Justin Reich now teaches digital media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but his first job was teaching a short wilderness medicine course. It was a hands-on course where a volunteer pretended to have, say, a broken leg — complete with stage makeup blood and bruises to heighten the effect — and students had to improvise a splint from available materials.
Reich says he taught the course 40 or 50 times a year, and every time he’d make some small adjustment to see if moving a joke sooner or later, or updating a diagram he showed, would get to ah-ha moments for students faster.
“And people would often say, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re the best teacher I’ve ever had,’” he remembers. “But I think the secret weapon that I had was that I just taught these lessons over and over and over again and could really refine them, so that they really worked for my students.”
Memories of the continual improvement he was able to do back then have stuck with him as his career has progressed, including jobs as a high school history teacher, an edtech consultant to schools, a doctoral student and professor, and director of MIT’s Teaching Systems Lab. And Reich has made it a personal goal to share the lesson.
“What I’m hoping to help school folks figure out is how do you create environments for experimenting with your teaching and learning that have the kind of short-cycle experiments and the kind of feedback data that you can gather so that people can have the same kind of rapid growth that I was able to experience in that funny job where I taught the same classes every week for a year,” he says.
He has compiled his thinking on the issue into a new book, “Iterate: The Secret to Innovation in Schools.”
And he writes that his main drive has been curiosity about an even larger issue as he’s observed and worked with so many schools over the past 20 years: “Why do some schools get better quickly, and others get stuck?”
EdSurge recently connected with Reich to dig into that question.
Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts, or use the player on this page. Or read a partial transcript below, lightly edited for clarity.
EdSurge: Many schools have looked to bring in technology to help improve teaching. How well have you seen that approach go?
Justin Reich: When I was a high school history teacher, I was relatively early in the United States to have a classroom that was one-to-one with wireless laptops with the internet. We had this intranet server service called FirstClass that kind of did in 2003 just about everything that Google for Education does now. And I had a really entrepreneurial colleague named Tom Daccord, and we started this company called EdTechTeacher that did consulting for schools that were making big technology 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 asking, ‘Hey, what are you really excited about with these iPads?’ They had cameras on them and they had all these apps, they can do all these kinds of things. And the kids consistently were like, ‘Man, I love Evernote. I can take all my notes in one place. I don’t have to carry around five notebooks, I can just carry around this one device.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t think that’s why we did this. I don’t think that’s worth whatever it was, $800 to $1,000 per kid, to consolidate your notebooks for you. That’s ridiculous.’
And so it was actually more uncommon to go to a place where things were really different.
One of the places that I first encountered where I was like, ‘Oh, there’s some kind of interesting teaching and learning here,’ was a charter school that I visited in Southern California, and they had adopted Google Docs relatively early and were making really great use of it. They were describing these new practices of revision and collaborative writing. And it wasn’t just happening in one class, but it was like happening in English, happening in social studies, happening in science. And I was like, ‘Oh, this is pretty cool.’ You all are actually teaching writing differently because you got all these computers and you adopted a piece of software that’s helping you teach writing differently. And so I was trying to figure out, how is this better than what I usually see?
Was it something that school leaders did?
One of my questions to the teachers there was, ‘How are your school leaders helping you with this? And they were like, ‘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 use of Google Docs.’ There just seemed to be this kind of benign neglect.
The teachers on their own were generating these really interesting new ideas, which weren’t just concentrated in one classroom, but were moving from one classroom to another and starting to change grade level teams and to change the way an important part of learning was done across the schools. And it just really struck me that you could do that without the principal really having all that much idea about what was going on. So that seemed to be a sort of important clue to what some of these big ideas are about how schools actually change.
If you want to get teachers to do something new, you have to get them to learn from one another. That is the main way that teaching and learning actually changes in schools. …
And most teachers are patient pragmatists. Most teachers are sitting on the fence watching these new things come along and waiting to see if there’s some evidence, not in the abstractions of research articles, but if there’s evidence from their colleagues that these things help students. And if they get some of that evidence, they’re willing to learn and they’re willing to change practice.
Summer is a time that lots of teachers are attending trainings and professional development. But I was surprised in the book that you noted that teachers rarely get a chance to practice teaching.
Teachers sort of have two spaces that they learn. One of those spaces is in a college of education classroom or a seminar room where you can kind of talk about teaching. That is not the way that we improve in most circumstances. Like if you went to the New England Patriots and we’re like, ‘I’m gonna drop a new play and I’m gonna explain it to you, and then I want you to try it against the Broncos,’ they would be like, ‘That’s a bad idea. We should go out onto a practice field and we should try that thing a few times. First under situations of reduced complexity.’
Part of what we have to do to help teachers get better is to try to make the chunks of what we’re experimenting with small enough that we can iterate on them — small enough so we can say, ‘Hey, in our next faculty meeting, why don’t you teach a 10- or 15-minute mini-lesson where we try this new thing?’
Or, ‘Why don’t you give your students some pizza and have them stay after school or invite them to come to lunch and preview some of the material that you’re gonna teach in the next unit and get their feedback on it and have them practice some of them stuff, have them start doing the final assignment a little bit early.’
How do you make sure that the change you bring into classrooms doesn’t do more harm than good? I’m thinking of the criticisms of whole language instruction in teaching reading to little kids, and interventions that seemed to hold kids 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 be looking for evidence that learning is changing. There are many, many schools that I visited, where we’d go to a school district after it had adopted technology for a couple of years, and … one of the questions I would ask is, ‘Is it working?’ 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 like half a million dollars buying computers for everyone.
There wasn’t a clear sense of, ‘What are the learning outcomes that you would like to be better on the basis of having made these investments?’ So some of it is just saying, when I try a new thing, do I have a clear sense of how the learning would be different? And is there some artifact of student learning that I could look at to see whether or not I’m making progress?’
This leads to the second piece of advice. I have a colleague at Vanderbilt, Ilana Horn, who cautions educators against ‘smoothness.’ A lot of times when we evaluate lessons, we’re like, ‘How smooth did that go?’
Now I’m not advocating for lessons that are a disaster, but a lot of times smoothness is not a good proxy for learning. You can very smoothly get a bunch of kids through an exercise and afterwards say, ‘Oh, there was just no room for questions. And so they didn’t ask any,’ or, ‘They were so completely not with it that they didn’t know what to ask or how to intervene.’
There’s a certain amount of desirable difficulty. There’s a certain amount of friction that we actually want in the learning process.
Listen to the full conversation on this week’s EdSurge Podcast.