What Would You Teach?

Here’s an interesting question:

Think about that one for a while. Your answer will say a lot about what you really believe about learning and education.

I know many would respond with some form or empowering students to make those decisions. In general, this is a good sign, indicating an important shift in what teachers are attempting to do today. However, as much as I personally believe this is a much-needed change, I continue to caution teachers not to abdicate their own responsibility to be a wise and caring adult that at times directs the learning.

Like parenting, schools should be a gradual release of responsibility. The don’t know what they don’t know our experience and understanding of the world, needs to be valued and even shared explicitly at times. I often share with teachers about the move from sage on the stage to guide on the side but always refer to a third position which Erica McWilliams calls “meddler in the middle“. Whenever I share this I’m careful to suggest that this is not a continuum. A great teacher knows how to move agilely between these roles, knowing precisely when to provide direct instruction, when to move out of the way and facilitate and when to learn along side with your students.

I would like to rephrase Zac’s question to focus more on direct instruction and content. I imagine your response would be a combination of personal passion or interest, bigger issues of life, current world events and knowing the needs of your students. Your great unfair advantage is that you bring certain biases, skills, and interests to your students. Often times these are set aside in order to meet curriculum outcomes and also foster the needs and interests of students. But sometimes it’s okay to be a bit selfish. As a parent, I think about the variety of important things I’ve taught my children over the years: Teaching them how to cross the street, exposing them to certain kinds of music and movies, taking them to museums, discussing politics and religion, introducing them to various sports and showing them how to cook. In most cases, these are things they chose or asked to be taught. As parents, we made those choices because they were important things to us and found value in learning them.

I’m very privileged in that people allow me to speak to teachers and educators for often an hour at a time to essentially say/teach whatever I want. I realize that not every teacher gets that same luxury, even in their own classroom. So with that, let me ask you this.

If next week you could provide some type direct instruction to your students, what would you teach?

I Don’t Know What You Mean By “Failure”

Among the current trends in education is a romanticized view of failure. Stop me if you’ve heard this before:

Embrace Failure
FAIL First Attempt in Learning
Failure is Essential to Learning

Shifting from an education system that prized compliance and success over questioning and failure, is an important conversation to provoke. We need to have frank discussions about the role of failure in learning and our schools. I have two problems with this new found love of failure. First, I don’t really know what you mean by failure and second, what happens when failure is inevitable?

The word failure is being used to talk about everything from students struggling to make a circuit light up, getting a failing grade, making an error on a spelling test, design setbacks on projects and not getting into your first college choice. The range of the word use has diluted its meaning. I had a conversation with my friend John Spencer who talked about the difference between mistakes, imperfections, and failures. It seems many lump these all together. There is a big difference between someone making a mistake on a test on a driver’s test and not getting into medical school. I’m not sure what to do about this issue but I do think speaking in platitudes and pithy quotes isn’t all that helpful.

The second issue is that our favorite failure stories have fairy tale endings. Videos like this suggest that all you have to do is persevere and you’ll become great or famous.

But what about all the people who never have these comebacks and successes? Recently I heard Natalie Panek speak. Natalie is a brilliant scientist and a great speaker. In her talk, she addressed her own failure. She applied for a NASA internship 4 times and was rejected each time. After the 4th time, she called NASA to find out more and was offered a spot. This is a great story of perseverance and dedication to a goal. But what would have happened if she didn’t get that offer? Someone as bright and talented as Natalie would likely have found success in another place. And while she did learn a great lesson, I would love to hear more stories where the failure didn’t have such a happy ending. The reality is if we ask our students and ourselves to take risks, we’re going to experience real failure. In many cases all the grit, resiliency and perseverance in the world won’t make all your dreams come true. It’s not really a risk if you know in the end you’ll be successful. In education and life, we hate uncertainty. Obviously, that doesn’t mean that failure is in vain. Reflection, and in many cases, time, are the only ways to glean anything from those more epic disappointments. As educators and parents, we can offer hope but we also can have candid conversations that acknowledge short comings and encourage self-awareness. Many times, those shortcomings can be overcome, but there are times when they can’t. That doesn’t have to be shameful but accepting that sometimes we just aren’t able to win/succeed/achieve is an extremely valuable lesson.

And then again, maybe you disagree.


Reminding Myself to Keep My Mouth Shut

I believe strongly in debate and civil discourse. I’ve gone so far as to design a course that explores what this looks like particularly online. I’ve not hesitated to critique language and ideas I think may be harmful. 

That disposition always needs to be tempered with an understanding of the world we live in. Social media means the newest app, trend or idea often gets positioned as revolutionary and then immediately bashed by naysayers. Neither are right. 

Pokemon Go arrives and soon folks go from downloading to playing to seeing potential for learning. As quickly as that’s shared, they take a beating. I was one who downloaded the game and before I could play was immersed in the hype and sniffed the “game changer” claims. 

But before I hit the snark button I better step back. Just because someone thinks something has potential and gets a bit excited doesn’t mean we attack. This happens too often to anyone suggesting something might have educational value. I’ve been guilty of this myself. What I need to remind myself is to keep quiet and let people play. 

In the classroom I remember introducing my kids to new technologies. Dating myself, I recall handing a GPS unit to my students and exploring Geocaching. They were pretty amazed at the technology and  I thought  about ways I could use this technology in a myriad of ways. While it certainly had its limits, it did lead to using Google Earth which opened up numerous other learning experiences. The excitement faded but the learning remained. 

Technology is about hope. It’s about possibility. That actually should get us excited. Within that excitement we should add a healthy dose of skepticism. We should challenge ourselves and others but we shouldn’t squash that initial burst of excitement. 

Pokemon Go looks interesting. It’s not going to revolutionize education but I don’t know that anyone has truly made that claim. We need critics who aren’t afraid to question. But maybe not immediately. We need to give folks time and remember not everything has to be edified.  I’ll keep my mouth shut, play for a bit and see where this thing lands.

Hour of Code is Good Enough

Whenever a new idea is introduced to education, expect a flood of criticisms. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, in fact, we need naysayers and critics to challenge all our ideas. It’s what makes a democratic society function and it’s important for our ideas to be challenged in order to improve them.

Photo by Kevin Jarrett
Photo by Kevin Jarrett

Hour of Code is one of those burgeoning ideas that is getting a lot of up take in schools. Proponents love it as an easy way to introduce the coding and computer science to students with little or no background needed from either the teacher or the student. Critics argue that it’s not enough and it dumbs down what is a critical and important skill.

We are doing a disservice to kids by assuming that they can’t grasp industry-standard languages, complex computer science topics, and applications. By limiting them, we undermine their capabilities and stifle their creative and inventive potential.


The promise of K-12 education has always been to provide children with a broad liberal arts experience that prepares them for life. While some chose a greater focus on college and career, this still suggests that we offer students a wide range of opportunities. We head down a very slippery slope when we try and steer students towards paths we determine are more important that others.

Hour of Code is most certainly an entry level experience. It does not offer the complexity and depth needed to find employment in that industry. But that’s not it’s intent. Physical Education classes do not offer the training for students to become Olympians or professional athletes. English classes will not offer enough for students to become novelists. Biology classes won’t produce scientists.

The reality is also that schools can never offer deep expertise in all these areas. Having a passionate and qualified music teacher at a school likely means that students will have a greater chance to excel and pursue their musical interests more so than at a school that doesn’t have that kind of educator. We’ll never be able to provide expertise in all areas. But expertise is not what we should be hiring. We need expert learners and connectors.

As much as we continue to advocate for a more personalized learning experience, the need for caring adults to expose students to new ideas and learning is our mandate. This, balanced with greater choice for students to pursue their interests is what can make our system even better.

So I’m happy to see teachers explore hour of code, genius hour and other initiatives that provide students a chance to experience something new. Is it enough to make them experts or go into much depth? Probably not. I’m not suggesting we always choose breadth over depth, but our mandate is not to produce coders, musicians, athletes, scientists, doctors or lawyers. No school will be able to go deep enough to create industry ready students. That’s not our job. Our job is to help them understand their strengths, find some interests and connect them to experts and opportunities to learn more.

How Can I Get A Higher Grade?

I teach a Masters level course at Wilkes University. Like many teachers,  I often get asked by my students, “What do I need to do to get a higher grade?” They offer to do extra credit or anything. While I understand that for some, grades are tied to funding, scholarships, etc, my grading practices are pretty clear. Students essentially grade themselves while I, and others provide feedback.  You can read more here if you like.

I understand that even as adults, the idea of grades is deeply embedded in our thinking about learning. So when I was asked recently about how to get a higher grade, this was my response:

So without going into too long a diatribe about grading, let me just say that I don’t care at all, or at least very little about grades. It’s partly why I simply ask all of you to grade yourself and give very little pushback unless there is a huge discrepancy.  What I’m interested in is your learning and trying to measure it is a futile pursuit at best.

This igcse physics tutor can help students to score straight As in their IGCSE exams.

I hope that what we’re doing here is interesting and useful. If it isn’t, I’m asking you to push me to make it more in line with your interests staying within the confines and principles of the course.

I feel that by following the blog considerations, looking closely at some of the better examples among your classmates and interacting deeply with others, you can achieve the grade you want. I’m not a fan of extra credit in principle either. Doing more work because you want to learn more makes sense, doing it for credit means it’s simply about grades.

If you want a higher grade, it’s pretty easy. More learning actually requires more effort.