Teaching at a public high school in Barcelona, I witnessed daily, and sometimes hourly, failure: students struggling through exams despite hours of preparation, missing days of school, threatening teachers, and losing their motivation. I felt responsible for each and every failure. When everything you have worked for fails, it's hard to find the strength to get up and try something new.
More than 20 percent of my students were far below grade level or illiterate, while the other 80 percent varied widely in their abilities -- challenges that were compounded by an average absentee rate higher than 40 percent. Faced with these problems, I realized I had to do things differently. In trying different things, I would sum up my experience in the form of this equation...
Success = ƒ (Encourage + Fail + Combine)
...where success is a function of encouraging myself to try a number of low-cost experiments, fail fast, and combine the lessons learned from my various failures into new ideas for experiments that would bring me closer to success.
To address the challenges of student engagement in a mixed-ability class, I decided to flip my classroom. The flipped classroom is a learning methodology in which students learn content through video lessons at home, and activities that would typically be assigned for homework (practice in applying the concepts learned) are instead done in the classroom.
For the video lessons, I began by hosting more than 50 math videos on an internet educational platform I developed (kingdemates.org). Each video was three minutes long, visually attractive, and delivered in Catalan, my students' first language. Despite my efforts, however, this approach had limited impact on my students. Other teachers experimented with using the service in their classrooms -- but they didn't return to use it again. This was my first failure.
I considered giving up, as I thought my solution wasn't good enough. I learned that it was hard to even see my own failure. When something you strongly believe in doesn't work, it's hard to change your thinking and find a new direction.
For my next iteration, I decided to have my students create their own videos. My attempts to teach them how to organize and explain their ideas on video, however, resulted in a new failure.
But I didn't give up. Instead, I decided to try a new approach: getting out of the building and learning from others. I began by talking to colleagues who had experience in blended learning, including Martins Kalis, an alumnus of Latvia's Teach For All program, Mission Possible, and Bruno Reddy, an alumnus of Teach First in the UK who had developed his own e-learning platform, MrReddy.com.
I asked Bruno, "Why did you create your own online math platform when you could have just used Khan Academy?" His answer was revealing: "I have a special connection with my students if they hear my voice."
This gave me an idea for my next prototype. Instead of giving my students the tools to create their own videos, I provided them with video lessons without sound. By doing so, my students could record their voices on top of the video and express their reasoning while clarifying points that may have confused their classmates. This was the first success in a long time.
Over the next two months, I continued to develop my prototype. The product changed three times and went from $0 to $100,000 in funding before I reached the point where I finally was able to develop a solution with real potential to have impact. The outcome, EDpuzzle.com, allows teachers (particularly those working in disadvantaged schools and communities) to take existing e-learning content and personalize it for their students by adding their own audio, video, and even assessment tools.
Today, I completely understand the power in prototyping a number of different solutions and not getting attached to one. In the words of entrepreneur Steve Blank, a startup is a temporary organization designed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model. In the end, the problem I'm solving is much narrower than the one I had initially defined. But I've learned that's part of the failure too -- and ultimately the success.
Quim Sabrià is an alumnus of Empieza por Educar, one of over 30 independent national organizations in the Teach For All network committed to expanding educational opportunity in their countries. With the help of supporters like Cisco, Teach For All partners around the world are working together so that one day, all children--everywhere--can attain an excellent education. For more information about Cisco's commitment to education, visit: http://csr.cisco.com/pages/education