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Teaching Kids How to Pivot
Friday, April 5, 2013

The best laid schemes of mice and men,
Often go awry...


Many teachers and tutors make thorough, meticulous lesson plans that map out what’s in store for days or even weeks ahead. A basic overview of these plans often takes shape in the form of a course syllabus or calendar, and both the teacher and student have a shared expectation for what’s coming next. But then, inevitably, the unexpected happens: the teacher gets sick; in the middle of a critical lesson there’s a fire drill; a hurricane rolls through town and classes are canceled for a whole week (sound familiar?); the school’s network crashes two minutes before that visit to the computer lab...

As teachers, we’re expected to be flexible in situations like these, and in this respect, we aren’t all that different from entrepreneurs, who are accustomed to “pivot” when business plan A doesn’t work out. In his book The Lean Startup (generally considered essential reading for folks in the business world these days), author Eric Ries extols the successful pivot of Groupon thus:

...when the company first started, it was an online activism platform called The Point. After receiving almost no traction, the founders opened a WordPress blog and launched their first coupon promotion for a pizzeria located in their building lobby. Although they only received 20 redemptions, the founders realized that their idea was significant, and had successfully empowered people to coordinate group action.Three years later, Groupon would grow into a billion dollar business.

Successful businesses, like Groupon, figure out what changes they need to make to succeed and grow in the marketplace. Successful teachers, too, figure out what changes they have to make to succeed--not only in scenarios such as those mentioned above, but also when a first-run lesson plan is ineffective. But we wonder: what are we doing, as educators, to empower students to figure things out on their own when the situation calls for it? In other words, are we teaching our kids how to pivot?

With this question in mind, here are three simple approaches to teaching kids how to be flexible and make adjustments. (To our student readers, we invite you to read this list from...well, a student’s perspective. Has your teacher adopted one or more of these approaches? How did it go? How did it affect your learning experience?)

1.) Be explicit that you expect flexibility from the get-go. When a new school year or semester begins, incorporate an official policy on “figuring things out on your own” in your course procedures sheet. For example, outline the standard protocol about where to find a homework assignment (“Check our course website by 6 pm daily”), but leave a few blank spaces nearby or in parentheses, and have students come up with their own ideas about what they should do if the website is temporarily unavailable or if--let’s be honest--the teacher forgets to post the assignment.

2.) Encourage kids to pivot by asking them what the class should do next. Leave a week in the syllabus open, and after a particular lesson, surprise the students by telling them that what comes next is their call. Run with this idea by flipping the classroom a bit and making it up to the students to work together as a group to plan the next week’s schedule and nightly homework regimen. You could even go so far as to challenge them to make backup or alternative lesson plans in case their original plans don’t work out.

3.) See how well your kids are able to pivot by doing something unexpected in the classroom. (You might call these “teaching audibles,” to borrow a football term.) If, for example, the Socratic method is your bread and butter, prepare a PowerPoint presentation followed by a student-run discussion. If your lesson plans usually rely on technology, take a “green” learning day: power off, tell the students to power off, and have a quiet seminar-style discussion or session of peaceful meditation. But be sure to follow up with a survey or informal discussion to find out what the students thought about the different approach. How did it affect their learning?

Have your own thoughts about how to teach kids to pivot? If so, we’d love to hear them! Send them our way: blog@tutortango.com.