Learning from TODAY

One of the great blessings of being a teacher is the opportunity to rest, reflect and recharge during the summer. There is time to build relationships with others and make use of good “theta wave” time to plan for the next school year. There is even enough time for a guilty pleasure or two. One of mine is drinking too much coffee and spending a whole morning enjoying the Today Show every now and then. These days, however, I can hardly watch or listen to anything without putting it through the filter of teaching and learning. Below are three scenes from Today that got me curious and thinking about just how disconnected school life is from real life. Because I’ve also been listening to Seth Godin’s Akimbo podcast this summer, I’m channeling that style:

“Akimbo is an ancient word, from the bend in the river or the bend in an archer’s bow. It’s become a symbol for strength, a posture of possibility, the idea that when we stand tall, arms bent, looking right at it, we can make a difference.

[Akimbo is] about seeing what’s happening and choosing to do something. The culture is real, but it can be changed. You can bend it.”

Scene 1: Jordan Spieth Interview

If you don’t know Jordan Spieth, he is a prolific young golfer who has won three majors and been atop the world golf rankings more than once. He’s 24. By all accounts Jordan is a stand-up guy and surrounds himself with an equally grounded “entourage” – his ninth-grade science lab partner, a one-time high school basketball team manager, a junior golf nemesis from Kentucky, his sister who has special needs and his caddie who is uniquely qualified by virtue of his previous stint a sixth grade teacher.


Willie Geist’s interview with Jordan got me thinking about “mastery” – how mastering is not an end game but a continual process of learning. When asked about low moments – “melt downs” – on the course, you get the sense that Jordan is well practiced in reflecting on those single outcomes and as “…part of the learning curve.” He goes on to say that reflection has helped him “get back to that 12 year old who fell in love with the game and getting very mastery driven, very focused on the process and getting lost in the practice and competing.”

To unpack that through the lens of school, what do you think drives Jordan and other people to want to master something so badly?

Jordan hinted at his motivation earlier in the interview when he says he “was brought up by parents who preached humility….setting goals …. and being very focused on having fun.”

Scene 2: Flynn McGarry cooking demo

Flynn McGarry first demoed his cooking skills on the Today Show when he was 13. Today he is 19, and has me writing down ingredients for a delicious looking braised pork lettuce wrap. He did not speak or behave like many 19 year olds I know. I suppose that demeanor is earned when you open your own restaurant in NYC at the age of 19 and can fill it while charging $150+ per plate. Wait, what?? I was eager to learn more of the backstory for this “kid”.

One thing that struck me in the attached video is how Flynn describes his creative process. It is less systematic than other chefs. He describes having ideas about an ingredient or two, then spending a whole day experimenting, making a tremendous mess and “not really figuring out a recipe, but figuring out ‘ok, now it just tastes good.’”

As educators, do we really care about the recipe – the process – or is it more relevant to focus on something that “tastes good” – a well crafted product?

On staying motivated and working hard, Flynn attributes his work ethic to “never really being satisfied with himself” and continually trying to get better. In other words, just as Jordan Spieth described, mastery is not achieved after one or two big successes, but is a drive for continual improvement. Kaizen; if you will.

Does an assessment system that grants an “A” inadvertently communicate a student has “arrived” or mastered something?

Finally, in response to critics, Flynn dispels a false narrative around age and mastery (sorry/not sorry for the expletive in that clip). He describes what we all know to be true; age and ability are not mutually exclusive. According to Flynn, at the end of the day “if the food sucks, the food sucks….I don’t think that is an age thing.”

Can grade levels and mastery coexist? Should it matter when mastery is achieved or simply if it is achieved?

Scene 3: Gifford family quits school

Ten years ago Jamie and Behan Griffin quit their high paying jobs and set sail around the world with their three children. That means that the kids – now 10,16 and19 years old – have missed ten years of formal schooling. Can you imagine?!

Are they literate? Do they have friends? Will they get into college?

The short answers are yes, yes, and yes (the interview is worth a watch for the details). In fact, these kids note missing things like bagels and a washer and dryer more than prom or riding the school bus. The oldest, soon heading to Lewis and Clark College (of course!!), remembers life before the boat which he describes as “routine.” Now he has visited places he had previously only read about in books and “it is hard to describe because [visiting] is so much better.” I’m not advocating for doing away with school altogether – of course not – nor am I advocating for this particular example of a rather extreme vagabond lifestyle. However, it did make me honestly reflect on what experiences within school make it worthwhile.

What is school’s – in the generic sense – unique value proposition if the Gifford family have shown alternate (maybe better) experiences for learning, making friends and still moving on to meaningful lives and careers?

I’m fascinated by the day-to-day life for the Giffords. There is lots of play…LOTS of work (spearfishing, grocery shopping, laundry, boat maintenance, etc), AND a field trip of the day. The kids started off with more structured school curriculum, but that evolved into a more experiential learning based on whichever historical or cultural site was nearby to port that day. How can it be that these kids are learning at a presumably reasonable rate, but with only ONE field trip a day?! Compare that to most school days I know that move in and out of 4,5, or even 6 discrete subjects a day.

What might be that ONE field trip a day that teachers could design/host/embark on that would “match up” or exceed current learning expectations?



Backwards Design for Post Secondary Experiences

There is definitely tension between teachers who lean more toward the “habits of mind” side of the spectrum, those on the discrete learning outcome side of the spectrum, and those who are somewhere in between. I struggle with the balance as well. I feel pretty confident that the mindsets are what students most need to know (embody?), but I feel pressure to not pass on science students to another teacher who might expect certain discipline specific prerequisites.


In the end, the pressure to add learning outcomes stems from what feels like an academic arms race. At some point, which I think is soon, the addition of more standards/APs/tests becomes unsustainable. Innovation is part analytical thinking and part intuition. The analytics may say APs and test scores make for a collegiate “minimum viable product”, but intuition and experience tell me that these figure little into the overall success and happiness of a person.


I wonder what it would look like if our focus was not only to prepare students for post secondary acceptance, but really pushed to guide students toward the best possible post secondary experience. In UbD fashion, if we want the best and most personalized post secondary experience for students, than we should start with an imagined student future beyond college. I guess my point is – there is a broader definition for “college ready” than just checking boxes next to learning outcomes and test scores.


My hypothesis is that the university does not make a person. Rather, those who have the foresight, and sometimes bravery, to seek out the absolute best fit post secondary experience will be more successful (how ever they define it), and more importantly happier and self fulfilled.


So, here are some hopefully disruptive HM-dubs.

How Might We….
  • weave career exploration into core classes?
  • prep students for alternative post secondary experiences like tech schools, trade schools, culinary schools, 30 weeks, or Singularity University?
  • repurpose books like “what color is your parachute”  for academic way-finding in addition to career considerations?
  • get students involved in career and technical student organizations (CTSOs)?
  • loop parents into the conversation of a more personalized education and career path for their child?
  • make an optional track – outside of “school” – for consultation, networking, and building of entrepreneurial spirit)

A Disruptive Mission Statement

Nearly all schools in the U.S. seek to prepare students for college and many included this idea into their mission statement.  It is no secret, however, that the education system in the U.S. is not keeping up with many other parts of the world, so could it be that we are mission aligned to the wrong thing?  As an example, many European school systems “track” students in a career pathway in high school years.  Many states in the U.S. have followed suit with career and technical education programs.  Yet, somehow the attainment of a university diploma seems to be the driving force in education in the U.S.

I’m not proposing that college (and I’m talking 4 yr university here) is bad, but I wonder if the focus on college prep is too short sighted.  I REALLY want to read a school mission statement that might be: We seek to prepare students for life, where they can balance their work with their passions and be constantly in search of new learning and opportunities.  Ok – that might be a bit of a hyperbole, but I would love to see a real disrupter in this realm.

Following my own line of thinking, what would it mean if teachers sought to prepare students for the life that will be outside of academics?  I know that it was not until later in my life (in my 30’s) before I found my passion for teaching.  This was only because I discovered the field of Technology Education; a field that overlaps with my personal interest in engineering, design, “making”, etc.  What if I was made aware of this path earlier?  Would it have made me a better teacher?  It is hard to say because my previous careers as well as my university experience have certainly shaped who I am today and that comes through in the classroom.  Still, I think there is some substance behind preparing students for a fulfilling life outside of school.  Design Thinking and Technology Education are not a panacea, but they do offer interesting approaches to teaching skills that, in my opinion, are areas of need like altruism, technical literacy, pseudo-science identification, creativity, adaptability, and passion finding.  My hypothesis is that if we could foster these skills to students early on, then they would also translate to a successful college experience.

What would be your disruptive mission statement?


It’s a fixin to come one

Translation: things are changing or there is a storm headed this way.  I love this phrase! I learned from some relatives, but I’m still unsure if I am using it right.

It is fixin to come one on this blog.  I’ve been ridiculously absent for quite some time.  Let’s just say that teaching, coaching, renovating a new house, and other school related passion projects have taken priority over my blog this year.  With summer approaching I’m trying to get myself back on the horse.  I will be posting more often, however you may notice a different feel to the posts.  I will still use this as a sounding board for design thinking and technology education in K-12, but you may notice a tone that is more akin to a journal than a clearinghouse of information.  

This largely reflects my current state of mind in regards to my teaching career.  I’m finishing up my 3rd year of teaching after a career change.  I was previously a process engineer and then small business owner/operator.  At this point I feel like I’ve graduated from the “Discovery” mode of my teaching career where I took heavy doses of empathy along the way.  So, following my schools DEEP design thinking methodology – Discover, Empathize, Experiment, and Produce – I seem to have found myself in the experiment phase.  I’m pondering questions like: How might we formalize design thinking into school curriculum?  How might we assess the “soft skills” associated with design thinking?  What are the similarities and differences between design thinking and engineering design which is often associated with Technology Education?  and lots more to come.

So here we go….my own experimental thought journal on issues surrounding design thinking and technology education.  I expect there will be lots of questions and few answers.  Yes, this is totally self serving exercise, but perhaps you share some of my same questions.  My hope is this new change in format will prompt some discussion and feedback.  I’m looking forward to the ride!

Interesting overview on design thinking. Also some valid critique in that design thinking is “undertheorised and understudied”. – via Mike Press. Mike’s post includes a fantastic list of related articles and links that can help understand the current landscape of design thinking.

A major hurdle for design thinking, particularly in education, is the question of how to assess these types of activities. Mike’s blog post popped up on my search for the work of Kay Stables & Richard Kimbell who indroduced some creative research and assessment ideas in their paper that can be found here: http://www.iteea.org/Conference/PATT/PATT15/Stables.pdf . (No…not THAT Richard Kimbell from the movie The Fugitive)

Mike’s post and the linked paper are worth a read, particularly if you are curious about the assessment research being done in the design thinking space.

Mike Press

My Masterclass on Design Thinking for EURIB in Rotterdam in November 2012 is an opportunity to pull together some recent literature on this issue and provide a perspective on a concept that has sparked some spirited debate. A fresh new variable? A useful myth? Or opportunistic hype? My conclusion is that it’s a sign of the times, and has been useful as a focus for some new practices and methods. But for it to work we still need designers. They are experts in the aesthetics and craft of design, but define the value of these in new ways. Socially critical, reflexive makers of change reconnect design with its soul.

Design Thinking is a fashionable term in both design and management circles, reflecting the rise of interest in methods and strategies that embed creativity and innovation within management across public and private sectors. However, it is a concept that must…

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Making Design Thinking Actionable (Part 1)

Design Thinking is necessarily vague…..applicable to products and procedures alike…vegetable peelers to your experience at the book store (Barnes and Noble was among the first to redesign store layout to the index of topics that we are used to today).  I get it.  But teachers tend to not like vague.  I need to have some way of anticipating where my students’ work is going to lead.  It’s the same frustrated feeling many of us have experienced after leaving a training seminar of one kind or another.  We tend to cheer enthusiastically “YES!”  then dejectedly wonder “but how?”.

Fortunately, I just finished Tim Hurson’s book “Think Better”.  It’s awesome. It lays out specific, actionable, exercises for design thinking which Hurson calls “productive thinking” (told you designers can’t agree on a definition).   Just to be different, I want to consider using Hurson’s methods in my classroom, but call it “Innovative Thought (I.T.)”.  Productive thinking sounds pretty corporate to me.  Understandably so since Hurson’s book is aimed at businesses and found in the afore-mentioned business section at Barnes and Noble.  Innovative Thought ties nicely with my school’s mission to incorporate innovation into 21st century teaching and learning as well.  So I want to get my thoughts on this book down, completely selfishly, to try to frame how Hurson’s process might look in a classroom.

Lets’ first agree that thinking is hard.  My students remind me of this every day.  Getting the answer (presumably from me, but also from answers.com and the like) is far easier than generating an original response.  I can’t say I blame them.  The outcomes look the same…the answer.  But design thinking is different because there is no answer….yet.  Design thinking is for the world’s wickedest problems.  If that’s a little dramatic for you, consider the hurdles/challenges you face every day at work.  Is there an answer that your boss checks you against, or are you expected to generate something plausible/workable/logical on your own accord?  Exactly.

As Hurson proposes, innovative thought is a series of iterations of divergent (creative) and convergent (analytical) thinking.  I like it; and consider it validated by Roger Martin’s work in general and this graph in particular.


Roger Martin – via Mutually Human blog


Design Thinking is hard work because of what it’s not…Reproductive thinking.  Six Sigma and TQM are business world examples of fine tuning or micro managing the details of a process to improve quality.  Is this a good thing for business?  Sure.  Is it an example of innovation?  No.  As Hurson says, this is an “illusion of innovation.”  The product or process improves, but nothing is done to ask the question “can we do this in an entirely new way?

Example:  DVD/VCR combo


Designed so that you can purchase and use any type video media available.


Netflix stream video so that you don’t need to buy physical media in the first place or go to brick and mortar store to rent one.

To start an innovative process you first need a problem…an issue…or as Hurson says an “itch” to tackle.  To do this with students, I imagine having them tap into their everyday experiences.  What annoys them?  List it…as many as possible.  This is divergent thinking and we should consciously try to free ourselves from any inhibitions and us our imaginations.  It can be hard to resist our analytical mind’s urge to mark an idea as “dumb” or “…will never work”.  Ignore it.  We will use convergent thinking to refine the list later.  I asked some seniors at our school what annoyed them and got these responses:

“I wish I had better access to a printer, like in the hallway on the way to class”

“I wish we had a better place to put our back backs during lunch”  (these pile up everywhere!)

“I wish freshmen would get out of the hallways”  (I presume this means the halls are too crowded?  Lockers should not be centralized?)

With a list generated, it’s time pick one that feels right.  Which “itches” are the team drawn too?  I like the third one about crowded hallways.  I want to know more about what is the root of this….the real problem.  This intuition is critical to the creative process (as suggested by Martin).  With an issue identified that pulls you toward it….piques your interest…you’re in business.  The ball is rolling.

DT Approach to an Inspiring Syllabus Challenge

I’m coming off a great first day of planning feeling inspired to innovate and push the envelope of what are best practices (or as I learned from my head of school today – successful practices.  After all, best practice implies there is no room to improve).  So I thought I’d go through a design thinking exercise that I’ve been meaning to try out.  About a month ago I came across a post by John Burke regarding his “Inspiring Syllabus Challenge”.  John presents a compelling reason we should reexamine syllabi in order to better “sell” our objectives to students.  Since this is planning week for me; seems an apt time to give this a shot.

In keeping with the spirit of my own blog I thought I’d add a design thinking element to syllabus challenge to see if I could validate it some how.  So, I set out to ask stupid questions and apply the 5 Whys technique to see if I could uncover some truth about about the information I’d like to convey in a syllabus.  At the same time I can put these techniques to the test.  Here we go:

Initial Design Question:  How might I redesign my syllabus in order to better “sell” students on the subject?

Why do I need to sell it?

Because it outlines what would be covered in the class.

Why do students need to know beforehand what will be covered in class?

So students know what to expect and whats expected of them.

Why do students need to know what is expected of them?

Because it sets expectations for behavior and helps teachers manage them.

Why do we require certain expectations for behavior?

So That we create an environment that maximizes learning.

Why does the syllabus help create an environment that maximizes student learning?

Mine doesn’t.

I’m not sure this worked perfectly – I probably could have stopped at the fourth question.  Also, I think for this technique to really work the questions need to be asked by an outsider.  Since I’m a teacher questioning my own policies, I may have some how channeled “what I want to hear” into the responses.  Ultimately, though, I’m pleased with the results.  I’m now looking at my syllabus as the first touch point for creating a learning environment that I think maximizes student learning.  So, what does that environment look like?  For my style its: active, inquiry based, participatory, organized, effective, fun.

Therefore, the new design question might be:  How might I recreate my syllabus into something active, inquiry based, participatory, organized, effective, and fun?

That’s a tall order, but one that could be fun to pursue. At least now I have a clearer picture of what I’m trying to achieve.

Now –  if only I had the guts to give it a try….