Discovering Progressive Education

December 18, 2013

Joshua Davis has a fascinating article on a math teacher who borough collaborative, self-motivated learning to students at a school in a drug-war-torn Mexican city. The results were excellent.

Davis also cites a study by Gopnik and others that showed that:

kids given no instruction were much more likely to come up with novel solutions to a problem.

Ms. Douglass.

Citing this post: Urbano, L., 2013. Discovering Progressive Education, Retrieved February 23rd, 2018, from Montessori Muddle: .
Attribution (Curator's Code ): Via: Montessori Muddle; Hat tip: Montessori Muddle.

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: .
Attribution (Curator's Code ): Via: Montessori Muddle; Hat tip: Montessori Muddle.

Key Qualities of Teammates: Focused, Hardworking and Fun too

October 3, 2013

Today we reconstituted our small groups for science. One student was late getting their name into the bowl so did not get randomly assigned to a group, so I deviated a little from our standard procedure and asked him which group he thought would be the best for him. Not which group he most wanted to be in, but which group he could be most effective — and learn the most — in. But, as a means of following up on all of our discussion at Heifer about what makes a community, before I gave him the chance to answer I asked the entire class to identify what qualities they thought they brought to their groups, and then, separately, I asked them what qualities the would like their teammates to have.

Qualities students would like to see in other people in their working groups.

Figure 1. Qualities students would like to see in other people in their science working groups.

I got a number of interesting answers to the question about what they thought their qualities were. I know how hard it is to self-assess sometimes so I required that they could only put positive qualities, and allowed them to ask their peers for an external perspective.

My favorite response was from one girl who asked her friend sitting next to her what her positive qualities were, and the friend responded, “bossiness”. She thought about that for a second, then nodded and said, “that sounds about right.” When I asked them both why they thought “bossiness” was a positive quality they explained that the one girl was good at taking charge when necessary, and telling everyone what to do. I couldn’t argue with that description, because I’d observed it in their previous group work. The key part though was the “when necessary”, because while she does take charge, she’s very good at managing her group: giving everyone the opportunity for input while still being decisive. Instead of bossiness, I’d probably have used the term “leadership”.

After they had the time to compile their list of qualities they wanted to see in teammates, we compiled a list on the whiteboard (see Figure 1). Perhaps it’s just that they know what I want to hear, but it was quite nice to see that the top two characteristics were:

  • focused, and
  • hardworking.

“Smart” and “fun” were the next most popular on the list, but after some discussion I/we decided to drop the “smart” since their criteria for smart was just having a basic level of intellectual competence, and it was somewhat less important than the other major qualities listed.

Of the remaining three major qualities that they’d like to see in teammates — focused, hardworking, and fun — I asked them each to pick the one they were going to focus on developing over the next month of group work. I asked a couple of the students who chose “fun” to reconsider since it was already one of their current areas of strength.

I then let them pick a second quality to work on from the full list, and had them write their two chosen qualities down somewhere prominent, because we’ll be checking in with them regularly over the course of the next month to see what specific things they’re doing to work on them, and how their efforts are going.

Then I let the student choose his group.

The discussion took the entire class period, and we did not get much “science” done, but if it can get students to be a bit more focused on their work it would be well worth the time.

Citing this post: Urbano, L., 2013. Key Qualities of Teammates: Focused, Hardworking and Fun too, Retrieved February 23rd, 2018, from Montessori Muddle: .
Attribution (Curator's Code ): Via: Montessori Muddle; Hat tip: Montessori Muddle.

Teaching with the Hands

July 19, 2013

Doug Stowe is an artisan who specializes in making small boxes. He also teaches woodworking and records his thoughts on the melding of education and craftsmanship on his wonderfully reflective blog, Wisdom of the Hands. For example:

In his introductory remarks published in the Teacher’s Hand-Book of Educational Sloyd, Salomon notes the difference between a trained artisan and a teacher. While the trained artisan is focused by necessity on the qualities inherent in the finished product, the teacher must be concerned with the qualities developed within the child. An artisan might step in to make sure the child gets the work right, while the teacher might step back to see that the child learns. In other words, the predisposition of the artisan vs. teacher may be leading in completely different directions.

— Doug Stowe: beyond craftsmanship on Wisdom of the Hands (blog).

I really like the core message here. I’m an advocate for apprenticeship learning: how better to learn to think and act like an experts. But the key lesson for the expert is that students need to be given the opportunity to experiment, and even to make mistakes, in order to learn.

After my own, rough, experiments with making a slide holder, I’d love to take a lesson from someone who knows what they’re doing.

P.S. Hat tip to Karin Niehoff of the Crescent Montessori School for the connection.

Citing this post: Urbano, L., 2013. Teaching with the Hands, Retrieved February 23rd, 2018, from Montessori Muddle: .
Attribution (Curator's Code ): Via: Montessori Muddle; Hat tip: Montessori Muddle.

Overjustification Effect: Rewards Inhibit Intrinsic Motivation

July 15, 2013

Kids become less intrinsically motivated to do something when they expect a reward — grades, gold stars, special privileges — for doing them. In fact, when you take away the reward they’ll stop doing things they were previously interested in doing on their own. It’s called the overjustification effect (Lepper et al., 1973; summary here).

There’s been a lot of research demonstrating the effect. An overview of the research in 1995 (Tang and Hall, 1995) found that the effect extends across all age groups.

The primary theory that explains the effect is called Cognitive Evaluation Theory, and is very well summarized here. This theory suggests, however, that extrinsic motivation may not be bad in all situations, because praise and rewards can also server as a useful indicator to a student of their competence.

Citing this post: Urbano, L., 2013. Overjustification Effect: Rewards Inhibit Intrinsic Motivation, Retrieved February 23rd, 2018, from Montessori Muddle: .
Attribution (Curator's Code ): Via: Montessori Muddle; Hat tip: Montessori Muddle.

Grades Nullify the Benefits of Useful Feedback

July 13, 2013

Grades detract from learning so much that if you give students comments and grades, they tend to ignore the comments and focus on the grades. If you give them comments alone, they’ll actually learn from the comments.

When giving students feedback on both oral and written work, it is the nature, rather than the amount, of commentary that is critical. Research experiments have established that, while student learning can be advanced by feedback through comments, the giving of numerical scores orgrades has a negative effect, in that students ignore comments when marks are also given.

— Black et al., 2004. Working Inside the Black Box: Assessment for Learning in the Classroom in Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 86, No. 1, September 2004, pp. 9-21.

Citing this post: Urbano, L., 2013. Grades Nullify the Benefits of Useful Feedback, Retrieved February 23rd, 2018, from Montessori Muddle: .
Attribution (Curator's Code ): Via: Montessori Muddle; Hat tip: Montessori Muddle.

Game Theory

April 27, 2013

UCLA professor Peter Nonacs teaches behavioral theory by letting students “cheat” in his “insanely hard” exams by letting them use whatever resources they want, including the web and working together. His objective is to have his students learn game theory by actually practicing it:

Much of evolution and natural selection can be summarized in three short words: “Life is games.” In any game, the object is to win—be that defined as leaving the most genes in the next generation, getting the best grade on a midterm, or successfully inculcating critical thinking into your students. An entire field of study, Game Theory, is devoted to mathematically describing the games that nature plays. Games can determine why ant colonies do what they do, how viruses evolve to exploit hosts, or how human societies organize and function.

— Nonacs (2013): Why I Let My Students Cheat On Their Game Theory Exam on

My Environmental Science students are facing a similar problem with their final project. It’s a group project — their objective is to revamp the recycling system at school to make it work better — and I’ve been trying to get out of their way as much as possible. Not only do they have to figure out how to solve an environmental problem (they have an outline of how to do so in their text, but they have to figure out how to put it into practice), but they also have to figure out how to work together as a group to get the project done and write up a final report. The latter problem tends to be the harder, but in having to figure out how to lead, follow, and work as a team, it’s probably the more important lesson in the long term.

Citing this post: Urbano, L., 2013. Game Theory, Retrieved February 23rd, 2018, from Montessori Muddle: .
Attribution (Curator's Code ): Via: Montessori Muddle; Hat tip: Montessori Muddle.

Some People Just want to put Chemicals on Stuff to See it Burn

March 15, 2013

“We want to put chemicals on it and see what happens,” she said.

I was not quite sure how to respond. First of all, I didn’t know what “it” was. Secondly, I had no idea about what chemicals the three of them wanted to “put on it”. And thirdly, I was wondering why they even thought that students could just wander into the chemistry lab and get my permission to “put chemicals” on some random stuff, just to see what would happen.

For the last question, alas, I’m afraid to say that they may, perhaps, know me too well. However, given my visceral antipathy to inexact language — especially in a science lab where safety is always a concern — based on the first two questions, they don’t know me quite well enough.

An interrogation ensued.

“It” turned out to be two sad-looking pieces of dried apple. They weren’t dried when they’d been left in someone’s locker who knows how long ago, but they were pretty dessicated now.

The “chemicals”, on the other hand, they weren’t quite so sure about. Or at least they didn’t want to tell me right away. They may have had different ideas about what they wanted to see.

“We want to see it burn and smoke!” explained the second one happily. I didn’t have to express either skepticism or approbation verbally, my face responded automatically.

“We just want to see bubbles and stuff,” suggested the first one somewhat tentatively; eying my facial expression carefully.

The third one said nothing, but she tends to reticence. I looked at her inquiringly to give me a second to think.

That’s when I realized that they were all in chemistry together. They’ve been working with chemicals, studying different types of reactions for the last eight months, so they probably had at least some idea about what they were asking about.

The Montessori axiom is to follow the child, and here they were expressing an interest in chemistry. It was an ill-formed interest perhaps, but an interest non-the-less, so maybe there was something I could work with.

I needed a way to gauge just how serious they were about their project, and, at the same time, tie it back to what they’d been learning in class. Were they interested enough to puts some serious thought into it?

So I told them that, if they could tell me exactly what chemicals they wanted to use, and write the chemical equations to show what would happen, I’d let them do it.

They were on it.

The first thing was to figure out what was in the apples that could react. Well, the apples had come pre-sliced, and fresh in one of those small, clear, plastic bags. The first student, who was taking charge of the group, ducked out of the room to retrieve it from the garbage can across the hall.

I’d expected that the ingredient list to be very sparse. Ideally just the single word, “apples”, with maybe the type of apple listed if the packet labelers were feeling verbose. However, it turns out that those “fresh” slices needed something to keep them looking good and tasty. So these fresh apple slices appear to contain some amount of calcium carbonate. That was a chemical they knew.

Their first thought was a single replacement reaction. If they added potassium to it then the potassium would replace the calcium and they’d see something interesting. It took a few minutes, and a little nudging of the quiet one to help out with the charges, but eventually they wrote out and balanced the reaction:

2 K + CaCO3 –> K2CO3 + Ca

The problem is, I pointed out, there’s nothing in that reaction that would produce bubbles. I didn’t even want to bring up heat and the exothermic and endothermic reactions, nor the fact that potassium is a solid, as is the calcium carbonate, which would make getting them to react dramatically a little bit difficult. I didn’t even point out what would happen if the potassium came in contact with water (or even sodium), because I know Ms. Wilson is planning on doing that little demonstration in the near future.

So what reactions produce bubbles? This took some further thought. With a few dropped hints, they came up with acid-base reactions, particularly, the reaction between calcium carbonate and hydrochloric acid. I pretty much told them what the products would be, and, with a little more coaxing of the quiet one for help, they were able to balance the reaction.

CaCO3 + 2HCl–> CaCl2 + CO2 + H2O

Now they were finally good to go. Unfortunately, it was also time to go P.E.. And they’d managed to drop one of the apple pieces into a bucket of water that my calculus students had left lying around after their bottle draining experiment.

So I told them they could try it tomorrow. Unfortunately, tomorrow is the field trip, so they’ll have to do it the day after.

We’ll see how it goes.

Citing this post: Urbano, L., 2013. Some People Just want to put Chemicals on Stuff to See it Burn, Retrieved February 23rd, 2018, from Montessori Muddle: .
Attribution (Curator's Code ): Via: Montessori Muddle; Hat tip: Montessori Muddle.

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