Category Archives: Random Thoughts

A collection of thoughts and reflections on education and entrepreneurship

Experience Can Save Education

Experiences have been in the forefront of my mind lately.  The only thing I remember from my early schooling is field trips. I don’t remember the classrooms, the playgrounds, the teachers, the material. I don’t remember anything about the school. But I can remember some of the sights, sounds, smells, and knowledge from field trips. I remember the experiences.

We celebrate the experiences. Milestones such as weddings, births, deaths. We share experiences. Concerts, sporting events, roadtrips, hobbies. We remember experiences; I’d wager that anytime you start the sentence “Do you remember . . .?” it has to do with an experience.

Where Are the Experiences?

My son is in 3rd grade, and he has taken only one field trip. At the beginning of each year (Kindergarten, 1st grade, 2nd grade, and now 3rd grade), I offered his teacher to coordinate and pay for a field trip anywhere, anytime for his entire class. Only this year did they take me up on the offer (the PTO finally saw the light of day and offered up a field trip to each grade).  I thought perhaps I wasn’t getting anywhere due to perceptions of favoritism if one class got a field trip and others didn’t. In earlier years, I offered the principal of his school to coordinate and pay for a field trip for the entire 2nd grade. I was told they couldn’t do that because it would cut into too much of the reading and writing time in the Common Core curriculum. Seriously? Seriously?!? 

After cooling off in previous years, I returned to offer to bring an experience to the students. I offered to bring an experience to my son’s class, then to the entire 2nd grade, then to the entire school. No, no, no. I don’t understand how these “educators” don’t understand the power of experience and want to bring that power to the children they’re charged with educating. I don’t understand how they don’t remember the sheer joy and wonder of a field trip. Shame on them if they do understand the power and remember the joy and actively decide to not offer their students the same power and joy.

The Experience That Is Left

So I am left to create experiences for my son. I’m happy to do it (although I’m not nearly as diligent or imaginative as I should be – I readily acknowledge my hypocrisy here!) But I growl internally because I shouldn’t have to make up for lost time – he should be having experiences during his school day. The saddest part of this is that he cannot share any experiences with his friends. He cannot digest any experiences with the classmates he’s learning with. He cannot see school as a source of the wonder and joy experiences hold. I am saddened, for my son, for all children who can’t experience learning beyond the walls of schools, and for a system that has turned its back on the power and wonder of experience.


The Power of Voice

The Voices I Hear

VoicesWhen my son was born, before excitement overwhelmed me, I was anxious.  Until I heard his cry, I could not enjoy the moment; the voice indicated all was well.  I remember that voice distinctly to this day eight years later.

My sister died of cancer 16 years ago.  I often use pictures to remember details of her physical appearance.  She called me to say goodbye the day before she died.  I remember that voice so clearly so many years later – it haunts me.

Whether they are the voices of those who are no longer with us, voices of those still with us, voices of celebrities we easily identify, or voices of musicians that are so crucial in developing our stories, voice has immense power.  That is a power that can change the course of people, events, systems, societies, history.

Voice Can Change Education

The voices driving education have traditionally been the policy makers.  These voices probably can’t remember what it is like to be in elementary or middle school.  They don’t generally understand the power of education to transform one’s experience and life; they for the most part grew up enabled and expecting a full education experience.  What is missing is the student voice.  The reason the system exists, the souls the system should empower and enable. Students have loud voices – at young ages they are brilliantly creative and honest voices.

kidsTender and terrible all at once! As they age, these voices evolve into exploratory and challenging adolescence chaos.  And eventually these voices turn their attention to critical questions and reflective insight.  We need policy makers’ voices in the conversation, as well as administrator, teacher and parent voices.  But we cannot silence the student voices.  We need to engage the 7 and 8 year olds who are trying to decide if they like mathematics, science, art, cursive writing.  No matter what age or grade level, the students are capable of great contribution to reshaping education.  Their voice is powerful.  Ask any parent!

Voice Can Change Entrepreneurship

Is the customer always right?  Absolutely not – nobody is always right.  However, businesses should always listen to the customer.  The customer voice shapes businesses. Especially startups – it is the customer’s voice that leads successful startups to sustainable business models.

3Founders who can draw out and really listen to customers speaking about the product, the service, the experience, the pain can gain a competitive advantage over competing firms.

How Do We Hear The Voices

Voices are power.  Listen to any great orator, whether it is the beauty of Dr. King or the ugliness of Adolf Hitler, and you can feel the power, you live the experience.  Students voices can be the power of a new frontier of education.  Customer voices have become the power of a new frontier of entrepreneurship.  How do we harness this power?

  1. Ask the right questions. We need to ask students to describe their experiences – what they do during reading time, how they feel as they’re studying geometry.  We need to ask customers to describe their experiences with the problem we’re trying to solve.  We need to figure out what they are doing, what they are thinking. For students and customers, we shouldn’t care what their proposed solution is.  We want to understand their experience, which can only truly be understood through their voice.
  2. Give ’em the mic. Find the students and customers with authentic, powerful experiences.  Don’t waste time with the vanilla ones.  Track down the crazies, search for the magic.  Talk to students until one makes you cry, or gives you goosebumps.  Give those students the platform – record their story, share their story.  Talk to customers until you feel that adrenaline rush.  Turn them into your earlyvangelists– give them every opportunity to use their voice on your behalf.
  3. Shout with them.Experiences are more powerful with multiple voices.  Create new experiences with the earlyvangelists and the student storytellers. Let them lead, but empower and enable them by adding your voice to the conversation. Bring in more experienced disruptors; create a choir of glorious disruption! Use every medium possible – shout with hashtags on Twitter, with video on YouTube or Vine, with intellect in news columns and television interviews.
  4. Listen up.When the chance presents itself to talk to students about their educational experience, we really should listen to them.  When we find customers who feel the pain we’re trying to solve, we have to listen to them.  It is really hard for most folks to listen instead of to drive the conversation according to some ridiculous script.

Voices change history. Voices change experiences. Voices evoke emotion. Voices create meaning. Listen to the voices that matter.


Learning Is . . . #!%$#$!

I’m Learning, They’re Learning, We’re All Learning Together

I spend a ton of time learning with students. Let me make sure you heard me: I spend a ton of time learning with students. I’m not paying lip service here, I learn so much every semester as a new batch of my students create their own learning experiences. I talk to them at length to unearth their feelings about previous time in the education system.

Learning Has Not Been Positive

The kinds of words I hear as my students describe their previous experiences in education:

Bad Experience in Learningpointless, boring, sucks, dry, OK (with a shoulder shrug), typical, awful, irritating, flat, hollow, unproductive, false, fucked up, annoying, a waste, nonsense.


The kinds of words I don’t, but long to, hear:

2fun, invigorating, challenging, awesome, killer, fantastic, orgasmic (OK, maybe that’s a little bit of a stretch but it would be cool!), addictive, brilliant, epic (I hate that word, but the kids sure do love it), useful

Peeling the Learning Layers Back

We need to change the vocabulary.  The best way to do that is to talk to students.  Don’t let a bunch of old folks continue to develop and deliver a model of education that was meant for a society over 100 years old.  We live in the 21st century and our education system needs to reflect that.  Do administrators really understand how students today learn?  I sure as hell don’t, and I spend my time with college and high school kids, and with an 8 year old at home.  Their brains develop in a different age than anything I could have comprehended as a kid.  It’s digital.  It’s flat.  It’s magical.  It’s overload. It’s plugged in. It’s opportunistic.

How absurd, ignorant, and egotistical of those of us who design learning experiences to think we know what that experience should be for a generation of kids that we never take time to understand? Giving the students a voice can’t make it any worse! It would by nature create more relevant content, more relevant tools, more relevant experiences.  And the vocabulary would change. Instead of “yeah but” we would hear more “yes, and”.  Instead of silence in classrooms, we would hear cacophony.  Instead of defending education and learning systems, we could all focus on building them.  Together.  With students.

I’m so tired of the negativity.  Of kids counting down to the last day of the school year.  Of teachers celebrating as much as students for snow days. I want the potential of impact that I see in the students and in the system to be blatantly obvious to everyone everywhere.  Wishful thinking, perhaps.  But I do know one way to start down that road is to let the young guns have more control and put the old thoroughbreds out to pasture.


A Lean Approach Is Right (Not Just For Some)

Lean Blah Blah Blah

I get that people are tired of reading and hearing about lean startups, that people have started to poke holes in the methodology and very eloquently explain the shortcomings of lean.  I definitely understand – it’s become like that really annoying song on the radio that you can’t get out of your head, and no matter what station you listen to, it is in the rotation.  I’m guilty of promulgating it.  But that’s because I believe, at its core, it is the right foundation upon which to build a startup.

Lean Is The Heart and Soul of Startups

Key word being foundation.  It is not the be all and end all of startups and entrepreneurship.  But if you look at the build-measure-learn loop, that’s the right foundation upon which to start almost anything.

Lean StartupWhy?  It’s the scientific method.  Testable hypotheses (build), the tests of those hypotheses (measure), and the analysis of the data from the tests (learn). The scientific method is a disciplined search for knowledge about something of interest.  Isn’t that what entrepreneurs do?  Or at least they should do?  Be disciplined.  Search for knowledge.  Pursue something of interest.  It just makes sense.  If you don’t think so, I call shenanigans.  You’re nuts.  All the buzzwords, I agree, are getting tiring.  But put those aside, look at the foundation, and it’s a rock solid foundation.

Look Within and You’ll Find Lean

Entrepreneurs – what to do?  Take the lean approach, put it into practice.  Build something.  Measure how people use that thing, how they interact with it, how they feel about it and about using it.  Measure whatever is important about the thing.  Then learn something from that measurement.  And do it all again.  And again.  And again.  Any entrepreneur out there not do that?  Really?  Put whatever label you want on it.  Whether it’s lean or something else, it doesn’t matter.  Fact is, you likely have gone through some version of that build-measure-learn process.  Because if you haven’t, you’re likely not in business anymore.  Because the scientific method is the the core of knowledge acquisition.  And isn’t that what we all do?  So, in the end, get over what anyone calls it.  Today’s label is going to be replaced tomorrow with new labels.  Forget about the labels – just understand the foundation (build-measure-learn) and learn to build your startup on that foundation.


Steve Blank is Wrong

On the Shoulders of Giants (like Steve Blank)

Steve Blank is one of the creators and biggest champions of the lean startup methodology and movement.  A huge tip of the cap for being on the cutting edge of getting things rolling, and for using his tremendous network, resources, and platform to promote everything lean.  Without Steve and the others at the forefront of this movement, I would not be able to impact my students as meaningfully as I do.  So, for that I say thank you.

Where Has Lean Gone

lean startup

In one of Steve’s recent posts, I noticed pictures of a film crew, and a highly professionally produced video.  It looks and sounds great, but it’s not very lean, Steve.  Not that everything he does should be lean – after all, don’t the startups grow into the gorillas and stop being lean?

Then I wanted to dig a little deeper, so I started going through all the great material from Steve I have accumulated.  His Udacity course and his Slideshare account, his NSF/NCIIA I-Corps materials.  There is an awful lot of repetition throughout these materials – I feel like I’m chewing the same bubble gum but it’s just a different color.  Again, not very lean Steve.  I don’t see a whole lot of experimenting, MVPs, pivoting.  Now, I admit that I have no idea what goes on behind the scenes, and I would imagine (and hope) that Steve is experimenting with new approaches.  I don’t see much talk of that, however.  I see partnerships with the NSF, with the Kauffman Foundation, with big name universities.  All good, and all impactful.  But, again, the reproduction and regurgitation is not very lean.

As an educator, I would love to see a more transparent perspective on where and how Steve is staying lean.  What is he experimenting with?  What is his next MVP?  What are his pivots?  He has been a role model and the standard for so many – I hope he doesn’t lose that focus and become the gorilla that stops innovating and experimenting.  I want to continue to learn from him, but feel I haven’t been able to recently.

As we have all learned from Steve, Eric Ries, Ash Maurya, Alex Osterwalder and others at the forefront, it shouldn’t take much to stay lean.  For instance, I developed a webpage a while back (took it down recently) in about 30 minutes based on a random idea I had after learning about the Datawind Ubislate 7Ci tablets.   I had tremendous response and feedback from educators and entrepreneurs in the hour or so after posted it through social media channels.  I had an idea, I made some hypotheses, I put them out there to test, and am gathering data to reinvent the offering.  Nice and lean.

Don’t forget where you came from Steve, it would be ashame to lose your authentic and powerful lean voice.  Would that be wrong if he continued down the path he seems to be on, which is silencing that great lean voice?  I think so, because I want more of the the raw, real, lean version of Steve.  I’m partial to New Yorkers, what can I say?


Stakeholders in the Education System

In a previous post, I shared my thoughts about the “insiders” who can and should help reshape our education system.  As many readers and friends pointed out, there are also “outsiders” who need to play a part.

Parents and Education

In most cases, for better or worse, parents are the most influential person in a child’s life.  Parents need to play a direct role in their child’s education.  

Photo Credit: Jeff Loughlin via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Jeff Loughlin via Compfight cc

We need to monitor and join in their learning.  We need to communicate with teachers and other school folks who all play a role in our child’s education and work as a team.  Our children need to develop their skill set.  They also need to develop the mindset that will be necessary in the future career force – creativity, imagination, collaboration, failure, hustle.  Where the schools fail (in cultivating that mindset and also in exposing them to digital literacy and things like that) the parents must fill those voids.

Entrepreneurs and Education

Entrepreneurs should inject themselves into the education paradigm.  They know how to make something from nothing, how to rebuild something, how to hustle.  We desperately need them to engage in this conversation.  They have the resources that people listen to.  They have the experience people listen to.  

Brad FeldThey can be the perfect champions; as Brad Feld illustrates, entrepreneurs are the proper people to put and the heart of building and developing such a program.

Organizations and Education

All of our communities have many organizations interested in education, economic development, innovation, entrepreneurship.  There are government agencies, local corporations, small businesses, NGOs / non-profits.  It is critical to have the support of organizations, for field trips, for mentors, for internships, for some larger resources (although I hate to feel indebted to someone)

Combining these folks with the teachers, students, and administrators on the inside would create a phenomenally powerful education force.  It doesn’t have to be that hard.  It’s about finding someone who doesn’t seem to have an agenda and that person coordinating discussions to get things going.


Creativity and Passion: Ingredients for a Cure

As one night awhile back unfolded, two things happened simultaneously that created some connections I couldn’t ignore.  One was the Grammy Awards.  The other was that my son’s school district cancelled school, and then my university cancelled school that day and the next. All cancellations due to weather.  Seemingly unrelated, right?  Bear with me while I tie them together to form the basis of a new education approach that I will expand upon later.

The Music Never Stops

Why are we as a society infatuated with musicians?  Sure, part of it is jealousy and fantasy – wanting what they have that we never could.  But look and feel deeper than that.  Their music inspires us, is the thread that weaves through the stories of our life, connects us to each other.

MusicianImagine a world without these musicians and the music they produce?  So why are we so engrossed with it?  I think it is because these individuals are showing us a raw mix of creativity and passion.  They are passionate about the music they create – as passionate as anyone could be about anything (watch an old Jerry Lee Lewis clip).  Have you ever really watched the facial expressions of musicians?  In any other setting, those facial expressions would be seriously awkward, would be ridiculed.  But for a musician, we expect it.  We permit it.  We embrace it.  Why?  Because it is their passion resulting from their creativity coming through in it’s purest, rawest form.  It’s not just passion – we all have that for something.  It is the passion for creative expression.  That, to me, is the key.  That is what is so infectious, so contagious about music and musicians.

MusicThey are sharing their experiences through creativity and passion-laden stories.  That we all can understand and identify with.  We want to know more.  We want to share more.  We want to feel more.  Shouldn’t education be the same way?  Shouldn’t learning evoke the same glorious reactions?

The School Does Stop

My university and my son’s school district cancelled school.   I’ll give you one guess what the students’ reaction to this was.  Elation!

YAYCan you guess what the teachers’ reactions were?  Scanning through social media, emails, etc. I see teachers who are equally as pumped about school closing as students.  (This is for another soapbox moment, but that reaction from teachers tells an awful lot about the state of education).  Back to the issue.  Why are students not mad about missing school?  Because they don’t like it – they have a better alternative.  Why don’t they like it?  What is their alternative?  It is creativity and passion – the things that we provide at home or elsewhere away from school.  They can use their imagination, they can explore their surroundings, they can develop their own stories.  They have the opportunity to engage their creativity and to feel and share their passion.  The students don’t miss anything about school because they can’t be creative, because they can’t explore or express their passion, because they cannot share and explore their own experiences.  That doesn’t fit in a box or map onto some standardized test, so the school don’t let them (for the most part – of course there are some that do).  Some will argue that students can do this within the framework of the common core nonsense.  Yes, but they have to do it within that box.  If we took the box away and allowed them to explore, to be creative, to share and live their passion, I think students would be pissed when school was cancelled.  How happy would we be as parents if our children were upset when school was cancelled?

NoHow happy would we be as educators if our students wanted to engage in class, and were telling us how pissed they were when class was cancelled?

Creativity and Passion

As with most problems, the path to a solution doesn’t have to be difficult.  It just takes a little bit of innovative thinking, creativity, and passion.  Look at musicians.  As we’re cutting funding for music and other self-expression outlets in schools, let’s think about what we’re doing.  Are the people who fit into boxes contagious, infectious?  Are they telling stories we want to hear and share?  Are they the role models that effectuate positive social change?  A resounding NO!!!!  Musicians hold part of the promise for education.  In their passion and in their creativity.  It is through that mixture that children can once again love learning and the environment where they learn.  Think about the last time your children were truly engaged, were being thrilled, were laughing contagiously.

SwingI’ll wager those moments had something to do with being creative and had something to do with something the child is passionate about.  We need to get back to the power of creativity and the power of passion.   I’ll explain how I see that happening in a future post.


Education: A Whole New Look and Feel

Every morning I put my son on a bus literally across the street (talk about poor use of resources!) and a little piece of me dies.  The experience he has each and every day destroys his creativity, his natural curiosity, his imagination, his self-confidence, his individualism.  Need I go on?

BusOur education system is broken.  I’m not one of those who gets on a soapbox and blames others.  I don’t care whose fault it is.  No Child Left Behind.  Common Core.  The list of people and programs who have contributed is endless.  Including every parent who never spoke up.  I can’t stay silent any longer.  The system needs an overhaul.

Education as a Process

I view everything as a process.  Including any educational system, or any component within the educational system.  And any process can be split into smaller (more manageable!) parts.  With the educational system, I’m looking at teachers, administrators, students, and resources as the big building blocks.


Teachers are the foundation of education.  They should be the co-creators, the facilitators, the guides, the mentors.  They make it happen.  They have been relegated to delivering packaged content, to helping aggregate big data, to creating robots.  It really is depressing.  Just as students do, teachers need the freedom to design and create.

Create opportunities for students to love learning.  Create content delivery systems based on individual needs and capabilities.   Create a community where parents send their children to blossom, not to be crushed.  Teachers want this.  If they don’t, they’re just perpetuating the destruction of our youth.


In any process are gatekeepers.  In education, the gatekeepers are administrators.  They need to protect our school communities like they would their own children.  Not only keep them safe, but enable them, empower them, mentor them, encourage them to fail.  They need to encourage teachers to create, encourage students to experiment.  They need to enable teachers to innovate and take calculated risks, enable students to enjoy education and find their natural love of learning.  Their job is to champion and permit the transition from standardized factories to individualized laboratories.   This comes from creating cultures of student-driven learning and of curiosity and of experimentation and of fun.


Students are the heart and soul of education.  Although the heart barely beats, and the soul is certainly shattered.  Students need to regain their voice.  This means taking back control.  Education is their experience.  It is meant to help them grow, to prepare them for an uncertain future, to provide a safe place for them to experiment intellectually, socially, spiritually, athletically.

pencilEducation cannot happen without students.  Transforming our education system can happen most effectively by students believing their voice matters, building a collective voice, and reclaiming their ownership of the educational process.  Students need to be able to make things.  To code programs.  Education needs to be learning by doing.  Most importantly, education should allow and energize students to learn to learn.  Learn how to ask questions, and how to answer questions.


Resources are the least important of these building blocks.  The resources that we typically think of are so irrelevant.  Buildings that decay.  Desks that confine.  Books that are outdated.  Resources students need are easily accessible in today’s world.  Education resources should include those that allow students to self-organize, to engage, to be curious, to be motivated by their peers, to collaborate.  A computer, tablet, or some device that gets them connected.  Internet access.  Writing materials.

The New Education System

Teachers need to create.

Administrators need to protect.

Students need to love learning.

Resources are already there.

Everyone involved in education should have fun.  If you touch or are affected by education, are you having fun?  I mean really having fun?  I doubt it.  Let’s create the future of learning.  How?  Put entrepreneurs in charge.  They can transform cities.  They can transform communities.  They can build ecosystems.  They can certainly redesign education – because they are lifelong learners at their core, and they engage in learning more effectively than anyone else.  They have to.  Let’s give them education to rebuild the broken system.


Entrepreneurship of a Different Sort

Entrepreneurship is . . .

Entrepreneurship has many different definitions and variations.  I am often asked by students, colleagues, and various stakeholders of the organizations of which I am a part some version of the following question: “Have you ever started a business?”  I am in the midst of starting three right now:

1. internrocket, which is aimed at blowing up the internship and hiring processes by focusing on micro-project experiences.

2. That Ain’t Normal, which is aimed at disrupting what is normal in fashion (the basic model is like Quirky for apparel/fashion)

3. Legacy Out Loud, which is a global initiative to refocus the foundational conversations that inspire and empower young women to think, act and lead entrepreneurially.

So according to that traditional perspective of entrepreneurship, I am currently an entrepreneur.  I’ve tried a few in the past and failed miserably before much progress happened.  I’ve consulted for many folks who have started both successful and unsuccessful ones.  But the sorts of experiences I’ve had, I would argue, are equally (if not more so) valuable to my goal of engaging students in entrepreneurial thinking and doing.

The Dark Side of Entrepreneurship

Entrepreneurship can be driven by necessity or by opportunity.  I grew up in a fortunate situation where I never had to think about necessity.  I always engaged in opportunity-driven entrepreneurship.  Entrepreneurship can also be legal or illegal.  In my younger, more immature days, I engaged in illegal entrepreneurship.  In order to get the cocaine I needed, I started dealing for some heavy hitters out of Detroit.  I would put that experience against that of any entrepreneur any day.  I had to manage product.  I had to manage employees.  I had to manage financials.  I had to manage stakeholders.  I had to monitor competition.  Anything a “real” business does, I had to do.  But I had to do it with the highest of stakes.  Not that I wouldn’t have food on my table, or I wouldn’t have enough money to pay rent.  I would have a couple dudes called Slim (he wasn’t slim by the way) and Frosty visit me from Detroit.  I had to cheat and steal and manipulate and operate well over that line between moral and immoral.  Every day I had to make very real, very dangerous (physically and emotionally) choices.  I would say there is nothing more entrepreneurial that this sort of experience.  It certainly shaped my current world view of what is possible and of how to get it.

The Bright Side of Entrepreneurship

As I matured and realized I needed to clean my life up, I turned to education.  As an educator, I am extremely entrepreneurial.  I look for opportunities to disrupt the broken ways of teaching that we too strongly hold onto.  I look for the failures of those who’ve come before me, and I give myself every chance to try some new method or technique, and to fail.  I hustle my ass off – weaving students, faculty, alumni, colleagues, associations, entrepreneurs, investors from around the world together around fantastic experiences.

Am I an entrepreneur?  I honestly don’t know what that means (Babson College is doing some cool projects around defining that word).  But my answer is categorically YES! So when I get asked that question about whether I’ve started a business, I often reply by letting people know that I’ve been entrepreneurial from an early age.  As my path through life changes, the focus of my entrepreneurial spirit changes.  But that spirit has always been in me.  Is it in you?  How does it manifest itself?  Find the opportunity.  Learn to fail.  And hustle.  The results will be extraordinary!


Education In The Hands of Students: The Learning Contract

I’ve been tweaking the concept of learning contracts for a number of semesters now.  Thanks to some tremendous feedback from scholars must smarter than I, I think I’m almost where I want to be with it.

Education the Right Way: Learning Contracts

My take on learning contracts is that they are a contract the student makes with himself/herself.  It takes me completely out of the picture in terms of grading/assessment.  That’s a powerful statement if you think of it – to tell the student that the assessment of their learning is completely up to them.  And that it’s contractual.  It really does work (trust me!)  I’ve had students fail themselves and show up next semester.  I’ve had students give themselves a D or a C when they richly deserved it.  I have yet to need to adjust a student’s grade down.  Did you read that?  I HAVE YET TO ADJUST A STUDENT’S GRADE DOWN!! I have occasionally had to adjust grades up because students are too hard on themselves.

The Best Education Gift

Photo Credit: Matthew Kunce via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Matthew Kunce via Compfight cc

Giving students this sense of ownership is, in my opinion, the best gift an educator can give a student.  Control.  Autonomy.  So, how do I do it?

I outline the A-B-F grading plan that they must abide by.  I think the C and D grades are bullshit.  I mean, really, what is a D?  Sort of failing?  Nonsense, either you failed or you didn’t.  That’s like sort of drowning or a sort of heart attack.  And a C?  That’s mediocre.  And mediocre should not be rewarded.  It won’t be in my class.  I explain that an F means failure (they did not meet the obligations in their learning contract).  I explain that B means competency (they met a minimum bar).  I explain that A means mastery.  This, to me, means their body of work can be used by me and others as an example of the goal that should be achieved.  I want them to understand it is not just going through the motions (to me, that’s a failure), but that it is the best business experience – one that I want to share with subsequent classes as an example of what an A looks like.  Something that sets them apart, something that job interviewers want to know more about.   Something that is contagious, infectious, deliberate, and glorious.

I then provide them this form: Learning Contract Winkel.  I walk them through it:

1. the objectives are some general objectives I have set for the course.

2. They need to develop some strategies to achieve the objective, and some resources they need to be able to achieve the objective (I will give them a generic choice or two)

3. They need to decide what to assess (this takes the place of the traditional assignments).  Let them choose!!!  I promise it won’t hurt to give up this control (in fact, it’s liberating).  Again, I will give them a generic choice or two.

4. They have to figure out how to assess the work they complete.  Maybe they want me to assess it.  Maybe they want peers to assess it.  Could be objective, or subjective.  Lots of different ways to assess things!  But part of the process is they have to deliberately think about what assessment means and how to enact it – because that results in much more impactful “assignments”.  And much more tailored to the individual student, so the impact increases geometrically!

After explaining the learning contract, I have them work in small groups to fill out a learning contract.  Then the small groups share with the class what they came up with.  This way, the students are working together to give each other ideas of assignments, of assessment techniques.  They know what to do, they are capable, and they love the ownership!  Honest – let go and let them have at it.  It’s brilliant.  They listen to each other so much more than to me.

Photo Credit: gorbould via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: gorbould via Compfight cc

After sharing from groups, I tell them that each one of them must fill out a learning contract by the end of the first class.  I collect them, and deliver feedback to them by the 2nd class.  My feedback consists of pushing them further – they generally come up with vague assessment techniques, bogus assignments, etc. so I push them to think deeper, to push themselves to set the bar higher, etc.  It’s motivation I provide, really.  And permission.  They turn in a final draft in the 3rd class.  They sign it, and I keep one copy and they keep one copy.

At the end of the semester, I ask them to write a one-pager stating what grade they give themselves according to what they agreed to in their learning contract and justifying it.  I tell them they can turn in as much material as they need to for justification (but all they ever turn in is the one-pager because all throughout the semester they are basically keeping me updated so I know what’s up).

It doesn’t have to be more complicated than that.  At the very beginning, we work hard to understand and put together learning contracts.  Then grading, assessment and all that interference is off the table.  They don’t think about it.  I don’t think about it.  We all focus on learning.  And doing.  And isn’t that the point?

So why don’t you give up control?  Try it one semester.  See what happens.  I promise you’ll feel better.  And so will your students.

Photo Credit: Uros Petrovic via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Uros Petrovic via Compfight cc