The Danger of “Good Enough”

Reply All is a new podcast I’ve been enjoying lately.  It’s a “show about the Internet.”  Their third episode featured Ethan Zuckerman, an Internet pioneer, apologizing for a very bad thing he did twenty years ago, a thing that really helped to shape the world we live in today. (9Or, at least, the Internet we live with today.))

You should listen to the whole episode – it’s not very long, and it’s embedded below.  And it’s good to know our collective Internet history.

Near the end of the episode, at about the 16 minute mark1, Ethan sums up something he’s learned from the story he’s just told.  Here’s what he says:

One of the things that I think I’ve learned in all of this is that “good enough” is a really serious problem. So, if you just flat out fail, right, if you do something and it just doesn’t work at all, you can look at it and say that was a fiasco, let’s do something really different.’ If you do something, and it kind of works – it works well enough to support what you were doing, it generates enough revenue to keep the lights on – you tend to get really attached to it, even if it was a pretty lousy solution.

“Good enough” hit me as a concept that gets in the way of, well, plenty of the work I’m doing lately.  Schools are, in many ways, “good enough.”  They’re limping along.  My family relationships?  “Good enough.”  The training I’m doing for my next race?  Heck, even my Angry Birds scores of late2 are “good enough.”

And I wonder what it is that pushes you, me, or anyone to move beyond good enough.  What are the factors and forces, aside from sheer will and determination and downright stubbornness, that will move a person or a group past “good enough” and towards “better than ever” or “continuous improvement” or “let’s nuke this whole thing and start over?”  How do we move organizations, and ourselves, beyond “good enough” in the places and situations where that matters most?

I’m cool if stubbornness is the right approach.  I just wonder if there’re better ways.

  1. 16:10 if you’re in a big hurry and don’t trust my transcription below. []
  2. Angry Birds Transformers?  Makes no sense – but such a fine way to remember my childhood fascination with robots that were cars.  AND robots. []
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Allowing (And Accepting) Students’ Choices Is Hard

One of the really difficult things about giving students meaningful choices is that they will sometimes make horrible ones.  This isn’t a school problem, so much, as it is a democracy problem.  And I’ve met plenty of people who don’t feel that all adults are able to make good choices, either.

People don’t always make the choices that we want them to.  But honoring freedom and liberty means that we allow them to make bad choices.  And we don’t stop folks from making choices just because we wish they would’ve made different ones.

I was reminded of this today as I was listening to a teacher lamenting the fact that some of his students sometimes don’t complete their schoolwork.  In class or at home.  They just choose not to do the work.  It’s a struggle to figure out sometimes when to acknowledge and when to struggle with doing something about that.

There’s a school of thought in education that suggests we cannot allow a student to make the choice to not do things, to choose to fail.  This gets expressed in plenty of ways, but one of my least favorite of those is the ways that lock students into situations (lessons, projects, readings, or even devices) over which they have no meaningful control.

I don’t find myself aligned with that school of thought so much.  Real choices mean real consequences – but also they mean that we can’t undo the deal of every bad choice a student <ahem> chooses to make.

I noticed tonight that an Alfie Kohn essay I fawned over when I read it in English Journal four years ago was recently re-posted on the Answer Sheet.  The whole thing is worth your time (and related to the above), but here’s a choice bit:

The sad irony is that as children grow older and become more capable of making decisions, they’re given less opportunity to do so in schools.  In some respects, teenagers actually have less to say about their learning – and about the particulars of how they’ll spend their time in school each day — than do kindergarteners.  Thus, the average American high school is excellent preparation for adult life. . . assuming that one lives in a totalitarian society.

When parents ask, “What did you do in school today?”, kids often respond, “Nothing.”  Howard Gardner pointed out that they’re probably right, because “typically school is done to students.”[8]  This sort of enforced passivity is particularly characteristic of classrooms where students are excluded from any role in shaping the curriculum, where they’re on the receiving end of lectures and questions, assignments and assessments.  One result is a conspicuous absence of critical, creative thinking – something that (irony alert!) the most controlling teachers are likely to blame on the students themselves, who are said to be irresponsible, unmotivated, apathetic, immature, and so on.  But the fact is that kids learn to make good decisions by making decisions, not by following directions.

Conversely, students who have almost nothing to say about what happens in class are more likely to act out, tune out, burn out, or simply drop out.  Again, it takes some courage to face the fact that these responses are related to what we’re doing, or not doing.  And the same is true of my larger point in this essay:  A lack of opportunity to make decisions may well manifest itself in a lack of interest in reading and writing.  Were that our goal, our single best strategy might be to run a traditional teacher-centered, teacher–directed classroom.

If you only let1 students make choices where the stakes are irrelevant and the options are, too, then you’re not really in the choice business, are you?

  1. This notion of permission is tricky, too, isn’t it? Are we really the folks who control whether or not choice can occur in our classrooms?  I’m not so sure about that. []
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When Programming Becomes Persuasion

It’s probably a month or two ago now that I was talking with my friend Ben about programming and some of the work that he’s exploring and that I’m involved in.

There’s a project in my school district, folks working to figure out how to encourage computer science as the “fourth r” alongside reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmatic. We are looking to see where computer science and programming live in our district habits and practices while we encourage teachers to incorporate principles of CS into their daily work.

And Ben’s all over top of projects that seek to bring programming as a skill and a habit to students from early elementary through high school.

But if you know me, you know I spend a lot of time wondering what’s new about the new stuff, and why the foundations we’ve already said we value are insufficient to incorporate the flavor du jour, whether it’s apps or programming or STEM or whatever. Most of the new, I’m certain, is covered in what we claim to value already.1

In talking with Ben, I wasn’t quite able to articulate some of my beef with programming and computer science as a new collection of knowledge that we already emphasize and value. Let me see if I can do a better job here.

Alan Turing, more than fifty years ago, made a case for how and when we’ d know that computers were thoughtful. Instead of asking “Can we tell if computers can think?” he fiddled with the question a bit. His question was something like “If a computer is talking to us, and we can’t tell it’s a computer, then that computer is clever enough to be confused with a person.” 2

If the singularity is fast approaching, and if the computers we grow closer and closer to are able to both respond to and decipher voice commands, how far away from a time and place are we when programming (coordinating and sequencing a series of steps that leads a machine to perform some work we’ve asked it to do) is really not at all functionally different from us asking someone to step into the next room and bring us a glass of water (coordinating a person to perform some work we’ve asked them to do)?

Is programming a new task, one of teaching oneself to speak an entirely alien language? Or is it an old skill – one of persuasion? How about a hybrid – language learning and linear thinking? Are we better served to distract attention from these old skills we say we value, or to find room for the new stuff in the middle of the old we already have too little time to work with?

And is programming itself a transitional skill? How long before it’s truly a persuasive task, rather than a language one?

I dunno. But I do know that an “hour of code” is a tease and not a rich, fulfilling experience. And that “covering” programming isn’t really enough.

How are you finding room for the best of the old and new in your work? And do you find programming to be a new set of stuff, or more of the valuable old?

  1. The trick is that we claim in our words and creeds more than we honor with our time. That’s not an empty critique – it’s really hard to squeeze all the important stuff in. []
  2. He and others have done much more articulate and thoughtful work on the nature of intelligence, artificial or otherwise, but go with me on the gist of the idea. []
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“Don’t Use the iPad Just to Use the iPad”

Tonight, we held our first in a series of informal meet ups intended to help build collegiality and shared expertise around being a 1:1 school district. Michelle named these events iPad Geekouts, or, for short, iGO.

During tonight’s event, I was responsible for facilitating some sharing and conversation around shifts and issues relating to technology and classroom management. In the group who came to the session was a seventh grader who is working on a design project intended to help the district think about our technology planning and implementation process from a student perspective1.
To close the session, I asked her to share some advice to the group about what she wished her teachers either would or wouldn’t do when it comes to technology in the classroom.
She thought for just a second before she said, and I’m quoting from memory:

Don’t use the iPad just to use the iPad. Have a purpose behind it. Have us use the technology to be interactive. Or to do something we couldn’t do without it. But not just because you want to say we used the iPads.

That’s pretty much the best advice ever. Our students can tell when we are faking it, so let’s make sure we’re not faking it.

How are you working to make sure that you’re using the right tools for the right jobs in your teaching and learning?

  1. I love that our CIO has enlisted a student group to provide intentional feedback on our process and implementation. []
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On Hope

Maybe it’s the cold, or this time of year, as they days grow darker and the workload grows heavier.  Maybe it’s the number of plates I have spinning right now, no more than ever, but no fewer than ever, either.  Or maybe it’s the last couple of weeks, some unexpected home repair, appliance trouble, and extended family illness.

Whatever it is, I’m certainly feeing something a little bit not quite right.  A little bit funky.  I’m off my game.

As the 1:1 I’m working on implementing turns from novel to habit for several schools and staff in my school district, I think many of them, and certainly I am, beginning to feel less ecstatic and more resigned to the grind of the day to day.

And certainly some folks have begun to wonder about the bad and possibly risky pieces of our plan to allow for more access to technology and the Internet to students as everyday habits in teaching and learning.  I do hear some people who are certain that things and networks will be used for evil rather than good.  “Let’s lock stuff down,” they say, “because students with too much ability and opportunity are bound to go astray.”

And I hear them. And I don’t want to promote the worst of what could happen.

Surely, when I’m off my game like this, when I’m second and triple guessing pretty much everything that I and others are up to, I could find it easy to be lured into believing that the worst of us is all there is, that we should be locking things up and shutting folks down. That it’d be best for everybody to find a lockstep path of compliance for everyone and always.

Moments like these, I could sure use a pep talk from someone. Might as well be me.

Here goes.

So what of all the talk of what might happen, of mistakes that could be made, of errors and missteps and failures imagined?  It might be, just might be, that when we give folks opportunity to do well, to dream big, to step forward and offer something big, bigger than we knew we could, to dream hard for something better and more beautiful than we knew we could be, well, maybe we can.

We’re all struggling the best we can to do right by children, and the conflict sometimes is not because we don’t all want to succeed, but it’s because we’re afraid we might.  And when we stumble, it’s not because we don’t mean well, but because we get stuck on the way to greatness.  Distracted, even.  Maybe it’s the cold, or this time of year.

But we can do hard things.  Of course we can do hard things.  Look at how far we’ve come.

That’s what I’ll bet on. On hope. The hope that we can be better. Let’s do good. Let’s bet on someone being great.

And let’s let that someone be us.

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Connecting to What, Exactly?

Last week, Educating Modern Learners published a piece I wrote about some of my worries about online communities and students.  The piece is called What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about Connectedness.  Here’s an excerpt:

I say often that the Internet isn’t good or bad. It’s a mirror of our best and worst selves. And we can be pretty wonderful sometimes.

Other times, we can be downright terrible.

When do we stand with our students and model how to resist bullies?   And how do we reconcile our desire to connect students to a world that is sometimes sick, twisted, and just plain mean?

How do we encourage educators and students to be brave and compassionate and firm with each other and strangers both online and off, and how do we support each other along the way?

I have no idea. But I have three daughters. And only so much time before they are potential contributors to online discourse.

Or only so much time before they are targets.

You can read the rest over at EML if you create an account.   You should.  They’re up to some good stuff.

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“How Many Minutes Should We Spend on the iPad?”

There are some questions that students and teachers ask that we really need to stop asking.  No, that’s not quite right – we need to start asking them differently.

When I was in the classroom, my students always, in the course of receiving an assignment from me, would ask “How long does this need to be?”  I understood the question, but my response was always “As long as it needs to be.”  We’d then review the criteria of the assignment, and I’d ask the question back: “How long do you think this needs to be?” I’d ask.  And learning would ensue.

As we are rolling along with our iPad 1:1 in the Learning Technology Plan, there’s a new question that I hear from parents and administrators that is worthy of a similar response.  The question’s in the title, but here it is again:

“How many minutes should we spend on the iPad?”

Each stakeholder group tacks a contextual reference on the end of the question.  For teachers, it’s “each day in class?”  For administrators, it’s phrased more like “How many minutes a day should I expect the teachers to use or direct their students to use the iPads?”  For parents, the question morphs into a question about health and wellbeing and general screen time. But whatever way a group is asking, the answer is very similar, I find, to the pushback I gave students who asked about assignment length.

The answer is, of course, a definitive “It depends.  How long do you think they/you should spend on the iPad?”  Sometimes, it’s like this: “Well, that depends on what you’re wanting to actually do.”

If your goal is to replace a physical task with a digital task, then it should be about the same as the old task.  Or faster because, you know, digital.  If your goal is to have students make something awesome, say a movie or a text or an info graphic or a piece of code, well, then the answer is that they should take as long as it takes to make something good.

But the answer should almost never be “thirty minutes three times a week,” or anything like that. We don’t argue for specific amounts of time for pencils or pens or little pocket notebooks. Let’s stop doing so for the machines.

Computers aren’t Bowflexes. And shouldn’t ever be.

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Keyboards? Who Needs Keyboards?

For quite a while now, I’ve been concerned that not enough writing is going on in our classrooms1. It seems as though we really want our students to write, but we never seem to give them time or models of writing.

Now that devices are going into our classrooms, I regularly see concerns raised that without keyboards on those devices, our students will never be able to write either fast enough, or correctly, or in the same way that they’ll be expected to in an assessment. So they never write.

Might it be that we are stuck on the notion that writing happens when keys are touched and that the only way words go into computers is via keyboards?

What did we do before keyboards, and is it possible for the first time we are in a world where we can think about what will do after them?

It might be a little premature to think about a post-keyboard world, but I sure think we’re getting close.2

  1. That’s not just me – the National Commission on Writing wanted time spent on writing in classrooms to double.  I suspect that didn’t happen. []
  2. How, where, and when are you working with dictation and input tools that aren’t keyboards? []
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If You Need a Plan B, Maybe Just Go With That Instead

I dig technology when it’s used well and thoughtfully and purposefully.  Heck, sometimes I just dig shiny things.  But I have to say that what I like and what’s worth spending time on and with in a classroom are two very different circles in the Venn diagram of my life.

I often hear that teachers using technology in their classrooms should have a Plan B or a backup lesson for if (and many would say when) a technology component of a lesson fails. The latest place I saw this was in Andrew’s piece over at Edutopia1:

Beyond ensuring that your students are actively learning or creating to meet certain goals or objectives, the key with technology is making sure that your technology use is organized, and that you’re ready to use it. And, as we all know too well, technology will sometimes present a minor glitch. That’s why it’s always important to have Plan B ready to go, possibly an analog version of your scheduled activity, in order to keep the pace of the class and keep the lesson on task. So that’s one of the first steps in successfully integrating technology into your classroom: have a backup plan ready. Without a plan to seamlessly transition from a digitally-infused lesson to an analog lesson, your class will surely descend into chaos.

I certainly think that teachers should always balance careful planning with the ability to move when the circumstances change.  If students already understand the material you’ve prepared and paced and planned around, you’d certainly change up the instruction.  A fire drill happens, changes get made.  Every once in a while, the rock solid wireless in your school may well stutter2  Occasionally, the website you’re sending folks to will get overloaded, or some other thing will happen.  I get that.

But the idea that I should always have a second plan ready to go if the technology fails says, to me at least, that the technology isn’t ready for my classroom, and probably shouldn’t be in my Plan A.

If Plan B’s plenty good, then why bother with the technology in the first place?  And if the technology isn’t so reliable, then let’s not rely on it.

Focus on the purpose of your activity in Plan A before you worry about anything else, technology included.  If you know the purposeful way you want to spend students’ time, you can make a Plan B, C or any other iteration on the fly without too much trouble.

Said another way – experimenting is fine for plenty of things, but if something just HAS to work, and is likely not to, don’t invest time and effort into giving it a whirl with a class full of students.  Their time, as well as yours, is better spent on other stuff.

 

  1. And I don’t mean to pick on him here.  This is just the latest place I saw the “Plan B” argument.  He’s been writing some really useful stuff lately.  Earlier in the piece quoted below, he gave a great answer for what to do when someone asks you if they should move from a thing that’s working really well to a new thing that everybody’s talking about. []
  2. Like, say, in March, when everyone that has a screen seems to be streaming a college basketball game.  Or today, when a large software company launches a major software update. []
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I’m Not in Love with the Word Empowerment

I’m not.  I cringe when I hear it used lately.  And I say that as someone who used to have it on my resume.  Right up near the top.  

Because for me to empower you, especially when I hear the word used by others, I’ve got to have something that you don’t have, and I have to give it to you.  That thing is, of course, power.1

Power doesn’t work that way, at least, it shouldn’t. Not in the classroom.  Plenty of stuff that I have the ability to allow you to do wasn’t necessarily my thing to keep you from doing it in the first place.  And you came to my classroom knowing things that I don’t know, and won’t know, unless you tell me about them.  But that doesn’t mean that I was necessarily in the place of knowing what was worth knowing, doing, or being.  I didn’t have all the answers.  Still don’t.

Or, said another way, the only reason teachers have power sometimes is because they chose to adopt it.  Asking our students to make that choice isn’t so much empowerment, giving power to someone else, as it is helping them realize they had it already.  Asking our colleagues to realize the same isn’t about us having something they didn’t.  It might’ve been we noticed it first.  

So don’t be in the empowerment business.  Be in the “helping folks realize they can do things they didn’t think they could” business.  Or maybe the “huh, I wonder why we’ve always done it that other way” business.  

Let’s get out of the way more.

  1. Power takes many forms.  But at it’s simplest, it’s always something that has to be given in the context of “empowerment.”  Never discovered, or realized, or co-developed.  Given.  By me to you.  Or them to us. []
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