Pivoting in the Classroom
My journey transforming lesson plans into learning experiences.
I taught fifth-graders for 12 years before I left the classroom to become an instructional Technology and Learning Coach (TLC). The decision to leave was a difficult one. I decided to take all that I had learned about equity, culturally responsive pedagogy, creativity, and innovation and use to coach teachers throughout my school district.
As a classroom teacher, I prided myself in trying new things; constantly redesigning my lesson plans, my classroom layout, and my instructional delivery. Although I never labeled what I did as innovation, I believed that I was working hard to show my students the transdisciplinary nature of learning and its connection to the real world. Part of this was my daily use of technology with students. I blended instruction so that I could better inspire and facilitate my students’ creativity using digital tools and resources. I wanted my students to understand that learning didn’t just stop when the bell rang; they could learn about anything, at any time, anywhere.
4 months into my new position, I felt disillusioned with the impact I had hoped to have in my school district. I spent the majority of my day, not inspiring teachers to innovate their instruction or inspire creativity in their students, but in basic, level-one technology support: hooking up printers, fixing bugs on computers, and troubleshooting classroom projectors. What I thought was going to be a chance to inspire teachers, turned into a troubleshooting service. I seriously considered returning to the classroom at the end of the school year.
I pushed through and after that first year, things improved. I transitioned to a new position, STEM and Innovation Coach, which allowed me to be more flexible in how I worked with teachers and students. My new teammate also gave me permission to think larger than classroom technology. I quickly learned that if I wanted to be successful in helping to innovate my entire school district, I couldn’t just share tech tips and tricks. I couldn’t just talk about PBLs and design thinking challenges. I needed to apply what I learned from Astro Teller and work to engineer a culture of innovation.
Astro Teller, director of the Moonshot Factory at Alphabet (aka X), explains how he considers himself a “culture engineer.” This means that he systematizes innovation by creating a work environment where employees are encouraged to be audacious. He gives them the freedom to work on projects that inspire them, whether they fail or succeed. Here is Astro talking about his philosophy as the Captain of Moonshots at X.
I’m a culture engineer. The thing that excites me the most is not making stratospheric balloons, or self-driving cars, or working on contact lenses, or on UAVs that can deliver packages. The thing that excites me the most is trying to systematize innovation.
I wanted to systemize innovation throughout the entire school district. One of the biggest ways Astro discusses doing this is by creating an environment where failure is not only accepted, but celebrated; where people kill great project ideas that are not working as expected. It seems counterintuitive to establish workplace norms that incentivize failing. He asks, “have you ever heard of somebody actually getting rewarded? Because if I tell you to fail fast, are you gonna run out, if you’re part of our organization and fail fast, just because I said it? No, you’re gonna be thinking what happens if I fail fast. Am I gonna get fired?” (Sykora, Tsai, Francetic, & Roizen, 2016).
As a teacher trying to push the envelope in my classroom, I was familiar with “celebrate failure” lip service. I experienced the Lippitt-Knoster model for change first-hand. When my teammates were not incentivized to take risks in their teaching, they resisted. When they didn’t understand the vision for why failure is a key ingredient for creativity and innovation, they were confused. If I was going to scale innovation throughout my school district, among 44 elementary schools and 25,000 students, I would need to change the narrative around failure and experimentation. I would need to create what Astro describes as “emotional paths of least resistance” (Wired, 2019). I wanted to create an atmosphere similar to what Astro created at the Moonshot factory; namely a feeling that “failing fast would actually get you what you want, instead of getting you the opposite of what you want.” (Sykora, Tsai, Francetic, & Roizen, 2016). I would need to find leverage points that allowed me to pivot the entire district toward a mindset of thinking big and failing often.
I first learned about the term “pivot” when I read Jenny Blake’s book, Pivot: The Only Move That Matters Is Your Next One. In the tech industry, one often hears the maxim: disrupt or get disrupted. The idea is to always stay ahead of the curve so that you don’t get left behind. In 2011, Blake made a bold decision: to leave her steady job at Google and launch a business based on her blog and recent book. This change shocked lots of people because working for Google is seen as the top of both corporate and creative ladders. Even though Blake seemed to be starting completely over, she wasn’t; she pivoted. Eric Ries, author of Lean Startup, defines a pivot in business as “a change in strategy without a change in vision.” Blake describes taking her strong vision as redefining career development in order to obtain career satisfaction. She developed her Pivot Method: Plant, Scan, Pilot, Launch, Lead. Using this framework, she now coaches individuals on how to pivot within their organizations before looking outside their company for other job opportunities. My job coaching teachers and administrators allowed me to look at the bigger picture of public education and evaluate how I was going to leverage creativity within our district in order to innovate throughout our district.
I spent the next six years coaching and collaborating with teachers and administrators to scale innovative pedagogy. Unfortunately, this new role gave me a clearer insight into how complex public education systems operate by preserving the status quo. H had a ton of great ideas and absolutely no authority to implement large changes. I may inspire an individual teacher (or even an grade-level team), but large-scale innovation is about step changes, not incremental improvements. My limited capacity to work with grade-level teams or even individual schools, created pockets of creativity and innovation. My grassroots movement didn’t gain much traction. Unless I could change the majority opinion about how to innovate pedagogy and student learning from the top, and create a safe space within school buildings for teachers to take risks in their craft, all-the-while simultaneously educating the entire system of teachers, administrators, directors, school board members, etc., I was destined to fail.
I needed another pivot. One was just around the corner: global pandemic.
Our school district (like many others across the globe) shut down on March 13, 2020. I remember it because it was Friday the 13th and we were told to clear out our belongings and head home. Our planned Spring Break would be extended for another week and then the district would evaluate next steps. COVID-19, on the other hand, had other plans. It quickly spread worldwide. I began my “stay-at-home” quarantine on that Friday. I continued to work from home remotely while helping my own children with their remote learning. Remote learning became the term-du-jour for all worksheets and multiple-choice tests required for students K-12 for that Spring semester. It was heartbreaking to watch my children regress with their individual learning disabilities. They struggled to find meaning in meaningless activities. Even though their grades became Pass/Fail, they slowly resisted school more and more. My children were lucky to have two educators for parents and a household with enough devices to share. My kids may have struggled, but their struggles were nothing compared to so many of our most vulnerable students with different circumstances. If the Spring semester was considered Remote Learning 1.0, then I wanted to be a part of reimagining what the next version looked like.
I decided to return to the classroom after six years of instructional coaching. During those six years, I worked with hundreds of K-5 teachers helping them take risks in their classrooms, be more creative in their teaching and shift their mindset to a more innovative and iterative one. I may not have had the large-scale impact I wanted, but if there is one thing I learned in that time, it is that so many teachers and educational systems are the carriers of tradition. No matter how our society changes (even in the face of a pandemic), no matter how many initiatives or reform measures are implemented, many administrators and educators believe that how they have run the district for the past decade, and what they taught last year is perfectly acceptable for this year’s students. They believe that policies and lesson plans from fifteen years ago work for students today.
Many teachers do understand that our society is changing; in fact, converging technologies are exponentially transforming everything from businesses to education to our lives. (more on that in another blog post). However, when these same teachers are pressed to try one new thing in their classroom, many hesitate because (a) they lack self-efficacy or the belief that they can actually change their current situation and accomplish what they set out to do; (b) they don’t understand how taking a risk in their classroom will positively affect their students; or worse (c) they fear retribution from administration. I worked with countless teachers that were either too scared to try something new because they fear getting in trouble, or have been frozen in a museum of “best practices.” They remember with nostalgia how much fun they had “back in the day” when students were more engaged and teaching was more enjoyable (and somehow easier). The truth is that traditional schooling has not changed in over one hundred years. The students have changed; the policies and practices have not.
As educators, we are charged with creating new learning experiences for our students that will prepare them for anything and everything. Many real-world challenges require opened-minded approaches, not “best practices.” The traditional pedagogical approach (that is still taught in many teacher pre-service programs) requires learning about previously researched best practices, coming up with lesson plans, submitting those plans for approval, and then delivering that content to students. The problem with this paradigm is that it assumes that you (or the academicians who created said “best practices” or the administrator who signs off on the lesson plan) always know what your students need. This may have worked in the post-industrial era of public education where students’ schooling led them to an industrial workforce. Today’s students no longer think in ways that require a slow delivery of content. Students today are lean thinkers that adapt and innovate quickly (in fact, students have required a different pedagogical practice since the invention of the Internet and Google, and its integration into mainstream learning). Today’s students need adaptive and innovative teachers. Tradition obstructs innovation. When there is a gap between what teachers know is best for students and what teachers actually do for students, there is a lot of lip-service that wastes time. We need what game designer, Jane McGonigal, calls urgent optimism: the desire to act immediately to tackle an obstacle, motivated by the belief that you have a reasonable hope of success.
My decision to return to the classroom was in large part because of my own urgent optimism. I believed that I could model my classroom after a lean startup company with a tight feedback loop. In order to inspire and facilitate continuous creativity and innovation, I wanted to show others how I could create a learning environment where ideas are quickly turned into tangible products and students see themselves as the entrepreneurs of their own learning. Instead of teachers armed with binders of “best practices” and are held accountable to archaic and ineffectual measures of success (e.g.: student complacency and standardized tests), I wanted to model my own creative confidence gained from years of trial and error. I had developed a strong vision and philosophy that involves constant adjustments using a Build-Measure-Learn feedback loop. I wanted to show that it is not only possible, but necessary to deliberately choose creativity over tradition and reframe learning objectives into interesting design problems. I wanted to be the teacher-leader that creates disruptive innovations on a continuous basis and enables their students to experiment, fail, and learn every single day. After all, “innovation is all about quickly turning ideas into action” (Kelley, 2013, p. 114).
Most traditional teaching frameworks involve some combination of planning, teaching, monitoring, and adjusting. When teachers plan with the assumption that they know what their students need, they (and their perfectly crafted lesson plan) are doomed to fail. This traditional framework wastes too much time and ultimately leads teachers to believe in the holy grail of the perfect lesson plan. There is no such thing as a perfect lesson. What works today with one student, will not work tomorrow on the same student. So, instead of taking a blind leap-of-faith on what you think will work in your classroom, the first step is to enter the observe and build phase as quickly as possible.
Instead of planning lengthy lesson plans, I design modern learning experiences, run learning experiments, collect feedback on what is working, and tweak things in order to create and facilitate deeper learning for my students.
Eric Ries uses a similar loop in creating startup businesses by having entrepreneurs quickly building a minimum viable product. In his book, The Lean Startup, he defines the minimum viable product (MVP) as “that version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning with the least effort” (Ries, 2011, p. 77).
In my classroom, the minimum viable product could easily be called a minimum viable learning experiment (MVLE) that can test a specific set of student learning hypotheses with the goal of proving or disproving them as quickly as possible, ultimately leading to a deep and meaningful learning experience. One of the most important of these hypotheses is always: What do my students care about? and How will they feel after this learning experience? The key is that I want to show how I measure impactful learning on my students. It is about talking to my students, experimenting with my students, and learning as quickly as possible with my students. I eliminate any effort that is not absolutely necessary for learning what my students want and need. This is what Eric Ries calls validated learning because it is always demonstrated by positive improvements” (Ries, 2011, p. 49) in my classroom’s core metrics. This requires a fundamental shift in what I measure. You are what you measure. So, what do I really want to measure? If I am not failing (and not challenging my students fail forward) every day, then no learning occurs. Thomas Edison believed that the “real measure of success is the number of experiments that can be crowded into twenty-four hours.”
In the world of design thinking, these iterative experiments are often referred to as prototyping. We want students to monitor their own learning milestones, however, these are often only final product milestones (e.g.: reports, presentations, assessments, etc…). I create learning milestones that have actionable metrics. What can I do with the information I learned? Should I pivot or persevere? Ries states that “a pivot requires that we keep one foot rooted in what we’ve learned so far, while making a fundamental change in strategy in order to seek even greater validated learning” (p. 154). For example, based on how your lesson just went, what are you changing immediately so that you gain greater validated learning? If you begin to see failures (or pivots) as opportunities to learn and grow, then your pedagogical practice will grow.
Running my classroom like a lean startup only works because I am willing to be flexible and adaptable as quickly as each challenge I face. Redesigning my classroom as a sandbox for innovation helps me build my startup muscles: BUILD, MEASURE, LEARN.
Eric Ries’ Lean Startup is a framework is not a step-by-step recipe to follow. It is designed to be adapted to the conditions of specific companies. Here are some of my key takeaways after adapting it for my classroom.
What is the minimum viable learning experiment I can try today?
Instead of spending all weekend planning the “perfect lesson” what is something I could implement right now? What do my students need today?
Test frequently and learn quickly
What is something I could beta test in class tomorrow and receive immediate feedback from my students? Now that I’m back in the classroom, I’m in the habit of testing my ideas frequently. I know there is a prescribed curriculum. So what? I spend my time restructuring the curriculum into design challenges and culturally responsive learning experiences. Instead of teaching specific content-area subjects, I create projects that cover the same concepts and is personally and culturally tied to each of my students and the real world.
Observe and measure real student behavior
I use my intuition as a teacher to know when to shift the learning experience. I watch my students. I see how they react to various aspects of the experience. Where do they get frustrated? When do they lose track of time (Flow State)? I interview my students. Empathy is about understanding my students’ latent needs, even if my students struggle to articulate them. I ask lots of questions. I start with why.
Focus on actionable metrics
Standardized test scores (even most summative assessments) never provide me with actionable and useful data. I realize there is incredible pressure for teachers to use quantitative data to inform their practice. I integrate both qualitative observations with quantitative information to form what IDEO calls hybrid insights. By bringing both the “why” and the “what” together, I am more thoughtful about how I keep my students engaged. Every day I challenge myself to set aside what I think is true in order to learn what is actually true. Tom and David Kelley from IDEO put it simply: “When you spot a contradiction between what you see and what you expect, it’s a sign that you should dig deeper.”
Get comfortable with pivoting based on your learnings
Just like Jenny Blake discusses in Pivot, pivoting doesn’t mean that I completely start over any time something fails. Pivoting in my classroom is repurposing what I learned and how I taught in the past so that I move in a positive direction. I keep my BUILD-MEASURE-LEARN feedback loop small. I measure the impact of my learning experiences and the only way to do that is to try something and begin learning immediately.
How will I know if or when I should pivot or persevere? If my students are making progress toward my (and their own) goal, then it makes sense to continue. If not, it may be time for a pivot.
Lean thinking (or having a lean mindset) is about creating more value than waste. I’m not going to waste time teaching out of the textbook. My job as a teacher is to create a lean user (student) experience (UX). I want my students to have a memorable educational experience that teaches them how to continually improve and experiment throughout their lives; not just pass a test.
COVID-19 forced all educators to pivot in some way. I decided to reframe this global health crisis as an opportunity to put into practice all that I have learned in my career. I am using creativity and innovation to disrupt my classroom. I work to be an educator sandbox so that other teachers can see there is another way to teach. Creativity is more than just PBLs. Innovation is more than just building catapults. Culturally responsive education has never been a checklist of strategies. Instead of proselytizing about the virtues of creativity, innovation and culturally responsive instructional practices, I do it. Am I always successful? Nope! Does this make teaching harder? Sometimes.
I no longer try to scale innovation throughout my school district. I do it in my classroom and in my school building for that is where I see the greatest positive impact. I use frameworks that help me systemize innovation using tight feedback loops. I pivot when necessary. I design learning experiences!
Equity Defined: Equity-centered Community Design
Antionette Carroll is the Founder, President and CEO of Creative Reaction Lab, a nonprofit organization educating and deploying youth to challenge racial and health inequities impacting Black and Latinx populations. I met the folks of Creative Reaction Lab at SXSWEDU. Although I missed Carroll’s presentation, just talking with the team inspired me to pick up their Equity-Centered Community Design Field Guide and learn how I can better use design thinking to fight inequality.
The Creative Reaction Lab was created in the wake of the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown on August 9, 2014. He was shot and killed by 28-year-old white police officer Darren Wilson in the city of Ferguson, Missouri. At the time, Carroll was working as a communications director at the St. Louis diversity training nonprofit Diversity Awareness Partnership. She was skeptical that the disparate meetings and calls for dialogue would actually lead to action. Carroll says, “Everyone had a very top-down approach, and it brought the same individuals as always to the table. Artists talked to artists, government was talking to government, and business to business.” In the wake of Ferguson, Carroll wanted to create a more inclusive approach to systemic inequality. Her initial 24-hour workshops that were designated to develop creative responses to the killing of Michael Brown lay the foundation for Creative Reaction Lab.
As equity-centered, anti-racist educators, we understand that our public education system produces what it was designed to produce. Unless we take an active role in disrupting this system, inequalities and inequities persist. However, we can use human-centered design thinking to begin building a practice of social innovation and creative problem solving. The Creative Reaction Lab’s Equity-Centered Community Design (ECCD) acknowledges and utilizes the role of people and systems and power when developing solutions or approaches that impact our students within their communities. The Field Guide was a great starting point for me to recognize how I am complicit in the systemic inequity of our educational system and how and why I would begin to apply equity-centered design thinking to my classroom. I could no longer see myself as a teacher-designer
If I want to be successful in disrupting the racist status quo in public education, I need to see myself as an equity designer for my students.
I love how Creative Reaction Lab’s creative problem solving process is based on equity, humility-building, integrating history and healing practices, addressing power dynamics, and co-creating with the community. Co-creating culturally-responsive educational experiences with the parent and school community needs to be a priority for teachers. This design process focuses on a community’s culture and needs so that they can gain tools to dismantle systemic oppression and create an equitable future for all students. Creative Reaction Lab’s goal is to share equity-centered community design to achieve sustained community health, economic opportunities, and social and cultural solidarity. If we want to truly be anti-racist educators, then we need to a gain a deep understanding and awareness of the power and privilege that we hold and how this impacts our pedagogical practice in the classroom.
Blake, J. (2017). Pivot: The only move that matters is your next one. Portfolio/Penguin.
Kelley, D. (2013). Creative confidence: Unleashing the creative potential within us all. New York, NY: Crown Business.
Ries, E. (2011). The lean startup: How today’s entrepreneurs use continuous innovation to create radically successful businesses. New York, NY: Crown Business.
Sykora, L., Tsai, J., Francetic, A., & Roizen, H. (2016, April 20). Celebrating Failure Fuels Moonshots [Entire Talk]. Retrieved from https://ecorner.stanford.edu/videos/celebrating-failure-fuels-moonshots-entire-talk/
Wired. (2019, November 09). Astro Teller, Captain of Moonshots at X, in Conversation with Sandra Upson. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/video/watch/astro-teller-captain-of-moonshots-at-x-speaks-at-wired25