Sunday, March 2, 2014

EduCon 2014 and Engagement

The Franklin Institute

The more conferences I go to, the less I find myself interested in discussions about specific tools. Instead, it's the new ideas that excite me, in that ideas have the power to outlast tools and make more of an impact on what we do in our classrooms. So, when I learned about EduCon in Philadelphia last December, a conference dedicated to innovation and building schools of the future around these ideas hosted by the rather impressive Science Leadership Academy, I immediately signed up.

EduCon is very similar to the EdCamp model, with "conversations" proposed by attendees, in place of invited speakers and vendor-driven content. I was pleasantly surprised at how little "tech talk" infiltrated the conversations. The sessions were all fantastic, as were the student hosts at SLA, who were impressive for their leadership and gratitude for being at the school. The Twitter buzz in advance of EduCon was as energized as I've ever seen, which was complemented by the conversations that were had while at the conference. All in all, I hope to make EduCon a regular part of my conference rotation, and I'd love to host a conversation of my own someday soon.

Love Park

In particular, I was drawn to a conversation on design thinking, run by +Trey Boden, James Campbell, TJ Edwards, and Jenny Novoselsky from the Mount Vernon Institute, one on mindfulness in education with Sarah Macdonald and Lydia Maier, and another on positive psychology, given by Alexa Dunn and her graduate students. Over the past year, I've found my own thinking to be heavily influenced by design thinking and mindfulness, and so I was eager to discuss these ideas with other educators in the open "unconference" forum at EduCon. They didn't disappoint (cf. my conference notes).

But there was so much more happening at the conference that I had the good fortune to participate in: David Jakes and Christian Long's inspiring session "Wonder, By Design" served as a call to action for the importance of wonder and creativity in schools, and Carey Pohanka introduced me to the concept of the "gemba" (cf. Deborah Adler's TED Talk) in her session "Going to the Gemba," which is the Japanese word meaning the "real place." Going to the gemba is basically making a direct observation of the process as it is happening, and fits in quite well with the empathy component of design thinking.

As I participated in what was one of the highest sustained levels of conference engagement I've seen (look back at the #educon Tweets and those that continue to come in), I started to think about what engagement really is. I've used the term quite often but never really though about what it is and how we measure it, until we had conversations about it at EduCon.

A few weeks ago, +Krista Moroder mentioned Philip Schlechty's book Engaging Students: The Next Level of Working on the Work in the ISTE Young Educator podcast #3, in which Schlechty defines engagement and argues convincingly that designing for engagement (rather than planning for outcomes) should be a top priority in schools. Without true engagement, in his hierarchy, students become compliant or worse (cf. the "Levels of Engagement"), and the ingredients necessary for intrinsic motivation to learn something that Daniel Pink discusses in Drivenamely autonomy, mastery, and purpose, won't be found.

With this in mind, the idea of engagement and the importance of designing learning environments to support it has become my new focus. Engagement encompasses the design thinking process, mindfulness, and everything else I've been working toward, I think, and it has direct application to both students and teachers. To my mind, it makes more sense to me than the often-used terms "student-centered" and "21st century," and it doesn't need to involve anything special (i.e., no tech guarantees engagement, nor does IdeaPaint, etc.). I intend on spending the spring and summer thinking about designing more engaging environments that encourage creativity and innovation for both faculty and students, and I'm very eager to hear what others think about engagement and how it's approached at your schools. #HMW design for more engagement?