Why are “bloopers” celebrated while “mistakes” are feared?

Near the end of every student video project is the bloopers real. It’s, by the look on their faces when the project ends and the bloopers begin, they’re favorite part of the project by far.

How strange that in a video project mistakes are captured and unnecessarily added to the end, while in 99% of school life mistakes are feared, avoided, hidden, covered over, judged, or even punished.

What can we do about that?

No one’s immune from the effects of deep practice

I love this video. Thanks John Burk for sending it my way. In this tutorial the programming mavens at Google wish to introduce us to a new feature that will boost their cred as the world’s “data brokers.” This will increase revenue by bringing in more advertising business, which will further fund Eric Schmidt’s mission of “collecting all the world’s data and making it accessible to everyone.” Watch.

Job well done, Google. But in this video, you’ve done much more than tout your own products.  You’ve made universal the notion of deep practice.

In the video the narrator explains that, contrary to common suspicion, Google does not have a workforce of elves translating our documents from a cubicle-lined warehouse somewhere in Mountain View, CA.

Instead, Google uses a process called “statistical machine translation,” which he describes as a process in which machines “generate translations based on large amounts of text.”

Rather than learning language by applying vocabulary to a set of rules, Google’s computers analyze millions upon millions of documents that have already been translated.  They look for “statistically significant patterns.”  Once it detects a pattern, it attempts to use that pattern in the future.  When a user rejects the translation, the computer learns that this pattern is not as consistent as it once thought.  It makes adjustments, seeks for “sub-patterns” (my word), and engages in continued analysis.

Over an over again, Google’s computers are testing patterns, detecting new patterns, and finding new documents to analyze, further increasing the possible combinations of patterns. As he says, “when you have billions of documents, you have billions of patterns.”

Question: Are Google’s computers engaging in “deep practice?”

The 13-year prologue

Technically this is my 15th year in teaching. Two at UGA, two in the VA public schools, and 10 at Westminster. People react with regard when I belt out that number. Ever since I hit “10,” actually. Somehow 10+ garners the respect that the number 9 did not deserve. Little do they know that my 13th year of teaching bore much resemblance to my ninth year of teaching…and my fifth, and my first.

In my third year at Westminster I took over operations of the schools language lab, a 36-station computer lab equipped with hardware/software that made possible numerous configurations for recordable interactivity (this description does not do justice to the versatility of the lab, but I’ll leave it at that). For the seven years that followed I focused more on my capacity as lab director than as a Spanish teacher. I receive a heap of credit for researching, tinkering with, and helping to integrate new technologies into our language teachers’ daily practice, but in doing so I squandered my opportunity to evolve. Yes, I used these tools in my own class, but my methodologies and core beliefs didn’t change. To be more accurate, I didn’t have core beliefs. I had a textbook.

Textbook + technology = dangerously convenient palimpsest for creative teaching.

It just so happens that 2003-2010 was an enormously exciting time in instructional technology. Apps that we now consider part of our daily lexicon (Google Apps, blogs & wikis, Twitter) had been around for a year, perhaps 10, but they were still VERY scary to most teachers; ways to incorporate them into our teaching (never mind getting our heads around them) were nebulous. I experienced a tremendous amount of growth in the WHAT, but below the surface was some frustration about the WHY. I didn’t know what questions to ask myself or others, so I sufficed to proceed “whatting” for another couple of years.

Then came the Powerful Learning Practice Consortium (2008) and the Dobbs Cohort (2009). PLP is a 21st Century PLC that brings together faculty and staff from private and independent schools around the country. The aim was to begin a dialogue at each member’s school about 21st Century competencies and the technology to go along with it. I learned about some game-changing tools, but I continued with my fearless “whatting,” and never got to the “whying.” It would be reckless to attribute my stagnation to the curriculum of the PLP. By that time I had evolved enough to begin addressing the meta-issues of my teaching practice. In fact, I’ve come to know Will Richardson a bit more in recent years and love to hear his evolving thoughts on technology in 21st C practice.

In 2009 I joined a cohort through the Center for Teaching. The Dobbs “21st Century Teaching” Cohort, facilitated by Laura Deisley and Brandi Sabb, did not possess a magic formula that inspires great teaching. In fact, I was impressed with lack of technological pizazz. (We used a dozen of tech tools along the way, but they were not the end we sought, just a means). However, it was in this cohort that I saw for the first time the trait that has repeated itself in all PD experiences that followed–conversation. It was through lengthy, uninterrupted, facilitated (but not shepherded) conversations that I began to realize what has been missing in my PD.

All good things start with a conversation.

This simple, elegant, and seemingly trite premise has guided the majority of my most impactful professional experiences from Sept 2009 to the present.

It guided me toward seeking a Professional Learning Community at my own school.

It nudged me toward the Science Leadership Academy for Educon 2.2 (itself a “conference and a conversation”) where I met the majority of my current Professional Learning Network.

It led me to co-facilitate a PLT of Spanish teachers in my own Junior High.

And it drew me to the Hathaway Brown Education Innovation Summit at the beginning of this month. That’s where I heard Daniel Coyle speak, and that’s when my teaching practice paused, pivoted and remains at this moment locked in a steady gaze on an unmoving and immoveable, distant point called “deep practice.”

I’m patting myself on the back for my patience and restraint. I’m the type to dive into something the moment I express interest. The result is usually fun and innovative, but rarely long-lasting or substantively effective. But right now I’m calmly leafing through the pages of the Talent Code, asking myself, “What does ‘deep practice’ look like in the classroom?” “Can I do this and will it result in meaningful, ‘well-myelinated’ learning for my kids?” “Will my students’ parents experience Coyle’s ‘HSE’ one day when they stumble through their kitchen, hear their child skyping with a friend in a far-off land, and realize their child is proficient in Spanish and passionate about making connections with it?”

So, that brings us to the present. I can’t unlearn what I’ve learned.  And now that I’ve put it down in “pixels,” you good people will hold me accountable.  The prologue is concluded, which leads us to Chapter 1.  I’ll call it “Learning that damn pen trick that I could never figure out as a kid.”