Critical Theory, Creativity, and Managing Educational Technologies

Today is my last in-person day of a beautiful, intense, deep learning experience at Teachers College, Columbia University in the Instructional Technology and Media MA Program. In an attempt to reflect on the experience as a whole I catch myself thinking about the intersection of topics apparently so distant from each other, but undeniably connected, such as Critical Theory and Managing Educational Technologies.

Thinking about the projects that were most meaningful to me in these 10 months of imagining, creating, playing, iterating, reading, researching, testing and sharing, the ones that make me smile the most all involve creating something, and/or designing to spark creativity in educational settings.

  1. The Catalyst Kit for Circles of Invention, designed in the course Tools and Toys for Knowledge Construction, supports making, invention, reading and connections between diverse children in public libraries in Brazil.
Catalyst Kit for Circle of Invention

Children inventing with Catalyst Kit after Circle of Invention at the TC Library. Dec. 2017

  1. The Computational Fortune was a great personal challege (as Java is really hard for me) and a wonderful group experience together with Lilian Yi-Hsuan Lin. As a final project for Object Oriented Theory and Programing we created a  computer program that generates 3D models based on users’ reflection of the year 2017. The program translates their meaningful words into the vertices, edges, and faces of the generative forms that symbolize their dreams, hopes, and new year resolutions. No words, just an image is generated and one image is never like another. It is a celebration of diversity and art for the sake of art.
Computational Fortune Cookie

Computational Fortune Cookie

  1. The CardBoard Spark, final project for Managing Educational Technology Resources, another great group experience with Rocio, Jieqiong Li, Valerie and Avery, is a low cost customizable cardboard Furniture modular kit for students, teachers and schools to spark mindset and pedagogical shifts by encouraging student and teacher ownership in the creation of their own learning space.
CardBoard Spark

Cardboard stools, that become a shelf, or a space divider, or a little quiet corner…

  1. ReMake, once again a beautiful team experience with a diversified group – Daniela, Nicola and Mat – for the course Instructional Design of Educational Technologies is a program for women over 50 in Brazil who feel disenfranchised in a society that sexist and ageist. The goal of the program is through digital literacy and maker-centered activities engage women in a journey of self-reflection, personal expression, sharing, and the remaking their own present and future narratives.
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ReMake micro Pilot – Expressing something personal through shedding light on an idea with paper circuits.

Last week, immersed for two days in a Critical Theory workshop with Prof. Brookfield, reading, thinking and discussing topics such as ideology, liberation, power and contemporary criticality, I was personally drawn to the discussion of the aesthetic dimension. For Herbert Marcuse “art subverts the dominant consciousness, the ordinary experience…the political potential of art lies only in its own aesthetic dimension” (in Brookfield 2010, 146)  It made me think of the paths I have chosen as an educator, mother, citizen and learner pursuing the possibility for space and time for more creative learning in life and in schools enabling more subjective personal expression with the ultimate goal of cultivating a more just, diverse and inclusive society committed to the common good.

Thinking back to technology integration in schools and technology resource management, to actually enhance learning, promote the building of communities, support problem solving and creativity, issues such as citizenship, diversity, the common good, ethical decision making, flow of communication and power are at the forefront, echoing essential questions in critical theory. During the last book presentation in my Facilitating Adult Learning Course I came across a quote by Brookfield on the aesthetic dimension, that, to me, as I try to give closure to this whole TC experience, serves as a guide as I think of my work with design thinking and creative technologies. “The purpose of life is the experiential pursuit of beautiful consequences” (Brookfield, 2010, p.15)

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Design Thinking, Making and Adult Learning

To watch children smile as they have AHA! moments while creating something that is meaningful to them has been fuel for a lot of my work and studies in the last few years related to Creative Learning. Disseminating creative learning throughout the Brazilian educational landscape, as a member of the Brazilian Creative Learning Network and working with the Instituto Catalisador I have also had the chance to see many adults, mostly teachers, deeply engaged in hard play and smiling big as they too savor AHA! moments while involved in a design process.

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Professional Development focused on Creative Learning with School Staff in a public school in São Paulo Brasil. Instituto Catalisador 2017

Luckily, I also had the opportunity as an adult learner to engage in such creative learning processes immersed in a masters program in Instructional Technology and Media at Teachers College, Columbia University.  The program allowed for the opportunity to take a number of courses designed around a design process framework. This experience, in courses such as Tools and Toys for Knowledge Construction, Digital Foundations: Creative Technologies, Instructional Design of Educational Technologies and Managing Educational Technology Resources has been exiting, challenging, frustrating at times, highly collaborative, filled with inquiry, empathy, hard play, inventing, twiking, and reinventing. As these design thinking and making processes unfold I feel I learn a lot, acquire skills, sharpen my communication, improve on team work, build knowledge individually and collectively, and become ever more confident to engage in new projects, challenges, and even inventions. This personal learning experience has lead me to study and reflect more on design thinking as an interesting and powerful facilitation method for adult learning.

The work of the Center for Technology and School Change at Teachers College, Columbia University  (CTSC) that offers tailored professional development for teachers and school leaders to actively engage in the rethinking of education in the digital age, is an interesting example of how a design framework can be effective for adult learning. The CTSC’s research base model for Innovative Instruction© places teachers and school leaders as designers of student-centered authentic learning experiences, while situating the learning experience for their specific contexts and finally fostering the creation of an environment where leaders support teachers as agents of change.

Avenues The World School is another example of design thinking being used to facilitate adult learning, both for professional development for teachers, as well as during parent conferences. Recently, for the launch of the school in São Paulo, Brazil, in order to get parents to learn about the school’s educational philosophy parents also engaged in a design process where they made the cardboard chairs they would sit for their own meeting. This type of active learning that design thinking frameworks allows for leads adults into a cycle of imagining, creating, sharing, iterating, and recreating, that can be very engaging, playful, dialogic and reflective. A combination of factors that spark dispositions that may further adult learning and agency.

With this premise in mind, that a design process can be a potent adult learning method, after a careful needs analysis, stakeholder interview session and a micro pilot,  together with a great team, I began designing a 9 week program for women over 50 in Brasil that aims at Agency development and Empowerment through Digital Literacy and Making. The idea is that the program will facilitate a learning journey from silence to the construction of  new personal narratives through a design process. The idea is that through making, inventing, designing and sharing one can focus on a lens that clears an “I can!” and “an “Imagine if…” perspective.

Thinking about new innovative start up schools, such as Alt School and Porfolio School, as well as the need for innovation in public schools so learning becomes more meaningful, engaging and pertinent for children in contemporary times , it seems to me that having teachers and school leaders have a chance to actively engage themselves in project based, student-centered design processes may facilitate learning and foster innovation.

The role of the teacher is to create the conditions for invention rather than provide ready-made knowledge.”  Seymour Papert

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Entrepreneurship and Invention Literacy in Schools

Amongst many educators and parents there is a growing belief that it is very important to teach entrepreneurship in schools. Recently, reading an article on why schools should teach entrepreneurship a line stood out to me and left me puzzled. It said,  “most institutions do not teach what should be the centerpiece of a contemporary education: entrepreneurship, the capacity to not only start companies but also to think creatively and ambitiously.” (https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/245038) While I absolutely agree that entrepreneurship is a mindset and skill set that makes a lot of sense for students to begin developing in schools, in times of raising conservatism, social inequality, racism, environmental degradation, fake news and fragile democracies, it seems to me that the centerpiece of a contemporary education should be creative learning and civic agency and not entrepreneurship. With creative confidence and civic agency starting sustainable and responsible companies would simply be a consequence. Here, I borrow the definition of civic agency from Project Zero, Harvard.  “Civic agency is multi-faceted and involves listening to diverse perspectives and imagining and advocating for a better world.” (Project Zero, Harvard)

Hand in hand with civic agency, I would argue that Invention Literacy as defined by Jay Silver, is also an important route in contemporary education to cultivate empowered youth within cultures of collaboration, learning, innovation and social justice. As Silver puts it, “Invention Literacy is the ability to read and write human made stuff, from toasters to apps… As people learn to read and write the world they live in, they gain a special empowerment that I call creative confidence” (Jay Silver, 2016 Invention Literacy). Complementary to Jay Silver’s view on Invention Literacy, in the book Maker Centered Learning – Empowering Young People to Shape their Worlds, the authors argue that students may “develop a sense of empowerment by cultivating a sensitivity to design” (Clapp. E. et al, 2017), perceiving the designed world as malleable and therefore changeable. The authors offer a framework as well as thinking routines, that personally I find very powerful to work with students, for cultivating sensitivity to design and maker empowerment which consists of nurturing the capacities of “looking closely, exploring complexity and finding opportunity”(Clapp. E. et al, 2017 p. 127).

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The thinking routines developed by Project Zero are “ short, engaging, two-or-three step patterns of intelectual behavior that are highly transferable across contexts” (Clapp. E. et al, 2017 p. 142) The thinking routines proposed by the Agency by Design project are intended to stimulate curiosity, raise questions, provoque new inquiry, introduce systems thinking, foster perspective taking as well as finding opportunity and pursuing new ideas. These thinking routines are: 1. Parts, Purposes and Complexities 2. Parts, People, Interactions 3. Think, Feel, Care 4. Imagine if…

Riverside School in India and the project Design for Change is an interesting example of how to approach creative learning and civi agency in school. Using a design thinking framework called FIDS – Feel, Imagine, Do, Share they have engaged hundreds of children from 32 countries in collaborative and human-centered projects that are not focussed on enterpreneurship per se but, as Gudipati and Sethi, founders of Design for Change, put it “gives them creative confidence and prepares them as global citizens to deal with uncertainty, to develop an open mind towards accepting multiple perspectives, and, to come to respect each other as equals by appreciating each one’s unique strenghts” (Gutipati and Sethi 2017 in Taking Design Thinking to School p. 95)

In 2016, inspired by the Design for Change program together with the Instituto Catalisador in Brazil I designed and developed the Ponta Pé Program to disseminate creative learning in public schools. Our first pilot project was at Projeto Âncora in Cotia where together with the children we build a new climbing toy for the school’s playground. The process was extremely rich and we ended the project certain that children, educators, collaborators and community members who were involved in the project felt empowered and eager for more learning and creating. They were not building a new company as entrepreneurship advocates would encourage, but as they creatively and collaboratively designed a toy they engaged in critical thinking, problem solving, peer learning, community building and play.

Poster with details on this project that was presented in the 2016 Fab Learn Conference in Brazil.

References:

Florina Rodov and Sabrina Truong 2015 “Why Schools Should Teach Entrepreneurship”

Jay Silver, 2015 Invention Literacy

Clapp E., Ross J., Ryan J., Tishman S. 2017 “Maker Centered Learning – Empowering Young People to Shape their Worlds”. Jossey-Bass

Goldman S. and Kabayadondo Z. 2017 “Taking Design Thinking ro School – How the Technology of Design Thinking Can Transform Techers, Learners and Classrooms”. Routledge

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Zoom In

Deciding to spend an year abroad for a masters program when life back home was flowing well and my work at the Instituto Catalisador, designing and implementing projects to disseminate creative learning in public schools, at a high, was not easy. But, nonetheless, I decided it would be a great move for me and the family. In the back of my mind I had a strong feeling that technology would help me continue involved in the projects and present.  At first, getting used to the graduate/mother life in a city like New York made it hard to connect and I did feel distant and somewhat frustrated. But, in no time, Whatsapp calls, zoom conferences, Skype moments, Facebook sharings and google hangouts with the Instituto Catalisador team made everything feel so close, present and my participation, even if at a distance, also effective.

The last few weeks were particularly interesting as regards to “zooming in” into such different but complementary learning experiences and managing somehow to connect them virtually.  On a same day, for example: I was student teaching in the morning at Avenues the World School, brainstorming with children an invention for the Invention Convention. In the afternoon, doing research at the Portfolio School with Snow Day Learning Lab  on this maker-centered environment. Later in the day through a zoom conference discussing the next steps for the work Instituto Catalisador is doing in two public schools in Pirituba, São Paulo. In the evening, in a zoom conference with another 40 people between a group of students from a course at Teachers College and a course at the National Louis University I was part of a discussion and presentation on an interdisciplinary curriculum on Ancient Rome to be implemented in a maker space. All these encounters were interesting, engaging and present, and in an subtle but important way a web between them was woven as I zoomed in and accessed learnings from each experience and shared with the next. I felt present in Pirituba, for example, and I feel, somehow, Simone and Rita from São Paulo felt a little present here too.

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Zoom conference with students from TC and National Louis University.

The possibility of communicating so easily (even though there are twitches, sound issues, and other technical difficulties at times) at a low cost, with the possibility of engaging multiple agents in a conference, sharing documents, images, showing the environment and connecting people is undoubtedly a catalyst for learning communities. These virtual learning communities are great possibilities for enhancing education as educators access another, and far more ample, space to  learn, share complex issues, solve problems collectively, co-create knowledge, get support from peers, that are way beyond school walls, and most of all feel present wherever they want to be.

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This Blog – from Homework to Creative Play…

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As a mother of 2, educator, researcher and graduate student, I feel that if I get through the week having checked off 70% of my to do list it is a heroic feat. I began this blog as an assignment for the course Digital Foundations – Creative Technologies at Teachers College, Columbia University, it then became the home for my posts for the course Managing Educational Technology Resources also for my Master Degree Program in Instructional Technology and Media at TC. So far, I have done my assignments, but defying the spirit of blogging, I never feel like sharing. It has served the purpose of personal reflection, and checking the to do list, but, the beauty of sharing experiences, good practices, frustrations, thoughts, and getting feedback, elements I praise so much in education are just not here. Yet!

As an educator and mother committed to creating space for play, creativity and meaningful learning for children and teachers, this blog, and how I felt about it, lead me to a personal reflection related to my own practice as a student and the need to “walk my talk”. How can I advocate for cultivating creative learning, sustained by the pillars of  Projects, Peers, Passion and Play – as Mitchel Resnick beautifully explains – if my own blog is void of a project, of the interaction with peers, of passion or play?!

Today, this post is about breaking away from considering this blog “homework” and transforming it into a genuinely relevant storytelling, creative and reflective experience for myself, that may become an interesting resource for other educators, parents and students.

From now on, this will be a project to playfully and passionately address issues related the connectedness, motherhood, technology, education and whatever else is genuinely moving me to speak out and share.

Welcome!

Paola Ricci

References:

Lifelong Kindergarten – Cultivating Creativity through Projects, Peers, Passion and Play

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On Connections…

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Riding a citibike bike from Avenues the World School, where I currently student teach, in Chelsea, to Teachers College, Columbia University, in west Harlem, where I am a graduate student, I savor the first really warm day after freezing months as I connect to the city, the Hudson river, and to the people who are also by the river enjoying a closer connection to the sun.  The thoughts in my head revolve around all this beauty I see as I pedal and feel the connections between the people, the urban landscape and nature. It feels like a mindfull bike ride, but soon enough my train of thought takes me back to schools, papers, technology integration, challenges in Brazilian public education, and the need for innovation that actually brings about meaningful learning. This in turn, takes my thoughts back to connections, to two experiences I had this week related to human sensitive and truthfull connections, that make it ever more evident to me that the key to school change is in how people connect. And I do think technology may be a catalyst for it, but the simple, sincere, human connection is what is at the heart of the good functioning of complex systems such as schools.

The first experience was during a learning journey to the Marymount School of New York, together with Prof. Don Buckley and colleges from the course Managing Educational Technology Resources at TC. The goal was to explore a Portal Space, or as Kristen Erikson from Greenwich Academy would call it an  “Empathy Machine”. At Marymount we also had a chance to visit the school’s FabLab and chat with Jaymes Dec the teacher/creator/facilitator of this space. (In the near future I intend to dedicate a full post to the great work being done in this MakerSpace).

The Portal I had the chance to enter consisted of a blown-up golden space where a camera and a projector are installed in a vertical way as to produce a full image possibility to another portal installed somewhere else around the planet. These portals have curators who organize and spark interesting connections between people from around the world. Kristen, curator of this portal, organized a session for us to connect with people in the Chapultepec Park in Mexico city. It seemed simple at first, just another skype connection, but once in it and the connection took place it blew my mind. The design and curation of the experience allowed for a different kind of connection, a simple connection, where complex conversations may emerge, but also small talk may take place, bringging everyones humanity to a common ground. The person with whom we spoke to, at the other end, told us about the park, the weather, other interactions he had seen in the portal, such as a collective meal, a band rehearsal and a party lounge. The notion of connection was very evident, a true person to person connection, where dialogue, learning and empathy take place. It made me think of beggining a movement to take one of these to Brazil and curate sessions in parks, schools (both public and private), libraries, congress, in isolated rural areas, in harsh complex neighbourhoods, etc… Definately a device that could bring about a lot of true connection, cross-cultural understandings and learning.

The second experience I had related to meaningful connections this week was shadowing, for four days, Jake (or Mr. Goren) the Technology Integrator at Avenues for the lower division. Initially, he started off showing me different new and interesting devices for learning physical computing and coding in schools, such as Piper, Codrone Lite, several apps that support different learning goals as well as their MDS (mobile device system). The demonstrations were helpful and I personally enjoyed sitting with him and building a Pipper for the Ruckus Constructus STEAM event they are having at the end of the month. It was while we built the Pipers and we chatted that I began to noticed his most important asset as a Technology Integrator – his ability to listen and ask good questions to establish a meaningful connection to people in the school.

The next day, as I prepared to build some more pipers, I get a message from him that plans have changed and we are going on a field exploration trip with first graders to a nearby hotel. As we walked to the hotel with the children, he engaged in personal chats with almost every kid, payed attention to the street and still continued sharing with me things he thought could be relevant for my studies. The children, for this project, were using their Ipads with an app called Book Creator, to register information and take photos related to a challenge they had been assigned. There was a creative use of technology during this project as children developed their books, but Jake was not there because of the technology, he was there because he knows that to be a good Technology Integrator, above all, he has to know the children, the teachers, their different needs and preferences as well as be aware of the projects they are involved in to continuously propose appropriate and meaningful technology solutions.

That afternoon, we went to a meeting at the Early Learning Center of Avenues to talk to the Head of Pre-K and Kindergarten about the possibilities of introducing meaningful and creative Ipad activities for the smaller children. The meeting flowed well, Jake listened and proposed a few things, clarified information about the acquisition of apps by the teachers and we followed to walk around all the halls and enter some classrooms in the building. As we walked around he spoke to everyone we encountered in a personal level. He, in a sincere fashion, asked about their families, complemented them on new hair cuts, raved about how delicious the cookies the children had made were, as well as resolved a technical problem with the sound and image synchronization in a Dance Studio. All staff and teachers we met seemed very comfortable with Jake. The next day, having lunch with the science teachers, with whom I am working on the Invention Convention, I asked them about Jake. Their remarks confirmed my impressions.  

“OMG, he is the best. He makes everything seem simple. He is always showing us stuff that is perfectly suited to what we are aiming at”  Rachel, science teacher.

“He is a people person and it is great he has already been a teacher as well as a specialist. He understands and cares about our needs and our constraints.” Anna, science teacher.

Jake, symbolizes to me what we most need in schools, integration and connection. His title is  Technology Integrator, but what is really relevant here is the Integrator part, his ability to connect to people, as well as to connect people to technological solutions that will enhance their work, children’s learning and above all a connection between the whole school’s community. This type of Technology Integration, is, in my opinion, a catalyst for good school climate and innovation within schools.

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A “wicked” problem turned into a learning community.

It is a rainy Tuesday morning in a public school in a complex neighborhood in the outskirts of São Paulo and we – three educators from the Instituto Catalisador – are preparing a room for a workshop titled “What Makes Your Eyes Shine?” to collect dreams of middle schoolers for their school. Our strategy is to get them engaged with paper circuits and drawing to produce a large panel that will be displayed in the entrance of the school with all the student’s individual wishes lit up for all the school’s community to see and, perhaps, be guided by.  I walk to the restroom before the beginning of the session, and notice there are no toiled seats, or toilet paper or soap. I return thinking about how harsh the context in which these children are expected to learn is and I wonder what dreams might emerge from this workshop.

The workshop flowed well, students were engaged, collaborating, smiling, drawing, and lighting up their dreams. Not one student expressed the desire for a better restroom. I guess this is a pretty simple problem, and they have found strategies to overcome this problem. Mostly, children’s dreams expressed in the panel shed light onto more of the “wicked” problems existent in that educational context and community. The panel displayed dreams of a more peaceful community, access to a computer lab, science experiments, sports, culture, and nature. Analyzing the individual works we noticed a high percentage were focused on the access to technology and the internet. Talking to school leaders after the workshop it became clear that the internet issue was not an easy one to solve as there was great opposition from teachers and no approval from the school district. The computer lab was always locked as most of the computers needed a mandatory update to the new system of the municipality which could only be done by a tech representative from the school district and they had not managed to arrange a visit for months. The district has 106 schools and only one person who works on the update of the computers for all the 106 schools. It could be that students would only get access to the computer lab the following year.

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Panel produced during the  “What Makes Your Eyes Shine?” Instituto Catalisador’s workshop to gather student’s dreams for their school. São Paulo, Brazil.

The context of this school is similar to the one of most public schools in low income communities in São Paulo. The nature of the “wicked” problems presented, and felt on the daily lives of students, involve diverse stakeholders within a complex social system. Within these Gordian knots a change in mindset and a lot of creativity are necessary for new opportunities to emerge for students, teachers and the whole school community. The Design Thinking technology may be an interesting strategy to get the whole school community looking at problems from different perspectives and finding solutions, collaboratively, to seemingly unsolvable problems.

In 2016, with the context above in mind, during the Lemann Creative Learning Institute at the MIT Media Lab, together with Simone Kubric Lederman and Rita Junqueira from the Instituto Catalisador, we began a design thinking process to develop our next project with the goal of being a catalyst for more Creative Learning in public schools. One of the ideas that emerged during our ideation sessions, which we developed into a project had to do with looking outside of schools for solutions related to the lack of resources and expertise within schools.

The city of São Paulo had just began a program which implemented 12 Free Public Fab Labs in the city. These were tailored to the community and were not connected to the public school system. Connecting public schools to the Free Fab Lab Network seemed to us like a great opportunity to be a catalyst for creative learning in public schools while overcoming the lack of resources in the schools. The goal was that school leaders, teachers, families and students would perceive these community spaces as an extension of the school. A secondary goal of the project was that the culture of these places of design, problem solving, collaboration and freedom of expression would seep into schools and also impact the traditional classroom. After 6 months organizing workshops on creative learning and design thinking with teachers, school leaders, staff, children and walking to these spaces with whole classrooms to develop small projects with middle schoolers a little bit of what we had envisioned happened. This, very home-made video, illustrates a little of this process. Connecting Public Schools and Fab Labs in the City of São Paulo.

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Workshop with 6th graders in the Cidade Tiradentes Free FabLab, São Paulo

The “wicked” problems persist in most public schools in São Paulo, nonetheless, this small intervention planted seeds of possibility for something different and more meaningful for the schools involved in the project. A new opportunity for project-based-learning, where students and teachers perceive the community and the FabLabs as partners in the educational process.

Design thinking, if widespread and present in classrooms, teacher meetings, and teacher parent associations, may allow for many insights to be revealed where least expected. Not only bringing the possibility of more agency and empowerment to the people involved, but also releasing some of the complex knots that get in the way of meaningful learning and social change in Brazil.

 

 

 

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