Fail Faster

Twice a month (roughly) the instructional coaches in my building get together to trade notes and discuss plans for the future. We’ve been doing a book study on High Impact Instruction by Jim Knight, which I highly recommend to anyone who teaches, not just coaches.

So, we were talking about the learning maps section in Knight’s book and learning targets, which is an innovation we’ve been studying as of late. One of the ladies in our meeting used to teach PE, so she talked about how learning targets come very naturally to her because it’s very obvious what you want the kids to do and it’s very obvious whether or not they have been successful at it. “There are a lot of ways to dribble a ball incorrectly,” she said, “but only one way to do it right, and the difference is obvious.” I thought back to my years as a music student. My music teacher would say something like, “Today we’re going to learn the G flat major scale,” He’d play it once, and we’d sing it back. If we were terrible at it, he’d say, “Almost– but you missed the fourth,” or something like that, and then play it again, and we’d try it again.

The formative feedback is immediate, and ongoing. It’s easy to compare yourself against the model and try again, even more so with some coaching. After the PE teacher models dribbling, for example, she tells the kids, “Go,” and they all start dribbling. She walks around and adjusts posture, hand positions, etc, and then eventually blows the whistle and gives the whole group formative feedback, “You’ve almost got it. This time, try to use the pad of your fingertips, rather than keeping your hand flat.” She blows the whistle again, and it’s time to go again. This is why kids like video games– depending on which way they wiggle their thumbs, they immediately know if they’ve made the right choice, and they can immediately try again.

What would that look like in a language arts or math class? Keep in mind that the definition of learning includes a change in behavior.

Could we boil down our general ed classes so that the kids are given a target/model, a description that is literally as long as a tweet, and then an opportunity to try?

At first, I thought, “Well they’ll fail immediately.”

And then I thought, “Oh.”

If they fail immediately, just as they would the first time they try to dribble a ball, the teacher now has an opportunity to provide formative feedback and then let them try again. Immediately. In a gym class, how often do you try dribbling the ball on the first day that dribbling is introduced? Probably about as much time as there is in the lesson. You spend the majority of the time engaged in the performance of understanding. We learn when we fail, not when we get it right all the time.

Additionally– by giving them a clear target, but then releasing them to try right away, aren’t we giving them the opportunity to invent their own strategy and construct their own learning?

AND FURTHERMORE– by curating this high failure, but low risk, environment– aren’t we automatically putting them into a growth mindset?

What if we taught kids to try, and then try again, and then try some more, and then keep trying? What if we all taught like PE teachers?


Professional “Development”

Day 5 of sick kids at home! I’m going bananas! My kids are typically blissfully healthy– so much so that when they both came down with fevers on the same day last week, I wasn’t even sure what the name of their pediatrician is. I couldn’t recall where we kept the children’s Tylenol. I was vaguely aware of standard operating procedure, but had to remind myself on a few occasions that my six year old probably would not want to engage in the activities that I find most helpful when I am sick: pajama pants and binge watching Downton Abbey.


As I was unexpectedly home for a few days, I had some time to do research outside of the norm. So, I read this article yesterday:
Ed Weekly “Let’s End PD As We Know It”

And in particular I liked this section:

“My wife is a doctor, and by nature, a somewhat skeptical person. But she really likes professional development; it is consistently useful, practical, interesting, and well-targeted to what she wants to know. The modal presentation is by doctors and for doctors; a presenting doctor talks about a case or a series of cases connected to a particular condition or disease, briefly explores the underlying science, and explains how they treat it and why. Then there is time for discussion, as other doctors offer how they would handle the same case or condition and why. Attending doctors always have choice about which sessions to attend, and only presenters who are highly rated by the audience are asked back. Sometimes there are also talks by MD-PhDs about how the underlying science is evolving in the field, or by people from industry about broader trends in health care. But all of the talks about practice come from practicing doctors. When I asked if they would ever have a non-doctor present on practice, she looked at me like I was crazy. “Of course not,” she said. “Why not?” I asked. “Because we would never take them seriously,” she replied.”

-The reason I liked this section, admittedly, is because it’s exactly what the EdCamp model is like. Teachers generate the discussions that day, powerpoints are frowned upon, and we have collaborative, problem solving sessions based on practice. Although some sessions get heated, hardly ever are they negative– very much unlike some PD I have attended when a consultant is brought in. In traditional PD, I have seen teachers read the newspaper, do crossword puzzles, storm out, argue with consultants, etc. As my school’s instructional facilitator, I have had teachers come to me to ask for consultant’s qualifications– and no matter how much education the consultant has, it doesn’t count. They want to know how much time they’ve had in a classroom. What is the established pecking order? Why do we have one? Why do we believe that some people have more to offer in the way of interesting ideas than others?

However– obviously there are times when we want teachers (and doctors) to learn something that is mandated; not up for debate– especially if we find ourselves identified as a priority school, or if we otherwise find we are behind the best practice curve. How do we facilitate that kind of learning for professionals?

For example, at some point, some surgeon decided to start doing gallbladder surgery through a scope, and now that is standard procedure. Did the hospitals hire surgeons who already had this skill, or did the hospitals train their existing surgeons in how to do it? What was that training like? Did the hospitals say to their existing surgeons– you have until the year 2000 to get board certified in laproscopic surgery, or did they just stop scheduling gallbladder surgeries with those doctors who refused to change their practice? Whatever they did– how can this be replicated in education?

Anyway. Some of my ramblings from being stuck at home with my kids (who are totally adorable, but not exactly good conversationalists unless the topic is race cars or my little pony).

Discussion welcome.