Category Archives: Reflections

Takeaways from Attending #SXSWedu

Scaling Innovation SXSWedu Session – Sketched by Dan Ryder

Two weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend SXSWedu in Austin. As I sifted through my tweets and notes from the conference, I tried to look for themes and key takeaways that came up throughout my various sessions.

In general, I attended workshops, panels, and sessions focusing on innovation and specific approaches to teaching and learning (e.g., Design Thinking, PBL, maker). Here are the recurring ideas that could have a truly meaningful impact on our schools if we put them into practice:

School must BE the “real-world”

So often, we talk of preparing students for the “real-world” that they will enter after graduating high school or at least higher education. At SXSWedu, many of the discussions instead centered on the idea of students engaging in real-world problem solving and projects while they are in school.

Students are not just imagining becoming engineers and entrepreneurs nor simply learning skills that will help them to do that work one day/someday, they have become them in many schools. This shift from “playing” a maker to being one in “real-life” is a dramatic change for many educators, administrators, and school systems yet the power of being able to take an idea or a product from something that is conceived in your head to one that is available to the public is immense.

By inviting students and teachers to engage in innovative ways of teaching and learning (e.g., design thinking, making, and global collaboration), schools can become another piece of every child’s real-world experience. For example, as Amanda Kruysman said, “DT is a way to solve problems for real users & you can look to your home community for those problems.” In fact, the Design Thinking in the Humanities panel eloquently demonstrated with concrete examples from their classrooms how valuable (and feasible) it is to bring the real-world into the classroom and invite students to engage in human-centered problem-solving that not always, but many times, has far-reaching and tangible real-world results.

Stop Accepting Space Constraints

There was one important ingredient to facilitating these real-world school experiences that was raised repeatedly at SXSWedu – agile spaces. As Steelcase demonstrated with their crowdsourced poll, everyone learns and thinks differently:

So having rigid, single-use spaces that cannot shift to accommodate different learners or learning activities will inherently leave some students behind. I ran into this first-hand when trying to setup the room for our core conversation on Scaling Innovation, which was arranged in concentric circles and was not conducive to small group work.

One of the Buck Institute for Education PBL sessions I attended also addressed this issue. We spent a lot of time discussing transformational learning experiences which almost always involved addressing real-world problems. To facilitate those types of learning experiences attendees came to the conclusion that schools need spaces that support active, hands-on work, hacking, play, collaboration, and a wide variety of learner interactions. Another session focusing on holistic design also discussed making schools more flexible and agile to respond to students’ needs. In small groups, we problematized the idea of traditional roles and spaces, imagining all teachers as learning coaches and every space as a place for discovery and collaboration (e.g. Learning Stairs). Schools were re-imagined to have “neighborhoods” with centralized resources and spaces that could be responsive to change over time. Ultimately, though…

Innovation Leaders can Help 

To help the people involved in schooling change their behaviors, schools need support and guidance. One way to achieve this is to ask for help by appointing one or more educators in your school who can serve as Innovation Leaders. Lindsey Own and I led a core conversation on this topic at SXSWedu.

Our hope was to give people a process (resources here) that they could bring back to their schools and organizations to explore the question of how to scale innovation and also help everyone walk out with some concrete takeaways (i.e., challenges to scaling innovation and a job description for an Innovation Leader).

Innovation Challenges

We began by asking everyone to map what innovation currently looks like at their schools, thinking about whether it is centered around specific people/hubs and how it flows (or doesn’t) within the school. From these maps, we invited groups to pull out challenges they saw (e.g., silos, a lack of resources) and after organizing by these themes, groups worked together to dive deeper into why these challenges might exist. Using the 5 Why’s exercise and small group discussions, attendees were able to get to the root of the issues and discover what would be needed to help overcome these challenges.

The groups were then able to chart what mindsets, professional/personal qualities, experience, and team needs an Innovation Leader would require to overcome that specific challenge. Combining all of their responses together, we could see clear themes that align with with many of the ideas of other SXSWedu sessions. For example, having varied experience (e.g., working at a startup or in a specific industry) and empathy are key outcomes of the real-world experiences students should be able to have in schools and being flexible and a risk-taker are helpful when trying to re-envision learning spaces and think differently about traditional school setups. .

Final Thoughts

One of the reasons educators attend conferences like SXSWedu is to come together and hear inspiring stories and learn from amazing speakers. These stories give us hope that every student and each classroom can become a place for students to have those “wow” factor experiences that can be life changing for both students and teachers.

Just look at the stories shared by Emily Pilloton about her work in If You Build It or with nine year old girls who have learned welding and an assortment of other equally impressive, tangible skills! You’ll notice how the homework she assigned everyone is also connected to my SXSWedu takeaways and does not involve a single worksheet.

And I think Mimi Ito, in her closing, might have shared the key that we are all looking for when we come to these conferences – connected learning. She encouraged everyone to help students find a #learninghero:

Isn’t that exactly what we, as attendees, are searching for?

While I learned a lot in the different sessions I attended, the most meaningful part of SXSWedu was connecting with my tribe, the #dtk12chat colleagues and friends (Thank You!!) I knew from Twitter (but mostly never face-to-face) and the new people I connected with who are passionate about innovating and using technologies to create and connect students globally. These connections and the natural exchange of ideas, resources, and support that come with them, are the key to my own growth and learning. I think it is the hidden, unnamed link we all share as innovation leaders.

The attendees in our session did not seem to notice that their very presence in the session speaks to a powerful component of an Innovation Leader. She or he is always looking for connections and new learning heroes who can “infect them with passion and expertise” and inspire them to connect school experiences to students’ own passions and interests. In order to help students capitalize on connected learning, bringing in local and global real-world problems and reimagine what classrooms can and should look like, we need Innovation Leaders who are connected, leaders who are always looking to add one more learning hero to their network.

One of the biggest challenges raised in our Scaling Innovation session was silos, within schools and between them, but maybe we are not so siloed, we just have to help each other and our colleagues find their tribe and understand how to nurture and build upon the creative synergy that results from being part of a virtual neighborhood of learning heroes.

Joining the #Learning2 Family

Well, it has been far too long since I’ve made time for a reflective post here! There are so many posts I still want to write – about the amazing design thinking experience I had at FUSE14, the hubbub of ed tech tools and ideas that always come from attending ISTE, my experiences teaching two new summer classes on Raspberry Pi and coding, and my work facilitating a four day faculty workshop at my school. It was a busy summer (and a hard one)! So busy, clearly, that I haven’t had a chance to write about it … yet.

But instead of trying to rewind, I want to first share some reflections about the wonderful experience I just had at the #Learning2.014 conference at the International Community School in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. If you haven’t heard of Learning2 … yet … check out this page about its history and start following the hashtag because there will be a second conference in Bangkok in just one week!

As one of the Learning2 Leaders (L2Ls) at the conference, I had the privilege of arriving a few days early so I could participate in additional prep and professional growth with the other L2Ls and the advisory team. I think this is one of the many things that makes the conference unique and particularly meaningful. If you are going to speak and present at the conference, the advisory helps to make sure that you have an in-depth understanding of how the conference will work, what your role as a leader will be, and then helps you tweak and improve your own work before everyone arrives.

I was able to practice my five minute TED-like “Learning2Talk,“done in the presentation-zen style multiple times for the advisory audience and get critical feedback to help make it stronger. I also had an opportunity to work one-on-one with another L2L so we could share, review, and provide feedback to one another on our three hour Extended Sessions. One of my favorite parts of the pre-conference was hearing a quick elevator pitch from each L2L about what their session would be about and then providing feedback, ideas, and resources to help support that person. Not only did I get some great tips when I shared my own session but I was able to get ideas each time another Leader shared her or his presentation that I could use at the conference or back in my own school!

This type of time and support for presenters is awesome because it makes it so much easier to continue growing as a speaker and educator and it also helped to develop a deeper community of practice among the L2Ls that I hope we can continue to build and pull on in the future (hint hint). I wish every conference provided and even required this type of experience for its presenters.

Once all of the L2Ls had practiced and improved their presentations and prepared their spaces for the different sessions, it was time to kick-off the conference!

Learning2 is made up of 6 core components:

  1. Learning2Talks
  2. Extended Sessions
  3. Nutshell Sessions (45 min. versions of Extended Sessions)
  4. Workshops
  5. Unconference
  6. Cohorts 

In addition to these pieces, there is an emphasis on, and time set aside for, social connections that are woven throughout each day.

This social dimension is designed very purposefully because one of the principles of the conference is to “put participants first” and another is an understanding that “learning is a social act.” Therefore, making time for all of the participants to talk, reflect, share and even rest is critical. This was demonstrated multiple times during the conference when the organizers made changes in response to participants’ requests (e.g., changing bus times to accommodate requests to arrive/leave at different times and creating a “mindfulness centre” for participants to pause and be mindful).

Another way that participants get to drive the conference is by running workshops and suggesting and facilitating unconference sessions. This allows time and space for attendees to share their own areas of expertise and also to have a forum to talk about questions and ideas that might pop-up during the conference. For example, I attended an unconference session about social media in early elementary. It was proposed by an attendee who heard about the idea of social media being used with young children and want to hear from other people who were trying it and what the benefits might be. It turned into a great conversation and through Twitter, I was even able to invite a kindergarten teacher I know who uses social media extensively with her students, to join the discussion virtually!

This week, as I’ve been recovering from jet lag and trying to get back into my usual school routine, I’ve used moments lying in bed at night or in-between classes to reflect about what was so meaningful about my Learning2 experience. I’ve concluded that two elements really made it into one of the best conferences I have attended: an almost perfect learning menu to select from each day and the community.

Similar to going to your favorite restaurant, Learning2 has a menu of 6+ options that you can choose from and each one is great but has a unique flavor and might meet a different person’s tastes or interests. There’s something for everyone and probably a few options that might push you outside of your comfort zone, but that’s what learning is all about, right? :) For example, you can go in-depth and work hands-on for three hours into just one specific topic or you can answer burning questions you have in a cohort session or you can get bite-sized pieces of new knowledge and ideas from the poster sessions. There’s something for everyone, allowing the conference to meet so many different learning needs.

Then, there’s the community. This is really the cornerstone of Learning2 for me and I think many other attendees. The Learning2 community is powerful because it’s inviting and passionate. Although the conference has been running since 2007, there wasn’t the exclusiveness to it that I’ve seen at other conferences. Too often, it’s hard to break into the group if you’re not a “groupie” of the conference. Instead, Learning2 was all about networking, branching out, and meeting new colleagues who you could connect with and then stay in-touch with later through social media. It was about having time to engage in those passionate conversations about teaching and learning and the best tools to help meet varied goals and needs of different contexts.

I would go as far as to say that Learning2 was about becoming part of a family, a large, diverse, and geographically spread out family that loves to share, reflect, learn, and connect. It’s also a family that loves to have fun and that joy, of being together and learning together, was pervasive throughout the conference.

So, if you have a chance to attend a Learning2 conference, I highly encourage it and if it’s a bit too far for you to travel (at least until they are up in running in Europe and the Middle East), then jump in and join our active #Learning2 community on social media! Thanks again to everyone who helped make the #Learning2.014 Africa experience so memorable and for inviting me into the family.

Let’s Let All Educators Learn by Experience

learning to paint

Last week, I had the unique opportunity to take an impromptu painting class as part of a professional development program I’m involved in at my school. The interesting part was that learning to paint wasn’t the ultimate goal. Instead, our focus was on the experience.

  • What does it feel like to be a novice and learner and, for many of us, in a foreign context?
  • How does learning by doing differ from sitting in a classroom and being told how to learn or what to do?
  • What does painting show us about the importance of each individual learner’s perspective?

These were just a few of the questions that began to emerge as the evening progressed. All us in the class worked to paint a still life after receiving nothing more than a brief 15 minute instructional tutorial.

I thought about other experiential learning experiences I’ve had, whether they’ve involved learning to program an Arduino or making jewelry, they have all been powerful. What makes these experiences so meaningful? Do my students experience the same benefits?

There seem to be some core components that help make experiential learning both memorable and a natural entry point into deep learning:

  • Opportunities to learn with/from peers –> community of learners
  • Appreciation for individuality and varying skills –> self-awareness
  • Being receptive to feedback and critique –> growth
  • Diving in with minimal training or prep –> learn as you go
  • Setting your own learning goals –> empowerment
  • Ownership of the work –> intrinsic motivation
  • Freedom to take risks –> creative innovation

How can we find ways to integrate these components into everyday classroom learning? I’ve found that two new educational movements or approaches facilitate this work very well: the Maker Movement and Design Thinking.

The first is sweeping the nation, as shown in part by Obama’s announcement this week to host a Maker Faire at the White House this year! Making as a mindset for learning involves encouraging students to create products and be completely immersed in inventing and tinkering as they follow their passions. There are more and less scaffolded approaches to making and many schools are struggling right now with how to assess and structure making but in my Maker Club, I’ve seen students thrive. Students that might feel hesitant talking in class are suddenly giving me detailed explanations about the projects they’ve built and taking on new roles as collaborators and designers. They’re excited to learn and enthusiastic about taking risks and developing new skills.

The second approach, Design Thinking, involves challenging students to respond to prompts like “How might we …” to solve real-world problems. By exploring, researching, empathizing, prototyping, seeking feedback, improving, and creating a final product, students engage in deep learning experiences. Whether they are trying to solve global water issues or prototype a new and better snowplow, students are experiencing many of the components I listed above while also learning valuable skills they can use for life.

I’m still learning daily about both the maker movement and design thinking and ways to integrate them meaningfully in schools. And although I’m also still reflecting on the answers to the questions that first came to mind during our painting class, I’m also wondering how we can infuse more of these experiences into our lives as educators?

My biggest takeaway from our painting class was:

It’s extremely important to engage in learning experiences where you are inspired and motivated to wonder, particularly in settings where you are asked to take risks, learn from the perspectives of your peers, and think critically about your pedagogy.

I think that in addition to seeking ways to integrate more experiential learning opportunities for students, we need to be asking how to create and offer more of them for teachers too. Take a look at our experience when we were asked to learn by painting (captured with Google Glass!):

An #Educon Manifesto for Educators

In the spirit of the Wonder by Design session I attended at Educon this past weekend, I thought I would summarize some of my ah-ha moments and key takeaways in an Educon Manifesto (in draft form, of course!). I see it as a manifesto for teaching and learning and maybe more importantly, something to post in my class for daily inspiration – a reminder of the work I want to do and why it’s essential.

Here’s the short version:
Educon Manifesto

Here’s the long version: 

Be a Wonderer 

Because who wouldn’t want to be? Wondering leads to all sorts of inquiry and investigation and it’s often the impetus for meaningful dialogue and deep learning. We need it in all of our classrooms to drive exploration and sustain a sense of awe in our day-to-day work as educators.

Plus, as Loris Malaguzzi said,

“The art of research already exists in the hands of children acutely sensitive to the pleasure of surprise. The wonder of learning, of knowing, of understanding is one of the first, fundamental sensations each human being expects from experiences faced alone or with others.” 

It seems vitally important that we don’t take that expectation away from our students or deny it from ourselves.

Prototype it!

If you’re interested in trying a new structure for your class or you’re considering building a new space in your school … prototype it! Design it and try it out before setting it in stone (which hopefully doesn’t happen to often in schools).

It seems simple enough but how often do we actually test out an idea and see how well it works and then get feedback from students and other audiences that will be affected by a change before we implement it?

Make the Space You Need

After you’ve tested out a variety of prototypes and improved on the parts that have failed, get started making! Whether it’s a new school, a makerspace, a standing classroom, or a nook in the corner that just needed a redesign, take initiative to make your learning spaces into what you need them to be. It could be as simple as changing the lighting or it might be as complicated as working with architects and consultants to construct something completely new.

There’s plenty of inspiration out there and lots of resources to work with so let’s put on our Maker Hats and design the environments needed for a maker mentality and wonder to flourish.

Tinker with Technology, Don’t Just Use It

Kano Kit

As Sylvia Martinez suggested in one of the #MakerEd sessions, computing is the game-changer in bricolage that allows us to dig into deeper learning and making. We need to tinker and experiment with technology and help our students learn how to create it for themselves so they can create new inventions for others.

Don’t consume tech –> Create it. Don’t take for granted how tech works –> Tinker with it until you find out!

Let “Real Life” into Your Classroom

Richard Culatta, Director of Ed Tech, encouraged educators to stop giving fictitious problem sets to students and instead to provide real life problems for them to solve.

It’s time to start breaking down the artificial dichotomies between school and the “real world” so that students walk away with experience engaging in dialogue about current events and issues facing their communities. Let’s start asking students what problems they want to solve and making school a place to tackle them.

IT Starts With the Students & Always Will

A reminder about the importance and value of the learner and creating learner-driven classrooms. Our role as educators is to foster wonder and make spaces where students feel encouraged to learn. It’s easy to get caught up in the tasks, standards, and restrictions that seem to hold us back and turn our attention away from the students. Yet, our work has always been and will be, to honor their voices, respect their choices, and empower their actions as they make, tinker, problem-solve, and create anew each day.

Document, Document, Document … Reflect

365daysofglassAlthough not a huge focus of #educon, documentation has been a highlight of my work this year as I explore ways to use Google Glass in the classroom. It seems that if we want to encourage wonder and focus on student interests, then we need to be constantly documenting the teaching and learning happening in our classrooms so we have material to review and reflect on. To be intentional in our teaching and help scaffold student inquiry, we need to act as researchers and reflective practitioners and to do that, we must start by documenting.

Definitions are Defined by Context 

A big question in the Designing Learning Organizations session was “what is the new learning context?” Ultimately, we decided that the context is rooted in what we value and our values affect how we define learning and schooling. Therefore, if we want to create a new context for learning, we have to look at how we’re defining learning and make a space, as well as develop a mindset, that supports our desired definitions.

Basically, if we want to work and learn in organizations that are flexible, responsive, collaborative, and full of wonder, we have to take into consideration how we’re defining learning and how our space and context is shaping that definition, so we can understand what might need to change.

Decide to Always be Learning 

Another topic under discussion at #educon was how to create change in traditional schools and envision a learning organization. A big part of the answer seems to be a mindset. Whether it’s a mindset for making, a mindset towards openness, or one of design thinking and PBL, you have to decide that you are going to engage in that work and commit to it.

I’m not sure that there’s any one mindset that’s best for all teachers and students aside from a mindset to always be learning. So decide that you want to keep growing and constantly continue to learn.

Learn to Keep Asking Questions 

Questions were a hot topic at #educon. Some people talked about needing to ask the right questions, others encouraged making questions more inclusive “what if we …”, while another educator suggested that the goal is to “keep falling in love with the question” without finding The Answer.

Whether your questions are open-ended, categorized, or unanswerable, I think the most important piece is to keep asking them! Ask them over and over, in new ways and in old ones, just never stop asking questions.

I made this for my students after someone shared question levels yesterday.

A photo posted by @michellek107 on

Stay Inspired & Keep Playing 

In order to see wonder and come up with creative ideas for prototypes and spaces, we need a key ingredient: inspiration. It pushes us to tinker and guides us to question, it feeds our thirst for learning and helps us be open to new mindsets. Inspiration is the energy drink of educators and with it, we can take up @ChristianLong and @djakes charge to “assume epic success” and be “extraordinary!” My best advice is to stay inspired and keep playing – with ideas, with questions, with technology and most of all, with young children who can help us remember the “pleasure of surprise” and the “wonder of learning.” 

Now it’s your turn … what would your manifesto include?