It’s tough to change our default setting

canstockphoto13724694Did you ever notice how much we (teachers) love to talk?

Recently, I was able to watch another instructor pilot some lessons I’d written. The curriculum was specifically designed to be student-driven and interactive — i.e. not a lecture — and I had planned a series of discovery-based activities that would let students do most of the talking.

I was in for a surprise. As I watched, the instructor revised the first lesson on the fly –really, without even trying. He began by telling the students everything they were about to learn, and before he even got to Step 1, he had spent half an hour lecturing on concepts and terms — something that wasn’t part of the lesson at all.

I was both dismayed and intrigued. This instructor had nothing but good intentions, and he clearly had a strong rapport with the kids. But our teacher instinct for talking and telling students what we want them to learn — rather than letting them learn it through inquiry and discussion — is so strong that it overrode the written lesson plan.

And rather than genuinely wrestling with the content, the students sat passively listening — as they too often do.

I blame myself, of course. I quickly realized, as an observer, that I should have more clearly explained the pedagogy (and the philosophy behind it) in the written lesson. There are ways I can restructure it that will make it much less tempting to default to lecture mode (like putting all of the background in an appendix at the back), even if I can’t prevent it completely.

But I honestly never realized this would happen. How many times have I completed writing a lesson, sent it off to be “field-tested” by other teachers, then read their feedback without considering that the teacher might not have implemented the lesson as it was designed at all?

This experience really underscores my belief that teachers need to experience active-learning in order to use it effectively in the classroom. It’s not enough to talk about it or even provide curriculum that incorporates it. We are so accustomed to our “I’ll talk, you listen” mode of teaching that it will take serious rewiring and practice to change it.

Once I got over my surprise, I realized how fortunate I was to be sitting there. We do not very often get to see firsthand how our written words are interpreted by other teachers.

Now that I know, I’ll be much more thoughtful about how I construct future lessons — and more explicit about the “why”. It was definitely a good learning experience for me.


It’s not about obedience anymore


What do puppy training and teaching have in common? More than you might imagine.

A month ago, we adopted a new dog, Taffy, into our home. She’s two years old, a terrier-ish “rescue,” described by her foster family as “very high energy.” (We also have Star, another terrier-ish “rescue,” who is about five years old.)

Happy Tails Rescue required that we enroll our new dog in a training course – as a precaution to ensure that adopting families don’t give up too quickly and abandon unruly puppies. We’ve “raised” a few dogs (she’s our 4th), so we felt pretty confident in our ability to help Taffy adjust, but we signed up for the four-week course as required.

When we attended, we found out dog training has changed a lot since we last took a dog to school. What used to be called “obedience training” has been replaced by “mindfulness training”, aimed at raising a thoughtful, respectful dog — not merely a compliant rule-follower.

I was surprised to gather a few practical teaching tips from the trainer, who seemed to have a magical dog-whispering ability. So much of what she said relates to teaching humans as well.

#1 Body language. The trainer explained that we (adult humans) aren’t always attuned to our own body language, but our dogs are fluent at reading it. They pick up on our anxiety, our anger, and our nervousness, and they respond to it. Often their bad behavior is a reaction to the messages we don’t know we’re sending. When we speak in stern tones, they get agitated.

So true for our students as well! Teenagers are experts at reading body language, and they quickly sense when we are frustrated or flustered or emotionally distant. They often respond to our moods rather than our words, and when we’re stern, they get defensive. We’re more effective with our students when they know we are calm, confident and genuinely empathetic.

#2 Compliance v. learning. The trainer explained that getting a dog to sit on command isn’t the point. Getting the dog to learn how to calm herself (sitting, standing or lying down) and respect us and trust us is what matters. We won’t get there by enforcing commands.

Again, so relevant for our classrooms. We can force high school students to comply – to be quiet, sit still, and face forward – but that kind of obedience should not be our goal. We need our students to be deeply engaged, not just superficially compliant — and that only happens when we build a relationship of mutual respect and trust.

#3 Understanding the roots of behavior.  The trainer explained that misbehavior always happens for a reason. When Taffy was growling at another dog, she explained that Taffy thought she had to protect me, so I had to reassure her that I was fine and could take care of myself. I would never have interpreted it that way. If I would have yelled at her, it would have escalated the situation. Instead, I was able to quickly calm her.

How often do we misinterpret student behavior – and put it in a bad light? We too often interpret teenagers’ sadness or exhaustion or frustration as intentional defiance, and the way we respond to that has enormous consequences for our relationships with kids.

We still have some work to do in terms of helping Taffy become a calm, trusting dog, but already I feel like I understand her (and Star) so much better than I did before. I need to listen, not just talk, and I need to make sure my body language is consistent with my words.

And now I’ll be a lot more thoughtful about how my body language, my attempts to impose order, and my misinterpretations of behavior can impact my work with teenagers as well. If pet-trainers recognize that relationships trump obedience, we should be able to as well.

Lean Startup: Powerful for teachers


Last week, I had the opportunity to teach the Lean Startup/Design Thinking method of entrepreneurship to an inaugural group of Minnesota teachers. It was the most fun I’ve ever had leading a workshop. (The image above is from a pitch deck designed by several of the participants.)

The feedback I got from teachers was similarly enthusiastic.

It wasn’t what I thought it would be. It was more hands on, a creative challenge, a pleasant surprise for sure.”

“The pace was really good, the activity level good, and time went fast.”

“With this workshop, I truly see the value in using these methods and skills with my students. It is not just for those students who will go out and be entrepreneurs, but the problem solving and critical and creative thinking that is at the center of this program is so important with students these days. I will definitely see myself using this in my school, and even see myself using this to propose and solve my own ideas!”

What made this workshop both fun and useful for teachers, who sacrificed a week of precious summer to attend?

I think the key is the methodology itself. Learning about the Lean Startup and Design Thinking is inherently fun, and it’s also incredibly relevant to teachers and students today. Here’s why:

#1 Creativity: Learning divergent thinking — the creative process — is the first step in Design Thinking. We can’t develop new ideas by taking notes or memorizing information. We did creative warm-ups every day, like thinking of unusual uses for a paper clip, and that’s fun.

#2 Empathy: The Lean Startup method emphasizes looking for problems to solve in your community. We interviewed each other, then interviewed friends and family in the evening, to identify nagging problems, like “finding allergy-free foods” and “reducing screen time.” We practiced listening and responding to others’ needs, not just our own, which helps build empathy.

#3 Collaboration: Some people think entrepreneurship is a solo endeavor, but with this methodology we emphasize social learning and teamwork rather than a single all-star. The teachers worked in small groups to research and test ideas, develop prototype products and put on a trade show, and the energy level kept rising throughout the week.

#4 Hands on learning: Students learn better by doing, and so do teachers. We didn’t just talk about Lean Startup; we did it, and that made it much more tangible and rewarding. The teachers in this course created four viable business ventures, and one of the groups is planning to actually pursue theirs — something no one expected at the beginning of the week. (I won’t share their idea…. I’m protecting their intellectual property.)

#5 Growth Mindset:  Nothing teaches the growth mindset better than entrepreneurship. Lean Startup teaches us to “fail fast” and learn from our failures, which is exactly the resilient attitude we’re trying to cultivate in our students.

I hope all of the teachers who participated last week — a mix of social studies, business, technology and English teachers — will take their learning forward and inspire their students to practice design thinking, entrepreneurship and the growth mindset next year.

They were my prototype group, testing my “minimum viable product,” so now it’s my turn to practice what I was preaching. I’ll put the methodology to work — and make the program even better next time.

Interested in learning more about how to implement Lean Startup/Design Thinking in the classroom? Contact me at

AP test scores are out… So what?


I am one of those nerdy teachers who cannot wait to check her students’ AP scores in July. Pass rates, distributions, average scores — it’s all interesting data to me.

I always want to know how my latest cohort of students compares to previous groups, whether I’m reaching my goal (93% with a 3 or better) and whether there are topics I need to teach better (usually, yes).

When they do well, it’s a great feeling. When they don’t, it gives me a clear purpose for the next year, like “teach bank balance sheets better.”

But recently, I’ve begun studying my scores with a different perspective. I realize that some of my students are high achievers and will do fine (get 4s or 5s) without a lot of effort on my part. Instead of patting myself on the back for their scores, I’m trying to focus more on the “high impact” students, the ones who needed a lot of help.

This year, using this lens, I learned two important things from my AP test scores. Working intensively with a few kids to develop higher-order thinking skills was successful — that’s the good news. The bad news: Some students slipped under the radar, possibly cheating in my class to get a decent grade.

Continue reading “AP test scores are out… So what?”

What we need – and don’t need – from PD


If I’m going to dedicate an hour of my life to professional development, I want one of two things:

  • Insight into a challenging part of my course content, or
  • New strategies I can use to help my students learn

Anything else feels like a waste of my time, so I try to keep that in mind when planning my own professional development workshops. It’s not easy, though, to know exactly what teachers want or need.

Do they already understand markets? Should we take the time to do the “Market in Cocoa” activity? Should I spend more time explaining elasticity — or explaining how to make elasticity manageable for students?

I remember attending a workshop several years ago where my sole mission was to learn how to explain and illustrate “deadweight loss” on a micro graph. Turned out the workshop leader didn’t know how either, so the whole day felt like a bust. (I figured it out later, with the help of Youtube.)

Worse yet was a one-day workshop where the leader kept showing us how to create graphs in Word — something I really didn’t need help with. And don’t get me started on the hours spent getting “inspired” without any meaningful strategies for doing my job better.

In contrast, one of the best workshops I ever attended was an “Economic Systems” course sponsored by the Minnesota Council on Economic Education. Having already taught econ for several years, I knew the content pretty well, and I wasn’t sure what I would get out of it. Luckily, the instructors focused on interactive teaching strategies, and I walked away with an entirely new (and improved) approached to my classroom.

Today was the first day of my combined AP Micro/Macro workshop for teachers in Pittsburgh, and I hope I managed to strike the right balance for my participants. A little bit of Econoland, a little bit of the Cocoa Market, a little bit of elasticity and comparative advantage calculations — and a lot of answering questions and talking about the kinds of mistakes my students typically make.

I’m sure I can’t provide these teachers with everything they need to be prepared for next year, and I’m sure the delivery won’t be perfect, but I hope they will reflect on this workshop as time well spent. We just can’t afford to waste teachers’ time with any more bad PD.

If school comes easy, find a bigger challenge


Near the end of the school year, one of my freshmen (I’ll call her Meg) complained to me about our school’s grading system.

“Why does homework have to be 20% of my grade? If I can get As on tests without doing assignments, why does homework count against me?”

We had a little post-AP test downtime that day, so I told Meg my opinion. It’s great that you learn everything so easily without practice, I said, but what happens when you don’t?

She looked puzzled, so I explained that nearly everyone hits a wall eventually. It might not be until college, or grad school, or a job, but she will probably run into something she can’t just master without effort. Then what?

Many bright students assume they will go on learning easily forever, and most are wrong — one reason more than half of our “gifted” students never graduate from college. When they finally do encounter a challenge, they don’t know how to overcome it, and they give up.

That’s why learning how to learn – the study habits and routines that average students have to master to survive high school – is important. That’s why we do want students to take notes, write summaries, formulate questions – and we count it as part of their grade.

Meg seemed to accept that explanation, even if she didn’t like it, but I wasn’t done.

“Why are you taking classes you can ace without trying?” I asked her. “Why don’t you challenge yourself more? That’s the real question.”

She shrugged her shoulders. She was taking a pretty rigorous schedule, including AP Macro, so she was good. She was already on the path toward four-year college. It didn’t occur to her that she could be doing more.

Unfortunately, that’s typical. Most kids, even bright ones, prefer classes that they can ace without much effort. Better to get all As (and complain about pointless homework) than try something that really stretches you. How great it is to feel smart every day?

The older you get without the challenge, though, the scarier it becomes, and the more anxiety your first B or C (or D or F) will provoke.

If AP Macro is too easy for Meg, then maybe she should be taking econometrics or financial modeling on Coursera or EdX. If that’s not what interests her, she could find a class on Shakespeare or constitutional law. Or she could teach herself another language and find an online community of native speakers.

When I told her this, she looked at me like I was crazy. Who does that? A few days later, though, she came back and asked me for suggestions. Where could she find something challenging to do during the summer? Did I know of any websites?

I do, and I hope she follows up on them. I don’t want to see students overloading themselves or burning themselves out – we see plenty of that, too — but I wish we could get every student to push themselves in just one area. Especially students like Meg, who have coasted for a long time.

You learn something important from deeply struggling with a math problem or writing prompt or coding challenge or French translation, and it’s something you can’t learn from effortlessly acing tests and looking “school smart.”

We can help — and we need to — by talking to kids more about the value of overcoming a challenge and less about the value of an A on a high school transcript.

Next year, I think that will be the first question I ask any student who wants a college recommendation letter from me: What have you done that really challenged you? When have you hit a wall you didn’t think you could overcome?

If they haven’t, then it’s time to find one.

So I was a little busy…


I try to post to this blog once a week, but sometimes I fall behind. Like the last three weeks. What happened?

It’s not that I didn’t want to write, and it’s definitely not that I’d run out of things to say. I have opinions about nearly everything, and I’m constantly filing away ideas during the day. Here’s a few from my current list:

Overheard conversation about ‘best’ schools

Z’s comment on form v. content

EdWeek worst PD list

Conversation with V about challenging yourself

Wrapping up school year

The easy explanation is “I was too busy,” but that’s a lame excuse. Would you accept that from a student who missed an assignment? No way.

I was busy. I took a team to the National Economics Challenge. I staged an International Economic Summit event at school. I had to finish up late work and finals before I left to grade AP tests in Cincinnati for a week.

But it’s not busy-ness that kept me from writing — it’s my priorities.

I had 24 hours in every day, 168 hours in each week, same as always, and I chose to spend my time other ways. I spent it writing a curriculum for training teachers in Lean Startup methodology. I spent it re-organizing the Summit materials so we could cram a day-long activity into four hours. I also spent it doing physical therapy for my shoulder, and I spent it relaxing over Memorial Day weekend and reading a book.

This is something we inherently understand about ourselves, that some things are just more important to do than others, and sometimes our work has to wait. But we have a hard time, as teachers, extending that same grace to our students.

When they don’t finish assignments or come in to make up work, we assume it’s laziness or some other character flaw. What other priorities could they possibly have, we wonder. What could be more important than learning economics or history or just passing my class?

Sometimes kids are lazy or defiant or burned out on school, but often teenagers today are juggling just as much as we are. They have after-school jobs and activities, sports injuries, family responsibilities, suffering friends, chronic medical conditions, and work for every other class. Some are living on their own and paying bills, and some don’t know where their next meal will come from.

I’m not suggesting we free them from deadlines — that would be a logistical nightmare, and we do need to teach them about real-world deadlines — but I do think we need to talk more often with them about priorities and how much control they can have over their lives.

We need to help them think about short-run vs. long-run goals, about the opportunity costs of the choices they make (yes, economics!), and about the fact that they have choices. And we need to help them understand that we feel their pain; we are in the same boat; we sometimes fall behind too.

We don’t need a special class or program to do this. We need to have these conversations when they occur naturally, when students aren’t doing their work and we need to get them back on track. Rather than lecturing them on responsibilities, we need to talk with them honestly about priorities — and the effort it takes to change them. 

And now that this crazy school year is over, I’ll get back to making writing a priority.

A cynical take on the value of school

canstockphoto40542858Last week, a article on a new technology to track mental engagement (Pay Attention!) raised the issue of boredom in school, quoting this stat: “82 percent of U.S. high school students report being sometimes or often bored in class.”

Like me, the writer Mary Mann (also the author of Yawn: Adventures in Boredom) clearly finds this disturbing. So does the researcher, Dr. Hasan Ayaz, who is using spectroscopy to identify and prevent student boredom at the neurological level.

The commenters on the article… not so much. Here’s what they had to say:


“Learning to handle boredom is an invaluable skill.”

“I couldn’t agree more. In fact, it’s one reason I think public school is useful: kids learn to navigate boredom.”

Wow, that is depressing. Here’s another one:

“School is boring for the most part, that’s just the way it is.”

The conversation also touched on what’s important to learn in school, what’s not important, who’s responsible for boring curriculum and other issues, but the general consensus was: Who cares if school is boring? Work isn’t fun, and life isn’t fun. They might as well find out early.

When people bash on the very idea that learning could be engaging, it makes me sad for them. What kind of education did they have that left them so cynical? Why was it so removed from anything that mattered to them?

Work can be fun. Or at least it can be interesting and engaging and better than just reading social media and watching reality TV, which would leave me feeling brain-dead and exhausted. Meaningful work can give you a sense of purpose. Same with school.

We need to start there — and fight the idea that school is merely training for a monotonous life.


What do ‘experts’ have to offer us?


For the past few weeks, I’ve been going to physical therapy to deal with rotator cuff tendinitis in my right shoulder. At my intake appointment, I learned that I brought this problem on myself by doing what I thought was “the right thing.”

For years, I thought I was helping my shoulders and preventing future problems (like stooping) by making myself do shoulder presses at the gym — but it turns out I was actually messing up my shoulders and upper back.

By stupidly following a “common-sense” regimen without expert advice, I made matters worse. Now, I have to work extra hard every day to fix it.

You might wonder: What does this have to do with teaching?

Too much, unfortunately. Every day, we use and promote learning strategies that seem effective, seem like common sense, and when they don’t work, we do more of the same rather than seek expert guidance on what to do differently.

For example, telling students to re-read the textbook. Re-reading is the number one study strategy most kids bring to college, but repeated research has shown it to be pointless. That’s right — reading a textbook once is useful, but the second go-round adds no value.

I know… research shme-search — many of us don’t want to hear it. It’s so far removed from the classroom — from my classroom — and what do those “experts” know about teaching and learning anyway?

But relying on common sense isn’t so great either, as I learned from my shoulder. Sometimes, experts know something we need to learn.

If we take time to read current studies (and make sure they’re legit, not just self-promotion by curriculum companies), we can actually figure out how to do our jobs better.

For example, a Hong Kong study that compared problem-based learning to lecture in a middle school science class. Although students learned equally well in the short term with both methods, the long-term retention was a different story. The PBL group showed a 162% improvement in pre/post-test scores, compared to 35% for the traditional class.

If this is true, and I think it is, don’t you want to know about it?

I thought I knew what I was doing at the gym, and I was wrong. I actually injured myself. What parts of my classroom practice are also wrong — or at least not as sharp as they could be? And am I willing to change them? I hope so.

If it’s interesting, they’ll listen


Which high school subject is most interesting to students?

  • Economics
  • Pre-calculus
  • Physics
  • English
  • History

The answer: None of the above.

No subject is inherently the most interesting; what students find interesting depends on how we teach the material.

I was reminded of this twice in the past week, thanks to my AP Psych students.

First, I read their semester experiment posters. One of my groups this year tested “boring” v. “engaging” instruction by teaching a brief lesson on the Bay of Pigs to two junior/senior English classes.

In one class, they used “enunciation, energy and movement”; in the other they read the information slowly off of their phones.

They found that not only were students in the monotone class less likely to remember the material — scoring an average of 4/10 on the quiz compared to almost 7/10 for the better class — many were unwilling to engage at all.

“The class with the good presentation took us seriously and showed us more respect,” the students concluded. “The other class didn’t even care.”

Sound familiar?

Second, I watched several hours worth of students’ video presentations on various psych disorders, like schizophrenia and generalized anxiety disorder. Almost every group did a solid job researching the symptoms, history, epidemiology, etiology and treatment of their assigned disorder, but some of the videos were so monotonous that I found myself checking email and doing shoulder exercises to distract myself. It was just too hard to sit still and listen.

Some groups, though, managed to put together swift, concise and really engaging videos, with a storyline and vivid examples to illustrate the symptoms of their assigned disorder. They were clearly enjoying themselves, and as a result, so did I.

I’m sure the students watching them noticed the difference.

Any subject can be fascinating, if it’s presented the right way — with choice details, a human interest story, a bit of suspense, and some activity on the learner’s part. Any subject can also be boring, if we strip it of life, as we too often do in our haste to “get through everything.”

I know every subject on the list above can be interesting (even if econ is my favorite). Unfortunately, our students will label them all “boring” if they have one bad experience. If we want our students to stay engaged, we can’t afford to let that happen.