Forging Ahead (a validation of practice)

This past weekend, our school district took a huge step forward. A tremendous step. It hosted the Kootenay Summit (#kootenaysummit) with the support of the fine folks of the EdTechTeam. The conference was attend by over 300 local educators, administrators, senior administrators, teachers-in-training, education assistants, and school board trustees from six school districts within the BC southern interior. I (literally) had access to world-class professional learning opportunities for two days in my own backyard (a brisk two minute walk each morning was all that was required).

Initially, my intention to attend the conference was one of a curiosity with the hopes of learning more about the G-Suite and Google Classroom toolkit. Three schools in our district were currently piloting the platforms and the response from some of my colleagues was very positive. And while I went looking for tools what I came across was actually validation. A validation of my perspectives on learning and teaching in the digital age, specifically design thinking and its applications in our classrooms.

With his intriguingly titled keynote, “Live Curious, Go Beyond”, Brian Hamm, Director of Technology at American Foundation School of Monterrey, legitimized my strongly held belief that students need to be “compelled in their learning” and K-12 educators will be bound to “flip from what to learn to how to learn”. Hamm’s emphasized on the relative importance of design thinking is elemental in twenty-first century pedagogy and offered three fundamental shifts or pivots that require embracing by all educators.

design thinking
Image courtesy of Nielsen Norman Group

Pivot from Delivering Skills to Delivering an Experience

We’ve known this to be true for over a decade, and yet, the influential driver for many educators still remains the importance of content. A large majority of teachers still consider themselves holders of knowledge that is imparted to students in a specific fashion (didactic), over a specific time frame (inflexible timetables).  The sage on the stage must then evaluate students’ ability understand, but not necessarily use the knowledge in a personally meaningful way. Hamm points out that the driver behind our digital global economy is no longer knowledge-focused, and has self-organized itself to sell experiences to its consumers. He deftly uses the technical specifications of the Google, Samsung or HTC phones in a comparison to the juggernaut of the smartphone industry, the iPhone. When judged solely on its technological prowess, the iPhone is an inferior phone, but it offers its users a superior experience (i.e. its shape, colour, and feel to name a few!). Viewing our students an education as one of an ‘experience’ or an opportunity to create their own lived learning experience is relevant and transformative.

Pivot from Mock Projects to Immediate Problems

While we use inquiry-based learning in many of teaching and learning opportunities, Hamm urges us to refocus the end result. A shift from “mock projects to projects aimed at immediate problems in your immediate community” is required. Projects are viewed as the vehicle for providing a structure to solve problems; and are not ends in and of themselves. It is a simple, but powerful shift. Everyone wants to contribute to change of some varietal. Choosing a problem that solves a pressing community problem is impact and serves to support both greater engagement and personal investment.

Pivot from Solutions-Focused to Users-Focused

Hamm challenges conference and keynote attendees to consider our learners as our ‘users’ of the education industry. He believes that we need to “pivot away from the solutions-focused mindset and towards a focus on users, partners, people, and community”. The key to this realization comes from gaining empathy and understanding into their lived experiences. Hamm wisely observes that “too often we are victims to someone [else’s] solutions that was rushed” and that K-12 educators shift the “need teach and model listening to respond towards a model of listening to understand“. He theorizes that a shift to “embracing and not tolerating failure” would support the user (learner) focus. In essence, learning to develop empathy. To truly embrace failure one has to embrace their vulnerability both as teacher and learner, and Hamm believes that this thinking should be more readily accessible in “the age of the do-over”.

moonshots hamm
Image courtesy of Sylvia Duckworth

Wait…There’s More (the bonus CD)!

In the era of the design-thinker, Hamm delineates three that I found profoundly provocative dichotomies that require embracing by K-12 educators…

Done Versus Perfect: Getting a product to market is more imperative than getting it right…the process of iteration allows for ongoing and continual development. Deep and meaningful learning often arises from the process of change and iteration. From the messiness of learning itself. Perfection? Never? Mastery? A fallacy. Is a solution ever truly perfect? It’s just the best solution we have at the time.

Suspending Certainty: As educators we recognize the value of the ‘yet’. So why do we regard both teaching and learning with certainty? Why do we need definitive? Certainty is rarely what happens in the real world. Certainty is what stifles innovation and creativity. Being uncertain (and iterative) is design thinking methodology.

Teachers as Defenders of Ideas: Hamm refers specifically to student ideas either those generated through a design thinking process or organically created from a preexisting idea or concept. When teachers dismiss the ideas of their students we often shortchange their learning experiences. Ideas are neither right nor wrong. Rather it is a matter of degree to which an idea adequately addresses an immediate problem and/or affects the experience. In the iterative process of design it is the quantity of ideas that reign over the quality of the solutions.

Bringing to Practice

My approach to my practice requires a refocus. A refocus of my intentions to develop and provide learning opportunities that become the experiences of the learners. The titillating label ‘makerspace’ conjures up maybe a place of technology, doodads, blinking lights, creative chaos, all amid the whirring hum of 3-D printers. I’m working to change the stereotype of the makerspace in our school from a place of ‘tinkering’ and ‘making’ to an environment and incubator of new ideas and skills developed to solve immediate local problems; as a new way of looking at learning in a contextualized environment. Learning that emphasizes a design approach that features the experience of the user as the way forward in our school and community.

Footnote: This week I will begin an EdX course from MIT aptly titled Designing and Thinking for Leading and Learning to further my professional learning and deepen my practice and understanding. The learning never ends. The journey continues. Perfect.


A HUGE THANK YOU to Brian Hamm (@Hammed) for his time, wisdom, and kindly supportive words. This blog post is dedicated to him. Namaste.


One thought on “Forging Ahead (a validation of practice)

  1. Thanks for this great summary of the weekend Jeff! I too was inspired by Brian’s ideas around design thinking and real world problems, user focussed solutions and especially by the amazing acts of service his students engage in. I loved how he applied the design thinking model to social issues which helped me see outside the box I had put around design. Have to say though that obseving your makerspace class at Trafalgar primed me to be curious about these ideas. Keep up the great work!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s