I think J.K. Rowling would have had less success if, after the Dursleys drove Harry away to that isolated little rock in the middle of nowhere and the half-giant Hagrid broke down the door, he then delivered this letter…
You’re a National Merit Scholar, Harry!
The first time (ten times) I read the Harry Potter series, I was obsessed with Quidditch, the Sorting Hat, and the magical creatures. Recently, I read my way through the series again, and I noticed that I was picking up a lot of new details, and asking a lot of different questions than I did when I read as a kid:
“What is Hogwarts’s average class size?” “How do they do AP classes?” “No parent-teacher conferences?” “What does their tech integration look like—no 1-to-1 or BYOD program?”
That’s when it hit me: what a boring adult I’ve become.
Beyond that, I realized that there’s a lot to learn from this best-selling series, and author J.K. Rowling showcases progressive educational strategies in her books and its magical academy setting. With Fantastic Beasts just released, now seems as good a time as ever to go over what this teacher learned from reading Harry Potter from the other side of my wand-less classroom.
Ten Points for Gamified Classrooms!
The House Cup is the world’s best gamified behavioral tracking system. Rowling dedicates an entire chapter of Sorcerer’s Stone to the shame Harry feels when he and his friends lose Gryffindor fifty points each for snooping around the halls at night. Of course, this doesn’t quite stop eleven-year-old Harry from going on any more adventures (the books would be a bit duller with a rule-abiding protagonist). But the coding of classroom, athletic and behavioral successes and failures into house points is a very effective motivational system.
I’m a huge proponent of gamifying the classroom wherever possible, and went to great lengths last year to design an elaborate campaign to motivate my students, complete with alliances, festivals, and this peculiar costume.
Of course, gamifying a class is a whole lot of work, especially when you don’t have a magical instant feedback system (if only I could say “five points for Gryffindor” and have rubies magically fill the scorekeeping hourglass, rather than need to enter data into a complex spreadsheet). Still, apps like ClassDojo and Classcraft make it easier for teachers to manage a gamified class. And even if you don’t go all out, there’s still plenty of room to gamify elements of your course—build in individual challenges and non-grade-related rewards and penalties, create more exciting assignment names, or have bead jars that classes can win for excelling.
A More Humane Imperio: The Power of Suggestion
We all have a Neville Longbottom in our classrooms, a well-intentioned and hardworking student who can’t seem to put the pieces together to excel. Neville often is self-deprecating, and it is his nature that often leads to his various failures of comic relief. However, his nervousness and lack of self-confidence becomes part of a cycle, he melts cauldrons in Potions because Professor Snape is over his shoulder.
Teachers break that cycle for Neville by identifying and focusing on his areas of strength, and ultimately shape him into a key player in the Magical War and a future Hogwarts professor. It is Professor Moody who provides Neville a Herbology book and a pat on the back to positively reinforce his skill in the subject (admittedly, it’s a murderer impersonating Moody to orchestrate a complex plan to deliver Harry to Voldemort, but still… it was a good teaching moment!).
The first time we see Neville receiving verbal encouragement is from Professor Remus Lupin. Professor Snape enters the class, and snidely remarks, “Possibly no one’s warned you, Lupin, but this class contains Neville Longbottom. I would advise you not to entrust him with anything difficult. Not unless Miss Granger is hissing instructions in his ear.”
Lupin takes it in stride, and reinforces confidence in Neville: “I was hoping that Neville would assist me with the first stage of the operation, and I am sure he will perform it admirably.” Neville, sensing faith from a teacher, rises to the occasion.
This isn’t the only time Rowling showcases Lupin as an ideal teacher…
Twenty-first Century Magical Skills
I’m no expert, but I would wager that Harry is a kinesthetic learner—he acquires knowledge through doing, rather than looking, listening or studying. He then excels at skill-based instruction and examination. We first see this when he receives top marks in his third-year Defense Against the Dark Arts final exam, an obstacle course of dark magical creatures rather than the traditional quill-and-parchment test. Professor Lupin designed the exam, and his class is frequently referred to by the students as the best one they ever had, due to his emphasis on practical, applicable knowledge.
An obstacle course, people! The final exam of the best teacher in Harry Potter was an obstacle course! THAT’S AWESOME!
We see the opposite in Harry’s fifth year, when Professor Dolores Umbridge enters Hogwarts and enforces a “wands-away” policy in class, focused merely on reading and theory. Which of course leads to…
Dumbledore’s Army—True Student Driven Learning
In response to Umbridge’s hands-off approach, the students take their education into their own hands. Interestingly, it is Hermione—the bookish visual learner best-suited for Umbridge’s read-and-memorize style of teaching—who organizes the student educational rebellion. And the students then say that they learn more in their student-driven meetings for Dumbledore’s Army than they ever did in classes.
The power of intrinsic motivation is full at work. The students learn advanced spells like the Patronus years before it shows up in the curriculum.
Imagine this for a second. Your students—frustrated by the abstract nature of their calculus equations or multiple choice critical reading exams—create their own club to learn the skills they’ll need to excel in the real world: creating, designing, writing. And they do it not for college resumes, not for networking, not to build balance in their application. They do it to become more formidable people.
That just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
It’s Not All About Your PLN, eh Lockhart?
I feel a lot of pressure as an educator to extend my reach beyond my classroom. Designing good lessons, building a good curriculum and developing strong relationships with my student all feel like baseline expectations of the job. And so I feel the need to set myself apart a teacher, in part to spread my ideas about education, but also because that ugly business world concept of “networking” has crept into education. I try to tweet interesting content, I syndicate blogs on Medium, I podcast, I work hard to build a Personal Learning Network. And that can oftentimes get overwhelming and feel like a second job, this need to be a brand or a personality rather than just a good teacher. Heck, I spent five minutes debating if it was hypocritical for me to turn those things in the two sentences ago into links.
And that reminds me of Professor Gilderoy Lockhart, the all-publicity empty shell of a teacher, an expert in self-promotion and media manipulation and nothing more. Ultimately, Lockhart’s celebrity credentials buy him a little bit of time and respect from the students, but it’s not long before even the students with the biggest crushes on him see through his charade.
May we always focus on the important things—the educating, the curriculum, the relationships—and ensure that the rest remains in the background.
“Prime Minister? Nah, I’ll Be a Principal, Thanks”
It’s hard to fit Dumbledore’s biography on the back of a Chocolate Frog Card. He is Chief Warlock of the Wizengamot, in effect the Chief Justice of the Magical Supreme Court. He is the military chief of the Order of the Phoenix, in effect, the commander of a wizarding militia. He is a leading magical researcher. He turned down the position of Minister of Magic.
And his chief responsibility is to head what seems to be a taxpayer-funded but fairly independent middle and high school that serves around 300 students.
As a teacher, that’s cool. So many of us teachers enter education because we view it as the best way of positively impacting the world—shape one mind and there’s a beautiful ripple effect. And it’s pretty awesome to see one of the most intelligent people in the fictional world turn his back on politics, turn his back on research and engineering and law and medicine, and lead education.
Order of the Phoenix also provides an interesting, cautionary tale against government interference in education and overregulation. Rowling showcases the Ministry’s Educational Decrees as arcane measures that restrict the school’s ability to decide what is best for itself, centralizing power in the Ministry’s educational liaison at the school, Dolores Umbridge. They begin as attempts to restrict freedoms to create the illusion of safety, then slowly morph into displays of a futile regime passing rules it can’t enforce.
It’s the teachers and administration that are shown to have the best judgment in providing a strong learning environment. And these teachers and administrators are more than just academics…
Teachers Showcase Real Talent
Snape doesn’t just talk about crafting potions—he’s a leading potion-maker whose advanced draughts support medicine (aiding Lupin’s rough full moon nights) and law (through his truth potion Veritaserum). McGonagall doesn’t just have a Master’s in Transfiguration—she is one of only seven registered animagi in the twentieth century. When Hogwarts is under siege by the Death Eaters in Book Seven, the tremendous skill of the faculty is on full display. From Flitwick’s charmed statues to Hagrid’s beasts, the faculty defends the school.
I often feel that us teachers often don’t showcase our own skills to the students enough. We don’t showcase our debate skill in history class, or our writing ability in English, or our engineering skills in science. And I think that’s harmful as educators. At Hogwarts, the students look up to their teachers as clear, practicing experts in their field.
I think students in our real-world classes don’t always see that, and that hurts their education. They don’t see role models in the fields that interest them—they see teachers separated from their craft. Students should say, “I want to be a Herbologist like Professor Sprout,” not “I want to be a Herbology teacher like Professor Sprout.”
As we shift to a new paradigm of skill-based education, we need to be role models with the skills for our students.
Technology: Real World Magic
Harry Potter is set in the mid-1990’s, in a world that is just on the verge of a technological revolution—Harry steals plays on Dudley’s first-edition Playstation, or his brand new computer. And the story works so well in this almost-modern environment. If it were released just a few years later, the magic just wouldn’t have worked the same… what’s the advantage of a Floo Network when you can Facetime, an Owl Post when you can iMessage?
In the two decades since the first book’s release, in a way, schools have acquired the ability to do things through technology that before would have been magic. We now can teach and learn from anywhere, with instant communication, tailored feedback, expanded creative projects, and more. It doesn’t have the same whimsical nature as “Wingardium Leviosa” or Invisibility Cloaks, but the collaborative and asynchronous editing nature of Docs is pretty magical.
Of course, in JK Rowling’s world, magic didn’t transform classrooms into utopias. Students still got bored by Professor Binns, the ghost History of Magic teacher who lectured at them as they took notes.
Even with magic, teachers still had to be good teachers. McGonnagall commands respect through her high expectations and authentic relationship with her pupils. Lupin builds interesting and practical lessons. Dumbledore shows a constant display of confidence in his staff and endearing wisdom.
And speaking of Dumbledore, as we work to empathize with our students and build authentic relationships, may we all remember…
“”Differences of habit and language are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open.”
Or as Dumbledore also said…
“Youth cannot know how age thinks and feels. But old men are guilty if they forget what it was to be young.”
I could list about twenty of these quotes. That guy really seemed to know how to run a school.