If It Sounds Crazy, That’s Probably Not How They’re Doing It

Teachers can sometimes have wild ideas about how a new initiative will work, but a recent experience helped us figure out how to lower teachers's anxiety.

A while back, one of the schools I'm working with had a staff meeting where we talked with middle grades students what had been student reporters at a conference focused on Customized Learning and iPads.

The students were enthusiastic and passionate about their involvement in the conference, as well as what they were starting to learn about Customized Learning.

Other than a handful of pilot teachers, this school has not received any significant training on Customized Learning and is very much at the beginning of their journey to implementation. Therefore the teachers were very interested in what the students had to say and their enthusiasm, and started asking student all their numerous questions about CL and even started to ask the students lots of “how to” questions about how things worked in CL.

I had to quickly remind the teachers that these students had simply attended and reported on a handful of conference sessions about CL and had experienced very little of it themselves. All the questions were perfectly legitimate, and reflect the natural curiosity that you would expect teachers to have at the Awareness Phase of implementation, but that we should probably save our practical, how-to questions for teachers and students who are more experienced! (and we all laughed – the student passion had certainly left us all feeling for the moment that the students were all-knowing experts about Customized Learning! And, of course, these middle grades students never hesitated to create an answer if they didn't actually know it!)

What was really interesting, however, were the teachers' questions. They were asking how they could work with 100 students all in different places in their learning? How did they just let students work at what ever pace they wanted? And how did teachers create a 100 different lesson plans a day to customized the learning? And did teachers just let unmotivated students do nothing? And how could students learn things if there was no direct instruction?

These are all understandable and appropriate questions of teachers early in the Awareness Phase of implementation. But they largely represented enormously false assumptions about Customized Learning. But these were false assumptions that many teachers brand new to Customized Learning seemed to have. And these false assumptions generated an enormous amount of anxiety in the teachers (largely, of course, because the teachers didn't yet know that the assumptions were false).

And it dawned on me that there was actually a fairly simple heuristic that teachers could apply that would help tame their assumptions and lower their anxiety.

So I shared it with the staff at this meeting: There are lots of schools that are very successfully implementing Customized Learning. So if an idea about how it might work seems totally crazy or undoable to you, then that's probably not how they're doing it!

It was so simple!

Does doing 100 lesson plans a night seem crazy to you? Then that's probably not how they're doing it!

Does letting unmotivated students do nothing seem unproductive? Then that's probably not how successful schools are doing it!

Does letting students do what they want seem untenable? Then that's probably not how they're doing it!

So next time you begin to wonder about a specific way you think folks are implementing Customized Learning, apply the Crazy Test. If it doesn't pass, then that's probably not how successful teachers are doing it!


6 thoughts on “If It Sounds Crazy, That’s Probably Not How They’re Doing It

  1. judy enright

    Mike this is a great strategy for dealing with all those “crazy” assumptions about customized learning. Thanks!

  2. Charlie Maddaus

    This also sounds like a great strategy for considering MCL crazy, especially after being underwhelmed by “Inevitable: Mass Customized Learning.” I’m a skeptic, I admit, but little I’ve seen so far makes me want to throw out everything I’m doing and become a convert. We are, as someone pointed out, in a point-and-click age, but that doesn’t automatically mean that traditional learning, ie skillful instruction, the socratic method and collaborative learning, has no value. Teachers meeting students in chat rooms would barely approximate Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development,” where learning exceeds what one can accomplish alone. Students need to interact with students on all levels, as well as teachers.

    I use a variety of methods that are a complete departure from classrooms of 50 years ago, including online discussions of literature, student collaborations with students in foriegn countries and choice reads combined with multi-genre response projects, but it all eminates back to sharing learning with peers. Understanding how others think and and how to work with others in an educational setting develops skills that are beneficial in higher education and crucial in the workplace. These are foundational skills that are not accounted for in MCL or even mentioned. That, to me, is “crazy.”

    1. Mike Muir Post author

      Charlie, thanks for your comments! I agree that the strategies you highlight aren’t mentioned much in Customized Learning discussions currently, but I don’t think it is because folks aren’t using those strategies (I know teachers who are). It may have more to do with the fact that most of the CL schools in Maine are early in their implementation and are just reaching the phase where they start to think about instruction. But good CL uses a whole range of traditional and new instructional strategies!

      1. Charlie Maddaus

        Mike–Why do I feel like the misconceptions about MCL come from the source? If “good CL uses a whole range of traditional and new instructional strategies,” why aren’t they mentioned and why to we keep getting the ‘elevator pitch’ instead?

        Teachers in my district use a variety of great strategies but are given little credit in the face of the MCL promotion. And we do customize when the opportunity presents itself!

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