A Critical Consideration of Project Work

As always, I’m so excited to say we have published yet another issue of Trailblazers!!!! But if I’m being honest, Issue 7 was the probably the most challenging production process yet and I’m mainly writing this post because I just really needed to reflect on it.

I’m a big supporter of transparency, so with that in mind, I’d like to point out that the Trailblazers team actually started this semester intending to take a short hiatus from publishing and spend that time re-examining our business structure in order to be a more sustainable organization in the long run. Having published our magazine for three years, we felt it was time to revisit our organizational foundation, direction, and strategy. With most of our high school team graduating, my co-founder transferring universities, and me being half way around the world, this felt like the right time to take a step back in order to remember why we started this magazine and figure out how we could do our work more efficiently.

I had just finished writing a whole article about this decision, defining “organizational foundation, direction, and strategy,” outlining the questions we would be analyzing, and describing our next steps. (Part of me almost wants to publish it despite it’s out datedness because I was kind of proud of how it turned out “business writing” wise.) My co-founder and I had agreed we would wait until after the high schoolers were back from their school trips and spring break to tell them our decision. Coincidentally though, one of the seniors reached out about needing to take a step back and the other (my sister) had already said as much, so we went ahead and spoke with them during the break and decided we’d make the news public when everyone got back.

And then, by the end of break COVID19 hit… so we didn’t “get back.”

This pandemic has affected every aspects of life, but one of the greatest impacts has been schools moving to distance learning. This rapidly changed the essence of “school” and brought into question foundational principles many have taken for granted like the very idea that school requires coming into a communal building and sitting at a desk and the role of parents in education.

The Trailblazer’s team knew we already weren’t in the best position to publish an issue this semester, and we knew the pandemic would bring it’s own challenges, but we also knew this was a time vitally important for young learner’s voices to be heard and we wanted to do our part to amplify a few of those voices.

So we got started late – not until almost the begining of May – and with no writers in the works and basically a team of only two (myself and my co-founder, though my sister did some feedback work and connected us to one of the young learners so we acknowledged her help as well in this issue), yet somehow, we pulled it off. We might’ve been behind on our intended schedule, and there are things we would’ve liked to have done slightly differently, but honestly I’m just proud that we made it happen and before the end of summer.

I’m grateful to all the learners we worked with that contributed their time while juggling so many other changing parts of life. I’m thankful for my partner in crime who worked with me while we were both taking full course loads this entire summer (also a Trailblazers first) and hosting virtual design thinking workshops, plus she got sick for a week and had her computer break down and still made things happen. And I’m hopeful that these stories give more insight into how young learners can tackle big challenges with resilience and grace.

I honestly don’t know what the future has in store for Trailblazers. After I graduated, the intent was for the founders to slowly become less involved in the process and just serve as mentors; however, we have struggled to make this a reality. I don’t think we will be able to do another publication with just our team of two and as a business student, I frequently question if our work is creating a great enough impact to counter the time and stress costs to keep this organization running- thus, how the original conversation of taking a hiatus to revisit our purpose and goals came about. We considered finding a teacher to partner with that wanted to make Trailblazers a part of their classwork, this way we could keep the magazine alive but also have a more consistent source of new production team members, but that plan kind of fell through. And since publishing Issue 7 we’ve not yet revisited these big questions.

Personally I don’t want Trailblazers to die, but I also know things can’t go on the way they’ve been operating, and I’m also aware that sometimes projects need to come to an end for a new one to start and I’ve never been good at making that call, so I’m at a cross roads. I wonder if my desire to keep Trailblazers alive is selfishly motivated and if maybe my efforts could better be spent elsewhere. But I also would like to believe there are at least some readers out there who appreciate our work and that the Trailblazers production team and spotlight learners have made a positive contribution to the conversations around the role young learners should play in the movement to transform education. The questions remain, if we stopped publishing would anyone care, would there be a loss of value, and even if so does that really imply we should continue, or have we made our point and is it time to say “good job, what’s next?”

I guess that’s all I can say about Trailblazers future for now until further conversations with the team. This was a crazy production process that involved a heavy and quick work load on top of a lot of other external and internal obstacles, but I’m glad we decided to move forward with the creation of Issue 7 and am open minded about whatever comes next on this journey.

 

Trying to Be Better

” …we don’t match, but we don’t need to match to be a family and love each other” – Lauren Jordan

People are speaking up. Black lives matter. Human rights matter. Injustice can not be tolerated.

I haven’t blogged or otherwise posted on social media recently not because I’m trying to ignore the events currently happening in the US, but simply because I haven’t known what to say. I respect, appreciate, and support everyone calling for change, but at the same time in some ways it’s felt better to just take the time to listen rather than try and say something and accidentally say the wrong thing by mistake.

Even with the “#BlackOutTuesday” campaign where theoretically you would think, “You don’t have to come up with anything to say, just post; it’s so simple to show support.” But again at the same time I read a lot of posts talking about negative side effects of this trend for how it was unintentionally blocking the distribution of a lot of resources, so even that seemed controversial. I also fear for many it was a hollow post and I didn’t want to post out of fear it would be a hollow post myself and also for not being convinced any message I share will reach anyone new.

As one of my friends put it: “I think what’s so frustrating to me as a white person it that I’m sharing information and resources and expressing my own support for BLM but I’m screaming into an echo chamber. I have no followers or friends who don’t support BLM (that I know of) so who am I helping by sharing? I want to help, but don’t know the best way to do it.”

So instead of posting, I spent the past day trying to better educate myself. My work on this journey is not comprehensive nor is it complete, but it’s a start, and it’s an action. To me actions often speak louder than words, so I don’t have any reflection or takeaways to share – I’m still processing and some of that requires internal thinking-  but I wanted to say that I know where I stand and want to do something about it, so here’s what I’ve done thus far as I try to personally be better so we can make a better future together:

Watched “13th” on Netflix

Read and signed 10 petitions.

Read the following articles:

END THE WAR ON BLACK PEOPLE

First, Listen. Then, Learn: Anti-Racism Resources For White People

“MOM, WHY DID GOD CREATE MATCHING?” A mom’s conversation with her adopted 6 year old about racially mixed families.

100 RACE-CONSCIOUS THINGS YOU CAN SAY TO YOUR CHILD TO ADVANCE RACIAL JUSTICE FOR OUR WHITE FRIENDS DESIRING TO BE ALLIES

FOR OUR WHITE FRIENDS DESIRING TO BE ALLIES

Responding to Racism Anti-racism tips from the NZ Human Rights Commission.

Discourse and Debate: Is performative activism inherently bad?

This Is What Black Burnout Feels Like

Pilot Success: Virtual DT Workshop

Today was a big day! We hosted our first-ever virtual design thinking workshop with Wish for WASH, and it was great!!!

It was by no means a perfect event – I have lots of notes for improvements… – but as a pilot workshop, I was super satisfied with the outcome of this 3-hour design sprint around supporting the homeless during COVID-19. We had a low turn out despite a solid registration which caused the need for a lot of on the fly pivots to our flow for the day, but we got through it and the feedback we got was enormously helpful!

Overall, our participants really enjoyed the workshop and were also very supportive and impressed with our quick pivoting and ability to adapt to be both participants and facilitators in an attempt to make for fuller teams. They even said that they would’ve been willing to do a whole day hackathon with us/would love to in the future. This really surprised me because we thought a 3-hour online event might potentially feel too long to participants. We also got good feedback around how to better word our pre-workshop email around what to expect/prepare with, and as expected everyone wished there would’ve been a bit more time for more elaborate brainstorming/prototyping/pitching – which was somewhat expected after we had a bit of a late start and a slow warm-up with getting people to participate, so we knew the whole time that we were running behind, but also good to know in the future we should better anticipate this potentially slow start. 

The biggest changes I’d like to consider for the future (in case anyone else is interested in leading a virtual workshop and wants insight into what I learned):

  1. Try to get higher levels of registration in anticipation of some no shows / more intense and maybe more targeted marketing. Potentially even create the date/time of the workshop after gauging interest and feedback on times that would work well for those interested.
  2. Re-structure our planned amount of time per activity to account for a slower start as everyone tries to get to know each other without the little side conversations that would normally take place in person. (This way we have the full time for a good experiment and produce phase.)
  3. Have one person designated for watching the time and updating the facilitators about where we are in the flow relative to where we planned on being. I found it really hard to pay attention to timing (didn’t help that I also had to convert the time zone) while also leading the facilitation because I could only have so many things going on in my head at once. Furthermore, since I had to also be a participant (which was not originally the plan) I didn’t have downtime while teams were working to be able to think through the big picture stuff like we had planned on, but should not have counted on. While I knew from the beginning we were behind schedule, I think we could’ve better made up time earlier in the workshop/ better allocated time to activities throughout the entire flow if I had been more aware of just how far off we were.

(Also on a personal note, I think I might’ve done too much of the facilitating/coaching and wish I would’ve done better at finding ways for other W4W members to play a greater role in the leadership side of the workshop. The original plan was for me to co-facilitate, and therefore, lead 3 parts of our flow, and I was not supposed to be a participant at all – just float between breakout rooms supporting as needed – but then one person on our team last minute couldn’t make it and a coach was feeling concerned about leading a team on her own, so I was going to assist her but wanted her to take lead. Then with all of the last-minute changes that happened once we started and realized we had less than half of the people signed up, I ended up doing almost all of the facilitation in the full room with the way things got cut, and I ended up leading in the small team despite what I originally wanted… So I need to do better there.)

The most valuable part of the day though was just knowing that this kind of event is possible. We successfully ran a 3 hour full DT workshop online! THINK OF THE IMPLICATIONS?!?!?!?

  1. The success of this workshop means the potential for future opportunities has increased exponentially! We can have digital workshops with people from all over the world; that’s pretty spectacular to think about the ability to expand the scope of people aware of design thinking and WASH-related issues.
  2. Building off of implication 1, with successful online integration, imagine the diversity of people that can be brought together for future collaborations?!?!? The success of today’s workshop was greatly supported by our ability to get professionals in the WASH sector as well as experienced design thinkers together in a “room” with a bunch of college students with open minds and crazy ideas. Even when we can meet in person again, I think in some ways online workshops might still be a great way to facilitate DT challenges, because it makes it a lot easier to bring together people with so many different knowledge points. It also makes me wonder if when we get back to school in person if this experience with online learning will make people more open to things like virtual guest speakers. The mix between experts and students is truly amazing to be a part of and I think if we capitalize on this experience with online education it could lead to some great collaborations with schools in the future.
  3. To me this proves any class online can still be interactive. The idea that an online class needs to just be lecture-based or for quick check-ins and – the idea that drives me craziest –  that teamwork can’t happen online is a myth! It’s all about intentional design. We used the tool “Annotate” on Zoom to allow participates to write directly on our slide deck as if they had a printed version of the activities in front of them. We also encouraged a “use whatcha have” norm – so even though we might not all have access to the most high-quality prototyping tools, we enforced the idea that anything can be prototyping material if you are creative enough. So even though we were all in our own homes, we were all able to build physical prototypes and share them with each other. Furthermore, we used a combo of full room sessions and breakout rooms (to stimulate table teams) to allow for streamlined facilitation in addition to small group discussions. With this feature, we were also very intentional in our flow by limiting the number of times we had to switch back and forth between rooms. We found in our testing/experience with Zoom classes, that when you constantly go into breakout rooms for short periods of time it becomes too disruptive and time-consuming, so instead we made our flow work so there would be longer chunks all together and longer chunks in small groups this way both types of conversations felt meaningful. We even made a “cue-to-cue” document like you would in theater, which a document just outlining all of the times we have to change a technical component of the “performance” so that we could practice all of the tech changes and see if anything felt weird being too close together in timing.

 

Some final takeaways: 

I loved how inspired and happy everyone was after the workshop. One participant commented that she spends all day at work focusing on the issues caused by COVID-19 and she really appreciated having the ability today to note real human struggles and then brainstorm ideas rather than focus on all of the negatives.

I appreciated hearing our participants talk about wanting other co-workers of theirs to participate in future workshops with us, and they also wanted to work with us again.

And finally, I was really proud of our team’s work both leading up to and during the event. This couldn’t have happened without the hard work of lots of individuals each doing their part and be willing to totally change plans on the fly as necessary.

It was a great pilot! We learned lots and have great potential for the future!

(Just a few of our prototypes by our awesome facilitators and MoVe talk speakers! I wish I had more pics but haven’t been sent them yet/we want to make sure our participants approve of the pics before we post, so for now it’s just us.)

Screen Shot 2020-06-01 at 8.50.07 PM

If you’re interested this was our slide deck (without the MoVe talk slides because we found it easier for the presenters to have their own deck for screen share maneuver purposes). We used the DEEP process with tools designed primarily by MV Ventures (formerly known as MVIFI).

A Stormy Day

I only took one semester off from classes, and yet somehow I managed to forget just how awful midterms are. There is a reason GT students call it “hell week.”

Eating dinner at 11pm because you lost track of time working on a report all day. Getting way less sleep than you should because you wake up early in order to start working and then can’t go to bed with all the thought of what you still have to prepare for tomorrow. Making one-page study versions of your notes with writing so small that your hand cramps for hours. Watching Crash Course while making dinner and cleaning dishes because you realize how little your professor actually taught you. And the stress! The overhanging cloud of darkness containing all lists to be completed, deadlines to meet, and tests with timers in the corner of your screen counting down the seconds till mass destruction. And knowing that due to the pandemic and the syllabus changes, pretty much every midterm, be it a test or essay, is worth between 35-50% of my overall grade so that’s a bit daunting in it of itself.

It’s a rough time, to say the least… In high school, we would refer to these kinds of moments as “the dark night of the soul.”

Then to make things harder, there was an earthquake this morning that caused the power to go out on different parts of campus, and thus the wifi shut down for almost 4 hours in the middle of the day. But school is all online…

Literally, if it wasn’t for Google Drive having an “offline” function, there would have been nothing I could get done this afternoon. I missed my lecture on Zoom, my textbooks are all e-books, my assignments are all either test on our school website or typed assignments that require research which most of us get from the web.

I was honestly baffled by the lack I could get done. I had accepted school being online, but somehow I don’t think I realized how dependent this made me to the internet. Especially since I don’t have cell reception in New Zealand either (I could get a sim card, but I’ve been surviving this long with just wifi that it seems silly to complicate things with figuring out that whole situation) so I also couldn’t communicate with anyone or even see the announcement about why the internet went down which also included the estimated time it would be back. I debated leaving the building to try and find a cafe with wifi, but it was also raining today and I had no way to search what was open or where has wifi and the other times the wifi has gone down it usually came back pretty quickly so I didn’t want to leave in the rain if it was just going to be for a little. Especially since I was able to be a little productive at least with Google Docs offline.

And I did end up most completing the draft of my giant report for marketing since I had already done the majority of my research and outlined on paper/whiteboards, but I had to leave holes throughout the draft of research, citations, and visuals I couldn’t add without the internet. Also this made my weekly plans all sorts of turned around.

Then I made pasta for dinner and accidentally poured boiling water all over my hand while trying to drain the noodles. Now my hand is burnt and I’ve had an ice bag nearby, stopping throughout writing this post to rest my hand. A weirdly appropriate end to this stormy day.

And that’s what it’s like to be a student during midterms. I remember now.

 

Student’s Thoughts on Online Learning

As I explored ideas posted on the OpenIDEO platform about re-imagining learning during COVID-19, I noticed that there was a lack of student voice in the conversation, and yet students are the primary users of our education system. As a student myself, I’m very aware that at this time of year, when everyone is finishing up final exams and getting ready for relaxing in summer, most students aren’t keen to go on a site like OpenIDEO to continue discussing school right after they finished the year.

So I thought I would lower the entry barrier into this conversation by texting a bunch of my friends (7th graders-college juniors) 3 simple questions to get an idea about their opinions of online learning. I also set up a Zoom chat for those that wanted to go more in-depth on the conversation where we did a more personalized interview and also a brainstorming session in response to OpenIDEO’s three areas of remote learning, equity, and community. Then I analyzed all the responses, found some themes, and now wanted to share on the behalf of those 23 students who contributed.

 

Research Questions

The three questions I asked these learners to respond to are as followed:

1. What’s your biggest frustration/what’s driving you crazy about online learning? 

2. What’s your favorite part?

3. It would be better if…

 

Trends

The three greatest trends were students being:

1. Frustrated by their own lack of work ethic/motivation/focus

2. Enjoying the flexibility in terms of space and time offered by online education.

3 Wishing assignments and syllabi, in general, were more greatly altered to better match an online learning environment.

 

Analysis

As we analyze these trends a bit more carefully, it makes me think of these “How might we” statements for looking towards the future of education:

HMW internally motivate students to show up and participate in school? Teachers currently have less power dominance over students when not physically interacting; typical modes of enforcing attendance and participation such as threats of detention, silent lunch, suspension, etc aren’t feasible in an online environment. Now that these threats don’t exist, students are finding themselves less motivated which leads me to believe that the school work itself and the prospect of learning alone are not intrinsically motivating students. Wouldn’t it be great if students actually wanted to come to school and enjoyed participating in school work? The way to encourage life-long learning is to foster intrinsic motivation to learn – that would be a pretty novel purpose for school if you ask me.

HMW provide flexible learning opportunities post-pandemic? The mid-semester shift to a different learning environment on top of all of the other social-emotional priorities that have arisen due to the pandemic has been predominately challenging; however, the unquestionable best part has been the flexibility it has allowed students with regards to their education. Students have loved being able to wake up late and feel fully rested, knock out classwork while cozy in their beds, and then “get on with the rest of my day doing all the other things I want to do.” The ability to plan personalized schedules and work in a setting of choice has been amazing for so many learners, so now that we’ve seen how much students love this flexibility, how might we continue to provide it upon returning to our schools?

HMW effectively use technology in the classroom? The design for assignments to be better adjusted to an online structure was noted as a frustration, a positive element, and a wishful opportunity. So students loved the teachers that were adaptable and used going online as a way to incorporate new elements to their class in meaningful ways, and they were bored and/or frustrated with those who did not. The difficulties some teachers have had with adjusting to a new technological mode of communication raises an important question about how we can more effectively incorporate technology into our schooling even post-pandemic. What students warn us of though, is that technology can’t just be incorporated just for the sake of saying “I used technology!” It must be incorporated intentionally and meaningfully – there must be a true purpose for why the technology is further enhancing the learning experience.

Beyond the Main Trends

In addition to the primary trends, I found three key sub-trends that emerge when looking at how some of the trends interact with each other.

1. Re-thinking assessment (Responses on test cheating, not wanting tests, wanting more collaboration, and more project work.)

2. Maintain a sense of community (Want more socialization, interaction, and meaningful conversations with peers and teachers.)

3. Use a whole-child approach to education (Frustration with expectations not changing, eyes hurting from so much screen time, new challenges such as moving and schooling with family.)

 

Read More

If you want to read student’s full responses as well as my more in-depth analysis of the sub-trends, I have added two additional documents as attachments on my OpenIDEO post.

Getting Students to the Table

One of my primary goals for the future of education has always been to include more students, as well as other not as represented stakeholder groups, in the school decision making process. And I’ve found that a lot of educators share this sentament, and furthermore, there are a lot of educators who actively try to engage students in these conversations. And yet, we still don’t notice all that much student voice in education, and if it is present, it’s often the same few voices. Why is that?

Well this isn’t the full answer to this question, but something I’ve observed is that most students don’t respond to mass open invitations. Doesn’t matter if you blast it in a school email or try to “be with the times” and use social media platforms students frequent on, if it’s a general invitation, most students don’t respond. This isn’t something I can explicitly point at research to support (maybe it exists but I’ve not looked for it or seen it accidentally), but it’s something I’ve noticed from experience when trying to create opportunities for student voice.

I’ve experienced this when trying to get writers for Trailblazers, when hosting events, and when just trying to get people together for a causal but focused discussion. Every time I try a mass marketing method to try and get students involved with education initiatives, I end up with little to no responses. And yet, as a student myself, when I’m just going through life I will frequently hear other students say, “Oh ya, I have a lot to say about XYZ.”

So how do we capture those thoughts? How do we get students to show up to the table? Because it’s not a question of if they have opinions to share, it’s a question of how we hear them.

I didn’t realize that this was a unique insight until working on this project with OpenIDEO where I was involved in a conversation around trying to brainstorm social media marketing geared towards getting students to contribute to the design challenge. The brainstorming was discussing things like word choice, length, what slogans are cool now, what platforms to use, what if we could get students to respond on the platform then challenge their friends to do it and like all of those other challenges happening in quarantine, etc.

But I realized the conversation was likely pointless… I told them how I don’t consider myself to be gifted with social media or marketing but in my experience most students don’t respond to those kinds of campaigns for education stuff. And the other student on the team (who I had no relation to before joining this project), confirmed my opinions with a bit more socially minded perspective suggesting that kids use social media mostly for fun and entertainment and those challenges that get passed along are because they’re easy and goofy; an education challenge would require actual thought work and time, so student’s probably won’t engage with it.

I actually don’t know what kind of marketing they ended up going with because I didn’t really look out for it. Though considering I find myself more frequently viewing education social media than the normal student and I didn’t see it, I’m guessing not many other students did either if there was a specific marketing campaign geared towards students.

Yet, for some silly reason, even after this conversation, I still choose the same strategy for trying to get people to join my discussion/brainstorm session held earlier today about learning during COVID-19…

I posted on every social media platform I have including some group chats with students who have previously demonstrated interest in education transformation focused events, and even got some likes and retweets, yet, as I expected only 1 person actually showed up to the Zoom call today. And that was my best friend who I explicitly asked before setting up anything, “Hey does this time work for you, because then at least worst case scenario, no one else shows up and I can at least pivot the discussion to an interview with you.” My little sister did also show up about half way through, and the three of us did have a good conversation from a variety of perspectives about the challenges and opportunities with online learning. So I don’t think the event was a total bust, though it was pretty much exactly as I had cautioned the rest of the IDEO team.

So what to do about this?

Well, what I have noticed is that students are very likely to respond if they’re specifically reached out to. For example with Trailblazers, which I consider a long term individual comittment since the writing/editing process takes place over a number of weeks mostly independently, this means we try to contact teachers we know from different schools and get them to identify specific students we can ask to write. While in school, it looks like seeing students in person and 1:1 asking them to join a meeting then following up with the calendar invite. Even when trying to get teacher participation to join a student-teacher card game tournament, we were much more successful when we individually delievered each teacher a typed and stamped invite in person. And for short term projects, such as this design challenge it means I try texting individually all the other students I have info for.

Now I knew this information before sending out my mass media open invitation, so you may wonder, why did I still choose the mass media route anyway? Well, it’s a lot easier to send mass invitations, esspcially in regards to time which is something I have not had much of this past week with midterms being upon me. So trust me, I know it doesn’t seem like the most efficient method to individually send out requests/invites for students to share their thoughts/opinions/stories, but in my experience it has always proven to have a greater response rate.

It was the exact same message I shared on social media, yet when texted individually I got 12 responses with-in 30 minutes even when sent at 10:30pm/later at night and had at least 3 others specifically say they’d get back to me tomorrow. Versus my media posts had been out for a week and I had 0 people respond to my questions in the comments and 0 people show up due to those posts. (My best friend and sister only showed up to the Zoom because I specifically asked/bugged them about it and they confirmed as much.) That’s an over 1200% better response rate with the same message… And for some responses I was given paragraph long answers per question. That means students had a lot to say and were willing to take the time to say it, they just had to be prompted to thinking their opinions in particular mattered.

There’s a lot that can be claimed about what this says about my generation that we don’t respond to mass messages but will give lengthy responses to personalized messages. (Really not even personalized, just individually sent because I sent pretty much identical messages to everyone, just sometimes slightly changing the initial greeting sentence if I was texting a parent to get their child’s response vs a peer.) And again, perhaps I’m making this sound too generalized, but I feel like I’ve had this happen on a lot of occasions at this point (I can think of at least 5 examples off the top of my head). However, I don’t share this information to make claims about my generation, I’m just sharing an observation/theory that has proven to be true on numerous occasions:

If you want a greater variety of student voices involved in the conversation, try asking indidviduals directly rather than just, “Hey anyone who’s interested I would love your response to…”

The Little Bugs

Throughout k-12 we learn about 5-paragraph essays. I understand why this format is used: it’s a simple way to be introduced to academic writing and when frequently writing timed essays throughout high school, there isn’t really enough time to adequately develop ideas past 5-paragraphs.

However, then you get to college and all of a sudden essays go from 600 words to 1500 words to 3500 words, and the 5-paragraph essay format just really doesn’t make sense to use at that point. But when are we expected to learn how to transition away from the 5-paragraph format? As a student it feels like this transition is just kind of thrown on you without much official guidance. It’s not even that you’re told not to use a 5-paragraph format, it’s just that it’s obvious that it doesn’t feel right when using that many words in an essay. So then everything you’ve learned about essay structure becomes warped. With a 5-paragraph essays we’re taught to introduce three main ideas in our introduction and those three ideas become the focus of each paragraph. Well, just because you’re writing more doesn’t it mean it makes sense to all of a sudden have 6 or 7 main points – then it becomes unclear what you’re saying. So how do you transition to writing multiple paragraphs about one key idea? It’s not really discussed, we’re just expected to start doing it based on gut feeling I guess…

Not to mention there is a whole other kind of academic writing that honestly hardly gets touched on at all in high school: reports. We talk about research reports and maybe look at one or two, we maybe even try to write one, but I remember even with the one time I was assigned to write a report in high school for AP Chem, the teacher’s instruction was, “look up examples online and base it on that.” So my peers and I kind of just winged it and I don’t remember getting much feedback on the matter. Yet we when we then were in college chemistry our first semester of freshman year, we’re all of a sudden assigned a research report every week after lab.

To be honest this isn’t a huge issue in the grand scheme of things that need to change with our education system, but sometimes it’s the little things that just really bother me. The little things show just how disconnected our k-12 and high ed programs are from each other. There are things like long essay and report writing that seem to never really get taught, and yet there are things like general US history that seem to be required every two years starting in 2nd grade and all the way into college… (I legitemently have a “US Consistitution requirement” in my online degree portal, and I took this course online and it was one of the easiest classes I’ve ever taken because I learned nothing new.) The little things on their own may seem insignificant, but they can be really bothersome for students especially when those little things start to add up.

Empathy Seeking

Online learning has been a wild ride… Personally, I’ve had moments where I’ve been frustrated, bored, and even, occasionally, pleasantly surprised by elements that come with school online. Because of this, I’ve partnered with OpenIDEO as a community coach on their current design challenge around reimagining learning during COVID-19. If you have any ideas (tested or half-baked), are looking for new ideas, or just want to express some problem points around our current learning situation I’d encourage taking a look at/contributing to the OpenIDEO site.
I’m trying to do a little of my own empathy seeking because I noticed an (unsurprising) lack of student voices shared on the platform, and yet student stories are some of the most insightful voices we need right now. So I’ve come up with these three quick questions that I’d love people (young learners especially, though I also welcome teachers, parents, parents on behalf of kids, etc) to respond to in the comment section. I’m hoping to take away some trends to be able to share with the rest of the OpenIDEO community to make sure we’re actually ideating for user needs:
  1. What’s your biggest frustration/what’s driving you crazy about online learning? 

  2. What’s your favorite part?

  3. It would be better if…

Furthermore, if you are a student and interested in joining a virtual collaborative discussion/brainstorm session to dive deeper into this topic, I’m hosting a student gathering this Sunday night, May 17th from 7-8pm EST. Use this form to sign up so I can send out the Zoom link.

Too Much Choice

Today I realized a trend in my learning habits: I don’t do well with projects that give me too much choice.

You know, the projects that are super open-ended and students can pick “any topic” or, in my case with business classes, “any organization” to do their assignment on. I’m the kind of person that likes to weigh out all of my options before I make a decision. So when an assignment has hundreds of possible options to focus on, I just end up getting stressed and overwhelmed and usually end up procrastinating the decision until I inevitably have to make a last-minute decision I’m not happy with.

Clearly, this is a trend because when I think back to all of the assignments where I’ve had ample choice, every single one of them has caused me this stress and overwhelming feeling – the “Big History” project freshman year of high school, the civil rights project junior year of high school, my organizational behavior project last year, and right now my marketing assignment.

Now I’ll admit, I know not every student stresses these choices to the same extent I do. Some people are perfectly happy with just going along with the first thing they think of, but I also know I’m not alone in my frustration with these situations. And when I connected these dots, I also realized that my feelings actually correspond with what psychology tells us about choice: people tend to panic when given too many options. This is why any time you’re tasked with making a survey you’re told to not make too many questions or give too many answer choices. There’s a reason multiple-choice tests typically have 3-4 potential answers… The science says too many options and people won’t choose at all.

This makes me wonder, how might we find the balance between giving students choices in their learning without giving an overwhelming amount of choices to choose from?

Student choice is great, but it’s only great in moderation. We don’t want to paralyze students in effort to give them more choices in their learning.

For example with my marketing assignment that I’m currently working on, I would have loved if our professor said, “You are consulting for company X. You can choose any challenge/threat, target market, user need, etc. to focus on in your marketing strategy suggestions, but this is the company you are consulting for.” There is still plenty of room for choice and creativity in an assignment like this, but the slightly more focused prompt, just by giving the name of a company, would make this assignment feel so much less grand. Plus let’s face it, in the “real world” you get hired by a specific company, you don’t go around making up ideas for just any company you want – unless you have a very unique business model in your organization… I love this kind of project of identifying user needs and brainstorming ways to meet them, it’s essential design thinking just being called “marketing”, but I don’t get the purpose of working without first starting with a specific user. And we would still have to do plenty of research and problem identification work in order to respond to this assignment, but we wouldn’t have to waste time figuring out what company (user) we’re working for.

I urge teachers to consider the issue of giving too much choice when creating assignments because it’s such an unnecessary cause of school stress.

“Kicking & Screaming”

I’ve been hearing a lot of conversations lately around how powerful it’s been to see students speaking out for changes to education because the traditional model doesn’t work online. Many also express their hope to see this sudden uprise of student voice and agency in education continue once we are allowed back in school buildings. Furthermore, people are hoping if learners come back “kicking and screaming, and demanding change” then things might actually start to look different long term.

However, my fear is that students that may be proving more feedback than usual right now aren’t going to realize that the newfound power of their voice isn’t just due to distance learning. Student voice has always been powerful, but I fear when we get back into classrooms, students will think, “Okay, now things are back to ‘normal’, therefore, my opinions on how school should be run no longer matter.”

It’s invaluable to have student voice to better re-design the learning process and make sure we’re meeting user needs. And it’s inspiring it is to see students having agency during a time when there isn’t really accountability- there aren’t many viable punishments right now, so you can’t scare students into coming to class and participating, they have to actually want to learn. So everyone is wondering, “How might we continue to see student voice and learner agency when we return to our schools?”

Well, I propose that step 1 is that we have to make sure students even realize what student voice and agency mean and help them be able to identify that they have it.

I think we are currently seeing a rise in student voice and agency out of obligation. I know from personal experience that I’ve had several moments in the past few weeks were I’ve participated in school-related feedback sessions just because I feel like it’s one of the few things I can do so I should be doing it. Things are so new and different that, even if they can’t articulate it, learners realize they have to have agency if they want to keep from getting bored or mentally unstable. Furthermore, they acknowledge that with these changes it makes sense that school leaders want to hear student stories and opinions because everyone is flying blind so the more help the better. It’s easy to accept these concepts as being necessary and normal right now. But student voice and agency were already invaluable before we moved to distance learning, most students just didn’t realize it.

Student voice I think is a bit more straight forward in terms of meaning, but I don’t think most students realize just how powerful it is in the eyes of educators to get true feedback directly from the users, ie. students. I also believe this is in part because most students don’t think their thoughts will really be taken seriously – I’ve pretty much been directly told this before. Anyone who knew me in high school would say I was part of the “smart people group” – the same group some people may refer to as “teacher’s pets” – and yet even some of my closest friends would sometimes make comments about not thinking administration really cared about student opinions. Not to mention students who weren’t typically thought of as being part of the “smart people group” would make snide remarks about feeling like they weren’t one of the “chosen ones” so why should they even bother to share their opinions.

Right now everything about school is different, and so it’s easier to grapple with the idea that teachers and administrators might care a little more about all student opinions right now. If we want to continue to see student voice upon returning to our usual learning environments, there has to be more transparency with students so they know if they speak up they’re actually being heard.

When it comes to learner agency, I bet 9/10 learners couldn’t articulate what it means to have “agency.” I mean even as I’m writing this post my computer keeps underlining the word agency thinking I’m using it incorrectly because it thinks I’m talking about a corporate agency. Additionally, I’ve been to at least a dozen education conferences at this point that talk about learner agency, and even I sometimes wonder about how to best describe it which is what makes me really doubt students without a particular passion for transforming education can actually tell you what agency is.  Learners can have agency without understanding it, but if we really expect students to come back to school and “demand” that they have agency, they have to know what it is.

We can’t just keep hoping that learners will all of a sudden start “kicking and screaming” for education change and that’s what will make the difference. Some learners, I believe myself to be one of these learners, will have an amazing experience with learner-centered education, realize that the experience was partly due to feeling like they had a voice and agency in their learning, and then start advocating for change. But I know I’m not the normal student, and most learners don’t have this reaction even after a crazy out of the box experiences.

My first of a series of “ah-ha experiences” happened at the 2013 Council on Innovation. I was one of twenty students asked to spend an entire day not going to classes and instead partake in this day-long design thinking event alongside twenty community experts and visionaries. Of those twenty students that participated, I was the only one that after the experience decided I needed to start “demanding change,” and I wouldn’t even call it demanding per-say, I just started conversations. Later in time others began to agree that things could be better if they changed, but I wouldn’t say they were “kicking and screaming” about the necessity of these changes. Now obviously this one-day event is not as big of a change in the learning environment as the weeks we have already and are still yet to experience online during this pandemic, but I don’t expect the results to be much different in terms of how many students are going to come out of this wanting immediate permanent change. Honestly, from what I keep hearing from my friends and the kids I coach, I’m expecting most students will just want to feel like things are “normal” again and want to stop dealing with so much change.

So yes it’s great and inspiring to see how learners are reacting during these challenging times, and I would love to see more learners speaking up for long-term education change, but if we want to see this happen I think it’s going to take a lot more than just hope. We can’t just expect to have this big unique learning experience (if that’s how you want to describe the current circumstances) and then have dozens of learners suddenly come back as reborn advocates of learner-centered education. We need action not just hope. We need to be open and honest to learners about how much influence they currently have over education, and then guide them in the process of reflecting on how this might factor into what they expect/want out of school upon returning to our buildings. Most importantly though, we have to make sure learners realize that they even have voice and agency and that it matters far beyond the scope of distance learning.