Always looking to grow in our understanding of new education practices and the changes taking place, we here at Carney Sandoe (CS&A) have been energized by the trends we see happening in independent schools. We have had a long-standing culture of trying to improve and adapt as a company in our 40 years, and we have seen the trends of 21st century education – typified by design thinking, project based learning, the maker movement, experiential learning, and social-emotional learning – as parallel to our own attempts to reflect and change our age old practices. At our annual company retreat each September (which we call the Summit), and over the course of the past two decades, we have found ourselves most excited when we’re been assigned books written by Malcolm Gladwell, Daniel Pink, and Jim Collins. Each year, we try to look to use the lessons from these readings internally.
I work specifically with Physics, STEM, Design, and Maker Placement here at CS&A, an area in which we've seen a tremendous amount of growth and change over the past few years, and it's something near and dear to me. Having grown up and attended a public school in Upstate New York, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to take part in the Project Lead the Way Program as a student. I was exposed to engineering courses early in my high school career, and found a love for working with 3D printers, designing in CAD, and troubleshooting logic gates. It’s been exciting to see something that made a huge difference in my life as a student truly grow and gain traction, and I’ve been particularly energized to have an opportunity to be on the front line of CS&A’s efforts to help recruit more maker candidates for schools.
In the past 4 years, we've seen a lot of change on the STEM and Maker Space front in particular. From a recent survey, sent to our core client schools, we found that 50 % of our client schools have at least one faculty member responsible for leading the initiative on the Maker Space front. Also, the number of “Director of Teaching and Learning,” “STEM Director,” and “Innovation in Teaching and Learning” jobs has exploded in recent years, from only working on 1-2 of them a year a few years ago to working on closer to 25-40 per year in the past two years. So, it’s clear to us that the commitment to changing teaching and learning practices is there, and that the pace of that change is quickening. Often times, these maker spaces have been funded by special gifts and grants from philanthropists, board members, alumni, or parents, and those donors have frequently experienced first-hand the benefit of a dynamic and cutting edge education in STE(A)M or other 21st century education practices.
As any growing area, there are pioneers in the field and trailblazers. Initially, we found that maker spaces were being overseen by the technology personnel in the school. As the grants came in, in a new area which wasn't a point of emphasis for training and programming in educators fully, schools did their best to adapt and technology candidates were the initial hires in these areas, or the ones who took on the additional duties in this space. Part of this had to do with knowledge of equipment, but also an understanding and ability to work in an interdisciplinary focus. Over the past few years though this focus, although it hasn't entirely disappeared, has been transferred. Schools are now looking across a range of backgrounds, and real-world experience is something they're open to. Much like the emphasis of Traverse on design-thinking and preparing our students for the real-world to be problem solvers and innovators, as well as team-players, schools are shifting more and more to considering candidates from these backgrounds for these positions and opening their minds to these candidates. Candidates who worked as engineers for many years, but had a passion for teaching their colleagues, working in teams, being innovative, and working across disciplines, are one area that comes to mind. Independent schools have always had an openness and flexibility to a "non-traditional" candidate, but in this growing area where the needs aren't totally being met by graduate programs and education programs, schools are having to think outside of the box as well for who they're hiring.
In trying to come up with more tangible numbers, I took a look at CS&A’s data over the past decade in STEM and Maker Space, areas closely linked with design thinking and experiential education practices, and the results are striking. In 2015, we saw more than 6 times as many maker space and STEM positions listed than all the years leading up to 2012. For 2016, it looks like our final position number will be closer to 7-8 times the number of positions we saw in these areas up to 2012. So it seems clear to us that, like Chinese positions did about a decade ago, these maker space/innovation positions are exploding. Having STEAM Labs, Tinker labs, FABlabs, design studios, iLabs, Maker Spaces, and faculty and staff that are committed to design thinking are no longer the exception that they were 4 years ago, they've become the norm.
One of the most common requests we hear from hiring schools is that they're looking for people who are passionate about this work, and can be "pied pipers" in their community. While specific skills are great, and a knowledge and background with the equipment is always helpful and important, the real need is for people who embody what the Maker Space is designed to foster - problem solvers, innovators, practical skills, and team-players. This can be more difficult than finding someone with a Master’s degree in Physics. The opportunities are there, and students need these leaders - who is going to answer the call, is it you?
Carney Sandoe is a lead sponsor of Traverse, and we thank them for their commitment to finding and supporting innovative educators.
I walked away from Traverse ‘15 thinking more deeply about whether Eagle Rock School truly taps into the passion and curiosity of our students. I walked away committed to helping students develop authentic interests and curiosity, and I was left with the reformulation of “Project Based Learning” to “P-Based Learning” (a synthesis designed to include Place, Project, Problem, and Passion-Based Learning). Does Eagle Rock, as an academic institution, have such objectives cemented in across its curriculum? Do we, as a community, keep them at the core of what we do both in and out of the classroom? This P-based learning take away helped me come back to school more focused on explicitly looking at how we were and were not making these opportunities possible.
I was excited!
Eagle Rock is a values-driven school, and we believe wholeheartedly in our 8+5=10 set of school values. These themes, expectations, and commitments, which we build our community off of, intersect and parallel “P-Based Learning” to such a degree, I wanted to reflect more deeply on the number of ways we give our students opportunities to connect with this deeper learning and exposure to authentic learning possibilities. I realized there are two main ways we do this: we are committed to building and advancing existing student "P"s, and by working to enlarge the set of "P"s students are exposed to, interested and energized by. I returned from Traverse with a more focused lens to look critically at where these two types of student interest development opportunities existed in our curriculum.
For instance, at Eagle Rock we believe strongly in exposing our students to place-based learning opportunities, diversity in the adults and environments they interact with, and a wide variety of topics and areas of learning. ERS is a small, tuition-free, residential school with students from all over the US. Despite relatively large amounts of creative freedom and autonomy in curriculum design, our context can sometimes feel constraining. I returned from Traverse 2015 and realized "Explore Week" represents a significant opportunity to enhance the "P-BL-ness" of our curriculum. "Explore Week" is a mid-semester break from academic classes in which students can sign up for a one week interest seminar or trip, and a way to diversify and increase the exposure our students have to learning new things. This has been a part of the Eagle Rock schedule for many years, although it has just been in the last couple years that our new Explore Week co-ordinator started to work more intentionally to look at HOW interests develop in people.
What is the natural trajectory that interests and passions grow within, and how do we tap into that as a school? This is where Traverse tapped into our need to continually look deeper at all the variables in P-based learning, and a natural place for me to start my deeper examination of student opportunity at Eagle Rock.
When I started to look for ways that we were helping expose students to completely new interest possibilities, two quickly emerged as examples. Glassblowing was an artform completely foreign to one of our students a year ago. Nonetheless, he signed up for the Explore Week class last year with a local glass artist, and was engaged to such an extent he spent the most recent Explore Week engaged in a 1:1 internship with this glass artist, and he is now applying to art school. We’ve also been interested in introducing our students to coding and more diverse learning around computer programming, but we just didn’t have that expertise on staff. In response, last year our Explore Week coordinator brought in two grad students (one an engineering student from MIT and the other a student in Learning Sciences from CU Boulder) to run a week long robotics seminar, with the dual intention of engaging and immersing our students in this learning, while also guiding one of our teachers in how to facilitate learning opportunities in this area. It’s exciting to know that in Fall of 2016 we will be offering a full academic class on coding and robotics because of this work.
As I started to reflect on ways we improve on interests that already exist in our students, I thought about our close knit community and the number of formal and informal leadership roles that students play. We’re always interested in how to deepen the leadership learning and self work our students are doing to best prepare them for their future. Under the guidance of our academic Leadership for Justice team, our teachers worked with our head of school and student services team to create an “embodied leadership” week long seminar for interested students, with visiting experts in this area. Once again, we used this model of student immersion and learning combined with having our staff work with visiting experts to increase our internal staff ability to continue this work even after Explore Week was over. This co-curricular work in embodied leadership and somatic coaching has carried on in and out of the classroom over the past year and we are experiencing noticeable gains in student leadership because of it.
Every school has it’s “yeah but” statements on why things can’t work for them, and at Eagle Rock we’ve also struggled with this in the past. BUT (yes, that’s an intentional use of the word!) here’s my stance as a school leader - let’s focus on what we CAN do in our setting, our reality. Let’s figure out how we CAN adapt to geographical realities, schedule limitations, financial implications. Let’s work on what IS possible, rather than why we can’t do it the way other schools have. Let’s look both inside the classroom and outside, both geographically and through our daily and annual schedule. Explore Week wasn’t our full spectrum of what we do at Eagle Rock, but it was a tangible and practical place to start, and already we are seeing benefits from how a week long exposure for staff and students, can have a ripple effect into a full trimester of learning exploration through P-based learning.
We have realized at Eagle Rock that it is critical for us to continually reflect on how we are offering authentic P-based learning opportunities for our students, and what truly engages them, not just what we as adults think they should learn about. Taking time to truly step back and think about how authentic interests develop, and then be willing to be creative with how we expose our students to new opportunities continues to help us get better. As I prepare for Traverse ‘16, I’m really excited to connect with other powerful educators around the country to really think deeply about how we are engaging our students in real-world learning across a school setting. How are we creating opportunities and then ‘getting out of the way’ to really let students dive in and develop authentic curiosity and interest? I look forward to hours of great conversation and learning together as we all come together in Boulder in June!
“Do you care about the problem you’re trying to solve?” I asked our iDesign students.
Most of them responded with “Yes.” Whew! That was a relief. I honestly thought they did care about their challenges, but I didn’t want to be naive. I had a hunch it would be multi-layered so when I asked more questions, the layers began to show.
A colleague and I started iDesign & 3D Prototyping for eighth graders this fall, the first course of its kind during the regular school day at Park Tudor. It was new, and their attitudes were generally positive. They were motivated by the challenges they identified and by being at the core of their own learning. They were energized by a teacher asking them, “How might you?” instead of telling them, “You will.”
For the students, brainstorming and designing their initial sketched prototypes were by far the most engaging and exciting pieces of the design process. But then, iteration two happened based on feedback from the first. And then, again, onto iteration three based on more feedback. They then hit a creative roadblock. I’d seen it before so I was expecting it, but I didn’t know how to handle it. I had no idea how to reignite their enthusiasm.
I didn’t ask the question, “Do you care?” out of the blue. I didn’t even know to ask until I reached out to Greg Bamford and asked, “Is this normal?” and “What do I do?” Greg helped me by reminding me to ask them if they care about the problems they’re trying to solve and making sure their prototypes matter to them.
Ta-da! Failure on my part. I didn’t ask the powers that be if the kids’ prototypes would matter before I let the them take on some pretty impactful challenges. I didn’t ask if there was a budget for implementation, or even if the same challenges were already being handled by adults. The students were redesigning the school schedule, prototyping a digital tool for kids and teachers to stay organized, reimagining a shared outdoor space, and building a device for charging personal devices while at school. Because when the students told us they cared, it was followed by, “But it’s hard to care when you think it might not matter.” Heart dropping - thud. Really, this is just a reminder that eighth graders are smarter and more intuitive than I thought to give them credit for.
Of course their designs matter! They’re based on human need! The design teams are tackling real, deep needs for our school that were discovered through their empathic exploration. It matters! But does it really? They know it might not.
Beyond seeing a prototype come to fruition, the students question whether their voice will be heard. Will their designs be taken seriously? Will their design hold the same value as one created by adults? Does it matter? I didn’t know but promised to find out. Eventually, the design teams will present iterations to decision makers within the school hierarchy and hopefully this will encourage them and reaffirm that their designs will matter, even if in just a small way.
Then a deeper layer was exposed. Our students said, “It’s hard to care when we don’t know what will happen to the prototype, or our idea.” Uncertainty. Lack of clarity. Unpredictability.
It’s uncomfortable for kids to work on something that may or may not have a concrete outcome. More than just the question of whether their designs have value, the students discovered that uncomfortable reality of not knowing. Each day, they’re told what to create, how it will be graded, and how to maximize their grade. A product is created, or an assessment is completed, and the outcome is mostly within their control. And more often than not, their confidence is rooted in that process. They get the road map and directions, then do what they need to arrive at the destination. This unfamiliar terrain of “not knowing” is frustrating, irritating, scary, and exasperating (I’m sure I’ve seen some eye-rolling at times).
For me, this raises more questions than answers. Do kids really need a sense of finality in order to maintain their creativity and motivation? Or, do they just need time to discover another way? As their consultant/teacher/navigator, I care more about how the kids create together than what they create - will that be enough for them? Will they grow to understand and be driven by creativity and wonder, rather than a set of directions and a letter grade? How do I help them feel safe in this zone of discomfort?
We get a new group of students next semester and a new opportunity for a second iteration of iDesign & 3D Prototyping. Come January, the group will absolutely know their designs matter because I’ll have done my research beforehand.
When you’re out there, standing on the crossroads between Highway “Follow the Crowd,” with all the road signs and mile markers to the next big destination that make you feel safe and confident, and County Road “Take a Risk,” which, if you know Midwest County roads, they look like endless roads to the middle of nowhere, you need a group of people who will remind you that it’s okay to not know where you’re going - the journey is what’s meaningful. Don’t be afraid of the unknown. I’m sure more failures will be discovered because there are no real road signs for how to teach like this. All you can do is turn to traveling companions who will encourage and inspire you along the way. Moreover, your companions should be able to say, “I don’t really know either - let’s figure it out together!”
That’s why I’m looking forward to Traverse 16.
The essential core of any true Design Thinking exercise is empathy – having the ability to see the problem through the eyes of the user first, the creative genius second. In the best of both words, the user experience and the creative genius come together to create something of an invisible success. Take, for instance, the system of waiting lines to board Disney World rides. No one deserves more empathy than people who stand in line—with children—for an hour simply to experience a four-minute ride.
If it sounds like I’m speaking from personal experience…whoo boy, am I ever! I’m just now returning from a family trip—which included boys both seven and four years old—in which we visited all four of Disney’s hallmark parks – the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom. As an educator, and a progressive one at that, I should know and recognize when I’m deeply immersed in the product of some design thinking undertaking. But it wasn’t until the end of the first day that I truly awoke to the successful experiment that had been built around my park experience; an experiment that at the same time had to benefit each and every other park-goer.
Let’s flash back for a moment to my own teendom. Growing up in Stone Mountain, GA, I frequented Six Flags several times over any summer. And I can vividly, and somewhat embarrassedly, recall having made—how should I put this—flirtatious overtures to a similarly-aged female attendee who I kept passing in the corals of the Great American Scream Machine. Alas, said overtures we’re not well received and I found myself having to pass this young lady what seemed like an exceptional number of additional times as the infinite switchback to the ride continued.
What’s my point? As I was—back in modern days—waiting to board Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, it occurred to me that in 30 minutes of waiting, I’d rarely seen the same person twice. The line had been configured in a series of short and long switchbacks, some running north-south, some east-west, some wrapping around fictitious train schedules or faux steam vents. I don’t imagine that the line designers were trying to solve the problem of teenage angst, but were at least tackling the simply boredom that comes with having to see the same combination of nuclear families over and over again. They’ve tapped into the sublime beauty of people watching.
If there were one ride that I think best employed a design-thinking based empathetic approach to waiting, it was Expedition Everest in Disney’s Animal Kingdom. While snaking one’s way toward the actual coaster, the rider is presented with a story—presented through museum artifacts, Sherpa biographies, and fake advertisements for canned food—about what it takes to hike Everest, what obstacles one might face—including the potential of a Yeti attack—on such a journey. As much as this is designed to elongate the riding experience; as a father, it also provided me with the opportunity to have long, engaged conversations with my sons about why people undertake dangerous challenges, the basis of cultural myths (like Yeti, Bigfoot, and Chupacabra), what to make of the creative combination of fiction and nonfiction, and—given the timing—the devastation that the recent Nepalese earthquake has had upon the region. I had taken my sons out of school for the week—something I myself wrestled with. But, and I’m not being trivial, the waiting experience at Expedition Everest solidified for me that there are as many opportunities for learning outside of school as there are inside. We may not have traveled to Katmandu, but my seven-year-old was genuinely intrigued by the information being shared while waiting as he was exhilarated by the coaster itself.
This is a long way of getting to the point that—as we’ll expound through Traverse—the future of learning won’t be happening in school, but rather will be happening anywhere one chooses to see the teaching and learning moment. And master educators, whether they be practitioners or theme-park designers, will recognize blank space as the canvas for exploration that it truly is. This notion is not only at the core of Traverse, but also the organization that I work with. Big Picture Learning believes that all learning opportunities should not only be built around students’ interests, but that they should take place in equal parts the classroom and the real world. This is not “real-world learning” insomuch as students are presented with scenarios that look and feel like the real-world. It’s real-world learning insomuch as students literally leave the school two days of every week to work and learn alongside masters of craft. This is the notion of Elliot Washor’s (Co-Founder of Big Picture Learning) Leaving to Learn.
We already know that many students are already leaving the classroom, the school, to learn. For some, it’s because they’ve already mastered all that a traditional education can afford them. For others, it’s because obstacles in life force them to make difficult choices. For most, it’s simply because there’s a lack of engagement in the learning process. Traditionally, our job as educators has been to try and mitigate the leaving to learn (or: drop-out) effect. But perhaps its high time we empathize with what causes students (and adults) to leave to learn, and adapt accordingly.
This is what Traverse is all about. While the beautiful Watershed school will, in many respects, serve as our anchor, we will—quite quickly—leave the school environment to learn what the off-campus world has to offer. It just so happens we’ll have the exceptional sandbox of Boulder, Colorado, to play in.
But as beautiful as Boulder is, it too is not without its lines. To get the next microbrew or coffee. To drive out of town on a Friday evening. To run up the Flatirons’ single-track on a particularly glorious Colorado summer afternoon. But once we realize that the line itself can be part of the experience, we better understand the opportunity for learning that surrounds us, at all times, in infinite directions.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my experiment with adulthood, it’s that the real world is messy. And since I’ve spent most of my adulthood working in schools, I often ask myself: why doesn’t school encourage our young people to learn to navigate situations where the right answer is unknown and the path to get there is not a straight line?
Of course, there are places in our schools where students encounter real challenge and real risk. But we need to broaden our mental model of "experiential education," which too often means a limited set of educational offerings -- global education, outdoor education, service learning -- that are staffed and scheduled in ways that make them peripheral to the classroom.
Instead, we need to make a commitment to real-world learning, asking, “How can we engage with real people, real context, real problems in all areas of our program?” How can we train students to build real solutions (that take into account all the messiness of working in a real context?) How do we do this in advisory programs, Spring Break, math class, humanities classes, and the lunch line?
For teachers, this creates a parallel challenge because it disrupts the traditional model of teacher as content master and owner of knowledge. How can we increase co-creation of our curriculum - co-creating our experiences with colleagues, peers, and the community?
A few snapshots of this challenge from this year Watershed School:
For students and teachers alike, this shift requires a heightened level of emotional care: how can we live in this stage of ambiguity? Teachers have learned to control and plan their learning environment - but what would it look like to work with a sense of intent and professionalism despite not knowing how the course will unfold?
This comes to something I’ve been thinking about a lot. We often talk about innovation as a technical process. The narrative around innovation often tends toward funding STEM education, which is good - but incomplete.
Raising a generation of solution-seekers and problem-solvers is fundamentally a matter of building critical social-emotional skills: Do I understand (and can I manage) my impact on the group? Can I adjust quickly when things turn out differently than I expected? Can I give, receive, and learn from feedback? Can I work through problems even when the solution (and even the problem) are unclear? Can I sustain myself through intense, extended periods of challenge?
The ability to move constructively in the midst of ambiguity is a source of competitive advantage for our students. And if we want to develop those skills in students, we need to be able to handle that challenge ourselves.
This is the challenge for the Traverse ‘15 community: how can we see ourselves as designers of student experience, rather than architects driving curriculum to a pre-determined conclusion?
How can we, as educators, guide intentionally in the midst of mess?
When I think about teaching what matters in the most empowering way possible, I think about aligning what happens in my classroom with what happens outside and beyond my classroom. The work of teachers and schools is most effective, authentic and empowering when it involves permeable learning partnerships with the community, local organizations, companies and surrounding institutions. In my mind, permeable learning means reciprocal, authentic learning that reconsiders who counts as teachers, where learning happens, is transparent and open, makes a positive impact beyond the school, takes places in multiples settings, breaks down walls, and allows students and teachers to be their whole selves.
Yet, we live in a world that values impermeability – in and outside of the classroom. In the Pacific Northwest, outdoor gear boasts of its impermeable outer shell. In politics, toughness and super-human abilities garner votes. Increasingly, it seems that our financial system is based on an impermeable barrier between what people in the financial industry know versus the information that is accessible to the average investor or depositor. Which might explain why recent college graduates are clamoring to get inside the impermeable and increasingly profitable world of finance. Impermeability matters in school as well. Teachers are half-jokingly taught not to smile until after Christmas break. Colleges of education continue to teach self-preservation techniques for teachers to avoid appearing weak in front of students or parents.
My academic and teaching background was in American History prior to starting an economics program at Catlin Gabel. I didn’t enter the world of economics knowing everything – so I read textbooks, The Economist, The Wall Street Journal – anything I could get my hands on that helped me learn about the world of scarcity and choice. Unconsciously, but decidedly, I started to become a much more permeable teacher. I invited parents from the business world to talk with me about teaching economics and entrepreneurship. Successful entrepreneurs acted as guest teachers. I reached out to teachers from other schools, college professors and members of local business alliances to hear what they thought needed to be taught. I spoke extensively with a former college roommate who now works as a research economist for the St. Louis branch of the Federal Reserve. These conversations helped me see connections between my classroom, the business world, and current events in powerful, relevant, and authentic ways.
After a conversation with a parent about whether entrepreneurship could be taught, I decided to organize Startup Camp. It turned out to be an incredible experience for everyone involved – from the organizing team, to the volunteer mentors from the startup community in Portland, to the students who relished this permeable learning experience that blended the business world with school with mentorship with co-learning in positive, empowering ways. We went from having 70 students from 3 area high schools the first year to selling out in 24 hours with 120 students registered from 13 area high schools in the second year of Startup Camp.
We’ve maxed out participation in Startup Camp, but I hope to create more permeable learning opportunities for students interested in business, innovation, and entrepreneurship. I used design-thinking methodology to facilitate a design challenge with high school students from the Portland metro area to design future learning experiences around entrepreneurship and innovation.
After empathizing, students defined the following challenges:
· There is no clear way for students to access the business community
· How do we make volunteer work or internships valuable to both parties?
· How do we break stereotypes about teenagers?
· How might we get students to become comfortable talking to adults?
· How do we teach confidence?
· How do we turn teachers into learners?
· How do we create incentives to fail?
· How do we teach others how to fail correctly/productively?
· How can we reimagine grading, lesson student focus on grades, and move beyond letter grades?
· How do we account for skill development in our grading system?
Based on these challenges, students came up with the following rough prototypes for entrepreneurial learning, which we will test and refine going forward.
· Project-based, panel-graded learning experiences
· Discussion-based grading
· Multi-dimensional evaluation system
· A Switchboard for Portland students
· Creative Mornings for students
· 4 year career coaching in high school
· Mentor-based learning
· “ABC to I can be” grading system
· Student rating app for internships
· Student-run professional development experience for teachers
Students seem to crave permeable learning experiences (without explicitly saying so) – they want much more crossover between what happens in school with the world of adults and the world outside of school. The amount of attention paid to our broken grading system was quite pronounced. Teacher and schools would do well to reflect on the ways in which kids feel like traditional methods of grading and assessment limit their creativity, risk-taking and confidence – all attributes that they named as essential for entrepreneurship earlier on in the design challenge. We’re meeting with the head of the Portland Business Alliance and organizing our a professional development experience for teacher, but in the mean time, we can all choose to take steps towards more permeable learning experiences – for entrepreneurship or otherwise, by engaging in some of the following practices.
Baby steps teachers and schools can take towards more permeable learning experiences:
· Community based assessments (instead of asking my students to write an essay on race and equity in Portland, they facilitated community conversations about race. The AACU has a few stellar resources and rubrics for community assessments).
· Public-facing student blogs or student websites for students to dialogue with parents, teachers, experts and friends during the learning process.
· Location-based learning – using your community as a classroom, using community resources (from libraries to museums to businesses to hospitals) as alternative learning spaces.
· Create learning spaces that allow for permeability. Why are ping pong tables, couches and slides relegated to the Googleplex and startup office spaces while students are still confined to discipline-specific boxes as classrooms?
· Cultivate opportunities for students to build their network of professional allies, mentors and connectors early. Teach Linkedin.
· Open learning experiences to students from other schools and invite trusted adults into the classroom as experts frequently.
· Build community – work on advocacy and problem solving with students and other stakeholders in your community.
· Reconsider professional development. Allow teachers to do site visits with private and public companies in their community to better understand their needs and the skills they value.
· Be inventive and bold with space. Can your school adopt a startup for a semester and give them office space for a semester or two and name them the “business in residence” so cross-pollination can happen on campus?
· Ask students to lead in the community – what skills might they learn from taking a leadership role in the farmers market, by attending city council meetings, by attending professional networking events, by being the first person to ask a question at a public talk, by leading educational sessions on personal finance, etc.?
· Design case studies for students to solve problems for local businesses, organizations and neighborhoods and allow students to present their findings publically.
· Reconsider what it means to be a teacher and who qualifies as a teacher. There are so many adults in our communities with expertise and kindness to share. Trained teachers are morphing into context-makers and connectors in more permeable learning environments. Be not afraid – teachers will always matter because teaching is about love, inspiration and building lasting relationships.
The future of learning is permeable and it is probably also more flexible, fun, relevant and engaging. As the distinctions between work and life melt away with mobile technology, so to should the distinct spaces of school and life.
Most important, perhaps, is that permeable learning gives students reason to believe two essential truths. We are all connected. We are all in this together.
How do you teach “The Explorers” at your school?
Stop and think about that question for awhile. Interpret it. Ponder it.
Did you interpret the question to mean, “How do we teach about Vasco da Gama, Magellan, Columbus, Lewis and Clark, York, Shackelton, Earhart, Nellie Bly, etc.?” How do you teach those persons and their incredible stories? Do you hold them up as heroes? At least as important to discovery and building of knowledge? Are you holding them up, at least a bit, as models for your student learners – as people or dispositions or pursuits to emulate?
Did you interpret the question to mean, “How do we teach the learners in our care? All of the children, young people, and adults in our community who are explorers and discoverers by the very nature of them being human?”
Perhaps you interpret no real appreciable difference in those two digestions of the initial question. Maybe you see them as something akin to two sides of the same coin.
For me, teaching explorers and exploration is essential. Better yet, creating the conditions in which learners can learn exploration and be explorers seems even more my calling.
Starting with Myself and My (Biological) Children
In 2004, I became a father for the first time. It happened again in 2007. Two boys. And while I love and adore my own father – and respect him immensely – we did not spend a great deal of time together as I was growing up. As a father myself, I wanted to be the incredible dad that my father is, while also figuring out ways to spend more time with my own sons. As my boys got older, I worked to understand more and more ways to accomplish this goal.
At the same time, and for more than 20 years, I have been a professional educator, and I have found myself (placed myself!) square in the crossroads of all of this transformational energy happening in our industry. Certainly, at the heart of this transformation is a growing knowledge of 1) how our brains work, 2) how human curiosity and yearning to explore drive our developing perception and understanding of our world, and 3) how the changes in our cultural capabilities make it ever more possible to be a producer and not just a consumer in various circles of our existence. Certainly, at the heart of this transformation is a growing realization that life is very project-based, and school – if meant to be even a portion or fraction of facsimile for “life” – should replicate and honor the project-based nature of genuine learning that is wonderfully integrated and purpose-driven in the 87% of our lives outside of our formal school years. (By the way, I think any lines between “school” and “real life” should be blurred, proverbial walls torn down, etc.)
And so, with my deep desire to be an involved father to my sons, interwoven with my deep desire to make school more life-like and project-based, I started an experiment I call #fsbl – “father-son-based learning.” Essentially, my sons and I go on missions together to explore and understand our world. As much as possible, they lead the way. Our primary tools are as follows:
When we embark on an #fsbl journey, we commit to observation journaling. Sometimes we use paper and pens/pencils, and we almost always use a smart phone to record pictures – milestones – during our outings. With these images, we upload our questions, our findings, our hypotheses, our ponderings, our wonderments, our befuddlements. For many years, we have recorded these postings to our favorite-at-the-moment technology tool – sometimes Posterous, sometimes WordPress, sometimes Instagram. On each tech tool, we have set an auto-post to Twitter (with hashtag #fsbl) so that we might invite in teachers and co-explorers for our own corp-of-discovery team. We’ve now done this for nearly seven years, and we are well-practiced explorers, ethnographers, and archivers.
From our explorations, we build micro-curricula. Things we want to continue exploring and learning more about. In formal schooling, it’s too often the other way around. From curricular decisions made by a well-meaning teacher, short-term explorations are enabled to “enrich” the lesson or unit. School tends to privilege curriculum deriving explorations. #fsbl privileges explorations deriving curricula.
How does it happen naturally in our lives outside of school? What if school progressively transformed to more deliberately derive curricula from explorations and human-driven curiosity? Such is the core purpose of experimenting with observation journals as something of an “excuse” and invaluable tool to get out and explore together and to create breadcrumbs to which to return at another time!
Building Synergy with My Other Children
After a few years of practicing with #fsbl, I began to wonder about scaling this model to my “other children” – the student learners at my school. If observation journaling could build micro-curricula for my sons and me, then could a networked group of observation journalers – EXPLORERS – co-create exciting and pursuable curricula derived from our own synergized curiosities?
In the fall of 2010, Synergy 8 was added to the middle school curriculum at The Westminster Schools, where I taught and principaled at the time. Essentially, a number of micro-curricula were derived from the co-explorations and collective observation journaling of the Synergy 8 team. My teaching and learning partner Jill Gough and I established some categorical learning outcomes (see and explore the Synergy 8 link above) from which explorations could be launched and upon which explorations could be reflected. At the core of the experience, though, one could find a heart of observation journaling. As learners went about their days and existences, they developed stronger and stronger habits in capturing their curiosities, their wonderings, their questions, and their befuddlements. These observations were chronicled and archived with tech tools similar to those used in #fsbl, and the Synergy 8 team built a virtually bottomless pool of potential and actual curricular pursuits.
Through selected observation journal posts, Synergy 8 team members opted into such projects as “Is Graffiti Art or Vandalism?” Several opened an internal advertising agency. Four boys became interested in the English Avenue area of Atlanta and worked through initial thoughts of urban gardening to solve a perceived nutrition problem, only to be encouraged in another direction by a community member who showed them four nationally-registered urban gardens and explained that what they needed were jobs to solve for 70% unemployment. So, the boys developed a partnership with Fleet Corp and hosted a job fair for the community.
At the points of reflection along the way, we, of course, discovered a lot of interconnected nodes of learning that might be sub-categorized as “English & Language Arts,” “Maths and Statistics,” “History and Social Sciences,” “Economics,” etc. More importantly, these students pursued ways that they could contribute as citizens now – not just future resources always preparing for something they were told would come in the future, but current resources who wanted to – and were perfectly capable to – make a dent in the present. To work well beyond the domain of green-covered grade books or siloed subject areas.
These projects, and many more, started with exploration of community, observation journaling, and learner-curated and derived curricula.
A Next Iteration and a Brand New Launch – Innovation Diploma @MVPSchool
Since June of 2013, I’ve been serving as Chief Learning and Innovation Officer (“CLIO”) at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School. Also, I am acting Executive Director of the Mount Vernon Institute for Innovation. As part of my duties in these fully integrated organizations (the organizations are something of a Clark Kent and Superman, if you will, neither alone being either persona), I assist Meghan Cureton, our Director of the Innovation Diplomaprogram. From her lead, I help co-facilitate our inaugural cohort of iDiploma members – a dynamic team of twelve super-learners and uber-doers who are reinventing what we even know as the thing we call “school.” In fact, one of our mantras in iDiploma is “We’re not a class. We’re a start-up!”
As you might have predicted from the chronological flow described above, one set of the tools and methods we use in Innovation Diploma is ethnography, discovery, and observation journaling. From the cohort members’ explorations, they originate ventures – both (i)Ventures and coVentures. With (i)Ventures, an iDiploma member pursues an individual objective through the lenses of inquiry, innovation, and/or impact. With coVentures, a small team of iDiploma members collaborates more interconnectedly to create new value and entrepreneurial or innovative enhancement in some thing, event, community, process, or product.
If one traced backwards to a point of origin for any of these ventures, one would likely discover an exploratory observation and chronicled curiosity jotted somewhere to launch a purposeful endeavor, all clothed in dynamic exploration. Jumping off from such a point of origin, the Innovation Diploma cohort embark on incredible expeditions informed and forwarded through design thinking and The Innovator’s DNA.
Traverse – An Opportunity to Explore and Expedition through Observation Journaling and Design Thinking
In early June, at Watershed School, Meghan Cureton and I will lead one of the expeditions at the Traverse conference. Our current expedition description reads as follows:
“Whatever it is I think I see…” Curiosity-Based Learning – #FSBL, #Synergy, #iDiploma
We are born insatiably curious. It’s how we learn. In too many cases, though, curiosity can be shoved to the back seat, or even completely tossed out of the vehicle, in environments we call “school.” Yet, we talk of nurturing innovators and being innovative in schools. What if we more purposefully pursued the traits and mindsets that we know are essential to the “Innovator’s DNA?” How might we grow our curiosity muscles and build integrated, real-world learning pursuits through observation, questioning, experimenting, and networking?
In this Traverse Expedition, @MVPSchool and @MVIFI Innovation Diploma leaders Meghan Cureton and Bo Adams will share stories and methods from #FSBL, #Synergy, and #iDiploma. They will guide the group through community exploration, observation journaling, and networking with external experts to spur curiosity-based learning and innovation for a variety of learning and school uses. Participants on this journey will construct framing for curriculum and projects that originate from learner observation, develop through DEEP design thinking methods, and culminate in innovations and impacts that respect students for the current resources they are! Together, we’ll expand the very definition of “school.”
Prototype of the Three-Hour Expedition (basecamp: Impact Hub Boulder):
Traverse IDEAS are curated by members of the Traverse community: featured speakers, expedition guides, partners, and attendees passionate about preparing a new generation of innovators and problem-solvers.
Traverse 16 is for innovative educators. Happening in Boulder June 6-8, 2016, participants will connect, explore, and experience new ways of teaching and learning firsthand.