Constraint


creative commons licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by graymalkn

Constraint:

  • something that limits or restricts someone or something
  • control that limits or restricts someone’s actions or behaviour

For a while now I have been a strong advocate for student voice in their learning and choice in what they learn. I have written about our four Innovation Weeks, and proselytized at length about the power in turning over control to our students, and the resulting learning that has occurred as a result. The push back against relinquishing control of our classrooms is dwindling, and I find far less resistance to these ideas when I present them at conferences or post about them here.

During one of my last conference presentations, the question came up about why I thought Innovation Week was beneficial to student learning, and how I felt it compared to other similar ideas like the wildly popular and fantastic Genius Hour. My response was that I find great value in the experience being limited by time, and that the deadline pushed our students to do amazing things in just that one week. I feel that the constraint of a one week time limit (5 days really), pushes students in ways that force them to deliver on their ideas (see fantastic Seth Godin video on “Shipping”), and that it helps focus what might otherwise become aimless or unmotivated without an end-point.

I read a fantastic post about Google’s ATAP team (Advanced Technology and Projects) a few weeks ago and in the article it talks about how the two-year time limit imposed on these ATAP teams motivates them to achieve great things because with every week that passes they are 1% closer to the deadline. I loved this quote, and it inspired a few posts (here and here) about how we should create similar research and development teams in education.

There is a sense of urgency, you don’t come to build a career. You come to do a project, to do something epic, and then you go.”

Since my last conference presentation I have been revisiting some ideas I had, and trying to look at them through the lens of constraint. I am starting to think that building in constraint can be just as effective as building in choice when we look at creating learning experiences for our students that challenge and grow their imagination. I was reminded of the scene from Apollo 13 when the NASA engineers had to create a solution to get a square CO2 filter into a round hole:

I believe that working to find a solution to a problem while navigating the restrictions or difficulties is an authentic means to fostering creativity, critical thinking and innovation in our students. We have no doubt done this already with spaghetti bridge building, shopping on a budget, and Rube-Goldberg machines built with things you find around your house. Where I think there can be some growth in this area is instead building a learning experience around a constraint rather than adding a constraint to an already developed learning experience, as I would suggest all of the above would qualify as.

Maybe one of the following may have potential, and maybe you can help me turn them into great experiences for our students with some suggestions:

Guerrilla/Ambush Learning – excuse the cheesy title, it is a work in progress. The idea is built around the constraint of time and limited preparedness. Students sign up to participate, and on a chosen day, all participants are shuttled into the gym where we have tables and chairs set up. They are handed a coloured card and asked to sit at the table that corresponds to their colour. Once everyone is in, a problem is shared with the group, and the challenge is given to each table to develop a solution to the problem. A clock with let’s say 5 hours on it starts to countdown. The groups have to work together to come up with a solution to the problem and have it ready to defend at the end of the 5 hours. Sample problems could be clean drinking water in a third world country, inner-city literacy rates or limiting cars into a city centre. As long as the problem is big enough to tackle and a problem that exists somewhere in the world, I believe the task would be engaging and meaningful.

Helping Hand – again, cheesy title that will be improved by someone (anyone?) out there. The idea is built around the constraint of space and limited resources. The idea initially started as lunch boxes to a 3rd world country but with some help from my colleagues (Thanks Courtney, Dana, Brad and Carson) we refocused this on cloth grocery bags for homeless people. The idea is that students have to come up with the best use of the space provided by one cloth grocery bag. The question would be what would be the most effective way they could fill the bag to provide to a homeless person with the most beneficial contents they could come up with. The limitation would be that they would have to actively seek out the donation of all contents. Whether it was medical supplies, a blanket, non-perishable food items, toiletries etc. they would have to contact a business, explain their project and then convince the business to help them out with a donation. I think with some work done behind the scenes before the project you could probably get some businesses or associations on board to help.

For the helping hand project we are thinking of doing it in January or February when it can get very cold in our neck of the woods, and after the Christmas season, when the shelters get a great deal of help from people already. We hope to partner with a shelter that can not only act as a resource for the exercise, but can hopefully facilitate our participating students in the handing out of these bags.

Whether the limitation or constraint you put on students is real or imagined, creating this type of experience challenges students to be imaginative in their finding a solution. Just as the best way to foster resilience in students is to give them a meaningful reason to be resilient, the best way to foster innovation and creativity is going to be to challenge them in ways that force them to be imaginative and innovative.

In a great article that Whitney Johnson wrote for the Harvard Business Review entitled Why Innovators Love Constraints, she talks about how constraints can push us, and how in the real world this type of thinking is required. I think this quote does a good job of connecting this type of learning to the type of thinkers our world is going to require, or already requires:

A tightly-lidded box can stifle and suffocate. It can motivate us to figure out how get outside the box. To make choices about how we will expend the resources we do have available to us, to find cheaper, more nimble ways of doing something as a person – and as a corporation. Our perceived limitations may give us direction on where we might play, or want to play. Indeed, if we will let them, constraints can (and will) drive us to disruption.

As always, I’d love your thoughts, comments, or recommendations.

Innovation Week 4 – Day 2/3/4

What a great three days we had this week as students put their plans into action, working hard to make their visions for their projects a reality. These three days are always the most impressive, as projects that seemed lofty suddenly become reality in front of your eyes, and students blow expectations out of the water. If there is one thing that has stayed true in all four Innovation Weeks we have run, it is that we don’t challenge students they way they challenge themselves when given the opportunity.

After a weekend away from their projects, there was a great deal of energy in the building as the students got back down to work. Now because our students in Gr. 6 & 9 had to write Provincial Achievement Tests (PAT’s – government exams in Alberta) during Innovation Week, we waited until after the tests were completed to start our days. Students had brought the vast majority of their supplies in and were laying them out and finalizing plans in their Innovation Rooms. It wasn’t long before you heard the buzz of tools, the music from performance groups, and lots of conversation as groups worked together to get their projects underway.

After running three of these in the past couple years, our organizing committee was committed to improving the quality of learning, and we did so on two fronts. The first was incorporating a Design Thinking process that we learned from Ewan McIntosh (and he documents on his site here) and the other was improvements to our Proposal Forms. Spearheaded by Claudia Scanga and Katy Rogal, these forms had added spaces for feedback and reflection as well as better questions to help shape the process for students. They were photocopied on BRIGHT pink paper, and students were expected to have them at all times during the week (see in picture above). As I went around from room to room over these three days, I asked groups about their process, about their guiding question, and about how they met the criteria for the week, and the vast majority could all answer the questions I had for them, and I am quite certain it had a lot to do with our improved forms.

One thing I noticed when talking with students this time around was how much better our students were at managing the time, tackling projects that were achievable, and troubleshooting their own issues. In previous weeks this was definitely a struggle as students were not used to being on their own to guide their learning. We’d see groups choose projects too complex or too simple, we’d see groups struggle when they ran into difficulty, and we definitely saw groups have trouble with managing their own time. I am sure that most schools that would try Innovation Week would see similar issues their first couple times through, but I also see great power in the learning those difficulties provide. There is no doubt our students have learned from their adversity, or the adversity of others, and the improvements in this week are a testament to the three we have run before.

With 414 students participating, 81% of our eligible students (Gr. 9’s couldn’t participate due to PAT’s), it meant we also had most of our teaching staff participating as well. It is a unique interaction for teacher and student as the teacher is not there to do any instruction, but to simply be a resource for support and guidance, and it is often with students from other grades or classes that they don’t get a chance to work with. During the three working days, we had a lot of great feedback from teachers, with common themes including high quality projects, great work ethic and excited, focused learning.

As we wrapped up Day 4 on Wednesday, the prospect of the showcase and assembly the next day made for a lot of excited, and some nervous students as they prepared to share all their great work with family, friends, and visiting guests from our division. I’ll post the Final Day reflection soon, so stay tuned to see how this great week finished up!

Innovation Week 4 – Planning Day and Day 1

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So here we are again, time for our fourth Innovation Week as we wrap up another great school year. This time around our theme is “Invent, Improve, Innovate!” with the goal for students to:

  • Invent something new
  • Improve an existing object/practice
  • Innovate how something is done/used

We also included some detailed information on how the week connected to the 10 Cross-Curricular Competencies from Alberta Education, which I think we will explore in more depth for Innovation Week 5.

So this time around we did a lot of work up front with our Application Form, with our planning for providing feedback and for checking in with students, all with the purpose of setting higher expectations for the learning that would occur during the week and the quality of the projects being worked on. Probably the biggest addition to this Innovation Week was the addition of Design Thinking for the student planning of projects.

In May we were lucky enough to see Ewan McIntosh at the Ideas Conference in Calgary and he put us through a workshop on Design Thinking. The process followed four steps – Immersion, Synthesis, Ideation and Prototyping, and was a powerful tool for thinking, learning and problem solving. We loved it so much that the week after we returned from the conference, we used this process with our staff to tackle our annual Education Plan (documented on video, look for that post this summer).

We decided to use this process with our students, but we broke it up with the first two steps (Immersion & Synthesis) done last Tuesday for our Innovation Week 4 planning afternoon, and the third and fourth steps (Ideation & Prototyping) were carried out on Day 1 of Innovation Week 4, this past Friday. I want to provide a little snapshot into how that went:

Innovation Week 4 Planning Afternoon

For the afternoon we had students use the Immersion and Synthesis steps of the Design Thinking process to create their guiding question for their Innovation Week 4 projects. The process required groups of 3 (or as close as possible), which meant some groups were mixed with members doing different projects. The groups then interviewed each other, asking questions about the student’s project, why they chose it, what they hoped to accomplish etc. . One group member was the interviewer, one was the recorder and one was interviewed. We rotated the jobs each interview, which differs slightly from Ewan’s plan, but was necessary given our mixed groups. Each interview was 4 minutes long, with the recorder writing down EVERYTHING they heard. (12 minutes)

After the first round of interviews we addressed the idea that many of the interviews sounded more like conversations than interviews (common happening I’m sure). We did some coaching to help them understand that an interviewer needs to provide space (and silence) for the interviewee to think and process, and that they need to be patient and not jump in and start a conversation. We then suggested some deeper questions to ask, and challenged them to get more out of the next 4 minutes. We repeated the interview cycle one more time. (12 minutes)

We then took 4 minutes each to allow the recorders to review what they heard, to circle or highlight key words or things that were repeated, so that the person could really see what they talked about, and what was important to them.  (12 minutes)

From these highlighted/circled and reviewed notes, students were than challenged to come up with a big question, phrased as follows: “How might we/I…?”. They were asked to look closely at what they said in their interview so that they could formulate a question that was clearly important to them. The questions had to meet the following criteria:

  1. New to You
  2. Original to the Audience
  3. Important to Others (What is the Impact?)                     (10-15 minutes) 

As a group we then shared some of the questions and tried to provide feedback (students & teachers) that was helpful, specific & kind to make the questions even better. The goal was to remove jargon and have the question have a clear expectation and developed focus on what the students would be working on during Innovation Week. We then sent the students back to try and improve the questions by doing the same work on their own question. (15-20 minutes)

Once the students were happy with their question, they worked to complete the rest of their Proposal Form to take home and get signed by a parent. These proposal forms stay with the students, and are to be used to guide their process and to record feedback from teachers/students. They also have a place for their own reflections on how they used the feedback to improve their work. (10-15 minutes)

With the proposal forms ready, students were done the planning day and were all set for the opening day of Innovation Week 4 on Friday.

(We used this presentation to walk our students through the process.)

Innovation Week 4 Day One

For Friday, we placed the students into the rooms for Innovation Week based on their project. We had 5 “Hands-On” rooms, 3 “Building” rooms, 2 “Research” rooms, 2 “Tech” rooms and a “Performance”, “Music”, “Arts/Writing” and “Crafts” room. Here the students were surrounded by students doing similar work, with a teacher prepared for that type of project, and ready to dive in to the next two steps of the Design Thinking process: Ideation & Prototyping. 

For Ideation, the students were challenged to come up with 100 ideas that would answer their guiding question in 10 minutes. Now this was challenging, so I went a little nuts and tried to go classroom to classroom to get kids fired up about ideas…sorry the coach in me came out a little bit:


For 10 minutes they tried to get everything they could down on paper and we instructed them if they ran out of good ideas, to start coming up with silly, off-the-wall or impossible ideas. In some rooms we got a lot of ideas, and some not as many, but in the end our 414 students came up 8,684 ideas!!! (10 minutes)

From here they needed to select 5 great ideas and 3 silly ones, and rate them on a 10 point scale in three categories (See pictures above):

  1. New
  2. Useful
  3. Feasible

When all was said and done, they were to choose their top rated idea and move on to the prototype stage. (10 Minutes)

In the Prototype stage, students were asked to create a visual representation of their project. Some chose to make mind-maps (which I would recommend against) but many actually sketched out their project. Ewan has a great quote on his webpage about the process:

Sketching one’s ideas, instead of writing them, is a great way to both ideate and create your first prototypes. It tends to lead to higher quality feedback.

Once the students were done their prototype visuals, we were ready to open the floor up for feedback. (10-15 minutes)

Students were asked to provide feedback to the group next to them, and the feedback again needed to be helpful, specific and kind. Students were then told to go back and use the feedback to make improvements to their drawings. At the end of this process, it was lunch time, but the students were then set with a great picture of where they wanted to go. (10-15 minutes)

In the afternoon, students got down to work and finished their Friday by getting their plan together and beginning the initial work on their projects.

It was a great start to this Innovation Week, adding the Design Thinking process definitely helped students prepare and start to be creative before they even started work on their project, which will be very beneficial. We wanted to up the quality of learning going on in our building during this Innovation Week and with the work our staff put in well in advance of the week, along with the addition of the Design Thinking, I believe we are well on our way to seeing some really quality projects and really exciting learning.

Here is one more video, an interview with Kiana and Sara about their thoughts on the addition of the Design Thinking process to Innovation Week 4.

 

 

Innovation Week #3 – Entrepreneurial Spirit, Day 1 & 2

 

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Our third Innovation Week is underway with the theme of “Entrepreneurial Spirit”. This wasn’t the easiest topic for our students to grasp, so at first we turned to the Alberta Education material on the topic, since it was part of the “Inspiring Education” work that came from them. This quote outlines their idea of Entrepreneurial Spirit:

“Entrepreneurial Spirit: who creates opportunities and achieves goals through hard work, perseverance and discipline; who strives for excellence and earns success; who explores ideas and challenges the status quo; who is competitive, adaptable and resilient; and who has the confidence to take risks and make bold decisions in the face of adversity.”

– from the “Framework for Student Learning” – Alberta Education

To help further explain the topic to our students we turned to a quote from Yong Zhao:

“a process that results in creativity, innovation and growth. Innovative entrepreneurs come in all shapes and forms; its benefits are not limited to startups, innovative ventures and new jobs. Entrepreneurship refers to an individual’s ability to turn ideas into action and is therefore a key competence for all, helping young people to be more creative and self-confident in whatever they undertake.”

– Yong Zhao

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Once we helped our students understand where they could go with the theme, they took off in a way even we didn’t expect. The first two days had a calm feeling that seemed almost eerie. Gone was the chaos and numerous questions and in its place was a feeling of focus and determination. In our third Innovation Week our students seem no longer surprised by the freedom or intimidated by the task, but rather excited, engaged and ready to get to work.

While the benefit to our students has been there throughout all three Innovation Weeks, it seems in this one we have found our groove and now our job turns to maximizing the potential of the experience.

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We are being very purposeful with our collecting of feedback from our students including multiple ways for them to express themselves. We will again conclude the week with an open house showcase of their learning, but to this we have added a “Speakers Corner” where students can go and share their thoughts on some well crafted questions, and we will also have our teachers interview each individual/group taking part on Thursday.

While not all of the 450 students are engaged in earth-shattering projects, they are all engaged. From jumping in to the experience, to finding purposeful themes to drive the learning, we have been trying to find ways to make the experience a valuable one for our students. Now with Innovation Week 3, we are starting to see just how powerful this can be with each improvement we make and each week we bring to our students.

We can’t wait to see how this week unfolds, but as you can see in the pictures, there are a lot of happy faces busy at work on projects they are very excited about. It’s going to be an exciting next few days, stay tuned…

On The Right Track

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Beautiful picture don’t you think? It is the brilliant art work of Emma, a student at our school in grade 8. Emma didn’t do this work in her art class, or as part of a school project, or even during one of our Innovation Weeks. Emma did this at home, on her own time, in fact during her very own Genius Hour. A completely self directed project, exploring an area of interest and producing something wonderful. 

Her mother Carrie, a Kindergarten teacher, was proud of the work her daughter had done and wanted to let us know at school, so she sent us this tweet

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Carrie let me know that Emma has also turned to You Tube to research and learn to play the piano and guitar during these “Genius Hours”.

Projects and initiatives come and go in education, and it can be hard sometimes to know if we are doing what is best for our students. I am fairly certain that we have the right initiative when we see students doing them at home. I think we can be sure we are on the right track when students choose to learn on their own time. If lifelong learning is a goal, its examples like this that show us the way to the desired result.

Shouldn’t this be what we are aspiring to? We live in an age now that kids have everything they need to learn from anywhere. They can explore their passions and satisfy their curiosities without us being there. I believe Genius Hour, Innovation Days/Weeks, and Passion Projects help students realize just how capable they are to learn independently.

On the eve of our second Innovation Week, I can’t help but be excited to see what our students will learn about, create and share. I have seen and heard their excitement as we have prepared for the coming week, and having students excited about learning at school is so rewarding. I hope it will lead to even more examples like Emma’s, of students who can’t wait for us to help them so they take the initiative themselves to learn outside of their time at school.

This is my Genius Hour, This is my Passion Project

IMG_2734After a week immersed in Innovation Week, setting up our new site, getting prepared to moderate the first #iweekchat, and sharing many resources with some excited educators getting their own projects started, I was kind of getting burnt out by it all. I was also getting over being sick, and was pretty bored of sitting on my couch. That’s when my friend Jim called.

Jim is a carpenter, and he is currently building his own house. Numerous Spring Breaks and Summers I worked for Jim as a framer, and it was a wonderful way to spend my time off and make a little money on the side. I love framing. I am not great at it, and often need a lot of guidance from Jim (thank goodness he is patient), but it really is something I love doing and love learning.

So when he called me, I was able to head out to his site and help him build the landing for the entrance into his new house. It wasn’t a long time, just a few hours to frame and sheet the floor, but it was exactly what I needed. I had the same feeling when I used to work with Jim. (These are pics from the work we did)

When I would return to teaching, after a break spent building houses, I would always be rejuvenated and excited to be back at it. I would share with my students stories about my time framing, especially the stories where I did something wrong and learned the hard way – like shooting Jim with a nail gun! It was a great way to connect with my students, to model for them that I was a learner, and show them that I wasn’t afraid to do something I wasn’t “the best” at.

All this talk about Innovation Week has naturally led to conversations about how we can get Educators to participate in the same experiences. We are having Educators Innovation Day this August, and it will be great to have teachers come up with great projects to improve education in that short period of time together, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that we all have our own Genius Hours and Passion Projects. We have our own interests and passions that we dive into for periods of time away from work, and we are all better for having those experiences, not only because of what we get from them, but from what we can share with our students.

Framing is my Genius Hour, something I am engaged in when I am doing it, an experience that challenges me, and time spent learning about a topic I am genuinely interested in. When I go back to my job I am better for having spent the time, and I am a better teacher for having modelled and experienced learning.

I think as teachers and as leaders, we need to do a better job of not only embracing these interests and passions of our colleagues, but finding ways to empower these educators to incorporate them into their teaching. The more ways we can connect with students the better, and the more we let students into who we are, more chances for connecting will occur naturally. We will be able to show them another side of who we are, and other great characteristics of ourselves that they can be inspired by.

Framing is my Genius Hour, but this is my Passion Project:

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And it’s a whole other part of who I am that will make me a better teacher, better leader and better person. Don’t underestimate all the other parts of your life that make you who you are in the eyes of your students. I am a teacher and a coach but I am also an amateur framer, a lover of music, an aspiring writer, a sports fan, a movie goer, a husband AND a new Dad. Every one of those characteristics offers me a way to connect with my students, and every one of those aspects of me will shape the impact I can have as an educator.

What unique characteristics do you bring to your teaching? What are you doing to bring them out in your lessons, your conversations with your students and parents, and the time you spend at school?  What are you doing to bring out the passions and interests of your staff in your school?

 

Novel not Novelty, Innovation not Gimmicks

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by darranl

Call me old school, but my razor has 2 blades. It has always driven me crazy with the incessant adding of blades, parodied of course numerous times on numerous comedies, because we all see what they are doing – trying to get our money with a gimmick.

I am re-reading “Start with Why” by Simon Sinek and while I wasn’t reading it as a resource on Innovation, he brought up a great point about confusing Novelty with Innovation. His example came from the business of Cell Phones, with the example of Novelty being the Motorola Razr and the example of Innovation being the iPhone. His point was that Motorola created a product with a bunch of great features and made it the latest shiny new gadget but there wasn’t any real innovation there. He said the innovation of the iPhone was in telling the carriers what the phone would do and not the other way around. It was timely as the topic had come up just earlier today.

I love talking with other educators about Innovation, what it is, how you define it, how you provide our classrooms an opportunity to explore it, and how do we foster it in our students. Today, I was discussing the definition of Innovation with George Couros (over twitter) and we talked about the idea of a novel creation or an improvement on an existing creation. Reading Simon Sinek’s book makes me think that we have to teach students the difference between novel and novelty. Not everything new is innovative and not every improvement is innovative either. We are bombarded every day with advertisements exclaiming that the product is “New and Improved”, and Sinek talks about this being more about manipulating the customer than actual innovation.

It got me thinking about our next Innovation Week (#iweek2) and how the planning is going for our students. We have some really great conversations developing around the guiding question that each student is developing for their projects, as well as who their expert will be (Theme for iWeek 2 is “Connecting with Experts”). As they fill out their applications, their homeroom teacher is there to help them if they get stuck at any point in the process, and some are having trouble creating a deep guiding question based around their area of interest. I see some of our students looking more for a gimmick or novelty then actual innovation. We have students excited about their projects, but with a real focus on learning that lacks any depth. Some of the key questions our application asks to hopefully guide the students to some deeper thinking or hunt out any issues are:

  • What is your guiding question? What new learning/discoveries will you be exploring?
  • Process required to answer my guiding question:
  • What will you create as a final product?
  • What skills will you develop?
  • Who is your audience and how will you present your learning?

I hope the conversations with our students as they work through the application process, and of course through the learning process, will help students see past the gimmick and novelty and find ways to explore meaningful innovation. We will of course need to be very mindful with our assistance to help students get there without controlling to much of the experience.

We will need to explore this issue again when we our theme becomes “Entrepreneurial Spirit“, which is one of our planned themes for next school year’s Innovation Weeks. When our students turn to creating a project that would be marketed and sold to customers, the idea of gimmicks and novelty will become even more important.  We want our students to have a successful experience when they explore the world of business, but we don’t want to empower students to manipulate their customers and learn tricks that dance dangerously close to being dishonest. Sinek talks about creating “Loyalty” rather than just “Repeat Business” and that comes from inspiring your customers, not tricking them.

What I find more and more as I explore themes of Innovation and Creativity, is that in developing projects and lessons that focus on Innovation, we are able to tackle some really important themes in some engaging, authentic and powerful ways. With each Innovation Week and each theme we explore, we can really help our students create a better understanding of their learning and their interactions with their world. Maybe we’ll even have some of our boys grow up and buy a razor with two blades instead of seven.