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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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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“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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Dear Educational Publisher/Vendor: We Care About Our Data, Even When You Don’t Seem To

I’ve been in several conversations lately where publishers and vendors have taken an awful casual approach to identity and student data management.  The front end of their new “digital textbook” looks great.  HTML5 and everything.  Plays nicely with an iPad, or a Chromebook or any other screen on any other device.  As they should.  I get excited.  

And then I get a look at the user database or authentication tools they provide for managing accounts and student data for the product.  And again and again and again, I get a little sick to my stomach.  No way to authenticate against our identity databases.  No way to actively manage and/or sync data from our databases to theirs.  Duplicate accounts.  Terrible data management.  Shockingly disappointing attention to issues of privacy or student ownership of the work they do.  

The worst part isn’t that they don’t get it – educational software and publishers are often a little behind cutting edge when it comes to enterprise level technology.  I get it.  Many school districts are behind on this, too.  It’s when we raise questions and express our concern that I get upset.  Because we get one of two types of responses:

1.  This is “the first time anyone’s ever asked these questions,” we’re told.  As if we should be excited that we ask new questions that no one else is asking.  That’s scary.  

2.  “Well, we understand your concerns, but other school districts don’t want these things, and we don’t feel the need to develop them,” I hear.   That’s worse.  

I can’t fathom why publishers and vendors are so willing to play fast and loose with precious data – student personal info, their schoolwork and creations, etc.  But it’s not okay.  And worst thing is when, in spite of our concerns, we hear things like this:

“Well, the front end is so beautiful and high quality.  Would you really allow your concerns over this other stuff to prevent you from giving these amazing resources to your teachers and students to use?”

My answer to that question is always going to be yes.  A pretty thing on the other side of a glass wall of awfulness will keep me walking right on through the universe of options. I’ll pick the resource that’s not as good if I know I can keep my students safe and our data reasonable to manage and protect.  The “it’s only one more account” for a student to learn or use argument is no good when there’re only five or ten or more accounts for folks to actually have to learn in order to do their jobs.  

Let’s do better.  Let’s demand better.  

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On Skinned Knees & Lessons Learned

It’s skinned knee season in our home, with two girls riding bikes of the two and four-wheeled variety, and a third toddling along just behind – ready for far more than she’s capable of.

And I’m not one to stop someone who’s trying to make progress, even if that progress might be dangerous.

So we’ve been through lots and lots of boxes of Band-Aids for hurts both real and imagined. And we’re quick to wash out wounds and make sure that we keep them looked after.

But no matter how well we wash and watch, some of them are going to leave permanent marks. Like the time Ani discovered that you can’t make a ninety-degree turn on a bike. Or the time that Teagan realized, in a most unfortunate way, that you cannot stop a tricycle like Fred Flintstone could stop his car.1 Quinn forgets, sometimes, about “down.” She’s still kind of new.

Each of those moments hurts. But hurt can have an upside. In fact, some would tell you that hurt, or pain, has an evolutionary advantage. It tells us when we hit a limit of some kind.

And those marks will help them remember the stories of the injuries one day. They’ll proudly show the little scars and blemishes that never quite go back to normal and explain that they rode a bike early, or took a chance on a curb or wrestled with a cat or went head over handlebars in a moment of panic.

But hurt, like fear, well, it just hurts. And to know someone you love is hurting is the worst kind of pain, a pain of helplessness and empathy and doubt.

Oh, how I wish I had a suit of Nerf and armor that I could force my children to wear when they go out into the world, or want to wrestle that cat. To be able to ensure the safety of my children, be they walking to school or traversing a steep hiking trail along the edge of a narrow cliff, would make my sleep come much easier.

But I don’t. And the marks and memories would be hard to accumulate from inside an impenetrable shell of foam. I also suspect it’d be mighty difficult to hear with all that Nerf so close to one’s ears.

There are plenty of days I want to say “Today, let’s stay here, where cars and cats and cliffs and sticks and stones and words can’t hurt us.” But I can’t. Because that’d be parental malpractice. As a dad, it’s my job to listen and bandage and help my children to be brave, to not stop when it’d be a whole lot easier and may well hurt a great deal less and be more safe to just stay still. Being brave? It’s important. And I hate it. Oh, there are days I very much dislike that job.

As a teacher, that’s my job, too.

I hope you’ve got a kit full of peroxide and Band-Aids with you as you take your charges out into the world. I hope you, and they, are being very brave.

  1. Of course, Teagan would have no clue who Fred Flintstone is. Or was. Whatever. But I do find it interesting that “Flintstone” is in my Web browser’s dictionary. []
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On Being Afraid

On Friday, Converge did a quite nice write up of some of our district’s work with technology. I found it to be a splendid piece. Specifically, a large portion of the article featured some of the work we’ve been doing with the Digital Learning Collaborative. If you need a one sentence summary of that work, well, Paige does a fine job:

It was awesome and scary for some to be in charge of their learning.

I think that pretty much sums up what I’m seeing with regards to the way that we’re asking teachers in the DLC to take control of their own learning. It is scary for many of our teachers to take control. And it is awesome, delightful even, when it happens.

More often than I’d like in the DLC, the teachers that we’re working with, and we work with the leaders of the teams, folks identified as teacher leaders in their schools, so chew on that a bit, are afraid, or unwilling, or unable, to take control of their own learning. These teachers, quite fine and thoughtful people, are often waiting for Michelle or I to tell them what’s worth learning and/or doing. That’s troublesome1.

This is mostly a rhetorical question, but I’d encourage you to consider it anyway – what’s happened to teachers and teaching that it’s so difficult for teachers to feel they have agency enough to follow their own lines of inquiry and learning?

And why in the world is that okay?

  1. And the word “troublesome” is quite the understatement, I think. []
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