Embrace the chaos: A lesson in disruptive innovation

Is this my time or your time, Mr. Hand?

There’s no shortage of great classroom moments in the movies, but Mr. Hand’s management of the chaos in this classic is pretty good. (Hard to believe it’s almost thirty years old).

One of the most humbling experiences a school administrator can have is to teach a class. The students don’t really care about your position or what kind of suit you are wearing. In fact, many don’t even know WHO you are.

I have written a couple of times about how I am teaching a new class called digital literacy. For me, the content has been a distant second to the learning process for all of us. I wanted it to be conceptual, project based, somewhat organic, and most of all skills and not content driven. When we talk about ‘disruptive innovation’ I understand that we mean giving up the whole model and doing something off the charts. That’s okay. But it starts small and is happening around us every day in baby steps.

I learned how to teach in the 1990s so old habits die hard even though I embrace all of the research about being a ‘guide on the side.’ I get all of that and agree with it. But practice is another thing. The underlying thing that holds me back is the underlying assumption that teenagers are going to slack off if things are student-centered. Do we ever talk about that? If we give them choice, what will the choice be? One of my 11th graders said, “How come this is not a chill class?”

Enter chaos.

I presented them with what I thought was choice today. They were going to design a web site addressing one of five topics on digital literacy that I thought were relevant and interesting (to me). Privacy, social media, etc. etc. They flipped out. “You know what I am going to do, “Jerome” said. “I am going to Wikipedia and Google. I will do it in two seconds and cut and paste a bunch of stuff. You want that?”

And then the coup de grace. “We know all this stuff. Twitter, hashtag, Instagram. Why are you making us do stuff we already know?” (that hurt). I wanted to straighten my tie and ask him if he knew who I was. But I didn’t. I loosened my tie and said. “Okay, you want to step up? Then tell me what you will do and how you will design a site so that it is NOT just another glorified PowerPoint about cars.” He reflected, and then said. “Okay, remember my project on peak oil? I will make it about that and how it will affect the automobile industry.” The class waited with baited breath. My project outline blinked at me on the white screen.

“Alright.” I said. “I’m posting a Google Doc and you need to have what web site you’re using and why your topics are relevant by the end of the day.” He smiled and stood up. I told everyone in the class to stand. We put our hands in the middle of a circle like the beginning of a football match. I told them this better be good and that I was making the mother of all rubrics to grade it. After they cheered, they scattered to corners of the room and started pinging me with ideas.

“Jose” took a photo of us and posted the moment on Instagram.

I embraced the chaos.

About Stephen Dexter, Jr.

Stephen is an international educator and administrator. A native of the United States, he lives with his wife Stephanie and children Zoe and Ian in the Singapore. With a career that spans over twenty years in public, private and international schools, he writes when he can and is on a quest to discover if "text walking" is changing the human brain.
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