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Here’s a word you may not have heard before: dogfooding. It’s a term that’s been used for years among software developers, and it refers to the act of using your own product as a consumer in order to work out its glitches, the metaphorical equivalent of “eating your own dog food.”
When a new app is created, for example, company employees will load it onto their devices and actually use it for a while to see how it operates from the user’s point of view. For many companies, dogfooding is just part of their best practices, a natural step in software development before a product is launched for consumer use.
I would like to propose that we start using this term in teaching, to make dogfooding a regular part of best practices in instructional design. This is not the first time I’ve tried to drag things from the tech world into the teaching world: Last year, I suggested we could grow more as educators by embracing the concept of teaching in beta, where we roll out a new teaching practice before it’s completely perfect, then work to improve it as we go. We can follow technology’s example again by dogfooding our lessons whenever possible. This means trying our own assignments. Taking our own tests. Doing our own homework. Attempting to actually complete those big projects. By doing this, we can detect all kind of problems that we’d never notice if we just created tasks and gave them straight to students.
Here are seven ways you can improve your practice with dogfooding:
1. Set realistic expectations.
If you’re anything like me, you tend to go a little too big in the “idea” stage of any project. So before you hand over an assignment to your students, try doing it first to make sure you aren’t asking for too much. Joanne Marks (@), an elementary science teacher in Gulfport, Mississippi, assigned her students to research the life of a famous scientist and display their findings on a cereal box. After explaining the requirements and reviewing the rubric, she told them she would bring in an example the next day. “So I took it home and started doing the project,” she says. “I got halfway through and I was like, oh my gosh, this is way too much for the amount of time I have allowed.” She cut back on the requirements for the project and gave students a new rubric the following day. If she hadn’t taken this step, Joanne would have created a mess for herself and her students. Instead, she was able to adjust the assignment right on time.
2. Write better instructions.
Suppose you have created a task that includes step-by-step directions. Because you came up with the idea and wrote the instructions yourself, there’s a pretty good chance you missed something, some small part of a step that could create big confusion for students if you forget to include it. This would be the equivalent of failing to mention that the lid must be placed on the blender before you turn it on…obvious to anyone who has used a blender many times, but not so obvious to someone who hasn’t. So test your directions out by attempting to follow the steps exactly as they are written, or ask another person to read them to you and check to make sure you’re not filling in gaps with your own knowledge. If you want an even better test of the clarity of your instructions, have a small group of students run through them first before giving them to everyone else.
3. Troubleshoot complex activities.
When you’re planning a lab, a workshop, or some other kind of hands-on, multi-step activity, dogfooding it will help you proactively solve problems with equipment and logistics. Karen Ginsburg, a grade 7-8 science teacher in Oakland, California, is spending this summer practicing a water quality unit she will do with her students in the fall. “I will go each week and collect data as if I was a student,” she explains. “It will give me practice and experience being a student and learning as I go. What are the pitfalls? Where are the problems likely to surface? What am I really asking my students to do? Am I being realistic? Practicing something I am asking them to do is very informative!” Running through an activity like this can help you figure out how to move students through the various stages of the task without bottlenecking them in one particular spot, and because you’ll be actually using the materials, you’ll have a better sense of how to organize them for student use.
4. Get your timing right.
One common issue for teachers in the early years of their careers is timing. It takes experience to be able to accurately predict how long a learning experience is going to take, and even veteran teachers can find themselves running out of time or finishing a lesson way faster than expected. When you dogfood an activity, you can get a much clearer sense for how long it will take. I wish I had done this for a lesson I did with my pre-service teachers: To show them different possibilities for student grouping, I gave them envelopes containing tiny pieces of card stock (about the size of dimes) which I wanted them to arrange in different configurations. The idea was fine, but about five minutes into the lesson, I realized there were just too many pieces — doing each part of the exercise took way too long. If I had taken some time the night before to actually run through the exercise, I would have realized this quickly and simplified it. Because I hadn’t done that, I had to experience it the hard way, watching my students try diligently to do as I had asked, and wasting precious instructional time on something that should have taken just a few minutes to get the point across.
5. Create models.
Dogfooding an assignment allows you to build a prototype of a finished product, which can work wonders for helping students understand what’s expected of them. This is especially important with larger projects, when students will be spending days or weeks putting together the pieces of some final presentation or artifact, or when the product you have in mind is something students have never really seen. So if, for example, you would like students to write and perform satirical skits in which they parody some significant event in history, go ahead and create one yourself first. Not only will this help you better appreciate the scope of what you’re asking students to do, it will give them a much clearer target to aim for.
6. Revisit the mind of a beginner.
If you assign the kind of work to students that you yourself have been doing for years, it already makes perfect sense to you. That means you might have a hard time explaining it clearly to someone who is coming to it for the first time. Addressing this problem requires a slightly different kind of dogfooding — finding some way to approach your assignment the way a beginner would. This was the challenge for Sarah Brown Wessling (@SarahBWessling), a high school English teacher and the 2010 National Teacher of the Year. Early in her career, she had tasked her students with doing a literary analysis of The Great Gatsby, but one student just wasn’t getting it. After several one-on-one sessions with the student, including think-alouds and looking at student models, Sarah still wasn’t able to make the task clear, and the student never quite got it. “I had been asking her to do something that I could already do,” Sarah says. “I had already read The Great Gatsby. I had written papers on it. I had analyzed it. It was not hard for me. And because I couldn’t struggle along with her, I couldn’t help her.”
Determined to do a better job the following year, Sarah took a week after school let out for the summer and headed straight for the closest university library. “I didn’t pull out books on how to teach literary analysis,” she says. “Instead, I had the assignment sheet that I’d given my students, and I grabbed a book that was hard for me, a book I hadn’t read — I grabbed some Proust. I sat down with two notebooks. In one notebook I did the assignment that I’d given my students. In the other notebook, I wrote down everything my brain did as I did that assignment.” By the end of that week, Sarah had discovered a clearer approach to tackling literary analysis with her students, and was better able to explain it the following year.
7. Tweak your design.
I can’t count the number of times I have gone to fill out a form — as a student and just in regular life — and didn’t have enough room for something I had to write. I really wish more people would try completing their own forms. And who makes more “forms” than teachers? We create worksheets, tests, even online forms that may very well need some editing in their design. Attempting to complete them yourself is a simple form of dogfooding that can immediately show you when you have asked for a paragraph but only offer an inch of writing space, when you have set lines way too close together, or when you have provided way more space than is needed for an entry, which can make students question the quality of their response. It’s just a little thing, this spacing issue, but little things can add up. Once you build this into your practice, you’ll get better at spacing things right the first time around.
Although adding dogfooding to your planning process will take extra time, consider the alternative: If you don’t troubleshoot an assignment before giving it to students, you could be setting yourself up for hours of frustration as you attempt to re-teach concepts, provide time for students to re-do assignments, explain requirements to parents via phone or email, make adjustments to your schedule for activities that were timed wrong, or even deal with discipline issues that result from students just not getting what they’re supposed to do. Eating your own dogfood is time well spent, a simple way to take your practice one step closer to perfection.