Category Archives: Learning about Learning

How to Facilitate Epiphanies

Over the weekend my friend and I facilitated two, back-to-back, day-long design workshops (yes, I am still recovering, thanks). We worked with two nonprofits, one on Saturday and the other Sunday, and coached them through their respective complex design challenges using Design Thinking methodology. As grueling as it was to push through the mental blocks and exhaustion that comes with day-long brainstorming sessions, both groups came away jazzed and thinking totally differently about their respective problems than when they walked in that morning. So, SUCCESS!

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Design Thinking Phases

So what went right? We’ve been trying to figure it out. Replicating an epiphany-inducing process would be awesome, but were we just lucky? Not sure yet, but I can say that both days we saw a confluence of factors that led to brainwave breakthroughs:

  1. lit_match_by_blackhiveA Controlled Flare. At the beginning of each day, I made sure to emphasize that when Design Thinkers say, “Trust the Process,” what they want is to let the ideas flow, no matter how erratic, tangential, or numerous. If you look at the Design Thinking diagram above, you can see that some stages flare while others focus. The flare portion can make people nervous, especially people who like control and orderly meeting styles. But the trick is to welcome ideas, however radical or impractical. Only when you have a complete collection of all of the factors at play or all of the ideas in peoples’ heads can you make educated decisions about the best direction to pursue. For the facilitator in this process, think of a controlled forest fire; firemen stand by to ensure that the burning process does what it needs to do in order to cultivate the healthiest results.
  2. Creative Boundaries Make the Difference. Each sprint generated dozens and dozens of post-it note ideas. With each new wave of post-it tsunamis, we asked group members to categorize the post-its, summarize their categories, and prioritize their top ideas. It was fascinating as a facilitator to step back and watch brains work. Every time we asked this, the group would fall silent in extreme focus, and begin rearranging the post-its in trance-like movements. Within minutes they would generate categories out of chaos and, what’s more, could explain their new world order with confidence. By what power did they achieve this? I believe it has to do with setting creative boundaries. They say that limitations are the essence of art, and broadening this to any creative task, boundaries are the essence of creative work. The alternative, like saying “Anything is Possible,” can often leave us feeling paralyzed by the options. But just as rules make a game, boundaries work on our brains to shape our ideas into something real. As a facilitator, therefore, crafting questions that set creative boundaries becomes one of the most important tasks you have.
  3. diagramImagery and Metaphors Bring Cohesion. One of our groups was having trouble. They had so much they wanted to accomplish and had identified half a dozen audiences they wanted to help. At the same time, the collective gut feeling in the room was that their goals, as different as they appeared on paper, had something in common. Suddenly, someone suggested that what we wanted to provide was the “connective tissue” between the disparate audiences, like ligaments between muscles, and the group burst into smiles. We finally had an image to work from, and you could feel the tension in the room relax into pleasant excitement. We drew a couple of quick diagrams, and it sealed cohesion among the group members. As a facilitator, then, it is critical to try to help these images take shape. The whole process will benefit with better visuals.

 

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How Learning Improv Improves Your Life

Yes-And.jpgLast week I experienced my first foray into improvisational comedy. The meetup I help facilitate, Design Thinking Nashville, hosted an improv workshop and welcomed an instructor from LOL Nashville to teach us some basics of the comedy craft. The taste I got was definitely enough to make me want to keep going.

Why care about improv? Improv techniques are growing increasingly popular in business spheres as they provide much needed creative thrust. They train the brain to overcome inhibitions, to react quickly and fluidly to change, and to work well with others. Even just playing improv games for an hour made me feel invigorated, empowered, and less judgmental of myself and others. I left wishing I had something major and difficult to tackle that day; my brain was ready for anything.

There were three main takeaways from this experience. I hope they encourage you to think differently and maybe try out an improv class of your own!

  1. YES, AND…
    Improv and Design Thinking both operate on the principle that groups develop better ideas through what improv artists call the “Yes, And…” approach. This means accepting one person’s ideas and building on it collaboratively as a group. Does that mean you need to think it was a perfect idea? Not at all. It means that you are opening your mind to exploring possibilities. Nothing is held sacred, but neither is anything outright denounced. The alternative approach, with which many of us are infinitely more familiar, is to squash ideas the instant a fault is found. This crushes morale, reinforces hierarchical divisions within a group, and infringes on the potential for reaching better ideas by engaging openly in the process. Improv comedians must respond with “Yes, And…” to what ever gets thrown at them. There is no time to edit, no opportunity to critique. And who wants to watch that anyway? It is all about the fluid exchange of ideas, and this applies directly into any collaborative challenge, on stage or otherwise. My friend Tony said that the “Yes, And…”exercises revolutionized the make-believe he plays with his young daughter. It restrains him from questioning the premise of the imaginative play and instead go with the flow, which not only leads to better ideas but is also way more fun.
  2.  ESTABLISH RELATIONSHIP
    One of the games we played involved an interesting caveat: we had, within the exchange of three statements, to establish a specific relationship between two people in a scene. It was a tricky thing to do, coming up not only with something to say but enough of a backstory for the audience to guess at a likely relationship between the two characters in front of them. Extrapolating from this exercise makes me think about how important it is to consider backstories and contexts when we engage in collaborative work. Where is my coworker coming from with this idea? How might this idea work with our audience even if I don’t agree with it? What was the train of thought that led to this idea? This quick imaginative exercise frames problem solving such that we keep sight of the context and consider solutions from multiple angles.
  3. CONFIDENCE AND VULNERABILITY
    One of the paradoxes of the universe is that we humans (many of us, anyway) spend a lot of time and energy trying to avoid embarrassment when simultaneously admiring most the people willing to make fools of themselves. There is an emotional and interpersonal intelligence we associate with people confident enough to exhibit occasional silliness. Improv lessons are a great reminder of this truth because you get to see people liberated from their usual inhibiting boundaries of decorum. I watched, and was among, people making outlandish noises while wiggling about, and we are all totally accepting of our mutual vulnerabilities. The environment was safe enough for us all to participate and, what’s more, emerge with both more confidence in ourselves and more respect for the other participants. Imagine a work environment safe enough for people to explore ideas beyond their inhibition—this is a leadership goal worthy of serious attention.

 

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5 Best Creativity Books (so far)

Over the last few years of blogging about creativity I’ve made many references to books I’ve read on the subject. Today, I am creating a listicle (as my sister says, everyone loves a listicle) of my favorite five.

Why should you care? There is so much research coming out today about neuroplasticity, or our mind’s capacity to change. It means is that we can continue to learn, to reshape our thoughts, and make connections that didn’t exist before. This is the essence of creativity. Creativity might often seem like a natural gift, where some people have it and others don’t, but I believe it is so much more than this. Creativity is a skill we can practice, a collection of habits we can hone. This is good news because it means that, with a little intentionality and practice, we can better live into our creative potentials. This is true whether you call your self a “creative” or not. We all have problems to solve, relationships to build, and tasks to complete; we can all use a leg-up for improving our creative output.

So here are the top five books I’ve read over the last few years for improving creative skills. If you have a book to suggest, please do! Always looking for more!

  1. creative accThe Accidental Creative: How to be Brilliant at a Moment’s Notice, by Todd Henry
    Followers of this blog might think I’m a broken record with my constant praise for this book. But as a creative professional, i.e. the book’s target audience, it spoke to me more accurately than so many others I’ve read. Author Todd Henry defines ‘creative professional’ as people who create value with their minds, which applies very broadly across human work. His strategy for creativity is to create habits that balance your capacity to be brilliant, healthy, and prolific simultaneously. Often in the work place, we can be one or two of these things, but without balancing the third, our work will suffer. The Accidental Creative outlines extremely practical ideas for radically improving creative output. More about The Accidental Creative…

  2. 51gwzfggzal-_sx403_bo1204203200_The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, by Julia Cameron
    I confess: I am still working my way through this one. I’ve been working through it over the last year. The book is part workbook and jam-packed with excellent, convicting questions that provoke your memory and challenge presuppositions you may not have known you had about yourself and your ability to produce creative value. Cameron approaches the subject of creativity from a place of faith, but is not so specific in her theological claims that it would throw off more sensitive readers. The idea is that we are created creative, and our Creator wants to work with us in creating new things, as well as work through the fears, memories, and misconceptions that inhibit us from reaching our creative potential. Personally, the book has provided me with revolutionary healing; I had no idea how inhibited I was by negative feedback I’ve received over the years. The book helped me face these memories, name them, and move on. I’m so grateful.
  3. 31ydwirl7ol-_sx331_bo1204203200_Culture Making: Recovering our Creative Calling, by Andy Crouch 
    I don’t even know where to begin with my admiration for this book.
    Culture, according to Crouch, is what we make of the world. This means that when we are handed eggs, our inherent creativity compels us to make omelettes, and therein change and enhance the value of the egg. God created us in His creative image so that we could add value to this world, value that will last throughout eternity. This truth ennobles the work we do because it means that our efforts are not in vain. It also means that we should be especially mindful of our posture toward the culture being made around us. Crouch advocates that instead of limiting ourselves to critiquing culture, copying culture, or mindlessly consuming culture, we need to be cultivating culture, meaning we champion the good culture that exists and develop new ideas for improving our culture moving forward. This book, in short, provides a rich context for why we do creative work and how to do it well.
  4. Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation, by Tim Brown 41-aavmqafl-_sx329_bo1204203200_
    Ever been to a “brainstorming session” with coworkers and felt like it was a complete waste of time? We’ve all been there. Whether it is a micromanaging boss who needs to control the conversation or a Negative Nancy bashing every idea, innovation is not easily realized in groups. Design Thinking provides a practical and reproducible methodology that makes for effective group brainstorming. This book is full of amazing case studies showing how different the results are when Design Thinking is applied. It presents a compelling case for why designers should be empathetic or “human-centered” and why prototyping sooner than later in the process can be the most efficient way to test new ideas.
  5. harryThe Harry Potter Series, by J.K. Rowling 
    Bet you weren’t expecting this one. Bear with me as I explain how this book can teach us about creativity. I believe that effective communication is one of the most critical skills we can attain, and storytelling is one of the best communication tools. Good communication and storytelling require prodigious creative effort to transfer complex concepts through simple means to an intended audience. If you’ve ever struggled to get someone to understand one of your ideas, you know success often depends on a miracle. The Harry Potter books tackle universal themes of joy, pain, friendship, sacrifice, and fear, and do so with nuance, subtlety, and emotion. I regularly urge Potter skeptics to give the books a chance; the creative treatment of its themes, its characters, and narrative are not only immensely entertaining but worth considerable study. I have lost count of the number of times I’ve read Harry. What I know is that I learn new things every time through, and I still have a lot to learn. How is it that I feel like her characters are real people? How does she pace her books so well? Where does she get her plot devices, like the Mirror of Erised or portkeys or horcruxes? Creative Genius. Genius.

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Follow Your Passion, and Other Fallacies of Vocation

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What do you want to be when you grow up? And how do you know?

I asked these questions of my small group this week. My motive was a selfish one: I wanted to know how other people approached this challenge of structuring life, making plans, pursuing ambitions, and finding fulfillment—assuming it’s possible.

Half of the room stared back at me with dumbfounded expressions. I assume they, like me, hadn’t been asked that question since they were very young. At some point in our adolescence the question shifts from “What do you WANT to do” to “What ARE you going to do,” which is a very different question. The former question is open-ended and provocative, as it calls us to imagine a happier (though sometimes riskier) vocational reality. The latter query implies that you have the answers, that you know who who are, what your passions are, and how the puzzle pieces will fit together. That’s a lot of pressure.

The funny thing is that, as a culture, we shroud both questions with flawed thinking. We approach the problem of vocation linearly: You like XYZ, so you go to school, learn how to do XYZ, and get a job doing XYZ. But what if you don’t know what you like? What if you don’t know what to study to best achieve your goals? What if there aren’t job descriptions that match your passion? Here are three fallacies blocking us from discovering and defining our vocation, as well as the video that prompted this blog post.

Fallacy #1: That we should have a passion we know we want to pursue. 
For years I thought something was wrong with me. I have always craved diverse experiences to help myself grow, an approach to life which many might argue is healthy. Nevertheless I watched in envy as others focused their efforts and enthusiasm toward mastery of individual skill. I neither knew how to do this nor could imagine limiting myself to a single discipline. Apparently, though, I’m not alone. William Damon in The Path to Purpose says that only 20% of people know the passions they want to pursue from an early age. This means that the other 80% of us spend a lot of time thinking we should be in the 20%, racking our brains for the single passion that supposedly will guide our lives. But why should we limit ourselves? We live in a world where individuals increasingly switch careers, sometimes multiple times. More people are pursuing different interests simultaneously, helped along by technology. Opportunities abound for learning new skills, largely thanks to the internet, where we see Youtube turning cooking newbies into culinary masters, Lynda.com turning Luddites into Adobe aficionados, and MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) offering college-level instruction at no cost. In other words, there is no need to pressure ourselves into a single passion to pursue.

Fallacy #2: Believing our BA determines vocation. 
I will never forget the night when my high school guidance councilor asked a group of 50 parents how many of them were working in the same field as their college majors. Only two of them raised their hands. Why then, given this telling display, do we put so much emphasis on college major decisions? The only constant is change, after all. And how are students supposed to know what they want unless they get to taste the real world, wrestle with its ups and downs, and structure their education accordingly? We have it backwards: students instead spend all their time in high school jumping through hoops and taking tests just to get into good colleges, but all without any idea of what their education is for or how it will be applied in their lives. Then they are told to focus their interests into a course of study to prepare for work which most of them have never experienced. Why do we do this, especially if we are going to change our career trajectories anyway? Like the councilor said, everyone can just relax about majors.

Fallacy #3: Believing that school makes us experts.
Many people rely solely on formal learning environments for gaining the necessary expertise to approach their vocation. But as with the first fallacy, too many students cannot structure their education around passions they don’t have, and as with the second, students rarely can rely on their major to guide their career choices. Sarah Stein Greenberg puts the problem this way in this great video from Wired:

If I told you that if you exercised every day for the next four years so that you would stay fit and healthy for life, you’d think I was crazy; but this is exactly how we approach learning in college.

We think that four years of college is sufficient education to get us through life. But why four years? It’s arbitrary when you think about it. More than this, learning through experience is, in many ways, much more powerful than classroom lessons. We need to see ourselves as life-long learners, willing to experiment and fail, wherein we learn best. “Expert” is a relative term anyway, so does it help to assume we will ever become experts, constantly judging ourselves by nebulous standards and an antiquated educational model?

Breaking free of these fallacies will likely take some time. As individuals, this involves upsetting misconceptions; unlearning can often be harder than learning. It means a paradigm shift, a reorientation of how we see ourselves as learners and workers. As communities, it means asking questions like, “How might we help people find their vocations through experience as well as school?” and “How might we re-imagine school and workplaces so that they better foster learning and passion development?” The answers to these questions are complex and will likely be fraught with concerns over cost, efficacy, and fear of change. But imagine a world in which students try their hands at real world work, understand how their education is preparing them to solve problems, and structure their own learning around a mission, instead of a major

The Stanford d.School is currently asking many of these questions. Here is a video of two of the d.School leaders discussing the question: How might we design our lives? I really appreciate their posture toward the problem, and I gained some good insights from their conversation. Please share your thoughts on the video and the post below.

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3 Merits of the Mobile Field Trip

I love learning about learning. I love thinking about what makes for a great learning experience, and what makes them fun, invigorating, and lasting. It was a delight therefore to learn about The Urban Greenlab project happening here in Nashville. The Urban Greenlab’s mission is to facilitate a range of educational and social programs that inspire participants from all socioeconomic backgrounds to make sustainability a bigger part of their lives—in their homes, neighborhoods, and businesses. They are a…

“nonprofit dedicated to improving the health and well-being of our city through sustainability. We fill a gap by offering programs that inspire people of all ages to incorporate sustainability into their daily lives. Our new Mobile Lab, a science-based interactive classroom that travels to local schools, is inspiring the next generation of sustainability leaders! Workshops on everything from green building to urban agriculture spark positive changes at home and work that save money, improve health, and conserve resources.”

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This Mobile Lab is the object of my focus today. I hope soon to see it person. It strikes me as a fantastic idea for a sustainable (of course) and reproducible way to engage students in hands-on learning experiences around subjects that directly apply to their own lives. It is a free, mobile field trip; a museum that comes to you. How cool is that??!?!

I see three reasons for why this is a great idea from a layman’s point of view.

  1. It’s accessible. If you want to provide kids with a field trip, it doesn’t get easier than having the field trip come to you. This transformed trailer can set up shop in a school parking lot and immediately turn an ordinary school day into an extraordinary learning experience without the folderol of permission slips, chaperones, or snacks. Most importantly, it is available to schools that might not otherwise have the financial capacity to provide these hands-on learning experiences for their kids. The Mobile lab provides an innovative solution to the barrier of cost for lower-income area schools.
  2. It’s real. Sustainability and environmental issues bring up questions that are relevant to all of us. By contrast, so much of the American curriculum in public schools feels disconnected from the students’ lives; few teachers and parents help students make the connection for how, say, learning about calculus or the Jazz age or proper use of ellipses adds to their preparation for the real world. This is not to say that any of these subjects are unimportant, but it is rare today for students to break away from the prescribed curriculum to challenge their real-time, real-life perceptions of the real world.
  3. It’s immersive. I will never forget visiting Plymouth Plantation, a living history site in Massachusetts, and sitting on a bear pelt learning from a Native American guide in front of an open fire about how tomahawks were made. I was surrounded by the smells, the textures, and the scenes of what life was like for people living at the time of the Pilgrims’ arrival. The immersive factor is so critical to learning, and I feel strongly that whatever we can do to replicate and build on those experiences for other learners will be well worth our time. The mobile lab is a fantastic and innovative approach to this immersion challenge. Learners step inside and are surrounded by new ideas and the opportunity to engage, inevitably to emerge changed and challenged.

I wonder, how might we use this model elsewhere and for other subject matter? How might we reimagine immersive, hands-on learning experiences, and make them more accessible to more learners? Join me in thinking on these great questions!

 

 

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3 Lessons in How People Learn

There is a funny paradox in education: teachers can teach their hearts out, but it doesn’t mean that anyone is learning.

Even with the best of intentions and Herculean efforts, teachers cannot guarantee that the information they’re transmitting is being received. Teaching and Learning are separate processes; their overlap may not be as wide as we might think. This paradox is particularly pertinent today, as headlines regularly bombard us with the question:

Are American schools failing our students?

It’s a legitimate question. As my father always likes to say, we live in a world with exponential rates of change. The pace of innovation is accelerating. Are new generations learning what they need to keep up and, most importantly, HOW to adapt, problem-solve, and excel?

So what are we to do with this paradox? Do teachers teach in vain? Not at all. But it does imply that the best teaching carefully mirrors how people learn, increasing the overlap in the Venn diagram between learning and teaching. Therefore, a closer look at how people learn should point us in the direction of disruptive innovation desperately needed in our educational systems.

With this in mind, I’ve been doing some reading into how people learn. I am reading about formal learning environments like school as well as about learning outside of school, including in museums, in work environments, and the ways in which we teach ourselves. So far, I have gleaned several fascinating concepts:

  1. Learners, not teachers, make their own meaning. 
    Back when I used to teach people how to facilitate small groups, I frequently had to correct people (gently) who wanted to force their beliefs on other people. “People need to learn at their own pace,” I would say. “No one tells us what to believe except us. People need to come to conclusions on their own.” The more I read about learning, and especially in museums, the more I realize how widely this principle applies. Meaning-making, apparently a technical term, is when people construct their own understanding and narratives through combining new information and concepts with their own knowledge and experiences. As Deborah Perry says in her book, What Makes Learning Fun, “museums as institutions are becoming increasingly constructivist environments, places where visitors construct their own meanings by actively engaging with exhibits, programs, objects, and phenomena.” This suggests that learning is indeed the responsibility  of the learner, not the teacher, and that the opportunity to interact with—instead of passively receive—new information and ideas is key to making meaning. An environment emphasizing active engagement allows learners to challenge their presuppositions, question what they don’t understand, and shape the meaning for themselves.calvin-and-hobbes-fundamental-rights-small
  2. Conversation is one of the most essential tools for learning. 
    I read an article recently (which I regret to say I can no longer find) talking about how children today are growing up without engaging in meaningful conversations with either adults or peers. The article cited a decrease in interactive play (especially between parents and children), the rise in media, and the ever-increasing demands for testing in schools as the culprits of this negligence. The consequences of limiting human to human interaction are easy to predict: children grow up not knowing how to express themselves, without having their ideas challenged, and without the ability to ask questions. Without learning to communicate, the resulting “grown-ups” become poor spouses, difficult teammates, and even worse parents. Conversation from the early ages, then, is essential; it is not something we do after we gain knowledge and wisdom, but what we do to become knowledgeable and wise. It makes sense: When communicating ideas to someone else, we are actively shaping those ideas to be received by that person. This active manipulation of thoughts does not happen when we passively receive information from a lecturer or a screen. Learners need to speak and share and question, as well as listen, in order for new concepts to sink in. As Perry says, “By talking with their companions, museum visitors make sense of their experiences and create deeper understanding, and by engaging with the stuff of museums, they talk more with their companions (Silverman 1990). It’s a two-way street. In this sense, learning is conversation, and conversation is learning. ‘What a group talks about, it thinks about; . . . talking is a tool for socially constructed thought, not just evidence of it; and . . . talk supports the gradual alteration and development of goals during the course of a visit’ (Leinhardt and Knutson 2004, 159).”ch-21
  3. Learners have prerequisite conditions for learning to be effective.
    I have long felt, and occasionally written, that formal education, and especially high school, needs to do a better job of communicating the purpose of education to students. In this article, the author cites William Damon, leading expert in human development and author of The Path to Purpose, as saying “that students today may be high achievers but they have no idea what for. He believes that this sense of meaninglessness is one of the main contributors to the skyrocketing suicide and depression rates among our youth… the American College Health Association reported in 2011 that 30 percent of undergraduates were so depressed they could hardly function.” This article in the same vein says, “students need to be clear why they are learning what they are learning. If they do not understand why, schoolwork will either be boring or meaningless to them, causing tons of worry and stress. They will be doing it simply to advance through the next hoop—high school graduation or college admission—not for its own inherent value.” Schools, museums, and other learning institutions would do well to connect the curriculum to the learners’ big picture sense of purpose. Adding to this, Perry in her book on museums that learners need to be sufficiently motivated in order to learn anything:”museum visitors will be more likely to have satisfying, intrinsically motivating experiences when their engagements with exhibits meet their needs to
    (a) be part of a communication process,
    (b) have their curiosity piqued,
    (c) feel safe and smart,
    (d) be challenged,
    (e) be in charge of their learning, and
    (f) be playful.”
    This idea that learners need to meet these criteria suggests that teachers and designers should shape the learning environment accordingly. Consider this video showing New Orleans High School students are asked what would make their education more meaningful. Their answers are profound and point to a deep need to rethink school. 

 

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