Practical Wisdom Garnered from Living a Full Life

I wish I could put down in clever, clear, and concise words the practical wisdom, lessons learned from life, that have come to me over many decades. I cannot. Fortunately, others have that capacity and skill. Here is a collection of such wisdom. Savor, nod your head in agreement if that be the case, and, if you are inclined to do so, write your own. Most of all, enjoy!*

David Brooks is a New York Times columnist. This appeared June 2, 2022

We’re inspired by the legendary tech journalist Kevin Kelly, who, for his 68th, 69th and 70th birthdays, shared his life learnings on his Technium blog. Here are some of Kelly’s life hack gems (I’ve reworded several for concision):

When you have 90 percent of a large project completed, finishing up the final details will take another 90 percent.

Anything you say before the word “but” does not count.

Denying or deflecting a compliment is rude. Accept it with thanks.

Getting cheated occasionally is a small price to pay for trusting the best in everyone, because when you trust the best in others, they will treat you the best.

When you get invited to something in the future, ask yourself, Would I do this tomorrow?

Purchase a tourist guidebook to your hometown. You’ll learn a lot playing tourist once a year.

The thing that made you weird as a kid could make you great as an adult.

It’s not an apology if it comes with an excuse.

Just because it’s not your fault doesn’t mean it’s not your responsibility.

Ignore what they are thinking of you because they are not thinking of you.

If you think you saw a mouse, you did, and if there is one, there are others.

Something does not need to be perfect to be wonderful, especially weddings.

The biggest lie we tell ourselves is, “I don’t need to write this down because I will remember it.”

Bravo to Kevin Kelly. Everybody learns life lessons. Not everyone clarifies them with such precision and shares them with such generosity. But even Kelly does not have a monopoly on practical wisdom.

For example, over the last few years I have embraced, almost as a religious mantra, the idea that if you’re not sure you can carry it all, take two trips.

A friend shares the advice: “Always make the call. If you’re disturbed or confused by something somebody did, always pick up the phone….”

Job interviews are not really about you. They are about the employer’s needs and how you can fill them.

If you can’t make up your mind between two options, flip a coin. Don’t decide based on which side of the coin came up. Decide based on your emotional reaction to which side came up.

Take photos of things your parents do every day. That’s how you’ll want to remember them.

Build identity capital. In your 20s do three fascinating things that job interviewers and dinner companions will want to ask you about for the rest of your life.

Marriage is a 50-year conversation. Marry someone you want to talk with for the rest of your life.

If you’re giving a speech, be vulnerable. Fall on the audience members and let them catch you. They will.

Never be furtive. If you’re doing something you don’t want others to find out about, it’s probably wrong.

If you’re traveling in a place you’ve never been before, listen to an album you’ve never heard before. Forever after that music will remind you of that place.

If you’re cutting cake at a birthday party with a bunch of kids howling around you, it’s quicker and easier to cut the cake with dental floss, not a knife. Lay the floss across the cake and firmly press down.

When you’re beginning a writing project, give yourself permission to write badly. You can’t fix it until it’s down on paper.

One-off events usually don’t amount to much. Organize gatherings that meet once a month or once a year.

Make the day; don’t let the day make you. Make sure you are setting your schedule, not just responding to invitations from others.

If you meet a jerk once a month, you’ve met a jerk. If you meet jerks every day, you’re a jerk.

Never pass up an opportunity to hang out with musicians.

Don’t try to figure out what your life is about. It’s too big a question. Just figure out what the next three years are about.

If you’ve lost your husband (or wife), sleep on his (or her) side of the bed and it won’t feel so empty.

Don’t ever look up a recent photo of your first great love.

If you’re trying to figure out what supermarket line is fastest, get behind a single shopper with a full cart over two shoppers each with a half-full cart.

Low on kitchen counter space? Pull out a drawer and put your cutting board on top of it.

You can always tell someone to go to hell tomorrow.


*I thank Kim Marshall for including this piece in his blog and sending it along to me.


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Schooling Around the World (Part 7)

India has 1.4 billion people. Of that total 250 million attend rural and urban schools about the same enrollment as China (2021). Consider that the U.S. schooled around 50 million students in the same year.

India’s system of public and private schooling is governed at the central, state, and local levels. About four out of five Indian students attend government schools, as they are called. The rest attend private and alternative kinds of schooling. Since two-thirds of India’s population live in rural areas, 70 percent of all Indian children attend school in those areas. Among adults, nearly 80 percent are literate as determined by the 2011 census (three decades earlier, literacy rate was 41 percent). See here.

Here are a few facts about the Indian system of schooling including how public schooling is organized:

What do rural and urban Indian classrooms look like? A sampling of photos in both settings comes from the Internet:

Rural primary school
Village school of children Uttar Pradesh

Physical classes resume in a Ghaziabad school after one student tested positive for Covid-19.

700 Primary Schools In Gujurat Have Only One Teacher (Image : Social Media)

Schools in Maharashtra (Mumbai) were closed down in March 2020 after the outbreak of the pandemic; they reopened mid-December 2021

Karnataka Primary School

Kerala: Classroom use of technology used in pilot project in Alappuzha, Puthukad, Kozhikode North and Taliparamba, 2016.

Teaching activities taking place in a classroom in Gujarat, India.
Photo: Luke Strathmann | J-PAL

A village school in Kovalam, Kerala India

Apart from textbook lessons, Sandhya Shanmugam TV said she applies lessons from her own life in her classes. (Express)

New Delhi High School Class


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Schooling around the World (Part 6)

After determining how each nation has organized its system of schooling (U.S., France, Germany, Russia, Japan) and seeing photos of different nations’ classrooms, similarities are obvious:

*Every nation compels parents to send their sons and daughters to school up to a decade or more.

*Every one pays the costs for schooling either directly or indirectly.

*Every one is age-graded.

*Every one publishes national (or state) curriculum standards for each elementary and secondary school subject.

*Every one tests student performance in elementary and secondary school subjects.

*Every one has at least one teacher for each classroom.

Some are national (or federal) systems and some are state-operated with the federal government and states splitting funding and supervisory responsibilities. All of these nations and their states set curriculum standards for each subject and administer tests to determine if schools and students are meeting those standards.

Some nations have centralized systems (e.g., France, Russia, Italy, Japan) where ministry officials make decisions for schools and some are decentralized (e.g., Canada, U.S. Norway) with states and local districts having a moderate degree of discretion to alter what national authorities require. Whether centralized or decentralized, individual schools in every nation have some autonomy in adapting national or state curriculum when organizing for instruction. Need I add that once they close their classroom doors, teachers also exercise discretion in teaching the lesson they planned for the students in front of them that day.

What needs to be stressed that these commonalities among nations in establishing and operating systems of schooling over the past century exist side-by-side with inevitable within-nation variations between rural and urban and wealthy and poor schools that exist. Both commonalities and variations influence the schooling and teaching that occurs daily.

For this post, I turn to Sweden. Again, I begin with a chart showing how the nation’s schools are organized followed by a series of photos of classrooms in the country drawn from the Internet. For longer descriptions of the Swedish system and its move from a highly centralized one to reforms in the 1990s that now allow parents to make choices among government schools and publicly funded independent ones (about five percent of students attend these schools), see here and here.

The Swedish system:

Here is a sampling of Swedish classroom photos:

Upper Secondary Classroom

Schoolchildren in Sweden, where free schools (ones run by parents) have teacher union support. Photograph: Chad Ehlers/Stock Connection/Rex Features
The Al-Azhar Primary School in a suburb of Stockholm, Sweden. (YouTube screenshot)
Swedish students in a classroom, Halmstad, Sweden, February 8, 2016. David Ramos/Getty

Primary school classroom
Upper Grade Primary Classroom

Sweden – Stockholm. Malaren district. Children in kindergarten playing with the teachers sit in a circle.

A high school class in Stockholm on Sept. 7, 2020, with no distancing and no masks.
Elisabeth Ubbe—The New York Times/Redux

Primary Classroom during the Pandemic–Credit: Alexander Olivera/TT

Kindergarten Class


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Sale of Twitter Shows That Ed Tech Companies Should Be Accountable To Schools (T.Philip Nichols and Antero Garcia)

T. Philip Nichols is an assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Baylor University. Antero Garcia is associate professor of education at Stanford University. The original article appeared in Ed Source, May 8, 2022.

The recent news that billionaire Elon Musk plans to purchase Twitter shows how abruptly even widely used technology companies can be bought, sold, altered or shut down at the whims of their owners. This ought to concern educators, parents and students: Such instabilities don’t just affect social media giants, but any commercial platform — including those that have, over the past decade, become vital infrastructures for the everyday operation of public schools.

Even before the pandemic accelerated schools’ adoption of third-party platforms for virtual learning, teachers already relied on such technologies to share assignments (Google Classroom), manage student behavior (ClassDojo), monitor school devices (GoGuardian), assess learning (Kahoot), communicate with families (SeeSaw), and supplement instruction (Khan Academy). According to one study, in 2019 U.S. districts accessed, on average, over 700 digital platforms each month. As of 2021, this number has doubled.

As education researchers who study the impact of platform technologies in schools, we find this pattern troubling. The growing dependence of education on a constellation of privately controlled technologies cedes tremendous power to companies that are unaccountable to the publics that schools are meant to serve. And the deeper these platforms are embedded in the life of districts, schools and classrooms, the more tightly tethered administration, instruction and learning are to their owners’ whims.

In our work with teachers, for instance, we often hear complaints when an instructional app pushes out updates that remove favorite features or change its functionality. Such instabilities can thwart a lesson or force teachers to restructure a unit. But the consequences could be even greater with a larger company. If, tomorrow, Google decided to offload or shutter its educational services, there are few U.S. schools that wouldn’t be impacted. And because Google isn’t accountable to the public education system, those schools would have no recourse but to pivot to a different third-party platform that, likewise, offers no assurance of a long-term commitment to teachers’ and students’ needs – or, it’s worth noting, the security and privacy of their data.

Hypotheticals like this may seem far-fetched, but then, the idea that Musk would attempt to buy Twitter also seemed unlikely – until it wasn’t. Trusting in the stability and benevolence of privately controlled companies in a notoriously volatile industry is a flimsy foundation on which to build sustainable institutions for equitable public education. We shouldn’t settle for this arrangement.

While the size and influence of certain platform providers may make alternatives seem unthinkable, there are steps we can, and must, take to make educational technologies accountable to the public schools that rely on them.

In the short term, we can interrogate the role of such platforms in classrooms. Edtech scholars have shown how teachers can use “technoethical audits” to evaluate how the design and use of common technologies might work with, or against, their pedagogical values or the needs of their students. Our own research, likewise, demonstrates how such inquiries can extend into lessons, where students investigate the place and power of platform technologies in their own lives. Such tactics empower educators and students to make demands of the platforms they use rather than accepting these technologies as they are.

Longer term, we can create policies that make technology companies answerable to the public schools that use them. Amending procurement policies in districts, for instance, can put pressure on platform providers to take educators’ concerns about stability, security and privacy seriously lest they lose out on valuable contracts (or the usage data needed to keep their products viable). There is also room for state and federal protections. The European Union’s recently proposed Digital Markets Act and Digital Services Act offer one such model: creating oversight for technology mergers and acquisitions that affect public well-being and subjecting large “gatekeeper” platforms to additional scrutiny. While imperfect, such policies offer a starting point for thinking about how we can build leverage so the privacy and stability of entire school systems can’t be determined by the business decisions of a few private companies.

If this sounds unrealistic, it is no more radical than the future that privately controlled technology companies have imagined for themselves – where they stand as unregulated infrastructures for all of public education. Challenging this vision requires an equally ambitious alternative: one rooted not in growth or profit, or the mercurial ambitions of tech moguls, but in a commitment to education for the common good, and for the autonomy and flourishing of all students.


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Japanese Classrooms: From Chaos to Complete Control (Mary DeVries)

This account by an American teacher in a Japanese rural elementary school reflects what one teacher experienced. Generalizing to all Japanese schools, rural and urban, large and small, elementary and secondary is a step too far. Other teachers might write different accounts. This is hers. Mary DeVries wrote this piece in Medium on November 17, 2020.

Children raise their hands to share views as they take part in a digital program at a Coby Preschool in Yoshikawa, suburban Tokyo in 2018 with their teacher and preschool principal Akihito Minabe (AP Photo/Yuri Kageyama)

The first thing I noticed when I started working at a Japanese elementary school was how well behaved and focused the students were. The second thing I noticed was how loud, absolutely wild, and seemingly out of control they were at times. I believe these two states are connected.

I was an English teacher in rural Japan for two years. I say English teacher since that was my title but I actually functioned as more of a glorified pronunciation model. I came into each class once a week for their English lesson. The classroom teacher would run the lesson and I would follow their directions. This set up allowed me a lot of opportunities for observation.

In keeping with my preconceived expectations of what a Japanese school would be like, I was immediately struck by how polite and well mannered the students were. As I entered each classroom all eyes were focused on me and the classroom teacher. Students sat quietly and listened to directions.

As I walked down the neat rows of desk stopping at each one for the obligatory, “Hello, my name is Ms. DeVries. What’s your name?” the selected student would answer, if necessary with prompting from the teacher to encourage the exact formulary to use. Meanwhile, despite the mundaneness of this exercise the rest of the class sat quietly waiting for their turn. How different from my experiences in most American classrooms.

Then we moved into the main content of the day’s lesson, colors. After a quick review of English color names, it was time for a game. I would say “Please touch something red.” The students would quickly scramble around the room to find something red to touch. I would repeat with a different color and they would be off again.

I was surprised by the atmosphere in the classroom during this game. The subdued students of moments before were transformed into a wild mob, laughing, yelling, and jostling each other as they reached for interesting objects to touch. Some students called out to friends who were struggling to find something with suggestions and encouragement. One student grabbed a chair, pulled it over to the wall, kicked off his shoes before climbing on the chair to reach up precariously on tiptoe to touch a red item up high.

The noise level was very high. The seeming chaos was such that in most American classrooms the teacher would have been drawing an immediate halt to the game and sitting all the students down for a lecture along the lines of, “If you can’t control yourself we won’t be able to play the game anymore and we will all just have to sit at our desks quietly.”

In this Japanese classroom, however, the teacher stood in the corner and beamed proudly at her students as they raced riotously to find the different colors I called out. It was the end of the game that impressed me the most. The teacher clapped her hands, told the students to take a seat, and within seconds all the children were in their seats facing forward waiting for the next set of instructions.

I saw this pattern repeated regularly the entire two years I taught English in Japan. During select activities, teachers allowed much more physical movement, shouting, and frenzied excitement than would be tolerated in the American classroom setting, but when the activity ended they would be able to immediately reign in the class and transition to seatwork.

Another distinction I noticed was the flexible use of classroom space and furniture. Every Japanese classroom I taught in was equipped with standard student desks and chairs arranged in orderly rows when I first entered the classroom. However, throughout the course of a one hour English lesson, those desks and chairs were likely to be rearranged several times. The desks might get pushed to the edges of the room to make space for a circle of chairs in the middle. Or desks were turned around to face each other and make pairs or quads for student interaction. Or all furniture was moved away to make a large open space available for floorwork or other options.

The students would do all the arranging and rearranging of furniture with great speed and a minimum of fuss. This speed allowed for numerous changes even within one class period without excessive loss of instructional time.

My experiences in Japan encompassed two elementary schools in a rural setting. It would be dangerous to extrapolate too far from this limited exposure to make blanket statements about Japanese schools in general. However, I wanted to make use of what I had seen to improve my own teaching techniques as I returned to the US.

How much of what I witnessed was due to cultural differences and how much could be adapted to an American classroom? This is of course a hard question to answer. Certainly, some of the successful classroom management I witnessed was built on cultural expectations of conformity, respect for authority, and the valuing of community over individuality. However, I found that there were lessons to be learned that could be put in place in an American setting.

First, building in regular periods when students could be loud and rowdy releases steam that lets students stay focused on quieter more disciplined work at other times. This is not news to anyone however most teachers tightly constrain students at all times for fear of losing control of the class.

After returning from Japan I began experimenting with my classes to discover that fine line between chaos and control. How far could I let my classes loose to be loud and wild and express themselves during an active lesson without losing control or the ability to reign them in quickly when it is time to transition. This is a skill that takes time and patience to develop but my experiences in Japan showed me what was possible and the benefits I stood to gain in terms of effective classroom management and more time on task.

I also looked at the value of frequent room readjustments. Rearranging the classroom furniture has several benefits. The physical activity wakes up sleepy brains, burns off fidgety energy, and helps students be more ready to focus. It is exciting and signals that something new and interesting is coming. It allows for a wide variety of groupings to meet various educational needs. Having a dynamic rather than static classroom arrangement keeps everyone on their toes and viewing things in a different light.

The trick is doing this rearranging without losing too much valuable educational time. My solution is to put a little time into training students at the beginning of the year. Make a game of it timing the students as they race to rearrange the room to various preset specifications. With practice ahead of time and regular usage throughout the year, furniture rearranging can become the norm with the slight amount of time it takes well paid off by the benefits.

Just as every teacher can benefit from observing their colleagues and copying best practices in their own classroom, we all stand to gain from looking at how education happens in other cultures. What assumptions are we making that may be unwarranted? What can we try to improve our own classrooms? There is so much to learn.


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Schooling around the World (Part 5)

After looking at how public schools are organized and how teachers teach in France, Germany, and Russia, I now turn to schools in Japan. At a national level, Japan, has a Ministry of Education responsible for a national curriculum, funding and staffing schools in 47 prefectures (like states in the U.S.) across the country.

The system of schooling is organized in this fashion:

Here is a sampling of elementary and secondary school classrooms across Japan.

Preschool classroom

Kindergarten classroom

Elementary school classroom where each student has computer

High school classroom discussion of nation’s judiciary

Due to Covid-19, students maintain physical distance from one another in a classroom at a high school in Nagoya in May 2020. The school reopened after being closed for about one and a half months. | KYODO

Students raise their hands to participate in discussion in a Coby Preschool in Yoshikawa, suburban Tokyo, with their teacher and preschool principal Akihito Minabe. (AP Photo/Yuri Kageyama)

Teacher handing out tests in high school classroom

High school class
Computer class in high school

For a short video of a Japanese school and classrooms, see:


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Cartoons on Aging

Getting really old has been on my mind so I began exploring its humorous side. For this month, then, I have collected a few cartoons on aging in American society. Enjoy!

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Can Principals Raise Test Scores?

Effective manager? Savvy politician? Heroic leader? School CEO? Reformers yearn for principals who can not only play these roles but also raise test scores and do so quickly. Many principals in different districts can earn thousands of dollars in bonuses for boosting student achievement. But the job of principal demands far more beyond gains in test scores. Principals are expected to maintain order, to be shrewd managers who squeeze a dollar out of every dime spent on the school, and astute politicians who can steer parents, teachers, and students in the same direction year after year. They are also expected to ensure that district curriculum standards are being taught, as well as lead instructional improvement that will translate into test score gains. I cannot forget that principals are caught smack in the middle between their district office bosses and teachers, parents, and students in each of their schools. Being a principal, then, is a tall order. As one New York City high school principal put it: “You’re a teacher, you’re Judge Judy, you’re a mother, you’re a father, you’re a pastor, you’re a therapist, you’re a nurse, you’re a social worker.” She took a breath and continued: “You’re a curriculum planner, you’re a data gatherer, you’re a budget scheduler, you’re a vision spreader.” Yet, at the end of the day, in the fourth decade of a school reform movement that began in the early 1980s, the pressures on principals remain and the lure of rewards for raising test scores and graduation rates, today’s measure of instructional leadership (e.g., promotion to the district office, a superintendency) persist. The research on gains in test scores across multiple years clearly points to the principal as the catalyst for instructional improvement. But being a catalyst does not identify which specific actions influence what teachers do or translate into improvements in teaching and student achievement. Principals set up and sustain a series of structures that help both teachers and students. Researchers have found that what matters most is the school climate in which principals’ actions occur. And that climate is built by the principal. For example, classroom visits, often called “walk-throughs,” are a popular vehicle for principals to observe what teachers are doing. Principals might walk into classrooms with a required checklist designed by the district and check off items, an approach likely to misfire with teachers. Or the principal might have emailed the teacher a short list of expected classroom practices created or adopted in collaboration with teachers in the context of specific school goals for achievement. The former signals the teacher “uh, uh, my principal is gonna evaluate me,” while the latter signals a context characterized by collaboration and trust within which an action by the principal is more likely to be influential than in a context of mistrust and fear. So research does not point to specific sure-fire actions that instructional leaders can take to change teacher behavior and improve student learning. Instead, what’s clear from studies of schools that do improve is that no single act by a principal but a cluster of factors account for improved students’ academic performance. Over the past forty years, then, researchers have listed factors associated with raising a school’s academic profile. They include: teachers’ consistent focus on academic standards and frequent assessment of student learning, a serious school-wide climate toward learning, district support, and parental participation. Recent research also points to the importance of mobilizing teachers and the community to move in the same direction, building trust among all the players, and especially creating working conditions that support teachers working together while expanding their knowledge and skills.


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Stellar Principals

Principals have graced the covers of Time magazine. They have been profiled in books. They have won awards for their schools. Yet “great,” “good,” “effective,” or “stellar” means different things to parents, teachers, the administrators themselves, and students much less district, state, and federal policymakers who make the rules and allocate dollars.

John Caporta, principal of Red Mill Elementary School for 26 years, retired in 2019

For many patrons of a school, a “great” principal is someone who does it all: Helpful to teachers while honoring their autonomy to teach; responsive to parents while buffering teachers from their demands; listening to students’ problems while not intruding on parents’ turf or reversing teachers’ decisions. Finessing all of these contrary demands is, to many observers, a sign of “greatness.”

School boards who hire principals, however, expect “great” principals to be strong instructional leaders who supervise teacher lessons and evaluate their classroom performance, shrewd managers who squeeze a dollar out of every dime spent on the school, and astute politicians who can steer parents, teachers, and students in the same direction year after year.

Now pause and re-read the last two paragraphs. If you were nodding in agreement as you scanned what various stakeholders expect of their principal, you might conclude that the job is impossible.

Yes, contradictory demands and expectations are part of the DNA of the principalship. Those principals who are labeled “great” or “good”—and there are many who have earned that label—come to understand the paradoxes and dilemmas they face and have to manage. The “great” ones figure out what their strengths are, which values they prize, and plow ahead on those things they do best and figure out solutions to problems they have to face whether they like it or not: working with teachers in their classrooms, managing the budget and staff relations, scrounging funds for the school, insuring that district curriculum shows up in daily lessons, raising test scores, turning in reports to the district office, dealing with parents’ complaints—the list of tasks is unending for the principal.

Those who earn the title of “great” such as Deborah Meier and John Youngquist have forged out of conflicting roles and stakeholder demands an identity as an “instructional leader who can turn around a school,” or a “manager with a heart who runs a tight ship,” or some mix of the two. Politicking, unfortunately, remains a dirty word among most educators. And most principals who can mobilize teachers, parents, district administrators, and foundation officials to move in the same direction are allergic to the label of being “great” politically.

Nonetheless, every “great” principal–even the rare super-star–has to parlay a meld of these three roles into a unique blend that carries his or her signature–for at least five or more years. These principals are “good” at their job just as teachers who follow best practices are “good” at their work. But are these “good” principals also “successful” ones? The distinction between “good” and “successful” is as important for principals as it is for teachers (February 28, 2010).

Like with teachers, the past three decades of standards-based testing and accountability policies has put a premium on test scores and, for principals, the role of instructional leadership. The current ideology of schools producing graduates who can enter college and then the labor market fully equipped to work in a knowledge-driven economy has pumped up the role of instructional leadership. In earlier years, concerns for the whole child’s wellbeing, active learning, and project-based lessons competed with more traditional conceptions of teaching and learning. No more. Now it is 24/7 test scores.

District officials inspect school-by-school test scores. In some places, principals receive bonuses for gains in student achievement. In other districts, principals are directed to do frequent walk-throughs of teachers’ classrooms. In short, just as the pressures for higher test scores, graduation rates, and college attendance have squished notions of “good” and “successful” together for teachers, the same as occurred for principals. So a “good” principal is now someone who lifts student achievement to higher levels.

Yet other aspects of a principal’s job remain. The contradictory demands from students, teachers, parents, and district officials continue. Managing daily crises and prosaic duties while politicking different stakeholders continue. Even when “good” and “successful” principaling has been chopped, grated, and mixed together into a recipe for raising test scores, there is no rest for the weary principal on the verge of “greatness” or one simply plodding along to survive.

So the media and grateful patrons of schools will bestow the label of “stellar” upon certain principals. That label, deserved as it may be, nonetheless, is one carved out of the current hothouse context of testing and accountability, blending “good” and “successful” principaling into a Kool-aid concoction that can be drunk but not savored by principals who have to, by the DNA of the job, daily instruct, manage, and be political.

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Chemistry Lesson in Russian Secondary School (Mary Sue Burns)

Mary Sue Burns, a chemistry teacher at Pocohontas school district near Beckley, West Virginia was a Fulbright Teacher for Global Classrooms in 2014. She observed a chemistry lesson at the Michurinsk Lyceum in a city southwest of Moscow. Michurinsk Lyceum is a high school where nearly all of the students went on to university. She wrote about her experiences in her blog

My question was “How is effective STEM (Science. Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education implemented in Russia?”  Answering this question became more complex than I anticipated. I went with a definite preconceived vision of what effective STEM education looks like.

My priorities for my students were, and remain, to promote higher order critical thinking, problem solving skills, collaboration skills, active inquiry, and creativity. I measure their success, and therefore my own, by their college and career readiness. In West Virginia, only a small percentage of my students are subjected to a standardized test specifically in the content of the courses I teach. And even, then, there is minimal personal consequence.  Ironically, I suspect the Russian students would do better on our state tests. However, keep in mind that our state, like most, does not have the budget to adequately test the objectives we value. So, our tests are only one small indicator, limited primarily to recall questions.

For a little perspective, here are some images of my students:

Here are the supporting questions I [was] asked along with some of my observations:

How do societal values impact decisions? Just as in the US, many Russians see a university education as a gateway to a better job and a better life. Thus getting in and getting funding for this is valued. What is different is that the Russian student’s future is dependent on the results of the national exam. Grades, teacher recommendations, community service, special talents, special initiatives, extracurricular dedication……none of this matters. So, they work hard towards passing this one exam in the subject of their interest, say chemistry for example. They may spend after school sessions in private tutoring for exam preparation. The exam must be heavily weighted with detailed factual content. These students could repeat facts, and give lengthy speeches on the properties of elements. My students would not be able to recite this information.

What is the role of experiential learning? I observed a chemistry lab at the a city. A lab assistant (a school employee, not the teacher) set up all the equipment and measured out all the chemicals in advance of the class. At the appropriate moment, the teacher led the students in the steps of the experiment (which was to view the production of carbon dioxide by reaction of calcium carbonate and hydrochloric acid). The students executed the lab in pairs, all pairs adding the reactants, sealing the test-tube with the stopper, and positioning the outtake tubing in limewater, in perfectly choreographed unison. They did not wear goggles. They did not clean up; the lab assistant would do this.

I also observed a robotics activity with younger students. The activity was to build vehicles out of Lego parts using different gear ratios. Each group of students followed a set of directions with a prescribed set of gears. It seemed like kind of a speed contest. Each group consisted of two girls and two boys. For the most part, a boy seemed to take charge of the construction and relegate the rest of the group to searching for parts, even though several girls tried to budge in on the construction. I asked the teacher if she ever had a group of only girls. She did not think that would be a good idea because then they might be at a disadvantage. The students raced the completed vehicles. The teacher explained why one was the best (at least I think that is what happened).

How is student engagement supported? If you have to pass a high stakes exam and your entire future depends on it, then you are engaged!

How are instructional materials utilized? Every classroom was equipped with a teacher computer station and smart board. The teacher presented material and then quizzed students via the smart board. Internet resources were used as well as teacher-made presentations, and text provided presentations. Students used the smart boards, as well, to respond to teachers’ questions and to do their own presentations. The text books were small, but jammed with information. Students were expected to read, at home, and be prepared to repeat information. Sometimes worksheets were also part of the homework. The computer lab was used exclusively for programming classes. Internet activities were not done at school. Students seemed to have internet access at home and they used it there to complete research assignments.

What teaching strategies predominate?

Direct instruction was a predominate strategy. My host teacher, Yaroslava, participated in an exchange program to the US and spent several months observing, collaborating, and teaching in California. While there, she incorporated a variety of strategies into her English teaching repertoire which she now enthusiastically uses with her students. There are four other teachers in her department which she fondly refers to as “my girls”. She is clearly an inspiration to them urging them to try alternative strategies and to present at regional conferences. They are excited about this divergence from straight direct instruction and recognize the benefits for their students’ English proficiency. That being said, they are still bound to that national exam and feel that any time spent on more interesting activities must be quickly and efficiently made up in order to remain on target for that.

Do I have any conclusions? I have described what it looked like to me. As for any conclusions, I am still trying to process my ideas on this. I am left thinking that, if I were a chemistry teacher in Russia, I would probably have to change my ways. I currently tell my students not to memorize things that are easy to look up and that there are often multiple paths to the solution of a problem.  When chemistry students at Michurinsk were doing a problem using a strange step by step prescription that involved way too much work, in my opinion, their teacher explained that they needed to do it that way in order to be successful on the national exam. So, if success on that exam is the goal and the student’s future depends on it………. Well there you have it.

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