Saturday, March 29, 2008

I don't know what I think until I see what I say

This title is a declaration by the novelist Edward Morgan Forster (maybe known through some films based on his novels like A Passage to India, A Room with a View or Howards End).
I found the quote in the book "You Won't Remember Me - The Schoolboys of Barbiana Speak to Today" written by Marvin Hoffman in which he comments on "Letter to a Teacher" and reports how he was influenced in the beginning of his teaching career by the writing of the schoolboys of Barbiana.
When coaching teachers I regularly experience their resistance to writing when I suggest that they should try to write down their thoughts or to make short transcripts of classroom dialogue. Most of the teachers I meet have no confidence in their writing skills or feel that they have nothing valuable to write about. I can easily understand these feelings as I used to react in the same way and because I know what a poor and slow writer I am - which doesn't stop me from writing as you can see.
I think that you don't have to be a gifted writer if you have something to say and to share. We all know gifted writers and speakers who most of the time use their talent to demonstrate their superiority or to manipulate and to intimidate their audience or their readers.
Unfortunately most of us - teachers included - have not acquired writing and reading skills as means of self-expression and reflexion. In school we have been trained to think carefully before opening our mouth or before using a pen.
Nobody told us that writing is a way of thinking and that thoughts take shape during the act of speaking (cf. Heinrich Kleist famous essay he wrote in 1805 "On the Gradual Production of Thoughts Whilst Speaking". ("Über die allmähliche Verfertigung der Gedanken beim Reden").

Teachers in the same way as their students need to take "courage to do without knowing yet how to do it" (P. Meirieu). Only then will they be prepared to be conscientious objectors to textbooks and to a rigidification of a curriculum which both are meant to enable a better transmission of reading and writing skills but too often leave students and teachers voiceless.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Deschooling the Dialogue

I regularly work with small groups of teachers who are willing to question their teaching style in order to enhance the quality of learning, to increase the teaching outcomes and to enrich their relationship with their students and thus improve the social climate in their classrooms and schools.

We usually spent a lot of time together negotiating how learning could be more meaningful to students, more self-directed and less determined by instruction according to textbooks which are seen as the abstract of the obligatory curriculum.

But we also spent a lot of time reflecting on the constraints which teachers perceive as being imposed to them like the curriculum, the marks, the expectations of the teachers taking over their class in the next grade, the expectations of parents who want their children to be well prepared for secondary school or higher education and for a society where competition rules.

An alternative to closed curriculum base instruction is self-directed learning organized around authentic text productions ("free texts" as Freinet calls it) and meaningful content brought up by the students themselves. This approach "values the unpredictable outcome of self-chosen personal encounter above the certified quality of professional instruction" as Ivan Illich puts it.

Of course this presupposes that teachers are partly convinced that learning can be more self-motivated and self-directed, that children need, that they like and that they want to express themselves and that they are willing to learn by themselves and for themselves.

If so, teachers can be fascinated by the motivation of their students and the quality of their reflections but also chocked and confused by their sincerity, especially when they use writing to communicate their personal state of mind, their current emotional disruption, their problems as adolescents, their conflicts with their family, their negative self-image mostly constructed through humiliating experiences in school, their dreams or their sometimes apocalyptical expectations regarding their future.

At the same time through authentic text productions teachers usually make the disillusioning discovery how ineffective their teaching was regarding spelling, grammar and vocabulary. They inevitably have to face their students' incapacity to use in real what they, as teachers, thought they had administered so well to them.

Out of this discovery they not seldom draw the conclusion that they haven't done enough instruction reinforcing their teaching style more than questioning it. (Illich speaks of the "manipulative institutions" (...) which "are either socially or psychologically addictive" where "social addiction, or escalation, consists in the tendency to prescribe increased treatment if smaller quantities have not yielded the desired results." An the students, confronted with their poor spelling usually have adopted the same logic and react in the way that the institution expects them to do - by acknowledging that they should practice more - meaning that they should do more exercises. In Illich's words, students demonstrate already their "Psychological addiction, or habituation, results when consumers become hooked on the need for more and more of the process or product."

In teachertraining teachers have been taught how to organize school around an obligatory curriculum, how to package instruction and certification which means how to do short term testing of instructional outcomes and to validate students work on the percentage of conformity to specific norms.

How should they deal with authentic text productions armed with such teaching concepts and skills, and with textbooks full of pre-constructed content and knowledge? How should they find the time to engage in high quality conversations with their students with all the institutional constraints? How should they organize language learning, mathematics, science, art or any other subject around authentic productions based on self-interest, when these productions are unpredictable, extremely complex, heterogeneous, sometimes provoking, often questioning and demanding?

These are challenging questions, I know. And as a teacher you might want me to give you the answers to those questions. So, what are the answers? Do I have any?
My response as a coach is this:
  • First, it is already an achievement to find questions that really matter and that you share with other teachers.
  • Second, if the answers are not close at hand, that's no reason to abandon the search but on the contrary to pursue the inquiry.
  • And third, if there are any answers, you will probably find them if you share the same questions with your students.
Again, thanks to the teachers I work with and special thanks to Marco and Martine for raising some important issues during our last meeting. Thanks also to Sanela, Claudine and Joël for sharing their concerns and reflections with me.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Die Welle - The Wave

On Friday I went the see the movie "Die Welle". It is based on an experiment by Ron Jones that took place April 1967 in his Highschool history class. Jones' objective was to demonstrate to his students that if the context is right and the slogans strong and clear enough, individuality and critical thinking can easily be replaced by a kind of mass-"consciousness" with fascist tendencies.

In 1972, 5 Years after the experiment Ron Jones wrote down his view of the experience - called at that time The Third Way. You can find his report here :

In this report Ron Jones tells us how it all started: "We were studying Nazi Germany and in the middle of a lecture I was interrupted by the question. How could the German populace claim ignorance of the slaughter of the Jewish people. How could the townspeople, railroad conductors, teachers, doctors, claim they knew nothing about concentration camps and human carnage. How can people who were neighbors and maybe even friends of the Jewish citizen say they weren't there when it happened. it was a good question. I didn't know the answer."

In only five days the students experienced the metamorphoses from critical thinkers to subjects completely submitted to discipline and authority similar to the one of Nazi regime.

Ron Jones : "We have seen that fascism is not just something those other people did. No. it's right here. In this room. In our own personal habits and way of life. Scratch the surface and it appears. Something in all of us. We carry it like a disease. The belief that human beings are basically evil and therefore unable to act well toward each other. A belief that demands a strong leader and discipline to preserve social order."

But the experience not only has an effect on his students but also on Ron Jones himself:
"I now began to ponder not just how far this class could be pushed but how such I would change my basic beliefs toward an open classroom and self directed learning".

For my part I didn't like the end of the film to much. I prefer the version in Ron Jones report on the final day of the experience. But anyway, The film is a must for all educators and good occasion to reflect on some of the classroom rituals they sometimes impose on their students without thinking of possible drawbacks of a "uniform code of behavior" as Jones calls it.

I strongly recommend to read the original report by Jones and also read through the following Wikipedia pages
on the Milgram-Experiment :,
the Stanford-Prison-Experiment :
on Jane Elliott, best known for her workshops on racism :
and on Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann's theory of the 'spiral of silence' (Die Schweigespirale in German):

Finally Ron Jones' website :

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Teaching Grammar

I have spent part of the afternoon in a primary school discussing with Claudine, a primary school teacher, her recent classroom experiences. She has switched her teaching style from a teacher, textbook and instruction centered approach to a child, activity and reflection centered approach. With all the difficulties she is still facing (she has to give marks at the end of a term for instance and base these mark on some sort of testing) she stresses how motivated her students have become and that the learning outcomes are better or at least not less than before. For example this has been the case for some grammar points. How is this possible, what does she do? She gave this example which illustrates quite well her strategy : Under her guidance (not her formal instruction) her students explore and discover grammatical forms that occur in their writings (free texts on personal or common topics). Then they reflect on these grammatical forms, and apply them in their next or revised text productions. Sounds simple, doesn't it? So what's so exceptional about this approach? Well first of all the teacher has to know, to see and to accept that students "use grammar" while they use language. You can't use language without using grammar - that's a fact. The next thing that a teachers has to admit, is that children can think and want to know things sometimes even about grammar. They also like to discover how things work and most of all - they want to express themselves or should I say, they need to express themselves. And somebody who expresses him or herself does it for natural human reasons not for school purposes alone. Even if it sounds odd, students understand very well the fact that grammar is a means to better master language, to help them clarify and communicate their thoughts and standpoints and to share their understanding of themselves, of others and the world around them.

I know that many teachers will have difficulties to accept that language production should come before language formalization because it's not the way by which they were taught. But what they ignore is that during writing for example students already make grammatical choices and think about grammar even if its not in a formalized technical language.

Inspired by today's discussion I searched on the net and found this interesting website called "The essentials of Language Learning" by the National Capital Language Resource Center and this video on YouTube entitled "You can't SAY you can't PLAY" which is inspired, according to their authors, by Vivian Gussin Paley's books "White Teacher" and "Kwanzaa and Me" (and the title "You Can't Say You Can't Play").

Thanks Claudine for giving me this opportunity to reflection ! I really like this video :

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Is Minister Goldilocks going to reform education in Luxembourg?

First I wanted to entitle this post : The Goldilocks Zone of pedagogical innovation and educational reform. But then I liked the idea of having a Minister of Education called Goldilocks.

But let's be serious for a moment. Do you know what the Goldilocks Zone is?

The Goldilocks Zone is the zone where life is possible, where it is neither too hot nor too cold but just right so that water won't boil and evaporate or freeze, but where it will remain most of the time in a liquid state.

This concept can easily be applied to pedagogical innovation or educational reform. In effect, to be accepted at a given time in a given socio-cultural and economic system, change in education (on a larger scale) usually only happens in Goldilocks Zone.

Reform is accepted when there are differences enough to the standards in use, innovative enough to be noticed as such, intentionally new but not threatening or too challenging. And change has to be conservative enough to be accepeted by stakeholders that emphasize the benefits of a traditional system in place.

Every person taken alone operates in such a zone if he wants to nourish his image as an innovator without taking the risk to be evaporated or frozen. For some people this zone is very large, for others - less courageous or should I say blessed with more political intelligence - it is very narrow.

When more stakeholders are involved - and usually, it is not one person alone who takes all the decisions (at least not in democracies - although our Prime Minister is sometimes suspected to take all the decisions alone) the Zone is obviously small. The acceptable change has to take place in the limits of the intersection of all stakeholders depending on their relative importance, status or power : The Ministry of Education, the Government, the Teacher Union etc. The more stakeholders involved, the smaller the intersection area will be where a consensus is possible, and of course the slower change will happen, resulting in a kind of Darwinian evolution of the educational system. And we all know how slow such an evolution operates, don't we? Only very long-term observation could reveal change - if there is change. (So far nobody has seen the giraffe's neck grow longer. Or could it be that it is shortening?).

But there is also different concept of evolution - one which is not slow and continuous but rather jumps from a certain stage in a very short period to a very different stage. According to this scenario educational reform could be experienced during a teacher's working life, or even a child's school career

I am curious to see, if the new school law will be followed by an evolutionary jump or if educational reform will take place in the shared and very narrow Goldilocks Zone of all the stakeholders involved.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Who the Hell is Gianni?

Gianni is one of the boys who visited the school of Barbiana and one of the students who wrote the "Letter to a Teacher" back in 1967. Gianni as all the other schoolboys from Barbiana didn't succeed in school, meaning, that his school carreer was very short and a painful experience in opposition to the one of Pierino, a Doctor's son, who seemed to have been born for school and did quite well. The book starts with these words that really stroke me when I first read them as a student teacher in 1982: "Dear Miss, You won't remember me or my name. You have flunked so many of us. On the other hand I have often had thoughts about you, and the other teachers, and about that institution which you call "school" and about the kids that you flunk. You flunk us right out into the fields and factories and there you forget us."

What the PISA survey conducted by the OECD shows (and it seems to have been confirmed by a recent survey conducted by the University of Luxembourg) is in fact nothing we didn't know in Luxembourg, but something we liked and still like to ignore : Students - the Giannis - from low socio-economic status, and recent immigrant backgrounds are less likely to succeed in school than their native counterparts or the students from families with a higher socio-economic status - the Pierinos. This means that the inequality of educational opportunities has and continues to caracterise the Luxembourgish school system. The schoolboys of Barbiana would say that "It remains a school cut to measure for the rich. For people who can get their culture at home and are going to school just in order to collect diplomas."

It is no secret, that children - like Gianni - whose parents don't read much, have had a short educational career, don't speak the languages used in school and therefore can't assist them in doing their homework or in preparing for a test, will have enourmous difficulties to follow the teaching rhythm dictated by textbooks and testing. On the other hand, will the children - like Pierino - whose parents know what is expected from their kids at school have higher chances to get their degrees, regardless of the intellectual potential they may have. As the schoolboys from Barbiana put it : "The doctor's chromosomes are powerful. Pierino could write when he was only five. He has no need for a first grade. He enters the second at age six. And he can speak like a printed book. He, too, is already branded, but with the mark of the chosen race." and "Even the rich have difficult offspring. But they push them ahead."

A few pages later in the book the schoolboys continue quoting their former teacher. She sees the difficulty of teaching Giannis and Pierinos in one class from her own perspective, with these significant words : "Now that everybody comes to school it's impossible to teach. We get quite illiterate students."

This statement resonates with the viewpoint a lot of people persist in and share in Luxembourg and elsewhere. Keeping the doors open as long as possible for students with poor results (in the majority identical with children having a recent immigrant background and/or from families having a low socio-economic status), is suspected to be one of the main reasons for the leveling down of the value of educational degrees.

At the eve of the possible adoption of a new school law by the Luxembourgish government (the old law is from 1912 !) there are a lot of discussion on how to reform education. I'm curious to see if the changes will have a beneficial effect on the Giannis. I have strong doubts because a lot of key factors which determine the so called "hidden curriculum" are not questioned in all the discussions that I have followed so far. Two of these key factors I see are the textbooks that teachers are supposed to work through with an entire class in a given frame of time (on or two years) and the achievements that students are expected to reach in the same period and which they will get certified through test results or by checklists of attained skills and knowledge. If these key factors remain unquestioned, teachers will see themselves evaluated and ranked by these testings and checklists as much as the students and react like the former teacher of the schoolboys did. They will continue to teach under continuous pressure of attaining - in short term - equal outcomes for all students with very different potentials and backgrounds thus having the same old problem - "the Giannis they loose".

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Scaffolding teacher's collaborative and personal research on teaching and learning

This post is inspired by the online article by Marc Prensky Adopt and Adapt: Shaping Tech for the Classroom which I found on a website created by the George Lucas Educational Foundation.

Today there certainly is a strong move towards technology in Luxembourg for instance, where I live and work. But putting computers into classrooms isn't enough. I know that this has been said again and again, but in my view we shouldn't stop saying it to soon.

I have noticed during my years as a teacher and now as an educational consultant, that teachers are most reluctant to give up their assumed role as the one who is in control of the learning process. There are many reasons to this reluctance. One is certainly that they feel being forced to teach to the textbooks or to the tests, which most of the time reproduce what is found in the textbooks.

And even if teachers know or suspect, that this is not the best way to teach anything that students will retain much longer than is needed to pass the tests, they will continue to teach that way as long as the majority of the teachers does. Why? Because when you fail (meaning that your students have bad test results for instance) it is easier to cope with criticism when you did what the "systems expected" you to do, than if you tried to explore new teaching territories without being sure of the outcomes.

Another reason why we haven't noticed a big difference in education, despite the introduction of new technologies, is that teachers have only vague theories about learning. If so, teachers may well think that computers will help innovate or differentiate their teaching, but their vision will be one of doing "old things in new ways" as said in the article. I am convinced,because I have experienced it many times, that teachers will reproduce the same classroom experiences as before technology entered thei school as long as they are not involved - as reflective practitioner - into a collaborative and personal investigation on how learning works, with or without computers, and what it means to the learner and teacher.

And I doubt that technocrats and technology fans or freaks who do a lot to bring or force technology into schools (sometimes for the right and sometimes for the wrong reasons) are rarely the best partners when it comes up to clarify the big questions on education and to scaffolding teacher's or student teacher's inquiries on learning and teaching.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Collaborative Storytelling with Avatars and Robots as Peers

I would like to draw your attention to the Research Projects of the ArticuLab at the School of Communication / School of Engineering at the Northwestern University.
At first glance the projects "Collaborative Storytelling with a Virtual Peer", "Storytelling with a virtual peer as an intervention for children with autism" and the project "Alex: Culturally Authentic Virtual Peer" seem to emphasize the benefit of using digital avatars in a learning process. This I suppose may chock many parents or teachers, but I find them most interesting because all these projects are based on a solid theoretical and conceptional framework on literacy development. The researchers emphasize the importance of collaboration, play, role-taking, imagination, storytelling, co-authoring and socio-cultural norms during language learning. Even for teachers or parents who are very critical about the use of computers in education it could be interesting to have a closer look at these research projects because they could help them better understand the mechanisms of learning in a given socio-cultural and/or educational environment and also how important it is for children to participate in collaborative literacy activities like narratives or play. If considered, the research projects could contribute to improve education even without the use of information technology because they offer new settings in which can be described the impact of social interaction and communication and of a child's imagination during the process of developing literacy skills.
The projects of the ArticuLab have a lot in common with the Aurora of the Adaptive Systems Research Group at the Science and Technology Research Institute at the University of Hertfordshire where researches have developed a humanoid robot called KASPAR instead of virtual peers and where they study its possible beneficial influence on children with learning difficulties or autism.

Some Reading Milestones

  • Towards reflexive method in archaeology : the example at Çatalhöyük (edited by Ian Hodder) 2000

  • The Book of Learning and Forgetting (Frank Smith) 1998

  • Points of Viewing Children's Thinking: A Digital Ethnographer's Journey (Ricki Goldman-Segall) 1997

  • Verstehen lehren (Martin Wagenschein) 1997

  • Computer im Schreibatelier (Gérard Gretsch) 1992

  • The Boy Who Would Be a Helicopter. Uses of Storytelling in the Classroom (Vivian Gussin Paley) 1991

  • La cause des adolescents (Françoise Dolto) 1988

  • Scuola di Barbiana. Die Schülerschule. Brief an eine Lehrerin. (Edition of 1980) / read in German 1982
    Letter to Teacher by the Schoolboys of Barbiana (1970)
    Lettre à une maîtresse de'école, par les enfants de Barbiana (1968)
    Lettera à una professoressa (Original Edition) 1967

  • Vers une pédagogie institutionnelle (Aïda Vasquez, Fernand Oury) 1967

Documentary Films on Education

  • Eine Schule, die gelingt (by Reinhard Kahl) 2008

  • Les temps des enfants (Jacques Duez) 2007

  • Klassenleben (by Bernd Friedmann und Hubertus Siegert) 2006

  • Lernen - Die Entdeckung des Selbstverständlichen
    (Ein Vortrag von Manfred Spitzer) 2006

  • Die Entdeckung der frühen Jahre
    Die Initiative "McKinsey bildet" zur frühkindlichen Bildung (by Reinhard Kahl) 2006

  • Treibhäuser der Zukunft - Wie in Deutschland Schulen gelingen (by Reinhard Kahl) 2004

  • Treibhäuser der Zukunft / Incubators of the future / Les serres de l'avenir; International Edition (by Reinhard Kahl) 2004

  • Journal de classe, 1ères audaces (1), Les échappés (2), Sexe, amour et vidéo (3), L'enfant nomade (4), Remue-méninges (5) (by Wilbur Leguebe, Jacques Duez, Agnès Lejeune) 2004

  • Spitze - Schulen am Wendekreis der Pädagogik (by Reinhard Kahl) 2003

  • Journal de classe, (by Wilbur Leguebe and Agnès Lejeune; Jacques Duez) 2002

  • Etre et Avoir (by Nicolas Philibert) 2002

  • The Stolen Eye (by Jane Elliott) 2002

  • The Angry Eye (by Jane Elliott) 2001

  • A l'école de la providence (by Gérard Preszow) 2000

  • Blue-Eyed (by Jane Elliott) 1996

  • A Class Divided (by Jane Elliott) 1984

  • Eye of The Storm (with Jane Elliott) 1970

Past quotes of the day

For every problem, there is one solution which is simple, neat and wrong. Henry Louis Mencken

Traveler, there is no path. Paths are made by walking.
Antonio Machado

The best way to predict the future is to invent it. Immanuel Kant

The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them. Albert Einstein

To paraphrase a famous quotation, all that is necessary for the triumph of damaging educational policies is that good educators keep silent. Alfie Kohn

We used to have lots of questions to which there were no answers. Now, with the computer, there are lots of answers to which we haven't thought up the questions. Peter Ustinov

I had a terrible education. I attended a school for emotionally disturbed teachers. Woody Allen

A professor is someone who talks in someone else's sleep. W. H. Auden

When I was an inspector of schools I visited one classroom and looked at a boys book. He'd written, 'Yesterday, Yesterday, Yesterday, Sorrow, Sorrow, Sorrow, Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Love, Love, Love.' I said, 'That's a lovely poem.' He said, 'Those are my spelling corrections.' Gervase Phinn

Real thinking never starts until the learner fails. Roger Schank

If what is wanted is a reexamination of schooling in terms of purpose, structure and process, then testing programmes are the wrong vehicle (...) Caroline V. Gipps

Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts. Albert Einstein

Act always so as to increase the number of choices. Heinz von Foerster

Another way of avoiding teaching is by relying exclusively on a textbook, workbooks, and other commercially packaged learning materials. Teaching is reduced to administering a set curriculum without giving any thought to the substance of what the students area learning or to their particular needs. H. Kohl

The right to ignore anything that doesn't make sense is a crucial element of any child's learning - and the first right children are likely to lose when they get to the controlled learning environment of school. F. Smith

Learning is the human activity which least needs manipulation by others. Most learning is not the result of instruction. It is rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful activity. - Ivan Illich

Too often we give our children answers to remember rather than problems to solve. - Roger Lewin

I have never let my schooling interfere with my education. - Mark Twain