The Learning Potential

The Learning Potential

The Learning Potential

The sweet spot of education innovation lies between the evolution of iterative design and making processes and the capacity to grow self-knowledge of one's learning spectrum and potential. Here is to gleaning insights from new learning structures in the informal and formal domains and puzzling over how we can bring boundless ideas and ideals in the field together.

Two weekends, two conferences, one High School, and one documentary film later and I am stuffed. Like after Thanskgiving. 

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 Worlds Faire 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 give 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 off of 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 could 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.). On the flip side, I went to an education innovation conference this past weekend facilitated by MIT’s LearnLaunch, a new incubator for Boston area ed tech start ups (like ImagineK12 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. 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, 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-cognitivte 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 competing priorities. And, finally, I observed the implementation of a passion project-building tool kit and game my organization, The Future Project, generated for the school based on iterative loops of design and innovation.  I 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 ed-tech 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 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 become a running joke among me, myself, and I. 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 il-defined space of  "networking" at a Harvard Alumni event in NYC, looming elephant heads preceding over the gathering.  While Ned Hallowell personally spoke of the nitty gritty of education, all the other interactions rendered the Kahn 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 possibility, and be able to articulate that in whichever literacy you are inclined to use -- be it digital or visual or oral. 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 of 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. Having explored the models of education start-ups and start-up-schools that are based in linking education to the outdoor environment  to world and culture learning to tech-driven learning, like all modular and disruptive entities, we will begin to see a slow, steady, long takeover of the factory model of education with these and other experimental models. All of these latter examples break down physical and mental walls and re-define constructs of learning, and they all 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 integrative people and parts, 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 scaleable insights, and not forget to work with today’s school, still operating, still building.

As we continue to promote lab-like experimental, experiential learning zones where process rules over product, mastery over performance, growth mindset over IQ, and cross-disciplinary design (let’s not forget the “A” for Arts in STEAM learning) over siloed subjects, we will be fine. As the ed tech 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 be fine. As we rethink the role of teacher to give them the creative and lving 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 – that’s what The Future Project thinks. 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 in big cities, like the Sugar Hill project in Harlem have created into the norm. These are two disparate 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 our learnings with the burgeoning world of online learning and online sharing, 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’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.  I'm so excited for the next 100 days and the next 100 years.

To wrap up my wanderings, I would like to nod to data. We can still measure what is going on with data, big and small. How about having students evaluate each other or use action based research with their teachers or curate project based portfolios that they present as metrics of success? Pair these research methods with assessing growth in social-emotional understanding and social-cognitive development. We can derive a metric for “learning potential.”

We all love data and that is great. In fact data, its collection, design, and use, is my job. However, there is so much to learn by way of researching and evaluating what we do in education innovation that goes far beyond proving the impact of our work by net change in grades and standardized test scores. There is even more to learn than the trends in the hoards of big data the Ed tech industry provides, though those are incredibly useful. My new kick is visually mapping student growth narratives. 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.

Here’s to our collective learning potential. May the coasts and the conferences and co-creation crazies collide.

Article Featured Image: The Future Project's first ever "Teacher Dream Up" at Google NYC. 

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