Can I Grade Students on What They Believe?

We educators often hope our work is a tool for fighting economic inequality, hunger, climate change, and other global problems our students’ generation is inheriting. Yet we will inevitably encounter students who see inequality as the necessary movements of markets, hunger as a natural and even potentially positive by-product of overpopulation, and fighting climate change as a religious movement or other mumbo-jumbo.

What then? Work to change our students’ minds? To change who they are?

Part of the problem seems to lie in distinguishing between what we want our students to learn and what we want them to believe.

Dan Kahan at Yale’s Cultural Cognition Project, has shown that people with more knowledge or curiosity about basic science are not more likely to believe in human-caused climate change. A 2013 Pew Poll demonstrated that a slightly higher percentage of Republicans than Democrats correctly answered the question, “What gas do most scientists believe causes temperatures in the atmosphere to rise? Is it carbon dioxide, hydrogen, helium, radon?” The differentiator was not their education, but their cultural identity.

At the same time, Kahan writes persuasively that we certainly can teach any student the basic facts of climate change–or evolution for that matter. They can learn the science: this just doesn’t mean their beliefs will change. So simply giving someone “the facts” on climate change or white privilege or campus rape culture is not necessarily going to lead the students to believe what we do.

What the graphs below show is the fact that the disagreement about the existence and causes of climate change, and recognition of the scientific consensus about it actually becomes MORE pronounced as basic science intelligence grows. Wow!


We all belong to many social groups with various levels of affinity. Sometimes these memberships determine what information we take in, sometimes they pose identity-based reasons for feeling a particular way about an issue. And so, Kahan argues, for some, seeing little risk in the consequences of climate change is perfectly rational.

“[Denying the risk of climate change is not] going to affect the risk posed by global warming for him or her or for anyone else that person cares about.

“But if he or she takes the ‘wrong’ position in relation to his or her cultural group, the result could be devastating for her, given what climate change now signifies about one’s membership in and loyalty to opposing cultural groups.”

This problem is not limited to teachers and students. For more than 15 years, I have watched fellow teachers angrily confront the notion of white privilege in professional development workshops. These good professionals, often quiet open-minded in their outlooks, certainly didn’t feel it worth their while to be told they were part of the problem. Being told one’s worldview precludes them from seeing “reality” is not a winning method of teaching or coalition-building. Depending on the people taking part, it’s likely a strategic mistake.

“If we want to overcome [identity-based confusion, defensiveness, or denial] Kahan writes, then we must disentangle competing positions on climate change from opposing cultural identities, so that culturally pluralistic citizens aren’t put in the position of having to choose between knowing what’s known to science and being who they are.”

With this in mind, we might see our efforts to make our students engaged citizens tackling intractable and often invisible problems as wars on two fronts: the factual and the social. Kahan argues, persuasively I think, that these two must be kept as far apart as possible–at least until there is sufficient culture/identity-based “reality” to remove the barrier. Kahan’s case in point is South Florida, where Republicans and business leaders often join together with their liberal neighbors to address increasingly frequent incursions of sea water–and not endlessly debate the reality of climate change.

Okay, back to our classrooms. Where does this leave us as we try to nurture engaged citizens? Is the relationship between teachers and students analogous to that between “climate scientists” and the general public? Not quite, I think, yet despite our personal relationships, teachers are definitely outside students’ “reputational community.”

I am not sure quite where I land on all these questions but I am taken with Kahan’s argument that “focusing citizens’ [or students’] attention on the unifying question of ‘what do we know’ & avoiding the divisive question ‘who are you, whose side are you on?'” is going to be far a more successful communication strategy. This means, I think, introducing our students to the best facts, research, and analysis we can find and then trusting them to develop their own responses.

This suggests to me that if we want the students to take action in public, they should have as much say as possible about what that action looks like. This way, I hope, we are teaching them to collect evidence, think critically, and then act responsibly–and not just telling them what they need to believe.

The BBC Tracks Trends Global Identity

Here is a question for you.

Different people identify themselves in different ways. In your own case, would you say your most important identity is as …

01 – A member of a religious tradition
02 – A citizen of [Country]
03 – A member of your race or culture
04 – A resident of a community or area (smaller than country)
05 – A citizen of the world
06 – None of the above, other
99 – Don’t know / no answer”

This question is from a new poll of some 20,000 people in 19 countries, commissioned by the BBC World Service, asking this and a series of related questions. The answers suggest how recent events and trends are shaping identity around the world.

Here is a chart tabulating answers to the question above:

BBC Self-Identity

From GlobScan (for the BBC), Global Citizenship A Growing Sentiment Among Citizens Of Emerging Economies: Global Poll, 2016,

I think the striking numbers here are from Spain where over half identified being a global citizen over all other categories (it’s also one of the most welcoming nations in the survey to migrants), and Pakistan, which is an outlier in terms of the importance of “religious tradition.” Also curious is Indonesia, where merely 4% identified national identity as the most significant while 56% chose local community. This chart suggests identity remains diverse, despite a generation of globalization.

That said, the headline on the news piece at the BBC’s website trumpets the fact that, for the the first time, a majority (52%) of those asked identified global citizenship as more important on the individual level than national citizenship. Here is the chart for the answers to this question:


According to the BBC, “This is the first time since tracking began in 2001 that there is a global majority who leans this way, and the results in 2016 are driven by strong increases since 2015 in non-OECD countries” (the OECD includes the US and Canada, Japan, Korea, Chile, Australia, New Zealand, and many European nations). Growth in the importance of global citizenship came in “Nigeria (73%, up 13 points), China (71%, up 14 points), Peru (70%, up 27 points), and India (67%, up 13 points).” Even Pakistan, which I just identified as an outlier in the previous chart, slightly exceeds the global average at 56%.

globalcitizengraph.bbcIn the wealthier nations, however, the prominence of global citizenship is actually down since the global financial crisis at the end of the last decade.  In the seven OECD nations most often tracked, a global identity fell to 39% in 2011 and now remains far below non-OECD countries.

Surprisingly, at least to me, the drop in the OECD line coincides with the financial crisis not the migration crisis. It does not bode well for efforts toward global economic justice and brings to mind the news from UNESCO that global aid to education continues to fall.


The migration crisis does not seem to have move the line on the graph much. Still, in Germany, the nation taking in the most migrants, has seen a substantial drop: “13 points since 2009 to only 30 per cent today (the lowest since 2001).” Are these facts directly related? It’s hard to tell. The image below suggests answers to the question, “Are you a global citizen?” are complicated by factors of wealth, religion, geography, national government, to name a few. Why are Chile and Peru so far apart?

But the trend is up and, for the first time, most people polled ranked global citizenship above national citizenship. It suggests improved international cooperation–especially if citizens of wealthier nations begin to change as well.


Finnish Teens Talk About the Migration Crisis

Finland is changing. Everyone I speak with here acknowledges this. It is diversifying.

The students pointed out that images of anti-immigrant demonstrations did not at all portray the Finnish attitudes they found when they interviewed their peers.

It is worth noting that the country is not as homogenous as it appears from afar: there are, among others, Swedish-speaking Finns, Sami, Roma, Karelians, Estonians as well as Somalis and their Finnish-born children, all in addition to the so-called “ethnic Finns.” Multiculturalism is not a foreign word here. Most Finns assume that the thousands of migrants applying for asylum here are the beginning of something long-lasting. The most widely publicized response is the vigilante group the Soldiers of Odin, but what do most Finns think?

This week I have spent a few hours with five students at a local upper-secondary school here in Jyväskylä, a college town of about 100,000, talking about migration, migrants, and the “crisis.” We made a document for that other teachers can use to open up conversation about migration with their students.

We began by coming up with some questions to ask other students. Then I asked my little group to fan out into the school and talk to their colleagues, to hear what they were thinking. Here are the questions they asked:

  • How do you think accepting lots of immigrants will affect your daily life? 
  • What do think about how migrants will affect employment?
  • Some worry that migrants will increase the crime rate. What do you think?
  • Finnish culture has been Christian for a long time. How will migrants or refugees change this?
  • Do you worry about terrorism when you think about 1,000,000 refugees?

What did the students discover?

Most striking was the unanimity and generosity of the opinions they gathered. Asked about the risk of extremist violence, one student answered, “I’m aware that there is probably an increasing risk but I don’t worry too much. I don’t think that fear of terrorism should stop people from helping refugees.” Others worried about the mental health of the people in refugee camps and thought that increased crime could be addressed immediately by offering mental health services to people traumatized by war and the agonies of the trip here.

We met at the IB World School at the Jyväskylän Lyseon lukio

The most concern seemed to be about employment, rather than culture, religious difference or violence. Some students expressed the desire that jobs should go to Finns first (unemployment is high here at the moment and the economy isn’t adding many jobs); still, others felt that immigrants would likely start businesses and might actually add jobs to the economy in the next few years.

Most of the students seemed either unconcerned about asylum seekers, others looked forward to a more diverse society. Many agreed with the student who said, “I don’t fear terrorism, the immigrants are people just like us and the threat comes from treating the immigrants like garbage making them feel angry and wanting to do something about it.”

I found some of the comments the students brought back from their interviews plainly moving: “Migrants are just like all of us and therefore there will just be more of us in Finland.” It impresses me that these 17- and 18-year olds look at images of Iraqi men living in “reception centers,” the camps outside of the cities, and see people “just like us.” This phrase kept coming up in their interviews. How, I wonder, is such empathy and generosity taught and learned.

Other sites on this topic:

Finnish Immigration Service, “Statistics on Asylum and Refugees”

BBC, Migrant crisis: Migration to Europe explained in seven charts, “The Flow Towards Europe”

How many people are we talking about? Looking at the statistics kept by the Finnish Immigration Service, there were 1879 successful applications for asylum last year and about 1350 so far this year. So while the number of people entering Finland is smaller than this time last year, more are being granted asylum and, I assume, leaving the “reception centers” for life in the general population. (In a population of 5,000,000 this represents about 0.007%. But this number will rise, of course.)

A former Fulbrighter laments: “I can’t find the ‘Less’ in the Middle of so much ‘More’.”

Kelly Day’s essay on how “Less is More,” is one of the best things I’ve read about Finland’s education system. Many teachers I know have read it with pleasure. Somehow I missed her blog entry below, in which she reflects on what happened when she returned to her school in Indiana.

“I’ve not written much since I have been home from my Fulbright experience in Finland where I became the champion for the Finnish concept of “Less is More”.  The truth is I quickly…”

Source: I can’t find the “Less” in the Middle of so much “More”.

No “Global Citizenship” Without “Multiculturalism,” Please

In the late 90s, I toiled away as a graduate student at Texas. I made some great friends but never achieved my dreamed-for intellectual collegiality with professors. It was a rare day then when a group of students and professors fell into conversation in the cramped, woody entrance to the History Department office, then in garrison_hall_2014Garrison Hall . Actually, I don’t remember all who were there, but I remember what one of them said:

“Environmental history is the final refuge of the white male historian.” (Since all of us were white men, at least as I remember, I found this a provocative statement.) “Look, over there,” the speaker pointed across the quad below the famous clock tower,”there is Chicano Studies. Hispanics who would otherwise study history are over there. And women are in Women’s Studies and African Americans study African American Studies. That leaves white men alone in history departments.”

Where I learned to eat beans and rice and read the Dallas Morning News; now a Starbucks

“But what do you mean about Environmental History?” asked another grad student.

“Environmentalism is PC and the environment doesn’t call you racist or sexist. It’s a safe place, where middle-class whites can be liberals without having to be challenged.”

Wow, I thought. I never imagined something as cutting edge as Environmental Studies could actually be conservative in some way. But it also made sense. I’d grown up in Oakland and heard about Blacks who didn’t want to work with white liberals as well as lesbian feminists who had had it with male allies. Wanting to be on the right side wasn’t always good enough.

Of course, environmentalism needn’t be de-coupled from social justice. We have terms now, like environmental racism, that make plain the fact that environmental damage happens in a social context and is linked to, and reflective of, other forms of social power.

Twenty years on, I wonder: is there a danger that global education initiatives, especially at privileged schools, could become a similar stage on which to exhibit concern while retaining privilege? Could a focus on faraway issues (think clean drinking water in “Africa”) become a substitute for more robust and difficult efforts towards social justice on the local and even campus level? Teaching students about leadership and global affairs, sending them to Model United Nations conferences and on cushy study abroad trips allows a school to claim it prepares young people for life in the 21st century. (I think Model UN is great. I just don’t think it is a substitute for real-world action.)

It is easy to see how students can be encouraged to use a lens of charity and philanthropy to see global problems. Raise some money and send it to “Africa.” Travel with friends to somewhere poor and build something. Check the box and add it to your college entrance essay. None of this changes the status quo or teaches the students about responsibilities as wealthy global citizens that surpass writing a check.

The Onion: 6-Day Visit to Rural African Village Completely Changes Woman’s Facebook Profile Picture

In short, such an emphasis on global education is a dodge and arguably an elaborate psychological refuge from the challenges of the current era. Couple it with a vague institutional nod to “diversity” and you’re done. Of course, this does not prepare our students for the world they will actually inherit.

It goes without saying that the issues faced by our students’ generation are global. Energy, water, poverty, health, climate: none can be tackled without international cooperation. Our students must learn to work and find solutions to complex issues with people who might not look, think, or agree with them.

And they need particular skills and outlooks: inclusivity, openness, empathy, valuing each person as a part of the whole. Creativity and problem solving as well.

But these talents are just as necessary in the classroom, in the workplace, at city hall, or on a cross-town bus as they are at the General Assembly of the UN. We are interconnected with and reliant upon our neighbors and we are interconnected with and reliant upon the people who made our shoes on the other side of the earth.

So there is some sort of parallel structure between multicultural education and global education–or internationalization, depending on the nomenclature. Institutions need to be very clear what each is, what its goals are, and how it fits in the curriculum.

The two are certainly related: students can combat climate change in their home cities with new housing and transportation schemes; they need to learn why life-saving drugs are not affordable for the poor in their own cities as well as in developing nations; their teachers must carefully help them confront legacies of imperialism and racism so they can set about the work of improve relations at their schools and in their neighborhoods, and so on.

Yet issues of equity and inclusivity, the challenges of multiculturalism, these are local or national in scope. They are hard because they are right here, in the room with us. Sometimes they feel like open wounds.

Tellingly, I don’t see schools hyping the career benefits of “multicultural skills” or “multicultural leadership.” Even schools (silently) dedicated to preserving inequality would blanch at directly promising parents their children would be equipped with all the skills needed to assume leadership in a multicultural setting.

And we cannot teach our students to earnestly care about only global issues. This seems impossible. Our choice is really both or neither. Of course, many schools will teach students to perform concern and care. This might be the most common outcome.

sig-learningWhen it comes to educating our students about challenges both local and global, our ultimate goal as teachers is, in may ways, the same. In Finland, I have seen this flower of significant learning, Fink’s taxonomy, several times, a nice extension of Bloom’s taxonomy into non-cognitive skills and engaged learning. It applies here. Learning becomes significant, Fink argues, when students are changed by it. They develop new level of care, they see the human dimension in something previously abstract or far away. There cannot be meaningful global education without application–otherwise it is only data and facts; multicultural education requires caring (and not mere “tolerance”) as well as knowledge.

The good news is, young people will care about the global challenges ahead. As far as I can tell, many young people already identify problems such as climate change, peak water, and pollution as “theirs.” What else do they have that is theirs alone? An Instagram account, a phone, and, oh yeah, climate change.

So as global education and its more adventurous cousin, global citizenship, become increasingly trendy and later established in the world of primary and secondary education, they will cost money to have around. Then we must be vigilant that our concern for an active inclusivity, multiculturalism, pluralism, or whatever we call it is not pushed aside. In order to be successful with global initiatives we must also do the needed work on the local level as well.



Personally Meaningful Learning Through Phenomenon-Based Classes

Finland’s ranking on international tests has slipped in recent years. What should it do in response? Increase homework? Lengthen the school day and the school year?

These approaches might seem logical to an American, but this is not the direction the new curriculum is taking. As education theorist Pasi Sahlberg has noted:

“You may wonder why Finland’s education authorities now insist that all schools must spend time on integration and phenomenon-based teaching when Finnish students’ test scores have been declining in the most recent international tests. The answer is that educators in Finland think, quite correctly, that schools should teach what young people need in their lives rather than try to bring national test scores back to where they were.”

I love this final sentence: instead of punishing students for “falling” in international competition, educators are instead trying to figure out how to better prepare them for life. “[I]ntegration and phenomenon-based teaching” are not the only changes the new core curriculum is bringing, but I want to pause and think about phenomenon-based learning for a moment.

What is phenomenon-based learning? Here is a two-paragraph explanation by Pasi Silnder, who leads a project to digitalize education in Helsinki:

“In Phenomenon Based Learning (PhenoBL) and teaching, holistic real-world phenomena provide the starting point for learning. The phenomena are studied as complete entities, in their real context, and the information and skills related to them are studied by crossing the boundaries between subjects. Phenomena are holistic topics like human [rights], European Union, media and technology, water or energy. The starting point differs from the traditional school culture divided into subjects, where the things studied are often split into relatively small, separate parts (decontextualisation).

“Phenomenon-based structure in a curriculum also actively creates better  opportunities for integrating different subjects and themes as well as the systematic use of pedagogically meaningful methods, such as inquiry learning, problem-based  learning, project learning and portfolios. The phenomenon-based approach is also key in the versatile utilisation of different learning environments (e.g. in diversifying and enriching learning while using eLearning environments).”

Here is a brief video that offers an example of phenomenon-based learning at the elementary level.

The goal is to engage students directly in creating their own learning environments and to invest them in that learning by allowing them to consider topics that are important to them. This doesn’t mean “traditional” classrooms disappear: phenomenon-based learning is one of many strategies Finnish teachers, respected as professionals and trusted to pursue successful methods, are encouraged to use by the National Board of Education.

This is appealing to me because it shows real potential for learning. Not learning for a test, but learning which means taking personal hold over meaning. When we care about something, we learn it. When asked to remember “a bunch of facts,” students load them in their short-term memory before an exam and let them go immediately after as the next truckload of data comes in. Can you imagine HOW COOL it would be  to take (or teach) a class that looked at the history of energy and energy production before shifting to a focus on the science and policy of the transition to low-carbon alternatives?

So how could this work in an American History classroom in the US? Here is a thumbnail, back-of-the-matchbook sketch:

  1. On the first day of the course, break the class into groups and then ask each group to come up with a topic for investigation. This process would take a (structured) week, each unit would be given roughly a month. The idea being each group could find something they were all interested in knowing more about and they would have to do a little preliminary research to make sure it is a broad enough topic. “Sexism” would be too broad and some thought might lead students to “why aren’t women paid equally?” The teacher might suggest aspects of history to consider, but care must be taken not to press the students into a topic already favored by the teacher. Each group will also make a written proposal by the end of the week.
  2. The teacher then selects the order of the topics of study for the term and begins gathering useful resources. They might decide on aspects of the topic for each group to focus on as well, using the proposals as a guide.
  3. For any given unit, the members of the group who picked that topic would then disperse into the other groups as leaders for that unit. The teacher sequences the unit and work with each group to structure the project. Then each group with its leader investigates their aspect of the chosen topic. The teacher’s job is to help the students overcome difficulties in their information-gathering process, while not giving in to the temptation to “give the students the answer.” After gathering their materials, each group puts together an oral presentation and some other “product” by the end of the unit, “Videos, Animations, Wikis, Mind-maps, PPTs and Documents using online platforms like Google Classrooms, Wikispaces, Storify, Flickr etc. to develop and demonstrate their understanding of the phenomenon.”  The final week of the unit is given over to presentation and discussion.
  4. During the presentation week, students’ homework is self-assessment (this is key, but I can’t fit any more on the back of this matchbook). They explain their learning process, what they learned and what they still want to know, using a rubric provided by the teacher. They also evaluate their own pattern of work (what worked for them and what didn’t) and their contribution to their team. They consider what the project left them wondering about and what they would like to study next. This way, students get into the (natural) habit of investigating something interesting to themselves.

This (simplified) concept could be carried out on an individual basis as well–or in pairs. It depends on the size of the class and how many moving parts the teacher wants to manage. What is key is student agency in determining the topic and self-assessment.

It is likely that such an approach would tug the study of the past into the present because teenagers are likely to begin with questions relevant to their own experience. Before using this as a reason to dismiss such an approach, we might ask ourselves how much colonial history we really remember from 11th-grade and why-oh-why we wouldn’t want history to be “relevant.”


Are “21st-Century Skills” Non-Cognitive?

toughCan non-cognitive skills like empathy and “grit” be measured by educators? Can they be taught?

Should such skills be measured? Should they be taught?

Whatever we may think, questions intended to assess social and emotional skills are apparently commonplace enough to appear on standardized tests, including the PISA exams. A 2015 article in Scientific American called for their inclusion in the college admissions process.

Yet a recent article at KQED’s “Mindshift” page echoes concerns in a New York Times piece about the move underway to formulate methods of measuring such attributes. Some of the examples of non-cognitive skills in the Times piece are dubious: “keeping bodies still,” and “focusing on the task.” Classroom management is undeniably important, but right away there seems to be slippage from “grit” and “joy” to sitting still and being quiet. And linking good behavior to more recess as one teacher does sounds like giving more medicine to those who show fewer symptoms.

So exactly what we are quantifying and privileging seems important to distinguish.

This distinction between “character” and “obedience” may be why, according to the Times article, MacArthur Fellow Angela Duckworth resigned from the board of a project for eight California school districts to test kids on their non-cognitive skills. She apparently had concerns about the the methods and goals of the study. “I do not think we should be doing this; it is a bad idea,” said Duckworth, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

At the same 23193622012_d0384d733f_btime, Duckworth is publishing a book on grit (entitled “Grit”) which she sees as distinct from self-control: eating your vegetables first shows self-control but not grit. Grit is about persistence, about setting and pursuing goals, even in the face of obstacles. (In Finland, the notion of “sisu,” which seems very close to grit, is central to national identity. But is it in the national curriculum? More on that in an upcoming post.)

Should we evaluate the skills we hope to impart as teachers? Yes, it makes sense. But there are so many: grit, growth mindsets, empathy, self-control, obedience, self-efficacy, social awareness, self-management, and so on.

Most teachers already measure some non-cognitive skills. If you are American, you may remember you elementary school report cards. Remember your marks for “safety” and “citizenship”? I always got low marks for these: was it because I was clumsy? Didn’t I sing “My Country, Tis of Thee” loud enough? I never knew because, as I remember, I never received any other feedback about these skills that my district (shout-out to Oakland!) found important enough to list on report cards.

Today we grade for “participation,” despite its slipperiness. How do we quantify it? Does an email about course content from a student count as participation? What about a chat in the hall? What about focused, active listening from an introverted student? I think participation should be broadly defined and differences between students should be taken into account, but do most teachers or schools (or colleges for that matter) have clearly articulated rubrics?

Duckworth offers a “grit scale” at her website which promises that you can “find out how gritty you are.” One look at it and we can see why many are concerned about the accuracy of such self-reporting. What would your reaction have been if you had been asked to take this quiz at 13 or 14?

Perhaps we could say that some educators measure what they value while others or value what they measure.

Mindshift puts it another way: “One argument in favor of measuring non-cognitive skills is tied to the funding that would support teaching those skills. The system tends to provide instructional dollars for things that get measured. But can this be done effectively?”

Maybe we cannot accurately and numerically measure the character of our students. Duckworth argues that “you cannot study what you cannot measure.” This is a compelling slogan but is it true? (And where does it leave theology?) Even if it isn’t true, does that necessarily mean we should abandon the pursuit of student grittiness and resilience?

Another thought: if our teaching practices are not aligned with the needs of our students, is it even fair to expect them to show elements of good character? I once waited in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles in Berkeley for four hours to pick up a “disabled person parking permit” for my mother. In retrospect, the emotions I felt that day were a lot like those I experienced on a daily basis in high school: boredom, fury, isolation. If you had tested me for a growth mindset that day, what would my score have told you?

Image credit:



Lovely images: “The Frontiers of Peace”

Check out some of the images from Valerio Vincenzo’s work, “Borderline, the Frontiers of Peace.” Their politics are transparent, I suppose, and that’s fine. They celebrate the transformation of international boundaries in the 30 years since the Schengen Agreement. There is so much fretting about “Europe” and migration and the Brexit. For the moment, here are representations of a lasting peace.





To see more of these images, go here.  

Alas. As someone who grew up in California and lived in Texas, I tend to imagine pictures like the one below when someone says “border.” And when I think about the borders between Germany and Poland or Germany and Czechoslovakia that I once knew, this suddenly looks like an “iron curtain.”borderbeachtj