economy forward. The testing, higher education, and credentials largely serve to separate society into different categories and prepare students for the workforce. 

But what Freire speaks to is an education that seeks to free the individual. In this freedom, there is the potential to live well and govern oneself. Very much like Locke, independence and self-governance were core values. Self-governed people were the way to a better society--a free-thinking, rational society. 

I want to add "care" in there. I want a free-thinking, rational, caring society (Nel Noddings). I'm not against capitalism or students acquiring skills that profit them and drive the economy forward. But I don't want that to be the primary motivation. I want that to be the residual effect of developing children into free-thinking, self-governed, and caring members of society. 

So, what sort of homework supports that end? I can't really say. Those categories listed above could very well be developing self-governance in students. Math problems could be helping students make connections and apply those new understandings to the world they occupy. An essay could be a practice in students exercising and learning their voice. Reading a textbook may kindle a new perspective. 

It again transforms into an issue of what homework is taking the place of. Time with family, play, and self-directed pursuit of interests could be better than the structured development homework necessitates. So maybe the problem is the structure, the mandated work that homework unavoidably requires. This would explain why a sustained project sounds better to me than a math worksheet. A project brings the student closer to developing self-governance and provides more breathing room for their own problem solving, creativity, and passion. Less definition. 


"Sounds noisy in there," said the teacher that occupies the classroom next door as I opened the door to ask her something. I couldn't help but take it as a derogatory statement. The way she said it made it sound like there was something wrong with the noise. She could have just as well said, "Wow, you should do something about your classroom. That's not what a classroom is supposed to be like."

And in a way, I agree with her. I get a little nervous when there is noise. All the teachers I had growing up wanted silent classrooms. Most of the teacher's I've observed valued quiet. So I should too...

This week we have been making silent films based on a novel we read. The students are working in groups of five to act out the big moments. They were making costumes, debating how they should portray a certain scene, and generally moving around the room. The book we read includes a dog race. So...they were practicing their dog racing. 

Yes, there was noise--because collaboration sometimes requires talking. I wonder where this idea of a quiet classroom equating learning came from? Is quiet a requirement for learning?

I know some students, if not most, greatly benefit from silence when they are trying to focus. Sounds and movement distract them. But it seems like they can also learn where there is noise and movement. Is it a different kind of learning? When I watch their scene preparation, I see them converting words on a page to actions that are meant to be understood by others. They are exchanging and building on ideas. They are learning how to share their vision for this project with their peers, then how to agree on a course and keep it.

The learning is there, it just feels like "lesser" learning. Things that don't really need to be practiced as much. Maybe it's because we don't test for those skills.

Rational Creatures

When I say therefore that they must be treated as rational creatures I mean that you should make them sensible by the mildness of your carriage and the composure even in your correction of them that what you do is reasonable in you and useful and necessary for them and that it is not out of [caprice], passion, or fancy that you command or forbid them anything.
— John Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education

I have a portrait of Teddy Rosevelt nailed high up on the wall in the back of my classroom. The kids haven't noticed it, or if they have, they haven't said anything. It's up there as a reminder of his one famous quote, "Speak softly and carry a big stick." It's mostly up there for the speak softly part. 

I have him up there because I don't speak as softly as I should. I needed a reminder. My voice gets loud, harsh, and anxious because I often find myself experiencing emotions. Like fear. And frustration. And desperation. This happens when that one student is wrestling for the second time that day or talking to their friend during read-to-self or the lesson is an utter failure because I wasn't paying attention to them as much as I should have been. So I harshly call out their name from the other side of class. My voice is strained and hurried when they ask for help on a math problem. I remind them that I explained it three times already in an effort to divert the blame to them instead of owning the reality that I apparently didn't teach it well enough if I had to explain it three times. I hate that. Speaking to them from this place of negative "passion" doesn't feel right and doesn't seem to result in good things.

I've had a few teachers tell me that you can't let them see that they made you feel something, because then they would know they won. I have many issues with that idea (like, the understanding that you shouldn't be at war with your students), but mostly, because I don't think thats the best reason for why not to react out of those negative emotions. I'm not saying that we should teach as dispassionate Vulcans, but I think when negative feelings drive reactions, the constraints and expectations of an environment become undefined and arbitrary.

Emotion is somewhat unpredictable and hard to account for. What makes me feel one way today could make me feel diametrically different tomorrow. So if I am not in control or aware of how I am feeling, I risk subjecting the kids to a standard that they can't really account for. A student's talking might not really be that big of a problem, but I may react to it like it is because I'm bringing feelings from other moments and life into the present situation. 

If a teacher is actually going to "speak softly," it seems that they would need three things: to be in control of themselves, grace derived from an understanding of child development, and a rational basis for teacher actions and requests.

That last thing is what it sounds like Locke is getting at in the quote above--that we shouldn't respond, act, or ask something of a child merely because we feel we should in a fit of "caprice, passion, or fancy," but because it is "rational, necessary, and useful." The requests, expectations, and boundaries that meet those qualifications are ones that students can anticipate, that will feel fair, and that we can feel good about holding them to. 

But the problem is that it requires thought. We would have to actually think about what we are asking of them. Thinking takes energy and time. Its work, which is why we have to train ourselves to do it. If we are going to create a clear and safe environment for students, teachers have to actually put thought into it. I'm also realizing that it is habitual thought rather than one-time. 

There are so many things we ask kids to do, expect of them, and keep them from that we don't really have a good reason for. Our actions instead come from what feels, in that moment, to be the right thing.  Why can't they go to bathroom without asking? Why do they need to walk in a straight line? Why do I assign homework? Why do my student's need to practice handwriting? It's not they they are necessarily wrong, but have we even asked those questions?

Asking questions like those can be fighting words in the right teachers lounge. 

There have been a good amount of times where I stop and notice that I don't actually know why I am asking a student to do something. It's humbling to admit that, to back-peddle and confess that you don't know. But it builds trust. It grants you the freedom that comes with being honest. It forces you to think.

And it helps you speak softly. 


I'm sitting in a coffee shop on a Saturday looking over the fourth grade standards. I start thinking about capitalization. So many of my students don't capitalize words that need to be capitalized. This makes me anxious and a little frustrated.

Why don't they capitalize? I have told them many times to capitalize. We have talked about capitalization so much. 

But then it hits me--I have never actually taught them capitalization. We have never had a lesson in capitalization. I just assumed they knew, that being in fourth grade they would know how to capitalize. I had given them plenty of opportunities through writing and those stupid Daily Language Review worksheets to practice capitalization. I had given them tons of feedback on their capitalization skills or lack thereof. But I had never actually taught them. I had assumed.

This seems to be a frequent problem that plagues this education thing--assumption of a student's abilities instead of actually looking and seeing what their abilities are. Often I will teach based on what I think they should know, or what I have been told they need, instead of actually looking to see what they need.  I don't know what to call this--responsive teaching? Assessment driven instruction? 

In this case, I wasn't seeing the reality of the situation, instead acting in accordance with the ideal rather than the actual.

Again though, it's a balance. Teachers need to hold a perspective that honors both where their children could be and where they actually are.


Today I received a call from an after-school program director regarding one of my students. The retired teacher that volunteers there was getting frustrated with my student because he told her he finished his homework and turned it in, which he did. This was an issue because they have a forty minute homework time. So you can see the wrench this throws in the machine. If there is a forty minute homework time and a kid has finished their homework and there is an retired teacher there that expects the kids to have homework, there is going to be a problem. The system doesn't work without homework. People get frustrated, kids get in trouble, things crumble. 

This conversation made me realize how much the whole educational apparatus expects and in some way relies on homework. Administrators expect it as proof that you have high expectations for your students and are pushing them to achieve. For the after school programs I know of, homework is a major part. Parents expect it as something for their kids to do at home, something they can make them do while they're making dinner or taking a well-deserved rest after working all day. 

I started the year with no homework and then acquiesced after too many people couldn't conceptualize the absence of homework. They had had homework growing up, so their children should too. School=homework.

But it seems that in some areas, it's become merely a tool to keep kids occupied, to keep them busy. There is a lot of research out right now that actually shows homework isn't that valuable, especially in the primary years. There is something to be said for the work-ethic and habit it develops, but at what cost?

Time with family. Interactions with peers. Interactions with the world. Enjoyment of life. The cost of homework. Which may be okay, just as long as we understand that exchange and are sure the benefit outweighs the cost.

There are so many pieces of this educational world that we have come to just accept. We don't question a lot of it. James Herndon, long time California educator in inner-city schools, wrote a book called The Way It Spozed to Be. In it, he hammers the point that this system we are perpetuating was created for a different time by people that are long dead. We do things in the classroom because that is the way things are "spozed" to be done, not because we believe those things to be good for student learning and development. And I agree to a certain extent--we reproduce what we experienced and what everyone around us is doing, largely without a challenge.

Yet here I am, giving out homework.

Police State

Children in a waldenkingergarten in germany

Children in a waldenkingergarten in germany

Today at staff meeting, our principal notified us that a parent had written a very eloquent note requesting that we cease the use of recess tickets because it resembled a police state. She asked us what we thought and no one spoke up. Everyone seemed to be liking them. We were all getting two or more a day, but there were less incidents, we had a clear escalation strategy for rogue behavior, and we had a way to document repeat offenders. One teacher stated that it was good to have "a little of the police state" to keep kids in line.

Now these tickets are pieces of paper carried around by staff that has a list of things the student could have done wrong out at recess or walking through the halls. You get three of them, you go to detention. After two detentions, you are suspended. Clear expectations, clear escalation, clear consequences. Good, on the spot feedback. Just like tickets for adults when they break a law. 

I spent a few weeks in Denmark observing the teachers and students of a small rural school. There were surprisingly few rules. Or the students just weren't breaking them--I couldn't tell. But no one spoke of rules. One morning, the second grade teacher told the class, "Were going to go stack firewood by the forest village to help our community. If you don't want to, you can stay in the class and write a nice card to someone." About half the students geared up for the cold and ran into the forest behind the school. The rest stayed in their seats and started writing cards. And I sat there, with the second grade teacher as she put on her coat.

"They're okay, just running out like that?" I asked dumbfounded.

"Yes, they're okay. I trust them." she replied. 

We left half the class working in the room to go see what the forest children were doing. We walked a bit into the forest and found a few tenements with a fire-pit in the middle. The students were, believe it or not, stacking wood. They seemed to be experienced with this independence.

Recess was equally foreign. The students ran out into a fresh layer of snow that had fallen that morning. There was one teacher I saw outside for maybe, 200 students. I saw kids throwing snowballs, tackling each other to the ground, and sliding down a fairly steep hill like penguins. I kept waiting for the teacher to step in and stop something. Surely sliding down the hill, I thought. But he didn't step in at all. This seemed to be normal. I watched a fifth grade boy aggressively pelt a group of girls with snowballs. The teacher's response--he pelted the boy with snowballs. 

The bell rang and everyone walked in side out of breath and smiling. No tears, hurt feelings, or broken bones. Just tired, happy, faces.

It reminded me of what Richard Louv gets at in his book Last Child in the Woods. Its a study of how kids are missing out on development because they aren't getting as much free play in nature as they used to. One of his big points is that nature affords freedom that allows children to learn what they are capable of. It also facilitates the development of their creativity and problem solving. This freedom, he argues, is essential if they are to become capable, responsible, and innovative members of society.

One of the biggest differences between the two educational systems (Danish and American), is the difference in how much freedom we give students, how much we trust them. I can't help but wonder if there is a correlation between how much independence a system gives to it's students and how much responsibility and self-governance they develop. It seemed that in Denmark, they trusted their students a lot. And in return, it seemed like they got students that knew how to handle freedom. The fifth grade girl using a drill press to bore a hole through a piece of wood didn't need a teacher breathing down her neck reminding her to be careful. She had room, space, trust, to develop competency and responsibility.

So I'm sitting in the staff meeting listening to the tacit teacher approval of our elementary police state and cant help but wonder if the kids run up against our rules so much because the box we have placed them in is too small. What if we didn't try to govern their behavior as closely as we have been? It kind of feels like we are afraid of what would happen if we let out the leash a bit. Environment and rules communicate what is expected. They send a subconscious message of what we think students are capable of. If a student is given one of these tickets for running to the lunch line, the ticket becomes the controlling power responsible for managing behavior instead of the student controlling themselves.

I've noticed the same thing when walking through the halls. Straight, sharp, quiet lines are prized here. When I am giving constant feedback to the students as they are walking, reminding them to walk quiet, stay behind the person in front of them, get back into line, the thing is a mess. They are all waiting for me to control them. If on the other hand, I tell them, "I'm going to trust you guys to walk in a straight line quietly out to recess by yourselves." and walk with some distance between myself and them, they walk in a perfect line.

A colleague told me these tickets were a female over-reaction to kids acting like kids--rough housing, jumping off things, kicking balls too high. I agree that it is an over-reaction, but rather than a uniquely female one, it seems like it's a societal problem derived from our beliefs about justice and order.


The Vague and the Specific

I walked into my classroom minimally prepared this morning. I pulled out an informational text activity I had prepped two weeks ago and made a summative assessment this morning for the math unit we just finished up. The one that comes with the curriculum was beyond their ability. In the few moments I had before I had to go grab them, I realized I didn't have a good explanation for why I had to remake the test.

I mean, it needed to be remade because they would have all been miserably frustrated, but why would they have been miserably frustrated? I had followed the curriculum, modified it when it needed to be, decided the pacing, and even supplemented it. They should be prepared for the culminating activity that is meant to assess what they have been taught. Maybe my failings as a teacher? I, for one, am always hesitant to exclude that, but I looked at this test and saw some issues. Half of the test involved a problem that required them to implement two concepts that they had only seen and practiced separately. It was more words, more numbers in the same problem. They would have gotten confused, so I modified it.

But what is the virtue in ramping up the difficulty on the text compared to the practice problems they have been given? My English language learners already struggle enough with word problems. Why add another layer of complexity/difficulty? I hope and work towards my students being able to apply what they learn to any context, to be able to wade through the distracting information and different formats. I would love for them to be able to sit there and systematically deconstruct the problem, to isolate the question and understand what information they had been given. But actually achieving that feels like trying to invade Russia in winter. 

So many of them consistently see two numbers in a word problem, look up at me with confusion and ask, "So do I add or take away?"

These kids I've gotten have already had four years of formal schooling. From what I can gather, by working with them and hearing the philosophies of their teachers before me, they have been taught to perform very specific tasks well. Like, "copy what I have up on the screen" specific. Our school's writing program is a good example--it is largely fill in the blank (First sentence: "Oh my! My elephant has ______ today"). Its almost as if we have collectively decided that we cant give them a ton of freedom in an activity and that they will not learn something unless they are given narrow direct instruction in a specific skill. 

Now I get this--they can have all their notes on the paper and the story complete as evidence that they learned. But could that inadvertently be the cause of why these kids don't readily transfer knowledge to other contexts like we hope? Is that why they can't recognize the problem they have been practicing concerning U.S. town populations in a word problem that deals with Disneyland tickets?

There is another side. Another option. 

I'm trying a different writing curriculum than the rest of the school. It's one that I feel encourages them to develop their own voice as writers by not offering a formula. They are asked to make a lot of their own choices as writers. They determine the course with some scaffolding such as a story arc, problems/solutions, ending strategy, but I never tell them where to put what. It feels free. And fun. It has life. But its scary, and there is failure. 

And maybe thats something that is figured out with time and experience--how to balance those two sides. It feels like they needed that direct and very specific lesson on quotation marks, but could lesson have been taught through reading, writing, or encountering the problem thats created when their aren't quotation marks in a piece of writing? 

We want children to think independently, to not stop in their tracks when they encounter a problem or question that is unfamiliar. We want them to develop perseverance, flexibility, and critical thinking. It seems like that happens by balancing the vague and specific. I think my class needs more of both.  

Public Shaming, the Classroom, and Locke

This past week I’ve been working off of this idea that Locke suggested in one of his essays. He thinks that the best way to motivate a child, the thing that will build intrinsic motivation, is reputation. This is tempered by his insistence that a child never is shamed or put down in front of others. The only way you talk about a child in public is with praise. This way, he says, you build up their love for having a good reputation and their investment in preserving it. 

The idea of a child being motivated either by achieving recognition or avoiding shame doesn't sit well with me. But neither do stickers. Or color charts. Or anything else that shames kids in front of their peers or rewards them extrinsically. So I’m experimenting with what feels like the lesser of those two evils.

This week, its been my main focus. Not bringing any negative attention to kids in front of the class, only praising them. I save correction or reflection for a private time either after class, on the way to recess, or during some class activity when I can quietly talk to them alone. 

I mean, a few times I caught myself calling out individual’s names. Like when one kid was rolling around on the floor. Or another trying to turn off his friend’s computer. Or another poking a hole in her water bottle cap with a pencil so she could squirt the water into her mouth instead of having to perform the trite task of unscrewing the cap and drinking it normally.

But by and large, its been good, if I can be permitted to use such an absolute. The results have been good. The class feels more peaceful. There are less conflicts, quieter voices, and better ideas coming out of them. Today, the whole class worked hard during centers for an entire hour and a half. Unprecedented. 

I really cant draw a definite correlation. I can say though, that it’s an improvement for my own heart and know it has to be one for theirs. I knew from day one that publicly shaming kids or using the peer group to conform behavior wasn't conducive to emotional safety and therefore wasn't good for learning. But I did anyway. It would just happen. You find yourself negatively interacting with a student in front of the class because it’s expedient and easy. But somewhere, deep down, you feel there has to be a better way. I think there is—not doing it. It's hard, especially if thats what we were given during our time as students.

Public shaming also risks forcing kids to cope. They decide to receive the negative attention and actually start to seek after it. It becomes “their thing.”

Children need to feel emotionally safe if they are going to learn. They can’t feel safe if they are worried about being shamed in front of their friends.