Do It Like Doofenshmirtz
**Below is a lightly edited text of my 10 minute Dueling Keynote presented at LearnFestATX in Austin, Texas June 12, 2019**
I’ve been thinking about cartoons a lot lately. It might be because I watch a lot of cartoons
I spend an inordinate amount of my weekends watching Paw Patrol for example. For the record, Paw Patrol is a trap. Its an absolute nightmare and you should avoid it at all costs before it dominates your home. I have paw patrol toys, paw patrol pillows, paw patrol blankets. Basically, anything they can slam a dam paw patrol label on, I have. Don’t be like me.
I was sitting with Jacob, my three-year-old, and we were watching Paw Patrol I thought back to all the awesome cartoons I watched as a kid. Thundercats, He-man, the Flintstones - so many amazing cartoons in our past. As I am watching cartoons with Jacob I couldn't help but think back even to the cartoons I watched with Isaac, my oldest, who is now 11. We watched Gravity Falls and Total Drama Island, and in particular, I remember watching Phineas and Ferb with Isaac.
Now THAT was a show. It had humor, it was smart, it had multiple awesome heroes, - and it had a GREAT villain, Doctor Doofenshmirtz! A great villain with his own jingle - I NEED MY OWN JINGLE!
So let’s talk about Doctor Doofenshmirtz for a few minutes. In an effort to rule the world, or at the very least, the tri-state area, Doofenshmirtz creates incredible devices called inators. Every inator that Doofenshmirtz made failed. The Shrink-inator, the Cute Puppy Call Inator, the Smell inator and the Hot Dog Vendor Revenge-inator are just a few. For the record, the Hot Dog Vendor Revenge-inator was meant to freeze the water the hot dog vendors use so that Doofenshmirtz could start his bratwurst business. I’m stunned that didn’t work. Not only did they fail, but some of them failed in incredible, spectacular ways.
Doctor Doofenshmirtz has a lot of experience with failed inators. I have a lot of experience in failure too. Maybe that’s why I talk about it so much.
I think there is a lesson from this! You see, the inators may have failed him but that didn’t stop him from getting up, dreaming big, and doing it all again. So when I say we need to be more like Doctor Doofenshmirtz, I am saying we need to do two things. We need to make inators, and blow things up spectacularly. Obviously, I don’t mean you need to build a giant robot that sings a song that hypnotizes everyone into doing what you command. I am saying we need to dream big and fail awesomely. Let’s dig into those two ideas.
Inators, in their essence, are big ideas. Some of them might be improbable successes, but they are all BIG IDEAS. Here is the thing about big ideas. Everyone’s big idea is different for the specific person. I frankly don’t care what your big ideas even are though I have a few ideas for you if you find yourself not coming up with one. In almost every talk I give, I eventually get around to encouraging everyone to learn a little bit of Photoshop just a little bit of graphic design makes a huge difference in my mind to your work. I find that as soon as I started to learn how to use Photoshop I was using it all the time. You’ll find so many creative ways to express yourself using Photoshop. I understand that the interface for Photoshop is a little intimidating and can be a bit scary but all big ideas are a little bit scary that’s why we call them big ideas. so that’s just one example. I have a couple friends in the audience who are just starting to take the first steps in gamification. I think this is an amazing big idea if they do this they’re going to change everything about their classroom and that’s scary too but it’s a big idea and I know will be worth it in the end.
I want you to think of your own inators. I want you to dream big. Don’t let the possibility that it might not work stand in your way. We go through so much of our careers as educators afraid of making mistakes, afraid that our students will see us not know the answers, or not know what to do, or where to go next. But it's important to remember that mistakes are one of the most humanizing things about us. When we appear to be vulnerable in front of our students we are telling them that we’re learning alongside them. We know that when students connect their learning to life and can apply what they’ve learned outside of school they are more engaged and take away so much more. What better way to teach kids to reach for everything that is possible than by modeling that in your own classroom? Go build your inators - the big ideas you have for the crazy things you want to do. And if they don’t work out - I want you to fail awesomely.
What do I mean by Fail awesomely? I certainly don’t mean blow up the school or fall from the building like Doofenshmirtz might have done in failure. I am talking about three questions: how do you handle an outcome that isn’t what you expected. How do you convey that outcome to your students? And what do you do next? Friends, how you respond to these three questions in the midst of a project that didn’t work out, is everything.
Just recently we had an issue with a guest who was supposed to come on the podcast. We were having scheduling issues, and time issues - frankly we also had just too much content for one episode. We were really scratching our heads about what to do. Cutting content seemed like a really bad idea, dropping the guest seemed like an even worse idea, we had to come up with a way to manage a completely unexpected issue. And then it hit us that we’ve been doing it all wrong since the start! That is how our newest series in the OnEducation universe, OnEducation Presents, was born. We’ve taken an issue and turned it into, what we think, is going to be a MASSIVE asset down the road. I like talking about that situation because I like talking about taking a setback and turning it into an opportunity. I think, if you are anything like me, there might be dozens of these in your classroom every week. Unexpected situations that, which the right mindset, and a creative approach, can turn into something miles better than you expected in the first place. How do you handle an outcome that wasn’t expected? By seeking out creative opportunities to turn that setback into progress.
How you react to your own mistakes in front of your class, is HUGE. I want to live in a world where we model failure for students. Where students can see you’re working on things just like they are. A world where your kids will be willing to make mistakes but also then be willing to chart a new course with the lessons they’ve learned. They aren’t going to learn how to do that themselves. We need to show them. I once decided my grade 7’s were ready to learn syntax coding. I was getting a little bit of pressure from my admin to teach it, and I wanted to get there. Yet I was conflicted. I have a rule - don’t teach anything unless you can teach it in a way where the kids will find it fun. They have to be able to go home and tell their parents how awesome their day was at school because of that fun thing Mr. Washburn taught them. We know that when our students are enjoying their learning, they will retain more. So I was determined to find a way to make it fun. The problem is, especially in 2014-15, there weren’t many fun syntax code learning experiences. Frankly there are still very few. This makes meeting my expectations really hard. In the end, I settled on using a series of videos I found and splitting them up into lessons. The unit was self-paced and had enough freedom to allow students to be creative with the apps they were going to create. I thought, this might be awesome. It was terrible. They knew it, I knew it. It was the worst. It was NOT fun! So what did I do? I talked to the kids. We agreed that no one was having fun, we also agreed that because it wasn’t fun they weren't really learning as much as they could. Where did the unit go? Away, as fast as possible. I worked with the students to call an audible and come up with a fun programming unit we could do together that was challenging but using the coding systems they knew and enjoyed. I wasn’t afraid to acknowledge I had made a mistake and most importantly, I engaged my students to find a solution that worked for everyone. I feel like in that moment I had modelled the way I would hope they approach their own mistakes. By first identifying and acknowledging them, and then by making adjustments for better outcomes! Our world right now has too many fixed positions, too many unmovable objects. If we leave it to others, that's what they are going to learn. How do you convey a less than positive outcome to your students? BY modeling reactions to your failings.
The hardest part of not getting things right is maintaining the desire to keep working at it. But this process - you can call it design thinking, you can call it iteration, you can call it the launch cycle, call it whatever you like, this process is one of the most critical life skills we can teach our students. This is what I find so amazing about cartoons. So what do you do next when you’ve found yourself not hitting the mark? You get up, dust yourself off, reflect, and get back after it.
So let's all go out there and make our own inators. If you fail, I hope you fail awesomely. If you’re going to do it, you should do it like Doofenshmirtz.