Justin Reich now teaches digital media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but his first job was teaching a short course in wilderness medicine. This was a hands-on lesson where a volunteer pretended to have, say, a broken leg – complete with stage make-up blood and bruises to accentuate the effect – and the students had to improvise a splint from the materials available.
Reich says he taught the course 40 or 50 times a year, and each time he made a little adjustment to see if moving a joke sooner or later, or updating a diagram he was showing, would get to ah-ha moments for students.
“And people would often say, ‘Oh my God, you’re the best teacher I’ve ever had,'” he recalls. “But I think the secret weapon I had was that I taught those lessons over and over and over again and could really hone them, so they really worked for my students.”
Memories of the continuous improvement he was able to do back then have stayed with him throughout his career, including jobs as a high school history teacher, edtech consultant for schools, PhD student and professor, and director of the MIT Instructional Systems Laboratory. . And Reich made it a personal goal to share the lesson.
“What I hope to help school children understand is how to create environments for experiencing your teaching and learning that have the kind of short-cycle experiences and the kind of feedback data that you can collect so that people can have the same kind of rapid growth that I was able to experience in this weird job where I taught the same classes every week for a year,” he says.
He has compiled his thoughts on the matter in a new book, “Iterate: the secret of innovation in schools.”
And he writes that his main motivation has been curiosity about an even larger problem, as he has observed and worked with so many schools over the past 20 years: “Why are some schools improving rapidly and others remain blocked?
EdSurge recently reached out to Reich to explore this matter further.
Listen to the episode on Apple podcast, Covered, Spotify, embroiderer or wherever you get your podcasts, or use the player on this page. Or read a partial transcript below, slightly edited for clarity.
EdSurge: Many schools have sought to integrate technology to improve teaching. How well have you seen this approach unfold?
Justin Reich: When I was a high school history teacher, I was relatively early in the United States to have a one-to-one class with wireless laptops with internet. We had this intranet server service called FirstClass that in 2003 did pretty much everything that Google for Education does now. And I had a very enterprising colleague by the name of Tom Daccord, and we started this company called EdTechTeacher that did consultancy for schools that were doing big tech purchases.
I remember going to one of the very first schools that bought iPads for all their students, and we walked around and talked to all the kids and said, “Hey, what are you really passionate about these iPads? They had cameras on them and they had all these apps, they can do all these kinds of things. And the kids were constantly saying, “Man, I love Evernote.” I can take all my notes in one place. I don’t need to carry five laptops, I can just carry this device. And I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t think that’s why we did this. I don’t think it’s worth anything, $800 to $1,000 per child, to bundle your notebooks for you. It’s ridiculous.’
And so it was actually rarer to go to a place where things were really different.
One of the places I first encountered and was like, “Oh, there’s an interesting kind of teaching and learning here,” was a charter school I visited in the Southern California, and they had adopted Google Docs relatively early and were really making great use of it. They described these new practices of revision and collaborative writing. And it wasn’t just happening in a class, but it was like it was happening in English, it was happening in social studies, it was happening in science. And I was like, ‘Oh, that’s pretty cool.’ In fact, you all teach handwriting differently because you have all these computers and you have adopted software that helps you teach handwriting differently. And so I was trying to figure out, how is it better than what I usually see?
Was it something that school leaders were doing?
One of my questions to teachers was, “How do school leaders help you? And they said, ‘Oh, I don’t think they know what we’re doing. And I was like, ‘What?’ And they said, “the principals weren’t trying to stop this teacher from using Google Docs.” There just seemed to be this kind of benign neglect.
The teachers themselves were generating these really cool new ideas, which weren’t just concentrated in one classroom, but were moving from class to class and starting to change grade level teams and change the how much of the learning was done. through schools. And it really struck me that you could do that without the principal really having a clue what was going on. So that seemed like kind of a big clue to some of these big ideas about how schools are actually changing.
If you want to get teachers to do something new, you have to get them to learn from each other. This is the main way teaching and learning is really changing in schools. …
And most teachers are patient pragmatists. Most teachers are sitting on the fence watching these new things happen and waiting to see if there’s any evidence, not in the abstracts of the research papers, but if there’s any evidence from their colleagues that these things help students. And if they get some of that evidence, they’re ready to learn and they’re ready to change their practice.
Summer is a period during which many teachers take training and improve their skills. But I was surprised in the book that you noted that teachers rarely get a chance to practice teaching.
Teachers kind of have two spaces that they learn. One such space is in a college of education classroom or seminar room where you can kind of talk about teaching. This is not how we improve in most circumstances. Like if you go to the New England Patriots and we say, ‘I’m going to put out a new play and I’m going to explain it to you, and then I want you to try it against the Broncos’, they’d be like, ‘C is a bad idea. We should go out to a training ground and we should try this thing many times. First in situations of reduced complexity.
Part of what we need to do to help teachers improve is to try to make the pieces of what we experience are small enough that we can reiterate – small enough that we can say: “Hey, at our next faculty meeting, why not teach a 10 or 15 minute mini-lesson where we try this new thing?”
Or, ‘Why not give your students a pizza and have them stay after school or invite them over for lunch and preview some of the material you’re going to teach in the next unit and get their feedback on it and have that ‘they practice some of their stuff, they start doing the final assignment a little earlier.
How do you ensure that the change you bring to the classrooms doesn’t do more harm than good? I think of the criticisms of whole language teaching in teaching young children to read and of interventions that seemed to hold children back rather than push them forward.
I would say if I had two pieces of advice for teachers it would be, number one, to bring a mindset that when you try new things, you should look for evidence that learning is changing. There are many, many schools that I’ve been to, where we were going in a school district after embracing technology for a few years, and…one of the questions I was asking was, “Does it work ? And they would often say, ‘Well, I don’t know.’ or “I’m not even sure we knew what we were trying to do.” You know, we just spent about half a million dollars buying computers for everyone.
There wasn’t a clear sense of, ‘What learning outcomes would you like to improve based on having made these investments?’ So part of it is just saying, when I try a new thing, do I have a clear idea of how the learning would be different? And is there an artifact of student learning that I could look at to see if I’m making progress or not? »
This brings us to the second tip. I have a colleague at Vanderbilt, Ilana Horn, who cautions educators against “gentleness.” Often, when we evaluate the lessons, we say to ourselves, “Did it go well? »
Now, I’m not advocating lessons that are a disaster, but quite often fluency is not a good indicator of learning. You can very easily have a group of children do an exercise and then say, “Oh, there was just no room for questions. And so they didn’t ask for anything,’ or, ‘They disagreed so much that they didn’t know what to ask or how to intervene.’
There is a certain amount of desirable difficulty. There is a certain amount of friction that we actually want in the learning process.
Listen to the full conversation on This week’s EdSurge podcast.