Cake, Stories, and Imagination: Big Ideas Fest 2015

While the real-time adrenalin and excitement of ISKME’s Big Ideas Fest 2015 have subsided, I wanted to share some personal take-aways about how to inspire collaboration to activate change in education.

First, is that listening to feedback and being open to surprises can result in new learnings for everyones. Big Ideas Fest 2015 was ISKME’s seventh engagement with educators with the purpose of fostering collaborative, problem-solving and transformation in education through action-oriented design sessions and thoughtfully curated, rapid fire speaking panels.

The format of Big Ideas Fest has changed over the years to give participants the best possible experience in learning from education change-makers about their innovation journeys, and helping BIFniks develop a mindset and practical approach to become an active change-maker in their own areas of influence. We pay a lot of attention to participant feedback (yes, we really do read those BIFnik surveys!) and continue to iterate on the format and process so that participants feel supported and are able to take risks, leave their comfort zone, and feel okay about not knowing where their efforts may lead them.

Big Ideas Fest is intended to be a collaborative experience, with speakers and guests participating in Action Collab design sessions and participants taking ownership of their group work. And sometimes they take over the agenda, like our student BIFniks did this year in the closing session when they wanted to share their culture with the rest of the participants. They intercepted the A/V team at the Dolce Hayes Mansion and proceeded to immerse and teach us their music and dances, for a final impromptu extravaganza that had everyone up on their feet with huge smiles on their faces!

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Second, we need to embrace the power of story to re-focus and re-energize a group. This showed up several times at Big Ideas Fest 2015 and in different ways. Each time it brought us to new depths of understanding and insight, preparing us to imagine and explore more. Our opening panel of storytellers kicked off our first design challenge: How might we create educational opportunities to disrupt the school to prison pipeline? Tyson Amir-Mustafa from Five Keys Charter School (who teaches at the San Francisco County Jail) spoke about his work with young men and women in prison classrooms. Ashanti Branch, Founder of the Ever Forward Club, talked about his work with middle schoolers and their need for safe spaces to identify and share their emotions in order to develop greater emotional resilience. Both sharing their personal experiences of growing up as black men in America. Shanley Rhodes, Deputy Director of the Southern Region of Five Keys Charter, described her early years as a teacher in a violent and dysfunctional school and its personal impact on her as a teacher. BIFniks listened actively and openly to capture what they heard without interpreting or rushing to rationalize and solve.

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The ballroom was thick with energy and emotion. We were all brought to a new place—a new perspective on a dimension of the education system that often is not the focus of “future of education” gatherings. Our expectation was not necessarily to solve this challenge in 6 hours, but to bring BIFniks to a new place in their thinking about this critical issue—to show them the complexity and tensions from authentic, personal voices, and to feel confident that there are practical solutions that can improve lives if we allow ourselves to see the challenge with new eyes.

As one BIFnik eloquently describes in her post, “listening deeply, I heard a common thread—a desire from the young people in these stories to be truly heard, known, and understood. It harkened back to the notion that it is really all about building authentic relationships and hearing someone for who they are and not who we assume them to be.”  And in fact, several provocative solution ideas emerged from such insights: Mind the Gap is a board game that reveals the perspectives of different stakeholders to find common ground and connection on specific challenges; Invite to Insight is a set of invitation cards that students can use to invite a teacher to lunch for free and just talk; and BEASE is a program to overcome parent resistance to change at school by having parents “become a student” and “become a teacher” to learn the benefits of change in the classroom.

Kicking off Big Ideas Fest 2015 Action Collab work with powerful storytelling gave BIFniks permission to tell their own stories, and most of all, to create a space to listen deeply and openly to each other.

This is precisely why we use storytelling, among other techniques, as a part of ISKME’s Action Collab process. ISKME developed Action Collabs as a collaborative platform for educators problem solve creatively as peers and gain the insights and perspectives from each other’s distinctive perspectives and imaginations. By equipping teachers, principals, administrators, students, parents, and other education decision-makers with such skills, tangible change in education may become human-centered and emerge from the bottom up.

Finally, dessert helps! That BIFniks sampled a delectable assortment of cheesecakes, chocolate mousse, passion fruit cake and other sweet treats made no small contribution to the positive and open climate throughout  Big Ideas Fest.

ISKME will be holding Action Collab trainings in March (28-29) and August (1-2) so that educators can develop and practice their collaborative problem solving skills and catalyze transformation in their own organizations. For more information on Action Collab trainings click here.

Originally posted on January 26, 2016 at http://www.iskme.org/our-ideas/cake-stories-and-imagination

Unleashing Innovation in Teachers

“In the future I am going to do something that scares me more often.”
Big Ideas Fest 2014 Participant

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Reflections like the one above are what keep me coming back every year as a designer and facilitator of ISKME’s Big Ideas Fest — an annual immersion in collaboration and design for educators around the world looking to make meaningful change in teaching and learning.

As someone who works behind the scenes, as well as in the midst of the action, I am always thrilled to see the diverse collection of educators arrive with enthusiasm, some with a degree of healthy skepticism, and leave Big Ideas Fest as experienced BIFniks— open, collaborative, and hopeful education change makers, equipped with new tools and concepts, and inspired to put them into practice in their own learning environments.

The Action Collab—ISKME’s design thinking process— frames the Big Ideas Fest experience as it gives BIFniks a chance to immerse themselves in an innovation and collaboration experience in order to learn it and apply it to real world education challenges. It provides a common language for the way we interact, pose questions, and look ahead to post BIF engagements.

We asked BIFiks to reflect on their Big Ideas Fest experience at its conclusion to learn about the impact of the BIF and Action Collabs on their work. Three important outcomes, listed below, emerged from their comments about their Action Collab experience.

It demystifies and democratizes innovation by breaking it down into practical activities
BIFniks leave with a grounded experience in creative problem-solving and with an understanding of how to set themselves up for innovating at home. They learn to become open collaborators less concerned about perfection and more focused on generating possibilities to explore.

Today I learned:
“How to move forward from a juicy question to a specific innovative solution.”
“Letting go of my own outcome leads to new discoveries.”
“The design process is messy but generative.”

It instills fearlessness and confidence in their own abilities as creative problem-solvers
They learn how to trust their own creative instinct and gain an appreciation for the uncertainty and surprise factor that accompanies true innovation.

My biggest take-away is:
“There’s something productive behind frustration!”
“You can’t predict where an idea will go.”
“I can’t be wrong, my ideas matter.”

It gives them skills and practices to act on right away
BIFniks walk away with clear, practical tools for collaborating and unlocking creativity in themselves and their colleagues.

In the future I’m going to:
“Live ‘Yes, And’ more often.”
“Resist suppressing my creativity.”
“Listen in order to receive”
“Use student collaboration right away in my own work.”

I’m looking forward to our upcoming Facilitator Training for Action Collabs on April 27-28, 2015 in San Francisco. If you want to learn how to facilitate an Action Collab process in your own organization, ISKME is offering a 2-day immersive training where you will learn the Action Collab process and its rationale, by participating in an Action Collab, and learning how to set up Action Collab modules for your own groups. Check out the following announcement for more details, and email andrea@iskme.org if you have additional questions.

Notes on Conversations of Education Transformation: Frames Shaping the Stories and Solutions

As I participate in discussions about the future of education, I listen for how the conversations get framed.  Underlying most discussions about innovation and transformation in education are assumptions that tend to set the boundaries of discussions.  Sometimes these frames are overt, sometimes hidden, but in any case they influence the kinds of questions that get asked and shape the solution space.  They highlight some players over others and may orient towards particular solutions.  Ultimately they shape how we view opportunity and visions of what is possible.

Here are three frames that I have noticed.  I’m sure there are others out there too.  When I sense that we are moving into one of these frames, I draw it out so that we can be explicit, work the frame to deepen our conversation, then move to another frame.

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The performance frame is typically technology driven.   It frames discussions by focusing on innovations that drive what teaching and learning could look like.  (Time on the x-axis and performance on the y-axis.) These conversations tend to focus on what is possible from innovative ideas and new technologies.  Questions focus on how emerging technology clusters and new conceptual paradigms enable improved system functionality and value.  The key here is how performance is measured.  It could be increased access (as with MOOCs) or greater affordability and relevance (as with competency-based education programs). Over time, as incremental gains decline and are exhausted a new set of technologies comes along and boosts performance to a new level.  The benefit of this frame is that it can serve as a springboard for imagining new constellations of innovations that collectively could increase the performance of the system.  It also focuses on highlighting definitions, measures, and values for system performance.

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The adoption frame originates from Everett Rogers’ early work on the diffusion of innovation and recently is described as the “two curve” challenge, in Ian Morrison’s book, The Second Curve.  (Time is on the x-axis and penetration rate is on the y-axis.)  This frame is more human, and organization centered.  It focuses on the threats and opportunities of innovations to specific users and stakeholders.  It helps orient conversations around what might enable or inhibit adoption of innovations.  For example, who doesn’t want to move to the new curve and what economic or political drivers may be the reason? Are there other barriers in the market or within an organization?  This frame also is a good way to discuss what kinds of risks emerge, and when, from remaining on the existing curve too long or leaving it too early.

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The concept of the adaptive cycle is at the root of the ecosystem frame.  This lens on change in education helps us look at the breakdown and disruption of the traditional education system as part of an adaptive process to a newer system that is better aligned to its context and conditions.   After a mature forest experiences breakdown and loss from fire, it re-generates itself by opening itself to unknown possibilities from potentially new species and relationships among plants, insects, wildlife, and nutrient flows.  Productive relationships thrive and over time the ecosystem rebuilds itself in response to its new conditions.

The ecosystem frame is particularly useful for orienting education system discussions around new opportunities, potential value, and relationships.  The frame highlights the generative dynamic of relationships and novel responses to threats and disruptions. Rather than resist disruptions (such as new technologies and innovative organizational models) or fall back on existing (ineffective) responses, the ecosystem frame points out adaptive responses by examining opportunities created by the release of resources, re-organization of relationships, and exploitation (leverage) of new niches in the ecosystem.

We’re currently in the early period of exploitation in which novel combinations of players are testing the ground and seeing what kind of sustainable value they can create.  Content and curriculum development is proliferating among open educational resource spaces that support new combinations of teachers, experts, and learning agents like librarians. New ideas like blended learning and competency-based assessment are attracting experimentation and pilots.  The most damaging action to the education ecosystem now would be to stifle experimentation (the exploitation of opportunities presented by new ideas, technologies, and players) and the learning obtained from successful and failed initiatives.

The adaptive cycle is nature’s learning process that supports its resilience over time.  For this reason, the ecosystem frame is a useful one for challenging the rhetoric around experimentation and failure (as in “don’t experiment with my children”) and creating a more productive conversation focused on learning and system improvement.

See my earlier post for a detailed explanation of the adaptive cycle.

Benefits of an Ecosystem Frame for Understanding the Future of Education

Using the adaptive cycle to imagine sustainable transformation of teaching and learning systems

The word ecosystem is used a lot in education today to talk about new ways of organizing teaching and learning. Often the term is used to refer to more network-styled relationships (rather than hierarchy) among a diversity of players and roles (rather than a single bureaucratic system) using various modes of organizing learning experiences (rather than one-size fits all approaches).

The concept of the adaptive cycle is at the root of an ecosystem frame and worth exploring to understand more deeply the possibilities for transformation in education. The ecosystem lens on change in education helps us examine disruption and breakdown of the traditional education system as part of an adaptive process to a newer system that is better aligned to its context and conditions.

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Source: Saveri Consulting, derived from Hollings, Radford, Weeks, Rodriguez, and Blakeslee.

Mature, tightly connected ecosystems can become rigid as they accumulate resources in their conservation phase.  And while they may be efficient in their exchange of resources, they are inflexible and susceptible to breakdown when confronted by threats and disruptions, such as fires, invasive pests, drought, and pollution. These shocks drive a release of energy and nutrients as trees and plants burn, wildlife scatters, soil erodes (or floods), and resources become disconnected from their traditional relationships.  Release leads to re-organization as gaps in the ecosystem invite new species and resources.  Loss of low growing, dense plants may allow more circulation and sunshine to penetrate a forest and sets the stage for new plant species.  New plants species may attract new kinds of wildlife—perhaps new insects and other creatures that create new relationships and resource connections.  Re-organization of existing ecosystem inhabitants and new entrants enables a period of exploitation—a time of rapid experimentation by ecosystem inhabitants to learn what relationships are most productive and sustainable.  Some new species fare better than others.  Some may get crowded out by invasive species (weeds) while others may benefit from the stabilizing effects they have on the soil.  As successful combinations form, they grow and accumulate more resources and reach and begin to define the transformation of the ecosystem over time. (see this for a detailed explanation of the adaptive cycle).

The ecosystem frame is particularly useful for orienting education system discussions around new opportunities, potential value, and relationships.   The frame highlights the generative dynamic of relationships and novel responses to threats and disruptions. Rather than resist disruptions (such as new technologies and innovative organizational models) or fall back on existing (ineffective) responses, the ecosystem frame points out adaptive responses by examining opportunities created by the release of resources, re-organization of relationships, and exploitation (leverage) of new niches in the ecosystem.

Shocks to the traditional bureaucratic education system in the past few decades include disruptive technologies, increasingly diverse learning populations, new workforce requirements, soaring costs, and economic crisis (declining budgets).

Traditional responses from existing players seem to have only driven greater breakdown and release in the system, as student and new teacher dropout rates have increased, schools apply for charter waivers and reduce connection to the public system, and neighborhood schools close.  This may not be a bad thing as breakdown and release have created openings for new ideas and players.  Ed tech innovators have entered the teaching and learning ecosystem, as have community organizations such as libraries and museums.  Venture capital firms, crowdsourced funding platforms, and employers are playing new roles as funders and partners.  New individuals are finding their way into the teaching and learning field as professionals or para-professionals in new kinds of spaces of learning like media labs, techshops, maker centers, and learning hives.  New school models are attracting new providers.

We’re currently in the early period of exploitation in which novel combinations of players are testing the ground and seeing what kind of sustainable value they can create.  Content and curriculum development is proliferating among open educational resource spaces that support new combinations of teachers, experts, and learning agents like librarians. Foundations are seeding more cross-boundary partnerships and novel pilot projects. New ideas like blended learning and competency-based assessment are attracting experimentation and pilots.  And schools themselves are beginning to open to more experimentation among its faculty and staff. The most damaging action to the education ecosystem now would be to stifle experimentation (the exploitation of opportunities presented by new ideas, technologies, and players) and the learning obtained from successful and failed initiatives.

The adaptive cycle is nature’s learning process that supports its resilience over time.  For this reason, the ecosystem frame is a useful one for challenging the rhetoric around experimentation and failure (as in “don’t experiment with my children”) and creating a more productive conversation focused on learning and system improvement.

Kids as Critical Futurists

When given the opportunity, kids can be wonderful futurists, creating artifacts that help us imagine possible futures.

Two summers ago at Kirk Cooper’s fabulous summer camp Sees the Day in Berkeley,

Finnish Field Phone, WWII era.

California, kids 6-9 years old prototyped devices they thought would be important in the future.  Using a forecasting rule of looking back two years for every forecast year, we looked at many historical devices and the kids had to guess their function.  A lantern specifically designed for milking cows in the mid 19th century; a wired, “mobile” field phone from the mid 20th century: a cassette player/boom box and an LP from recent past, etc.  The campers had to guess what the devices were, how and why were were used.

We then talked about what devices might be important for us in the future (time frame is a squishy concept to nail down with 6-9 year olds).  They prototyped and then presented their devices.  We talked about why these devices were important, who might use them, and what kinds of things were happening that would make them important in the future.

Two of my favorites:  spray on network (when signal gets weak) and backyard, garden grown battery packs!

Everyone had fun.  And it was a great way for kids to experience the threads that connect their present with their future.

Making the Future of Education Actionable Today

One of the challenges of foresight work is to make new insights about the future relevant to our own situations and actionable in meaningful ways.  Foresight needs to be matched with processes that help leaders move past “This is interesting, but what does it have to do with my organization?” towards something more like “This reframes our professional development needs (or choices for strategic partners, etc.) and here are 3 things I can do now!”

The KnowledgeWorks Foundation recently released a new toolkit that is intended to help education stakeholders do just this.  Creating a New World of Learning: A Toolkit for Change Makers is an action planning guide that helps leaders design and facilitate customized learning experiences that help them think long in order to take action now.  The toolkit supports the forecast content that KWF have been developing and sharing for the past several years, such as their 2020 Forecast: Creating the Future of Learning and Learning Agents of 2025.

I worked with KWF to develop the toolkit and one of my goals was to make sure that education stakeholders had an opportunity to engage creatively and play with ideas about the future of education.   Rather than look for proven answers, it seemed important to create opportunities for leaders and groups to ask “What if?” and explore possibilities, even if they seem a little crazy or silly. With this in mind we broke out the activities into four sections:Imagine, Learn, Apply, and Prioritize.


Imagine and Learn sections focus on expanding the visions of what is possible in the future of education and developing a shared language and set of concepts to talk about future possibilities.  The Apply and Prioritize sections focus on applying new concepts and possibilities to a group’s organization and identifying opportunities for action.

The toolkit works a bit like a Chinese menu. Each section has multiple activities that facilitators can pick from to structure their learning experience.  The document is web-enabled so viewers can jump around and check out each section, the resources in the back, end even sample agendas.

There is also a rich set of audio, video, and text based resources to support activities.  There are audio and video clip stories in which future learners and learning agents describe their teaching and learning experiences.  There are text-based scenarios about future learning systems that describe how stakeholders might interact and how resource might be allocated. And education artifacts from the future provide an opportunity for practicing a bit of future focused archeology.   Participants can explore new ideas through hands on activities such as card games, prototyping, storytelling, and news headline generation.  And ultimately, there are opportunities for participants to use their new insights to identify new goals and actions for change.

Since the activities are modular, sessions can be flexibly planned to last 2 hours or as longer half or full day sessions.  The hope is that this toolkit brings some fun and safe risk taking, and thoughtful play to the education transformation process.