BetterLesson Reviewed

Introduction

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.

Prognostication

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.

Conclusion

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.

About 
I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.

24 Comments

  1. First comment! (always wanted to do that… see “fun” above)

    The point about lesson essence is crucial. The essential SOCIAL OBJECT of lesson planning is not the schedule or other administrative detail description. It’s the brief, general idea that cleverly ties content and pedagogy. I hope some day somebody figures out how to help people capture, discuss and share these minimal social objects.

    There may be some other little attachments to that essential main social object of lesson sharing, though. For example, I like to see “typical pitfalls” that may happen. For example, in a lesson that depends on brainstorming, students may not start coming up with any ideas, so you need some prompts and other brainstorming tools to get things going, beyond just asking the first question.

  2. So is it a lesson plan sharing site you’re after? It sounds like you want more of an inspiration machine.

    The idea seems to be the key, maybe with a few rough details. It seems like you want a What Can You Do With This? but maybe with a structured template of information around the idea/media and the ability of people to link in more details/pieces?

    That to me is very different beast. It doesn’t seem like lesson sharing at all (which I question the usefulness of for similar reasons). I want ideas and solid chunks of media (preferably in modifiable form).

    I’m probably projecting some of what I want into my reading of your review. So just change you to me in the above.

  3. 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.

    I think most teachers know when they have a “mundane” piece of content and when they one like the water orchestra. Perhaps they can just be self-tagged? Therefore one can easily switch to a view that gets at the “meat” of the lessons and ignores how many minutes long it takes.

  4. “It knows not the fun of discovery or the fun of creation.”

    This is one of the main reasons I enjoy teaching and why I can’t just copy other people’s materials. I’ll look it and go, that’s a good idea that I can do better. So I take it and redo my way, my style, which helps me teach it better.

    Again, what we are looking we for is the inspiration machine and a loose structure that gives us some idea of what we’re headed toward and how to get there.

  5. BetterLesson has taken on a very difficult undertaking. Teachers do have great ideas, but the last thing they want to do is put them in a formal format. Our county has been developing a lesson plan database based on textbook, resources, and curriculum maps adopted by the school board. It has been going on for at least 6 years. It is a monster, constantly changing and evolving.

    Each lesson has to go through a jurying process and there is a specific layout that must be used for each subject area. There is a lot of great information located in one place.

    It is finally getting to the point where teachers are using it. First year teachers find it very helpful and more experienced teachers tweak the lessons to fit their students’ needs.

    I worked on some of the first lesson plans that were developed for this database. I can honestly say it was a very long painful summer and I only 150 lessons that were not that interesting nor creative.

    I wish all the best to BetterLesson, but they do have their work cut out for them.

  6. Idea:

    Related to my comment at #3, there should be a “level of detail” setting so that one can browse at:

    lowest level: the “inspiration machine” level, with perhaps only one sentence summaries of the best concepts from a lesson.

    medium level: at a level that includes only the essentials for a particular lesson but is essentially complete.

    high level: that includes all the timings and other frills which teachers may only need in particular circumstances.

  7. Dan,

    I’m imagining something like a database of WCYDWT (like @Tom said) but with a pretty interface. I mean pretty pictures are fun right? One cool thing about your focus on design is cutting things down to a single photo and working from there. There’s a lot of different interfaces for displaying a bunch of photos at a single time, zooming in and out, then clicking on them for more detail. See a screenshot of Delicious Library; I know it’s not a web application but there could be one with a similar interface.

    I’m thinking you have a little drag bar like in iPhoto that can change how many photos are shown at a time, like 4/page or 50/page. Maybe when you mouse over a photo it starts animating, drawing a grid to show where they went with the lesson plan. You can put tags on it, like geometry or triangles, but someone else could come in and put a different tag if they thought it could be used for an English writing prompt. You could make responses to lesson ideas, like there’s youtube video responses.

    I think that could be a fun interface. The challenge for the content posters is that it takes some discipline to boil an idea down to a single image so that it could be displayed in the big picture view.

    Maybe the constraint of a single picture is an advantage though. Give people the same thing to shoot for and it’s easier to share. Photos are a lot easier to glance at than a multi-page pdf or a multi-page slideshow.

  8. Regarding your statement that: “I care more about what you did than how you did it”:

    Coming at the teaching from the world of software, there’s a concept used there called a “design pattern” that the field borrowed from Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language in architecture. It’s basically a standard for documenting a commonly used design: what it is, why you’d use it, when you’d use it, what other patterns interact/affect it, side effect/issues around using it etc., without the exact programming code to implement it.

    Software shares with architecture and teaching the property that the environment in which a design/lesson is finally used is highly specific, and so a plan that is too tightly tied to a particular implementation/execution isn’t useful.

    Wikipedia has a pretty good intro to Design Patterns – check out especially the Documentation section. There might be some ideas there applicable in the lesson sharing case.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Design_pattern_(computer_science)

  9. @Tom, thanks for the tip. I think it’s got flashy sex appeal, but the 3D views are a little distracting. Maybe once you get used to it could feel natural.

    Also, I didn’t notice tags on there specifically, but that’s probably the easy part. It required a browser plugin. I wonder if there’s an AJAX approach to this…

  10. I am the consumer for this site, in fact I have already put my name in, but I agree with you Dan on several points. If a site like this is going to be the teacher’s “Facebook” it has to be fun like a group of teachers over morning coffee at Starbucks. We talk ideas, curriculum, but also have moments of side conversations. Much like Facebook with the opportunity for a chat with someone else online. How great would that be to find an idea, then play it off of someone who happens to be online at the same time.

    When I search for an idea online, which I often do, I scan past much of the lesson plans to find what is different that will inspire both my students and me. Other times I go right to concept sites, rather than teacher’s sites. For example, science lesson on plants. I go to videos and pictures, informational sites, maybe art lesson sites rather than to lesson plan sites. But I am willing to try this site out, as one of many ways that will make my work more interesting for my kids.

  11. I don’t think they will get very far if they try to rate the lessons or elements of lessons for me. I don’t care what someone else thinks about the lessons, I care what I think about it.

    NETFLIX

    Their prediction engine could work here. I might invest some time rating a few lessons if that info would be used to suggest lessons I might be interested in, or predict how I might respond to a lesson.

    Teaching is personal, a matter of style. It would be fun to see a site embrace that.

  12. Maria Droujkova: The essential SOCIAL OBJECT of lesson planning is not the schedule or other administrative detail description. It’s the brief, general idea that cleverly ties content and pedagogy.

    Tom Woodward: The idea seems to be the key, maybe with a few rough details. It seems like you want a What Can You Do With This? but maybe with a structured template of information around the idea/media and the ability of people to link in more details/pieces?

    Jason Dyer: I think most teachers know when they have a “mundane” piece of content and when they one like the water orchestra. Perhaps they can just be self-tagged? Therefore one can easily switch to a view that gets at the “meat” of the lessons and ignores how many minutes long it takes.

    Steven Peters: I’m imagining something like a database of WCYDWT (like @Tom said) but with a pretty interface.

    Vicky North: When I search for an idea online, which I often do, I scan past much of the lesson plans to find what is different that will inspire both my students and me.

    Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes.

    At this point, I’m worried that our unanimous agreement owes less to any group prescience and more to the preferences of the demographic that reads and comments on this blog. In other words, “is it just us?”

    Elsewhere, I’d urge Steve and Jason toward simpler ideas of user interface. 3D visualization tools are too clever by half for conveying what is simple and good about an engaging lesson plan. Drilldown options for increasing the resolution on a lesson plan (ie. the big idea > the big idea plus objective > the big idea plus objective plus pacing guide) can be accomplished all within the same interface by using size and layout creatively. (For instance, BetterLesson would do well, in my opinion, to add a field for the teacher to describe “The Big Idea,” something with a limited character count, and then display that at the top of the lesson plan in large, strong type.

    Pete is also exactly right:

    Software shares with architecture and teaching the property that the environment in which a design/lesson is finally used is highly specific, and so a plan that is too tightly tied to a particular implementation/execution isn’t useful.

    This is the Rule of Least Power, writ large in education.

    @Derek, no disrespect to your initiative. You have a good idea but Flickr lacks a lot of the necessary ingredients for the site we need. Half-measures abound. As a temporary solution, I’ll urge people to contribute to your directory but, personally, I’m trying to find collaborators to code the site I have drawn up in my head and on paper.

  13. Yes. If BetterLesson is the embodiment of too much constraint, wiki software is that of too little. My search for middle ground has led me to the conclusion that we’ll have to build it ourselves.

  14. Dan, it’s great that you are driving this.

    In the state of New South Wales, in Australia, 200,000 netbooks are being rolled out to Year 9 students at the moment (plus 25000 for teachers).
    (See the over the top promotional video)

    But, in my opinion, the focus on teaching with these devices has been less than expected. Created resources have been distributed across multiple web-sites and no facility for sharing between teachers has been developed.

    Your idea is just what we need.

  15. Dan, there is a Math 2.0 interest group meeting regularly (http://www.mathfuture.wikispaces.com/events). Some of your blog’s regulars are members. We may want to take one Wednesday to brainstorm on your platform’s idea and to put collaborators together.

    I like wiki templates, because you can re-program or add them as openly as regular wiki pages. But I don’t particularly like the programming syntax, and most wiki users would never tough template creation, which is probably a good thing for community stability.

  16. This process reminds me of lessonopoly, something I’ve worked with in a similar capacity to what you’re doing with BetterLesson, Dan. Both of them have similar sounding weaknesses. You almost assuredly will have to build it yourself. Count me in if I can help. I want something that’s going to work and I haven’t seen it yet. I’ve all but stopped looking now.

  17. Dan, I suppose the reason I want some sort of filter is any sort of bureaucratic soothing so common in lesson plans tends to make my eyes glaze, or at least be not as attentive to the good ideas as I could be.

    I agree stronger interface design will help.

    Aside: I have noted recently that the highly elaborate lesson plans were are (sometimes) mandated to write can lead to lower quality plans, insofar as we are not using maximally efficient use of time.

  18. Case studies as social objects?

    L. S. Shulman, “Theory, practice, and the education of professionals,” The Elementary School Journal (1998): 511–526.

    P. 525

    “Cases are ways of parsing experience so practitioners can examine and learn from it. Case methods thus become strategies for helping professionals to “chunk” their experience into units that can become the focus for reflective practice. Cases therefore can become the basis for individual professional learning as well as a forum within which communities of professionals, both local and extended, as members of visible and invisible colleges, can store, exchange, and organize their experiences. They may well become, for teacher education, the lingua franca of teacher learning communities.”

  19. To me, a case study should be a story. Tell me how that lesson went, if you’ve taught it yet. I like that quote, Maria. It makes me think of the stories we’ll be telling in our book as case studies, “the lingua franca of teacher learning communities.”

  20. Jason, I love you idea about having the option to look at lessons with varying degrees of detail. That would make me more likely to check lessons out.