It’s Not About the Next Step

I wonder if we are asking the right question.

“What do you do next?” “Now what do you do?” “What comes next?”

Questions of this ilk inadvertently create a sense of tension between the person asking the question, and the person being asked to answer it, because it implies that the person doing the asking already knows the answer. The person responding has to try and figure out what the “right” answer is to satisfy the person asking.

The person asking is in the driver’s seat of this learning exchange. The person asking is really just along for the ride.

The person doing the asking is typically the teacher. The person answering is typically the student.

I think we are asking the wrong question because the teacher is still leading the student down the path that the teacher wants the student to go. The teacher’s response will cause the student to turn left or right, regardless of what direction the student said they wanted to go.

We want to be asking questions that build agency in students by letting them sit in the driver’s seat, and has the teacher as the passenger.

Conversations with my MVIFI colleagues Chris Andres and TJ Edwards have helped make this idea coalesce. Because our dialogues have been typically in the maker-centered learning arena of MDE, I’ll use that context to illustrate the point.

Meet Jack.


Jack wants to make a scribble bot.


But Jack doesn’t know how to make a scribble bot. On the unknown path to reaching his goal, Jack is at the left end of the path while the scribble bot is at the far right end.


In order for Jack to create his scribble bot, his thought process cannot start off going from left to right – well, it can… but it isn’t efficient. There are too many choices and unknowns for him at this point. His first move may actually not even be in the right direction. And his next step after that may still be moving him further away from his goal, but he doesn’t know that because he’s never made a scribble bot before.


Now, while I’m the first to admit that trying something as an experiment, and finding out that it doesn’t work, is an incredibly valuable learning opportunity that teachers do not typically allow their students to have enough of. It’s so important that we even coined the phrase “pHail” to identify the experimental nature of learning. But that shouldn’t mean that we don’t help students think about their planning process.

TJ says it best when he talks about, “Backing up into the steps that need to be done.” The notion of backwards planning is the skill that we need to help students develop.

Consider how this works with Jack’s scribble bot project.


Working backward from what his desired goal is, Jack can decompose the desired outcome into mini-goals. Building the scribble bot might then have the mini-goals of:

  • make a face
  • make an offset motor
  • attach markers to the box


These mini-goals get decomposed as well. “Make an offset motor” breaks down into “attach a propeller” and “connect a battery to a motor”. It goes further as Jack thinks about how to connect the wires, and perhaps further still depending on the prior knowledge Jack has.


Each mini-goal gets evaluated by the student to see if they have the knowledge, skill, and/or understanding to be able to accomplish that goal. Jack might inspect an example scribble bot – an Instigation – and discover that he doesn’t know what the shiny, silvery metal is that connects the wires together. That opportunity for looking closely has now given him a direction to focus his learning efforts: “What is this stuff called solder and how do I use it? And why does it have a silent ‘L’ in it? Is that why my YouTube searches kept coming up empty?” 🙂

Here’s where the concept of pHails finds a role to play… Students can experiment with the sequence that their mini-goals can be completed in. They themselves are now trying to lay out the steps from left to right. The students are creating “the order” of the steps, which is a poor way of phrasing this because there are undoubtedly “many orders” – some that will work, and some that won’t. The important thing is that the students are the ones evaluating their experiments because they know the step they are trying to get to; if it doesn’t work, find out why and try again – a new technique, or new material, or maybe a new step altogether. The student is in the driver’s seat.

Students can even discover if they missed a mini-goal, like “attach the motor to box”. And it’s these omissions that become immediately apparent when they try to consider what order that the mini-goals should be completed in. It’s no longer a guessing game because so much of the complexity that lay hidden in the completed project has been revealed through exploration via decomposing. Looking at projects this way is a valuable ability in a maker-centered learning environment, as articulated by a former student of mine.

Ow.ly – image uploaded by @smartinez (Sylvia LibowMartinez)

This reverse thought process works for more than just maker-centered projects. Consider students that have identified a public product for their PBL; they stand to benefit from this approach. So could a student designing their own experiments in their AP classes. Even solving math problems works this way – from knowing you need to isolate a variable but wondering how, to the more authentic problem-solving processes outlined by Dan Meyer’s Three Acts. Heck, even UbD asks teachers to backward design – so much so that the best educators do it instinctively, without even realizing they are doing it.

So HMW give students the chance to develop their backward planning capabilities to the point it becomes an automatic response?

HMW shift from asking, “What’s the next step?” to “What are your steps?”?

By Jim Tiffin Jr. (Cross-posted on my personal blog, Building Capacity)

Image Credits:

stepping stones by glennharper, on Flickr
stepping stones” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by glennharper – Modified with permission

Images in this post, but not shown in the Image Credits section, are my own.

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