Teaching iteration

I’ve written about the class I’d like to teach, but what I’ve been thinking about lately is the class I’d like to attend. Not necessarily now, but when I was growing up. In the 6th grade, let’s say.

I don’t know why people ask me this, but I’m often polled for my opinion on the American education system. What’s my take? What would I do to fix it?

I don’t know, really. “It” covers too much ground to be addressed accurately. Education is delivered at every scale, from an individual reading a book, to a 1:1 tutor, to a small home/classroom setting, to a larger university auditorium-sized class, to online classes that can be theoretically taken by the entire planet at once. From one to 7 billion.

You can’t fix anything that’s so big and so varied. You can, however, fix small parts of things. And hopefully, as the small, fixed parts add up, you have a chance at chipping away at a big problem.

So here’s my one small idea: I’d begin to teach iteration. Iteration as a subject, equivalient to math, science, history, language, art, music, etc. How do you make something better over time? How do you return to something that you’ve done and see it with fresh eyes? How do you apply new perspective to an old problem? Where do you find that new perspective? What trails do you follow and which do you ignore? How do you smash the familiar and reassemble something new from the same pieces?

Once you’re done with school, and cast out into the world, your job is likely to involve iteration. No matter what you’re doing, you’re probably going to have to do something over. And often times again and again. You rarely simply deliver something and move on. You’re asked to refactor, to build on it, to “make it better”.

Making anything better is iteration. When you put something out there, it’ll often land right back in your lap. Sometimes that feedback boomerangs back directly, other times you have to infer the problems by disciphering other people’s behavior when they interact with the thing you gave them. This customer struggled with this, this manufacturing tolerance didn’t line up with that, this printing process looked better on the screen than it did on paper. Or after a certain amount of time passes while working on something, you reflect on what you’ve done and don’t like the reflection.

Either way, someone’s probably going to ask you to take the state of your art, and make it the state of the art.

Now that you’ve got it back, what do you do with it? This is something you have to learn how to deal with. But in school — save for writing a few drafts before handing in the final version — you don’t get to iterate much. You move on from assignment to assignment, rarely getting a chance to revisit your work earlier in the semester. I think that’s a missed opportunity.

So, perhaps for a final assignment (no matter the subject), students should be able to choose something they did earlier in the year and get a chance to improve on it. Make version 2. I think working on four things, and getting a chance to redo one of them would be more valuable than working on five separate things. It would be a better education.

Or another take would be a single assignment for the entire semester. Every two weeks you hand in a new version of it. In time you may slam into diminishing returns, but that’s all part of it too. That would be a better education.

Or maybe you work on something and hand it in. Then the teacher shuffles the deck, so to speak, and hands you back someone else’s assignment. Now you have two weeks to improve on that. And that cycle — improving on someone else’s work — continues for the whole semester. That would closely mirror what work on the outside is really like. That would be a better education.

I don’t know, something like that.

So there, I guess that’s my initial idea to improve the educational system. Teach problem solving through iteration. Bounce things back to people for a second or third try. And then a fourth and a fifth. And so on. Require them to bring new perspectives. Demonstrate how time, space, and chance are on your side — they give you the opportunity to wander around with an idea and take it in new directions. Iteration is evolution. Hopefully what’s next is better than what came before it.

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