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. 

1 comment:

  1. Joe, I did a lot of experimenting over the 35 years that I taught, mostly in graduate classes. Some of the experiments worked well from the students’ perspective, (e.g., student presentations in teams) but then I didn’t like it much because I didn’t have complete control of how the classes were going. I liked the “know all, tell all” lecture approach as most teachers do. I also experimented with student article summaries that they would discuss in class, but I probably didn’t make it clear enough what I was trying to do, i.e. help them learn how to summarize (write) and present information. And then there were some foreign students who presented in broken English that we could not understand. Those classes were a disaster. Lecture does not maximize student learning, but it is safe and easy. My point is that experimenting is risky when student evaluations are the key to promotion and tenure (i.e., misused), so untenured faculty might want to be careful with their experiments.
    James R. Martin
    Professor Emeritus
    University of South Florida