Month: August 2009

Total 12 Posts

BetterLesson Reviewed


It is nothing short of tragic, in this era of instant global communication, that I am sweating over the same lesson plan that a teacher in Cincinnati developed a year ago. A group of public school teachers in Atlanta and Boston invested money, time, and talent into resolving that tragedy while I have only whined about it. So I respect their solution a great deal even if, on a fundamental level, it is not the solution I am looking for, the solution I think will catch fire and change teaching.

How It Works

At some point, in some spitballing session between these developers, someone said the words “a Facebook for teachers.” The label is earned. Even in its private beta, BetterLesson has capably adapted social networking features for a teaching audience – news feeds, friends, and groups have been repackaged as activity feeds, colleagues, and networks, for instance – while also layering a functional content management system over the top of it.

After registering, you create a class – “6th Grade Science.” Then you create a unit within that class – “Human Body.” Then you create a lesson within that unit – “Skeletal System – Joints.” From there you fill in an objective, select a state standard, estimate total time on task, and lay out a lesson plan in a text entry field. You can upload files and assign them to the lesson or you can leave those files in an “unassigned” pile. You can also add other users’ files to your own curriculum in a nifty two-step process. This appears to be BetterLesson’s only nod at a wiki-style collaborative lesson planning environment, if that is important to you.

You can search files by keyword, age-level, file format, and instructional type.

When you click on a result, BetterLesson shows you every lesson plan using that file, which is really nice. At the time of writing there isn’t a sorting mechanism for searches – not alphabetically or by date or by any kind of reputation ranking. The first ten results for a search of “proportions” broke into:

60% – a PDF of a lesson plan.
20% – a standards rubric containing the word “proportion.”
10% – a page from a textbook’s student workbook.
10% – indeterminate.

Obviously it’s worth restating BetterLesson’s beta status here. I imagine these results will improve and diversify with more users.

The Challenges

Here are the challenges facing any lesson sharing site, at least as I see them:

  1. Ugly, dysfunctional user interface. Teachers are no different from other web users in their demand for an Internet experience that works well and looks great. BetterLesson, in spite of my other reservations, is without parallel here. It is the prettiest, most functional lesson sharing site on the Internet. It hurdles the bar and then some.
  2. Teacher reticence. Teachers are notoriously strapped for time, notoriously autonomous, and fail, notoriously, to collaborate with each other unless the opportunity is either a) coerced or b) extremely enticing. Unfortunately, there isn’t a precedent for this kind of lesson sharing site. None. Not in the same way that MySpace preceded Facebook or that Blogger preceded WordPress or that Twitter preceded Plurk. BetterLesson can’t point to a proven predecessor and say “we do this, only better.” This is an enormous challenge but there are advantages to inventing the market. (See: iPod.)
  3. Quality control. Teachers will warm to the idea of downloading lesson material online only if the sharing site returns consistently useful search results. Twitter’s attrition rate (the proportion of people who sign up and then abandon it within the first month) is reportedly 60%. A content management system for teachers that can’t consistently deliver quality content will suffer the same fate. This is complicated even further by widespread disagreement over what constitutes a “quality” lesson plan. (see: math wars, implications of.)
  4. Particularly reluctant demographics. There are lots of educators who create engaging, challenging lesson content daily who also, on top of issues of time, autonomy, and aversion to collaboration, lack confidence with technology. Enticing those educators to register, download, and upload is no small task.


After reviewing BetterLesson’s response to those challenges, I predict it will see incredible user registration in its first six months. At least one person in your school will have used it to search for lesson materials and at least one person in every department at your school will have heard of it. The site looks that good. The site sounds that promising. Usage will be heaviest among new teachers who, I suspect, are less ideological, less attached to any particular definition of effective instruction, who will take whatever worksheet will let them get to sleep before midnight. But the attrition rate will be high. It’s possible that BetterLesson has already anticipated a scenario where a small group of uploaders share content with a much larger group of downloaders, not unlike the blogger/commenter ratio we find in the blogosphere. I suspect, though, that BetterLesson would like to see a larger fraction of teachers sharing content online.

Two Errors

So here are two reasons why I think that won’t happen.

First, BetterLesson isn’t fun. Lesson planning isn’t always fun (though I’ll argue for a strong correlation between “lessons that are fun for teachers to plan” and “lessons that are fun for students to learn”) but a well-trafficked site for lesson sharing, because such a site is without precedent, must be fun. It must connect, in as few clicks as possible, to whatever teachers find fun and satisfying about planning lessons for students.

You know what I’m talking about, right? I’m talking about explosive fun where you discover a fascinating route through challenging material, a route you somehow missed even though this is your sixteenth time through the book, and now you’re researching ice-carving techniques online (or whatever) and developing extensions and you’re learning at the same time that you’re lesson-planning and you have to share that route and you know you’re onto something when, like, five teachers comment on your blog post before midnight and you know for a fact that one of them lives in the opposing hemisphere and it’s five a.m. there.

Do you know what I’m talking about?

BetterLesson has a certain grim efficiency about itself. It knows that it is necessary and useful but it knows nothing of fun. It knows not the fun of discovery or the fun of creation.

Create class. Create unit. Create lesson. Add file. Add standard. Add objective. Add pacing guide. All of these are important but none of them has much to do with what will coax the larger corps of good teachers to sacrifice free time to come online and learn a new platform. Those teachers will come online for profoundly interesting hooks to material they already know how to teach, for multimedia resources other teachers have created, for the opportunity to contribute their own insight to those materials, for a profoundly fun experience. They won’t come online to find out which three example problems I used to teach linear inequalities or how many minutes I allotted for worksheet practice.

The second reason BetterLesson will find little traction with teachers not already disposed to sharing their material online is that BetterLesson ties form tightly to content. I care more about what you did than how you did it. I care that you had students study fractions by making an orchestra out of glasses filled with water. I care significantly less about a) how you paced that lesson, b) its exact content standard alignment, or c) how long your period was. I even hold your lesson objective in a loose grip. The same idea can work across different units, across different content areas.

I’ll wager that 90% of teachers with three or more years of experience can adapt a good idea to their particular context, expanding or contracting it for time, pacing it to their bell schedules, adapting warmup exercises that are appropriate for their students’ prior knowledge or personal experience. At a certain level of experience, that information was no longer valuable to me. The water orchestra is valuable to me.

But BetterLesson has tied all of that lesson form tightly to the lesson content. Not only is that information not fun (see above) but that information forces teachers to a) reverse engineer someone else’s lesson plan, stripping away the pacing guide, standard, and objective, b) locate the interesting idea (the water glass orchestra) and then c) re-engineer it for their own contexts. I can’t predict exactly how many teachers will invest that time for uncertain returns but I’m guessing: not many.


Simon Job recently combined amateur photography and Google satellite imagery to motivate the perimeter of curved shapes, which was really fun. It’s obvious he enjoyed the process.

Kate Nowak enthused in the comments:

Great use of photo + google maps! It can be hard to find circle applications. Thanks for sharing. I think throwing it on the screen as an unfamiliar problem is a good instinct.

Contrast Kate’s enthusiasm with Sheng Ho’s review of BetterLesson:

It is unclear how and why the lessons work or whether they are any good. Takes quite a bit of effort to go through the files to reverse engineer the lesson or make one up for yourself.

Or Derek Follett, referring to lesson sharing services in general:

I feel like I have to do way too much digging into a lesson plan before I get the essence of it then (if it is any good) adapt it to my own lesson. What I would rather see instead is “idea sharing.”

In our follow-up phone conversation, Alex Grodd outlined one of BetterLesson’s foundational design rules, “No red apples, no school buses, no chalk, no rulers, no demeaning clip art.” He said his team compensated for the corny status quo with a utilitarian aesthetic which I am concerned has pushed to the sidelines what makes time spent planning lessons so fulfilling. This is a mistake. I want BetterLesson to succeed. Someone has to succeed in this space. But BetterLesson has traded a fun experience and interesting content for an efficient service and controlled form. I hope the BetterLesson team can find the intersection of those two services. If they can’t, I will still follow their progress with a great ideal of interest, though I don’t think it will surprise me.

Interview: Alex Grodd, BetterLesson Founder/CEO

I interviewed Alex Grodd, founder and CEO of BetterLesson, via e-mail and then in a follow-up by phone. I think my objections to BetterLesson’s current trajectory are fairly transparent through these questions, though I’ll make them explicit in my forthcoming site review. Objections aside, this was an extremely fascinating discussion with someone who has invested far more into the issue of teachers sharing with teachers (online) than anyone else I have met or read.

Dan Meyer: Think back to an effective lesson you taught as a classroom teacher, one which you would now upload to BetterLesson. What made it effective and what steps has BetterLesson taken to make that effectiveness obvious from its search listings, from the lesson pages themselves?

Alex Grodd: Most recently, I taught 6th grade English at Roxbury Preparatory Charter School. Let me start by describing an effective 6th grade English lesson:

It would likely start with a silent grammar-based ‘do-now’ activity that was full of inside jokes about the students. It would then transition into interactive direct instruction, delivered via a Smart Board, that incorporated samples of previous student work, reality television clips, and PG-13 hip hop. This would be followed by a bizarre writing prompt and an even more bizarre model essay and then small group brainstorming and pre-writing sessions. The last 20 minutes would be consumed by the beautiful buzz of engaged writing and collaboration while I tutored students at the front of the room.

It’s difficult to say what makes a lesson like this “effective” – it could certainly be classified as student-centered, highly engaging, culturally relevant, and academically rigorous. It used diverse media and technology; it differentiated instruction, and appealed to different learning modalities. It also reflected my unique relationships with my students and my own personal character quirks.

One of the most important and difficult things we will do at BetterLesson will be to measure, identify, and promote “effective” content and effective teachers. In order to do this, we are currently iterating (and will likely continue to iterate in perpetuity) around the following questions:

What rubric should we use to rate “effective” content? Do we use some of the categories mentioned above (engagement, student-centricity, etc.)? How do we make these categories measurable? Should effectiveness be tied to student achievement data? What data should we use?

Given the diverse nature of the educators on our site, these aren’t easy questions around which to achieve consensus. But we are in the process of working with teachers across the country to begin to achieve some general consensus about what makes content “effective”. We have just begun promoting “Recommended Units” which are identified by an instructional advisory board as having strong pedagogical merit. And we promote popular content throughout the site using “Most Viewed” and “Most Downloaded” metrics to crowd-source “effectiveness.” Throughout our alpha process we experimented with different user-generated ratings systems (Thumbs up/down, 5 star systems, etc.) but haven’t yet found the right one for educators. As with everything in a beta process, we are aggressively seeking user feedback and this feedback will drive our decision-making process.

DM: As a classroom teacher, did you enjoy the lesson planning process? If so, how have you designed the lesson planning process within BetterLesson to reflect that fun?

AG: I enjoyed the creative/artistic elements infused in the process – in particular, I enjoyed designing writing prompts and creating strange/entertaining model essays for my students – but overall, I felt the time and energy that I was spending on the process each night was making it increasingly difficult to effectively execute all of my other teaching responsibilities. For me, the greatest joy was not in the planning but in the execution of a highly effective lesson. These joys were unique and I currently miss them.

When designing the way lessons are created and organized on BetterLesson, our first goal was to create a platform where teachers could share their full curriculum the way that they actually teach it (as opposed to the decontextualized files and ‘lesson plans’ that you find on most sites). Our second goal was to create a core organizational framework (Course > Units > Lessons > Files and Materials) that was relatively universal across different pedagogical perspectives. We wanted to create a platform where teachers could use our mostly neutral canvass to exchange diverse pedagogical points of view. Again, we’re just getting started and this approach will continue to be driven by user feedback.

DM: One of my most effective classroom lessons was a video series called Graphing Stories, which was downloaded from my blog more often than any other lesson material I have posted since. I take this as evidence of some demand for multimedia teaching resources. Which file formats does BetterLesson support and what plans to do you have for expansion?

AG: Currently we support the most common file formats – Microsoft Office documents and images. Our multimedia support for movies and sound is nearly complete. Our goal, however, is to support the upload of all file formats (Smart Board files etc.), although a preview/online reading may not be available for some time.

DM: I have built a significant percentage of my curriculum around copyrighted material – TV shows, cartoons, movies, in particular. I am not a copyright lawyer but my understanding is that I can post an excerpt of a TV show to my blog, build lesson material around it, and fall within the boundaries of fair use. YouTube, understandably, isn’t interested in that kind of legal parsing. Is BetterLesson? How would BetterLesson respond to a DMCA takedown notice on a teacher’s lesson plan?

AG: As discussed above, we acutely recognize the importance of providing students with a highly engaging, multi-media/sensory instructional experience. As a result, we are committed to defending fair use. We will deal with any issues on an individual basis.

DM: From BetterLesson’s about page: “Lesson creators should have their intellectual property protected and receive real recognition for their original works.” What do you have in mind for that “real recognition”? Is it monetary? The only reputation ranking I can find on a lesson page is “number of views.”

AG: Every successful social network/file sharing site has some viral metric that bestows recognition on a user (On YouTube, it’s views; On Facebook/MySpace/LinkedIn, it’s friends/connections; On Twitter, it’s followers; on Tumblr, it’s Tumblarity–an algorithm that incorporates many of these metrics). These metrics become a powerful source of status within the community, and users are often able to translate this status into modest (and sometimes immodest) celebrity, professional opportunity, and money. We are attempting to harness the power of these metrics to identify and reward innovative teachers and lesson artists. Right now, we display views and downloads prominently in our interface but we will continue to iterate on what metric(s) make most sense to provide teachers with some of the long-overdue recognition they deserve. In addition to these quantitative metrics, we also incorporate qualitative recognition via colleague comments and instructional coach feedback.

DM: As long as we’re talking about money: does BetterLesson have a business model or plans for monetization?

AG: BetterLesson is exploring a “Freemium” business model that will allow us to charge for premium tools and services while keeping the core platform (currently released) free for teachers and schools. In the short term, our focus is on continuing to improve our platform and build our community.

DM: Here’s Alexander Russo speaking for Scholastic: “Only the most motivated and Internet-savvy teachers go online looking for lessons. It still takes time for teachers to search for lessons, much less rate and share feedback about them.” From the BetterLesson blog, you’ve seen a lot of enthusiasm from novice teachers still in teacher preparation programs. How will BetterLesson appeal to a demographic of good teachers who less inclined toward social networking?

AG: This is a great question. I think there are three things that we can do on our end:

  1. Continue to aggressively reach out to teachers that are not as inclined to using social networking websites, solicit their feedback, and incorporate their feedback into the interface.
  2. Continue to strive to make our interface as intuitive and user-friendly as possible.
  3. Continue to aggregate great content and great teachers on BetterLesson. I think that all teachers, regardless of Internet savvy, would be excited to quickly and easily find great lessons and connect with innovative teachers in their respective fields. If we can create this user experience, I think that we will provide a compelling incentive for them to make the leap into the wild world of social (or professional) networking.

DM: How will you know that BetterLesson has become successful? Has the BetterLesson team set goals for user registration, total uploads, total downloads, or for some other measure of success?

AG: Our goal is to continue to build the community and continue to increase the depth and breadth of high-quality instructional content. We are focused on continuing to improve our user experience and grow the number of committed users – those who return to the site frequently and stay for a while once they’re on it.

BetterLesson Week

At whatever point BetterLesson goes public, it will be the only game in town for teachers sharing lesson content with other teachers. BetterLesson answers an essential question, “how do we get teachers to connect and share their work?” with more force, clearer vision, and better funding than any other solution preceding it. I take a declarative tone here only because I’ve spent much of the last two years investigating and discarding those other solutions.

Over the last two weeks, I have beta-tested BetterLesson, debated its merits with Kate Nowak on Twitter, interviewed its CEO/founder Alex Grodd, and composed my own review, which *spoiler* is very, very mixed. Like I said: the BetterLesson team has pursued a clear vision with great force. I take two exceptions to that vision – one philosophical and one pragmatic.

This week is dedicated only secondarily to BetterLesson. I’ll post the transcript of my interview with Alex followed by my review of BetterLesson itself. Primarily, though, we’re talking about how teachers share and I am grateful for anything you can contribute to that conversation.

I told Alex that my commenters typically deliver savage, measured feedback, punching my ideas in the jaw more often than praising them. The BetterLesson team is nothing if not eager for feedback so Alex has offered BetterLesson beta accounts to the first fifty readers to register for an account listing “dy/dan” where it asks you to describe how you heard about BetterLesson. Get on it. Let’s talk about it.

Habits Of Two Outstanding Teachers

Rhett Allain

Rhett Allain is on a tear lately. His summer thing is to apply skeptical physics to YouTube clips of highly improbable projectile motion – a rare jumping elephant, the longest waterslide ever, etc. He runs them through Tracker, his Swiss Army knife for video analysis, and subjects them to lengthy scrutiny with models and diagrams. I can only skim his posts but I have a stupid grin on my face the entire time because here’s the thing:

He has to know.

It’s impossible not to see his insatiable curiosity between the lines. Physics isn’t his day job. It’s how he understands life and resolves its questions. You can ask Rhett to stop wondering about the elephant’s parabolic fit as easily as you can ask him to stop eating.

Students pick up on that vibe. They buzz to it like bugs to a glowing lamppost. The teacher and the student listen to different music and wear different clothes and worry about different problems but curiosity unites them. That shared curiosity transcends their differences and goes a long way to define a classroom culture. It also has a funny way of assassinating the question, “how much credit is this worth?”

To whatever extent our personality traits should motivate student learning, Rhett has something to which we should all aspire.

Mike Konczal

Let me get it straight that, vocationally speaking, Mike Konczal isn’t a teacher. He is a financial engineer in San Francisco and at one point during the recession I subscribed to his blog. Some of his writing gets into quantitative models that are too far above my dusty mathematics bachelor’s degree but I never miss a post. He is an expert after David Foster Wallace’s own definition, which is the only kind of expertise that matters to me as a classroom teacher:

DFW: Think of the thrill of finding a smart, competent IT technician who can also explain what she’s doing in such a way that you feel like you understand what went wrong with your computer and how you might even fix the problem yourself if it comes up again. Or an oncologist who can communicate clearly and humanly with you and your wife about what the available treatments for her stage-two neoplasm are, and about how the different treatments actually work, and exactly what the plusses and minuses of each one are. If you’re like me, you practically drop and hug the ankles of technical specialists like this, when you find them. As of now, of course, they’re rare. What they have is a particular kind of genius that’s not really part of their specific area of expertise as such areas are usually defined and taught. There’s not really even a good univocal word for this kind of genius–which might be significant. Maybe there should be a word; maybe being able to communicate with people outside one’s area of expertise should be taught, and talked about, and considered as a requirement for genuine expertise.

Konczal wrote a post at The Atlantic called How Health Insurance Is Like Zombie Insurance that contextualized both a) rescission and b) credit default swaps – two complicated, nuanced, easily misunderstood concepts – within a hypothetical zombie apocalypse. It’s awesome, clear, expert-level writing.

Allain and Konczal approach the same masterful teaching technique from opposite angles. Allain uses the simple and the fun to motivate the complicated – waterslides and elephants inspiring pages of physical analysis. Konczal uses the simple and the fun – his zombie apocalypse – to explain the complicated. You get the sense from his writing that if zombies didn’t work for you he could dip into his sack of metaphors and pull out something from pop culture, athletics, cooking, or whatever you needed.

Both teachers are dazzling in their own ways. I would buy a ticket to their live shows, easy.