Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Star Wars, PBL, Goodwill Hunting, and 20% Time in My Classroom

A couple of years back I came to a stark realization that as a teacher, everything (and I mean everything, thank you very much, Kahn Academy) that I teach is taught on the internet and probably in a better way. I would liken this moment of realization probably to the moment when Luke found out that he had kissed his sister. I had felt like I had picked the wrong field. What did I do as a teacher that provided meaning to my students more so than what they could get from the internet?

One of my favorite scenes in modern cinema is the “How About Them Apples Scene” from Goodwill Hunting (Note: the aforementioned link has some mature language).  To paraphrase the scene Matt Damon argues with a Harvard undergrad about the economic structure of the pre-revolutionary war colonies. Matt Damon says in the argument, “You dropped 150 grand on an education that you could have gotten for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library.” Now this isn’t to say that a college education is unnecessary; far from it. In fact the movie, I believe, argues that false dichotomy completely. I guess the realization I had and this particular scene both hit home for me as a teacher and make me wonder how or even if I can do more for my students than what they can get for $1.50 less than even Matt Damon had mentioned through the internet.

Last year I asked many of my students (Juniors and Seniors in High School) why they came to school. I was not surprising what their answer was. Far and away, the most common answer was friends and the social aspect. The second most common answer was to get into college. This is very encouraging. The third most common answer, however, was that they only came to school because their parents/the state/my probation officer is making me. Now, this wasn’t a controlled scientific poll, but just something I asked in a very informal way. However, it led me down a path of questioning myself. If, according to my generated data, less than 30% of my students were coming to school for an education, then that just wasn’t cutting it. I needed to find a way to motivate the others.

This summer I was lucky enough to have a google hangout with an amazing teacher by the name of Kevin Brookhouser. I could go on for days on how impressive he is and all his titles. He is a certified Google instructor, Certified iPad Instructor, English Teacher at a private school in California; his list goes on and on. He recently did a TED Talk on what is called 20% time. If you have a second, check it out.

One of the most important things I got from him, however was to read a book called Drive by Daniel Pink. What Daniel Pink suggests is that historically our best motivating tools, in business and schools, are carrots and sticks; meaning if you are good then you receive a sweeter carrot, if you are bad you get hit with a bigger stick. Carrots and stick, or extrinsic motivation, is not beneficial to properly motivate people today. At least not in the sense of promoting 21st Century Skills and real world creativity for solving real world problems. If you have about 15 minutes, check out his TED Talk as well, he can describe this better than I can, and he’s a tad bit more entertaining. Suffice it to say, he claims that carrots and sticks hinder creativity, rather than help it.

I was as guilty as any teacher at this. I would ask for creative responses and try to foster it by throwing out candy right and left. I would joke with my students and say that I was throwing tootsie rolls like Tebow throws footballs (This clip is a great one about muscle memory and bad habits–another topic for another day). I gave out treats for the most creative answers, and in return, probably stifled other creative responses. Granted, it was unintentional, but detrimental much the same.

I had remembered back into high school and college and all of my great teachers and lessons learned. Again, I will probably leave out some great teachers. That being said, I had a Visual Narratives course from Dr. Todd Petersen at Southern Utah University. This class was life changing for a million different reasons. But one specific reason was that I remember not caring what my grade was. I did not care how sweet the carrot was that I got at the end, nor did I care if I got hit with a big stick for failing. I enjoyed every second of it. I spent hours working on the class project, I put off other school work for his projects. While coaching JV basketball that year, I was often found working on this project on bus rides and even in the bleachers during our Freshman and Sophomore team’s games. I even specifically remember calling in sick to work once so that I could finish up a post I was doing on the class wiki regarding the Watchmen. Bear in mind, this assignment wasn’t extra credit, nor was it part of a specific grade for the class. To echo what Pink talks about, I actually gave up carrots (a hourly shift at a local pizza store) to be able to work on extra aspects of this class. I was motivated, invested and had no interest in the extrinsic reward yet I was extremely interested in the end outcome.
Pink talks about the three motivating factors for creativity: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. He claims that people need to be in charge of what they are doing or at the very least how they do it. I have noticed this in the classroom. Many times students can’t get involved or engaged because they aren’t interested in the subject. Mastery, involves the aspect that the individual feel incremental improvement. It is not about perfection but seeing themselves get better. Finally, and in my opinion the most important, is purpose. Too many times students will complain by saying “when am I ever going to need to know this.” Giving them an actual real life purpose eliminates that.

Pink details many great companies leading the way in motivating their employees. Among these companies, Google, 3M, Facebook and a company named Atlasian that have given their employees 20% of their time to work on whatever projects they would like. These projects are later presented to the companies. The amazing thing is that after implementing this, the productivity has gone up and they have developed some amazing inventions as a result.
This is what I was looking for. This is what I want for my students. However, the question now becomes how to do this in my classroom. How can I turn my classroom into a place where they can create.
Here is my plan

  • Students will have every Friday to work on a project that is new to them and they are passionate about. Only 20 Time work can be done on Fridays.
  • Students will write a weekly blog post updating the world on how their project is doing.
  • Students will do a small presentation to the class at the end of the first semester to update the class on their work.
  • Students will do a final “TED” style talk at the end of the second semester to the class and any others that wish to attend during school.
  • Some students will be selected by students and staff to present at a “TED” style event after school hours that will be open to the community and streamed live.
  • (My personal favorite) Failure IS an option. As it says on Facebook Headquarters “Done is Better than Perfect”
Next week we will be incorporating Brookhouser’s Bad Idea Factory, an structure that is set up to eliminate aprehension and to help kick-start brainstorming efforts. They will then be asked to present their ideas to the class as well as the world. The class will help them decide if this project has worth or if they should retool it, repackage it, or junk it all together and try something else. Students will choose a mentor to help guide them through their project, but the vast majority of the work will be up to the students. I’m very excited to see the different types of projects students will come up with and all of the amazing things they will accomplish.

If you are interested in doing 20 Time in your class, please check out these resources. They were a huge help to me.

Kevin Brookhouser’s Website: http://www.iteachithink.com/

20 Time in Education - Watch the video and check out the site!

I’ll be tweeting about my adventures in 20 Time and you can follow them on the hash tag #20Time or the hash tag #geniushour or my specific tweeting #mre20time. Thanks for stopping by and please share any experience you have had with 20 Time in the comments below.

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