One of the most thought-provoking blog posts I’ve come across this year was John Danner’s excellent piece on Minimum Viable Instruction. John takes the concept of Minimum Viable Product — which as part of a broader theory of ‘lean startups’ has taken the entrepreneurship world by storm in recent years — and applies it to teaching, arguing that less instruction can be better. If we take this idea seriously, what could it do for teaching? What if the education community thought as deeply about MVI as the startup community has thought about MVP?
John’s take on “MVI” focuses largely on how focused and individualized instruction can be (and how this can be easier in online learning): addressing one narrow learning objective at a time, probing and assessing iteratively to identify the student’s particular needs in that area. In other words, individualizing the zone of proximal development with respect to some subskill — and providing only what is needed for the student to work on that.
Focused and individualized instruction seems like a great start in fleshing out a theory of MVI — if a theory of MVI turns out to be worthwhile at all! What might an even thicker conception of MVI look like?
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Part of the reason John’s piece on MVI struck such a chord was that it caught me at a time when college friends and I were mourning the loss of our adored rowing coach, Harry Parker. Toward the end of his blog post, John rightly points out how great sports coaches often keep their instruction to a minimum, focusing on a single thing at a time (like the tempo of a golf swing). While Harry was definitely focused in his coaching, the more striking minimalism in his style was how little he said. He set extremely high expectations, then created big challenges for his oarsmen in competitive situations, and largely let them learn through effort (lots of it) and trial and error.
When someone was struggling to improve on something, he gave sparing but blunt feedback. Some people don’t tell you, say, if your zipper is down; Harry would tell you “your zipper is down, and I expect never to see your zipper down again.” When he did give feedback, we listened — and did everything in our power to adopt whatever he was encouraging us to change in our technique or approach.
To illustrate, here are some quotes about Harry from articles this summer after he passed away:
“It’s funny, because he never really said much when we were training,” Prioleau said. “I remember one particular time when he started us off on a piece. He said, ‘Full pressure on this one,’ and then didn’t say anything and actually left the room for awhile and came back 45 minutes later. We were all just rowing along at full pressure wondering when it was going to stop.”
When his former oarsmen talked about Parker, it was with equal parts affection, admiration, and awe. “He was like Father Guido Sarducci, who had the five-minute university,” said Dave Fellows, who captained the unbeaten 1974 Rude & Smooth boat. “Harry taught you about yourself. Isn’t that the purpose of a liberal arts college?”
A five-minute chat was a filibuster from the man they called The Sphinx. “If there was a prize for ratio of influence to words spoken, that’s a horizon job for Harry,” reckoned Blair Brooks, who captained the unbeaten 1975 R&S edition.
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I learned so much from Harry — maybe more than from any other single coach or teacher. I’ve spent quite a bit of time reflecting over the last few months, asking: how did I learn so much from him when he said so little to me?
I got to thinking about other teachers and coaches I’ve admired. My best teacher in high school, J.C. Smith, taught a seminar on comparative literature. Like Harry, he said relatively little and let students spend most of the class talking to each other and reasoning through tough, broad questions he posed. I still remember our final exam question at the end of the first term: “based on what we’ve read together so far this year, what is one meant to do on a Thursday afternoon?” We had two hours to write an essay answering that question.
While I was at Excel, one of the higher-performing charter school networks in the U.S., I also saw some MVI-leaning practices. My first year there, one of the schoolwide themes for instructional improvement was “ratio” — with a goal of getting teachers to be talking less, and students doing more talking, small-group work, and ‘deliberate practice.’ Talking less, maybe counterintuitively, isn’t an easy objective for a teacher to execute. It requires more succinctness and planning, and having students work independently or in small groups is harder to facilitate and supervise well. It’s hard enough keeping everyone on task even with 20+ eyes on the teacher. But the more experienced teachers at Excel did this very well — because they got lots of feedback on it over time. Teacher coaching involved full-period observations roughly every other week by the school’s principal, followed by extensive plus/delta/question feedback on their practice.
Thinking back on all the successful but minimalist teaching and coaching I’ve experienced, John’s emphasis on the “one-issue-at-a-time” and individualized nature of the instructional approach is one common theme. But there are a bunch of other reasons why thoughtful, intentional minimalism often seems to work. I’m no Doug Lemov, but here’s a rough and incomplete crack at pieces of the case for incorporating more minimalism in instruction.
One is the shift in cognitive burden. When teachers achieve better ratio (which is actually one of Doug’s Teach Like a Champion techniques), students end up doing more of the talking — and therefore thinking — rather than have the thinking and talking done for them (or to them). The more cognitive load we put on students, the more likely they are to get the deliberate practice that evidence suggests is so key to mastery.
A corollary to that is sequencing. The less “delivery” of instruction or information a teacher does upfront, the sooner a student gets to practice a skill, struggle or fail, and then solicit coaching and feedback from the teacher or peers. The cycle of trying, failing, getting feedback, adjusting, and repeating is central to deliberate practice. But too often the classroom sequence is extensive teacher “delivery” followed by student practice, then moving on to the next topic, with the delivery-then-practice cycle repeated. Even the conventional “flipped classroom” model presumes this approach — watch lecture at home, then come into school the next day and do something active (practice/discuss/etc.) to put the theoretical concepts to work. Both intuition and some emerging evidence suggest that flipping the flipped classroom may make sense: practicing first, followed by targeted feedback and explanation of the theoretical underpinnings. Watching my young kids learn, they’re not picking up skills by having me teach them initially. They’re learning almost entirely by trying something first with zero or minimal guidance, struggling, and then getting some coaching from a parent or watching a friend or sibling.
Another benefit of minimalist instruction is that it gives more space for small-group peer-to-peer learning. This was one of Excel’s distinctive instructional features throughout the building. I’m not enough of an expert to explain all the reasons why learning through peer interaction is effective, but others including Eric Mazur have put a lot of thought into it. Among other things, the act of one peer teaching another peer not only leverages scarce teacher time/attention by getting peers involved as coaches, but also helps the peer who’s doing the teaching better absorb the concepts and skills herself or himself. As Lev Vygotsky said, “the one who does the talking, does the learning.” Have you ever had the experience that preparing to teach and then teaching something to someone deepened your understanding of an issue? In settings where teacher capacity or talent is unusually scarce — as will be the case for both Kepler and Spire — making the post out of older or more advanced students’ ability to help teach others will be critical.
Saying less may also help students fully internalize concepts by applying their own language and framing to the core idea. The more a teacher talks about a concept, the more likely it may be that the student tries to memorize the thing using the teacher’s own language. The more a student experiences and talks through the issue, the more likely they are to reframe or re-articulate the idea to themselves in a way that feels more authentic and is more digestible. Atul Gawande’s anecdote about Sister Seema in his fantastic recent New Yorker piece about driving behavior change in healthcare captures this beautifully.
One final — though maybe less important — thought on MVI’s benefits is that making an effort to be minimalist may push teachers to think more about their non-verbal communication. In the K12 setting, I’ve seen teachers use non-verbal communication (something as simple as a glance) very effectively to keep a student on task or engaged. But it goes beyond mere classroom management. One of Harry’s particular geniuses was how well he communicated and motivated non-verbally. A pause, a glare, or a grunt — these kinds of things were his stock-in-trade.
One of the biggest beefs we have with higher education around the world is how lecture-heavy it is. Preschools practice Minimum Viable Instruction pretty well. But by the time we get to college, and are pretty geared up to learn independently, we get maybe the heaviest dose of getting-talked-at the education system uses anywhere. Lecture is Maximum Possible Instruction.
I say all of this with a huge dose of caution. I don’t really know what I’m talking about. I’ve never taught professionally, and have tremendous respect for the art and practice of teaching. The earliest learning I had at Excel — after watching world-class teachers and totally muffing a stab or two at guest teaching — was how damn hard it is to teach well. It’s also far from simple — so any simplistic theory isn’t enough to build a teaching practice around. And MVI, where I’ve observed it, only works when it’s done in the context of the right culture (including high expectations) and support (including readily available coaching and feedback from a teacher, coach, and/or peers.
But I’ve seen it often enough to feel like there’s some ‘there there’, and am curious if some of these ideas resonate with others? While MVP and MVI relate to very different fields of practice, they’re ultimately about the same idea: that we learn best (organizationally in the case of MVP, individually in the case of MVI) by doing things, failing early, getting corrective input, adapting, and iterating. And doing that repeatedly until the cows come home.