Leading change demands living the change…and building agency

In a recent article on EML, Will Richardson shared that he asks the districts he works with, “Is this a school that learns?” He went on to write these provocative questions:

What does a learning school look like? What’s the culture of a school that learns? How does it happen?

Will sparked in me some significant reflection. He also spurred me to write this blog post and share how Mount Vernon is, indeed, a school that learns. Here’s one example how…

The made world is designed. Everything in it is designed. Therefore, this made world is malleable, changeable, and transformable. For if it was designed, then it can be redesigned. And we all have the ability to make these changes in our world.

This simple argument is at the heart of agency. And we in education should be about the business of inspiring and nurturing agency in our learners. The very essence of being an engaged citizen leader is realizing and understanding one’s capability – one’s agency – to be a positive change agent in the world.

For years, Mount Vernon has focused its work around inspiring and nurturing the agency of learners. We are about designing and making, in numerous and myriad forms, and we are committed to developing engaged citizen leaders who see themselves as agents of change. And we are taking our work in design and making to a next level. We are building our maker, design, and engineering programs, and this work is invigorating and exciting.

Jim Tiffin and T.J. Edwards are leading these efforts to build our maker, design, and engineering programs. Jim Tiffin is the Director of Maker and Media, and T.J. Edwards is the newly appointed Director of Design and Engineering. Together, they are a phenomenal, dynamic duo, and they are integral members of the MVIFI nucleus team. I consider myself most blessed to work alongside them.

Throughout the year, Jim, T.J., and the MVIFI team will be leading a charge to create and construct the next levels of design-and-maker-based learning at Mount Vernon. We’re fortunate to be learning from many others along the way. And we’re looking forward to sharing with many the various stories of this purposeful build that we are experiencing.

But how do you go about such change work?


Among the many lessons of change and program building is this critical mantra: The leaders must live the change.

So, if we intend to take making, design, and engineering to new levels at Mount Vernon, then we must live the change we are expecting. How exactly are we doing this?

Well, here are four ways that we are setting the conditions so that leaders at Mount Vernon can live the change that we are envisioning in maker, design, and engineering.

ONE. If we want more making in school, then we need to build our own skills and understandings as makers.

This summer, The Tinkering Studio at San Francisco’s Exploratorium and Coursera offered a MOOC (massive, open, online course) called “Tinkering Fundamentals: A Constructionist Approach to STEM Learning.” T.J. made us aware of this course, and we enrolled together as a small group. The learning was powerful and intense, and it coupled leading research in learning, brain science, and pedagogy with practical experience as participant and facilitator in maker education. For me personally, the experience was invaluable, as I was able to read and watch curated articles and videos (see two examples below) while also trying my hand at tinkering activities that I had never done while wearing these particular lenses of emerging maker facilitator. Additionally, the course materials and practices provided T.J. and me with a number of things to think through and plan together in our own programatic build with Jim.

TWO. If we want more making in school, then we need to make in leadership team meetings.

A mentor of mine once told me (actually, he said it multiple times), “Bo, as much as possible, you should DO the projects that you are expecting your learners to do.” He implored me to lead from a position of experiential understanding. So, if we believe that we are creating conditions for more sophisticated and advanced design and making to exist in our MV classrooms, then we decided to immerse our school leaders in such project work from the very beginning. Therefore, in August, at a meeting for division heads and heads of learning and innovation, we utilized the scribble bot learning that we had undertaken during coursework in the Tinkering MOOC. Here’s a quick movie trailer of that session we enjoyed together – these are the “principals” and “academic deans” of our four divisions at Mount Vernon.

THREE. If we want more making in school, then we need to make time for making in our professional learning days.

For months, we knew that we were scheduled for a professional learning day on October 9, 2015. However, in early September, we decided to reimagine that day as an internal conference, hosted by MVIFI. We named the inaugural event Collider, and we established a small list of sessions that prioritized our strategic objectives as a school. Jim and T.J. co-designed and co-facilitated “anchor sessions” (like anchor stores at a mall) for maker, design, and engineering. On purpose, we set the conditions for faculty to elect into learning experiences that would advance their knowledge, experience, and excitement around design and making. We were intentional about ensuring that building interest in and capacity for maker, design, and engineering was a part of our professional learning day, even before we had all of the details established for the overall programmatic architecture. By doing so, we were prioritizing a strategy of getting our faculty involved.

FOUR. If we want more making in school, then we need to experiment with entirely new ways of developing capacity.

At Mount Vernon, we are fortunate to live in a culture of prototyping and educational entrepreneurship. We ideate frequently about new possibilities, and we rapidly prototype these ideas into physical manifestations. On this maker, design, and engineering front, we are offering “evening maker clubs” for our faculty and staff. This is just a simple idea that we came up with – kind of like book clubs, but for tinkering. So, at the end of September, the MVIFI team prototyped a “dine and design evening,” learned from the experiment, and created a new program for getting faculty together for some food, fellowship, and fun – all centered around building creative confidence in maker, design, and engineering.

Gallery of Photos from Prototype Night for “XLR8 Makers”

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

recent invitation sent to Mount vernon faculty for xlr8: makers

MVIFI XLR8 Makers Nov. 12 2015

To purposefully advance the strategic vision and practices of a school requires agency. By definition, such work is about change, and educational leaders must see themselves as change agents – designers, makers, and engineers of better and better learning architectures.

Most importantly, we educators must take seriously our opportunities and responsibilities to inspire and nurture agency in our learners – in ourselves, in our faculties and staffs, in our students, in our parents, and in our surrounding communities. And this incredible work necessarily involves integrating more making, designing, and engineering programs for the benefit and capacity building of our learners.

To do so most successfully demands that we lead by living the change ourselves.

Designers, Makers, Users: 3D Printing the Future OPENING @modatl

Screen Shot 2015-09-06 at 8.42.11 AM

Designers, Makers, Users: 3D Printing the Future 

Exhibition On View from September 20, 2015 – January 10, 2016 at MODA (Museum of Design Atlanta)

3D printing technology and the open source communities surrounding it are rapidly changing the world by making the powerful, new tools of design and manufacturing available to a much wider audience. This accessibility ultimately allows each one of us to design customized solutions to the complex problems around us.

Designers, Makers, Users: 3D Printing the Future will explore projects, both large and small, in which 3D printing technology is being used in innovative ways. From fabricating lighter components for airplanes to designing custom prosthetics, this exhibition will explore the exciting designs made possible by 3D printing and the many questions that these technological advances will raise for our future.

The exhibition will include projects such as:

  • The Made in Space Zero-G 3D Printer that traveled to the International Space station in 2014
  • Nooka Watches and a FreshFiber Bubble Lamp by  3D Systems
  • Chase Me, a stop-motion film made entirely with 3D printed characters and sets
  • Design for 3D printing a lunar habitation on the moon by Foster + Partners
  • Kinematics Dress by Nervous System

Designers, Makers, Users: 3D Printing the Future is an original exhibition organized by the Museum of Design Atlanta with the support of 3D SystemsAdvanced RPEssdackDremel,  Formlabs, PaliProto, the Northside Hospital Foundation,  Fulton County Arts and Culture, and the City of Atlanta’s Office of Cultural Affairs

Screen Shot 2015-09-06 at 8.47.27 AM[The above announcement was first published in a MODA Membership Newsletter, distributed by email, September 2015, by Claire Timmerman.]

Art of Tinkering MOOC – ScribbleBots #TinkeringMOOC

In week three of the Coursera-Exploratorium Art of Tinkering MOOC, I made my first ScribbleBot. A hobby motor, some kind of base, markers, and a battery combine to make visible the motion of a motored object.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

WEEKLY ACTIVITY: Make a few scribbling machines of your own, using our video and Activity Guide [link removed]. Try different materials, personalize your machine, and experiment freely! Then post your photos (and videos!) in this week’s forum [link removed] and tag them #tinkeringmooc on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook so they appear on our social media wall. We can’t wait to see all the variations you come up with!

Making the ScribbleBot was very fun and easy – to get started with a first iteration. And the real fun and learning increased when I began to play with the variables of the bot to see what effects the alterations would have. As my sons joined me in my investigation and iterations, they began to make hypotheses about what would happen if they used different materials and designs for the bot.

REFLECTION QUESTION: Based on your experience in the class so far, which learning dimensions and indicators from the framework [link removed] are easy to see, and which are harder to pinpoint or recognize? Share your thoughts in the discussion forum [link removed].

So, I am removing the links from the Coursera weekly prompts because they lead to information behind the Coursera portal. However, the Learning Dimensions tool is Google-able, and there is a nice, short piece about the instrument on Lego Engineering.

During my time in the class so far, I think the following dimensions are easier to see:

  • Engagement – Spending time in Tinkering activities; Displaying motivation or investment through affect or behavior
  • Initiative and Intentionality – Persisting to achieve goals in the problem space
  • Social Scaffolding – Requesting or offering help in solving problems; Inspiring new ideas or approaches; Physically connecting to others’ works
  • Development of Understanding – Expressing a realization through affect or utterances; Offering explanation(s) for a strategy, tool or outcome; Striving to understand

For me, the more challenging dimensions to observe and notice explicitly are:

  • Initiative and Intentionality – Setting one’s own goals; Seeking and responding to feedback (environmental); Taking intellectual risks or showing intellectual courage [unless person is self-talking or sharing aloud among the community of tinkerers]
  • Development of Understanding – Applying knowledge

I actually think it’s fabulous how many of these (which are more fully understood when looking at the “descriptors” on the tool) are directly observable. When the learning dimensions are observable, I think the ability to provide growth-mindset coaching and questioning and encouragement strengthens for the facilitator.

TINKERING JOURNAL PROMPT: Record your response to this week’s reflection question, as well as two or three different responses from the discussion forum in your design journal. In what ways are the responses helpful to your educational practice?

[Posted directly to Coursera discussion.]

And I loved this video lesson from Dr. Edith Ackermann, who I was able to meet at the New York Association of Independent Schools Annual Conference for Assistant Heads, where she and I both presented/facilitated.

“Play is children’s most serious work.”

“Playfulness is a counterpoint to curiosity.”

“Playfulness is about allowing yourself to leap…as if when you knew that when you do that you come to see things anew.”

“In playful environment you feel safe enough to explore ideas that would otherwise be risky.”

Dr. Ackermann’s description of the importance of the eye also significantly resonates with me and all that I am working on relative to curiosity and observation journals…connected with the Tim Brown idea that “Innovation begins with an eye.” That it’s not merely simple trial and error, but it is something more sophisticated, rooted in advanced observation of the eye to gather feedback and apply that learning to enhanced iterations.


On Tuesday, I will open a meeting with division heads and heads of learning and innovation by facilitating creation of ScribbleBots. I plan to come back later to this post and add images/notes from that experience.



Art of Tinkering MOOC – Circuits #TinkeringMOOC (Tinkering Journal Post #1, August 22, 2015.)

Art of Tinkering MOOC – Circuits #TinkeringMOOC

At Mount Vernon, we are advancing our design thinking work in many ways. Most recently, we are expanding our Maker and Media Programs and building our Design and Engineering Programs. So that MVIFI and I can be strong supporters of this work, and because I am just genuinely fascinated, I am currently taking the Art of Tinkering MOOC from the Exploratorium via Coursera.

In order to capture some of my playing and learning (possibly redundant) with tinkering and making, I am establishing a new category on my blog – “tinkering journal.” And this is the first post in this category. On the Coursera site, there are great places to post and journal, but I decided to originate my posts here and paste the URLs to my course on Coursera. So, these journal entries are really for me and my reflective practice, but you are welcome to read along – if you do, I hope you find something intriguing and that you start your own tinkering.

Week 2 – Circuit Boards

WEEKLY ACTIVITY AND SHARING: Please gather materials and try making a few circuit boards of your own, using the Activity Guide [link removed] for reference. Write about your experience playing around with the circuit boards and post your photos in the Week Two Activity forum [link removed]. Don’t be afraid to show us your failures as well as your successes! If you use social media, be sure to tag your photos#tinkeringmooc so they show up on our social media wall!

Creating the circuit boards was a blast. In #fsbl mode, Phillip and I constructed the circuit boards together. Previously we had played with the battery pack, light bulb, switch, alligator clips, etc. when they were loose and “unboarded,” but they were challenging to manage and wire together when the components were loose. Once mounted on the boards, with the nail-post terminals, the play was much more fun. We could concentrate on the experiments and outcomes from our tinkering, and we could spend less time just manipulating the parts into connection.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Through the tinkering play, I loved listening to Phillip and me as we thought out loud about what we were constructing and experimenting to explore electricity. Even though we turn on lights all the time in our house or with a flashlight, there was something almost magical about connecting that little lightbulb to the batteries and seeing it illuminate. Despite its simplicity, we were proud of our work. The high five proved it.

Next, we worked to install a switch in the line. I took my turn first and used four wires (I think). The light turned on with the switch open, which Phillip and I were not expecting. Our eye-brow-raised, immediate eye lock proved it. Immediately, Phillip wondered aloud what could be causing that. He made a hypothesis, and we traced the circuit with our fingers (a technique recommended by the Exploratorium course teachers). Even though this outcomes was not what we were building for or expecting, we did not feel at all like failures. We had explored and discovered something, and we were even more determined to wire the system so a closed switch would turn on the light. After conjecturing about having an extra wire, we reduced the wires to three and lit the bulb with a closed switch! More high fiving commenced!

When Anne-Brown came down to the basement to check on us, she couldn’t help herself. She had to start wiring and playing, too. Such is the way it is with tinkering. It’s highly contagious and draws people in.

REFLECTION QUESTION: After trying out the Circuit Boards activity (or watching the videos if you couldn’t try it), how has your thinking been impacted? Some aspects to consider: your understanding of circuits, the process of investigation, and your role as learner and/or teacher. Please contribute your thoughts to the Week Two forum [link removed]!

Through the circuit board activity, I definitely grew to understand circuits better. While this may shock and surprise my father-in-law, who helped me finish a house basement – including the electrical – I grew in truly understanding how the elements in a series could contribute to different outcomes with the bulb and sound device. Keeping the wires visible and using different colored alligator clips made for easy tracing and thinking about what wires were doing what in the circuits. Following the advice of the Exploratorium faculty, tracing the wires when an exploration was successful or unsuccessful really helped to conceptualize the actual electron flow through the system.

The process of investigation was fun and intriguing, and I think the experience was more fun with Phillip as a partner. We got to play together and hypothesize together and discover together. I was mesmerized with how much more quickly he seemed to “get” the electron flow tracing than I did. I would often sit and ponder still, even after Phillip was dismantling the current wiring and explaining what we needed to do next to “fix” our reasoning.

Phillip and I regularly, seamlessly, and continuously switched roles of “student” and “teacher,” and we were constantly in co-learner mode. I did try to model the questioning and facilitation techniques recommended by the Exploratorium facilitators. Simple questions like, “What do you think is going to happen when we wire it like that? What makes you think that? Can you trace the circuit wires with your finger and talk through what you think is happening?” were extraordinarily expanding to our activity and perceptual understanding.

TINKERING JOURNAL PROMPT: Make a drawing of a circuit (or two) that worked when you connected it. Make a drawing (or two) of a circuit that didn’t work when connected. What did it take for you to become more comfortable exploring circuits in this way? How much time did it take? What contributed your “aha” moments, or frustrations?

Below are a few sketches of the circuit explorations described above. Because we are both already tinkerers and attend a school that supports and promotes the principle that “curiosity and passion drive learning,” Phillip and I were very comfortable exploring circuits in this way. However, we did both feel a sense of “we want to make this work.” As we played more, I would say this changed into “Let’s see what all we can make work.” It took us about ninety minutes to make the boards and play. And it seemed like about ten minutes had gone by when we were done for the day.

Circuit sketches

Circuit sketches

After making circuits that weekend, I went to school on Monday, and I played again with the circuit boards with T.J. and Meghan. T.J. is our Director of Design and Engineering Programs, and Meghan is our Director of Innovation Diploma. T.J. is who connected me with this MOOC and set me up with the circuit materials. As T.J. built more boards, Meghan played with different configurations of the circuit boards that had already been built. It was so fun to watch her experiment, especially after I had figured out some “mysteries” over the weekend with Phillip. I think I did a pretty good job of biting my tongue and letting her explore without my newfound knowledge getting in her exploratory way. I did take advantage of having someone on which to practice further my recommended facilitation skills. Most help, I think the circuit tracing and thinking aloud really helps.

As I walked to the Founders Campus, I got a text from Meghan. “I did it!,” she proclaimed. She wanted to figure out how to light multiple lights and a small motor, and she was so excited with her discovery and success that she had to let me know. I think this excitement that people feel when making a victory in tinkering is such a compelling part of this methodology and opportunity to learn by doing.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Fab Lab and Maker Space, @jaymesdec #MakerEd

“Fab Lab brings out the inner designer in students”
Jaymes Dec
Independent School Magazine
Winter 2014
(HT @nicolenmartin)