I loved reading Peg’s piece, especially her take on effective personalized learning at Bricolage Academy — a school I’ve watched grow from an idea in Josh Densen’s head to a thriving community fulfilling many of its promises.
While I agree with Peg’s frustrations about personalized and blended learning overall, her focus on myth-busting stops short of explaining how innovative schools like Bricolage actually get the way they are. Valuing teachers is important, but there’s much more to effective innovation than that.
In particular, I think what makes Bricolage and other innovative communities so disruptive is a focus on mindset before resources.
Here are three techniques great innovators use to create communities like Bricolage — techniques that will make your use of personalized and blended learning better tomorrow. For way less than the $1.3B that Los Angeles spent on iPads.
Good innovators start cheap and iterate.
As we’ve seen in manufacturing, software, and even the restaurant business, waterfall methods (spend tons of time and money to plan the perfect solution, then push it over the waterfall) are losing ground to agile development (start small, iterate quickly based on lots of smaller tests) in schools like Bricolage.
This simple reordering — mindset first, resources second — allows members of innovative communities to make tectonic shifts in traditional approaches by making lots and lots of little bets instead of massive $1.3B gambles that inevitably prove unfulfilling.
This is where I wish Peg dug in more in her explanation of Bricolage culture. It’s not the lack of bells and whistles that makes Bricolage special. What makes Bricolage special is investing in a mindset of creative confidence before picking the bells and whistles.
Look at the tools Diana Turner’s using: homemade YouTube videos (free), cell phone or tablet cameras (probably free) and Google Docs (free). Look at how she’s using them; they make her so human, so real. And she’s modeling for kids how to solve their own challenges in a more creative, efficient way.
This focus on making things seeps into everything at Bricolage. You won’t see many bake sales or book fairs at the school; rather, you’re more likely to get an invite to New Orleans Mini Maker Faire.
Good innovators listen to their users.
Starting cheap and iterating only works if you adjust to user feedback in between each iteration.
Before Josh Densen wrote the application to start his charter school, he started doing “pop-up classrooms” at music festivals around town. He’d cleverly set up his table close enough to the blow-up bounce house that all music festival organizers worth their salt set up — so close that you almost wondered if he was the guy who’d paid for it. He had no brochures, no propaganda. He’d just stand there next to his own kids as they played with some really cool new learning tools he wanted to test. Families would wander in to the festival and do a double take. There Josh would be, smiling, ready to talk with parents about school — what they liked, what they didn’t, what they dreamed of in a school.
A diverse mix of families started showing up at the pop-ups, and Josh felt it was time to test his ideas at a deeper level. He struck a deal with Samuel Green Charter School: he would to show up at the school a few times with some of the pop-up kids, and have them join Green kids in a test run of his design thinking class.
The best entrepreneurs do this consistently; they make high frequency attempts at new solutions — each repeated attempt an improvement based on what they learned from users.
Good innovators steal.
Josh stole his early-stage pop-up ideas from food truck operators. There was a big fight going on at the time between old-line New Orleans restaurants and a bunch of cooks working out of food trucks serving more diverse food. We talked about this fight at 4.0 Schools, where I serve as CEO; one of our teammates, Cambria Martinelli, worked with the food truck coalition on the side.
Steven Johnson, in Where Good Ideas Come From, explains how common this stealing — what he calls “exaptation” — is among innovators. Exaptation occurs when someone crosses the membrane between one domain and another, extracts something that’s serving one purpose there, and then adapts it in the original domain for a different purpose. Josh’s application of the food truck concept in schooling is a great example.
We could use more of this in schooling. Teachers — even the good ones Peg raves about — are often too out of touch with the world around them. In a 2012 study, McKinsey found that only 45% of kids and 42% of employers thought schools were doing a good job preparing students for the world of work. Meanwhile back in our schools, when teachers were asked the same question, 72% said they were doing great.
We’ve created a profession that’s entirely too isolated from the world around it. Shoving tools — hardware or software — into that world won’t do nearly as much as changing the mindsets of the people doing their level best to serve kids within it.
My latest exaptation candidate is twitch.tv. Twitch.tv lets experts in World of Warcraft (or any other game) teach others how to play, hack, and win. Seth Stevenson explained the learning that’s actually happening: “Well, those viewers are finding a community of like-minded souls, they’re engaging over a shared interest, and they’re getting tips from superior gamers on how to win at the games.”
On Twitch, I see more than the 24% engagement Peg mentions as the state of ed-tech today. These platforms aren’t perfect, but I’m inspired by the engagement and curious about how we could exapt this kind of platform into schooling. What if a group of kids tried a low-tech version of twitch.tv for an hour in their own classrooms? How fast could we build on those little experiments to truly rethink engagement? What role would the teacher have in that scenario? What could happen if we really mixed what we know about teaching with examples from completely unexpected places?
Peg got this dialogue going with some myths that deserve busting. But we shouldn’t stop there. We can start making personalized learning better right now. We can start by making many more, much smaller bets. This is better for our kids and for our collective wallet. And we should start listening to our users — students, families, and yes, teachers. Doing so will lead to innovation that’s much more fulfilling. I promise.
After reading both Tyre and Candler, I had these thoughts. First, Candler deals with what “ought to be”about innovation and technology in public schools while Tyre deals with “what is” when it comes to technology-assisted personalized instruction (a.k.a. blended learning). The difference between having a dream of a better future and getting through the day well in an urban school is the difference between wearing rose-colored glasses and seeing the world as it is. Nothing wrong about dreaming–it can be a beginning point to a finer world–but unanchored in the daily (and gritty) realities of school life, Candler’s “should” becomes seriously detached from any workable strategy of urban school improvement.
Second, Tyre’s focus is on the centrality of a knowledgeable and skilled teacher who understands when and how to use available technologies. Candler’s focus mentions teachers, of course, but unrelentingly directs the reader’s attention to innovation and what’s in the heads of those innovators–their “mindset.” No word about the conditions on the ground, the context in which school and classroom innovations are birthed and nurtured.Not a syllable mentioned about the abundance of inexperienced teachers visited upon urban children and youth.
Third, Candler’s takes the one example of Josh Densen, founder of the New Orleans Parish charter called Bricolage, and shows how Schools 4.0, an organization Candler founded, helped incubate the charter to where it is now. Bricolage opened two years ago and now has 150 students in kindergarten and first grade. It is a fine, worthy example. But Bricolage or similar instances of schools cannot do the serious cooking in the kitchen necessary to understand deeply the work facing teachers seeking to improve urban schooling. Tyre’s analysis of myths points to a stronger meat-and-potatoes (or vegan) technology-enhanced diet that can improve urban schools. Candler’s offers bytes of cotton candy.