“Taking issues and situations and problems and going to root components; understanding how the problem evolved – looking at it from a systemic perspective and not accepting things at face value.
It also means being curious about why things are the way they are and being able to think about why something is important.”
Annmarie Neal’s definition of “critical thinking,” as reported in Tony Wagner’s The Global Achievement Gap, p. 16. Neal is VP Talent Management at Cisco Systems.
Training to Be an Innovator
In working to be a student of innovation, I have come to believe that I must practice the five skills of disruptive innovators, as defined by Dyer, Gregersen, and Christensen in The Innovator’s DNA: observing, questioning, experimenting, networking, and associating. (Of course, these traits mirror the phases and stages typically described in “design thinking,” too.) For me, this practice takes several different forms. As just one example, keeping an observation journal has proven to be a transformative exercise that continues to develop fascinating habits-of-mind muscle. Just like a person purposefully training in running or cycling develops fitness and musculature, by purposefully training in observation and questioning, as well as in the other skills, I know I am developing fitness and musculature as an innovator and design thinker.
Such observation journaling and innovation training, I believe, exist as critical foundations and pillaring for faculties and students who are serious about developing the Seven Survival Skills that Wagner details in The Global Achievement Gap:
- Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
- Collaboration Across Networks and Leading by Influence
- Agility and Adaptability
- Initiative and Entrepreneurialism
- Effective Oral and Written Communication
- Accessing and Analyzing Information
- Curiosity and Imagination
An Example from the Field
Thanks to my training, I walk through my surroundings and communities differently now. My senses are sharper and I am more intentional about my awareness.
Not long ago, on one of my morning walks with Lucy (my pointer-hound mix), I was stopped in my tracks by these signs:
Along this railroad-tie wall, there are several of these signs. The wall is located on Howell Mill Road, near the I-75 ramp at Northside and W. Paces, in Atlanta, GA. The wall is immediately adjacent to a MARTA bus stop:
As has become my practice, I act on my curiosity in such situations by 1) snapping a picture or two with my phone, 2) sending the images to an email composer, 3) recording a few questions or ideas, and 4) sending the email to be uploaded to a blog I keep for observation journaling.
What was/am I curious about?
- Why don’t “they” want people to sit on this wall?
- Are the bus-stop users sitting on the wall because they are tired, wanting to take a break, etc.?
- Has the wall failed or fallen because of previous sitters? Did the place of business behind the wall have to spend money to replace a wall in the past?
- What are the bus-stop users supposed to do… where might they sit?
- What’s it like to have to use Atlanta’s public transportation, for those that might not have a car, for convenience, like I have?
- Would I want to sit down – even on that wall – if I rode a MARTA bus every day?
- What happens when it rains? When it’s bloody hot!? When it’s freezing cold.
- What other solutions to the problem could be tried? Have any others been tried?
- What did that wall and those signs cost? What would a wall with integrated seats and head cover cost? Would adding benches be that much to spend?
And I could just go on and on.
It’s only fair for me to divulge that I have been significantly influenced by the 2012-13 First Graders at my school – Mount Vernon Presbyterian School. While I don’t know any of last year’s First Graders, I do practice networking and associating, too, and I followed the blog of the iDesign Lab at MVPS. Last year, before I joined MVPS and MVIFI (Mount Vernon Institute for Innovation), the First Graders took on a design challenge related to the bus stops in Sandy Springs. There are numerous posts demonstrating the D.E.E.P. method of design thinking (Discover, Empathize, Experiment, Produce) – here’s just one showing some of the prototypes after spending quite a bit of time in the discovery and empathizing modes, and after creating Point-Of-View statements and HMW (How Might We…) declarations.
So, if I were as smart as an MVPS First Grader, supported by my teacher and @SciTechyEDU, then I might spend more time at that bus stop, near those signs, and interview some of the people who are regularly there. I might ask for an interview with a MARTA official, one of the people that manages the business behind that wall, etc. Then, I might develop some POVs and HMWs. All of this involves a great deal of in-context, relevant communication, critical thinking, etc. (some of the essential Cs of 21st C or Modern or Timeless learning, depending on which “label camp” you belong to for these essential skills and habits of mind).
Next, I might begin prototyping various solutions based on my insights gathered during my discovery and empathizing. I imagine lots of creativity here as I build and experiment. I could return to the MARTA office, business, bus-stop site and get feedback on my designs. I imagine I would have used quite a bit of mathematics, physics, sociology, etc. during this experimenting and prototyping stage. Perhaps even some history, economics, engineering, foreign language. More communication skills, too. All very STEM, STEAM, and STREAM, if you ask me.
Of course, in “regular school” these subjects would be more siloed than they are in the experience I am describing. Like dinner plates of different colors, they would occupy their distinct places on the table. However, in my field-study example here, the plates have been smashed and the colored shards have been re-organized and glued as a different-kind-of-beautiful mosaic. Same number of total-size pieces (theoretically) as existed when they were whole plates of one color, but now they are mosaically bonded with pieces of various colors. Same amount of total school time might be involved, regardless of whether we scheduled by departments or in an integrated manner, but the time would be more mosaically organized with the integrated approach. My engagement and motivation in this kind of mosaic, difference-making environment might also help me to remain captivated, involved and experiencing Csikszentmihalyi flow for longer than just 45-55 minutes. Of course, different days of the week might be organized differently, depending on what our needs and purposes were as we undertook such challenges as curriculum.
Finally, after presenting my project results and solution to a board of experts, so to speak, I might partner with MARTA or the business or the bus-stop regulars or the surrounding community to realize the solution we developed together. Great opportunities for collaboration, creative expression, leading by influence, entrepreneurialism, etc.
Feeling pretty motivated and invested by now, I might be at a different level of understanding and wisdom about citizenship, civic engagement, and difference-making.
Another Interesting Thought (To Me)
Within a 2-mile radius of this bus-stop-railroad-tie-wall-shouting-signage location, there are about seven schools – some being independent/private and some being public. Meaning that it would not be that challenging to think of a “curriculum,” or “unit,” or “lesson,” or “experience” that could involve student and adult learners engaging in similar design-thinking, project-based, and innovation-training exercises. I am NOT meaning to sound critical of these schools in any way. Some of them, perhaps all of them, are already practicing such mosaic learning and community engagement to develop the Cs and the Seven Survival Skills. My point is that schools have possibilities – infinite possibilities – for such exercises and engagement in their immediate and close-by surrounds. Perhaps the most underutilized learning spaces for schools are our own campuses and immediately surrounding communities.
A Final Note
Rigor (I prefer Vigor – see Amy Purcell Vorenberg’s article in Independent School, “School Matters: Rigor vs. Vigor”, Spring 2008) may not equate to volume of material covered or pace of coverage. Rigor (Vigor) may equate to real-world context that challenges student learners to approach real issues in more integrated, holistic ways and seek solutions to problems that don’t just have one answer or an easily identified one. What’s more, the desire to make a difference and the efficacy to know that one can make a difference are such strong motivators that I have seen countless people – young and old – choose to put themselves into unbelievably rigorous (vigorous) situations because they care and they feel a certain locus of control.
The bus-stop example above is just that – one example. There are countless others. You could/will think of many that would appeal to you more. For me, though, this example lives at an intersection of real-life practices – my training in innovation and design through observation journaling AND the capacities of First Graders (who could have been 5th graders or 11 graders or no graders) to engage in real-life problem solving with their community.
How are you being a student of innovation? How are you engineering practices and creating opportunities for your colleagues and students to develop and grow in the Cs and Seven Survival Skills?
If we are not intentional, it just won’t happen. We need to shift culture.
“The question, as we move from an industrial economy that cherishes compliance to a connected economy that prizes achievement, is this: Are we supporting this shift with a culture that encourages us to dream important dreams? What do we challenge our achievers to do? When do we encourage or demand that they move from standardized tests and Dummies guides to work that actually matters?”
Seth Godin, “The Achieving Society,” The Icarus Deception, p. 22.
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Bo, what do you think is the purpose of creating an educational system for young people? From what I’ve heard you say, I think you mean it’s to create a generation of citizens who care about their community and about their global community. Is the purpose of an education system to create young people who will contribute to making their community (the world) a better place? In your post here, I hear you suggesting other wordings for the purpose of an education system: “citizenship, civic engagement, and difference-making;” “engage in real-life problem solving with their community;” “real-world context that challenges student learners to approach real issues in more integrated, holistic ways and seek solutions to problems that don’t just have one answer or an easily identified one;” or to paraphrase Godin: “Encourage us to dream important dreams? Encourage, demand they do work that actually matters?” I ask about purpose because I think it needs to come first. With a shared purpose in mind, with an agreed-upon purpose, then we can discuss whether or not our education system can shift to fulfill that purpose. I’m curious whether there are other ways to fulfill that purpose besides school. We equate schooling with “education system,” but if we crowd-source education (HT to you), then isn’t it possible or likely that we will invent different formats and vehicles for achieving the purpose of education besides brick-and-mortar buildings called schools? I’m investigating what other models and methods of learning could drive that education purpose besides attending school. Of course, I’m using the convergent definition of school as seen in The Breakfast Club, and not the expansive, divergent way of defining school.
Thanks so much for the re-read, deep questions, and provocations to think additionally here. While I think our ongoing discussions allow for a better venue to talk about these things more holistically and conversationally, I’ll try to capture a few summary-type thoughts…
First, I think there are several purposes for creating an educational system for young people. Not just one. However, for me, a few really rise to the top:
1. to educate, from the Latin root “educare” which I understand to mean “to draw out that which is already there.” So I think a purpose is to help young people facilitate a disciplined and creative exploration and discovery of who they are, who they want to be, etc. So, I prefer DIScover and UNconver to things like “COVER the curriculum.”
2. to develop citizenship. We are, in my opinion, charged to “practice” and “scrimmage” for the adult “game and play” of being a positive, contributing citizen to community and society.
Simultaneously and “integratedly,” I believe education must forward us all as independent and interdependent (from #1 and #2 above).
As you know, I think education is what we do from birth to death. As we’ve talked, we understand that “school” represents about 13% of that time period and “real life” represents about 87% of that time period for U.S. average life spans. I believe we need to do more to blur the lines between “school” and “real life” so that “school” closer approximates and engages “education” – given that we are ALL born lifelong learners.
Also, I think “school” is billed too much as “preparation.” So I do not mean to imply with all of the above that we are merely preparing students for something that comes later – “college, life,” etc. But I am always trying to get better at writing about this dynamic. I believe that school IS real life for students, so we educators need to do a better job at designing a system that facilitates students living life to its fullest. In the words of Sir Ken Robinson, I think that needs to be a lot more of “How are you smart” than ” How smart are you.”
I agree with you about PURPOSE. We need to engage more – and I mean ALL stakeholders in an educated citizenship – in discussing and reaching shared values and understanding about PURPOSE — the WHY of education, and, hence, schooling.
Also, as you know, I agree that the “system” needs a variety of approaches and models to succeed in that purpose. Because the system needs to mirror our human diversity.
Bo, thank you for taking the time to write out this detailed response. I will be mulling this over for weeks. Given the partisan influence on federally mandated education, I suspect we’ll never achieve a national consensus on the purpose of education. You? I suppose what can be achieved is for individual schools to come to consensus about the school’s purpose and then continually ask if the daily, monthly, yearly activities are contributing to or detracting from that purpose. And when I say school here, I mean it in the most varied, wide-ranging definition.
I think I understand Craig’s question as to what is the purpose of creating an educational system for young people as a prompt to re-envision school or discover alternate methods to allow students to explore civic-oriented pursuits. So needed. But I still felt when I was reading his comment that that definition was too limiting. Your response considered alternative purposes: to facilitate a discovery of self and meaning as well as the need to develop citizenship. That felt better to me. Yet I’m also eager that we keep exploring the other purposes, as you acknowledged, that are not included in your comment.
I may find myself somewhat alone in this argument, but I consider one of the important purposes of education to be to prepare us for solitude. To help us discover how to be alone. I know we are made for relationships and that we must connect and collaborate. But we are also made for solitude. Our essential condition requires that we lay down our heads at night with only ourselves to talk to, to sort things through, to come to conclusions. Communing with our fellow man is vital to our health, like nutrients to our body, but the capacity to live in solitude is akin to the very air we breathe. Parker Palmer in his book The Courage to Teach highlights the paradoxical need for both solitude and community: “When it is torn apart, both of these life-giving states of being degenerate into deathly specters of themselves. Solitude split off from community is no longer a rich and fulfilling experience of inwardness; now it becomes loneliness, a terrible isolation. Community split off from solitude is no longer a nurturing network of relationships; now it becomes a crowd, an alienating buzz of so many people and too much noise.” In our wholesome desire to discover the purposes of education, I hope we don’t overlook the basic human skill that we will need long after we cannot lift and carry: the ability to sit in solitude and think.
Pretty powerful post, Bo. It actually resurrected my old blog. I read it this morning on the front porch and then read Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily,” a grotesque Southern tale that only Faulkner or O’Connor could conjure. I kept discovering “don’t sit” signs (actually, these were more like “don’t change” signs) that left me wondering why we humans behave as we do. Next thing I knew I was musing about the impending verdict in the Zimmerman trial, wondering why so many of my friends and I find ourselves at odds in our perspective and curious how two people with equal access to the same facts might reach different conclusions. Which then, of course, got me to thinking about the nature of “facts” and truth and whether we can ever see, think, or understand outside the bounds of our own limited experiences. Your post kept sending me from one thought to the next like a noiseless, patient spider.
Reading literature for me (and what I hope it will be for my students) is like your walking with your dog. We’re actively aware, noticing signs all the way, engaging with the world we’re in. Toni Morrison describes the reader as someone who must bring both “willing acceptance” and “intense inquiry” to the text. She points out, “I don’t need to ‘like’ the work: I want instead to ‘think’ it.” In the same way, we don’t need to like what we see on our walks, but we shouldn’t be apathetic about what we encounter either. We should be engaged, going places that sometimes make us uncomfortable, and asking questions like my dogs do of everything they hear, see, and smell.
I love this process post! I can literally and figuratively see the PROCESS of your “thinkering” (I loved that from @DCulberhouse) in your writing. Your observations come to life as you share your thoughts. My questions and thoughts took off from yours, and I could see that coming alive with teachers/students.
I can’t wait to see the work you do at Mount Vernon- you are among great company! I urge you to attend Project Zero at Harvard next summer- or perhaps you already have been. Though there are limitations some would say, the mosaic you mention blends so well with their idea of throughlines. These throughlines have been used in their work within disciplines or across them. Your work extends this beautifully and gets me thinking more about my training there. Also, the basic definition of understanding as thinking flexibly on a concept provides a starting points or the skills and processes we seek to grow in students.