Tech culture transforms a classroom

           I think of myself as an entrepreneur, running a small business of about 25 individuals in the growth industry. I peddle risk-taking, initiative and exponential learning. I have eight years of experience. Before that I was an elementary teacher in the education busyness. Yes, busyness, lively but meaningless activity, or at least that’s how my students used to feel.

A shift in my thinking about education started ten years ago when our son Steve headed went to college. I had already been teaching 16 years. If you measured performance with mandated state test scores, many might be impressed. Yet, students complained about schoolwork, which was too hard, too easy or too boring. Many chose idle chatter over work. They dreamed of gym, wiggled in their seats, and shot for the door when the bell rang.

One semester, I noticed our son Steve was working unusually long hours on a computer class with great enthusiasm and with a firm belief that he was developing his mind in important ways. He was tackling problem sets, worth little towards his grade, and a programming challenge in artificial intelligence, not counted towards his grade at all. He was also skipping class, which carried no penalty. His professor understood the power of choice and the importance of environment. I realized our son was working for two great bosses: his professor and himself. 

My fifth grade classroom was so different.  I couldn’t imagine entrusting students with so much choice.  And yet, I wanted to see my students as invested as our son was, so I made my first small change.  Students could write anything they wanted three times a week for 45 minutes, with no restrictions, no requirements and no evaluations. Writing exploded in the classroom, and many students wrote evenings and weekends. One girl wrote over 250 pages.

Next our son went off for an internship at Facebook, and then a job at Dropbox. I’m not saying tech culture is perfect, but it sure does encourage experimentation and passion. At the time, Dropbox had about as many employees as I had students. The physical setting was the same too, with everyone in one large room clacking away at keyboards. There were conference rooms for group work, pauses for riotous fun, no set hours, places to nap, and free food anytime. Trust and encouragement, risk taking and considerable initiative were the order of the day.

As I saw our son in this environment willingly working long hours and loving it, I began to see the real business of teaching.  I was a boss with workers, products, budgets, constraints and delivery dates. I also grasped the extent to which the conditions I set in the classroom “workplace” might restrict or conversely unleash a passion for learning. 

I knew I couldn’t magically transform my classroom into a Dropbox environment.  First, I had to do my own learning.  I started with time efficiency because that was easiest. I read Managing Time from Harvard Business School Press, and used video recordings and the time audit sheets on myself and on students. Guess what?  The biggest time waster was me. I talked too much. I also e-mailed, wrote, corrected and photocopied too much.  My students daydreamed while I talked, became anxious reading my long lists of requirements, socialized, and spent about 10 to 15 minutes per hour on actual work production. This was a humbling experience.

My second step toward change was to take care of time-wasters.This took several years and created a complete shift in how I run the classroom from a teacher-led room to a student-run room. While this boosted happiness and production, it didn’t give me explosive learning.

My third step toward change was to collect feedback, which seemed again a manageable step. I read Feedback That Works, and got to work myself. Students filled out surveys, volunteered on steering committees, and gave feedback on assignments. I improved at giving feedback too. Student feedback is a powerful mechanism for change, but I didn’t always listen. One problem was that my ego was caught up in state testing, and I didn’t think that they would do well if I made the changes they suggested.

Three years into making changes, I got a visit from the girl who wrote 250 pages the first year of freedom in writing.  She marched to the cabinet, opened them and confronted me about the sciences packets stored in stack after stack. She knew students had told me repeatedly that they hated the packets. She felt they were undermining my efforts to create the work environment she knew I wanted. I finally agreed to let them go. She and I loaded them in the recycle bin. I faced a significant amount of work figuring out how to replace a large chunk of curriculum I had just sent off to the shredder, and yes, the state science scores went down that year.

The next day students cheered when I told them the science packets were gone. I made a public and private commitment to listen to their feedback, to give them choice, and to make changes I needed to make so that the only difference between my room and Dropbox was that the Dropbox cafeteria is way better. What happened next was explosive growth.

Over the next five years, I spent countless hours overhauling almost everything. Now, there is almost endless choice about how to learn something. Students frequently propose their own learning projects. Instead of standing at the board in front of the class giving lessons and directions, I switched to function as a learning coach. I tossed the schedule and allowed students to manage the majority of their goals and workflow.

So, what does this look like in practice? Last year, Tim came in strong academically and was successful with teachers and peers, so my work with him was around how to plan and choose great curriculum and master his workday. By mid-year, Tim knew when to schedule difficult tasks, when to work alone and how to seek out a partner or form a group. He knew how to recharge and when to ditch unproductive work. He was making great choices about what his mind needed most. My main task as his boss was to help him figure this out.

Tim was also his own boss. Here is how he planned a day. Tim started his day giving me and others feedback on homework. Tim knew a paper he was working felt demanding, and he's ambitious, so he gave himself a goal to write two or more pages. He decided to work all morning on it and to use different kinds of work to refresh as he tired. He read, set up a heat-transfer experiment he dreamed up the night before, and attended a teacher-led history discussion group. After each refresher, he went back to writing. After gym and lunch, he attended a lively student-run math group. Though they had answer keys, they preferred to come to consensus about answers because they said they learned from multiple solutions and debate. Debating done, they chose more math problems and worked until they tired. After that, Tim joined a jazz workshop run by a volunteer. He ended his day organizing his desk, and planning his homework. He saw me for a science book recommendation.

There was almost never a minute when Tim wasn't absorbed in work he chose that was of high caliber and high interest. Tim's learning is expansive.

To see Tim passionate about what he learns, working long hours for the joy of it, and capably mastering his workflow – this is what I have worked so hard for these last eight years.  Ten years ago, Tim would have been working for me and watching the clock. Now, Tim has two great bosses: himself and me, finally wise enough to know how to trust a kid to want to learn.