There is a hole in how we learn — and we won’t fully see it until we fix it.

The hole in our learning actually has more to do with the whole of our learning than any specific hole. However we won’t be able to address this until we have a bigger conversation. One that gets us to a new vantage point and allows us to properly see the gaps we are leaving in student’s learning. The problem is not in what students are learning. The problem is a lack of awareness of how they are learning. Which in the end comes back to why they are learning.

For me, when I start with asking why is education important, how we approach education starts to take on a different feel.

Why does education matter? Education is about empowering individuals to be effective in their worlds, both now and in the future.

How does this change the way we approach education? By giving students a solid foundation and then teaching them how to teach themselves so that whatever lies ahead they are ready to master the skills and content they need.

What does this look like in action? Teaching students to think about how they think, and what that means they can do. It means showing them biology is important not because it’s valuable to know the names of different plants, but because it means they can understand how soil nutrients turn into energy in their bodies so they want to eat healthy or even plant their own vegetables. It means teaching the laws of motion not so they can pass their physics exam but so they can do their own basic fuel efficiency studies.

Teaching metacognition means explaining the why behind the work students are given and the way they are given it. It means connecting what happens in class to the rest of their lives so effectively that next time they will make that connection on their own. It means helping them see how their minds are made to do a multitude of things, all of which they have the power to master on their own.

I believe so strongly in metacognition because my life changed when I realized I — meaning my mind — could study myself/itself, both internally and externally. And by doing so, I was becoming infinitely smarter than trying to feed myself facts. In essence, I was no longer seeking new fish — I was seeking new ways to fish.

I pursued metacognition in various ways, from reflecting on what type of thinking was needed for different tasks to exploring learning theories and maps of the brain. The more I learned the more important this reality became: Our mind is what controls us, but to the extent we can understand them, we can control our minds.

Metacognitive awareness is what lets you work smarter not harder. It is what causes you to pause upon hitting a roadblock in order to assess whether you need to choose a new road, to find a stunt driver, or to get a sledgehammer. It is what allows you to look at a project from start to finish and know what steps will be needed to get there.

Our minds are the most powerful tool we have — if we know how to use them well. Education needs to be equipping our minds with an understanding of our minds. Our learning, and teaching, needs to focus on elevating our minds to new levels of thinking in order to expand how we think. Higher education especially should focus less on deeper analysis of more complex topics, in exchange for teaching metacognitive awareness that unlocks higher levels of thinking.

We are our minds. Let’s learn how to use them.

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A New Normal

The thing about Kalu Yala, is that it’s irresistible. Well maybe that is only true if your soul is the type of soul that needs to experience life unscripted; lived freely and relentlessly muddy amid other wandering souls that believe in idealistic principles like sustainability, communal living, and getting back to our roots of living not just on Earth but engulfed in Earth.

The moment my dear friend Esteban mentioned the opportunity to help co-lead Kalu Yala’s education program was the moment I knew I wouldn’t say no to this. For the past few years I have been explaining to friends and family how education needs to be holistic, experience & project-based, more autonomous, and led by less Doctorates and more doers and tinkers. Towards the end of 2015 I started doing informal research on this emerging field of education by  talking to founders and participants of similar programs around the world. Back in 2014 Esteban and I came pretty close to starting our own self-directed learning program in Champaign.

Which is why I knew I would say yes to this opportunity. Which is why I find myself writing this from my platform in the rainforest, having just met 100 new faces who have no choice but to become friends. The energy this week feels almost as tangible as the afternoon air just before it pours. Everyone is ready to get dirty, to get building, to get real. There is a constant buzz as life stories are exchanged and dreams are spun of what the next few months will bring. There is so much to learn about each other and about how to live life here. Every day comes with a new set of life skills that will soon be second nature but are now awkward and at times tedious. Washing your feet of mud 8 times a day. Hanging your clothes to dry in the morning sun and remembering to take them down before the afternoon rains. Checking pockets and shoes for creatures. Remembering to bring your headlamp to dinner. The list goes on, and this is week one. There is still so much I have not had to learn yet.

This weekend I came to Panama City, a 1.5 hour drive once you emerge from the valley (done either by 4wd truck or your own two feet). It felt like returning to the relaxed, easy way of living where you have all-day access to all the modern luxuries that you only fully appreciate after a stint in the wilderness. It gave me a chance to plan my semester as the newly appointed Director of Design Thinking (more on this soon), celebrate a friend’s birthday, and take a pause to ask: “What just happened?” And “Am I ready for this to be life?” One week in I can say with complete confidence, life here is intense. I mean we literally live in tents. We have limited social contact with anyone outside the valley. Work is life is work. But is there really anything we need that we cannot find, build, or create here? That is the question we will keep exploring.

Every morning I wake up and watch the sun clear the fog from the valley. I jump in the river to rinse away the dirt and the day and am reminded that this too will pass. I walk past a friend and twenty minutes later realize companionship works better than most modern medicine. So yes, life at Kalu Yala is intense. Even after the first week I feel mentally, physically, and emotionally stretched. But I am so intrigued and excited to learn more. This place is irresistible.

Why the friends, climate, and colors you surround yourself with matter

It is no secret that your understanding of socially acceptable behavior is determined by where you are and who you are with. What we might be less conscious of though, is how our thoughts and ideas also follow a similar “socially acceptable behavior” rule. If you have ever tried coming up with ideas in a bland meeting room after having listened to a lengthy presentation about the importance of looming deadlines then you know its a wildly different experience than brainstorming amongst easily excitable friends in an elegantly designed open air naturally lit office.
I noticed this recently as I migrated from below freezing temperatures to the welcoming desert heat that is just starting to get hot. The transition from working bundled in sweaters and scarves with permanently scrunched shoulders to t-shirts and fresh freckles has led to a noticeable shift in how I perceive problems and approach ambiguity.
But even in minor ways our mind is influenced by the people and things surrounding us. Does having a notebook and colored pens encourage you to shut off your screen and brainstorm? Has that last email left you feeling defensive? Is your music distracting or motivating you? Could a ten minute walk actually increase your productivity?
We can never fully be certain how our surroundings are affecting us, but we can become more conscious of how certain variables influence us. Take a look around or reflect on what physical factors help and hurt your mental space. Can you control some of them? Invite your friends and colleagues to do the same – their productivity affects yours remember. Mention it at meetings. Or better yet, discuss optimal living and working conditions over a good meal. We’re all in this together after all.

Ready? Go! You’ve got 30 minutes to Contextualize “Ice Cream Sanctuary”

I occasionally like to participate in spontaneous writing competitions. And by competitions I mean I set a timer, find a prompt, and write. It turns out others like to do this too. It’s surprisingly fun. I dare you to try it. For instance, last night a group of semi-strangers and I got together at a bar and wrote about ice cream sanctuaries – well at least our interpretation of “ice cream sanctuary”. The result was stories about all sorts of stuff: angry ex-girlfriends, overweight sadists, cavemen being introduced to new things…

Anyways I liked my story because it brought together a lot of strands of thoughts in my head, new and old.

The sky feels bigger in the morning, holding all of the untold stories the day is about to unfold. This is my thought as I drive straight into the sunrise, leaving behind memories I don’t feel the need to remember. Instead my mind wanders to the place I used to call home, maybe the only place I can or will ever be able to call home. I have been a wanderer since I first took the wheel. Scratch that, since I was able to leave my backyard on my own.

I have always had an unquenchable thirst for the place just beyond the horizon. The unreachable. That evasive paradise that lies just over the next hill, past the telephone lines.

I used to wake up and climb out my window. I’d just stare at the rooftops. Watching the busy people starting their busy days. Lights on. Lights off. Garage door up. Garage door down. I would name the neighbors, not by their real names but by the personality of their presence. Trenchcoat Tom. Pam and her Poodle. Hurrying Harry.

That was before I became one of those busy people. Before I discovered the weight of responsibility and mortgages and aging parents. Actually I don’t think I ever fully became one of them. Part of me still thinks I am that young girl who sat on rooftops and dreamed up stories with the clouds.

Blame it on my dad. He was always making up stories, unfolding them chapter by chapter each night before bed. Stories so vivid they would weave themselves seamlessly into my dreams- flying through the hot air balloon castles or swimming under the sea.  I remember this one story about the ice cream sanctuary. He made it up to get me to stop crying. I had just dropped my drippy chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream cone face down on the ground. He said not to worry. That ice cream catastrophes were actually a chance to add to the ice cream sanctuary. You see the ice cream sanctuary was captured in the clouds, collecting shapes and stories of dropped drips and slips.

When did he stop telling stories? Before or after his tumor and prognosis? I should write them down, hire an illustrator to capture their color. Although I don’t know if that would do them any justice. I wonder if he would remember them. If they blazed the same mark in his mind as they did mine. Sometimes I wonder if the stories we create are really that different than the ones we think we remember, if reality even exists. Who is to say I couldn’t show up in a new city and create a new self, rewrite my story present and past?

These are my thoughts as I cross another state line. Traveling always makes me feel this longing for something else, something just beyond the horizon.

Let me tell you a story…

Right now I am teaching a class called Innovation for Social Good. On Monday we talked about disruptive technologies, as it was the focus of our reading. The main things address in the reading were the rise of the mobile phone, increased connectivity, and BIG DATA (aka the ability to track inefficiency, impact, and demographics with increasing ease – or frustration depending on your analytics department). We had some really good discussion about how and if these “disruptive technologies” were benefiting the world. Mixed responses. But then I asked for examples of other disruptive technologies perhaps from before the internet and cell phone era. Looking at their faces, you might assume I had asked them to translate Taylor Swift into Latin.

But it left me thinking “What are the things that tend to disrupt business as usual, not just now but throughout history?” … And then it hit me, stories. Often the most disruptive thing you can do is tell a good story that makes people pay attention. Compliment it with a concrete action, like buy this shoe, eat more subs, or secure better access to education for young women. It is true that technology will affect the medium through which stories get told – be it the headlines of a newspaper, blog post, or podcast – but that has not changed the fact that it is stories to which we most likely to listen, remember, and respond to.

It makes me realize that maybe “new” isn’t necessary. Maybe looking at the things that have proved themselves timeless will provide insight into what is truly valuable going forward. Maybe the key to moving forward is to recognize what has kept us going.

Maybe we just need to listen closely to the right stories.

Sometimes the problem is the solution

As an engineer I was taught to efficiently solve a problem. To define a problem under specific constraints and find a solution, to the best of my ability. But as a creative I began to see that both problems and solutions are always defined relative to your point of view. Sometimes the solution is the problem, sometimes the problem is the solution. But maybe the best practice is not to look at the world and start outlining problems, but to find what is good and focus on spreading that.

There’s a saying someone recently shared with me,

Focus on problems, see problems.

Focus on solutions, see solutions.

It’s been in my mind, and I keep noticing it’s truth. When someone complains about something others usually follow suit, offering their own complaint or at least nodding in agreement. But if someone shares insight on a solution or a positive point of view, that starts the chain reaction in the other direction – now people contribute more positives.

It comes back to this theory that we are all filters, and we can decide how to filter the things we think, feel, and share. Pass on what’s good and good will spread.

Notice and experiment with this. Let me know if you find the same.

Pricing the Priceless: What is Community Worth?

What exactly is community? And how do you develop or engage it? These are the questions a colleague and I were trying to answer the other day as he considered how to appropriately teach his upcoming class titled “Community Engagement”. He is not new to the task of dropping graduate students into local community centers and telling them to collaboratively design a technology-based workspace with those already invested in the space. However there comes a time in the life of an academic when you wonder if your theoretical understanding of the most fundamental concepts are in fact accurate.

Now perhaps you – like many – are rolling your eyes right now, thinking sure, those academics, they can sit around in their historic brick buildings furiously publishing paper after paper on ‘Problems With the World’ while the rest of us are out here looking those problems in the eye. And to be fair I was on your side. Until. Until two key questions were asked that made me realize we might need answers to these questions we can stand on – because otherwise ‘We the People’ get caught up in the doing of the day-to-day. We lose sight of the defining characteristics of the concepts we think we value.

Which is why we need to pause and consider the answers to these 2 questions…

  1. What communities are you a part of?
  2. What defines those communities, or more importantly, what about them is valuable?

We are entering the age of Quantifiable Value. If something cannot be explicitly translated into it’s monetary net worth it likely will not be around for very long. Untamed ecosystems? Green space and fresh air in downtowns? Public spaces and events that do not turn a profit? Art? People must now defend these things with quantitative values that demonstrate their worth to society or at least its worth compared to the Walgreens that could take its place. By “people” I actually mean “the people who innately value them enough to fight for them”. They are the ones who measure value not in dollars but in beauty, nature, and human connection. They are the ones baking cookies for fundraisers, hosting support groups in their home, and spending their Saturdays pulling weeds in public spaces.

They are not the norm. The bulk of us are investing less in communities and more in ourselves –with our money, our time, our energy, and our actions. Have drifted from the communities we might have been a part of. Once you are no longer embedded in a social fabric that offers support for no cost other than support in return, it can be hard to know how much community is really worth. Is it worth getting off my couch, leaving my house, and going out of my comfort zone? Is it worth a tax increase?

It is hard to know, unless we have a sense of What is community and what is it worth?

Lessons from – and advice for – Creating

After another semester of teaching ENG 333, a class on creative thinking I put together some lessons that I’ve learned from creating things.

 

  1. At the center of most creativity is the creation of a few (often simple) connections.

 

When I look at most “creative” things being done, most of them aren’t actually anything new, it’s just the coming together of existing things in new ways – whether that’s ideas, people, efforts of different organizations, etc. There might be one novel aspect of the project that sets it apart, but the bulk of it is likely to just be bridging existing resources through deliberate connections.

 

  1. Creativity takes practice – and requires stamina for what feels an awful lot like failing.

 

Creativity is a learned skill, and just like any other skill, it will increase with practice. Which is fine because you can make practicing creativity fun. Usually. Until you start to push yourself. And start to fail. This is actually the important thing to practice, failing. You must be comfortable with ideas not holding together, plans not panning out, and people (especially yourself) not following through. It’s just part of the creative process. Practice it. Fail and keep trying. Better yet, fail and keep smiling.

 

  1. Just keep answering the question: What is the next step forward(ish)?

 

I used to stress about what I wanted to do with my life. The answer to that question includes so many pieces all of which are almost constantly changing, making it near impossible to answer in any definitive way. Therefore I started asking, what is the next thing I want to do? The same goes for projects, keep the overall vision in mind but mostly focus on what is the next step in the general direction of the X on the map.

 

  1. Document. Reflect. Sketch. Journal.

 

How often do experiences or ideas fade from our mind? In such a fast past world it is easy to distractedly run from one thing to another.  Taking time (even a few moments) to capture the things that seem significant to you can help you gain much more value from the things you are already doing, the thoughts you are already thinking. The longer you do this the more you, your team, and others you want to share things with will appreciate it. Write down ideas that aren’t ready yet. Brainstorm solutions in a place you’ll come across them again down the road. Reflect every step of the way. Notice what things stand out as worth documenting to you.

 

  1. Pause to consider, What else?

 

If you don’t like the options that exist, how can you create better ones? Maybe this means constructing something from scratch, maybe it means putting in more leg work to find more information, maybe it means reframing how you

 

  1. See things from multiple perspectives (and build empathy)

 

This really seems to be something creatives can do better than anyone else. By seeing things in new ways you can gain new understanding of them. You can relate to people, you can figure out who needs what and why which will allow you to anticipate if something you create is useful or valuable. Plus you’ll become a whole lot better at understanding the people in your life. To me, this alone is reason enough to develop a creative mindset.

  1. When you are feeling stuck, bored, overwhelmed, or uninspired: Leave home.

This might just be a walk around the block, a cross-country excursion, or completely submersing yourself in a new culture. It’s not so much as where you are or how many times you think you’ve been in a place, but rather how you go about noticing what is around you. Get outside and start noticing things. There is always something new to see. Even if you are looking at something familiar, there is no limit to the new ways of seeing things.

Life unfinished

Life is like a third graders art project – it’s beautiful in a messy, chaotic sort of way.

Soul collage

Soul collaging e  – as lifelike as it gets

I don’t know about you, but my life is an ever-changing, constantly rearranging mix of things. Of people. Of memories. Of knowledge. Of ideas. Of opinions. Of desires, feelings, and needs. My life tends to tip towards chaos every so often–not always, but often enough that I have a rough list of disaster relief-inspired techniques at the ready for when it does. I blame it on my tendency to overcommit, the adrenaline rush of enticing ideas and starting projects, and my general inclination towards newness. If life were an ice cream store, I’d want to sample every flavor and then still pick 3 (which is, unsurprisingly, often what happens).

Yesterday, I made my mom a collage for her birthday. I wanted to give her something silly, something unexpected, something to reflect the realities of life. This past year her world seems to keep filling with an odd array of incompatible happenings – joy, hardship, restructuring, rebuilding, gaining, letting go, and the unavoidable experience of growing older. It got me thinking about the hodgepodge of life. How a collage might be the most accurate way to represent life.

When I think about using art as a way to capture life, I don’t see that happening through a photograph. A photograph is limited to a single frame. And even the widest of lenses doesn’t seem capable of capturing the breadth of things my life includes at any moment in time. Forget still life or realism or cubism. I need clashing patterns, rough edges, half hidden meaning, and a bit of inexplicable nonsense.

Hodgepodge cereal. Hodgepodge cards.

Hodgepodge cereal. Hodgepodge cards.

Which is why we must accept and embrace the fact that the pieces don’t fit together nicely; that we will have to make a decision with only 3/10ths of the wisdom we might like. We must embrace the rough edges, the unfinishedness of everything. “Finished” is a judgment call, an arbitrary line, and quite frankly a state we shouldn’t be in a hurry to get to.

My life will never be finished, and that’s beautiful.

#Day7 #gratitudenovember

Why we should strive for natural instead of artificial intelligence.

Nature puts even the most “technological advanced” solutions humans have milkweedcreated to shame. There is endless sources of awe if you look around: from the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly to the shocking electric catfish to the overlooked incredibility of plants, animals, and insects to withstand winter completely outside without grocery stores or heaters or blankets.

For the past couple weeks my creativity class has been studying bio-inspiration and biomimicry. This means taking an up-close inspection of nature in the hopes of being inspired to produce more intelligent and sustainable designs. Teaching this unit always makes me walk a little slower in the park, stop and stare a little longer at squirrels scurrying about, and gawk a little wider at the spider web outside my window.IMG_2285

One day in particular I found myself sitting on the shore of Lake Michigan after a hike through the woods, amazed at the diversity in nature, aghast at her brilliance. I had just seen, oh I don’t know, 200+ species in a matter of minutes. It got me wondering, why are there so many different types of plants in one field, each with such varied designs? How can species adapt to live in such varied conditions as the sea, the desert, and the arctic? How can such delicate systems weather such severe storms and still thrive?

IMG_2541Everything in nature (including ourselves) is constantly impacted by an endless number of factors, micro and MACRO, temporary and permanent, minor and major. And to each of these factors we have to respond in little and big ways, for better or worse. It is our ability to adapt to these changes that allows us to survive. The best of us will push through these challenges and emerge stronger than ever.

After reading this book I became fascinated with the concept of resilience. It turns out resilience isn’t about being strong enough to weather any storm, it is about having a solid backup plan – or three – when things do fail. It isn’t about precisely perfect replications or flawless track records, its about keeping things just good enough to keep going. If we allow ourselves to be reshaped by the things around us, and embrace our environment instead of fighting it, maybe we will inch our way towards living more sustainably.IMG_2494

Nature has unique design techniques we would be wise to replicate, producing things that are simultaneously shockingly complex and surprisingly simple. Things that recycle themselves. Things that integrate seemlessly into a web of interconnected coexistence.  Is this due to intelligent design? Or sheer persistence and luck? Either way, nature is leaps and bounds ahead of our advanced, self-titled “artificial” intelligence. Natural solutions will always be more valuable than artificial ones.

We have a lot to learn from Nature. Every fall I watch as so much hard work from spring and summer falls to the ground, returned to the Earth, saving only the vital resouces for the harsher season ahead.  We may have learned to modify our environment beyond recognition, but we certainly haven’t figured out how to put it back together again when things fall apart the way nature so elegantly does.