Just Listen: Students Tell What Makes Them Care

“It was cooler than a regular document that you’ll see in a textbook,” Amanda told me about a historical document she handled during her museum internship. “This is something I really wanna do and learn more about.”


In fact, kids usually care more about learning when they have some kind of stake in what they’re doing. Where does that stake come from? Just listen to the variety among these students’ answers!

Take 10 minutes to watch the full series.

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‘With all due respect’: How debate sharpens thinking

‎”I was always the one arguing with teachers,” said Posha, a high school debater from Newark, NJ. “You gave me an order, and I’m like, I’m not doing this!” But when she pushes back these days, debate has given her a new demeanor of confidence and respect. “Now it’s: I think you’re wrong because,” she said. “I have more information to back up my argument, instead of just yelling.”

Debate is growing fast as a practice to sharpen the minds and skills of urban youth whose voices have long been ignored. In this short video—one of WKCD’s “Case Studies in Practice” series—two Newark students describe how becoming debaters has taught them to do research and analysis, to speak up in public, and to disagree using words, not force.

“You pick a topic out of a hat and you just get up and speak on that,” says Michael, who was in trouble for fighting before the debate coach tapped him for the school team. “Everybody started thinking on their feet.” At first, he said, “I was obliterated.” But his competitive instinct made him work hard to nail the skills he needed: reading, writing, thinking, and effective speaking.

These young debaters take up serious subjects; this year, it’s the U.S. military and police presence in South Korea, Japan, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Iraq, and Turkey. Their practice room is lined with books and students pore over them intensely.

The Jersey Urban Debate League to which Newark’s team belongs is part of the Urban Debate Network, an initiative of the Open Society Institute. Urban Debate Leagues (UDLs) currently exist in 24 of the nation’s largest cities, with over 500 urban high schools participating. Almost half of these offer a credit-bearing course in argumentation and debate, and some districts incorporate formal debate coaching throughout the regular curriculum. More than 40,000 public school students have competed in UDLs, the network estimates.

Results are clear. A peer-reviewed study of the Chicago Debate League suggests that African American male students raised their GPAs by 50% of a letter grade and were 70% more likely to graduate from high school than non-debating peers. Compared to their non-debating peers, African American male debaters were 70% more likely to reach the ACT College Ready benchmark in Reading and twice as likely to reach the College Ready benchmark in English.

Michael said his grades, too, improved tremendously. “The season’s over, my last year is over,” he mused. “But I got into that habit, and that work ethic is going to stick with me. It’s good for yourself to know these things. You learn a lot of stuff that people should be knowing about, but actually don’t.”

Just life . . . but solved as word problems

Can life be seen as math, when you’re just going into eighth grade? The middle schoolers in this short video “Case Study in Practice” talk about their new coats, their baseball averages, and even the weather with a curiosity that drives them to figure things out mathematically.

Coached by a college student who is a summer teaching intern at Providence Summerbridge, they are learning to describe their everyday concerns using the language of math.

Nic talks about picking out his school clothes in the morning, and he’s suddenly talking about permutations and combinations: “You can put six to seven different ways into one pants and two shirts . . . you just have to find out the outcome of it.”

Shaniece pleads with teachers to make the math connect to things kids do: “Like, use props. Do something. Do a little skit. Bring food. Let us come up and teach the class. See how we understand it, and see what works.”

We learned a lot by eavesdropping on these middle schoolers, as they

• Look for math in real life
• Frame their experiences as word problems
• Try out ways to solve those problems, and
• Explain and share their thinking.

What does this suggest for what your math students are practicing? We’ll send you a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind if you’ll share your thoughts and experiences with us in a reply.

Learning on a different wavelength

You can hear the beats sounding loud from the open windows of passing cars on a balmy afternoon in downtown Oakland, and you may catch snatches of a radio host interviewing the guest of the hour, or a commentary you wish you could hear more of.

But you might never know, walking past the sleek four-story downtown Youth Radio building at 1701 Broadway, that just inside it young people from 15 to 21 are working at newsroom desks and in soundproof studios to send those voices and that music into their community and the larger world.

Since Youth Radio began in 1990, it has introduced some of the freshest voices in broadcast journalism to listeners who tune into local stations, National Public Radio, and, most recently, streaming Internet sites. It trains 1,300 youth each year to develop core competencies in audio, video, web and print and to produce the highest quality original media for the widest possible audience. An estimated 27 million people hear and read the often-overlooked perspectives of young people through Youth Radio’s work each year.

However, Youth Radio also provides a compelling example of collaborative learning through peer apprenticeships, whose effects reach far into the lives and futures of Bay Area youth.

From the moment they come in off the street to fill out an application, these young broadcasters start building and sharing their skills—not just in research, writing, speaking, and media production but in workplace interactions, personal relationships, and life management.

This video presents the powerful 4-part strategy through which Youth Radio strengthens those skills through deliberate practice. It’s worth studying closely, through the voices of two young participants, Denise Tejada and Shaw Killip, whose lives it changed. Send it on to a teacher who needs a lift this week!

Lighting up ‘the dismal science’

economics illustrated coverA wonderful example of “deeper learning” by high school students is “Economics Illustrated,” a book self-published by 45 tenth grade students at High Tech High in San Diego. It consists of their short explanations of terms of art in the field of economics, accompanied by engaging articles that show how they relate to current events. Striking linoleum-block prints illustrate each entry, making the concepts even more memorable.

To make sure that every student understood all the economics terms and concepts involved, humanities teacher Dan Wise required each student to teach a lesson on the particular term he or she researched, with the associated writing and artwork as a handout. The student’s final grade on the project would partly depend on how well peers performed when quizzed on that material.

The accompanying artwork is extraordinary, developed with the coaching of Jeff Robin, High Tech High’s interdisciplinary artist and febrile teacher. Looking for a quick mental picture of how “adverse selection” works? Check out Maya Adkins’s affecting block print of a sick child home from school. A woman applying for a job, she wrote in her article, might not be planning to have a child, but “she is still punished because of asymmetric information” relating to the employer’s costs from maternity absences.

“Economics is called the Dismal Science,” commented one of the students, Kai Wells:

But with Economics Illustrated it was anything but. In this project we balanced writing, social science and art. Beforehand we may have had a basic understanding of economics, but nothing really beyond the clichés of the stock market. We learned about dozens of economic principles, ranging from everyday inflation to more cutting-edge regression analyses. We tried to get each article just perfect; my article on the Theory of Comparative Advantage is probably my most heavily edited piece to date. Some people had difficulties with the linoleum block carving, both in what to carve and how to carve it. In the end, though, we managed to create a stunning book that we can be proud of.

This book is a model in every possible way: for teachers, for students, and for anyone who’s looking to change the way schools organize themselves for learning. Check it out and make good use of it!

Lighting up 'the dismal science'

economics illustrated coverA wonderful example of “deeper learning” by high school students is “Economics Illustrated,” a book self-published by 45 tenth grade students at High Tech High in San Diego. It consists of their short explanations of terms of art in the field of economics, accompanied by engaging articles that show how they relate to current events. Striking linoleum-block prints illustrate each entry, making the concepts even more memorable.

To make sure that every student understood all the economics terms and concepts involved, humanities teacher Dan Wise required each student to teach a lesson on the particular term he or she researched, with the associated writing and artwork as a handout. The student’s final grade on the project would partly depend on how well peers performed when quizzed on that material.

The accompanying artwork is extraordinary, developed with the coaching of Jeff Robin, High Tech High’s interdisciplinary artist and febrile teacher. Looking for a quick mental picture of how “adverse selection” works? Check out Maya Adkins’s affecting block print of a sick child home from school. A woman applying for a job, she wrote in her article, might not be planning to have a child, but “she is still punished because of asymmetric information” relating to the employer’s costs from maternity absences.

“Economics is called the Dismal Science,” commented one of the students, Kai Wells:

But with Economics Illustrated it was anything but. In this project we balanced writing, social science and art. Beforehand we may have had a basic understanding of economics, but nothing really beyond the clichés of the stock market. We learned about dozens of economic principles, ranging from everyday inflation to more cutting-edge regression analyses. We tried to get each article just perfect; my article on the Theory of Comparative Advantage is probably my most heavily edited piece to date. Some people had difficulties with the linoleum block carving, both in what to carve and how to carve it. In the end, though, we managed to create a stunning book that we can be proud of.

This book is a model in every possible way: for teachers, for students, and for anyone who’s looking to change the way schools organize themselves for learning. Check it out and make good use of it!

Teachers as experts in . . . inquiry?

A study just published in Science magazine sure makes one think twice about how we deliver “content knowledge” the classroom. The method by which a course is taught, it indicates, may be even more important than the instructor’s background.

In a college physics class, listening to a lecture by a highly experienced and respected professor yielded far less learning than an inquiry-focused class conducted by less “qualified” instructors, the study found. Students gave positive reviews to the lecturer, but when they took weekly tests on the material, they faltered. The reseachers themselves were surprised at how little the students had learned, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

In contrast, a control group performed more than twice as well when their teachers—a research associate and a graduate student—used discussions, active learning, and assignments in which students had to grapple with both new and old information.

The secret? These students had time to synthesize and incorporate new ideas from the lecture into their prior knowledge and experiences.

The teachers less credentialed in physics had been coached in a teaching method based on “deliberate practice,” which combined in-class practice and frequent formative assessments (such as pretests) with an emphasis on real-world applications. (For more on deliberate practice, check out our Resources section.)

It made me think of my visit last week to the NYC iSchool, an extraordinary public high school in New York City that regards its teachers as generalists, not content specialists. The school has taken its technology-rich environment as an opportunity to deepen the deliberate practice of inquiry across the content areas.

Students get through the required state Regents exams as quickly as possible—often in ninth and tenth grades—largely by taking online courses in core curriculum areas. The rest of the curriculum consists of inquiry-based projects, often extending across the years.

One science class I visited, for example, was designing a “green roof” for the school. The teacher was no landscape architect, but she sure knew how to get students asking questions. Every stage of the project had kids figuring out how to find out information, whether that meant parsing city safety regulations or observing the angle of the noonday sun on the roof. Students’ design sketches covered the classroom walls; an architect would soon visit the class to lend advice.

Learning to teach like this requires a lot of coaching, and iSchool teachers get it via regular collegial observations and debriefings of their practice. The focus is on facilitating active learning among these very diverse students and on closely following their individual progress.

Nobody was pontificating from the front of the room in the science class I watched. Everybody had to think very hard together about the things they needed to learn more about. The teacher offered a prime model for asking good questions.

Who wants to do the study on how these kids will do in college and later life?

When inquiry is the homework

When I ask teachers what they ask their students to practice, most of them talk about homework. But when is homework just busywork—and when is it the kind of “deliberate practice” that really makes the learning stick?

In a three-hour workshop I facilitated last week, 30 teachers combed through their homework assignments to compare them to the criteria for deliberate practice. They asked themselves:

  • Does this homework ask each student to practice something that the student hasn’t yet mastered? Does the student clearly see its purpose?
  • When students are asked to repeat or rehearse something, does it require them to focus? Or can they do it without really paying attention?

One fourth-grade math teacher said that his biggest goal was to get his students to rip through routine calculations (like the multiplication table) in the shortest possible time. He wanted them to have the numbers down cold, so they wouldn’t have to think twice when they needed them.

But even though a lot of his students could do that, he noticed something troubling. When confronted with mathematical questions deriving from the world around them—like how long it would take to fill a five-gallon jug with water—they couldn’t tell the difference between a wild guess and a reasonable estimate.

Even before they needed to know their times-tables, his kids needed practice in mathematical reasoning. On multiple-choice standardized tests, they were spending too much time laboriously considering answers that couldn’t possibly be true.

Together these teachers brainstormed homework activities that might give students practice in this crucial thinking skill. For example, what about introducing a real-world dilemma, then asking kids to estimate a reasonable range in which the answer might fall? They could share their thinking in small groups the next day, with the teacher coaching them through the calculations that would show who came closest.

This kind of homework gives students practice in the thinking habits experts use when they approach problems. And it can be done in every subject area, from science to literature to history.

When kids learn to ask good questions, they care more about finding out answers that make sense. That generates a need for collaboration, for considering the perspectives of those who may disagree, and for analyzing different routes to a solution.

How do you give homework in “asking good questions”? Send in the details, and we’ll send you a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind!

The hole in the wall

I’ve heard of Sugata Mitra’s Hole in the Wall series of real-life experiments from New Delhi to South Africa to Italy, in which he gave kids self-supervised access to the web and saw results that could revolutionize how we think about teaching. But the images in his TED talk really underline for me how much curiosity and the shared interest of a peer group drive our motivation to learn.

Mitra concludes with, “education is a self-organizing system where learning is an emergent phenomenon.” What does that mean for how we should be setting up our formal learning environments? Shouldn’t we be setting up a “granny cloud” of mentors such as Mitra describes? Shouldn’t classrooms be much messier, livelier places, driven by mystery and inquiry?

If so, we’ll have to learn in another culture altogether—one that tolerates and even promotes the chaos of youthful energies when they are going where they want to go. What conditions make that possible? I am waiting to hear your ideas!

P.S. I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to the best responses that come in this week.

Helping young teenagers to practice

This month’s guest post for parents comes from Zaretta Hammond, an education consultant who works with educators and parents in the San Francisco Bay Area. Zaretta’s work focuses on the cognitive, social, and emotional needs of struggling learners, with particular attention to issues of equity in learning.

My 14-year-old daughter asked me to buy her a guitar this month because she wanted to learn to play like Taylor Swift. This request opened up an opportunity for us to talk about what it would take for her to get really good at playing the guitar. I could see her enthusiasm for taking on this new adventure as she talked about learning to play. I wasn’t concerned about her passion and excitement, but her willingness to commit to the “hard part” — the deliberate practice –to get good when the novelty will wore off.

Early adolescence is a tough time in the parent-child relationship to support a child in getting good at something. Despite having helped our children “get good” at tying their shoes, riding a bike, learning to read, and a host of other skills, at this stage we have less control over whether or not they will commit to deliberate practice.

What’s our role in supporting our children to get good at something new, especially when they hit the hard parts? Deliberate practice has some distinguishing characteristics that are important to understand as we think about how to support our children at different ages and stages in getting good at something.

• It’s about mastering a technique, not completing a task. This gives deliberate practice a special purpose. Teenagers are better than younger children in seeing how the small parts fit together to create a bigger picture and lead to mastery. Use this as leverage in helping the young person identify which parts of the process he’s already mastered and which parts still need work. From here, you can help him work on a single technique at a time.

• Deliberate practice requires undivided attention and focus. It takes mindfulness, which is often a challenge to kids who are used to multi-tasking all day. It also requires us to cultivate the ability to redirect our attention when the mind drifts. Teenagers often resist unplugging from multiple gadgets and simultaneous tasks, and they’ll experience a bit of a withdrawal period. We can help them create routines and rituals to make the transition from multi-tasking to doing one thing at a time. That can help them get used to the feeling of focusing on one thing for an extended period of time before going into a period of deliberate practice.

Over time, teenagers’ stamina for sustained focus and attention will increase. We can also help them recognize when their attention drifts. Most people can only concentrate intensely for 15 minutes before they need to shift their attention for a few minutes before coming back to the task at hand.

• Deliberate practice requires that we manage the frustration of making mistakes. We need to get okay with making mistakes, learning to use them as information that can help us correct our technique. We can help our children take an inquiry stance toward their mistakes. Teach them to ask themselves questions about how they got a particular outcome when practicing a technique or procedure a particular way. What might happen if they change it in a particular way?

With an inquiry mindset, young teenagers will be less frustrated at making mistakes. When frustration does come up, and it always does even for the most seasoned learners, we can help them center themselves with simple stress reduction techniques like deep breathing or body movement.

What are your own experiences of helping your children with issues like these? We’ll send you a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind if you’ll reply with your story in the Comment field below.

Get kids to chart their progress

“Interviewing is my challenge,” said the high school student you see in this video, as he began his journalistic internship at Educational Video Center (EVC) in New York City. To chart his progress, his teacher gave him the camera and asked him to document how he developed the art of asking questions.

One of the finest examples of “rigor and relevance” in the world, EVC workshops not only provide students with academic credit and professional skills; they give them the chance to express themselves and be heard. Teachers learn, too, about how to use videography as a means to develop critical skills and content across the curriculum–and incidentally, as a way for kids to chart their own learning.

This student’s 2-minute piece, made as a “practice video,” is just the beginning of his journey. At EVC, even students who have never succeeded in school before often go on to win awards and scholarships and to work in the media industry. And they start with just such small steps as this: asking questions that matter (“What does it take to get good at interviewing?”) and documenting the answers, as new skills build on each other right before our eyes.

What next?! Linking inquiry to amazement

As the days grow shorter and darker, here’s a great game that will light up students in grades 6-12 with learning that’s actually fun. It’s a collaborative competition called InterroBang – a new term for the combined punctuation marks at the end of “Isn’t this amazing?!” – and it looks first-rate to me.

An interdisciplinary challenge that focuses on culture, creativity, exploration, and science, InterroBang runs from now through January—perfect timing for those winter weeks when kids need a really fun project filled with choice, autonomy, problem solving, content knowledge, and creativity.

The rules of InterroBang are simple, but they contain all the elements of great project-based learning. Kids visit the InterroBang website to pick (or create) their own “mission” to carry on their own or with a team. (Strategic alliances are part of the fun.)

Depending on the complexity of the challenge they choose, they’ll get different numbers of points for completing it to the satisfaction of the contest judges (which includes other players and mentors at higher levels of the game, as well as a panel of experts).

The mission can be intellectual, technical, or artistic, but it has to involve physical action, not just thinking and writing. Students devise their plan, and then they go out and do it, documenting their actions with pictures, video, and audio. Once that’s completed, the mission becomes a “deed” – posted on the website for others to view. Then players can go on to choose another challenge, join a new team, win more points, and so forth.

To me, InterroBang’s beauty is the flexibility and creativity it affords participants. For example, here are five sample “missions” that kids might take up or adapt, each with a different focus area:

• ME, UNPLUGGED. (Focus: Culture) Use no electrical or battery-driven devices for 24 hours. Write a detailed diary of the experience (you may use a camera to document the day). (Level 1, 10 points)

• UNDERCOVER. (Focus: Exploration) Visit someplace you have been before, but dressed as someone who does not belong. Document how people talk to you, how they treat you, and have your collaborator take pictures. Write up your reflections on the experience. (Level 2, 20 points)

• TRESPASSING THE PAST (Focus: Exploration) Find a highly frequented building or place (a shopping center, a racetrack, etc.) and find out what used to be there. Indicate what the land was used for and why it was developed. Provide pictures of the before and after. (Level 2, 20 points)

• TINKER. (Focus: Creativity) Take a common household item apart and find out how it works. Putting it back together is encouraged. Making it into something new gets you extra points. (Level 2, 20 points)

• PAPYRUS PILOT. (Focus: Science) Either try to break an official paper plane record (duration, distance or wingspan) or do something truly amazing with paper planes. Either way, document plane fabrication and flights. (Level 3, 30 points)

This is InterroBang’s second year, jointly sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution, Microsoft’s U.S. Partners in Learning, and Nuvana, a groundbreaking games company that wants to change the way kids learn in and out of school. (Motto: “Playing for real.”)

I’m so curious to hear what you and your students think of InterroBang that I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to anyone who writes in to describe your experience.

How’s that for amazing?!

Proof that intelligence is infectious

This morning I came across some wonderful evidence about the power of engaging students in math and science that has clear importance in the “real world.” (Thanks to the Educator Network ning for the tip!)

This project started with Andrew Conlan, a scholar at the University of Cambridge in England who wanted to mathematically model the spread of infectious disease in elementary schools. What better research assistants than local teenagers, he reasoned, to help create and administer questionnaires directly to the children involved?

Conlan already had access to students age 13 to 15 and their teachers through the Motivate Project, which uses videoconferencing to join dialogues between students and working mathematicians. It was just one more step for him to turn those conferences into work sessions in which students honed kid-friendly questions investigating how younger children’s socialization patterns affect the spread of everything from chickenpox to swine flu.

With their local access and their rapport with younger kids, the student researchers collected data that Conlan calls “unrivalled in scope, size and detail.” Together they sampled 75 complete primary school classes from 11 different schools, with nearly a 90 per cent response rate. After school and during lunch period, they processed the results. And they grasped the epidemiological concepts, too. At year’s end, they visited Cambridge to present their data before the Applied Math department there.

This all took place in England, home of terrific sites like the Motivate Project and “I’m a Scientist, Get Me Out of Here” where working scientists interact with students. Here in the U.S., I’ve seen comparable collaborations with local university researchers play out at High Tech High in San Diego.

So let’s set out to prove that intelligence can be infectious! I’d like to start a resource list on this blog of sites where teachers anywhere could go to match up their students with serious research in the field. I’ll send you a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind if you send me a suggestion we can use.

Cultivating, and expanding, student 'interests'

I received a reflective note about “student interests” from a student teacher named Douglas Hampton, who left an industry job in mid-career, to get a masters degree in teaching. As he gets to know his students this fall, he notices that many have only a limited idea of what the world of work might hold–and that it comes mostly from their environment or the media. “How do you expose students in a meaningful way to all the possible alternatives?” he asked.

For example, I am teaching math and economics and most of the curriculum feels distant to my students. The breadth of the subject is so extensive that teachers are limited in their ability to develop relevant connections to the real world. In geometry, there are a number of professional careers that extensively use this field of knowledge but my students do not appreciate it. Geometry is used by civil engineers, physicists, architects, surveyors, software engineers and graphic artists, but the students do not see the connections. . . . High school should be the place to investigate areas of interest, explore possibilities and develop good work habits. How do I allow my students to have the freedom to generate that spark that will ignite their interests? Math and economics by themselves do not capture the interest of most students.

I like that Douglas is talking about investigation and exploration in the same breath as he mentions “developing good work habits.” In the Practice Project that led to the book Fires in the Mind, students sometimes invited various highly accomplished adults into the classroom, interviewing them about “what it takes to get really good” in their fields. They might not have all wanted to be a top surgeon or auto mechanic, but the answers gave them material that we could then analyze, to think together about what are the common “habits of experts” and how they come about.

On Dan Meyer’s blog, he has another approach: get kids to speculate about the whys and hows of the world around them, using the language of math. He’s always suggesting ways to get kids themselves to puzzle through questions they generate when you bring in interesting photos, video clips, and the like to the classroom. Taking that tack is another fantastic way to get kids thinking about possible future careers. Whether it’s video game design, an election, or a construction project, once you get interested in the math and economics of how something works, you can start to talk about your own future place in that work, and what you might have to know and be able to do in order to take that place some day.

Finally, schools where students go out to do internships in the community are offering one of the most effective ways to broaden and create new learning from their interests. Watching, asking questions, and playing even a tiny role in the “real world” helps kids see first hand the work that goes on there, and how they might fit in. The best internship programs in schools bring students together once or twice weekly in a seminar where they reflect on what they’re seeing in the workplace, relate it to their academic learning, and think through the habits of mind and work that they require.

Do you have any examples to offer of how you cultivate student interests, or expand upon them? I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to the best comments that come in.

Cultivating, and expanding, student ‘interests’

I received a reflective note about “student interests” from a student teacher named Douglas Hampton, who left an industry job in mid-career, to get a masters degree in teaching. As he gets to know his students this fall, he notices that many have only a limited idea of what the world of work might hold–and that it comes mostly from their environment or the media. “How do you expose students in a meaningful way to all the possible alternatives?” he asked.

For example, I am teaching math and economics and most of the curriculum feels distant to my students. The breadth of the subject is so extensive that teachers are limited in their ability to develop relevant connections to the real world. In geometry, there are a number of professional careers that extensively use this field of knowledge but my students do not appreciate it. Geometry is used by civil engineers, physicists, architects, surveyors, software engineers and graphic artists, but the students do not see the connections. . . . High school should be the place to investigate areas of interest, explore possibilities and develop good work habits. How do I allow my students to have the freedom to generate that spark that will ignite their interests? Math and economics by themselves do not capture the interest of most students.

I like that Douglas is talking about investigation and exploration in the same breath as he mentions “developing good work habits.” In the Practice Project that led to the book Fires in the Mind, students sometimes invited various highly accomplished adults into the classroom, interviewing them about “what it takes to get really good” in their fields. They might not have all wanted to be a top surgeon or auto mechanic, but the answers gave them material that we could then analyze, to think together about what are the common “habits of experts” and how they come about.

On Dan Meyer’s blog, he has another approach: get kids to speculate about the whys and hows of the world around them, using the language of math. He’s always suggesting ways to get kids themselves to puzzle through questions they generate when you bring in interesting photos, video clips, and the like to the classroom. Taking that tack is another fantastic way to get kids thinking about possible future careers. Whether it’s video game design, an election, or a construction project, once you get interested in the math and economics of how something works, you can start to talk about your own future place in that work, and what you might have to know and be able to do in order to take that place some day.

Finally, schools where students go out to do internships in the community are offering one of the most effective ways to broaden and create new learning from their interests. Watching, asking questions, and playing even a tiny role in the “real world” helps kids see first hand the work that goes on there, and how they might fit in. The best internship programs in schools bring students together once or twice weekly in a seminar where they reflect on what they’re seeing in the workplace, relate it to their academic learning, and think through the habits of mind and work that they require.

Do you have any examples to offer of how you cultivate student interests, or expand upon them? I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to the best comments that come in.

A launch worth watching

Homemade Spacecraft from Luke Geissbuhler on Vimeo.

Shared curiosity, persistence, and the joy of learning shine out like a spotlight from “Homemade Spacecraft,” a 7-minute video by Luke Geissbuhler about his eight-month scientific adventure with his elementary-school-age son.

The film shows the climactic day of their mission: “to attach a HD video camera to a weather balloon and send it into the upper stratosphere to film the blackness beyond our Earth.”

We see the boy and his dad test out their return parachute, and tuck their iPhone and the boy’s “reward if returned” note into a jerry-rigged lightweight orange insulated “space capsule” (smaller than a shoebox). Then they launch their helium-filled balloon, with camera, on its merry way. Their text explains what the journey entails:

Eventually, the balloon will grow from lack of atmospheric pressure, burst, and begin to fall. It would have to survive 100 mph winds, temperatures of 60 degrees below zero, speeds of over 150 mph, and the high risk of a water landing. To retrieve the craft, it would need to deploy a parachute, descend through the clouds, and transmit a GPS signal to a cell phone tower [from an included on the launch]. Then we have to find it.

“Needless to say, there are a lot of variables to overcome,” this dad notes about their project. “Be responsible is the biggest.” They built their craft to meet FAA regulations for weather balloon payload, and launched it far from city air space. Their R&D stage took seven months, for both scientific and safety reasons:

The lighter it is, the faster it will rise and the less helium you have to put into it and so the more it can expand into the oversized balloon, hence the higher it will go. It also has to be able to shred in a jet engine, which isn’t easy. There are density requirements and you can’t use any cable or tie that won’t break with 50lbs of weight among other things.

At the climax of all that work, we see the magic of this balloon ascend into space, hear the whoosh of wind currents, gaze at the awe-inspiring curve of Earth through its camera’s lens.

I can’t help but think of all the kids who would be itching to do science, if science learning could only look like this. An interested adult, a compelling idea to explore, and then hours of meticulous effort together . . . that’s what lights fires in the mind, and keeps them burning years later.

Do you have stories like this to share, from the wide world of learning outside school walls? I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind if yours is among the best examples I receive.

Bringing practice back to class


What if kids listened to lectures on their own time, and spent class time in guided practice instead? (Dan Pink’s blog this week calls it “flipping homework.”)

That’s the technique used by many pioneering teachers, including Karl Fisch, a Colorado high school math teacher and blogger. He makes YouTube videos to explain key concepts and procedures to his algebra students—who view them after hours.

During class, students actively work on solving problems, collaborating in various ways as they try out the concepts for themselves.

Meanwhile, the teacher has the time to watch, assess, and coach kids as they puzzle through the problems in the moment. He can offer just the help that each needs in the moment, stretching their learning to the next step.

That approach makes sense for any subject (math, science, foreign languages, etc.) where a teacher wants to introduce background knowledge via direct instruction or sustained silent reading. Delivered during traditional “homework time,” that information has a chance to come alive the next day — and “stick” as kids make it their own in the messy, generative ways that deliberate practice demands.

Just today, Fisch’s students conducted a Skype interview with a geothermal engineer from the National Renewable Energy Lab — but as homework beforehand, they prepped for their interview by reading a package of background information. (Find out more here.)

Have you tried a strategy like this in your classroom? Do you have other ways you’re accomplishing the same goal? I’ll send you a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind if yours is among the best examples I receive.

Constructing wings to fly with


“I can figure that out!” That’s the message that comes across in the how-to videos in the current online issue of Edutopia — showing how a challenging hands-on project can create a culture of steadily increasing motivation and mastery. My favorite shows ninth graders from Seattle whose science teacher drew them into a long term project to engineer from papier-mache a light-weight wing construction that works. I had to agree: “It’s hard–but once you’re on the inside, it’s fun!”