The Cult of Pedagogy Podcast, Episode 83 Transcript
See a shorter recap of this interview in the blog post.
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This is Jennifer Gonzalez welcoming you to Episode 83 of the Cult of Pedagogy Podcast. In this episode, we’re going to take a close look at an Innovation Class, a model for self-directed, real-world learning right inside a regular public school.
I hear it all the time: The world is changing, and schools need to change. Lots of us recognize that we should no longer be relying on the old model, where we just dump information into our students’ brains and they regurgitate it back. The world we live in today requires more of people: Problem-solving skills, creativity, collaboration, the ability to innovate, iterate, and design solutions for problems that don’t even exist yet. The way we do school now just doesn’t prepare kids the way it should.
It’s a good message, a true message, but too often, that message leaves us hanging. We nod along, we agree that things need to be different, but then we go back to doing more or less what we’ve always done, because we aren’t exactly sure HOW to change school.
Luckily, more people are starting to figure it out, and part of my mission here is to share their ideas with you. In episode 62, I interviewed the teachers at the Apollo School, an innovative program blending history, English, and art that’s run inside a public high school in Pennsylvania. In episode 73 we talked to Steven Ritz, whose incredible urban gardening projects transformed his Bronx classroom and the lives of his students. And in episode 38, we heard about an underused middle school library in Ohio that completely reconfigured its space into a collaborative, flexible, technology-rich learning hub that now stays busy all the time.
In this episode we’ll look at another model for 21st century learning, a year-long elective offered in an Indiana high school where students design and execute their own passion-driven projects. The course is called Innovation and Open Source Learning, and the teacher’s name is Don Wettrick, who is my guest today. In our conversation, Don tells me about how he first launched the course in his school, how he structures it to build in both accountability and freedom for his students, and how he’s changed and improved the program over the past six years.
He also drops several 80s pop references, which I’m learning is just a thing Don does. He says we’re totally bros now, so I think I’m allowed to say stuff like that.
My hope is that when you hear about this innovation class, you’ll start to think about how you might implement something similar in your own school. If not a fully fledged class, then maybe an after-school club or a pull-out program, a way to differentiate for some students. After you listen to this, head over to Don’s website, startedupinnovation.com, where you’ll find links to his podcast, his Facebook page, and his YouTube channel, where he shares daily video logs that document his students’ work in class.
Before we get started, I’d like to thank my sponsor, mysimpleshow. Mysimpleshow is this really cool online tool that allows you to create your own animated videos for free. It’s so easy, and FAST: You just write your script or upload your powerpoint, let mysimpleshow find images to match it, then fine-tune it until it’s done. It would be perfect for flipping your classroom or having students create their own videos. mysimpleshow.com now offers PREMIUM options and special plans just for educators. Try your first video for FREE and inquire about the special Education and Classroom offers at mysimpleshow.com.
I would also like to thank you for the reviews you’ve left on iTunes and for recommending this podcast to your colleagues. After doing 83 episodes, I think there really is something for everyone here, and I would love for more teachers to be listening. If you’d like to support the work I’m doing here, please recommend the podcast to a friend and take a minute to leave a review on iTunes–it really does make a difference.
Now let’s learn about teaching innovation with Don Wettrick.
GONZALEZ: I saw you do a Facebook Live just the other day, and you were talking about how there’s so many of us in education spaces saying that kids need to be more innovative, and we need to stop the drill and kill, and it needs to be student-led, but not a lot of people are actually doing it, and that we need to start doing stuff. And your answer to that, if I’m remembering the Facebook Live correctly, is that, and I do think this is the problem, is that nobody has got a real model for how to do this, and you were saying you need to have innovation classes in your schools.
GONZALEZ: And you’ve done this now for a couple of years.
What is an Innovation Class?
GONZALEZ: So the purpose of us talking today, it’s six years, OK. So that’s great, because it’s really well-developed now, is for us just to talk about what is this innovation class, what is it? What is so great about it? And how does one get something like this started in their school?
WETTRICK: Yeah. Oh man, there’s a lot to unpack there. Can I start from the beginning?
GONZALEZ: Absolutely, yeah.
WETTRICK: My beginning was several years, I mean what now, seven, I think? Just in the email it said, “Watch this,” and it was a link. I’ve actually saved this email, because it’s so important to me. It was a link to Daniel Pink’s TED Talk. And, you know, I’m sure a lot of your audience has seen it. If they haven’t, right after this podcast, make sure you go to YouTube or TED.com and look up Dan Pink Puzzle of Motivation. So he goes on to tell, you know, people about, you know, the 20 percent time at Atlassian and then later and most famously at Google. And then I was thinking, wow, what he said rang true, because he kind of made the point that people don’t work for money, they work for mastery, autonomy, purpose. And I was like, OK. So what do we work for in school? Grades. That is our unit of monetization.
WETTRICK: So long story made short, I started doing a genius hour before there was a term “genius hour,” which by the way, caveat…
WETTRICK: I don’t really like the term “genius hour,” so.
GONZALEZ: OK, why?
WETTRICK: Because the term genius is so, no—It’s a measurement of, a lot of times, like testing ability and, anyway, I don’t want to get into semantics.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. It’s loaded though, OK. OK.
WETTRICK: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So anyway, I try it and it was terrible. Matter of fact, the funny part of it is, I too would call it 20 percent time because it worked for 20 percent of my kids, because there was all this anticipation and, like, this is going to be great, and I was like, “OK. What do you guys want to work on?” “I don’t know.”
WETTRICK: Like, “You guys have talked to me about wanting to be free and working on things you’re passionate about. What are you passionate about?” “How am I going to get an A on this?”
WETTRICK: And so I’m not going to lie to you. Like, when people are like, “Oh, genius hour is great,” it’s a freaking nightmare at first, if you’re in high school, OK?
WETTRICK: If you’re in high school. If you’re in middle school it’s a little bit, it’s still difficult. In the first, second, third grade? It’s, I hate to use the word “easy,” it’s a lot simplified, because the kids then still have passion and enthusiasm and a love of learning. We haven’t beaten it out of them yet.
WETTRICK: So anyway, we had just enough success with those, which, ironically enough, the 20 percent of the kids that did well, were, I’m using my air quotes, “bad students,” and that’s to say that they, they’re like, “Seriously? You’re going to let me work on this?” “Yeah.” “All right, get out of my way.”
WETTRICK: Meanwhile, the 4.3 GPA kid was like, “OK. What do you want me to do?” “No, no, no. What do you want to do?” “I don’t know.”
WETTRICK: And I still run into that.
GONZALEZ: I’ve heard this story before. I’ve heard this from other teachers too that it’s those —
WETTRICK: It’s universal.
GONZALEZ: — well in that system, they kind of freak out, because they’re set to press and play, and it’s like, wait a second. What are you doing? Yeah.
WETTRICK: Right. And I think that’s the cruel joke that we’re playing. Good students — I’ve had some that have, you know, come and went, and good students, there’s not a lot of availability for them in the job force. “Hey, I can memorize stuff and tell you want you want to hear.”
GONZALEZ: Right, right.
WETTRICK: So. The kids that like to disrupt, the kids that like to work independently, the kids that like to chase, you know, an idea down until it’s, you know, failing and then they learn how to react from it, there’s a huge future in that. So little by little, you know, I’ve just picked up things along the way, and probably my favorite thing to recount was, you know, my dad’s wise words several years ago. I wrote this in my book, it’s my favorite thing to talk about. When I was in — my mom and dad paid for all of my education, my mom and dad were, well, my mom wasn’t in education, but she was a stay-at-home, but that makes her in education, and so is my sister and so is my dad. And so for the first three years of my being out of college, I worked for a think tank in Indianapolis, and I just didn’t like it, and I wanted to be like my dad. And long story made short, I said, “Dad, I’m not asking for money, but I think I’m going to go back and be, you know, get this teaching degree,” and he’s like, you know, “That’s fine. Just promise me one thing, that you can teach for the next 20 years, but promise me you won’t teach one year 20 times.” That’s been innovation to me.
WETTRICK: So when I started this wacky class, which there’s a whole long story on how I got that approved, but you know, like, each year’s different. And the students know that they’re not working for me. I’m busting my butt working for them.
WETTRICK: They, every nine weeks, tell me what’s not working. They tell me what’s motivating them. You want to talk about personalized learning, this is the pinnacle. And that’s why I think, and sorry if I was, it was right at the fall break, so I was getting a little chippy, and I was like, “I’m tired of making apologies for it.”
WETTRICK: The 20 percent time genius hour movement is the greatest thing in education — period, exclamation point, underlined, italicized. Because if we don’t give our time for students to do this kind of thing, like, and don’t get me wrong: You cannot be innovative if you haven’t hit the standards. If you don’t know how to read, write, if you don’t understand the scientific method, you’re not going to be innovative. So I’m not throwing out everything. I’m not.
GONZALEZ: Right, right.
WETTRICK: But could you give me 20 percent of the time? I wrote a blog on this. Like, people like, “Well 20 percent time what?” I’m like, “I’m glad you asked.” I break it down to have to, should, and want to. So the 50 percent of your time is things you have to do.
WETTRICK: I get it. Cover your standards, man.
GONZALEZ: Right, right.
WETTRICK: They’re awesome. I mean a lot of the standards are there for a reason. They’re good. The 30 percent of that is things that you should do.
WETTRICK: Like PBL. Like backing up some of the things, the skill and drill stuff that you had to suffer through, 30 percent of that time now should be things you should do. That leaves 20 percent time for you to want to. So if you’re a good math teacher, and you’ve taken them through some really great simulations, now they may want to use what they’ve been armed with to do things that they’re passionate about. Or like, not even passionate, that’s a loaded word as well.
WETTRICK: But like, what they’re compelled to do, what they’re like, “Dude, wouldn’t it be cool if … ?”
WETTRICK: That’s why I love it so much. It’s 20 percent of my time, man. That’s it.
WETTRICK: And this is also why, sorry, and I’ll shut up. This is so hard for me to not —
GONZALEZ: No, go. You’ve got the passion, go.
WETTRICK: In high school, like, at the high school level, OK, and this is what I work with at most schools. At the elementary level, this is easy. Twenty minutes on a Friday, well actually, I always let the students dictate to me what the calendar is. So a lot of times elementary students will either pick Monday or Friday. They either want to start their week off with awesomeness or end it. In the middle school, this is the thing I love. If you’re teamed, and a lot of middle schools are, because the battle cry is, “When am I going to fit this into my schedule?”
WETTRICK: “I’ve gotta cover standards.” I’m like, “Could you do it once a month? Could you give me 30 minutes a month?” And they’re like, “Well, what would that do?” Because on this week, it’s science, and next week it’s social studies, and the next week it’s — And so you share the responsibility. And I’ve worked with enough schools that this is kind of a bonding thing with the team as well, the teachers. They start asking them about their projects.
GONZALEZ: Got it.
WETTRICK: And then at the high school level, this is my humble opinion, I don’t like genius hour in high school.
GONZALEZ: Right. OK.
WETTRICK: It’s gotta be its own elective.
How the Class Works
GONZALEZ: OK. So this is an elective class, so the class that you developed in your high school, it was a separate elective.
GONZALEZ: And it’s called “Innovation Class”?
WETTRICK: Innovation and Open Source Learning. The class is about seven, maybe eight weeks long, and that’s the innovation side. I teach those six to seven, eight weeks.
WETTRICK: The rest of the year is open source learning, which is if the kids know how, like, how much do I know of coding good Android apps? I don’t. Shocker.
WETTRICK: If the kid wants to do an event that will make a pet shelter a no-kill pet shelter, how much do I know about that? Not a lot.
WETTRICK: But I know a lot of people.
WETTRICK: And so like I said, like, I work for them, so some of our students are like, “Hey, Mr. Wettrick. I need to find a guy who specializes in (blank).”
WETTRICK: And so I’ll try to help dig that up. I prefer they find them, but they have that time to collaborate with people, and that’s why it’s called open source learning. They start finding other sources of information other than, like, I’m pretty dumb in a lot of areas. And so what I do then is I set them up with, you know, 1) how to create a great social media profile where people want to follow you, that they’re shocked and amazed that somebody at 16 years old is going to be tackling great problems. And 2) you know how to set smart goals. You know how to state something and then back it up. And then 3) like, everybody this year, and I hate to make demands, too many, but everybody this year either has to have a blog, a podcast, or a YouTube channel.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. See, to me that makes perfect sense, because you need something that is public-facing, so people get to know what your deal is and what you’re, yeah. Well, I’m actually paraphrasing it for you.
WETTRICK: Yeah. And they’re held accountable. If they make their things like, “Hey, I’m going to do this … ” And this is not me ripping on kids. This is most adults I know. I call it the lottery ticket mentality. “You know what I’m going to do when I win this lottery? I’m going to buy my mom a car.” OK. You’re not, because you’re not going to win.
WETTRICK: So when people tell, or actually one of my students said, you know, this class is the difference between a New Year’s resolution and doing it.
WETTRICK: And it’s my job that you do it. So the rest of the year — And they grade themselves. They turn in reflections every two weeks, and we have these little circuit breakers, right? Or in Silicon Valley they call them the pivots, right? So every two weeks they’re telling me what works or what doesn’t.
WETTRICK: And I’m just asking them, like, what did you accomplish? And some kids are like, “Yeah, I did some things. I talked to a guy.” And I’ll just look at them and go, “Uh huh. So what do you think you got this week?” “Well, I mean, I was really busy.” Or sometimes they’re like, “I worked my butt off and nothing worked.” Awesome.
WETTRICK: Because then in the beginning of class, “Do I fail this week because it didn’t work?” I’m like, “Oh my gosh, no. You learned more about what didn’t work this week. This is awesome.”
GONZALEZ: OK. I want to roll back a little bit. So the first six, seven weeks of this course is you, is much more sort of direct instruction. And I’m assuming at this point you’re sort of equipping them to handle the remainder of the school year when it’s the open source learning?
GONZALEZ: So can you give me a couple of bullet points on what you’re actually covering? I think you sort of hinted at a lot of this stuff already, but what are the main things you want to hit during those first couple of weeks?
WETTRICK: Number 1, how to think differently and how to think for yourself. You know, like, we have a couple of TED talks that we watch. We’ll play a couple of games, like, Disruptus is such an easy fun game that I think that, you know, gets a lot of things going.
GONZALEZ: I don’t know this game.
WETTRICK: It’s on Amazon.
WETTRICK: At this point I really think I should get a cut of their sales, because I’ve sold a lot of games. I’ll give them, like, short excerpts from books. I have them listen to podcasts. We read, like, 11 pages from Seth Godin’s Linchpin. And, you know, I’ll show them clips from, like, what was Tony Wagner’s film called? “Most Likely to Succeed.” And I’ll show them all the urgency, all this media on “schools should change, schools should change, schools should change,” and then most notably, I even said, “What do you not like about school?” And so I let them tell me all the things that the class is by saying what you don’t like. Because instinctively what we always say is, “When am I going to use this in real life?” We need to make it relevant. “When do I have time to have things that I’m passionate about?” Check, check, check.
GONZALEZ: Right. You have it now.
WETTRICK: Like, this class is the ultimate mirror to your face. Right. So when all of these, so when everybody’s complaining, and that’s one of the funny things about our class: I turn my kids into doers and I hate to say this, but it starts affecting their relationships with other people, because they’re like, “Oh just shut up and do it.”
WETTRICK: They see everybody else on social media, “Oh, everything sucks and everything is terrible,” and they’re like, “What are you doing about it? Seriously. What are you doing about it?”
GONZALEZ: Oh no.
WETTRICK: And so they turn into doers. They’re amazing. I’m serious. The other thing I hate, but I’m very up front with it with the parents. I have my own extra back to school night. Like, sometimes grades go down.
WETTRICK: Because I always compare them to Marines. Like, little guys get big, but really big guys get leaner, and eventually a Marine looks like a Marine. So my D and F students start to get C’s because they’re like, “Look. I want to stick around,” so their GPA goes up a little bit. But straight-A students start looking at some of this like, “OK.” They used to dedicate two hours a night to homework, but, like — in some ways I hate it and other ways I don’t at all, but their grades slip a little bit because they’re like, “I’m working on my business. I’m about to launch,” or, “I’ve got this event that I’m throwing in two weeks, and there’s no way in heck I have time for this.”
GONZALEZ: So it’s that their grade doesn’t go down in your class, it’s that they’re starting to let their other coursework drop, because they’re just that excited about what they’re doing in your class.
WETTRICK: Opportunity cost 101.
GONZALEZ: Right, right.
WETTRICK: Yeah, yeah.
The ROTH-IRA Framework
GONZALEZ: OK. So you’re teaching them how to think differently. There’s a lot of sort of inspiring stuff going on in these first weeks, helping them understand even the point of this course at all. Are there any sort of more, like, beyond the inspiration, hands-on practical types of things that they’re learning too?
GONZALEZ: OK, like what?
WETTRICK: Absolutely. Like some of our methodologies. We learn ROTH IRA, which other than a taxed advantage savings vehicle, ROTH IRAs is our methodology of how we work. Its our two-week cycle. So ROTH is an acronym, so realization, open discussion, tussling, and homogeneous grouping. So a lot of times, as I’m sending them podcasts to listen to, things to whatever, I’m going to ask them to just go observe things. And so they’ll get this realization. Like, “Oh my gosh,” and then when they do, I’m asking them to jot it down, and that goes to the O, which is open discussion. That open discussion, like, all of a sudden, what you thought may have been a good idea, you say out loud, and then the rest of the group, it’s their turn to fight, which is tussle. So sometimes, like, every other Monday we have the ROTH part. So in these open discussions, it was like, “I’ve got this great idea,” and then somebody’s like, “No, no it’s not. Did you think about this?”
WETTRICK: And then often times when the really artsy kid meets the tech kid, or when opposites meet, they take two steps forward, I take two steps back, we get together, because, sorry. [laughs] Come on, Jennifer.
GONZALEZ: Sorry. I’m so sorry.
WETTRICK: Playing to an empty room. So opposites attract, and that leads to homogenous, which is the H, which is homogenous grouping, not ability grouping, but they like group themselves. I don’t want them to pick their friends. Again, sorry about the Paula Abdul reference. Next time it’ll be Prince.
GONZALEZ: No, I loved it. Thank you, I would have gotten the Prince one.
WETTRICK: Prince or maybe Duran Duran. OK, well, just warning you, it’s coming.
WETTRICK: And so that was the fun part, right? The ROTH? That’s the “I’m going to do.” And often times it’s fun to talk about, “I’m going to code an app. I’m going to start an organization that’s going help puppies not get euthanized,” or whatever.
WETTRICK: It feels good. Now comes the hard part. That’s the IRA, and that’s the, in Day No. 1 of the new week, is ideation. What’s keystroke one? What is prototype No. 1? What is phone call one?
WETTRICK: What is connection one? And then I give everybody two weeks, which is the critical thing. If you’ve done a genius hour, I’ve seen and going to come across arrogantly, I see people say, “This year my genius hour project is — ” This year? This year? This week, bro. Like, I give it two weeks.
WETTRICK: I give it two weeks because in those two weeks, because they were going, because when I first started this class, I’d give them way long, and then they’d BS me for like four or five weeks.
WETTRICK: And then they’d admit it wasn’t working.
WETTRICK: So after two weeks, after two weeks I go, “This isn’t working.” And short time frames, 1) it gives you better tight feedback loops and 2) they can’t BS their way through it. You write goals down.
WETTRICK: So then that’s the ideation, and then the R and A is reflect and adjust. Every two weeks give me your podcast. Every two weeks give me your blog. And the most time-consuming thing is they turn that into the public. What they’re really doing is interviewing me every two weeks, which is time consuming.
WETTRICK: That’s why I like it if they’re in groups of two and three.
WETTRICK: But they reflect, and then so I even tell them, “Don’t BS me. Tell me what’s working. Don’t tell me what’s great. What are you struggling with? How can I help? I don’t even care about the grade, I want you to reflect on it and adjust.” Go ahead.
GONZALEZ: Right. No, no, no. I want to make sure I’m understanding the timeline. This ROTH IRA stuff, this is also, this is not happening in that first seven weeks. This is, now we’re into the open source learning section?
WETTRICK: No, no, no, no. We get to understand that flow.
GONZALEZ: So you’re teaching them what, OK, you’re teaching them about the ROTH IRA flow?
WETTRICK: I’m teaching them how the workflow is.
WETTRICK: Eventually we model the behavior. We have a very tight all-class project.
GONZALEZ: I gotcha.
WETTRICK: Which, yeah, just to model it.
GONZALEZ: OK. Because the idea here, once you get to sort of the end of this first chunk of time is that they all leave this direct instruction period understanding that they’re going to be expected to sort of, how do you phrase it? They have to solve a problem in the world.? They’ve got to be choosing some sort of a major project? Like, how is it that they go from —
WETTRICK: I’m so glad you’re segueing this.
GONZALEZ: You see what I’m saying?
The Rule of Thirds
GONZALEZ: Like, how do they go from coming into the class to understanding what exactly they’re going to be doing?
WETTRICK: Well, that’s where they’re scared.
WETTRICK: Matter of fact, we joke that they have this kind of look on their face in, like, September, like, “What am I going to choose in innovation class to work on?” And then normally by November they’re saying, “What am I going to limit myself to in innovation class?” Like, they start falling in love with problems.
WETTRICK: So we observe. When you hear people say, “You know what sucks?” Their ears are going, “What?” There’s money to be made. There’s problems to be solved. And so they become active, like, searchers of problem solving. And so that’s why, like, pick your lane. If you’re really into social justice, look around. What can you do to fix it, and don’t go to a protest and that’s it. Stop it. What are you going to do? If your thing is, you know, animal cruelty, what are you going to do? If your thing is making money, what are you going to do? And that gets into my rule of thirds, this is my favorite thing. Rule of thirds is when they’re submitting their proposal to me, because I don’t just let them do anything. I have to take a look and go, “OK.” And even if it’s a bad idea, sometimes I let them as long as they can prove their rule of thirds. Rule No. 1: Are you passionate about it? That’s where most genius hours — Just go, are you passionate about it? OK, great. That’s easy. That one’s easy.
WETTRICK: No. 2, what’s your skills acquisition on this?
WETTRICK: And No. 3, who is it benefiting other than you? Because I don’t care if you’re successful. I want you to be empowering others. So, like, one of the things that truly shook me to my core years ago when I did read “Linchpin” by Seth Godin, and this is why I have this section in there early in the year, is that he said education can come down to two things: solving interesting problems and leadership.
WETTRICK: And in those two things, that’s my rule of thirds, basically.
WETTRICK: And so, so a case in point. Last year, I had a student come up to me, and he says, “Hey, Wettrick,” he submitted his portfolio, and he was like, “I want to learn how to day trade, like, really good.”
WETTRICK: I was like, “OK. Let’s go over the rule of thirds.” He was rolling his eyes, he’s like, “OK, here we go.” I’m like, “Are you passionate about it?” He’s like, “Bro, I’m making money. I want to make money.” I’m like, “OK. Skills acquisition.” He’s like, “Are you kidding? Holds, puts, options? I mean I don’t know about this stuff. Commodities market? But it’s going to be fun to learn.” I’m like, “OK. Rule No. 3. Who’s it benefitting other than you?” “I mean, I want to make money, Wettrick.” I said, “Well, I’m not going to approve it.” And by forcing him to go, “OK, OK, OK.” And then his eyes lit up, he’s like, “OK. How about I have a stock club during academic lab? As I learn, I can also teach some of my other students and we can pool our money and do a stock portfolio and see if we can, like, make money.” Which turns out, you really can’t pool money in school. But anyway. Simulated money they can. But he did a rule of thirds and it just worked. And so I think that a rule of thirds is good for every genius hour.
WETTRICK: It’s good practice. Passion, skills, who’s it helping.
GONZALEZ: Did you approve it?
WETTRICK: Yeah. After he told me he was going to do a club.
GONZALEZ: Right. He’s going to teach other people how to do it, and then it met that last third.
WETTRICK: Yep. Absolutely.
I’m going to take a quick break to thank this episode’s other sponsor, Peergrade. Peergrade is a platform that makes it easy to facilitate peer review in your classroom. Students review each other’s work, while Peergrade takes care of anonymously assigning reviewers and delivering all the relevant insights to teachers. With Peergrade, students learn to think critically and take ownership of their learning. They also learn to write kind and useful feedback for their peers. Peergrade is free to use for teachers and students. To learn more visit cultofpedagogy.com/peergrade.
How Teachers Can Get Started
GONZALEZ: I’m going to recap a little bit and make sure I’m understanding this. OK. So the class starts, it sounds like the kids, because they’ve heard about it through word of mouth, I guess, they know that in this class they’re going to be expected to have something, some sort of a project. But what if somebody was starting this brand new? How would they introduce this idea to students? Because they would say, what is this class? Why would I take it, what are we doing in it?
WETTRICK: Are you talking, how do you introduce the class or how do you introduce a genius hour?
GONZALEZ: Well, imagine we’re talking about a high school teacher who wants to do this in their school.
GONZALEZ: Because at this point, you’ve been doing it for so long that kids come to you already thinking about, “What am I going to do for the innovation class?” Because it’s not a new thing anymore. But if it’s brand new, you know.
GONZALEZ: What do you say to them?
WETTRICK: The first thing you’re going to have to do is battle the administration.
GONZALEZ: Of course.
WETTRICK: Although I know a lot of superintendents and principals, like, and you may even have to petition the state. The first year I did this, they were such a vague title in Indiana, that I was like “That’s vague enough, I can work with it,” and then eventually I wrote my own.
WETTRICK: So, like, step No. 1 is seeing what title it could fit under. Step No. 2 is working with — Like anything, like anything in what we do is, I prototype small. So I wouldn’t say, “We’re doing this school-wide,” I would start with a class of 20.
GONZALEZ: Right. Just one period a day.
WETTRICK: Yep. And if you really want to melt my heart, I mean you want to make my day, make it an alternative class.
GONZALEZ: What do you mean by alternative?
WETTRICK: Freaking blow your mind.
GONZALEZ: Alternative as in —
WETTRICK: Bad kids.
GONZALEZ: Right, of course.
WETTRICK: Bad kids.
WETTRICK: Yep, yep. They totally will kick — Anyway. Yeah. So, like, round ‘em up. Even if you want to rally the troops. If you let them think that it’s partly their idea, now they own it.
GONZALEZ: OK, OK.
WETTRICK: Because that’s what I, like, when I work with elementaries that’s what I’ll do. I’ll instruct some teachers, “Allow them to think it’s their idea, or blame me.” So they’ll walk in a class like, “Well, I just met this little short enthusiastic guy, Mr. Wettrick, and he was saying that I should give you like 30 minutes on a Friday to, like, he said I should let you guys play Minecraft. Isn’t that dumb?” And watch them just go nuts.
WETTRICK: And they’re like, “No, no it’s a great idea.” “Well, it’s not a good idea. What educational things could come out of Minecraft?” And they’ll start telling you all things that can come out of Minecraft.
GONZALEZ: So you play devil’s advocate with the kids, you mean?
WETTRICK: Absolutely, absolutely.
GONZALEZ: OK. So if you can talk the administrators into letting you give this a shot anyway, then —
GONZALEZ: — you know, then the idea is to actually explain to the kids, you know, what is it that I’m actually expecting from you in this class? What is this class?
WETTRICK: And could you imagine this, rounding up some — OK. Like, first of all, the people that listen to your podcast are that teacher anyway.
GONZALEZ: Yeah, yeah.
WETTRICK: Right? It’s why they’re listening to you. They’re that teacher. Otherwise they wouldn’t be giving a darn on professional involvement.
GONZALEZ: They are, right.
WETTRICK: So that teacher starts having a conversation of like a very Seth Godin, so small plug for my podcast. When I interviewed Seth, he just kept going back, “What is the purpose of education? Why are you here?”
WETTRICK: Have that conversation with your kids. Instinctively they’ll start going and they’ll start proving why there should be an innovation class. And so the kids that really light it on fire. So let’s just say you have six classes, right? Of those six classes, you’re probably going to have two to five kids that really own it.
WETTRICK: There’s your 20.
WETTRICK: There’s your 20. And you secretly, not secretly, but you’re like, “Hey, I really liked your answers. I’m thinking about, based on some of the things you said, I’ve got this crazy idea. What do you think?”
GONZALEZ: I gotcha.
WETTRICK: Now those kids are going to be like, “Yeah, yeah. It was my idea.” There’s like this old Saturday Night Live skit of the guy that, like, started the wave at a football game, and every time it went around, he kept telling people, “It was me. You see everybody standing up? That was me.”
WETTRICK: And they’ll feel just as proud. Like, “Hey, see this class? Yeah. I killed this class discussion,” and then of course the other kids are like, “Dude, I was in period five, and she told the same thing to me.”
GONZALEZ: See, round up your early adopters basically, your really enthusiastic, and that’s who you launch this thing with.
How Grading Works
GONZALEZ: So they’re already fired up, and then once they’re there, and they inevitably, even though these are the fired up early adopter kids, at some point, somebody’s going to say, “What do we actually get a grade on here?” Because this is still a class. And so then you say to them, like, your ultimate goal here is to, of course, you know, figure out something you’re passionate about, the rule of thirds, all of that. But like, what is the end product? Is it the task itself? Like, you, each kid, are going to define what your task is?
WETTRICK: I mean, and you let them know that, you know, just be honest with them. “I was dreaming when I wrote this. Forgive me if I go too fast.”
GONZALEZ: There it is.
WETTRICK: There it is.
GONZALEZ: That’s what I was waiting for.
WETTRICK: Thank you. I was keeping you waiting. The waiting is the hardest part.
GONZALEZ: Oh my gosh. [laughs] Stop.
WETTRICK: Rest in peace, Tom Petty. At least we’re having fun. So anyway, I’ve been waiting for this, because Jennifer, I know you well enough, yet we don’t really know each other well enough, that after this podcast, we’re totally bros.
GONZALEZ: Oh, thank you.
GONZALEZ: That’s a huge honor to be a bro with you, so thanks.
WETTRICK: OK. I’m glad you weren’t offended, like, “I’m not a bro.”
WETTRICK: Anyway. All right. But yeah, I’d let them, like we’re making this up as we go along, isn’t this fun?
WETTRICK: I have changed my grading system seven times, because I’m working what works best for my students, and ultimately it’s, “How can I hold you accountable to the things that you said you’re going to do?”
WETTRICK: I think that everybody should have this class. Hell, sorry, language. I work with teachers and stuff that they’re like, “We should have this as professional development.” You’re darn straight you should.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. Yep. I’ve actually just recently seen murmurs of this, of teachers doing genius hour types of things. So that’s hopefully on its way. So, what, OK. But if you reiterated your grading system that many times, I would guess that looking back on the first couple of years, you could point to certain things that you were like, “That is definitely a don’t.”
WETTRICK: Too many.
GONZALEZ: I mean in terms of just the grading, in terms of just the grading and accountability.
WETTRICK: Absolutely. Yeah. Because the pinnacle of irony is that when I first got started, I had this compliance-based system.
WETTRICK: And they hacked it.
WETTRICK: I had this, like, formula that the amount of, because in the beginning when my principal was like, “What standards are you covering?” I’ve got the most supportive principal, superintendent in the world, but in the beginning it was like, “What standards are you hitting?” And I would tell them, “They’re identifying it.” So like when a kid says, “I want to write an app,” I’m like, “Great. Knock out three standards.”
WETTRICK: And they’re taking ownership of their education. So I used to have this formula that I’m like, “OK. Depending on how many weeks you think it’s going to take and how many standards you’re knocking out, it’s going to be” — and I said you had to have 100 points by the end of the semester. And they would even, they would tell me in their proposal how much they thought it was going to be worth. Well, like, they set me into a trap, because they were, in some cases, BS-ing their way through it, because they’re like, “OK. If I have to comply to this arbitrary 100 … ” I did like the art of negotiation. I mean, it was. It was like, “I deserve 60 points for this four-week project.” And I’m like, “You deserve a 20.” “I’ll see your 20, and I’ll have a — ” And we did this dance. I mean, that was a great skill. I still kind of miss it.
WETTRICK: But I had to realize that as much as I, like, you know, don’t believe in a lot of, a lot of compliance stuff — But I will say this, here’s the catch-22. For you to have this work, the early years, it will be a lot of failure, like anything in innovation. But the weird thing is, especially past fifth grade, this idea is going to be so foreign to them, that they’ll still feel like, “You have to give me an A through an F. You have to give me — ” So this is kind of that gradual release of responsibility kind of thing, so even if in the first semester you want to have a little bit more of a traditional, you can start moving away from it. If you start off loosey goosey — That whole, “Hey, man. I want you to learn. It’s all about the learning.”
WETTRICK: “Yeah, whatever. I need an A.”
GONZALEZ: Right, right.
WETTRICK: So you can always loosen up.
GONZALEZ: OK. So you can start it a little bit more traditional, and you would just base that on participation and reflections and that kind of thing?
WETTRICK: Yeah. I mean right now I’m heavily on, heck. I’m to the point now and — Well, I am bragging. The class is so awesome now. Where I’m basing it off of their reflections, and then really the feedback they’re giving to me in person. And I’m not going to say it like — In the beginning it was 20-80: 20 percent of the kids got it, 80 percent of them didn’t. Now I’m at about 80-20, or 85-15.
WETTRICK: Where I still get occasionally a couple of kids that are like, “Look. My dad said I should take this class, because he heard about it. I don’t know what I want to do. I just want to be told what to do.”
WETTRICK: And that’s fine. Like, there’s some people that just don’t — But my thing that I wanted to rectify for the sins of the past is, I wanted this class to be for those kids that are like, “Just leave me alone so I can work on my stuff.”
WETTRICK: And then be supported. The kid that likes to be told to sit down and shut your mouth and memorize this? I mean, they don’t like it, and that’s fine.
WETTRICK: There’s a lot of things for them in school for them to do. It breaks my heart, but, you know, this class is not for everybody. I’d like for it to be for everybody, but it’s not for everybody.
GONZALEZ: Well, I think some people, they’re not there mentally yet. You know, for somebody to be given this opportunity like this when they’ve never had anything like this before and they’re 17 years old, it’s already, they’ve got some neural pathways that are already getting, you know, pretty solid.
WETTRICK: Yeah. And the social pressure. I wonder if Eva’s — my own daughter was — I’m living a dream. I wanted my oldest daughter in this class in the worst way. And so she’s a junior and so she took the class, and there was like this social pressure of, she’s in the innovation class. And we’ve got a pretty good footprint, and so there was this paralyzing pressure that, “I need to go out and change the world,” and I’m like, “No you don’t, Eva. You just need to go out and find some opportunities. Everything will even itself out.”
GONZALEZ: Hey, let me, I’ve got a question really quick. Because this is sort of along the same lines.
GONZALEZ: The two-week thing. You said you were looking at two week sort of cycles.
GONZALEZ: So do you have some kids that kind of bip and bop around all year to different things, and then others who are on a very steady sort of path of like, here’s another incremental goal, here’s another incremental goal, and they’re focused on the same thing?”
WETTRICK: Yes. And I’ll tell you the median. So most projects that come out of the — So we start, like, Aug. 1. We’ve got this balanced calendar thing. So August, September, it’s the class, and then I kind of around October give them their first project. I’d say there’s like a 95 percent turnover on that first project. What seemed like a good idea at the time, seemed like a good idea.
GONZALEZ: I gotcha.
WETTRICK: And then some students never get past that. They keep, like you said, hopping and popping in and out of just two-week projects. And I let them. How many of us changed our major in college? Answer: Almost all of us.
WETTRICK: So for them to discover what they — “Dude, I thought was going to like this. This is terrible.”
GONZALEZ: Right, right.
WETTRICK: I’m excited about that. And then we get some kids that think, and I’ve only had one student in my seven years that knew exactly what he wanted to do at the beginning of the year and he stuck with it all year. But by giving it that two-week, “OK, what do you think?” It also allows them too to plan out, because our proposal form, I even have what’s your one-year, six-month, semester, three-week, two-week, one-week, what are you doing today, goal. So, like, everything shifts a lot of times after two weeks. What they thought was only going to take, you know, two weeks, is going to take them five. Or what they thought was going to take them two weeks they got done in a day.
WETTRICK: And these are all really great skills in life. So I don’t beat them up for it if they didn’t hit their mark as long as they have a really good reason to why they didn’t hit their mark.
WETTRICK: If their reason is, “I was talking to a guy,” or “I was doing stuff,” well, now we’ve got some problems.
Examples of Student Projects
GONZALEZ: OK. Let’s, you know what, I’ve realized that now we’ve been talking about all of this in the abstract. We’re recording this in October. So you’ve got a group right now that is sort of in the thick of this. I’m imagining you’ve got some that are well on their way to figuring out, like, a big main thing for the year and others who are still really kind of searching. So could you give me maybe an example of two different kids and one that’s — Because I think maybe for people who this is still pretty new for, if they could hear examples of what types of projects and proposals these kids are doing, it would be a quicker path to actually being able to start doing something like this.
GONZALEZ: So maybe one that’s really doing well, and one that’s really struggling.
WETTRICK: Yeah. Well, I mean, first of all, I know my students will listen to this, so know that Mr. Wettrick loves you, even though I said some of these are bad ideas. I’ll start off with one that’s going to rock people’s’ worlds. So actually a former student of mine kind of brought me out to Ghana like three years ago, and things went well and we ended up buying land to eventually do a school. And things move on Ghanaian time, and long story made short, it hasn’t really gone anywhere, and so two of my students got in touch with this guy named Kobe who was there in Africa, and then they got a hold of the former student, Pete Freeman. And he’s like, “Hey, man.” Like, Pete, he’s at Notre Dame on full scholarship because he’s amazing and awesome. Like, he got 26,000 kids healthcare.
WETTRICK: Because he worked with the government and an NGO. I mean, this kid is a world-changer. So, like, my two students, both of them named Luke, were like, “Hey, whatever happened to you guys opening up that school of innovation?” He’s like, “Well, right now I’m fulfilling my university and my NGO responsibilities, but here’s the guy.” And so they start working with this guy, Kobe, and at first they thought they were going to, well, first of all, to build a school in Ghana is not a lot of money, or at least in a village.
GONZALEZ: Right, right.
WETTRICK: Right? So this isn’t a school with like a gymnasium and a library. This is something that’s going to hold 100 kids. So they look at the budget and think, “I can do this,” and they start looking at sustainable things that they could sell, etc. And then they’ve had some ideas that weren’t good, and then they whittled away, and they’re almost fully funded, and they’re not going to turn over money. Like, one of them is going to live in Ghana. He graduates early. He graduates in, Luke Johnston graduates in December, and so Jan. 1 he’s going to live out there.
GONZALEZ: Holy cow.
WETTRICK: Luke, the other Luke, Luke Brecks, is doing all the paperwork and going through the NGO process.
GONZALEZ: Oh my gosh.
WETTRICK: Because they have an hour and a half every other day, and really when I say, “They have an hour and a half every other day to work on this,” they work on it every day.
GONZALEZ: Of course.
WETTRICK: That’s something that’s like, oh yeah, I mean. Like, neither of them, one of them is definitely not going to go to college because he doesn’t want to. He has good enough grades to, just doesn’t want to. And the other one is on the fence whether he wants to, but both of them are like, “This is really cool.” Because they believe in the class so much, the school is going to be based heavily on our methods.
GONZALEZ: Right. Wow.
WETTRICK: So they’re going to get kids and just outside of Cape Coast, so it’s not like a Accra, it’s not like a Western city. It’s pretty rural. That’s actually the reason why we did the school. They had to walk two hours to the nearest school.
GONZALEZ: Oh my goodness.
WETTRICK: So that’s like a shiny example of, “Dang.” And then another one was — Oh here’s a good idea going nowhere, and I say this lovingly. So these kids were like, it started out like, “What do you really like?” “Well, I like running. I like my cross country team.” “All right. What could you do with the cross country team?” Long story made short, we start kicking around ideas, and Rick and Dick Hoyt came up, right? Rick and Dick Hoyt, if you ever want to cry hysterically, he’s an older gentleman that pushes and pulls, and he does triathlons with his son, and his son is completely paralyzed. And he has got these designed running wheelchairs, and they’re like, “We’re going to do that.” And it seemed like a great idea, until you start looking at the price of these. And so it went from — And then we’re like, “OK. They’re $12,000 a chair.” And we were going to do this, like, Thanksgiving Day dinner dash. And so like little by little we kept running into, “We can’t, we can’t, we can’t.” And then they’re like, “We’re going to make our own.” “No, we’re not.” There’s things called OSHA and all these federal regulations. And so long story made short, like the idea at first is going, just went nowhere.
WETTRICK: And so they ended up working with an organization that already has something like this and small scaling it and seeing how it goes.
WETTRICK: Well, actually, the beginning is like, “We’re going to have our own race.” “No, you’re not.” “Why?” If your whole point was to work with unable-bodied athletes and have them paired up with able-bodied athletes, in some ways that’s called Best Buddies, right? And so they were like, why reinvent the wheel? So they just kept whittling away and whittling away until they finally found their, you know, what we call, what Silicon Valley calls the MVP, the minimum viable product. So, you know, that was a good idea of a great idea keep scaled back.
GONZALEZ: Yes. Interesting.
WETTRICK: And then there’s always those, like, “I’m going to write a book,” “I’m going to build an app.”
WETTRICK: No, you’re not.
WETTRICK: It’s emotion talking.
WETTRICK: It’s like the last night of church camp. The last night of church camp, you gather around the fire, “I’m going to write you every week. We’re going to be best friends. I’m going to change this time.” No, you’re not. Emotion’s talking. So we get a lot of these huge, great big ideas, and I will allow them a couple of weeks to figure it out of what they’re up against, and most of the time they learn how to either put things in its proper place or a couple of them look at it and go, “OK. What I need to do is — ” Like, Hunter, ironically enough, my co-founder of my company, he was like, “I’m going to design an app for, I’m going to design a game and put it on the Play Store.” And he did it. And I thought it wasn’t going to work, and it did. But that would, I say, is easily the No. 1 thing. Like, they have these great big, “I’m going to cure cancer.” Yeah.
GONZALEZ: And so part of your job is to help them understand that you don’t just do that in a semester or whatever. It’s to help them understand that there are smaller things that they could do that would make an actual contribution.
WETTRICK: And this sounds so awful, but get them to fail as fast as they can.
WETTRICK: “I’m going to cure cancer.” “OK, go do it.” A week later. “Yeah, I didn’t know what I was up against.” Great. I mean, and I’m always in favor of them learning, like the two-week feedback? If they can learn it in a week, I’m like, “Great. Scratch that off your list.”
GONZALEZ: So you’re relaying these conversations as if you just immediately reject these ideas, but sometimes you let them go ahead and give the wild idea a try, and then they come back and realize —
WETTRICK: Yep. It’s kind of like, we have a week where we focus on social media training. And we have, like, you know, what’s a good profile, all this other stuff, LinkedIn, all of these other things. So, you know, the kid’s like, “I’m going to get feedback from Andrew Luck.” I’m like, “Go ahead.” Like, it’s not going to happen.
WETTRICK: But I want them to think that maybe it could, and then they figure out tactics. Oh man, they’ve figured out tactics. The people we’ve talked to in class are ridiculous, because they’ve found ways to.
GONZALEZ: Like, drop some names. I know you’ve interviewed Gary Vaynerchuk for your podcast, so I’m assuming he talked to the —
WETTRICK: Yeah. So like, again, these are big names to me, but Naveen Jain, Tim Ferriss.
GONZALEZ: Yeah, I bet a lot of teachers don’t know a lot of these names, because they may not —
WETTRICK: Ironically, yeah. That’s actually why I started my podcast. That’s exactly why. Like, Tim Ferriss spent two hours with our class, which is insane, because I think for him to speak to a group, it’s like $100,000. Like, I emailed people, and I was like, “Hey, does anyone want to come down here and do a hangout with Tim Ferriss?” And they were like, “Who’s Tim Ferriss?”
WETTRICK: And I was like, all of these people that were — I don’t want to say “idols” — people I looked up to were entrepreneurs and that’s exactly why I started my wacky podcast. I think these people are awesome and amazing.
To Learn More
GONZALEZ: Do you have any type of a download or a book or something that would walk a teacher through these steps, or do they kind of have to just fiddle?
GONZALEZ: OK. Which of your things does that?
WETTRICK: Go to StartEdUpInnovation.com. There’s a couple of courses. And the other thing that I really, really recommend people do is that I record from the classroom every day, which actually, which Gary’s the one that put me up to that. Like, I do three- to four-minute videos from the classroom, because I don’t want to sit there and be like a talking head. There’s a lot of people saying out there, “Hey, be innovative.” What does that mean? Well, you’ll meet my kids. So every day I have little tips, suggestions, and that was — Matter of fact, the only day I haven’t done them was now since we’re on fall break. So you can go back from Aug. 1 through last week and see exactly what we do, and then you obviously will know what we worked on that week, because I talk about it. So that’s kind of a nice resource.
GONZALEZ: And this is your YouTube channel?
WETTRICK: Yep. Well, actually it is my YouTube channel. That doesn’t seem to get as much traction. Facebook.com/StartEdUp gets a lot more traction.
GONZALEZ: OK. So all of this stuff is basically under the umbrella of Start Ed Up, which is the name of your podcast, and you’ve got the website now with that name also, right?
WETTRICK: Start Ed Up Innovation. Somebody bought it and then tried to sell it to me for a lot of money.
GONZALEZ: That was their genius hour project, just buy domain names.
WETTRICK: Yeah. You know, I was, yeah. Same thing happened to me. I was in the Netherlands, and I did a cool speaking thing there for like two and a half weeks, and I met with a group. They were like, “Hey, we’d like to represent you to be out here and speak more in the Netherlands.” I’m like, awesome. They’re like, you know, can we find more about Don Wettrick at donwettrick.com? I’m like, “Oh, no. That’s not my website.” They purchased the domain name in front of me, and then when I got back, they offered to sell it to me.
GONZALEZ: Oh my gosh.
WETTRICK: I just want to be nice. How was that? Right in front of me. They’re like, “Well, we bought it now.” Anyway. I’m learning, Jennifer.
GONZALEZ: OK. So what I’m going to do for people listening, is I’m going to just, I’m going to get all the URLs for everything, so that people can come and find all of your stuff, and so they can just come to my site, to the podcast page.
WETTRICK: Yeah. There’s big, big, big news that I can only allude to a little bit.
WETTRICK: But we’ve got a really special thing going with Twitch, and a lot of people are going, “I don’t know what Twitch is,” and that’s OK.
GONZALEZ: Of course.
WETTRICK: You will later.
WETTRICK: That’s all I can say for right now, but it’s special.
GONZALEZ: That, OK. Well good. Maybe by the time they listen to this, this is coming out in a couple more weeks, so maybe by that time, they’ll say, “I know what he was talking about.”
GONZALEZ: Yeah. Well, Don, this has been awesome. Thank you so much. I love your enthusiasm, and I hope that this gets more people to try this. I’m guessing there are probably going to be questions over on my site from people. And can I have you come over and answer them if I can’t?
WETTRICK: Sure, sure.
WETTRICK: And for more pop culture references, go to @DonWettrick on Twitter, where I will at least make — Shoutout to Duran Duran, I never got around to you. So, I’m sorry, sorry.
GONZALEZ: Aw. Did you have one like on deck, ready to go?
WETTRICK: No. But they were, you know, that’s kind of my go-to.
GONZALEZ: Wow. All right.
WETTRICK: I liked “Rio.” I liked “Rio.” There it is. “Seven and the Ragged Tiger” was good too, but sorry, my 45-year-old-ness is showing. I shall stop.
GONZALEZ: Thank you so much.
WETTRICK: And Jennifer, I will also say this before we wrap up.
WETTRICK: You do such a great service to a lot of educators, and I love it because you’re not resting on your laurels. You’re putting out stuff, and you’re making people rethink a lot of practice. So even when I was talking today, there was a lady in the teachers lounge and she was talking about some podcast, and I was like, “Oh, are you listening to my podcast?” And she’s like, “No. But I am listening to Cult of Pedagogy.” I’m like, “OK. All right. Well, I have one too. Anyway. Enjoy your chicken tetrazzini, and I’ll talk to you later.”
For links to all the resources mentioned in this episode, visit cultofpedagogy.com, go to Podcasts, and click on Episode 83. To get weekly updates on all my newest blog posts, podcast episodes, and products, sign up for my mailing list at cultofpedagogy.com/subscribe. Thanks so much for listening, and have a great day.
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