The Unpaved Path

C_egitqXkAAEVE4In two days I graduate…. That’s crazy. I’m a very nostalgic person, and, therefore, I have been doing a lot of reminiscing by reading old blog posts, emails, and in general having conversations with friends about the past four years of our lives. So when we decided that we wanted our ID seniors to give MoVe Talks to the younger cohorts and some admin as a way to share our parting advice, it didn’t take long for me to come up with the story I wanted to share.

Towards the end of sophomore year I wrote a blog post reflecting on some of my favorite memories of freshman year. In this post I questioned the idea of students walking on an already paved path, well this thought has now come full circle as I’ve learned through my work in the Innovation Diploma that the path unpaved is a path worth taking.

Below is the script I used for my MoVe Talk which is as close as I have to the exact words I used to attempt to impart this idea on to the younger cohorts.

“I could list a ton of things I learned from these experiences, but the grades don’t matter a smidge  to me (most of them didn’t even have real grades, but I still learned and enjoyed the moments enormously.) These stories I shared were all moments were I had incredible joy and also felt incredibly proud of my work because I took part in the creation of the end product and felt connected to the outcome; a teacher hadn’t predesigned what would come from the experience.

When you think about it, it makes a lot of sense; if the teachers already have the path paved for the students, how will they ever learn to make their own path? “- Paving a Path; The Life of Pinya

Before I begin, I want everyone to close your eyes and imagine standing on a path in a forest. There is gravel and some large rocks, and it’s evident that people have walked this trail before. From where you stand you can clearly see the end of the trail.

Now turn to your left and right. There are trees everywhere and some flowers growing on the ground. There is no paved path in this part of the forest, but the unusual flowers and glimpses of multicolored light shining through the trees are intriguing. If you are pursuing innovative education practices, then you are in this unknown part of the forest and are pioneering a trail on the unpaved path.

IMG_1634.jpg

This is me back in middle school, and today I want to tell the story of how I got from there (point to screen) to here (tada) because I’ve taken a fairly unusual path.

Back in 8th grade when this picture was taken, I was honestly pretty much your stereotypical try hard, nerdy, rule following student. In fact I won the award for highest gpa at the end of the year. I say this not because I feel like this award was all that important or because I want to brag about myself- I mean, it’s middle school let’s be real all of that is trivial in that regard- but I say this so hopefully you can better understand where I was coming from when going into high school.

My understanding of a successful student was someone who made all As, got a few awards, and then eventually got into a good college with scholarship money, and if you could become Valedictorian then you were really set for life.

At this point in my life, I was playing the game of school well and thusly believed I was on this path to success, and I was perfectly content with just that.

It wasn’t until freshman year that I started to believe that maybe there could be more to school.

Big History.pngNow some of you may recognize this picture because it’s a picture from the moment I describe as my clicking moment. The moment where I realized success in school could be so much more than just good grades, and realized that school needs to change in order to meet these new standards of success.

After participating in the 2013 Council on Innovation, I learned that I as a freshman had the ability to give advice and pitch ideas to community leaders that they actually valued. That was huge and stuck with me into my classes. In particular, freshman world history.

Here is where I believe my unusual journey begins.

Everyone in the grade had been tasked with the assignment of creating a project about whatever we wanted and would then present for 5-10 minutes anyway we choose fit. I had chosen a topic, but after a few days of working on the assignment I was getting frustrated because I didn’t want to just give a presentation of facts that anyone could easily look up online for themselves if they really wanted to know about it.

I talked to my teacher and after a few more days we agreed I needed a new topic, so instead we had the idea for me to present a project on “hmw redesign projects?”

C_jWuzOXYAAtNSR.jpgLong story short, I took this 5-10 minute project and turned it into a 45 minute lecture complete with a slide deck, prototypes, and 3 videographers.

This wasn’t the “normal” thing to do for my ideal path to success, which just made me even more incredibly nervous that no one would like it and it all would have been a huge waste of time and I would just fail the entire project. And I couldn’t tell you now what grade I made on that assignment, but I can say that it ended up being one of the most empowering and fulfilling experiences of my high school career which meant more to me than any grade in that moment.

This all started with me questioning a teacher’s assignment. Now I’m not saying you should go off telling all of your teachers that you could make a better assignment than them, but I do believe one of the most important things I’ve learned is that you should never be afraid to ask a mentor for guidance if you feel like you have feedback that could help improve your school experience. Nothing will change that isn’t first questioned.C_jWuz8XYAAhWUT

As you can imagine, my path to graduation only got more unusual as I got older. For starters, I joined ID– a new vague program that promised to help nurture students into innovators. I jumped at the opportunity, but not everyone was quite as on board with the latest edition of Mount Vernon’s attempts to instill the mindsets in us.

To be honest, probably the hardest part of deciding to take an usual path was the social struggles I faced due to it. I wouldn’t be surprised if many of you in here, especially the IDers who have been around for a little now, have at some point in time heard negative comments about ID, and maybe even felt like you were being offended because you are involved in the program. I know I did especially since I was around back during the dark ages when we really didn’t have much to show for ourselves and people tend to be skeptical of ideas without a proof of concept.

2014-09-12 14.49.57And this social tension around my path to graduation only grew when I got to junior year and made what many people believed to be an incredibly unusual decision for myself: I didn’t take all APs. (hu!!)

It is my belief that AP history courses are often trying to cover too much information in not enough time, and the content is a lot of reading and memorizing, and the writing is very dry and the AP doesn’t even require everything to be factual to get full credit. Thus I decided I would not take AP History because I didn’t feel interested in that kind of learning and would rather give myself more time to devote to attending education conferences, and working with community leaders, and talking to interested families about ID, and writing articles for magazines about education transformation, and all sorts of other projects that were truly meaningful to me because they beneficially impacted others.

However, this decision was still incredibly difficult for me because to me it symbolized taking myself out of the game.

Let me remind you that my vision of success basically meant the path to becoming valedictorian. Going into and early on in high school I truly thought that was what I wanted. But as many of you know, the class of 2017 is incredibly competitive when it comes to playing the traditional school game of grades, so by choosing to not take all APs, this also meant choosing to not be able to have as high of a GPA as my peers, and therefore I knew I would not be valedictorian despite originally being on this path if I made this choice.

DAH2mT5XsAAKMKvPeople, including some of my best friends, would tell me this was a bad idea for all sorts of reasons. They would say that I was too smart to not take all APs, or they would say that they didn’t get why I would take myself out of the running for val, or they would say that I was taking the easy option and I’d be less competitive to colleges, etc. etc.

And despite whether or not you are in the position to be the potential val of your grade, to some extent we can all relate to this struggle of wanting to maintain a good gpa for college and what not, but also wanting the time to work on things other than just grades.

I didn’t let the opinions of others influence me too much, and I’ve been very satisfied with my decision to drop AP History courses. And in general I have always loved and appreciated all of the opportunities I’ve had through ID, but I’m not gonna lie that I was often still nervous about what colleges would think of everything I’ve done because the scariest part about taking your own unpaved path is that you can’t possibly know how others will react to it.

How would they view a kid who didn’t take as many AP courses as others, who joined a new program with only two other graduates, who co-created her own non-traditional AP Lang class, and who took an independent study instead of the traditional economics course amongst other things?

But now I’m on the other side and I believe I’ve exceeded my original vision of a successful student.

I…

  • Presented a MoVe Talk in front of over a hundred educators
  • Facilitated hundreds through design thinking Flashlabs
  • Participated in a week long experience with the Stanford d.School#fuse15 MoVe Talk.jpg
  • written 611 blog posts in not even 3 years, and created a network of over 250 people
  • Co-created and attended the first ever AP Course (approved by the College Board and the admin of our school) with a syllabus created by teenagers
  • been commissioned to write a number of magazine articles and guest on two podcasts about education transformation
  • Worked with the Center for Disease Control and the mayor of Sandy Springs
  • Co-led sessions at faculty meetings on “day’s off”
  • Pitched business ideas in a 3-Day Startup Program
  • Re-designed a classroom into an innovation studio
  • Changed the way 23 freshman experienced World History by forming the Design Team
  • and many more…

And now I am about to graduate with two diplomas which means not only can I say that I had all of these incredibly unique and fulfilling experiences, but I also believe I’ve achieved many of the “traditional school goals” as well.

I have had all As throughout high school, will be attending a well respected school (Yup it’s official go Yellow Jackets because I’ll be at Georgia Tech next year!!), got into a selective honors program, and even got a full ride scholarship!

Again my point to all of this isn’t to brag about myself, but for years when I talk about all of the innovative work we’ve been doing in ID in order to transform the “norm” about education, people have been asking me “Well where’s the evidence that this works? How do colleges and the ‘real world’ respond to this kind of thing?”

WScreen Shot 2017-05-18 at 10.32.51 PM.pngell I’m proud to say that I- we- can finally answer them. Even after having two graduates last year, it didn’t seem like enough of a statistic. But we are now about to have 6 total graduates from the Innovation Diploma program who have been highly successful no matter how you look at it, and that to me is a huge win for all of us. We have always believed what we are doing is great, and every year even more believe it too.

I feel more than prepared for college because I feel like I’ve been exposed to the real world all ready due to the choices I made to put faith in things that had never been done before.

So, I hope all of you remember that yes the path we educator pioneers tend to walk on that’s untraditional, unknown, un-”approved” can be scary because you don’t know how others will receive it, but don’t be afraid to question and take action about things you believe in because the chances are that others will believe in them too.

And even the unpaved path can be very successful in the school game if you work hard at whatever path you choose.  And if you’re like me, you’ll find yourself more empowered, fulfilled, and prepared for the next chapter of your life than you ever would have found possible without the Innovation Diploma.

 

Advertisements

The Independent Project

The past few weeks I have been conversing with Mary and Cali Ragland, two seniors from Perkiomen Valley High School in Pennsylvania. These two are are currently taking an independent study course around the essential question: “How might we design an educational system that best meets the 21st learner’s needs by valuing curiosity?” They reached out to me after having been introduced by a teacher to some of my blog posts and learning about my work in the Education Transformation Movement. Furthermore, my work designing the AP Lang Collab Course last year, where I co-developed an AP Language and Composition course, was intriguing to them because they wanted to learn about how to push through the “dark night of the soul” in the life of an self-guided project.

These two have been doing some great work interviewing teachers and students and pulling away key insights about the role of curiosity in education. I especially love the quote that they describe as really encompassing what made them interested in education transformation:

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” – W.B. Yeats

I would definitely encourage reading more about their work on their blog:  Curiosity in Education. Personally, talking to these two has been great because it’s reminded me of how far I’ve come in the past few years, and reminded me how important it is for me to always go back to where I started- this blog.

Senior year has made blogging very difficult because I have spent most of my “non homework writing time” working on college essays and scholarship applications. Then when I kind of have “free time” (which basically just means I have finished homework and have no planed activities or meetings at the time) I find myself wanting to savor the moment to take a break from intense mindfulness. However, I know how important it is to blog to not only share my story with others, but to reflect for myself and capture my learning journey. After all, I started this blog for me -not because I wanted hundreds of followers or felt like my voice was something that just had to be heard by others- I started it because of what I thought was a silly challenge to observe and reflect on the world more intently.

In fact, I haven’t blogged in so long that I haven’t yet reflected on the fact that I was approved to embark on another curriculum creation opportunity by designing my own Independent Project!!

For my last semester of high school I am exploring the connection point between film, change theory, and education which will also apply towards my last needed half of a social sciences credit. Often times social science credits are just assumed to be a history course, whether it be world history, US history, economics, US government, etc. However, social sciences by definition are “social” meaning, about human society and social relationships and how they function, which does explicitly mean just IMG_6689.JPG“history.”

I say “just history” because I believe everything involves some understanding of history, because everything has a history and thus History is Everywhere. An essential question to all learning is, “How can we use the knowledge we have gathered over time (the past) in order to better understand and design for our present and future?”

So yes I believe you could call my course a “history course” because I’m definitely researching the past. However, for my particular project, I really wanted to explore society from the perspective of how we create change in society to then apply this knowledge in the world of education. The final product of this work will be a high quality documentary video focused on the Innovation Diploma and the moment that I call the “clicking moment”; that moment when students realize that the world is changing and education should be too, and they start to take ownership of their learning in order to make a difference now, not “when they are grown up.”

Now the main reason I haven’t mentioned this project yet is because it was a last minute project that got put into double time in order to come to life. At the end of last semester I knew I wanted to devote more time second semester to exploring and contributing to the education transformation movement. However, I’m always so busy and yet their is a finite amount of time in the day. I had to figure out what in my daily schedule could give a little time. What I realized is that what I wanted to work on would likely hit a lot of social science credits, so we thought, “What if this was my ‘history’ class?”

I worked on overdrive with my mentors in order to put together a document to pitch the idea of an Independent Project to our administration. The end of the semester though was a very crazy time for me both in and out of school, so I got approved with the intent of needing the first few weeks of second semester to still work on the planning details.

 

One of the first tasks I had was to figure out how I would devote my ID time, especially after the reMoVe10 design brief gained so much momentum after first semester. The design brief given to us by the Mayor of Sandy Springs, was designed to be a project we worked on during a single semester. However, our school admin, representatives from the Sandy Springs Council, and our new partners at Georgia Commute Options all got so fired up about the work we’ve been doing, that we realized this project needed to continue. 16387341_10154593513538277_4820722959124524604_n.jpg

Because of this decision to change the scope of the project, our team had to look back at our team roles and norms and decide how best to continue based on plans that were already set for second semester. I already had plans to work on my Independent Project work, and another team mate was already in the process of another design brief opportunity. Therefore, we added a new member to our team, and I used the month of January to waning out of my position as team leader to make a smoother transition for the new team. My plan is to continue to work with the reMoVe10 team, but more as a consultant for them to help give feedback and provide assistance at specific events.

{Small necessary tangent: This last month was honestly really hard for me, because I naturally find myself in a leadership role in the sense of “project manager,” so it was challenging to work on stepping back and being a leader by pushing others to take a leadership role. However, I think it was something important for me to work on because part of a leaders role should always be to coach others to lead.}

IMG_6691.JPGWhile continuing to work with the reMoVe10 team this past month, I used 4th period (my Independent Project time) to start further brainstorming what my video will look like, while getting a Film Course 101 tutorial from a mentor, and continuing to find ways I can discover and experiment with changes in education specifically in regards to the role of student voice. So far I’m diving deep into essential questions such as “What motivates people to learn?” “Where does ‘passion’ fit into education?” and “What gives students agency?” as my design drivers, though I believe as I start to interview people the story line will become even more clear.

I’ve learned that with documentaries one of the best things to do is to just press record and start filming. So now that I’ve officially had my last day full time with the reMoVe10 team (last Wednesday) I’ve been gearing up to dive all in on this Independent Project using my 8 hours and 40 minutes a week (between ID time and my new Independent Project specific time) to research, film, and synthesize information about the social science of education change. We pushed “purchase” on some new awesome film equipment yesterday, and now the fun (and intense) work is about to really start!

The Movement: Transforming Education

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

For the past three days I got the honor and privilege to work along side some of the most inspiring students I’ve ever met from around the country. What did these students have in common? They are all proud, passionate leaders in the movement to transform education so that in the very near future everyone can have a learner-centered education. And to think that the attendees at this conference were just a small hand full of the learners involved in this movement is inspiring.

42 students and some smaller number of adults, were gathered from 15 different schools across 13 different states for a conference called SparkHouse hosted by Education Reimagined held in Washington D.C. The coolest part about this conference was that it was specifically designed so that there would be more students then adults. (But we made sure to clarify on multiple occasions that everyone in the room was a learner. I’m always saying that everyone can be a student, a teacher, and a mentor at different times in their lives because we are all life long learners.)

The last few days I’ve posted reflections about the day (Learner-Centered Commonalities and Inspiring Minds United At Last ), but today I’d like to really reflect on my take aways overall and next steps.  (I’ll admit, there is probably much more I could say on this topic and I’m sure I’m forgetting important things, but this is my best stab at it.)

Take aways:

  • Relationships are key in a learner-centered environment: between students, teachers, families, and the community; every student needs to have the feeling of being known, heard, and cared about at a personal level for the best learning to occur
  • Defining vs distinguishing: you can’t define something (such as “learner-centered”) with examples, but you can distinguish what does and what does not fall into a certain category by having conversations to establish a common understanding
  • We need more common language: every learner-centered school is a little bit different though we share the same values. The hard part about this is that because the programs are different we use different language to describe the experiences (this week alone I heard about design thinking, project based learning, masteries, cardinal academy, capstones, extended learning opportunities, etc…) the problem with this is that it gets very confusing to convince people to join a movement while constantly trying to describe all of these different words which essentially just become jargon.
    • How might we develop a glossary of common language so that we can distinguish between different types of experiences while still being able to provide clarity and unity for the movement?
  • Detecting the presence of leadership: There is a kind of speaking and listening (communicating) that causes people to be engaged and united around a common goal that is for “we” (not “me”) in a safe space; the people are then energized and feel a part of something bigger than anyone of us and it’s for everyone
  • Creative ways to get credit: I love the opportunities I’m given by being a student at MVPS however, there are many times where I feel like I’m facing a two worlds struggle because there simply isn’t enough time in the day to dive deeply into my project work and extra curricular activities which I’m passionate about while also spending the required amount of time in core classes to gain graduation credits. The interesting thing I realized while at this conference is that many schools are giving students core credits for their big scale project work that may even take place off campus. (Like getting credit for working in a Kroger and Bank run by the school, or getting credits for participating on the robotics team, or getting credits while being certified as a chef or nursing assistant, or getting credit for an internship that takes place a few times a week during the day.) There are a lot of interesting ideas about creative ways to give credit for large scale project work outside of just credit in the sense of acknowledgment that you’re doing something awesome and gaining skills that will make a cool story to talk about. It seems like a nice baby step in the right direction is to start finding new paths that students can take to gain credits for the learning done from large scale project work (such as Innovation Diploma work or even electives and clubs perhaps).
  • If not now, then when? If not you, then who?: I can’t remember what TEDTalk I watched that had this quote, but some of us from MVPS brought it up at the conference because it accurately describes the mood most of us felt once we were “done.” We gathered an incredible group of people together and that alone has been a huge takeaway. I now know more about so many interesting types of learner-centered models and we have also formed a powerful community of students that are ready to work together to push this movement forward. Every great moment in history starts with a gathering of people.

Next steps:

At the end of the conference the group came together to start discussing next steps and what we would like our role to be in this movement. I’m happy to say that we’ve already started to take action on a few ideas, and we’ve also been thinking about several others that may be a little over the mountains right now.

Next steps in progress:

  • GroupChat/Communications: first off, it’s important to us that we stay connected, so the team of learners at this conference established a group chat with everyone on it so that we can update, support, and ideate with each other as we go back to our respective schools
  • Student Voice Edition Magazine/Reflections: as of earlier today I challenged everyone to also write/draw/record a reflection about their experience with learner-centered education, how they felt about the past few days, what their most excited for next, what’s the biggest thing they’d like to change, etc. then the idea is to compile these reflections into a singular magazine to showcase this new unified student voice group that has been created over these past few days. Luckily a bunch of people were also interested, so I think we’ve officially gotten the ball rolling!
  • Video Re-cap: throughout the three days, a professional video team recorded us as we worked and had some interviews with people as well, and the plan is for everyone to share this video with other people to help spread the word about the work being done across the country already with at least these 15 schools
  • T-Shirt Word of Mouth: everyone who can has agreed to wear our #SparkHouse shirts this coming Monday as a conversation starter to talk about what we did while we were away from our typical school day

Over the mountain thinking:

  • Pitching at our school: everyone walked away from the conference with at least one new cool idea for their personal school based off of what other schools were doing, so an interesting next step would be for everyone to actually pitch to their admin about a new idea for their school to prototype with
  • Exchange program: we send teachers to learn from work being done by other schools, but what if we had an exchange program for students where students would spend a few days shadowing students from another school to learn about other learner-centered models; student voices are powerful, so imagine how powerful it would be if a student in Georgia could come back from 3 days (arbitrary number for now) spent at a school in New York and say that they found this other schools way of teaching to be really inspiring? That would say a lot. Plus it would be fun for us students interested in learning more about different types of education!
  • The glossary: I talked earlier about the need to develop more common language, so one idea I left the conference with is the idea of creating a learner-centered education glossary to help distinguish between different ways we classify models of education. If each student at this conference were to help make a glossary for their specific school, then we put those together, I’m sure we’d find some interesting overlaps and have interesting discussions about what’s worth distinguishing between and it could help provide clarity to the movement in theory.
  • Student run conference: everyone’s always saying that student voices are some of the most powerful ones, and I believe that every student at this conference has the leadership potential to facilitate a conference. So one over the mountain idea that I proposed was for every school group from the conference to facilitate their own conference similar to SparkHouse. We would use the event to get more learners involved in the movement from people that are already hooked to people who come from a traditional school and don’t know much about the new possibilities some schools are making possible.

 

Overall I was thrilled to take part in this event and have left being more inspired than ever. I’d like to believe that I’ve been involved in this movement for some time now with my blog and twitter presence in this world of education transformation; however, this experiance was amazing to me because it’s the first time I really felt like their were more student voices out there being heard. There are obviously students at my school and others that are supportive of this kind of learning, but not everyone is as passionate about really being involved in the behind the scenes promotion and development work alongside the adults, which is understandable. I’m also sure there are more student involved in the movement that I’ve yet to meet. But I now feel like more students are starting to get involved and I think that’s going to be game changing, especially now that I feel connected to a strong united community of the 42 students I just spent the last three days with. (Not to mention all of the adults that have been super supportive and instrumental in making these connections happen and successful).

When teachers talk about learner-centered education people ask, “Where’s the evidence of this working?” but when students talk about learner-centered education, we are the evidence. It is working. Everyday I feel like I know myself a little bit better and am improving my skills as a learner a little bit more due to the opportunities I have to take ownership of my learning and blur the lines between school and the real world.

We as students have inherited a certain type of world, and we have something to say about it. The educational world has been the same for decades, but we are living in a new world so it’s time that education was reimagined, redesigned, and reinvented into a learner-centered model. I feel empowered as a learner to work to push the education transformation movement forward, and I’m excited about all of the possibilities of the future. I imagine a world where one day every student experiences learner-centered education each and everyday, and I believe this future is a very realistic world.

 

Making History with History

CkzOpSPUUAASLvp.jpgIf you didn’t watch tonight’s Tony Awards then you missed out on a night of magic! The energy in the room where it happened was hotter than the sun and you could feel it through the TV. It was great seeing everyone’s smiling faces and hearing the thankful words and watching the breathtaking performances!!!

Hamilton won 11 awards I believe out of the record breaking 16 nominations, thus making history with their historic story. I wish that I could see the show myself, and after their performances (yes that’s right performances- plural– hey had an encore!!!!) I wish even more that I could experiance the story in person.

The way the Hamilton team has made history come to life is game changing not just for the world of theater, but I believe the world of education too. If you searched twitter around the time of the APUSH exam you would find millions of kids around the nation claiming to have “made it through the year in APUSH” because of Hamilton; and most of these kids haven’t even seen the show, they’ve only listened to the soundtrack and still learned so much!

Imagine if every history class could engage students as much as Hamilton does. Imagine if every class could help teach kids in the way that Hamilton does: experiencing the story rather than just being told the story, and thusly remembering it better.

Congrats to all Tony Award winners and James Corden for a hilarious hosting job; the hard work of everyone in the show biz does not go unnoticed at least by this young actress! The theater is a magical place where stories come to life, audiences get glimpses of beauty, and dreamers have no limits. Raise you glass to the theater!

Living History

07HAMILTON-slide-UX39-jumbo-v2.jpg
(If only I could actually see Hamilton the Musical…)

I was listening to songs from Hamilton the Musical as well as other musicals today and it got me thinking about how I can tell you all types of things about characters in musicals, movies, plays, and books, yet I couldn’t do the same about people I learned about in history class this past year. This observation led me to once again appreciate the art of storytelling, because when we hear about things in the form of a story where all of our senses interact with a particular situation, we are so much more likely to remember little details.

There are so many things we are expected to memorize in school, and I wonder how story telling could help make things easier to remember.

This thought gave me an idea which I originally imagined for a history class (because I was thinking about Hamilton) though it could take place in a number of classes if tweaked I would imagine:

What if within the first week of history class every person in class was given a name of an important figure in history that would come at some point during the year. Students would then “become” their historical figure by learning a little bit about their person and throughout the year serving as the expert on that key figure. Other students could then associate the people in their class with those historical figures and throughout the year make connections between figures.

This idea obviously needs more elaboration, but maybe my making the figures come to life more by having everyone essentially acting as their figure, students would remember more about individual characters at the end of the year.

 

The Past Influences the Future

Learn-from-your-past1.jpg

In one of my classes recently there was a bit of discussion because some kids didn’t want to take notes on a movie we were watching. Our teacher said they should if they hoped to do well on our upcoming test, so some of the students asked if it was for a grade. They were honest and said they wouldn’t take notes if it wasn’t for a grade because they know that if they do take notes they will end up never looking at them again and they would prefer to just watch the movie itself.

I’m not going to lie, at first I was a bit annoyed with why the argument was happening. I’ve always been that student to take immense notes all of the time, so at first it only seemed logical to take notes; you will almost always do better on assessments if you take notes in class.

Then I took a moment to think deeper about the situation.

Why do we take notes? To do well on assessments.

What is happening while I take notes? Well let’s see, my head is down in my notebook and I’m writing things down like, “Because technology advanced people were now able to send letters to their loved ones from the front lines.”

What am I missing out on while taking notes? While I write about what happened, I’m missing out on what that letter actually was about or looking at the video itself to see the emotions of the people and get a feel for the time period.

The whole time I was watching the movie all I could think about was, “Do we take notes for the right reasons?”

I mean sure I don’t take notes just to get a grade, but I also only take notes to get a good grade later on. Why is it that everything is focused on the grade? If not at first, then eventually it is.

 

I want more than a grade out of my classes.

 

Why is it that we learn history? I’d say it’s because history is the foundation to decision making; history is everywhere! We always are having to research the past in order to inform our future, so why is it that in history class we only test on the past rather than actually using the past to create our future?

What if history class was about more than just testing how well we can learn and regurgitate facts about the past? What if history class actually involved solving problems by focusing on how we have solved similar problems in the past in order to influence decisions today?

I don’t hate history. In fact, I think history is enormously important and can be extremely interesting when you focus on detailed stories. However, history classes often make me disgruntled because I just see so much untapped potential in the way we run history courses. And I don’t think this is something a single teacher can just change, I think it needs to be a wide set mind-shift change where we consider how we think about history class. Information is all online, but what use is it if we can’t interpret it to actually use in our lives?

The Wisdom of Justice

images-5

So I honestly don’t know where this 20/20 on Plato’s Book 1 of The Republic will go because to be honest, philosophy is hard to capture in words sometimes.

Book 1 ends in an “agree to disagree” situation between Socrates and several others while trying to decide on a definition of justice, and a “just man”. This conversation begins with a discussion about old age, and how someone makes the claim of old men being wise.

I like how Socrates describes that you can’t just become old and then instantaneously become wise, but instead your character as a person throughout your life time influences what you are like in old age.

But what makes someone wise?

How are wisdom, knowledge, intelligence, and education related and yet different?

Well here are my thoughts.

Knowledge is knowing facts. Intelligence though, is being able to interpret and analyze these facts to make conclusions and actually put the knowledge you have to use in your life situation. Wisdom then, is the ability to learn from the experiences that occur in your life and to be able to teach the intelligence you’ve gained to others. Education finally, is the actual process of learning and teaching facts.

So you may notice that education leads back to knowledge once again, thus forming a lovely circle. (Because we all know life is full of circular thinking, and circles are pretty cool.)

But Plato is writing about justice, so how does wisdom connect to justice?

This is the question I am left still pondering, but I’m thinking that in order to be just you must use your wisdom. When you reach the point of being able to teach something to someone else, then you must know that thing well enough to help influence decisions that need to be made around a debate around that thing. (I feel that I may be getting a little “up in the clouds” as we say in Chemistry when we start speaking more conceptually, but again, philosophy is hard to articulate without some extent of confusion and with things left for interpretation.)

So I’m not going to attempt to define justice yet, but I am starting to conceptualize the relations between education, knowledge, intelligence, wisdom, and justice. So hopefully, like the periodic table, once I have more background information I will be able to predict the future better and therefore better understand justice itself.

Justice is not a simple thing, it is a concept, defined by the definer, used to settle debates, created to shape governments. A just man is one that must try and decide that which is the just decision. This task is difficult and requires much wisdom.

Leaping into Empathy

images-3

Being as passionate about education redesign as I am, I’ve been trying to make more of a point to think about ways that design thinking can be incorporated into the classroom, and what struggles I notice occurring around trying to use elements of design thinking.

One of the big things I’ve noticed is that we often spend a really long time on the discovery phase. (Referring to the DEEP process we use at MVPS which stands for Discover, Empathize, Experiment, Produce.) I think this is because teachers, and maybe even some students, feel “safest” in the discovery mode.

Discovery is all about research, and it is really easy to “justify” how the discovery phase is meeting the goals of traditional schooling because we have always done research at school. Teachers and students have always done research and therefore, the discovery phase feels more comfortable because it’s not requiring you to really stretch yourself as a learner in terms of how you act and what you learn. Everyone interprets what they read based on what they want to know and already believe. It is much easier to get a piece of text to support your argument then it is to hear a person speak and try to pick a part their talk to validate your own believes.

While the discovery phase is very necessary to a design process, because you need some background information to know what you are even dealing with, I believe the quicker you can make the leap from discovery to empathy mode, the more things will start to “make sense”. The empathy phase is when you are challenged and get pieces of insight that spark your curiosity and interest. This is where both student and teachers start to light up and find themselves wanting to research more to further understand and question what their user said.

I’ve observed first hand the moment when students find themselves hooked on a design challenge because they realize how much it means to someone else that they spoke to. I’ve also observed how excited teachers get to see their students excited about learning. Once you get to the empathy phase, the rest of the challenge starts to get much clearer, and the question of “what in the world are we doing” starts to become less foggy.

The problem is that while the discovery mode feels very safe and comfortable in the classroom, the empathy mode is far from “safe and comfortable”. To get to the point of interviewing people can be really hard in a classroom environment. One of the biggest struggles being that if students don’t yet care or understand why you are doing what you are doing, it is often hard to get them to find people to interview because they don’t know what to do next.

Design thinking is still pretty new to the education world, and while teachers are learning more and more about how to involve design thinking in their classrooms, students are not necessarily having a parallel introduction to design thinking. If a teacher walks into a classroom full of students that barely (if at all) understand why we do design thinking, they can’t just magically flip on the light switch and expect the students to be able to self guide themselves through a design thinking challenge.

The light switch has to be built before it can be used.

You have to have the tool before you can use it.

Creative confidence is something nurtured and grown, not magically summoned upon when you need it for a class assignment.

I know I haven’t even started to talk about the Experiment or Produce stages, but that’s because I honestly don’t think I’ve had a class where we really and truly reached these stages even.

More often than not, we spend so much time on discovery, that we try to cram empathy in really quickly and then have spent so much time on the project already, that we decide to end after our empathy findings so that we can move on to the next unit. I get why. I mean there is only so much time in the school year, and at this point there are still things that teachers have to teach to meet certain standards by the end of the year. And to be honest, if you spend to much time on a design challenge that isn’t moving anywhere, it can eventually seem tiresome and overdone; there is only so much researching you can do before you want to just drop everything.

However, I think if we could move faster into the empathy phase of design thinking, then we would be more likely to see a challenge all the way through. I believe this because after meeting with users is when things really start to get exciting to the point where you don’t want to stop.

So here are some of my thoughts…

What if teachers took more responsibility over design challenges in the classroom? At least until students start to show a great understanding for the process itself (I imagine a future where by the time students reach high school, they are already at this comfort level; however, with design thinking in the classroom still being relatively new, students are not all ready for this responsibility yet. There is a lack of experience that must be accounted for first.)

What if, rather than going through and entire design challenge, teachers set up more design sprints or just mini design challenges that had a very purposeful flow with time constraints? Maybe these could last a week or two max for these challenges. In this challenge teachers would help facilitate students researching about users that the teacher has already found and set a specific time when they would come in to be interviewed by students. This would eliminate the struggle of students trying to find and communicate with people to set up interview times. While this is a great skill to learn, in the classroom this can get complicated because everyone has different schedules and some students may need more help than others with setting up this interview. So I think this skill is something that could wait to be practiced until students have a better understanding of the design thinking process first.

Then after all of the students have gotten the chance to talk to one or two users, the teacher helps guide the class through a series of tools to help unpack interviews and discover what the how might we statement is.

It’s at this point where I would imagine some of my blog readers may start thinking that this sounds like a very familiar process. That’s because I literally think that teachers could facilitate in their classroom sessions similar to how we run some of our big design thinking events at Mount Vernon like the Council on Innovation or FUSE. Sure there may be a bit more of a challenge with time because the sessions would have to be broken up over multiple days for shorter time periods, but I think it’s conceivable. (I mean we even had students create and facilitate an entire design thinking session with a similar flow to this in Davos this past summer for the Global Leadership Summit.)

Students need time to be creative and explore their passions, but when it comes to design thinking, I think they first need more guidance and closer facilitation in order to learn the ropes before trying to sail alone. The best way to learn how to sail is to actually get in the boat, so why not give students more opportunities to experience design thinking by facilitating lots of mini more guided and focused design thinking sessions in the classroom?  This may also help with classroom design challenges leaping over the ditch between the discovery and empathy phases of the DEEP process, and then maybe having the time to then go even further into the process with experimenting and producing. The student boats will capsize a few times, but eventually they’ll get more use to that water, and before you (the teacher) knows it, they’ll be off exploring new lands on their own.

The Importance of an Interview

Design thinking explained in simplest forms is 99% of the time explained as “human centered problem solving” (that other 1% is because there are always people who argue with definitions and the meaning of words.)

In order for designs to be human centered, you have to actually talk to humans. This means you have to set up interviews with real users in order to understand their needs, thoughts, emotions, and motivations if you wish to innovate for him/her.

In history class we have been going through a design challenge for the last few weeks in regards to constitutional debates currently taking place. This challenge has had me doing more research work in terms of why and how to do interviews with people. While I’ve done a good number of design thinking interviews, you can always learn more and a little more research never killed anyone.

I ended up looking at a few articles, a video, and a slide deck that all have to do with interviewing tips and the importance of empathy. Personally I couldn’t help but laugh that so much of my research pointed me back to the Stanford d.School. (I don’t know why this makes me laugh, but just the fact that this one organization has managed to make such an impact on a larger community never to amaze and inspire me. I can’t wait for ID to get to work with Stanford students on a design challenge next spring!!!)

The goal of having an interview with someone is to observe, engage, and immerse yourself in their stories to learn about their needs and uncover insights that can help guide designs. I really like how Aarron Walter described empathy back in September when I went to Creative Mornings and heard him speak about empathy: “to journey into the emotions of another.” If you try to design something without first working with a user, then you could be designing a product that doesn’t actually help anyone and therefore it’s just a waste of time to even design it at all. Innovations are considered to be so great because they help people in ways never before imagined. If you aren’t helping people, then you aren’t innovating: this is why we interview people.

Personally I think the hardest part of interviewing in finding who to actually speak to. The best person to speak to would be an “extreme user” someone who has very strong opinions on a topic. For example, my design challenge is around public art and the freedom of speech, so an extreme user could be one of the government leaders who suggested the new regulations on public art work. However, this isn’t a perfect world, and you aren’t always going to get to talk with an “ideal user”. In actuality, it’s more likely than not that at least one of the people you interview may just be a “dud”- someone who isn’t really great at telling stories and it’s really hard to pull insights from them to help with you challenge. It’s perfectly normal to end up in this situation once or twice, so the trick is to recognize when you may be talking to someone that just isn’t the right user for your challenge, and to be able to politely wrap up the interview.

However, you will never know if you are interviewing a helpful user if you aren’t prepared on your end to be a good interviewer. People’s time is precious, and you don’t want to waste your user’s time. We have to prepare for an interview so that we can help the conversation flow more smoothly in a small amount of time.

To prepare, first you need to make sure you really understand who you are talking to: do some research. The more you already know your user, the easier it will be to ask questions and dig deeper into their stories. Your research also often helps you brainstorm questions.

When brainstorming questions, first you want to just go for volume. Think of as many questions as you possibly can that may help with your challenge. Sometimes it even helps to make a time limit on this brainstorm, just to make sure you keep moving forward and don’t get caught spending all of your prep time brainstorming. You can’t get stuck brainstorming the whole time because after you brainstorm, you need to go back through your questions and start narrowing and organizing your list, since you won’t have time to ask every question.

When preparing for an interview, you have to figure out what questions would be most valuable to ask and figure out an order for those questions. Valuable questions are not yes or no questions, instead valuable questions and those questions that encourage users to tell stories. Stories are one of the most valuable things in the world. One story can inspire an entire design, but you have to hear those stories first.

From my research and experience I’ve learned a couple of tips about types of questions to ask:

  • When asking questions you need to think about asking “simple” questions that don’t require extra explaining.
  • These questions should be asked in a neutral way without any suggested answer so that your user doesn’t feel swayed to just agree with you.
  • Don’t ask questions that start with “usually” because they lend to a very general answer, and you want specific stories.
  • When in doubt, a designers favorite word is “why?”

Preparation can only help so much though, because eventually you actually have to have the interview. When in the interview there is a kind of story arch that I created with the help of a few sources mixed together that may help:

  1. introduce yourself

  2. introduce your project

  3. shift the focus to your user

  4. evoke stories

  5. explore emotions

  6. question statements (as in new questions you’ve thought about during the interview)

  7. thanks & wrap up (Don’t forget to thank your user for their time and stories! Not thanking a person could completely change how they think about you for the future.)

Meanwhile, the whole time CAPTURE EVERYTHING!!! Interviews are great, but you won’t remember everything, so you need to capture the insights you find so that you can come back to them later. Capturing can take the form of pictures, sticky notes, journal notes, video clips, or whatever you can figure out. Furthermore, when you capture, it is important to note not only what a user is specifically saying, but to also look for inconsistencies, physical movement, and potentially consider what they may be thinking or feeling in a given instance. The key is to write down only enough so that you can remember it later, without wasting too much time writing instead of listening or questioning.

Not all silence is awkward though. Sometimes it can be good to have a little bit of silence to allow everyone to really digest their thoughts. Silence isn’t something to fear, so don’t feel the need to fill the silence with some little quick question that takes value away from a conversation. Personally, this is something I really struggle with and know I need to get better at.

I don’t consider myself to be a master interviewer. In fact, I often find myself struggling with the interview section of design thinking while actually in the moment of an interview. Sometimes no matter how much you research the only way to truly improve is to actually practice. So while these tips I’ve suggested can be helpful to know, I’d encourage anyone wanting to improve their interview skills to just go out and conduct a bunch of interviews. Learning from experience, both failures and successes, can often be the most helpful way to learn, and learning how to interview to gain empathy for users is a very important life skill to learn.

A 2nd Renaissance

renaissance

I saw a musical today called Bullets Over Broadway. It was really good!!! It was a great cast and crew along with a great script. I was especially impressed with the dancing in the show. Often times the leads aren’t as talented in dance, which makes sense since they often have more training in the theater side of things, but even the leads in this show were able to hold their own in complex dance numbers.

This show made me start thinking about a few different things: 1. my work yesterday with some of my teachers on the humanities course brainstorm 2. the TEDTalk I watched on multipotentialites 3. my blog post on history being involved in everything we learn.

These different thoughts together made me think about the Renaissance. A time of rebirth, discovery, and exploration. A time known for great scholars, artists, and inventors. A time when science and art were considered to be foundational connected. A time when it was considered the norm to be trained in many different fields.

It’s often said that history repeats itself. If this is true, then I think that we are about to enter a new Renaissance period. I mean I almost feel like “education redesign” is more like going back to what it once was system wise, as in the Renaissance time, the difference is we now know more than we once did. By this I mean that people are realizing how closely connected courses are and how it’s becoming more desired for people to have experience in multiple fields in order to find connections and create innovations.

I love the time period of the Renaissance, and I’m excited and curious about the potential future Renaissance, that maybe we already entered even.