Tag Archives: education innovation

What I Learned From a Year of Visiting Schools

The “newsworthy” media reports on the state of education in our country are largely discouraging.  The articles I read in newspapers, magazines, and blogs often focus on failing schools, disappointing test results, or the tragic criminal behavior of a few isolated teachers or administrators.  Acrimonious school board meetings make the news, as do research reports showing how American 4th graders are falling behind students in other parts of the world, especially in subjects like science and mathematics.  If you take these snippets as representative of our educational system in the US, you could easily conclude that our young people are doomed.

But after spending some time during this last academic year visiting a wide variety of different schools, I have found the real picture to be much more complicated.  Yes, there are problems – many of them large, pervasive, intractable problems.  But there are also some reasons to feel grateful and even a few reasons to celebrate.  And above all, there is reason to feel hopeful.  Here’s why:

Teachers are Amazing

Granted, I set out to find some great teachers and great schools, not to fill out the Top Ten list for the Suckiest Teachers in America.  Even so, my travels gave me plenty of opportunities to spend time in huge spectrum of schools (public and private, rural and urban and suburban, crushingly poor and fantastically wealthy).  At most of the schools I visited I spent a whole school day, seeing a full range of teachers.  What I saw was inspiring.  These educators have a passion for teaching and care deeply about their students.  They manage superhuman feats, among them:

  • Getting up at 4am every weekday to find time to prep for class, set up labs, or get those papers graded
  • Juggling classes of up to 40 teenagers at a time – not just managing the chaos, but engaging and inspiring them
  • Coaching, sponsoring clubs and activities, directing plays, doing dorm duty, counseling advisees, and generally providing a bounty of activities and support systems for students outside of class
  • Writing their own curricular materials and text books, even though they gain little or nothing financially from these endeavors
  • Using their own prior personal experiences as lawyers, historians, EMTs, park rangers, scientists, business executives, journalists, and soldiers to add to the educational experiences of students.
  • Engaging 9th graders in a collaborative cancer research project with students and professors at a local university
  • Meeting with students before school, through their lunch breaks, and after school – sometimes into the evening hours
  • Fighting NYC traffic – 90 minutes each way – just to make it back and forth to school
  • Spending their own money – often hundreds of dollars – to get supplies and materials to make lessons more interesting and more meaningful
  • Holding the rapt attention of a class for up to 90 minutes by telling stories and jokes that deliver the content in a compelling way (several groaned disappointedly when a student realized that class had actually ended a few minutes ago and they would have to leave).

Teachers are Innovative

Some education critics and pundits complain that teaching today looks much like it did 150 years ago, with teachers lecturing at the blackboard while students passively take notes.  While this is a scene repeated in many classrooms across the country, I was surprised by the level of innovation and creativity teachers brought to the lessons I observed:

  • Exploring ‘flipped classroom’ techniques, POGIL, and the Harkness method to use classroom time and ‘homework time’ more effectively
  • Utilizing a huge variety on online resources in smart and effective ways: access to primary documents, physics simulations, journal articles, photo databases, educational videos, scientific safety data sheets, etc.
  • Using Twitter and other social media to effectively communicate with their colleagues across the country, sharing ideas and scheduling massive online conversations about best practices
  • Developing “student-centered” lessons and curricula in which students take responsibility for their own learning and get to practice deeper level cognitive skills like critical thinking, planning, analysis, trouble-shooting, and evaluation.
  • Creating custom manipulatives and simulations that allow students to model complex systems and learn how they work
  • Using real world problems to create context and allow students to relate to the lesson – how would you go about designing a high performance skateboard?  what architectural features of a house affect the rate of heat loss in the winter?  what kind of drug delivery system would release chemotherapy drugs in the presence of cancerous cells but not healthy tissue?

Students Love Learning

If you believe the buzz about kids in the 21st Century, you might conclude that they are all technology-addicted, zero-attention-span brats with an over-developed sense of self-esteem and self-importance.  While not all kids thrive in our schools, it was encouraging to see that the negative stereotypes of this generation are either over-simplified or just plain wrong.

  • Students love learning.  When presented with an interesting and well-designed lesson, the vast majority of kids are willing to jump right in.  While school doesn’t have to be “fun,” there’s no denying that learning can be enjoyable and engaging.
  • Students respond strongly to skilled and knowledgeable teachers who care about them.  It was interesting to follow the transformation of a single student from a classroom with a talented, passionate teacher (3rd period) to a tired, less effective teacher (4th period).  The student’s engagement and performance changed by orders of magnitude.
  • The harder the problem, the harder they try (at least up to a point).  As any video game designer can tell you, challenging activities can be really fun.  Lessons that push students to the limits of their capabilities while still allowing them to experience some success and a sense of accomplishment can be highly effective learning environments.
  • Students care about each other and the broader world.  More than any generation before them, students are attuned to global issues and want to do something to make the world a better place.  They talk about international human rights, climate change, and disaster relief.  They join clubs and organizations, volunteer their time, and raise money.  And many of them are planning careers that hope to address some of the great problems of our modern age.

Resources Matter

While I found some very effective teachers and highly motivated students in every school I visited, it was also shocking to see the enormous disparity between well-funded schools and those that were sorely lacking in resources.  In one weekend I went from a school with lavish classrooms and labs, an average class size of about 10 students, and an endowment of nearly $1 million PER STUDENT to a school without books or basic supplies, classes of 35+, and a building that hadn’t been renovated in 60 years.  While there was some good teaching happening in both places, the challenges faced by the students and teachers at the second school were extraordinary.  It’s hard to teach chemistry without equipment and supplies, without books and computers, and without classroom and lab spaces big enough to adequately accommodate all of your kids.

After seeing some of these schools, it makes me sick to hear the pundits on TV saying things like “throwing money at the problem won’t fix the problems with our schools.”  Some of these political hacks think that they are suddenly educational experts, perhaps because they once spent time in a classroom.  Their diagnosis: bad teachers.  Their prescription: more teacher accountability, more student testing, and less government interference.  My response?  They are clueless idiots.  OF COURSE throwing money at the problem is the solution.  Let’s imagine some other scenarios outside the realm of education, shall we?


Doctor: Chief, patient care is suffering.  Our MRI is broken, and the X-ray machine needs to be recalibrated.  Also, if we got some new lab equipment, we could run more sophisticated blood tests to better diagnose disease.

Hospital Exec: Why is it all about technology these days?  Back when I was a doctor, we didn’t even have MRIs.  Being a good doctor isn’t about having fancy tech toys to play with – those things are expensive, and I’m not sure we need them.


Engineer: We can’t seem to find and retain highly skilled engineers for the new NASA project.  Maybe we should think about increasing pay and benefits?

Project Manager: Engineers are overpaid as it is.  The problem is that they are lazy and poorly trained.  Why would you pay engineers more if they are not doing a good job?  What we need is more effective college engineering programs to prepare future engineers better.


Researcher:  Boss, we have no new pharmaceuticals in development.  Once our other patents expire, we’re sure to lose market share.  Maybe we should spend some money on research & development?

Pharma Exec:  Throwing money at the problem is not going to help.  Instead of spending MORE money on R&D, we just need to spend it in SMARTER ways.  We need to think outside the box – maybe we should just test our current drugs more extensively?


In most other professional endeavors, providing money for competitive salaries and paying for basic materials is a no-brainer if you want to achieve quality outcomes.  Why should education be any different?

While there are courageous doctors who accomplish noble things in areas of the world without diagnostic equipment and proper medical supplies, they are hampered by the lack of appropriate resources.  Imagine how much more good they could do with a little technological and human support.  Likewise, teachers in poor schools are able to accomplish some incredible work with little or no money.  But their efforts could be greatly amplified if they only had access to decent teaching resources.  And if we want to attract and (more importantly) retain talented teachers, we’ll have to actually pay them a competitive salary (unlike, say, the $36K we pay Washington teachers with a BA and 5 years of experience – per http://www.k12.wa.us/safs/pub/per/salallocschedule.pdf).  That is not even a living wage in Seattle, and other professionals with similar amounts of training and experience make double or triple that amount (see for example http://www.indeed.com/salary?q1=Engineer&l1=Seattle%2C+WA).

While teachers in more wealthy schools have many more options for putting together effective lessons for their kids, most of them work just as many hours as teachers in poor schools – and often for the same pay.  Most of the teachers at the prestigious boarding schools I visited are required to live in the dorms, and regularly work 80+ hours a week for a surprisingly small salary.  Like their teaching colleagues elsewhere, they do it because they love their jobs, feel that their work is meaningful, and honestly enjoy working with young people.

Looking back on my year, it is all of the teachers that I have met that make me feel hopeful and inspired.  They are smart, hard working, and courageous.  They often make sacrifices of time and money in their own lives because they believe that educating the next generation is critically important.  Teachers of America, your passion and dedication is amazing.  Your students love and appreciate you.  And you are making a difference in their lives, and in the future of our country and our world.

1 Comment

Filed under Teaching

Birding, Gamification, and Implications for Education

Amongst those strange souls who are wild bird enthusiastists, there are bird watchers, and then there are birders.  I often describe myself as a “bird watcher” because that describes my hobby in the most simple terms.  I go outside, I find birds, I watch birds.  Bird watchers enjoy birds on an aesthetic level, and are often keen to understand their behavior and natural history.  I also like the term “bird watching” because it is less opaque that the rather bizarre term “birding.”  In the past when I have mentioned to acquaintances that I spent the weekend birding, on more than one occasion I have been asked  what kind of shotgun I have, or how many pheasants I bagged.  After all, if you met some guy at the beach who claimed to be “fishing” with binoculars (but without a rod and reel or a net), you might wonder if he’d lost his marbles.

Birders are similar in many ways to bird watchers, but the term ‘birder’ usually connotes someone who is more serious about certain aspects of the hobby, particularly identification and keeping various kinds of lists.  Birders are more likely to consider their passion for birds beyond the realm of merely a hobby.  If you hear someone at a hawk watch debating the gender and age of a soaring raptor a mile away, or a person out on the mudflats discussing the exact parentage of an immature hybrid gull, you are probably listening to self-described birders.  They might travel extensively, hoping to add a never-before-seen species to their ‘life list.’  Birders are also more likely to do various flavors of Big Days or Big Years, in which they attempt to find as many birds as possible within a certain geographic area in a specified span of time.  As someone who has just completed a Big Year spanning the continental United States and Canada, I’m a birder too.

High Island

Essentially, birders have taken bird watching and converted it into a game.  And what a game it is.  If you think football is impressive with its 100 yard field and hundred-man teams, or think a five day cricket test match is something, you have never really pondered the epic scope of a North American birding Big Year.  The ‘field of play’ is nearly 8,000,000,000 square miles and spans from the Florida Keys (24° N latitude) to Ellesmere Island, Canada (83° N latitude) and from Newfoundland (52° W longitude) to the end of the Aleutians (179° W longitude).  There are 20 billion players in this game, perhaps 50,000 human teammates (or competitors?) and billions and billions of sparrows, hawks, woodpeckers, hummingbirds, loons, and warblers who don’t care a whit about playing a game with people but are nevertheless the star participants.  The game lasts 365 days in a row (the length of 2920 football games, at three hours each, played back-to-back).

Some of these birds are relatively easy to find, like Surf Scoter or Rough-legged Hawk:

Surf scoter

Rough-legged hawk

Some of them require going to a specific place at a specific time, like Whooping Crane (Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas) and Rufous-capped Warbler (Florida Canyon in Arizona).

Whooping Crane

Rufous-capped Warbler

Some are so rare that even within this vast playing field that you can’t really count on them to show up at any specific location, like Crimson-collared Grosbeak or Barnacle Goose.  You just have to ‘chase’ them if and when they show up.

CC Grosbeak

Barnacle Goose

The rules of this game are pretty simple: find and ID as many birds as you can in the prescribed geographic area within the time limit.  The birds have to be alive, wild, and unrestrained when they are seen.  No dead birds.  No pet shops.  No eggs (?!).  Oh, and you have to engage in ethical behavior while you’re watching them (no harassing or killing birds, no trespassing, no disturbing endangered species, etc.).  Other than that, you can pursue the game any way you like.  Want to rent a helicopter?  Or limit yourself to species seen on foot, bike, or kayak?  No problem.  Want to bring a friend or hire a guide?  Ok.  Want to count birds you ID-ed by song or call, but didn’t actually see?  Totally fine.  All of these variations are sanctioned by the American Birding Association.  Of course, you can also ignore the ABA completely and make up your own set of rules.  As birders say, “it’s YOUR list” – meaning, you can play whatever game you want to.

Beyond the epic scope of a Big Year, the things that make it fun are the many challenges.  Just finding a particular species can be tough.  Can you pick out the rare Eurasian Widgeon from a huge flock of American Wigeon?  Do you know where to go to find the tame but often maddeningly elusive Spruce Grouse?  Will you actually see that secretive rail or sparrow out in the endless expanse of saltmarsh?  And then there is the challenge of identifying some birds.  There are 11 species of flycatchers in the genus Empidonax, many of which are almost identical except for the tiniest differences in physical structure and plumage.  Some birds can only reliably differentiated by voice.  Others show important but subtle ID clues in flight.  Still others are best identified by a combination of range, habitat, and/or behavior.

And what you do “win” if you play this game?  Mostly a batch of enjoyable memories, a sense of accomplishment, and perhaps the thrill of discovering something new.  There are no cash prizes, no trophies, no fame for the “winners” – perhaps just a little recognition and admiration from the tiny fraction of the overall population that claims to be serious birders.  People often ask me how birding is “refereed” – how do you know that a birder has seen the birds that he or she claims to have seen?  The short answer is that birders operate on the honor system.  There are very few “cheaters” for the same reason that so few people cheat running marathons, or climbing mountains.  Sure, there are always a few people willing to take the subway, but most people run marathons for the sense of accomplishment.  They do it to get in shape, to push themselves, to join a community of runners, to add meaning to their lives.  Cheating would defeat the purpose.

Spending this past year playing my own version of a birding game while simultaneously visiting a large number of schools has lead me to think about the ‘gamification’ movement in education.  Evolutionary biologists tell us that the origin of play and games in many species may be an adaptive response to make learning new skills fun.  Lion cubs might play with each other to hone their hunting skills, while human cubs engage in games to sharpen their athletic prowess, intellect, or social skills.  Teachers look to capitalize on this natural fit between learning and games in their classrooms.  Games may help to motivate students to practice skills or gain knowledge, hoping to accumulate prizes or “level up” – or just because the act of playing is fun.  Playful learning can foster collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking.  Many games allow students to model the real world, and let them interact with this model in authentic and compelling ways.  Simulations can teach students cause and effect relationships, arm them with new strategies or tactics, or simply provide them with different perspectives or new points of view.



Of course gamification is not a panacea for all of our educational ills.  And it can be done poorly.  If the game becomes disconnected from meaningful learning experiences, it ceases to be a valuable education tool.  Some birders get so wrapped up in the game of birding that they also begin to disconnect from the other meaningful aspects of their hobby.  I’ve seen a few birders who will drive eight hours straight to see a new bird, watch it for all of 5 seconds, tick it off their list, and hop back in the car.  Gone are an aesthetic appreciation of the creature, a curiosity about its behavior and natural history, and a sense of wonder and connection with our world.  For these reasons, I try to remind myself that I am a bird watcher and not just a birder.  And when I go back to teaching this fall I will embrace fun and games with my students, but I will also remember that games by themselves cannot replace wonder, curiosity, and a passion for understanding our world.

Leave a comment

Filed under Birding, Teaching

Teaching Science Using the Harkness Method

I’ve been on a bit of a schools/teaching kick lately with this blog, which has been fun (if you want to see more bird pics, check back starting April 8!).  My reflections on “good teaching” bring me back to one of the things that inspired the teaching component of my Big Year: my trip to Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire three years ago.  It was an amazing trip, and gave me so much to think about.  I wrote up an informal report of my trip for some of my Lakeside colleagues, and I have decided to reprint that report here.  Just to be clear, I did not visit Exeter again – this is from three years ago.  In that time, the concept of the “flipped classroom” has really gained popularity – and it’s interesting to compare “the flip” circa 2013 with what Exeter has been doing for decades.  Finally, this report was written for a Lakeside audience, so phrases like “the way we do things here” mean the way we do them at Lakeside.  Enjoy!

Academy Bldg

Caryn Abrey and I visited Exeter in April of 2010, and spent almost two days touring the school, observing classes, and talking to adults and students.  We were struck by a whole range of differences between Exeter and Lakeside, but three things that made a particular impact on us were Exeter’s approach to science teaching (the Harkness Method), their use of a weekly Meditation period, and their process of initial teacher evaluation and induction.


Harkness Method in Teaching Science

One of the things for which Exeter is famous is the Harkness method of teaching, in which small classes of students sit around an oval table with the instructor.  It is a “student centered classroom” in which the teacher does not lecture or directly control the discussion.  Students take primary responsibility for driving the lesson forward, asking and answering each others’ questions, and constructing their own understanding of the topic.  Teachers may sometimes step in to ask questions, redirect errant discussions, or provide some clarification, but they do not dictate the pacing, interpersonal dynamics, or (sometimes) even exact content of the lesson.

While Exeter has been using the Harkness method since the 1930s, I was surprised to learn that science classes did not employ this method until the early to mid 1990s.  At that time, the science faculty were, in fact, the lone hold-outs in keeping lecture as their primary mode of instruction.  In the 1990s, some of the science teachers began to experiment with a more student-centered approach.  Progress towards a “science Harkness method” was somewhat gradual and inconsistent at first, but momentum began to build as the science faculty started planning their impressive new Phelps Science Center.  One of the questions that the Exeter science teachers wrestled with was whether to include space in each new science classroom for a Harkness table.  At first they were significantly divided on this issue, but finally reached consensus: the science dept would embrace Harkness as the standard mode of instruction for all science classes, starting with the completion of the Phelps Science Center in 2001.

 Science building

Phelps Science Center

While all of the science teachers agreed to use the Harkness method in their classes, there is no single definition for what Harkness is.  The key elements seem to be a student-centered classroom in which the students take primary responsibility for their own learning.  The teacher can act as a support or guide in this process.  Within the department, there is apparently a spectrum of how student-centered each class is, with different teachers interpreting for themselves the right balance of student-teacher voice and influence.  There is no official “enforcer” of “Harkness orthodoxy” on campus (or in the dept), and teachers are actually given a little freedom in finding a precise Harkness style that works for them.  However most of the adults we talked to were very clear about the distinction between the Harkness method (endorsed and used at Exeter) and the Socratic method of teacher posing questions to students (not really promoted by Exeter).  While in real life these two techniques share some similarities, Exeter faculty explained that the Socratic method, while fostering student involvement and dialogue with the teacher, is still ultimately an expression of a teacher-centered classroom.  In a Socratic classroom, much of the conversation is teacher-student-teacher-student-teacher-student (represented by spokes on a wheel with the teacher at its center), while a Harkness classroom is much more likely to be teacher-student-student-student-teacher-student-student.  In fact, for a while in several classrooms, the teacher seemed almost invisible or irrelevant for parts of the lesson.


A Chemistry Classroom with Harkness Table

While I had a basic idea of the Harkness method before I visited Exeter, I had a very hard time envisioning how this approach could be successful in science.  Without lecture, how would students learn any content?  And how can they do science (the process) without any content as background?  With little direct teacher “control,” why did classes not simply descend into anarchy?  How did teachers keep the classes moving in a productive direction if the students were in control?  Why and how are Exeter students so successful at teaching themselves, when this approach seems like it would be a major challenge at Lakeside?  Just a couple of classroom observations largely answered these questions for me.

Without lecture, how do students learn any content? 

Just because students do not listen to lecture does not mean that they don’t receive any sort of direct instruction or learn any facts – the direct instruction just doesn’t come from the teacher.  Part of the Harkness method relies on students learning much of the factual content of the unit outside of class, often from a text book or other reading assignment.  Class time is often reserved for applications of concepts, lab investigations, problem solving, and extensions or elaborations of basic material.  In some ways this is the opposite of the approach we take at Lakeside, in which basic content is often explained (by the teacher) during class, and homework is used as time to practice problem solving and look at extensions or applications of the basic material.  Exeter students reported that they really liked and appreciated their approach: “I can learn all the basic stuff on my own in the dorm,” one student told us.  “I like the idea that we spend class time doing the harder and more complicated stuff together.  I would find it really difficult if we learned the basic stuff in class and I had to do the hard stuff on my own for homework.  It’s much easier with many brains.”

Sometimes, the students have a hard time understanding all of the material at home.  When this happens, they bring in questions to the class.  “I didn’t get why the second Ka didn’t matter in this acid/base problem,” one student remarked.  The teacher said nothing, but another student jumped right in: “See how the second Ka is way, way smaller than this one?  Like five orders of magnitude.  It’s a terrible acid, so that second H+ just doesn’t ionize hardly at all.”  Sometimes questions came up (from a student or the teacher) that no one seemed to know the answer to.  In that case, students pounce on their text books (which are always brought to class and usually open on the table) and look up the answer.  Because students are accustomed to taking responsibility for their own learning, they have become experts at “how to find the answer” for themselves.  Unlike Lakesiders, their reference of first resort (during class) is almost always a book and not the internet.  Also, they rarely ask their teachers for the answer to a question, and when they do, they don’t necessarily expect a direct answer.  Often, instead, they ask the question to the classroom at large, and another student (or two or three!) will respond.  Teachers do feel free to chime in on occasion when they feel their input will be particularly helpful.  I also noticed that they sometimes do deliberate check-ins with students who had questions or concerns about the concepts – “Jonathan, are you OK with that now?”

Content is not always learned just at home.  Sometimes concepts and ideas are actually developed during class itself through a kind of discovery learning.  I watched a physics class in which the teacher posed a question: “What kind of variables affect the speed of a wave?”  He was seated with the rest of class around the Harkness table, and was taking notes on a tablet PC.  A data projector showed his notes on a large screen.  Instead of generating his own notes for the students to copy down, the teacher simply transcribed the student discussion that transpired, serving as a kind of scribe or recording secretary for the lesson.  He wrote down student observations and questions, and carefully drew a line through student hypotheses that were later determined to be incorrect (by the students).   The physics teacher provided a simple wave machine demo device for the students to experiment with, along with some physical springs and slinkies that could make various kinds of waves.  He also used physics software on his tablet PC that he manipulated at the request and direction of the students.  The students used these devices and demos to experiment with different hypotheses: Did changing the amplitude of the wave change its speed?  How about changing its frequency or wavelength?  Students played with the demos, asked each other questions, and drew pictures and graphs on the many whiteboards around the room.  They were always very attentive and respectful of each other, and at all times there was only one conversation going at a time.  In a few places where the students drew an incorrect conclusion, the teacher said nothing for several minutes, waiting to see if the students would catch their own error – usually they did.  In one case, after 5 minutes passed, he stepped in to ask a pointed question, and the students realized their mistake.  Near the end of the class, the students took a sharp right turn into a tangential question about the relationship between an amplitude vs. displacement graph of a wave and an amplitude vs. time representation of a wave.  It was a subtle distinction – which kind of graph really showed the wave itself, and which showed only a certain position on the wave and how it changed over time – and what was the difference between the two?  And the significance of these differences?  I’m not sure if this discussion was really what the teacher had in mind for this particular class, but it was a fascinating conversation that the students seemed to get a lot out of, and the teacher allowed it to basically run its course.  At the end of the lesson, the teacher had recorded a neat outline of the entire lesson, and emailed this to the class – another strange inversion (the students present the material and the teacher takes the notes!).

Many chemistry classes were not too different from ones I have observed at Lakeside.  Many of them centered around student problem solving, either debriefing homework assignments or working on application or extension problems.  In almost all cases, students worked in groups of two or three.  Sometimes these groups were assigned by the teacher; in other cases, students simply worked with the people seated near them.  It was rare that students were asked to complete any task in class by themselves without the possibility of help or collaboration from a peer.  In a couple cases, students performed a lab or a lab-like investigation, even during a “short” 50- minute period.  The teachers reported that often they will start a unit with a lab (Exeter chemistry classes do 1-2 labs a week), and use this experience to introduce the material to the students.  This gives students some introductory information, and also a ready-made source of questions for further investigation.


A Chemistry Classroom with both Harkness Table and Lab Space

With little direct teacher “control,” why did classes not simply descend into anarchy?  How did teachers keep the classes moving in a productive direction if the students were in control? 

On the surface, it appears that the students have significant control over the class.  But this appearance of total student direction and control is somewhat of an illusion.  Upon further investigation, it is revealed that every lesson is carefully crafted and planned by the teacher.  He or she does not simply walk into the classroom and say, “learn chemistry!”  In fact, each day is mapped out ahead of time.  In many cases handouts are prepared to guide the kids, or a slate of questions is written up ahead of time.  Examples are picked very carefully to illustrate key points, and labs and demos are chosen to guide students in the right direction.  While it sometimes feels to the students as if they are bushwhacking their way through some unexplored jungle, they are in fact traversing a definite path with subtle signposts and markers along the way.  If the students wander astray from the main track, the teacher gently (or sharply) reins them in and points them back down a more productive direction.  The challenge for the teacher is to provide just the right amount of guidance and scaffolding so that the students can achieve progress on their own without it seeming either too easy or too onerous.  Despite the basic premise that the class is student-centered, teachers are not afraid to be remarkably direct and involved on occasion: “Let’s hold off on that line of thinking for now.”  “I’m afraid I don’t agree.”  “I think we can skip X for now and just focus on Y for the moment.”  “Take 5 minutes right now and summarize this discussion in your notes.”

One interesting consequence of the fact that the students have significant control over the classroom is that the pace of each class seems relaxed, almost leisurely.  In observing many 45-minute classes at Lakeside, there is often a sense of urgency or even stridency, especially in the last 10 minutes or so of the period.  The teacher is rushing to finish his point, or to get to her demo, or to solve that one last problem.  In the “rush to finish” the lesson, important points are sometimes overlooked.  In fact, many Lakeside teachers and students remark that the Weds-Thurs block periods often feel much more relaxed because there isn’t as much time pressure to “squeeze everything in.”  At Exeter, many of the short periods feel as relaxed and unrushed as Lakeside’s block periods.  Because the students control much of the tempo and pacing, they move at a speed that is comfortable to them.  They have no particular incentive to “get through one more example” or “cover 3 more points” in the last 10 minutes of class.  If they need more time to understand something, they take it.  If they are ready to move on, they will.  This slower pacing no doubt contributes to less material being covered each week, but it certainly makes for a less stressful class period.

We noticed that the relaxed feeling carried over into the field trip as well.  On Lakeside field trips, we often expect students to take notes, do field sketches, etc.  On the Exeter Ornithology field trip, students were encouraged to soak in the experience and focus on observing the wildlife around them.  The teacher took notes, and provided the students with a summary of the species observed when the trip was finished.

Another interesting observation relating to pacing is the effect on the classroom when the teacher sits down with the students.  While a teacher who is physically active walking around the room has the potential to create some dynamic energy, he or she also is potentially giving students permission to be passive observers of the “show.”  When the teacher sits with the students, there is less kinesthetic action, but somehow there is also the expectation of intimate, reciprocal conversation.  While it’s not necessarily strange or rude to remain silent during a lecture (even when questions are being asked), it IS uncomfortable when one party refuses to participate in a personal conversation.  Sitting at the Harkness table brings the whole class into “conversation mode” and out of the “lecture” setting.

Science lobby

Why and how are Exeter students so successful at teaching themselves, when this approach seems like it would be a major challenge at Lakeside?

The biggest difference here seems to be the school culture and the training that Exeter students receive.  They come to the school knowing that the Harkness method will be used extensively, and they practice it every day in every one of their classes.  The idea that students should be responsible for their own learning becomes deeply ingrained in the school culture.  Students don’t struggle with this responsibility (at least not in upper level courses) because they are completely comfortable and practiced with this approach.  Lakesiders certainly could get to be comfortable with a system like this (in fact a number of teachers here use variants of it), but they would need to be trained to use it in the science context.  It certainly wouldn’t be an easy or seamless shift in approach for our students or our teachers.

Other differences between Exeter and Lakeside involve average course loads and class sizes.  Exeter is on the trimester system (which they call “terms”).  The maximum number of courses that any student can take per term is five (although music lessons can be taken in addition to their normal course load).  Most core science classes (i.e. biology, chemistry, physics) meet all three terms during the year, while elective science classes (i.e. Marine Biology, Astronomy) meet only one.  There is also supervised and structured study time throughout the day (and evening).  All of these things combined with the fact that very few students spend time each day commuting to and from school (80% of the kids are boarding) mean that students have more time on average to prepare for each lesson outside of class.  Class sizes are also smaller than Lakeside, with an average class being about 10-12.  Classes as small as 8 are not uncommon, and there is a hard cap at 14.  Smaller classes give each student more of a chance to participate in each lesson.

Phelps Science Center

Technology and Harkness

While technology does not relate directly to the Harkness approach, it was interesting to see how technology was used (and not used) in the Exeter science classrooms.  In all of our observations, we only saw a single student use a laptop during class.  While almost all students have computers, they are discouraged from using them during the normal class lessons.  One teacher explained that the heart of the Harkness philosophy is that students sit in a circle and communicate directly to each other.  The laptop becomes a distraction – if students are busy looking at their screens then they are not looking at one another.  This is an interesting contrast to the widespread use of laptops at Lakeside.  Here laptops are employed very effectively as a teaching and learning tool in many classes, but they also are a source of distraction and disengagement for many students.

Exeter has also essentially rejected the SMART board and related technologies.  While the teachers there were intrigued by some of its possibilities, they decided that ultimately it is an embodiment of a teacher-centered classroom (or at the very least a technology that is primarily designed to be used by one person at a time, and not by a group).

Tablet PCs were used on several occasions by the teacher to record notes for the class, or to project demos, simulations, movies, or web pages on the big screen in each classroom.  These seemed to be popular and well utilized.  Interestingly, each classroom has a dedicated tablet PC just for use with the projector – this is NOT the teacher’s personal [work] computer.  Most teachers have a desktop computer for their personal use in the classroom.  Each teacher essentially has his or her own room, so there are not group offices for the full time faculty.

Harkness as a “Flipped Classroom” Model?

In many ways, the Harkness Method is a lot like the “flipped” model of classroom instruction, in which students learn basic content at home and practice skills and do applications during class.  A major difference is that the “flipped” model is often associated with watching videos or seeing online audio-visual presentations.  At Exeter, students usually get the content by reading books and articles.  Caryn and I joked that Harkness is like a 19th Century version of the flipped classroom.  Except in this case, I’m not sure the technological progress of the 21st Century is entirely serving the students.  While the video format certainly opens the doors to some powerful visuals and demonstrations, it comes at the expense of time spent reading and digesting the written word.  Am I old-fashioned to think that by essentially jettisoning books and relying on pre-digested mini-videos (akin to “watching TV”?), the modern flipped model is robbing students of a very important set of skills?

Relation of Harkness to Other Educational Philosophies

At first glance the Harkness method, particularly as adopted by the science department, seems to share a lot in common with the progressive educational psychology theories of the late 20th and early 21st Centuries.  Watching a science lesson at Exeter, you could easily imagine that it was recently designed by an educational psychologist from a well-known college of education.  The inquiry or discovery methods that grew out of earlier work by Piaget and his intellectual descendants stress student-centered lessons featuring constructivism, the idea that students can and should create their own meaning and knowledge through being actively engaged with the world around them.  Under the constructivist model, teachers act like a guide or mentor, not the source for all information.  The constructivist/inquiry model of science education is now the standard approach taught at most American teacher colleges.

While the Harkness method seems to share many similarities with the constructivist/inquiry model, it is a distinct phenomenon that in fact does not seem to draw much direct inspiration from the academic world of educational psychology.  Most of the teachers I spoke to did not know much about these theories or have any sort of formal or informal training in educational psychology.  Relatively few Exeter science teachers appear to have attended teachers’ college or studied current writings in cognitive psychology or current science education philosophy.  In contrast, they came to learn about the student-centered classroom by watching other Exeter teachers practice their craft.  In this way it is very much like an apprenticeship system in which young teachers are trained by the experienced masters by direct observation and instruction.  In hiring new science faculty, the department looks for teachers who are open to the idea of a student-centered classroom, but not necessarily those who have extensive experience or training in this approach.  Exeter provides the training and mentorship needed to help teachers new to the school adopt the Harkness approach.

As someone who has been through the UW’s College of Education, the Exeter experience was a little jarring.  I would watch 40 minutes of an incredibly elegant student-driven constructivist lesson.  Then the teacher would hand out a chemistry lab with step-by-step cookbook instructions, which did not seem in keeping with the constructivist approach.  Or the students would take a quiz which was entirely multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank, a seemingly odd choice for a chemistry or physics class.  The pairing of very traditional education methods in assessment and laboratory work with a total student-centered inquiry/discovery class discussion seemed a bit incongruous, although it’s hard to draw too many firm conclusions on the basis of such a limited observation.

Library with Harkness table

Library Lobby with Harkness Table

 New Teacher Evaluation and Induction

As mentioned above, Exeter science teachers are not required to have specific background or training in the Harkness style before they are hired.  Instead they look for teachers with a lot of potential to be successful in this environment, and an openness and willingness to use Harkness methodology.  Essentially, it sounds like they usually “grow their own teachers.”

Every teacher new to Exeter gets a mentor who works closely with that new teacher.  In contrast to the Lakeside system, the mentor is always from the science department (and almost always from the same subdepartment – a fellow physics teacher, for example).  At Exeter there are three terms (trimesters) a year, and new teachers are evaluated for NINE terms in a row.  Evaluations happen in their 2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc. up through 10th term.  This means twice in their first year, three times in their second year, three times in their third year, and once in their fourth year.  The fourth year serves as the summative evaluation year for that teacher, when a decision is made about whether or not to offer the teacher tenure.  Tenured teachers are invited back for a fifth year and have the expectation of job security for that year and every subsequent year.  Teachers who don’t receive tenure are not invited back after the fourth year.

Each evaluation is performed by a tenured teacher in the department (but not necessarily the department head).  For each evaluation, the tenured teacher sits in on 3 classes in a row, observing the lessons and meeting with the teacher after each class.  The new teacher and the tenured one have some substantive discussions together, and a document is written which summarizes the visits.  While these nine evaluations contribute to the overall summative assessment in year four, individually they are largely formative evaluations designed to give constructive feedback to the teacher and aid in his or her growth and development.  By the end of the evaluation process, a new teacher will have had at least 27 official class observations and 27 one-on-one meetings with up to nine different people to talk about the teaching and learning happening in the new teacher’s classroom.  It is not uncommon for new Exeter teachers to also sit in on their colleagues’ classes every day for their first year or two on campus.

Compared to the Lakeside system of having two official evaluations in the first four years (plus some mentor visits in the first year), the Exeter process is an incredibly intensive.  Their focus is really on developing new hires into Harkness master teachers.  This evaluation system also provides some significant professional development for the tenured teachers in the department, because there is an expectation that each of them will help with the evaluation process.  Currently the Exeter science department has 17 tenured teachers and 3 new teachers (in their first four years), which means that each tenured teacher does an evaluation on average every couple of years.

In the past, tenured teachers were not subject to any additional evaluations of their own.  The Exeter faculty are in the process of adding an additional formative evaluation system for tenured teachers.

Weekly Meditation Period

Students and faculty/staff meet once a week for a 30 minute “Meditation” period (Thursdays from 9:50-10:20am).  Meditation takes place in the school chapel (Phillips Church).  It is an optional event, although the day we attended the chapel was packed with several hundred attendees.  Typically meditation involves some music and quiet time, and also a speech or presentation by a member of the community.  During the fall and winter terms, the meditation is given by a teacher or staff member.  In the spring term, students give all of the meditations.  The format and content of the talk is pretty open, with presentations on ideas, beliefs, philosophies, interests, hobbies, etc.

Phillips church ext

Phillips Church

The meditation that we attended was given by a senior student recounting her tremendous struggles with anorexia and other eating disorders.  Her narrative was compelling and almost poetic, and the audience was totally absorbed, hanging on her every word.  The experience was a powerful one for all involved.  Apparently all students practice writing a meditation in the winter of their senior year, and then a select number of them are chosen to actually present their meditation to the school.  Even though attendance is not required, many adults and students spoke very highly of this weekly event and said that they make a point to attend every time.  Meditation seems to be a powerful way that community is built and maintained at Exeter.

My trip to Exeter was enlightening, and inspired me to really think about “what good teaching is.”  Although Exeter is obviously a place of incredible financial resources, the fundamental ideas and philosophy of the Harkness method do not require expensive facilities or equipment.  But they do require a willingness to re-center the teacher-student balance within the classroom.


Filed under Teaching

Wisdom from Oregon Educators – Part II

Portland sign

I passed through Portland on my way to my next stop, visiting Luann, a chemistry teacher at NHS about 45 minutes away.  One of the things that impressed me about Luann is that despite being a highly experienced teacher, she embraces both new technology and new ideas in teaching high school science.  Many veteran teachers have become set in their ways and resistant to chance (I count myself in this pool, if I qualify as a veteran after only 15 years of teaching).  I originally met Luann through Twitter (she’s @stardiverr), a communication tool I have been spending a little time getting to know this year during my sabbatical.  I have to say that initially I was highly skeptical about Twitter as a useful tool for educators.  What can you say in 140 characters?  Don’t meaningful interactions with other people require personal contact (face-to-face or on the phone) or at least the expanded form of a letter, article, or email?  Don’t people on Twitter just talk about what they had for breakfast, or how many people are ahead of them in the Starbucks line?  Even if there were some interesting conversations out there, how could you even find the signal amidst the vast sea of noise?

It turns out that finding interesting people and intriguing tweets is easier than you might think, especially if you know the appropriate hashtags (thank you, #edchat and #scichat).  And although 140 characters go by in a blink, it’s easy to link to longer articles and blog posts, upload photos directly to Twitter, and have genuine back-and-forth conversations – especially with very large groups of people.  The real utility of Twitter is that all of this information is amazingly accessible, sortable, and searchable.  I had only been using Twitter for a couple weeks when I found an amazingly active and thoughtful community of high school chemistry teachers using tweets to share new ideas, ask questions, brainstorm solutions to problems, and sympathize over the common trials and tribulations of high school teaching.

So it was a treat to visit Luann after following her thoughts and ideas online.  The school that she teaches at is an interesting one.  It is a relatively large school that received a Gates Foundation grant to pursue a “small schools” model.  The small schools movement tries to capitalize on research which indicates that students in smaller schools often feel a greater sense of community and connection to their school, which can lead to a greater investment of time and effort yielding stronger academic returns.  NHS was split into four “small schools,” each with its own principal and faculty.  All four schools co-existing within the larger NHS campus.  The schools are not specialized by theme or discipline; they are designed primarily to give students and adults a closer-knit learning community.  While the small schools model has its benefits and drawbacks, Luann seems to think on the whole it is a good model for her school.

Watching her classes, I appreciated how naturally Luann and her students incorporated technology into the lessons.  The pH probes and laptops helped the students track the progress of their acid/base titrations.  Luann used a data projector and document camera to help the students visualize the process of balancing equations, and YouTube videos of interesting science demos to entertain her advisees.  In some schools I’ve visited, there seemed to be an emphasis on using of technology simply for the sake of using technology.  In Luann’s classes, technology is used in the service of learning.

A “cool idea I’m going to steal” is something I saw in her general chem class, and it involves students designing their own chemical reactions lab.  They have been studying types of chemical reactions, and as a capstone experience Luann is asking them to plan their own personal lab demonstrating seven different types of reactions (e.g. precipitation reactions, gas-forming reactions, single replacement, etc.).  Students may use any of several dozen authorized chemicals from the chem lab for their experiment.

List of chemicals

They must decide which chemicals to react with each other to make each reaction, and then submit a written plan to Luann for review along with the corresponding balanced chemical equations.  If she approves their plan, they then obtain small amounts of the correct chemicals and perform the reactions.  I love the fact that this experiment empowers students to really take responsibility for their own learning, and forces them to think critically and use deductive reasoning to figure out which combinations of chemicals will be safe and effective.

I left Oregon with lots of things to ponder, and a few concrete ideas to try with my own students next year.

* A note on privacy: Readers may have noticed that sometimes I identify people and their institutions with full names (e.g. Dr. David Reingold from Juniata College, Dr. Mike McBride from Yale), and other times I only use first names and/or initials (e.g. Luann at NHS, Bill at SHS).  In order to protect the privacy of teachers who are currently teaching middle or high school, I have chosen not to identify them by their full names.  These teachers did not ask me to visit their classrooms, but graciously agreed to host me and answer my many questions.  They may or may not want accounts of their classes and pictures of their classrooms plastered around the internet.  I have included full identifying information for retired teachers and current college or university professors.  This is a somewhat arbitrary decision, but one with which I feel comfortable.  If you would like contact information for any of the teachers not fully-identified, please email me.

Leave a comment

Filed under Teaching

Wisdom from Oregon Educators – Part I

I spent a few days in NW Oregon last week, mostly visiting educators.  It was an enjoyable trip, and gave me a lot to think about.  My first stop was to visit Dr. David Reingold, a chemistry professor emeritus from Juniata College.  I sought out Dr. Reingold specifically because of the role he had in pioneering a unique chemistry program at Juniata College.

Almost all college chemistry sequences begin with a year of “general chemistry” in the freshman year, a course that typically covers atoms, bonding, periodicity, thermodynamics, equilibrium, acid/base chemistry, and the like.  This is the course that Advanced Placement Chemistry attempts to simulate for high school students.  High schoolers who pass the AP Chem exam are sometimes placed in a special semester-long “rapid review” course in general chemistry during their first year in college.  Upon completion of general chemistry, students who continue their studies in chemistry usually take a full year organic chemistry course as a sophomore (or junior).

While there are a few reasons why ‘general chemistry’ is taught as the introductory course, there is no fundamental reason that it has to be that way.  A couple decades ago, professors at Juniata began to think about their chemistry program from the viewpoint of their students.  While a few of the students who enrolled in general and organic chemistry went on to become chemistry majors and professional chemists, they were by far the minority.  Most of the seats in these classes were filled by biology majors, pre-med and pre-vet students, and future environmental scientists and biomedical engineers.  Despite the fact that most of their audience were not destined to be academic chemists, the general and organic courses were all taught by academic chemists largely in the context of chemistry as a discipline (as opposed to, say, how and why chemistry might be useful to a biologist).  And the course that was most useful to biology and pre-med students, organic chemistry, was taught second in the sequence.  Taking organic chemistry as sophomores delayed the studies of these students, since many upper level biology courses (e.g. biochemistry, genetics) have an organic chem pre-requisite.

General chemistry is also the more mathematically rigorous course, requiring a great facility with functions (at the precal to calculus level), exponents and scientific notation, and logarithms.  Some entering students at Juniata had an extensive chemistry background in high school and were well-prepared in math, while others had a weaker math background and little high school chemistry.  The great diversity of student background and preparation in math and science made pitching a freshman general chem course at the appropriate level challenging.

Dr. Reingold and his colleagues decided to try a radical redesigning of their chemistry program.  They would offer organic chemistry first to all freshman who wanted to take chemistry, and incorporate within this new course some significant biological applications to show how organic is relevant to other scientific disciplines.  While general chemistry is often considered a pre-requisite for organic, there aren’t that many topics from gen chem that are critical to understanding organic.  However, there are a few (e.g. bonding and intermolecular forces, equilibrium, and acid/base), and the re-designed organic course began with an introduction to these subjects.  The addition of a few general chem topics and the incorporation of items relevant to biology and medicine inevitably meant less room in the organic course for some traditional content.  Some of the more technical reactions and more obscure topics had to be left out of the course (goodbye, Hell-Volhard-Zelinski Reaction).  While it may seem obvious to an 18 year-old pre-med student that understanding the chemistry of protein folding is more important than selective alpha-bromination of carboxylic acids,  these decisions were harder for the chemistry professors.  I salute their bold decision to try something completely new.  Implementing a radically different sequence and curriculum for the first two years was a big risk, and involved a great deal of effort on behalf of the chemistry faculty.  And perhaps more importantly, it forced them to step outside their comfort zone.  But they were willing to make the change because they thought it would benefit students.

There were, of course, no textbooks available for students taking an introductory chemistry course that focused on organic.  To support his students in their new course, Dr. Reingold wrote a text for them.  It’s called Organic Chemistry: An Introductory Text Emphasizing Biological Connections.  It’s a delightful book, written in a conversational style.  It makes organic concepts accessible to the introductory student without dumbing down the content.  You can order a copy from McGraw Hill or Amazon.


I found Dr. Reingold’s discussion of the course development and his philosophy fascinating, and I share his interest in making organic chemistry (and its many applications) available to a wider audience.  In many places organic chemistry has the reputation of being an incredibly difficult course filled with technical and esoteric knowledge – a “weed-out course” that serves principally to keep some students out of certain majors (or medical school).  While I acknowledge that this is how organic is presented in many colleges and universities, there is really nothing intrinsically difficult about organic chemistry.  And it has enormous relevance to the average American’s daily life.  Except for water, almost every molecule in the human body is organic.  Organic chemistry describes how your DNA replicates and proteins are made.  It explains how aspirin works, and gives clues to making the next generation of anti-cancer drugs.  Organic chemists are involved in studying and making the dye and fabric in your clothes, the rubber in your shoes and car tires, the Teflon on your skillet, the gasoline (or biodiesel) in your tank, and the plastic containers that hold everything from milk to medicines.  Organic chemistry describes how that soup and sandwich you had for lunch are converted into energy for your body, how soap is made and why it cleans, how Kevlar stops bullets despite being much less dense than steel, and why your oil-and-vinegar salad dressing separates.  These are some of the topics that I explore in my high school organic chemistry class, another class that attempts to introduce students to organic before their sophomore year in college.

In addition to talking to Dr. Reingold about the development of Juniata’s “organic first” curriculum, we also discussed a bit about his approach to teaching.  When I asked him directly “what is good teaching,” he thought for a while and then responded that a better question might be “what is good learning?”  This response further illustrates his philosophy that the student experience really matters, and should in fact be a central part of any course.  He spoke about “learning to think like a molecule” – in other words, being able to comprehend chemistry based on understanding the world at the molecular level.  What was happening to that molecule?  What forces were acting on it?  How does its conformation and geometry affect its behavior and reactivity?  What is the energy associated with the molecule, and how does this energy change?

Dr. Reingold also worked to make his classes as interactive as possible.  Since he had turned most of his lecture material into the textbook for the class, he felt that it was redundant to lecture again after assigning a reading from his book.  So, many of his classes involved students working together in groups.  Often there was a student who had completed the class the year before present in each group to help guide the discussion.  He also used personal clickers (like these) to pose questions to students and gather real-time, aggregated responses.

I was intrigued by the group quizzes that Dr. Reingold gave, using something called Immediate Feedback Assessment Technique (IF-AT).  Students are placed in small groups, and then given multiple choice quizzes with special answer sheets.  Before answering, all of the students in the group must agree on the answer.  Instead of places for shading-in a bubble, the answer sheets have a thin coating covering each answer choice.  When the students come to consensus, they “scratch off” the corresponding answer on the sheet with a coin (think of those scratch-off lotto tickets).  If the answer is correct, they get immediate feedback that they came to the correct conclusion.  The sheet also tells the students if the answer is wrong, and they then have the opportunity to discuss the question again and choose another answer.  This way, the group knows that they have answered every question correctly by the end of class, and the instructor can see which questions gave which students trouble (and potentially grade them accordingly, if it is a formal assessment).  There is a lot of educational psychology research indicating that immediate feedback is the most valuable kind, although this is often difficult to achieve in large group settings.  Dr. Reingold’s addition of the group aspect adds an interactive discussion component that increases the value of the activity.  In this way, it is as much a learning episode as an assessment episode.  I am definitely going to try this idea when I get back to Lakeside next year.

My conversation with Dr. Reingold was enjoyable and illuminating, and will provide food for thought for years to come.  You can contact him (and find his chemistry songs and raps!) at his website, and read more about chemistry at Juniata College here and here.

Leave a comment

Filed under Teaching

9th Grade Cancer Researchers

Chemists at work

I visited my friend Bill at SHS again last week.  You might remember him from this post from November in which I described the STEM program he helped to start.  As part of the STEM initiative, students investigate real-world problems and use literature and laboratory research to try to uncover real-world answers to these problems.  Over the past few weeks they have been studying cancer, and one question that they have been trying to answer is “How can chemotherapy treatment single out just cancerous cells in the body while leaving healthy cells alone?”

This topic has the potential to grab students right away.  Even 9th graders usually know someone touched by cancer: a friend, relative, or neighbor.  And the question is a subtle and complex one.  Basic chemotherapy usually involves introducing a cytotoxin (a chemical that damages or kills cells) into the body.  Because cancer cells grow much more rapidly than most other cells, they are more affected by the cytotoxin than normal cells and (in the best case scenarios) the cancer cells die while the normal cells survive.  Unfortunately in most cases healthy cells are also affected by chemo, especially those that grow and divide rapidly – like cells that make skin and hair (which is why chemo can cause hair loss).  An ideal treatment would target ONLY cancerous cells, and leave healthy cells alone.  This is the kind of treatment that Bill’s students began to investigate.

Bill and his kids got some important help from Dr. A.J. Boydston, a Chemistry Professor at the University of Washington.  Among many other things, Dr. Boydston studies polymers which can form micelles – large molecules that can aggregate together to form a kind of cage.  The idea is that you could build a custom molecular cage to hold, for example, a cytotoxic chemotherapy drug.  Then you could inject the caged drug into the patient.  As long as the drug is trapped inside the cage, it won’t harm any cells.  The key is to build a cage that remains closed as it bumps into normal cells, but springs open if it encounters a cancerous one to release the drug and kill the cell.

But how can you build a molecular cage that can remain ‘sealed’ for period of time, and then spring open?  And how can it tell a cancerous cell from a healthy one?  These are questions that Bill and his students explored, with the help of Dr. Boydston.  It turns out that if you vary the building blocks (monomers) of the polymers, you can change the properties of the micelle cages that are formed.  Some polymers will create cages that open in the presence of acid or base.  Some will open when exposed to ultraviolet light or ultrasonic agitation.  The students set out to design and create different polymers using different monomer building blocks.

polymer sheets

The Boydston Lab provided the actual, synthesized polymers – the same ones that they are using for their professional research.  Then the students began testing the different polymer cages to see under what circumstances they remained closed, and when they opened to release their contents.  Instead of using actual poisonous cytotoxins, the students used a dye called Nile Red to simulate the behavior of a chemotherapy drug.  Nile Red fluoresces under the action of UV light when trapped inside the micelle, but it does not when it is released into an aqueous environment.  Thus the students could use UV light to see if the “drug” was successfully trapped in the micelle, and when it came out.


Various student groups tested different conditions to see exactly when the micelles opened and when they did not.  Medical research on actual tumors indicates that many of them are more acidic that normal tissue by as much as 1 pH unit (a factor of 10 in acid concentration!), so polymer micelles that open in acid might be promising.  Doctors and researches are also experimenting with next-generation powerful light sources.  Micelles that open when exposed to a certain frequency of light could be useful if doctors can pin-point particular cancerous areas and illuminate them appropriately.


While Bill and A.J. were on hand to answer questions and supervise the experiments, I was impressed with how the students took responsibility for their own investigations.  They had to really think about what they should do at each step in the lab, and what the results meant for their particular polymer.  At the end of the experiment, the students had to write up their research in the form of an academic poster, a format familiar to real scientists, professors, and grad students.


This was a super-ambitious project for 9th graders, and I was impressed with how well Bill, A.J., and their colleagues pulled it off.  It was exciting for the students to work with actual research equipment and actual research polymers that may be approved for therapeutic use in humans within this decade.  They dug deeply into the concept of experimental design, and had to understand a host of complicated chemical concepts from acid/base chemistry to intermolecular forces, and to use those ideas in concert.  While some of the more detailed intricacies of the science were a bit beyond the comprehension of these 9th graders, the basic principles were well within their grasp – as was the realization that science can be a powerful tool for good, and that they are capable of using that tool themselves.

Leave a comment

Filed under Teaching

Two Excellent Schools, Worlds Apart – Part I

As part of my recent trip to the Northeast, I visited two secondary schools: the Groton School and the Bronx High School of Science.  At first glance it’s hard to imagine two schools that are more different.  Groton is a small, private, Episcopal boarding school nestled among 385 acres in rural Massachusetts.  Tuition, room & board run nearly $52,000.  Classes are small, usually 12 to 16 students, with an entire grade consisting of only 80 students.  Bronx Science in contrast has almost 800 students per grade crammed into a single building on West 205th St in the Bronx.  It is a public, secular, day school offering free tuition.  The classes I observed ranged from about 32 to 40 students.

Despite their eye-popping surface differences, both of these schools are filled with inspiring teachers whose tireless and imaginative classes offer students world-class educational opportunities.   I am grateful to both schools for allowing me to visit, and for sharing ideas and inspirations that I will take back to my own teaching next year.

My visit to Groton began with an hour’s drive northwest of Boston into the rolling Massachusetts countryside.  The campus is beautiful, even on a gray and dreary early December morning.


Most school days start with a short Episcopal Chapel service.  I was impressed with the students’ behavior in the Chapel.  By 7:59, every student was seated and settled.  Not a single person entered late, and there were no signs of cell phones or other distractions.  I have never been surrounded by hundreds of teenagers in such deep and absolute silence.  They listened attentively to the adults and fellow students who spoke.  One of their classmates gave a thoughtful reflection on privilege and perspective, showing a keen awareness that life in the Groton bubble is not necessarily representative of the “real world.”


After Chapel, students filed out to their first class.  I watched a number of classes, including some chemistry classes taught by Sandra.  I was impressed by her really intentional use of technology.  She showed YouTube clips of Young’s classic double slit experiment demonstrating quantum interference, and PhET simulations showing the interaction of light and matter.  Sandra had selected videos and simulations that showed complex interactions that are hard to explain verbally “at the blackboard.”  She paused the simulations, probed students’ understanding, and asked them to predict what would happen when she changed the parameters.  At the end of class, she mentioned that all of the links for the videos and simulations were on the course website so that students could review them on their own at a later time.  I was struck by how effective and interactive this use of technology was.  Instead of reducing or replacing in-person interaction, Sandra’s use of technology actually augmented her in-person interaction with the students.

An interesting aspect of Groton’s science program is the introduction of an alternative STEM track for 9th and 10th graders.  The STEM (Science Technology Engineering & Math) classes are combined science and math classes, each meeting for double the time of a normal class and with two teachers (one science, one math).  The STEM courses provide an interdisciplinary approach, combining science and math education often through the lens of technology and engineering.  The classes make significant use of manipulatives, from store-bought pre-assembled models to student-built commercial geometric forms to homemade structures comprised of cardboard, tape, construction paper, gumdrops, toothpicks, straws, and Styrofoam.



During one class I observed, the students were exploring energy efficiency in the design and construction of different sized and shaped houses.  They had to use their knowledge of geometry, algebra, and science to design and build a model house.

Energy Efficiency Assignment

Then they would test the houses to see which one could be heated most efficiently by using a light bulb and thermometer.

Lighted house

Then they had to draw some conclusions about what parameters of the house mattered most in an energy-efficient design – surface area? volume? some ratio of different measurements?

Two sections of this STEM class were running simultaneously in adjacent rooms (separated by large glass windows), and for a while they combined the classes into one larger class while the students were working.  This allowed an amazing ratio of students to instructors: 22 students in a room with one physics teacher, one bio teacher, and two math teachers.

STEM classrooms

Another STEM class I watched had students designing towers out of straws, paper, and tape.  This was an exercise in optimization.  Each material had a certain cost.  The tower had to be a certain height and support a given weight of marbles.  And the students only had a limited amount of time to build their tower.  Again, engineering provided a framework for applying the science and mathematical lessons they had learned.


Tower supports

Even more “traditional” classes featured visuals and manipulatives.  A chemistry lesson on naming ionic compounds and writing formulas was enhanced through the introduction of magnetic cut-outs of different ions.  Positively charged cations had a notch cut into them to show they were missing an electron, while negatively charged anions had a corresponding wedge showing an extra electron.  They fix together neatly showing a balanced ionic compound.  Cations and anions with charges bigger than one had multiple notches or wedges, showing visually how and why ions must combine with each other in certain ratios.


The students at Groton are clearly getting a really strong science education.  I wondered how their experience would compared to the students at Bronx Science, who I would be visiting just two days later.

Leave a comment

Filed under Teaching

Washington Educators Working to Make a Difference – Part II

Another teacher I’ve been privileged to spend a few days with is Bill from SHS down in Bellevue.  Bill is a bit of a jack of all trades: science teacher, instructional coach, curriculum developer, technology guru, etc.  I honestly can’t remember what his official title is, but he is part science teacher and part education wonk (and I mean that in the best, most complimentary way possible).

Bill and a bunch of his colleagues down at SHS have a little release time paid through a grant, and have been using it to re-imagine their school to address the needs of kids in the 21st Century.  They are have decided to emphasize STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Math) fields in particular to help get students excited about new job opportunities in STEM fields and to help make them informed citizens in our new information and technology age.

The easy way to transform your school into a STEM institution would be to get big $$$ from local businesses, a school levy, the Gates Foundation, a federal grant, or whatever and use it to buy tons of laptops, iPads, science labs, and fancy machines that go PING!  Taa-daa!  STEM School!  Of course this approach, while exciting and sexy, doesn’t buy you good teaching (or good learning).  You have the same school (and program, and school culture, and teachers, and…), but now just with a lot of fun gizmos.  But gizmos don’t equal powerful learning experiences.  So instead, Bill and his fellow educators are doing this the hard way.  They are re-thinking what good teaching is in the STEM context, and helping to encourage and train their colleagues to use some interesting and innovative new approaches to teaching.

I won’t innumerate all of the cool things I saw at SHS in this one blog post, but I do want to tell you a little bit about the project-based learning that several of the classes are implementing.  The way Bill explains it, the curriculum is structured around something called “challenge cycles.”  Essentially, they give students really complex, challenging, real-world problems for them to solve – like for instance, “How can you grow the most amount of a food crop with the highest protein content using the smallest amount of resources?”  Then lessons are built around the content and skills the students will need to be able to solve the problem.  These lessons may include socratic seminars, lectures, reading, research, etc.  Projects and assessments follow – i.e., the students try to actually solve their challenge problem, are assessed on their learning and work during the unit, and reflect on their progress.

In the 9th grade science class, students started out with an aquaponics project.  The challenge question might be something like “How can you create a human-engineered self-sustaining animal and plant system that can provide nutritional benefits to people?”  This opening project is designed to teach students a bit about how science and engineering are done.  They also practice a “systems thinking” approach to a complex problems, in this case one that has interacting biotic and abiotic components.  Chemical reactions come into play in several places, especially with how nutrients like nitrogen cycle through the system.

The projects themselves take different forms (of course, because they are designed by the students), but most of them look something like this:

Students make a sand or rock bed, and select one or more types of plants to introduce to the container.  They set up a water system that runs into a reservoir below.  Other organisms are then introduced by the students to the system, from bacteria all the way up to fish.  The system interacts on many levels – the fish create nitrogenous wastes which are in turn processed by the bacteria and then absorbed by the plants as fertilizer.  Temperature, pH, oxygen levels, and dissolved organic solids can be monitored and adjusted in different ways.  Students can make hypotheses about what they think will happen, and then track the progress of their experiment over the course of many weeks.

Right now, Bill and his students are immersed in a study of nuclear chemistry and nuclear physics.  They are in the research phase right now.  After discussing the challenge question (something about nuclear power), the students decided there were a list of questions that they needed answered about nuclear science.  Here is the list that the students came up with:

Bill obviously helped to structure and scaffold their discussions, but the students made the actual decisions about what to learn.  This gives them buy-in, agency, and ownership of the process.  Now in the research phase, I heard Bill answer more than one student question with something like “Well, you decided that you needed to know this, right?  So what exactly are the important parts you need to know, and how do you know where to go next?”  The kids were using various resources including text books, the internet, and a fun-looking book called Physics for Future Presidents.

On my most recent visit, Bill and his colleague Keith were planning their next unit on polymers and organic chemistry (yep, these are the 9th graders!).  Their challenge question for the unit is going to be something like, “How can you create a custom organic polymer that can create and destroy micelles (tiny bubble-like structures) which can deliver anti-cancer drugs to precisely the correct location inside the human body?”  Bill and Keith are working with researchers at the UW who do exactly that, and the UW profs have agreed to help the kids synthesize and test polymers that will bind to the drugs tightly enough to get them into the bloodstream and into the cells, but loosely enough that the drugs can actually be released at the right time.  The students will need to learn a fair bit of organic chemistry, and will make important decisions about which kinds of monomers to utilize and how to test the resulting polymers using phosphorescent dyes.  Too cool!

There are of course trade-offs in adopting a problem-based learning approach (it takes longer, it can be “messy” on several levels, and it requires a thoughtful and patient teacher), but the potential benefits seem huge.  Here’s a little graphic that Bill shared with me, outlining some of the important components of problem-based learning:

One final thing that I think is really great about the work that Bill and his colleagues are doing is that it is “bottom up” education reform.  The changes that are going on at SHS were not dictated by the district or mandated in a directive from the school administration.  Classroom teachers have been instrumental in asking for change, for helping to secure funding, and for designing, implementing, and coaching each other in these new techniques and ideas.  This is not to say that I think there is no place for educational leadership at the district or school administrative level, but merely that teachers (like students) get more buy-in, agency, and ownership when they are directly involved in all phases of the process.  Keep up the good work, Bill!

1 Comment

Filed under Teaching