Episode 20 – Doris Korda and Alison Tanker
IN THIS EPISODE, DORIS EXPLAINS WHY ALL LEARNING MUST BE RELEVANT, MEANINGFUL AND TIMELY. TO ILLUSTRATE, SHE DESCRIBES HOW SHE LEVERAGED THE SHORTCOMINGS OF STUDENT RESEARCH IN A FIRST BUSINESS PROBLEM IN ORDER TO DRIVE DEEP LEARNING ON THE SECOND BUSINESS PROBLEM.
Alison: Can you describe what it’s like to really teach this course?
Doris: Yeah. So it’s funny, because I’ve been training you for this last semester, and I’m actually going to bring up an example that you can talk about what it felt like, all right?
Alison: All right.
Doris: So, because this, you just live this, and this is . . . I’m going to bring up the good data example from Hot Chicken Takeover to Beam. Okay?
Doris: Yeah. That’s exactly what this feels like, so here’s the deal. The reason it is so powerful to use real problems as the vehicle for all this is that every bit of learning is relevant and meaningful. Everything a student does in this course is clearly important for whatever they’re working on. As a teacher, that’s where you live.
Where you live, where your head is, every fiber of your being, is you’re with what they’re doing and what they’re thinking and what they should be thinking and what they’re asking. You’re being crazy opportunistic. You’re staying one step ahead, one step ahead at all times, of them, of their thinking, and you’re looking for those opportunities for crazy learning.
I’ll give you an example and ask you to share parts of what you did there, because you lived it and you can talk about what it felt like.
The first business this past semester was Hot Chicken Takeover. I, in my conversation with the CEO of the first business we’re going to use, I have a line that I always use. With all of them I say, “It is my great hope that you get something out of this, that the students give you something out of this that’s useful to you, I really hope so. But the primary goal of this is learning, so it’s possible that you’ll not get anything useful out of it.” I want to know if they’re willing to do it even so.
That’s actually important. This is kind of an aside, but that’s pretty important because I’ve even had in the last year-and-a-half, especially the last year. As the class has gotten better and better developed and we’ve had more and more businesses go through this, I’ve actually had business CEOs reach out to me who really would like to use our students as a consulting service, or, you know?
Alison: Sure. Yeah.
Doris: So I, yeah.
Alison: Creating free labor.
Doris: And right, right, and it’s really not about that . . .
Doris: . . . hopefully. Okay. So anyway, when I’m talking to the business that I’m thinking is going to be the first one, I add another line after that. I say, “Also, because you will be the first business, and by the way, during that first business, three weeks or whatever that we spend, students are coming in with no background, nothing, no skills in this. They’re drinking out of the fire hose as we’re guiding them through learning all kinds of foundational methodologies. In your case, it is very probable that you will not get anything useful out of this.”
The reality is it’s a really tough first three weeks for the students. They end up presenting to the CEO of that first business. They get through that and feel huge success, usually. Given how little experience they have, they come out with something that they’re very proud of, and they should be, and it’s great. They go into the next thing feeling wonderful, and that’s awesome.
The reality is that a bunch of high school kids, given a real business problem with three weeks to do it and no background, don’t typically come up with things that the business themselves wouldn’t be able.
Alison: Had ever thought it.
Doris: So their presentations are pretty bad, actually.
Alison: Right. Shallow.
Doris: And they’re really shallow, they’re really gruesome, actually, most of them. But that’s okay. That’s . . .
Alison: That’s where they start.
Doris: . . . that’s where they start, and as you’ve heard me say many times, the best way for someone on the outside to get a glimpse into what this class is about, is if they come to all of those final presentations for each of the four projects, because you really see the growth by doing that.
Anyway, so coming out of Hot Chicken Takeover, students, as always, felt great about what they’d done. It was a Friday so they went into the weekend feeling wonderful, which is awesome, and did their reflections and did all their work over the weekend.
Then they come in Monday and they’re going to feel ready to take on now business two now they’ve been through it once, they know what to expect, they feel better. That weekend, while they’re at home feeling great, for the first time, because it’s been such a hard thing, I know you remember that I called you. I called you on Saturday morning. Either Saturday morning or Sunday, I don’t remember which.
Alison: I don’t either.
Doris: But one of those days, I called you early. I remember I was going shopping, I was going to take a couple hours to go shopping and it was right when . . . It must have been 10 a.m., because it was right when Nordstrom was going to open. And I was sitting in my car in the parking lot, and I never got out of my car, because you and I were on the phone for two hours.
Alison: That’s true, yeah.
Doris: Then when we were off the phone, it was time for me to leave. So anyway, I remember very well. I just don’t remember if it was Saturday. I think it was Saturday. But anyway, I called and I said, “Okay, Ms. New Teacher, I need to talk to you about what you need to do this weekend, and it’s crazy important. This is super important, this is where the learning happens. On Friday, we watched these presentations, and there were in each of the presentations . . . of course we tell them they need to be validated, they have to have evidence, they have to support their solutions with . . . “
Doris: “. . . numbers and data, etc.” I said, “We had really, really weak supporting data, to say the least. For example, in one of the presentations . . . and this is just one example that I remember, I could list many . . . one of the presentations, one of the teams made a major point of a recommendation with their beautiful . . . “
Alison: Pie chart.
Doris: . . . pie chart, yeah, that’s exactly right, pie chart. And in small print down at the bottom of the slide . . . so that the pie chart showed overwhelmingly 88% or 80% or 90%, I think it was 90%, blah, blah, blah . . . and then in small print down below, it showed that because we told them they have to show what this is based on, it showed that this was based on a grand total of 10 survey results. Okay? And this was key to their . . . okay.
Alison: To their recommendations.
Doris: “So I said so, you have to, in an old-fashioned phrase, you have to strike while the iron is hot. This isn’t something that you can wait until Wednesday. You seize the moment. So they’re coming in on Monday, and we’re going to have a short amount of time to debrief and process the presentations on Hot Chicken Takeover and the solutions they came up with, etc., as we then go into Beam, right? Here’s what we’re going to.
“We’re going to have them first, they come right in the door the next week, and Jonathan from Beam presents to them. So Jonathan will present to them biz 2, which is dental insurance, much more sophisticated problem, lots for them to figure out. We are going to actually reflect on Hot Chicken Takeover immediately after Mr. Nutt leaves. So they’re now ‘ooh, Beam, wow, this is going to be harder.’ They’re put on their new teams.”
“We’re then going to reflect on Hot Chicken Takeover. And when we do, we’re going to have them discover for themselves that there is such a thing as good data and there is such a thing as bad data. We’re going to point out, we’re going to have them realize ‘Whoa, we just presented recommendations, with beautiful slides, dressed well, clear voices, to a CEO for him to implement in his business based on 10 survey results, and what that means.
“They’re going to be interested in learning about how to be analytical about these things, and get into some kind of technical meat when it comes to looking behind the covers when they do their research, and understanding things like what does standard deviation mean and what does this mean and what does that mean.”
How did I suggest to you do that?
Alison: Well, so that day, I remember, we hung out. But I immediately started Googling all sorts of different articles, videos, journal entries, all sorts of things that had to do with how to make decisions based off of data, data-driven decision making, I found a lot around that.
I found a lot about the use of statistics and also how to present data, not in a visual format, but also in compelling ways that isn’t just numbers on slides and all this. I remember, I think I pulled between 18 and 20-some different articles, videos, and things for the students to . . .
Doris: Do you remember what I suggested we do with those?
Alison: Well, and initially I think we thought we would give them all of them up front as a jigsaw, where they would pull them apart and divide them out amongst their team and then come back and discuss.
After we went through them together and realized how valuable all of the different elements were, we decided to split up the articles over the next week as homework assignments for them to really digest and reflect on.
Doris: Right. Even beyond that, what we did is we thought through and we thought through right now, right now tonight . . .
Alison: Get them where they are.
Doris: . . . where is their head, and which one would be most compelling. The first ones that we gave, because I remember suggesting you look for some that are more academic and dense, but others that are stories, case studies about businesses that succeeded based on that and businesses that failed based on that.
Doris: You did a great job of having a lot of good stuff, and then we went through together to pick the ones that were best. We started with the ones that were stories, a couple of stories, and I don’t remember even, there might have been one of them was a video, I think. But they were pretty jarring. Whoa. Especially the one where somebody’s failing, right . . .
Doris: . . . because of it. Kind of jarring. What they read and watched that night . . . and we hadn’t said anything at that point that first night about Hot Chicken Takeover, but we knew that if you read that and you watch that and you just presented what you did and did what you did over the last three weeks, these kids are smart, they’re going to make that connection.
So the next morning, when we start class with News Circle, and we get past news, and we say, “All right, let’s talk about Beam and what is the challenge, what is the challenge.”
That was the first thing. We always do that. Right after that first day, the next thing we do is have the students in a circle, process what is the challenge and why is it a challenge and what they learned about the business.
As they’re doing that, and now they’ve watched this thing the night before and they’ve read this thing the night before, I don’t know if you remember, but I asked right then, “Why did we assign last night what we assigned?” That’s all I asked. I don’t remember which one, but one of them immediately said “Because . . .” and made that connection. Then asked another couple questions and basically what happened, with very little from us, was they started processing, “Whoa, whoa, we just gave really, really bad solutions to a business. I mean, honestly, like we did not do a good job. We did not look behind the covers at all. We have no clue. We are babies.”
That night, we assigned a very dense one with a lot of basic, basic terminology and definitions with examples. Now it was dense but digestible to somebody who had no background. We also, that night, assigned something else, and I don’t know if you remember my asking you about, do you remember the other piece we inserted?
Alison: It was to do with the business challenge itself, I think. With Beam Dental, we added some elements in there about . . . it was a report on dental insurance and how many people have access to it and there were graphs and charts in there for them to kind of apply what they were reading in that dense article to . . .
Doris: We did, but there was another assignment that I was thinking of that . . . so these are seniors and they’re in the middle, at that time, also with college applications.
Alison: Oh, right.
Doris: Right? And the conversation is all about this college, that college, rankings, etc.
Alison: That’s right.
Doris: U.S. News & World Report had just come out with their latest rankings, literally that week. In that mix that week, we assigned for them to tell us what, if you’re a college, if what you care most about is your ranking on U.S. News & World Report, what is the easiest thing for you to change so that you can go up?
Alison: Bump your rating.
Doris: Bump your rating. They all had to look under the covers of this report that was running their lives and running . . . I mean, it makes me crazy, right, that whole thing. They had to look under the covers. Some of them figured it out, some of them didn’t. But what they did, in News Circle the next day, when asked, “If you’re NYU and you’re worried about your ranking slipping . . .” Well, first of all, I said, “Why does your ranking matter, how do you think it matters?” And we talked about why the ranking matters, what the implications are, da-da-da.
I said so, “If you’re NYU’s dean of whatever, college president, do you care if your ranking slips from 6 to 12?”
“Oh, yeah, that would be bad.”
“Might you even feel like your job is threatened by the U.S. News & World Report“?
“So if you wanted to make sure it stayed up there, what is the easiest thing . . . or you wanted to move it up, what’s the easiest thing?”
Several of the kids said “Oh, you have to get more students to apply so that you can reject more, because selectivity is the only thing that really, of all of those is easy for you to . . . ” I said, “That’s right. So when you’re getting marketed to by schools that you don’t think you actually could get into, why do you think that’s happening?” Anyway, it was really interesting. So what did you come out of that with, as a teacher?
Alison: So I think that was about day two or three into this series of articles, and I remember the last night when we sent the final set of articles for them to read, and into that fourth day then, a News Circle, I remember I physically felt it.
I felt the shift happening. I honestly think it was probably the most dramatic shift all semester, that led to them diving into this second business challenge in a much different way than they had the first.
I remember I was nervous. I was like but, “Doris, they’re not going deep enough, they’re not even, this first one, they’re not going to have anything to tell them at the end.”
Alison: And to then watch, literally three weeks later, them come in the door to talk to the CEOs of Beam Dental and overwhelm everyone with the amount of data and research that they really had done, to not only understand what the heck dental insurance is about, the access levels to that, and then how some specific consumer products could potentially be preventative care, so . . .
They did all of this research, but as well, then used a lot of data that they had found and gone out of the building to retrieve, to really validate what they then told the business. Honestly, I was so proud of these kids that they could make that much growth in three weeks, that . . .
Doris: Yeah, it’s crazy, right?
Alison: . . . I was really shocked, knowing that the timeliness of that, kind of, anticipating, as a teacher, that like you said, it’s striking while the iron is hot and being opportunistic. That it really triggered a huge amount of growth for these kids where if we had sat them down and told them we’re about to go through a statistics lesson, we’re going to do a statistics smack down, I think that’s what we called that.
Doris: Yeah, yeah.
Alison: If we were to do that, they would have never…
Doris: Well, it would be like a regular statistics course where you sign up for a statistics course, you come in every day, but you do what you need to do to get your grade. Maybe you’re intrinsically interested in it, although maybe you’re not. Every student in this class, every student in this class understood why it mattered to learn that stuff.
So did they come out of this semester with the full-course equivalent of an AP Statistics class? Of course not. But do they have a baseline understanding? Yes.
More important than not, do they have an appreciation for the importance of statistics? Do they get that if they need to learn it, they can learn it and figure it out? Yes. Will they be doing quality thinking and quality work with anything that they’re analyzing from now on? They absolutely will, and they won’t kid themselves that, “Oh, this is good enough,” because I think it. So that really, this example that you went through, that’s what it feels like to teach this, in a way, to get really crazy-good learning to happen. Even in things like statistics.