As a Teach for America teacher in New York City, Tess Brustein felt she needed more feedback on what she was doing in her classroom. And while I suppose it’s easy to dismiss that as an indictment on the very brief training that TFA participants receive, I think it’s actually a problem that many teachers face: how do you cultivate support from mentors and coaches in the service of improving your teaching practices? How do you get meaningful feedback from your peers?
Of course there are plenty of professional development sessions that purport to do this. But they’re frequently divorced from actual classroom practices. And when someone does come into the classroom to observe you as a teacher, it’s often a supervisor and as such can greatly influence the way both teachers and students respond.
So Brustein has co-founded SmarterCookie, which launched last week, to help tackle this problem. It’s a fairly simple and obvious solution: record a short video of your lesson, upload the video to the SmarterCookie site, and then invite other teachers (or coaches or principals or professors…) to view the video. “Teachers have full control over who sees this,” Brustein stresses.
These videos are viewed on the SmarterCookie website, where viewers can give feedback. The point isn’t just vague or overarching compliments or critiques — “good job” or “needs to be explained more clearly.” Indeed, SmarterCookie has a guide to help teachers think about the kind of feedback they should leave for their peers (i.e. feedback that’s direct, that’s actionable). To that end, comments are all timestamped so that they can reference a specific point in the video.
I do wonder how/if the availability of Mozilla’s Popcorn.js,, which similarly allows timestamped markup and commentary of online videos (among other things), particularly with its easy-to-use Popcorn Maker tool (coming soon), will impact SmarterCookie’s development and adoption. In other words, is this something that teachers will do and build for themselves and/or is this a viable business?
Yet with calls for more teacher “accountability,” there is likely going to be increasing demand for classroom observation tools, and so SmarterCookie might be well-positioned to tap into that market. More interesting — to me at least — are the ways in which video can be utilized to help teachers reflect and improve their own practice by sharing with and learning from their peers. So unlike tools that are intertwined with the more disciplinary mechanisms of surveillance and “accountability,” SmarterCookie is building this tool as a way for teachers to help teachers, and not for administrators to monitor and assess their staff — an important difference that hopefully this startup will be able to retain as it develops.
SmarterCookie, while still in its early stages, is part of the latest cohort of ImagineK12-incubated startups.