The Exhilarating Chaos Between What We Know and What We Don't
Our 'learning potential' should outweigh credential-packed resumes
Two weekends, two conferences, one high school, and one documentary film later and I am stuffed. Like after Thanksgiving.
Last night, I watched the Eames documentary on Netflix. One particular narrative thread struck me. The narrator pointed out that when IBM approached Charles Eames to design for the World’s Fair and make the advent of computers more accessible and less frightening, Charles was perfect for the job. Not because computers, fairs, and big tech companies were in his niche, but because his potential to learn, grow, and contribute to these fields was exponential. Deals were signed on a handshake without extensive contracts. Projects were built on the trust that two beautiful minds (Charles and Ray Eames) would learn and accomplish great things in a new field with a new project, experimenting in a new line of thinking.
That kind of trust based on learning potential rather than learning accomplishments is undervalued even in organizations that base their brand on innovation. Three weeks ago, I attended HarvardxDesign, a new conference on design-thinking that hosted an education design challenge. Having done some work at the Harvard Innovation lab as a grad student, I was curious to see how they were pulling in all these stellar and accomplished employees from Google Creative Labs, IDEO, Continuum, Frog, Parsons, etc. into one room. I tend to stare starry eyed at these people, itching to participate in their work more intimately because, after all, they have commoditized creative practice. And thank goodness they have. People talk creativity all the time; I would much prefer talking about refining a structure to use and grow it. However, in overusing terms like “design-thinking,” we conflate ideas, subjects, objects, and remove ourselves further from what learning by feeling and doing is really about. For example, “education” was a theme of the conference, but education was rarely discussed, if not for one strong moderator consistently asking how each presenter’s work applied to learning and education.
As we get obsessed with innovation by design, we lose the glory of celebrating the learning potential a problem can present or the learning potential of the people who work on that problem. We rather tend to glorify people who look most “creative” on paper (read: experience in brand strategy, marketing, product development, etc.). By comparison, I went to an education innovation conference the weekend after facilitated by LearnLaunch, a new incubator for Boston area edtech startups (like Imagine K12 of the west coast or newly launched Socratic Labs of NYC) which dug a bit below the surface into the interlacing challenges and opportunities of carefully crafted educational tools and policy. The education folks would benefit from diving into the processes designers are looking to modify to produce products and services. And, the designers would benefit from seeing how educators approach talk about content. I sat with my abundance of conference muffins wishing the two pools of thinkers and do-ers could converge and explode.
And then, I came back to the big, bad, beautiful city of New York and spent a day at Richard R. Green High School of Teaching, a public school on the very bottom tip of the island of Manhattan. I ran around the school and had lunch with some lovely high school juniors and seniors talking about what could counter report cards to measure what they are really learning in school. This had been inspired by a potent conversation I recently had with Tony Wagner about innovating performance metrics in the social-cognitive realm with end of the year project pitches. I sat in on a meeting with two teachers about a junior whose grades were drastically slipping and discussed how to manage the competing priorities of academics, extra-curriculars, and social activities. And, finally, I observed the implementation of a passion project-building toolkit based on iterative loops of design and innovation that my organization, The Future Project, generated for the school. I then wished all the people I just met could converge here at Richard R. Green and talk about learning potential with all of its students. Connecting the conferences on design to the conferences on edtech to the school itself, particularly high school, is our real challenge.
I’m always amazed that when I try to explain the work I do or the field I am in (different approaches I play with include: universally designing learning tools and experiences, employing the psychology of creativity, using design-thinking in education, working with schools to turn students’ passions into projects), people consistently bring up Khan Academy. It has occurred enough times to signal a pattern: once in consultation with a high-end employee at one of the aforementioned design firms, once with a table of varied professionals at the Hallowell’s Center's holiday gathering. (Ned Hallowell is a psychiatrist and thought-leader on ADHD and positive psychology.) This happened again while in the vast ill-defined space of "networking" at a Harvard alumni event in NYC. While Ned Hallowell personally spoke of the nitty gritty of education, all the other interactions rendered the Khan conversation.
I agree that Khan Academy started a revolution. It's accessible and big and puts knowledge into digestible chunks, but, there is so much more to talk about! I don't have the vocabulary to hash out nuclear physics or Malaysian politics, so I might be off base in thinking people can easily push the boundaries of education conversation. I get why people bring up Khan Academy. They are often parents and so education to them is their kids, and Khan Academy provides resources their kids can use. Education, however, is universal and yet so personal. Everyone can reference something in their own process of learning and self-discovery that completely stifled them or unleashed them. I want to hear about that. If you want to tell me, email me, please.
School can be a devastatingly social, deeply emotional, and cognitively complex arena. The most powerful lesson any institution of learning can bestow upon us is helping us discover how we learn best and, then, how to milk that. Milk, in this situation, means learning how to take in information in the most salient ways, collaborate, use tools, make tools, grow our own capacities, and output information articulately. In other words, if schools functioned for one reason, it should be to help us all discover our “learning potential.” To learn one’s own constraints, skills, and possibilities, and be able to communicate that in whichever literacy you are inclined to use--be it digital or visual or oral--creates agency. To learn to embrace one’s own neurodiversity as it fits or does not fit in with others, is perhaps one of the most empowering foundations to build a career of learning, living, and growing on. If we all left high school knowing fully and deeply our “learning potential,” we would be well ahead in the game of life.
I was recently interviewed by the author of a new creativity blog, who hopes to build a school entirely based on “creative intelligence,” an equally complex term that writers and scholars alike hope to replace “design-thinking” with. He asked me about my ideal school of the future. Looking to various models of educational experiments, including ones that take school to the outdoor environment, bring world and culture learning into the school, or create a school entirely for tech-driven learning, I hope to see a slow, steady takeover of the factory model of education following the patterns of disruptive innovation that each of these examples embodies. They all break down physical and mental walls and re-define constructs of learning. And, they rely on collaboration across the growing, yet still disparate, fields of education innovation. Hopefully, they also help students learn how they learn. We can put Makerspaces in a lot of schools and create technology-driven, personalized instruction, but until we create rich, experiential training programs that yield the integration of people and parts, and learn how to illustrate learning processes for our students, we won't go far fast. But we are getting there.
The school of the future is a balance between what Salman Khan and his ever-growing and experimenting team has developed, and using our hands in our communities to create the aesthetic and useful, critiquing that, iterating unto that, and reflecting deeply on it, privately and publicly. Even though I have joked about Khan Academy being the go-to education innovation topic, I must say they are doing incredible work and have launched a beta project-building site. I have such hope because everywhere I turn in every city I live in, new models, both for profit and non-profit, in the public and charter and private domains are popping up like wildfire and the community backing these ideas and ideals is simultaneously expanding and shrinking. We must be careful to collect learnings from all these experiments, so we can glean scalable insights, and not forget to work with today’s school, still operating, still building.
As we continue to promote lab-like learning zones where process rules over product, mastery over performance, growth mindset over IQ, and cross-disciplinary design over siloed subjects, we will be fine. As long as the edtech conference go-ers and the design-thinking conference go-ers and the non-conference-go-ers cross-pollinate in the fiber of all the schools of today, we will innovate purposefully. As we rethink the role of teachers to give them the creative and loving outlets they desire and rethink the structure of personalized and team driven instruction and coaching, we will push forward.
School is a container of democracy. So why wouldn't we bring together architects, designers, life coaches, engineers, neuroscientists, politicians, parents AND students together to co-create a democratic vision? We can make the education experience that small towns in Italy and micro-cities, like the Sugar Hill project in Harlem, have created into the norm. These are two different examples of how starting with one school can grow an entire community of learners. We can prototype in phenomenal informal spaces that are also imperative community-driving learning centers across the country like The Tech, as a museum model, Project Breaker, as a mobile education by entrepreneurship and design model, and The Beam Center, as a community initiative grown from a camp model. And, we can still test out sharing knowledge with the burgeoning world of online learning and open source materials, like with the recently launched MOOC version of MIT Media Lab's Learning Creative Learning course and with all the lessons up for grabs from the Stanford d.school’s K12 lab resource-laden wiki. And, most importantly, we can take a deep dive into the cultural ecosystem and contextual elements that make up school as we know it because there is great work going on in real time.
Finally, I look forward to my colleagues at Harvard’s Project Zero taking on the challenge of rigorously researching the learning impact of design-thinking and making with their new Agency By Design research project. We can learn how we learn and we can also be cognizant of capturing that learning in meaningful and productive ways with data big and small.
Here’s to our collective learning potential. May the coasts and the conferences and co-creation crazies collide. I'm so excited for the next 100 days and the next 100 years.