A Simple and Elegant Solution to a Persistent Problem in Learning Space Design

I’m excited to share a simple and elegant solution to a persistent problem in learning space design, power sources. Several years ago I was invited to provide some insight on the design of the physical building for a new school. The leader for this effort was a successful businessman with plenty of financial resources. He wanted to create a new and better type of school, but at this point, he wanted us to help him plan the ideal school building. While explaining that it was difficult for me to advise without having a clear picture of the mission and distinctives of the school itself, I consented to at least reviewing initial plans for the architectural firm involved. It was a good and engaging conversation as I and others offered a a variety of suggestions on creating flexible spaces, preparing for difference teaching and learning approaches and the like. In general, the architects where open and encouraging of our ideas until we came to a certain topic, one that I’ve since learned is a constant pain point between architects and those of us focused more on spaces designed to support emerging teaching and learning practices.

Believe it or not, the point of contention was electrical outlets.

After countless visits to schools, especially those that are more collaborative and project-based combined with one-to-one devices, I had a keen sense of how having traditional outlets around the outside walls consistently become a challenge. You see students congregating around the outside walls to power up. There are usually too few outlets and it often detracts from the otherwise intended vision for the learning space. Having outlets dropped from the ceiling or coming out of the floor is far more amenable to these new teaching and learning methods. Yet, the architects resisted. They argued that this was a waste of money, that it cost more, that it was a failed vision of education from the 1970s, and much more. For one reason or another, the electrical outlets were the trigger. Regardless of how many school visits I referenced to describe how this works and why it is valuable, the architects held firm.

In fact, since that time I’ve learned that this is a rather common experience for others involved in new school builds as well. People get stuck on these debates around adding more flexible outlets. Or, somewhere in the building or remodeling process, original plans for outlets throughout a room get dropped.

That is why I was delighted to learn about a new and brilliant product over the past year by Steelcase. Their “Thread” product line is a great way to address some of these persistent power issues in most any space. They have a track system that is only 3/16th of an inch, goes right under the carpet, and allows you to pretty easily set up power outlets throughout any room. It is one of those simple innovations that addresses a persistent problem in learning space design, leaving people wondering why it took someone so long to come up with it. Yet, I’m delighted that Steelcase did just that.


The Best Ideas Are Not Necessarily the Ones That Spread in Education

The best ideas are not necessarily the ones that spread. This is true in education as much as it is in other aspects of life. Of course, a claim like this requires us to define our terms. What do I mean by “best”? When I say it, I mean the ideas that have the greatest promise for the the maximum positive impact and the fewest unexpected negative consequences. If the best ideas don’t spread, then which ones do? When it comes to education, the following four quite often gain more traction.

The ideas that resonate with people tend to spread.

There are many reasons why an idea might resonate with someone, but it is not just because the idea is good, right, or promises the maximum good. Even the most systematic and calculated of us connect with ideas on an even more basic level at times. Some ideas seem a bit too strange or unfamiliar, and we either outright reject the ideas, we keep our distance from them, or we just treat them with a measure of disinterest becuase something doesn’t feel right about them. I’ve seen this happen in meetings where a great idea comes up in a room, but it just doesn’t resonate with people’s experiences and existing beliefs, so they don’t get on board with it. The idea often just disappears even though it could have been incredibly impactful if people got around it.

The ones that can be communicated visually or through compelling stories.

Some ideas are less familiar or more complex. They might be abstract and it is hard for people to get behind such ideas. If you don’t “get it” then you will probably not become a champion for it. Some ideas just lend themselves better to visuals and storytelling. Or, sometimes it is the promoter of the idea who takes the times to brainstorm and come up with powerful images, compelling stories, and illustrations or metaphors that give people a better sense of what that idea looks like and why or how it is important.

The ones that don’t threaten people and systems too much.

Sometimes there are great ideas that shake up the existing system. That is hard to get the people in that system to support. When your job, comfort or confidence is on the line; it is a challenge to accept, embrace, and champion an idea. In fact, when these ideas are proposed, there are often strong and emotional reactions to them. People might even try to demonize the idea or go into attack mode. It becomes hard to have a candid assessment of the idea and its value for the organization. Reason drops in priority and power takes its place. This sort of bias is hard for us to admit or see. We often insist that we are being reasonable, but that it is just an objectively bad idea.

The ones that reinforce the power and influence of people.

Related to the last one, many good ideas that make it through are ones that reinforce the power and influence that exists in the education system or beyond. There are certainly exceptions to this, but this is something that influences how politicians often approach education, how employers and community members seek to influence it, as well as the many stakeholders direction in various education systems. Efforts to promote an idea, practice or policy don’t necessarily come from a truly clear and strong conviction about the idea, practice or policy. Instead, there there is something about it that reinfornces a persons power or influence, and that is hard for any of us to risk giving up.

Then What About Great Ideas?

For these and other reasons, really good ideas get buried, ignored or disregarded often in educadtion (and elsewhere). Yet, that doesn’t mean that these ideas can’t spread. They can and do. Yet, they often do so despite what we often consider to be key stakeholders, and I expect to see that even more in education of the next ten years. So many of the potentially transformational changes in education are not coming from the traditional decision-makers. They are happening in the wild of the growing digital landscape where learning resources, communities, connections and experiences are often not part of the old systems. They are not bound by the same rules and regulations. The learners are leading this revolution. As such, the best ideas often don’t spread, but as we see growing democratizing technologies emerge, these ideas may well find themselves gaining new audiences and spreading in ways that many traditional educators and policymakers didn’t even see coming. For me, this is both the joy and challenge of this connected age.


Is Educational Technology Making a Difference in Education?

I had the opportunity to lead a recent webinar on whether educational technology making a difference in education? Are we seeing increases in student engagement and student learning? Or, is this billion dollar industry known as educational technology just misleading us, absorbing our time and money? In fact, this is not a new question. It has been debated and written about for decades now. It is a valid question, one that is certainly important before we starting devoting the amount of time and money that can easily go into educational technology efforts and investments.

Yet, there is not a straight-forward or black and white answer. That is because it is a bit like asking whether teachers are making a difference in education. A wise respondent to suck a question will point out that you can’t give a simple answer to that question because it depends upon the teacher. Some teachers enhance learning while others do not. Some teachers make a difference at some times and some contexts more than others. It depends upon the learners, the context, the teacher’s competence and confidence, and probably a dozen other factors as well. We can say that “teachers make a difference” or that “educational technology makes a difference”, but any honest answer will probably need to start with “it depends.”

Yet, this doesn’t mean that it is a useless question. We should be asking about whether or use of educational technology is helping or hindering, and in what ways. Consider the meta-analysis conducted in 2014 on the use of educational technology with at-risk students. This looks at 70+ studies on the use of educational technology with this specific population and the researchers noted that it can indeed make a difference, but that there are three important factors.

First, educational technology that promoted “interactive learning” had a more positive impact of student learning. In other words, simply digitizing worksheets, workbooks, and textbooks is probably not especially effective. A digital “sit and get” will not necessarily make more of a difference than a more traditional one, unless the digitizing resulted in more interactive learning. Interactive learning provides each student with multiple ways to explore a challenging concept. It promotes deeper thinking, choosing, analyzing, grappling, engaging, exploring, and more. This should not come as a surprise since these are things that enhance pretty much any learning environment.

As an example, consider the countless drill and kill math applications that you can find for mobile devices. Why would we expect those to be more effective than less digital drill and kill? Yet, other math applications are true enhancements, creating greater interactivity and giving learners tools with which to think and analyze. Contrast a simple math app that quizzes someone on fractions and another that asks fraction questions but then gives students a collection of visual tools, like pieces of pie charters, that allow students to figure out the answer to the question.

A second finding in the student was that exploring and creating was more effective in educational technology than passive content. Again, we know this to be true in almost all of learning. This means that the more impactful educational technologies are beyond drill and practice. They are immersive games, simulations, and data sets that student manipulate. They are technologies that promote creation over consumption. Students create reports, digital stories, presentations, visual representations, artistic expressions and more. Notice that much of this can even be promoted with productivity software and not always dedicated educational apps.

Finally, the study pointed to the importance of having the “right blend of teachers and technology.” It is not necessarily just throwing these at-risk students in front of a computer with educational software. The teachers serve as learning architects, game and learning experience designers, curators, sources of support, coaches, mentors, and facilitators of peer mentoring and meaningful peer interaction.

In fact, these three distinctives like resonate with many educators. While not all research turns out this way, these three attributes make intuitive sense as well. In fact, we could say that educational technology seems to be most impactful when it amplifies what we already know to be true about quality learning experiences. As an amplifier, educational technology used to amplify our worst or least effective strategies will propagate expected results. Educational technology used to extend or amplify best practices spread positive results.

Yet, this is not the entire picture. Technology also has the capacity to think about possibilities for teaching and learning that were previously not possible. We can extend the walls of the classroom around the world. We can increase access and opportunity to learning experiences and resources. We can personalize and differentiate in ways that serve those previously treated as defective because they don’t seem to learn within the standard system, only to find that these students have immense potential. These are just a few of the possibilities that have become more visible to us as we explore and experiment with educational technology.

Does educational technology make a difference in education. It certainly can and does. Yet, it is not like some pill that you take and it does its work apart from other factors. This is something that quite often calls for design thinking, planning, strategy, and support. It is often best used when combined with an understanding of current research about quality learning, but an openness to imagining new possibilities and surfacing future best practices.

Books and Stories Can Change Lives: Storytelling in the Digital Age

Storytelling in a powerful skill in this digital age, so much so that I put it on a shortlist of critical skills for effective digital age communication. People who can craft and tell compelling and resonating stories, and who can connect with audiences around those stories, have a greater voice today. Tim Tomlinson wrote that, “The best books and stories can change our lives.” Years ago I thought about pursuing a MFA in creative non-fiction. In fact, I was accepted in a program and took the first class. At that point, I already had four degrees, a full-time job, an additional part-time job, a consulting business, and a family. Plus I was, at the point where taking classes was less desirable than learning in the wild and learning by doing. As much as I treasured the idea of learning from great writers and teachers, what I really wanted to do was write. Write to think. Write to learn. Write to connect. Write to imagine and invite others to imagine the possibilities. So, I didn’t sign up for a second class, but I did commit to writing each day.

I wrote about many things. I wrote short stories inspired by my Mississippi roots and the legends that flow out of that river. I wrote about what I was thinking, reading, learning, and seeing in the world around me. I wrote about education, culture, trends, and those persistent ideals that haunt or inspire so many of us. I wrote about my joys and fears. I wrote about affordances and limitations. I wrote about possibilities.

I liked the idea that others might want to read what I wrote, and that they would find something true, good or beautiful in it. Just as much, I valued the idea that people would find something useful or inspiring. So, I didn’t pursue an MFA. I just started writing.

Writing isn’t easy for me but it is rewarding. Sometimes I don’t feel like writing. I might even dread it. Yet, once I get going, I don’t think about those things. I’m immersed in words and ideas, and even if nobody reads something that I write, I’m glad that I spend a few minutes or hours of my life doing it.

At the same time, I don’t just write for myself. It is never a solitary activity for me even if I’m alone. I am also writing to connect. I’m a teacher at heart, and I aspire to writing things that help people, even to influence people. I’m candid about that. I want to challenge, inspire, and help people explore the possibilities. I want to be a champion for truth, beauty and goodness; especially as they inform the promise and possibility of life and learning in a connected and digital world.

So, when I first read that opening quote by Tim Tomlinson, something changed in me. “The best books and stories can change our lives.” I wanted to write things that did that sort of thing. As one of my professors in my doctoral program once noted. “If you are in education, you are in the business of changing people.” You might not like the idea of this and it doesn’t need to be manipulative, but it is the work of changing or influencing people. Even in some of the most self-directed learning contexts, teachers influence learners. Even if you limit your comments to asking questions and guiding people, you are invested in their change and transformation. That is probably why I first became a teacher and it is certainly why I continue to write.

This quote about books and stories changing lives also continues to influence my philosophy of education. As much as I am a champion for educational innovation and connected learning, I see immense value in books and stories as forms of learning. Of course, stories don’t only come in written format. We have thousands of years of an oral tradition in humanity that leans heavily upon storytelling. Similarly, in this digital age, stories quickly established their home, with digital narratives of many types spreading throughout the web.

This age resulted in new and fascinating forms of storytelling that continue to be rich in meaning. There are storytellers in the blogosphere, on video sharing sites, and throughout all forms of social media and social communication technologies. These stories change lives too. It might even be argued that some of these change even more lives, reaching massive groups of people in a fraction of the time, spreading across time and space more than most stories of the past. A story created and told in rural South Dakota can reach Los Angeles, London, New York City, and New Delhi in seconds, with people sharing these stories among their peer groups on the social web.

Yet, consider the fact that storytelling is democratized in this age. Storytellers of the past shared in their local communities, with only a small number of people gaining a forum to share their stories across a country or around the world. Those rare few could share their stories on television, through films, through recorded music, through plays and musicals, and through books. Those stories spread and influenced. Today anyone can craft and share a story that travels around the world. There are few to no gatekeepers in these new forms of storytelling. If you have access and the courage to share then you can let your story be heard.

Of course, some storytellers continue to reach wider audiences. These include more traditional authors, musicians, filmmakers and the like. Yet, we are also aware of Youtubers who gain significant followers. The same is true for bloggers, podcasters, and influencers in various social media outlets who manage to garner a large and diverse following over time. This is not a small change in the world, but we also don’t fully understand the implications of this change.

Some might argue that this democratization is diminishing the quality of stories, drowning truly great stories in an ocean of lesser stories. Others look at this and celebrate the fact that stories often unheard or even intentionally silenced are indeed changing lives today. Real world stories about tragedy and injustice are shared even as the tragedies are unfolding, sometimes eliciting actions that help address the issue. Powerful groups seeking to suppress stories that undermine their agenda no longer have as much power to do so. Stories that have deep meaning and value to a small but diverse audience now have a greater chance of reaching that audience.

As such, I’ve come to believe that the connected and digital age is also the age of the storyteller. People with the courage and conviction to tell their stories have more freedom and access than any other time in history. In fact, this is part of why I see the art of storytelling as a valuable 21st century skill for young and old alike.

  • How are we helping learners discover the power of storytelling in the digital age?
  • How are we equipping them to analyze and make sense of a broader range of stories today?
  • How are we encouraging and equipping them to refine their craft as digital age storytellers?