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Early Warning Signs of Fascism

A local media outlet recently wrote

“Why the constant, often blatant lying? For one thing, it functioned as a means of fully dominating subordinates, who would have to cast aside all their integrity to repeat outrageous falsehoods and would then be bound to the leader by shame and complicity. “The great analysts of truth and language in politics” — writes McGill University political philosophy professor Jacob T. Levy — including “George Orwell, Hannah Arendt, Vaclav Havel — can help us recognize this kind of lie for what it is…. Saying something obviously untrue, and making your subordinates repeat it with a straight face in their own voice, is a particularly startling display of power over them. It’s something that was endemic to totalitarianism.”

How often does this happen in our classrooms?  How often do we require students to memorize and repeat things they actually think are nonsense?  

  • “Heavy things fall at the same speed as light things.” (Sure, whatever.)
  • “An object in motion will stay in motion forever unless something stops it.” (That’s ridiculous.  Everyone knows that everything stops eventually.  Even planets’ orbits degrade.).
  • When you burn propane, water comes out. (Pul-lease.)
  • The answer to “in January of the year 2000, I was one more than eleven times as old as my son William while in January of 2009, I was seven more than three times as old as him” is somehow not, “why do you not know the age of your own kid?

Real conversation I had with a class a few years ago:

Me: what do you think so far about how weight affects the speed that things fall?

Students (intoning): “Everything falls at the same speed.”

Me: So, do you think that’s weird?

Students: No.

Me: But, this book… I can feel the heaviness in my hand.  And this pencil, I can barely feel it at all.  It feels like the book is pulling harder downward on my hand than the pencil is.  Why wouldn’t that affect the speed of the fall?”

Student: “It’s not actually pulling harder.  It just feels that way, but that’s weight, not mass.”

Me: (weeps quietly)

Please don’t lecture me about the physics.  I’m aware.  Please also don’t lecture me about the terrible fake-Socratic-teaching I’m doing in that example dialogue.  I’m aware of that too.  I’m just saying that students often perceive these to contradict their lived experience, and research shows that outside of classrooms, even those who said the right things on the test usually go right back to thinking what they thought before.

And no, I’m not comparing the role of teachers to the role of Presidents or Prime Ministers.  I do realize they’re different.

Should I Conclude Any of These Things?

  1. Students’ ability to fail to retain or synthesize things that don’t make sense to them is actually a healthful and critically needed form of resistance.
  2. When teachers complain about students and “just memorizing what they need for the test and forgetting it after, without trying to really digest the material,” what we are complaining about is their fascism-prevention mechanism
  3. Teachers have the opportunity to be the “warm up,” the “opening act” — the small-scale practice ground where young minds practice repeating things they don’t believe, thinking they can safely forget them later.
  4. Teachers have the opportunity to be the “innoculation” — the small-scale practice ground where young minds can practice “honoring their dissatisfaction” in a way that, if they get confident with it, might have a chance at saving their integrity, their souls, and their democracy.

Extension Problem

Applying this train of thought to the conventional ways of doing corporate diversity training is left as an exercise for the reader.


SBG superhero

I stole this graphic from Kelly O’Shea. If you haven’t already, click through and read her whole blog.

By last winter, the second year students were pretty frustrated.  They were angry enough about the workload to go to my department head about it.  The main bone of contention seemed to be that they had to demonstrate proficiency in things in order to pass (by reassessing until their skills met the criteria), unlike in some other classes where actual proficiency was only required if you cared about getting an A.  Another frequently used argument was, “you can get the same diploma for less work at [other campus.]” Finally, they were angry that my courses were making it difficult for them to get the word “honours” printed on their diploma.  *sigh*

It was hard for me to accept, especially since I know how much that proficiency benefits them when competing for and keeping their first job.  But, it meant I wasn’t doing the Standards-Based Grading sales pitch well enough.

Anyway, no amount of evidence-based teaching methods will work if the students are mutinous.  So this year, I was looking for ways to reduce the workload, to reduce the perception that the workload is unreasonable, and to re-establish trust and respect.  Here’s what I’ve got so far.

1. When applying for reassessment, students now only have to submit one example of something they did to improve, instead of two.  This may mean doing one question from the back of the book.  I suspect this will result in more students failing their reassessments, but that in itself may open a conversation

2. I’ve added a spot on the quiz where students can tell me whether they are submitting it for evaluation, or just for practise.  If they submit it for practise, they don’t have to submit a practise problem with their reassessment application, since the quiz itself is their practise problem.  They could always do this before, but they weren’t using it as an option and just pressuring themselves to get everything right the first time.   Writing it on the quiz seems to make it more official, and means they have a visible reminder each and every time they write a quiz.  Maybe if it’s more top-of-mind, they’ll use it more often.

3. In the past, I’ve jokingly offered “timbit points” for every time someone sees the logic in a line of thinking they don’t share.  At the end of the semester, I always bring a box of timbits in to share on the last day.  In general, I’m against bribery, superficial gamification (what’s more gamified than schooling and grades??), and extrinsic motivation, but I was bending my own rules as a way to bring some levity to the class.  But I realized I was doing it wrong.  My students don’t care about timbits; they care about points.  My usual reaction to this is tight-lipped exasperation.  But my perspective was transformed when Michael Doyle suggested a better response: deflate the currency.

So now, when someone gives a well-thought-out “wrong” answer, or sees something good in an answer they disagree with, they get “critical thinking points“.  At the end of the semester, I promised to divide them by the number of students and add them straight onto everyone’s grade, assuming they completed the requirements to pass.  I’m giving these things out by the handful.  I hope everybody gets 100.  Maybe the students will start to realize how ridiculous the whole thing is; maybe they won’t.  They and I still have a record of which skills they’ve mastered;  and it’s still impossible to pass if they’re not safe or not employable. Since their grades are utterly immaterial to absolutely anything, it just doesn’t matter.  And it makes all of us feel better.

In the meantime, the effect in class has been borderline magical.  They are falling over themselves exposing their mistakes and the logic behind them, and then thanking and congratulating each other for doing it — since it’s a collective fund, every contribution benefits everybody.  I’m loving it.

4. I’ve also been sticking much more rigidly to the scheduling of when we are in the classroom and when we are in the shop.  In the past, I’ve scheduled them flexibly so that we can take advantage of whatever emerges from student work.  If we needed classroom time, we’d take it, and vice versa.  But in a context where people are already feeling overwhelmed and anxious, one more source of uncertainty is not a gift.  The new system means we are sometimes in the shop at times when they’re not ready.  I’m dealing with this by cautiously re-introducing screencasts — but with a much stronger grip on reading comprehension comprehension techniques.  I’m also making the screencast information available as a PDF document and a print document.  On top of that, I’m adopting Andy Rundquist’s “back flip” techniquescreencasts are created after class in order to answer lingering questions submitted by students.  I hope that those combined ideas will address the shortcomings that I think are inherent in the “flipped classroom.”  That one warrants a separate post — coming soon.

The feedback from the students is extremely positive.  It’s early yet to know how these interventions affect learning, but so far the students just seem pleased that I’m willing to hear and respond to their concerns, and to try something different.  I’m seeing a lot of hope and goodwill, which in themselves are likely to make learning (not to mention teaching) a bit easier.  To be continued.

XKCD Comic: The erratic feedback from a randomly-varying wireless signal can make you crazy.I’m thinking about how to make assessments even lower stakes, especially quizzes.  Currently, any quiz can be re-attempted at any point in the semester, with no penalty in marks.  For a student who’s doing it for the second time, I require them to correct their quiz (if it was a quiz) and complete two practise problems, in order to apply for reassessment. (FYI, it can also be submitted in any alternate format that demonstrates mastery, in lieu of a quiz, but students rarely choose that option).

The upside of requiring practise problems is eliminating the brute-force approach where students just keep randomly trying quizzes thinking they will eventually show mastery (this doesn’t work, but it wastes a lot of time).  It also introduces some self-assessment into the process.  We practise how to write good-quality feedback, including trying to figure out what caused them to make the mistake.

The downside is that the workload in our program is really unreasonable (dear employers of electronics technicians, if you are reading this, most  hard-working beginners cannot go from zero to meeting your standards in two years.  Please contact me to discuss).  So, students are really upset about having to do two practise problems.  I try to sell it as “customized homework” — since I no longer assign homework practise problems, they are effectively exempting themselves from any part of the “homework” in areas where they have already demonstrated proficiency.  The students don’t buy it though.  They put huge pressure on themselves to get things right the first time, so they won’t have to do any practise.  That, of course, sours our classroom culture and makes it harder for them to think well.

I’m considering a couple of options.  One is, when they write a quiz, to ask them whether they are submitting it to be evaluated or just for feedback.  Again, it promotes self-assessment: am I ready?  Am I confident?  Is this what mastery looks and feels like?

If they’re submitting for feedback, I won’t enter it into the gradebook, and they don’t have to submit practise problems when they try it next (but if they didn’t succeed that time, it would be back to practising).

Another option is simply to chuck the practise problem requirement.  I could ask for a corrected quiz and good quality diagnostic feedback (written by themselves to themselves) instead.  It would be a shame, the practise really does benefit them, but I’m wondering if it’s worth it.

All suggestions welcome!

I’ve done a better job of launching our inquiry into electricity than I did last year.  The key was talking about atoms (which leads to thoughts of electrons), not electricity (which leads to thoughts of how to give someone else an electric shock from an electric fence, lightning, and stories students have heard about death by electrocution).

The task was simple: “Go learn something about electrons, about atoms, and about electrical charge.  For each topic, use at least one quote from the textbook, one online source, and one of your choice.  Record them on our standard evidence sheets — you’ll need 9 in total.  You have two hours.  Go.”

I’ve used the results of that 2-hour period to generate all kinds of activities, including

  • group discussions
  • whiteboarding sessions
  • skills for note-taking
  • what to do when your evidence conflicts
  • how to decide whether to accept a new idea

We practiced all the basic critical thinking skills I hope to use throughout the semester:

  • summarizing
  • asking questions about something even before you fully understand it
  • identifying cause and effect
  • getting used to saying “I don’t know”
  • connecting in-school-knowledge to outside-school experiences
  • distinguishing one’s own ideas from a teacher’s or an author’s

I’m really excited about the things the students have gotten curious about so far.

“When an electron jumps from one atom to the next, why does that cause an electric current instead of a chemical reaction?”

“When an electron becomes a free electron, where does it go?  Does it always attach to another atom?  Does it hang out in space?  Can it just stay free forever?”

“What makes electrons negative?  Could we change them to positive?”

“Are protons the same in iron as they are in oxygen?  How is it possible that protons, if they are all the same, just by having more or fewer of them, make the difference between iron and oxygen?”

“If we run out of an element, say lithium, is there a way to make more?”

“Why does the light come on right away if it takes so long for electrons to move down the wire?”

“What’s happening when you turn off the lights?  Where do the electrons go?  Why do they stop moving?”

“What’s happening when you turn on the light?  Something has to happen to push that electron.  Is there a new electron in the system?”

“With protons repelling each other and being attracted to electrons, what keeps the nucleus from falling apart?”

“What happens if you somehow hold protons and electrons apart?”

“Would there be no gravity in that empty space in the atom?  I like how physics are the same when comparing a tiny atom and a giant universe.”

Here are the resources I’ll be using for the Peer Assessment Workshop.

Participant Handout

Participants will work through this handout during the workshop.  Includes two practice exercises: one for peer assessment of a hands-on task, and one for peer assessment of something students have written.  Click through to see the buttons to download or zoom.


Feel free to download the Word version if you like.

Workshop Evaluation

This is the evaluation form participants will complete at the end of the workshop.   I really like this style of evaluation; instead of asking participants to rank on a scale of 1-5 how much they “liked” something, it asks whether it’s useful in their work, and whether they knew it already.   This gives me a lot more data about what to include/exclude next time.  The whole layout is cribbed wholesale, with permission, from Will At Work Learning.  He gives a thorough explanation of the decisions behind the design; he calls it a “smile sheet”, because it’s an assessment that “shows its teeth.”

Click through to see the buttons to download or zoom.


Feel free to download the Word version if you like.

Other Stuff

In case they might be useful, here are my detailed presentation notes.

On Exploring RC Circuits and trying to figure out why the capacitor charges faster than it discharges

Student 1: “Is the charge time always the same as the discharge time?”

Me: “According to this model, it is, if the resistance and capacitance haven’t changed.”

Student 2: “I’ve got data where the charge time was short and the discharge time was long.”

Me: “Why would a reasonable teacher say something that contradicts your data?”

Student 3, excitedly: “What circuit was it?  Was there anything else in the circuit?”

Student 1: “I can’t remember what it was called — it had a resistor, a capacitor, and a diode.”

Student 2: “That’s it then!  The diode — it’s changing its resistance!”

Student 1: “Yes — it goes from acting like a short to acting like an open.  Thanks for bringing that up [Classmate’s Name] — I just answered a HUGE question from that lab!”

Student services counsellor who sat in for a day

“You’re challenging my whole idea about science.”

While exploring why capacitors act like more and more resistance as they charge

“Maybe the negative side of the cap is filling up with electrons, which means less capacitance.  According to the ‘tau model’, charge time = 5 * R * C.  So if the charge time never changes, and the capacitance is going down, then the resistance must be going up.”

[I’m excited about this because, although it shows a misunderstanding of the definition of capacitance, the student is tying together a lot of new ideas.  They are also using proportional reasoning and making sense of the story behind a formula. I need a better way to help students feel proud of things like this…]

Student critique of a Wikipedia page

“There’s some great begging the question, right there!”

Student analyzing the mistake in their thinking about a resistor-diode circuit

“I didn’t think of current not flowing at all during the negative alternation of the source.  This would mean that the direction of current through the resistor does not technically change.  I thought that if current was flowing through the resistor, it would change direction even if there is a very small amount of current flowing.  I did do a good job about thinking of the electrons already in the wires.”

One student’s feedback on another student’s paper

“I understand fully what you are trying to explain!”

On figuring out why a diode works

“If you make the connection to a wire, it’s like how copper atoms…”

“If it wasn’t doped, wouldn’t current flow in both directions?”

Students discussing a shake-to-charge flashlight they are designing

“In our rechargeable flashlight, if you put the switch in parallel with the diode, when it’s closed it will just short it out…”

Student who gave a recruiting presentation at a high school

“The day was a great step up for me that I never ever thought possible.  To be able to go back to the high school where I am pretty sure most had given up hope on me and see and hear them tell me how proud they are of me for where I am today is a feeling I will never forget.”

On network analysis

“At first I didn’t understand why we had to learn these complicated methods when we could just do it the simple way you showed us last semester.  But when you get to these complicated circuits, it makes it so much easier.  I do math every night now, even if I don’t have any for homework, because you have to exercise all the time or you lose it.”

On graphical waveform addition

“I got off to a bad start with this, I had the wrong answers for everything, and I really didn’t know how to do it.  I won’t lie.  But now after taking all these measurements, I’m starting to understand.  And I did really bad on that first quiz — I didn’t even know what DC offset was. But I made up some practice problems that are a little bit different from the quiz, and I can do them now.”

On AC voltage, sinusoidal signals, and what the time domain really means

“I just realized that the word ‘electronics’ has the word ‘electron’ in it. ” (x2) (After a conversation about how a sinusoidal signal represents a voltage or current that changes over time)

“Is this why we need DC voltage for electronics — so it doesn’t turn off all the time?”

“In an AC circuit, how to the electrons get their energy back after they’ve lost it?” (I love the insight in this question — the synthesis of ideas, the demand for a coherent cause)

While presenting some routine lab measurements

“How does an electron know how much voltage to drop in each component?” (7 months later, students are suddenly gobsmacked by the totally weird implications of Kirchoff’s Voltage Law)

During a one-on-one discussion of the group’s interpersonal dynamics

“I find no one in this program is looking for someone to give them the answers.  We might text all night long about homework but it’s never ‘Can you send me X,’ it’s always ‘How can I figure out X?’ “

While whiteboarding some AC circuit data

“I don’t like saying that KVL applies to instantaneous voltages, because it applies everywhere.”

“But if you say instantaneous, it applies in a general sense. Have you ever seen an AC circuit where the component voltages didn’t add up to the supply?”

Another whiteboarding session

“Make sure you’re talking about electrons, otherwise it’s not a cause!”

“And that’s supported by the model, because…”

While designing an experiment

“Do you have a 1uF capacitor?” “No, I guess we can use 100uF and scale it…”  (Students making big gains in proportional reasoning)

After discussing how a capacitor’s voltage approaches an asymptote

“I never noticed before how much math relates to life — like the idea that sometimes the closer you get to something, the harder it is to get there.  I guess it’s not surprising — because math comes from life.  Math is everything.”

I wrote recently about creating a rubric to help students analyze their mistakes.  Here are some examples of what students wrote — a big improvement over “I get it now” and “It was just a stupid mistake.”

The challenge now will be helping them get in the habit of doing this consistently.  I’m thinking of requiring this on reassessment applications.  The downside would be a lot more applications being returned for a second draft, since most students don’t seem able to do this kind of analysis in a single draft.

Understand What’s Strong

  • “I thought it was a parallel circuit, and my answer would have been right if that was true.”

  • “I got this question wrong but I used the idea from the model that more resistance causes less current and less current causes less power to be dissipated by the light bulbs.”

  • “The process of elimination was a good choice to eliminate circuits that didn’t work.”

  • “A good thing about my answer is that I was thinking if the circuit was in series, the current would be the same throughout the circuit.”


Diagnose What’s Wrong

  • “The line between two components makes this circuit look like a parallel circuit.”

  • “What I don’t know is, why don’t electrons take the shorter way to the most positive side of the circuit?”

  • “I made the mistake that removing parallel branches would increase the remaining branches’ voltage.”

  • “What I didn’t realize was that in circuit 2, C is the only element in the circuit so the voltage across the light bulb will be the battery voltage, just like light bulb A.”

  • “I looked at the current in the circuit as if the resistor would decrease the current from that point on.”

  • “I think I was thinking of the A bulb as being able to move along the wire and then it would be in parallel too.”

  • “What I missed was that this circuit is a series-parallel with the B bulb in parallel with a wire, effectively shorting it out.”

  • “What I did not realize at first about Circuit C was that it was a complete circuit because the base of the light bulb is in fact metal.”

  • “I thought there would need to be a wire from the centre of the bulb to be a complete circuit.”

  • “I wasn’t recognizing that in Branch 2, each electron only goes through one resistor or the other.  In Branch 1, electrons must flow through each resistor.”

  • “I was comparing the resistance of the wire and not realizing the amount of distance electrons flowed doesn’t matter because wire has such low resistance either way.”

  • “My problem was I wasn’t seeing myself as the electrons passing through the circuit from negative to positive.”



  • “In this circuit, lightbulb B is shorted so now all the voltage is across light bulb A.”

  • “When there is an increase in resistance, and as long as the voltage stays constant, the current flowing through the entire circuit decreases.”

  • “After looking into the answer, I can see that the electrons can make their way from the bottom of the battery to the middle of the bulb, then through the filament, and back to the battery, because of metal conducting electrons.”

  • “To improve my answer, I could explain why they are in parallel, and also why the other circuits are not parallel.”

  • “I can generalize this by saying in series circuits, the current will stay the same, but in parallel circuits, the current may differ.”

  • “From our model, less resistance causes more current to flow.  This is a general idea that will work for all circuits.”

I expect students to correct their quizzes and “write feedback to themselves” when they apply for reassessment.  The content that I get varies widely, and most of it is not very helpful, along the lines of

I used the wrong formula

I forgot that V = IR

It was a stupid mistake, I get it now.

I was inspired by Joss Ives’ post on quiz reflection assignments to get specific about what I was looking for.  This all stems from a conversation I had with Kelly O’Shea about two years ago, back when I had launched myself into standards-based/project/flipped/inquiry/Socratic/mindset/critical thinking/whatnot all at once and unprepared, that has been poking its sharp edges into my brain ever since:

Me: Sometimes I press them to be specific about what they learned or which careless mistake they need to guard against in the future. It’s clear that many find this humiliating, some kind of ingenious psychological punishment for having made a mistake. Admitting that they learned something means admitting they didn’t know it all along, and that embarrasses them. Does that mean they’re ashamed of learning?

Kelly: How often do you think they’ve practiced the skill of consciously figuring out what caused them to make a mistake? How often do we just say, “That’s okay, you’ll get it next time.” instead of helping them pick out what went wrong? My guess is that they might not even know how to do it.

Me: *stunned silence*

So this year I developed this.

Phases of Feedback

  1. Understand what you did well
  2. Diagnose why you had trouble
  3. Improve

Steps 1 and 3 can be used even for answers that were accepted as “correct.”

This has yielded lots of interesting insight, as well as some interesting pushback. Plus, it gave me an opportunity to help my students understand what exactly “generalize” mean.  In a future post I’ll try to gather up some examples. Overall, it’s helped me communicate what I expect, and has helped students develop more insight into their thinking as well as the physics involved.

My standard (informal) course feedback form asks,

  1. What do you like or dislike about the grading system?
  2. How does the grading system affect your learning?
  3. What do you love about this course?
  4. What do you hate about this course?
  5. What would you change about this course?

The 2nd-year courses are less science and more engineering, so my approach is less inquiry and more project-based.  In particular, in the course they’re evaluating, there’s an independent project where students must define their project, set their own deadlines, set their own evaluation scheme, then grade themselves.  It’s worth a quarter of their grade.  I reserve the right to veto a mark, but I’ve never done it.  Here’s a sample of the feedback I got from 2nd year students last week.

1. Grading system

  • Love reassessment (2)
  • Feel dependent on ActiveGrade
  • Need quicker way of knowing when a test is corrected
  • Love the independent project
  • Make reassessment deadline start when grade is updated?
  • Ability to do skills on your own time.  But they can also pile up.
  • Clearly shows what you need to know
  • Retests help a lot with understanding because you know what you need to improve on
  • Showing improvement helps solidify thoughts

2. Effects of Grading System

  • Reassessing forces you to gain understanding instead of “I failed that let’s move on”
  • I can thoroughly explain certain circuits from my head, I could not do that before.
  • Helpful — I can choose to not finish a lab if I do not understand it fully, then ask questions and come back to it
  • I knew nothing about electronics before this course but skill based learning has really helped me understand many topics

3. Love

  • Reassessing forces you to gain understanding instead of “I failed that let’s move on”
  • Lab work — hands on feel
  • Making things work and understanding what they do
  • Freedom
  • Retests, doing something more than once makes remembering it easier.

4. Hate

  • Lack of info on notch filter (2)
  • Lack of time
  • Nothing

5. Change

  • Hands on – when you don’t quite understand something, lab work refines understanding
  • It’s a pretty refined, good system.  Once you know something, it sticks with you.
  • More time to learn.  3 years?
  • Reassessment deadlines