Monday, September 3, 2018

One Chip

Math has always been my strength. I understand concepts and catch onto new ones quickly. It could be baffling, then, that my favorite game when I am in Las Vegas is roulette. For those unfamiliar, roulette involves a wheel with numbers equally spaced around it. As the player, you place chips down on a mat that has corresponding numbers to the wheel, hoping that a ball spun on the wheel lands on your number.

Mathematically, it is a tough game to play. The odds of winning are far lower than most casino games. I have learned various strategies in the game from observing others. My approach, frequently, is to have a chunk of go-to numbers that I play, spreading out my chips to try to increase my chances of winning. I do hit a number usually, but my return is smaller since I usually only have a dollar chip on the number. 

I promise this post is not about gambling! Something happened over the summer that provided an amazing “a-ha” moment in connection to teaching. I was presenting in Vegas this summer, and one night some friends and I went to the casino. I naturally gravitated to the roulette table, and my friends stood around to observe. I gave the dealer $100 and asked for my $1 chips so I could extend my time and go about my usual strategy.

Between spins, a man came over to the table, threw down $100 bill and said to the dealer, “One chip.” He proceeded to put his $100 chip on black, which meant that if the wheel stopped on a black number he would double his money, and if it did not he would be out $100. It landed on red. He shrugged his shoulders and walked away.

Afterwards, my friends and I were a bit aghast at this maneuver and the “all-in” approach in which this man took. Later, I thought about it more and realized that as educators, we have parallel approaches to our teaching and schools: 1) the small chunks of deposits that we put into our students and classroom over time, or 2) the “all-in” strike that can blow the roof off a place. 

In the end, we hope for a “payoff,” namely, student achievement. With the first approach, this usually comes in incremental gains. Examples of this might be small flexible groups, book studies, debate, Kagan strategies, or inquiry-based learning. These strategies do not produce instant results in isolation, but spread out over time, and you can make gains with consistent use. On the flip side, you have the “all-in” approach, where you are putting a lot of stake into one focused experience. Examples of this might include a room transformation, professional development speaker or conference, or a presentation. 

With both approaches, there are naturally going to be pros and cons. With the first, mistakes usually go unnoticed. If something is going wrong, it is not hard to make the correction the next day. The downside is that results take time. With the latter approach, your eggs are in one basket. If it works, you are a hero, if it fails, you may not get a second chance. 

In my opinion, good teaching and leadership involves both of these approaches. Balance is important and finding strategic ways to pace your teaching, but also throwing in there occasional “all-in” moments provides students with consistency and excitement, which is important for maintaining engagement for teachers and students.