A View from the Crossroads: Design as Liberal Education

The emergence of design thinking in the twentieth century . . . lies in a concern to connect and integrate useful knowledge from the arts and sciences alike, but in ways that are suited to the problems and purposes of the present.  

All men and women require a liberal art of design to live well in the complexity of the framework based in signs, things, actions, and thoughts.

–Richard Buchanan, “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking”

Complexity Rules

The world is not getting any simpler.

Ok, I have a firm grasp of the obvious.  But let’s be clear and clichéd: children today will inherit a world we can hardly imagine  Little of what we teach them will be relevant even 10 years from now.  What, then, do we do to help our educational system, which always changes at a glacial pace, keep up with an increasingly shifting and complex world?  

A.J. Juliani and John Spencer’s new book, Empower  (2017) offers a reframing of the issue when they write:  “Our job as teachers, parents, and leaders is not to prepare kids for ‘something,’ our job is to help kids prepare themselves for ‘anything.’”  Such inspiration is wonderful, but what does this preparation look like?  What are its implications for education?

Please check out the rest of this blog post at Plusus.


Extraordinaires Design Club: Designerly Minded Teachers

As followers of this blog may know, I have been working with and observing a group of Middle School learners since late November as they meet weekly to play and learn with the Extraordinaires Design Studio.  We started in November and December by getting to know one another,  learning about user-centered design and empathy’s central place in that endeavor, and exploring the Design Studio kits.

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In the intervening months, we have learned more about visualizing ideas, practiced the ancient Greek technique of “ekphrasis” with a high-school student and a Hollywood writer/producer/director, built 20-minute prototypes from Dollar Store parts; we even skyped with Rory O’Connor, one of the designers responsible for the Extraordinaires and generally had a lot of fun imagining how the world might be a better place, not only for the extraordinary characters who are the Extraordinaires, but also for us.

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However, the most interesting and rewarding event of the year and the one that holds the most promise for moving design-based learning into more of the classes in my own district was the Extraordinaires Design Sprint we held for teachers at Perkiomen Valley Middle School East on Wednesday, May 17th.

Over the course of four club meetings, the students in the Extraordinaires Design Club and I organized an experience for teachers that combined the Extraordinaires Design Studio, design activity sheets from the teacher’s resources page of the Extraordinaires website, and the Cooper-Hewitt’s “Ready, Set, Design” activity.  Teamed in pairs, six teachers from different disciplines received an Extraordinaire, a Project Card, and a Think Card.  They also received a brown paper bag containing equal parts of “structures, fasteners, and surfaces.”  Pairs squared off against pairs to compete for awards. Two teams designed cooking utensils for The Giant, two teams designed an object to clean yourself with for The Robot, and two teams (had we had more in attendance) would have designed a music player for The Superhero.

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I’ll not detail the full lesson here.  If you would like to run the lesson with your students, use it in professional development sessions, or just play around with it on your own, you can find a link to it here.  (If you do use the lesson, drop a comment back to me letting me know how it went, what modifications you made, etc.)

The club has one more meeting, next Wednesday, May 24.  We’ll be sharing ideas and stories from the year, reflecting on what worked and what we could have done better, and developing positive, critical feedback on the Extraordinaires product itself.

The Modern Learner: Dancing to Learn

iStock_000020371243Small_largeI link below to the blog and youtube channel of a student who has taken a passion project/20Time project to levels far beyond my expectations.  If you’re an educator of any sort, you should take a look at her work.  While she is certainly an exceptional student,  she could easily be languishing in classrooms that sap her energy and deny her access to her curiosity.

Instead, Irina has created opportunities and taken hold of those presented to her to pursue her curiosity and interests.  This is the modern learner, the innovator, the self-determined learner.

This is the future of education, and it is now.

As educators, we know that we need to question ourselves constantly.  And while it may be exhausting, we need to find ways to be in a constant, iterative cycle.  Change is everywhere, and it is represented strongly in our students, especially those like Irina.   We can either lead with them or get out of their way.  But if we think conducting our classes the same way we always have will help students like Irina learn what they need in a world that has always outpaced our glacially paced system, we’re mistaken and worse, an anachronism.

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Commotion — Blog

Youtube Channel

The Chaotic Arrow: Musing on the Importance of Perception in School Change.

Thursday’s blog post from George Couros got me thinking, as normal.    Take a look at it, especially at the line drawings for what constitutes “Success.”

 These doodles are true enough (you’ll also find the squiggle as the Design Squiggle ) to the pathways we perceive as leading to success and the meanderings that actually do.  In that, the straight arrow stands as a warning to the pretensions of linearity that typify most of our endeavors at schooling and its reform…STILL!  (I mean, come on.  We talked about this back in the 80s, 60s, 20s….)

Anyway, George has written another great post for teachers and teacher leaders.  If we are thinking of change, at whatever level, be it one teacher in the classroom, or one building, or a district as a whole, let’s admit to ourselves that our narrative will not trace the unwavering flight of an arrow.  That’s as illusory and destructive as the notion that time itself is an arrow.

MissLandsatFeatured-300x336Instead of an arrow, the change in which we engage will more resemble the narrative of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the great, muddy, messy river at the heart of the novel.  Change meanders,  ox-bows, turns back, crosses itself, confuses, drifts, gathers.  It is at once powerfully beautiful, and powerfully frightening.    And so the question for innovators in schools is really how do we make all of the learners (students, teachers, admin, support staff, etc.) floating down our own great river of change, education, understand and honor that the trip will rarely…should ever…be as straight and efficient as a line?

Answers to that question are complicated by the fact that any talk of change breeds fear, and that fear stems from the perception that something (comfort, safety, status) will be lost when we change.  This is especially true of districts like my own which label themselves with that perennial deflation, “We’re good enough.”    The real answer to how we get all learners on board the riverboat to effective change is that we need to help them shift their perspective.  If we can do that, then “fear” is replaced with “conviction,” “risk” with “opportunity,” and “failure” with “learning.”

shiftBut shifting perspectives is difficult.  It takes a willingness to see one’s self differently and an understanding that we are the only real engines of change.  It also takes a willingness to accept one’s power and its attendant responsibilities.

If we are to start shifting perspectives, we can hardly start in a better place than two simple questions.  “Why are things the way they are?”  and “How can we make them better.”  The first question opens us to an understanding that the built world is born of intention, that all the objects, experiences, apps, and systems we have made are responses to solving problems, and some of them do so better, with more focus on an understanding of the users than others.  The second question reminds us that we are the creators, the agents of change.  It empowers those who have forgotten their power and enlightens those who never realized they had it.



Design Lab: The Last Update?

The first iteration of Perkiomen Valley High School’s Design Lab is over. Here’s one student’s reflection on the semester’s successes and opportunities.

Adventures of a Teenage Dreamer

Design Lab ended…

The semester was officially over on Friday, and with it goes an amazing class that I will never forget. As a quick rundown, Katie and I made a slideshow for our project which we presented to the class, some administrators, and two of the designers from the business PlusUs. I think it went really well given that we only had 8 minutes to present our entire project from start to finish, and everyone else also did a great job.

After the presentations on the 18th, Katie and I have just been cruising along with rest of the class as we couldn’t really do anything in a week and a half. Mr. Heidt surely knew how to keep us busy though, and he planned for us to have a guest speaker on the 25th and another final discussion/presentation to the assistant superintendent for the last day. The…

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