We can’t agree on schools because they are compromise institutions

Coca Cola is a cola-producing, money-making enterprise. Hospitals are in the business of keeping people alive and healthy. Congress is in charge of making laws. Planned Parenthood supports reproductive health for women. Unions protect the interests of their members. And so on, and so on. All of this is relatively clear and straightforward.

Schools are different. Nobody can tell you exactly what it is that schools do.

(Update: my friend Chavi is a high-risk pregnancy doctor and author of a fantastic book that you should buy. She tells me, “You’ve got hospitals ALL WRONG. We are a TOTAL compromise. Social safety net, economically compromised model, plus restaurant and God knows what else. I like to point out that a really good hospital is also a really mediocre hotel.”)

Schools are in charge of teaching kids the things they need to get good jobs. That’s a matter of social justice. Or it’s about national security — you’ve got to keep up with the USSR Chinese.

Don’t forget about childcare, to support more people going into the workforce. That’s an important part of what schools do, their most basic function.

Actually — no! Schooling isn’t about jobs, national security or the economy. It’s about democracy. We need to create the next generation of informed citizens, prepared to vote and run for office and such. They need to know history, sure, but they also need to be schooled in democratic values. Kids need to learn that you can always improve by working hard. They also need to learn to respect their classmates, no matter if they come from a different place, worship differently, or have a different culture.

Really, though, school is about socialization. Kids need to be around other kids to be happy. They need to be part of a community where they get to make friends and find themselves. Schools give kids the chance to find themselves in passions like sports or music or art.

The point is that schools are all these things at the same time. Not everybody cares about all these things at the same time, but each purpose of schooling has its own cheering section in American society. We all care about schooling, but for different reasons.

David Labaree wrote a well-known essay describing this dynamic. In “Public Goods, Private Goods: The American Struggle Over Educational Goals” he lists three big categories for how Americans think about the purposes of schooling:

  • social efficiency (think, jobs and economics)
  • social mobility (think, meritocracy)
  • democratic equality (think, values of democracy)

This is the fundamental fact about schools: they are compromise institutions. They simply do not have a main purpose. They aren’t in the business of helping everybody learn the most that they can. Schools aren’t organized around giving everybody the same opportunities. They aren’t built to give meaningful experiences to children. They do all these things, but in a compromised way. Because they are compromise institutions.

A lot of “innovative” schools produce their innovations by going all-in on one of these goals while caring less about the others. You can certainly organize a school that produces learning gains — as long as you spend less time worrying about whether kids get more choices and chances to collaborate. And you can definitely organize a school that is completely untracked and gives everyone the same learning opportunities, but you’re going to have to give up a bit on some students’ individual achievements. You can get a Success Academy for a while, but eventually gravity will drag it down into the weird, tangled matrix of compromise that most schools have to grapple with.

I’m not saying that schools are compromise institutions and that this is a bad thing. Schools are weird. Public schooling isn’t that old — it’s a complex project that meets a lot of different people’s needs. It has evolved to do a reasonably good job keeping a majority of people happy, but that has involved a bit of layering and duct tape. Ah ok, the nation needs this? We’ll start teaching Biology. We’ll offer college classes. We’ll have music. We’ll do anti-drug talks.

There is nothing natural about schooling. When push comes to shove, and we have to rethink schooling with limited resources, don’t be surprised that we can’t easily come to agreement. Imagine you ran a local drug store and suddenly had to cut your inventory in half. Do you stop selling food? Keep the first-aid supplies but ditch the mouthwash? Your store has a lot of random stuff in it, because your store is a catchall for a lot of random needs that people have. You aren’t a grocer; you sell a lot of unrelated stuff. That’s what schools are like.

Many teachers have argued that in the autumn of 2020 schools should be entirely remote. After all, hybrid learning is going to be a pedagogical disaster, probably worse than remote learning. (It’s just remote learning but more confusing.) Why not go remote? That makes a lot of sense, if all you think about is learning.

A lot of professionals have argued that school should go back full-time, especially for the youngest students. These parents need childcare! How is the economy (and everything else) supposed to function when people are suddenly at home with their children. This is absolutely true. That this is the job of schools is a totally legitimate view.

Really, though, everybody should go back. (Safely, of course.) Kids need to be in a social environment, not miserable and locked up at home staring at a screen. It’s not good for kids. It’s not about childcare, it’s about thriving in a meaningful environment. (This is the view my own school has taken, I believe, and all grades are currently expected back in September.)

My point is not about who is right. Honestly, I don’t know! The point is that to understand why there is so much disagreement you need to understand that it’s not that people don’t value the economy, childcare, the social lives of children or anything else. It’s that schools are weird. They exist in a strange space and occupy a weird set of roles. They aren’t simply institutions; they are settings where a variety of institutions and forces play tug-of-war and compete.

That means that if you want schools to come back (or to go hybrid, or to go fully remote) you have to make a really complicated case that satisfies a lot of different desires. We don’t agree on what is the most important for children. We don’t agree on what schools are for.

This is why it’s difficult to figure out what to do with schools right now. We don’t have the resources to do all the weird things that schools used to do. (Smaller class sizes + staff with legit medical exemptions – painful state budgets – meaningful federal support = funding disaster.)

Schools are already weird compromise institutions. We should all expect it to take another weird compromise to make this next school year work.

Building Relationships in Online Math Camp

At some point last spring, with the ambulance sirens still constantly blaring but with my job more or less under control, it occurred to me how lucky we were that online teaching started late in the year. How much harder will it be at the start of the year, when we don’t have relationships with the kids yet?

This summer I’ve been teaching again at BEAM, an amazing organization that runs a network of math camps. The kids are all entering 7th Grade and are choosing to spend their summer learning math, programming, genetics, circuitry, statistics — my point is that camp is not quite the same gig as teaching during the school year. Still, the program is entirely online and I’d never met the students before. I now feel as if I have a bit more insight into the “how will it work with a new group of students” question.

In this post I’ll give the rundown as to what I’ve done in camp so far.

(I should note here that online teaching is a thing that many teachers do year in and year out. That’s not quite the same thing as camp or pandemic teaching, but it should keep up from saying things like “this whole project is impossible.” This parenthetical note is brought to you by StuckInTheMiddle, an online teacher currently writing a book about full-time online teaching for John Catt Edu, who has made this very point many times herself.)

OK: how do you build relationships with a new group of students while teaching online?

Here are my answers:

  • “How do I build relationships with students” is the wrong question.
  • What I’ve found much more pressing is whether the students trust and enjoy each other. Otherwise they can’t collaborate, don’t feel comfortable turning their cameras on, won’t ask questions, won’t discuss things in small groups, won’t do fun community-building stuff, and so on.
  • Looking back, the first few classes were designed to get kids participating and interacting with me. I don’t know if I regret the decision to start there, but it’s not enough.
  • Things got much better once I started thinking about how I could get kids talking to each other. Again, maybe that’s only possible after I did the earlier stuff, which I’ll detail in a second.
  • By the way, there are still a few students I’m worried that I’m not reaching at all. That happens at in-person camp too, but it’s hard to see what the problem is when we’re all online.

Here’s the rundown of how this went, day by day.

Day 1: I was worried about participation, but I had my plan. My plan was something we might call an “acclimation theory” of participation and trust. Students just have to get used to sharing their thinking and talking to me. I designed class to be all about participation.

I started with an algebraic number trick (via the late Don Steward). I asked everybody to type their result into the chat at the same time for a dramatic reveal.

This was fun and the chat was full of students being low-key blown away. We may be online, but fundamentally this is still a camp full of young math nerds. You can count on a lot of the math to just work.

After this tease (I always like to start with math right away) I described some course expectations.

Well, as the next few weeks would make clear, no dice on video on for every kid. I have basically given up on that and am focusing on measuring engagement in other ways.

On to the “mic check.” Kids were active on the chat, but this would be their chance to get used to sharing their voices on Zoom.

I’m conflicted about this mic check. On the one hand, it took a loooooong time. On the other hand, it did more or less guarantee that I had a conversation with every student, and they got to share some of the things they were into. And they got a chance to piggyback on each other’s enthusiasms — a lot of them love anime, video games, and YouTube. It’s also helpful to me, to hear everybody say their name once and to feel like I’m teaching children rather than usernames.

But it takes a LONG time.

After that, it was into math. I stuck to Zoom, figuring it would be a bit much to introduce a new tool on the first day. I presented a worked example and asked students to type explanations.

More Zoom math:

That was it for Day 1.

Day 2: With one of my groups, I did another mic check. But it just takes too long to ask everyone to unmute themselves and share their answer. It just really dragged on. So for the other group I made a video check-in, which was more successful. Again, I was operating under acclimation theory: just get used to it, and then you’ll feel comfortable. Here was my “turn on your video” prompt:

I should note that even as things are going well in my classes now, students don’t love having their video on. I am able to get most of the class to turn their video on for a minute or two to vote on something with their hands or thumbs, but that’s it. Probably not a battle worth waging, is my current thought.

Did another number trick, made another little example. This one tried to expose the structure of these tricks for the students:

Then I sent students to work on a Classkick assignment (link), our first.

Classkick is a very important tool in my online teaching, because it lets me see what students are working on as they are working on it. It’s absolutely critical to my teaching at the moment. It’s actually a pretty awesome tool in most ways.

I had a bit of dilemma though. It’s Day 2. Students still don’t know each other. If I send them to breakout rooms, it would just be entirely silent. Plus, that would be our first time using breakout rooms while they’re also trying to figure out a new tool. What do I do?

Well, I just assigned the Classkick problem set and kept everybody in the main room. Students would chat every once in a while, but overall it was very sleepy and slow. It felt OK, but not like we were really firing on all cylinders yet.

So much for Day 2.

Day 3: This was when I started to realize that something needed to change.

I ran Day 3 as I did Day 2. Worked examples that I asked students to discuss via chat:

Then, I assigned students to work on Classkick problems in Breakout rooms. And, as predicted, it was deathly silent.


This is where my “acclimation theory” started to run out of steam. Students were getting used to talking with their mics (because I was asking them to). They were chatting (some were talking to each other in chat but not much). They were working on problems. But why was the energy so … muted? It felt off.

That’s when I sat back and realized that it wasn’t about me: they weren’t acting like people stuck in a room full of strangers. That’s because, mostly, they were.

In my defense, the problem doesn’t really happen during my school life. By the time I meet students, they typically know each other much better than they know me. And though I’ve been teaching at camp for a while, the camp environment usually helps kids get to know each other real fast.

OK, so new theory: I need to be pushing students to talk to each other a lot more. Then they’ll feel more comfortable participating publicly.

Day 4: To be fair, I had fully intended to launch camp with something fun and game-like. I just couldn’t think of a way to tie it into my course, which is all about equations and solutions.

Now, though, I just needed a way to get kids talking to each other about something we’re all in on together.

Every teacher eventually gathers a few “break in case of emergency” activities. One of my favorites is the game Mastermind. There’s a totally fine online version that I like to play with my classes. It’s only related to my class indirectly, but I figured that was enough.

OK: it was a hit! And kids were talking to each other, because they wanted to get the code right at the end. I told them they could stay in my Zoom room for the after-class math time (it’s scheduled daily) and play Mastermind. Many did — it worked, as I should have known it would. The “break in case of emergency” stuff never lets you down.

With my new framework, I decided to start the Classkick problem (link) set right away after Mastermind. This time, I really thought about how to make breakout rooms work — I mean, how to get kids talking to each other in them.

Here was the first slide in the assignment:

What I did was:

  • There was something (the dumb tomato question) they had to talk about together.
  • Someone had to share their screen (to make it easier to talk about the same stuff)
  • I asked the counselors (who are teaching assistants) to more actively get kids talking about the math in their breakout rooms.

It went well! In the sense of, kids were talking and it felt more active and vibrant than class had felt up to that point.

Day 5: I reached back into the emergency kit and pulled out “Minesweeper.” Plus I imposed a coordinate grid on it so they could practice saying things like “there’s a bomb in (10, 6)” or whatever. Plus, it lets us talk about logical certainty in a way that mirrors “is this equation true for all values.” I used the Google Minesweeper game, which is nice and colorful.

I haven’t really given my students a chance to try a bunch of problems on their own. I figured today was a good day to take that leap. I assigned the Classkick problems (link) and asked my counselors to log-in to “teacher view” also, so we could keep an eye on what everyone was doing. (By the way, there is a co-teacher workaround with Classkick. Works like a charm.)

Here was the first slide:

It went well. Kids asked lots of questions — I told them to, and I was grateful that they did. Here was Slide 2:


Here are two other little things I had forgotten to mention:

  • To have some fun while students are trickling in, I’ve started awarding First, Second, Third place prizes to the funniest virtual backgrounds. (Then, I ask everyone to turn them back to normal so it doesn’t become a huge distraction in class.) I don’t think I would do this during school, because the virtual backgrounds are a huge pain in the ass, but for camp it’s been fun.
  • I start class with an extremely corny joke. I post the setup and ask kids to try to guess the punchline. “What do you call a factory that is only OK, not great, at making stuff?” I did do this during the school year, and it was kinda fun so I started doing it again during camp. It’s nice to have a little bit of inside humor.

(A “satisfactory.”)


I’m not sure that this will be as big a deal for my classes in the fall if we turn out to be fully online. Most students at my school have been in my school for a few years already. But I think I do have something like an answer to the relationship-building question:

  • Get kids learning and doing things and interacting with you, the teacher, yes.
  • Get kids interacting with each other and trusting each other. Participation isn’t just about getting used to a new environment, it’s about trusting and liking the other students in the room.
  • Some whole-group collaborative puzzles or games are good ways to start that. Getting kids talking to each other in smaller collaborative groups worked well for me to.
  • Then you can reinvest those relationships into more individual learning, and kids will be more willing to ask questions and share ideas.

That’s my thinking at the moment, anyway! There’s a lot more camp to go. And then the Fall of 2020. Then a vaccine.

Then, the vaccine fails. Then, Spring of 2021. Then, COVID-20 emerges. Then, the elephant flu. Then, COVID-FLU, a hybrid virus.

Then online teaching with kids at home and locked in your bedroom forever and ever and ever and ever.