What is rapid prototyping and how can it apply to the ELT classroom?

Tom Chi google X rapid prototyping

Tom Chi is an internet veteran with quite some resumé. His roles have been many and varied – from astrophysical researcher to Fortune 500 consultant and corporate executive developing new hardware and software products and services.

He worked on Microsoft Outlook when it was in its infancy, was a major influence in taking Yahoo Search from 0 to 90 million users and is now Head of Product Experience at Google X – Alphabet’s secretive division focused on creating technological innovations for the future. It has produced the self-driving car, Google Glass and is working on Project Loon, which aims to provide internet to every square inch of the earth.

Today at Google X, Tom is in a unique position – always having to think five, ten or even more years ahead in order to conceptualize and build the technology of the future. As you might imagine, this is far from an easy task; not only do the ideas have to be original, but they have to meet people’s future needs – something that is not easy to predict.

What’s more, while Tom and the others at Google X might be thinking about the future all the time, they have to rely on current materials and technology in order to create new things.

And that’s where Rapid Prototyping comes in. It’s a concept that allows teams to experiment, learn and adjust prototypes quickly and cheaply, so that projects (and products) get off the ground. Failure is seen as a starting block and an inevitable part of the learning process.

Following his workshop, which he delivered in our internal conference at the start of June, we are going to look further at rapid prototyping and how it it can relate to the ELT classroom.

First of all, what are the rules of Rapid prototyping?

According to Tom, rapid prototyping follows 4 main principles:

Prototyping Rule #1:

You must find the quickest path to experience. Ideas are nothing until they have been tested; prototyping is the quickest path to go from guessing into direct experience. You will soon see an idea’s strengths, weaknesses and potential once you have tried it.

Prototyping Rule #2:

Doing is the best kind of thinking. People are very good at imagining things, but until we try them, we won’t know what works and what doesn’t. By actually doing something we’ll come up with new ideas, new challenges and new solutions.

Prototyping Rule #3:

Prototyping follows a distinct pathway: from conjecture, to experimentation, to results and finally decision-making.  

Prototyping Rule #4:

Prototyping helps us reason in time and space: instead of lots of planning, imagination and guesswork, it makes us build something real, considering real use cases and real situations.

How does rapid prototyping affect progress?

The rapid prototyping learning loop follows this pattern:

  1. Building a variation
  2. Testing with customers
  3. Observing results
  4. Adjusting from results

This process allows us to dramatically increase the chances of success in any given project. For example, if an idea has a 5% chance of success, by trying it 20 times there is a 64% chance of success and by trying it 50 times, there is a 92% chance of success.

Considering that each time an idea is prototyped learning takes place, the chances of success are likely even higher with every trial.

But wait, what has rapid prototyping got to do with the ELT classroom?

Tom shows how a technology giant like Google can innovate and produce results quickly and efficiently through rapid prototyping – and all the while he is explaining how much faster learning is when we experiment and do things.

Encouraging Project-based work

Of course, our students are not innovating or building new products for tech companies, they are aiming to learn a language. But as Tom said, learning by doing is much faster and more effective than simply conjecturing and talking about theories.

Following his first rule of prototyping (find the quickest path to experience), we need to give students the experience of using the language as fast as possible. Project and task-based learning allows students to build their vocabulary, test their grammar and overall communications skills in an authentic way.

Read our article Teaching methods: An introduction to TBLT for more on task-based language teaching.

This also covers Tom’s second rule (doing is the best type of thinking). If we can tap into our students’ creativity, we can allow them to experiment with language, discover what they know and what they don’t know, and then really work on learning the things they need for certain tasks.

When it comes to Tom’s third rule (conjecture; experimentation; results; decision-making), the teacher has more responsibility. We need to look at how we benchmark, measure and analyze our learner’s progress. Without a pathway, our students will not know how they are progressing and may easily lose motivation. The students therefore need to have a firm idea of their abilities, when they need to learn, how they are currently performing. We can then make decisions regarding individual class plans and syllabi.

Read our article How long does it take to learn a new language? for more on this.

Finally, by exposing our students to authentic materials, we cover Tom’s fourth rule (reason in time and space). Authentic readings, listenings and videos, give learners the opportunity to work with real-world language, trying out what they are learning in authentic contexts. It helps them imagine using the language outside of the safe environment of the classroom too, giving them the challenge they need to push them into learning faster.

Fostering a growth mindset

The very fact that Tom’s team is able to imagine and prototype what seem like impossible ideas – that then have the potential to change the world – is awe-inspiring.

His vision, tenacity, and methodology is something we can all learn from. At the heart of the experimentation and learning at Google X lies a growth mindset.

As we covered in a previous article, if we help our students develop a growth mindset, they will see failure as an opportunity to learn, as well as “a challenge as a chance to grow, and feedback as a constructive way to improve.”

Learning is a dynamic process. As teachers, it’s important for us to look outside the world of education to find inspiration and ideas. We hope this has sparked your curiosity and added a dash of inspiration for your future classes.

How are you inspiring your students to learn? Comment below and tell us how you are using projects and authentic materials in your classes!

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