What kids and teachers can do…ARE doing!

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

System turbulence, needed green dye, innovating innovation, and #pedagogicalmasterplanning

Are you learning as fast as the world is changing? In this insightful HBR article, Bill Taylor wrote:

In a world that never stops changing, great leaders never stop learning.

Eddie Obeng made this passionately visual in his TED talk – “Smart failure for a fast-changing world.

Obeng provided a picture of injecting green dye into a pipe of faster and faster moving water until the turbulence created can actually be seen. Then, he graphed what happens when the pace of change outstrips the rate at which we learn.

What we call “schools” exist in this world of ever-quickening change. What “green dye” are you using in your school so that the pace and nature of change is more visible…more tangible and discernible?

When I was a school principal, a support I provided for nearly a decade, I thought the best green dye I could inject was providing time for faculty to be together – a meta-goal advocated for in Carrie Leana’s “The Missing Link in School Reform.” Together, we implemented and improved on a few practices:

  • Peer visits – we committed to at least two peer visits a year. Many practitioners, especially those who really strived to improve, made sure that they exceeded the minimum.
  • PLCs – learning from 25 years of research and practice in public schools, we built a system that created job-embedded R&D time for faculty. In the model we created, participating faculty spent four 55-minute periods a week together so that they could do things akin to what David Creelman described when writing about the architect Christopher Alexander as Eishen campus near Tokyo was designed and built. Just like Alexander employed a short-cycle, iterative-prototype mix of design-and-construction so that architecture could inform building and building could inform architecture, the PLCs together designed instruction and assessment, built the constructive lessons with student-learners, and debriefed how to improve the design for the next phase of building.

The infrastructure contained some additional parts and pieces, and this infrastructure facilitated learning at a rate and pace that more closely matches the rate and pace of change that we are experiencing in schools – from technology, globalization, and knowledge about the brain, just to name a few influencers.

My best work, which I did not do alone – I had tons of collaborative help, was simply to make it easier for faculty to work together. Individual learning remained important, too, of course, but the traditional silo-ing traits of school were broken down so that necessary and essential co-laboring and co-learning could occur more often than at sporadic lunches or happenstance encounters in the faculty lounge. The get-togethers were made intentional, purposeful, and systemic.

My next arc of learning and educational support finds me at Unboundary, a transformation design studio. As Polly LaBarre is calling in “Help Us Innovate the Innovation Process,” we are working to design and prototype something currently called “pedagogical master planning.” Essentially, we are deconstructing the campus-master-planning process, and we are re-imagining it as a metaphor or framework to architect and engineer a strategic-design method for systematizing and enhancing the core purpose and radial functions of a learning/teaching community. It’s a next generation of strategic planning. Like Christopher Alexander’s methods with Eishen, pedagogical master planning will involve a short-cycle, iterative-prototype, dynamic responsiveness. Like the PLC’s ethos and structure, pedagogical master planning will systematize the parts and pieces of the whole – not to make the system rigid or slow-moving in complexity, but to respect, leverage, and amplify the interrelated and integrated nature of real systems.

At a time when change continues to quicken, we must design learning systems that can keep pace – or even outpace – the rate of change in the world. Master planning for such learning systems will necessitate a series of shifts from strategic planning to strategic design…design that serves as a green dye to make the intersections of change and learning visible, harness-able, and enhanceable.

Synergy 8 Beginnings – Day 1 and Day 2 Recap

As a student for many years, I can remember the general trend of the first day of classes. As a whole, most of my teachers distributed a handout with numerous rules and expectations. We were told what kind of notebook to carry, how to organize it, how much quizzes and tests counted in our averages, what not to do in class, etc.

As a counselor at Camp Sea Gull, we learned that first impressions are powerful. Captain Lloyd used to say that it takes only minutes to form a first impression but days and weeks to change or alter that first impression.


In Synergy, Jill Gough and I wanted to facilitate a careful and thoughtful first impression of what the course would be focused on. Our first class period is only 15 minutes long because of the orientation design of our first days of school. In that quarter hour, we hoped to inspire our 24 teammates – all 8th graders – to know that Synergy was about empowering us to be the change we wish to see in the world. So…we began with Kiran Bir Sethi’s 9 minute TED talk:

In the minutes that remained, we asked the student learners to reflect on why we would begin the course with such a video “act 1.” Several piped up and said, “Because we can do things to make a difference.” “This class is about applying our subjects to making a difference in the world.” “We are just kids, but we can act to change things that we see need changing.”

A successful beginning!


On day 2, we began with the Marshmallow Challenge (see Tom Wujec TED talk). Shortly after the class, we cut this 5 minute video:

The student learners wrote some responses in a mediated journal, and the focus centered on the importance of prototyping and engaging in an iterative process of trial, error, success, improvement, revision, retrial.

Next, we explained that our team would engage in a common practice and habit of observation journaling. To kick off this tool-explanation session, we employed Jonathan Klein’s TED talk:

Students briefly reacted to the power of visual imagery and using images (text, sketch, or picture images) to drum up awareness, reaction, and discussion. This was our jumping off point for beginning the powerful habit of recording our observations in a kind of regular diary about what we see and what causes us to question.

Jill and I then demonstrated a method that we both use to keep our observation journals – a great e-mail based blogging system called Posterous. Jill “postered” an observation journal of me postering” an observation journal: http://jplgough.posterous.com/observations-synergy

Finally, before we had to depart, we provided the students with the private access code to our class Schoology site – our primary means of digital communication and archiving for the Synergy community.

From my seat, it was a great beginning with a team of 26 people full of the “I Can” bug…ready to engage the iterative process of prototyping…so that we can take charge and use our images and voices to make a difference in this world. I still don’t know what kind of binder we should use, but that seems relatively insignificant. And we have weeks to overcome that first impression about notebooks and binders!