Category Archives: philosophy

Now Hiring

When I was in school, I had a GPA of about 2.0. Teachers said in reports that I had neglected to turn in almost all of the work they assigned to me – a missing physics notebook, a missing English report, and in one case, a missing term paper. We’d been working on that term paper for two months, supposedly.

I spent my afternoons with the ultimate frisbee club I started with my friends. I spent my evenings on the computer. Can you picture me on the computer, my notes and books open next to me?  So I could pretend I was doing my homework?

Can you picture my parents getting these teacher reports?

My GPA was 2.0 from 3rd grade to 16th, so you can infer that I know almost nothing. I lose at every trivia game. My wife will pick up crossword puzzles, and I’ll just get out a book or check my blogs.

And yet, in the last 18 months I’ve formed a company with three employees, and single-handedly written a program that handles thousands of users and over 750,000 pieces of assessment data – scores and ratings and comments. All without knowing anything!

Here’s the thing: the technology we’re using to create ActiveGrade was released in 2008. Even if I HAD studied in school… I graduated in 2005.  Knowing things isn’t enough. Maybe, knowing specifics is less important than ever – if I knew more history I might back that up more convincingly.

ActiveGrade is hiring, and what will we put in the developer job description? We can’t require experience – the tools we’re using were invented three years ago, and a tiny fraction of the population knows how to use them. You all know how I feel about tests – I’m not going to hire someone based on a test score when I care about creativity, compassion, and hard work.

I want to hire someone with the things I got out of my childhood INSTEAD of knowledge: curiosity, fun, tinkering skills, trouble-shooting skills, communication skills.

Knowledge is A LOT CHEAPER than it was when we were in school. Casual Obedience is NOT THAT IMPORTANT. I hope that the grades we give out are not based on knowledge and obedience.  I hope we’re not misleading our children to think that obedience is our biggest goal.

“You’re a Novice at Not Being a Jerk:” Non-Academic Standards Part I

This is a cross post from our ActiveGrade blog, which is a mix of ActiveGrade updates and pedagogical discussion.  I try to be sparing in my cross-posting, but I think this is an important piece which fits this blog well too.  I won’t cross-post part two!

“You’re a Novice at Not Being a Jerk:” Non-Academic Standards Part I

by MICHAL on APRIL 6, 2011

My question is – why isn’t a student’s ability to be a decent human being factored in to their graduation requirements?

I used to teach at a Quaker school where community was valued in several intentional, structured ways.  Every day staff and students worked on a crew (chore) to keep the school in order and learn practical skills; we had weekly meetings of the whole school to discuss policies and organize events; we spent time every day in silent reflection; and we went on wilderness trips to experience something greater than ourselves and push our comfort zones.  When I look back, it is these experiences that often feel the most meaningful, the most instructive, the most educational.

In academics, we strove to give students regular feedback to guide them toward being independent learners.  In order for students to graduate, they, of course, had to pass certain classes.  But despite the fact that community engagement was such an important part of our curriculum, we didn’t really have a way to give students feedback on these skills.  A student might not graduate if they failed US History, but if they passed all their classes it didn’t matter how big of a jerk face they were.  They could have skipped every community meeting, been rude to every student and teacher, and generally failed to understand the underlying Quaker values we were tyring to impart and it wouldn’t matter – Diploma.

These experiences led me to the central question of the post – “why isn’t a student’s ability to be a decent human being factored in to their graduation requirements?”  Of course there are some immediate arguments to be made.  First up: “maybe it’s too subjective.”  We have all encountered, or at least heard stories of others encountering, that one teacher who just didn’t seem to like us for whatever reason.  “It would suck,” we might say, “to have that teacher passing judgement on my character.”  And yet, that teacher still passes judgement on how much we understand in the class.  That teacher is already blamed for our low grades in many cases.

Another argument is that students are at school to learn skills, not values.  Home is where students learn values.  My answer to that is that we learn values in our everyday lives both at home and out in the world through the people we meet and with whom we interact.  If school is the place where students learn they are supposed to complete pre-defined tasks in order to graduate but not a place where their ability to engage in fair and meaningful relationships matters, then we are teaching them to value certain things over others – in this case task completion over relationship building.  But let’s look at our own work environments:  how often do you need to be conversant in the Civil War and how often do you need to be able to work civilly with other people; how often to you need to calculate the arc of a basketball and how often do you need to take other people’s opinions into account; How often do you need to identify and analyze a theme in classic literature and how often do you have to be comfortable doing something you don’t want to do?  I’m guessing, no matter what your job, you need the social skills more than the technical skills.

Here’s my concluding question: if we can attach a letter or number to a student’s ability to write well or explain the collapse of Rome, then why can’t we, in the same way, describe their abilities to be nice to other people or add constructive comments to a group discussion?

Please share your thoughts!  I’ll tackle the question of how to monitor these skills next time around.

Please see the comments and leave your own at

Emphasize Learning

Should students be rewarded for being friendly, prepared, compliant, a good school citizen, well organized and hard-working? Or should good grades represent exclusively a student’s mastery of the material?

from The New York Times

The article that quotation comes from is spot on, but in a scary way.  The author, Peg Tyre, nails some of the primary benefits of standards-based grading, like the emphasis of knowledge and skill over classroom participation and direction-following.  She describes the improvement in parent-teacher-student communication after a school in Minnesota switched to SBG.  As you may know, these are benefits I believe in.

But the whole article is framed in the context of alignment with standardized tests.  The idea of standardized testing is not inherently repulsive to me as long as we can find some way to keep the focus of education on learning and away from scores.  To have this great article about knowledge and communication framed in terms of test scores makes me worry that our ActiveGrade software, and even SBG in general, will be turned against us as another method of points-grubbing that is simply more specific about where to grub for points.

It’s up to the teachers and parents and kids to keep the focus on learning.  No grading system can help much.  ActiveGrade and other programs that report SBG grades can help by organizing the grades into topics, and emphasizing those topics over any final grade, but they all must ultimately rely on summaries of learning that can be interpreted as a score.

Here’s how I tried to keep the focus on learning when I was teaching:

  • I made sure the class was interesting to me – if a lesson from last year felt boring, I tried to remake it.  I let my interest show in class with enthusiasm and engagement.  One day a young woman asked me if you could really crush a can with boiling water (like Bill Nye does), and I’d never done it – the next day I brought in the materials so we could try it!  Clearly the can experiment doesn’t give me a pay raise or anything – it’s just interesting to me and I showed my students that I was interested.
  • I tried to model learning for its own sake by letting students see me learn things I had no expertise in.  As the math teacher, they didn’t relate to me when we were learning math – even if it WAS something new to me, I learned it faster and easier than they did because, I don’t know, I know the properties of multiplication about a thousand times better.   I joined soccer practice for a semester, in which several of my math students were at least a thousand times better than me, and I asked them for help on small parts of my technique.  They saw me falling down, getting muddy, going up for a goal and completely missing the (stationary!) ball (it’s funny now, but it felt really bad then), but staying with it and getting better.On a smaller scale, I did this in class by basing scenarios around things that the students knew a lot about (e.g. fashion or video games or music or juggling) but I didn’t, and just taking 30 or 45 seconds to let one of them share their interest.
  • I went out of my way to hold students up as authorities in a subject.  If a student had shared about juggling earlier, and so we were discussing something about it, I referred to him when another student had questions like, “how many times does a club flip over?”  I did a lot of group work, with each group studying something independently, and I would refer the group studying vertex form to the group finding roots if it was appropriate.  Giving students the responsibility of being authoritative in a subject gave them a new kind of reward for learning.

How do you emphasize learning in your classroom?  One thing I never did well was including parents – I met with them once a year, if they requested it, for 10 minutes.  I regret not talking about this stuff more explicitly with them, and also with the students.

I just realized that I’ve started to forget how much there is to keep track of while you’re teaching and planning and grading and reporting – writing about my regrets brings back all the stress of feeling like I’m not doing ANYTHING.  I’m turning this into a run-on post, now, but please remember that you are doing a LOT of work for a LOT of other people.  I hope you’re proud of yourself – you have my admiration, respect, and gratitude!  Sure, SBG is great, and we can all improve at everything, but don’t sweat it: love those kids, first, and show them the beauty all around them!

Active Grading: Comparison

Active grading means:

  1. Emphasizing the learning that grades represent, and trying to avoid holding grades as the final product of education.
  2. Allowing students to react to their grades. Grades are the beginning of a conversation, not the end.
  3. Helping students to understand their grades by organizing them into topics (vanilla SBG).
  4. Actively keeping students informed by assessing their skills often and giving them feedback as soon as possible.

I think a lot of us like the ideas of active grading because we care more about helping our students learn than about

  1. their transcript or
  2. comparing them with each other.

We give feedback as a way of helping students learn.

But we also want to give feedback in the form of numbers.  Numbers have all these great properties that meaningful feedback doesn’t have – you can average numbers but not comments, and you can compare numbers “objectively” but not comments.  It’s faster to read numbers than comments, and I can scan a transcript with a GPA to decide whether to let someone into my college much faster than I can read 30 pages of writing.

So, we condense our knowledge about students’ learning down to numbers (or, more extremely, a single number!).

Once we record a grade as a number, we’ve lost information.  I gave Mike an 85% last year in calculus, but that doesn’t tell you that he just couldn’t get his head around the idea of a differential equation.  You gave Sandeep a 75% because he aced every test but never handed in a piece of homework and skipped every other class.

But now I’m a college, Mike has a 3.5 GPA, Sandeep has a 2.5 GPA.  I can clearly see from these marks that Mike is a better student – by twenty-five percent of the scale.  Maybe Sandeep has some extracurriculars or something, but he’s got some major catching up to do!

When we do this we’re acting like recording grades as numbers adds information to them!  We can’t sort comments  in order of academic achievement (automatically), but it’s no sweat sorting GPAs – even from different teachers in different schools, each with his or her own idea about what the grade levels even mean!  This is inappropriate.  The numbers are not orderable.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot in the last couple of months, as I build ActiveGrade.  How do we use numbers to represent grades where it’s appropriate – to get the power of the best-fit line, or the correlation – without giving those numbers too much power, like the power to rank (which is nonsense with different definitions) or average (a 0% F averaged with a 100% A is: a 50% F.  Talk about effed up!).  I think I’ve hit upon a few great ideas – more on that soon.  What do you do?

Strategies for keeping active SBG cohesive

Does breaking the grade into 10 or 20 different topics help? or does it foster a reductionist attitude toward learning—that everything is discrete and independent of everything else?

Does allowing lots of reassessment help? Or does it focus kids on point chasing?

GSWP left these poignant questions about SBG for us, and today Sam Shah said that so far, the answers for his classes are bad.  To keep the punches coming, Alfie Kohn points us to “When Good Teaching Leads to Bad Results: The Disasters of ‘Well Taught’ Math Classes,” which concludes that “Despite gaining proficiency at certain kinds of procedures, the students gained at best a fragmented sense of the subject matter and understood few if any of the connections that tie together the procedures that they had studied.”

A scary and sad morning for people just starting to use active SBG!

Sam’s last point is that practice of active SBG needs to include some kind of protection against the choppiness that splitting your curriculum into discrete chunks brings.  If we assume that students will see their grades as the final result of our classes (a depressing but realistic assumption), what can we do with our grades to include learning and connections in them?

My Strategies

Here are two strategies I used to hold my courses together and fight tendencies of reductionism.

  1. I worked hard to reward students in ways that didn’t include grades, and heavily rewarded higher-level, holistic thinking.
    • Praise: “Great realization, John – that’s the real root (hah!) of the connection between factors and intercepts here.  This isn’t going to be on a quiz, but it’s one of the most beautiful parts of this stuff.”
    • Recognition: “And this is another case of what Sarah was describing before!”
    • Interest: “Whoa, how did you think of that?” followed by a 90-second conversation.  (Requires students to do something interesting, of course).

    This stuff felt cheesy at first, but I realized that if I only used it when it was really genuine, then, well, it would be really genuine.  Unfortunately, it tends to reward some students more than others, but we also give some kids As and some kids Cs, so I’ll leave that debate out of it.

  2. I reserved my highest grade for students who showed more complete understanding. At my school the highest grade was “honors,” but you could use “A” or “A+” or whatever.  If a student earned 100% on every skill in the whole course, he or she still wouldn’t earn the highest grade without completing a few projects that brought together a larger scale of knowledge.  This is, I admit, very un-SBG.  The effect was that students who just learned each concept individually and minimally could never get an A.  I made that very clear from the beginning, so that students wouldn’t be surprised, and I spaced the projects so that I introduced about one per month, keeping the emphasis on holistic learning throughout the year.I didn’t like requiring more work for the highest grade, but I did really like requiring a different magnitude of understanding.

SBG is no guard against point-chasing, and even active SBG has a lot of loopholes kids can exploit.  And, I mean, of course.  Teaching is freaking hard and teaching 80 kids at a time is even harder.  We’re set up to use grades as a reward by the system, and have to fight to keep them low in importance.  When grades are the reward, how can we really expect learning to be most important to all kids?

Strategy 2 above is the most practical – an administrator could just drop that into your class without caring if you’re a total grump with your kids.  But strategy 1 is really the most important, I think.  You know how I feel about personally connecting to our students already – I think it’s our only tool that actually does elevate learning over grades.  And with that our only tool, every point-chasing kid looks like a nail!

Active SBG

SBG is all about description and specificity, but “SBG” doesn’t describe what I’m talking about when I say “SBG.”  Here’s the problem:

“Standards-based” means “organized into topics,” but we’re doing more than that.  When we talk about letting students improve and show their improvement, we’re not just talking about organizing information.  When we talk about breaking kids of their addiction to points, we’re not talking about adding 20 columns to a gradebook.  When I talk about SBG, I’m talking about a philosophy of empowered students who have control of their education and their grades.

We implement this philosophy by organizing our feedback into helpful topics, making sure that our students can understand our feedback, and allowing students to react to that feedback.  You (not you, of course, but one) can implement SBG without any fundamental changes to your philosophy, and students in an SBGed course may still chase points, so “SBG” is not enough.  I think we need a new term.

“Active SBG” means:

  • In conversation with students, emphasizing the learning that grades represent, and trying to avoid holding grades as the final product of education.
  • Allowing students to react to their grades.  Grades are the beginning of a conversation, not the end.
  • Helping students to understand their grades by organizing them into topics (vanilla SBG).
  • Actively keeping students informed by assessing their skills often and giving them feedback as soon as possible.

After reading this list, can you see why “standards-based” wasn’t cutting it?  Joshg wonders “whether SBG really means anything without a slight philosophical shift,” and countless others blog about the “philosophy” of SBG.  “Active” is a great word to sum up the extensions that SBG needs to really shine – active student involvement, active feedback, reactive grades.

Most importantly, active SBG means that grades are used as one of the catalysts for learning in a class – that even though all that’s going on your report card is a single letter, the 100+ hours of imagination, concentration, and sweat are the real prize.

Letting Go of the Past

I’d like to give my students as many chances to learn as possible.  When they’re interested, I’d like to sit with them forever.  Unfortunately, there are some pretty significant logistical obstacles here.

Let's go over it again.

Almost everyone who disagreed with my automated debater for SBG+ (+remediation, +forgiveness of earlier scores, +timely & empowering reporting) disliked the idea of throwing out old assessment scores.  The most convincing criticism I’ve read is at GSWP (alternate link, scroll to bottom):

SBG aficionados believe in instantaneous noise-free measures of achievement.  If a student takes a long time before they “get it”, but then demonstrate mastery, that’s fine.  This results in the practice of replacing grades for a standard with the most recent one.  I think that is ok, as long as the standard keeps being assessed, but if you stop assessing a standard as soon as students have gotten a good enough score (which seems to be the usual way to handle it), then you have recorded their peak performance, not the best estimate of their current mastery.  Think about the fluctuations in stock prices:  the high for the year is rarely a good estimate of the current price, even if the prices have been generally going up.

The author at GSWP points out that averaging multiple assessment scores together works under the assumption that those different assessments were measuring the same thing, and that students’ skill levels are essentially unchanging.  I think this is why some of us have such a strong reaction against averaging.  We like to think that our students learn and improve so much during our class that the first assessments they take have almost no correlation to what they understand at the end of the class.

So.  Given that we have to choose a final score eventually, how do we do it?

I’ve written up a google doc with some ideas about different grade calculation methods. You can edit it by clicking here, or just read it (and what others have added) below.

*Update: argh, sorry, the “don’t require signin” button isn’t working. You’ll need a google account to edit & view. I guess Google is working on it.

I think my favorite (right now) is the decaying average, but I’ve never tried it on actual data. Please leave your thoughts in the doc (you can create a new table to include a different method altogether) or in the comments!

Virtual Conference: July 3 – July 31

The community of math teachers that read and write blogs is an amazing resource.  We share lesson plans, techniques, philosophies, exams, and project ideas.  I’ve organized a “conference” to focus more specifically on the soft skills we need to be effective teachers.  Not the killer worksheets, or the progressive grading systems, but on the skills of raising children.  This conference is a great opportunity for us to share the way we bring out the shy kids in our classes, handle teasing, build confidence, create opportunities for leadership, and acknowledge the beauty and significance of the blossoming lives for which we are responsible.  I hope you’ll join us by making your own presentation and placing yourself in the schedule below.

The conference has five scheduled “speakers,” who will each be presenting on a Saturday in July.  Here’s the lineup:

July 3: Dan Meyer

July 10: Kate Nowak

July 17: Riley Lark

July 24: Sam Shah

July 31: Shawn Cornally

[Update 6/12 1:00 PM – for clarity: the “speakers” will not be speaking, but writing posts on their blogs under the title “Virtual Conference on Soft Skills.”] 

These speakers are enthusiastic bloggers with five pretty distinct styles and focuses.  We’ll have different takes on what it means to have and use soft skills in our classrooms, we’ll share different specific techniques (successful or not) you can use, and I hope you’ll find them useful.  Pre-register now for zero dollars!

But the real opportunity here is for you to add your own presentation to this lineup.  Write your own article under the title “Virtual Conference on Soft Skills,” and I will link to it from the convention center between the links for the scheduled presenters above.  If you already have a blog and haven’t taken the time to share things like this, this is your chance to get started.  If you do not already have a blog and are interested in starting one, go ahead and start it!  If you don’t want to start a blog, but do have something interesting to share in the conference, write me an email at and I’ll post your article on this blog under your name.  Especially for new bloggers, this conference will be an excellent way to get attention for your writing so you can start getting feedback on your ideas.

Interested, but can’t think of what you might write about?  Here are some ideas.

  • A presenter could write about specific strategies for:
  • Engaging the small group of kids who didn’t buy your first shot at the lesson even though the rest of the class is atwitter
  • Encouraging questioning in class
  • Helping kids with dyslexia, dyscalculia
  • Addressing disrespect when you see it in your classroom
  • Promoting a supportive community in your classroom
  • Making it easier for students to speak up with answers and information
  • Helping kids feel like they “like math” or “are good at math”
  • Helping students manage big assignments or prepare for big tests
  • Giving students a sense of pride in their mathematical accomplishments
  • Acknowledging student contributions without sounding trite
  • Giving students feedback about their social contributions to a class
  • Dealing with a lesson when 29 students get it and are ready to move on but 1 is totally lost
  • Helping students feel ownership of the curriculum, assessment, or some other aspect of the class
  • Handling cheating or plagiarism or other lying
  • Ending teasing and hurtful sarcasm in your classroom
  • Helping kids having a bad day
  • Helping students who are currently failing your class and have given up
  • Managing senioritis
  • Demanding high standards of students without making them feel consistently substandard
  • Figuring out what’s going on with a student who’s always depressed, always tired, always nervous, etc
  • Getting some fun into your classroom
  • Helping your students bond as a group
  • Getting some exercise into your classroom
  • Teaching students how to help others constructively
  • Helping the student who is in Algebra 2 instead of prealgebra, which would be more appropriate
  • Showing kids that you care about them as individuals
  • Recovering from conflicts with students or between students
  • …and so many more skills we need to raise children.


If you have a favorite technique, a favorite lesson, a favorite class norm, a favorite mediation strategy that focuses on something that would fit into the list above, please share it in this conference!  If you would share experiences that didn’t go well, that would be helpful too.

We don’t have a lot of time to develop ourselves as teachers.  Articles with specific suggestions that are easy to deploy will be the most helpful immediately, while articles with general philosophies will be harder to incorporate in our classrooms but can help change the way we look at our roles. 

I hope you’ll contribute and follow along as the conference progresses.  Please email me if you’re thinking about presenting but aren’t sure whether you’re qualified or have anything interesting to say (a common doubt), and I can help you figure it out!

Update 6/12 @ 2 PM: This “Virtual Conference” will not necessarily have any actual speaking at it. It is a conference in that many people will write and confer about soft skills, but it will not be in real time (unless an ambitious blogger wants to arrange that in a smaller way – I will be happy to advertise for you!). Once someone has written a post about soft skills, they will be added to the schedule on the “Convention Center” page. That is what I call “presenting.”

This conference is a lot of people writing about the same subject within the same timeframe, organized in a single index.

In Which Riley Admits To and Eventually Embraces Being Sappy

Our most important job is as a role model for children.  Our students spend a huge percentage of their lives with us and our colleagues – they’re not only learning math, right?  They’re learning how to speak to people, how to treat people, how to hold others responsible and be responsible to others, manners… they are learning everything.  And yet the professional development I go to focuses only on the math, and the tests my kids take focus only on the math, and the grades I give are only on the math, and it is so easy to forget that there is so much more going on here and that it is so much more important than the math.

Other people are doing better work than me in their treatment of SBG, math curriculum, interactive, thought-provoking lessons, etc, and I’m so glad of that.  My skills in these areas have soared enormously this year from reading your great blogs (see list on the sidebar).  Thank you!

What I don’t see as much of is the explicit focus on how to help our students become better people.  Even on my blog, where every other post seems to be about how to empower students constructively, I often steer away from the topic, and you (on statistical average) don’t read as much when I do write it!  Here’s why: it’s intractable, it’s easy to be wrong, we have other stuff to do, and we’re not explicitly held accountable for our social curriculum.  But it’s the point.  Teaching our students about community and society is the whole point!

I was prodded in to seeing this imbalance in emphasis just last week, actually, when I was thinking about how to make my blog more popular (#okIadmitit).  I have to tell you that when I noticed nobody (small exaggeration) reads my homey-values posts and that everyone (big exaggeration) reads my technical posts I was disheartened.  I thought no one was interested in the really important part of school!

Then I realized all the reasons that these core values are so much harder to handle than concrete techniques.  And then! @samjshah, @jybuell, @monk51295, and @mctownsley wrote and said that they thought these are important ideas!  I am surprised by how affected I was by these tweets – a mixture of “They really do like me!” and “oh, of course people care about the really important part of school!  We’re all so bogged down that we just don’t have a lot of time to focus on it!”

After all, we all focus on community, responsibility, and respect in some way.  None of us lets students swear and insult each other, or flip their desks upside down, or paint on the walls.  We all teach kids how to be members of society automatically, by being good members of society ourselves.  When we write a good lesson plan, more often than not it is good because it empowers students and helps them interact in a good way.  I just want to focus on social skills and norms specifically. I want to improve in this dimension the same way I’ve been improving in assessment and feedback, lesson plans, and classroom management!  Do I just miss these sessions at NCTM, or is there a whole strand about “Personal Responsibility and Other Social Skills in the Classroom?”

With this new realization I feel more free to spend a large part of my writing time on the social values of teaching.  I’ve organized a page about it:  Don’t get me wrong: I’m still a huge dork and will be posting geogebra applets, and I’m still passionate about math curriculum and will be posting lesson plans.  As we move in to summer I will be writing more sparsely, and more specifically about camp (as education).  But I will no longer feel that no one wants to hear about my hippier (certainly not hipper) side.

Thanks for reading, you guys.  This blog is living up to its name for me.

PS: You know what profession has great professional development opportunities?  The camp director profession.  I run a summer camp (still accepting campers 9-13!) and so I get to go to conferences that focus on these important skills instead of the random skills like factoring that we deem vital for our future mathematicians (or whatever).  Like a quarter of the sessions are fun games you can teach to kids to build skill xyz.  You should go to an ACA conference even if you have never been to summer camp.

How to Teach Curiosity

There are ways that I have found to boost and encourage curiosity in my classroom.  Some of my techniques you can try tomorrow; others rely on a basic classroom culture that takes a long time and careful planning to build.  I’ll touch on the easy ones first.

Easy Ways to Teach Curiosity


When you see it, name it.  The label is more important than praise.  Here’s some psychology for you that I learned from an actual psychologist: people adopt the labels that they hear applied to themselves.  As a person of authority, if you say to someone, “nice question!  More evidence that you’re a curious person!” (or whatever version of this feels natural to you), he will actually start to actively think of himself as curious.  If two persons of authority give him that label he will almost certainly assimilate the label into his self image.

It was hard for me to believe in the power of this technique at first.  How could such a small thing change the basic nature of another human?  An alternative example helped me believe: what if you called a student “stupid” or “bad at math” once a week or once a month?  Such a student would start to think of himself as stupid and bad at math.  For some reason that’s easier to believe in than positive labels, but why should it be?  I’ve been intentionally using specific, positive labels for about a year (and I mean I throw them out all the time) and the results are tangible.

It’s mind control and it’s manipulative, but… whatever.  I say go for it. Please only do it if it’s true.  Uncle Ben, right?  Please do not tell a student who asked a boring question that he is curious – you’ll water down your power and give the kid delusions about himself.  And specificity reigns here: please say “this shows that you’re curious because you asked about xyz even though it’s not obviously related,” not “that question shows curiosity” and certainly not “that was a curious question!” 😉  Try not to say “great question” without saying why it was a great question.  Evidence that makes your claim believable is vital to the success of this technique, but it doesn’t have to be a lot of evidence.

Games and Secrets

Make your review into a treasure hunt that takes you around the building or the room.  Tell a story without telling the ending.  Make a show of explaining a theorem or puzzle quietly to one student or a group of students and then audibly say “don’t tell anyone else.”  This is more incitement of curiosity than teaching of curiosity, but it can complement your other techniques well.

Harder Ways to Teach Curiosity


This is also psychology: people do what they see other people doing.  If you can spare a few minutes of your lesson to be interested in a tangential question in a way that includes the students, you can show that curiosity is a norm in your class.  This is hard because not every class period offers up an interesting side-note, and even if it does, you have to be careful not to interfere with your plan so much that learning is affected too much.  Before and after class are a good time to try to be interested in what your students are up to and what they’re learning that interests them.  Even your most bored student has something that they’re learning at the moment (bike tricks, knitting, texting, a videogame).  Hopefully it’s not something totally passive.

Finding Interesting Problems

I’m sorry for even including this.  It’s really hard.  Check out Dan Meyer’s WCYDWT, Shawn Cornally’s “How I Teach Calculus: a Comedy,” Kate Nowak’s and Sam Shah’s whole blogs, etc.

Make Students Responsible for Their Own Learning

Shawn Cornally writes, “I then have them construct a grant out of their group’s best/most interest­ing question.”  Students who are responsible for choosing an idea based on how interesting it is must evaluate how interesting ideas are.  This is the beginning of curiosity.  Students who are responsible for writing about an interesting idea in an interesting way must become interested in the idea and find ways to study it.  This is full-fledged curiosity in a way that “Complete items 1-4” will never teach.  I achieve this effect in my classes by involving students in their own assessment, which is a little bit easier than involving them so deeply in the curriculum itself (but also less effective, I’m sure).  However you do it, increasing responsibility will also teach independence and curiosity.

I mean, what is curiosity besides a feeling of confident independence?