Notes from the Road: California 2016

Last Sunday, CityBridge’s fourth cohort of Education Innovation Fellows jumped on a plane and headed out west for a whirlwind week of innovative schools and design thinking in California. Every year, this trip has been life-changing for our fellows: diving deep into design thinking and seeing new ideas in practice is, as we’ve learned, a powerful combination.

Stay tuned for a full download—but until then, here are some snapshots from the road. Join in the fellows’ experiences in real time by following @CityBridgeFdn and #EIF16 on Twitter.

On Monday, Fellows brainstormed big ideas and questions they have about 8 Great Leaps in education:

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They formed teams bases on common themes and challenges they’re passionate about.

They then headed to Stanford and honed their design thinking skills with a workshop at the d.school:

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Here are a few folks building “student empathy totems” to remind them of how they can put themselves in the shoes of one of their learners:

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Then they shared their totems in a gallery walk discussion:

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On Tuesday, the team started the day at Urban Montessori Charter School, where fellows learned the key elements of the Montessori model and how the school expands upon that core model with design thinking. They also heard from the school staff about the challenges of crafting an intentionally diverse public school:

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After Urban Montessori, the fellows headed across Oakland to La Escuelita, an Oakland Unified elementary school:

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There, they learned about how the teachers have driven the design and implementation of a blended learning model and a maker space. Students in the maker space were building circuits:

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Lighthouse Community Charter School in Oakland was their next stop, where teachers gathered in that school’s maker space, the Creativity Lab:

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Fellows (and CityBridge staff!) got to experience the basics of making by investigating real-world products, taking them apart, and explaining the complexity of the component parts. In this meta-moment, teachers dissect a pencil sharper:

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The team’s last stop was the Facebook headquarters, the world’s largest open-plan office, where Shauntel Poulson (Reach Capital) introduced fellows to the ed-tech market. They closed the day with a highly interactive Nearpod demo from Guido Kovalskys, Nearpod CEO, and a demo of the Summit Basecamp Personalized Learning Platform from the Basecamp team and the Facebook engineers who work full time on the project.

Today, the fellows will head down to Los Angeles for more school visits, design thinking, and discussions about how to do school better. Stay tuned!

New Measures of Broader Outcomes

I find that many proposals for why we should improve education rely on a handful of similar arguments. Some common ones that I encounter:

  1. Appeals that highlight opportunity gaps between high- and low-income students.
  2. Appeals about the importance of education for the U.S. economy.
  3. Appeals about “The Future” or boilerplate about our current era of “high-speed information” and the need to help students adapt to technology.

The economic and opportunity arguments are important and valuable. And while I think that a lot of technology predictions don’t pan out, I certainly want all students to be ready for “The Future,” whatever it may hold. The authors of a paper released last fall make a different appeal. In “Dissatisfied Yet Optimistic,” they argue:

We must be far less patient about expanding our vision of what it means for students to be successful and developing effective ways of supporting and measuring this broader view.

This is an argument about what students should be learning that isn’t bounded by a curriculum. It’s about multiplying an academic curriculum by what the authors refer to as “critical habits of success such as self-awareness, agency, drive, curiosity and empathy.”

I think that the writers—Stacey Childress, Aylon Samouha, Diane Tavenner, and Jeff Wetzler—rightly attribute some of the recent opposition of parents around the country to standardized tests to the narrow focus on math and reading common in many schools. But I think they’re also pointing to big, challenging, and potentially messy work, which is figuring out ways to assess these other “critical skills.” I don’t think that it’s always easy to measure these things, and there’s also a risk that it will initially feel uncomfortable or wrong to measure intangibles like curiosity, empathy, and deep content expertise. But their impatience resonates with me because I don’t think that we can wait for other elements of next-generation education systems to fall into place before digging into this question of what an expanded vision for student success is, and how to measure it.

The authors describe this element of their theory of change as a need for “new measures of broader outcomes.” This expanded vision of student success will certainly require appropriate measures of things like agency and executive function. But I think that this work can’t be left solely to the innovators and early adopters in the education world. Another of the seven “key factors” upon which their theory depends is deep engagement from “students, families, and communities.” They argue that these stakeholders need “a clear and compelling vision of what school can be for their child” and that “in short, they need a compelling reason to change what they are looking for in schools.” One of these things that families might not yet know they can look for is the expanded vision of what student success means, and how to measure it.

So this is one of many important challenges in education innovation: cultivating conversations among educators and with parents about the limited scope of what we mean by a “good school.” The primary measures of “good” that are readily available rely upon the existing narrow focus on math and reading scores.

One of the authors, Alyon Samouha, will be doing a workshop this month with the 2016 Education Innovation Fellows, and I’m eager to see what sort of new measures of broader outcomes they design.

—Andrew Plemmons Pratt

Low cost prototyping, or, what can educators learn from bulgogi tacos?

passers-by checking out a prototype school model

Thanks to Matt Candler at 4.0 Schools in New Orleans, we have a new mental model for prototyping ideas in education. Drawing from his extensive gastronomical experience, Matt urged the participants of Startup Weekend EDU D.C.: Next Gen Schools to start thinking about education prototypes like pop up dinners and food trucks:

It makes sense. Instead of the typical new school design process that takes many years, millions of dollars, and an extensive strategic plan gathering dust as soon as kids walk through the doors, why not start today with an idea and take it directly to families and students?

Start small like a pop up restaurant. Run a sample class at a community center or inside an existing school. If you are ready for the next level of investment, think: food truck. What next level of infrastructure or materials can you prototype out on the road? Multiple sites or multiple groups of students?

TaKorean, a local D.C. food purveyor, has food trucks and a stand at Union Market. They have grown by proving their concept each step of the way.

The teams at Startup Weekend EDU D.C.: Next Gen Schools will be judged on Sunday by their prototyping today. It’s time to get out of the building and road test your ideas.

Could you be the TaKorean of schools?

That’s how SWEDU it! How do you do it?

—Margaret Angell

And go … Pitch Night rocked at Startup Weekend EDU D.C.: Next Gen Schools!

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Eight Startup Weekends kicked off last night across the world. Here at ours in D.C., 30 intrepid individuals stood up to pitch their ideas to a packed room. But instead of business or tech ideas, we heard pitches for next generation school ideas. Instead of a conference room, we were in the cafeteria at Columbia Heights Educational Campus. Instead of coders, we had educators.

We heard about interdisciplinary studies, arts integration, teacher-organized schools, and service learning. We heard about Maslow’s hierarchy, the need for student voice, testing beyond reading and math, and making use of community resources outside of school walls. We had classroom teachers, charter school leaders, folks from the federal Department of Ed, and—for one of the highlights of the weekend—a high school senior.

Everyone voted on the best ideas and ten teams formed. They now have 54 hours to develop their idea. On Sunday afternoon, they will present to a panel of judges.

If you had 60 seconds to summarize how school can be different and serve all students, what would you pitch?

—Margaret Angell