Lessons for Learning

Big Ideas Fest is ISKME’s annual education convening, where in addition to experiencing design thinking, participants are also engaged in an exciting and holistic conversation about learning. We know that real learning is often a messy, arduous, nonlinear process, and should be celebrated and marveled at as such. We also know that whatever  the current technologies, optimal conditions for learning must still speak to our basic social needs: safety, trust, and a sense of community (respect, empathy, reciprocity, etc.). Meeting these needs are necessary steps towards cultivating those coveted 21st century learning skills such as problem solving, creativity, and critical thinking. The presentations and activities at Big Ideas Fest incorporate these basic social concepts, as well as reflect a rich conversation about the complexities of designing solutions to improve education.
 
Below are a few highlights from the Rapid Fire speaker presentations given at Big Ideas Fest 2011 that reveal timeless and timely insights into the relationship between learners, educators, and learning environments:
 
Letting Go of Fear: “But Ms. Eckhardt, that’s a baby book!” protest Kaycee Eckhardt’s students when she makes reading suggestions at her high school classroom, which is located in a FEMA trailer in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward. Kaycee’s response is simple: “Just give it a try.”
 
Letting go of the fear of trying has been a big theme throughout Kaycee’s journey as an educator, as well as the journeys of her students. Kaycee teaches in one of the most poverty-stricken school districts in the U.S.; despite her students’ low reading comprehension scores, Kaycee’s goal is to have her students love the written word. But Kaycee asks, “How do you love the written word when it’s caused you nothing but frustration and awkwardness and embarrassment your entire high school career?”
 
To approach her goal of achieving complete student literacy, Kaycee said she needed to let go of her own fear of “failing” as an educator and address her students’ fears of being perceived as “bad readers” by their peers. Deploying tactics such as camouflaging reading-level appropriate texts (the aforementioned “baby books”) for her students with covers that display the titles for books their peers would approve of (like Lord of the Rings), Kaycee demonstrates an important lesson about innovation: “Being innovative doesn’t mean having the most creative idea; it doesn’t mean having the biggest or the best idea. Being innovative means coming up with an idea that meets the needs of the moment.” Kaycee’s needs are her students, and she knows the stakes are too high to be afraid of trying a new approach.
 
Cultivating Trust: “The reality is that for some people, simply being treated with kindness can be a disorienting and even overwhelming experience,” reflects Jody Lewen on the critical importance of teaching vulnerability and trust-building among learners. As Executive Director of the Prison University Project, Jody oversees a robust college preparatory program at San Quentin State Prison in Northern California.
 
Jody states, “There are a lot of paths to prison, but most of them are characterized, at least to some degree, by academic failure.” The program’s volunteer educators understand that cultivating a foundation of trust with their students is central to the learning process, because learning requires asking for help. Jody underscores that “in some student’s minds, asking for help means exposing vulnerability, and the first thing that most people learn, in prison and in life, is to conceal vulnerability at all costs.” Thus, Jody explains that both as a concept and a skill, “getting help” must be taught patiently, because “a student who feels that his teachers and his school care about him as a person, is much more likely to communicate, accept help, and persist.” She characterizes prison culture as “a microcosm of many peoples minds, when under psychological pressure,” thus making the role of trust in learning an important conversation to be had in any education setting.
 
Encouraging Creativity: Imagine walking into a storefront filled with items like eye patches, scurvy-be-gone, and peg-leg oil, and then peering around a corner to see a bunch of kids busily writing. Sound weird? Well, it’s just a normal day at 826 Valencia in San Francisco, part of the 826 National network of nonprofit tutoring centers, and designed with the theme of “supplies for the working buccaneer.” The creative 826 storefronts are a cool façade for the even cooler 826 learning center model, which provides free tutoring across various subjects to a mainly middle school-age student population powered by a cadre of over 6,000 tutoring volunteers.
 
826 National CEO, Gerald Richards, credits the organization’s success to its ability to remove the stigma of tutoring by creating spaces that are built to reflect the creative, playful, whimsical, and “weird” energy of the students they serve. From tutoring centers stocked with superhero supplies to time-travel themed products, these learning spaces represent what 826 refers to as “third place,” a space that’s not school, not home, but instead a third place that “kids can feel like they own.”
Students choose their tutor and then establish a routine of homework, reading, and writing for each visit. 826 students are all published writers because every student’s writing is bound and presented to them as a memento of their accomplishments. Gerald explains that, “The mission is really to get kids creating, thinking about art, and expressing themselves in ways they never get to express themselves in school.” These incentives keep students coming back day after day, and also motivate 826 volunteer tutors and product designers to continue contributing to this inspiring learning environment.
 
These kinds of dynamic ideas feed the larger conversation at Big Ideas Fest about learning, and remind us that in generating new ideas for education, perhaps the biggest idea of all is to not overlook the more basic, human qualities that make for good learning experiences –- qualities that regardless of institutional budget, location, or access to technology, we all have the ability to give and receive. Whatever role we play in the education ecosystem, when it comes to producing innovations in education, we all need to feel supported in environments where it’s O.K. to take off the superhero suit, make mistakes, and ask for help. Big Ideas Fest provides the environment that reflects this ethos in an effort to improve learning and advance the field of education.
 
Please join us for this year’s Big Ideas Fest, December 2-5, 2012.