When You Ask the Right Question the Wrong Way

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(Dave Thompson/PA Images via Getty Images)

Back in August, the Pew people published a study on how the world feels about the importance of teaching creativity and innovation in schools. The primary question of the survey was this: “Is it more important that the schools in our country teach students… basic skills and discipline or to be creative and think independently?”

In large part this survey confirms assumptions that would have been made without the data; people in advanced economies are more interested in creativity than those in developing nations. It seems likely that Maslow would have predicted that response back in the 40’s.

The survey went on to discover that in the more advanced countries those on the political right are more supportive of basic skills and discipline while the left is likely to embrace creative and independent thinking.FT_17.08.21_educationGlobal_ideo

I have been stewing about this stupid survey since it came out.

The Pew people have unwittingly promoted and substantiated the idea that these skills are independent of one another, that basic skills are not taught to creative types or that discipline and structure are not part of independent thinking.

Simply grouping those skill sets together implies some kind symbiotic relationship between basic skills and discipline as well as a natural segregation between them and independent thinking and creativity.  How would the results change if instead of grouping them as they did Pew had asked people, “Is it more important that the schools in our country teach students… basic skills and independent thinking or to be creative and disciplined?”

If education is going to have any role in bridging the political divide, (and I fervently believe we should take an active role), we cannot make presumption regarding what values complement each other.

If the last century of research exploring the makeup of human innovation and creativity has taught us anything, it is that they are the result of disciplined efforts and the divergent application of basic skills.

 

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The Identity Crisis of our Origin Story

Part 2

Of Phase 1

The original idea was to fill a trailer with a bunch of stuff and a lot of tools to use on the stuff. The plan was to give teachers access to a makerspace that did not take up their space, to create a mobile makerspace.

The original rationale was that creating access to a makerspace gave schools and classroom a more authentic application to hands-on learning, a more robust opportunity to both create and innovate, and supply the resources for student-driven project-based learning.

For the record, I think both the original plan and rational are good.  I am proud of whatever ownership I can claim of either. Somehow, when we bounced up from a trailer to a school bus and went from a couple schools sharing the stuff to being a district resource we forgot to scale our rational at the same time. Specifically, we forgot to factor in that what one small trailer can offer two or even three schools is not the same as what one big school bus can offer 30 schools. The logistics change everything.

Recognizing this, caused a small identity crisis for us. We could not change the number of schools and we could meaningfully address the all the goals we had originally set for ourselves. Good PBL takes weeks, with 26 elementary and middle schools and 32 weeks full in a school year, at best we only had a single week to offer each school.

So, if we were going to be PBL district wide we were not going to be doing if very well.

That reality did not sit well with anyone.

We spent some quality time admiring the problem, then spun ourselves into deeper frustration by trying to redefine PBL. Finally, we went into meltdown as others pointed out the same issues we were perseverating on.

Firmly positioned between defeated, frustrated and mad we went to the PTB and explained the existential crisis.

She listened, and then offered the clarity we had been unable to find for ourselves

“Your role is not project-based learning. There is no way it could be with one bus.  Your job is to get teachers thinking outside the box. To explore new ways of doing and teaching that are more hands-on and innovative than what we have been doing for the last…. Forever.

Focus on finding ways to help students and teachers be more innovative, and leave the PBL to the experts.

Teach like a Caveman

Why I teach like a caveman,

It seems to me that two of the things that make humans unique on the planet is our need to share stories and our need to make stuff.

Way back before once upon a time time when we were trying to decide as a species if it was better to stay hunched over and not hit our head on the cave ceiling or stand upright32bc1bccc0e56ccadba74c45c80048d2 like all the cool hominids, it was those two traits that set us apart. Other animals gathered, and some seemed to have basic communication. But it was just us writing on walls to illustrate grand adventures. Several species were using rocks to break nuts and shellfish open, but we are the only ones and trying to fasten them on the end of perfectly good sticks to make spears.

Skip forward several million millennia and we are still inherently wired to tell stories and making stuff. That combination of story and make turns out to be an evolutionary one-two punch. They allow us to build off the works of the past and push the future forward faster and more efficiently with every iteration.

As an educator, I would argue that most, if not all, of what we do in our classrooms can be framed as learning the form, function, and applications of either story or making. Digging down to roots of subjects we teach it’s not hard to see how story and making are the bedrock of so much of what we do. The curiosity that has shaped us is almost always resolved with stories of why, deconstructing the what, or building upon old hows.

Recent shifts and shuffles of the educational fault lines have exposed those roots to new light and given us the chance to directly explore what making adds to how we learn. Apart from the obvious constructionist application and the important connection makerspaces have to STEM education, the opportunity to explore how things are put together offers students a chance to understand the parts and pieces of the world around them in the same way that that library of stories does.

A Small Educational Epiphany

(The Growth of a Small Epiphany)

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Phase 1:

It doesn’t take much of a look into the ideas of Design Thinking, Project Based Learning (PBL) and Cultivating Innovation to see their value in a 21st-century classroom. But finding places where they fit into the curricula, the classroom and the schedule takes a bit more imagination.

In Education, we have never been shy about figuring things out as we jump into them (building the plane as we fly). No reason not to use that approach with makerspaces and PBL. Unfortunately for most of the elementary schools in our district conversations around these topics ran aground when the topic of space came on deck. It was therefore hard to move the idea of a makerspace forward without a viable space option.

On the other hand, dropping the idea of cultivating creativity and a problem based challenge because we lacked a creative solution to a real world problem seemed the wrong way to go.

Now, an epiphany, however small, is still a good starting point. So when the idea of a trailer filled with tools and supplies was suggested, the collective ‘hmmm’, was a place to begin. It turns out one trick for going from small educational epiphany to reality is getting the right people to go hmmm.  It also turns out that getting the right people to listen is an odd combination of luck, chutzpah, and repetition. In this case, we hit that trifecta back in June of 2016.

Here our origin story has more growth spurts, lulls, awkward steps and moment of brilliance than any middle schooler.  Limited only by what we could dream up we moved from trailer to retired school bus, with a custom paint job, and started to imagine what the gang from Overhaulin’ or Pimp my Ride would do in this challenge.75321764_47f3d5b6c2

Several times in that process we lost vision of our purpose and had to step back. (Sadly, as cool as an observation deck on top of the bus sounded, we couldn’t make a direct correlation between that and developing curriculum based problem solving skills so it had to go.) This brainstorming, imagining, even spit balling, of ideas allowed us to expand the concept as much as it forced us to define achievable goals. In the end, the goal boiled down to this:

Our mobile makerspace would provide classroom teachers with the people, plans, and parts needed to add project based learning to the curriculum they were already engaging with. Some of these would be projects that teachers couldn’t realistically do without “the bus.” Others would be ones they could but hadn’t thought of. We would be engineering ways to bring PBL into curriculum and classrooms.

The more jaded among us will simple smile knowingly as they read that the project lost funding before it even began, thus joining countless other good ideas never brought to fruition. Those more tenuous among us will smile and nod to read that sometimes the declarative statement “It’s not in the budget,” has a silent yet at the end that changes its meaning. In a system built with safety in mind rather than exploring, asking to tinker around with a custom fab school bus is not going to make the top of the funding, priority list without plenty of patience and pushing.   When our yet finally worked and money was found we were not exactly ready, but we jumped into action.

A Seminal Book, 48 years later.

2214274Way back in college, as a doe-eyed, impressionable, young teacher to be, I read a grim book for one of my Educational Policy classes, Teaching As a Subversive Activity, written by Dr. Neil Postman, who seemed to have a knack for pushing what felt like mostly reasonable ideas into absurdity and calling them brilliant. He had crazy ideas like TV and the media were killing our social structure, Technology will take over our lives, and that we are eroding the mental health of children with too much screen time, nutty ideas like that.

The absurd tenant of Subversive Activity was that behind the simple subject matter and curricula that we offer kids is this hidden agenda of how you learn. Postman argued that this secret message was more lasting than any singular part of the curriculum and more corrosive.  It was his contention that students needed to ask questions rather than be fed answers.

Dr. Postman had an amazing ability to point toward flaws and systemic issues, but no great talent for as offering solutions. As a result, many of the great minds in education; along with a bunch of us slightly less than great minds, have been pondering the complexity of the issue.

Almost fifty years later, I think it is fair to say we are closer to finding a better kind of subversion, or perhaps a healthier approach to teaching. it would now be difficult to discuss educational reform without focusing on topics like Inquiry based learning, problem/project based learning, design thinking, and student makerspaces, and the fostering of both creativity and curiosity.

I admit that is slow progress, and that I would prefer a more complete solution, but there is also good irony in the frustration I feel at having to slowly dig through the depths of the problem rather than simply being given the answer.

It turns out Makerspace is not just a Buzzword

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When the term makerspace first popped into the lexicon I was less than impressed. The idea of rebranding the arts and craft studio into a place where students could do arts and crafts, and make stuff, seemed like calling a large coffee a Venti coffee. Just a rose by another name.  Then variations on the idea- makers, maker manifestos and maker fairs sprung up.  This buzzword was gathering a following. Then the precocious little term starting hanging with the in crowd.  Combining in books and article with heavy hitters like mindset, Design thinking, and Project Based Learning. even those awesome twins STEM and STEAM where hanging out in makerspaces.

Soon places like Carnegie Mellon, MIT, and Stanford had makerspaces, and maker clubs and maker conferences.  At that point, I had considered the possibility that makerspace had either changed into something more than just a hippy-dippy art studio or however unlikely that I may have jumped to a conclusion rather then actually looking into a new idea. So with a more open mind and a venti large cup of coffee, I began to explore what a makerspace was and what its movement wanted to do in education.

To be honest, a makerspace can be a studio for all kinds of crafting, so my first impression was not completely wrong.  But thinking of a makerspace as a studio, in the same way, my parents called the spare bedroom an art studio is akin to thinking of my cell phone like the kitchen phone they shared.

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In its truest form, a makerspace* is where all those other terms go from theory to application; a growth mindset is built from opportunities to try, explore, and tinker without fear. Design thinking is just a formula for engineering solutions by taking apart the issue and prototyping possible solutions, and PBL works best if students have a place and resources to make it happen. Within those contexts, the term is more than an extra room.

The whole maker movement is also more complex than just the re-designation of classroom space. The STEM people have shown that with plenty of research; a study from The Carnegie Corporation’s Institute for the Advanced Study Commission on Math and Science Education, concluded that we need to move from the current system of “telling” kids about STEM topics to helping them develop the inquiry and problem-solving skills in more “hands on” and “relevant” ways.

 

In a more concert sense, the maker movement confronts what the internet has already taught us about today’s students. Back in 2004 the Pew Institute did a study that found by age 12, over 71% students had “contributed to the internet.” in the form of blog posts, videos, music files, and graphics. (that was before either Twitter or Instagram.) Not everyone wants to drop an original track on Soundcloud or post a video on YouTube. It is, however, human nature to build, create, or tinker, we are internally wired to make.  It is both an outlet of individuality and a fostering agent for curiosity, those same qualities the current school system stymies.

Makerspaces are not a panacea for an educational system that needs to be re-engineered. They come with unanswered questions about formative and summative assessments, curricula connections, funding, and access.

Makerspaces are a step forward on a path that puts less distance between the shop class and chemistry lab. Makers, by both design and definition, are resilient to failure, empowered to change, driven to explore and excited to learn.

There is a chance that the term makerspace is a buzzword that will fade and be replaced by a chicer phase.  But there is little doubt that this is a good idea for education.

*Inspiration, insight, and picture for this post all provide by @evergreenBIGlab and  @LindseyOwn

 

 

 

 

The air of September

air of Sept.

There is an energy in the air of September.

Contagious, infectious and chaotic

It is breathed out by kindergarteners, nervous parents and dewy new teachers.

It is taken in by old school instructors, principals, and grumpy sleepy 13-year-olds.

We all breathe it in, body and mind responding ready or not, willing or not

The air of September is full of school.

Football sweat from high school players floats with the flop sweat form freshman and new teachers, then they the mix and mingle becoming the air of September.

The smell of new backpacks, new beginnings, and freshly waxed floors add to the scent in the air of September.

Crisp mornings that start too early and too dark,

Dry afternoons that end too early and too cool,

They season the air of September as well.

September is the New Year for me.

The calendar may think it four months away, but for every

Student, teacher and parent September is when we start over, get back at it, and celebrate the beginning of the new year.

The evidence is in the air of September.

 

A Teachers Look at September 250

overwhlemed

 

Someone suggested to me that overwhelmed is a choice… I don’t know that I agree with that but, I do believe how I deal with overwhelmed is a choice.
I think it’s important to remember that this time of year because;
September is a month of changes that overwhelm me.
I love that.
It starts out hot, dry and tired but will finish cool, green and crisp.
The days this month move faster, as nature itself forces me to put more into each moment of daylight.
Septembers full of unrealistic hope and optimism, which by October will be tempered with fatigue.
Student energy is frenetic in September which makes me smile…for most of the month anyway.
Parents come into the school proud eager and hopeful, every year I want to share, applaud, and foster those emotions to build our community.
Septembers a chance to start over, changing and reinventing with fresh eyes.
The mistakes, missteps and missing pieces from last year are gone.
September is when I harvest the fruit of my summer labor setting into motion a whole Pinterest board of possibilities.
By the end of the month, I will be overwhelmed by all this,
The gray in my morning skies will threaten to cloud my mood,
Crisp will feel more like damp and cold.
What was once frenetic will look more like spastic
Proud will have a shadow of worry following behind it.
This year I will ride those waves confident that overwhelmed is part of every journey.

Note to Self

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Dear Self,
a couple weeks ago you were asked what your most controversial educational belief was. Your answer was lame. It is a tricky question and to be fair I don’t think most of your beliefs are controversial, rather they seem well reasoned and brilliant to me. However, for future reference, you do have some rather outlandish beliefs. You believe the way we teach, the way we have always taught is a stupid model. You think that passive memorization, standardized tests, and classes where 87.6543% of the work is presented and produced in one modality is easy to duplicate for the teacher but it’s garbage for any learner.
Self, where you seem to get stuck is not in the bold ideas, it is in your hesitation to move forward without a full plan. You don’t like to complain without also seeing a better option. You worry that changing the way classrooms have been run since the dawn of early man is a pretty easy rant to ignore if you can’t offer a clear path to make that happen.
The thing that really stinks is that you were asked that question in an interview for a new job that is a real effort to clear some of that path. You had the chutzpah to apply and the moxie to do the job, but not the presence of mind to recognize that you were asked how you would choose to change education while interviewing for a job that will be trying to change education. So… something for you to work on.
BTW Congratulations on the new job.

New Job with a Catchy Title

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I am always leery of anything pedagogical that comes with its own set of buzz words. After more than two decades in education, I rest on a fulcrum between experienced and cynical, the balance tilting based on when I last had a cup of coffee. So, as I step into a new role filled with buzz, hype, and expectations I am aggressively searching for the foundational value this work can offer students and teachers. I don’t doubt that is there, I simply need to be able to focus on it as we frame the job ahead.
Innovation, Creativity, Maker Spaces, Design Thinking, those are big terms with broad open definitions. No teacher is going to reject the foundation of those concepts but they could dismiss them as nothing more than buzzwords if we cannot back them up with engaging and meaningful learning, especially if those ideas are presented before coffee.
With that in mind:
I am now an Innovation TOSA, our mission is to bring innovative and creative project-based learning into real classrooms in a way that makes it possible for classroom teachers to use those concepts, ideas, and formats on their own once we leave.
Think of it as a “Try it before you apply it” approach. We roll up full of hype, enthusiasm, and buzz and leave with you surprised at how valuable what we offered was.
The foundational value is this: Teaching people to innovated and create is important and something we should be doing

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