Tuesday, August 6, 2013

"Beg, Borrow, and Steal" isn't great advice

Table of Contents

1. What BB&S Stands For
2. How Artists Get Great
3. Imitating Dan
4. Good vs. Great
5. Call For Comments

1. What "Beg, Borrow, and Steal" Stands For

"Beg, borrow, and steal."

This is how you're supposed to get good at teaching. Especially during your first few years.

Implicit in this advice is that the difference between a lousy teacher and a good one is the stuff that she has at her disposal. It's curricular resources that you're supposed to beg, borrow and steal.

How do teachers get better? If you believe in "Beg, borrow, and steal" then your answer is that when a teacher starts out, she has very few good lessons at her disposal. With time, she accumulates good material. Some of it she creates, but much of it she takes from colleagues or books.*

* It's not hard to imagine a day when she finds herself completely satisfied by her collection of curricular resources. Then it's just a matter of plucking lessons out of her binder for the kids.

This belief is widely held.

2. How Artists Get Great

I've been reading "The Great Jazz Pianists," a book of interviews with (you guessed it) great jazz pianists. There's a line that keeps popping up when these musicians talk about how they got good:
"You have to have a model to play from and start by imitating." - John Lewis
"The pianist has to be a careful artist. It's like a painter trying to duplicate the work of an old master. He must get every detail and every fine line. Of course, a true artist wouldn't want to duplicate someone else's work, but he would be capable of it." - Sun Ra 
"In your formative years the influences you're absorbing possess you." - Horace Silver
These musicians recommend learning by imitation. As Sun Ra mentions, this is similar to the process that the old masters used to train new painters. It's also similar to the way that some fiction writers describe their formative years.

George Saunders wrote the book that the New York Times called "the best book that you'll read this year." By his own telling, imitation played a crucial role in his development as a writer:
“If I got tired of [Hemingway], I did a Carver imitation, then a Babel imitation. Sometimes I did Babel, if Babel lived in Texas. Sometimes I did Carver, if Carver had worked (as I had) in the oil fields of Sumatra. Sometimes I did Hemingway, if Hemingway had lived in Syracuse, which, to me, sounded like Carver.”
Across several creative fields, imitation is mentioned as a crucial stage in the development of an expert.


Imitation is different than appropriating or remixing the material of others. If piano players believed in "Beg, borrow and steal" they'd be taking the piano lines of others and memorizing them, incorporating them wholesale into their solos. But they weren't doing that. Instead, the great jazz pianists intensively studied the works of their elders and attempted to imitate them.* As a result, their styles inevitably resembled their master's, until eventually they found their own voices.

If George Saunders "beg, borrowed, and stole," then he'd be using the plots of the great writers, using their phrases and sentences for his own purposes. He didn't do that. Instead, he used imitation as a way to attempt to create stories that he'd love as much as those he'd read.

People don't get better at creative activities by stealing. They get great through imitation.**

* Well, sort of. To be clear, what they were often doing was attempting to play the original work note-for-note, and then later imitating their style.

** Just a quick, very parenthetical, note: there are two ways to talk about your career. You can talk about "being great" or about "making great things." I prefer the latter, and I think that the former is often unhelpful and sort of creepy. But I fall into that language because it's more concise, and I'm sometimes stuck in the "be great" model. On reflection, though, I prefer "make great" to "be great."

3. Imitating Dan

A few months ago, Andrew Stadel posted a snapshot of an exchange rate board and asked if anyone could design a lesson around it. I decided to give it a go.

I started thinking about what I could do with this picture. Since it was an digital, "real-world" picture, I thought of Dan Meyer, and then my mind went to my favorite post of his, "How Do You Turn Something Interesting Into Something Challenging?" I asked myself how Dan pulled that lesson off, and I thought if I could fit this picture into that paradigm. I decided that I could. (E.g. Take different piles of currency and offer them to kids, and ask them to rank them. Then give exchange rates.)

As I was working through Andrew's question, I realized that a lot of my pedagogical knowledge takes the form of lesson exemplars that I hold in my mind. When I face a curricular problem, my first thought is whether I can fit my problem into an of these exemplar approaches.* This is imitation.

* Here's a short list of my exemplars: Dan's liquids, Christopher's hexagons, Paul's exponents, Kate's logarithms and Fawn's slope. More generally, MARS developing metrics lessons. There are more, for sure.

Imitation has been an important part of my development of a teacher so far. My teaching knowledge is structured around certain major landmarks which I use to situate myself in the landscape of teaching. They ground me.

4. Good vs. Great

I may have overstated things, and I'd appreciate pushback in the comments if you think that I did. "Beg, borrow, and steal" is too prominent an adage to be totally false. Of course, everybody needs resources for teaching, and I know that collecting resources can help your teaching get good.

But can you become great through "beg, borrow, and steal"? I'd say that you can't, because becoming great involves finding your own voice as a teacher.*

* Some of you might say: "You can be great at teaching without having your own voice or lesson-style," and I think that we should have a good discussion about this in the comments. I'd say that teaching involves context-specific problems, and you can only solve these problems that are particular to your context with original solutions. Finding original solutions is a creative act, and is impossible without an independent, and ultimately original, style. I also think that original creation is a far more efficient way to solve problems than to seek out resources. Disagreement in the comments, please.

The fundamental issue with "beg, borrow, and steal" is that it emphasizes resources instead of personal development. But resource accumulation has a very low ceiling, compared to personal development, when it comes to improving as a teacher. To illustrate this, consider a story from comedian Patton Oswalt about an up-and-comer who stole jokes. He writes:
Don’t worry – this story has a happy ending. Blaine and I eventually moved west. So did the thief. But when it came time for him to make the transition to television, to movies, to big-time fame and success? He had nothing. And, without going into details, he flamed out, rather spectacularly, on national television. Like, spectacularly.
Maybe "beg, borrow and steal" can help get you through your first year, but will it help you keep growing (and stay interested?) past your fourth?*

* I sometimes wonder whether my general tendency to create my own materials, rather than steal others stuff, was responsible for my particularly rocky first year.

That's my case:  "Beg, borrow, and steal" is fine advice, but it's got a very low ceiling. I don't know how low, but judging from the model of other creative professions, it's no way to get great. If you're interested in reaching the point where teaching is a creative endeavor -- e.g. you're coming up with ideas that are original, and that other teachers might care about -- then I think imitation is a far more reliable model for growth. Personally, I've found imitation particularly helpful, and for me it takes the form of approaching lessons with certain exemplars in mind.

Out with stealing, and on with imitation!

5. Call for Comments

Here are some disagreements that I can anticipate, and while I'd appreciate comments of any kind, I'd especially appreciate comments if you disagree with any of the following:
  • Great teachers are always creative, especially when it comes to lesson-planning
  • "Beg, borrow and steal" isn't good advice, even if it helps in those first few months, because it instills a false model of teacher growth.
  • Artists tend to go through a long(?) period of imitation on their way to creating great things.
As always: thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts. 


  1. I think from any logical perspective the adage is wrong for two out of three. If you use material you find on the internet, you aren't stealing, you aren't begging. You are borrowing. For that matter, how can any of the above be accurate ways of describing Kuta software worksheets?

    That said, I think your entire question depends on how you design lessons. You say you have exemplars you work towards. That's going to give you an entirely different perspective on this subject than I have, because I don't have exemplars. I've always had my own voice, as it were. So yes, in your case, I can see that borrowing may delay the development of your own voice.

    1. "I've always had my own voice, as it were."

      I have never seen you teach, and I have no desire to judge your teaching in particular. So take what follows as a more general speculation. For serious.

      One side of my argument is that stealing is a lousy way to build a personal style and voice. But using the model of great artists, I'd also argue that imitation is a necessary step on the road to a valuable original voice.

      Imitation is the way that jazz piano players develop technique, and it sounds to me as if this is how George Saunders used it as well. While it's possible to write in a distinctive voice using few tools, a flexible technique helps you see more possibilities where a weaker writer might see a few. This makes your work more interesting and more vibrant, I believe, though there are certainly exceptions to this rule.

      (Though I wonder whether the exceptions are one-hit wonders, so to speak.)

      So, imitation builds technique and opens up possibilities for one's emerging personal style. I think that this applies to teaching as well.

      I think a good case study for this is the difference between the careers of Jerry Seinfeld and Louis CK. Jerry succeeded almost instantly, but now comes off as bored with comedy, and has had a sort of static style that hasn't evolved in interesting ways. Louis CK, on the other hand, has had a winding career, and success came relatively late to him. Now he finds himself with a wide variety of skills that he's mashing together in all sorts of interesting ways.

      (Though, of course, Seinfeld imitates plenty. Especially Cosby and Carlin.)

    2. Well, I disagree with your assessment of the careers of Seinfeld and Louis CK, but let's leave that aside, since I don't think it's relevant.

      There are many, many ways to become a good jazz musician. Some riff off others, others develop their own style, the one that everyone else riffs off of. This is likewise true of artists and actors.

      You are basically saying that there is just one way to become a teacher, by picking the teachers that mirror your self-concept of what a teacher should be, by slavishly imitating that group, and then building your own voice by trial and error as you see what works in the classroom. I agree that's one way, particularly useful for people who know their material, but don't know teaching and had no clear understanding of what it involved before they entered the profession.

      What I think you are failing to realize is that many teachers came to the subject with a clear vision of the type of teacher they want to be. These teachers were not perplexed by the topic, not stumped by the classroom, and consider the topic matter just the medium, not the message. Those teachers would never find your method helpful, or even thinkable. And for you to insist they adopt your method, with the implicit message that only using your method could they become new teachers, really only shows that, while they understand your challenge, you don't understand theirs.

    3. If a first-year teacher has a clear vision of the type of teacher that they want to be, and that vision isn't ridiculous, then that teacher is the exception. Of course, there always will be exceptions, and for that reason I wouldn't go so far as to say that there's just one way to become a teacher. But how many new teachers have visions that aren't misguided?

      Of course of course: there are some new teachers that, through some mixture of luck and experience, landed on a non-bad vision on their way into the profession. But do most? Or even many?

    4. I wonder how (if?) there would be a different mindset (growth vs. fixed) between these two types of teachers, one who has a "clear" vision and one who hasn't quite figured out what their vision is as they enter the classroom.

    5. "then that teacher is the exception."

      You know this because......?

      Of course, lots of teachers have visions that are misguided. Many teachers' clear vision involves them performing before a rapt room of engaged students, who have been completely transformed by a meaningful lesson, which of course they've never had before, thanks to all the horrible, uncaring teachers they've suffered through.

      And when they determine that doesn't work, some of them resolve to find good exemplars. But most continue to adapt and adopt their own vision.

      Others come to the classroom knowing largely what to expect, have a clear vision of what they want to do, and execute it, modifying it as they see what works and doesn't work.

      That doesn't mean they never see useful ideas from others. It just means that they don't start with someone else's base.

      There was just recently a conversation on Twitter where a few people in the math blogosphere were dismissive of a chemistry teacher who said he didn't tweet or blog to become a better teacher. It wasn't just "hey, I do it differently". It was "if you aren't tweeting to be a better teacher and engage others, then what on earth are you doing it for?"

      Ironically, the people who argue for "learning from others" and "copying until you find your own voice" tend to be a tad rigidly doctrinaire about what others must do, too.

    6. Everyone comes into the profession with someone else's base, be it how they were previously taught or what resources they used to self-teach. In a way, we are all biased from previous experiences in regard to how we choose to teach. It's how we react to those biases that determines the growth of a teacher.

    7. Everyone comes into the profession with someone else's base, be it how they were previously taught or what resources they used to self-teach. In a way, we are all biased from previous experiences in regard to how we choose to teach. It's how we react to those biases that determines the growth of a teacher.

    8. As I think about EdRealist's comments some more, I think my initial response is the wrong one. I'm happy to agree that many, if not most, teachers come into teaching with a decent vision for their classrooms, and then spend their careers chasing that.

      But I don't get why having a clear method makes imitation useless to you. Analogy: I might have a clear vision for my story-writing ("I want to write stories that keep people on the edge of their seats") but have no way to achieve that. In my mind, this is where imitation is helpful, at least in the early stages. (Which is where I see myself, teaching-wise.)

      Also, just to clarify: I don't have anything invested in whether teachers imitate or not. It just strikes me as good advice.

    9. "Everyone comes into the profession with someone else's base, be it how they were previously taught or what resources they used to self-teach."

      I disagree with this. Not everyone comes to teaching as a 22 year old, for one thing. But not even all 22 year olds come in with someone else's base.

      "But I don't get why having a clear method makes imitation useless to you."

      I don't think I said useless, but I did say "Those teachers would never find your method helpful, or even thinkable". To clarify, I meant your entire message--starting with exemplars, and so on. If you read my other posts, I made it clear, I think, that borrowing is good.

      I see imitation as fundamentally different from borrowing.

  2. The first time I'm teaching a course, I try to get all the materials another teacher used. And then I do what I can to add my own sorts of resources. Not much the first time, but a little. The second time, I've seen a bit of what students struggle with, and start trying to address that.

    It took me many years before I managed to get away from the textbooks to any significant extent. I am happier now that I feel more like it's my course, and not the textbook author's course.

  3. The biggest difficulty most new teachers face is they have spent years at university slowly specializing into a field and now they will be asked to teach generally across a range of topics. Add to that if they start in a small school they often are asked to teach across the curriculum into areas they didn't specialize. What you did a review at university here have a year 7 drama class, was an actual conversation I had.
    So while the bbs model isn't the greatest it will save you a lot of time in those early years of constantly creating new material and just getting your head around how schools actually operate.
    The analogy of the jazz musician isn't unjust but a "great" teacher in this age is needing to change the direction of education making it hard to return to the "what worked before" model that applies to music. You can play around in the C chord as much as you like as a musician you still have something to base yourself off, bbs is that for education, start with what is solid and build something great.
    I've been teaching for many years and still want to know that I have a safety net of good reliable worksheets, notes and activities to use if my new idea for the topic turns out to be a disaster and I've got 30 minutes till the end of class to recover.

    Just my 2 cents. Great article providing some food for thought.
    Might a better question be to the supervising teachers, "What could we provide a new teacher to help them become great?"

  4. Love this post.

    3 of my biggest takeaways from the MIT Media Lab Learning Creative Learning course were: get students to a maker mindset, focus on powerful ideas, and the remix. Of those it was the remix that gave me the most trouble. It feels like cheating. There's some good evidence, though, that this is how most creative types learn to do what they do.

    There's always a danger of getting caught up in semantics, especially with a trio of high connotation words like BBS. Austin Kleon's Steal Like an Artist gets at it the way I like. Here's his one page: http://www.flickr.com/photos/deathtogutenberg/6784163064/

    Kirby Ferguson is good on this, and had a panel with Austin at SXSW. http://austinkleon.com/2012/03/12/sxsw-remix-panel/

    To me, if you're stealing stuff, you won't get better. If you're stealing process, like your story about Dan's key-for-you post, it leads to getting better, and developing your own style.

  5. Long ago, to help myself understand what I thought great teaching was, I made a list of my favorite teachers. I noticed that overall, the men and the women who were on that list were different. Most of the men were good performers, and most of the women were good facilitators. I wanted both.

    The students did good thinking in the classrooms of the facilitators, where we might have been entertained in the classrooms of the performers. But performers can be very inspiring, and that may lead to more time spent thinking on your own, outside of class.

    What I didn't see clearly back then was the flaw in the script of the standard U.S. math classroom. I don't think any of those facilitating teachers were math teachers. (I had one great woman math teacher, and she was a good lecturer, good at answering questions, and inspiring. She facilitated my learning through good questions we had to deal with as homework.) Facilitating mathematical discussion in the classroom goes against the grain of what students have come to expect, and takes real skill and confidence.

    Working with math circles has helped me work toward changing that script. Blogging has helped me keep my ideals in mind throughout the semester. The push for SBG (a name I don't care for) has gotten me to increase the ways my students can show me what they know (mostly by retesting (with different versions of the tests). Writing a book got me to stop treating the textbook as the framework for my course.

    I think students resistance to the hard thinking I ask them to do (as I take away the script they're used to) is lessened by what I am offering them with test retakes. My performance style: cheerleader for math, and math enthusiast. My facilitation style: getting pairs, groups of four, and whole class discussions happening, along with celebrating mistakes.

  6. A truly great athlete or musician is rare. If you played sports, you probably never played against one. Even if you very generously define great as the top 0.1%, most of us will never be in the same district as a great teacher.

    How many teachers do you know that are great? How do you know they are great? How many lessons have you observed that were taught by great teachers? The performances of great athletes or musicians is a click away. Not so for great teachers.

    1. Your definition of great seems arbitrary to me. Who says that it's the top 0.1%? Maybe it's the top 10%? Top 20%?

      Anyway: I assume (without evidence) that the methods of the greats have something to teach us about how learning and improvement, in general, happen. The techniques of the greats work for everyone, but we don't apply them as carefully or systematically as that top 0.1% or whatever.

    2. Obviously great is a subjective word. You mentioned old masters & Hemingway, so I assumed you were thinking of “great” in a very exclusive way (like at least the top 0.1%). My point is that exposure to really exceptional teachers is quite limited.

      I have a lot of colleagues that are very good teachers and I have learned a lot from them. I can’t pick out one or two of us as being the best and I can’t begin to rank us from best to worst – different styles and strengths and weaknesses. Shockingly, we don't have a Hemingway or a great master. I think my case is typical.

  7. “Implicit in this advice is that the difference between a lousy teacher and a good one is the stuff that she has at her disposal. It's curricular resources that you're supposed to beg, borrow and steal.”

    We agree on our stance towards “Beg, Borrow, and Steal.” It comes from a bad place – consisting of a poor understanding of teaching – where the “quality” of the stolen materials define the quality of the teacher. But enough on what we agree on, that’s not what I came here for :)

    “I am unsure whether imitation is a necessary step. Also uneasy about the concept of landmarks and exemplars.”

    I was a bit tired when I tweeted this, but my unease remains.
    Without spending too much time on organizing my thoughts, I’ll just type it out and hope it makes sense.

    - While your analogy serves us well when illustrating why BB&S is the wrong path towards creative activities, I don’t think the leap to teaching is all that smooth. Or at least, the jump to imitation doesn't sit well with me.

    - My first issue with imitation actually goes along with the second part of my tweet. What determines the landmarks and exemplars? There are certainly more than one. What makes these exemplars worth imitating? Exemplars for whom, by whom?

    - There are certainly shared qualities of these “exemplars” that we want to capture, but I am unsure that imitation of approaches gets at the depth – the understanding of why the approaches were “great.” If one purely imitates without thinking deeply about the pedagogy and reflecting on how it was constructed, facilitated, and assessed, then I am uncertain that he/she would naturally become “great” (or “make great”)

    - Another gut reaction I had was: what about student dynamics? It feels like there is too much emphasis on “a lesson” when the focus should be on the students we’re trying to engage with these imitations of exemplars. I think it’s better if we shift the thinking slightly from “How do I fit my activity into one of these exemplar approaches” to “How do I engage this class of students best”

    Just serving as pushback to my own pushback. I do think that imitation, to some degree, is inevitable due to our own experiences, and what we have identified as our own values. In any case, this is all just me thinking out loud anyway.

    1. 1. I think everyone picks their own exemplars. I'm not sure if you're hearing something in the post that's indicating that I might tell new teachers who to imitate, but I think that would be a terrible idea.

      2. Agreed about your point about how mindless imitation is rarely helpful. But mindless anything is rarely helpful. What I like about imitation is that I often come up short, I have to figure out why, then I have to figure out what was behind my exemplar's success.

      3. I think that focusing on lessons is more productive than focusing on classroom dynamics, in the abstract. I wouldn't even say that the lesson is the most important aspect of teaching. Instead, focusing on the successful implementation of a lesson is a concrete way to think about everything else, including dynamics, assessment, engagement.

  8. I'm worried that if we write our entire curriculum from scratch, we are likely writing subpar materials that students learn less from and take time away from other tasks (giving strong written feedback, building relationships with students, observing other teachers) that are also valuable. I agree that practicing writing material from scratch is the best way to get better--but in the kids best interest, if there are materials that have worked before, I believe they are a valid and valuable jumping off point.

  9. One thing that strikes me about this conversation, which I will oversimplify to 'Imitation versus BB&S' is the fact that our profession rarely affords us the easy opportunity for enough observation to lead to imitation. Any aspiring painter can imitate Van Gogh since there are SO many easily accessible representations. Any aspiring jazz pianist can listen to Thelonious Monk play Round About Midnight over and over and over again. It is rare for a beginning teacher to be able to watch and absorb other teachers' work. Sure, we can rely on our memories and analyze them the way Sue hinted above. However, I see a few problems here. Our memories of anybody are colored by who we were at the time. I am certain that my memories of my high school Calculus teacher (Hello Mr. Felps!) are different than my impressions would be now if I were to watch him work. I firmly believe that we need to create a model in school where beginning teachers do not have the same load as experienced teachers and the expectation is that they spend time in various classrooms observing and questioning. I agree with Michael's assertion that imitation is a more productive path than the BB&S mantra. I also suspect that we all know that this conversation is not about a dichotomy between one path or the other, we are looking for where the emphasis should be when imagining the best path for developing strong teachers.

    Regarding the idea of a brand new teacher having a clear vision. I don't think it matters whether you are 22 when you begin or 62 when you begin. It seems to me that it is clear that a beginner's vision of their goals are necessarily not as rich as the vision of someone with some hands-on experience.

    1. I don't think it's clear at all, but that's irrelevant. It's not the clarity of the vision, it's the source. If you have a vision, and it's working, then you build from that vision.

      As for the dearth of opportunities to watch good teaching, I think there's a bigger problem: we don't agree on what "good teaching" is.

  10. The lesson study body of research supports Michael's point 3 above. Lesson focus, in particular focus on student learning from a lesson, combined with an opportunity to modify and reteach and teacher-to-teacher discussion is a powerful engine for professional improvement.

  11. Maybe your title got some people focused in the wrong direction. I like what Mr Dardy said about it not being one path or the other, but more a matter of emphasis.

    Any time I'm just starting out with something, I want to use someone else's materials. I'll modify them to suit my style, but I need a starting point. Math circle leaders often say that the hardest part of doing math circles well is finding good problems.

    On the other side, I know that observing really good teachers is a golden opportunity. (Yes again to Mr Dardy: "our profession rarely affords us the easy opportunity for enough observation to lead to imitation.") But maybe imitation isn't the right word for what I want. When I see something I like, I analyze it and, if it fits my overall style, try to find a way to bring it into my practice, but changed, because I will have made it my own.

    A painter may imitate (copy) Van Gogh for practice, but would never show those paintings. The Van Gogh-ish elements will be visible to an experienced art critic, but will be changed by the painter's own sensibilities. Same with a musician, I'd imagine.

    We can't practice without students, and wouldn't want to try to 'be' someone else. So we probably do it differently than the artists.

    I think my interest in learning how not to answer questions led me to direct too little in the math circles I led. (I am way less experienced with math circles than with teaching in a classroom setting.) That same interest has gotten incorporated into my classroom teaching style pretty well over the last five years. I think if I treat math circles like my classrooms, I might be ok there too.

    Here's a very good particular example. I don't want to 'imitate' Bob Kaplan in any global sense, because we are different sorts of people. But I have found this list of things he says very helpful to look over from time to time.

    1. Sue

      Your remark about trying to 'be' someone else is a key statement. I was lucky enough that my graduate school advisor had also been the advisor of my Calculus teacher in high school. I saw Mr. Felps (the calc teacher) as an exemplar of what I hoped to be. During my first year when I was struggling I had lunch with my advisor and I told him that I was trying to figure out how Mr. Felps would have handled a certain situation. He very firmly reminded me that I was not Mr. Felps and that my job was to figure out how Mr. Dardy would handle the situation. That lesson was an important one to learn.

      Thanks for the kind words, by the way!