The Art of Possibility

I just finished reading two letters from the future. One is dated June 3, 2011. The other June 10, 2011. Today is April 19, 2011 fully 7 weeks before these letters. Each was written by a student who is working with me on an independent study this quarter. Each letter starts out saying:

Dear Professor Socha,

I got my A because of the …

Say what? Why have students written me a letter from the future? What do these letters have to do with this course? Why are they proclaiming that they got an A, when there are still 7 weeks left to go in the quarter?

It is all part of an experiment I am doing.

The letters are part of the “Giving an A” practice described in The Art of Possibility, a book by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander. I’d heard about this book about a year ago while working as a ScrumMaster at T-Mobile, when I was talking with another ScrumMaster about motivation and reward systems. The idea of the Giving an A practice is to create more motivated and engaged students that then learn more by (a) having the students envision their own success, and (b) removing the grade stress. As we now know, too much stress in a creative endeavor like software engineering results in diminished performance. And less learning. It was an interesting discussion, and I gave it no further thought.

Until last quarter. I was riding home in the bus and talking with Valentin Razmov. Valentin used to be my teaching assistant when I taught Software Engineering in the Computer Science and Engineering department at UW Seattle in the early 2000’s. We had worked together, published a few papers on our pedagogy, and Valentin went on to write a dissertation that expanded on the type of teaching we had done together.

Now, 7 years later, Valentin was teaching a special topics course in the Computing and Software Systems program here at UW Bothell, and was considering using the Giving an A practice. Of course, I encouraged him to do it, so that I could vicariously learn from his experience. He did it (which probably had little to do with my encouragement), and it worked well for him.

So, when two students asked to do an independent study with me this quarter and wanted grades, instead of the much-easier-to-grade credit/no-credit, I saw a chance to continue the Getting an A experiment. The students agreed to write me a letter, dated the last day of the course, explaining what they had done to deserve an A.

The real surprise came today when I received and read the students’ letters: I was surprised at how touched I was by their letters. They wrote about how meaningful their successes had been to them and how much they have changed, and I was so happy for them. This is fictional, remember! They haven’t done the things they mentioned in the letter. At least not yet. I knew that, and I was emotionally moved by what they said. It is wonderful to get a letter like this from a student. And, sadly, too rare.

One of the students signed the letter “With appreciation”. Oh my.

I like this practice.

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About davidsocha

In autumn 2010 after spending 19 years working in a variety of software organizations as a programmer, architect, manager, teacher, ScrumMaster, product designer, change agent, and agile coach, I finally listened to what everyone had been telling me I should be doing and joined the University of Washington Bothell as an Assistant Professor in Computing & Software Systems. My interests are how to create and maintain great teams, particularly those in software development organizations. I am most interested in distinctions that dramatically increase the effectiveness of teams, such as systems thinking, design thinking, biomimicry, and human centered design. I am a pragmatist, a collaborator, and an optimist.
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