Creating Your Constitution of Learning

  • Optimal Learning

    Posted by Paul Wilkinson on 4/30/2023

    Social Studies is building our understanding of the principles and ideas we’ve studied this year, from the causes, effects, and reasoning for the American Revolution to the Civil War. We are working to better understand attempts to expand freedom and rights during Reconstruction after the Civil War. Next up are the closing of the American frontier and the Transcontinental Railroad. The quantity of ideas for young minds to juggle as we prepare to live meaningful lives is considerable.

    Simultaneously, neuroeducators continue to struggle to understand learning in light of historical changes in how people gather, process, and use information. One such debate that’s been churning for years is “paper vs. digital.”

    The conversation about changing learning technology is vast—How to Help Students Embrace Reading. Educators Weigh In (Opinion) ( is a starting point. But I read a phrase from the continued conversation over the weekend that puts the paper/digital conversation in a functional context: “inefficient allocation of cognitive resources” (Relation between digital tool practices in the language arts classroom and reading comprehension scores | SpringerLink). To give myself more time to use my cognitive resources to provide student feedback, I outsourced my analysis of an upbeat version of that phrase to good old GPT4. Here’s what the leading AI said (as if to underscore the historical changes in how we process information, Grammarly and Microsoft Editor suggested multiple improvements to GPT4’s analysis, many of which I accepted):

    Q: Explain the efficient use of cognitive resources at a seventh-grade level.

    A: Efficient use of cognitive resources means using your brainpower best to learn, solve problems, and make decisions. Our brains have limited energy and attention, so using these resources wisely is essential. Here are some tips for using your cognitive resources efficiently:

    1. Focus on one task at a time: Trying to do multiple things simultaneously can slow you down and make learning harder. Concentrate on one task, and avoid distractions like TV, social media, or loud noises.
    2. Break tasks into smaller parts: Large tasks can be overwhelming. Breaking them into smaller, manageable pieces can help you stay focused and make progress.
    3. Use memory strategies: Mnemonics, like acronyms or rhymes, can help you remember information more easily. For example, using the acronym “HOMES” to remember the names of the Great Lakes: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior.
    4. Take breaks and rest: Give your brain time to recharge by taking short breaks and getting enough sleep. This can help you stay focused and retain information better.
    5. Ask for help when needed: If you’re struggling with a concept or task, don’t hesitate to ask a teacher, parent, or friend for help. They can offer guidance and support to help you understand the material better.
    6. Practice regularly: The more you practice a skill, the better you become at it. Regular exercise helps to strengthen connections in your brain, making tasks easier over time.

    By following these tips, you can maximize your cognitive resources and become a more efficient learner.

    These ideas work for paper and digital learning, not to mention physical skills. As GPT4 told me when I asked it for golf advice on Saturday, “Remember that consistent practice and patience are crucial for long-term improvement.”

    Back to patient practice, including using primary sources to analyze the post-Civil War era, the closing of the frontier, and our final unit, financial literacy.

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  • Thinking, Learning, and the Civil War

    Posted by Paul Wilkinson on 4/4/2023

    From Scahaff, Jon D., "There Is No Thinking without Memorizing." Public Discourse: The Journal of the Witherspoon Institute. 1 Feb. 2023:

    ...if at the end of the day we want students to think like historians, at the beginning of the day they must know some history. While history may be more than names and dates, it is at least names and dates. Try thinking like a historian about the American Civil War, for instance, without knowing about the Compromise of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Bleeding Kansas, the Dred Scott decision, the Lincoln–Douglas debates, the various contestants in the 1860 presidential election (especially Abraham Lincoln), Ft. Sumter, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses Grant, Jefferson Davis, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, the Emancipation Proclamation, battles such as First Bull Run, Shiloh, Antietam, Gettysburg, Cold Harbor. One could go on, but the point is made. To “think critically” about the American Civil War necessarily entails placing it in the correct half-century (which many students cannot do). Asking students to “question” something they know nothing about will yield success at the same rate as attempting to extract sunbeams from cucumbers.

    We spent the weeks before Spring Break learning about the run-up to the Civil War. Now, our class is engaged in the war itself. Those who understand the Civil War will understand that as an allusion to Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. Why should students care about such things?

    The cliché answer is that we learn history for the purpose of learning about mistakes and how not to repeat them. True enough, but the reasons go deeper. In the first two days back from break, we have already addressed the question of "why learn history" in class discussions. In the past few months, computers have proven themselves able to produce extensive credible prose on multitudinous topics. In a world where artificial intelligence challenges human intelligence for speed and credibility, how do we remain human?

    The answer most assuredly is not to simply outsource all thinking to machines. Rather, it must be to use our human advantage to synthesize simple facts with the moral and emotional skills that give humans our competitive advantage over processors and memory chips. In class this week, we talked about Frederick Douglass's argument that education was essential for former slaves to make their new-found freedom meaningful; about the slavery of ignorance. Scahaff uses Ray Bradbury's argument in Fahrenheit 451 to underscore what remains a current topic in the popular media: Civilization itself can be lost when people choose to abandon book learning for ephemeral technological pleasure.

    Middle school is where many students make choices to either pursue their learning to continue to satisfy their natural curiosity, or to merely go along, to check the boxes to comply with institutional demands to "make progress." Lincoln, during the Civil War, moved from merely seeking to preserve the Union to the moral goal of "a new birth of freedom," as he said at Gettysburg. ChatGPT may analyze the Gettysburg Address for us, but it can never feel the feelings that Lincoln had as he guided the nation to survival, nor can it feel the feelings I hope our students have as they come to recognize Lincoln's struggle and our nation's struggle--and as they use their experience of these feelings to guide their own lives into what will surely be remarkable futures.

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  • Our Students' Manifest Destiny to Change the World

    Posted by Paul Wilkinson on 1/12/2023

    Welcome back. History is moving fast and we have a lot to catch up on. At the start of 2023, artificial intelligence gives us a pretty good idea of how we can learn more skills and build more knowledge more quickly. Combining our human intuition that motivation and incentives can both play big roles in learning, we asked ChatGPT this week:

    In middle school, what are the best ways to motivate or help students motivate themselves?

    Its answer:

    Some strategies for motivating middle school students include:

    1. Setting clear and specific goals: Students are more motivated when they know what they are working towards and can see the progress they are making.
    2. Providing choice: Giving students some control over what they learn and how they learn it can increase their motivation and engagement.
    3. Building a sense of community: Creating a positive and supportive classroom environment can help students feel connected to their peers and teachers.
    4. Offering regular feedback: Providing students with regular feedback on their progress can help them understand their strengths and areas for improvement, which can increase their motivation to learn.
    5. Helping students see the relevance of what they are learning: When students can see how what they are learning applies to their lives or interests, they are more likely to be motivated to learn.
    6. Recognizing and rewarding effort and progress : Giving positive reinforcement and recognition can boost student motivation and encourage more effort.
    7. Encouraging growth mindset: Helps students understand that intelligence can be developed through effort, and it gives them ability to overcome challenges and build resilience.

    It's important to keep in mind that motivation can be different for each student, and that's why a combination of different approaches may be necessary.

    We shared this text with students as we completed a lesson in which small groups created skits representing each of seven participants in Manifest Destiny and asked them to consider, as they read ChatGPT’s response:

    What's accurate about it? What seems wrong? As we work on our Constitution of Learning this semester to give effect to our Declaration of Learning Independence, how can we create structural incentives in our Constitution to improve motivation?

    One nice thing about Social Studies is that it is intended to give you the skills and knowledge to help you build on all human progress up until now. Take this week's Manifest Destiny skit assignment, for example. You had three specific goals: Create a skit in which you (1) portrayed your group's identity, (2) showed your group's reasoning for moving west, and (3) enabled your classmates and yourself to take notes on these factors to improve your understanding of both U.S. history and of how various groups today continue to have different backgrounds and motivations. Were the goals clear and specific? Did you have choice as to how you might portray those groups? Did working together with classmates help build community and connection? Did you get enough feedback on your progress? Do you realize how understanding these various interests might apply to your own life or interests? Did you get enough positive feedback for effort? For progress? Do you understand that intelligence is developed through effort and that productive struggle gives you the "ability to overcome challenges and build resilience?"

    What good ideas did ChatGPT leave out of its answer that we might include in our Constitution of Learning? As we become more independent learners, how much can a constitution help us succeed? How much is character, such as the character that George Washington drew upon to create precedents for our federal government, necessary to make our Constitution of Learning effective? Do rules resolve every conflict? How do we set those rules? How do we influence ourselves, our peers, those who look to us, and those who work to shape our behaviors in ways that make their lives and our life better? Please reply with your most valuable thoughts and ideas.

    There’s not a deadline in place to answer these questions on Teams. They are complex and we can return to them throughout the second semester. One thing, however, is certain: Human reading and writing skills are essential to succeed in a world in which computers are increasingly taking on more menial tasks. We will refocus on those on Friday as students take a pre-assessment designed to help us target areas for growth toward being able to analyze, evaluate, and assess economic, political, and social policy. Mrs. Evans and I will be leading every Marce Herz 7th-grader through a series of lessons on purposefully organizing and elaborating on evidence to help us understand, explain, and judge key ideas in history, how they continue to affect us today, and how our 7th-graders might use these understandings to become empowered to change their own future and their future world.

    Need help with schoolwork? Check out Paper, WCSD’s free 24/7 tutoring service. Be sure to send your tutor detailed instructions from the teacher to get the best feedback.

    Interested in what we're doing in class this quarter? Check out Units 4, 5, and 6 in our Scope and Sequence.

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Second Quarter: Declare Your Learning Independence!

  • The Education Revolution

    Posted by Paul Wilkinson on 12/11/2022

    This week's plan is to start to learn about Alexander Hamilton’s national bank on Monday, build our understanding of it in our next class, and to use the remaining time in each class’s two block periods, Tuesday-Thursday, to organize and review our notes, practice our recall of information by testing ourselves, and enhance our mastery of the critical foundational concepts of Units 2 and 3, which are essential to fully understand the drive for national expansion, the causes of the Civil War, the war itself, and post-war economic and political developments we will master during our second semester. Our open-binder, open-note multiple choice test is Friday.

    As we conclude the semester, we will use our final class days next week to enhance historical mastery and financial literacy by continuing to play the Stock Market Game. Teachers sometimes (at least I do) get nervous when lessons call for “games.” Many will tell you that calling the stock market a “game” promotes views contrary to best investment practices. But the entire economy is based on competition—market competition to supply goods and services at the best prices and quantities to give consumers more of what they want for lower prices than competitors can achieve. In other words, the economy itself can be called a “game,” at least to the extent that competition is an essential part of it.

    We learn a lot from playing. In recent days, I’ve been playing with the latest shiny object on the internet, an artificial intelligence chatbot that some say may displace Google’s search engine domination. Have you tried ChatGPT? If so, I’d love to read your reactions in the comments. (ChatGPT's enormous surge in popularity is resulting in error messages on Sunday; the creators advise patience. There’s a more complex "Playground" here, which has more robust functionality and seems to be more available.)

    How do we help students learn when they can ask any question on the internet and almost instantly get a plausible answer in return? This is the new form of the perennial question, “why do I have to learn it if I can just Google it?”

    Here’s what ChatGPT gave me in response to the first essential question in our course, modified to focus on our first three units. My question was: “How did the Revolutionary era, the creation of the Constitution, and early expansion shape American identity?”

    AI’s response:

    The Revolutionary era, the creation of the Constitution, and early expansion were all important events in American history that helped to shape American identity. The Revolutionary era, which included the American Revolution and the establishment of the United States as an independent nation, was a time of great change and upheaval. It was a time when Americans began to see themselves as a distinct people with their own unique identity, separate from the British Empire. This sense of identity was further strengthened by the creation of the Constitution, which established a new system of government and a set of principles that would guide the nation's development.

    The early expansion of the United States also played a role in shaping American identity. As the country grew and expanded westward, Americans came into contact with a variety of different cultures and people. This experience helped to create a sense of unity and common purpose among Americans, as they worked together to settle the new lands and build a new nation.

    Overall, the Revolutionary era, the creation of the Constitution, and early expansion all contributed to the development of a unique American identity, one that is still evident today. This identity is characterized by a commitment to liberty and democracy, as well as a belief in the importance of individual rights and the rule of law.

    (Grammarly and Microsoft Word's Editor had a few suggestions to improve AI’s response, but I declined them.)

    My real brain, as opposed to artificial intelligence, suggests a few follow-up questions to supplement the machine's thinking with biological thinking:

    1. During the War of 1812, Federalists met at the Hartford Convention, where some expressed nostalgia for British rule. What were the public reactions, what effect did this have on the Federalist Party, and what might have been the consequences for further national expansion?
    2. What is the phrase used to describe one of the motivations behind westward expansion? (Hint: It's the first content term for Unit 4.) Why do you think the ChatGPT algorithm results omit the use of that phrase?
    3. Is “democracy” the best word to describe the system of government to which ChatGPT says the American identity is committed? Why or why not? What alternative names can you suggest?
    4. What aspects of identity are overlooked by AI’s response?

    For obvious reasons, there’s considerable fear that students will use artificial intelligence to outsource their own thinking about important ideas necessary to maintain and improve self-governance. There are other fears, too. Remember “open the pod bay doors, HAL?” If not, asking ChatGPT returns a solid answer. That answer, too, however, benefits from the application of genuine intelligence.

    So, back to the headline of this post: Will AI revolutionize education? The ChatGPT client exercises the 5th Amendment right not to testify against itself and refuses to answer, but when asked about OpenAI in general, it gives a measured response:

    Will OpenAI revolutionize education?

    OpenAI is a leading research institute in the field of artificial intelligence (AI) and has made significant contributions to the development of AI technology. However, it is difficult to predict the exact impact that OpenAI will have on education.

    AI technology has the potential to revolutionize education by making it more personalized, efficient, and effective. For example, AI-powered tutoring systems can provide individualized instruction and feedback to students, and AI-powered assessment tools can help teachers to more accurately and efficiently evaluate student performance. Additionally, AI can be used to analyze large amounts of educational data and identify patterns and trends that can inform educational policy and practice.

    However, it is important to note that the impact of AI on education will depend on how it is used and implemented. There are also potential risks and challenges associated with the use of AI in education, such as concerns about fairness, bias, and the displacement of human educators. Therefore, it is important for educational institutions, policymakers, and researchers to carefully consider the potential benefits and risks of using AI in education and to develop strategies for responsible and effective implementation.

    In conclusion, while OpenAI has made significant contributions to the field of AI, it is difficult to predict the exact impact that it will have on education. AI has the potential to revolutionize education, but its impact will depend on how it is used and implemented.

    The Playground is not afraid to talk about ChatGPT. Its response to the same question:

    ChatGPT could potentially revolutionize education by making it easier for students to access information and receive answers to their questions. Chatbots can be used to provide personalized learning experiences and can help students learn more effectively. Additionally, ChatGPT could be used to provide 24/7 access to educational resources, which could help students stay on top of their studies more easily.

    When asked “How will ChatGPT revolutionize education,” it adds that “ChatGPT (can) allow[] teachers to quickly assign and grade assignments or tests in a fraction of the time… (and) provide personalized recommendations for students based on their performance and interests.” It also suggests that “an AI-powered assistant…will (let teachers) spend more time teaching and interacting with students, rather than grading or assigning tasks.” Finally, it predicts that “ChatGPT can provide students with personalized learning paths and give them the ability to engage in real-time dialogue with the AI assistant for help with any topic.

    And we have now demonstrated another element of AI-generated text: It encourages both the benefits and the dangers of being able to quickly create large amounts of text. This post has become much too long, so I’ll leave it with a recommendation to look back at the November 13 post on the new Paper App, which uses human instead of artificial intelligence to help students. Paper is reality; AI? We shall see. I hope you and your learner are looking forward to a week of human learning as much as I am!

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  • Civic Virtue and Learning Virtue

    Posted by Paul Wilkinson on 12/7/2022

    Quick update as we use the final 12 school days of the first semester to celebrate progress in understanding our revolutionary origins, the contribution of civic virtues to our progress, the development of legal processes, how financial markets work, and domestic and international challenges. Students continue to practice the writing at the heart of effective thinking and build background knowledge to better understand our second semester, which looks at western expansion, the Civil War, and technological progress.

    The civic virtues of TikTok may be doubtful. Still, we are watching three videos posted there this week to understand how to better prepare for our last test of the semester, Friday, Dec. 16. Well, we didn’t watch the videos on TikTok, but seeing the logos and graphics was enough to fascinate students. University of Virginia cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham also posted the videos on his Facebook page, which you can see here. He’s worth following for anyone who wants to learn anything.

    As they prepare for next week’s test, please encourage your learner not to simply review and reread their notes but to make the concepts we’ve learned meaningful by asking themselves how each idea fits into our larger themes of American identity, the challenges of creating a successful representative democracy, and civic virtue. We are reading the last of four documents authored by George Washington this week, his last will and testament, in which he discusses his reasons for endowing what has become George Washington University. You might discuss with your learner how learning has been fundamental to American values since the founding.

    This week, we’re focusing on the War of 1812, continued partisan conflict, and the law and geography of American territorial expansion. Next week, as we wrap up Unit 3, we’ll examine the fight over creating a national bank—the outcome of which continues to affect students today, as Federal Reserve interest rate policy affects student Stock Market Game portfolios.

    Please be sure you and your learner are monitoring Infinite Campus for missing assignments and opportunities to learn from feedback as the semester winds down. The test will be open note. Students will also earn credit for having a well-organized three-ring binder consistent with the criteria we set at the start of the semester. They will get a checklist in class to check their evidence of organization. Enjoy the holiday season!

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First Quarter

  • Week Nine: The Rule of the Game is to Change the Rules

    Posted by Paul Wilkinson on 10/23/2022

    A new eight-hour podcast out Thursday is getting attention for reframing the march of knowledge in the digital era. Like James Madison, whose Constitutional ideas we studied last week and will continue to examine, tyranny also concerns Lex Fridman’s guest, Balaji Srinivasan. The podcast includes the idea that “the rule of the game is to change the rules”—precisely what Madison and his colleagues did 235 years, one month, six days ago (85,868 days ago total) when, instead of amending the Articles of Confederation, which was what they were assigned to do, they created a new federalist system of separate powers, checks, balances, and bicameral legislation.

    One source we used in class asked directly, “When is it okay to break the rules?” The idea is that the framers of the Constitution themselves broke the rules by exceeding their mandate to merely amend the Articles of Confederation. In modern terms, they created an entirely new operating system instead of forking an existing program. Asking students if it is okay to break the rules can make teachers nervous. The good news: Most agreed that it is rarely a good idea to break rules at school.

    Our study of “How Did the Constitution Guard Against Tyranny” is a popular middle school civics unit because it seeks to explain the Constitution’s unprecedented longevity using a combination of source documents, modern analysis, and students’ common sense. Much of U.S. history that follows covers the causes and consequences of the amendment process while cultural mores evolved. Changing technologies, too, mean rights are subject to new analyses. (See also standard 33 in the Week Seven post below.) How does the Constitution continue to guard against tyranny in the digital era? Learners may more completely explore this question in their Ph.D. dissertations and careers, but as we study the Constitution and Bill of Rights, seventh graders have enough experience with justice, fairness, and common sense to start to explain the mechanisms of governance and rights in clear and concise language. That is what we will be practicing this week as we plan, research, draft, revise, edit, and submit our essays on the topic.

    First-quarter grades are being posted now. Monday is a fresh start. Encourage your learners to hit the ground running; complete all tasks on time; organize and maintain their three-ring binders, notes, and evidence of learning (all returned work must be kept in their binder along with their notes); be curious, and ask thoughtful questions. Have a great week!

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  • Week Eight: The Constitution, Financial Markets, and the End of the Quarter

    Posted by Paul Wilkinson on 10/15/2022

    Like public company financial reporting, our educational system runs on calendar quarters (although our quarters are nine weeks instead of three months). Like public companies, we must get our data in to get our reports out. Tuesday, October 18, is the last day to turn in late data (missing assignments) for Social Studies this quarter.

    Why the public company analogy? On Friday, we connected our Financial Literacy Unit with Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, which grants Congress the power to regulate interstate commerce. Our talk ranged from how the Constitution let Congress create the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation 150 years after creating the Constitution to the 2000 and 2008 stock market events to today’s inflation. We had an amazing week in which we analyzed a speech by Edmund Burke about the duty of legislators, familiarized ourselves with the critical vocabulary of the Constitution, and spent part of Friday’s 43-minute class learning about the Stock Market Game. Here’s a web page about the game for families: The Stock Market Game.

    Monday, October 17, is the retake (during advisory) for those who want a second chance at the Unit 1 assessment. In class this week, we will continue to practice the skills and learn the content previewed in the Week Seven post, including the Bill of Rights. We will also start to discuss our upcoming document analysis with the goal of understanding “How Did the Constitution Guard Against Tyranny?”

    The last week of the quarter is a great time to be grateful for the opportunity to practice using the healthy stress it creates, use sleep, diet, and exercise to manage that stress, and to enjoy the readily achievable challenge of improving learning. Have a great week!

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Phone: 775.851.5629


Degrees and Certifications:

Bachelor of Science, Journalism, Northwestern University Juris Doctorate, Pepperdine University School of Law Teaching Credential, San Diego State University

Mr. Paul Wilkinson

After a career in Washington, DC, I taught high school English for a decade in San Diego and moved to Reno in 2020. You can find out more about me from LinkedIn. Please visit our Social Studies page for information about our class and a chance to ask questions and add comments.

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