Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Nueva School's "Gifted Learning Conference...Education for the 21st Century" - Reflections

I had the good fortune to attend this one-of-a-kind learning conference at the Nueva School in Hillsborough, California, on Friday, October 16th. This was a two day conference and my school sent several middle school teachers to attend sessions on Friday. By many miles, this was one of the best learning conferences that I've had the opportunity to attend. It was an incredibly busy and packed schedule which I appreciated. The first session started at 8:30 am and I went solid until John Seely Brown's session ended at 5:00 pm. The social and reception after JSB's session turned out to be wonderful opportunity to reflect with colleagues and even a Castilleja school parent, and also to chat with some of the presenters. Click here to view a few pictures from my experience.

Neeru Khosla : Textbooks 2.0: Textbooks to Flexbooks
Neeru is the founder of the CK-12 Foundation, which is dedicated to providing high quality, no cost textbooks to schools. I happened upon this organization last fall after I found out that one of our students, Megan Conn, interned with them during the summer of 2008 (see Megan's article about wikipedia and her intern experience online here ). Since I learned about CK12 I've been seeing it referenced in the various online communities that I participate was just fascinating to hear Neeru present the vision of CK-12 and the Flexbook project. Flexbooks are essentially digital textbooks that have been seeded with content by content area experts. They go a long way in addressing the major weaknesses of traditional texts (eg-weight, expense, dated information, a one size fits all user experience, etc). Flexbook texts goes through an extensive 4 month peer review process before the content gets "locked." Any teacher may then login to the CK-12 site and either use the material in its existing state or mashup various components and parts from the range of texts to form her own text. She may even incorporate information of her own by using the built-in, WISWYG editing tool that is incorporated into the system. As you might expect with a name like "Flexbooks," they are extremely flexible and allow teachers and students to access the content in a variety of ways including online via a web browser, PDF download, and various eReaders. They are in the process of developing software that supports online note taking/annotation and the content will also be directly useable in various learning management systems like moodle (it is useable in Moodle now as a pdf, but I believe the future will bring tighter integration).

All Flexbooks are released under a Creative Commons Share Alike license, which means the spirit of collaboration and sharing is a cornerstone of this project. I think there is so much potential with the CK-12 foundation's open source Flexbooks and I'm excited about the possibility of having our school community members, including our students, contribute in some way in the future (CK-12 foundation is in Palo Alto, which means they are basically a neighbor of ours).

David Levy : No Time to Think
The opening line in the program description of this session is,
Thanks to the proliferation of information technologies, there is less time to think-and to relate to others and to the world-than ever before.
Due to this description, I started out by thinking this was going to be a bash session on all things social media, Web 2.0 and the Internet. I turned out not to be neither an indictment nor an endorsement of the potential of networked learning and participatory media technologies. David Levy is an technology philosopher from the University of Washington and I appreciated his balanced look at why we no longer have "No Time to Think" in the "More, Faster, Better" culture that most of us subscribe to in the US. He couched this talk in terms of a historical industrial age thinking that we have yet to grow out of...we still largely have systems that reward efficient and speedy output.

I agree with David's thesis...I've long believed that the best way to develop our social-emotional intelligence and knowledge of how things work is through a wide range of play with others in multiple different contexts. We leave very little time for play, exploration, discovery and tinkering in our culture as it stands change this and bring back a sense of play into our schools and society?

David referenced many resources during his talk, but these were the two that stand out from my notes:
Linda Burch and Matt Levinson : Education Kids and School Communities in a 24/7 Digital World: Safe, Savvy, and Respectful
Linda Burch is from Common Sense Media and Matt Levinson is an administrator from Nueva School. Matt started the presentation by talking about some of the problems that his school community experienced in the first few months of their laptop learning program last year. The school didn't anticipate that there would be such a large number of complaints from families about laptop use in their home. I was impressed with Matt and his school community's response to focus their efforts on community education of all stakeholders, including parents, teachers and students. They very easily could've looked to easy technology solutions like the installation of software filters on student laptops instead of the more powerful and meaningful work of community education. Matt's anecdote about some of their early challenges is something that I'll bring back to the Castilleja Community immediately as we prepare for our own laptop learning model. Matt then passed the wheel over to Linda who talked about the digital citizenship curriculum that Common Sense media has built-while I find the curriculum to be enticing because it isn't fear based, I do worry about any such curriculum being used as a crutch and panacea for teaching youth to be effective users of digital tools and resources. We can have the best curriculum in the world in this area, but if students see adults (teachers and parents alike) talking/texting on the cell phone while they are driving and misusing social media, then the education component really doesn't matter. Modeling innovative, creative and effective use of digital tools has to be something that all adults begin to take more seriously if we are going to expect our youth to do the same.

Lunch Panel Discussion: Trends in 21st Century Education Panel with John Seely Brown, Neeru Khosla, Robert SternbergYves Behar, moderated by KR Sridhar 
Several lunch time panels were offered on Friday and I wasn't disappointed by my decision to attend this session. Robert Sternberg called for new assessments to change teaching, JSB talked about the importance of  EQ and CQ (emotional intelligence and communication intelligence), Yves Behar touched upon the importance of the unique contributions of various members of a collaborative team, and Neeru Khosla talked about the exciting potential of customized and personalized learning. It was a fascinating lunch time panel and I even had the opportunity to sit in the audience next to Carol Dweck!

David Kelley and Kim Saxe : Hands-on Design Thinking Workshop (Two-hour workshop)
This two hour workshop took place in one of the coolest learning spaces that I've seen in a school. Click here to see some of the pictures from the shop that Nueva has built to integrate design and design thinking into their school culture. We went through the entire design process that Nueva uses with students...what was interesting was to find out that Nueva rarely has students design something for themselves. They typically design for others which helps develop empathy and a design mindset that moves beyond personal interests-David told a story during our reflection period about a time early in his career when he designed a new toothpaste dispenser for Crest. The folks from Crest asked about the design and he said something to the effect of, "I really like it." Crest responded that they didn't really care if he liked the design, but was more interested in whether or not millions of people would like it. This was an ah-hah moment for David in his career and I'm glad he shared it because it really highlighted that the design process is partly about developing empathy as a way to understand the needs of others.

John Seely Brown : Learning through Tinkering

What a way to round out this most excellent day of learning. I'll drop in a few of my Twitter posts from this session as a way to summarize my highlights from JSB's talk. My Tweets are italicized while my added any follow up thoughts that I have are standard formatted

According to John seeley brown "Virtual study groups are just as effective as face to face learning." See me note at the end regarding this face to face version of JSB's talk and the webcast version from a few weeks ago. The questioning going on in the virtual session was much richer and more meaningful than that which took place in the face to face session. This isn't a negative slant on face to face at all, but merely a suggestion that each medium has strengths and weaknesses.

Dewey would be ecstatic with open source software development methodologies. JSB described how open source software development is rooted in software development is all about sharing, collaboration and the social construction of knowledge. Contrast this, JSB says, with his computer science program which was all about proving that you are the smartest coder by making your code complicated and difficult to follow.

The Internet has given rise to the pro-amateur class . Told great story about networked astronomers.  This is indeed quite true. We see this playing out in many different forms, with regular people being able to do things that simply wasn't possible prior to the Internet. Amateurs can run their own radio shows, blogs/journals, podcasts, music channels at Myspace, etc.

"...we need to be able to regrind our conceptual lenses..." in the 21st c. --- -John seeley brown Unlearning, learning, changing and retooling on a regular basis is a must in an environment of increasing change. JSB also said that if people feel as though they need to go back to school for training and learning we will have lost the game...I agree.

The new version of the golden triangle: inspiration, intuition, imagination. All surrounded by a sense of awe

Eq and Cq more important than IQ (social/emotional intelligence and communication intelligence). JSB Couldn't agree more...while raw brain power is helpful, the ability to interact and communicate with a wide range of people is exceedingly critical. 

JSB just talked about the value of ePortfolio learning. Nice to receive that validation from JSB. JSB told the story of how he used to observe and architecture class and the participants were always sharing their work by pinning it up on the walls in the classroom for others to see and interact with. Periodically the instructor would provide feedback on a draft and this would serve as a learning opportunity for everyone in the class because each member was so closely linked to one another in the learning process. JSB then went on to talk about the value of creating our own personal dashboards or ePortfolio mashups to better understand what everyone in the community is learning.

JSB's talk was essentially a repeat presentation of a webcast he did a few weeks back with Steve Hargadon on the "Future of Education." Click here to listen to Steve's conversation with JSB. While it was a conference highlight of mine to see JSB speak in person, I have to say that the audience Q and A and overall participation was much deeper and richer in the virtual session conducted via Elluminate. Measuring the difference in audience engagement and brain activity between the webcast format and the live, face to face format would make for a truly interesting study. Judging by the level of questioning and participating amongst session participants, I would surmise that there was greater brain activity in the Elluminate session...but this is only a hunch and awaits scientific study by someone out there!

At the end of the presentation, I asked JSB if the following question, "Schools have all sorts of institutional momentum in place that make it difficult to build a culture of learning through tinkering. With that said, where are the easy opportunities in schools for doing these types of things." JSB's response was after school programs and the "edges" like clubs, extra-curriculars, etc. He talked about working the edges and then over time the edges will actually become the core of what we do in schools.

A few other thoughts:
-An incredibly well run, organized conference by Nueva. Kudos to the Nueva team.
-It was great to see youth from the school involved in all sorts of ways from technical support to greeters and providers of directions.
-I wish I would've attended the Thursday session as well...I'm under the impression that participants observed students engaged in design challenges and the like.
-My wife attended Bob Sternberg's session and said it was outstanding...missing his session may have been my only disappointment of the day. I'm intrigued by the alternative admissions system at Tufts that he is spearheading-essentially they are attempting to quantify creative thinking during the admissions process. Apparently this new admission process is beginning to bring in more student diversity to Tufts.
-The green design of the school is awesome. The school composts, recycles, has several green roofs and a solar PV system. Click here to view a picture of the school's Cafe with a green roof. What a wonderful educational opportunity for Nueva students to learn first hand about the clean tech industry.
-Play is clearly an important part of what Nueva does...this was evident in the 15 or so outdoor play areas that the students have access to on campus. Dewey's dream is clearly alive and well at Nueva.


  1. Many thanks for the summary, Matt. I picked up good resources and tips without being there!

  2. thanks for the comment, Richard. Glad you found some useful bits and pieces. Definitely one of the best conferences on learning that I've attended.