Do No Harm: A Teachers’ Hippocratic Call to Action

Image

Teaching as a Subversive Activity

So my district is talking about “doing school different.”  Sorry, but haven’t many schools been talking (or avoiding talking) about it for long enough?  (See featured image above.)

There’s plenty of reason to stop talking about it and start doing it, and most of the reasons stem all the way back to Postman and Weingartner, if not  John Dewey himself.  But then there’s this blog post, the first lines of which are chilling:  more or less they are,  “We’re not helping kids…we’re actually imperiling them!”  If this is true, and I tend to think, given all the voices in this direction, that it is, how much time can we waste?  How much of my own children’s time is being lost to outdated, outmoded, never-more-than-compliance-seeking methods of learning?  This isn’t just about my district doing school different…this is about every school.  You can call me an evangelist…fine.  I’ll be evangelical if that’s what it takes to make sure my own children and those children I serve are provided with a thought-ful classroom.  And if that means I’m called on the carpet…then fine, because I refuse to be complicit in a thought-crime.  If my refusal paints me as crazy…then I’ll accept that.  “Here’s to the crazy ones/the misfits, the rebels/the round-pegs in the square holes/the ones who see things differently….about the only thing you can’t do is ignore them.”

I know the following reeks of clickbait, but the article’s title is:

Traditional School Imperils Kids; They Need to Be Innovators

As well, it implies an agenda (creating business-world ready “innovators”).  But don’t make me a Cassandra.  Too many people are shouting the same prophecies.  We need to change how we are doing.  (Emerson said as much: “A foolish consistency is the Hobgoblin of little minds.”)

But it’s frightening, right?  Change is frightening.  We talked about this in my 10th grade classes yesterday.  It’s frightening because it carries with it a sense of loss.  Loss of a sense of who we are and have always been.  The fear is deep; it’s existential.  At that level, we try to bury the fear, ignore it…but it doesn’t go away. It eats at us and for most of us…we just retreat further and further into what we know, seeking an ever shrinking security from a future of change that looms ever larger.  Why do we still read The Catcher in the Rye?  Because Holden’s desire to hold onto the past is what kept him from growing into a larger, more genuine and healthy sense of himself.
The same is true for institutions.  And SCHOOL is an institution.
Last year I worked with twin girls in an independent study where they sought to bring more curiosity and student inquiry into the classroom.  One of those girls, Cali, wrote a brilliant blog post this summer about how she experienced the institution of school, about how it distorted her sense of self and robbed her of her health. Sure…there is opportunity and good that comes from “doing school,”  but the results of a cursory cost-benefits analysis are clear.   If the lives of students are not reason enough for teachers to question their practice and make substantive changes, then I would unapologetically argue that those teachers are part of a system whose leaders need to be replaced, for both the leaders and the teachers who refuse to or are not actively seeking out change are imperiling the lives and livelihoods of the children in their classroom.

And sure, the Institution offers a pretense of change.  It has catch phrases, it goes through the motions of “change.”  But are enough of our institutions of schooling doing so?  And more important, are they doings so quickly enough?  I don’t see it. But the rocks are starting to roll thanks to people and organizations like Ken Robinson, Will Richardson and Bruce Dixon, Grant Lichtman, Education Reimagined, and countless others.

And so time ticks, and our incremental “hops and skips” of change often go nowhere.  We wind up with “change fatigue”, with teachers who “pay lip service to in-service,” but then retreat into their classrooms and do what they’ve always done, or try something new, fail, and then go back to what they’ve always done.  Such a pattern, and it’s what I’ve seen for over a decade now, is the pathway to irrelevancy.  Worse, it admits an abdication of the responsibility of the teacher to “do no harm” to those in his/her charge.

We can do better, we can be better, we must be better.

http://www.bie.org/blog/traditional_school_imperils_kids_they_need_to_be_innovators

Advertisements

Design Thinking For College Admissions

FullerI received the letter below from one of the counselors at my HS today.  As a recap, I piloted a Design Thinking and Open Source Learning class last year for 13 students.  For several reasons it didn’t fill up enough this year, but with the endorsement below, I’m hoping to be off and running like nobody’s business next year.

The course referenced in the student letter below was a hybrid between a course based in design thinking and one that was based on the work of Don Wettrick and his Innovation and Open-Source learning course at Noblesville HS.

The upshot of the letter?  The student gets into a select class in design thinking for engineers at Syracuse BECAUSE she had a class in Design Thinking in HS.  img_3055

Dear Mrs.___,

HELLO THERE!!! How are you? I’m so sorry I didn’t email you sooner, college has been so extremely busy, and I have way less time than I thought I would. Classes just started yesterday, and it’s overwhelming, but I am so ready for the next four years, and honestly, that’s thanks to PVHS for preparing me. 🙂

I remember coming into your office all the time last year panicking, but I can honestly say I made the right choice. I live in the engineering dorm at Syracuse, and my whole hall became really good friends right away (which for some reason hasn’t happened in other halls). As I spend more time with these kids and get to know them, I’m realizing how similar we all are, and all my doubts about whether I picked the best school for me and very quickly fading away. I wish I could have told myself last year to just CALM DOWN, because everything truly does work out in the end. XD

In addition to the residence halls, the college itself is really really cool too. It’s much more progressive than I imagined it, and for the most part, they’re really good at addressing certain situations appropriately and with grace. Everyone feels really safe here, and I’m so grateful for that.
And I’m not sure if you remember, but I was freaking out last year because my design thinking class dropped my GPA (it was prep) and I didn’t think I’d get a lot of scholarships. I want to tell you this because I feel like a lot of incoming seniors NEED to hear this, so if you could please please please tell them about my experience, I honestly think it might help them decide what electives to take.
I am majoring in chemical engineering. The scholarship that I got at Syracuse is called the Engineering and Computer Science Leadership Scholars Program. When I got into the program, I was required to take this class called ECS 100 Seminar…I had no clue what it was, but when I showed up for the class I found out that it’s a new program they’re trying out, and it is COMPLETELY DESIGN THINKING BASED. We all need to find a problem in society, and as future engineers, design some sort of solution. We go through the entire design process and constantly revise. At the end of the semester, we present a prototype and a presentation to the class. We don’t get homework, and class time is devoted to working on the project. The class isn’t graded on a grade level…you basically get an A based on how well you work as a group, attendance, and participation. They want us to utilize all our resources and come up with creative and innovative solutions on our own, and without a real template. In addition to this kind of exposure, we get a lot of money, a paid research position, and invitation to the honors program, and priority consideration for study abroad, among other benefits. It is SUPER cool, and I will definitely let you know how it goes. It’s amazing to me that a college is trying this hard to change with the times, and I’m really glad to go to a school that does this.
HOWEVER, I honestly think part of the reason I got into this program is because I took design thinking. I was talking to the admissions director because they handpicked the recipients, and they told me that the fact that I had experience taking this type of class really stood out because although engineering students need to know about the design process, a lot of them just take math and science classes and aren’t well-rounded. I REALLY wish someone had told me this, but if someone ever asks about it, here’s a first-hand experience 😉
Thank you for everything you’ve helped me with for the last four years, and I REALLY look forward to college and keeping in touch with you!
Best,

“Doing School Different”

Our new superintendent has initiated her tenure through this post’s titular phrase.  While I’m not enamored of the phrase “doing school,” I’m all for “thinking different”  and I hope my fellow teachers don’t, as is to often the case, approach this invitation from our superintendent with the perennial “change fatigue.”   However, we’re two days into the student year, and five days into the teacher year and the #(hashtag) we have on twitter for doing school different in my district is populated by a mere 15 tweets.

If we’re “doing school different,” then the royal “we” on #pvsddoschooldifferent represents a population of four.  And sure…it’s early in the year.  But what better time to try to alter the approach to education than now, the beginning, the point at which we set the culture, set the expectations, set the course, and steel ourselves for the journey ahead?  If we expect to wait and see, if we expect that we’ll be ready at some later point to “do school different” we are sorely mistaken and ignore the vast experience we have of how school years move into our lives, dominate our time, and leave us exhausted, treasuring the growth and binding the wounds the journey brings.

There is no better time than now to “do school different.”  (Again, I’m going to apologize for the phrasing.  It sits poorly with me.  It’s not that I mind it’s echoing of the famous Apple ad campaign for the iMac. It’s just the “doing school” part.  But I can live with it, I can make it work, I CAN do school different, because I believe that if I don’t, I assure myself of irrelevancy.  Over a decade ago the vice president of Microsoft’s Education division opened a talk to an auditorium full of teachers with the words, “Your students are learning without you.”  It’s more true now than ever.)

My distric has a superintendent who is inviting us to take risks, to take risks, and to turn the failures that will inevitably derive from those risks into positive learning experiences rather than marks against our person and profession.  The invitation is a clean, fresh, airy elixir that blows away the stagnant, hanging fog of “the way we’ve always done things because we’re good enough.”

I don’t know how many of my fellow teachers are on social media like twitter in order to build professional learning networks. I’d venture from the quick poll our Superintendent took at our opening day convocation that it’s a small percentage.  I also don’t know how many of us are blogging about our experiences in the classroom.  Given the time that takes, I’d imagine it’s a similarly small percentage.

Maybe that’s where we start…we start with “transparency.”  We start by breaking down the walls of the classroom and inviting the world inside.  That takes courage, it takes a willingness to hang one’s professional self in the open air and to potentially suffer the “slings and arrows” of whatever the blogosphere/twitterverse will launch at it.  From my own experience, these places are far more helpful than harmful.  In fact, they represent the most intense and informative Prof. Learning I’ve done in almost a decade.

Change and IrrelevanceAt the top of this paragraph I offer the words of General Eric Shinseki.  I offer them not to motivate through fear but rather to remind us that teachers are responsible for the future.  The future is not a place and it is not a time, it is the minds we help grow through learning each day in our classrooms.  The future is not an abstract concept, it is real, and it is human, and it is changing.  It will change without us, in spite of us, and regardless of us, for we, through our invention and innovation, have given it that power.  If we do not change ourselves, we develop little in our class but mediocrity and the increasing urge for our students to go elsewhere to find culture in which they can cultivate their genius.

(For many, the question is, I believe, not “Why should I change?” but rather, “How do I change?”  For a good start on this, I suggest the book whose cover appears in the featured image of this blog post (AJ Juliani and John Spencer’s Empower).  I also suggest reading this blog post from AJ Juliani:  Poking Holes in Pockets of Innovation. )

“Only Connect”–They Listen and They Hear

 

A few weeks ago I initiated a series of blog posts at PlusUs.org (cross posted here, and vice versa) investigating the rationale for using design-based learning as a teaching method.  I wrote I would be delving more into the ways I see design as a method that honors the traditions and goals of liberal education as outlined by Professor William Cronon in his essay, “Only Connect”: On the Goals of a Liberal Education.

Consider this blog post the first foray into the connections between the 10 goals of Prof. Cronon (and the great liberal educators who came before him) and design itself.

Some of these posts will be longer than others, but my intent is that, by putting Prof. Cronon’s ideas into dialogue and play with the field of design, we will recognize that, without question, design is a liberal art.  The implication here is two-fold.  First, that the development of designerly minded learners is a doorway to the development of singularly self-directed, self-determined learners.  And, second, that the liberal arts are key to security and prosperity in the future for ourselves and our students.

So, onto Cronon’s list…

main-branches

Part of a personal Mindmap of Cronon’s Argument in the essay, “Only Connect.”

1)  They Listen and they Hear.

Cronon states that this goal of a liberal education is something you’d think goes without saying.  Essentially, it describes people who “work hard to hear what other people say. They can follow an argument, track logical reasoning, detect illogic, hear the emotions that lie behind both the logic and the illogic, and ultimately empathize with the person who is feeling those emotions.”

There is hardly another goal so clearly linked to design as this one.  Design, like education, is a human-centered endeavor.  Educators like designers must empathize with their students/users.  If empathy is the heart of design, and design thinking more specifically, it seems listening and hearing is a fitting place to start this comparison, and more fitting to this argument that Prof. Cronon begins here as well.

I’ll admit to a good deal of bias here.  I’m a debate coach.  Offering students activities that help them work towards this goal is easy.  Engage them in structured controversies like debates and constructive discussions.  There are any number of debate structures you might employ, with the more formal styles outlined clearly and fully at websites like the National Forensic LeagueThe Pennsylvania High School Speech League, and other such leagues around the nation.  Additionally, teachers can employ structured discussions.  Programs like Paideia Seminars, Socratic Circles, Literature Circles, or The Touchstones Discussion Project all offer students opportunities to speak and listen and learn from each other in many different curricula (not just language arts or social studies).

However, for the teacher practiced in design-based learning, the opportunities for practicing listening skills increase exponentially.  Teaching students how to use empathy maps during interviews, or even as ways to track and analyze characters in works of literature help to hone this skill through real world practice or close reading.  Design research of this sort hinges on the key skill of listening deeply and empathetically.

My list is not exhaustive, but I am certain of the solid outcomes each of the different strategies I suggest can produce if a teacher buys into and believes in their individual processes.

And in the end, listening and hearing?  Sure, you can’t test for it, but you sure as heck aren’t building a solid foundation for a democracy if all you focus on is computation and comprehension.   At least by focusing on a goal like “They listen and they hear” we’ll have a chance to erase future episodes of The Jerry Springer Show from our airwaves and promote more civil discourse than what we’ve seen in the world lately.

Featured image: Simon Sinek–Quote Fancy

Extraordinary Design Thinking: The Extraordinaires Strike Again!

On Monday, July 18, I had the opportunity to get back into the Professional Development sphere.  Working with PlusUs , I was able to do a 1/2 day of professional development for teachers in Philadelphia’s University of the Arts “Professional Institute for Educators.”  The class is being taught by Phil Holcombe, founder of PlusUs and an instructor for the PIE program.

It’s been almost a decade since I’ve done any kind of teaching at the continuing ed level outside my own district, but stepping back in was easy.  I pulled out a couple of improv games to set the culture (thanks @wickeddecent and @lndeutsch), organized my deck of Prof. Development activities, bought about $25 worth of toothbrushes (my “go to” object when asking people to look for innovative designs and to read intention out of those objects–post a comment if you want to know more about toothbrushes and how my concern for dental health lead me to design), grabbed my Extraordinaires Design Studio and a few bags stuffed with materials to run the Cooper Hewitt’s “Ready Set Design” activity with the Extraordinaires as the client.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I’ve said this before, but there’s no better way to help someone understand what design and design thinking are than to actually engage them in a short project that’s deep in empathy for the user and allows them to work quickly and collaboratively.  Reflecting afterward sets the learning and allows it to serve as a touchstone for all the other activities and learning to come this week.  (It’s a week-long class.)

Again, if you’re trying to help people understand the “what” of design and design thinking, I can’t recommend the Extraordinaires enough.  In 30 minutes learners can run through empathy, definition, ideation, prototyping, and feedback.  Running that order the first time through, for first time design thinkers helps develop a familiarity with DT as a heuristic.  Second and third iterations are possible, and a more organic approach to DT starts to take over.