The Thinking Teacher: Minimum viable lessons
If we want thinking children, we need thinking teachers. This is the premise of my book ‘The Thinking Teacher’, in this series of posts I am sharing some of the key ideas from the book and the thinking behind them.
This chapter was inspired by my experience spending a weekend trying to build an education app at a hackathon. The original blog post is reproduced below. In the book I developed this to consider how we set up structures for learning that are make the process of learning clear so learners can concentrate on the content.
One of the concepts I learnt about at Startup Weekend was the idea of defining a ‘minimum viable product’. With 54 hours to build some kind of business, we were often advised to concentrate on simplicity to make sure that we have the core of something that could start a viable venture. Simplicity sometimes sounds easy, but actually it is often far easier to build and build ideas and features into a great big pile, and much harder to come up with something elegant and simple which solves a problem.
One of the first people to really make me think about this idea was Henry Playfoot of Stealth Education. Henry was one of our ‘mentors’ for the weekend, and the power of this simplicity really hit home when I saw his company’s iPhone app ‘ABCSpy’. As we were discussing increasingly complex features we could build into our product to make it shiny and attractive to users, Henry showed us an app that on paper did very little, yet the more I thought about it the more I saw how brilliant this simplicity was. The app presents children with the opportunity to make their own ABC book, but instead of this book being based around the standard clip art of animals or toys starting with each letter, it encourages them to find and photograph objects that start with each letter using the phone’s camera.
It’s a pretty simple concept, yet very elegant. Context and connections are so important for young children, and the opportunity to allow them to use objects fro their own lives to support learning the alphabet is really powerful, as is the fact that the app makes them think to find the objects, therefore applying the knowledge that many apps would just encourage them to learn by rote. It also solves another problem; young children really love taking photos, but can be quite unfocused in what they are photographing. ‘ABCSpy’ gives them a purpose for their photographs, not in the form of too many instructions, but a structure to work within.
The structure is simple, but it provides all that is needed for an engaging activity; one that gets children actively doing something and using and applying the abstract letter concepts they are learning.
This got me thinking about lessons in school, and I wonder if there is something we could take from the concept of a ‘minimum viable product’ and apply to planning. The temptation when planning lessons is to build and build, adding details and instructions to try to ensure that nothing falls through the gaps. What if instead we approached lesson planning by looking at what would be the least we need to do to allow success. The more details you remove from a plan, the more space you leave for learners to make their own connections to the learning, and try out their own ways of using and applying it in contexts that make sense for them.
So, rather than trying to cover every eventuality, I am going to try working on ‘minimum viable lessons’. I am sure this is not going to be a time saver, simplicity takes a lot of thinking. What I hope is that the less I do, the more space there is for learning.