Big F vs. Little f

This week I have the opportunity to spend time learning at IDEO in San Francisco as part of an externship for educators. IDEO is a global design company committed to creating a positive impact. They use design thinking to solve complex problems and design innovative solutions for a wide range of challenges in various industries.

Within moments of walking through the door, I saw the company’s values posted on the wall. They included…

  • Collaborate
  • Take ownership
  • Embrace ambiguity
  • Talk less, do more
  • Learn from failure
  • Make others successful

As I read these words, I knew I was in the right place. Paloma, our host for this week and Business Development Associate, spoke about how these values impact their work. My favorite thing she articulated as she toured us around the building was the difference between the big F and the little f. She said that one of their most important values is “learn from failure.”

She said that the “little fs” are the small failures that happen along the way as you create, iterate, and innovate. These little fs are learning moments. They allow people to rethink, adjust, and learn from other perspectives as they work and develop a concept so there are fewer big Fs, or large fails.

I love this contrast between the little fs, or small failures, and the big Fs, high-stakes failures. These are not failures to be feared but failures to be embraced. The more comfortable students are with the little fs, or small failures, the more likely they are to avoid the big Fs.

Too often our students see all failure as bad and don't value the small failures as opportunities to learn, grow, and improve.Click To Tweet

This is a distinction I plan to emphasize as I dive into the new school year. I want to celebrate the little fs and make that part of our classroom culture.


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Faster Feedback: Create Editing Shortcuts in Google Docs

Since I published “Stop Taking Grading Home,” I’ve had a ton of teachers ask me how I am able to give feedback on Google Docs so quickly. I give real-time feedback to ~8 students in a 25-minute station.

It definitely helps that I am a skilled typist. I also keep the scope of my feedback narrow, so I am not trying to correct everything in one real-time editing station. In a single real-time editing session I might focus on their thesis statements, topic sentences, analysis, or citations. It depends on the day and where we are in our work, but I don’t try to provide feedback on the entire paper all at once.

The real secret to my success is in creating shortcuts right in my Google Documents. Here’s how…

I hope this tip helps other teachers provide feedback on student writing more efficiently!

If you have a strategy you use to provide feedback or assess student work, please share it!

Posted in Feedback, Grades, Learning | 23 Comments

Project Based Learning is a Roller Coaster

One of the most challenging aspects of this school year has been using project-based learning to integrate curriculum. Projects are a beast! It feels like I am boarding a roller coaster each time we begin a new project. In fact, it feels like every project follows the same emotionally turbulent trajectory as pictured below.

Phase 1: Introduce the Project

When I introduce a new project, students are immediately shocked and dismayed. They are totally intimidated by the prospect of tackling a large scale project that does not have a clear path or an obvious answer or solution. I’m always a little disheartened by how many students feel incapable of making meaningful change in the world or dreaming up innovative solutions to address real world problems. Yet, that is exactly what I want my students to be able to do.

Phase 2: Define and Learn about the Problem

Once the project is underway, students get frustrated. They realize that there isn’t necessarily a clear roadmap for how to tackle the project. They do a couple of Google searches and get stuck. It’s at this point when I encourage them to interview people, reach out to experts on Twitter, and brainstorm with peers. This is definitely a low point in most projects. Students are not comfortable in a place of uncertainty and ambiguity.

Phase 3: Experience the First Success

In every project, there is a moment when students experience their first success. Their eyes light up and they get excited. I live for these moments. Sometimes it happens when a student connects with an expert in the field or conducts and interview and learns something really important about the problem they are trying to solve.

This year students did a design thinking challenge. One student thought she knew what the solution to her problem was at the start of the project. I reminded her that she needed to move through all the steps in the design thinking process and encouraged her to do her empathy interviews to better understand the problem t0 see if her solution was really the best solution. After a particularly enlightening interview, she rushed up to me and said, “You were totally right! I didn’t really understand the problem until I did these interviews!” She had finally trusted the process and it led her to a really interesting solution. However, this example is classic. Students rarely trust the process or want to invest the time necessary to tackle a complex challenge or problem.

Phase 4: Project Deadline Approaches

As the project deadline approaches, students often become angry because they are not as far along as they would like to be or they’ve hit a number of bumps that have slowed their progress. At this point, students typically place the blame squarely on me. Normally, they say that they didn’t have enough time. It doesn’t seem to matter how much time they actually had because it is never enough. This reveals another challenge of project-based learning: it requires that students manage their time well and stay organized. This is tough for many students.

Phase 5: Project Completion & Exhibition

The end of the project is another high moment. Students usually surprise themselves with what they have created and accomplished. Most are excited to share their work with an authentic audience. This moment of pride and excitement is satisfying for both me and them. It’s the moment when they get to enjoy the fruits of their labor.

As I reflect on this year, I realize how emotionally and mentally exhausting it is to teach in a project-based model. Despite the many highs and lows, I can appreciate the multitude of soft skills my kids are developing as they work on their projects. They learn how to be more flexible, to problem-solve, to communicate effectively, to manage their time, to take lead or fall back and support. They also learn the importance of being a motivated and dependable member of a team. These are soft skills they need to be successful in life beyond high school.

Just like riding a roller coaster, I initially experience fear and trepidation but I always walk off the ride feeling energized and glad I went on it. I experience the same range of emotion in the face of each big project.

There is one very important lesson I learned this year that I will carry into the next school year. Less is more. My hope is that by tackling fewer projects over the course of the year, that my students will dive deeper into their projects and actually learn more. So for those of you embracing project-based learning, be prepared for the highs and lows and remember less is more.

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