I didn't expect to read a Fred Wilson post on teaching online but that's what I found when I visited his blog this morning. Don't get me wrong - I suspect that Fred has the makings of a great teacher, it's just not what I expected to find. There have been many posts about education but I don't recall any about teaching or more specifically the art of teaching. I did find this post though which actually speaks to some of the thoughts today's post got churning.
Fred describes what sounds like a typical "lecture style" lesson he's delivered numerous times. This time, it would be delivered via Zoom. Now, Zoom is great but it's harder to do an interactive lecture - ie active learning online than it is to do in person which is what I'm guessing led him to set up some starter Google sheets and use these shared documents for an active project based class.
At the end of the post, now that he came up with what sounds like a much stronger approach. Fred wonders if he'll ever teach this class any other way.
The first thing I thought was that this would be even better in person. I don't know the specifics but I could think of a number of ways of running this. All in person with time to work on the spreadsheets is one. Giving some pre-work and the sheets and then pick up somewhere in the middle is another. In person gives the feel - the live interaction where a teacher can read the class but there's no reason why we can't also leverage tech tools like shared Google sheets in a live classroom.
Then I got thinking about necessity being the mother of invention. Nothing stops us from changing things up, from trying something in normal times but when the norm is disrupted sometimes it spurs creativity or changes focus. I try to continually evolve as a teacher but I'm no better than anyone else and get caught in ruts. I force myself to try new things. Sometimes they work and it's great and sometimes they don't. Live and learn. On the other hand, when all if a sudden you can't do things the usual way the brain works on alternatives.
One example was the lesson where I "invented" live coding. It was a direct result of a forced change - for some reason, and I don't recall why, I couldn't do things the way I wanted that day so I winged it. Years later, I was chatting with a former student and he, out of the blue mentioned that that lesson had a profound influence on him.
Right now, I'm teaching using Zoom, slack, videos and email. Not being in a room with my kids sucks. I feel less connected and it's much harder to read the class. What am I doing? On the one hand, I'm not trying to change that much at once as I want my students to have some stability in an uncertain time but I am working on new things. The nice thing is that whatever I come up with I can share with my fellow teachers here and take with me back into the classroom.
This was my big takeaway but the post also reminded me of why I turn to teachers before I turn to "the research" or policy makers on how to teach. Fred described the evolution of a lesson and a teaching technique. What he essentially described is what teachers do every day and we have to do it accounting for all the variables that the research can't. We teach multiple classes a day every day of the week. We try things, assess the results, rinse and repeat. I get that all teachers don't do this but the good ones do.
The final thought I had was with the reality that while coming up with interesting active learning experiences is great it also takes a lot of time and there's not much time when you're teaching five classes a day five days a week to 150 kids along with grading, advising, and everything else. This is why I tell young teachers that you always want to evolve and improve but not every lesson is going to be a home run and that's okay.
It's particularly important for teachers to remember this now as across the nation they're re-inventing their syllabi on the fly to move from in person to online and they're doing it without time, training, and in some cases tools.
Do the best you can and continue to develop your toolset. Not every new online experience will be great but if they're sincere, your kids will know. In the end we'll all be okay and back to normal but with a whole bunch of new tricks up our sleeves.