During the spring semester of this 2016-17 academic year, senior Anya Smith-Roman and junior Abigail Emerson, of Mount Vernon Presbyterian School, led efforts to create and publish a new journal for education – all originating from the student-learner voice and position. Check out their first publication!
It’s official, the first edition of Trailblazers, a student driven magazine on the Education Transformation Movement, is here with young writers from around the world contributing!!!! My peers in the Innovation Diploma, Abigail Emerson and Kaylyn Winters, and I have been working at this project all year after some last minute edits over the summer, we now feel it is time to ship the idea and get it out into the world.
Some people collect stamps. Some collect rocks. People collect many things.
Me? I collect examples of the work that students CAN do.
Many people underestimate what children can do as “school work.” What if “school work” were more “real-world-work” sourced? It’s happening at so many innovative schools. It’s happening at Mount Vernon, where I am blessed to work.
Largely because of the work that we do at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School and the Mount Vernon Institute for Innovation, I collect inspirations and examples of children doing “school work” that many might deem “adult work” for later in their lives.
This TED video from Cesar Harada is one of the best samples of “school work” that absolutely can be done by children. It’s worth your 10 minutes. And it’s worth you helping to make such work even more of a reality at the schools near you.
Related: Mount Vernon continues to drive for enhanced mashup of “real-world work” and “school work” with Council on Innovation 2015
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:
Willingness to question aloud for others to hear and co-ponder
Courage and patience, when needed
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 Diploma program. 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):
Intro to Observation Journaling and Exploration as School; Stories of #FSBL, #Synergy, #iDiploma (45 min)
Exploring Boulder as a Source of DEEP Learning (75 min)
Debrief and Ideation for Curiosity-Based Learning in Schools (60 min)
We are looking forward to joining with a new corp of discovery at Traverse, and we are excited to share some of the methods and tools we use to create opportunities and utilize environments for exploration and discovery. More than anything, we are thrilled to imagine what we might build together with those attending and exploring with us. We will be teaching the explorers… and learning from the explorers! What curricula might we derive from our explorations? What new ways of doing school might we discover?!
For awhile, I’ve used the term “School 3.0.” When I do, a number of people ask me what I mean by that.
School 1.0: the “traditional” or industrial-age model of school where information transfer from teacher to student is the dominant and defining characteristic. Verbs such as “deliver” and “cover” are used a lot. The currency is grades on a 100-pt scale (in recent half century).
School 2.0: the “21st century movement” in schooling where some number of “Cs” dominate the conversation (communication, collaboration, creative thinking, etc.); information exchanges in two directions and phrases such as “student-centered” are heard frequently. Technology enables some pull-based education. School works to model more of how the world learns outside of school. The currency of school 2.0 leans much more towards learning, and SBG is at least practiced by several progressive thinkers, if not the entire faculty.
School 3.0: the next wave (hopefully) of school transformation. Learning is deeply contextual and relevant. PBL (with a capital P) dominates the mode of work as “schools” (placed-based collections of teacher-learners, student-learners, and parent-learners — more like schools of fish than mere school buildings) are partnered with community organizations, civic leadership, and for-profit and not-for-profit business to address real-world challenges and opportunities. Shifts thinking about school as merely “preparation” for something later and recognizes that people of all ages learn by doing and desire to be positive forces of change in their worlds. The currency is the stuff that matters — the challenges and opportunities for social and capitalistic improvement, betterment, and innovation.
Well, on Friday, August 22, 2014, I spent a full day in School 3.0
Mary Cantwell (@scitechyedu) was invited as the Director of the Center for Design Thinking at The Mount Vernon Institute for Innovation to facilitate two half-days of professional learning and implementation of design thinking with Atlanta’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Particularly, Cantwell was asked to work with the CDC’s National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities (@CDC_NCBDDD) through the Open Idea Lab.
Additionally, Mount Vernon’s Inaugural Innovation Diploma Cohort was also invited to co-facilitate and participate in the partnership to address three SHI (Strategic Health Initiatives): 1) pregnancy and safe Rx drug use, 2) ADHD overmedication versus behavior therapy, and 3) blood clotting. Director of the iDiploma Meghan Cureton (@MeghanCureton) and I collaborated with the twelve student learners (freshmen, sophomores, and juniors at #MVUpper) in the cohort. Also, colleagues James Campbell (@theRealJamCam) and T.J. Edwards (@TJEdwards62) rounded out the team of educators and agents of @MVIFI.
On Friday, “school” for us involved significant collaboration with three CDC SHI teams to employ design thinking to advance our understanding of and to address the strategic health initiatives that the CDC_NCBDDD focused on during its time in the Open Idea Lab that day. Teen agers and doctors and educators and research scientists were bound up together in SHI teams doing the work of learners, problem-solvers, professionals, engaged citizen leaders, design thinkers, difference makers, etc. Everyone brought strengths and limitations to the tables. Everyone drew on the contributions that others offered.
Progress was made Friday. On three SHI. And on School 3.0.
Read about more of the details in one or more of these posts by my colleagues – those young and old not as young: