Category Archives: What I’m Reading

Want to Drive Change? Stop Planning and Start Acting.

I read a really interesting Matt Mullenweg article this week detailing one of Apple’s greatest strengths as a brand:  Their willingness to ship first and polish products later.

Mullenweg points out that every game-changing Apple device — including the iPod, iPad and iPhone — was panned by reviewers when it was initially released.  And in many cases, reviewers were right:  The earliest versions of many of Apple’s most successful products were far from perfect.  Sometimes, that imperfection was a result of flawed product design or important features that the company hadn’t anticipated.  Other times, that imperfection was a result of an inability to access required component parts at costs that could make each individual product affordable.

But perfection wasn’t the goal for Apple.  Usage was — and usage matters WAY more than perfection when you are trying to drive change.  As Mullenweg explains:

“Usage is like oxygen for ideas. You can never fully anticipate how an audience is going to react to something you’ve created until it’s out there. That means every moment you’re working on something without it being in the public it’s actually dying, deprived of the oxygen of the real world…

By shipping early and often you have the unique competitive advantage of hearing from real people what they think of your work, which in best case helps you anticipate market direction, and in worst case gives you a few people rooting for you that you can email when your team pivots to a new idea. Nothing can recreate the crucible of real usage.”

You can see the implications for education, can’t you?  

All too often, we spend MONTHS — or even YEARS — polishing ideas instead of pushing them out into our buildings or our classrooms.  We get bogged down in committees who meet monthly to study and to research and to brainstorm and to build consensus and to raise awareness and to prepare — and all that happens BEFORE an idea is ever even introduced to a faculty.  Every change effort — think starting a 1:1 initiative or designing a school-wide remediation or enrichment period or integrating the 4 Cs into our instruction or moving to a project-based curriculum — becomes a long-term goal dependent on extensive planning and preparation instead of taking any kind of action.

But here’s the hitch:  When every change effort is seen as a long term goal, nothing ever changes.  Worse yet, when every change effort is seen as a long-term goal, your willingness to change direction when something isn’t working drops because you are completely and totally invested in a bad idea.

Mullenweg — who also happens to be the founding developer behind WordPress, open-source software that powers over twenty percent of the web — has a simple rule for pacing change projects:  He argues that if you aren’t embarrassed by the first version of anything that you “ship,” then you waited too long to get started.

So whether you are a superintendent, a principal or a classroom teacher, let Mullenweg’s “be embarrassed” rule drive your thinking this year.  Quit concentrating on developing the perfect initiative, project or lesson and start committing to an act first, polish later orientation to change.  Doing so gives you a better chance of developing something that you can be proud of.


Related Radical Reads:

Hitting Home Runs 50 Feet at a Time

Our Compulsive Obsession with the Impossible Sexy

Make Like an Obstetrician and Deliver

Am I Failing the Introverts in My Classroom?

If you’ve ever met me in person, this might catch you by surprise:  I am an introvert.

That doesn’t mean I can’t stand in front of a group of people and deliver a good presentation.  That also doesn’t mean that I can’t be playful and loud and gregarious.  In fact, I’m pretty good at all of that stuff.  Gimme an audience and a microphone and I’ll make someone laugh, that’s for sure.  Need proof?  Then ask me to sing The Canadian National Anthem or the Devil Went Down to Georgia someday.  I’ll belt both out at the top of my lungs no matter where we happen to be standing.

But I learn best when I’m lost in my own thoughts.  

Writing and reading aren’t just personal passions — they are the moments in my life when I’m left alone to reflect and recharge.  Stop by the booth in the back of the dirty McDonalds where I spend entirely too much time and I’ll nod and smile from behind my screen, but please don’t sit down and start a conversation.  It will feel like an interruption to me — and interruptions destroy my intellectual flow.  That might come across as selfish, but it is the truth.

Now, I’m not saying that I CAN’T learn with others.

I actually dig moments where I can connect with thinkers that I enjoy and admire.  I recognize their expertise and appreciate their feedback.  They are a source of challenge and inspiration and they tend to drive my thinking in new directions.  But those moments can also leave me feeling more than a little overwhelmed — not because I’m socially awkward or nervous or full of anxiety, but because I know that I will leave with tons of new ideas that I’ll need to wrestle with before I can move forward.

What’s interesting about all of this to me is that despite seeing myself as an introvert, I’m pretty sure that my classroom prioritizes extroverts.  There are constant opportunities for checking in with partners.  Group conversations are the norm rather than the exception to the rule.  Projects are always done in pairs — and they happen all the time.  My lessons are fast-paced and full of energy and there’s few moments set aside for genuine introspection.

A part of that is my response to implicit suggestions that being “college and career ready” means being extroverted.  Read through research and you are likely to see report after report about the importance of teamwork in the modern workplace.  Rumor has it that companies aren’t looking for folks who learn best when they are buried inside their own minds.  Instead, they are looking for folks who can collaborate on complex problems —  driving innovation by building on and challenging the ideas of one another.

A part of that is my response to the notion that I’m trying to reach “the connected generation.”  Sometimes I feel like I am competing with a thousand sources of enertainment that rest a few clicks away for today’s kids.  If every lesson isn’t filled with heaping doses of whiz-bang, I figure I’m going to lose an audience that has learned to hit the reset button the moment something doesn’t go their way.  Pauses are interruptions to the impatient, aren’t they?

And a part of that is my response to trying to teach a ridiculous curriculum.  With a thousand objectives to get through in 180 days, I pack action into every moment of every single school day.  That’s not because I don’t see any value in sitting with thoughts.  Heck — I’m sitting with my own thoughts right now.  It’s because I feel a very real pressure to cover everything that’s mentioned in North Carolina’s science standards — and that turns every school year into a full court press.

That’s all a failure for some of my students, isn’t it?

Michael Godsey — author of When Schools Overlook Introverts — certainly thinks so.  He writes:

It seems that such efforts have, for the most part, struggled to effect much change in the educational world. The way in which certain instructional trends—education buzzwords like “collaborative learning” and “project-based learning” and “flipped classrooms”—are applied often neglect the needs of introverts.

In fact, these trends could mean that classroom environments that embrace extroverted behavior—through dynamic and social learning activities—are being promoted now more than ever. These can be appealing qualities in the classroom, of course, but overemphasizing them can undermine the learning of students who are inward-thinking and easily drained by constant interactions with others.

He also writes:

I used to think their ubiquitous earbuds were feeding their need for stimulation; now I wonder if they’re sometimes blocking out the noise.

So what’s the solution?  

I’m not sure.  The simple truth is that finding space for introspection in days that are straight slammed and in schools that prioritize action over reflection won’t be easy to do.  But I can promise to stop judging the “quiet kids” in my classroom.  Intead of seeing them as disengaged, I’m going to force myself to remember that learning doesn’t have to be loud and messy to be meaningful.





Feedback Should be More Work for the Recipient

I’ve been doing a ton of reading about the impact that feedback has on student learning over the past few weeks (see here).  It’s something that I’m passionate about AND something that I’m working to get better at in my own practice.

One quote rolling through my mind right now is this one:


William’s argument — which he articulates nicely in Embedded Formative Assessment — is a simple one:  The primary purpose of feedback is to cause learners to think.

An example of William’s notion of effective feedback comes from the math classroom.   He argues that instead of collecting homework, marking problems right and wrong and then handing papers back with a grade, a teacher could tell each student nothing more than the number of wrong answers that can be found on their papers.  Then, students should be held accountable for finding and correcting each mistake on their own.

William shares another example from the language arts classroom.  He argues that instead of correcting grammar and punctuation mistakes FOR students, teachers should make simple marks in the margin indicating sentences where students have made errors.  Then, students should be held accountable for reviewing sentences with marks indicating errors, finding their own mistakes, and making corrections.

Both of these practices require LESS of the classroom teacher, don’t they?  It’s WAY easier to simply indicate mistakes than it is to cover a student’s paper in detailed corrections.  And both of these practices require MORE of our students, who have to carefully return to their work — something that rarely happens once papers are passed back in traditional classrooms.  The REAL value in these examples rests in the reflection that students do after feedback is given.

Stew in all of this for a minute:  If William is right that effective feedback should be more work for the recipient than the donor, how much effective feedback are you giving in your classroom?

What’s keeping you from giving more?



Related Radical Reads:

Effective Feedback is a Work For/Work On Process

@shareski is Right:  My Students CAN Assess Themselves

Another Student-Involved Assessment Experiment

Giving Effective Feedback is a Work For/Work On Process [Activity]

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been reading a ton about the characteristics of effective feedback.  The topic resonates with me because I’m frustrated by the fact that students in my classroom often seem to believe that the only people that can evaluate their strengths and weaknesses are the adults in their lives.  My goal is to figure out ways to create empowered learners who realize that they can reliably assess their OWN progress and abilities as long as they know what to look for.

The title that has really captured my attention is Dylan William’s Embedded Formative Assessment.

What I love about William’s text is that it is full of really practical suggestions and instructional techniques that can be easily adapted for use in any classroom.  While feedback isn’t the only topic tackled in Embedded Formative Assessment, there is an entire chapter that describes the characteristics of high-quality feedback.  My favorite quote:

If I had to reduce all of the research on feedback into one simple overarching idea, at least for academic subjects in school, it would be this:  feedback should cause thinking.  All the practical techniques discussed here work because, in one way or another, they get students to think, rather than react emotionally the feedback they are given. (Kindle Location 2592)

After working through the chapter, I adapted several of William’s techniques and developed the following task for my sixth grade science students — who have been learning to write good conclusions after studying the absorbancy of paper towels in a recent lab:

Handout – Evaluating Paper Towel Lab Conclusions

We started the lesson by reviewing the characteristics of a good conclusion.  Then working alone, students rated the two sample conclusions included on the handout on a scale from one to five against the criteria of a good conclusion.

After everyone had initial ratings for each sample conclusion, they compared their ratings with the ratings made by other members of their lab group.  If members disagreed over the scores that each conclusion deserved, students had to come to consensus by providing evidence to support their ratings.  Finally, I shared my ratings for both conclusions, allowed students to ask questions about the reasoning behind my decisions, and then turned the kids loose to revise and edit their own conclusions.

This handout and lesson are good examples of how feedback should be given to students for three reasons:

I provided clear criteria for a quality conclusion:  William argues that students can’t accept feedback until they have an accurate sense for what it is that they are trying to accomplish.  By breaking down the characteristics of a quality conclusion into four easy-to-identify components — and then by listing those components at the top of the handout in approachable language — my students are better prepared to spot strengths and weaknesses in scientific conclusions without my support.

I provided an intellectual challenge:  At the beginning of the task, I told students that the first sample conclusion is better than the second sample conclusion.  Their job was to figure out why.  This simple strategy — which William also recommends — forced my kids to make comparisons between the two samples.  That’s a tangible example of William’s argument that “feedback should cause thinking.”

I required students to work through disagreements with one another:  My favorite part of the lesson was that members of the same lab group rarely had the exact same ratings for each of the four criteria of a good conclusion.  That led to GREAT conversations.  Every conflict provided moments for students to articulate their reasoning for their ratings and forced them to return to the text to find evidence to prove (or disprove) their positions.

The entire lesson took thirty minutes — and it was probably the best thirty minutes that I’ve spent in the classroom this year.

Not only did my students have the chance to wrestle with the characteristics of quality conclusions and to make sense of the task together, they had the chance to spot mistakes in the sample conclusions — a practice that is likely to help them to avoid making similar mistakes in their own work (William, 2011).

More importantly, I made my students WORK FOR their feedback and then gave them time to WORK ON their own conclusions after receiving feedback — two fundamental characteristics of effective practice.  Quality feedback should always lead to action on the part of the learner.  Providing feedback without providing time to act is essentially wasting time and intellectual energy (William, 2011).

So whaddya’ think?  Is this a task that you could adapt for your classroom?


Related Radical Reads:

When was the Last Time You Asked Your Students for Feedback?

@shareski is Right:  My Students CAN Assess Themselves

Another Student-Involved Assessment Experiment

Pushing Against Incivility.

I spent the better part of last night wrestling with the role that feedback plays in the classroom.  I kept coming back to the notion that kids don’t really take much action on the feedback that they receive from teachers — and I started to wonder if that was a result of the fact that students don’t get much modeling on how learners respond to feedback.

Wouldn’t there be value in transparently asking students for feedback and then publicly changing our practices based on that feedback?  Kind of like a behavioral think-aloud so that the kids in our classrooms could see that feedback should force both reflection and action in the person who receives it?

I shared those ideas out through Twitter, figuring that it would drive someone else’s thinking, too.  Here’s what I wrote:

How often do you model an action orientation to feedback for your students?  Do you transparently receive and then change based on feedback?  

(And if not, how can you expect your students to take action based on the feedback that you give them?)

Harmless enough, right?  Nothing terribly provocative there.  Just two short messages designed to highlight the thinking that was rolling through my mind.

That thinking ended up being anything but harmless to three teachers from Ontario*, who completely tore me apart.

Their first Tweet:  “What the hell does that mean, anyway?”  Another wrote, “I see you’ve found more #edubollocks for us to laugh at.”  They went on to describe me as “vacuous and trite,” suggested that I was “perpetuating corrosive drivel on the next generation of teachers,” and that I was skilled in nothing more than “dishing out endless babble.”  They saw me as a part of “the machine” — and it was their duty to stand up and speak out against the pointlessness of ideas like mine.

While there was real disrespect in their statements, they were honestly convinced that I was the one being disrespectful — blinding school leaders with empty ideas and then walking everyone happily off intellectual cliffs like some kind of professional Pied Piper.

Through it all, I pushed against the disrespect that they were showing.  I asked how they would react if a student in their classrooms attacked the thinking of a peer with open sarcasm and derogatory language.  I pointed out that I was hardly a part of any machine, that they’d paid nothing for my ideas, and that they were free to follow people who were less corrosive at any time.  But they couldn’t get away from the thought that people like me are the problem with education because we peddle jargon that teachers are forced to consume.

“That went well,” one wrote to the other shortly after I left the conversation.

While it was a long night, I walked away with a few valuable lessons:

I learned that civil discourse should be an instructional priority in every schoolhouse.  We’ve become a world where the lines between disagreeing with and disrespecting others are badly blurred every single day.  Given that we celebrate political leaders who publicly call others weak, pathetic losers after making misogynistic comments, can we really be surprised when those same behaviors are mirrored in the other spaces where we live and talk and think?

That worries me — and it points out a responsibility for every classroom teacher.  We have to point out moments where unhealthy speech is defining conversation to our students.  We have to stand up for civility and we have to model collaborative dialogue in our classrooms every day.  Tolerance for intolerant dialogue does nothing for our communities. Our kids need to know that and see it and own it.

I also learned that Twitter isn’t what it used to be. It was once the most amazing “digital break room” — a place where really bright teachers would come together and connect.  Conversations were the norm instead of the exception to the rule.  People would laugh and joke with each other as they wrestled with interesting ideas and challenged one another’s practice.  Now — as my buddy William Chamberlain wrote last night — it’s become that shady corner of town where hooligans hang out waiting to cast insults at passersby.

I used to think that Twitter was a space worth fighting for.  After last night, I’m not so sure.  Wouldn’t it just be easier to find a private space where I know that I’ll be surrounded by peers who are willing to see one another as learning partners?  What value is there in battling trolls who seem hell bent on nothing other than playing their Trump cards when digital tools and spaces make it possible to create something better?

Finally, I learned that teachers can be their own worst enemies. By the end of last night’s conversation, I’d realized that the teachers uncorking on me weren’t really mad at me at all.  Instead, they were angry about being forced to sit in unproductive staff training sessions.  “You spend fifteen years sitting in professional development,” one wrote,” and see how you feel.”

And don’t get me wrong:  While I know nothing about professional development in Ontario, their frustration may well be legit.  Maybe their staff training sessions really are a step away from abject misery.  I know I’ve sat in my fair share of really bad PD over the last 23 years of my teaching career.  But I also know that creating something better starts when we act reasonably — asking thoughtful questions, providing possible alternatives, pushing against ideas instead of individuals.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that driving change and declaring war are two different things — and until teachers start dropping a little tempered into their radical, we are unlikely to be influential in any way.  

Any of this make sense?

*Blogger’s Note:  I’m going to keep the identities of these folks private.  My goal isn’t to call them out publicly as people.  Instead, it’s their actions that I want to call out.  Hope that makes sense.  


Related Radical Reads:


What Can YOUR Kids Learn from the Romney Perry Slugfest

Bill’s Resources on Teaching Kids about Collaborative Dialogue*

*Twitter General’s Warning: This material may, in fact, be vacuous, trite, corrosive drivel being perpetuated on a new generation of teachers.  But it is free.  So there’s that.