Going Back to Kindergarten

This morning I went back to kindergarten and what I saw there really got me thinking about education. As part of the “Titles and Treat” program at our school, I had the chance to read a book to a class of kindergarteners. I chose the book “Perfectly Percy,”which is about a porcupine who loves balloons. Of course, Percy’s love of balloons is a problem because who he is destroys the very thing that he loves the most.

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While this may be making a giant leap,what I love about this book is that parallels a lot of what I see in education.  As educators, we got into education because we love teaching and inspiring students.  The problem is, for whatever reason, is that the “education establishment” turns us into porcupines that end up destroying the very thing we love.  As we force ourselves, and our students, to meet  externally defined standards, suddenly we feel as if we have deflated their love of learning, instead of letting them float freely full of inspiration. Much like Percy, we end up feeling that our happiness too has been “popped,” as we find ourselves dictating curriculum, giving tests and enforcing standards we know go against the best interests of our students.

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So, what is a possible solution?  Oddly enough, I was just talking with my co-teacher Joe Bonnici the other day and he said something that struck me.  In the midst of a conversation about why we move from more holistic instruction in the early years to subject defined instruction in the later years, Joe said, “school for everyone should really be more like kindergarten.” This comment reminded me of a paper I read awhile back called  All I Really Need to Know (About Creative Thinking) I Learned (By Studying How Children Learn) in Kindergarten* by Mitchel Resnick.

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In his paper, Resnick proposes a “kindergarten approach” to education “characterized by a spiraling cycle of Imagine, Create, Play, Share, Reflect, and back to Imagine .”  I think this process, which is beautifully simple, offers a really nice framework for what education could be.  By enabling students to design, create, experiment and explore based on their interests, students are actually learning how to be innovative thinkers. Instead of being told what to learn, the “kindergarten” philosophy pushes students to focus instead on how to learn.  In this way, the process becomes more important than the product.

To me, it is exactly at the juncture between process and product that the spines of the porcupine come out.  When teachers and students become focused solely on grades and outcomes (the product), versus the process of learning (the process), both leave the whole experience deflated.  On the other hand if we can provide students with learning opportunities through which they can “develop their own ideas, try them out, test the boundaries, experiment with alternatives, get input from others – and, perhaps most significantly, generate new ideas based on their experiences,” then everyone involved gets to enjoy the process of learning.

The key to providing these learning experiences to students is through what Resnick terms “Froebels Gifts.”  Referring to the educator Friedrich Froebel, “Froebel’s Gifts”     are used as an example of finding objects, activities or questions which “engage learners in personally-meaningful design experiences.”  By providing students with the opportunity to design or create, rather than dictating a rigid curriculum, teachers can foster creative thinking skills while students can take charge of their own learning. In this way, the “balloon” of passion and engagement in the learning process remains full for both the teacher and the student.

While there is no easy solution to the problems we face in education, I think the “kindergarten approach,” provides a great framework for thinking about approaches to learning.  It reminds us that we should focus on delivering “gifts” which guide learning journeys, rather than providing facts to improve standardized test scores. In this way, we can discover how to stop “popping” the balloon of engagement and passion for learning, just as Percy eventually found out how to keep his precious balloons intact.

Resources:

All I Really Need to Know (About Creative Thinking) I Learned (By Studying How Children Learn) in Kindergarten*

Friedrich Froebel’s Gifts: Connecting the Spiritual and Aesthetic  to the Real World of Play and Learning

Lifelong Kindergarten @ MIT

Cultures of Creativity, LEGO Foundation

 

 

 

 

Telling a New Story

“But the time has come to take that narrative into our own hands.” –GOOD Magazine


Our second week in the Innovation Academy  started with a piece from GOOD magazine on storytelling. The article began with an opening paragraph that really grabbed the attention of my students:

“Stories are the truths a society believes in: Love conquers all. Honesty is the best policy. The good guys always win. We know these aren’t universally true; the real world is much more complicated. But the stories we see and hear influence how we see the world. Story is the engine that drives culture.”

This led to some interesting questions:

What is the purpose of stories? How do stories help influence culture? How do we tell new stories?

These questions resonated with me as a teacher because over the past few years I have become increasingly interested in the “story of school.” What interests me about the “story of school” is the way that it gets told and who it gets told by. Particularly, I think there is very little student voice in the story that gets told about school.  This came to mind during class as we were discussing Chapter 1 of  “To Sell is Human”. During the discussion, the topic of teachers came up and we began to discuss how teachers could sell the love of learning to their students. As we talked and students shared anecdotes about their favorite teachers, a common thread came up.  The results were not shocking, but they were telling.

What made students love school was having teachers that related to them, personalized learning to their interests, and made time to “be human”and share stories about themselves. I also found it interesting that my students almost unanimously agreed that school “doesn’t have to sell to you” or convince you to attend because you are “obligated to go.” Imagine being forced to use a product whether you liked it or not. How much time would the company put into listening to you?

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I think what most excites me about the philosophy of the Innovation Academy (IA) is that we truly take the time to get to learn about the stories of our students. Whether it is through learning plans or through daily discussions about passions and interests; in the IA we do our best to get to know each individual learner. In addition, within our units, there is also a lot of room for student voice and choice so that they are able to take ownership of the narrative as well.

The coolest part of this whole process for me has been watching what stands out to the students in “real time” through Twitter and their blogs. After class on Thursday, where we discussed “Six Word“stories, some students tweeted out their six words, while others sent out quotes from class that stood out to them. As I read over the tweets and blogs, I reflected on what brought so much excitement to the classroom and to the  IA. It may seem simple, but when you give people the power to tell their story, when the narrative is shared rather than dictated and when everyone’s ideas have a space, a new culture can emerge.  While we certainly will not always get it right, in the IA we are trying to tell a new story about school.  This story begins with the same two questions that the article from GOOD ended with.

“What change do you want to make? What story do you want to tell?”

I think that if we allow our students to answer these two questions and we can truly listen, good things are bound to happen.

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Letting the Story Unfold

It is only sitting down and stringing together some words—despite not knowing what you want to write or where your narrative will go—that puts you into the place where the story can begin to unfold. This expresses an idea that is central to the Fail Fast approach: You can’t know what something is like, how you will feel about it, or what will result from it until you actually are doing it.

– An excerpt from “Fail Fast, Fail Often: How Losing Can Help You Win”  by Ryan Babineaux and John Krumboltz


As I sit here and struggle to piece together the words needed to recap one of the most challenging and rewarding weeks of my life, I constantly have to remind myself that the only way for the story to unfold is to start putting some words together.  Just like a student at school, I am held back by the fear of failure and “not getting it right.” Writers block and learning have many similarities in the sense that it is our fear of failure that prevents us from trying.  What would we write if we gave ourselves the license to make mistakes, be messy and not feel the need for instant coherence? What would school be like if we allowed students to take risks, make mistakes and learn “to be comfortable with not knowing all the answers?” This is exactly the question that motivated our first week in the Innovation Academy called iWeek.

During iWeek  students were given the question “How can I help new people feel welcome to FDR and make their transition to our secondary school better?”  Rather than begin the school year with the traditional syllabus and “rules of the class,” we* wanted students to feel what the Innovation Academy was all about by experiencing its core principals for one week. In mixed grade groups (grades 10, 11 and 12), students had to define their roles, go through the design thinking process and “serve an authentic audience in a purposeful and meaningful way.” At the end of the week, students were judged on the desirability, feasibility and viability of their “product” by an authentic audience in a room full of their peers, parents and teachers.

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While I could make an incredibly long list of the things I learned during iWeek, here are my top three:

1. CULTURE IS PARAMOUNT

In a piece by Brian Chesky on culture, he points out that “in organizations (or even in a society) where culture is weak, you need an abundance of heavy, precise rules and processes,” and that “when the culture is strong, you can trust everyone to do the right thing, which allows “people can be independent and autonomous.”  In the Innovation Academy (IA), there is a strong culture of trust and students have the ability to work autonomously without the litany of rules and regulations that normally accompany project work and stifle creativity.  In fact, in the IA, students take ownership of the culture and actually help younger students who are new to the IA embrace the culture. During the start of iWeek I witnessed this first hand when the seniors in my group stopped the whole team about an hour into the project and let the other students know that they were now a part of the IA. The seniors succinctly told the group that being part of the IA meant that anyone could “stand up and share ideas,”  that learning spaces were flexible and everyone could sit “where and how worked best,”and finally that the learning environment should “feel alive,”at which point they elected someone the iPod DJ turned on some music and got back to work.

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2. TRUE LEARNING TAKES PLACE WHEN FAILURE IS ENCOURAGED

In a great piece on the idea of flipping failure, Diego Rodrigo suggests that “instead of learning what went wrong when it’s too late to change anything, insist on getting feedback as early as possible.” This tip is both essential to what we do in the IA and a critical piece in the learning process.  What made iWeek so much fun for the students is that they were encouraged to “fail fast” and “fail often”.  Through out iWeek students were constantly confronted with “failure,” but  it was what they did with that failure that was incredible.  When it was clear that my groups original idea of an “Incredible Race” for new teachers was not going to work, they pivoted and started looking for other solutions. After working for some time without clearly defined group leaders or roles, my team reflected and realized that this was a huge mistake.  Within minutes they regrouped, defined roles and got back to work more focused and efficient than they had been all morning. By giving students the space to learn from their failures, they were able to see how constant feedback (and failure) is the key to learning.

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3. WHEN YOU EMPOWER STUDENTS, GREAT THINGS HAPPEN

I realize that this last one sounds cliche, but it is absolutely true.  I can not begin to list all of the times this week that I was utterly in awe of my students.  They amazed me with their creative ideas, their team management skills and their technical expertise in creating presentations and movies. Most of all, they amazed me with their honesty.  When they needed my help or guidance they let me know and when my quick tips started turning into lectures they let me know too. Finally, I also felt empowered by truly letting the students take charge. During iWeek I was able to use to my whole self to best serve the needs of my students, rather than only sharing my “subject specialty” self.  At times I was using my background in anthropology to help answer questions about interviews and observations.  During other times I was able to draw on my passion for design thinking to help students prototype their ideas.  There were also many moments where I was able to simply just sit and listen to what my students needed and go searching for the answers with them. By empowering students, I was able to truly come alive as a teacher as well as witness the amazing and varied abilities of the members of our Innovation Academy.

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While iWeek was an amazing introduction to what this school year is going to be, I know there will be many challenges ahead. For now though, I am just excited that I am in a place where ” the story can begin to unfold.”  In the IA we won’t always be “getting it right,” but we will be trying new things and learning from our failures, just as we expect our students to do.

Check out the iWeek video to learn more : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FlyBrZXBOA0&feature=youtu.be

*The “we” of the Innovation Academy is myself,  Corey Topf,  and Joe Bonnici.

 

 

 

 

Stepping into the Arena

The Man in the Arena (Excerpt from a speech by Theodore Roosevelt)

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”


Seeing as tomorrow begins my journey with the Innovation Academy, I thought now would be a good time to reflect before I embark on this new chapter in my life.  The reason I like the quote above so much, is that it reminds me of the importance of being the person “who does actually strive to do the deeds.” It is far too easy to stand back, to be the critic and point out the flaws in other peoples plans.  On the other hand, it is much more difficult to get into “the arena” and risk failure and defeat.  Despite this difficulty, I am excited to be stepping into a new arena.  I also recognize that I would be lying if I said that I was not nervous about this journey that I am about to begin.

Tomorrow is the culmination of a great deal of time spent both thinking and reading about education.  With the Innovation Academy, I know that I will finally be able to put all of this reading and reflection into practice. I am also aware that there will be failures and shortcomings along the way. What gives me strength, is knowing that I am trying. I am excited to be stepping “into the arena,” to be spending myself in a “worthy cause” and to be surrounded by an amazing group of students and teachers on this journey. We may fail sometimes. We may err and come up short. But the important part is that we will be in the arena, striving for something that we all believe in.