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The Art of Conversation


The Art of Conversation


"I work the best when I am working in groups.  Groups allow me to bounce off ideas to other people and it allows me to see things in a different light.”          —Nathan Y., student

It’s the format of the class that makes the biggest differenceI don’t feel like I’m competing any more the way I did in biology (survival of the fittest-how appropriate!), or shouldering the burden for a bunch of people who expect to coast by on my efforts like I did in Chemistry.  Feeling like you’re part of a group of people who actually want each other to do well changes everything.   Physics is a subject that interests me, but the format of the class allowed me to realize that.     —Nadeen M., student

Listening is not the same as learning.  Even if a student is fully attentive during a lecture, the real work of learning occurs when he is actively processing what he just heard.  Learning is the active engagement of the mind with new ideas.  It is antithetical to passivity.  

Most of us learn best when we are talking to each other precisely because conversational learning is active learning.  When we ask each other questions, when we struggle with ideas together, we tend to learn more deeply than through any isolated activity.  Conversation between students is both the glue that fosters a sense of community, and, for many students, the most powerful and effective mechanism for learning. Students must therefore be taught the art of learning from and with each other.

In an effective classroom, teaching and learning are ubiquitous; for every student to be engaged in learning, there simply must be more than one teacher in the room.  When students become comfortable working in small groups, when they assume the responsibility of teaching each other and they learn the skill of asking the right questions, the learning environment becomes richer and more resilient. 


It Takes a Village to Learn Physics

It Takes a Village to Learn Physics


As the students pour into the classroom, I ask each one to pick a card from a small deck on the front desk.  When everyone is ready, I give them their instructions for the day.

“You’re going to be getting into randomly chosen groups today, and heading back to the lab tables to go over the homework together.  Everyone with an ace will sit at this table, everyone with a king here, queens there, jacks there, and tens at this table.  We’ll be doing this randomizing regularly for the next month to make sure you have a chance to work with every other student in the room.  

“It’s important to pay close attention to the people you work with today.  Towards the end of this quarter, you’ll have a say in who will be in your permanent study group, and you definitely want people you know you work well with.  These may be your friends, but people you don’t even know at this moment may well turn out to be better workmates.

“When you get into groups, introduce yourself.  Remember, by the end of next week, I want to see whether every person in this room knows every other person in this room.  We will do more learning and enjoy it more if we all feel like we’re part of a community.

“I want to remind you that for this way of running a class to be successful, all of us have to share the wealth.  Some of you are better at reading and taking notes, some are stronger mathematically, some are better test-takers.  The point is that if every person shares what they are good at, everyone in the room will be successful.  One thing I know for sure is that if I’m the only teacher in the room, we will get the usual bell curve grade distribution.  I simply can’t give every one of you what you need to learn optimally all by myself.”

Some students have questions: “Won’t each group need to have a leader?  Are you assigning one?”

“Actually, when we form permanent study groups in a few weeks, one person will be the leader, but it will be a volunteer, not someone that I choose.  For today, if someone wants to lead, great.  If not, see how well you do just talking to each other.  Maybe you won’t even need a leader.  If it’s too chaotic, I’ll help you figure something out.   

“In any case, when you’re in your group, get out your homework for today, and I’ll walk around and stamp it. While I’m doing that, get out your books and go through each page together with your group.  Look at the bold words, the diagrams and pictures, the captions, and see if there’s anything there that you struggled with last night.  Check out anything you’ve written in the commentary section of your notes.  If you put down any number other than a ‘5,’ you should have something written to remind you of why it isn’t a ‘5.’  What is it that you didn’t understand?

“When you’ve gone through every section -- and take your time; make sure that you really look at it -- then, as a group, look at the questions I’ve selected at the end of the chapter.  They are going to be the springboard for your group to talk about what you just read.  When you are done discussing each question, write down the answer to the question.  It is critical that, even though you talked about it together, you write about it alone and in your own words.  That increases the likelihood that you really understand it.  If at any point you think there is something you can’t figure out as a group, call me over.  I’ll be wandering around as you do this.

“When everyone is done reviewing the homework and answering the questions, I’m going to give you a check-up.  This will be a single question that goes to the heart of what you’ve been discussing with your group.  It is not for a grade, but rather to let you see whether you understood it as well as you thought, and whether your study group did its job well.  It will also give me a sense of how the whole class is doing, and whether we are ready to move on to the next topic.”  


Sharing the Wealth

Sharing the Wealth


"Helping each other is great."       —Jonathan H., student

"Sharing the wealth was, to me, one of the most valuable ideas of this class.  I know I have been fortunate to have peers willing to teach me the ideas I struggled with.  I feel that I also had a great deal of impact on other students as well.  Everyone worked well together and cooperated, unlike anything I have ever seen before."                —Francesca F., student

Everyone’s in the room and I’ve given them the usual thirty seconds or so to settle in, finish their conversations and give me their attention.  We are ready.

“You already know this, but I think it’s worth repeating.  When you are working in small groups, it is usually much easier to share your learning experience with each other than it would be in the whole class structure.  Working together as a whole class is useful for some things, but for conversations, where you are going to learn the most rapidly and deeply, small groups are much better.  And you will find over time that your sense of trust and even loyalty to your group will develop into something deep and meaningful.  It also helps all of us feel a true sense of community in this room.

“The groups you have been working with so far have been random and temporary, so your sense of commitment to them has probably not been all that strong.  Even so, how useful have you found going over homework together, or reviewing tests?”

“It has been incredible for me,” Nadeen says.  “I didn’t realize how much difference it would make at first, but as I got into it and started asking more questions, I discovered I could really learn what hadn’t made sense while I was reading.  That’s made all the difference for me.”

“And I noticed that when I really get it and find myself in the role of teaching someone, I realize I didn’t understand it as well as I thought I had.”  Tom has said something similar to me in private conversations.  I’m glad he’s making it a public statement - it’s a big step for him because he’s generally unwilling to take a position in front of the whole class.  “When someone asks a question, it takes me out of taking things for granted - I have to recognize when I was kidding myself about how well I got it.”

“Well, I don’t know if it’s just me, or maybe I haven’t found the right group yet, but I have to admit it hasn’t been all that useful for me.  I generally know what I’m talking about before we get together as a group, and the conversation isn’t covering any ground I don’t already know.  At least, it seems that way to me.”

“Jordan, I hope you’ll find that with a permanent group that you’ll grow to respect and trust over time, your experience will be more useful and satisfying for you”, I say.


"Working with people helps me both when I understand a topic and when I don’t."      —Ellie L., student

"Students teaching students is a great idea because kids actually do not pay that much attention to teachers."               —Dave J., student


Ryan's Quote

Ryan's Quote


Ryan is usually the first one into the room, which is fitting, given his intense personality.  He is eager, sometimes over-eager, to show what he knows.  In time, he and I will talk about how he relates to his peers, and how it sometimes gets in the way of his working well in a group.  

In the meantime, he has this little ritual.  He says hi to me, walks to his desk, sets down his backpack, and then he turns and reads the daily quote.  I put up a new saying every day on a white board perched over the chalkboard at the front of the room.  I use bright colors and try to have the quote relate to the day’s activities as often as possible.  Ryan always has a comment, some reaction.

Not everyone reads the quotes, and even if they do, they don’t often say anything.  But for some students, these trigger a conversation with other students or with me that sometimes dive into really meaningful areas.  Some students write every one of them down in their journals.
Today, the quote reads:  “If you know, teach.  If you don’t know, learn.”

Ryan asks, “Is this about the study groups?”

“Yep.  That summarizes pretty well what we’re going to be trying to do today.”



Teaching and Learning

Teaching and Learning


"This year I feel that I have matured so much in your class.  Besides learning so much about the world around me, I have also learned that I can be an important member of this society.  If someone needs help, I can give them help; if I ask for help, I know that I shouldn’t have to worry to ask for it.  I feel that your class has caused all of us to mature mentally."    —Josh S., student

The students are seated in new groups around the lab tables at the back of the room.  They have introduced themselves again, and are looking over the answer keys to see how they did.  I’m wandering around, listening in.

“How did you get number three?”, Ben asks.  “I set it up right, but I don’t see how you put the speed and time into the equation to get this answer.”

Sarah leans over and shows him her work.  “Look, you made a mistake when you rearranged the equation to get distance on this side.  You had to multiply by time to cancel it out on this side - you divided and that’s the problem.”

“Ah, that’s it.  So when I multiply by time, I get the distance, right?”


These conversations are happening at every table.  It goes on for twenty minutes as they plow through every problem on the sheet.  I hand out a cover sheet with a rubric for self-evaluation and ask them to give themselves a grade for this homework.  Excellent work consists of stamped homework that has complete, correct problems showing every step.  With the answer keys, everyone should theoretically be able to do that.  When some don’t, it lends itself to a conversation about what they want to get out of this course.  And if any student doesn’t see how to grade himself or is trying to get away with a better grade than the work deserves, that also leads to a good conversation.    At this early stage, it’s important to give them extensive feedback.  

As each group finishes up, I hand out a single problem check-up, not for a grade, and collect it as they finish.   When everyone has turned it in, I throw the correct solution on the board.

“If you didn’t get this answer, showing all these steps, you need more practice.  If that’s the case, here is some optional homework that lets you practice the same level of difficulty.  There are helpful hints on the back.  I’ll have answer keys available tomorrow.  It’s your choice whether you need to practice.”


Reflective letter: Liz B.

Reflective letter: Liz B.


In all honesty I never wanted to study physics.  I had never planned on taking a physics class unless I was required to in college.  I am not a “math person,” so why would I have any desire to take a math based physics course.  Or so I thought.  I couldn’t be happier that I switched into this class after dropping Biology AP.  This class has grown into one of my favorites.  

I am thoroughly dumbfounded by each new concept we cover.  Can it really be true that there are black holes?  Are stars really that far away?  Is gravity really not a force?  It is ideas that send me walking down the hallways of (our school) with thoughts of physic jumbling around in my mind.  This class has been possibly the most captivating class I have ever taken.  I have never felt truly motivated to share my classroom experiences with friends or family before this class.  I find it amazing to bring these ideas home to my parents and discuss them over the dinner table.  My friends and I stand around our kitchens munching on an after school snack talking about the amazing things we discovered in physics today.  

This is really what learning should be about, and this class has proven this to me.  It has given me a better idea for the type of education I am seeking for my future.  I have found that I have to truly love and be enthralled in the material I am learning to even begin to care about it and to dig deep into it.

The other thing this class has given me is more confidence.  I have become a leader in this class.  As a study group leader and a member of the steering committee I feel like I am making a difference in the classroom atmosphere.  This class has given me not only a great education, but has helped me grow on a personal level.  This is what makes this class so important to me.  I enjoy this class so greatly and the way it is organized and structured makes all the difference in my experience.


Giving Students Voice

Giving Students Voice


"You allowed the class mood to stay relaxed by allowing us to pick our own study groups.  This gave every student the opportunity to open up to each other and talk about their mistakes rather than be ashamed.  Also, these study groups became close to each other and we found ourselves really pushing each other to turn in the best contract possible."         —Melissa M., student

“We are about to embark on a new phase in this class, and begin the process of refining one of the most important learning tools we have at our disposal - you.  We’re finally ready to form permanent study groups.”  It is mid-October, and the leaves of the poplar tree outside the windows are a golden yellow.  It is a bright fall day, and the sunlight reflecting off the tree is actually changing the color in the room.   

Over the past six weeks, my students have been working randomly with every other student in the room.  They know not just each others’ names, but a lot about everyone’s working habits, strengths and weaknesses.  They have come a long way towards recognizing that there is a remarkable range of skills and interests and motivations in the room, and that the best experiences happen when people are open to sharing what they are good at with each other.  They have been told repeatedly to pay attention to who they work best with.  Friendships have been formed, and people who blow off the work are starting to feel some social pressure as it becomes clear to everyone that they’re not helpful in doing the work, in being successful.

“All of you have a pretty good sense of who we all are in this class, and it’s time for you to decide what your ideal group will be.  As you know by now, study groups are very important in this class;  you already have experienced how much you learn from talking to each other.  Once you form permanent groups, you will form working relationships of even deeper trust and loyalty to each other.  

“Over time, you will be able to share your learning experience much more deeply with your group than you ever would in a normal classroom structure.  You will form a deeper sense of community in a small group, and as you already know, the conversational learning in these groups is a powerful learning technique that will get better as you learn how to work together more successfully.

“Trust is critically important to the learning process.  If you are going to learn from your mistakes, you have to be able to share them with other people, and that takes trust.  Over time, I think you’ll find that your study group is your home within the home of this classroom, that you’ll start to look out for each other, and dive in deeper whenever anyone in your group is in trouble, academically or personally.  

“The process of actually forming permanent groups will be a blend of what you want and what I, as your teacher, understand about the strengths and weaknesses each of you can bring to a group.  It’s important that every group have a healthy mixture of different skills so that you can share the wealth optimally.  It wouldn’t be useful, for instance to have five people who ace every test but are not very good with hands-on experiences in the same group.  I also like to see a mix of gender and race in each group, because we all have a different point of view, and besides, it makes things more interesting to work with people who don’t look like you.”

In fact, I know that there are two groups who have already become extremely functional  that are all of one gender, and I will ultimately let my preference slide because they work so well together.

“What I’m going to do is give you a slip of paper, a secret ballot, that you can write the name of two or three other people in this room that you feel you would work well with.  Remember, it’s not necessarily the friends you walked into this room with six weeks ago.

“There is also a place on this form to write the name of one person you really don’t want to work with.  This is optional, and I only want you to put down a name if you have had such terrible experiences working with this person that you anticipate it being a real problem.”

In many classes, there are one or two people whose personalities are such that almost no one wants to work with them.  Finding a home for such people is often one of the big  challenges of creating groups.  Sometimes, I have to create a group and hold my breath as I announce whose working with whom.  I always give everyone a private way to let me know that there is a serious problem, and sometimes I have to have private conversations with several students to try to work through the bumps and bruises as they get used to working with each other.  Other times, I really have to adjust the groups, and do it in a way that it isn’t obvious why they are being reorganized.  

“It will take me several days to figure out the final groups.  I will do everything in my power to honor all your requests, but sometimes there are bigger priorities in finding balanced, functional groups.  If you have strong feelings about the question of who you want to work with, find some time to talk to me privately about it over the next few days.”

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The Trick to Great Leadership

The Trick to Great Leadership


“Before we actually get into these groups, I want to tell you a little secret.  Whenever two or more people get together to do something, they never, ever stay on task 100% of the time.  I’ve worked in a lot of jobs, on a lot of committees, been to a lot of meetings, and people like to take breaks, gossip, socialize, go off task.  I sit in department meetings where people break into side conversations all the time.  It’s human nature.

“So I don’t expect you to never drift into personal conversations.  In fact, I think the personal conversations are the social glue that make the whole thing work.  It makes the experience more human, more meaningful.  You remember more of what you are learning if you are also having fun at the same time.”

They are eating this up.  

“So if you’re not on task 100% of the time, what is reasonable?  Talk to your neighbor about it, and see if we can come up with a consensus.”

There is a babble of conversation.  It strikes most of them as an interesting question, and we’ve been working with each other long enough for them to know that I legitimately want to know their opinion.  Finally, I ask them what they came up with.

Alicia says “90% sounds right to me.”

Sam disagrees.  “I don’t think that’s realistic. We’re thinking more like 70%.  Maybe three quarters of the time, max.”

“What I have found in the past is that, if you are actually interested in the material, 90% isn’t all that hard to do, but in general most groups can operate on task between 80% and 90% of the time.  The truth is, we don’t need a rule about this.  You’ll know if you’re keeping the forward momentum going.  If you’re on task 50% of the time, you’ll know it, and it will feel like you’re blowing the class off.  Also, I’ll notice and then we’ll have a conversation to find out how you think you can become more effective.

“The real question is how do you go from being off-task back to being on-task?  Who decides?  How do you handle it?  And that brings up the issue of leadership.

“When you turned in the forms about who you wanted to work with, some of you put a check in the box where I asked if you might be interested in being a study group leader.  Some groups will already have someone who is interested, some groups don’t.  For those who don’t, you’re going to have to find someone in your group to step up in the next week or so, because the role of study group leader is actually quite important.

“Here is the trick to great leadership.  Listen carefully, because this is an important skill in life.  Let’s say your group is going over homework and you drift into a conversation about something that happened over the weekend or a movie several people just saw.  The balancing act of a good leader is to allow the conversation to run for a reasonable amount of time before gently reminding everyone that there is still work to do.  Being a leader does not mean being a jerk, making people do things they don’t want to do, or even telling them what to do.  Instead, you are acting as the conscience of the group, the one who doesn’t get swept away by the conversation, who is able to keep a little distance from the content of what the group is talking about to maintain awareness of the situation and raise everyone else’s awareness at an appropriate moment.

“I can tell you that if you learn this skill - and you’ll have plenty of opportunities in this class - you’ll find that it is a remarkably useful thing to know how to do in a lot of situations in life.  It is, for instance, one of the key factors in making this class feel the way that it does.

“Here’s a quote from a book called the Tao te Ching - one of the books I would keep on a desert island, if I had to choose.

For every force, there is a counterforce.  Violence, even well intentioned, always rebounds on itself.

“I know you’re not going to be violent with each other - at least, I hope you won’t”, I say with a smile, “but just interrupting a conversation abruptly, or treating the people in your group as if you are above them somehow as the leader can have a bad effect on everyone involved.  If you are a leader, don’t use force unless it is really necessary - say for the sake of safety, or because one person is being mean to another.  Trusting and respecting the people you are working with is always more effective in the long run.  And it feels better for everyone involved.”

“So it’s time to get in your permanent groups - I’ll announce them and give you a table to sit at - and see how it works.  Remember, if you’re unhappy for any reason, let me know, but privately.  So here we go.”


"The study groups gave every student the opportunity to open up to each other and talk about their mistakes rather than be ashamed.  Also, these study groups became close to each other and we found ourselves really pushing each other to turn in the best contract possible."        —Melissa M., student


Plan B

Plan B


In less than a minute, I knew I was in trouble.  Like most veteran teachers, I had finely tuned antennae, and the signals were very clear;  I hadn’t even introduced myself yet, and there were a number of very loud conversations that weren’t even slightly affected by the first bell starting the first day of class.  A core of students who had chosen to sit together as they came into the room for the first time were clearly and intentionally ignoring me.  Trouble.

It is moments like these that put a teacher’s experience and instincts to the test.  I knew I would have to be forceful to establish my authority - there’s no way that this kind of behavior is going to fly - but my message from the start is that I want us to work together as a community so that I don’t need to use force.

I struggled through that first class, trying unsuccessfully to find a balance.  It was no good.  They weren’t buying.  I tried every approach I could think of and still the whole period was a relentless struggle to maintain control.

I have to say, it was a rude awakening.  I hadn’t experienced any serious power struggles in years, and I was out of practice.  When there are one or two disruptive students, a few private conversations are usually all that are needed.  In this case, there were eight or nine students who were intent on testing me, and they were working together to maintain the upper hand.

As the weeks progressed and I set up study groups to foster independent work, I found that there was simply no way to organize the students that would be effective.  Finally, out of the obvious fact that they weren’t working, I brought the whole class to the front and changed the rules.

“It breaks my heart, but this can’t go on.  There are some people in this room who really want to learn physics, and it is my job to make sure that they are able to do that.  Everything I believe in makes me want to help you learn how to work independently and own your own learning, but it is clear that we can’t do that in this class at this time.  So I’m going to shift gears.

“From today on, we are going to revert to a traditional, teacher-directed class.  There aren’t going to be any more study groups or open work time.  We are all going to do the same thing at the same time, even though I don’t believe in it.

“And I am reluctantly going to become your boss about behavior.  I don’t like being a disciplinarian and I haven’t issued a detention in many years, but that’s about to change.  I don’t want to get into too many details right now - it’s just too negative and besides, it doesn’t apply to most of you - but over the next few days, I will have conversations with several of you to discuss how this is going to unfold.”

I followed up with individual conversations with six or seven students.  I told them exactly what behaviors I was no longer going to allow, and laid out the escalating sequence of consequences that would happen if they persisted.  And I told them I would be relentless in following through;  I intended to regain the classroom that I knew the other students deserved.

The first few weeks were difficult.  I had had conversations with the deans about the situation and had warned them that I would be needing their support.  I hadn’t “written up” a student in so many years that I had to relearn the necessary forms.  But learn them I did.  And there were some challenging moments in the classroom when I began implementing the new approach.

Since I hadn’t needed their help in the past, the deans understood that this was an unusually difficult situation and we worked well together.  For a while, it looked like the classroom struggle might escalate, but after a few weeks, the two most disruptive students were spending so much time in the dean’s office that their counselors intervened and transferred them to another class.

I never told the other students that that had happened, but everyone knew, and it made a difference.  But even with less defiance and disruption, we were still a long way from student-directed learning.

After several months, I carefully reintroduced the idea of study groups.  I created several groups that I thought might be viable, and let them go over homework independently in the back of the room while I went over it in a teacher-dominated structure with everyone else.  If the groups in back didn’t work out, I pulled them back in front to work with me.

Eventually, there were two groups able to do work reasonably well on their own.  The other students saw the contrast (with my active encouragement) and I began asking “Who feelsready to work on your own in the back?”  When that became the more enticing option, it began to take root.  If one student in a group drove them off task too often, or was too disruptive, the others in the group would make him stop, since it jeopardized their ability to continue to work.  Once peer pressure replaced my interventions, I knew we had made progress.

By the second semester, we had a fragile but functioning working arrangement.  It was what I would consider a limited success, but the students who were intent on learning were able to finally take advantage of the study group approach..

This experience was an important lesson for me, especially since it occurred towards the end of my career.  I saw again how stubbornly self-destructive students’ attitudes can be towards school, and how group dynamics can work as intensely against student success as it can towards that success.  It also reminded me that when a classroom is run as an island of one philosophy in a sea of a different (or no) philosophy, it becomes much harder, and sometimes impossible, to establish a true community of learners.

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The Groundwork

The Groundwork


“How do you get them to do this?” Fernando is asking.  He has stopped by to visit my class during a period where study groups are going over homework.  What was most striking for him was the transition from a brief introduction to the whole class to them working in small groups;  as soon as I said “Let’s go”, they moved purposefully to their groups and dove right into the task.  After I had made the rounds stamping in their work and handing out answer keys, Fernando and I wandered around the room, checking out how the groups were attacking the problem set.

At one point, we came to a table with four students engaged in an animated conversation about a football game they had seen last night.  When we reached them, I asked, “So, three of you finished the problems, and one didn’t.  How are you working to bring Chris up to speed?”

Tommy answers, “We were thinking of going over the things that the three of us got wrong compared to the answer key, and while we’re doing that Chris could start on the first problem by himself.  Then we’d talk him through the places where any of us messed up so he’d know what to watch out for.”

“Good plan.  And Chris, do you think you can finish this on your own tonight?”

“Definitely.  I just flat out ran out of time last night.”

“Okay.  Sounds good,” I say, and Fernando and I move on.

“I noticed you didn’t call them on being off-task,” Fernando says with a smile.  The issue of how a working relationship with students can be done with fewer power struggles is one that is important to him.

“Yes, I intentionally didn’t bring up the obvious fact that they were off task and should start working.  For these four, that would be unnecessary;  it would feel like nagging.  With other students, I might have to sit down, ask more specific questions about what they need to do and provide guidance, even start the process with them before moving on.”

“But how do you get them to be this independent?”

“Fernando, it’s going to be tougher in your classes, of course.  You’re working with freshmen, and I have juniors and seniors, so we’re living on different planets as far as maturity goes.  But I know this level of independent motivation is possible no matter what group of students you are working with.  

“The truth is, once you’ve done the groundwork, this isn’t even all that hard to do.  In fact, once this structure is in place, it’s much easier for me as a teacher, because I’ve greatly reduced how much I have to cajole or push them to work.  And discipline problems drop to just about nothing. 

“I can take credit for knowing my subject andthe sequence of new ideas.  I’m responsible for building the scaffolding so they know how to choose well for themselves.  I can even take credit for creating the classroom culture that allows this to happen.

“But where the rubber meets the road, where the meaningful stuff takes place, that happens here when they are doing this work with each other.  I know they learn from me when I’m explaining new material or showing them a demo that gets their attention.  But I can’t take credit for the deep, lasting learning that takes place here when they are exploring together, teaching each other, arguing about what these ideas mean.  And when they’re done, they have a true sense of pride in the fact that they did it.”





“I want to tell you a story that will help you understand how great study groups operate.  Many years ago, I lived in Germany, and I took a job at a factory to make enough money to pay my way to come back home.  It was in a firm that shipped tulip bulbs all over the world, and my task was to take a catalogue and a number of brochures and other inserts and put them in a large envelope to be mailed out to customers.  The job was pretty tedious — there were several dozen people in a large room, each one sitting at a table with piles of everything to be assembled.  

“We were paid based on how many of these envelops we could assemble each day, so I looked around at all the people working and discovered one young man whose pile of completed envelopes was always nearly twice as tall as anyone else’s in the room.  So I asked him, “How do you get so much work done?”

“‘It’s really simple,’ he said.  ‘Most people use just one hand to do the work.  The other hand just sits there, or maybe helps move something so that the right can do the real work.  My goal is to make sure that both my hands are equally effective and are in constant use working together.  So I organize the piles on the table so that each hand can optimally do tasks simultaneously.  Just watch.’

“I observed him run through a few cycles, and it was almost miraculous — a smooth operation with both hands moving continuously.  The stuff just flew together, the envelopes got filled and added to the pile.

“Now think about how your group is working,” I say to my students.  “Is everyone equally active, or is there a leader who is doing things, and most of you are tagging along?  In an effective group, each member is actively engaged with the task at hand.  What you are looking for is a sense of synchronicity, of being in time with each other.

“Some of you already know what this feels like.  Are any of you musicians who play with other people?”  A few hands go up.  “How about sports?  Do any of you play on teams?”  More hands.  “Have you ever had the experience where you know what is about to happen because the team is moving in synch with each other?”  Tom raises his hand.  “Yeah, it’s like you can feel what everyone else is thinking, you can anticipate when someone is going to pass the ball, and you get clear so that you’ll be there when the ball arrives.”

“Exactly,” I say.  “The experience is called “flow”, and it is a wonderful feeling, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” he says.  “You really feel like your part of something bigger, and you also win more games that way.”  There is some laughter.

“There is no question that when people enter this state of synchronicity with each other, they become more effective at whatever they are doing.  So what would it be like if your group experienced it about learning physics?  I’m guessing you would both enjoy the experience more and you would learn more physics too.

“One more example, and then I’ll let you get to work.  Several years ago, I was working on building a deck with a former student named George, and I discovered that we had this sense of flow while doing the job.  When I needed a hammer to do the next step, I would turn around and George would be there handing me a hammer.  When he needed another board, I had already gone and gotten it for him.  

“You can practice this skill in this room.  Start to anticipate the needs of the group.  If you are doing a lab together and are going to need a ruler to do an upcoming experiment, don’t wait for someone to ask for it — just go get it and have it ready when it’s needed.  The group will be more effective that way.

“This is a great life skill, and you can practice it every time you work with other people.”


As a person I have learned that I work really well in groups.  In this class I got the chance to do my work and struggle through things, and then come together with my group.  Being in a group I could check my work and then have the time to see what others weren’t understanding.

Erika K. 


Shania's Resistance

Shania's Resistance


Shania is painfully shy.  She does her hair and make-up and clothes meticulously, even provocatively, but her shyness renders her mute.  She never speaks in a group, no matter how small.  In fact, if I didn’t actively engage her in conversation while the class is doing student-directed activities, she might go through the whole school year without saying anything.  When she does speak, her voice is so soft that I have to listen intently to understand her.

Whenever the class breaks up to get into study groups, she just stays in her chair, hoping, I guess, that I won’t notice.  I sit down next to her, and ask her if there is a problem.

“I work best by myself,” she says.  

“Well, Shania, I’m afraid that’s going to be hard to do in this class.  So much of what we do is talking to each other.  If you are by yourself, you can’t have those conversations.”

“That’s alright,” she says, “I can answer all the questions at the back of the chapter by myself.”

I try a few more arguments to see if I can get her to budge, but she is adamant, and I realize that I have to tread carefully here.  My instincts tell me forcing her to do something she doesn’t want to do at this moment might have lasting repercussions.

“Okay, Shania, you work by yourself today.  But would you be willing to meet with me outside of class to talk about how we can compromise about this?  I don’t think it’s okay for you to never work with other students - you would miss way too much - but maybe we can find a way for you to be comfortable with some work together.  What do you think?”

For the first time since I sat down, she looks at me and says, “Okay.”


Reluctant Leadership

Reluctant Leadership


Scott is a very bright student who is successful at school, and is intent on getting the highest grade point average he can.  After the conversation about “sharing the wealth”, he asked to see me after class.  He was blunt.

“Why should I teach kids who don’t understand this?  That’s not my job.  I want to get my work done and move on.  If they don’t get it as fast as I do, that’s their problem, not mine.”

“Well, that’s true,” I say, “but I would argue that talking to your peers is actually in your best interest.  What I have found, after decades of doing this, is that whenever I teach, I am learning too.  Imagine that you have finished some homework reading and you feel like you get it.  Now you come into class, and one or two people are asking you questions while trying to master it themselves.  Every question they ask challenges your understanding, and answering their questions deepens your grasp of the subject.  Besides, the alternative is a class in which we all do the same thing at the same time, and I stand at the front of the room and teach to everyone.  If you want the benefits of a student-directed classroom, you have to participate in new ways.”

“That may be,” he says, “but I don’t know how to teach, and, to be honest, I don’t particularly want to learn.”  

“Scott, I know you have a strong intuitive grasp of the concepts we’re talking about and great mathematical skills.  I’m going to go out on a limb and push you even further - I think you should consider becoming a study group leader.” 

He stares at me, disbelievingly.  “You’re kidding.”

“Scott, I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I have pretty good instincts about these things.  I really believe you’ll enjoy this class a lot more if you take this on.  You’ll learn about yourself as a person, as someone capable of leading others, and you will learn the content more deeply.  I’d say give it a try.  In the worst case, you do it for a while and then change your mind.  That would be okay too.  I’d just like to see what you can do with it.”

He grudgingly tells me he’ll think about it.

It turns out that over time, he becomes an exemplary leader.  He learns how to teach, but more importantly, he learns a lot about how to keep his group on task just enough to be effective, and to do it without using force.  


Classroom Anthropology

Classroom Anthropology


"The study groups gave every student the opportunity to open up to each other and talk about their mistakes rather than be ashamed.  Also, these study groups became close to each other and we found ourselves really pushing each other to turn in the best contract possible."        —Melissa M., student

“Just look around,” he said with a mock tragic tone in his voice. “Soon, all this will disappear, never to be seen again”.  Despite his teasing manner, I knew what David meant.  It was my last year of teaching, and almost every day I found myself thinking, “Well, that’s the last time I’m ever going to teach that”.  I was experiencing everything with a heightened intensity because of my sense of impending loss, and it was this that my colleague, who had stopped by my classroom, was kidding me about.

Looking around the room with him, I felt a sense of satisfaction;  it was only October, and this class was already a pleasure to observe.  The overhead fluorescent lights were turned off, and the scattered desk lamps, garage sale specials, gave the room a soft glow.  There was the murmur of conversation and the sound of water quietly falling in the bubbler on the counter.  Students were scattered throughout the room, working on a variety of activities they had chosen to do.  In the front of the room, two students sat on the rug, a large, beat-up Persian, finishing a worksheet together.  There were three or four students reading, and a small group helping each other through a problem set.  At the lab tables in the back of the room, there were a few groups going over homework and still others finishing up a lab.  The room, in other words, was humming.  When he first walked in, David had to look for me.  This is my idea of an ideal moment.

“All kidding aside”, he continued, “you need to start documenting this.”  I knew that he didn’t just mean recording what the students were doing;  he was also talking about the philosophy and the techniques I had developed in the decades I had taught at this high school.  He was also talking about the miraculous process by which a random group of students evolves into a tight knit, effective community of learners.  He was talking about the alchemy that had already transformed these twenty-five teenagers and me into a living organism.

Up until that moment I had only the vaguest notion of what I would do after retiring in June.  I was considering becoming an educational consultant, but had no clear sense of what that might look like.  I also had no idea that I would be writing this book.  Nevertheless, I knew David was right;  I needed to start documenting what was happening in this classroom.

I bought some video equipment and started recording my classes, focussing particularly on the small group discussions that formed the backbone of the learning process for my students.  I would lay a wireless microphone in the center of the lab table a study group was sitting at, set up the video camera across the room and zoom in on them.  They quickly forgot they were  being recorded.

Watching the videos at home, I was able, for the first time, to listen to extended conversations.  Up until that moment, my role had been to circulate from group to group, checking in on them, answering questions, posing new questions to deepen their understanding.  But I had never sat down for any length of time, because that would have altered the conversation.  It needed to be their conversation.

And so I listened.  I listened and was amazed.  I heard them teaching and learning from each other at a deeper, more adult level than I had ever imagined possible.  They were really good at this.  They were generous, perceptive, thoughtful and tenacious with each other.  Consistently, I saw little communities of responsible and caring people whose common goal was that everyone should succeed.  They were dedicated to learning.

I recommend this technique for every teacher -- I know of no other way to see how good your students are at the art of conversational learning without recording it somehow.  Like an anthropologist, your presence itself alters the scene you are trying to observe.  No matter how well intentioned you are or how much you try not to intrude, they cannot ignore you being there, and their conversation will be different, almost certainly less interesting and useful.

The videos I took of my classes and those of other teachers I worked with became a powerful tool in sharing the power of the philosophy and strategies described in this book.  But they were also a great gift for me personally — I was able for the first time to see the true impact this approach was having on my students.