Risk vs Reward – Lessons from the Road

Open road

I spent a few hours this afternoon driving the nearly 200km from Sydney to Bathurst for a day of work in a Bathurst school tomorrow. As I crossed the Blue Mountains and went past Lithgow, the roads open up a little and there are longer, straighter faster stretches of road. On one particularly long straight stretch of road I noticed that my steering wheel hung ever so slightly to the right even though I was driving in a straight line. It wasn’t enough to really bother me, but I started to wonder why it was like that and what it would take to fix it so the steering wheel was perfectly neutral while driving in a straight line. I’m sure the reason had something to do with the camber of the road, and I realised that I do in fact have some level of understanding of how a vehicle’s steering system works. How did I know this? As I pondered the question I remembered back to my very first car and how I had – on several occasions – pulled the steering wheel off and put it back on again.

VW Type 3You might be wondering what caused me to remove and replace the steering wheel on my car.  I mean, who does that? As I tried to remember the reason for why I would be disassembling parts of my car, it dawned on me that I used to take that old 1970 Volkswagen Type III apart and put it back to together again not because there was anything wrong with it, but simply because I could. Yes, I used to pull things apart on that car and put them back together again just for the fun of it and to try to understand how things worked.

There were many times where I pulled my VW apart and couldn’t figure out how to put it back together, and it was off the road for a few days until I could work it out. Back then, that didn’t seem like a big deal. And the value in learning how my car worked seemed a small price to pay for the inconvenience of having it off the road temporarily.  Since the VW I’ve had several other cars that I’ve been quite willing to pull apart and try to put back together, simply because I wanted to know how they worked. Engines, gearboxes, diffs… I’ve had all these things in pieces just because I was curious about what was inside and how things worked.

As I drove along in my current car, a 2015 Mitsubishi ASX, I pondered the prospect of pulling the steering wheel off and putting it back on again, adjusting it by one spline and wondering if that might fix my steering wheel’s droop to the right. As I thought about doing this, I realised that I honestly wouldn’t attempt it on the Mitsubishi, not only because it was probably way more complex than my old VW, but it was more likely to be an expensive repair if I messed it up.  Could I work out how to remove and replace the steering wheel on my current car? Sure. But would I? Nah, probably not.

And I got to thinking about why that is. I’m still a curious person and I still like to know how things work. But the idea of taking my 2015 ASX apart and putting it back together again – for fun – is just not something I’d consider, even though I’ve done it to several of the cars I’ve owned over the years.

What was different? As I thought about this, I wondered if it was the fact that the newer and more expensive the car, the less inclined I would be to tinker with it just for fun. My ASX cost about $26,000. My first VW cost $800.  There was a lot less to lose with the VW if I got it wrong.

This got me thinking about the learning process and about the balance between risk and reward. Unless you are prepared to take the risk of breaking something, you’re probably not going to reap the reward of learning. I don’t really know exactly how the steering wheel on my ASX works because I’ve not attempted to pull it apart, and so I will probably remain fairly ignorant of its inner workings. That’s just a risk vs reward situation I’m going to accept for now. This car is simply too expensive if I fuck it up.

As a teacher, over the years I’ve done a lot of great projects with kids. Some have been amazingly successful and have dramatically changed the way I think about the teaching and learning process. And some have been total disasters. But the value for me as a teacher – as a teacher who wants to continually be getting better at what I do – comes from being willing to take that risk that even if things don’t work out, the value of what I learn from trying makes it worthwhile anyway.

For several years I worked in a fancy high-falutin private school. I won’t say that I was being completely risk averse during my time there, but I also don’t think I took as many big gambles and tried as many radical things as I once would have, simply because the stakes were a little higher if I happened to mess it up. This school had a reputation to protect, demanding parents to keep happy, and there were more policy-driven hoops to jump through to really try outrageous ideas. By contrast, I’ve worked in several schools that had far less to lose, and in those schools it was always much easier to try new ideas because it didn’t matter so much whether they worked or not. Most of the best innovation seems to come from situations where failing is most definitely an option.

It’s nice to be well resourced and have great facilities. But you can do an awful lot of great stuff in a school with very limited resources. You don’t need a lot of money or resources or fancy facilities to be innovative and try new ideas. You just need to be willing to try stuff, and to not worry about whether it works or not.

The other things that struck me as I thought about this idea is that some of the cheapest, shittiest cars I’ve ever owned – the ones I had no issue pulling apart and tinkering with – are the ones that gave me the fondest memories and the deepest emotional attachment. The last few cars I’ve owned have been brand new, reasonably expensive, “nice” cars, but I have very little emotional attachment to them at all. They are just transport. Yes they are comfortable, reliable and pleasant to drive, but that’s about it. The cars I’ve loved owning the most over the years were mostly second-hand, cheap, with lots of quirky flaws yet I look back at the experiences they gave me with such great memories and the knowledge that they even shaped me as a person.  I see some parallels with the classroom there too.

Sometimes you can put that steering wheel back after you pull it apart, and sometimes you can’t. The point is not that everything you do needs to work. The real point is that everything you do should be an opportunity to be a better learner.

The Difficulty Differential

Yesterday, I ran an all day iPad workshop for the teachers at my school. There were two things that were a bit unusual about it. One is that it was an all day event. Usually in a school – or at least in my school – it’s hard finding time for staff professional learning that allows for any real immersion and play. The second unusual thing is that it was held on a Saturday.  (And not just any Saturday, but the Saturday of the first week back after the Summer break!)

No coincidentally, the fact that it was a Saturday was the whole reason we were able to get that extended period of time for learning. When I offered it to our staff (as an entirely optional event for anyone that was interested in coming along) I thought maybe we’d get 3 or 4 teachers show up. Surprisingly, we had 25. Some even brought their children and spouses along. They didn’t get paid for attending, and there was no pressure to be there. But 25 turned up. I was impressed.


We had a fun day of learning what iPads could do, digging into the nooks and crannies of iOS, learning a bunch of tips and tricks to be more expert users, but then spending most of the day actually making things with the iPads. My goal for the day was to make it learner-centred, fun, hands-on and practical, and I think we achieved all that. I had the teachers looking for information, using maps, browsing the web, creating documents. making videos… all the sorts of things that they might typically ask students to do.

I think it’s really important that teachers attempt to produce the same kind of tasks that they ask their kids to do. Often, we teachers come from a background of using a laptop or desktop computer and although we’ve all mostly used an iPad for our personal use, it’s a very different use-case when you have to actually be productive with an iPad as your only device. Assumptions about the iPad’s ease of use as a device quickly get a reality check when you try to use them yourself for real work. You soon hit the wall with workflow issues, data transfer issues, filesharing issues… none of which are insurmountable but it is amazing how many casual iPad users have never had to deal with some of these problems that become very real when the iPad is your only device. I needed my teachers to see that while the iPad might be “revolutionary and magical”, don’t expect it to be the same as your laptop computer. It isn’t. And you need to take that into account when you ask kids to live with one as their only device.

I gave this group of teachers an hour or so to work on making a video using either iMovie or iMotionHD. I know from experience that many teachers are intimidated by the idea of moviemaking because they think it’s too difficult. And some avoid using it with their students because they feel that they need to be really good at it themselves before they can do it with the kids. The classic case of “needing to know how it all works so I don’t look silly in front of the students” syndrome.

I gave this group a very quick demonstration of the main skills they need to shoot a movie – shooting footage, editing clips, adding transitions, adding sound and narration. That sounds like a lot, but it can be easily explained in less than 10 minutes with a simple demonstration, and everyone seemed pretty comfortable with the ideas even though most of them had ever done any video editing before.  So off they went to work on their movies.

When they came back about an hour later, many were totally engrossed in the editing process. One group shot an amazing stop frame movie and added a soundtrack to it. Others made mini documentaries about the school gardens. We exported the final films, and had a little film festival on the Apple TV so everyone could share what they made.

But here’s what I found interesting.  After they had made their first ever movie, I asked them “On a scale of 1 to 10, how difficult is it to make a movie?” This group (who remember had never made videos before) thought about it for a moment and agreed it was only about a 3. In other words, they thought the iMovie software was pretty easy to use and the skills required to make a video were straightforward enough to master.

Of course, just because it’s easy to use,does not mean that they all made amazingly professional looking videos. Most were, shall we say, “a good first attempt”. So then I asked them a second question. “On a scale of 1 to 10, how difficult is it to make a good movie?” This time they agreed that it was more like a 9. Much harder.

The interesting thing about this is that they saw the “difficulty differential” between making just any old movie and making a really good movie is about a 6. In other words, more than half of what’s required to make a good movie is just polishing up the same basic skills that would be required to make a bad movie.

The really encouraging thing is that most the skills required to make a good movie are not technology skills. If you can make a bad movie, you already have the technology skills you need to make a really great movie. What you need to move from ordinary to good (and on to great) are things like a critical eye for lighting and sound, helpful advice on plot and story, and useful feedback on your visuals. None of which are technology skills.

I think this is really encouraging news for teachers, because all of those are things you can give your kids even if you don’t have strong technical skills yourself. You can say to a student “I like your opening scene but I think it’s about 10 seconds too long”. You can tell a student that “the soundtrack music you’ve chosen is not the right fit for the visuals you’re using”. You can let a student know that “your voiceover track is too soft and needs more volume”. You can give a student feedback that a “scene is too dark and needs to be fixed”.

You can give students good advice, wisdom, and adult perspective. You can help them be better by pointing out what can be improved. You can help them make great movies, even though your own technical skills in moviemaking might not be any better than theirs. And that is an incredibly important realisation. It means that we shouldn’t be intimidated about using technology in our classrooms. It means that we can feel ok about the idea that we don’t know all the answers. It means that we don’t need to know more than the students in order to give them opportunities to create.

I would love it if all teachers had my passion for what technology can bring to their classrooms. I love to see teachers pushing themselves forward to learn new technology tools and getting excited about what they might do with them. But I’m realistic enough to know that teachers have so many other demands upon them that technology is not always going to be their number one concern all the time.

I think as teachers we need to commit to at least knowing enough about technology to understand what things might be possible, even if we don’t have the high level skills required to do some of those things ourselves. And if we understand what’s possible with these technology tools, and we can get over being scared that the kids might know more than us, and instead of worrying about what we don’t know about technology and instead we fill the “difficulty differential” with our adult wisdom, advice and feedback, that’s a pretty good recipe for letting the kids unleash the potential of classroom technology for themselves.

We just need to be willing to get out of their way while providing them with some wise guidance.

PS: If you want the notes from the workshop session, you can get them here.

Using Lego to Drive Learning

As much as I would have loved to have been in Melbourne all week for ACEC 2010, it just wasn’t on the cards for me. A pity, because it sounded like there was a lot of really interesting sessions to attend, and one that particularly caught my eye was the Lego Robotics one with Chris Rogers, a professor of engineering from the Centre for Engineering, Education and Outreach at Tufts University in Boston.  I’ve been a Lego fanboy for a long time, and have worked with kids to do some pretty awesome stuff with it over the years, but unfortunately my current school doesn’t really do very much with Lego. (In fact, computer programming in general gets a pretty rough deal at PLC, something that I’d really like to see change)

However, we do run a Computer Club every week in our junior school and we’ve decided that we will introduce programming to these kids to start with.  We’ve begun by getting them going with Scratch, with a plan to get some Lego Robotics gear and maybe even try to put a team in RoboCup.  The kids – mainly Year 5 –  have really taken to Scratch and are starting to do some very cool things with it.  We also have plans to do something for Scratch Day this year as well.

But back to Lego. Just before school finished for Easter I received an email saying that Chris Rogers would be running a 2 hour Lego workshop at Sydney’s Macquarie Uni. Because I couldn’t get to Melbourne for the first few days of ACEC, naturally I jumped at the chance to do this one in Sydney with him, even if it was on Easter Monday!

I was really impressed with what Chris got us to do; it was an excellent example of just how the open ended nature of Lego can cover so many angles of our existing curriculum in a spirit of real constructivist, collaborative learning.  Working in pairs, Chris started us off with a very simple non-robotic building project – each team of two people had a small bag of Lego bits on the table in front of them, and our job was to open it and construct the tallest tower we could out of those parts. Just to make it interesting, we only had about 5 minutes to do it and we had to limit ourselves to only using only our non-dominant hand! Of course, this made teamwork and communication very important.  At the end of 5 minutes, he stopped us and asked us to look around at what we and the others had done. Important lesson 1: everybody built something quite different and clearly demonstrated that there is often no single “right” way to complete a task.  Important lesson 2: You learn far more from failure than success, and the process of “fixing your mistakes” is where the true learning happens.

With that small but important introductory exercise done, our next task was to take the Lego NXT controller brick and, using another limited set of parts, build a “car”, or at least something that had motorised wheels and could drive in a forward direction. (Also worth noting that no two “cars” were the same either. Everyone took a different approach, yet everyone made something that did what it needed to do.  I think there is a hugely significant lesson for educators contained in just that simple idea!)

Once our car was built, Chris showed how to create a very simple NXT-G program that simply ran both motors for 1 second in order to drive the car forward.  That’s it.  It took him no longer than 30 seconds to “instruct” us.  Now that we had a car and knew how to make it move forward for 1 second, he told us what we had to do…

On the floor was a “starting line” made of masking tape, and a long ruler to measure distance.  We were to program our “car” to travel for 1 second and then accurately measure how far that 1 second would make our car go. The we were to modify the program to run for 2 seconds, and measure how far that took us. Then modify for 3 seconds, measure, and so on.  He gave us about 30 minutes to build our car, write the program and then do all of our testing to establish how far our cars would travel for various motor-on timings.  At the end of that time, he said, we would be given a specific distance and we would have to figure out, from the data we’d collected using our car, how long we had to run our motors for in order to stop exactly at that distance.  To make it interesting, we would place a little Lego Person at the specified distance and our cars were to just “kiss” them – not stop short, and not run them over.

The excitement and buzz in the room as people built and tested their models was quite palpable. And people took it really seriously too!  There was some real competition to get it right on the mark.

As we worked through the process, we had to address a number of really valuable learnings and skills.  Building the model required some engineering and science skills, and of course a whole lot of teamwork and cooperation skills too. Measuring the distances taught us to be accurate, to learn how to collect data in a consistent repeatable way, how to measure and record distances.  As we worked, we had to think about the best ways to record the data.  This got us using valuable mathematical concepts including the creation of a graph (which turned out to be a fairly linear graph – a great discussion starter for a maths lesson)  Overall, it was amazing just how broad and deep the learning was, and how we had to construct our own knowledge as we completed the task.

Once the target distance was announced, a second masking tape finishing line was put on the floor.  People furiously calculated the required motor-run timing that they needed to program into their cars in order to stop exactly on the line, and the models were lined up.  On the starters orders we all pressed out Go buttons and tested our theories and our calculations.  It was a lot of fun and had so much embedded learning in it!

Some of the important reflections for me was a reminder of just how powerful learning can be when it is open-ended and focuses on the creation of a solution to an interesting and engaging problem.  It also struck me that a problem does not need to be particularly complicated in order to embed some really rich learning. And finally, it was a great reminder that the creation of rich tasks – whether they are based on the use of technology or not – are not an “add on” to what happens in a classroom.  We need to remind ourselves that it’s not about “covering the curriculum” and then hoping there is enough time left over to do some interesting projects. Getting students working on interesting projects should be the primary way in which we get them to cover the curriculum in the first place.