Unknown Unknowns: Student Interest and Learning

I think a lot about how to teach most effectively. I think a lot about what needs to be in my US History survey course: what do my students need to know? But I’ll admit it, I spend very little time wondering what students want to know. I should, because research shows students are much more effective learners when they are authentically curious about the topic.

Interest drives real learning. I know my students are very good at teaching themselves how to use new apps, for example. Why are old timers like me so slow at learning how to add them to our repertoires? I think the answer is simply because we close ourselves off to them, because they don’t interest us and because, for many of us who came of age before the Internet, adopting new technologies is not necessarily in line with our self-perceived identities.

On the other hand ( as I read quoted on Will Richardson’s blog), Russell Ackoff argued:

There is no way that the vast majority of teachers, whatever their training, can ever hope to match in their classrooms what students can receive at will from sources of their own choosing.

With this in mind, I thought about when my classes seem to go the best, and made these very rough, not-to-any-scale sketches.


As a teacher in an independent school, this illustration is different for me than it is for most. I don’t have to follow state standards like other American teachers and so my “system” bubble is largely imaginary.


If only the world were this simple. In these drawings I assume interest is uniform among the students and unchanging.

This raises the question, how do students choose what they are interested in anyway?

Of course, younger students (under 100?) often don’t know what they don’t know and might really enjoy. I didn’t know what American Studies was until grad school, a pity because I would’ve loved majoring in it. I didn’t know I liked the study of folklore until someone told me, a few years after I’d graduated from a different department, about the program at Berkeley. And so on.

What, then is a teacher’s role in student interest and curiosity? The obvious answer is that we should inspire our students. But I hesitate at the brink of believing I always know what it is other people should be curious about.

Jacquelynne Eccles, an educational psychologist who teaches at UC Irvine, has culled motivators of student interest from her decades-long research:

“Eccles and [her] colleagues argue that the perceived value of school work is determined by four related constructs: (1) the enjoyment one expects to experience while engaging in the task—intrinsic interest; (2) the extent to which engaging in the task is consistent with one’s self-image or identity—attainment value; (3) the value of the task for facilitating one’s long range goals or in helping one obtain immediate or long range external rewards—utility value; and (4) the perceived cost [often in terms of time] of engaging in the activity.”

Wait, where is “entertaining and inspiring teacher”? I guess there is a little room for them in the intrinsic interest category, but overall student interest seems to come from elsewhere. I am thinking now about how more homework, which has a higher cost (#4 here) in terms of time and energy, and therefore a tougher route to capturing interest and seeming valuable. There is a direct variation at work: the more meaningful it is, the longer we can expect a student to spend completing a task outside of the classroom. But the inverse is also true.

So, even if we care about student interest more than imparting our “wisdom,” it is apparently not so simple as finding out what the students want to do and then helping them do it. Teachers, like parents, create student interest through subtly linking learning to a student’s self-image (whether explicitly or implicitly and whether that image be in the present or the future) and through a teacher’s persuasive expression of a task’s utility value.

Paula O’Keefe, writing in the New York Times, writes about one study that sought to find a method for increasing “personal relevance” in the minds of students. I will quote it at length (in part because I couldn’t get access to the original study):

“Research by the psychologists Chris S. Hulleman of the University of Virginia and Judith Harackiewicz of the University of Wisconsin suggests that for most of us, whether we find something interesting is largely a matter of whether we find it personally valuable. For many students, science is boring because they don’t think it’s relevant to their lives.

“With this in mind, the researchers asked high school science students to periodically do some writing over the course of a semester. They randomly selected half of them to summarize what they had learned in their class. The other half wrote about the usefulness of science in their own lives, thereby making it personally relevant and valuable.

“At the end of the semester, the researchers found that, compared with those who simply summarized the material, the ones who reflected on its personal relevance reported more interest in science — as well as significantly higher grades, on average by almost a full grade point. This was particularly true for those with the lowest expectations for performing well in their class.”

What I like about this method above is that it respects students ability, with some guidance, to reflect and discover the value in their study. I also like how the focus was on learning, not dispensing informationThe process of reflection helps students to discover for themselves what is important about what they are studying.

Teacher responses to such student writing, especially when students express the desire to know more about a particular topic, offers the teacher an opportunity to teach to student interest. After study and reflection, students can now have a better idea of what they know and don’t know.

Another way to inspire utility value is through models. Teachers can help students envision the kind of knowledge they will need to pursue their interests as adults. This is where, Eccles argues, young people need exposure to role models “or images of successful people from all walks of life and in a variety of careers”  because young people “internalize these models over time when they are concrete, visual, and reinforced throughout their academic careers.” Further, “When students are aware of the variety of careers that connect to their interests and skills, and the education required for participation, they are more likely to be willing to work on current academic tasks.” This seems trickier, slower, and less direct. But I think it also offers a destination, a goal, however abstract.

Here is what I am wondering as I confront my courses for Fall 2016: do the methods briefly mentioned here represent the continuation of thinking “father knows best” and the teaching of the same material–if also trying to be better at stimulating interest? Is it old wine in new bottles? At the same time, how would one teach directly toward the interests of 30–or even 15– diverse individuals?

Should we let the students drive, at least partially, the conversation about what is important to know? What if a US History course began by giving groups of students good textbooks on the American past (Brinkley, Zinn, etc.) and asking the students to come up with 50 good “how” and “why” questions, at least one-third of which must refer to the era before the American Civil War, with the understanding that they would study the answer to their own questions? The first draft would become a lesson in critical thinking and reading skills–in how to ask a good question. The teacher would then select the most promising questions, explaining why and offering a first group of resources, and off the students would go on their journey.

Such a course would score highly for intrinsic interest and attainment value—and utility value, I think. The “cost” is based on how the subsequent course is structured. But for me the question that remains regards my relative comfort meeting the students where they actually are and trying to engage them in dialogue about the past and the practice of history, rather than reverting to my carefully constructed script and to my sprawling list of “things they really need to know before they vote/leave for college.”

Would they learn more if I gave more student latitude with topic selection? Would they remember more? Would their learning be more in volume but less of significance? Would they be more likely to enjoy the study of history? Would they forever miss fundamental information about the past? These seem to me to be essential questions.


Teaching About Hippies in Helsinki!

I’ve been teaching about the history of the Hippies for about fifteen years. Hippies and Bohemians were at the heart of my dissertation and I continue to try to help my students puzzle out “the counterculture” each spring in US History. Last week, I gave an updated version of my spiel on the Hippies to Petteri Granat’s class at Vaskivuoren lukio in Vantaa, just outside Helsinki.

Petteri in action


Like every class I talk to about the counterculture, I asked them if there was a countercultural youth movement in Finland right now. Nobody could think of one. I asked what they were rebelling against or what they thought needed some rebellion…

Every year, Woodstock, the communes, the Merry Pranksters, the Whole Earth Catalog, it all feels farther and farther in the past. It’s now the experience of the students’ grandparents.

Of course, as a person who was taken to anti-war demonstrations at Cal Berkeley as a young child, whose parents were active in the Berkeley CO-OP , and so on, all of this has a personal meaning as well. At fifty, I am of the generation that became aware of the possibilities of youth culture just as things were starting to change. Or maybe that’s silly: culture never stays still.coop

I remember just before my 13th birthday, talking with friends about the hundreds dead in Guyana, mostly from the Bay Area. Paperboys for the Oakland Tribune, we folded our papers under the freeway, quickly skimming front-page articles as we always did. One friend’s parents knew people at the People’s Temple–he wasn’t sure if they were still alive. We talked in hushed tones. Ten days later, I sat with friends on the grey mats in the dim room of the main gym, where I waited my turn to struggle with bar dips and pull-ups. A grim-faced teacher interrupted class to tell us that San Francisco Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Milk had been shot and killed.

Still, I had a general sense that things were getting better, opening up. There was a Black principal at my elementary school and later at my junior high. Oakland’s mayor was black. The principal at my high school was gay. My neighborhood had a lesbian bookstore (ICI: A Woman’s Place, which I entered only on a dare). A lot of girls at school didn’t wear bras: one of them, a friend, gave me The Women’s Room to read. It scared the hell out of 16-year-old me and I didn’t finish it.

I suppose our coming-of-age was tangled up in this, but within a few years, my friends and I knew something was over. At fourteen and fifteen, we weren’t sophisticated enough to see things historically, but we understood that the election of Reagan wouldn’t be good for us. Styles changed. The “pretty boys,” as we called them, still wore their hair long, sure, but it was neat and feathered. Other haircuts got shorter–except for the stoners. Still, in my imagination, Reagan and the other old, white men who surrounded him remained far away.

Then and now, it seemed to happen suddenly. Soon after Reagan was sworn in , reports of a”gay cancer.” And a new drug–crack–that was rumored to make you crazy like Angel’s Dust and hook you the first time. There was more talk of cocaine in general; Melle Mel, rapped against it and we were persuaded. Mayor Feinstein closed the bath houses and punks sang sneeringly of Hippies. (My Lord, it is so far from those bath houses to Tinder.)

I suppose then, that despite my practiced teenage cynicism about patchouli oil, crystals, and the Dead’s “Truckin’,” I always had the feeling I had just missed something important. Using countryjoe.com, today I can learn which day I saw Country Joe McDonald (who played Woodstock), play to a handful of folks at People’s Park. August 18, 1985. At 19, I wasn’t sure, but I could sense that what I was seeing was sad. The student body at Cal had gone for Reagan the year before, the Park was a mess, the  (wonderful) songs seemed to come from a foreign land. The past.

16044762214_eecb62e006_bBut this convinced me even more that there was something to fight against–conformity, boringness, the pursuit of money and status. There was a pantheon of heroes, just over the horizon: Kerouac, Lennon, Vonnegut, Brautigan, and many, many others. And there were
the Dead Kennedys, Black Flag and all the other bands assuring us we were right to major in art or music or philosophy. We loved “Harold and Maude,” “Quadrophenia,” and “Blazing Saddles” and had no idea what we wanted to do. We weren’t Hippies–that door had closed. We liked punk but we were too sweet to be punks.

What Bohemians, Beatniks, and Hippies (and Punks for that matter) all shared was a sense that modern, capitalist life was dehumanizing, inauthentic, and  empty of spiritual experience. Hence their search for authentic experience, for true individuality, for religious or spiritual experience. Judging them now as inauthentic dupes or privileged romantics is easy but it misses the point. They were sincere and willing to take risks.

Since 2000, as I noted above, I have asked my students what they are rebelling against. Often there comes no answer. Sometimes nobody can think of anything to rebel against.

On the train to my guest shot in Vantaa, I asked my 13-year old son if there was a group like the Hippies now. Could he think of a subculture that offered young people an alternate identity, a group that was searching for “real life?” “No, I can’t think of anything,” he said. “What  about the Hipsters?” “No, they are more about cool hats and clothes.”

Later, I asked Petteri of there was a “1968” here like there was in the US or France or Germany. Not that he knew of. Finland was in a different place in its history, just urbanizing, still in many ways a developing country. And, he pointed out, there were many restrictions on buying beer then, let alone LSD. There was political turmoil but students tended to side with labor unions. A different lens.

Helsinki, 1968, during the events in Prague

In Vantaa, I talked about to the 18-year-old Finns, arguing that the Hippie movement was essentially spiritual or religious. I focused a bit on Ken Kesey: he’s such an interesting character to consider because he not only introduced acid to his generation and helped popularize the Dead and Jefferson Airplane, but he also spoke, of moving “beyond acid,” even before 1967’s Summer of Love brought the Hippies to national attention.

Vaskivuoren lukio, Vantaa

The failure of the movement is, to me now, the failure to ask that question: what do we do once we’ve dropped out and turned on? Any answer besides “go home” or “get high again” was going to be a hard pill to swallow.


I talked about the risks of teens taking to the road. I showed clips of the Chicago Convention police riot and, yes, Country Joe at Woodstock. Now, group discussion with a room full of Finns I’ve just met isn’t easy, but Petteri has a talkative, thoughtful group. Thanks Petteri! At one point, I asked them, what their generation had to rebel against. What was their suburban conformity, their Vietnam War?

In the US, I sometimes have to remind students that the answer really isn’t their parents. That power wanes swiftly at 18. At both Minnesota State and my progressive Oregon private school, sometimes I have had to offer a list of more significant things they might consider rebelling against. I find this easy! We can begin with the tyranny of self-fashioning (rather than self-discovery). For so many young people, living with Periscope, Instagram, Snapchat, etc., is like living in a hall of mirrors. Could we begin there? No. There probably won’t be a youth movement away from social media. They’ve swallowed the hook.

This week, I picked up two new books, Infinite Distraction, by Dominic Pettman, and Neoliberal Culture, by Jim McGuigan. The world Pettman sketches of the glazed-eye social media surfer is one of unending therapeutic data. He quotes Pascal: “Being unable to cure death, wretchedness and ignorance, we have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things.” Facebook is the opium for this century’s masses. Ok. I get it. I don’t like it and I have a little more faith than he perhaps that SOME young people will actually engage in movements about policy or authentic rebellion, even if they don’t give up social media. How many Boomers were real Hippies, after all, percentage-wise, anyway?

McGuigan’s critique is more complex, rooting contemporary youth culture in what he calls “the neoliberal self.” In an uncharted economic world, a gig economy with little safety net, young people find refuge in a “cool-capitalist presentation of the self,” where “there is apparently little insistence on conformity.” In fact, “a limited measure of bohemian posturing is …,  in fact, expected.” Young people are “free” to travel the world, bringing their skills to the company that best recognizes them. “Such a personal situation may be frightening, but it also might be exhilarating.”

Does this align with what I see back at Catlin Gabel School? They certainly don’t look to the future with confidence that hard work will bring comfort or ease. They understand the power of “personal branding” as part of the college application process. A number have begun companies or non-profits while still in high school.

This paragraph caught my eye and brought me back to my afternoon at Vaskivuoren lukio:

“In fact, a generational tension is a distinct feature of the neoliberal imaginary, including rejection of ‘dinosaur’ attitudes concerning all sorts of matters cherished by an older generation. The universalising and collectivist principals that were established by the welfare state after the Second World War are called into question incessantly today by neoliberal politics in a manner that makes sense to particularly individualised young people.”

For Petteri’s students, at least, McGuigan seems to have it completely wrong.

When I asked my question about what they felt they have to rebel against, the answer surprised me. One student suggested that their generation was going to be betrayed by older Finns. The students would work hard and follow the rules, but the social welfare system that has so dramatically lifted up this country since WWII will soon be gone. Older Finns would liquidate it to pay for their own care as their generation aged. This is how they, the young, are getting screwed. They would have to pay for college; they would have to pay for health care.

Other students nodded their head in agreement. One stayed after to talk about Neoliberalism–which is the heart of the trouble. Another student lagged behind to talk about his life as a transgender teen. Both felt the path ahead for them will be harder than it has to be and harder than for their parents’ generation.

Young Finns love their phones. This has been true since the Nokia days before today’s teens were born. They love Snapchat and Instagram. But I fear less for this generation of Finns than I do for my American students  because they also love biking and skiing, skating, football, floorball, and hiking in the woods. And they understand the social contract. Yes, they constantly stare at their phones on the bus, on the sidewalk, but they also seem to get it–that happiness will be found outside. With friends. I have faith that they will keep having saunas, going to summer houses, having picnics when weather permits. In this way, they will resist the  commodification of everything. At least I hope so.



Sources: http://claycord.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/coop.jpg; https://c1.staticflickr.com/9/8597/16044762214_eecb62e006_b.jpg; https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/01/Helsinki_demonstration_against_the_invasion_of_Czechoslovakia_in_1968.jpg; https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/da/Myyrm%C3%A4ki-Myyrm%C3%A4enraittia-lukio_ja_urheilutalo.jpg.



Globalschoolroom.org is Up! Now What?

The website for my Fulbright project is ready to be used. This is from the “How this Website Works” page:

“Global Schoolroom is a site by and for teachers. The goal is to enable educators who want to deeply engage in global issues with their students by pooling our resources of assignment ideas, project ideas, and other classroom materials. This site was created for sharing and globalschoolroomgrabcollaboration.

“The notice board at the center of the homepage is a place where teachers anywhere in the world can directly communicate with each other and plan collaborative activities, projects, or assignments.

“Members of the site are also authors. This means once a teacher joins, they can share their materials and ideas to the appropriate pages.”

It ain’t perfect, but it works!

In the process of making the website I thought a good deal about global education and its goals (more about that later). I have come to see “global competencies” as a key component of a basic secondary education. The fact that education systems are tied to political units–countries, mostly, but smaller units as well–is not logistically helpful in a world where so many people are on the move, where so many of the opportunities and challenges are global.

One way to think about it: When most of those asked (52%) identify global citizenship as more important on the individual level than national citizenship, and when 1 in 4 Californians was born outside the US, it seems high time to think about how we conceive of the world when we design our courses, especially civics and history.

It remains strikingly difficult to take our students outside our classrooms in meaningful ways, despite the internet. Study abroad programs, whIMG_4938ich are wonderful and change lives (including mine), are expensive. Many websites promising global connections actually link a few prescribed schools, often within a very structured program. This is fine, but it isn’t teacher-centered.

In my experience, the most common educational use of the Internet is as a source for learning, much like a book. I send my students to websites to read text; I ask them to watch a video. Even when students create interesting content, it often remains locked inside password-protected applications like moodle of Haiku. Obviously, all sorts of teachers are doing all sorts of cool things online. But how can we find out about them?

IMG_4099In their lives outside of school, our students engage in all sorts of two-way digital communication–a recent example is the application Periscope–but as teachers we continue to use the Net more like a television than a window or a door. In this way, educators’ practical use of technology for communication is far behind that of their students, in general.

The good news!: face-to-face applications applications like Skype, Facetime, Google Hangout, Snapchat and Periscope are easy to use and complemented by text- and image-based sharing sites such as Padlet. But the problem remains: even if we want to talk to someone outside the classroom, whom do we talk to? We just don’t have time to do a global search for a like-minded educator.

I’m hopeful that globalschoolroom will help a bit with the answer to that question. So now I am trying to find ways of telling teachers outside the US about the website. Any tips or advice is graciously welcomed!

It occurs to me that what I am doing right now is exactly that legwork that dissuades teachers from finding partners for collaboration abroad–finding teachers outside of wealthy schools and wealthy countries, outside of those already engaging in global education initiatives. Wish me luck.

It’s been an education putting it together. I have learned more about website design than I ever thought I would! But now the hard part.

A “Finnish Lesson”: Student-Paced Learning in a History Classroom

A “thinglink” through which a student can track progress through a unit

Ever since I observed Pekku Peura‘s class six weeks ago, I have been wondering how such methods could work in a social studies classroom. Math, it seems to me, is tailor-made for a mastery-based, individual approach. Teachers can sequence a series of concepts for students to master. Demanding proficiency at each step might slow movement through a given course but means learning is deeper, more lasting, and that there are fewer “holes” in a given students’ math education. Peura also encourages significant amounts of reflection, so students not only take control of their learning but also learn about how they learn.

IMG_5358Yesterday I took an early train through birch forests and mist-cloaked lakes to Tampere. It is the center of Finland’s second-largest metropolitan area and, as a student told me the day before, the largest inland city in the Nordic countries. I was graciously hosted there by Eenariina Hämäläinen, a social studies teacher at Tampereen yhteiskoulun lukio and lead author of some of the most-popular textbooks in Finland. I like them because they are short, light, and filled with powerful and useful images.

forum-8A few logistics: courses at Eena’s school are six weeks long and students take five or six at a time. More than one teacher has told me they find this frustrating, constraining the depth and breadth to which they can examine a topic. Another factor to bear in mind is that universities in Finland do not take grades into account when they weigh granting entry to a student. Only an entrance exam and the matriculation exam, taken in at least four topics which may or may not include history depending on the wishes of the student, are counted.

I am not arguing that this is a superior system of college placement. Not at all. But it has a direct impact on student stress and behavior. More than one of Eena’s students told me they don’t plan on taking the matriculation exam in history, so their goal in the course was to do a good job and earn an “8,” something like a “B” in the US.


In Eena’s courses, students can decide how ambitious they want to be on a given unit. For the Cold War unit pictured here, Eena told the students that they could omit steps 4 and 5 (which covered decolonization and disarmament) if they wished. Those who wish to earn a higher mark, who are more interested, or who might work more quickly, can pursue the full slate of offerings. In some courses, green and red buttons on the pad literally take students on different tracks.

thinglinkThe unit might begin with a pre-test, which shows how much knowledge students already have and what they need to learn. (Here it is reached through the yellow “badge” in the lower-right corner.)  It might be diagnostic or Eena might allow students to re-take it until the learning is completed.

Students, who are free to work together (Eena made it sound like plagiarism is handled harshly),  move through the steps of the unit, each of which essentially covers a sub-topic, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis or the invasion of Hungary. At each, Eena has embedded links to texts, images, or videos that offer the information students need. Sometimes, she offers a very brief lecture in class or records one and posts it on Youtube.

Each student creates a Google document and shares it with Eena. There they carefully arrange their work on the unit, including notes, more formal writing, charts, images, and so on. Neatness and presentation counts. It’s nice for the students because they can look over their work easily and decide where to put their efforts should they have time to loop back and improve some piece of their work.

There is no final assessment as there are several along the way. For example, in an earlier unit, students researched the social and political situation in European a country between the wars. Then, they were interviewed by another student in the class who then wrote a fictional diary entry or letter based on the interview. The other student in the pair did the same. Thus they thought about types of sources and how historical information is embedded in primary documents as they learned about the inter-war period in two nations. In the section on the Cold War, students made a chart comparing life in East and West Germany (#1 on the image here); another reading had content-based questions for students to answer. Number 6 covers the end of the Cold War. The exercise there will be to imagine how people would have expressed their feelings about the events had they had access to social media at the time. Students made and shared Pinterest, Twitter, and Instgram posts. There are a few assignments of this scale in a unit and the challenge for Eena is to vary them and to make each meaningful.


Tampereen yhteiskoulun lukio

It is important that there is ample time to complete the assignments, so there is room for those with more prior knowledge or more interest to go farther and potentially earn a higher mark. The day I visited, some students were on #2 while another was working on #5. When I asked if students were penalized for not completing an entire assignment, Eena told me they weren’t, if she could see that they were using their time efficiently. They might have been ill or on a trip, she explained and these aren’t good reasons to lower a student’s mark. On one hand, I wish better I understood how this would play out if, say, a student completed five of seven pieces in a unit but appeared to be working well during class–what grade do they get? It seems subjective. On the other, it is the benefit of assigning very little work that is specifically meant to be completed outside of the classroom: the teacher con observe the entire process.

At the end of the 6-week period, Eena meets with each student. Students prepare a written reflection on their work in something like a spreadsheet. They answer questions: did I complete the assignment?; how much thought did I put into the assignment?; did I help my classmates?; did I receive the help I needed?; how was my participation? They offer the grade they think they have earned, which is usually (I think Eena estimated about 80% of the time) identical to Eena’s assessment. Disagreements are opportunities for students to learn about expectations and about how they use their time. From what Eena told me she is not merely grading coverage of material, but effort, thinking, knowing, concentration, helping others, asking for help. So how students work really counts. Focus and depth of engagement are key.

In some classes, Eena has students keep a study diary in which they are tasked with commenting on class discussions and evaluated on the clarity of their opinions. She often checks and grades students’ notes three weeks into a course. In other courses she has a single Google document serve as shared notes with each student taking a turn to be “secretary” for a given day. She shared several practices which required students to share their work for evaluation by their peers.

There is a ten-point scale in Finland, though most students earn something between a 7 and a 10 (including “plusses and minuses”). Students whose portfolios are complete but perhaps not inspired will likely earn an 8. Work exhibiting greater command of the material may earn a 9. 10s are less common–like an American A+, I think. I was struck that Eena offers less written feedback during 6-week “period” than I had expected. She makes comments on students’ portfolios when she is pleased with their work and, I assume, when there is a factual error. (At this point, I don’t know how much attention she pays to the students’ writing itself. I failed to ask.) The majority of the  feedback comes face-to-face. With students working in the classroom–I was reminded of “flipped” math classrooms I’ve visited–Eena can float throughout the room, speaking with every student every day. This is not insignificant. If a student is struggling or unmotivated, she is there to catch them immediately. If a shy student has a question, they can ask, either at their desk surrounded by two or three peers (the desks are grouped in fours) or outside in the spacious hallway.

The students I spoke to were 17 and 18 and some had taken courses from Eena before. They seemed quite clear on the expectations–some seemed to have already chosen their grade. Of course, this is always true in a way. Students parcel their time and energy no matter the system. Eena’s method places this student decision-making up front.


I asked a number of students whether Eena’s course was more or less difficult than other history courses they had taken. “It’s harder,” one girl said. “Harder because it takes more time or more labor?” I asked. “I have to focus and concentrate more,” she told me. She had to read all the basic sources and had to engage with every topic. There was no option to skip a reading and space-out through a lecture. Was there more homework? No. Eena designed the units with the hope that they could be accomplished during class time if a student stayed on task and worked hard. That didn’t usually happen but this was because the students socialized a in class.

Okay, so this method seems to promote focus and concentration. What about learning? I asked a group of four girls this question. They quickly responded that they learned far more in this course because the assignments were more creative and because, again, Eena compelled them to engage with the material. They also saw her as an ally in their learning, helping them when they got stuck, ready to answer questions that cropped up, or even to step into the hall with a group for a ten-minitue “tutorial” if they wanted to know more. There was no cramming for tests. One student made the “in-one-ear-and-out-the-other sign, which is, apparently, international in meaning.

One way I came away thinking about is that the “floor” is higher. The weakest students learn more and are more engaged with the material Nobody slips through the cracks. The “middle third” seems to retain more. If the strongest and most interested students feel the course is too easy, they are free to complete the “extra” lessons or talk with Eena at greater length.

In conversation after class, Eena told me that she continues to experiment and doesn’t see her method as the only way to teach. She doesn’t use this method all the time in every course. And she stressed the need for structure using such an approach. Her student don’t determine their own topics or (usually) find their own sources. They set their own pace and decide how much polish their work will have. They are in control of their learning but they are not set adrift to find their own way.

The cafe at the Amuri Museum of Workers’ Housing, where we debriefed










Sources: https://www.thinglink.com/user/573066833297408002; http://www.adlibris.com/se/bok/forum-8-9789511271451

World Civics?

Every high school teacher knows it. When the flurry of tests, papers, college apps, and team sports slows in May, the high school seniors think about it.

In the US, the Class of 2016 is inheriting some back-breaking issues. Climate Change, Zika, ISIS, income inequality, a million-plus migrants in Europe, a national debt approaching $20 trillion. It’s a scary world out there. Just ask a soon-to-be-graduating senior!


We their teachers have not adequately prepared them to engage with these daunting issues, in large part because of disciplinary “silos” that will be only more rigid at the college level. Also, of course, because of our content-based standards which practically beg us not to engage with the roiling world of the present moment.

At the same time, as I noted last week, a majority (52%) of those asked in a global poll of some 20,000 people identified global citizenship as more important on the individual level than national citizenship. Political identity is shifting.

Should we rely on the media to inform our students about the people working on solutions to the world’s great challenges? A quick look at the homepage at cnn.com: Leicester City fans cry with joy while “32,000 Sign Up for Nude Restaurant.” I can see the “Met Gala Best Looks,” and consider “How Much Would You Pay for an Upgrade?” Enough said.

Secondary schools need a new Civics, a way of thinking about our place in the world within the context of public education. A basic, required Global Civics course, combined with an increased focus on multiliteracy, would be a downpayment on a globally literate American population. Here is how I might see it in an American school:

Fall 2016: US Civics. Learn the rights and responsibilities of a citizen by enacting them through some form of activism (register peers to vote, for example). Learn the structure of local, state, and federal government–then petition the government about an issue. Special attention paid to the presidential and down-ballot elections in November.

Spring 2017: World Civics. Learn the rights and responsibilities of a global citizen. Learn the structure of the UN and other global organizations. Learn about the global challenges of our time, the debates about how to meet them, and the methods of the groups are being effective in making a difference.

This course would necessarily be interdisciplinary by design and based on a model akin to solutions journalism. Students would see their teachers cooperating designing units. Importantly, students would be asked to assess the solutions they encounter, arguing for the ways forward they see as preferable. One assessment would be completed in a language other than the student’s “mother tongue”/first language.

For fun, here are my Course Units:

1. The birth of global citizenship–the League of Nations and the UN–and current definitions;

2. The Bretton Woods Trio, Free Trade, and the debates about global trade and finance;

3. Global Poverty and Ways of Easing It;

4. Global Health with special emphasis on the fight against Zika this year;

5. Energy, Climate Change, and a sustainable future, with emphasis on the Paris Treaty;

and then, 6, a capstone assignment in which each student discusses how their own outlook on global citizenship is leading them in responsible action on some aspect of an issue covered during the semester.

Infant Mortality to Age 1: Why is the USA is not in the same category as Europe and Canada?

This has been tried before. A couple years ago,  Hakan Altinay, then a “non-resident scholar” at the Brookings Institution, secured an impressive group of lecturers on a series of topics, from climate change to nuclear proliferation, and created a website called globalcivics.net. A look at the site suggests it’s petered out–I want a course encouraging active citizenship rather than something lecture-based anyway–but the need for such an education remains.

Students need to know about the bleaching of the world’s reefs but also the efforts to preserve them.

In World Civics, we can ask science teachers to explain the bleaching of coral reefs. But they will also need time to answer the question, “What is going to be done?” We can ask economics teachers to explain what the World Bank is or why the US really cannot tell Apple to make its phones in stateside, despite what Donald Trump says. And social science teachers can offer background on the changing strategies for managing the world’s problems, especially human migration.

Taken together, such a course would fight pessimism and defeatism and begin to equip each student for pursuing a life as an informed global citizen.


Images: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/great-barrier-reef; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_greenhouse_gas_emissions_per_capita; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Infant_mortality