One by one, they walk into the room. Some are excited to find friends in this class; some are dejected or overwhelmed at being back in school. All of them are aware this classroom feels different than most; I can see it in their faces - the surprised looks, the smiles that come from stumbling into the unexpected. The glare of the overhead fluorescent lights has been switched off, replaced with the warm glow of a dozen garage sale lamps scattered around. A beat-up Persian rug lies in the center of the room with desks arranged around it; no rows here. Large plants and hand-painted chairs (student-painted, by those who came before) add to the tranquil, inviting atmosphere. Coming into this room out of the chaotic crush of the hallway is like stepping into an oasis of calm.
I feel a surge of excitement as the bell rings. I take a breath and look at their faces, knowing these strangers are about to join me in becoming a community, and then something deeper. A living thing will be born here, an experience of belonging to something bigger than ourselves, something that has meaning and purpose. I know, even if they don’t yet, that what we are about to do will transform all of our lives.
"The real art of discovery consists not in finding new lands, but in seeing with new eyes." — Marcel Proust
"The true definition of science is this: the study of the beauty of the world." — Simon Weil
First impressions matter; after introducing myself to my new students and making sure that everyone is in the right room, I want to get their attention. “This will be one of the most important and interesting courses you will take in high school,” I tell them. It’s an audacious claim, but it gets their attention. Besides, I happen to think it’s true.
“It’s important because you are not just going to learn about physics, as fascinating a topic as that is,” I continue. “You will learn a great deal about yourself. You will learn how to be a better learner, how to work with others, how to recover when you struggle or fail.
“Together, we will be exploring how to make this class as close to a perfect learning environment as possible. Every one of you will come to play an important role in how we form a learning community.”
I am watching their faces carefully. Not surprisingly, there is a range ofreactions: some students are simply too stupefied by the shock of being back in school to register much. Others are bewildered by how quickly the topic has become serious; in many of their classes, the first twenty minutes will be going over the rules, how many points they will be getting for homework and tests, and so on.
Still others are intrigued by what might be a refreshing break from the normal classroom experience. Finally, a small number are skeptical; they’re not rolling their eyes, but it is clear they are not buying these high-minded promises.
It’s time to shift gears and get them excited.
“And then there’s the content that we’re going to explore. Physics is about nothing less than how the world works. Most of us wake up in the morning and experience things all day long without having any idea why or how any of it happens. For instance,” I say, walking over to the light switch and turning the overhead lights on, “I push a piece of plastic up, and suddenly light comes out of that fixture. How does this action cause that? You probably know that it has something to do with electricity, maybe going through some wires, but what is electricity? What is it made of? How does it go through wires? How fast does it go? How do you make electricity?
“And how does electricity cause light to be created? What is light? How does it travel? How fast is it? How does it come out of that rectangle looking white, bounce off this shirt, and become blue? What is blueness? If this blue shirt were in a room lit with green light, would it still be blue? If I take it into a pitch-black cave, is it still blue?”
I pull off my glasses and look around. “You all seem blurry to me now.” I put my glasses back on. “Ah, that’s better. But how do these two pieces of plastic in front of my eyes cause you to come into focus? What does it mean that something is in focus?
“Right now you’re listening to me talk. There is some electrical energy in my brain (we call it thinking) which causes some very small muscles in my throat to vibrate, and a little while later a small piece of cartilage in your ear vibrates with the same frequency, which causes some electrical energy to happen in your brain. How does all of that happen? You know sound has something to do with it, but what is sound? How does it get from here to there? Can sound travel through water? How about empty space? Just how loud is it when a Death Star explodes?
“Here’s another little mystery. When I drop this weight, it falls to the ground.” I demonstrate by dropping a heavy weight, which crashes loudly when it hits the floor, causing a number of students to jump in their chairs. Others laugh at the shock of it. “Who is this guy?” they’re wondering, “and what else is he willing to do?”
“Everyone agrees it falls because of gravity,” I continue, “but what is gravity? Why is it falling straight down? What is down? (It turns out, it’s straight towards the center of the planet... but why?) Why does it gain speed? How quickly is it gaining speed?
“And then there are the deeper questions. What is time, for instance? Does the past actually exist? The future? Has the universe always been here? If it started, when did it start? What, if anything, was here before it started? How will the universe end? What are black holes and worm holes? Is time travel possible?
“Underneath all of these topics is the idea of science itself. Forget about the textbooks, the quizzes and the grades. Science is a way of looking at things that makes sense of the patterns all around you. It’s a way of thinking about why the world is the way it is.
“Let me give you an example of how scientific thinking affects you. I have a lot of interests and hobbies. One thing I like to do is bird watching. You may think it’s weird to learn the difference between a yellow-shafted flicker and a black-capped chickadee, but when I walk in the forest I notice birds in flight, I recognize their calls, I know what is going on around me. The forest becomes a familiar place, filled with patterns of sounds and sights that I know.
“Another interest of mine is star gazing. Again, who cares if those five stars are part of the constellation Cassiopeia, and that square is the body of Pegasus? But when I go out at night and look up at the stars, I know the pattern. I know what season it is, I know where I am on the planet, what time of night it is, and what the phase of the moon is, when it will rise and what it will look like tomorrow and the day after that. In other words, I am at home in a familiar place. For most people, the stars are a random bunch of bright points, and they don’t mean anything.
“Learning physics makes the world more meaningful because you understand the patterns around you. It will change the way you see the world.
“And one more thing. This class will be different than any other you’ve ever taken. The structure will be different; how we work and help each other will be different. You will have real choice in how and even what you learn. You will have a say in how we work together. You will evaluate yourself in much of what you do here, and participate in determining a fair grade for the quarter. You will learn to work with others with a level of trust that you may never have had before. If you work with me, we will create an experience together that will change your life and transform how you think about learning.
“It will change who you are.”
This energetic introduction to physics was important, not because of physics, but because every course has value, and students should be able to see that in their teacher’s enthusiasm for the subject. If the teacher can’t see the importance and value in the course he is teaching, there’s something wrong with the course or the teacher, and it’s worth figuring out which is the case.
"I was moved by the principles that drive this class and I feel genuinely changed by them." —Meredith T., student
As always, I am setting aside the first week to share my beliefs about school and find out whatmy students think about it. If we are going to create a classroom culture based on learning, it has to begin right now, right here. So we need to spend time talking through what school would look like if we could make it perfect.
“Imagine that you could shape what we do in this class to be anything you want,” I begin. “Let’s assume that the topic of physics is worth knowing. Let’s also assume that there are a number of outside factors that we can’t control; you have to be in this building, we have forty-three minutes a day to work, bells will ring, and you will move through your daily schedule as always. But in this room, with just us making the decisions, we can shape it any way we want. What if we could create the community of learners that I talked to you about yesterday? What would that look like?
“In order to help us talk about it, I’ve written down some of my basic beliefs about what school should be.”
I hand out a sheet with “My Working Assumptions,” a list of ten ideas that I hope will stimulate conversation and make some otherwise unstated beliefs visible to everyone.
I get them into random groups of four or five and have them introduce themselves. There is always some awkwardness at first, but I remind them that we all need to learn about the other people in the room. Their instructions are to critique my assumptions, see if they agree or disagree with me and with each other, and decide what the most important assumptions are.
Within a few minutes, the reticence to open up to strangers gives way to a lively conversation at most of the tables. I wander from table to table listening in, but not sitting down with them. This needs to be their conversation.
As I move around the room, I hear snippets of conversations that they are willing to say to each other in a small group, but would otherwise be unwilling to share with me this early in the year; since they don’t really know or trust me yet:
“I get that ‘academic success requires personal work,’ but what does it mean that “there’s no free lunch?”
“Whoa. He’s saying students should have a say in how the class operates? How’s that supposed to work? Can we do whatever we want? Isn’t he going to teach?”
“Do you think he really believes that learning is one the great joys in life? I don’t think so; if I had a choice between being in school and shooting hoops, there would be no contest.”
“Did you see the seventh one? I agree that not everyone is motivated the same or will learn just as fast as everyone else, but he’s saying we shouldn’t all do the same thing at the same time. How can we have a class if everyone’s doing something different? That’s crazy. I’m getting a headache from all this stuff.”
Finally it’s time to bring the conversation back to the whole group. I ask the first table what they thought was the most important of the working assumptions, and why.
Jason, a wiry young man with an abundance of energy, has been chosen to speak for his group. He says, “We chose the one about sharing the wealth.” Then he reads: “Within a group, every person has different strengths and weaknesses, so we should share the wealth.”
“Why did your group think that one was important?” I ask.
“Well, so much of the time in school we are doing things just for ourselves, to get a better grade.” Jason’s leg is jiggling up and down as he speaks. I will come to know that nervous energy well in the course of this year. “There’s a lot of competition and we are alone when we’re trying to learn something. We just thought that if someone knows how to do math better than I do, it would be good if they could help me learn it.”
“I agree totally,” I reply, turning to the rest of the class. “Whatever else we do, there will be lots of opportunities foreveryone to give and get help from other students, not just from me. There’s only one of me, and there are twenty-five of you; there’s no way I can talk to all of you and give you all the help each of you needs.
“It turns out that, according to researchers who study how the mind works, one of the most effective ways to master new ideas is by talking about them. It’s called conversational learning, and we’re going to be doing a lot of it in here, mostly in small groups, so that everyone’s comfortable with it.”
I return to Jason. “Okay, what did your group argue about the most? Which of these assumptions did you disagree with?”
He laughs. “Definitely the ninth one:
Since high school students are actually adults, they should be treated as adults and should act like adults.
“We just don’t think that students are responsible enough to handle things like adults do. In some ways, we’re still kids.”
Mara, sitting in another group, jumps in. Her hairis split between black androyal blue, and it’s evident that her clothes, while torn and a little grungy, were chosen carefully. It is definitely a look. “We’re old enough to drive a car and hold down a job. Just because some kids in school act immature doesn’t mean we’re not capable of handling things.”
“That’s different,” Jason argues. “Of course, we can do some things that adults do, but we all live with our parents, and we’re still totally dependent on them, just like we were when we were children.”
This is an important point, so I step in and amplify it. “I have to tell you that the very idea of adolescence, this in-between state that’s not quite grown up, is a modern invention that’s peculiar to our type of society. In most cultures throughout human history, there is a direct transition from childhood to being an adult that happens when a person reaches puberty, traditionally around thirteen years old. There is often a ceremony, which still occurs in some religions in the form of confirmation or a bat or bar mitzvah. In any case, in almost any other culture throughout history, you would all have been adults for several years now.
“So how many of you feel like you are treated like adults in school?” It’s a big question, and there is almost no response.
“Okay, then let me ask you this: Do you think you deserve to be treated as adults? Do you think, if you were trusted to act responsibly, that most students would pull it off, or would they abuse the freedom?”
“Students will always take a short cut if they can,” Jason says, laughing. “Nobody really wants to do homework, so if there’s a way to get it done quickly, they will.”
“So it sounds like what you are saying is that for the most part you complete homework because a teacher is making you do it, and how you get it done isn’t so important. Do you think that’s really true?”
There is a mix of reactions. It’s not a clear-cut consensus, but a lot of students agree.
“So what about the last working assumption?” I ask, and read:
Since students know themselves better than a teacher can ever know them, they should be largely responsible their own learning.
It’s time for a challenge. “Are you saying students can’t be responsible?” I say. “They can’t be motivated without being made to do the work?”
“I think students are basically lazy,” Mark responds. Mark has a buzz cut, and I’m guessing it’s pretty recent, because he’s rubbing his hand over it as he talks. “Of course, there are the AP students who bust their butts, but I think most people would avoid doing the work if they could get away with it.”
“Present company excluded, how many of you think that there is a lot of cheating going on in school?” I ask. Every hand goes up.
“Whoa. That’s big. How many of you know someone who has copied homework to get it done? Again, I know that no one in this room has done this.”
They laugh, and every hand goes up again.
“So I guess that tells me where you stand with number eight:
If we are going to minimize the institutional rules that make school feel like a machine, we are going to have to boost the amount of mutual trust and respect we give each other.
“From what you are saying,” I note, “it sounds like mutual trust is not practical or realistic.”
Steve is an athlete, and shows it in his clothes and his demeanor. He has cropped blond hair and icy blue eyes, and he sits up straight in his chair. “Given all the pressures of being in school, I’m not sure how much trust there can actually be. But I totally agree about the need to make school feel less like a machine. For sure it would be better if teachers and students could respect each other more. But when a teacher disrespects students, there’s no way he’s going to get respect back from them, and a lot of teachers disrespect students.”
“All right,” I say, nodding. “Let’s move on.” I turn to the next table. “Are there any assumptions that your group agreed with?”
“We thought that the one about teaching not causing learning made sense.” Gretchen, a gregarious young woman with an unusually loud voice, is speaking for her group. She reads:
Teaching does not cause learning. Grades do not cause learning. The desire to learn causes learning.
“We agreed that if you don’t want to learn something, you won’t. Even if you can get a good grade, you won’t remember it if your heart’s not in it.”
“Are you kidding?” Mark asks in disbelieving tones. “Basically everything I do in this school is for the grade. And because I’m doing all that work, I’m also learning stuff. No grades, no learning. That’s the bottom line.”
Gretchen replies, “Yeah, but when you have to do things for a grade, you mostly just do it, you don’t really learn it. It’s the grades game.”
“Sometimes that’s true,” Simone says, “but it’s also true that when a teacher insists that you learn and really pushes you, you tend to learn more.” Simone is a hard-working student, curious and very bright. She seems awkward with her peers, at least at this early stage. “Like in my A.P. European History class, for instance. We have so much homework, and we are really expected to do all of it. People complain, but they also work a lot harder, and I think that makes them learn more. I know I’m learning more than I would if he weren’t driving us so hard.”
There’s some lively discussion about this point. Some people feel strongly that strict teachers raise the bar, and that students either do the work or fail. Others feel just as strongly that strict teachers don’t care about their students, and just want to get through as much of the curriculum as fast as they can.
When the time seems right, I step in. “I would argue that whatever your motivation, when you work harder, you learn more. (By the way, that’s what assumption number six is saying.) But why you are motivated matters. If you are working out of fear, you’ll have a very different learning experience than if you are working out of curiosity or the pleasure of challenging yourself. I personally believe in the third assumption:
When people are forced to do what they don’t want to do, unwanted consequences happen.
“If we can really come to believe that learning is our central purpose for being in this room together, we’ll find lots of good reasons for working hard and learning a lot. I believe firmly that it doesn’t take force, and that you learn better when you’re not afraid. In fact, the most effective learning happens when you are enjoying yourself.
“If we’re going to replace all that force that teachers apply, we’ll have to do things differently. What it takes is two things: a sense of being in it together; and the chance for each of you to start steering your own learning. The way I describe it is that we need to create a community of self-directed learners. We’ll be talking about that a lot.”
"Unlike many of my other classes, I knew everyone’s name and was able to converse with them at ease. I went into that class knowing one person and left with many good friends." —Annie G., student
“Look around,” I tell my students. “Does anyone here know everyone else in the room?” No one does. In all the years I’ve asked this question, only one young woman, a very socially attuned and extroverted person, was able to get close to naming everyone. For most students in most classes, having strangers in the class is the norm.
“It is my intention that we work as a community in this class. For us to do that, we will all have to get to know each other. Do you find that in the rest of your classes you know everyone in the room?”
“No,” says Alexa. The force with which she says this is surprising - she has a child’s face, and the colorful barrettes in her hair make her seem even younger than she is. “And what is worse, I often still don’t know everybody’s name at the end of the year. When we have time to work together, I always work with my friends. There really isn’t any way to get to know everyone.”
“Well,” I respond, “I think it’s really important that we get to know not only everyone else’s name, but also something about how well you work with them. We’re going to be forming permanent study groups in a month or so, and when we do, you want to know who you work well with. Every time we do something in small groups, I’m going to make sure you are grouped randomly. That means you’ll have a chance to work with everyone in this class and see who you want to be in a study group with.
“In fact, I think knowing everyone’s name is so important that it is my intention to know every one of your names by the end of this week. In order to do that, I’ve come up with an ingenious plan. I am going to videotape each of you saying your first and last names, and then I’m going to take that tape home and watch it over and over again. You’ll be able to test me on it at the end of the week. And videotaping you has the additional advantage that at the end of the year, I’ll be able to show it to you again and you can get embarrassed all over again.”
There are groans. One young woman puts her head down and pretends to cover it with some papers, as if to hide. Another is visibly upset at being photographed. I don’t like putting shy people on the spot like this -- I was painfully shy in high school, and can empathize, but this is important enough to break the rule.
“Also, watching this day at the end of the year, you’ll be able to see how people who are strangers to you now have become people you know well, maybe even friends. They’ll be part of your community.
“The way I see it, if I can learn the names of a hundred students in the next few days, each of you should be able to learn the names of the dozen or so people you don’t already know in this room. So there will be a seating chart quiz at the end of the second week.”
Their responses tell me that some reassurance is in order, so I go on. “Not to worry, we’re going to do activities every day that will help you get to know the people in this class, and not just their names, but who they are. And as you’re about to find out, a lot of things we do in here, like the seating chart “quiz”, are not for grades, but for feedback.”
"I like to think of this class as a shining beacon of hope. I may not always have gotten the highest grades, but I was real. I was not a robot and I did not compromise my beliefs or my integrity. I learned what I wanted to learn, and for the first time ever, I can honestly say that I wish the curriculum could continue. I didn’t just learn about physics. I learned to appreciate physics, which is far more valuable than any amount of facts memorized only to be regurgitated on any of countless standardized evaluations." —Ben L., student
The Thrill of Self-governance
Today, we’re going outside. It’s a spectacular fall day; there is the smell of newly mown grass, and the sky is a beautiful deep blue with puffy clouds. The students are excited to be out of the building. They are much more energized than they were in the classroom. There are more smiles.
My goals for the day are to have everyone get to know each other better, participate in creative problem solving, and get a taste of spontaneous self-governance. Not to mention, we will have some fun.
The whole class is strewn along a sidewalk in front of the school. I start with an open-ended task.
“I want you to organize yourselves chronologically based on your birthday. January first is over there” -- I point to their left -- “and December thirty-first is over there. Oh, and you can’t say anything while you’re doing it. Okay, go.”
At first everyone mills around aimlessly, looking confused, but several students quickly invent a sign language method of communicating month and day. Within seconds everyone is doing it, and they are having purposeful interactions sorting themselves into position. In two minutes, they have formed a line.
“Let’s see how you did. Starting over here, with January, call out your birthday nice and loud so everyone can hear it.” They do, and find that they’ve done the exercise successfully. A cheer erupts as they congratulate themselves.
I walk to the center of the line and tell the left hand group to form a circle on the lawn in one place and the right hand half to form a circle in another. I pick one person from each group to start the game by handing him a tennis ball that I’ve brought.
“In this game, I want you to pass the ball to someone you know, and call out his or her name while it’s in the air. The ball has to go to every person in the circle before coming back to the starter, and each person can only touch the ball once. Go.”
After they’ve done that successfully a few times, I tell them that they have to add a second ball, then a third and a fourth. “How many balls can you keep in the air without collisions? How will you deal with it if someone drops the ball?” They start talking to each other, coming up with ideas about using different heights, whether to throw at the same time or randomly, how to signal that someone’s dropped the ball without a train wreck. There are lots of disasters. A student who drops the ball turns to pick it up and is pelted by the next three that she was supposed to catch. Gradually, each team comes up with strategies that are more successful.
“Now, let’s change the rules. Your job is to pass just one ball through the same pattern, so that every person touches the ball exactly once and it gets back to the starter person as quickly as possible. You no longer have to say names. The only other conditions are that only one person at a time has the ball at any given moment, and the ball can’t touch anything but the hands of your teammates. I have a stopwatch, and we’ll see which of these two groups can do this task the fastest.”
There is a flurry of activity and chatter, with lots of people coming up with ideas. Both groups start experimenting. The make the circle much smaller. They try throwing and catching with both hands. I time one group at 5 seconds and tell them they can do it much faster. Another round of excited chatter, more brainstorming. Finally, one person asks, “Do we have to stand in the same positions we were in before?” No, I tell them, the rules just say that the ball has to touch each person in the same pattern as before.
Suddenly, both groups are reorganizing themselves into a new pattern so that the ball moves in a circle instead of bouncing across and back. It’s down to 3.8 seconds. I tell them again that it can be much faster still. Now they are in full creative mode. “Do we have to be in a circle?” one students asks. “No,” I say, “that’s not one of the rules.” One team forms a straight row and creates a ramp with their hands touching each other. The starter drops the ball into the 2nd person’s waiting hands, then runs to the end of the ramp to catch it. The ball repeatedly hops the “track.” there are loud groans of frustration, they readjust. They’re down to 2.5 seconds.
It can be faster, I tell them.
They experiment on how to hold their hands to optimize the smooth rolling of the ball. One group gets it down to 2.0 seconds. I tell them it can be still faster. The other group gets even more energized. They decide the ball should only touch one hand from each person, which means they start crushing closer to each other. Someone says, Let’s make a circular ramp. They are now forming a complex mess of limbs, with some people organizing themselves into an inner circle, some kneeling, some standing, and others forming an outer circle with their hands poking into the spiral in the right order. The starter lets loose, then drops to his knees to get his hand at the bottom of the circle. They’re down to 1.1 seconds. The other team screams in frustration. They then come up with a totally vertical chute, with each person forming part of the side with one hand. They form an impossibly convoluted pile of bodies. I time them at 0.7 seconds and call them the winners. Pandemonium ensues.
When the dust settles, I tell them we’re going back up to our room to talk about the activity.
Back in the classroom, it’s time to draw a few lessons from the activity. They’re sitting in random groups around the lab tables. There’s still a buzz of excitement from what they just did.
“First of all, well done everyone. Did any of you actually believe you could get your time down to under a second?”
An energetic babble of voices is saying no.
“Think back and see if you can explain to each other just how you did it. Here are a few questions to think about:
“Where did the new ideas come from? Who decided what your team was going to do next? how many leaders did your team have? And how did you feel by the end of the activity? What was it that made you feel that way?”
Five minutes of animated conversation later, I ask them the same questions.
“Let’s start with how it felt. Clearly, everyone was pretty buzzed - why?”
“Just being able to figure it out,” Carl says. “We actually solved the problem ourselves. That was the best.”
Alex is almost bouncing in his chair. “I loved not knowing what was going to happen next - it was crazy. I felt like we could try anything.”
“Yeah, it was great for me watching the two teams and seeing how creative you were. It was a non-stop flow of ideas.”
“That was the best part for me,” Jasmine says. “So many great ideas. It’s like we were leap-frogging over each other’s ideas.”
“You guys know the word ‘brainstorming’, right? That’s what you were doing, for sure. What else felt good?”
“Both teams were really motivated by the competition,” Carol says, “but it was friendly competition, and it made us work together even more.”
“So let me ask you this: Did you feel like this was your activity or mine?”
“Definitely ours,” a chorus answers.
“Even though I told you what the goals were and what the rules of the game were?”
“You had to do that so that we would know how to play the game,” George says. “Otherwise, there wouldn’t have even been a game.”
“Right. So I had an important role to play in setting up what needed to happen, but not how to do it.
“So who did make the decisions? How did you solve the problems? Did someone become the leader, telling you what to do?”
“No, and that was the best part for me,” George says. The ideas came from everywhere. It was like we were thinking.”
“Yeah, I could see that,” I say. “That’s called self-governance. Knowing what the group should do sort of bubbles up.
“Now imagine how different this activity would have been if I had been telling you what to try next, how to solve each problem. Would that have been as good?”
They respond with a loud chorus of noes.
“And there’s no way you would have the sense of accomplishment that you feel right now, right? In fact, I’m guessing it wouldn’t feel like it was your activity - you would have been doing mine.”
“So here’s the punchline: as often as possible, we’re going to use this as a model for how you will learn physics. It won’t always be as crazy as what just happened, and we’ll be in this room, not outdoors, but I want you to find ways to solve your own problems
“As the teacher, I have a big role to play, of course. I know the “game” of physics, and I know something about the rules of learning it. But the actual work of learning, all the creativity in figuring it out, that should be your activity, not mine. I will put up the scaffolding around you, but you are going to actually build the thing. So our class will be a blend of teacher-directed and student-directed activities; there is an important role for each. Finding the balance will be part of what we do together.
“And that means we are going to have to redefine my role as a teacher and yours as students. I believe your going to find it an interesting experiment in what school can be.”
We are off to a good start.
As I read the letter I wrote to you earlier this year, I found it interesting because I spoke a lot about how much I didn’t enjoy science. And thinking back I definitely do remember detesting science class. But this year it has been one of my favorite classes to come to. I look forward to your class every single day. I think I look forward to it for multiple reasons. I enjoy reading the new quote you put up, I love the people in the class, I like the vibe and atmosphere of the entire room, and I am always intrigued by what new crazy lesson I know I am going to learn that day.
It’s sad to say, but for so much of this year, school has made me feel dumb and overwhelmed, but I always knew that in your class I could for once feel important and treated equally. I can’t even begin to tell you how amazing that was to me. I always felt like I could go to you if I didn’t understand a new concept and you wouldn’t give up explaining until I understood. I feel like I can honestly say that I will remember most of the concepts I learned this year for the rest of my life, and I don’t remember a single thing from chemistry just last year.
Your teaching style and technique made me want to work hard and learn. Also your concern for everyone just as human beings, made me feel more comfortable in the classroom and I was never afraid to be myself and speak whenever I had something to say. I think that is true for everyone in that class. Everyone felt trusted and comfortable so everyone’s personalities shined. That is probably why I feel I have become such good friends with the people in our class. Our class has a really special bond that no other physics class can really understand. Thank you so much for an absolutely incredible year. I will always remember you as the teacher that taught me to learn to enjoy science.
It’s time to tackle the thorny, all-important issue of motivation. This conversation is pivotal in creating the culture we need in this class.
“Why do you do homework?,” I ask them. They look around, somewhat taken aback by the question.
“I don’t want to flunk the test that will be based on the homework,” Tom says.
“Sometimes I learn from homework, but mostly I do it because my grades depend on it,” Mara says. There are murmurs of assent.
“Well, let me ask all of you this, then: how much homework would you do if you weren’t getting points for it?”
“I might still do some homework if the topic interested me, or if I thought it was important,” says Alexis. I already know she is a highly motivated student, and quite successful in school. “I don’t know how much work I would do, but I wouldn’t stop altogether.”
“Well, I would”, says Jason. “I would still pay attention in my classes, but if I didn’t have to work at home, I would absolutely give it up. There are so many other things I would rather be doing, and I don’t have time to do them all when I have two or three hours of homework every night.”
“Okay, so how important is homework in terms of learning?” I ask.
“Sometimes practicing a math problem helps, and I can read a novel and maybe get something out of it, but most homework is busywork for me,” Jason says.
“I agree.” This is Raphael. He hasn’t smiled once in the four days I’ve seen him. I’ve had the very strong impression that he would rather be somewhere, anywhere, other than school. “I honestly don’t learn anything from most of the homework I do. It’s just something we have to do because the teacher said so, and we’ll lose credit if we don’t do it. If it weren’t for the grades, it would be a complete waste of time.”
I’m glad Raphael said this; he has hit the nail on the head. “The ideas that homework isn’t all that useful for learning, and that you’re only doing it to get a good grade, are both part of what I call ‘doing school.’ When that’s the game we are playing, you do the work for me and I reward you with points for doing it, right?
“But what if, somehow, you were not working for me, but for yourself? What if, instead of my giving you points or some other reward, it was up to you to decide for yourself ‘I did great work, or ‘this is mediocre,’ and evaluate yourself accordingly?
“What if we could make sure that homework was actually useful in learning the material? We’ll get into this a lot more next week, but we are going to redefine the purpose of homework in this class: instead of being busywork, homework will be how you get ready to talk about the topic in your study group. It’s how we are going to share the wealth. If you understand the homework, you are now ready to teach it. If you don’t understand the homework, you are now ready to ask good questions and learn from the others.
“In either case, doing homework will prepare you to actively participate in conversational learning. And that’s where a great deal of the learning you are going to do in this class is going to take place. We don’t need points for that. In fact, I don’t need to give you any grade at all.”
I definitely have their attention. They are looking around to check out each other’s reactions; there is a low murmur in the room.
“Now imagine this process works (and I know from years of experience that it does). If we do this right, you will really learn the material. When you take a test, you won’t be regurgitating and forgetting; you will be showing what you know. If the grading system is fair, when you learn a lot, a high grade will naturally follow. And now a good grade will actually mean something.
“So here’s the deal: we are not going to use points in this class. I find them to be a serious distraction, and we don’t need them.”
This is clearly a bombshell. They take a moment to digest it. Students who know each other are already talking, and several students actually laugh out loud.
“But how are we going to end up with grades on our report cards?” Steve asks. “Without points, how will we know how well we are doing?”
“You will be evaluating a lot of your own work, and I will keep track of your test grades. You’ll also have a portfolio in the room to store all your work. At the end of each quarter, I will have a grade conference with every one of you. We will look at all your work, and figure out what a fair grade is.”
“What if we disagree with you? What if someone decides they want an A, even though they haven’t done A work?”
Clearly, some reassurance is in order. “Well, I find I overwhelmingly agree with my students about what a fair grade is. There may be some fine-tuning to do, of course, but that’s what the conversation is for. If anything, when I do disagree with a student I often find myself arguing to raise their grade, not lower it.
“I think you’ll findthat if you trust the system, we can get the usual preoccupation with grades out of the picture. Because you won’t be paying so much attention to grades, you will actually learn more.”
I pause for a moment before launching into the next idea. It’s time to introduce the concept of differentiated learning, one of the central structural ideas my students need to absorb. This is a pivotal moment.
“Over the years, I have come to realize that making learning the center of what we do in this classroom means rethinking almost everything that I do as a teacher and that you do as students.
“Consider for a moment the notion that everyone in this room comes into the class with different histories, different motivations, different strengths and weaknesses, different ways of learning. Some of you are good at math, some struggle with it. Some can write well or are good at hands-on activities; others, not. It seems to me that everyone needs something different to be successful academically. It’s not that one person’s way is better or worse than another; it’s just the way it is. We’re all different.
“Years ago, my daughter was a student here, and one night she complained to me about her math homework. She said, ‘I learned about these problems in class today. I already know how to do them, but I have to do 27 problems that are a complete waste of my time.’ It was a legitimate complaint, and I began thinking about the fact that every student has to do the same homework, whether they need it or not. I realized that doing busywork is a serious problem, and I began struggling with how to make homework useful for everyone.”
“But even if the homework is just right for some people, it will be boring busywork for others.” Alexis sounds like she knows what she’s talking about.
“I agree. If every student has to do the same work at the same time, some will be bored and others will not get enough practice. So if we want to maximize learning, we can’t all do the same thing at the same time. We need to be able to spread out and have every one of you doing exactly what you need to be successful. And that means we shouldn’t always have to do the same homework.
“But if each of you follows a different path to be successful, who will decide what you are going to do? If I make those decisions, I have to keep doing intrusive things to check whether you need more practice, and, no matter what, I’ll never know what you need nearly as well as you do. And if you are all doing different things, the bookkeeping I would have to do to oversee your individual learning process is a nightmare. Not to mention, it’s still me telling you what to do. For a lot of students, being told what to do all day long, one teacher after another, is one of the worst aspects of school, and it drains motivation to learn.”
Several students nod at this. It’s an aspect of school that has a large psychological effect on many students, but rarely gets discussed.
“If, on the other hand, you get to decide how to learn new material, you can do a much better job of it than I can. You’ll need a little training, but it can definitely be done. Do you remember our discussion of working assumptions? One of them was about this very issue:
Since every person learns in a unique way, students should have a lot of choice in how they learn. Since every person has different needs and motivation, we shouldn’t always do the same thing at the same time.
“Only you really know how well you understand what’s going on in your mind; only you can steer yourself through the learning process effectively. But more importantly, learning how to make good decisions is excellent training for how to take care of business in your own life.
“Imagine if you could actually choose to only do work that is useful to you in this class. Let’s say we are learning a new problem-solving skill, and, as always, some people learn how to do it faster than others. After an introduction, you’re still not confident you know how to do it, so you need to practice some more. So you choose to take home some work that lets you do just that.
“But if you’ve already mastered this skill, continuing to practice will be busywork. So instead, you should be able to move on and choose to do something different, possibly something more challenging that will let you stretch yourself and learn as much as possible. Every person will steer her own learning process based on what she needs.
“I never want you to do busywork in this class. Ever.” There is a strong reaction; several students say “Yes!” with considerable enthusiasm. Others are smiling and nodding. There is a sense of liberation in the air; I’m guessing they’ve never heard a teacher say such a thing. “Busywork doesn’t help you learn anything, and, like everyone else, you naturally resent having to do it. In this class, if you are doing busywork, either you are making bad choices or I haven’t set up your options well enough. In that case, I expect you to let me know so that I can change what we are doing to better suit your learning. That is my job.
“We are here to learn. Anything that advances learning is good. Anything that gets in the way, like doing busywork, we need to get rid of.”
After a moment, while everyone is digesting these ideas, Jason speaks up. “But this changes everything.”
It’s hard to believe that it’s the end of the year already. Seriously, it feels like it was just the other day that you videotaped us awkwardly saying our names. On that first day, you promised that you would go home and study our names that night, and you told us that you expected us to learn all of each others’ names as well. That’s when I first knew that this class would be special; very few teachers really care whether or not their class knows each other, as long as they don’t cause a disturbance, and still fewer would spend a whole evening working on names so that they know them on the second day. The rest of the year just worked to confirm what I thought from the very beginning.
As I’ve said before, in this class I never had to worry about my grades. I knew that if I did all the work that was available to me (and there was always more than enough to keep me busy) and tried my best, the grades would just work out. But what was more important was that I actually learned a lot. Because I was responsible for my own learning in this class and I felt like I had control over what I wanted to learn, I got as much out of it as I possibly could. I feel like you understand what many teachers don’t--you can’t force anyone to learn anything, so there’s no point in trying. The best thing that a teacher can do is to try to make their subject as interesting as possible, and you definitely did that.