Entries Categorized as 'Classroom Community'

Turning off the Lights: How we Behave in the Darkness

November 6, 2013

Darkness can conceal identity and encourage moral transgressions.

— Zhong et al., 2010: Good Lamps Are the Best Police: Darkness Increases Dishonesty and Self-Interested Behavior in Psychological Science.

My students asked me today if we could turn off the lights during biology class and just use the natural light from outside. I’m usually not opposed, but it was overcast, so it would have been a little dark.

I put it to a vote and we had just one or two students who were against it. My policy in these cases, where we’re changing the working environment, is to respect the wishes of the minority unless there’s a compelling argument about why we should change things.

One student proposed a compelling argument. At least he proposed to try to find a compelling argument.

“If I can find a study that says lower light is better for learning can we do it?” he asked, with his hands hovering over his iPad.

“Sure,” I replied, “But not today. You can do it on your own time.”

We’ll see what he comes up with tomorrow. I, however, ran into this article that describes a study (Zhong et al., 2010) that found that, “participants in a dimly-lit room cheated more often than those in a lighter one,” (Konnikova, 2013).

While both groups performed equally well on a set of math problems, students in the darker room self-reported that they correctly solved, on average, four more problems than the other group—earning $1.85 more as a result, since they were being paid for each correct answer. The authors suggested that the darkness created an “illusory anonymity”: even though you aren’t actually more anonymous in the dark than in the light, you feel as though you are, making you more likely to engage in behaviors you otherwise wouldn’t.

–Konnikova, 2013: Inside the Cheater’s Mind in The New Yorker.

Konnikova’s New Yorker article is worth the read, because it summarizes other factors that encourage cheating as well as things to prevent it. Things that encourage cheating:

  • a messy environment,
  • if your peers all do it,
  • when the people you’re stealing from seem to have a lot,
  • when you’re thinking that your behavior is set in your genes and your environemnt (and you have less free will),
  • when you’re in (or even think you’re in) a position of power,
  • when you have achievement goals (think test scores), as opposed to mastery goals,
  • when you’re tired, or sleep-deprived.

The things that discourage cheating are the things the encourage some self-reflection, like:

  • the feeling of being watched (even just the presence of mirrors or pictures of eyes,
  • writing down an honor code,
  • being asked to think about your previous immoral behavior.
  • having a strong moral compass (some people are just much less likely to cheat than others.

And finally, it’s important to note that we will tend to rationalize our cheating, so we’re more likely to do it later.

So, I think it’ll take a lot of convincing to get me to turn off the lights, except perhaps on very sunny days.

Citing this post: Urbano, L., 2013. Turning off the Lights: How we Behave in the Darkness, Retrieved February 23rd, 2018, from Montessori Muddle: http://MontessoriMuddle.org/ .
Attribution (Curator's Code ): Via: Montessori Muddle; Hat tip: Montessori Muddle.

Encouraging Academic Honesty

September 15, 2012

Dan Ariely concludes (video by RSA) that making people think about morality increases the likelihood that they’ll act honestly.

People try to balance the benefiting they gain from cheating against being able to feel good about themselves by being honest. While very few people tend to cheat a lot, many people cheat a little and self-rationalize their dishonesty.

Our school has adopted a short honor code that we’ll ask students to write at the top of tests and other assignments that is intended to remind them of their moral obligations.

Based on one of Ariely’s other conclusions, I’m also considering having students confess their in-class transgressions — talking out of turn; improper use of technology — every month or so, since this type of thing also seems to encourage probity.

The Dish

Citing this post: Urbano, L., 2012. Encouraging Academic Honesty, Retrieved February 23rd, 2018, from Montessori Muddle: http://MontessoriMuddle.org/ .
Attribution (Curator's Code ): Via: Montessori Muddle; Hat tip: Montessori Muddle.

Time to Focus: Using Earbuds in the Classroom

August 16, 2012

People need chunks of quiet time to get work done. Big cubicle farms with open office plans increase stress and don’t make for happy workers (Paul, 2012 summarizes). But, using earbuds might help people focus on the job at hand:

Although it might seem that importing one’s own noise wouldn’t be much of a solution — and although we don’t yet have research evidence on the use of private music in the office — experts say that this approach could be effective on at least one dimension. Part of the reason office noise reduces our motivation is that it’s a factor out of our control, so the act of asserting control over our aural environment may lead us to try harder at our jobs.

— Paul, A.M., 2012: Why the ‘Open’ Office Is a Hotbed of Stress in Time.

It has been my observation that the earbuds help a lot in helping students stay focused and on task. However, for the middle school students at least, I usually require them to to have preset play lists so they’re not distracted by skipping through songs every five minutes. I also recommend quieter music because it tends to be less distracting to the student, and there’s almost always someone who’s volume is so loud that everyone else in the, now very quiet, classroom can hear.

Appel at The Dish.

Citing this post: Urbano, L., 2012. Time to Focus: Using Earbuds in the Classroom, Retrieved February 23rd, 2018, from Montessori Muddle: http://MontessoriMuddle.org/ .
Attribution (Curator's Code ): Via: Montessori Muddle; Hat tip: Montessori Muddle.

Formal Communications

August 12, 2012

The official apology form.

I may have to use this.

The The Bureau of Communication has a number of other useful forms that you can even fill out online.

The Bureau of Communication Reddit

Citing this post: Urbano, L., 2012. Formal Communications, Retrieved February 23rd, 2018, from Montessori Muddle: http://MontessoriMuddle.org/ .
Attribution (Curator's Code ): Via: Montessori Muddle; Hat tip: Montessori Muddle.

Positive to Negative Feedback: Three to One (at least)

June 24, 2012

Three positives for every one negative is the minimum ratio required for people to flourish, according to the work of Marcial Losada (and others).

To flourish means to live within an optimal range of human functioning, one that connotes goodness, generativity, growth, and resilience.

— Fredrickson and Losada: Positive Affect and the Complex Dynamics of Human Flourishing (ᔥ PubMed), in American Psychologist (2005).

Why do we need more positives than negatives? Because we’re impacted more by negatives than positives, so we need more positives to offset. Note that people tend toward happiness on average.

Why are positive feelings good? Positivity increases:

  • the scope of your attention. Making it possible to see the bigger picture (see Hirsh and Anderson, 2007 (pdf));
  • intuition;
  • creativity;
  • physical healing;
  • the immune system (at least in conjunction with mindfulness meditation: see Davidson et al, 2003);
  • resilience to adversity;
  • happiness;
  • psychological growth;
  • cortisol (positivity reduces cortisol levels — cortisol is a stress hormone; see Steptoe et al., 2004);
  • resistance to physical pain;
  • how long you’ll live.
  • how much you learn.

In terms of education:

… initially positive attitudes—like interest and curiosity—produce more accurate subsequent knowledge than do initially negative attitudes—like boredom and cynicism. Positivity, by prompting approach and exploration, creates experiential learning opportunities that confirm or correct initial expectations. By contrast, because negativity promotes avoidance, opportunities to correct false impressions are passed by …. positive affect—by broadening exploratory behavior in the moment—over time builds more accurate cognitive maps of what is good and bad in the environment. This greater knowledge becomes a lasting personal resource.

— — Fredrickson and Losada: Positive Affect and the Complex Dynamics of Human Flourishing (ᔥ PubMed), in American Psychologist (2005).

So, once again, research shows how important it is to have a positive (happy) learning environment, and to be able to “spark the imagination” at the beginning of a lesson.

Cumulatively, there is the Losada Zone, a range from 3:1 to 11:1 of positive to negative feelings that are indicative of complex (good) interaction in groups, which separates people who flourish from those who languish.

Citing this post: Urbano, L., 2012. Positive to Negative Feedback: Three to One (at least), Retrieved February 23rd, 2018, from Montessori Muddle: http://MontessoriMuddle.org/ .
Attribution (Curator's Code ): Via: Montessori Muddle; Hat tip: Montessori Muddle.

Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing

October 8, 2011

One of the first things we learned at Heifer was the process of group formation. It was also one of the last things they talked about so it must have been pretty important.

The four steps are:

    Forming: Students are quite polite to each other when they first get on the balance board.

  • Forming: When the group first gets together, people tend to be cautious with one another. But because they’re so careful with what they say and what they do, newly forming groups don’t usually get much done.
  • Storming: Now the barriers start to break down as individual personalities manifest themselves. People start speaking up. A lot. They become less polite. Conflicts arise. People become accusatory. There’s lots of energy, but because of all the conflict, they still aren’t able to get much done.
  • Storming: Vociferous disagreement breaks out.

  • Norming: The conflict begins to settle down as the group starts to work out its kinks, as all the individuals begin to adapt to one another. Groups may need guidance to get there because everyone has to stop fighting, but as it usually helps that the group will start to see successes because of successful co-operation.
  • Performing: A well-functioning group can get a lot done. They’re able to communicate effectively, and take action effectively. Their productivity kicks into high gear and they can accomplish much together.

Norming: The group begins to organize itself. Rules of order are put in place.

Not all groups get through all four steps, and every time the group changes, such as when a new member (like a new student) is introduced the groups will need to go through some version of the four steps as they learn to accommodate the newcomer.

A well established culture will help groups adapt to change. This is yet another benefit of multi-aged classrooms, because a healthy classroom culture eases the transition as older students leave and new students come in.

Performing: Roles are assigned. Balance is achieved (from 2, to 5, to 57 seconds).

Even so, awareness of the four steps is extremely useful because it helps everyone anticipate that there will likely be some conflict, but that conflict is part of the group forming process and will likely diminish with time.

So you should expect, every year, to have to spend some time group building. Two weeks dedicated to orientation and teamwork is what Betsy Coe’s Montessori Middle School program uses. It’s a fair chunk of time to take out of the year, but because good groups can get so much more done, it’s well worth it to build a good classroom community.

Citing this post: Urbano, L., 2011. Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing, Retrieved February 23rd, 2018, from Montessori Muddle: http://MontessoriMuddle.org/ .
Attribution (Curator's Code ): Via: Montessori Muddle; Hat tip: Montessori Muddle.

The Ingredients of “Character”

September 26, 2011

Some key performance-character strengths:

zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism and curiosity.

— Tough (2011): What if the Secret to Success Is Failure? in The New York Times’ Education Issue

Paul Tough’s thought provoking article is a great overview of some of the recent research on character, and discusses a few attempts to instill character building into school.

Levin [co-founder of the KIPP network of charter schools ] noticed that … the students who persisted in college were not necessarily the ones who had excelled academically at KIPP; they were the ones with exceptional character strengths, like optimism and persistence and social intelligence. They were the ones who were able to recover from a bad grade and resolve to do better next time; to bounce back from a fight with their parents; to resist the urge to go out to the movies and stay home and study instead; to persuade professors to give them extra help after class.

— Tough (2011): What if the Secret to Success Is Failure?

Much of the work on character is based on the universal character characteristics identified in the book Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification (Peterson and Seligman, 2004) and the research of Angela Duckworth (her research page is a good place to find copies of her publications).

Duckworth’s Grit Scale, seems to be a remarkably good predictor of GPA, and perhaps more interestingly, corresponded inversely to the number of hours of television students watched: “gritter” students did better in school and watched less TV.

Among adolescents, the Grit–S [short Grit Scale] longitudinally predicted GPA and, inversely, hours watching television. Among cadets at the United States Military Academy, West Point, the Grit–S predicted retention.

— Duckworth and Quinn (2009): Development and Validation of the Short Grit Scale (Grit–S)

The grit survey would probably be a useful addition to the Personal World curriculum.

One interesting application discussed in the article is at the KIPP middle schools in NYC. There they issue a Character Report Card and integrate discussion of character into all the classes: a language class might talk about how much self control the protagonist in a novel has and how that works out for them.

I’d be extremely reluctant to have to grade my students on twenty four character traits. While it might be a useful rubric to have and discuss and build on students’ positive self-conceptions, I fear that it might also significantly reinforce the negative conceptions as well.

Imbuing a language of character as a subtext of the curriculum seems like a great idea however.

Performance vs. Moral Character

One important critique of much of this work is that it focuses on “performance” character, the character traits that predict high achievement, rather than “moral” character which focuses on the ability to work well with others.

These two perspectives on the same character traits need careful attention. From a performance perspective, social intelligence, can be seen as a way of getting ahead – something that is somewhat manipulative, but from a moral perspective, social intelligence is intrinsically beneficial to the person and the society around them.

And perhaps this is the biggest problem with performance-character. It is extrinsically motivated: do this and you will get this reward. The intrinsic nature of moral-character seems much more in line with a progressive approach to teaching. Certainly, much care should be taken in how we think about and include character building in education.

The Character Education Partnership has a number of lesson plans and best practices for all grade levels, that focus more on moral character.

Giving Students the Opportunity to Fail

Finally, Tough talks about the fact that students need the time and space to explore, try difficult things, and to fail, in order to really build character.

The idea of building grit and building self-control is that you get that through failure, and in most highly academic environments in the United States, no one fails anything.

— Dominic Randolph (2011) in Tough (2011): What if the Secret to Success Is Failure? in The New York Times’ Education Issue

This is tied into the central theme of the movie Race To Nowhere and the book The Price of Privilege, that argue that, for many affluent students, the stress of excessively high academic expectations are having some seriously negative effects.

People with self-respect have the courage of their mistakes. – Joan Didion (1961), via Word on the Street (2010)

(hat tip to Ms. D. for the link to the article)

Citing this post: Urbano, L., 2011. The Ingredients of "Character", Retrieved February 23rd, 2018, from Montessori Muddle: http://MontessoriMuddle.org/ .
Attribution (Curator's Code ): Via: Montessori Muddle; Hat tip: Montessori Muddle.

Scaffolding and Peer-learning: Thinking about Vygotsky’s “Zone of Proximal Development”

July 12, 2011

When a student is struggling with a problem, and they just need that little boost to get them to the next level, they’re in Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development, and it’s appropriate for the teacher to give them that crucial bit of help. The idea implies that students really have been trying to solve the problem so the help they get will be useful.

It also implies that the teacher can recognize precisely the help they need and deliver it, which is often easier than it sounds. As an adult, from a different generation and culture, and with more experience with these problems, I see problems very differently from my students. Indeed, experts solve problems by developing rules of thumb (heuristics) that speed problem solving by amalgamating large volumes of information. Unfortunately, for these heuristics to be meaningful, students often have to arrive at them themselves. Thus the student looking at the details is unable to communicate effectively with the expert who sees the big picture.


One remedy Vygotsky advocated was peer-teaching. By letting students of similar but differing abilities work in groups, they can help each other: often a lot more effectively than a teacher would be able to. The teacher’s main interventions can be with the more advanced students who do not have anyone more knowledgeable to help, but who are best able to communicate with the teacher because of a smaller knowledge gap.

Practically, this suggests multi-aged classrooms, and a high level of vertical integration of the subject matter. Consider, for example, which topics from algebra, geometry and calculus might be appropriate for students from middle to high school to be working on together at the same time in the same room.


Another, more typical, approach to this problem would be to provide all the extensive scaffolding – all the information including explicit demonstrations of ways of thought – that students need to get started, and then gradually take the scaffolding away so that they have to apply it all on their own.

In a high school laboratory science class, a teacher might provide scaffolding by first giving students detailed guides to carrying out experiments, then giving them brief outlines that they might use to structure experiments, and finally asking them to set up experiments entirely on their own.

Slavin (2005) (online resources): Classroom Applications of Vygotsky’s Theory.

In Combination

Elements of both these approaches are necessary – and they’re not mutually exclusive. The scaffolding perspective is most important when introducing something completely new, because they’re all novices at that point. But as you build it into the classroom culture in a multi-aged classroom where there is institutional memory and peer-teaching, then the job of the teacher evolves more into maintaining the standards and expectations, and reduces (but does not eliminate) the need for repeatedly providing the full scaffolding.

Citing this post: Urbano, L., 2011. Scaffolding and Peer-learning: Thinking about Vygotsky's "Zone of Proximal Development", Retrieved February 23rd, 2018, from Montessori Muddle: http://MontessoriMuddle.org/ .
Attribution (Curator's Code ): Via: Montessori Muddle; Hat tip: Montessori Muddle.

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