Back/Hogwarts: Proof There’s No Magic in Strong Instructional Practice

Hogwarts: Proof There’s No Magic in Strong Instructional Practice

by Daniel Owens on March 30 2018

Due to a collection of unbelievable circumstances, I recently had the opportunity to observe a school almost everyone has heard of but almost no one has seen firsthand: Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The school is incredibly well known but only small snippets of instructional practice have been seen by the public at large. In the name of openness and transparency I felt it was my duty to report out on some of my key findings and observations, many of which relate to my area of expertise: blended and personalized learning.

Let’s start with logistics: that place is hard to find! It’s location is shrouded in secrecy, which made my initial outreach incredibly hard. And for those of you who complain about slow email response times, just imagine the painstaking efforts required to set up school visits communicating through owl couriers! Also, much like a poorly organized AirBnB listing, the directions they provided were confusing and inadequate as Platform 9 ¾ cannot be found simply by walking the platforms at King’s Cross. The saving grace of all this hassle was that subsequent visits and observations were much easier. But enough about my planning woes, I’m over it and moving on to their instructional approach.

I arrived at Hogwarts just in time for the Sorting ceremony, a yearly tradition in the Sorting Hat assigns first years to one of four houses. The only information I could observe during this process was reactions from students (usually nervousness) and whatever the hat chooses to say out loud. The hat purportedly can see every aspect of each student and uses this information to decide which house they belong to. My initial reaction to this process was one of frustration. If its methods are true then the hat is violating all sorts of personal privacy and possibly some laws as well, though I’m not up to date on current Ministry of Magic regulations. Furthermore, why wouldn’t the hat share this information with the student? Helping them on a path to self-reflection, self-discovery, and personal growth certainly seems more meaningful to me than a simple house assignment. To provide a comparison, I much prefer Locust Grove Middle School’s approach to houses, where students can select from one of four based on interests, and change houses should they so desire.

The next day, and on subsequent trips, I was able to wander to halls and poke my head into classrooms. While this self-guided tour resulted in its fair share of surprises (future visitors: be sure to avoid the bathrooms above the Great Hall!), the real shock came when poking my head into classrooms. Most commonly I would find students buried in their books, all working on the same lesson. Are we really meant to believe that all wizards and witches learn at the same speed and the same style? I for one, do not think so. Hogwarts could learn a lot from Lovett Elementary, which differentiates instruction based on student skills and need.

For the times that instruction extended beyond the book, I found the distribution of opportunities and resources unequal at best. Magic has very clear applications in the “real” world, which often required interactive practice sessions using verbal and kinesthetic techniques (through spells and wands, some of which occur at the same time). Observing these practice sessions was quite exciting given how different and novel the content was to me, but I couldn’t help but notice that the sessions often ended early, only allowing a few students time to practice. I much prefer instructional approaches that ensure all students have access and exposure to content and practice they need, but also creating flexibility for students to take extra time or move on based on demonstrated knowledge. Cisco Junior High School is a great example of this approach, as they use playlists to ensure students know what they “must do” and “may do” throughout a unit of instruction.

Hogwarts is a boarding school, so I often continued my jaunts into the evening. During these strolls it was a far too frequent occurrence for me to observe students being reprimanded by a professor, only to have another professor join later and provide rationale for the students’ behavior. This shows a clear lack of communication from the faculty, which is astonishing given its size and prestige. There’s clear benefit to faculty finding time to come together and discuss students’ progress and Hogwarts should consider implementing something similar to Trailblazer Elementary’s Professional Learning Communities.

Over the course of multiple observations I was also able to witness more than a few ghastly manifestations of poor structures for academic and personal growth. One specific example involves a promising young girl who committed to taking both advanced and standard courses over the course of a year. She was stretched beyond capacity, and the limits of time. All of this could have been avoided using a mastery-based system, which would allow her to move at her own pace. Bronx Arena High School does this, allowing students to move on from content they quickly master and spend time on more challenging topic.

It’s clear that Hogwarts emphasizes personal growth among their students, though I strongly disagree with their methods. While I applaud their effort to provide diverse experiences that should help lead to success in the “real” world, students always seem to experience their largest growth opportunities in situations that are downright dangerous (source: every Harry Potter book). I much prefer clearly defining what personal growth looks like while providing students with structure, choice, and opportunities to achieve it in a safe space. This type of approach can be seen at Valor Collegiate Academies’ focus on Social Emotional Learning.

My hope is that these observations highlight that great instruction is grounded in so much more than magic. Given its popularity in modern media, I have no doubt that I’ll receive more than my fair share of Howlers. For those considering sending one, please remember that I’ve shared this information in the name of transparency, and that no school can get better without first recognizing how it can improve. For those interested in reading more, keep an eye out for my upcoming editorial in the Daily Prophet, and feel free to check out the Blended and Personalized Practices at Work site that I’ve contributed to in the past.

About the Author

Daniel Owens is a Partner at The Learning Accelerator. Email comments at daniel.owens@learningaccelerator.org.