Monday, January 12, 2015

Roman Architecture in Minecraft

The caldarium in a Roman bath

Last year, as our school began its 1:1 BYOL program in the 7th grade, I had the opportunity to redesign our Latin IA course to incorporate technology within the Latin program. In doing so, I redeveloped our introductory level curriculum around thematic "modules" that are each split between core content work and a project devoted on some cultural component, e.g. Roman architecture and engineering (cf. the complete course breakdown). I've written a little about these projects, e.g. the Modulus I project on Roman geography here, and soon, hopefully, I'll have more to say about the overall project and its evolution this year.

A latrina from a Roman fort

We're currently finishing up Modulus IV, in which students were challenged to learn something about Roman architecture and engineering using some provided resources, including Yale's free MOOC on Roman architecture. Using this content knowledge, kids were then asked to build an authentic Roman structure of their own choosing, as determined by their interests. Ideally, their structure ties into both our Modulus II project, in which they developed an ancient persona using an infographic and our Modulus III project, in which they described how this persona would have interacted with people using modern social media. The Modulus IV project, to continue with this progression progression, asks students to consider how Romans interacted with physical space. In particular, we considered the following questions:
  • What were some of the most common Roman structures?
  • What did they look like and why?
  • How did the Romans build them?
  • How did Romans use them?
An elaborate Roman villa

A number of options were available for building the structure, including pen/paper, Build with Chrome, Sketchup, and Minecraft (but only for the kids who chose to use it). It's not my intention to privilege Minecraft to our other project platforms, and the projects done with the other tools were exceptional. But using Minecraft, i.e., a video game, posed the biggest challenge and risk, given that not everyone believes that a game can be used as an educational tool. Based on our accomplishments in just a week, I think we've proven them wrong: several other teachers commented on how much the kids were talking about the project all week, and the collective work done in our world has amazed everyone who's seen it.

Last year's Minecraft projects were fantastic, but because kids using it worked on their own in single-player mode, I wasn't able to oversee their work nor could I keep it together in some central place. This year, thanks in part to +Diane Main's session at edcampSFBay last August, I decided to use a server and ended up using Apex (paid), which allows up to 24 players to be logged into our world at any time (other options are available too). All in all, 21 students elected to build in Minecraft, and I've been able to watch them work together over the course of the week. While there is no "group" option within the project, with groups of kids working on a single structure, most kids have decided to build complementary structures in our makeshift town.

The finished product to this project (whether using Minecraft, Sketchup, etc.) is a screencast video that narrates students' engagement with the questions above, while also pointing out any salient architectural features or interesting points of engineering students want to share. The videos will be uploaded to YouTube to share with the each other and the rest of our Latin program.

A working aqueduct

We didn't use as much Latin in this project as I anticipated, but the quality of work done has been quite impressive and the cultural understanding that we gained provides a worthwhile offset. Kids who build structures by hand did a fantastic job recreating Roman homes and other public structures, and those who used Sketchup and Build with Chrome did amazing work modeling Roman temples and arenas. The Minecraft projects were exceptionally creative, especially with the Romecraft texture pack that turns Minecraft blocks and tools into their comparable ancient versions and allows us to build columns, mosaics, and other amazing things in a more authentic Roman style.

A Roman amphitheater

Working together in one place, our class built excellent examples of homes, baths, temples, a forum complete with shops, a working aqueduct, and even a latrine, along with a road connecting most of our structures (cf. some screenshots here). Most impressive, perhaps, was the way the kids helped each other, with the more experienced crafters lending their support to the noobs, giving them helpful advice and even landing a hand in construction. Through watching them work in it this year, I myself learned quite a lot about Minecraft and now appreciate more than ever how intricate and involved crafting is with it. In addition to architecture and engineering, it can be used to teach art, design, geometry, Boolean logic and circuit design, physics, and so much more.

Though I only asked for videos about a minute in length, the average video ran for 4min (cf. a great one below). I'm amazed how much effort our kids put into their work in such a short period of time, and it's truly remarkable what kids can accomplish when working together toward a common goal. If there were any doubts in my mind about independent project work of this sort, they've been summarily dismissed. Not only did our Latin students absorb a thorough amount of content that they were able to relate to ideas developed previous projects, but they had an opportunity to explore their own creativity and work together to build something they themselves deeply valued. Most of all, they had fun doing it, and I'm confident that a high percentage of our class found themselves in a flow state when working on their projects. We'll continue using Minecraft in our JCL club meetings, when our world will continue to evolve.

Educators interested in using Minecraft in their classes should have a look at the free Minecraft for Educators course offered online by the Canvas Network beginning later this month. Below, I'll list few things I learned that would have helped get the project off the ground a little more smoothly:

Setting up the server
  • If not using MinecraftEDU, a hosted server, e.g. on Apex, is advantageous, in that it runs 24-7 and doesn't depend on the power of your own computer. For a server allowing 10 simultaneous players, the cost is $4/month, and for 24 players, it's $7/month—a very worthy investment.
  • The Minecraft Wiki is hugely helpful in understanding how the game works, including learning how to use commands. There are also a number of amazing communities supporting Minecraft builders, like the G+ Minecraft in Education community, to name just one.
  • Before opening up the server to players, make it very clear that "griefing", i.e. giving other players a hard time by damaging their work, will not be tolerated in any way. Kids will put a heroic amount of time into their work, and so anything that prevents students from working or tampering with their work in any way cannot be allowed.
Game play and manipulation
  • It can be very helpful to learn how the coordinate system works in Minecraft, since, upon creation of a world, you can set aside a clearly defined area in which students are to work. From there, work can proceed radially outward. Otherwise, it may be difficult to track all of the work that will spread out over a surprisingly large area in the game.
  • As soon as they begin working, ask students to provide you with the coordinates for their particular workspace and keep them handy. You'll be easily able to teleport both yourself and others around using them.
  • OP yourself (i.e., make yourself an operator) and use some of the more helpful game rules to make it easier for everyone to build, e.g. "/gamerule doDaylightCycle false" for permanent daylight, "/gamerule doMobSpawning false" to keep harmful mobs away, "/gamerule keepInventory true" to ensure that death doesn't lead to lost items, etc. The command "/weather clear" is also very useful for keeping the rain away, etc.
  • When first starting, put players in creative mode and set the difficulty to "Peaceful" to allow players a chance to get comfortable with game play. Otherwise, some mobs may spawn that damage structures. Combat can follow as soon as players are ready.
  • The "tab" key can be used to autocomplete names of players currently on a server. For example, "/tp mo" + tab will automatically give "/tp mosspike" (assuming there are no other players with a name beginning with "mo".
  • The "@" selector can be used to select multiple players, which can be very iseful. @a, for example, selects all players, @p selects the closest player, @r selects a random player, and @e selects all entities. Therefore, the command "/gamemode 1 @a" puts all players in creative mode.
  • The "adventure" game mode can be useful for taking screenshots and watching others work. In addition to being invisible, you can't interact with blocks (i.e., you can't break stuff!).
  • For those who don't have the $27 game, I highly recommend sharing Minecraft work through a screencast. On Macs, this is easily done using Apple's native Quicktime. With PCs, there are a number of free tools like Jing that easily record screens.
  • Ensure that the computer volume in Minecraft is low enough that it doesn't interfere with the tour narration.
  • It can also be helpful to turn the chat off while screencasting, which can easily be done in "Settings".
Since I'm still a noob myself, I'd welcome comments and suggestions to continue the conversation, and I'd love to see what others are doing with Minecraft in their classrooms.

Monday, December 22, 2014

What if we ask more questions?: 2014 Reflections

Over the course of the last year, I've changed the approach with which I participate in conferences, thanks in part to a number of amazing conference experiences (e.g., FUSE14) and a formative conversation I had with +Karl Lindgren-Streicher and +Kristen Swanson at #cue14 last spring (Karl has also written on the conversation). In brief, we talked at length about how we want to make our conference experiences more conversational, given the amazing number of educational minds that they always collect, and wondered how we could create and/or participate in more discussion-based opportunities that give us the chance to think deeply about education.

The What If...? conference model is one such opportunity, and so I was excited to learn a few months ago that one of these events, What If...? Las Vegas, would be coming to Las Vegas over the holiday break, when I would be home visiting my family. What If...? conferences work by inviting a number of "Questioneers" to give 8-minute presentations around a central question that's typically radical and challenging with the goal of inspiring change agents. After every 3 questions, conference participants break out in to small group sessions, where we discuss the questions in more detail and work on "action plan" steps based on them.

With a welcome diversity of questions and participants, What If...? Las Vegas provided the perfect forum to think through some of the ideas I've been churning in my head this year. I'll outline just a few of the excellent questions below:
  • For me, 2014 has been the year of innovation, in which I've been eager to put action behind the ideas I've been thinking on. Ebele Mogo asked the question "What if the only limits were the limits of our imagination?", focusing on disruptive criticism, which she argued we should be doing "by creation but first by confronting." I love the way she framed criticism not as something negative and to be avoided, but rather as a natural part of the innovation process that critically relies on the power of imagination and creation. By engaging with all prior creation in this way, we can all be artists, regardless of the particular subject that we study. This is the essential component of the "Yes, and..." culture that I'm so invested in creating within our community.

  • Over the summer, I read Steven Johnson's excellent Future Perfect on the rise of the distributed network, which has been one of the more transformative ideas I've learned in quite some time. Without going into too much detail here, I'm in agreement with Johnson, Aaron Dignan (cf. his fantastic 99u talk on thinking like a startup), and others that the "flat" org model that many startups are using belong in education. 
    Melanie Sanchez wondered "What if the middle man should not be eliminated?", based on her experience translating between specialists and non-specialists. She provided a compelling argument for the need of facilitators or "middlemen", and so I'm still thinking about what role such facilitators can play within a distributed network. In this type of network, it seems to me that, unlike the centralized networks with facilitators only at network nodes, everyone in a distributed network should view themselves in this middleman role. And in education, I think this means that all teachers should see themselves as facilitators, bridging the gap between content and skills on the one hand and students on the other.

  • In the last quarter of the year, I've found myself deeply interest in urban design and the "New Urbanism" movement, which argues for more pedestrian-friendly urban and social architecture and against the suburb or "exurb" model that grew after World War II in the United States (cf. Happy City and The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City for some excellent reading on the ideas). Like the distributed network, I think there are parallels to be found between New Urbanism and school design, but the idea is still just taking shape in my head.
    Rachel Aliana Jaffe asked "What if we could design the future experience of the city using place-specific digital applications?" and explored what the future of the internet could look like as a tool for collaboration and socializing. As I continue to think about the ways that New Urbanist architecture applies to schools, I am reminded to consider the futurist perspectives that Rachel mentioned as a necessary part of this architecture, in that digital technologies should have a central role in adding a social purpose to what we do.

  • Overall, my biggest takeaway from the calendar year is the power of questions to spark storytelling. But there's often an awkward contradiction between using stories to define us and being able to change or let them go altogether so that we're not bound to them. This is exactly what mindfulness can bring to education, and it's something I've been thinking about for quite some time now.
    There were a number of questions anchored on storytelling, and I found Mark Laisure's question "What if you could spend your days really truly being you?" to be especially provocative. He made me think carefully about what I tell myself about myself and what I really believe about myself, namely what it means to be authentically "me." This question is perhaps one of the more important questions worth reflecting on, as we continue to work on our professional growth, and I'm certain that I'll spend quite some time thinking through it.

With its focus on people and their stories and its setting in a revitalized part of Downtown Las Vegas, the What If...? conference experience was a huge success (especially while spending time with +Sara Boucher and +Melissa Strong). I now see that we don't ask open-ended questions, either to ourselves or to our students, and it's more clear to me than ever that sustainable learning is about the questions we learn to ask, rather than the answers. Questions are precisely what allows us to be designers of our own experiences, and I am looking forward to thinking through the questions above in greater details with a designer's mindset. There will be at least three more What If...? conferences coming to California next year, with one coming to the San Diego, Los Angeles, and Bay Areas, respectively, and I can't wait to go through this process again. Thanks to +Matt Murrie and Felicia Mae Rateliff for organizing and running the conference, and thanks to all the wonderful and inspiring participants!

What are your top 3 takeaway questions that you've learned this year? I'm very eager to know what others have to share so we can start taking actions toward answering our questions the right way and make some waves together.

Friday, October 10, 2014

DT in the Latin Classroom

Now that I've working more with design thinking and have learned how powerful of a mindset it can be for creativity and innovation, I've been trying to infuse it into my Latin classrooms. It's not always easy to move through the entire design thinking process in a Latin course, but I believe it can be done—and done well—in at least a few ways. In particular, since language programs are the perfect content areas for "discovery", I'm using a design thinking approach to do this kind of work with my students (on which I've written in more detail here) by building empathy for a society of people who lived in a very different world than ours.

I've been exploring using a "gamified" structure in my 7th-grade Latin IA course in the past two years, in which we have a number of thematic "modules" containing both grammatical and cultural content. In each module, we cover the grammar and vocabulary necessary for the course, then do a project around the cultural theme. Our first module focused on ancient geography to give our students a context for their study of the language, and students were asked to build interactive maps to help build an understanding of how geography affected how people lived within the Roman world.

First, we did some research about cities and travel in the ancient world, relying heavily on Stanford's excellent ORBIS tool (Google Maps for the ancient world). Students worked in pairs to select a city, discover some historical significance about it, learn how far it was from Rome in days, distance, and cost, and figure out how one would have traveled from Rome to that city.

After each group submitted their research into a Google Form, we used it to build one collaborative map for the class in Google's My Maps (formerly Maps Engine) containing all their data. Because Google can't locate every ancient city, students had to note the modern country in which the ancient city can be found, before adjusting their location pin. Students then used ORBIS to draw the travel route between Rome and their chosen city. Our Period 9 map looks like:

In complement to our design mindset, we're in the process of building a "Yes, and..." culture in our classroom that governs how we interact with each other. That's to say, whenever we're sharing ideas, we're very careful to "Yes, and..." each of our classmates' thoughts, rather than being the "Yeah, but..." type (thanks to +Eric Saibel  for directing me to Dave Morris' brilliant "The Way of Improvisation" TED Talk that shows how valuable saying "yes" can be!).

With that in mind, I then asked our students a few questions through Canvas (our LMS) about travel in the ancient world, using our "Discovery" goals as the driver for the questions. In other words, I encouraged them to consider how travel affected people first and foremost by imagining that they were the ones taking these trips.
  • How do you think travel affected communication in the ancient world? What was it like to travel?
  • How different is our world today, thanks to the speed with which we can communicate?
  • In general, what are the benefits of travel? Does it shape our thinking about people and ideas, and if so, how?
Students used what they learned through making their maps not only to post a response but also to respond to their classmates' ideas with our "Yes, and..." approach. I was amazed at the quality of the posts that they shared, and I was quite surprised that 37 students generated over 100 total posts in a single day. Just a few of the responses to their peers' posts:
  • "I agree with this a lot, I like the way you mentioned how business can expand!"
  • "I fully agree, the communication has improved a lot and long distance communications aren't very difficult. In the ancient world, communicating would take a lot of effort, money, and time."
  • "I think you make very good points in why traveling was a necessity in ancient times and the benefits to travel."
  • "I totally agree with how you mentioned that you can know about world events almost instantly, while hundreds of years ago, you wouldn't know for months, or maybe more than a year."
To close the project, we followed up the online discussion with an in-class activity comparing ancient to modern travel. I divided the class into an "Ancient" group and a "Modern" group, and students then had to think about positive and negative things about travel according to their assigned perspective, based on some of the ideas they saw in the Canvas discussion. They wrote ideas on Post-It notes, with one idea per note, and then stick them onto a white board that was organized in "+" and "-" squares for each idea (cf. the picture below). Finally, students had a chance to examine each other's ideas (as well as previous classes' ideas when possible), before crafting an argument explaining the positives and negatives for each group, again focusing on how geography affected people living in the ancient world.
Thoughts on Travel in the Ancient and Modern Worlds
Frankly, I expected most, if not all, of the discussion to favor modern travel for convenience and speed; but I was surprised when a number of students said that ancient travel would have been more fun and exciting, since we would have had the opportunity to explore more different types of geography and people. It would have taken at least 5 years for an average person to save enough money to travel from Rome to Londinium (ancient London) over the course of a month (at best!), to be sure; but imagine what we could have seen on the trip! Without any prompting on my part, some were saying that we should focus on the journey rather than the destination whenever possible, which helped us to discuss why travel is so valuable in the first place.

So, we didn't prototype anything, but I still think we found a successful way to bring some design thinking into the study of a dead language by discovering how geography determined to a large extent how people interacted with each other. The approach isn't perfect, and it still needs some tweaking and tuning, but I'm happy with the direction. In subsequent projects, I'll continue to explore how we can continue to build a designer's mindset through studying Latin.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Grading Participation?

Today, I had an unexpected and quite interesting conversation about grades, including how we evaluate participation, and so I wanted to record some ideas here for further discussion. In the past, while teaching both as a TA and in my first few years at the secondary level, I've always built a participation component into my overall schema. But, after reflecting on what participation means over the past year, I no longer include it. It's a big shift from how I used to approach grading, but I think it's for the best.

The current conception of grading is severely flawed, as more and more educators are realizing; but I just want to focus here on participation, in that it may help us to see this bigger and fuzzier picture more clearly. I'm particularly interested in this question, since it has a lot to do with developing EQ and non-cognitive skills in students, which is one of my major projects this year. With that, grading participation, as I see it, is flawed for developing emotional and social intelligence for a number of reasons:

  • Grades are founded on the "carrot and stick" model that Pink has criticized so well in his discussion on motivation (cf. Drive pp. 32-57). I've come to believe that we should never force kids to participate in class, but rather create the sorts of environments that encourage and welcome their participation in their own individual ways. It's thus our responsibility as educators to facilitate classroom participation, not our kids'. As such, they shouldn't be penalized for our own failures.
  • Based on our different levels of "social comfort" within classrooms, participation cannot be evaluated evenly and fairly within a given group. How do we evaluate the more talkative students beside those who aren't as comfortable or confident voicing their opinions? How can we take into account different levels of brain development and self control? Too often, I fear, we attribute participation grades to personalities more than anything else.
  • As far as I know, participation can't be easily defined and therefore measured. Is there such a thing as a "rubric" for participation, especially within "one size fits all" model? How do we give effective feedback for participation that accurately reflects an understanding of the brain?
  • Most critically of all, perhaps, participation is often used as a tool to "fudge" grades, arbitrarily moving some kids up or down a grade level. Is it fair that one student with an 89.7% should get an "A-", while another a "B+" based solely on participation? Shouldn't an 89.7% that's fairly earned equal another 89.7% (whatever that even means!)? Opacity in grades just isn't fair.
Ultimately, this is a discussion about ego. It's not that egos are inherently bad, per se, but when we let them control us, as in this particular case, we build an expectation for participation, which we use grades to enforce. Within the traditional framework, then, assigning a grade to participation is more about us than about our students. But if we can let go of these expectations and let the kids be themselves, while we work to design engaging environments for them, we can develop EQ without the need for a carrot or a stick. In other words, it's about controlling our ego and expectation by building empathy, or an understanding of our classroom experience from our students' individual perspectives. It's not easy, but I think it's the right thing to do.

I'll admit that I'm heavily biased, so I welcome comments or other ideas below or on Twitter. What do you think about participation? Why or why not do you believe in using it to evaluate students? Can we make it work, or is it inherently flawed? What have I missed?

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Building d.Teams with DEEPid

N.B.: This post can also be found on the #dtk12chat community page.

I've been talking with more people about design thinking (DT) lately, and the question about how to do DT within classes consistently resurfaces. It's a great question, and, to be honest, I myself have been thinking for quite some time now about how to incorporate DT into our Latin program. Below, I'm going to take a circuitous route outlining my ideas for an answer.

MVIFI's DEEPdt Model for Design Thinking
I'm sure most educators have some familiarity with the STEAM movement that now occupies the center stage at many schools. And I'm sure most are also familiar with a number of the attempts to twist the STEAM acronym to include other subject areas within an interdisciplinary framework (cf. the evolution of STEM to STEAM and another interesting idea that adds SEL elements in the equation). I deeply value cross-discipline thinking and the project-based approach; but while the inclusion of these other disciplines is often thoughtful, it's also forced and ultimately uninspiring, as I see it.

Since I've been paying attention to the development of STEAM, I've been keen to see when language study will finally find itself a part of the acronym; but to date, I've yet to see a single argument in favor of including our field. As a Latin teacher and an advocate of language study, I'm disappointed, if not not too surprised, by the relative neglect of language study beside more alluring subjects like math and science. The failure to include language study echoes our nationwide attitudes toward language learning.

As we've been rethinking our approach to pedagogy at our school and in our own World Languages department, we've had to work to justify why language study plays a valuable role within education. Fortunately, I think the justification is easy: language study is most valuable when it involves a high degree of cultural fluency in complement to linguistic fluency. That is, the best and most effective language programs focus on people, rather than the just language itself. That sounds a lot like DT to me, and I'm of the opinion that this is the direction that language study needs to take in order to stay relevant in the next generation.

To return to how we might use DT within our classrooms, I use DT in Latin to help me build discovery skills with my students. We focus on this one phase of the process and we learn to do it as best we can, now that I have come to understand how language study plays the role of discovery within the process of innovation. Language study teaches us how to communicate with people and, namely, how to value and learn from differences through divergent thinking, which is a critical component of problem solving. This is what discovery is all about, and since discovery is arguably the most important phase of DT, I think that language study is more relevant than ever.

So, I don't take students through the entire DT process in my Latin classes. Instead, we focus on the process of discovery by learning about the people who used Latin communicated. We work to build fluency of Roman culture, alongside the Latin language, through the documentation that they left behind, and by doing so we develop a number of critical non-cognitive skills like effective collaboration and listening to hear (rather than listening to reply), we test our creativity, and we build empathy for people who lived rather far away from us in both time and space.

With this in mind, I want to rethink the STEAM as the sole solution to interdisciplinary work, in that it's too narrow in scope with respect to the kinds of collaboration and thinking that the world's problems need. In other words, STEAM and all the other acronyms offered for it too often seem to be attempts at pulling content together, rather than combining the skills necessary for creative and innovative problem solving.

DEEPid #sketchnotes
Instead, following on an idea proposed by +Mary Cantwell in her post on building d.Teams, I'm now more interested in considering an interdisciplinary study model through the DEEPdt framework, in which the skills that each subject area teach, not just their content, drive our collective interdisciplinary approach. These skills can then be woven together by members of a given d.Team to offer a more realistic vision for interdisciplinary work that can help us to attack real problems more successfully.

In these d.Teams, with a grounding in the DEEPdt model, our work begins with the skills that we use to learn from and about people. Since our language programs teach precisely these skills, problem discovery can begin in our language courses. Our work can be then passed along to those areas that move into the next phase of the DT process, hopefully encouraging the various subject areas to work together within it. I like this model because it favors skills over content, it brings people into the equation through the social impact that Mary stresses.

That said, I have more questions than answers for how DEEP interdisciplinary work could work in schools (I'll call it "DEEPid" for now). I've sketched out some tentative ideas for it, and I'm eager to think through them with everyone in our #dtk12chat community. We'll have a discussion on building d.Teams on Wed., 10/22 at 6pm PST, and in the meantime, I love to hear how others think that DT can be used to bridge our traditional subject divisions. What skills are most valuable in the traditional content areas? How can they fit into the DT framework? How might a DEEPid program get started? I'm looking forward to our discussion!

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Cultivating a Gratitude Practice

Latin IA Gratitude Notes
Following the CUE Manhattan Beach Rock Star camp, friend and colleague +Karl Lindgren-Streicher reflected on the incredible experience, sharing his gratitude with a number of influential people who have helped him along his journey. It's a great post, and now that I have spent the summer reflecting about many of the changes sweeping through our school and my role within them, I want to follow suit and start developing a regular gratitude practice of my own, beginning with how I ended up where I am today.

Though I always had an interest in technology and Google in particular, I never really pushed the envelope as far as I could in my current job and wasn't even aware of the possibilities that tech offered. Then, in the fall of 2012 our school went GAFE, and so I decided to attend a Google Summit in Boulder, CO in August to see what others have been doing with Google, working under the assumption that I was farther along than I really was.

It was the first educational conference I attended, and needless to say, I was stunned by the creativity that people were bringing to the table, and the things they were doing with their students opened my eyes to an entirely new way of thinking about teaching (especially as I look back on my notes from the summit). That's when I first met +Wendy Gorton+Molly Schroeder, and +Mark Wagner. They introduced me to the professional world of educational technology and inspired me to get out of my comfort zone by trying new things. And Wendy in particular introduced me to the world of the Google Certified Teacher and the community that GCTs have created for themselves. I was hooked and wanted to be a part of it.

In looking back, though, I wasn't even on Twitter at the time of the Boulder summit! Thanks to what I learned there about the power of being connected, I soon got back on, after two previous failed attempts. It makes me smile to look back on my first Tweet:

It wasn't long before I stumbled onto #caedchat and started regularly participating in the weekly conversations, where I met countless other passionate educators who have since shaped my own thinking. That's where I first met Karl, and I also had the good fortune to start developing a relationship with the HBUSD crew, including +JR Ginex-Orinion+Chris Long+David Theriault+Sean Ziebarth, among others like +Alice Keeler . These guys have helped me to see the value of sharing and leading by example through the interesting things they do seemingly every day.

With that momentum, I applied for the GTA in Mountain View in Dec. of 2012, though without luck. I applied again for Chicago in June of 2013, thanks to some inspiration offered by +Alice Chen, and this time luck was on my side. I had an amazing time in Chicago, thanks to the best community of educators I know and for whom I will always be grateful. They taught me the value of community and hammered home the power of the "Yes, and..." mindset. If I name one, I'd have to name them all.

It was in Chicago that I started to think about innovation and the role that design plays in education, and shortly thereafter, in the fall of 2013, I learned about design thinking and the #dtk12chat community devoted to its role in education. Through #dtk12chat, I met the Mount Vernon crew and a number of other regulars on Twitter who have had a major impact in how I now think about innovation and change. +Trey Boden, +Mary Cantwell, and +Dan Ryder, to only name a few, have made me realize that change first and foremost is about people, which has had a profound impact on how I now approach the teaching profession.

So many others have helped me along the way that it's impossible to thank them all. But these are some the folks who have been present a major turnposts in the evolution of my own thinking, and I'm grateful for the educational community that they have helped to create. Thanks go to Karl for inspiring me to write this post. I'll echo his call for others to consider who has helped them along their own paths and share it out.

A new school mission statement was just recently unveiled to our community, after a year of work building it. It goes well beyond traditional academic emphases, and I expect it to be a beacon for decades to come, and I'm quite proud to share it:
Harvard-Westlake strives to be
a diverse and inclusive community united by
the joyful pursuit of educational excellence,
living and learning with integrity,
and purpose beyond ourselves.
This year, I plan on cultivating a gratitude practice with my students. Once a week, we'll take about 10min to write down on a Post-It note something we're grateful for or share something good that happened in the week, and then we'll post it somewhere in the room for others to see (with or without names attached to the note). By doing this, I hope that we can create a more mindful classroom experience that underscores our new mission by actively engaging with gratitude and sharing it within our community. It should be a great year.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

FUSE14 and Designing for Engagement

Sometime last fall I stumbled onto design thinking (DT) and was immediately drawn to its grounding in working with and for people. DT, to put it simply, is a process (or, if you prefer, the DT "mindset") that can be summed up as "people-centered problem solving with a bias toward action." Since learning about it, I've been working with it as often as I could, including participating in the #dtk12chat to meet others interested in DT in education. So when I learned about FUSE14, a two-day design thinking workshop hosted at the Mount Vernon Institute for Innovation in Atlanta, I jumped on the opportunity, given that it was scheduled immediately before ISTE2014 this summer (on which cf. my reflections). At FUSE14, I was very eager to work on some problems we've been uncovering at our school with the hopes of designing prototype solutions for them.

At the event, +Melissa Strong, the chair of our MS World Languages Dept., and I represented our school in the 201 track, to which we brought our problem of "time" to put through the DT process. Using MVIFI's DEEPdt process (standing for Discover Empathize Experiment Produce; digital editions of the fantastic DEEPdt playbooks can be purchased here), we had hoped to gain a better understanding of how we manage time, with the goal of bringing back to suggestions to our community. And that's exactly what we accomplished, though not in the original way we had intended.


Our Middle School campus has 9 periods each day, with 40min in each period. It's an exceptionally short amount of sit-time to have with students each day, and more faculty of late have begun to identify problems with our schedule and have suggested that we again explore block schedules, among other ideas, making it the perfect "wicked problem."

Before jumping into the deep end of the 201 track, we were asked to organize interviews with our "users" to be held during our first day. Time affects all users (e.g., students, faculty, staff, parents, etc.) in our community, but because we were biased toward our schedule, we decided to focus mainly on our students. After 75min of great Q&A with two students and two faculty members (thank you, Regan and Ian!), we realized that we needed to take a few steps back: our problem isn't as much about time as we initially thought.


Our interviews exceeded all expectation and gave us some very useful data to work with. In particular, they bore out a few interesting observations:
  • Kids are more engaged when introduced to new material, and they're more engaged when they're reviewing material in preparation for a test. They don't find the middle stages in a particular unit as engaging as the beginning or end.
  • When asked to "think about something" at home, kids rarely do so. Unless there's some tangible activity to be done, kids don't do work outside of the classroom, and even then, they report less engagement than when doing work in class.
  • When rushing through material, kids don't often feel that they should ask questions, and they sometimes feel that tangential questions, when not answered, must be irrelevant to the topic at hand.
  • Double periods (only in English and science) are more engaging than single periods, on account of the types of activities done in class.
  • 50min periods aren't necessarily more productive than our current 40min periods, since small talk often gets in the way.
  • Regular breaks in the middle of the day are more welcome than random breaks throughout the day. 
Based on our subsequent empathy mapping of the interviews, we concluded that time and our current schedule aren't our primary problems. Rather, time was more of a symptom of other problems, namely the problem of overall engagement and "flow" (cf. Csikszentmihalyi's TED Talk). It's not that we don't have enough time, as much as it's about how we're using the time that we do have together. In other words, a different schedule, with longer class periods, wouldn't by itself fix any of the issues that our users identified. That's not to say that I wouldn't warmly welcome more time and longer class periods, but the interview results suggest that we need to work on engagement to give our community clear reasons for using time differently, before we can tackle more concrete schedule issues. With that, Melissa and I began to dig deeper into the assumptions and obstacles standing in the way of the kinds of engagement that we believe are possible.

Experiment and Produce

Now that our discovery work has uncovered engagement as the deeper issue, we, with the help of the outstanding FUSE14 coaching staff, next needed to uncover the long-held assumptions governing how we use our time (cf. Kahneman's idea of "theory-induced blindness"). We now believe that, by challenging these assumptions to produce "How might we?" (HMW) questions that have the potential to engage our community in productive discussions around these ideas without seeming confrontational, we can start working toward new kinds of environments for not only our students, but our faculty and staff too. Our users, then, have become faculty.

1. Assumption: Students learn best through regular content-based testing.
 HMW transform our feedback system to reward process over product?

We broadly use the word "feedback" to include not only rote testing but everything we do that informs students of their own progress through our courses. It's the way we answer (or don't answer) questions, it's the work we do with them in class, it's our body language, and more. With this in mind, we need to think through our feedback systems in much greater detail, starting with the fact that a test isn't the only form of feedback.

2. Assumption: Rigor usually excludes creativity.
 HMW: Use curiosity to drive our curricula and content?

That kids are most engaged when introduced to new material underscores the power of creativity and wonder in the learning process, I think. There seems to be a widespread assumption that rigor and creativity are mutually exclusive, but this isn't the case at all, as cognitive science is proving. We need to think hard about how we can continue to challenge our students, while also encouraging them to be creative, along with building on other non-cognitive skills. This goes for us too: if we're not feeling creative in teaching, I can't imagine that we're feeling truly fulfilled.

3. Assumption: Our purpose is driven by our obligations to the school.
 HMW: Separate true purpose from duty or obligation in what we do as educators?

Students and faculty have a frightening small amount of free time, thanks to the regular ancillary duties and obligations (i.e., external motivators) that are asked of us within our communities. Many seem to equate such obligations with purpose, thereby using such obligations to drive purpose; but Melissa and I would like to challenge this assumption and have larger conversations about purpose (i.e., intrinsic motivators), under the belief that our purpose as educators far exceeds these obligations.

4. Assumption: Kids need daily homework and class meetings to learn.
 HMW: Get rid of homework?

This assumption speaks for itself. A growing body of literature (e.g., a recent Stanford study), however, including our own school's Workload Study, makes a strong case for the relative lack of value that homework offers, especially within the traditional framework. That said, this HMW question may be the most controversial, with homework being so culturally ingrained in education.

In sum, if we can challenge these assumptions and work toward engaging both our faculty and our students in different ways than we currently do, we may be able to treat the symptom of time that we've been discussing in our community. No one would say that our classes lack engagement, but after talking with students and faculty and thinking through our wicked problem, we see the big picture differently and believe that there is still opportunity for improvement. A 40min class, while still short, can still be productive, if we have more of an active understanding of how engagement works. This is only the beginning of this process, and we're hopeful that we can unpack more assumptions in conversations with our community and conduct even more interviews, when we return in the fall.

#dtk12chat at MODA

FUSE14 included a trip to MODA, the Museum of Design Atlanta, where we had the opportunity to view the Design for Social Impact exhibition and watch a live broadcast of the #dtk12chat show, hosted by +Trey Boden and +Dan Ryder. The exhibition is amazing and included a number of remarkable works by designers driven by change.

DT Resources

If new to DT and interested in learning more about it, I recommend any of the resources below. More than anything else, DT is inherently social, and so it's best to talk about it with others. Regardless of experience, I highly recommend stopping by #dtk12chat on Twitter on Wed. at 6pm PST.

Throughout our workshop, our coaches were insistent that we do all the work, while they only gave us guidance and some of the tools to do it. For that reason, FUSE14 was one of the most intense and rewarding PD experiences I've ever had, and I can't recommend it enough to other educators seeking to rethink how we work with people. We came to Atlanta with a problem and left with a few questions that can offer opportunity for innovation within our department and at our school. Leaving Atlanta, I have more of a designer mindset than ever, and I'm eager to get to work. Thanks to everyone who made the experience so valuable for us, including +Bo Adams for his fantastic work as MC and host, Trey Boden for designing the experience, and the entire 201 team of coaches, led by +Greg Bamford and +Jennifer Chan.