Be Nice. Work Hard.

I did my classroom observation last week in the room of a legendary teacher. The mature behavior of his 5th grade students is famous. Classroom management is an area of particular interest for me so I was excited to see what his class looked like for an entire day. It was extraordinary. At 7:10 am, during pre-school music practice, I was immediately offered a bottle of water by one student, then a minute later, by another. The students were quiet and respectful throughout the day – without exception. To be sure, when they played baseball first period, they were normal kids – except that they were uniformly supportive of their teammates and their opponents. It was extraordinary how much time was saved and how much less tiring the day was (especially because the day was 7 am to 4 pm…).

The reason I bring this up here is that taking risks and making mistakes is such a critical part of learning. Creating an atmosphere where that can safely take place is perhaps the hardest thing for a teacher to do. Even extraordinary teachers often don’t intrude on (or know about) the subtle interactions between students. I am coming to believe that the classroom atmosphere has to be something that follows my students 24 hours a day. While this sounds over the top, a classroom can’t be safe if the students are mocked for their in class mistakes away from my sight. Of course, such an intention can’t be fulfilled through coercion. I have no reach beyond the classroom. However, it can be achieved (as demonstrated above) with the proper teaching as the school year begins and reinforcement as it proceeds.

The classroom I observed has a motto, “Work hard, be nice.” Nice is a core value reinforced everyday. Students who misbehave while other students are talking are asked, “You’re acting as if Jorge doesn’t matter. Does Jorge matter?” Harsh, but very true and very effective. As for discipline, the teacher has a simple rule: the class activities have to be interesting enough such that not being allowed to participate is punishment enough. The teacher holds himself and all his students to an extremely high behavioral (and academic) expectation. It works beautifully.

In his class, there is no issue pursuing questioning with struggling students. There is no issue when students make mistakes. In fact, he said at one point, “Thank you for getting it (a math problem) wrong and allowing us to learn with you.”

I think the ultimate testament of how effective his strategy is came in reviewing the answers to the same math quiz. When the teacher asked if anybody had gotten a particular problem wrong, one of the students raised her hand and said that she’d gotten the problem right but didn’t really understand it. Now that’s something special and something to aspire to.

National Standards and Evolution

On the one hand, the Feds, with their national scope and deep pockets, are a very appealing “Superman” (a la Waiting for Superman). On the other hand, ripping control of our schools away from our communities is scary. Centralized power is great, if done right. if done wrong, ALL the country’s schools run into the ditch. Also, there is considerably less room for the experimentation that has the potential of showing ways to do education better.

Having said all this, to me, national curriculum standards make perfect sense. Having different standards in different states (with the exception of certain localized history standards) makes little sense and is even concerning. It does put a tremendous amount of responsibility far from the local voter’s hands. Yet, I am inclined to believe in national standards for exactly that reason (among others). Just like critical social issues like Roe v Wade and Brown v Board of Education (that were decided at the national level and over the strong objections of many citizens), we need a national understanding about certain things. I hope I’m not going to ruffle any feathers (apologies in advance, if I do!) but as much as I honor the desire of many citizens to keep evolution out of science education, that instinct does our country and its citizens little credit and less benefit.

Like “separate but equal,” the rejection of the scientific method inherent in many arguments against evolution is a rejection of the basic premises of reasoning upon which our country and western civilization are based. To be sure, there are some excellent conversations we can have about these issues in our schools. In particular, it is absolutely fair to discuss the scientific method that lead us to believe in evolution and the ongoing evolution of the concept of evolution as scientific inquiry moves forward. It is absolutely fair to say that science cannot tell us yet how or why the universe came to exist. Science cannot disprove the existence of God or Gods; that needs to be understood and discussed too. But avoiding the whole subject in major areas of our country is nearly as bitter to me as the idea of segregation or unequal gender rights. National standards allow us, as a country, to take the “high road” and put the discussion of these things where it belongs, into the classrooms. To tell teachers what they cannot discuss is perverse. Relevant, age-appropriate material is the grist of learning. Worse still, telling them they cannot teach the scientific method is… well, pick your own word. Mine will be too strong. ūüôā

Hands-On Learning!

How does incorporating inquiry-based strategies help with classroom management and eventual learning in the classroom?

One of my foundational quotations comes from an earlier UoPx text, “Students who are succeeding rarely misbehave.” Inquiry-based teaching strategies help with classroom management by reducing the pressures that create the need for “management.” By engaging students in novel, relevant, hands-on activities, they become fully engaged in the learning. When this happens, the need to “manage” their behavior all but evaporates. I saw this in my lesson in our last (History & Social Studies) class. With Google Maps on the Smart Board, there was ZERO misbehavior. Even with Star Wars or a similar movie showing, there is a certain amount of boredom and acting out. But movies, however riveting the first time, lose their power over time and, more importantly for this discussion, do not involve hands on activities. However engaging a movie, it is passive. Active lessons with interesting content fully engage the learner and eliminate misbehavior.

This leads to the answer to the second part of the question. Engaged learners are effective learners. How is it that a child who can’t remember how to remember the first three Presidents of the United States can remember the entire starting lineup of the Los Angeles Dodgers and their batting averages? Relevance! The students have constructed meaning for the baseball players, but apparently not for the dead Presidents. Inquiry-based education allows, encourages, and even demands that students construct their own meaning. In this way, the learning persists and provides an effective base for future equilibration. In addition, direct contact with the learning situation raises the probability of “perturbation.” The more the activity is student-constructed and open-ended, the greater the chance of creative, problem-solving experiences. Not only is this effective in sticking knowledge into context and long-term memory, it also teaches problem solving itself. This is almost certainly an even greater gift than the knowledge of a particular aspect of math or science. High school teachers may correctly assume the students remember nothing from middle school but the problem solving techniques, confidence, and mentality that the students internalize will serve them forever.



Lang, H. R., & Evans, D. N. (2006). Models, Strategies, and Methods for Effective Teaching. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.



Authentic vs. Inauthentic Education

Describe the difference between authentic integration of other subject areas into the history state and national standards. How does it differ from inauthentic integration?

The irony of this question is that it is one that doesn’t seem to be asked (or at least taken seriously)¬†too often in many classrooms – or for that matter in the chambers where curriculum, standards, and assessment policy is created.

One of my very favorite quotes on education is from William Butler Yeats,¬†“Education is not the filling of the pail, but the lighting of the fire.” I think this is as good as any way to distinguish authentic and inauthentic. If we are merely “filling the¬†pail,” we are educating inauthentically. On the other hand, with lessons which¬†“light the fire,” we are teaching authentically.

For the purposes of this discussion, let’s say there are two levels to this. First, there is the way the lessons are taught. This is the basic stuff of being a “constructivist” educator, making meaning and showing the students how to make their own meaning. Authenticity is about making the lessons “real” and personally relevant, connecting them to other things in meaningful fashion.

Second, there is the subject matter.¬†One of the struggles we have in many areas of education today is the relevance of¬†what is being taught. From the previously discussed two forms of handwriting (aka the “cursive¬†question”) to learning how to do math manually that can be done on¬†any cell phone (and many watches) to teaching¬†college prep material to non-college bound students, we have to wonder what authenticity there is for the students in these seemingly pointless (or at least wasteful) tasks? The challenge¬†for our¬†school structure here is to come to grips with¬†what¬†actually needs to be taught and why, thus re-truing to¬†relevant, authentic material. The challenge¬†for us as teachers, in the¬†mean time,¬†at the tactical end of this problem is to find authenticity in seemingly irrelevant material. This comes in two parts. First,¬†we must find the intent of the curriculum designers¬†and honor whatever¬†piece this instruction is meant to¬†be in the structure of overall knowledge. Second, we must find ways to relate this material to the students in spite of the burden¬†of initial skepticism.


How can you encourage students to actively engage in using technology as a tool rather than passively receiving information from the technology?

In a sense, this is a trick question. I would teach my students to never “passively receiv(e) information.” Whether reading a book, watching a movie, or looking things up in cyberspace, critical think in essential.The internet is a wonderful tool. It’s range, simplicity, convenience, and ease of use are magical. It is also the least credible source of information available with no checks whatsoever on what is published. The first lesson for any social scientist is to be a wise, informed, and critical consumer of any information source. To the extent that lesson is internalized, the students simply need to be reminded to apply those same skills consistently in their internet use.

In a second sense too, this is a trick question. Technology is rarely conveying information to passive users. Technology is a tool that needs to be directed and those directions need to be continually refined. In important ways, the user is far more a passive recipient of information from more traditional sources of information, be they the New York Times or Fox News. Most traditional information sources are like a hose: you stand at one end and get what comes out. You can choose which hose, but that’s it for chioice. The internet is more like a vast university. It is full of tools, fellow seekers of information, and many, many libraries full of resources and information. it’s use is rarely passive.

In a more philosophical sense, education will have to make some major decisions in the near future about how much about how things work needs to be taught. We are rapidly reaching or passing the point where we need to know many basic skills. Whether it’s math calculation, spelling, grammer, APA formatting, or many other things, technological tools exist which make low level knowledge obsolete. There’s a truly brilliant TED Talk which addresses this is a powerful way. In this sense, we may increase the amount of passive information we receive (23 * 46 = 1058, for example) while using that saved effort and efficiency to be much more productive at active higher level (critical thinking) tasks.

In short, I think it is unlikely that technology will do anything other than increase the passive processing of low level information to free energy and time for higher level, critical thinking tasks. To the extent that it truly generates passive information, it is most likely due to the automation of traditional processes.