Monday, January 14, 2019

The Big Edu-Bang: Expanding Ideas Through Collision

We’ve been thinking a lot lately about how good ideas develop and spread. As we continue diving deeper into innovative educational thinking, we keep coming across ridiculously good ideas being implemented all over the place. If you read Ted Dintersmith’s hopeful book What Schools Could Be, you’ll find hundreds of examples of districts, schools, or individual teachers doing really cool things. If you spend an hour on Google with searches like “Innovative Education,” you’ll find thousands of examples of individual programs and buildings that are breaking out of the conventional to improve learning and engagement in really cool ways. But these cool things and cool ways don’t seem to be spreading much.

The is true even within our state of Vermont. Visit almost any school and you’ll find a really cool program or system or structure that is unique to that school. We’re a tiny state, no more than about three hours from end to end, so why aren’t these ideas crossing town lines? What hope do we have of scaling innovation in a way that significantly affects student learning nationally if we can’t even walk a great idea next door?

In his book Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson writes about nine key ideas that drive innovation. As we think about spreading what works, we have been drawn to three of these ideas in particular:
  • Innovation and evolution thrive in large networks.
  • Lucky connections between ideas drive innovation.
  • Serendipitous discoveries can be facilitated by a shared intellectual or physical space.
What all of these ideas have in common is an expectation of collaboration and connection. Good ideas rarely come out of individuals or out of offices with closed doors. Whether you are looking at Google or Microsoft or Apple or Burton Snowboards or any number of other innovative companies, all have an open, collaborative environments with time and opportunity for their employees to interact and share and question and imagine. Some have completely open floor plans, some have collaborative workspaces, some have flexible schedules, and some have free drinks on Fridays--but all encourage connection by setting up environments that lead to the collision of ideas.

We have had two educational experiences recently that exemplify Johnson’s ideas about good ideas, experiences that have shown us the power and potential of thought collisions.

Experience #1: The Think Tank Summit

We teach a class this year called Think Tank, which is proficiency-based, personalized course that brings high school students to the center of educational change (we're going to invite you all to start your own at the end of this post). Students in grades 10-12 spent the first few months of school learning about the brain, about how people learn, about national and international innovations in education, and about our own local educational strengths and needs. They chose areas of individual interest, researched, blogged, and ultimately developed specific problem statements that they hoped to address. Thanks to a grant from the Nellie Mae Foundation, we organized an opportunity for our students to bring their thinking about the future of education together with experts, stakeholders, and thinkers from their own district (our superintendent, curriculum director, and principal), from around the state (president of Burton Snowboards, local therapists, members of the Agency of Education, college admissions directors), from New England (representatives from Nellie Mae and the Center for Collaborative Education), and from as far as Toronto (assessment expert and author), We had 45 thinkers--half students, half adults--who spent the day talking, listening, and thinking about education. Students shared their concerns and their ideas for how to address them, and the adults asked questions, took notes, made suggestions, challenged ideas, and added complexity. Adults shared their concerns and their hopes and listened as the students pushed back, offered opinions, asked questions, and revised their ideas.
It was amazing. There was so much passion and hope in that room, and each adult left feeling inspired by how thoughtful adolescents can be when provided agency, time to think, and honest conversation. Each student left feeling heard, empowered, and ready to work with adults to make powerful and difficult change. (visit to see the proposed projects that we will work to craft, revise, and implement next semester).

By bringing together all of these amazing thinkers and providing the space and time for their ideas to collide, seeds of change were planted (mixed metaphor noted). The clinical psychologists listened to the students share the causes and effects of stress, then connected with school leaders about ways to address it. The CEO of Burton listened to a student talk about not being connected to school because the environment made it so difficult for him to learn, then offered him the opportunity to intern at the factory and receive credit. The representative from the Agency of Education asked students to present to the legislature, sharing their experiences and ideas. The author from Toronto talked about the summit with teachers the following week at a conference and they reached out to us via Twitter to learn about starting a Think Tank in their school. Two adult participants from different states have started conversations about how to collaborate across organizations in order to share ideas. These are just a few of the many collisions that have the potential to lead to incredible change, and they were made possible because of lucky connections between ideas, shared intellectual and physical space, and a large network of diverse thinkers with common goals.

Experience #2: The Interstate Collaboration on Proficiency-Based Learning

Just a month after the Think Tank Summit, 12 teacher leaders and three administrators from our district went to a conference outside of Dallas, Texas and met with a similar number of teacher leaders and administrators from two other schools (Adlai Stevenson outside of Chicago and Mount Vernon in Iowa). This opportunity was a year in the making and was brought about by a large network and by a lucky connection. Ken O’Connor is an active member of the Standards-Based Learning networks on both Twitter and Facebook. He is an avid reader and thinker, and is always working to bring ideas together. Over a year ago he made the connection between Adlai Stevenson and our school, Champlain Valley in Vermont. He noticed that both of our schools were taking a similar approach to Proficiency-Based Learning (PBL), one focused on skill-based targets rather than content-based targets. Soon we were chatting via email, and a few months later, a large group of educators from Adlai Stevenson came to visit CVU. During that visit we came up with an idea to meet at a conference and spend time collaborating and sharing challenges and successes.

Thanks to Tony Reibel (Director of Assessment, Research, and Evaluation at Adlai Stevenson HS), that meeting happened when we were all in Dallas. Tony had connected with leaders from Mount Vernon who were about to take on the transition to PBL with the same skill-based philosophy, so all three schools met for four hours after the first day of the conference to talk, listen, eat, drink, and build relationships. The shared space encouraged us to talk honestly and exchange contact information with like teachers. Since that evening, individual teachers have reached out to share assessments, scales, questions, and exemplars, and our schools have committed to starting a more formal relationship that will involve school visits as soon as this spring.

Schools are set up to be competitive. In sports, these rivalries are obvious and usually good-natured, but the competition for good press or funds or people is less friendly. Schools compete for excellent teachers, for dedicated staff, and with school choice, they even now compete for students. Local newspapers publish comparisons of test scores, not taking the time to explain the purpose of standardized testing or reasons for variance, and national organizations rate schools based on often absurd criteria. Within schools, the competition can be even more fierce. Teachers compete for student attention, for resources, for time, and for access to opportunities. There is little time or incentive to share ideas or take risks or collaborate. All of those conditions that Steven Johnson writes about take time and demand risk taking. They require sharing and connecting and traveling (physically or digitally) and making the space for collisions and serendipitous discoveries. 

Even though the structure of schools makes it difficult, maybe we can do more to set up the conditions that allow for shared innovation. We can be intentional and creative about how we use time in school. We can establish networks (or join ones that currently exist). We can develop connections between and among educators and business people and students. We can create shared spaces--physical and digital--where ideas can collide and grow.

This work is too hard to do alone and too important not to do, so let’s start by intentionally encouraging collisions. How about starting a Think Tank course at your school? We’d love to us if you are interested. (Emily) and (Stan)