PROCESS POST: Observation Journals, Bus Stops, Daring to Fly High #TDed

“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:

  1. Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
  2. Collaboration Across Networks and Leading by Influence
  3. Agility and Adaptability
  4. Initiative and Entrepreneurialism
  5. Effective Oral and Written Communication
  6. Accessing and Analyzing Information
  7. 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:

2013-06-29 07.19.58

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:

2013-06-29 07.20.25

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.

 

The Future Project #WhatIfWeekly

From The Future Project

We embed Dream Directors in schools—a new character that we invented after listening to what students and teachers believe is missing most. They’re the only true cost of our model, and they make magic happen.

Part human catalyst and part social entrepreneur, Dream Directors recruit and train volunteer Future Coaches from the community and clear the way for students to dream up and build Future Projects of their own, each with potential to reawaken entire schools. We saw that last year—and this year we’re taking it one step further, committing to inspiring at least eight in ten students in each of our partner schools to either become part of a Project or lead one as a Fellow.

More about The Future Project:

What if we all did more to support missions like The Future Project’s?

We’re on a mission to transform America’s high schools into Future Schools. Places that value taking risks and taking action. That show students they have what it takes to innovate and to lead. That unleash passion. And power. It’s a whole new vision for education, and a revolution in which everyone wins.

Design for America – an incredible realization of empowering real-life problem-solving students.

From Liz Gerber, “Design for America: A Network of Students and Designers Solving Real-World Challenges,” published on GOOD, January 23, 2013 at 8:00 AM:

When I was an engineering student, many of my professors assigned me to a team and asked us to solve invented problems, like how to propel a ball across a room using only cardboard and rubber bands or how to build the tallest structure out of toothpicks and marshmallows. Other professors asked us to design specific things, such as laparoscopic suturing devices or fetal monitoring devices. But my favorite professors allowed me to choose my team and encouraged us to find our own problems to work on. Those assignments were the ones that made me feel I was helping others most. As a design engineer, I wanted meaning—and I wanted to choose my team.

And, a bit later:

What kind of community could I create to help students think that they were capable of helping others? What kind of process could I teach that helped students to think that they could collaboratively tackle the messiest and more daunting problems such as our obesity epidemic, failing schools, and polluted waters? As a professor, my job is to teach students how to reliably and creatively come up with answers to engineering design problems. Could I create an organization or environment that, like the Obama campaign, would inspire students to carry out their mission—as they envisioned it—in their own creative ways?

Here’s what I created: Design for America pulls together teams of volunteer faculty, students, and professional mentors in a local community. Interdisciplinary student teams meet weekly. Anyone who wants to be part of a design team can be. The only requirement is that participants must work, not just talk about the enormity of the problems. DFA doesn’t give students problems to solve; it guides them to walk around their community to find problems they believe are meaningful.

It’s like Synergy 8, but for college. (Link to the Synergy 8 category on It’s About Learning)

(HT to @SAISNews for making certain that I saw Liz Gerber’s DFA piece!)

Making reality a school. #IDreamASchool

If school is meant to prepare students for real life, then why doesn’t school look more like real life?

This is the primary question that has kept me research-busy for the past seven to ten years, at varying degrees. Of course, there are countless corollaries that spur me to sidebar explorations, integrated component searches and implementations, and related co-primary investigations. For example, during my middle-school principalship, I concentrated significant efforts to studying and orchestrating professional learning communities (PLCs) as a foundational structure and ethos for the way we worked. If the world at large is moving to more collaborative ways of working, then our educator workforce should operate in such paradigms and methods, too. (Of course, 25-years of research from public schools helped enormously!) By becoming a more formalized professional learning community, we blurred some of the lines between “school” and “real life,” and we enhanced the ways in which we worked as team problem solvers and educational designers – for the benefit of ourselves and our students. What’s more, we were able to empathize more genuinely about what we were asking students to do when we asked them to collaborate.

One of the most important and critical co-primary investigations in which I continue to search is How might we transform school to look more like real life?

As schools explore sustaining (tier 1 and tier 2) and disruptive (tier 3) innovations, one strong way to transform schools into more life-like analogues is to reconsider the traditional departmental structure. Typically, schools sub-divide into departments called “Math,” “Science,” “History,” “English,” etc. Curriculum tends to be categorized by these departments and divisions – by subject-area or topic. Often times, silos develop…sometimes intentionally, but more understandably in unintentional ways.

But what if we re-imagined curriculum to be more about the issues and challenges that we face? What if we had departments like…

  • the Department of Energy
  • the Department of Justice and Equity
  • the Department of Education
  • the Department of Health and Human Services
  • the Department of Environmental Sustainability

Liz Coleman’s call to reinvent liberal arts education

Through project-based and problem-based learning, students in K-12 education could engage genuine issues, concerns, opportunities and possibilities. Whereas the traditional departments – math, science, history, English, etc. – have been used to segregate the disciplines, with a newly devised departmental structure, the traditional subject areas would continue in importance and vitality, but they would do so as lenses co-ground into the same optic glass.

Imagine a Department of Energy in school. Student learners could explore and work in the fields of energy research and investigation, and they could employ mathematics and statistics as lenses through which to understand energy – math in context. They could hypothesize and experiment as genuine scientists working to discover the emerging, integrated sectors of biofuels, solar energies, and other non-fossil-dependent sources – science in context. They could research through lenses of historian, anthropologist, and sociologist, and they could write persuasive and expository pieces – humanities in context. They could examine the economics and psychology of energy consumption – interdisciplinary human studies in context. Design and visual prototyping could play an integrated role – industrial arts in context.

Context should inform content and cognition. And student learners deserve to gain practice with “the app for that.” We know that athletics require much practice, but the athletes regularly have opportunity to apply their skills and development to “real-life” settings called games. We know that musicians require much practice, but the instrumentalists regularly have opportunity to apply their skills and development to “real-life” concerts and performances. When do student-learners regularly have opportunity to apply their content learning and skill development? A test is not a game or concert. An essay for a teacher is not a game or concert. Contributing to a blog about experimental energy sources is more like playing in a game or concert. Designing alternative-fuel engines is more like playing a game or concert. Partnering with local businesses, NGOs, universities, and other co-creators of our energy future – such experience most certainly is comparable to playing in the games or concerts of real life. Surely, we don’t really believe that students should wait for application until they are finished with formal schooling. Surely, we can devise better responses to the age-old question, “When will I ever use this?” Student-learners could be using their imaginative, developing understanding now.

Compassion should also inform content and cognition. The world needs problem finders and solutions makers. Todays students care more deeply about the world than I think my generation cared when we were in elementary, middle, and high school. By engaging student-learners in real-life, problem-based work, we could essentially connect the millions of students like batteries in a series to light the solutions to some of our greatest challenges in society. Business and non-profit could become involved in more integrated ways with education so that a symbiosis of efforts would build self-reinforcing and sustaining capacities – innovators guiding future innovators for for a more dynamic and productive future.

I am not just theorizing and hypothesizing. The type of real-life schooling described above is already happening in many places. Kiran Bir Sethi’s Riverside School comes to mind. Bob Dillon’s Maplewood Richmond Heights Middle School comes to mind. Project H Design comes to mind. Whitfield County Schools comes to mind. Geoff Mulgan’s Studio Schools come to mind. Projects at High Tech High and Partnerships at Science Leadership Academy come to mind. Even in my own personal experience, I co-piloted Synergy 8, a non-departmentalized, community-issues, problem-solving course for 8th graders. One group of four boys organized a job fair for residents of English Avenue and played a major role in helping people secure jobs. Other programs at Westminster, like the Summer Economics Institute, Philanthropy 101, Dr. Small’s Research course, and the Junior High Leadership Experience Advisory Program come to mind.

.

And just this week, I heard Brittany Wenger share in her TEDxAtlanta talk about her experience creating an artificial intelligence app to help more accurately diagnosis breast cancer. However, she did reveal that only about 10% of the project was supported as actual school work. The kind of work and contribution that Brittany Wenger is making could BE school.

Business leaders understand the inter-related, interdisciplinary nature of real-world problems and issues. Consider Michael Moreland’s explication on his SEEDR website:

No single discipline or sector can drive meaningful progress alone. To meet the most intractable challenges, we built SEEDR as a vehicle for next-level collaboration, building bridges among industry, philanthropy, government, and academia worldwide. We value wild multidisciplinary, cross-sectoral work and if you share our passion for global development and thirst for learning the languages of technologies, causes, and cultures, we want to work with you.

– http://seedrl3c.com/team

Does our world possess high-quality activists and efforts geared toward making the world a better place? Absolutely! Do these people come from our existing schools and educational institutions? Of course. However, I believe there is a realization gap. The type of interdisciplinary and cross-sector work that Moreland espouses above could be significantly enhanced with innovative thinking and implementation to transform schools into more “real-life” organizations. We could realize an amplification and acceleration of problem solving by activating our schools as more contributory blends of practitioner-based learning labs. With the proper attention to pedagogical and instructional master planning, I can imagine many scenarios in which content knowledge and cognitive accountability would only be enhanced. In other words, I challenge the typical rebuttal that students would loose content-knowledge attainment chances by working in the ways suggested above. Numerous researchers and practitioners are finding otherwise…especially as they focus more on what is learned and retained, instead of what is delivered and taught.

To summarize several of the points discussed earlier, and to introduce a few not detailed above, I believe that a number of advantages could come from re-organizing school departments in such ways that make school more like real life:

  • Student engagement would improve, as school studies became more relevant and contextual. Attendance issues could improve. In the current state of testing, assessment performance could rise, as shown by people such as Kiran Bir Sethi.
  • Testing could be re-balanced, even replaced in cases, with performance-based assessments that are more realistic and aligned with those performance assessments encountered in the “real world.”
  • The 21st century skills, particularly the 7 Cs, would be more purposefully and realistically integrated into the school day. The practice would better match the games and concerts.
  • Curriculum would move to curricula vitae – “the course of life” – as learning goals and objectives aligned more authentically with the challenges facing our societies and world.
  • For-profit business, government, and non-profit organizations – spokes of a wheel, in some ways – could be connected through the hub of education. Innovation could breed innovation as social entrepreneurship and education became more intertwined and interrelated.
  • Students could experience more giving and contribution as an eventual norm in schools, instead of school being so focused on what students get during their school years. Yet, students would also gain tremendously as they experienced more of a powerful mixture of cognition and affective domains.
  • The issues we face as a human race could be addressed in a solutions-based manner with amplified and accelerated attention from and with schools…schools working more in partnership than in precedents with real-world problem solvers.

Of course, such a move to organization around Departments of Energy and Departments of Justice and Equality could strike fear and trepidation in school administration and faculty and parents. Transitions and transformations could occur in a number of ways. Schools could invest more in master planning. Schools could experiment with a mini-test of such a department with those teachers, students, and parents who were interested and willing. Or wholesale changes could be bravely attempted. In fact, many of our new-school startups are exploring just such re-imagining and re-organizing.

What are your thoughts? Where are the opportunities? Where are the challenges? Do you know of more examples, exemplars, failed prototypes, and not-yet-realized possibilities? How might we think together on such multi-tier innovation in schools and education? I would appreciate your idea, links, questions, and insights. It’s going to take many of us working together to make reality a school.

[This post was cross-published on Connected Principals and Inquire Within on 9.28.12]

PROCESS POST: Brittany Wenger, TEDxAtlanta, and Re-Imagining School

Live like you’ll die tomorrow. Learn like you’ll live forever.

Ben Dunlap, The life-long learner, #TED

Yesterday, on September 25, I lived on an edge with a number of inspiring people gathered on a common edge – people who are living like they could die tomorrow and learning like they could live forever. Gathered in Unboundary’s TED Dome, more than 300 movers and shakers came together for TEDxAtlanta “Edge of the South.” We lived and learned with “12 Southerners who are breaking new ground. In art, filmmaking, media, and fashion. In business, social innovation, energy production and the sciences.” I grow giddy with excitement and anticipation about these TEDxAtlanta days…

Here’s a quick Storify that captures a bit of the incredible experience for me:
tedxatlanta-edge-of-the-south-empathize-go-do-conn

Once again, though, I failed to ask my most burning question:

“So, in what ways did your formal schooling propel you on your current path, and in what ways did your formal schooling impede your current path?”

I remain optimistically frustrated by this question. Certainly, most everyone with whom I’ve ever talked can remember a moment in school or a particular teacher that contributed to his or her unique path in life. Of course, all of those same people can also name an aspect of formal schooling that existed as an obstacle to their journey, too.

We can learn so much about how to continue improving school by exploring this question.

I could recount more than a thousand stories or thoughts inspired at TEDxAtlanta “Edge of the South.” At this particular event, however, one stands out…

“Brittany Wenger, 17, Wins Google Science Fair Grand Prize For Breast Cancer Diagnosis App.”

If you missed Brittany’s talk, I cannot wait for you to see it when the videos are processed and uploaded to the TEDxAtlanta site. Yes, she spoke of being inspired and supported by a biology teacher and a computer science teacher. And she spoke of the project that she undertook as an independent study – partly due to the fact that her school does not engage in a science fair system, partly due to the fact that her work did not “fit” into her required coursework.

Motivated by a passion to make a difference in the lives of others and in medical science, Brittany combined biological biopsy processes with cloud-based artificial intelligence to create an app – Cloud4Cancer – that could just be a revolution for breast cancer detection, prevention, and treatment.

And Brittany worked on this primarily “outside of school.”

Why couldn’t this BE school? Let me ask that in a more positive manner…

How might we re-imagine school so that a veritable army of learners – students and teachers together – might contribute to the problem identification and solutions-finding for our world’s grand challenges and issues?

[Out of time to write, for now! There are deep connections among the TEDxAtlanta “Edge of the South” speakers…and educational transformation. There are deep connections between Ben Dunlap’s talk and re-imagining schools.]