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In my first year of teaching, my mentor said something I’ll never forget. I taught a lesson that tanked. It was awful. I literally did everything wrong. It was the cringiest of cringe and I shared every detail with him over a coffee.

I expected specific advice on how to fix the lesson. Instead, he said, “John, learning is like a seed. It’s a mystery. And some teachers are like water. They nourish. They build relationships. They help students develop vital soft skills. Others are like light. They impart wisdom. They stretch your thinking and push you intellectually.”

“So, it’s like a greenhouse?” I asked.

“Yes, but let me finish. There’s a third type. These teachers are crap. Total crap. I mean, the lessons stink. It’s a total mess. Nothing works.”

“Oh?” I asked.

“Yeah, but here’s the thing. Kids need all of those. They need relationships and soft skills. They need critical thinking and academic achievement. But they also need to handle some crap to grow resilient.”

I sat there silently thinking about my crappy lesson before he finally said, “And, John, here’s the hard truth. You’ll always be all three of those teachers, no matter how long you’ve taught. Light, water, crap. You’re always going to be all of the above.”

That’s right. Sometimes we need the crap that becomes the fertilizer for growth. Our humanity is a gift to students.

The only failed experiment is the one you didn't attempt

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The Power of Owning Our Mistakes

My good friend Javi was one of those teachers who looked like a master teacher in his second year. He was open to new ideas but quick to abandon a strategy that didn’t work and take a different route. He had a positive classroom culture but also strong classroom management. His students were highly engaged in meaningful projects but he also knew how to provide clear, concrete direct instruction. I often wandered into his classroom during my prep period to steal ideas . . . er . . . um . . . to observe and learn.

He had a slightly unusual classroom tradition. At the end of certain lessons, he asked his students to share their “epic fails.” This was a closing activity he used a few times a week to help his students take creative risks and develop a growth mindset. His students were all English Language Learners and this strategy could help reduce the affective filter so that they would be unafraid to make mistakes.

He provided students with the sentence frames:

  • Today, my epic fail was _________.
  • I learned _____________.
  • Next time I will try ___________.

In pairs, students shared their epic fail. The student listening would say, “thank you for being brave” and they would share their epic fail. Some students scoffed at this activity in the first week of school. The “being brave” thing felt a little over the top for seventh grade. But slowly, they began to own this notion of the bravery of vulnerability.

On one particular day, he ran through this activity and then pulled out a Popsicle stick.

“Javier? Is there a Javier here?” He shook his head and said, “Javi, maybe?”

The students looked around in confusion. There was no Javier to be in that classroom.

“Oh, wait, that’s my name,” he said with a smile. He then explained his epic fail (the way he had taught vocabulary) and what he learned from it. He talked about what he would try the next time. His students then stood up and gave him a standing ovation, which was the class ritual for the person that shared their epic fail aloud.

As the students filed out of the classroom, I said, “Dude, Javi, I can’t believe you got a group of seventh graders to cheer for your crappy vocabulary lesson.”

“Maybe,” he said. “But a group of thirty seventh graders just saw an adult who cares about them own his mistakes and tell them what he will do to improve. They learned that their teacher is willing to take creative risks.”

Reflecting On Our Failed Projects

I’m a maker. I’m often creating blog posts, books, and sketch videos. But I also like doing hands-on STEM-style projects at home as well. But being a maker,  I often have projects that don’t work out. I used to feel guilty about those projects, like somehow I was a quitter or I lacked grit or I was taking the easy way out.

However, as I began to interview painters and engineers and filmmakers and architects and entrepreneurs, I found that this was a universal part of the creative experience. To be productive, you have to be good at quitting. You need to know when a project isn’t working and cut it loose. I’ve come to realize that every maker has a cutting room floor with a ton of work that didn’t make the “final cut.” We iterate and revise and put things on hold. And that’s okay. It’s part of the creative journey.

Regardless of the industry or the discipline, there are a few ways we abandon projects. Note that some of the most prolific creative types of all kinds of projects in all four of those categories. Being prolific isn’t about avoiding failed projects. It’s about continuing to try new things even when we have projects that tank. Here’s a video I created that explores the previously mentioned continuum in more detail:




The same thing is true of project-based learning. As a teacher, you will have failed projects. Students might be disinterested and unmotivated. Or the project starts taking way too long and you know it’s not working. Maybe it’s an alignment issue as you realize that your students aren’t mastering the standards. Sometimes, you’ll iterate and modify. Or you might finish and say, “that wasn’t great but at least it’s done.” Other times, you’ll have to go back to your students and say, “we need to scrap this project.” Although this isn’t fun, it’s a chance to model humility and to show students that sometimes in creative work, you need to quit.

Note that these go on a spectrum from trash it to keep it.

The continuum goes from ditch it on the left to keep it on the right. It goes, in order:

Failed experiment: Ditch the project. It was a failed concept and you learned from it. 
Redesign: Keep the core idea but completely overhaul the project with huge changes.
Revise: Keep the project. Repeat it with significant changes to take it to the next level.  
Refine: Keep the project. Repeat it but make slight tweaks to improve it for next year. I’ve used the following reflection questions to help me figure out if it’s time to abandon a project

  • Why do I feel this project isn’t working?
  • Is this something I can tweak and revise or do I need to abandon this?
  • Could we try this again later?
  • What are the contextual factors making this a challenge? How could I better address these challenges?
  • Is there a better way to teach these standards? A new project concept? A new approach?
  • How will the students respond? Will they be relieved or disappointed? How will I help them navigate these emotions?

Note that these reflective questions help spur my internal monologue. However, it sometimes helps to talk to another teacher or to bring your class into the discussion. When I taught eighth grade, we would discuss these ideas in our student leadership team (which consisted of any kid who wanted to bring a sack lunch in on Thursdays and help make class-wide decisions).

It’s Rarely Good Vs. Bad

I’ve seen multiple social media posts in the last week describing certain practices as being “problematic” or “harmful” to kids — things like lectures, memorization, homework, and deadlines.

While I understand the need to critique teaching practices, I wonder if the good/bad binary actual gets in the way of meaningful dialogue and deeper thinking while also failing to address the bigger injustices that actually exist (like systemic racism or heavy-handed discipline practices). To be clear, there are times that we, as teachers, might actually do something harmful. In these moments, we need to apologize. When I taught middle school, I had moments when I yelled at a class. Each time this happened, I apologized on the spot. I told my principal about it. I didn’t defend it with a statement like, “they just weren’t listening to me.” Instead, I said, “I shouldn’t have yelled ‘Quiet!’ to get your attention. I’m truly sorry.” The amazing thing is how my middle school students were so quick to forgive.

To borrow the metaphor of the seed, it’s often about context. How much light and how much shade? What temperature is ideal? What should go into the soil? How much water is needed?

In other words, I wonder if a better question might be, “What are the pros and cons of this strategy?” Or perhaps even, “When is the best time to use this approach?”
Consider lecture. It gets a bad rap. And yet, when it comes to learning new ideas, we all love great speeches. Most of us have enjoyed a phenomenal TED Talk. When it comes to learning new skills, most of us seek out direct instruction — whether it’s a tutorial video, a set of written instructions, or an in-person modeling of a process. I’ve argued that direct instruction is actually necessary in PBL environment. What if we asked, “when does lecture work best?” What if we asked, “How do we break up direct instruction to reduce cognitive load?” Suddenly, the conversation becomes more nuanced.

Or consider memorization. I see the down side of focusing on the mere memorization of facts. And yet . . . what is the point of memorization? It might be automaticity. There’s a benefit to retaining knowledge that we can access instantaneously. What if the issue isn’t good / bad so much as, “What are the things we should memorize?” Or even, “Is there a different way for students to memorize information that doesn’t lead to “cramming?”

I’m not generally a fan of homework but I don’t see all homework as “harmful.” I used to make homework optional as fun extension activities and students often turned the work in. When doing a documentary project, they would interview experts and add the videos to their finished work. In our Project Social Voice, students had the option of doing community needs assessments.

When we use a term like “problematic” or “harmful” to describe a teaching strategy, we rob ourselves of the chance to engage in authentic dialogue. We create false binaries that shut out the nuance that often exists in teaching. The truth is that teaching is a mystery and we can never know for sure what will work. There are so many variables and something that works well in one context might tank in another. This is why it helps to treat every lesson as an experiment.

Taking on a “Beta” Mindset

I believe in a philosophy of beta. No, not the old video tapes we had in the 80’s. I’m thinking more along the lines of beta releases in software platforms.

It’s the idea that you release your work in beta, knowing that it’s not perfect and perhaps it’s not even very good at all. However, you’re going to send it to an audience so that they can see it, experience it, and play around with it to let you know what you should do to improve it. This feedback leads to self-reflection, where you ultimately change your design and then release a new version. As you move through multiple iterations, you eventually reach a place where your work is pretty good. Eventually, it’s great. But you never stop creating those iterations. You always experiment.

 

The beta cycle goes from new release to audience interacts to get feedback to design and then back to beta releaseThis same philosophy works in teaching. When you take on a “beta mindset,” you are willing to take creative risks. You know that a lesson might work. It might tank. But it’s always an experiment. Through tons of tiny iterations, your lessons grow more and more innovative.

The beta mindset says “I’m not going to wait until I know it’s perfect. I’m going to try this out even though I’m nervous about how it’s going to work. Because ultimately this experimentation is how I figure out what works.”

But it also means you are listening to your students. You are open to their feedback. You might pull students aside for conferences or you might create student surveys to see what elements were successful. This feedback is what fuels your self-reflection as you redesign your lessons and “release to beta” again.

Here are some of the benefits I’ve seen when I observe teachers who take on the beta mindset and continually experiment:

  1. When they model creative risk-taking, they create a classroom climate and culture where students aren’t afraid to take positive risks.
  2. When they solicit student feedback, they are more humble and approachable. Students are more empowered while also showing the teacher more respect.
  3. Teaching remains fresh. They don’t fall into the zone of having it all figured out.
  4. They are less likely to experience Imposter Syndrome because they have been open about the fact that every lesson might tank. In fact, they are honest about what is not working as they push forward to improve.
  5. They avoid the crushing perfectionism that can lead to teacher burnout. I’ve seen so many great teachers leave the profession because they were convinced that they weren’t good enough. They would work too many hours and push themselves beyond exhaustion only to grow risk-averse in their teaching and never actually reach their full potential.
  6. The lessons are ultimately more creative and innovative as a result. There’s a very slow, normal, almost unnoticeable element to innovation that happens when we continually move through iterations. When teachers are “releasing in beta” they are constantly making little adjustments and testing out what’s working.

If you see a cool strategy or you have a new project idea, and you’re not sure how it’s going to turn out, go for it! Test it out. Experiment. Release it in beta. It might not turn out perfect but that’s okay. Kids don’t need perfect. They need real. They need you. And over time, it’s going to become even better and more creative. More importantly, just like Javi, your students are going to see an adult who is not afraid to model creative risk-taking.

Embrace the Uncertainty

In doing my dissertation on project-based learning and professional development, I read about all of the studies showing that teachers who are new to PBL often experience a period of disequilibrium. They can’t tell if the strategies are working. They’re unsure if they’re doing it correctly. It can feel overwhelming and even scary. As I read the qualitative studies and the quantitative survey data, I kept nodding and saying, “Yes! That was my experience, too.”

Every time we try something new, we are taking a creative risk. We are admitting that our lessons might not be light or water. There will be mistakes but the mistakes are the manure that help us grow. It is a mystery. A few years ago, I created this flow chart for the book Empower that I co-wrote with AJ Juliani. If we know ahead of time that a strategy will work, we end up with the status quo. If we enter into the unknown, we end up with innovation.

In other words, when we “teach in Beta,” we recognize that every lesson is an experiment. We embrace this notion of the unknown. We recognize that even if our experiment didn’t work, it’s not actually a “failed experiment.” It’s actually just a null hypothesis. The only failed experiment is the one we didn’t attempt. If you don’t have any “failed experiments,” chances are you’re not experimenting.

Going back to this flow chart, note that the “status quo” isn’t bad. We need the status quo to help us embrace best practices. We need the uncertainty to help us embrace the next practices.

If you never embrace the status quo, you run the risk of chasing the newest and triendiest ideas without ever finding solid ground. You fail to take the things that worked and build on them so that you can move things to the next level. We need the status quo. These are our tried and true best practices. This is why it’s okay to do the same epic project multiple years in a row. This is why it’s okay to use the same 3-5 brainstorming protocols over and over again within PBL. Consistent protocols can help reduce cognitive load in PBL.

I wrote about this overlap of the “best practices” and the “next practices” in my book Vintage Innovation. The video below explores what this looks like:




Vintage Innovation is a both/and mindset. It’s the overlap of the “tried and true” and the “never tried.” It’s a mash-up of cutting edge tech and old school tools. It’s the overlap of timeless skills in new contexts. Vintage innovation is what happens when engineers use origami to design new spacecraft and robotics engineers are studying nature for innovative designs. Vintage innovation is what happens when we embrace the best practices and the next practices.

This vintage innovation mindset reminds us that the context is always changing and the technology often grows obsolete. However, teachers will always be the heart of innovation. Innovation will always be about growth and that growth is often messy and mysterious. It’s about water and light and, yes, even crap.

 

 

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me

4 Comments

  • Terry Ward says:

    This was such an awesome podcast. I am a cabinet maker, with my own business for over 30 years. 6 years ago I got into teaching woodwork and drafting at a high school grades 9-12. We, for professional development had to choose a book and get into groups or 3-4 and meet every 2 weeks and discuss the book, chapters etc. I am definitely not an academic person and actually let the vice principal decide which book I should go with. He pushed me into the PBL. I am so sold, and I know that I have actually been doing a lot of this to some degree, just not very structed. I teach the kids business, marketing, and so much more than just the woodwork. But now I want to get it all to some sort of structure and make it more deliberate. What was so cool about todays was the one sentence you had about teachers that give up an quit because they don’t think that they are good enough. I have this all time. I want my shop to be perfect, tools in a perfect spot, systems, etc. But what works for me doesn’t work for 80 students (4 classes of 20). So that was a relief to read. Messy is ok as one of the other PBL books says.
    Do you know any PBL woodwork teachers directly that I could see what they may be doing. Because I am so new to this I am wondering where to begin and what I can take that I already have and tweak.
    What Podcasts, reference material, courses would you point me towards.

    Thanks again

    Terry Ward
    Woodwork & Drafting Teacher

    MEI Secondary

    P: 604.859.3700 ext 332
    C: 604.928.8511
    [email protected] | meischools.com
    4081 Clearbrook Rd, Abbotsford BC V4X 2M8
    CANADA

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