Friday, February 17, 2012

80% and the Big Idea

A friend of mine was asking me how to avoid burnout in teaching.  Despite the fact that it may look like I go overboard sometimes, especially with classroom design, I am a huge advocate in doing just enough.

I know this hockey coach, and he told me that he tells his players, "Try to give 80%."  That floored me!  What happened to "Do your best always!"  or the mathematically improbable, "Give 110%!"?  He explained to me,  "If you give maximum effort all the time, you are going to last maybe two shifts, and we're in it for the game, if not the season."  He also pointed out that if you give 100% during the non-essential times, you will have nothing left in the tank for the crunch times.

I love the 80% idea.  It is a realistic bar to shoot for.   I like the concept of leaving something in the tank for really necessary times.  It's like having an extra gear, a little boost in reserves.  Okay, okay, I admit in my slothlike ways that my 80% is like a lot of people's 20%.  Also, hockey is not a good metaphor for me.  I'm more like a sprinter or maybe a drag racer.  I go flat out for little bursts of time and then rest (or dismantle myself for cleaning), but I'm sure it averages out to around 80%.

The other way I manage is by trying to keep the Big Idea in mind.  I think I've become a better teacher by going for one or two ideas and going deeper instead of bogging myself down with the minutiae (which is REALLY easy to do).  In any project (including my own), I try to think about what is the main thing I want to accomplish out of all of this. 

Both the 80% guide and the Big Idea concept are applicable to classroom design.  Whenever I'm helping someone figure out what to do with their classroom, I apply the Big Idea question, "What do you want your classroom to do or say?"  It really helps to cut out all the distracting non-information and useless features of a classroom.  (If you want a tranquil, harmonious classroom, you might want to take down the Call of Duty posters.)  The 80% guide is great during the implementation phase.  The teachers I work with are always very enthusiastic, but they often bite off more than they can chew.  They get rid of all of their desks at the start because they like the uncluttered look it gives.  But by jumping in so drastically, they either get overwhelmed and can't continue (though they still have plenty of energy to curse me) or they implement too quickly and can't adjust to unforeseen factors: "Sure, the classroom is uncluttered with desks, but all of the students' materials are spread all over the floor because we don't have a place to store their stuff,"  or "We have lots of room to dance, but painting and writing is an issue with no desks."

I got lucky.  When I implemented the risers, because I was so cheap and inept with carpentry, I only had enough materials and time to create one set of risers.  This great restrictive accident let me implement the risers slowly and the first set turned out to be a great prototype.  I was able to see the mistakes I had made and the changes I needed to make for future incarnations.  If I had jumped in and made all of the risers in one go, I wouldn't have learned that I needed to make the lower ones wider (to allow for kids' backsides and feet to co-exist on the same surface) or I would have learned it too late after I already made all of them.  In Matthew Mays' book In Pursuit of Elegance, he talks about how the best designs have something missing.  Gradual implementation with  room for customization is key to this kind of prototyping.

My advice to avoid burnout in teaching in general, or in taking on something like classroom design, is to focus on what is necessary (the Big Idea) and to do as much little as you can so you can clearly see what is making a difference to students' learning.

Oh, one more thing.  Want to keep a little clarity?  Write a journal or a blog (but don't necessarily make it public), but only for 12 minutes (use a timer) at a stretch.  It will help you vent and when you read back on early entries, you'll see how far you've come or remind yourself of how you tackled things in the past.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Ultra Boy

I loaned my friend, Ben, that book, A Whole New Mind, by Daniel Pink.

I previously blogged about the book as one of the books I've taken along on my design journey (here).  Pink describes that we need more creative, holistic thinkers, (like my friend Ben), and talks about the kinds of skills right brainers have such as symphony (bringing disparate elements together) and story (putting together facts into a cohesive, contextual narrative).  I do think it is time for the Right Brainers to take over. The left brainers can only take us so far and seem to do it without conscience.

Ben was talking to his wife, and they wondered if I am right brained or left brained, and couldn't figure which one I was.  I understand their confusion.  I am different things at different times. 

I used to read comics as a kid. I liked the Teen Titans because it was this legion of young superheroes. Superboy (young Superman) was a member, but things seemed too easy because he had all these great powers all of the time. How could he possible fail?  There was not tension or interest in that situation. 

There was this other teen, Ultra Boy. He was like Superboy, but he could only use one of his super powers at a time, (e.g. he couldn't fly and be invulnerable or be strong at the same time). He had to consciously decide which of his powers worked best in each situation. 


I feel like that kid. I have a bunch of talents. I say that with all humility because the problem is I can't use them all of the time, plus the talents are not super strong individually (e.g. super smell, super funny, super sensitive, etc.), plus I have no control over which one I get to use, plus sometimes they just don't work.  For example, I have an exact memory of what a co-worker was wearing the first day we worked together 20 years ago. How useful is that?  Another time, I could tell who was getting on the elevator four floors below because of their perfume. (Supersmell is not a great ability to have in an elevator).

So if I had to label myself,  I guess I am involuntarily multi-brained. My principal once did these profiles on us which were plotted on this circle, and my two dominant styles were on opposite ends of the wheel which doesn't happen much. It's a constant struggle with me. I like to be creative, but my analytical side doesn't see the use in it. I see the big picture, but get mired in details. I like people, but not crowds.  I guess that's why I like blogging.  I can use my creativity when the ability and inspiration present themselves to me which is a schedule I can't predict. 

In terms of the classroom, students are like many versions of Ultra Boy.  They have all of these talents but have to make a conscious decision to use them.  The problem is that they have NO idea of what those talents are.  My job is to help bring those talents out for them to recognize so they can use them (for good, not evil).  The best way I know to do this is to present them with a variety of experiences so they can show their best selves.  The classroom environment plays a key role in that.  If I just give them the same routines everyday, they may never get to see their hidden talents.  Some of my kids are great at sitting in a desk and doing what they are told.  A whole bunch of my kids are not, and the variety of my classroom environment helps them explore the circumstances where they have talents and how they should use them.  Just like Ultra Boy.

p.s Ben sent me this link about stand up desks.
and my wife and my friend Lisa coincidentally sent me the same link of a blogpost on classroom design