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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Rivers and Streams: Reflections on São Paulo's Innovate 2013 Conference

William Tolley

Learning and Innovation Coach at the International School of Curitiba

"Every day is a workshop." -- Will Richardson

Innovate 2013, hosted by Graded School in São Paulo, ended last Sunday, and now hundreds of freshly-charged innovators are heading back to their schools from as close as Sampa itself to as far away as Mumbai. Reactions to the conference were overwhelmingly positive and the sessions I attended were first class.

My time was split between sessions with Will Richardson (above) on unconferences, connective writing and "bold schools," and with Scott Klososky (below) on the new renaissance in learning. Both speakers were compelling and clearly competent; throughout their sessions I again and again realized that I was listening to people who know exactly what they are talking about. Tellingly, although their backgrounds are widely divergent (Richardson is a 20-year veteran of the classroom and sits on multiple education boards and think tanks, while Klososky is an autodidact of the tech-business world who never attended college), their messages were remarkably in sync. In sum: brace yourself for changes that you cannot escape -- by embracing them.

Filter failure, citizen journalism, PLNs, connective writing, rivers of information, augmented students, social relevancy, simultaneous streams of information, earned influence . . . the list of concepts and vetted predictions thrown out by Richardson and Klososky -- just two speakers among dozens at the conference -- was equal parts overwhelming and exhilarating. But channeling these simultaneous rivers was a key reassurance that the prepared will inherit the earth. As long as educators take responsibility for their own learning and for building an educational future their students deserve, they will succeed and survive. Those who only go so far as to prepare for a future that just happens to them will not be so lucky.

From conversations both in and out of the sessions, among numerous minor observations, I drew five main conclusions:

1. Everyone in the Choir is On Board

The crowd at Innovate was enthusiastic, not only for the content of the conference and the speakers, but also to be among like-minded thinkers and hopeful innovators. A pleasant "we're all friends here" vibe pervaded the event.

2. The Kool-Aid Can Be a Little Too Sweet at Times

Some of the "singers" I spoke to were so fired up they were ready to chuck out a chunk of the current curriculum. As a history teacher, I found myself at several points the subject of dismissal and/or pity. "You teach that subject the kids just need their phone for? That’s too bad." Jeepers-creepers. After Will Richardson's warning that we need to focus our efforts on learning and teaching everything that can't be "Khanified," several people looked me like I was a dodo -- in more ways than one. A few conversations about what really goes on in a history classroom slowed some of this herd down, but I could tell they were only temporarily stunned. We need to take to heart Will's other advice that we think carefully about the baby, the bathwater and the fresh water we want to bring in, and make sure we don’t throw out rich educational experiences in favor of trending tips and tricks.

3. The Club Realizes That Not Everyone is a Fan of Glee

Throughout all my sessions, participants raised the issue of the challenges innovators face from their school boards, communities, students and staff. The observation that "innovation means different things in different environments" rang out more than once, and dealing with the non-believers was the only subject of mild griping I encountered in an otherwise upbeat event.

4. The New PD is Going to Be Personalized, Omnipresent and Hybrid

We are going to have to practice what we preach: if individualized instruction, PLNs and modern workflow form the way forward for our students, why would it not for us? Not only will competitive educators need to be constant, linked-in learners for their own good, they will need to adopt this model in order to remain relevant to their students who have already shoved off down the "rivers and streams" on the way toward building their own connective and fluid futures.

5. There’s Room for "Non-Stupid Optimism"

No matter the challenges, the tipping point is growing near. I can't help but feel that, with so many engaged and qualified educators so enthusiastic about the potential offered by current innovation opportunities -- both for us and for our students -- transformational change is on the horizon.

These conclusions led me toward three concrete takeaways that I plan to implement over the course of the imminent semester and going forward:

  1. Will Richardson claims that "journalism is the new curriculum," while Scott Klososky argues that citizen journalists are re-shaping media, communication and how we and our students experience the world. I agree with both. My immediate plan is to begin re-shaping the PBL elements of my history course units so that students can produce multi-media, multi-platform, connective journalism that addresses the current import and relevance of historical phenomena and process while bolstering their work (and avoiding the common criticisms of citizen journalism) through applying the analytical skills and deep knowledge they acquire in their study of history. David Bowden’s video (above) convincingly argues for the importance of citizen journalism, and its impact on history.
  2. The methods, tools and ideas we were exposed to during the conference lead toward many different ways to collaborate with the teachers of other disciplines. Together we can help students create authentic multi-dimensional products while also reducing workload (always a concern in an IB school) by allowing interdisciplinary projects to qualify for assessment in multiple courses. I am already in talks with the English and ITGS teachers at my school, and we hope to get other colleagues involved as well.
  3. As the Learning and Innovation Coach at my school, I am going to design and facilitate more hybrid learning spaces, more PLN development sessions and more flip-learning experiences for our PD programs. My tech coordinator colleague and I have realized both that many of the teachers at our school are interested in these ways of learning, and that we need to help everyone --interested or not -- become proficient in personalized professional development. As Clay Shirky warns us, "The change we are in the middle of isn't minor and it isn't optional."

Innovate 2013 firmly established that the horizon is looming. Our choices are to let it come to us, or to go out and meet it. Either way, there is no final destination: as always in education, the journey is both the means and the end. How comfortable and successful we are along the way is up to us.

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