Accelerate into the Crash


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Sometimes I read a post on the net that is so preposterous that it shakes me out of my bias and makes me, it just makes me, stand differently, look in a different direction, and finally see the view through a window I had never seen before.  Very similar to my wife pointing out  how this is the only time of year I can see the sheep in the far pasture. You have to look through the bathroom window and damned if I can’t see little white specks through the poplars and sycamores and river birches.

The post I refer to is one from from Venkatesh Rao’s blog Ribbonfarm and concerns the idea of crash-states.  He draws from the idea of ‘crash and reboot’ in software development as a contrast to what we all call ‘life’.  Or as Rao puts it:

A crash is fundamentally “life going on” even after you lose predictability and control. A recovery is not resumption of life. Life never stops. Recovery is about regaining predictability and control of an uncontrolled, unpredictable process.

Now comes the hard part. I feel like my classes  are in the middle of a crash.  I have tried to connect to my classes this semester.  Tried to use the tools we have discussed in connected courses and the philosophies of  connected learning. The result has been a crash.  The more and better the choices I gave my students the more confused they got or the more recalcitrant or the more … absent.  I modelled the work myself.  Uggghhh. I can’t even begin to catalog all that I tried and all that has happened.  Perhaps it suffices to relate just one example–my version of the Google 20% Project.

I designed this Project to be open ended, passion-driven, product agnostic (i.e. not just text, but all manner of made things), equitable because self-initiated from the learner’s own curiosity.  I justified it because I wanted  there to be at least one way for the learner to gain some control over a life more categorized by downloading the desires of others and re-uploading the  echo of those desires than reflecting their own will.  I wanted my students to have some freedom to learn and share what they might want to learn and share.  The prompt for the project is simplicity itself:  make something that expresses an interest, a passion, a question you seek to answer.  Share it as a product of some kind.  This was to be nothing more than a sophisticated, college-level show-and-tell.

Every week I gave them potential examples of what they might do.  A few students began to do the projects, some with real zest.  Each class had one or more student models to view as examples.  I did one myself by using the seed sharing I wrote about last week as an example.  Yet…I still got students approaching me about what they should do.  Less than 10% of each class has completed the project.  We are entering the last two weeks of the term for completing them. What else can these projects end up being but the same slipshod messes any syllabus assignment would have been as assigned by me?

We are in crash mode.  What to do?  Rao has  some vaguely helpful advice.

You accelerate into the crash. It is one of those counter-intuitive things, like turning into a skid while driving, getting an airplane out of a tailspin by pushing the stick forward instead of back (I think I got that right?), or emptying your lungs when exiting a sinking submarine instead of exiting with a big lungful (the pressure difference can be fatal as you surface otherwise).

Accelerating into a crash helps you regain actual control authority and predictability. If you force a crash into unfolding faster than it naturally wants to, you gain control over it.

What can I do with my students and the Google 20% Project?

I could just ride out the clock and get a “this too shall pass” glazed look on my face all the while blaming others for the crash.

I could rearrange the flowers on the tables of the Hindenberg, kind of a non-sequitur response to cover my own pedagogical ass.

I could try some totally crazy intervention like offering to have conferences with every student to help them find and complete the project on time. Maybe even allow them to come in on any day during their finals week to demo their project, thus giving them more time to hang themselves.

I could go into class and act crazy, blaming them into submission or just telling them to give up and noting I was crazy to have even thought they were anything more than a flock of helpless ‘sheep’le who just needed to be led by the nose and given an occasional smack with my shepherd’s crook.

Rao argues that all of these are possible responses, but they confuse accelerating into the crash with trying to manage it . You cannot manage the crash.

It’s easy to convince yourself you’re doing it when in fact you’re bracing for the crash, trying to get it over with, or wishfully seeking a zero state.


This zero state, this reboot state, this bliss of starting over in a state of grace is only possible in computer software, not life.  We live in a world of relative states of crash and burn.

In life and business, crash-only is not a choice but an operating condition, because both are bundles of entrenched habits without on/off switches. Not only are there no kill commands … to forcibly stop behaviors, there is no equivalent to pulling the plug, short of perhaps some sort of controlled brain damage.

What can I do?

Accelerate into the crash, turn into the skid, push the control stick on the plane forward?  It is like asking President Obama what he is going to do now as a lame duck with his party in the minority?  I would tell him to accelerate into the crash.  Do even more executive orders. Push the Senate toward impeaching him.  Push ahead by forcing the crash to unfold faster?

But is it ethical to do this in a classroom?  Does it reveal what a hopeless zombie the classroom is institutionally?   I can only gain control by giving up control?  Was the Google 20% Project doomed from the start with hidden agendas and trap doors?  Rao is pretty damned Yoda in his ultimate paragraph of advice:

At the moment, the best heuristic I have is this: if a behavior change ( not an event or a single decision) brings you immediate relief from anxiety and makes you busier, but without any immediate material change in the environment, it’s likely a case of accelerating into a crash. Often this means giving up doing certain things you’re used to doing, and giving up your resistance to certain things others want to do (which might cause them considerable surprise).

So, according to Rao, what I need to do is change my behavior in a way  that relieves this feeling of failure. I need to be more active and at the same time not give up the project.  Previous habits and solutions are not allowed so I must open up to what my students and others might want to do.  Surprise might be proof of concept. It’s a crash.  What do we have to lose?

I return to the picture above. Rao isn’t giving me an answer to how I can correct and change course, but he surely is providing a promontory from which to stand and look at the field before me. Perhaps I will come up with an answer.  More likely I will get an unexpected surprise  bubble from the cauldron that rises up and pops.   Perhaps from you.  Perhaps in a dream. Perhaps not now but later as I reconsider all the various crashes of this semester and how they might be a Oiuja Board with a very different spirit message for my future.

I can really see the sheep from here. Wow.  I never knew that.


15 thoughts on “Accelerate into the Crash

  1. Sounds painful. I cannot know your students or your context or how your classes have gone before, but here is some brainstorming.

    Crashing could mean you make the assignment deadline even EARLIER, forcing students to crash. Restriction sometimes breeds creativity (well it also creates anxiety but…)

    Crashing could mean you bring them all together in class, and ask each of them to pitch their idea to a few others and help each other discover if it is good or bad (the crash part is not giving them guidelines on how to give good feedback).

    I am wondering though why the individual conferences thing is not an option?

    One last thing, i have previously had v bad feeling about classes, then in the students’ final reflections at the end of the class i find they’ve really learned and enjoyed the class. I once had an awful awful mid-semester assessment by a student (i know who he was coz it was a small group and i knew his writing voice from his blog and knew his views) but in his end of semester reflection he showed me how far he’d come and he enjoyed the class. It was not something to do to get the grade, because WHAT he said was most important, not just his happiness.

    I have often had students tell me at end of semster “we hate that you left us to fend for ourselves, but now we feel confident in our ability to do this on our own” and also, “we were confused and overwhelmed at first but now we know we can do anything”. The looks on these students’ faces were quite discouraging for around half the semester. So maybe you have a good turn coming and you just can’t see it?

    I can’t imagine someone like you who puts so much heart into your teaching would end up with passive students. Can they see your heart? Is your anxiety masking your heart from them? Do they know why you’re doing what you’re doing with them?

    I wish I could help more… But I know I can’t. I don’t know if the answer lies in any theorizing about this, or if it lies in actually speaking to your students about how they feel and where they’re at and what kind of support they may need… Pretty simple, straightforward, may or may not work (try having them write or write together if they won’t talk aloud)

    1. Lots of great ideas. As for the conferences…well, I spend an hour each way getting to my teaching gig and I have other duties at home as well. So…conferences are the best but they are utterly unmanageable in a zero sum time game. That would make them a good way to crash and burn, but my wife would not like that. It would be a good way to crash and burn with students, but I often have no-shows for the conferences (this year has been the worst for that) so I would be the only one crashing. Having made those excuses, I see the merit in much of your suggestions and they are applicable. I think they fit Rao’s criteria well. Now…to get the courage to apply them. One thing about crashing–it is certain.

  2. Crash test dummies.
    No worries. Embrace the ground zero.
    This is testing to teach.
    In the case of zero make, they get grades based on how well they justify zero make. Then u get them to report it in such a way to give u data. I suspect that 20% is reasoned to be too little to invest work in. We had student striking in class – that was fun -asking for a ‘real class’. We have students who still try to work the system – doesn’t work. They get angry – hurrah – a reaction. Up the stakes, get data, get them on your side as much as possible, take bits which can model for a following year. Don’t stop – get allies – team teach. We do information literacy with librarians – they have to choose their own project – we help them build it. If they don’t do the stuff with librarians they get 50% reduction of grade. Use all arms to wake them from apathy. This is war 🙂 Be easy on yourself.

  3. The only way to guaranteed way avoid crashes is to never drive.

    I’m with Maha in suggesting its way too early to call it a crash. And given you’ve had likely great success (with far fewer students than you’d prefer) that’s a non-crash for me. And even end of the semester is really too soon to gauge the impact of this experiences. Many students will have un-crash experiences that come later, and may never let you know.

    I only see some worried swerving, no dead bodies.

    Lighten up on the steering wheel, and let what you put in motion go in motion.

    And enjoy the view.

    1. You’re right that there is a long game here called life. I had a grand example of that the other day. I lost my wallet on campus the other day. I have never lost my wallet in all my days of carrying a wallet. After a couple of days, I was all set to cancel credit cards and do that whole dance when I got an email from someone who just so happened to have found it and who was a former student and who thought enough of our relationship that she saved the day. That is part of the long game that I practiced assiduously when I taught high school where my motto was to treat everyone right, follow the Golden Rule, you never know who might be teaching you how to use a colostomy bag. A pretty rugged and unruly motto but one that continues to keep me in good stead.

      The crash is happening, but the road flares ain’t out yet so maybe I can just get some former students to push me back on the road.

  4. I don’t have the magic words. Probably, I never did.
    But your post reminded me of the time when I had a university professor in my grad program who opened up the learning to us, the students, and how odd and strange and, yes, discomforting that felt.
    I was so used to being told .. do this this way and you’ll make your way to the next class and then do this this way and make your way to the … and so when that was not the case, and I was on my own, I crashed. I burned. I regrouped. I rebuilt. I thought, if he wants it, he’ll get it, and proceeded to create my first multimedia piece that shot into many directions because I felt free to do that.
    I still remember that story, that time, that uncertainty. I don’t remember the essays I wrote on deadline for any of my college classes, or many of the books I read in college. But you damn well better believe I remember that story (and still have it on my portable hard drive) and that experience of making that story, and how free and fearful I felt that I might fail the class. I didn’t. You might still reach some students, if not now, then later (which runs up against the constricting walls of a University Semester).
    Peace, brother …

    PS — By the way, that professor was Charlie Moran, of our Western Mass Writing Project, and whose works on computers and writing in the early days of the National Writing Project informed a lot of thinking of a lot of people. I’m grateful to have known him as a student, as a friend, and as a colleague, and as a writing colleague for our book on writing and technology. I just saw him the other day.

  5. Thanks for sharing this, Terry – so often we get caught up in the cycle of sharing what works and what we are excited about in our classes, and not sharing what we are frustrated with. It seems that there are all kinds of ways to think about this, and one way is to see that you have succeeded in letting the students express themselves – which is to say, instead of engaging in some kind of pro forma, empty, enforced activity (so much of schooling), they opted out, for whatever reasons. That’s valuable information to have! Better tahn compulsory blah blah blah for sure!

    Can you set up some kind of anonymous survey, like a Google Form or something, where they can tell you why they opted out, what they thought of the benefits (or not) of seeing other students’ projects, etc.? That would give you some information to go on for next time, either tweaking the assignment or just moving on.

    I usually try to set up new stuff as a choice because I am never really sure what students WANT to do, so I add in the new “thing” (whatever it is) as a choice: either this thing (established thing I have done in the past that I feel confident about, with good instructions, support, models, etc.) or that thing (the new thing for which I might not have the best instructions, no examples from past students, etc.). By setting it up as a choice like that, I learn a lot from who chooses what, and I also don’t feel like I’ve got the proverbial eggs in the one basket. This semester, for example, I was thinking my students really didn’t like one of the reading options but when I offered them a very desirable (I thought) swap, a surprising number of students still chose the book. I’m honestly still not sure why, and that is my puzzle for the end of the semester.

    It seems to me we can treat every event as a puzzle and solicit massive amounts of feedback from the students. My experience is that students really like giving truly anonymous feedback (sometimes they just need to vent, as we do sometimes also), and they also are really good at giving advice to future students, reflecting on what they might have done differently themselves.

    And please keep sharing. It is so valuable to hear about what people are doing in their classes! I see it as a constant struggle to come up with open-ended activities for students who have had a decade or more of being told what to do and being offered very very very limited freedom of choice. I know that freedom of choice is the way to go… but figuring out how to make that work inside the university zoo, where the cage doors are usually CLOSED, is not easy…

  6. Wow, Terry, as I read this I identified with your frustration. I am sorry you are going though this, as I know you put your heart and soul in it. How lucky that you have a wife who points out the sheep in the distance. 🙂

    I spent the past two weeks working with my principal and asst. principal trying to figure out how to get my team of teachers back on course. It was validating that these two smart, strong leaders felt as confused as I did about why the teachers were not meeting our expectations. After much thought, and meeting, and processing, we decided to have a meeting in which the principal ONLY asked questions, and by doing so, made direct challenges to each staff member. So this was how we structured our team reflection. I wonder if you could do this with your class – have a discussion in which ALL you do is ask questions and allow awkward silence to happen until the students are forced to answer. It might be an interesting dynamic. They have to basically voice answers to the problem themselves (and ideally would help each other answer, once they started to see the process unfolding). This is a way of “shaking things up” so to speak, rebooting.

    I feel your pain, my friend. When our connections don’t connect. Sucks.

  7. Read your post – started sweating! We are accelerating into two crashes! This semester – we have set the ‘Digital Me’ project – hoping that students will discover a digital passion – and we’re seeding it with reference to some of your Zeegas – and with some peer mentor support where the PMs did our module last year. We have had no indication that anyone anywhere has actually set themselves a digital project – except that I saw one PM blog where she wrote that she would not be a good PM if she insisted on helping with the digital project, when the students wanted help with an essay!!!
    Then next semester, we have set an end of year Performance! We have set no creative boundaries for the performance – except to say that it can be song, dance, poetry, drama, an exhibition… anything connected to learning, teaching and/or assessment – and that challenges us in some way.

    1. I love the courage. Your courage. And the advice is so counterintuitive. Pour on the power. Today, I took the time to ask every single student in class about their Google 20% project. And I found out that, yes, some folks are doing. I had one student show me a project on how and why he lifts weights. It was not a long projects–a single page–but it was a detailed weight lifting plan for folks who find it hard to put on muscle weight. He also added an introduction where he spoke about his plan and a conclusion that was a personal rationale along with a story from his own life that could have been told by Charles Atlas in the back of a comic book. OK, the work is being done. As we run out of semester, I predict a total classroom management wreck, but so be it. Sweat, metal, screech, and then you’re through, out of the ditch and back on the road. Just look out for the deer on the road this time of year.

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