Getting to Yes

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Have you ever agreed to something and then wondered if it was the smartest thing you ever did?

That happened to me last spring. A colleague shared with me that a group of middle school kids was on a mission to reimagine the dining experience in their cafeteria which I thought was a fabulous idea. After all institutional cafeteria settings aren’t typically the most human-centered community spaces in our schools. I imagined the kids designing and building booths in their relatively new maker space, maybe putting a few plants around and placing posters or student art work on the walls. Instead, I began to see images pop up on Twitter and Instagram that caused me to wonder what I’d agreed to support.

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When I checked in with colleague @irasocol who was working with architect Alex Gilliam of Public Workshop and our middle schoolers, I heard they’d decided what they REALLY needed was not dining booths but rather tree houses, and not one but two tree houses. Rolling tree houses, no less.

I didn’t see tree houses coming.

“Creativity is seeing what others see and thinking what no one else has ever thought.” — Albert Einstein

If we want a culture of contagious creativity, we have to get ourselves to yes. Sometimes that’s not so easy. This was one of those times for me.  But, I immediately did what I advise others to do and said yes – as long as the tree house didn’t get too tall- say 8 foot or so. I decided I better visit.

I imagine you are thinking, “Pam, get yourself to yes all you want to on cafeteria tree houses, but not me.” But go with me through this – you see I’ve been there saying to myself “just say no.”

Getting ourselves to yes is a lifetime challenge in education when our urge is NOT to say “what if” instead we are quick to go to “yea but or just plain no” and the conversation ends there.  Fortunately, a mentor early in my career said to me that if a young person or a teacher comes to you with an idea, say yes. If you don’t, they will leave your office and tell ten others that you said no. More importantly, those ten will ask why bother coming to you when they have an idea they want to make happen.

alexprojectHere’s what I discovered when I visited the cafeteria. Middle schoolers were scrambling all over the tree houses. I could only think  that maybe this getting to yes philosophy does have limits. Then I stepped back to observe the kids working under Alex Gilliam’s watchful eye. They were a diverse mix representing all the demographics of their tiny middle school. But what really caught my attention was their joy in designing and building, using saws, and drills, and hammers like pros.

I talked with the principal and discovered that several of the kids climbing the structure with great care were kids who weren’t always the most successful in class. I heard from a teacher about his reflection that the kids were learning to use complex math competencies that some thought were beyond their skill level. I stepped back and thought this may be the best story ever to define getting myself to yes on a proposal that challenges every radar beep from my superintendent’s antenna.

I work as superintendent in a school district that is learning to get to yes  – from teachers to principals to learners. Last summer, watching the evening news, a story popped up that caught my attention illustrating our trust in students when we say yes. It was one of our high school students in the woods sharing a summer project. As I listened I smiled to realize that this project was the perfect example of the contagious creativity that emerges when we say yes and unleash the potential of young people.

 

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Iyoade in maker space

Iyaode, high school student and budding engineer, had approached a mentor teacher to share a challenge she wanted to solve; how to engage middle school girls to understand the possibilities of engineering.  His response to her? Why not?

She  wanted to gather some high school friends and offer a summer engineering camp for middle school girls. The solution she designed? A bridge-building summer camp in which her team and the middle school girls designed a bridge, hauled construction tools and lumber into the woods, and built a bridge over a creek along a walking trail in our community. That night, as I watched middle school girl builders and realized that the power of yes to encourage creativity in our schools had spread well beyond my office doors. 

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Julian with his drones

In my district, creativity abounds and we believe that getting to yes is step one in the process of redesigning every nook and cranny of 20th century schooling. It doesn’t matter whether I walk into a library maker space and find Julian  working on a drone or flying one in the gym. Or, I wander into a former computer lab turned into a music studio and get the chance to listen to Grace performing and recording original music.

Our schools are different because of educators who are getting to yes. Our kids have 3-D printed prosthetic solutions for peers with handicaps and prototyped a portable MRI.

Teens such Nyghee, Courtney, Josiah, Emily, and Obed have choreographed their own dance numbers and directed musicals that challenge their peers to think. They’ve posted their performances to YouTube and shared face-to-face with live audiences. Others like James have posted original music online to share with authentic audiences all over the world. 

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Memphis cast members on stage

This work happens in formal and informal learning spaces because we encourage passing on the power of saying yes to creativity – and when we do we find that creativity becomes contagious, spreading from person to person, classroom to classroom, school to school across our district.

So, why should we all work on getting ourselves to yes? Unless we can get ourselves to yes, the next steps in the change process won’t matter.

 

Getting ourselves to yes keeps kids coming back to school every day to pursue their own passions in learning for a lifetime.

Getting ourselves to yes embodies an open atmosphere of creative design to address grand learning challenges that can be solved together by adults and children alike.

And, getting ourselves to yes means that collaborative communities get the chance to reimagine what it means to educate young people for life, not for school.

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Middle School Fitness Center “not a gym”

Our schools now have maker and hacker spaces, learning commons, design studios and wonder lounges, spark spaces and fitness centers, genius bars and mechatronics labs, music construction spaces and dance studios. We’ve taken down walls  and removed lockers literally and figuratively.

 

And, with each redesign we learn that imagining education differently means our young people no longer must check creativity when they enter our schoolhouse doors.

Today, when I visit the tree house cafeteria, I find kids perched high above or below working on writing and projects or eating and listening to music with friends during a lunch break. The kids in this school have gone on to build beautiful seating for outdoor spaces in their schools. And, I have no idea what they might want to do next but I am sure they have no issue with bringing their ideas forward.

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There’s no secret sauce or recipe for getting ourselves to yes. Yet, it’s the cheapest but most powerful strategy we have in our tool belt to encourage fresh and creative ideas.

Why not try it?  Just remember to take a deep breath.

After all, sometime soon someone is going to ask you about building their own version of a tree house.

Be ready.

Just say yes.

To Write is to Make: Reflecting on Paul Oh’s Words

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I read a Medium post yesterday morning, “Writing as Making” written by Paul Oh. Paul is a favorite educator and one of my earliest connectors (@poh) on twitter. He serves as a Senior Program Associate for the National Writing Project. As always, Paul’s voice causes me to reflect on our work in schools to create authentic experiences that help young people make meaning as they develop a sense of their own voices and agency in their own learning.

This past week as I’ve walked schools newly open for the ’15-16 school year, I’ve observed children of all ages finding paths to learning through writing. I’ve seen children already writing individually or in shared experiences by choice and by design. I’ve noticed children belly writing on the floor, perched on couches, chairs, or standing at tables – most often choosing to not just sit rigidly at a desk when given a choice. I even walked a nature trail on the third day of school with fifth graders who paused on their own to note-make and sketch as they observed cardinal flowers, stinging nettles, sycamore leaves, bag worms, and beetles. I’ve witnessed a variety of writing tools in the hands of children, deliberately chosen depending upon the task at hand.

writing1When children have choices in how they physically orient in space, in the tools they use, and the words they select to represent their own thinking, their writing comes alive through the process of moving words from inside to outside of themselves. Teachers with writing process expertise listen and look for entry points to help illuminate next steps with children to increase their expressive complexity as they learn to write and write to learn.

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Even as we value the importance of writing, a principal asked this question recently. “Why do our youngest children write so freely and with excitement, yet seem to disengage as writers as they move up through the grades?”

writing5writing14I wonder if we’ve moved so far afield  from why humans became writers in the first place that we’ve forgotten that writing was invented as a timeless communication tool for making and sharing truth, ideas, beauty, stories … rhyme.

Today in our standardized world of education, test prep writing work and writing tests contrive a kind of writing that lacks purpose and meaning to children. In such a world, children who begin school as curious language learners lose their earliest sense of voice when made to over and over practice writing designed to teach them to perform well on tests.

Yet, we all know teachers with expertise who intensively study how to facilitate writing15children to develop more complex and authentic writing. They know writing begins inside a person as a reflective exploration of experiences, interests, and questions. They believe writing can be joyful for children and adults alike. They value that children have something important to say and share with others – from their classmates to the world outside their school doors. Such teachers listen and look for entry points to help illuminate next steps to increase children’s expressive complexity in using language as they learn to write and write to learn in a variety of forms of media – including digital connectors.

writing19This morning, reflecting on the best of writing teachers I’ve known across decades brought me back to Paul’s premise of “writing as making.” And, his words led me to reflect on the question of “why do we humans write?”

Here’s my response with a twist on his post.

Writing is Making .. It’s a reflection of our capability  to capture the stories, images, and artifacts we make — and it happens today through old tech such as pen and ink and #2 pencils and new tech including phone note-making apps, trans-disciplinary media, and Google everything. Writing helps us makes meaning: who we are, our questions, what challenges us, our accomplishments, our I-searches to inquire, discover, and explore curiosities, and our potential to change ourselves, our communities, the world. Writing makes our ideas, information, and imagination come alive for and with others in whatever ways we choose to search, connect, communicate and make.

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The Pendulum or the Butterfly

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“If not us, who? If not now, when?”

Governor George Romney to the Michigan Legislature (9/20/63)

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Floor time project work

What compels us? Pulls us? Catalyzes us? Connects us? Who are we and what are we doing in this profession? In this public sector? In this institution we call school? Why do some of us keep coming back, day after day, year after year, decade after decade until we look back and realize that we accomplished something called a career; even as we watched others go silently into the night across those years?

Why do some of us keep pulling ourselves up and off the floor of the ring to continue on to the next round, in spite of our bruises and the blood we spill?

What binds us together? What pulls us apart?

Blog posts, twitter conversations, backchanneling and #chat discussions center the language of out of mainstream educators, parents, and even young people who attempt to answer these questions.  Social media capture the cadence of our conversation with the sometimes painful, sometimes achingly beautiful words and images of a poet even as others of us debate with impassioned, but crisp, political analysis.

We question whether we continue on another swing of our own perverse Newtonian pendulum. Or, is it possible social media lifts the quantum butterfly whose beating wings shift air currents across this nation, creating a learning world that we could never have envisioned in isolation of each other?

Still more of a back channel than a mainstream educational movement, those in the global communication network of educators still mostly watch from the outside as the next sentence is being written by politicians to frame American education.  We know well the drafting, revision, and editing processes in which our communities, our states, and nation now engage. We understand how mainstream media, political positions, new policy, new legislation, budget deliberations, and public hearings give voice to those who attempt to define the some; the all of us. Those with decades in education have seen this before. We know what the swing of the pendulum means inside schools.

However, in parallel universes, today two conversations exist.

One, a voice exploring the meaning of words like passion, joy, drive, inspiration, learning, democracy. The other, a voice of market share, big data, votes, rules, money, incentives, brand placement, and rhetoric.

butterfly10clockThe intersection of these voices juxtaposes the choices between the pendulum or the butterfly.

Both objects of motion- one coldly inanimate, the other joyfully alive.

One defined by the freedom to move at will. The other by  external control.

One mechanized. The other, part of the ecosystem.

In most ways, the current story of public education still represents our commitment to Newtonian physics, the classical mechanization of the factory school pendulum that many still hold dear.

But, in the back channel, our quantum butterfly wings unfold; with each pump of fluid we weigh our potential to take flight. It is here that we consider how learning becomes dynamic, active, deep, and vivid.

So, what will give lift to voices in the back channel? Will it be new legislation, policy, funding, political voices? I think not.

Instead, we must design education anew by generating an ever-increasing number of educators who believe in a mission to create spaces of inspiration for learners and learning. However, it will take more than 1 or 10 percent of us speaking the poetic and analytical voices of passion, joy, and drive to create spaces in which young people and educators can thrive in these 21st century days.

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To accomplish such a vision, it must become one of lift, influence, and power that creates a front channel for our voices. We need our best educational technologists, our courageous leaders, our creative geniuses across America’s communities to create the front channel we must become. It’s our job, and our time, to increase the inspiration quotient for public education in every community in this nation.

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For if not us, who? If not now, when?

Otherwise, we must accept again the next push of the educational pendulum and forget the potential of the butterfly’s flight.

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 Postscript:

( I wrote the first draft of this post in 2012. I felt then as if public education was in a downward spiral in which learning had become defined as being about passing tests and prepping for tests alone. Few questioned the standardization of every curricula, the loss of inquiry as an anchor for engaged thinking, the subtraction of hands-on learning from the academic curricula, the loss of play, story, and movement by design as a path to learning for our youngest children, and removal of course options from arts to physical education to shop class. Reduction or elimination of libraries, recess, club time, and field trips seemed to go without question.

Today, I am more optimistic that an awakening occurs. When I watch the movie Most Likely to Succeed, read Learn or Die, or listen to educators such as Yong Zhao speak to a different vision for learning, I know something is changing. It’s occurring in the social media conversations of educators everywhere. It’s found in a groundswell of big conference themes that focus on children as learners, not as data points. Even politicians challenge status quo assumptions about elevating national and state standardization expectations over the choices of local communities.

Some might say we are at crossroads in 2015. I see it as more of a chance to define education in this century not just a reform of the last century’s schools but a turning point transformation, indeed a contemporary Renaissance fueled by intersections of trans-disciplinary content with new contexts for learning. Because of our knowledge, tools, and communication networks, we have the potential to create learning opportunities that have never before been available in human history.)

Disruptive Innovation in Schools From Inside Out – Not Outside In

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I’ve been thinking about disruptive innovation in schools. Disruptive innovation has evolved into a buzz phrase with superficial interpretations that can confuse understanding. First, its history. In 1997, Clayton Christensen coined the term to describe the concept’s application in the business sector and defined it in The Innovator’s Dilemma.

“Disruptive Innovation: The theory of disruptive innovation describes a process by which a product or service transforms an existing market by introducing simplicity, convenience, accessibility, and affordability. – See more at: http://www.christenseninstitute.org/key-concepts/#sthash.fVqlOlnb.dpuf” (Christensen Institute)

Here’s a few examples. The personal computer replaces mainframes. The cell phone replaces land lines. Online sellers replace department stores. And, a question.

IMG_0571Will maker work replace factory school work?

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Math class

In Disrupting Class, Christensen originally hypothesized the rise of online learning as being the big outside disruptor inside K-16 education, believing the exponential increase in virtual coursework would lead to replacement of a significant percentage of face-to-face classes over the next decade. Today, Christensen identifies blended learning models – a combination of virtual with bricks and mortar opportunities – as a key disruptive innovation occurring in schools.

However, I believe there’s more astir within the nature of disruptive innovation in education than simply the blending of technologies and the Internet with school and home to “personalize learning.” I see signs of a different form of disruptive innovation in schools, one grounded not in online coursework but rather in young people working together face-to-face as they search, connect, communicate and make to learn. My perspective is informed by teens who often share their value for the social nature of school communities as they learn with each other inside and outside school walls. I also hear it in their voices as they engage in the creativity processes inherent in making to learn and learning to make. How is this perspective being translated into schools?

The Learning Commons as Disruptive Innovation

Recent dynamic changes in how some libraries are used has shifted them to what now is labeled as the concept of the learning commons.

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Music Industry Studio in the library

For example,  high school librarians in the district where I work as well as in some other districts across the country are providing students with opportunities to do much more than sit silently, research or read virtually or otherwise. Progressive librarians are turning space into areas where students can search, connect, communicate and make throughout the school day and before and after school. A disruptive innovation result? Kids who never stepped into a library unless required to do so now choose to spend hours there.

Librarians who disrupt the concept of library have become hackers alongside students. They encourage slam poets, music makers, videographers, app developers, gamers and design thinkers to share space alongside more traditional readers and researchers. As a result, kids are finding each other and forming social communities for formal and informal learning inside the school’s walls.

ESOL students creating art in the library

ESOL students creating art in the library

What else happens when librarians hack library space? Circulation goes up. Students who never would have visited the library voluntarily do so. Teachers value the library as an active and thriving space for their classes to produce, develop and curate as users, not just consume content. Libraries pick up a “market share” of teachers and students who never before saw themselves as library users by choice.

 

Libraries in this change process have become far more than a source of static, pre-curated materials used by people in permanent “silent” mode.  Instead, these libraries represent an Agora, a marketplace of ideas, creativity, discovery, and interaction. As  libraries become a gathering space in schools, cultural changes reflect students’ value for formal and informal learning opportunities – only some of which may represent Christensen’s blended learning disruption. Instead, it’s the emerging communal nature of the library inside the school that’s disrupting learning – the evolution of shared and open spaces where young people come together as agents of collaborative learning.

“The Agora (/ˈæɡərə/; Ancient Greek: Ἀγορά Agorá) was a central spot in ancient Greek city-states. The literal meaning of the word is “gathering place” or “assembly”. The agora was the center of athletic, artistic, spiritual and political life of the city. The Ancient Agora of Athens was the best-known example.” (Wikipedia)

 Makers Inside Schools Disruptively Innovate

Perkins+Wills interior designer works with 3rd graders on design thinking bedrooms

Perkins+Wills interior designer works with 3rd graders on design thinking bedrooms

Beyond libraries, what other ways are schools becoming sources of disruptive innovation? Teachers and librarians who see themselves as creatives, designers, inventors, and even entrepreneurs are building start-up cultures in their classrooms grounded in the “make to learn” movement.

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learner as teacher in elementary school

In classes with a maker mindset as Dale Dougherty of Make labels it, teachers and students redefine roles of teachers and learners as interchangeable. Students actively steer  their own learning as they work on projects, researching information they need in their “make to learn and learn to make” work using tools such as YouTube while seeking expertise found in interactive social media sites such as Twitter or Instagram. Students in maker-based learning environments begin to see learning as seamless, collaborative, and extended – not defined by other’s goals for them but by their own drive to learn.

 Freedom to Learn from the Inside Out

Educators who disruptively innovate the use of pedagogy, tools, and curricula through a maker-empowerment focus (Harvard Project Zero, Agency by Design) engage young people differently, reaching students who haven’t seen themselves as successful learners in traditional settings. These students may have silently resisted or even actively sabotaged school learning opportunities, regardless of their capability or background. From the maker-empowerment studies, students who experience passion, challenge and a chance to pursue their own learning interests are less likely to “drop out” emotionally and intellectually or to physically check out of school. Instead, “maker-empowered” learners build knowledge, competency and confidence through the relational support of teachers and peers. They come to see their potential to learn far more in school than educational standards prescribe.

The maker movement as disruptive innovation transcends the “personalized” options touted in blended learning or specialized environments such as charter schools. I’ve discovered a surprising number of makers in all kinds of spaces inside public schools once built to factory model specifications for the use of time, schedules, facilities, and learning resources. I’ve noticed middle schoolers taking apart a bike to figure out the physics of its design principles and observed teens repairing a compressor in a re-purposed audio-visual storeroom and using the library as a resource for finding the science, math, and technical knowledge and skills they need.

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compressor

These are signals that mainstream education is being disrupted by the spread of maker ed, a simultaneous challenge from inside school walls to both the 20th century factory school  and the 21st century virtual learning model. Maker education is a simple, accessible and affordable way to change the way our young people experience learning – and it’s far more compatible with how humans learn than the dominant teaching wall, desk in rows, bell schedule driven schoolwork of the 20th century.

Isn’t it about time? 

Makers By Design

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When a principal wanders into my office during the middle of state testing and just a week or so away from the end of the year, I am realistic in not expecting the same charged enthusiasm I heard earlier in the year. After all, I’ve been there. The end of a school year can sap a principal’s energy as s/he engages in a faster than typical urgency to make decisions and take action. Principals spend the end of the year in both start up and wind down mode – hiring new teachers, taking part in celebrations, often dealing with increased discipline issues and last minute parental concerns while pitching in with anything that needs to get done to bring a school year to closure. In May, the pace can suck the life out of a principal.

This week I ended my Friday chatting with a principal who brought a fresh energy into my office, delighting me with his affirmation that working in an at-risk school is his life’s work. I’ve always known that about him but his perspective was different yesterday. Why? The school staff has imagined and embraced a change that he believes has energized children, brought families closer to the school, and catalyzed  a renewed joy of teaching among staff. I’d love to be able to bottle his perspective and share it with America’s educators. But, I don’t need to. This school’s secret is encapsulated in one word.

MAKE.   Make not as an add on to the “real” work. Make as integral work. In this school where kids experience a design, build, and create ethos across the entire school, the staff realize that kids who make things are engaged – and empowered. They are curious. They want to learn. They are having fun. Discipline issues are basically nonexistent this year. State test scores are up. The principal’s imagination is on fire. The teachers are already thinking about how to make an even more powerful maker school experience next year.

Kindergarten maker work

Kindergarten maker work

Why has making ignited educators, parents and students in this school?

Making embeds informal learning into formal learning experiences. Kids develop more complex vocabulary, apply critical math skills, and explore a range of knowledge as they make. As the principal shared a digital image portfolio with me, his stories jumped out of joyful learning narrative. The story of a young child who decided he didn’t want to make the Statue of Liberty (his choice) but to be the Statue of Liberty complete with cereal box sandals, cardboard body and scepter, and a post it note tablet. The idea that making can be captured in movies and art work and iPad interviews. A project in which two fifth graders created a design for a maker patio outside classrooms, presented it to a landscaper, and now will get to see their project actually built with PTO support.

As we’ve embedded a #make2learn #learn2make mindset as a learning transformation pathway across 26 schools in my district, we are learning there are no linear instructional recipes or boxed programs for this work. Instead, maker education represents learning opportunity embedded in a conceptual frame of choice, interest, curricula bending, risk-taking, collaboration, curiosity, inquiry, tool cribs, and time flexibility.

Interest. Engagement. Passion. Empowerment. Agency.

Because of our work to bend curricula, instruction and assessment away from the standardization movement and toward the maker movement, I am particularly interested in the impact of making as a pathway to learning – a pathway along which children and teens pursue interests, engage their hands and minds, find passions, empower themselves and others, and discover a sense of personal learning agency. The stories this principal shared with me parallel stories that are emerging all over the district.

The STEAM Faire

The STEAM Faire

When I listen to teens describe how they work together to create contemporary music in a music industry studio (created in an old library storage room, no less) – writing lyrics, constructing music and beats, learning to use recording devices, practicing, producing and marketing – I am reminded that making to learn comes in a variety of forms and that when we step away from the standardization we practice in schools, making allows young people to access curricula that otherwise might not be available or of interest to them.

Imagination. Creativity. Ingenuity. Problem-solving. Solution-finding.

Why are we pursuing making? We humans naturally are curious creatures who seek to solve dilemmas, discover shortcuts through invention of new tools, and to express their understanding of the world through art forms. As soon as we can bang pots together, stack blocks, or smear paint we become makers. Children spin their imaginations into creating as they use the materials around them in ingenious ways to solve problems and find solutions to grand challenges. They persist. They ask questions. They seek knowledge. They share ideas. They try new ways of doing things. They dream.

When I watch young people challenged by thorny problems begin to work together to find solutions, it strikes me that boredom is not in their vocabulary. I’ve seen learners, elementary to high school, use 3-D printers to re-engineer artifacts such as the Vail telegraph and Civil War mini-balls. They’ve designed and printed unique smart phone cases, screws for library furniture, and science lab pulleys.  These learners don’t recognize the limits set on their learning by content standards created by people far from the classrooms they attempt to standardize. Instead, these learners seek rigor in their own learning as they take on challenges that build all the competencies that an adult might use in the home, at work, and for a lifetime of wanting to know and do more.

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phone case designed and 3-D printed for the principal

Exploration. Discovery. Design. Experimentation. Invention.

I’ve experienced the joy of children and teens in school this year who find themselves with opportunities to sustain their natural curiosity along learning pathways as they search, connect, communicate and make in and out of school. I am reminded in other classrooms that learning doesn’t happen so well when children and teens are seated in rows for hours on end and expected to vicariously acquire knowledge from the dominant teaching wall. Children and teens like to explore the world in which they live. They seek challenges and take risks as they discover pathways to learning that take them beyond the known horizons of their lives. They tune in through play, stories, movement, games, apprenticeships, and interaction. They design, experiment, and invent to take on new challenges.

They experience ….

Joy. Why would anyone question that joy fuels learning? When young people accomplish hard work they experience joy. When they pursue an interest, they find passion and that passion fuels them to keep on working even when they might quit. When they become makers, they delight in the products they create.

This year, I’ve watched children build wooden boxes, design and construct electric guitars, exhibit their handmade pottery and oil paintings, cook soup, sew bow ties, sing original lyrics, direct, produce, and screen video documentaries. I’ve observed them writing code for websites, games, and apps for smart phones. I’ve read their published prose and poetry in paper and virtual formats. I’ve been delighted by their choreography for musicals and their performance of original drama productions.

For humans such as this teen choreographer are ultimately #maker learners by design … 

I am convinced from my observations that when children are afforded opportunities to explore a rich ecosystem of learning inside and outside of school, they experience an authentic growth in knowledge and competencies that has seldom been available to learners since the printed book began to dominate the ecosystem. When maker experiences become prevalent, all learners thrive, even those who experience great difficulty in traditional school.

Why would I want to offer learners anything less?

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