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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Good Ideas Snowball at EduCon 2.3

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate

On the eve of this year's EduCon gathering, a winter storm dumped a foot of snow on Philadelphia. That didn't deter the 600 educators who trekked in from all corners of the country, and beyond, to take part in two days of heady conversations at the Science Leadership Academy.

What's the draw? Here's one clue. Philly kids had an official snow day on Friday. But as Principal Chris Lehmann noted in his welcoming remarks, more than one-hundred SLA students showed up anyway to host one of the only education conferences that takes place in a school. Getting a glimpse inside this public high school, and perhaps discovering what gets students so engaged, is part of the attraction.

Equally telling is the stream of Twitter comments with the #educon hashtag. Attendees show up for EduCon eager to learn but just as eager to share. They don't have to be sold on using technology to connect with their learning network. And for a weekend, they get to play with like-minded colleagues.

Format for this event is another attraction. The "con" in EduCon stands for conversation. This year's event offered more than 80 well-facilitated discussions -- not presentations -- plus two panels. The only downside is having to choose. (Games for learning or digital writing? Teaching empathy or teaching STEM?) Fortunately, those capable SLA students videotape, livestream, and archive everything online so you can digest it all, eventually. I'll be mulling over (and blogging about) these intriguing ideas in the weeks ahead, but here are just a few highlights from this winter wonderland.

'Change that Matters'

Theme for this third-annual gathering was innovation. It's a popular term. Heard everywhere from the President's State of the Union Address to new car commercials or the latest gadget release, "innovation" is at risk of overuse. Fortunately, an opening-night panel of big thinkers and change agents helped frame the conversation. They defined innovation as a force not just for what's new, but for what's good. "It's change that matters," summed up Aaron Gross, founder of an organization called Farm Forward that promotes more humane agricultural practices.

Thinkers, Doers, Sharers

How can educators create meaningful change, whether it's in their own classrooms, their schools, or the broader system? Among the wonderful din of ideas at EduCon and in the role-modeling by the SLA community, I kept hearing three refrains: think, do, share.

Thinking: Inquiry is a core value of Science Leadership Academy. No surprise, then, that EduCon sessions invite participants to consider difficult, open-ended questions. What does it mean to be literate in the digital age? Do we need a new language to describe the spaces where learning happens? How do we encourage students to innovate? How can we encourage students, teachers, and schools to take risks and learn from failure?

Doing: Active engagement is another hallmark of both SLA and EduCon. Many sessions challenge participants to make something. Using your cell phone to take an "impossible" picture (such as an image that defies gravity) is not only fun, but it opens a conversation about visual literacy. Inventing a better space for learning through the process of design thinking causes participants to put good talk to good use. There's nothing passive about this kind of experience.

Sharing: Science Leadership Academy walks the talk when it comes to collaboration, providing both time and tools to enable staff and students to work together well. So it's not surprising that sharing is a big theme at EduCon. Sometimes, it's about sharing instructional strategies. Karl Fisch from Arapahoe High School in Colorado shared his experience with "flipped learning." Using digital tools, he "offloads" traditional content delivery to online learning. That opens class time for exploring interesting problems with students. Sometimes, it's about sharing stories -- classroom successes as well as flops. Dean Shareski and Alec Couros, two prominent educators from Canada, facilitated a conversation about "The Ethical Obligation to Teach, Learn and Share Globally." To keep the conversation going, they have started a meme called K12Sharing, including a Google doc to capture good stories.

Grow the Conversation

At the start of EduCon, Chris Lehmann challenged participants to "walk out of here with a plan for change." By the end, those action plans were starting to coalesce. I spoke with some participants who are determined to try one small but powerful idea or tool they heard about from another teacher. Others are aiming to shift the direction of a whole school or district. Closing-day panelist Linda Nathan, founder of Boston Arts Academy, urged all attendees to be inclusive in their vision. "Innovation is something we're not allowed to talk about for poor kids, or poor kids of color," she said. Yet at her arts-infused urban school, she watches students and staff think creatively as they "muck about" with authentic math problems or use the arts to represent human evolution.

The danger of low expectations, cautioned Chad Womack, research scientist and founder of TBED21, is that "students will live up to them." Instead, he challenged attendees to imagine learning environments that "foster the creative mind. Scientists and artists share an ability to see what others don't," he said. "In the visualization of the problem, that's where you find ideas."

If you attended EduCon this year, what new ideas did you find? How have new connections and conversations shaped your vision? And how do you plan to keep this conversation going in your own community? Please share your stories!

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