Global Studies in the Age of Trump

Ironically, painfully, it’s International Education Week. It hurts to say this out loud. The meetings of earnest teachers seem hopelessly outgunned as the UK trudges towards its Brexit and the USA begins its transition to Trumpism. Across the West, nationalism is on the march and global citizenship feels in retreat.

This can’t be good news for those of us who want to educate our students to tackle the global challenges that lie ahead.

How should we respond as educators to the rising voices of nationalism, nativism, and xenophobia? At times lately, I’ve felt that there is something radical about seeing people far away as valuable and worthy of care. Is global education hopelessly political, by default the province of “the globalizers?” Some clearly think so. Writing in the New York Times in July, columnist Ross Douthat dismissed global citizenship:

The people who consider themselves “cosmopolitan” in today’s West … are part of a meritocratic order that transforms difference into similarity, by plucking the best and brightest from everywhere and homogenizing them into the peculiar species that we call “global citizens.”

This species is racially diverse (within limits) and eager to assimilate the fun-seeming bits of foreign cultures — food, a touch of exotic spirituality. But no less than Brexit-voting Cornish villagers, our global citizens think and act as members of a tribe.

What Douthat completely misses–because he hasn’t bothered to look–is that the idea of global citizenship is most popular away from wealthy nations. In a survey by the BBC, Americans were at about the global average when asked if they saw themselves more as a global citizens or a citizens of the USA. Where was global identity strongest? Kenya, Nigeria, Peru. Lowest” Russia, Germany, the UK, Chile, Mexico.

So-called “cosmopolitanism” and global citizenship are not the ethos of an elite tribe that rules the world. They are the recognition of interdependence between peoples around the earth. We need this kind of thinking.

I also have to wonder: what is the nationalist solution to climate change? To the migration crisis? To the bleaching of the great corals in our oceans?

Refugees Arrive at Lesvos

When I look at Trumpism, or any other form of developed-world nationalism, one thing I perceive is a lack of empathy. An inability to remember that someone reached out to our ancestors when they crossed oceans leaky ships or struggled to find their place in a foreign land. This is combined with a willful ignorance about the reasons why millions of ordinary people are unwillingly on the move, why global markets are jittery or why the stomachs of seabirds are filled with plastic bottle caps. None of us are not implicated. Trump’s recent roar that “They hate us,”shows his utter lack of interest of curiosity about the world. It doesn’t make me optimistic that he will use the power of the USA to spur global development and peace.

As a teacher of global studies, I feel my job has shifted from the academic consideration of free trade or the globalization of American culture to an emphasis on having my students communicate with young people elsewhere on earth. I am working to have them collaborate with Finnish teens on global outlooks and South African teens on issues of climate and migration.

Similarly, each unit of my course will have an action step. Sometimes this will simply be the communication with other young people. But I don’t feel like I can “teach the migration crisis” at this point without trying to help. Luckily my city hosts the offices of Mercy Corps: hopefully they can help me find meaningful work for my students to do on the issue of refugees. Perhaps we can host a movie night in our community to raise awareness and a few dollars.

The educational networks that exist across national boundaries, from e-Twinning to Google for Education to my own Global Schoolroom (still just getting started!), have never been more important. It’s hard to drop bombs on someone you know, as the old expression goes. Hopefully, I can widen my students’ outlooks to include a greater empathy while inspiring them to feel empowered as helpful actors in these great dramas of our age.

The Jungle of Calais, now “cleared,” was full of children. Where are they now?;;

As Finnish As I Wanna Be?: November Thoughts On Realistic Adaptation


[Note: this post already seems dated. The election on Tuesday has sent me scrambling for new ways to teach about tolerance, global identity, and globalization. More on all that soon.]

September, begun with Hope for Great New Things in the classroom, has given way to the slow trudge across the muddy lawns of November. Returned from a semester in Finland, some plans give way to the realities of the American system (thankfully little of it enforced at my progressive, independent school):

there will be standardized tests–even for kids at progressive, “lab” schools;

for most students there are “standards,” largely based on content, much of it soon forgotten;

the “college process” weighs heavily on students; and so:

kids care a lot about grades;

the American pace of life makes designing new lessons difficult for me and has taught my students to seek today’s “right answer” rather than see each class meeting as a part of a larger whole; and,

some students aren’t accustomed to taking charge of their learning.

So what to do?

Here are some of the things I am trying:

design classrooms for student comfort; beanbags (I’ll get them someday!), plants, tea;

show real trust in students: after having the class as a whole set clear norms for their behavior, let them move and speak freely in the classroom;

use digital technology to increase learning. Get phones into the mix TEACH kids how to use their devices for academic outcomes. Although it hasn’t been without some bumps along the way, this year I am requiring my students use their laptops and phones more in class. Cracking down on improper use doesn’t teach them how to use them appropriately. Today, some of my sophomores (second-years who turn 16 this year) were texting and visiting non-academic sites. I reminded the class that they would rather be allowed to use their tech wisely than have it banned. I think this message is getting through. I’m confident it is with my older students;

project-oriented units, employing technology and teamwork;

check-ins, reflections, peer evaluations.

Part of a lesson Frederick Douglass that went poorly twice this week. Did I give them enough structure? Apparently not.

If we can’t do mastery-based learning (yet), how about differentiated assessments in which students (sometimes) get to choose their own adventure? Video presentation, graphic novels, or podcast. “Think about about French nationalism by designing a new flag, anthem, holidays, and postage stamps.” All that really matters is that they express the ideas, the fundamental questions, at the heart of the unit, in complex and coherent ways.


One ongoing struggle: turn-around times on assessments. The other week I had faculty meetings after school Monday and Wednesday; Sunday was given over to Open House. Four ten-hour days of conferences began just days later.

At the same time, I just read again about how Finnish teachers try to give constant, daily feedback. I find such sentences stressful to read! I am getting around my classroom, trying to speak with every student every day (at least that is the goal) but I can’t say I am giving them all feedback. I begin most classes with documents on Google Classroom, asking my students how long the homework took and one or two other questions. It’s hard to read all of these, let alone respond to them all. So, I still wonder, how can I give more meaningful formative feedback while getting six or seven hours of sleep.

* * * * * *

What did I learn that day?


Part of me wonders if the solution is, in part, to keep stepping back and thinking about what content they will remember in two, five, or ten years. Good, meaty projects, thick questions, and active learning. This is what they remember. I have to hook the content to those times of fun and engagement. It seems ever more clear that active learning of any kind–any learning-by-doing–leads to better retention for more students than the read-and-discuss model.


Where Is the Movement of Educators Dedicated to Fighting Climate Change?

From our recent NWAIS presentation

At my independent school in Oregon, we are launching an institutional response to climate change. At Catlin Gabel School, we are looking at divesting our endowment from fossil fuels, developing a climate literacy curriculum for students ages 4-18, and working on a model to measure and then reduce our Greenhouse Gas emissions.

I am writing to ask if a) your school is on a similar track and/or b) you’d like to share your experience with me, my students, and my school. I am especially curious about schools outside the USA.

Closer to home, my colleagues and I are inviting educators from other independent schools in the region to share resources–curricula, carbon counters–as we embark on this work. Our Head of School is exploring the possibility of a regional meeting of interested educators and administrators sometime next spring.

I understand that this isn’t a substitute for federal and international action on climate change, but I feel that there is real good in institutions lowering their use of resources. There is also an educational value, one perhaps greater than the direct environmental impact.

For the moment, however, few at my school appear moved to action. Many cars idle in the parking lot; there is little carpooling. Students notice this, of course. Teens can sense hypocrisy a mile away and I don’t think the adults at my school have done enough to stop their BS sensors from going off. Granted, our wonderful facilities staff records the school’s usage of oil, gas, and so on, and this info will serve us well when we begin looking for strategies for conservation. But we’ve just let the data accumulate for years. The grounds crew does an amazing job making the school look beautiful–every visitor remarks on it.The staff has done much to switch to more earth-friendly cleaning supplies and they’ve grabbed the low-hanging fruit for the rest of us. Yet without any school-wide action plan right now to lower our use of energy, it’s hard for us to convince our students climate change is an issue that will mark their lives. I fear we are making some of the older students cynical.

Recently, two colleagues and I attended the annual conference of the Northwest Association of Independent Schools at the Charles Wright School in Tacoma to share our process. We are really at the beginning of our journey as a school, despite the late date. I have taught about climate change for a decade, so have a few of my colleagues, but only now are we moving toward a coordinated effort. It feels late, but it also feels good. At the conference, our session was not well attended, but those who did come were energized and ready to collaborate on curriculum and planning.

MY web searches suggest that similar processes are happening all over the United States. But, as far as I can tell, the Department of Education doesn’t offer coordination on how schools can respond to, or teach, climate change. Perhaps I am missing something, but could it be the US federal government doesn’t have a plan for transforming schools to meet this enormous challenge? There is a program through which schools may apply for an award for their environmental work, but this is for outliers, not for everyone.

epaclimate-grabThe Environmental Protection Agency has a nice website for younger students but its a decade out of date. Encouraging students to turn off lights at home (a good practice to be sure) isn’t going to do it. They get this. Students need to be tasked with more. Even grammar-school students can understand the fact that governments set policies around energy consumption. They need to gain experience working together on broader solutions. Otherwise we are teaching them to do something we admit in the next breath to be meaningless–we are thereby telling our students that it’s hopeless.

So, I am going to see if over the next few years, I can find schools that are helping students learn about climate change in a more meaningful and empowering way. I am going to work with my students on measuring and then working to reduce our school’s footprint in a meaningful way. And I will lend my voice to the call for divestment. Lucky for me, I have a Head of School who shares my concerns.

I would love to hear from educators about how their schools, schools districts, and governments are working on climate change education. Does anyone know of groups that are sharing knowledge about student-centered ways of making schools greener and about teaching climate change in an age-appropriate manner? Please feel free to comment below or send me an email to


Should I Teach About Nationalism the Way I Teach About Racism?

A few years ago, I decided I would strive to be a solutions-based educator when working with my students on vexing issues such as climate change and global migration. I had come to realize that it did little good to educate students about, say, dwindling fish stocks in the world’s oceans if the lesson stopped there. Now I always try to spend significant time looking at what people are doing to counteract the challenges of our current era.

I have taught a course called Globalization: Debates and Controversies since 2005. When I initiated the course, the field felt new, so new that the first unit spent a few weeks examining definitions of globalization itself. Times have changed.

Something else that has changed is the way I think about globality’s main competitor, nationalism. Ten years ago, it seemed to be on the run. The EU was expanding and the assumption (at least my assumption) was that nationalism was on the wane, the lessons of World War II long-ago learned. With Liras, Francs, and Marks exchanged for a shared future, the Euro just made sense and I felt confident that internationalism had won the day. Like them or not, free-trade agreements were sprouting up all over. If there was an opponent left on the field it was a kind of anti-modern tribalism. Groups like al Qaeda were dangerous, but there wasn’t a sense they might win.

So they are all, all honorable men–

But all that has changed with the emergence of leaders like Viktor Orbán in Hungary, with the Russian incursion into Ukraine, with the Brexit, and, now the advent of Trump and Trumpism. The narrative arc of globalization has been deflected and I feel compelled to reexamine and once again explain the logic of political integration.

This also changes the way I teach the French Revolution, which begins for my second-year students next week. Once upon a time, I unfolded the creation of modern nationalism as something of a post mortem. The wave of nationalist ugliness had crested and we watched it recede, especially in Europe. Not any more.

As I prepare for the “Nationalism Unit,” I wonder: how should the concept of nationalism be taught at this historical moment? It matters and it weighs heavily upon me.

I think about my colleagues elsewhere. How can Hungarians teach history in the age of Orbán? How can Russian teachers offer students a healthy understanding of the Russian past–it’s complex enough, I imagine, without an overlay of propaganda or fear of saying “the wrong thing.” I am thankful that my challenge extends merely to interpretation. Here in the US, there are two easy routes to teaching nationalism: American exceptionalism and cynicism.

Exceptionalism is bipartisan and little-questioned. President Obama has declared: “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being.” He somehow squares this statement with a pledged commitment to international agreements and law. He claims the US can lead by example. But in that case, I see little use for the dangerous rhetoric of claiming once again to be the “greatest country on earth,” as Michelle Obama did recently at the Democratic National Convention. Why she offers the fact that the US will likely elect a woman president this year as evidence of America’s greatness seems odd to me and obstinately myopic in a distinctly American way. As of summer 2015, Bangladesh, Chile, Croatia, and some 15 other nations had female heads of state. Angela Merkel has been in office since 2005. Yes, the US has a huge economy and a powerful military, but its magic comes from the creativity and energy of its people. Many of those people come from elsewhere. This can be said of the UK and Australia as well–both of which have had female prime ministers.

Also available when introducing nationalism to my students is cynicism: it is perhaps the first refuge of the scoundrel. It’s the easy way out. All I have to do is hold up certain events in US history, policies and actions that long ignored the rights of peoples throughout the world, from Haiti to Iran. Proclaiming the US an empire which lectures the world on its own sins appeals to many of my young students (they turn 16 this year), but the pedagogy of easy cynicism leads to inaction and lack of curiosity. Gesturing in the direction of a smug anti-American (or at least anti-American government) pose doesn’t teach the critical skills I want them to have. Still, there is temptation in the solidarity shared feelings of superiority can bring.

And what of patriotism? Years ago I used a short reading to good effect, comparing an inclusive love of country (patriotism) with expansionist, nativist chauvinism (nationalism). But even this is a slippery slope. These terms are so easily combined. Educator Ben Johnson, writing at Edutopia, argues that “It is Each Teacher’s Duty to Teach Patriotism.” Love of country sounds nice enough, but Johnson loses me when he calls for real emotion from students when they recite the Pledge of Allegiance and declares the United States is the “greatest country … because of its freedom.” This kind of jingoism is exactly the problem, especially when it parades as patriotism. Students need knowledge about their government and society so they can become active, informed citizens. I want them to learn about heroic people who made sacrifices for the common good. Martial music, on the other hand, makes a poor soundtrack for critical thinking and engagement.

Here, after much futzing around, is my main question: should “nationalism” be put on the list with terms such as racism, sexism, anti-semitism, and homophobia, as a force taught about with care as something to resist? When I think of the ugliness that nationalism breeds, the intolerance masked as pride, I cannot imagine what other use the term has to offer. I think of a zinger by the often-offensive libertarian comedian Doug Stanhope: “Nationalism does nothing but teach you to hate people you never met, and to take pride in accomplishments you had no part in.”

Finnish TransversalIn this context, the  Finnish emphasis on “human rights, equality, democracy, natural diversity, preservation of environmental viability, and the endorsement of multiculturalism,” presented in this illustration of the national curriculum, is all the more striking.  When I see this, I reflect on the fact that love of country is earned not demanded. But also, I think that “love of country” really–or at least ideally–comes from and consists of participation in civil society. Not flag waving and hagiography.

Is this mere party politics on my part? I hope not. My mind returns to Walt Whitman’s love of the land and of the energy and power of its democratic people. His imagery is not partisan and his definition of “American” is wide-open. Here, in “Song of the Broad Axe,” is a love of country worthy of contemplation:

What do you think endures? Do you think a great city endures? Or a teeming manufacturing state? or a prepared constitution? or the best built steamships? Or hotels of granite and iron? or any chef-d’oeuvres of engineering, forts, armaments? Away! these are not to be cherish’d for themselves ….

Where no monuments exist to heroes but in the common words and deeds,
Where thrift is in its place, and prudence is in its place,
Where the men and women think lightly of the laws,
Where the slave ceases, and the master of slaves ceases,
Where the populace rise at once against the never-ending audacity of elected persons,
Where fierce men and women pour forth as the sea to the whistle of death pours its sweeping and unript waves,
Where outside authority enters always after the precedence of inside authority,
Where the citizen is always the head and ideal, and President, Mayor, Governor and what not, are agents for pay,
Where children are taught to be laws to themselves, and to depend on themselves,
Where equanimity is illustrated in affairs,
Where speculations on the soul are encouraged,
Where women walk in public processions in the streets the same as the men,
Where they enter the public assembly and take places the same as the men; …
There the great city stands.

I have to hold nationalism up so my students can distinguish it from “patriotism” and also “unity” and “community.” It is essentially a term of exclusion, a set of codes by which citizens must abide. Who is “truly” French? Or British? Is the English-speaking child of a Polish plumber, born in London, a member of the nation? Can the German “nation” hold close its refugees and accept them as Germans? What does “German nationalism” promise for those who need shelter from war?

Better to challenge ourselves to greater heights than to call for unquestioned love of the state. As Langston Hughes showed, we can simultaneously love the freedom owed to all, celebrate the achievements of all, even while we point out shortcomings:

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Will I group nationalism with racism or sexism when our next unit begins? I think so. I think I will argue that French elites used nationalism to define “French” in a way not unlike elites in the British North American colonies who employed racism to help define the term “American.”

Does this mean that I am “against Trump” and his stated desire to “make America great again”? If asked, I will answer that I am for democracy and for peace, for universal human rights, for the free movement of ideas and of people. Like Whitman, I believe that, in a great country, “the citizen is always the head and ideal.”

Perhaps, I will suggest, we should think about nations with the same cold, bureaucratic blood as when we think about counties. As far as I can see, nationalism is about building walls to separate “us” from “them.” At this point in history we can no longer afford such chauvinism. I like Multnomah County, it’s beautiful. But who among us would put our hand on our heart and pledge allegiance to it, to sing to it?

The pointlessness of nationalism came to mind yesterday, when a British scientist working at Northwestern University in Illinois, Fraser Stoddart, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. It struck me how silly it is that although he lives and works in the US, he has been given a knighthood by the British government: he is Sir Fraser Stoddart. This was doubled when he continued, in the words of the university’s website, to “underscore a key point about the importance of a global population of scientists solving research problems together in labs around the planet and publishing worldwide. He scolded those who advocate more borders between scientists and their work.”

“’Science is global,’” he emphasized.’ A lot of my colleagues are from other parts of the world, as I am, and have been welcomed to America. My research group has Koreans; it has Australians; it has Chinese; it has people from Saudi Arabia; it has people from India, and from Poland and Turkey, and we could go on and on. This is what makes it hugely rich, to have these people working beside their American counterparts.’”

Agreed. The cheap pleasures of nationalism will never match the size of our challenges as a global people whose fates are intertwined as never before. For the sake of offering solutions to my students’ shared worries and their very real problems, nationalism is a stance I can’t afford to take.


A Pedagogical Lesson from “Conservative Hurricane Truthers”

drudgeThis article from today’s Talking Points Memo, on “hurricane truthers,” seems to offer credence to what researchers have termed “The White Male Effect.” Here is a passage from the original paper by Dan Kahan and others: “The cultural theory of risk posits that individuals selectively credit and dismiss asserted dangers in a manner supportive of their preferred form of social organization. This dynamic, it is hypothesized, drives the white male effect, which reflects the risk skepticism that hierarchical and individualistic white males display when activities integral to their status are challenged as harmful.”

As an educator, this paper has given me pause to think about how all sorts of topics might meet similar resistance with members of groups challenged by a given set of facts or theories. If I want to “convert” a climate denier, for example, it may be their “preferred form of social organization” I need to influence and not their knowledge of climate science. This might also help teach some white students and white privilege and many male students about feminism. At the very least, it has helped me consider the role of culture and identity formation in the process of student creation of narratives and the reception of facts around difficult issues.

Here is the article:

Possible Methods to Overcome Climate-Change Denial

This began as an email to my brother, who is valiantly trying to change the minds of the climate sceptics he knows. Then I thought I would share it with my colleagues in science. And I thought my friends who teach math and statistics might find it interesting. It got so long, I thought I’d just put it here.

Dear friends:

I’m writing because I have either spoken with you about the work of Dan Kahan or because I think it might be of real interest. He studies the “science of science communication,” including the issue of how to overcome the effects of political polarization on climate change education.

His research is fascinating but his findings are tough to take. First, and this is kind of intuitive, perceptions of risk (to things like climate change or guns) is linked to social identity. He calls this the “White Male Effect.” People make rational choices when constructing their opinions, based in part on their decisions’ relative, perceived threat to their social identity. Many older, white men, then may have more to risk with their social group by becoming publically concerned about climate change than they do if they dismiss it as not a major problem.

Second, simply educating people (like these older white men) about the science of climate change or encouraging them to engage in open-minded thinking does not move the needle on the ideological divide. A graph on page 6 of this article by Kahan, “A Note on the Perverse Effects of Actively Open-Minded Thinking on Climate-Change Polarization,” suggests that conservative Republicans who engage in open-minded thinking may be more likely to identify the import of identity-based cognition and they actually appear LESS likely to accept the scientific consensus.

From Kahan and Richmond, “A Note on the Perverse Effects of Actively Open-Minded Thinking on Climate-Change Polarization”

So what to do? One thing not to do, I think, is to simply argue with sceptics. The research doesn’t show this as effective, though it may be cathartic or soothing. Instead, Kahan suggests some options from research on overcoming “protective” cognition, in a mercifully short article in Nature.

I think that these ideas are applicable to all sorts of issues. Trying to “teach” a room full of liberals about white privilege during a professional development day starts to look like attempting to sway the minds of conservative climate-change deniers on Facebook. As soon as we put our audience on the defensive, we’ve lost them.

Kahan writes in Nature: “One method … is to present information in a manner that affirms rather than threatens people’s values…. If … they are presented with information in a way that upholds their commitments, they react more open-mindedly. …” This sounds simple but it takes thought and planning. We have to know our audience!
“The second technique for mitigating public conflict over scientific evidence is to make sure that sound information is vouched for by a diverse set of experts. … People feel that it is safe to consider evidence with an open mind when they know that a knowledgeable member of their cultural community accepts it. Thus, giving a platform to a spokesperson likely to be recognized as a typical traditional parent with a hierarchical world view might [for example] help to dispel any association between mandatory HPV vaccination and the condoning of permissive sexual practices.”
These seem like slender reeds with which to support such vital arguments. But I don’t know what else there is do.

Can My Students Learn More and Study Less?

The more I think about how to better teach my students, the more I seem to come back to mastery learning. Why? Because it seems a sensible response to each of my personal teaching goals in my US History courses this year. Here’s what I mean: I want my students to really learn more (and forget less); I want them to be more curious about history and more in charge of their learning; and I want them to be resilient, intrinsically motivated learners. For each of these goals, focusing learning on mastery–rather than plowing through a syllabus–just makes sense.

But without a fairly fundamental transformation in my teaching and my school’s culture of learning, a sudden switch to measuring year-long mastery outcomes seems unlikely. I also know it is really tough for ex-Fulbrighters to return from Finland and try to “change everything.” I have heard this from other grantees. So … here are the adjustments I am trying to implement as I return from Jyväskylä.

What my students learn. This I have been more happy with over the years. My colleague, Peter Shulman, and I have tweaked and changed the US History survey annually, and this year is no different. We continue to think about how much information we subject our students to, asking ourselves how much we should ask them to take in–and how much they will actually be able to assimilate given their busy school schedules and over-scheduled lives.

John Smith, Virginia, 1612 (1624). I asked students to closely examine this map, two to a screen. I was surprised by how much they learned from asking questions about it. I think this image did the most to impress upon them the fragility of the early colony.

The civics aspect of our course remains intact, but this year we are trimming where we can to increase the amount of attention we will pay to Native American history and immigration history. Anyone who has ever taught a survey course knows omitting key topics is a constant source of frustration. So we continue to tweak the course content, subtracting as we add, with an eye on current topics of debate in American society.

How they learn. For me, this year, this has involved rearranging the desks in my classrooms from a seminar-style “U” to four groups of four students, each group sitting in a “pod” around two tables. These pods remain set for the duration of a unit, usually a handful of weeks. Each day they have a pair of Google Docs waiting for them on our Google Classroom page, a warm-up/reflection that takes about 5 minutes and, second, a document with the group’s task for the day.

A typical 5-minute warm-up

The warm-up gives me a little data about how the reading is going and I hope to use the responses from students to help them set some goals around study habits as the year progresses. The tasks on the main document for the day involve interpreting the reading assigned as homework; other days I have had them work on maps, graphics, and challenged them to present a complex, detail-filled reading in an easier-to-understand form.

I am seeing the usual benefits of group work: everyone is participating every day. Quieter students appear more confident, especially because they are repeatedly working with the same three people. I move about the room while they work, trying not to interrupt the flow of the work while trying to talk to every student every day.

The topics aren’t chosen by the students (something I’d like to try, even in the US History survey). But I am still seeing more student ownership of the material, as they work to master the readings and assignments with their friends in their pod. I like to think of it as four kids figuring it out instead of one blurting it out. It’s collaborative work, not group work in which each student completes part of the whole.

With student-to-student conversation at the center of the course, the “floor” is higher. Everyone is writing into the document I’ve shared with them, which asks questions to spur discussion. Everyone is speaking up–usually many, many times–during every meeting of the class. And it much harder for anyone to leave the class feeling left behind or confused about the essential questions of the day and the unit of study.

I suspect that if one of the stronger students from a previous year returned, they might find the current set-up a bit less pleasing in terms of content. There is less of it, because I am not holding conversations with the quickest, most confident and most verbal students in the guise of a “class discussion.” Instead, stronger students are helping their peers–picking up other skills along the way as they solidify their understanding of the core concepts of the course.

This question has been on my mind: how much of what we sometimes take for “teaching” is actually merely lecturing–offering data which may or may not be received and remembered? I hope I begin to discover an answer.

How they are assessed. 

This is where I have not made much progress but where I also feel the most progress might be made. First, I should note that I am trying to improve the knowledge my students possess about US History one, five, or ten years after they take my course. This is difficult to measure! The reason I want to increase what they actually know is because I think what I am teaching has all sorts of practical application and I don’t want to reward only those who can cram information into their heads the night before a high-stakes exam. Much of that learning is quickly lost and therefore useless. Those types of tests also cause a lot of students unhelpful anxiety.

So, I am trying to figure out better ways of assessing what I want them to learn. The collaborative work is part of this of course, but so is assessment. Different ways of testing students are actually different methods of teaching in disguise–so what works best for what I am trying to do?

Most of the major assessments in my courses are not tests but papers and projects. These I feel less conflicted about but they also tell me less about how much a student knows–they reflect work and focus and understanding but are less direct indicators of what a student had mastered. So for the moment, I am going to focus on in-class writing assignments. I still use a lot of reading quizzes, though even these present some issues I am struggling with.

I have been moving away from high-stakes, in-class tests for several years. This doesn’t mean I am giving up measuring what my students are learning. I still don’t like semester or course grades–they don’t tell us much at all–but feedback on recent work can help students understand their own strengths and challenges. Still, they have to be offered the chance to apply those lessons!

So should I test and retest? This week I spoke with Jeff Crosby, who heads the Science Department at Catlin Gabel School and has done a lot of hands-on work in this area. One thing that Jeff said that struck me is that offering feedback and critique is great and shouldn’t stop. It is the act of placing a final, immutable letter grade on an assignment that often brings learning to a halt. It is louder than all the other voices on the assignment, including that which offers feedback.

I wholeheartedly agree with those who argue that formative tests (from which information gained by teachers informs future teaching) are vastly superior to those that are merely summative. But are these the only options? I am swayed by the argument that re-testing students on material from earlier units is a way of helping them better transfer the information into their long-term memories.

As Annie Murphy Paul has argued in Scientific American, “Retrieval practice [another term for repeated assessment] is especially powerful compared with students’ most favored study strategies: highlighting and rereading their notes and textbooks, practices that a recent review found to be among the least effective.”

So I keep returning to the big question from the first half of the unit as we begin to wrap up. In upcoming units I plan to quiz them again on essential questions from earlier in the course.

Minor assignments. A staple of my course is the reading quiz. About one per week. But I fear I am merely testing their working memory and not their understanding of the issues at hand. How can I get around this. One thing Jeff has tried is offering the quiz at the end of the class instead of at the beginning. Any pre-class cramming will likely be mostly lost and what remains will be longer-term memory. Of course this means I wouldn’t quiz ideas we’d covered during that meeting of the class, but it’s worth a try. And hey, why not have a reading quiz on Tuesday for the reading due Monday?

Major assignments. Currently, I am shying away from asking students test questions which call for great amounts of specific recall in favor of those that ask students to show what they know about the topic as a whole. For example, my students are finishing a unit on the development of race-based slavery in colonial Virginia this week. In the past, I have asked questions like this:

How did racism come to be the central feature of colonial Virginian society? In your answer, consider the social structure in the periods both before and after Bacon’s Rebellion.

Looking at this question, I am struck by how much information it calls for. Using Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676 as a narrative turning point, students must describe Virginia society in two eras. The question implies that what is important is the relationship between the two social structures and the emerging role of racism in society. This means they have to explain how racism became codified as well as why–the reference to Bacon’s Rebellion is a “hint.” Looking at this afresh, I can foresee what I know to be true. That answers will largely differ by levels of omission of parts of the information called for in this prompt.

I usually tip my hand about the question in the classes leading up to this test. I do think in part because I want to encourage them to study effectively. I think I also do it because I know I am asking for too much recall. I also worry I have created a speed-writing contest.

This year I am trying something else. I have told them the essential questions of the unit repeatedly, essentially why and how did race-based slavery come to dominate colonial Virginia. And this is what I want them to know: how and why the English settled on African slavery.

So I will try, really hard, to ask a question that calls for that which I hope they will know five years from now. This means much less detail and more focus on themes with a few examples broadly drawn. I don’t think this is reductive. The answer is complex and can be rendered in all sorts of subtle ways. But if a student offers a fairly broad outline that nevertheless answers the question I’ve asked, I think that is better than an incomplete answer to a question like that I asked last year.

Eventually, I would like my assessments to be based partially on objective factors, like a student’s rendering of the narrative of the coming of structural racism in North America, and partially on goals the students set with me. (This idea was distilled for me by my colleagues Kathryn McDermott and Dave Whitson.) If a student struggles with organizing evidence but writes great topic sentences, we could identify their challenge as something they will work on on a given assignment. My focus also would be there rather than on dozens of factors.

Finally, grades. (Yuck.) Should the grade for the year be where they are at the end of the year–which is what they have learned–or an accumulation of marks from September to June? Perhaps a mixture of the former, plus credit for participation, etc. There seems little use for a test from September to hold down a grade if they show better competency with THAT TOPIC in June. Again, an argument for testing and retesting–but I fear I will end up with them studying for a terrifying final. So I will have to keep quizzing the early material rather than amassing it into a single assessment. Perhaps I can help shift the goal for some of my students from trying to be perfect all the time towards aspiring to correct mistakes and solidify knowledge and skills by year’s end. We’ll see.



What Would it Mean if We “Let Teens Be Teens?”

American educators love to post articles on Facebook about how kids in Finland are allowed to be kids. A typical article is the Atlantic’s “The Joyful, Illiterate Kindergartners of Finland.” Yes, Finnish kids don’t get formal instruction in reading until age seven. They get recess every hour. And so on.

Most Finnish children I met struck me as capable and self-assured.

Such articles are one part research, one part concern, and a third part nostalgia. Yet they are difficult to refute. Allowing kids to move around after every 45 minutes or so of classroom time makes sense, both in terms of physical fitness and learning.

But I teach high school. Where does this leave me? Finnish upper-secondary students don’t get all that recess time–still, I was struck by the ways in which they are treated differently than American teenagers by teachers, parents, and society as a whole.

When I visited secondary schools in Finland, it seemed that educators respected the ability of teenagers to make decisions large and small–and live with the consequences. Students even choose whether they attend the vocational or college-preparatory streams in the secondary education system. I know this first-hand, sitting in on classes in which a fellow Fulbrighter asked students who made this life choice. Almost without exception, they told her they, not their parents, made this determination. They seemed to find it absurd and almost insulting that someone else would make such an important choice for them.

Something else striking: the uses of time. Finnish teens have little homework and move easily and freely around their cities. After school (which can end at 2pm or even noon on some days) the pedestrian centers are filled with teens, hanging out. Finnish schools don’t have clubs or sports like American high schools. This coupled with the light homework load means young Finns have much more free time–and they have control over that time. I don’t think the combination of physical freedom and free time are by chance. They combine to give teenage Finns yet more control over their lives.

Students relaxing at Mercuria Business College (vocational school), Vantaa, Finland

Does this arrangement lead to academic success? It’s hard to know. Put another way, are the high ratings of Finland in terms of education and life satisfaction because of such characteristics or despite them?

It goes without saying that Americans have an ambivalent set of feelings about our teenagers. We are the land that invented teenagers … but also the “No Loitering” sign outside convenience stores.

But let’s say our goal was to educate teenage students and send them off to college or into the workforce as healthy young people ready to contribute to society? What would best practices be around this goal?

Any changes made by American schools–or entities outside of schools–should of course be based on the rich research done in recent years on developmental psychology. This isn’t the case right now, however. Many psychologists now speak of “emerging adults,” a new phase of life created by social and economic forces (think of the emergence of adolescence as a recognized stage of life a century ago), while states have lowered the age at which children can be tried as or incarcerated as adults. 

Similarly, even as we know more (but not much really) about the teenage brain and its development, elite colleges are essentially requiring applicant take a year, maybe two, of calculus in high school.  Stanford’s admissions office is very clear: “Our most competitive freshman applicants often have four years (grades 9-12) of English, four years of math (including calculus)….” Writing in the Journal of Adolescent Health, two researchers from Johns Hopkins and a third from the National Institute of Mental Health say very clearly that, ” The frontal lobes, home to key components of the neural circuitry underlying ‘executive functions’ such as planning, working memory, and impulse control, are among the last areas of the brain to mature; they may not be fully developed until halfway through the third decade of life.”

If we know that for many if not most people, the frontal lobes aren’t finished growing until the age of 25, why are we requiring teenagers take calculus if they want to attend Yale? Does early frontal-lobe development signal something else? Or is it like a selective middle school admitting only tall eleven-year olds or kids with big feet–for their age?

What’s worse are the side-effects of the college-selection arms race in the US: so many wonderful, capable, intelligent kids are pushed into classes where they struggle and feel dumb. Others feel hopeless because they can’t reach calculus. Still others give up summers to “catch up” in math. Many also feel they must structure their “free time” around their college resumé: music lessons, community service, team sports, even entrepreneurship. None of these things are bad, it’s just that many young people feel obliged to pursue most or even all of them in hopes of landing a spot at a prestigious college. And lost is the social time, the down time, the sleep, so needed for human development.

The frontal lobes are also home to impulse control. Again, this area of the brain is just about latest to develop. Thinking about it this way, it just seems cruel to punish teens for making errors of judgment, especially those which are arguably victimless. Right now, any act of school discipline for any reason (think cheating on an exam or showing up drunk to a dance) truly does go on a student’s “permanent record.” Kids applying to most selective colleges must fill out a Common Application and this document requires disclosure of all events–even one which took place when the child was a 14-year old freshmen, “that resulted in a disciplinary action.” The Common App allows the student to explain what they have learned from their experience, but this is cold comfort. A friend who works in college counseling tells me college admissions officers don’t weigh these earlier missteps as heavily. But if we really wanted students a chance to make errors in judgment and learn from them, shouldn’t we have a less punitive and shaming system? Perhaps something like a policy which erases suspensions from a student’s record after two years if no more take place?

There is one way in which American teens appear to have more freedom and responsibility than their Finnish counterparts. Americans can obtain a driver’s licence, easily, at sixteen. In Finland, the minimum age is 18, and the process of earning the license is lengthy and expensive. And the right to drive can be easily lost, if a new driver compiles as few as two violations.

In the US, motor vehicle accidents kill more teenagers than homicide, suicide, drownings and poisonings combined. Over 5,000 every year. Our response to these harrowing facts? We keep buying our children cell phones and handing them the car keys. Okay, that’s simplistic. But we have designed our cities so that daily driving is a necessity. Given how difficult it is to move around suburban spaces on foot or by bicycle, it’s no wonder getting a licence is a right of passage. And now it is the number-one killer of teens. Shouldn’t the US do something about this? I would suggest immediately raising the dricauseofdeathving age to 18, perhaps 21, and making the process of obtaining a licence much more difficult. Setting the age at which a person may drive an SUV 65 miles-per-hour down a freeway must, no doubt, balance safety and convenience–but I’d err on the side of saving lives.

What is odd is how Americans like me simultaneously expect adult behavior from teens, extending this expectation even into the criminal justice system–while also infantilizing them. It was baffling to the Finnish upper-secondary students I spoke with that if a student in an American high school needs to use the toilet during the school day, they usually need teacher permission and a slip of paper in order to get past suspicious adults in the hallways. Why does someone who can drive a car need a note to walk to the toilet?

What would American high schools look like if we showed optimism about our students and treated them like “young adults” while acknowledging the developmental roots of much teen behavior. Teachers might not correct them when two students spoke quietly during class. Teachers (and parents) might respect their need for downtime and 9 or 10 hours of sleep per night. And while this is tricky, educators might give students opportunities to fail and learn from their mistakes. This is true in math or laboratory science, so why not in ethics or behavior as well?

Beginning Reflections on “Becoming More Finnish”

We left Jyväskylä a month ago. Time is slipping by and a new school year approaches. I am still experiencing “reverse” culture shock”…  but that is a different topic for a different day. Right now, I want to begin to process my experience with “the Finnish Education System” before memories slip away.

One important lesson I learned in Finland is in the inextricable relationship between education and other pillars supporting a society: housing, health care, nutrition, transportation, government, and so on. An unmeasurable portion of Finnish success in education is due to the nation’s overall success in creating a non-corrupt, democratic society in which most people have access to healthy food, an apartment in a safe neighborhood, and a relatively high quality of life overall.

Jyväskylän Lyseo, IB World School

This may sound obvious but it matters when education reformers are placing more and more burden on teachers to do everything for their students (parenting, counseling) while American income inequality grows and millions continue to lack access to medical care. The American federal government, and the states which control public education, appear willing to let millions of children live in poverty. Until the government begins rebuilding American cities to be more child-friendly, and begins offering every child food and medical care, there is a real limit on what teachers are going to be able to accomplish.

Teachers cannot improve their students’ housing, they cannot lower crime rates, they cannot make college affordable. (In Finland, university is free.) So what can they do? What can I do in my own classroom and push for in my own school?

I imagine I will sit with this question for a long time. But here are some initial ideas, in no particular order, based on my experience visiting 20 or so Finnish schools, from primary through upper secondary. I suppose each of these could be a stand-alone post. Again, this is brainstorming, not a complete or comprehensive list.

  1. Offer every child a free, nutritious lunch. This is a great leveler. In Finland, every child eats from the same small array of daily choices. The food is fairly simple but healthy. Children are taught from age 5 to make good choices and exercise portion control. There is rarely dessert. So teachers know that every child in the room receives at least one good meal every school day.
  2. Use schools to create citizens not employees. Think about preparation for democracy more and preparation for an imagined workplace less.
  3. Trust students (In conversation, Finnish audiences repeatedly compared descriptions of American secondary school practices (including hall passes to go to the toilet) to prisons.
  4. Limit homework (the research is out there). This is linked to students’ need for exercise, social time, and sleep. (How many times have I heard American teachers say, “If I reduced the homework load, they would only fill the time with video games and social networking.” Why do we assume unnecessary homework is “better” for kids than Instagram or just “kicking back”?)
  5. Increase student control over the pace of their work.
  6. Introduce more “learning by doing.”
  7. Treat teachers as the expert professionals they are and give them opportunities to explore new methods.
  8. Consider making time during the school day that does not feature classes or clubs.
  9. Be more tolerant of “side conversations” in the classroom: if two students are talking quietly, why not assume they have a good reason to do so?
  10. Focus on quality time, not quantity time, in the classroom, by designing compelling lessons that students can initiate without lengthy daily introduction by the teacher.
Sunset in Värdö, Åland Islands

I’m realizing my list could go on and on. I saw classrooms in which a wall of “houseplants” provided pleasing color and more oxygen, for example. The main lesson I am bringing back is “less is more.”

I can’t control the amount of  class time, but I can have a some say over how much homework I assign and the amount of information I ask my students to grapple with. By slowing the pace of data delivery and pursuing strategies to encourage learning (and not cramming), I think less really can be more. I’ll make the most of my experience in Finland if I focus on reasonable changes I can make on my own.

More soon. Classes begin Monday and I’ll bet being back in the classroom will bring forward topics for further thought.


Brexit, Counterculture, Education

The generational divide within the Brexit vote is stunning. As you probably already know, about 75% of people under 25 voted to remain in the EU. Those over 50, those whose lives will not be shaped by membership, tipped the scales in the other direction.


The Guardian has set up a Tumblr page for young Britons who supported “Remain” to express their feelings about the vote. Those feelings?: “Distraught,” “furious,” “enraged,” “helpless,” “terrified.” Here is a typical post:

Our Generation

Frankly the whole situation is messy and complex, with so many different issues that could be focused on including xenophobia, fear-mongering and the media. For me, the most irritating part is that a generation of people who own their own houses, have comfortable pensions and studied their degrees for free have decided what is best for our generation – a generation that is unable to buy a house and is in masses of university loan debt. We are the generation that is being walked all over and no one else seems to care.

– Andrew, 21, Graduate.

I cannot help but think again of the students in Vantaa (here in Finland) who told me they felt the older generation was defaulting on its promise by beginning the destruction of the social welfare system that supports their high quality of life.

That means, among other things, cuts to education. Beginning next year, Finland will charge non-EU students tuition for the first time. At the University of Tampere, that may mean 12,000 Euro per year–not much by American standards but a lot more than nothing. When I asked teachers here about the new Core Curriculum, they often expressed frustration with the government’s demand they do more with less funding and that class sizes were set to increase.

For these young people, the social fabric is tearing. It might be more accurate to say, they feel the rug is being pulled out from under their feet, sending them reeling.

Ok, here is where I might seem to take an odd turn.

There is a move here in Finland for the increased digitalization of education. That sounds great but part of me wonders if there is no connection between cuts to education funding and the advent of digitalization. Could the advancement of technology be part of a neoliberal move by the education ministry? Certainly, the politics of silicon valley (disruption, insecurity, winner-take-all) seem to have little in common with social democracy.

I say this not as a luddite: after all, I have spent the past six months putting together an online education website. But part of me wonders if the digital natives who populate our schools might not perceive a neoliberal wolf in (forgive me) digital sheep’s clothing.

A lot of ink has been spilled about this already. The hippie libertarianism of the Internet is too easily co-opted by the market libertarianism of neoliberals. Some education reformers appear swayed by the rhetoric of the inevitability of a certain kind of future. At the same time, many of our students live much of their lives online and don’t see the Internet as an impediment to “real experience.” It’s a dangerous mixture.

I would like to make two quick points. First, I want to acknowledge that there is an uneasy intersection between the progressive ideal of “the student as the unit of consideration,” neoliberal atomization, and the atrophying of the social compact and the commons. For progressive educators, it’s a balancing act: the goal is to employ technology (and adapt education) to serve the interest of the individual without letting go of the common good. We need to use digital tools to increase empathy with those far away, to make new connections. But we also have to keep our students connected to the issues right at home.

Second, I think we have to consider the digitalization of education and the turn toward “21st-century skills” in light of the attack on the welfare state (whether that be in the US, Finland, or anywhere else in the global North). A quest for security–within the EU, under a social democracy, at a job with a pension–may well be the hallmark of the generation born during the Clinton-Blair-Jiang-Kohl years.


If there ever is another tangible wave of youth rebellion, what will it be like? Will young people differentiate between “the man” who wants to privatize their pension or “the man” who wants them to work 60 hours a week, and “the man” at the Environmental Protection Agency, or at Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, or at the Finnish Competition and Consumer Authority? Strange as it sounds, might we have a countercultural movement–or even a youth movement–that demands increased social security?

And I wonder where my students will see their schooling as they contemplate how they’ve been prepared for (or socialized for) the world they face as adults.

Might the Brexit alter the reputation of the bureaucrats among the youth of Britain? For more than a generation, in the Anglo-American world at least, there has been a disinformation campaign eliding the differences between Soviet-style socialism and social welfare systems which lengthened lives and fought poverty.

Some “Organization Men” may not be so bad after all–bureaucracy dedicated to the common good just may be the way to freedom. The young may yet boldly reject Thatcher’s claim that “there is no such thing as society.” Or maybe, when I look at the Brexit results, they already have.

As 25-year-old Alex Hoskins put it to the Guardian:

I feel lied to. Lied to by the people who taught me, through history lessons and politics, that we are better together, that isolation achieves nothing, and that kindness and working together is the best route.