Episode 42 – Doris Korda and Alison Tanker
IN THIS EPISODE, WE TALK ABOUT WHAT HAPPENS IN THIS CLASS WHEN STUDENTS ARE WORKING ON REAL PROBLEMS AND THEY’RE PARALYZED BECAUSE THEY DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO NEXT.
Alison: So, we’re two weeks away from final presentations for student businesses and we just had share outs for an update about where they are. Wow, what a day it was.
Doris: Yeah, what a day and actually…so I’m going to start…this is a big conversation. And I’m gonna start with the last thing I just said to a student literally two minutes ago. We just finished class. They just got on the bus. And the share outs this morning, we had four teams, two were in a good place, two were absolutely nowhere. And I’ll tell you what I said two minutes ago to that team, you were there.
I said, “You know what, you’re in this weird class. And the reality is that if you want to, you can spend a whole lot of time sitting in a room with your team peddling around doing nothing. The time can pass. You’ll have a share out. You’ll get whatever reaction you get. You’ll have a presentation. You’ll get whatever reaction you’ll get. You’ll get a grade. You’ll move on. Life will go on. You’ll get your credit. You’ll go on to college. If you want, you can get through this and life will move on and you…nothing will happen.”
Alison: They’ll survive it.
Doris: “But here’s the deal.” And I started and I asked this, I said, “Question number one, do you think I care if any of you actually become entrepreneurs?” And all four immediately said, “No, you don’t care.” I said, “You’re right. I don’t. What do I care about?” All four answered, “That we learn.” I said, “Yeah, so here’s the deal. When I’m sitting in a room working with Alison, you know, with Ms. Tanker and we spend time on Mr. Desmond, we spend time working, it is not true that we are 100% of every minute being productive. It’s not true. It’s not human. However, if you take the time you have in this class and all you do is let it pass and you don’t take advantage of the time to do work and thinking, when you have these real things to work on and these real problems, whose loss is that?”
And they said, “Ours.” And I said, “So there are two things that make me sad if you sit around and do nothing. Number one, that you’re in this crazy, privileged position, being in this weird class like this where you’re actually being given real things to work on with structures around you to be able to develop these skills,” and we’ll talk in a minute about why do you care about these skills. Then I said, “Do these skills matter? What are these skills that you might be learning?” And do you remember what Adam said, what did he say? He said, “Yeah, we…” I said, “Okay, really? Don’t tell me what you think I wanna hear. Do you think these skills that you’re learning, developing in this class matter?” He said, “Yeah.” He said, “For example, I really…”
Alison: I don’t like to call people on the phone and…
Doris: “I don’t like to talk to anybody.”
Alison: …to need to interview them.
Doris: Yeah, “I don’t ever like to talk to people. I don’t know where to initiate or whatever.” And I said, “Do you think that being forced to do that is helpful?” He said, “Yeah, I think I’m gonna need it.” “So do you think that it’s possible that if you don’t learn how to initiate conversations with people you don’t know yet, that it may be the difference between being successful at something you care about versus not?” And he nodded his head vigorous, said, “Okay.” So you have X number of hours a week in this class. Think it’s worth actually getting something out of it? And they all nod their head, “Yes.” I said, “So that’s the first reason.”
And I said, “And the second thing is that if you actually put the four of your very capable brains along with some effort into this, the problem you guys are working on, which is high school dropouts and high school graduates who don’t have college degrees, finding employment, you actually might come up with something that’s real and meaningful for people in those segments. Would you feel good about finding out?” “Yes, we would.” So here’s what I’m saying. Once again, what we find in this class, when you’re having students in high school work in an academic course on things that are real, is they are very often, when it gets hard, their natural inclination is to step back because nobody’s given them the instructions on how to move forward. So they just stop and they wait for some adult to hand them the instructions.
And the problem is that they’re so trained like that, that’s so natural for them that when he goes through high school, and they go through college, and they come out the other end, and they get out into the workplace, they have no ability to be generative by themselves. And we see that play out over and over again in this class. And the good news is in a class like this that they can’t get away with it. They’re forced. They’re forced to engage and take ownership for what they’re doing.
Alison: What’s interesting, too, is, in my time that I’ve worked here with all of you, the different types of teams that we’ve seen and how this shows up in different ways and, from a teaching perspective, how to navigate that, right? So I’m thinking of the team last spring that had some serious interpersonal challenges that made it difficult for them to make progress. However, their ability to go deep into work and research made up for the fact that they, as a unit, weren’t functioning so…you know, holistically. Whereas what we’re dealing with now is a much different situation.
Again, if you would just look at it from the progress about where they are in terms of getting to their solution and building their business, the pacing of it in terms of the class experience might look similar to that team from last spring. The challenges they’re dealing with are what you’re pointing out, they’re much more about their intrinsic motivation to lean into this work, to push beyond the obvious, and get out of this place of privilege in some ways.
I mean, when they first pivoted, that’s the other reality with this team, right, they’ve pivoted now to this specific challenge, and when they did, the first thing we started questioning was, “Hey, this is obviously a population you’re interested in helping but you have no experience in dealing with. Why don’t you go do some research around that?”
Doris: Talk to some people who do know, yeah.
Alison: Talk to some people who know, right. And that was a week ago. And what’s really interesting, as Tim and I had discussed today and filled you in on where they were in this process, trying every day this week to have that come to Jesus conversation and that, really, they were trying their hardest to BS their way around and not have to do the work in some ways.
Doris: Yeah, they didn’t wanna have to think about it.
Alison: They didn’t wanna have to make those phone calls that made feel uncomfortable. And to our listeners, I would love for you to explain a bit more about how you reached them today, kind of going through the activity you took them through when you went with the stickies.
Doris: Oh, the stickies, yeah.
Alison: And helping them understand how they really define the problem because as we all know, if these kids don’t care about what they’re doing, none of this matters.
Doris: Right. So I think it’s interesting what you’re saying. I think the first thing…there are a couple of things…so what I did…to answer that first and then I’ll go backwards and explain why. So they wanted to tell me about the effort they’d put in or what they’d been grappling with or whatever. And when I asked them, “Do you,” basic questions, the very beginning questions about that population or the problem or whatever, and they had no idea. And I said, “Guys, if you’re really thinking about this, what are the first questions?” Then because one of the things that came out of the share out thing, “Oh, we need to talk to people.” I said, “Yes, you’re gonna need to talk to people but I don’t even know what that means if you don’t…”
So I got them…basically what I did is I cut off the conversation and I did with them what I would do if I were on their team. That’s what I did. And I came up…I said, “Let’s all of us…if this is what we really cared to do, what are the questions we have right now that we can actually look up in the next hour if all four of us are working hard in the next hour that help us narrow our focus so that we can come up with a hypothesis,” and of course, we have these things, these questions, with variables, etc., “So we can narrow the focus and you know who it is you’re talking to because you know what you’re trying to find out. What are the first questions we have?”
And I just took them through an exercise as if I was on their team. We were all coming up with questions on Post-its individually, and then we’re each sharing what our questions would be and we’re talking about them, and I’m participating as if I’m on their team. And then I say, “Okay, what would you do with these questions? If you get these answers, what do you do next?” And they said, “Well then, we do the…” And I said, “And when are you gonna do that?” And they looked at me and I said, “If I’m on your team, I do this. I figure out who was assigned to what of these questions that you can find out really a lot about in a couple of hours of vigorous work online and you have a chat tonight from home or whatever you do as a team, and you process all that so that you can come up with a targeted focused segment of the market that you validated has this problem and etc.”
Anyway, here’s what’s important, I taught…for those of our listeners who are teaching right now, I think you’ll relate to this. I taught math for many, many years. I had a conversation over and over and over again with students that went kinda like this. “Oh, I failed the test totally, didn’t know how to blah blah blah, but I really worked hard. I put a lot of hours.” And I look at them and they wanna tell me how many hours they put in. And I look at them and I say, “It’s actually not interesting. It’s not interesting whether you put in hours, you didn’t put in hours, etc. If you put in time, you didn’t put in…you didn’t do it well because for you to put that kind of time in and not have figured out ways to find out if you know it well means you’re not doing it right. And actually, the ideal would be if you didn’t have to put a lot of time in and you can…” Right?
Alison: So if they’re at their home, if they’re at their kitchen table at night and they’re struggling through the same problem set for 45 minutes, to say, “Okay, I obviously need to talk to my teacher in the morning to understand why I’m struggling with this before I spend three more hours struggling with the same problem set.”
Doris: Right. So as a math teacher, I was constantly doing the same things I do in this class where I start by seeking out with the student, “All right, first of all, let’s decide whether learning this thing matters. That’s always the first thing. Why does it matter that you learn it? And it can’t be because I told you so, or because you have to, or because I have a test in a week.” You have to figure out as a teacher, with the student, how is what you’re teaching relevant to each individual student in such a way that for each individual student, the learning is meaningful, they care about it.
And that, you’ve got to figure that out. And that’s why everything has to be taught through the lines of why, why it matters. And you got to take time at that. Then, if you do that, then what you’re really…if you really wanna help your students, which all of us do, it is much more important that our students learn how to learn, then that they learn specific stuff to be able to spit it back a week later.
Alison: And then forget it three months later.
Doris: Forget it or not forget it and know well one teeny segment. If they learn how to learn, right, if you teach them how to fish, that’s what this is about. And engaging students, whether they’re 5th graders or 2nd graders or 11th graders, in an age-appropriate conversation that they can relate to, that they can take ownership of, what can I do to learn well? How do I learn best? What are things I can do? So that if I see that I’m not learning, how can I find out if I’m learning it? What can I do if I’m not figuring it out? Who do I go to? How do I go to them? When do I go to them?
Like that’s the hard part about…that’s the hardest thing to learn as a child and that’s the hardest thing to teach. It’s not a once and done lecture. That’s the kind of thing that you’re…the conversation and work that’s hard that you’re having with each individual student all year, that is the hard part, and that’s the meaningful part, and that’s the lasting part. And because of the way schools set up and the way it’s been set up for so long where the single thing, the whole school system set up, all of it is designed based on specific content acquisition as the goal.
And as I say all the time, it isn’t that knowledge doesn’t matter or you don’t have to learn content, of course, you do. But that can’t be the thing that we structure all of schooling around, not the world we’re in today. It can’t be. It has to be these processes, these skills. That’s what we have to care about. And what happened today with our students in this class that happens over and over and over again is in this class, like in any other class, when it gets hard and they’re not sure what to do, they, many of them, just sit back and check out.
And the only way for them to really crazily learn and keep developing even though it gets really hard sometimes is, first of all, for them to think it matters. That’s the first thing, it matters to them. And second, when it matters to them, for them to take ownership of the quality of the thinking that they’re doing and they’re learning.
Alison: On the parallel, that’s just really quite evident for me here, as well as from the teaching perspective. Like this is really hard right now. It’s really hard…
Doris: Yeah, it’s very really hard.
Alison: …from our perspective to get this team into a better position and it would be easy for us to also just sit back, just as the students are like, “We’re facing a challenge here. You know what, we’re just gonna put our hands up, whatever.” They’ll go through, they’ll have their experience, they’ll screw around in their room, they’re gonna do something shallow, and we’ll say, “Well, it should have been better to move on to the next semester of students.” But instead, that persistence that we’ve been enduring this week with this team…
Doris: That’s hard.
Alison: It’s hard work. I’m exhausted right now. Constantly, honestly, I mean, my head thinking through, “Okay, how can I phrase this in a way that’s gonna prompt their thinking? What kind of question can I ask that’s really gonna put them into a place that I’m…” And really, you’ve trained me well to constantly push and never…
Doris: With questions.
Alison: With questions, right, so that we can help students develop that skill whether they themselves are learning how to learn. And I just really appreciate, right now, the parallel that they’re going through this on their own team and here we are trying to help them through, but also struggling on the path and having to just embrace this challenges as it is and devise our own solution to help them get to the goal of really learning some skills.
Doris: So we talked about extrinsic versus intrinsic rewards. You know, I don’t think grades work. They don’t. They’re not meaningful and they don’t work. And if any of you listeners doubt it, do a little research. We’ve done a lot. I’ve done a lot. Do a little research on what the average GPAs are and what you can tell from that. Just look at what’s happened. So we’re talking in this class about developing a model for doing school completely differently where the goal is mastery, deep learning of some concepts and knowledge and mastery of skills, very, very different than what we’re doing in another school.
What that means is coming up with completely and totally different ways of getting these students engaged in thinking and producing and generating. They want to work on things that are authentic, okay, so we’re giving them that. You’re right. This is a very hard time in the class. This is probably the single hardest time. Because it is so hard, they really are…they’re crazily grappling with stuff there’s no recipe for. Even with all the weeks of this class these guys have been through, this last team that I was talking to, what did he want me to do? He wanted me to come up with a timeline to tell them what they needed to do, what steps they needed to take between now and their final presentation.
And I said, “That would be easy. I could come in here and I can come up with a timeline, so could Miss Tanker, so could Mr. Desmond. But you don’t have anything quality at this point. So we would be coming up with a timeline for you to go through the motions to create a presentation to give in two weeks, how good would that presentation be?” He said, “I would be horrible.” I said, “Okay, this is like, look, I’m not learning at that well. What can I do to get my C so that I pass the course?”
Think about how often that happens and how sad that is. It was the same…everything we’re doing here, I did the same way as a math teacher. You weren’t allowed to do that. The conversation I never ever, ever, ever let, I never let any student out of, does it matter that you learn this? And I kept having that conversation until…I’m the most stubborn one.
So that student realized it mattered, and if they could convince me that what I was asking them to learn didn’t matter, then I didn’t care. They never did. Sometimes, I was convinced an assignment didn’t matter. They would take me on and I’d go, “You’re right. You’re right. I shouldn’t have assigned this.” But if something…I’m taking the time to get these guys to learn, I better know that it matters. And if I know that it matters, it is my job to make sure that they decide it matters to them.
In this class, it’s really nice because we’re using real problems so we don’t have to do…so not that hard, the conversation about why it matters. When I taught math for 14, 15 years, I had to work a lot, a lot to get students to conclude authentically, realistically that what they were learning mattered because the stuff I was supposed to teach them, if all I did was teach it to them the way it was in the textbooks, holy moly. So that’s where all this came from, like how do you get students to see why learning this math thing matters? And you can’t BS them. It has to be real. And if you can’t come up, if you can’t convince them, maybe you shouldn’t be teaching it.
Alison: I think it’s a great point and I think, really, this is a broader conversation about educating in that way. I mean, really. To be an educator in today’s world, this is what it takes. It’s hard work, and you have to connect with the kids where they are and the world they’re going into.
And I’m encouraged, I’m really grateful that our past collided when they did and you’ve been able to help me develop meaningful strategies in this way because…the work I had done with adults prior to this and then with some youth as well was powerful in its own way but I feel like now, I have a much more sophisticated sense of how to create these transformative learning experiences for people that really cause them to go deep. And that’s something that is powerful and something that encourages me about the future of our world. If we can do this with more and more of our next generation, they can go out there and add value to the world and find some solutions to all the problems that exist and that’s exciting to me for that reason.
Doris: Well, and what we are doing that others also are doing, we’re not the only ones, is we’re doing it inside the school. And we’re doing it inside of school and we’re developing…and again, it’s not just us, but what I’m very motivated to keep doing is developing the systems that teachers can implement inside academic courses to do what we’re talking about, mastery-based assessments. What are those? How do we do those in a way that others over and over in public schools, private schools, charter schools, what do those look like? Let’s try those out. Let’s band together, figure this out. We’re developing some really cool things, the rubrics that we’re testing, different ones every semester, and getting data on what works, what doesn’t, how does it work.
Alison: That focus on skills and whatever.
Doris: The portfolio-based assessment, what does that look like, how to do that well? What is it? How do you create curricular structures inside academic courses to support the development of these skills, the crazily, crazily deep, deep learning experiences some of these kids are having where you have a class of kids and some of them learning crazy amount about biomedicine, and someone else is learning a crazy amount about the face of poverty in the U.S., and somebody else is learning like how do you set up curriculum and assessments and all those things inside academic courses where not everybody’s learning exactly the same thing and spitting it back in the same way.
And that’s why this work, anybody who wants to do with us, there’s…please join in the conversation. It’s really interesting. And we’re talking now to people in our, who we’re working with, public schools, charter schools. We’re working with people in other countries. There are people all over the world trying to do the same thing.
Alison: It’s pretty encouraging.