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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Prototyping Procrastination

By Guest Blogger — March 20, 2013 3 min read
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Note: Rick Hess is on sabbatical through May 6th. If you’re missing him, you might try to catch him while he’s out and about discussing his new book Cage-Busting Leadership (available here, e-book available here). For updates on when he might be in your neck of the woods, check here. Meantime, a tremendous lineup of guest stars has kindly agreed to step in while Rick’s gone and share their own thoughts on the opportunities, challenges, implications, and nature of cage-busting leadership.

Guest blogging this week is Matt Candler, CEO of 4.0 Schools, and members of the 4.0 Schools community.

“Certainty of death, small chance of success... What are we waiting for?” Gimli, Lord of the Rings

I think Gimli described what I was thinking when designing my first prototype. Except, unlike the Dwarf, I hesitated to pull the trigger and have folks actually engage with my idea. Intellectually I knew it had to be done, but emotionally....well, my idea was just perfect inside my head. Because I believed strongly in what I was doing I was more afraid of failure and its consequences than if I were prototyping something that I’d hatched up over a weekend of brainstorming. Sure, I’d still be here, but a failure could have killed this dream.

Two weeks ago I had about a dozen kids show up for my first prototype. As a recovering public school teacher/reformer, the concept of testing ideas with a minimal viable product was completely foreign. Even after two Essentials (I need to hear things a couple times before they sink in) and current involvement within Accelerator at 4.0 Schools, I still hesitated. I’ve spent a bunch of time thinking about, and doing, what’s not working in ed reform. It was time to take a different approach. So I decided to examine my life, see what made the most positive impact and where, if at all, it was being replicated in public schools. The result is Community Guilds, where we’re harnessing the maker and DIY movement and combining apprenticeship learning with entrepreneurship and, hopefully, providing an opportunity for disconnected students. Think Foxfire meets Outward Bound with a dash of community empowerment and entrepreneurship. You know...simple stuff to replicate.

First challenge was to get kids. If there’s a checklist to get middle and high school youth involved in something on the weekend, I probably did everything on it (btw, this list doesn’t exist, but I’ll share mine). Email friends...check. Post flyers...check. Offer incentives...check. Stop and ask strangers...check. Yet in the end, even with répondez s’il vous plaît, clearly expected, I had only one confirmed attendee. And that was because I knew his mom, and she promised she would physically drop him off.

Prototype day. 2:05 pm. Five minutes after the official start time and I have just one kid. $#!*. And it wasn’t even the kid whose mother RSVP’d. I couldn’t help but think back to an early birthday party memory and the pure fear when no one showed up on time. Rejection is probably one of our biggest triggers. But, just like my party everything was ready for my prototype. Food...check. Cool music playing...check. Materials...check. I had everything but kids.

And then, as with most things, everything sorta came together. More kids arrived. Kids I didn’t even know showed up. One kid came with his mother (not the one mentioned above) and said she heard about this Community Guilds thing during Sunday school. In the end, I had wide range of ages, races, with about the same number of boys and girls. And three hours later, not only were we all still talking and laughing with each other, I learned much about what may/won’t work with my idea. I left even more inspired to continue this journey.

So here are some key takeaways from my first prototype:
• If it’s important to you, chances are your prototype will test personal and long held assumptions. Get over it.
• Over plan. Quick prototyping sounds easy but the reality is that I probably spent 50 hours in planning.
• Use kids. They’re inspiring but also completely transparent and opinionated. You need this type of feedback.
• Don’t expect your prototype to test everything but expect to learn more than what you’re testing.
• Remember to take pictures and videos. You’ll think you will remember all the important moments, but you won’t.
• Just do it. If you’re like me and need a kick in the can to get started, shoot me an email.

So go do your prototyping. Even if (especially if) it’s testing something near and dear to your heart. Now I need to start planning my first pilot...

What are you waiting for?

-- Jason Martin

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.