Improvisation in Teaching

The New York Times article “Building a Better Teacher”* describes two different studies of exceptional teachers and what they do that makes them great. One study is by Deborah Ball, Dean of the School of Education at Michigan State University, who created Mathematical Knowledge for Teaching (MKT). The second is by Doug Lemov, an educational consultant and author of Lemov’s Taxonomy.

What makes excellent teachers is a paradoxical combination: Both MKT and Lemov’s Taxonomy identify a repertoire of standard practices that teachers engage in constantly. But at the same time, both Ball and Lemov have observed that expert teachers improvise constantly. After describing how Deborah Ball, in a math class she was teaching, spent ten minutes entertaining a student’s incorrect idea about odd and even numbers–ultimately, to guide the class to an important fact that was not on the day’s lesson plan–the NYT article notes “Dropping a lesson plan and fruitfully improvising requires a certain kind of knowledge.”

Later, in describing an excellent teacher named Katie Bellucci, the NYT article says that she uses her math knowledge and “she also improvises.”

Excellent teaching is creative teaching, but creative in a special way: responsive, opportunistic, improvised. Good teachers improvise with their students, guiding their students and yet guided by them, like the members of a talented jazz ensemble.

*Elizabeth Green, “Building a better teacher,” New York Times Sunday Magazine, March 2, 2010.

Group Consequences of Individual Strategies

I recently received this fascinating summary of an upcoming lecture* by Robert Goldstone of Indiana University:

Just as ants interact to form elaborate colonies and neurons interact to create structured thought, groups of people interact to create emergent organizations that the individuals may not understand or even perceive. To study the emergence of group behavior patterns, we have developed an internet-based experimental platform (for examples, see ) that allows groups of 2-200 people to interact with each other in real time on networked computers. Using these technologies, I will describe experiments on how innovations are propagated within a group. One series of experiments explores how people attempt to solve simple problems while taking advantage of the developing solutions of other people in their social network. The results suggest that complete information is not always beneficial for a group, and that problem spaces requiring substantial exploration benefit from networks with mostly locally connected individuals.

In a second line of experiments, we study the dissemination of innovations in a networked group for a multi-dimensional search problem with many local minima. We find evidence for several strategies that determine imitation and innovation decisions based on: similarity, choice popularity, timing, and success.

In a third, real-world application area, I consider historical data on how U.S. parents name their children. We find that naming choices are influenced by both the frequency of a name in the general population, and by its “momentum” in the recent past in the sense that names which are growing in popularity are preferentially chosen. This momentum bias has itself been increasing over the course of 130 years. For each of these areas, I will describe agent-based modeling efforts at explaining empirically observed patterns of exploration and exploitation, bandwagon effects, population waves, and compromises between individuals using their own information and information obtained from their peers.

*Featured speaker at at the 20th Annual International Conference of the Society for Chaos Theory in Psychology & Life Sciences, University of Texas, San Marcos, TX, July 22-24, 2010.

Incremental Innovation at 3M

3M is the innovation powerhouse that most people associate with Scotch tape and the Post-It note. They were the first company to give each engineer a specific amount of time off, every week, to invent new things: back in the 1950s, when they called it “15 percent time”–15 percent of every week, each engineer was expected to work on wild and innovative new ideas. W. L. Gore and Associates, by the 1960s, had followed this policy with a ten percent policy, and Google famously has a 20 percent policy.

3M’s CEO, George Buckley, knows that his engineers all want to be the inventor of the next breakthrough. And of course, that’s a good thing. But, he doesn’t want them to forget about the low-cost, incremental innovations–as he says, “at the bottom of the pyramid”.* One example he gives is making a respirator mask that costs less money; no one thought that was sexy. As Buckley says of his engineers,

A lot of them felt that what was interesting was what was at the top [of the pyramid]; These people are turned on by things that are intellectually challenging. [I had to] convince them that the intellectual challenge is making a real innovation that costs next to nothing. Initially it was hard for them to buy into.

When asked, how do you motivate people to work on things they don’t think are sexy, Buckley’s answer wasn’t that helpful–he basically said, I just keep telling them that yes, it is sexy, why don’t you think it’s sexy? (He gave the example of Chris Holmes, who heads 3M’s abrasives business–think sandpaper–and had commented that abrasives weren’t considered sexy.)

About creativity, he’s right on the mark:

Everybody wants to find out how to can creativity. You can’t….It isn’t a process. Six Sigma’s worked wonderfully in our factories but we tried it in our labs and it doesn’t work. It’s obvious why. The creative process is a discontinuous process.

* WSJ, Monday March 1, 2010, “At 3M, Innovation Comes in Tweaks and Snips,” pp. B1, B4

The 50 Most Innovative Companies?

FastCompany magazine has just published its annual list of the 50 most innovative companies. Here are the top ten:

1.  Facebook

2 (three-way tie). Amazon, Apple, Google

5. Huawei Technologies (world’s #2 telecom equipment provider)

6. First Solar (largest solar supplier in the U.S.)

7. PG&E (California-based utility)

8. Novartis (Swiss pharma giant)

9. Walmart (World’s largest retailer)

10. HP (World’s largest tech company)

I was a bit suspicious that so many of them were the “usual suspects” of information technology companies. (This is also true of #11 through #50.) Surely, other sectors of the economy are just as innovative! I looked through the issue for the methodology used for ranking: It turns out, “It doesn’t exist” (quoting from editor Robert Safian).

I still have my 2004 issue of FastCompany where W. L. Gore was ranked #1, and it’s not even on the top 50 list this time. Did Gore really drop over 50 places in the rankings of most innovative? I don’t think so. But, I respect the fact that FastCompany is in the business to sell magazines. Yet, Business Week’s annual “most innovative” ranking uses a methodology in collaboration with Boston Consulting Group…

It’s a fun issue and sheds light on how innovative companies work; but it’s probably not the best place to go for a ranking of the most innovative companies. However, as editor Safian points out, there isn’t a widely accepted set of criteria for objectively creating such a ranking. I have several previous blog posts about new attempts to develop a better measure, such as this one.