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Transformative Education through ‘Calvin and Hobbes’

UNC Students in Educational Psychology Classes Develop Intervention Strategies to Reach Difficult Pupils
By Dan England

Phillips and PughHoo boy. If driving his haggard teacher to smoking isn’t enough, Calvin’s railed against her low pay in the hopes of getting out of homework, tried to get her to sign a contract reimbursing him for loss of income because of a poor first-grade education and eaten his hall pass in the principal’s office.

And yet Kevin Pugh understands Calvin.

Yes, he says, Calvin is a challenge for a teacher. He displays many patterns of helplessness. He tends to blame his own faults on uncontrollable things — imagine a student saying “I was born without an ability to do math” — so it’s hard for him to learn from his mistakes.

Yet Calvin displays this lack of motivation despite a natural curiosity outside of school. It’s that natural curiosity, coupled with a wonderful imagination (his stuffed tiger is his best friend), that makes Calvin worth saving, Pugh says.

That’s why Pugh disagrees with the thinking that Calvin should be shuffled off to the cafeteria line to serve lima beans. Calvin has one of the great minds of his generation, he tells his students. He just needs help. That’s where Pugh’s Calvin Project comes in.

Of course, Pugh may want to save Calvin because he certainly relates to him. Pugh has that same curiosity about the world. He decorates his office with photos of his five children by a river, or on a hiking trail, all of them with the sun shining on their faces. That same curiosity led him to be an associate professor of psychology at UNC, where he studies ways to make learning transformative for students.

Pugh, 44, had a hard time deciding what he wanted to do as a college undergraduate. After some introspection, he discovered that the reason he didn’t have a major by his junior year of college was because he loved learning itself. He even loved a history of dance class. What he was really interested in, he decided, was learning how others learned and how he could make students love learning as much as he did.

Too many times, Pugh says, classrooms resemble Las Vegas: What happens there stays there. In too many cases, he says, students learn the material enough to get good grades or test well but fail to use it in the real world.

To Pugh, “transformative” teaching helps students use what they’ve learned in the classroom to see the world through a new lens. The Calvin Project, then, may help his future teachers reach students like him who have wonderful minds but may need some alternative instruction. Their challenge is to develop an intervention for Calvin to help him overcome his motivational struggles and become a good student. He is, after all, a kid worth saving.

“He’s not a real student,” Pugh says, “but he represents the real problems every teacher will face.”
Michael Phillips works down the hall from Pugh. He began working with Pugh on the Calvin Project because they both went to Michigan State. Phillips also studies student motivation, though he focuses more on the psychology of interest (essentially what captures students’ attention or imagination and why it happens).

Phillips says the Calvin Project allows students to take ownership in what they’re learning, even if many times Calvin represents the extremes of what teachers may face in their students.

“But that’s why Calvin is funny,” Phillips said. “You really can use that perspective and take a look at the problems teachers face. He just exacerbates them.”

Pugh’s used the Calvin Project as a part of his education psychology classes for a decade now, and Bill Watterson retired “Calvin and Hobbes” in 1995. So only a portion of Pugh and Phillips’ students even know the comic strip at all when they start with the project. More than one student remarks in the beginning that they hope they never have someone like him in their class.

Pugh, though, believes by the end, his students would look forward to the challenge. He personally would love to have a Calvin in his classes, he says.

“He’d be a great student if you created the right environment,” he says. “It would be tough. But that’s the deal. That’s what we’re trying to learn.”



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