Category Archives: Social Studies

Alfie Kohn at WCC – Spectacular

Copyright retrieved from
Copyright retrieved from

I had the pleasure of attending a talk by Alfie Kohn at Whatcom Community College this evening. I was pleased to see fellow MIT students and professors at WWU in attendance. After several digressions Mr. Kohn really got going.

Schools are instruments that sustain democracy and we need to address the public purpose of schools. Mr. Kohn underscored many of his points by asking all citizens to ask the radical questions. My quotes are paraphrased as I was trying my best to actively listen and take notes. “Do not smother a child’s intrinsic desire to learn!” His approach is based on the idea of constructivism and it is appealing. I hear these ideas echoing in the classes I attend and am thrilled to have been exposed to these concepts, ideas, and approaches in the MIT program at Western.

  • Democratic Classrooms – involve the students with the development of the class; what do you want to learn, how can we be a community of learning and not one of competition?
  • Transfer of knowledge – the core of backwards design and essential questions
  • Allow children to develop and discover ideas – the constructivist approach
  • Frame skills and facts in a context, this will increase the depth of understanding
  • Learn for a purpose -> connect with horizontal relevance- past questions and current events relate to the learning and understanding
  • Make the classroom one about thinking; not listening

A great challenge he posed to teachers designing units for the classroom is to ask, “What will the students take away from this ten years from now?”

During his talk he referenced the following chart, it is eye opening when entering a classroom to consider the factors below and their implications. The chart originally appeared in Educational Leadership, September 1996.



FURNITURE Chairs around tables to facilitate interaction

Comfortable areas for learning, including multiple “activity centers”

Open space for gathering

Chairs all facing forward or (even worse) desks in rows
ON THE WALLS Covered with students’ projects

Evidence of student collaboration

Signs, exhibits, or lists obviously created by students rather than by the teacher

Information about, and personal mementos of, the people who spend time together in this classroom


Commercial posters

Students’ assignments displayed, but they are (a) suspiciously flawless, (b) only from “the best” students, or (c) virtually all alike

List of rules created by an adult and/or list of punitive consequences for misbehavior

Sticker (or star) chart — or other evidence that students are rewarded or ranked

STUDENTS’ FACES Eager, engaged Blank, bored
SOUNDS Frequent hum of activity and ideas being exchanged Frequent periods of silence

The teacher’s voice is the loudest or most often heard

LOCATION OF TEACHER Typically working with students so it takes a few seconds to find her Typically front and center
TEACHER’S VOICE Respectful, genuine, warm Controlling and imperious

Condescending and saccharine-sweet

STUDENTS’ REACTION TO VISITOR Welcoming; eager to explain or demonstrate what they’re doing or to use visitor as a resource Either unresponsive or hoping to be distracted from what they’re doing
CLASS DISCUSSION Students often address one another directly

Emphasis on thoughtful exploration of complicated issues

Students ask questions at least as often as the teacher does

All exchanges involve (or are directed by) the teacher; students wait to be called on

Emphasis on facts and right answers

Students race to be first to answer teacher’s “Who can tell me…?” queries

STUFF Room overflowing with good books, art supplies, animals and plants, science apparatus; “sense of purposeful clutter” Textbooks, worksheets, and other packaged instructional materials predominate; sense of enforced orderliness
TASKS Different activities often take place simultaneously

Activities frequently completed by pairs or groups of students

All students usually doing the same thing

When students aren’t listening to the teacher, they’re working alone

AROUND THE SCHOOL Appealing atmosphere: a place where people would want to spend time

Students’ projects fill the hallways

Library well-stocked and comfortable

Bathrooms in good condition

Faculty lounge warm and inviting

Office staff welcoming toward visitors and students

Students helping in lunchroom, library, and with other school functions

Stark, institutional feel

Awards, trophies, and prizes displayed, suggesting an emphasis on triumph rather than community

Copyright © 1996, 1999 by Alfie Kohn.

His discussion leads me to further question approaches in the teaching of technology and how to do it in a constructivist method. It was refreshing to hear a teacher who truly gets it.

Technology Skills for Life and Academia

Citation: O’Brien, Joseph. (2008).Technology: An Integral Part of Students’ Learning and Lives. Social Education, (72, 7), 383-385.

Summary: The National Council for the Social Studies recently partnered with the Partnership 21st Century Skills (p21). Explaining the progress so made so far O’Brien highlights the key points of the framework. Designed for K-16 he highlights the range of technology, relation between outcome and student example, and emphasis on civic action.

Response: This is exciting! The NCSS pushing technology for use in curriculum. The framework can actually be used. The range of technology that Mr. O’Brien highlights in the article is a continuum of available technology to utilize in case students do not have the suggested technology. Outcome & Student Examples have been used in the field. It is not a theoretical lesson but instead something that has been tried and works. As a social studies teacher it is important to me that students be able to use all of the information at their disposal to make the best case possible. Civic action which is highlighted in the framework can be made more effective if technology can be leveraged. I believe the continued development of this framework will lead to a greater integration of useful technology and techniques within the teaching of the social studies discipline.