Laura K Spencer, Ed.D.

In a former life I was an Ed Tech Director. One day, my boss asked me to form a committee to develop a plan for a refresh of our classroom technology. He wanted to know what new classroom technology to buy, at what cost, and and on what timeline.

I responded. “Sure, but before I do, I have a question for you. Imagine you walk into a classroom and think to yourself, ‘Wow, THIS is the best example of teaching and learning I have ever seen. If only every teacher and student could have an engaging experience like THIS, the learning for students in our district would be off the charts fantastic.’ Can you please describe for me what it is that would make you think that?”

Why ask that question?

Technology is not the driver of learning. It seems ridiculous to have to say that, but I do.

I am part of a Facebook support group for teachers that use a specific technology product. A question was posed to the group:

A screenshot of a facebook post that reads "Question: What are your favorite virtual activities that work for engagement?" It shows 7 likes and 31 comments.

Quickly teachers chimed in to offer ideas.

A slide with screenshots of Facebook comments, including: Nearpod, Jamboard, Book Creator, Quizizz, Kahoot,, Mentimeter

Here’s the thing…

The initial question didn’t ask what technology tools do teachers use to check for understanding or to provide for collaborative learning space. The question asked for “activities” that work for engagement. “Activities” signifies that the response should be a verb, but the responses were nouns.

Why is that?

Before I answer that, let’s look at Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle.

Sinek’s Golden Circle asks people to start by defining the WHY. It’s what drives us to do what we do and how we do it. In education, people may define the WHY as standards, or high stakes testing, or maybe college and career readiness (the new buzz phrase) but it’s deeper than that. The WHY is (or should be) something along the lines of providing students with the skills, knowledge, and capacity to lead a meaningful life.

Once we have an idea of what those skills and knowledge should be (WHY), we connect it with the standards we are told to teach (WHAT) and develop objectives and lessons (HOW) that guide progress towards achieving the WHY. Without the WHY, we’re back to the old factory model of “Open head, pour in content, move to next grade” education system.

So what’s this have to do with that Facebook post?

The teacher asked for ways (i.e. activities) to engage students in a virtual context. I would have expected responses like this one:

“I post a photo of a Renaissance painting to facilitate student-led conversations using the Step Inside Thinking Routine so that students can explore the historical era through a persona perspective. I have them share their responses in breakout rooms so that they can engage in authentic conversations which my students seem to enjoy. They then share a summary of the conversation when we reconvene.”

This type of answer engages in WHY. I can see from it that the teacher’s WHY includes: collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, open dialogue, and reflective thought. It also shows the WHAT by connecting to world history and art standards. And there’s even some HOW in the explanation of the activity steps and the use of breakout rooms.

Technology products aren’t what create engagement or learning. People do that. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) defines engagement as the WHY of learning. It is how learners get engaged and stay motivated through challenge, excitement, or interest. Because engagement is the affective domain of the brain, “some learners are highly engaged by spontaneity and novelty while others are disengaged, even frightened, by those aspects, preferring strict routine. Some learners might like to work alone, while others prefer to work with their peers. In reality, there is not one means of engagement that will be optimal for all learners in all contexts; providing multiple options for engagement is essential” (UDL Guidelines).

“Some learners are highly engaged by spontaneity and novelty while others are disengaged, even frightened, by those aspects, preferring strict routine. Some learners might like to work alone, while others prefer to work with their peers. In reality, there is not one means of engagement that will be optimal for all learners in all contexts; providing multiple options for engagement is essential.”

UDL Guidelines

For every product that was shared on that Facebook question as an engagement method, I can list ways in which that tool could also be used to disengage students from learning. The tool is just a tool. A hammer is great, but not when I need to loosen a screw.

As teachers, we need to be careful not to get caught up in the edu-glitter of Ed Tech tools. Today it’s JamBoard. Before that it was a SmartBoard. And a white board. And way before that, a chalkboard. The tools shift, but our focus on the WHY should not.

Oh yeah, back to my story…

I never got a response from my boss. And so he never got a refresh plan from me.

I keep seeing this making the rounds and figured I’d break my self-imposed blog break by going on the record as dissenting to this claim.

This type of statement screams privilege.

There are millions of marginalized students NOT learning these so-called life skills right now. Millions! And not only are they not learning life skills. They aren’t learning at all. Some have disappeared completely from the system. Some are struggling to access even the most basic of technology services. And some are more concerned with food and safety needs than figuring out why their mic isn’t working on Zoom.


Consider the teenagers who have chosen to work rather than return to school virtually – a trend particularly prevalent among low-income Latino families – who are now at greater risk of dropping out altogether from school (Source).

Consider the students with special education needs whose parents aren’t always equipped to help teachers fulfill their children’s IEP. If parents need to work, their child misses classes and meetings with specialists, which not only hurts academic progress, but essential life skills attainment as well.

There are many more groups of marginalized students who are also not learning right now.

So how exactly are these students learning the life skills mentioned by this “Bored Teachers” statement?

They’re not.

But you know who is?

The students from higher socioeconomic families that are not only learning those life skills, but may also be getting private tutors or extra parental support because their parents could take time off work or readjust their schedules. They’re continuing to plow ahead with the learning the millions of others aren’t getting.

So let’s not try to fool ourselves, or others, into thinking that all the students are just fine … that there’s no falling behind.

Look, I know 2020 is hard (unprecedented/impossible/etc), and the demands being placed on teachers is … well… there is no word for how crazy the demands are right now.

I get it.

But that doesn’t give us permission to ignore the reality of the situation, even if we are tired of hearing it. Because the truth of the matter is, there ARE millions of students falling behind.

Still ruminating on my May post, entitled “I Don’t Know What I’m Doing

Remember when we were teenagers and knew everything? My youngest daughter is there now. She’s 18, about to start college in a month, and knows it all. Until she doesn’t. And then she seeks me out, with her hands full of anxiety and doubt, and wants me to figure it out for her. Unless it’s cooking. She knows not to ask me about anything kitchen related. That’s a grandma question.

Even if it’s not cooking-related, I can’t always figure it out for her. Sometimes I can, but oftentimes I’m searching for the answers with her.

So when I see these books being published about how to teach during a pandemic, I’m quite honestly flummoxed. Even those of us who have been teaching via distance learning, independent study models for years don’t necessarily know how to teach during a pandemic.

Yes, I’ve taught college online for 12 years now. Yes, I’ve built and taught high school classes online. Yes I taught middle school in a 1:1 blended learning model. But those were all to people who either chose to learn in that environment, or were supported through trainings and tools before being expected to fully learn that way. Not people who were thrust there while also being worried about sickness, job loss, and bandwidth reliability.

I’m sure there’s many of us who have been in the exact same position as this kiddo!

So if you’re beating yourself up because you don’t have all the answers and you think others do, stop. Don’t buy from the snake oil salesperson. We’re all struggling, children and teachers and parents alike. It’s called “unprecedented” for a reason!

As I said in earlier posts, do the best you can and give yourself grace. Take care of your mental health by stepping away a bit. Call a friend and don’t talk shop (or do, if that helps!). Watch silly Tik Toks for a while. Pet a furry animal (as long as it isn’t rabid!).

Remember, none of us have all the answers. But I’m here, as well as thousands of others on Twitter, Facebook, etc., if you need someone to listen to your questions and ideate some potential responses or just to listen.

He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.

Friedrich Nietzsche

I have been thinking about teachers a lot lately. Many of you are working on revising, rewriting, or simply writing curriculum and lesson plans that ares responsive to the different teaching you’ll be doing as a response to COVID. I know how daunting the task can be, especially when there are so many unknown variables. When I started teaching, I was always told to focus on my circle of control and understand that I can’t always impact the areas of concern.

But now, it seems like those areas have gotten all scrambled together. All the circles are intertwined as we venture into distance learning, many for the first time. Before COVID, I couldn’t control what happened at home, so I didn’t assign homework and chose to focus the learning within the classroom structure. But now, all the students are at home so does that change the circle of concern to a circle of control?

I recently rewrote a doctorate course for University of San Diego called Learning Design and Technology (which I am now teaching). When I accepted the contract, I assumed the students would all be teachers wanting to branch out with online and blended learning, which is who I taught this course to in the past.

But that was pre-COVID.

When COVID hit, I adjusted the course to reflect the new reality for teachers. But when students started joining the course, I realized I had to make even more adjustments because my students weren’t traditional teachers. One was from the Department of Defense who was asked to put some aviation material online. One was a photojournalist looking to inspire social justice through photography. And one was a USD employee trying to find ways to encourage students to study abroad (even though the program is currently COVID suspended).

Revising the course was difficult, of course. But it wasn’t impossible because I had a firm grasp of the “why” for the course.

“In today’s digitally connected global environment, it is important to be able to design and provide learning in ways that people can engage with, understand, and implement.”

Course “Why”

Making adjustments when the “why” was clear made the “how” and the “what” less daunting. And yet oddly, it’s something most teachers are never asked to consider. I look back at my teacher training and I see a lot of coursework on “how” and “what” but the only “why” seemed to be standards or high-stakes testing. (And by the way, neither of those are a why, but you already know that!)

So where did the why come from? From empathy. From looking at past courses and talking to former students to see what experiences resonated with students. It came from talking to my current students to understand their reality. It came from reading articles published by the World Economic Forum to look at future forecasts, and from listening to my peers on Twitter share their current reality and fears with each other. Is it perfect? Nope. But it is a guide. And that guide informs my course corrections.

So as you continue wrestling with the how and what, please remember that changes will most definitely continue to come your way. But if you take time to identify the why, and then ground yourself in it, those changes won’t be quite as soul-crushing as they may seem right now. In fact, they may lead to some amazing opportunities to engage and enrich students in ways you had not before considered.

You got this!

I saw this tweet the other day, and on the surface, it sounds like an amazing acknowledgement of the work of teachers:

But listen…

Teachers are not EVERYTHING to students.

Nor should they be.

When we see ourselves as EVERYTHING, as touchers of souls and builders of community, we see ourselves as saviors.

We are not saviors.

Chris Emdin, author of For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too, explains why the savior concept is an issue:

The savior complex is … problematic because it reinforces the notion that the teacher is the hero. To be a good teacher the effective skill you need is not ego. It’s humility. You look at the natural, raw, unpolished beauty of the neighborhood, and if you are looking to save someone, you cannot see that.

Author’s Advice to White Teachers in Urban Schools: Drop the ‘Savior Complex’ and Learn from Students, by Maya Elie

When I started teaching in San Diego, I landed a job at an urban middle school in which I, as a Caucasian female, could easily blend in with 90% of the staff, but only 10% of the students. The first two years were rough. I had classroom management issues and struggled to find ways for the students to learn the content.

The issue wasn’t the students. It was me. I thought I could walk in the room with my fancy bulletin boards and my writer’s workshop book and my Holt pacing guide and make a difference. I thought I could teach.

But my curriculum, my teaching strategies, and my approach was rooted in ideas like those shared above. I thought that my teaching would save my students…awaken them to new ideas and give them opportunities for a future beyond their urban world.

And then I met Glenn Singleton, leader of “Beyond Diversity” professional development for our staff. He challenged every assumption I had about teaching, about students, about the urban city I drove in to and out of every day for work. His training forced me to consider the stories I chose for the class to read, the behavior rules I had established, and the communications I sent to families.

In short, he made me realize that I was not a savior. In fact, I was far from a savior. Many of my practices were harmful to the students of color and to the community. I was a road block, an enforcer of inequity. My inability to see beyond my whiteness, to see how my whiteness permeated every decision I made in that school, was not creating an environment for my students to thrive. It was perpetuating systemic racism.

I had to make a lot of changes, and I’m still making changes, to become a better teacher, a better anti-racist accomplice, and a better human.

I’ve come a long ways since then, and I still have a long ways to go. But I’ll tell you one thing I know:

I am not the transformers of generations, because to say so is to say that some cultures are in need of transformation.

I am not the builder of communities because the communities are rich with culture and history and should be valued for such.

I am not the refresher of spirits because I am part of a systemic institution that often equates black and brown spirit to bad behavior.

I am not the toucher of souls because I am not godly.

I am not the connector of knowledge because my connections are not your connections and my knowledge is not all knowledge.

I am not EVERYTHING to students.

Last night I was invited to speak to a class of preservice teachers about the role of IT in education. It’s a hard topic to address since it’s so vast and all-encompassing. Do I talk about servers and switches or how to placate grumpy IT Techs (haha) or share the nuances of configuring an MDM? I wasn’t sure so I went in empty-handed and ended up tackling all of those topics and more.

In fact, one of the questions was about the future of technology in education and where I saw it heading. I brought up VR, AR, AI, etc but I shared one caveat – none of those technologies will make an impact without a teacher. I think (and hope) that, for many, COVID and learning from home has shown that teaching is much more than following a pacing guide or putting students on an intervention computer software for 30 minutes a day, every day. It’s both an art and a science.

And as I reflected on that, I dug out a book I had read on Artificial Intelligence last year and laughed at all the connections between AI and teaching.

You Look Like a Thing…

In You Look Like a Thing and I Love You, Janelle Shane explains how Artificial Intelligence (AI) can sometimes be a terrible way to solve a problem. Honestly, they just aren’t as smart as we’ve been duped to believe.

In fact, most of the issues engineers and researchers have been having with AI are probably issues you’ve confronted at some point in your teaching career.

AI is Dumb

I don’t mean the concept. I mean the actual computers running it. It’s not their fault. They just lack the capacity to perform a multitude of complex tasks at one time. Some work-arounds have resulted in numerous computers being strung together, each performing one part of a multi-part scenario (kind of like student project groups). But still, at their core, there’s some serious limitation.

Consider how long it took you to learn to ride a bicycle. I’m sure you learned in less than the hundred crashes the robot had, and even then, it could only go a few meters without falling, and thousands more crashes before riding for a few tens of meters!

Most of this is because computers can’t remember much – their brainpower is exerted on the immediate task, and so there’s not much ability to plan ahead and make generalizations.

There are many instances in the book in which AI was terrible at solving a problem, and the reasons fell into a few categories.

Too broad a problem

In 2019, researchers from Nvidia trained an AI to generate images of human faces. It did pretty well, except for things like earrings not matching or bizarre backgrounds. But when asked to learn about cats, it got it all wrong, producing images with extra limbs, eyes, and distorted faces.

When the AI trained on human faces, they were all forward-facing. But the cats were seen in all sorts of positions (as cats are prone to be) and so the AI couldn’t distinguish what exactly made up a cat face. Check out ThisCatDoesNotExist for creepy examples.

We’ve seen it happen in our classrooms. We introduce an algorithm in math and all of a sudden, students are using it for everything, even when it makes no sense. Or we tell students that an essay hook can be to start with a question and then every single paper starts with a question until the next hook is introduced.

Not enough data for it to figure out whats going on

Most AI learn by example. If you give the machine enough examples of something, it learns the patterns and begins to imitate them. In one AI experiment, a machine was given different ice cream flavor names and told to create its own.

Unfortunately, the machine doesn’t know what ice cream is, or even English, or how flavors work. it only knows how to translate each letter, space, and punctuation into a number and then keep analyzing those numbers for patterns. The result? Flavors like Bourbon Oil and Roasted Beet Pecans and Milky Ginger Chocolate Peppercorn.

Textbooks are notorious for not giving enough data. How can the American Revolution be condensed into one chapter? Ask any textbook publisher and they’ll show you!

Accidentally gave it confusing or non-needed data

When I learned about the Essential Elements of Instruction, which is based on Madeline Hunter’s research, one of the elements was Teach to the Objective. I thought, “well that’s easy. Just teach the lesson” but it turned out to be much more complex than I realized.

For example, if the objective is for students will list two major reasons for the Civil War, then teaching about how the economics of slavery and political control of that system was central to the conflict makes sense. However, if I tell the story about my trip to a plantation in Atlanta and how depressing it was to see the slave quarters, I’ve now begun a non-congruent conversation that may lead to confusion as to what the objective is, and what students need to be able to do.

Machines aren’t any better. Go back to the bizarre ice cream flavors. Although the machine was able to figure out the pattern of ice cream names, nobody bothered to tell the AI that certain flavors just aren’t very yummy as ice cream. It was taught ingredients, but not ice cream specific ingredients.

Trained task was much simpler than the real-world application

In theory, it should be very easy to teach an AI how to drive a car. Program it with the rules of the road; teach it to identify lights and signals and road lines; and add some calculations for stopping distances and you’re good to go. However, we know that the reality of driving is much more complex and nuanced. In 2016, a self-driving car failed to recognize a flatbed truck as an obstacle and caused a fatal collision.


The car had been trained to drive on the highway, and as such, only recognized trucks from their front and rear view. The driver, however, kept the self-drive mode engaged on city streets. A semi-truck pulled out and crossed in front of the car. Thinking the truck was an overhead sign, the car did not stop.

I can’t tell you how many times I’d get frustrated after looking at the results of my students’ assessments. Why were they not understanding the concepts I had taught for weeks? Honestly, the problem was not their lack of understanding. They understood exactly what I had taught them to understand. But what I had failed to do was put that understanding in a context of real-world use. We can teach math algorithms, or 5 paragraph essays, all day, but until they are shown how to adapt those concepts and apply them, they’re at a loss.

So What?

According to Shane, the best uses of AI are going to be with human supervision to make people more effective. AI will be used as a first draft tool but then humans will edit the results.

AI is dumb, but teachers are not. We are adaptive. We may make some of the same initial mistakes as AI, but the difference is, we learn from them. We reflect, and we get better. The distance learning that happens this Fall will be hugely better than the distance learning provided in March.

So take a deep breath, and remind yourself that you’re smarter than AI and you totally got this!

Radiohead drummer Philip Selway, when asked about how he gained more confidence as a singer, said:

My starting point for most things, no matter what, playing or anything, is that I don’t know what I’m doing. That’s a healthy place to be. 

Rolling Stone Article
What am I even doing? GIF

It’s a healthy place to be for all of us. If you’re like me (and Dennis Dill), you are tired of hearing that this pandemic is an “unprecedented” time, but it truly is a unique time in our lives, and because of that, we’re all forced to figure it out day by day.

None of us got into teaching thinking we’d be in this situation, and yet here we are. Figuring it out. Both for our students and for our own children.

So embrace your unknowns… that you don’t know what you’re doing. Embrace being a learner.

It’s a healthy place to be.

My first year teaching middle school was …well, let’s just say it wasn’t pretty. I had spent my teacher prep program determined I was going to be a high school English teacher. Students would love discussing literature as much as I did, and would turn in glorious essays filled with thematic connections, thoughtful historical references, and eloquent rhetoric.

And then I started teaching 7th graders.

7th graders cared for none of those things. They cared about social pressure, and puberty, and where to sit at lunch. Everything I thought I knew about teaching and learning had to be left at the door. These students, the ones in front of me, wanted, maybe even needed, to learn about navigating life. Literature would have to wait.

I made a lot of mistakes that year. Mistakes in classroom management. Mistakes in what I assigned and how. Mistakes in assuming that all students should be able to complete homework every night. Mistakes in thinking that sending a kid to the office would solve behavior issues.

But I learned. And got better. And grew to love middle school so much more than I ever thought I’d love teaching high school. But it took time. And patience. And reflection. And a lot of self-forgiveness. And forgiveness from the students, too, at times!

And that’s where you come in…

If you’re like most educators in our country, you’re at home right now. Trying to figure out how to teach in this new frontier. It’s like the first day of the first year of teaching all over again. And it probably feels that way every day that you wake up. A bizarre Groundhog’s Day movie in which you star.

Bill Murray in Groundhog’s Day

But unlike the first day of the first year of teaching, you may also have your own children with you, needing attention, help with schoolwork, or just reassurance that the world is okay.

You’re probably concerned about your elderly family members, or neighbors, and wishing you could visit them.

Or worried about just how many squares of toilet paper should be used per visit to maximize the rolls you have tucked away in the closet.

Perhaps you’re stressed because your significant other is also working from home now. Or has to still go to work and be amongst the virus. Or worse, can no longer work at all.

Regardless of where you are, you’re carrying a huge load on your shoulders. There’s pressure to be successful in this new environment.

But success takes time. Time we don’t have right now.

So please, give yourself grace and know that you’re doing your best.

If that means you are making paper packets, awesome.

If that means you’re hosting a Zoom call for 100 students in your jammie pants, sweet!

If that means you’re learning Google Classroom 10 minutes ahead of your students, amazing!

If that means you’re creating lists of resources for other teachers and parents to use, cool beans!

If that means you’re creating a color-coordinated hourly schedule for your family, or you’re hating the people who have made the color-coordinated schedule, carry on my friend!

And if that means you need time away from everyone to scream into a pillow, or take a quiet walk, or just step away from the insanity, please do it!

You got this!

And we got each other!!

Photo by Tim Goedhart on Unsplash

Innovation is when something new is created and implemented that adds value. Inventions happen every day, and every year inventions find their way into our classroom. 

It’s only when an invention adds value that they become an innovation. A lot of times we get caught up in the invention, or the idea. I call this the glitter dust syndrome. 

Ever receive a card with glitter on it? It’s pretty and you’re excited to receive it. But after you read the card and put it out for display, you see it… glitter. It’s everywhere. It’s stuck on your clothes, your skin, your carpet.

It added no value to the card. In fact, sometimes the message of the card gets lost because you’re too busy cleaning up the glitter. If there is no value add, there’s no innovation. Just invention. 

So how do we determine whether something is going to be a value added innovation in our classroom or a case of glitter dust?

Design thinking.

We are all designers. Every lesson plan you write, every bulletin board you create, every assessment you assign, even the outfit you put together for today. But that doesn’t mean you’re a design thinker. Human-centered design requires us to step away from our own needs, our own assumptions, and look at the world through the lens of others. 

Design Your Mask

During my keynote presentation at SDCOE’s Learning and Innovation Summit Saturday, I asked everyone in the room to design a mask that they could wear without holding it. They also had to be able to see through it. One piece of cardstock paper was the only material provided. The timer was set for three minutes.

Just about everyone was able to design a mask and wear it. But then I asked them to trade masks with the person sitting next to them. Quickly, they realized that their mask didn’t quite fit their colleague as well as it fit them. Maybe the eye slits were off, or the way it latched on to their face didn’t quite work. Those who used their glasses to hold it on had to also give their glasses to the colleague, which caused some blurry moments!

Why didn’t the mask fit as nicely on the colleague as it did on the designer? What needed to happen for the mask to fit somebody else?

Innovation in Education

Human-centered design requires us to step away from our own needs, our own assumptions, and look at the world through the lens of others.

When considering innovation in education, it’s important to differentiate between invention and innovation. What is the value add for our students? Is there one? Schools implement adaptive tech programs that promise to increase reading scores. Tables on wheels are placed everywhere. Social-emotional curriculum is purchased. 

But whose face are we designing the mask for when we do so? Are we simply covering our students in glitter dust?

When we recognize that our mask doesn’t fit everyone else like it fits us, we realize how our bias, our experiences, our beliefs, impacts student learning. And we start becoming human-centered designers. 

This is the difference between designers and design thinkers. 

This blog post is adapted from a keynote I gave at SDCOE’s Learning and Innovation Summit Feb 8, 2020.

A couple weeks ago I wrote a blog post about the Good Habits book I had just finished reading. This week, I’d like to share a fun video I watched on the Backwards Brain Bicycle. We’ve heard the phrase, “It’s just like riding a bike” but what happens when the rules of riding the bike change? In the video, Destin, an engineer, tries riding a bike in which the handlebar moves in the opposite direction of the tire. Move the handlebar to the left and the tire goes right. Sounds easy, right? Not even a little bit! Take a few minutes right now to watch the video

The Backwards Brain Bicycle

Why share this with you? Destin says that knowledge does not equal understanding. We all have knowledge in our brains. Knowledge is everything we learn through experience or education. We then convert that knowledge into habits, such as pressing the gas pedal when we see a green light, letting the dog outside to pee when we get home, and performing a division algorithm when we see the ÷ symbol. 

However, knowledge isn’t always correct. Destin had knowledge of how to ride a bike and had developed riding habits that utilized that knowledge, but that knowledge was not the right information needed when given the backwards brain bike. He explains,  “Once you have a rigid way of thinking in your head, sometimes you cannot change it, even if you want to.” 

Part of the educational process, for both students and staff, is unlearning and relearning. When we get new information that conflicts with knowledge we have already established, we have to unlearn what we thought we knew, and then relearn with this new information added.  When it’s a major shift, like riding the backwards brain bicycle, it can create friction and disrupt habits, which in turn can cause gaps in learning because the previous knowledge is rigidly in place. Therefore, when introducing new procedures or technology tools, we need to stay mindful of the friction it may cause and provide support because it’s not always as easy as riding a bike!

When I was little, my dad was on the road a lot for work. So when he was home, we’d often go out to dinner so my mom could take a break from cooking. The best restaurants were the ones with plain, paper placemats because those were the ones in which creativity could flourish.

My dad would grab a pen from my mom, and draw a squiggly line on the placemat. My job, then, was to create something from the perceived nothing. Like looking for cloud animals, somewhere in that squiggly line was an animal, or an airplane, or something else just waiting to be discovered, and drawn, with the pen. When I finished my creation, we’d swap roles, and I’d create the squiggly line with which he would create.

A not-yet-invented motorbike I can ride to pick up the mail.*

This back and forth continued until the waiter inevitably ruined our creative masterpiece with my dinner plate. Back then, it seemed like a simple way to pass the time with a child anxious for her food. But now, I can look back and see a much greater result of those encounters.

It was in those moments that I learned the power of “ish.”

In Ish, by Peter Reynolds, the main character learns that drawing “ish-ly” provides more creative freedom than getting it just right.

For me, a young girl who struggled with perfection, this was an important learning. My mom was artistic, as were my uncle and my grandpa, so my self-judgment would often result in a desire to skip the creative aspects of any school project. “Ish” thinking helped me to set aside my negative self-talk and see the value in my creations.

In Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All, Tom and David Kelley explain that “striving for perfection can get in the way during the early stages of the creative process.” Unfortunately, schools don’t always provide the time, the space, the freedom to engage in the early stages of the creative process. The “ish” loses to the strive for perfection when learning is connected to an assignment with a deadline and an assessment.

Students need to learn “ish,” to value “ish,” and to believe in the power of a squiggly line. Squiggly lines aren’t about being perfect, or the best. And that’s what makes them perfectly ‘ish.”

*P.S. I created the above drawing to illustrate the squiggly line concept, and it was very hard for me to let go and just draw something… guess I need to start going out to eat with my dad more again!

P.P.S. This short video from Pixar Animation Studios shows how characters can be created from squiggly lines.

I signed up for the Next Big Idea Club because I wanted to be introduced to books and ideas that may not have normally come my way. This latest shipment included a book that I definitely would not have purchased in the store.

Why wouldn’t I have purchased it in the store? Well, I am horrible at establishing good habits. I can’t seem to keep up with most of what I start – running is a good example. I had actually gotten to the point of finishing 6 or 7 miles without dying and then, BAM, just quit. I don’t know why. So the idea of picking up a book on habits just wouldn’t have been on my radar.

But luckily it was on NBIC’s radar!

This book has taught me so much about how habits are formed, and how to influence those habits (and how to get my fit lifestyle back on track!). As Wood describes it, “Habits make the wildly challenging and difficult seem easy and safe.” Because habits are a kind of action that is “relatively insensitive to rewards,” it is able to run in the background while the conscious mind is still deciding to do something else.

As I read her book, I was thinking… teachers need to know this stuff!! How much better can I be as a teacher by understanding why some routines are successful and others are not when it comes to teaching and learning. And to life!

Cue and Response

Habits are all about cue and response. This is a crucially important piece of information. We talk about goal setting a lot, and self-control (aka grit) to meet those goals, but as it turns out, self-control really has no part in habits. Woods explains:

Goals can orient you to build a habit, but your desires don’t make habits work. Actually, your habit self would benefit if “you” just got out of the way.

Wendy Wood

Wood gives a lot of examples to support this claim. She talks about all the public service campaigns to get people to eat more fruits and veggies; to stop smoking; or to start exercising. Let’s be real – they don’t change our behavior, even though we know that they are important. Even when we swear that this is the year the gym will actually be part of our routine, most of us fail to carry it out. Why?

Cues and responses. The biggest cue of which is our surroundings. Without realizing it, our surroundings drastically influence our behavior. US soldiers in Vietnam had a drug problem. The drug was heroin, and the problem was big. Not only was it readily available in Vietnam, but it served an immediate need of taking the edge off a stressful situation. The government was concerned. How would these drug-addicted soldiers re-acclimate to civilized society?

After being sent to a week detox in Vietnam, soldiers were sent home and monitored. Only 5% started using again. Contrast that with the average drug relapse rate of 40-60% and it’s quite startling. Even unbelievable. So why didn’t they start using again? Change of scenery. The visual cues were no longer present, so the habit was disrupted. It’s why people who need to lose weight are told to rid their pantry of the sweet delicacies that they crave, or a prisoner can seem completely reformed, but quickly fall back into a life of crime when returned home.

Cue and response is important for students. If students always learn math in room 5, and then are moved to room 2 for a test, the disruption will impact habits.The habit to check over the work twice, or to always reduce fractions, could be impacted. Likewise, if a student gets used to giving all green flyers to his parents for a signature, and one week the green paper is out and pink paper is used, there may be less signatures turned in the next day because the visual cue was disrupted.


Visual cues aren’t the only thing to impact habit. Repetition is a big one, too, and probably the one we are most familiar with. If we can just get to the gym every day, the repetition should create a habit… and yet, with my running, I was running multiple times a week and it still didn’t become a habit. Why?

Because repetition isn’t enough. Repetition needs to be coupled with situational control. In other words, the trips to the gym, or to start running, need to be set regularly. People who are gym addicts usually go at the same time every day. Runners hit the streets right after they wake up, or when they get home. They don’t wake up each day and have to figure out when to go, which then requires the conscious mind to step in and make decisions. When we remove the conscious mind from the equation, it actually changes our experience of the activity by making it seem easier.

If there is a repetitive behavior that needs to be ended, Wood recommends creating friction. For smokers, it was easy to buy a pack when vending machines were everywhere. Now that they can only be purchased by asking a clerk to get the pack from behind the counter, and most places don’t allow public smoking, there has been a huge reduction in smokers in the United States. Barriers work a lot more than willpower!

If we want students to be responsible for turning in their assignments every day, then repetition is a great structure. Every day at 8am, assignments are collected. Make it even easier and add cues and responses. Every day at 8am, the red basket will be set on the table in which to place the assignments. If students know that lunch is at 11:00 every day, they will probably get restless a few minutes prior… have an assembly and lunch gets changed to 11:30am? Don’t be surprised if they’re still acting squirrelly at 10:58am. Want to disrupt that behavior? Hide the clock. Habits are like that!


A habit is actually established when it is insensitive to reward. Maybe we initially ran for the medals at events, but now we just run because it’s how each day has started for five years and why stop now? Or we were rewarded with a cash prize for losing weight, but the cash prize was a one time event and the weight quickly returns. Dopamine is a fickle beast!

“To our conscious minds, larger rewards and more certain rewards – ones that we now are coming – are motivating. But habits thrive on uncertainty.” Don’t believe me? How often do you check your phone every day? 25, 50, 100 times? It’s a habit… some people call it an addiction. And yet how often are you rewarded with an interesting tweet or email or funny Reddit post? It’s the uncertainty of the reward that keeps us checking.

This is why grades aren’t motivational for many students, or token reward systems in classrooms. It may appeal to the conscious mind in the beginning, but it doesn’t help students develop a habit of reading before bed every night. Neither does collecting gold star stickers for signed reading logs. The uncertain reward of reaching a juicy part in the story could do it, though, if it was a book that meets the student’s interest.


Variety is the spice of life… but habits are bland and don’t like variety. Consistency is key to habit formation. Running at 6am every day is likely to become a habit. Running at 6am one day, noon the next, and then skipping two days is not going to make it stick.

And when trying to establish a new habit, connecting it to existing cues is an easier way to make it automated. So you’ve got the running set at 6am and it’s working for you? Add on eating a banana the moment you’re finished with the run. Now you’re adding nutrition to the routine. Stacking, as it’s called, takes advantage of the automaticity already in place.

Swapping also takes advantage of the automaticity but it swaps one behavior for another. Bananas have too much sugar? Swap it for an orange but don’t stop the process of eating the fruit right when the run finishes.

This was my weakness as a teacher. I thought students craved variety. I thought routines would diminish my star power. In reality, those routines help students create habits. And those habits free up the conscious mind to focus on what’s important – the new learning concepts. Once they know to turn in assignments to the red basket, adding a short “bellringer” activity to the mix becomes easy. Stack it on! No longer need the basket for turn in? Awesome. Swap it for a Google Form that tells you how they are feeling about the current learning concept.


An interesting thing about habits. Wood explains that, in times of stress, there’s actually a boost in habit performance. Habits are the safe harbors for our brain. As our consciousness deals with mental drain, the habits kick in and keep us moving. One study showed that corporate execs, when facing major business decisions that leave them anxious and under the gun, are more likely to avoid exploring new innovations. Instead, habit kicks in and the decision is to continue the status quo.

Teachers and students have similar responses. When a student falls behind, and is struggling with course content, they may repeat past behaviors, even though they are ineffective. Why not come in for lunch tutoring, you ask them. Because every day at 11:00, it is time for lunch and that’s the habit so the student goes to lunch. As a result, the teacher thinks the student doesn’t care enough to take care of the situation. In reality, the habit brain is taking care of the conscious brain by removing the need for a decision. In situations like this, habit discontinuity is needed. An external force (such as a teacher requirement to come in at lunch) has to shake up the brain and kick the conscious mind into gear.

Heed the Warning

Habits are awesome, but beware… repetition may strengthen our tendency to act, but it also weakens the sensation of that act. If you eat turkey every day for lunch, you may no longer find that you enjoy the taste. Running every day is great, but if it’s always the same scenery, it may not trigger that dopamine release you used to receive. Routines are great, but this is not….

Balance is key! Build the habits for the behavioral routines, and spend the conscious energy on the learning! Your students will thank you for it!

Understanding habits normalizes the trials of changing behavior. The distance between repeated failure and enduring, successful change is not marked by personal fortitude or determination…Instead, you cover that distance through simple steps…to encourage enjoyable actions that meet your long-term goals… This is the promise of a habit life well lived.

Wendy Wood