Outside it’s America

Airplane LondonWe spent an intense 10 days in the USA on what was an ambitious schedule of New York, Cambridge, Rhode Island, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego then back to New York before heading to our next destination in Brazil (see next post).


Whilst at the time it felt madly ambitious we only missed one flight, which left me sleeping in a motel that looked like a rendezvous for Breaking Bad’s Jesse Pinkman, we visited some really impressive people and organisations.


This post, like the others before it, can only be a brief summary of our activities. For the rest you’ll have to wait for the book 😉


First up in New York we visited Quest to Learn, a school that one of the 14 year old students told me was the school that everyone’s heard of apart from New York. By this she meant that Quest to Learn receives a constant stream of visitors from all over the world and yet many of her friends haven’t heard of it. Designed from the ground up by a team of teachers and game designers based on 30 years of learning research it is a bold initiative that redesigns the curriculum and teaching practice taking influence from the way young people engage with games.


Quest to Learn SchoolBy games they don’t specifically mean video games and indeed despite being known as the “game based learning” school in the popular media there is little evidence of what we typically think of when we think games. As co-director Arana Shapiro tells me “people expect to see our students sitting around playing video or board games and whilst we do use such games from time to time the reference to games is in the mechanics we deploy within our teaching and learning strategy.” To get an idea of what’s happening here I visit their “Mission Lab” which is a design studio within the school where teachers work alongside game and curriculum designers to design flexible learning experiences for their classes.


One of the principles of the teaching style draws heavily on the gaming concept of simulation where learning is placed in applied context rather than simply memorising things by rote whilst employing cross-disciplinary skills to solve a particular problem or challenge. Students are actively encouraged to work in collaborative teams which effectively act as self-organising learning environments in between teacher directed segments of a given class.


The designers and directors of the school have learnt a lot since it opened in 2009 and an important lesson has been in the role of the teacher. Arana is candid when she explains that “initially we imagined that teachers would essentially be content specialists supported by designers but it soon became clear that there was far more to teaching than simply knowing the subject specifically their ability to engage learners by being engaged themselves.”


We left New York for Cambridge, MA where went to MIT to visit Noam Chomsky, Mitch Resnick and Eric Rosenbaum.


Noam Chomsky & Graham Brown-MartinNoam, unimpressed that I had hardly been home in months, suggested that I needed a good shave and looking in the mirror that evening I think I’d have to agree. To receive personal grooming tips from someone I regard as one of todays greatest living intellectuals was quite a moment for me. We’d arrived to take photographs for the book to supplement an earlier interview I’d conducted with him but during the photo session we discussed a variety of issues such as a comparison of the education systems of Cuba and Singapore as well as Noam’s childhood experiences of attending Oak Lane Day School that was regarded as an experimental when it was founded in 1916 upon the principles of honouring a childs individuality in a setting that fosters intellectual, creative, academic and personal growth in the Dewey tradition.


Well, I think the proof of the schools efficacy is in the results!


I asked Noam how we would reimagine learning and this is what he said.


Next, we moved on to another building at MIT to visit the people behind EdX, the non-profit partnership founded by MIT and Harvard with an investment of $60 Million to increase access to students globally, improve campus education by bringing online technologies in to the campus and perform research around learning. It’s the latter parts of their mission which I feel separates them from the almost embarrassingly over-inflated EdTech bubble that is MOOCs.


I met with Johannes Heinlein, Director of Strategic Partnerships at EdX and like him immediately as he immediately dismisses all the hyperbole around MOOCs and sticks with the facts that MOOCs are still work in progress, that they don’t replace the vital social, interpersonal and collaborative engagement that a physical meeting place provides and whilst access is key they are using this opportunity to improve the quality of learning on and off campus. He tells me that EdX students are forming meet-up groups and that nearly 30% of the EdX subscribers are of high school age effectively benefitting from the lack of any entry requirements to begin studying degree level material. I ask him about the potential for educational colonialism as a result of exporting MIT or Harvard degrees and he agrees that this was a concern so they have made their technology open so that international partners can participate in this programme with their own materials.


Mitch ResnickWe moved along to MIT’s Media Lab and the Lifelong Kindergarten where we met with its leader and Professor of Learning Research, Mitch Resnick. Mitch amongst other achievements is regarded as the father of the Scratch programming environment for children and the building bricks that became the basis of the LEGO Mindstorm kits. I’ve been a long time fan of Mitch’s work and he tells me that the thinking behind this group at MIT was based on the inspiration he gets from the way children learn in kindergarten where they spend lots of time “playfully designing and creating things in collaboration with one another”. Mitch believes this natural creative learning instinct becomes eroded by the time students reach high school where the learning is more geared towards listening to lectures rather than experimentation rather than develop as creative thinkers. So Mitch’s group explores and develops techniques and platforms to prepare young people for the kind of tasks that he believes are more needed today where they are able to take on new challenges with confidence. That said Mitch is concerned that kindergartens today are becoming more like our schools in that you can now find young children now filling out worksheets on phonics and working on spelling flashcards.


Working in the same group as Mitch and in fact one of Resnick’s PhD students is Eric Rosenbaum, co-founder of Makey Makey.


Makey Makey calls itself an invention kit for everyone and is a programmable circuit board that allows you to control things and get feedback. Sounds techy but it’s child’s play and you can be up and running making the contents of your fruit bowl into a musical instrument – yes really! Makey Makey is to programmable control boards like Arduino what the Scratch programming environment is to Python it’s an easy point of inception that gets kids engaged, building and creating quickly. It’s also a fab present for the upcoming holiday season (or so my daughters keep reminding me).


John MaedaWe then take a 2 hour drive out from Cambridge to Providence and the Rhode Island School of Design and meet the team lead by Provost Roseanne Somerson and President John Maeda. I asked John why he thought STEM subjects had become such an apparent priority amongst education systems to the detriment of the arts and he explained to me that “it’s because we believe that technology innovation creates new economic opportunities in a way like back in the 1960’s the Moon shot required a significant expansion of our knowledge in maths, science, physics etc. But the reality was that it was influenced by creativity and design. Somewhere along the way we become more interested in the “what?” rather than the “why?”. This creates a problem in that you can be a good testing nation but you can’t invent or innovate which is why we seek to put the ‘art’ back into the STEM education conversation in what we call STEAM”


I had a really stimulating afternoon with the RISD team and learned far more than I can write in this blog so looking forward to putting altogether for you in the book. But speaking of books Roseanne kindly gave me a copy of her recently published book which is not only beautifully produced but also very thought provoking so I recommend you take a look. It’s called “The Art of Critical Making”.


Sir Ken Robinson & Graham Brown-MartinOver to Los Angeles and we meet with the one and only Sir Ken Robinson. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Sir Ken for a few years now and I’ll admit that I feel a couple of inches taller and a bit more determined after spending an hour or two in his company. We meet in his very trendy offices in Westwood Village to film our interview before heading across the street for a very good cup of coffee and some photos. If you’re attending or watching the livestream of the WISE 2013 Summit you’ll catch a small preview of our interview but you’ll get full access to the whole enchilada once I’ve had a chance to edit it down and prep it for, well you know, the book 😉


We had a detailed discussion about the role and potential of digital technologies within the learning experience and Ken compares them to the role that many tools have had in our past to extend what we are capable of, not just of doing but of thinking about. Ken tells me that “as soon as you have writing systems you don’t just extend your ability to spread a message you affect the very nature of the message and what you can conceive and all great transformative technologies have done that. They’ve not just let us do the things we did before just differently but let us do things we haven’t conceived of before and that’s what’s happening with this new wave of digital technologies”.


Ken was generous with his time and has made a terrific contribution to my work. I asked him the same question as I asked Noam Chomsky about how he would reimagine learning and he said this.


Our work completed in Los Angeles we left for San Francisco, not to visit the homes of the digital technology companies that have so much impact on our lives (although we did ask – see my earlier post about Silicon Valley’s false consciousness), but to meet with Sandy Speicher, the education lead at design consultancy IDEO.


Sandy SpeicherIDEO designed Apple’s first mouse for the Lisa and Macintosh computers, the Palm PDA and work for a range of well known brands. They have been championing the approach of “design thinking” and more recently applying it to education. Sandy explains that IDEO take a human-centred approach to their design work which really means adopting a process that begins with people and that leads to a desired outcome that takes into account the desires and needs of the people working within that system. Sandy believes that by adopting design thinking approaches to education we can create better learning experiences and environments where teachers and learners are designers of this physical and mental spaces. Sandy has already instigated some useful resources for those interested in learning more about design thinking as it applies to education. There’s the free “Design Thinking for Educators Toolkit” and hot off the press the “Design Thinking In Schools” which is a partnership between IDEO and the K12 Lab Network at Stanford both established by IDEO co-founder David Kelley with the aim of helping people of all ages and background build their creative confidence.


I happened to be at IDEO’s offices at the launch of Tom and David Kelley’s book “Creative Confidence” and was given a copy. It seems like everybody is writing a book these days!


We then headed over to San Diego to visit High Tech High and the force of nature that is Larry Rosenstock, their CEO. High Tech High is in fact 11 schools in the San Diego area comprised of 2 elementary schools, 4 middle schools and 5 high schools. They are “charter schools” which means that whilst they must adhere to a set of state standards they have greater freedom in how they teach. They are state schools and deliberately attract a socially and culturally diverse student population selected by lottery.


Larry RosenstockDespite the name the school does not deploy or rely upon any significant about of digital technology. It is there but it is not the focus, the name comes from the schools origin as a response to the high technology corporations in the region that were becoming frustrated with the skillset exhibited by students coming out of traditional schooling. The schools DNA is configured around a high level of personalization, adult-world connection, common intellectual mission and the teacher as designer.


Larry explains that “teachers as designers means that they are creators of new knowledge and not just churning stuff out of books”. He says this with such conviction that you wouldn’t want to argue with him. There is such a rebellious streak in him that I am immediately caught up in the bonhomie but with good reason for this is one of the most exciting schools that I have had the fortune to visit.


The interior of the school is almost identical to the design studio of IDEO in San Francisco, part swanky private members club of the Shoreditch House variety and part creative design studio with nearly 500 students. It’s difficult to define where classrooms finish and social collaborative areas begin for in effect they are one and the same. I am guided around the school by a student and invited to speak to any student or member of staff that I wish. Without exception every one that I speak to is knowledgeable, interesting and interested.


Jeff RobinThe school is almost certainly the leading exponent of “project based learning” guided, defined and installed by resident art teacher and ships mate Jeff Robin. I’m not going to say anything more about Jeff here other than if you want to put a zap on your educational world then visit his website that is full of resources that he has created to share with the community. I mean just visit it, like right now!


The project based mentality that is at the heart of educational practice within High Tech High means that the walls and common areas within the school are adorned with the outputs of the students projects where the goal for each student is to complete their project to the point where it can be displayed to share with other students. Trust me when I say that much of what I saw would not have looked out of place in a high end design store.


I’ve a lot more to write about High Tech High but I can say that this is as good as transformation gets within the confines of remaining within a system that demands a set of standardised tests at the end.


Larry has a coffee mug that states his aim of “nurturing creative noncompliance” which pretty much sums up the exciting learning environment he & team have created.


Here’s Larry’s words on how he would reimagine learning.


Finally, we head back to New York to the offices of TED, of the conference and talks fame, to meet Logan Smalley the head of TED’s educational initiative TED-Ed. The goal of TED-Ed is to find the worlds best lessons and combine them with great animation and production so that they can reach a bigger audience. TED-Ed uses an open nomination system where anyone can nominate either themselves or an educator they respect for consideration for the TED-Ed program. So far in the 18 months since they started they have created nearly 300 lessons worth sharing that have been viewed about 36 million times.


Logan SmalleyLogan says that a key motivator for teachers to get involved is the reach of the TED-Ed platform, he says “that they have worked with teachers that have given a lesson in a class that may reach perhaps around 500 learners a year but on TED-Ed the same lesson is reaching more than 100,000 learners”. He continues to tell me how “exciting it is to hear the voice of great teachers amplified”. Logan cautions however that “video is not teaching, it doesn’t have the body language or the sixth sense that teaching requires but it delivers content in a way that can be used by teachers and learners.”. Logan explains that the purpose of TED-Ed is to ignite curiosity and compared to other video based flipped classroom approaches he feels that its geared towards the why? of education rather than the how? By this he means learning, for example, why Pythagoras Theorem is useful as opposed to just learning the formula.


This is what Logan said when I asked him how he would reimagine learning.


So that was our excellent adventure in the USA. If the truth be told there was certainly a book’s worth of material just from that 10 day trip and I will do my best to distill it down into a useful essence when I come to the full writing and resource editing part of this project.


Here’s another musical interlude:


Next up Brazil!