Agile Teaching: It Doesn’t Happen Overnight

| By Gary Harstein

After over 20 years in education – almost 15 of them in educational technology – it’s easy to get comfortable. I’ve long touted agile teaching as a hallmark benefit of blended learning.  I have told countless people how important it is be flexible when we teach.  I’ve always prided myself on being an agile teacher who deftly adjusts instruction on the fly as challenges arise.  Sometimes, however, I do something that reminds me that practicing what I preach doesn’t just “happen,” but rather is something I need to always be working toward. And the reminder can sting a little.

During a recent conference, I was honored to be asked to co-lead a presentation on blended learning.  “Ah, no brainer!” I thought.  “I’ve done this so many times I could do it in my sleep.”  Because both of us (presenters) had done the traditional frontal lecture-style presentation so many times, we decided to teach about blended learning using blended learning: a rotational model to be exact.  To really take it up a notch, I came up with the brilliant idea to model a self-paced video with a quick online quiz to check comprehension as one of the centers during our rotation.  In all fairness, it was a pretty good idea.  However, it didn’t go nearly as well as planned.

The idea was that the video the participants watched independently did a great job of teaching about blended learning and distinguishing it from tech integration.  The four-question online assessment I created would be the perfect tool to gauge how much each group learned before coming to my center next in the rotation.  I would then use the report from the assessment to show how data from online learning can help to inform instruction.  I wrote careful instructions, posted them to a Google doc with a shortened link and even had the directions printed “just in case.”  I had planned for any possible contingency.  Or had I?

What I didn’t count on – and after many years and many PD sessions I should have never forgotten – was that implementing new processes into any learning environment can bring up unexpected real-world challenges.  And whatever they are, we need to be ready for them.  As it turned out, we had more people than expected.  I didn’t provide enough explanation of the Google doc and video station.  I took for granted that all of the potential obstacles to everyone getting online and completing the activity had been addressed.

So when a group came to me having not been able to watch the video, let alone complete the assessment, I wasn’t worried.  “This is exactly why we do blended learning!” I thought smugly.  “I’ll just adjust the mini-lesson with my group to focus on teaching them the basics that the video would have covered.”  At least that’s how it started.  After a short time, woman in the group raised her hand and told us she was confused.  She said she didn’t see how this could possibly apply to her as a Hebrew teacher and was basically “lost” in the discussion.

I tossed a standard reply her way, sharing a couple examples of blended learning in Hebrew teaching. Then I jumped back to the group, ignoring the fact that this woman was still lost.  I was in such a hurry to make sure I covered everything within the allotted time, I failed to take advantage of a perfect opportunity to be agile.  I could have easily told her that I understood her frustration and would be happy to spend extra time with after the session to help her and anyone else who still had questions.  I could have taken her confusion and turned it into a learning opportunity for the group.  I could have done a lot of things, but instead fell back on the comfort of pushing my “knowledge” to the group.  A great learning opportunity was lost. Or was it?

A respected colleague approached me after the session and offered some constructive feedback.  The Hebrew teacher’s question was chief among the things we discussed.  And while I wasn’t hearing anything I didn’t already know, it was important for me to hear it nonetheless.

Agile teaching through blended learning is not easy.  It’s not something that you can simply read about and immediately start doing with expert proficiency.  Like anything worth doing well, it requires practice and patience.  In my post-session discussion, I was reminded just how important both of those things are to learning.  The first time we try something with our students, it may not go perfectly.  In fact, it may not go well at all.  But that doesn’t mean that the idea was bad and should never be discussed again.  It means we have to look at both the good and the bad and learn from the successes and failures of our work.  I was reminded that when starting a blended learning rotation – or any other model for that matter – it’s likely not going to be perfect the first time.  In fact, it’s likely going to take students and teacher time to develop a new model into a routine.

It’s easy to avoid trying new things because we’re often sensitive about making mistakes in front of our students.   In our desire to be the experts, we often take the notion of something not working according to plan as failure and as such, a negative statement about our ability to teach. Every teacher I know who has implemented rotational models had first-day challenges.  Most have told me that if I observed their class on Day 1 of rotation and later on Day 15, I would think I had seen two different classes.  When we don’t give up, but instead allow ourselves to learn from our failures, we increase our own potential as learners.  And more importantly, we model for our students that not getting something right isn’t the sad end to a failed experiment, but the beginning of a new learning opportunity.

The challenge is to be patient with ourselves and our students as we try new things.  Being an expert educator doesn’t mean we have to have all the answers all the time.  It means we have to be comfortable making mistakes and learning from them.  It means holding ourselves to the same standards as our students when it comes to learning.  It means recognizing that our students can and should be active parts of the learning process; we can learn from them too!  And it means knowing that as good as we think we are at something, we can make mistakes, we can learn from them, and the world won’t end because we did.