How to make a hurricane boring

Suddenly it's hurricane season in Connecticut. Some local schools have already cancelled the first day of school next Monday.

Natural disasters create a lot of interest among the general public about the Earth's processes. In theory, these could be powerful educational hooks to spur learning in the classroom on weather, climate, or oceanography.

Michael Doyle, reflecting on the surprisingly strong "East Coast Earthquake of 20111" thinks it may have been better that summer break was still on when the earthquake hit:

"I am glad today was not a school day in New Jersey.

Those of us sitting on the state's udder, the tip of Cape May county, got a nice ride for less than we'd pay at Morley's, and countless afternoon chats under the sun made the surreal feel real.

Now imagine if we had school tomorrow--kids would be assaulted with seismographs, joule calculators, fault maps, Richter scales, and whatever else tools teachers could find to make the real become more abstract.

All that matters, at some level, of course, but for most kids, I imagine having a spectacularly lovely August afternoon off to replay a minute's worth of otherworldliness will make this one stick for a long, long time."

I agree. The underlying problem isn't that the earthquake would simply be discussed at school the next day- it's the way we schoolify the event. I think we should include current events in our classes- especially when those events relate to our curriculum (I've written on this a bit in the past).

What to do? Shawn Cornally to the rescue (Read the whole post. I'm not doing it justice here):

The problem is that we’re schooling life-long learning out of our students. What do we do about it?



If you think that sounds ridiculous, then you’re the problem. Students are smart. Teenagers are curious. However, at school, they tend not to be. Porque?

Students are generally interested in hurricanes, earthquakes, or nuclear reactors, especially after a notable event. However, too often we (educators) use this interest as an excuse to break out our favorite "How is the Moment-Magnitude Scale differs from the Modified Mercalli scale" lecture. This is bad.

Instead, students should have time for independent investigation about the event. Have them pick a related topic that interests them. Give them the time and support to follow that interest down the rabbit hole.

While students are following their interests, they'll suddenly find they need to understand seismic waves, or logarithmic scales, or moment-tensor solutions simply as a part of their investigation.

In essence, don't just tell students about the Modified Mercalli scale and expect them to be super interested- provide an environment where they'll find they need to know about it.


image credit: NASA courtesy Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, via Earth Observatory



  1. A little self-aggrandizing, no? I'm sure you West Coasters- and especially Alaskans- are all having a nice chuckle.     (back)

The best fun is hard fun.

Dr. Seymour Papert is one of my favorite educational thinkers. It's like he's in my head taking barely formulated thoughts and ideas and turns them into detailed, well articulated arguments that I might have never been able to get to on my own.

If you're not subscribed to Gary Stager's "Daily Papert," you should be. Little bits of Dr. Papert's work everyday, delivered directly to my Reeder. The May 25, 2011 edition contains this gem:

The third big idea is hard fun. We learn best and we work best if we enjoy what we are doing. But fun and enjoying doesn’t mean “easy.” The best fun is hard fun. Our sports heroes work very hard at getting better at their sports. The most successful carpenter enjoys doing carpentry. The successful businessman enjoys working hard at making deals.

The Marshmallow Challenge

In high school I'd spend hours in the back yard trying to perfect my curving corner kicks1, not because it was easy, but because it was something I enjoyed. More recently I've found myself drawn to other learning experiences that I undertake2 because I find them interesting- but often they take a lot of effort because when I start I don't know anything about them.

The traditional school curriculum more often than not misses this hard fun. Not because there's something inherent about what we learn in school that prevents it from being hard fun, but because designing hard fun learning experiences requires a bit more flexibility, a lot more student control, and a heckuva lot less "feeding" students the one right way.

I recently ran The Marshmallow Challenge with all my classes. For 18 minutes almost every student- and especially those students who will try to sleep through every class all day- were dedicated to building the tallest structure they could using spaghetti, string, tape, and a marshmallow. Half of the groups had a structure that was unable to hold a marshmallow off the ground- and most of these groups immediately wanted to spend the rest of class redesigning their structure and making it better. It was hard, but it was fun.

I've been greatly enjoying the work many educators have been doing recently towards providing students with hard fun in their classes. Notably:

  • Shawn Cornally's Inquiry Style™
    • He continually throws interesting situations at students and lets them take over. I love it. Take these investigations into oscillations, for instance. Killer.



  • Dan Meyer's new meme: #anyqs
    • I've been focusing on turning content into a narrative story whenever possible this year. Dan Meyer has been taking this to the next level in math, noting that, "good storytelling is a first cousin to good math instruction." I'd argue this is true for most any subject. Here's an excellent little series on sharpening pencils.

While I worry about the increasingly standardized nature of instruction in this country, I'm happy there are so many educators out there taking instruction to the next level and sharing with the rest of us.

Perhaps the best hard fun is designing hard fun for others. 🙂


  1. FYI: This was pre-"Bend it like Beckham"     (back)
  2. i.e. brewing beer, landscaping, fixing broken appliances myself.     (back)