Just tell me what to do, please

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Two years ago, when I was deep into the writing/editing phase of my book, Beat Boredom, I received a very disheartening email from my editor.

She said, basically: This isn’t what we want. Try again.

You can image the emotional turbulence. I was frustrated. And angry. And exhausted.  

And I wanted to respond: But nobody told me. Why didn’t you just tell me what you wanted?

Fortunately, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in adulthood, it’s to not write an email when I’m upset. Give it a few days, and calm down.

When my fists un-clenched and my breathing returned to normal, I realized she was right. I had to extensively rewrite several chapters to include more classroom anecdotes and student voices (and less academic research).

But the feeling that “No one told me what to do!” lingered.

Why? On its face, this was silly. If an editor could tell me exactly how to write my book, then why bother with me writing it? The whole point is that it’s my original work, and a prescriptive approach would undermine that.

But we live in a world of prescriptive rubrics, and we have become uncomfortable with ambiguity.

I noticed this again during a recent workshop, when I was training a group of educators in lean startup/design thinking methodology. In their evaluations, many talked about how they would implement these new strategies in their courses, but a few added comments like:

It would help if you told me how to apply this in my specific class.

I get it. It’s easier to take a risk and do something new if someone tells you exactly what to do. But I was also a little taken aback. Do we, as educators, really crave this much direction? Is this the inevitable result of our top-down professional culture?  

I think nearly all of us, given the chance, can develop better ways to implement new ideas and teaching strategies in our own classrooms than any expert can. But we want to make sure we do it “right,” so we hesitate. We wait for further instruction.

This is a problem for our students as well. We have rubricked this generation to death, and many teenagers are reluctant to produce anything at all without a thorough checklist at hand.

Ironically, this is exactly why I love using the lean startup/design thinking method with kids.

In a startup project, students truly have to start from scratch. They identify a problem that interests them, figure out their own solution, and try to actually create it. There are very few rules — except “follow the process,” which means: talk to prospective customers, develop a real product or service and test it in the market.

Guess what? They often fail.

They also sometimes crave more hands -on advice, but I keep most of my thoughts to myself.

These students don’t need me to tell them whether schools want a flexible scheduling app or how much they should pay an app developer or whether I think consumers would pay a premium for water soluble bags. The whole point is to jump in and find out for themselves.

This is not to say that I will ignore the teachers’ desire for more guidance. I appreciate their honest feedback, and I know how they feel. I will be incorporating more specific examples of how to use design thinking in English or biology class, for example, in future workshops.

But I do think that we educators — and our students — need to relax a little and embrace more ambiguity in our schools. The truth is, no one has this all figured out yet. No one can tell you exactly how to best manage your classroom or explain derivatives or eliminate the achievement gap or solve water pollution.

The best we can do is gather good ideas, test them for ourselves, and keep working to get better.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit NeverBore.org or like the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush #beatboredom

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