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Teaching in Beta: What We Can Learn from Software Developers

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Tell me if this sounds like you: You hear about a new teaching idea and decide you’d like to try it. Then for the next two, three, six months, you put it off, waiting for the day when you can get it just right. Your “idea” file grows thicker and thicker, and most of it never gets used.

If this is you, it might be time to add a little beta to your practice.

In the tech world, the term beta refers to software or other products that have not yet been perfected, but are released to the public for a kind of trial run. In this piece from the online tech magazine MakeUseOf, Joel Lee explains: “The beta phase begins when a product propels from ‘functional but hideous’ to ‘polished and ready to go.’ Bugs are hunted down and fixed, features are improved or revamped for maximum usability, the interface and graphics receive an overhaul, and performance issues are optimized.” 

When I see the word beta attached to something, I get excited: Here’s something brand-new! Anything could happen! But beyond that sense of anticipation, I have a great deal of admiration for developers in beta. And envy. Because in software development, the beta phase is an accepted, normal, predictable stage of product development. Problems and bugs are expected. It’s a culture whose motto — “Release early, release often” — lifts up the notion that continuous improvement is way better than eternally holding out for perfection.

The concept of beta is now making its way into the business world. In their book The Start-up of You, entrepreneurs Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha advise readers to put themselves in a state of Permanent Beta. “We are all works in progress,” they write. “Great people, like great companies, are always evolving. They’re never finished and never fully developed. Each day presents an opportunity to learn more, do more, grow more. Permanent beta is a lifelong commitment to continuous personal growth.”

Tech first, then business. So how about education? Isn’t it time we consider making beta a standard part of our approach?

How Beta Could Work in Schools

If we treated our practice the way developers treat software, we’d end up with a better product and greater job satisfaction. We already try new things all the time. The difference is our attitude about the process: So many people in education expect perfection the first time around. When we don’t get it, we reject the good idea, move on to the next new one, and repeat the cycle. We’re chasing our own tails.

But imagine if we embraced beta, if every attempt at something new were treated as the first in a series of iterations — repetitions of a process with the goal of making improvements each time around.

Here’s what it might look like:

In Our Own Teaching: Mrs. Roberts has heard about Project-Based Learning (PBL), but she doesn’t know where to start. Working with a colleague, she converts her smallest, simplest unit to one that incorporates more PBL aspects and takes it for a trial run. She’s up front with her students, telling them this is the first time she’s taught this way — this unit is still in beta — and she asks them for feedback at regular intervals. When something goes wrong, rather than immediately deciding that PBL is nonsense, she makes note of it for future iterations.

With Student Work: Mr. Bruno has tasked his science students with designing, conducting, and reporting on their own experiments. Rather than set a single deadline for finished work, he plans several phases: The first one is the beta phase, where students design and conduct their experiments, report on them, then make plans for improving their designs and going through another iteration.

In Administration: Dr. Stewart wants more of her staff to flip their classrooms this year, but instead of mandating it (“Everyone will flip at least 20 percent of their lessons. End of discussion.”), she tells them this will be their beta year for flipping, that everyone should flip at least three lessons, spacing them far apart to allow time to learn from each attempt. She adds a 5-minute “What Went Wrong” feature to every faculty meeting, where different teachers report on something they learned about flipping from mistakes they made in one of their attempts.

On a Macro-Level: A new set of standards has been proposed! Rather than adopting them whole-cloth and mandating full implementation within a short span of time, your state institutes a series of beta years, during which teachers craft lessons using the new proposed standards, and a regular series of meetings and workshops is held to refine the standards. Several years later, the revised standards are released in their finished form.

Beta in Context: A Workflow

Adding more beta to your practice can be very simple — just embrace the concept at times when everyone gets too focused on finished and perfect.

If you’d like to take things further, to develop an entire workflow that embraces the idea of iteration and trial and error, I recommend Design Thinking for Educators, a free 80-page pdf written by the global design firm IDEO. The manual shows teachers how to use the same process designers use to creatively solve problems with curriculum, physical spaces like classrooms and cafeterias, and processes, such as the way your school handles students’ daily arrival and departure.

The guide includes step-by-step instructions for developing and testing ideas, and it includes case studies to show you the principles in action. There’s even a set of worksheets to take you through the planning. It contains so many ideas that I had never even thought about, but would be so useful in an educational setting, such as the section on how to pitch a concept, which shows you how to convince others that your idea could work for them. And although it’s not named as such, the notion of beta — of prototyping and revising solutions in cycles of continuous improvement — is present throughout.

 

As an educator, you are a designer. A developer. You design and develop spaces, materials, systems and experiences. It’s time you start thinking of yourself that way.

Now. Go dig into that idea folder. ♦

 

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4 Comments

  1. Dennis says:

    Great article! I love the concept of teaching in beta!

  2. OMG, this is so good! I’ve had a lot of luck with being transparent with my kids when trying something new. They’re actually really enthusiastic about offering feedback because they’re part of the process. But calling it “beta” is genius because, as you point out, it implies that things are EXPECTED to go wrong. That initiates a metacognitive approach to a task or assignment.

    I’ve certainly had new things crash-and-burn. I just tell them they’re all getting 100% on the assignment, and then we discuss what we can do differently next time. (Which makes them totally invested in the next beta test.)

  3. Brigid Victorson says:

    Great article, great concept. My school district is already doing this, and it really helps get technology going. Less overwhelming for teachers. I wish more teachers would embrace teaching in Beta!

  4. Tina Page says:

    I think I need a beta tattoo; how permanent is that. I love the concept of beta. Just a wonderful idea!

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