Tuesday, February 28, 2017


If you have read this blog for any length of time, you know that one of my primary recommendations for improved teaching is the “Three E’s.”   Experiment, Evaluate, and Evolve.   I am not sure anyone can become a better teacher if they don’t take this path in some form.   

For that reason, I am always a bit surprised that I don’t have more people coming up to me to tell me about their teaching experiments.  Oh sure, I get a few emails now and then.  But never as many as I would like.  I think all teachers should be bubbling with excitement (my fourth E) over their current attempts to improve teaching.  Every college campus should be an incubator for wonderful new teaching ideas.  Think how education in this world would improve immediately and dramatically if all campuses served as incubators for innovative new teaching ideas.  Does your campus qualify?  If so, let me know.

Why don’t we experiment more?   I could probably list a dozen possible reasons but, I suspect, one underlying cause is a lack of confidence.
--“Oh, this idea won’t really work.”
--“If this idea was actually good, someone else would have already done it.”
--“I’m probably just wasting my time and I don’t have time to waste.”
--“I’ve tried a couple of experiments over the years and they have not improved my teaching.  I’ll stick with what I’ve always done.”  

We are probably all guilty of boxing ourselves in with personal barriers that limit our potential.  As the famous quote (from the comic strip “Pogo”) explains:   “We have met the enemy and he is us.”  We hold ourselves back.  Okay, maybe you don’t, but I sure do.  

Let’s try a test.  The spring semester is about 4-7 weeks old.   How much have you experimented so far this semester?   Don’t give a random answer.  Make a list of specific experiments so you can truly judge.

If your answer to this question is “not much,” then the next question has to be asked:  “why not?”   I might be wrong but I bet many teachers hold a core belief that the results of experiments will not be worth the effort.   Why work so hard if you don’t think you can make your classes better?

How can you get started?  How can you break out of the rut you are in?  How can you start innovating?   I believe it all starts with generating ideas.  If you are going to teach better (heck, if you are going to do anything better), you need to develop the skill of coming up with ideas.

So, today, I want to inspire you with a story from my campus.  Last week, Marc Randolph (who co-founded Netflix with Reed Hastings) was at the Robins School of Business to speak.   You can read all about the speech at

I want to mention three key passages from his speech.  I hope his words will inspire you to come up with some new teaching ideas and then I want you to go into class and try them.  Experiment, evaluate, and evolve must always start with ideas.

First, Randolph clearly agrees with my assertion that lots of ideas are needed before you are likely to spot good ideas.  One experiment alone rarely hits the jackpot.  Developing and trying ideas needs to be a core part of every course.   According to Randolph “It turns out that success is directly proportionate to how many ideas you try, and the number of ideas that you try is directly proportionate to how quickly and how cheaply you can test them.”   Experiment a lot and evaluate as quickly as possible.

Second, don’t wait around for ideas to fall on your head.  The real key to success is to always be looking for those ideas.   According to Randolph, “Ideas do not spring out of thin air at some mythical eureka moment.  You have to look for ideas.  You’ve got to train yourself to see them when they appear.  The idea for Netflix, for example, did not come from some moment of anguish over a late fee on a movie.  We were looking for that idea.  We looked for a long time, and it was buried in a big pile of bad ideas.  We didn’t even find it in a video store.  We actually had the idea for Netflix while we were carpooling.”  If you wait for eureka moments, you will be waiting a long time.  Unless you are Archimedes, they do not happen often.  Examine every aspect of teaching and think about how each might be done differently.  Search for new ways of doing every task.

Third, don’t be discouraged when you encounter doubters.  At first, every great new idea only makes sense to a very few people.  The rest are locked into the old paradigm.   If you believe that an idea will work, don’t get in a hurry to give up on it.   Randolph tells a fabulous story about the starting years of Netflix when they asked the video giant Blockbuster to buy Netflix in order to create a new type of video company.  Blockbuster had 60,000 employees and $6 billion revenue.  Netflix had 100 employees and $5 million revenue.  Blockbuster officials laughed at the idea of needing to buy Netflix.  Ten years later, Netflix dominated the industry and drove Blockbuster into bankruptcy.   The Netflix founders could have been discouraged but they believed in their vision.  Now, they are the giant and Blockbuster has long since faded into oblivion.  According to the newspaper article:  “’I’m not the kind of guy who gloats about driving a big company into bankruptcy,’ Randolph said with a grin.  ‘I actually tell this story for a different reason, because in some ways it’s an inspiring story, about how a handful of people with no experience in the video business and with nothing more than some ideas, and some persistence, could take down a $6 billion market leader.” 

Lessons for today.
--Have lots of ideas.  As a teacher, experiment as often as possible.  Make it a central part of your teaching.  There’s no better way to improve.
--Learn to look for ideas.  If you look for them, great ideas are all around us.  But they won’t knock you on the head, you have to be looking.  I cannot stress enough the importance of always watching for new teaching ideas.
--Plenty of people will tell you that your ideas won’t work.  They take pride in finding flaws.  If you truly believe in your ideas, be persistent.  Don’t give up just because people don’t automatically understand your vision.   Experiment, evaluate, and evolve.   You’ll be amazed by how quickly you become one of the best teachers in your building and at your school.

Get the incubator started. 

Sunday, February 5, 2017


The 51st Super Bowl is being played tonight.  For a few hours, everyone will stop and watch two excellent teams battle it out for the right to be known as the ultimate champions.  

I sent the note below to my students this morning.   I was not trying to convince them I was crazy or that I was obsessed.   They probably already think that.   I don’t care if they watch the Super Bowl.  What I care about is that they realize that success (whether it is their success or Tom Brady’s success) comes from work and not from watching someone else be successful.   I felt they needed to know that I was going to be upset if they show up for my class tomorrow poorly prepared because they had stared for hours at a television set watching a bunch of strangers 1,000 miles away becoming champions.   I suspect that some people want to feel like champions without having to do any of the difficult work so they latch on to a team or to a  player in an attempt to share that success.  That is not how I want to do it.

I truly want my students to be successful.  (I know them personally.  They are bright.   They are nice people.  I have a reason to want them to become winners.)  I have an idea that their success will not be increased one iota by watching the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons play football.  As long as watching does not get in the way of them being prepared for my class, I am all for it.   It is a nice diversion.   But the second that watching someone else play a game gets in the way of their own personal success, then I am upset.

The same goes for teachers.  If watching Tom Brady play football this evening keeps me from being prepared for a great class at 9:00 a.m. tomorrow morning, then I should not watch that game.  My students must come first.  My students have to be more important to me than all those strangers on those two football teams.   If not, then I should retire so I can have more time to sit on my couch and watch television.

Email to my students:

“There is a football game tonight.   I don't care.  I expect you to be well prepared tomorrow morning.   Tom Brady and all those other players will be well prepared tonight because they desperately want to be the best.   I expect the same from you.   You will have had 71 hours since Friday's class.   That is plenty of time to have found 90 minutes to get well prepared.   I guarantee that Tom Brady will not show up tonight and say ‘you know I got busy watching someone else on television being a winner and that was more important to me than my own chance to be a winner.’   In my opinion, the world will be a lot better off when talented people stop spending so much time watching other people become winners.   Your motto simply cannot be ‘I really want to be a winner but I am willing to let other people out work me.’"