How to Plan the Future of Learning
by Zak Cohen, Middle School Director at the St. Francis School
In the 1980s and 1990s, Van Halen was one of the most popular rock groups in the world. They sold 80 million albums, recorded 13 number-one hits, and have been ranked as the seventh most influential rock band of all time. Whatever your opinion of Van Halen’s music, we can all agree these are impressive numbers.
These numbers are likely not what Van Halen will be best remembered for. No matter how many times Jump or Panama are played on the radio, these classic hits are also unlikely to be what people remember. What people will likely remember about Van Halen is the story about a bowl of M&M’s.
The story goes that in 1982 on the Diver Down tour, Van Halen wrote one of the most oddly specific clauses ever to appear in a contract rider. They specified that there must be a bowl of M&Ms in their dressing room and there must not be a single brown M&M. If there was a brown M&M in the bowl, the band would not perform and the promoter would be stuck with the bill.
This story of celebrity excess and absurdity is precisely why this version of the story has been told for nearly 40 years. I mean, who can resist a story of celebrities being totally out of touch with reality? This version of the story, however, isn’t the whole story.
What do Brown M&Ms have to do with exit ramps?
You see, the Diver Down tour was the most technical and dangerous-adjacent performances that had ever been attempted up to that point. There were pyrotechnics on a scale previously unimagined for a stage performance. There were massive explosions that were set at certain marks and at exact moments, with one second making the difference between awesome and injury.
Lead singer David Lee Roth and guitarist Eddie Van Halen knew that many of the venues where they’d be playing would be too outdated or inadequately prepared to set up the band's sophisticated stage. So, how could they quickly and easily know whether they were going to be safe getting on that stage to perform? Well, that’s where the brown M&Ms come in.
The M&Ms served as a litmus test for how diligent a concert promoter was. As David Lee Roth said in a 2012 interview, "If I came backstage and I saw brown M&Ms on the catering table, then I guarantee the promoter had not read the contract rider, and we knew that we were in danger.”
The brown M&Ms weren’t the ludicrous request most of us think it to be. Rather, it was an ingenious way for the band to keep themselves safe. It also serves as a reminder of the importance of developing heuristic tools that will signal trouble before it arrives. The brown M&Ms were Van Halen’s exit ramp to avoid getting hurt by their pyrotechnics.
What do exit ramps have to do with how to support teachers through COVID?
Next school This new school year holds a great deal of promise. We’ve learned so much, and we will now have the chance to leverage this learning in an intentional and purposeful way. It’s exciting to once again feel as though we are in control of what happens in our classrooms.
As valid as this excitement is, we also want to be sure it doesn’t get the better of us. Any change to our practice naturally comes with some measure of uncertainty. The presence of uncertainty shouldn’t deter us from pursuing change, but it should remind us just how difficult it is to anticipate the efficacy of any new initiative.
We want to account for this uncertainty now and in advance of implementation by embedding exit ramps into our planning. Exit ramps may vary in purpose and position, but the point of incorporating them into our planning is to allow us to strategically pause, reflect, iterate or abandon as necessary, and do so in real time without losing momentum.
As you endeavor to consider the future of learning during and post COVID, and merge the best of pre- teaching, consider the important role that exit ramps can play.
1. Build a Roadside Assistance Team:
Even if we pursue change alone, we should seek to assess its efficacy alongside others. Sometimes, we can be too close to something to assess it dispassionately. A team to help you assess efficacy could include students, colleagues, and members from your Professional Learning Network (PLN). The key isn’t just the people you gather, but how frequently you seek their input and support. As you plan to revamp your curriculum or flip your classroom, identify several checkpoints over the course of your first semester to meet with this group and solicit feedback. If the team is composed of students, ask them for anonymous feedback using a simple Google Form. If you are tapping into the expertise of your PLN, you might want to gather virtually and follow a protocol like this one. Especially in the early stages of trying something new, this exit ramp allows for you to be proactive in your collection of feedback to ensure that you are making the small tweaks you need to stay on the road to success.
2. Create an Interchange to Balance New and Old Ideas
Oftentimes, we needlessly reinvent the wheel. Equally as often, we rely too much on the wisdom of those who have come before. An interchange allows us to strike a balance between the two. It’s important that we rely on preexisting wisdom, but it’s best to do so after we have a bit of experience ourselves. During the planning stages of your change initiative, identify a resource that you believe will be helpful, then designate a date about halfway into the first semester to read/listen to it. Doing so will help to inform and improve your practice without driving it.
3. Choose Country Roads to Pace Your Changes
There’s no sense in constructing an exit ramp if you can’t access it. And, accessing an exit ramp from across six lanes of traffic can be quite challenging. This is why the size of your change initiative matters. Abiding by the wisdom of the flywheel effect, it’s best to start small and scale your change over time. Instead of introducing change to all of your classes, perhaps start with just one section or one grade-level. Building a road rather than a highway will allow you to be more nimble and more responsive to what you learn at each exit ramp.
4. Add a Roundabout for Easy Access to What was already Working
Finally, not all changes are effective. If we knew what worked in education, it wouldn’t be the singularly challenging profession that it is. Change is essential to the continuous improvement of our practice, and it has been critical to the future of learning during and after COVID, but part of this pursuit is being frank about what isn’t working. By constructing a roundabout, you are giving yourself permission to go back to the way you did things before. Building a roundabout will require you to articulate benchmarks for success and collect relevant evidence. Once you’ve collected this evidence, compare it to the benchmarks and decide whether the change is having its desired effect. I’d encourage you to set up this roundabout at the end of the first semester to determine whether you want to turn around or keep going.
As educators, we are continuously looking for ways to improve our practice. And we owe it to each other to figure out how to support teachers during COVID. At the same time, different isn’t necessarily better.
How can you embed exit ramps into your planning to proactively measure the efficacy of your change initiatives?
Our TCC Leadership Coaching is designed to help you narrow your focus and set, monitor and achieve meaningful goals. These leaders offer coaching and support throughout the year so that you do not have to make decisions, whether it's about when to steer on to an exit ramp, an interchange or a roundabout, or when it's time to plan and build a completely new road, alone. Take a few minutes to reflect on which areas of support that match your destination and stop by to “meet” the coaches who would love to serve as your copilot.
About the Author
Zak Cohen is the Middle School Director at the St. Francis School in Louisville, Kentucky. He has taught Social Studies, Language Arts, and English as a Second Language in independent and international schools in the United States, China, and South Africa. He is currently a doctoral candidate in Educational Leadership and Management at Drexel University.