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Avoiding Insanity

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Review what worked and what needs improvement for learning key discussion skills

“There is a famous quotation attributed to Albert Einstein that goes like this: ‘The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.’ There is no evidence that Albert Einstein ever said the quote, but that doesn’t make the quote any less meaningful.” So, began Dr. Harry Wexler when he introduced the small-group discussion portion of his class.

“At the conclusion of each class, I’ll send out a message related to discussion practices. These messages are based upon places where I think your discussions can improve. I want you to read these messages before the next discussion. Then at the end of class, I want you to do what I call a +/∆ exercise. A plus is something you think worked well. A delta is something you’d like to change or improve. On the flip chart, draw a line down the middle of the paper of the paper. On the top of the left, side place a + symbol. On the right side, place a ∆ symbol. Then as a group make a list of the things you did well as it relates to the discussion practice message I sent out. These will go on the plus side of the paper. On the delta side, make a list of the things you want to do better.

“I want one student in each group to become the ‘owner’ of that week’s message. In subsequent classes, you will form the +/∆ on the message I sent you for that class, but I want each of the owners of prior messages to also give a +/∆ evaluation of the messages they own. This way your group will maintain a continuing focus on improving discussion practices.”

The groups followed Dr. Wexler’s guidance as the semester continued. His university required each professor to document practices they used to improve their teaching. The following are what Dr. Wexler reported on:

  • The messages and the +/∆ focus on the message led to continuing improvement in discussion practices. It was obvious that students heeded the messages and did not repeat the bad practices over and over again as in previous semesters.
  • At first, the +/∆ debriefings were filled with comments that were superficial and not focused on discussion practices (e.g. your handwriting was neat). But over time the debriefings have become much more substantive and focused on key discussion practices.
  • Having an owner of a previous message made the groups aware of and focused on good practices throughout the semester. There was very little reversion to bad practices.

Giving a grade is a static representation of performance. What Dr. Wexler did was to use an approach of continuous learning to improve the performance in future classes. Learning should not be a catch and release of skills, knowledge, and abilities but an ongoing perfection of skills built upon continuous feedback and subsequent reinforcement of good practices.

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“I think it’s very important to have a feedback loop, where you’re constantly thinking about what you’ve done and how you could be doing it better.” – Elon Musk


This post is part of our “Think About” education series. These posts are based on composites of real-world experiences, with some details changed for the sake of anonymity. New posts appear Wednesday afternoons. Please share your ideas and responses via Twitter @IFTalks or FaceBook @whatIFdiscussions.