ISKME Big Ideas Fest

Three Big Ideas from ISKME’s Big Ideas Fest

Spending four days at the ISKME Big Ideas Fest was the perfect prelude to the New Year with all its resolutions and planning.  Big Ideas Fest convenes education stakeholders including teachers, policy makers, researchers, eduprenuers, students, and funders and engages them in imagining complete redesigns for education (both K-12 and higher education) from a human-centered perspective. ISKME's annual event meets in glorious Half-Moon Bay, California.  Somehow I managed to avoid the spa and the beach and get to the conference. I came away with at least three big ideas that will be part of my work this year. 

Big Idea No. 1 – Any team can create an innovative idea with the frame of a plan…in three days.  Yep.  No more year-long, meeting-filled marathons to fix education are needed.  At BIF 2013 we surfaced no less than nine plans to change the face of education.  How’d we do it?  Design thinking, a lot of Post-It notes, some pipe cleaners, and a great team coach.  That, and the pampering care of our hotel staff, who enabled us to forget about how we were going to eat and buckle down to come up with nine new ideas to improve everything on the scene from big data to the Common Core.  I’ve had experience with design thinking from IDEO – it’s a big part of how we designed the NGLC Breakthrough Models Incubator – but at BIF I got the chance to go through an entire IDEO-style collaboration from landing on a user need to developing a responsive product. 

We started by interviewing two people in the field about topics we were interested in to detect a need.  Once we landed on something users needed, we brainstormed ideas, fanning out wide without judgment, then narrowing in on the ideas that held the most energy.  Next came prototyping, where we literally got down on the floor with all kinds of craft items (Styrofoam balls, tiny stick-on foam pieces, pipe cleaners) and made a three-dimensional model of our idea.  Based on what we learned from prototyping, we tightened up the idea and then prepared a quick 2-minute slide deck presentation for our fellow conferees.  It was fun, challenging, and tiring—and it worked.  All nine teams – people who had never met in most cases – produced an intriguing idea that would somehow better education.  Some of the teams are continuing to collaborate and we may see one or two of the ideas come to fruition. 

My big learning was in prototyping.  The experience of doing a quick and dirty prototype, combined with the powerful speaker presentations that preceded it, really drove home the fact that rapid and repeated prototyping is key to innovation.  It was good to be reminded that no one can learn everything at once.  Prototyping leaves lots of room for users to input feedback, helping to create excellent products when they roll out.  And if you ever forget this important point, pick up a can of WD40.  Apparently the 40 represents the number of formulas they tried before landing on the one that is the go-to product in every person’s fixit drawer.

Big Idea No. 2 – Scale is not about numbers.  This isn’t an entirely new idea (see Coburn article), but the speakers from Wiki-Seat (Nicolas Weidinger, a 20-something industrial design grad of Ohio State University) and Project Exploration (Gabrielle Lyon, renegade, kid-loving, science evangelist) added new dimension to it.  Both projects achieved scale through organic means.  Wiki-seat (an odd shaped piece of metal that provides the platform for building one’s own chair with a variety of materials) spread first to the 10th grade literature class of a teacher friend of Weidinger, Sean Wheeler, who used the project as a way to bring Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay on self-reliance to life.   From there, Wiki-Seat has found its way to 100 educators on three continents, and has the active participation of over 700 students.  In the case of Project Exploration, mere exposure to science in an afterschool program led to extraordinary high school completion and college completion rates for inner-city youth.  The program’s reach went further still with many of the students going on to choose careers in STEM fields.  In both cases the scale/spread of the idea was unplanned and extended to places no one expected.  As Lyon said in her presentation, it was never Project Exploration’s goal to preach about college or steer kids toward science careers; it just happened.  And this has enriched my definition of scale and forced me to stop and question the value of planning to scale.  If scale is something that spreads organically and delivers an experience that doesn’t stop unfolding even when the program is over, it can’t, by definition, be planned.   And that makes me wonder how many powerful, impactful ideas we have passed over because we insisted on being able to foresee the path to numerical scale. 

Big Idea No. 3 – Competency-based education really can be about the liberal arts and really can be more than workforce development.  Although he insulted everyone in the audience at least once, including the organizers of the event, without malice or intent (“After 10 years of leading a nonprofit, most people become jerks”), the final speaker, Nolan Bushnell, co-founder of BrainRush and creator of the wildly successful Atari computer games and children’s pizza palaces, Chuck E. Cheese, made a strong argument for competency-based education in both K-12 and post-secondary contexts.  In Bushnell’s vision of it, competency-based education offers a limitless platform for developing students’ creative capacities through project-based learning.  Combined with the story of the Wiki-Seat project’s pairing with an English literature class, I started to see even more possibilities in competency-based education than I had before.  Granted, I was already predisposed to be looking for possibilities with competency-based models given that the NGLC Breakthrough Models Incubator is focusing on bringing more of them forward.  But these speakers really showed how competency-based education can be more than just a plausible alternative to tired classroom practice.  We can expose students to intellectually stimulating material and give them practical preparation for life and work at the same time.  That’s an inspiring thought and goal for everyone in education to aspire to in the coming year.

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