Educon 2023: Where Conversations and Dialogue Are the Heart of Education

This year my students and I returned to Educon, the national education conference focused on progressive conversations about how we might improve education for all people. We had planned two conversations and both were geared to have high levels of student engagement.

Transparent and Dehydrated: Innovating with a Minimum Viable Curriculum

Our first sessions was geared towards opening the curriculum document for NOVA Lab and having members of the audience help us suck out some of the curricular water that had bloated the system. (I’ve written about that before and finally decided to take my own advice.). While the attendance was small, our troop of students had ample time to present their projects, both present and past, and create awareness for the good things they are doing. Our audience engaged us in frequent questions that helped us not only explain the methods and content of the class, but which also helped us understand the privilege it is to be able to have a class like this. Challenging the staid and standard curriculum is not something allowed, it seems, in most inner city districts. This opened an entirely new perspective about how systems suppress innovation in order to maintain dependencies and suppress upward mobility.

Gradelessness & Microdocumentation of Learning: Assessment through Learning Journeys

This session saw our largest audience ever at Educon, about 11 people. Ok, so that seems small, but with about 15 different conversations running during each session, it’s not easy to get a huge audience. Regardless, the attendees were engaged, asked hard questions, and received a huge amount of documentation via the sliidedeck we’d constructed. Students again had a huge role, culling data from “Big Paper” recordings of initial readings, creating a list of discussion topics, and also helping to describe the different ways we have attempted, in both my English and Innovation classes, to capture student Learning Journeys.

This session also allowed us to explore how we’ve been using Unrulr.com to capture learning journeys throughout the year so far. While my system for pulling in Unrulr is not where I want it to be, the success I’ve had with it has allowed me to showcase the beauty of cultures of commenting and communities of feedback like nothing else.

In the decade or so since I first started attending Educon, I have had the pleasure to meet with like minded educators who have helped shape my own learning journey. It is my hope that, by bringing students to Educon and allowing them to discuss their learning, the systems of both my own classes and the school in general, we are able to influence others and learn from others in ways that not only question why things are the way they are, but empower us all to make them better.

Wicked Problems and Social Messes: School Reopenings–COVID-19 Edition

 

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from USA Today

In designing solutions to wicked problems like how to best educate our children in a time of COVID, we can’t just rely on opinions. We can’t even rely on the facts. They are not inert. They shift in different contexts. But here’s one thing we can rely on. If we don’t approach the design with the users in mind, that is, if we don’t try to understand, at a deep and empathetic level, what our children and teachers will be encountering, we will not design the best solutions. We will only design something that, perhaps, efficiently relieves a host of pains we’ve been suffering but in turn creates pains in other areas. Unless we build empathy for the users of the system we’re trying to re-create, all this is just bluster and posturing.
 
To whit…how many parents and board members have actually walked in the potential shoes their children/teachers will wear? How many have tried to follow the rules of social distancing , cleanliness, mask-wearing for hours and hours with the mind of an 8, 11, 16 year-old? All the while working to learn new information, but in the back of their mind, wondering, after Justin sneezes, or Susan wipes her eyes, or Tom takes his mask off, wondering…did I just get exposed? This district’s superintendent did it and it was an eye-opening experience. A little empathy goes a long way to understanding the successes and limitations of any solution. 
fear
Cognitive science makes it clear, but our experience makes it self evident–we cannot learn well if our emotional state is one of heightened anxiety and fear. Sure, our teachers would do their best to create communities of learners that are inclusive, safe, and trusting, but even then, the variables of interactions that occur outside the classroom mean that those safe little bubbles of communal learning would still be fraught with worry. And no amount of statistical spinning would allay those fears.
 
We know that since the rise of the two-income family, Public Education’s purpose is not solely to educate and promote learning. At the point that two parents are in the workforce, public ed is also a way to provide daycare. It has supported the rise of the American Economy to the top of the world. Now that we’re doing a cost-benefit analysis of the risks involved with opening up vs. those involved in remaining closed I suppose we have to be rather brazen and ask ourselves: What’s the cost of a human life? Or, how much of my child’s quality of life am I willing to risk?
 
Sure incremental risks enter our lives every day, and we bear them. But most of those risks are known. So much with COVID 19 is uncertain. Just recently we’ve seen studies like this that point to long-term risks to the heart from those suffering with infection: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamacardiology/fullarticle/2768916. And the data changes all the time.  As much as I’d like to “Partner with Uncertainty and Confusion” as Maragret Wheatley suggests, I think I’d rather do it from a distance in this case.  But to be clear…such a partnering must be done by everyone.
 
Yet I know there are those who would just grab the seat next to uncertainty and push it to the side.  Social media is full of these people.  They have a right to be angry, a right to be upset at the decisions their district boards have made.  Their lives may be far more dependent on a return to normal than my own.

Thus, the argument is between those who would be prudent, and those whose livelihoods depend upon finding a way for the village to care for their child(ren). No one is wrong in that argument. As in all multi-faceted, wicked problems, any proposed solution can have a negative impact on another facet of the problem. There are no “right” solutions to this problem for all.  There are only actions that result in better states for some.  Perhaps we should “think about our actions as interventions. We must “shift the goal of action on significant problems from “solution” to “intervention.” Instead of seeking the answer that totally eliminates a problem, one should recognize that actions occur in an ongoing process, and further actions will always be needed.”  

In a related and, perhaps, more relatable description, Russel Ackoff refers to these problems as “Social Messes.”  Yes. In. Deed!
 
In a world that has grown to expect quick answers and easy solutions through technology, this pandemic has caused us to face our own limitations, and it has forced us to slow down. Normal isn’t coming back anytime soon. Either we do what humans have always done to make us the top of the heap–adapt–or we try to claw back towards “normal” against a force we can’t even see.
 
Strategically, if I’m trying to ensure my survival and the survival of my family and the race itself, I’m betting on my ability to adapt.  In the end, I think this is the manner in which many school boards have voted. And that gives me hope.

Beautifully Irrational Arguments: Wayfinding, Designing, and Staying Foolish

Stay-Hungry-Stay-Foolish-Whole-Earth-Catalog

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary….Stay Hungry, stay foolish.
Steve Jobs, Stanford Commencement Speech, 2005

In twenty-seven years of coaching high school debate, I doubt I ever coached my teams to go all in on the emotional appeals at the expense of reasoned, rational, evidenced arguments.   After all, aside from a liberal sprinkling of pathos here and there, you don’t win debates with arguments based solely on emotion. Besides, I graduated from a liberal arts college that schooled me in empiricism and rational thought, even as I pursued an English degree and numerous credits in the Religion department.

And yet, a growing body of research (here for example) within the past 10 years reveals that humans are not the rational actors we thought we were.

For designers, this may not come as a surprise.  Good designs make arguments at ethical, rational, and emotional levels.  You might say that a good design argues at the level of purpose, utility, and aesthetic. This, too, is no surprise.  It is the aesthetic level–call it beauty, simplicity, elegance, truth–that moves users to engage with design.  For example, Apple’s iMac, when first released, was not more powerful or faster than the majority of PC’s on the market.  But it was “different”…its aesthetics and design touches shocked consumers who were used to generic, flat-beige PC computers running a rather uninspiring operating system.  (Some readers might recall that “No Beige” was actually a slogan for the original iMac’s ad campaign.)

Education, too, is far less successful when practiced from a purely empirical angle.  Sure, Descartes may have helped usher in the age of rational empiricism with his insistence on thinking as the essence of being, but he did no great favor for students in Western society by doing so.  Our hearts, the traditional symbolic seat of emotion, are far more important to our decision-making processes, and thus to what we learn and why, than our power of rational thinking alone.  A recent article in the National Association of Independent Schools’ publication, Independent Schools, includes a full section on Emotions and Thinking.

The recognition that most modern schooling, aside from meetings with counselors and the occasional gym, art, or English teacher, has often overlooked or shied away from the messy, unpredictable, irrational realm of emotions is not a new one.   Few teachers graduate their teaching practicums without knowing the primary importance of establishing caring, working relationships and emotionally safe environments for their students.  And yet those practices are some of the first to fall by the wayside as teachers establish themselves and realize that what the system actually cares about is test scores, normalized results, and “Adequate Yearly Progress.”

How teachers fall deaf and blind to the natural, emotional landmarks that help them get their bearings in the classroom is as much due to the pressure to perform and bring everyone up to standardized proficiency, as it is to the fact that for most teachers, and I include myself herein, we did well in the system that “produced us,” and so we naively believe that repeating what was done to us is what will best benefit our own students.  Rare is the teacher who experienced in primary or secondary school (and, for all intents and purposes, in college as well) meaningful and sustained classes in socio-emotional learning.

And this is why Project Wayfinder is so crucial to the health and welfare of our students as well as our teachers.  Project Wayfinder understands the importance of our emotional selves and engages learners at the level of the whole human.  From start to finish, the project recognizes the necessity of the emotions, both their chaotic, productive messiness and their powerful mnemonic potential as the precursor to deeper learning about everything.  Finally, and Wayfinder is non-apologetic about this, we can’t hope for our children to live meaningful, purposeful lives if we deny the reality of felt experienced and embodied knowledge.

Finding our way in life is not something we should leave to chance, and yet our educational systems do a poor job at helping students truly understand how to achieve what is in their hearts.  Most of us wind up following pathways already mapped out by others, following what are, essentially, best guesses or paths of least resistance to what we think we want to do with our lives.

And sure, navigating our ways to futures beyond our horizons is a seemingly impossible thing to do, so it helps to have a map of sorts.  But what if there were another way, a way absent maps, a way that employs a cycle of “experience, reflection, sharing, and experimenting” to design a life?

Wayfinder Way image

Author’s sketchnote of Wayfinder iterative experiential learning process

It is just this iterative process that is at the core of Project Wayfinder’s story-based, designerly minded curriculum.

Wayfinder’s powerful focus on students’ emotional learning is no accident.  It is the result of the project’s reliance on design thinking and its empathetic approach to curriculum development.  It is the result of a researched understanding that what drives us to do anything (and here we can go back to the work of Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, or more anecdotally, the work of William Glasser in Choice Theory) are our emotions.  If we are not fully invested, in our hearts, then the learning in which we are engaged will be, at best, moderately effective…however you chose to measure the effectiveness of learning.

As an educational consultancy practiced in design thinking, Form & Faculty also starts with empathy and a focus on the most emotionally impactful stories our users relate.  Form & Faculty, like Project Wayfinder, helps you navigate your way not only to better defining your purpose but also designing a meaningful solution to your challenge.

Redesigning Education: Designing for Deeper Learning

 

 

What counts and what matters in learning?  Contrary to centuries of practice, it is not really the grades.

Since April of 2017 I have been reading about and, now, practicing gradeless-ness in my high school 9th and 10th grade English classes.  Sure, I know that such a practice is not new, at least not in independent schools, but what I did not know was how widespread the practice had become in public-school classrooms around the nation.  The Facebook group, “Teachers Throwing Out Grades“, and more recently, the group “Teachers Going Gradeless” have been incredibly active in promoting this movement, and its history is as old as our system of public schooling itself.  While seemingly counterintuitive, given most Americans’ experiences in public school, going gradeless is a key aspect of the move to deeper learning….

Visit my work at plusus.org to continue reading.

Redesigning Education: Iterating towards Mastery

maker-words

(This post was originally published on the website of PlusUs, an educational design consultancy that is now named Form & Faculty)

I recently listened to a podcast with Scott Looney, Headmaster of the Hawken School in Cleveland, Ohio, and also the founder of the Mastery Transcript Consortium.  Mr. Looney discusses not only the project-based work he has introduced at Hawken, but focuses a good deal of his time on the history and philosophy around the Mastery Transcript Consortium–a group of independent and public schools devoted to shifting the high-school transcript away from meaningless letter grades, Grade Point Averages, and Carnegie Units (HS credits) to something more representative of the skills and knowledge students possess and the actual work  they can do.

Mastery as a Natural Process

Part and parcel of any movement to mastery learning is the ability of the learners in the system to chose their areas of study and begin work towards defined standards.   Their work will involve a good deal of false starts, redirections, failures, and successive attempts in order to achieve mastery.  But isn’t that how we learn in the real world?  Something strikes our fancy, we start to pursue it, find ourselves faced with obstacles, failures, and yet, we press on.  Our curiosity and often the necessity of the knowledge we seek drives us to learn.

Design as a Learning Methodology

Listening to Mr. Looney, I couldn’t help but think of the iterative nature of design and the mindset of the design thinker.  How similar is the human drive to learn to the organic process of design?  We encounter a problem, develop empathy for the users, research to help define the problem, seek out numerous pathways to solutions, iterate, test, learn from the results and try again.

It is no stretch to claim that design thinking, in any of its numerous versions (and there are many, including this one specifically created by educators) is a heuristic.  From inception (problem finding), to defining the problem/developing the right question, to developing multiple solutions and then refining and making those solutions better, design thinking is a model for learning that recognizes the importance of content knowledge, development and deployment of skills, and the use of iterative feedback loops to improve the learning experience.

Mastery for All Learners

But let’s not stop at design as a methodology for learning; its impact on education can extend far beyond how we learn.  Indeed, design has the potential to help us rethink not only what we learn, how we learn it, and the importance of such learning, it can also help us examine what is truly important to learn.  Harvard University and 100+ other institutions of higher learning across the United States have adopted a design inspired approach to examining the users of the college application system and just how that system and its demands effect the lives of our young adults.  Their findings are not only important to students seeking college admission, but to all learners in general who are poorly served by a system of evaluation rather than assessment.

PlusUs is a unique organization in that we not only employ design thinking in the work we do with our clients, but we are actively engaged in the spread of design thinking as a pedagogical method.  Our work is not simply about the design of educational products, we are devoted to designing educational experiences that engage learners in the discovery of why the world is the way it is, and which also help them realize the innate power they have to make the world better.