Leveraging Digital Depth Technologies in Education

The Fitbit Flex, the first Fitbit tracker worn on the wrist, was released in 2013. This wearable device helps track the number of steps the user takes in a day and vibrates when the user hit their goal. The Fitbit Flex was a hit. Since 2013, a number of other wearable devices have hit the market, and chances are high that you have seen such devices around the wrist of someone you know, or perhaps you own one yourself.

Fast forward to 2016, when the hot technology was thought to be virtual reality. After years of waiting, virtual reality was finally coming to mass markets with the arrival of the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and Sony’s PSVR. 2016 also saw the release of the augmented reality phenomena Pokémon Go, a game where people searched physical reality in search of holographic Pokémon. The success of Pokémon Go in many ways signaled the arrival of augmented reality to the mainstream.

All three of these technologies – wearables, virtual reality, and augmented reality –  have ridden the hype train in terms of the consumer market, and they are a current source of excitement for many education stakeholders as they make their way into the educational technology world and begin to be applied to learning. Because of the hype surrounding these technologies, it is important for educators to have a frame for thinking through the various ways that they might be employed for learning and what the implications of using them might be.

KnowledgeWorks’ most recent strategic foresight publication, Leveraging Digital Depth for Responsive Learning Environments: Future Prospects for Wearables, Augmented Reality, and Virtual Reality, explores how wearables, augmented reality, and virtual reality might be used to create responsive learning environments. If these technologies are used thoughtfully, they have the potential to increase student engagement, personalization, understanding of others’ experiences and perspectives, self-awareness, critical thinking, and student agency. They can assist educators and other education stakeholders in creating experiences characterized by immersion, embodiment, contextualization, and self-awareness.

To take a look at what such learning experiences might look like, the paper illustrates five vignettes taking place 10 years in the future:

  • MentorConnect: Responsive Assistance for Learners – Information collected from a wearable device helps to deliver just-in-time supports for a fourth-grade student having difficulty approaching a homework assignment. A linked app reminds her that she can ask for help and helps connect her with the relevant educator when she needs support.
  • Learning Matrix: Digital Build Out Closes Resource Gaps – Using digital tools, educators have turned unproductive or abandoned buildings such as old warehouses, shopping centers, and public buildings into venues for compelling, high-quality learning experiences. In so doing, they are helping learners access resources, learning experiences, and specialist teachers that are often not available in poor or rural schools and districts.
  • Holistic Assessment: Authentic Performance, Evaluation, and Reflection Support Deep Learning – An assessment tool powered by augmented reality, wearables, and audio and video capture provides a way for students to immerse themselves in realistic future learning and work settings while honing their collaborative and creative practices and reflecting on their performance with trusted, knowledgeable professionals.
  • Changing Bodies, Minds, and Policies: Deep Empathy through Embodying the Other – Education policymakers and administrators “walk in the shoes of others” through immersive narratives provided by virtual reality and other digital technologies to foster empathy and perspective taking in order to help craft policy.
  • Digital Graffiti History: Students Explore Their Community and Local Heroes – Students become local historians and storytellers through the use of augmented reality to create digital graffiti consisting of three-dimensional overlays of text, images, and video, turning their neighborhood into a living history book.

These future vignettes explore ways in which wearables, augmented reality, and virtual reality might mature over time and merge with each other and with other forms of technology. They also illustrate how these technologies can add different degrees of digital depth, or the layering of data, computing, and connectivity, onto physical environments.  The digital depth spectrum shown below consists of three kinds of spaces:

  • Enhanced physical spaces alter the physical world by applying a thin layer digital information capture, sharing, and feedback.
  • Hybrid spaces use multiple digital layers and more extensive computer-generated content, connectivity, and experiences to enable experiences that have a higher degree of digital immersion but which are still anchored in physical space.
  • Fully digital spaces provide full immersion in digitally created environments with little reference to physical space.

Thinking through how digital depth might contribute to teaching and learning can provide a frame for evaluating possible uses for wearables, augmented reality, and virtual reality. In addition, the suggestions below can help you explore potential uses of these technologies in your setting.

Try it out. Wearables, augmented reality, and virtual reality are all available at a range of different price points. Develop a plan to test them out and to consider how you might leverage them for learning.

Ask a learner. Students are often early adopters. Ask your students how they might use wearables, augmented reality, and virtual reality in school.

Explore key learning design questions. Consider how the immersion, embodiment, contextualization, and self-awareness that these technologies afford might help create learning environments and experiences that address specific learning goals. A few key learning experience design questions might include:

  • In which activities and practices might the personal feedback provided by wearable devices enhance students’ self-knowledge and agency and influence their performance?
  • Which complex concepts, intellectual frameworks, and collaborative settings might benefit from rich visualizations?
  • How might experiences that enable the immersion and embodiment offered by augmented reality and virtual reality support the development of perspective taking, empathy, and social-emotional skills?

Seeing past the hype surrounding new technologies can be difficult. By developing a frame for assessing the potential impacts of wearables, augmented reality, and virtual reality, educators can leverage such technologies to help create responsive learning environments for the learners whom they serve. To explore further, download Leveraging Digital Depth for Responsive Learning Environments: Future Prospects for Wearables, Augmented Reality, and Virtual Reality or the accompanying poster.

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Jason Swanson is Director of Strategic Foresight at KnowledgeWorks. Connect with him on Twitter: 

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5 Tips for Building a Maker Culture of Equity and Inclusion

“When we treat children’s play as seriously as it deserves, we are helping them feel the joy that’s to be found in the creative spirit. It’s the things we play with and the people who help us play that make a great difference in our lives.”
― Fred Rogers

3-D printers, CNC routers, and expensive tools are common when people refer to a makerspace. These makerspace tools can be intimidating and sometimes push educators away from making. However, making can be as simple as using six 4×2 LEGO® bricks. Søren Eilers, professor at the University of Copenhagn, wrote a computer program that shaped all the possible brick combinations and ended up with 915,103,765 combinations – WOW!

Making is not only limited to a makerspace, but is boundless and impartial to the imagination of all learners. According to The Maker Education Initiative, a nonprofit launched in 2012, maker education is a way to create more opportunities for young people to make, and by making, build confidence, foster creativity, and spark interest in science, technology, engineering, math, and the arts.

There is no better time than the present to redefine the culture of our schools. When students have an environment that is inclusive, they are more confident and creative – they create a love of learning and unexpected ideas happen – and we need new ideas. This nation’s greatest assets are sitting in every classroom in America with ideas to cure cancer, celebrate diversity, prepare for disasters, and so much more. But, to unlock every student’s potential, every student must have access to high-quality science, technology, engineering, math, and art initiatives. Rather than giving in to the temptation to focus on buying one 3-D printer for a makerspace, though, I’d suggest thinking through how these 5 Tips for Building a Maker Culture of Equity and Inclusion might work in your environment.

1. Involve All Stakeholders. Making is intergenerational. It has been around forever and everyone is a maker, so why not tap into all stakeholders in the community. Whether it is a custodian who enjoys tinkering and fixing, a grandparent that sews, a local historian that is an expert on storytelling, business owners that can contribute items, or parents who like to be involved – everyone can be included.

2. Choose Tools Based on Pedagogical Goals. Making is not separate from the curriculum; it strengthens the curriculum. One can help move the needle from teacher-directed environments to student-centered learning. Let students lead the process of learning through curiosity and discovery.

3. Make Learning Culturally and Age Relevant. Just because it is good for you, does not mean it is good for everyone (or kids). Tap into the student culture and learn what they like to do. As educators, we often complicate things by thinking about what children want instead of asking them and listening. Make the learning experience a two-way street.  Students thrive on voice and choice.

4. Empower All Learners–Including Adults. Learning is most meaningful when people are active participants in the learning process; however, learning cannot be forced upon someone. Learning has to be fun and exciting. People will always learn best when they are invested and empowered. When kids have a voice and they are empowered, the learning is elevated to an entirely new level that exceeds any expectation. The same is true for adults. Great leaders not only empower students, but they also empower adults.

5. Not Evaluate, Appreciate. How do you value making? If you want a maker culture do not value product, value the process. Are students collaborating? Did they answer the “Big Question?” How can you make it better? When implementing a maker culture, remember, questions are more powerful than the answers.

Making really can be done in all grades and on all levels. Once educators empower making, and students begin to make, the results are endless. I like to think this is one of the best ways we can create tomorrow’s moonshot thinkers, today!

There are many resources to help get started with your maker culture. Here are a few:

The Digital Promise Maker Learning Leadership Framework pushes the movement forward by offering a suite of resources, strategies, and models to help school and district leaders develop maker learning programs that are sustainable and equitable for all students.

Schools That Can (STC) is the largest cross-sector network of urban schools in the country, and MakerState believes one key to a quality education is providing real-world learning for the 21st century. The STC Maker Fellows program works directly to advance real-world learning by helping both students AND educators develop passion and skills in science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM).

Agency by Design Pittsburgh is a research practice partnership designed to connect educators from diverse maker-based learning environments for the purpose of developing mutual understandings of maker-centered learning and assessment. Specifically, the teachers come together in the community to address their need to assess and document learning in maker-based learning experiences.

Remake Learning is a network that ignites engaging, relevant, and equitable learning practices in support of young people navigating rapid social and technological change.

LEGO® Education Maker empowers every student, at all grade levels, to follow their curiosity wherever it leads them in a safe, inspiring and instantly accessible environment. The LEGO® brick, with its simple and intuitive building system, is the perfect prototyping tool.  Feel free to browse a list of free LEGO® Education Maker activities.

Additionally, I’m a fan of the following books:

STEAMMakers, by Jacie Maslyk

Maker-Centered Learning, by Edward P. Clapp,‎ Jessica Ross,‎ Jennifer O. Ryan,‎ Shari Tishman

Free to Make: How the Maker Movement is Changing Our Schools, Our Jobs, and Our Minds, by Dale Dougherty‎, Tim O’Reilly (Foreword),‎ and Ariane Conrad (Contributor)

The Kickstart Guide to Making GREAT Makerspaces, by Laura Fleming.

With these tools and mindsets, creating an equitable maker environment can be a lot closer than many of us might think.

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HQPBL Case Study: The MET School

Download the case study

“Working on high quality projects is at the core of The Met… actually, I’d like to rephrase that and say doing real-world, meaningful work is at the core. Projects are the vehicle for how students at The Met get that done,” shared The Met Co-Founder Dennis Littky. Located in the heart of Providence, Rhode Island, The Met is part of the Big Picture Learning network and was designed based on the idea that students thrive when they are engaged in real-world work and are able to integrate internships tied to their passions into in-depth, integrated projects.

Projects at The Met are connected to individual student goals, and each project includes specific skills students need to address. How does it work, exactly? Students are grouped in small cohorts (or essentially small communities), each with a bonding name like Unity or Liberty. Cohorts collaborate to tackle problems, support each other, and collaborate on projects.

Listen as Taliq shares why high quality projects have been so transformative

The HQPBL (High Quality Project Based Learning) team was fortunate to talk to five Met students who all shared how powerful projects can be if they tap into student interests, are challenging and have a real purpose. Meet Jodiana, Mackendry, Taliq, Alan, Querida and Leeanna.

Listen as Leanna shares about how as part of one of her projects, she wrote a memorandum that was used in an actual course

Listen as Jodiana shares how she feels passionate about making sure each project she works on leaves a positive impact on the community

Advisors and mentors guide their work, but students really take most of the lead and initiative. Students work directly with college professors, local business leaders, and community members to initiate, plan, and execute their projects. They are project management machines!

Download the Case Study

Visit hqpbl.org for the full case study and more about the HQPBL campaign.

This blog is a part of the HQPBL Campaign supported by the Buck Institute for Education and sponsored by Project Management Institute Educational Foundation and The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. For more, visit hqpbl.org and follow @hqpbl #hqpbl on Twitter and Instagram.

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Education Systems Should Be Based on How Students Develop 

Turnaround for Children, an organization focused on “creating evidence-based tools that work in high-risk settings,” recently released a report that examines a growing body of research on student development and growth: Key Findings and Implications of the Science of Learning and Development. This report grew out of the work of the Science of Learning and Development (SoLD) initiative that partnered six broad-based stakeholder organizations. These organizations joined forces with the explicit intention of analyzing research results to inform and transform educational policy and practice for maximal life outcomes for students. The initiative focuses on today’s educational structures as they affect today’s students, to ensure that they are ready for the uncertainty of tomorrow’s world.

The experience of contemporary students is very different than it was fifty years ago, and the experience base learners bring to school is also very different than previous generations. Students process stimuli from mass media on a nearly constant basis, regularly interact with others geographically and culturally distant from their local community, and have access to technology-based tools for production and consumption once available only to specialized experts.

And, what we know about how students learn and grow has also seen rapid developments over the last several decades. A flowering of research from neuroscience, psychology, early childhood, and a variety of other disciplines on the science of learning and development has begun to shed light on what is necessary for students to reach our educational and societal ambitions. A number of independent research disciplines have matured into the emerging field of “Learning Science,” and school systems have yet to transition from a basis of tradition to evidence-based practice.

Many schools now provide a variety of paths to graduation, explicitly acknowledging the value of both academic and career preparation, and have increased inclusion of both cognitively and linguistically diverse populations. However, systemic change based on scientific findings on human development remains absent from the design of most educational reform efforts.

There are emerging pedagogical practices that are proving successful in graduating 21st-century-ready students, which upon examination, share a foundational set of understandings. Innovative practices including project-based learning, deeper learning, place-based learning, the utilization of a growth mindset, and the inclusion of social and emotional learning all reflect an underlying recognition that human development and community dynamics must be addressed to maximize achievement and life readiness. These efforts have been undertaken recently, and the results are promising; unfortunately, these initiatives tend to be small and scattered.

Systemic improvement will require that learning science insights provide the underpinnings to educational success at scale.

The Turnaround for Children report is based on two separate, complementary papers. One paper synthesizes research on what any individual needs for healthy internal development in body and mind. The second paper focuses on the role that external relationships and environmental factors play in how healthy development occurs. These papers produce a holistic response to the questions of which factors does science tell us impact human development and what structures can families and institutions establish to maximize health, adaptability and achievement. Their key findings highlight that the “nature versus nurture” divide must be reframed by understanding how nature and nurture influence each other over time and how significant development interruptions–trauma, deprivation of material and emotion, and incomprehensible loss–impact the developmental process (Turnaround’s CEO recently joined representatives from Digital Promise to dissect the findings in a webinar that can be viewed here).

Finding: Most Human Development is Rooted in Relationships

A major theme from the Turnaround for Children papers is that individual human development cannot be separated from the relationships the person has with others. There are significant developmental insights to be gleaned from the fact that humans individually develop within a web of complex social relationships. The first finding from the Turnaround for Children Key Findings document explains that “human development depends upon the ongoing, reciprocal relations between individuals’ genetics, biology, relationships, and cultural and contextual influences.” An unhealthy individual cannot form strong relationships with others, and systems in schools do not prioritize the establishment, maintenance, and healing of relationships during students’ developmental process.

This research notes that a lack of healthy relationships has a negative impact on an individual’s health. Thus, unhealthy individuals have more difficulty forming relationships. Those with negative, or lacking, relationships cannot remain healthy, subsequently forming a destructive, negative feedback loop which compromises development. A further finding states that “the human relationship is a primary process through which biological and contextual factors mutually reinforce each other.” Thus, for individuals and groups, there are multi-layered sets of dynamics and relationships.

The report recommends that schools provide “internal support structures” like counseling, and other community-based resources, to intervene in the negative spiral and produce an inflection point in life trajectory. Simply stated, “schools must take a whole child perspective and personalize learning in ways that take these factors into account.” It is this more holistic perspective with which schools must create systems to develop and educate individual students within group relationships. In a perfect world, these systems provide controlled risk, positive feedback on success, and supports for failures and maladaptive behaviors. But schools do not operate in that utopia, a reality that the report goes on to explore.

Finding: Trauma, Stress, and ACEs Change Life Paths

The research highlighted in the Turnaround for Children report explores the impact on development and relationships for children when risk, failure, or danger are the norm. The report affirms that trauma and other Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) affect the life trajectory of students and builds on previous research by the Center for Disease Control. When students have no supports, either familial or institutional, the difficulties they experience are malignant rather than benign. In the absence of these supports, students do not have the internal or social resources to overcome the experience and the negative experience perpetually remains present as persistent adversity.

The report goes on to explain that “adversity, through the biological process of stress, exerts profound effects on development, behavior, learning, and health.” ACEs go beyond difficult days and major disappointments; trauma truncates growth and stress provokes the fight or flight mode.

The report declares that addressing the impacts of ACEs in schools will require “curricular designs and instructional strategies that support academic capacity, competence, efficacy, motivation, metacognitive skills, and mastery.” Detailed “principles of practice” are provided that are based in these Learning Sciences insights. A previous Getting Smart article highlights this need for a systemic approach to supporting students dealing with trauma. The report echoes these sentiments, and prescribes that schools embed social-emotional, academic, and relationship initiatives with the outcome metrics being healthy development. Health precedes attendance, attendance precedes engagement, and engagement precedes achievement. And healthy development, intra- and inter- personal, is necessary for individuals to have positive familial, social, political, economic, and any other relationships in a civil society based on equality, justice, and respect for diversity.

Early Adopters: Districts Incorporating This Understanding of Student Development

Our current education systems were not built with these Learning Sciences findings in mind. Schools and districts that are utilizing these insights to approach learning from a human development perspective are hampered by having to overlay these concepts on top of current systems. But we must nonetheless note that these are important undertakings, as they provide proof points for particular approaches which create a body of evidence for those educational institutions that will pioneer a fully developmentally-grounded school system.

  • Austin ISD’s focus on Social Emotional Learning (SEL). The Austin Independent School District has partnered with Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) to deliver explicit instruction in SEL for 83,000 K-12 students. Incorporating SEL has become central to academic and school environment planning and the district has measured positive effects in improved attendance, decreased disciplinary action, and a positive correlation of teacher ratings of grade 3 students SEL competencies with performance on state reading and math assessments. The work has included outreach to families and has been sustained by a combination of district and community investment since 2011.
  • Houston ISD’s Mindfulness Program: Houston Independent School District partnered with the Sonima Foundation (now called Pure Edge) to incorporate a health, wellness, and mindfulness program into the curriculum at more than 25 elementary, middle, and high schools, reaching 14,000 students. The expressed goal of the program is to reduce stress among students and promote overall student health and development. As part of the program, students participate in yoga, learn about healthy nutrition, and are taught strategies that help students be aware of their own feelings and reactions. Schools have seen improvements in attendance rates, a decrease in disciplinary issues, and academic benefits among participating students.
  • Broward County, Florida’s focus on Personalization: Broward County Public Schools has implemented a research program called Personalization through Academic and Social Learning (PASL) for all of their more than 80,000 high school students. By combining data analytics (on behavior, attendance and course progression), a survey tool of all 9th graders (focused on self-efficacy, self-regulated learning, and teacher-student relationships), and regular meetings (of teachers and administrators), the district is committed to ensuring students create and maintain healthy connections with peers and adults.

Changing Praxis: Learning Sciences Research Must Drive Educational Practice

Because schools were initially designed without a scientific understanding of human development, their structure and practices neglect to support contemporary understandings of student growth. Schools, and especially those at the secondary level, are structured around all students achieving against a common norm. We must move beyond systems driven solely by outcome metrics that are snapshots of performance in knowledge and skills; rather our systems should be measured in their ability to support healthy development, build resiliency, and result in students successfully applying learning by both civic contribution and individual advancement. That’s not to say that we should not articulate a common floor of expectations for all students. But, in doing that, we must build systems that respect and incorporate the inherent diversity of individuals, groups, and relationships.

High Quality PBL Meets Mental Health

Nearly three years ago, my co-teacher and I asked our sophomores to begin a mental health project. We’re a project-based learning school and we were launching our second project of the year in our integrated course called Behavioral Studies which combines English with psychology. Normally, when you start a project, you launch it with an engaging activity and ask students a high-level, begs-to-be-answered driving question. Many times you also reveal what the end product of the project will be. Maybe you want students to make a video or do a presentation.

My co-teacher and I were curious about what might happen if we didn’t choose an end product, and instead let our students decide what they wanted to do. We had done our research and knew what they would encounter when they did their research. We knew they would see the many different issues our country has with mental health, including the stigma that often accompanies mental illness. We had our own ideas about what our students could do with these issues, but, once again, we were curious what 150 15- and 16-year-olds would come up with.

We had only one parameter: whatever they decided, they needed to involve the community. That was it. The next few days were a flurry of ideation. Our six large whiteboards around our room were tattooed with ideas. In the end, the students wanted to start one of Idaho’s first mental health awareness campaigns which they named More Than a Stigma. Their goal was to educate their community, reach out to schools, provide informational seminars and fundraise for local non-profit mental health resources. And that’s just what they did. We’re now into year three of More Than a Stigma with a new batch of sophomores. More Than a Stigma has evolved over the years, and as outside entities pay attention to what our students are doing, we’ve been asked to help facilitate public mental health discussions, broaden our awareness efforts and this year, our local Behavioral Health Board requested that our students run their annual children’s mental health conference. In looking at this project and the Framework for High Quality Project-Based Learning, HQPBL, I believe our project, More Than a Stigma, is an example of what the Framework suggests.

Source: HQPBL.com

Intellectual Challenge and Accomplishment

“A high quality project requires students to think critically about a complex problem, question, or issue with multiple answers, and then work on that project over the course of days, weeks, and even months.” The mental health issues that face our country are troubling, complex and certainly challenging. The issues range from lack of resources and lack of access to treatment and clinicians to the rising rates of mental health problems, especially among teenagers, and the incarcerations rates of the mentally ill. The stigma of mental illness by itself is a massive issue, one that tends to keep many people from ever seeking help for a legitimate, serious medical condition.

All of these problems can be found in any community, no matter the size, which is part of why our students took these issues on. They had to pull apart the topics under mental health and reveal truth to dispel the myths and misconceptions. There was no one right answer.

Many people all over our country are looking into these issues and each person is finding a different way to address them. Our students were no different. They quickly discovered that while there is an abundance of correct information regarding mental disorders and mental health in general, their community had such ingrained misconceptions about such things that it became more of a search of how to overcome bias, stereotypes and fixed mindsets. Their research had to expand to those particular areas and the challenge became, “How do we frame our information and deliver it in  a way that people will listen to?”

Our students’ accomplishments were hard to notice at first. They made videos, they published information on social media, they delivered presentations, but were they changing minds? Slowly, the fruits of their labor began to reveal themselves. They started getting comments on videos and on social media posts. The students started receiving emails after presentations and they started having conversations with people that led our students to believe that they were having an impact. People were expressing things like, “I always thought I understood this subject. Turns out I was wrong,” or “After listening to your presentation, I feel like I’m ready to talk to my doctor about some things I’ve been experiencing.” The students’ head-first dive into such a challenging array of subjects was having an effect, and it continues to have an effect each year we run More Than a Stigma.


“To motivate students and show them the relevance of what they are learning in school, projects should be experienced as ‘real.’” Trying to solve a centuries-old stigma against something that society is still, in 2018, trying to figure out provides our students with an authentic problem. As students respond to tough questions like, “How do we challenge the misconceptions around mental health?” or “When and how do behaviors and attitudes change?” they, year after year, come up with innovative ideas to help spread information to their community.

And here’s the biggest step when it comes to authenticity: you have to let them really solve the problem. By that, I mean that if the problem is real, but they only hypothetically solve it, you’ve lost a big piece of the authenticity. More Than a Stigma, our mental health project, is real. It is not “close to real”  or “patterned after real.”  It is real. Real mental health organizations have really partnered up with us and together we are pushing forth initiatives to help educate our community. Real audiences rely on our students to learn how to change their minds and behaviors toward mental health. The students raise real money to give to a real non-profit mental health clinic. When the students first started coming up with solutions, we didn’t have the end product be a presentation about those solutions, our end product was the solution.

The key to authenticity is to find a real problem–real to you and your students, real to your community or real to our world. The next key to let your students actually solve it.

That last part sounds scary to many people I talk to about this project. It’s scary because we’re letting students, not adults, take a crack at a very big problem for many people. It’s scary because we’ve now let real-world risk enter the classroom, free to mingle with our student’s ideas and solutions. Despite the “scariness,” we press forward and the students sink themselves into More Than a Stigma because it’s important that they do, because it’s all real.

Public Product

“In a high quality project, students make their work public by sharing it not only with the teacher but also with each other, experts, and other people beyond the classroom.” When you decide to run an awareness campaign, you automatically invite the community to look at everything you’re doing. The students didn’t have to wait until the end of More Than a Stigma to go public with their work. A few weeks in and they were live on social media and our website was welcoming visitors. Every piece of content was out there to be judged, commented on, and shared. We had experts in our building numerous times throughout the project. In one capacity, those experts were with us to collaborate and add their knowledge to our growing knowledge of mental health. In other capacities, those experts were with the students to provide feedback and guidance and to judge their work.

At the end of More Than a Stigma, after numerous smaller presentations and events, we have our big event. This big event, in the past, has meant that swarms of people enter our building, listen to presentations, interact with mental health displays, and take in different experiences students have planned. Our first year doing this, we welcomed nearly 500 guests to share in our ultimate end products. This year our main event is bigger than anything our students have tried in the past. This year, More Than a Stigma is facilitating a professional mental health conference for two days on behalf of our local Behavioral Health Board. Our audience will contain parents, teachers, youth, business owners, local politicians, mental health professionals and other members for the community, all with different needs when it comes to helping people learn more about mental illness.

The students have already figured out that in order for this conference to truly help people, they will need to teach rather than present. They will need to work alongside the experts and other community members to make sure our conference attendees have a truly unique experience.  The interesting thing about this project is that instead of shying away from public opinion, as sometimes students are tempted to do, they are eager to welcome the community. They have become so passionate about their topic that they see this huge opportunity as a way to reach more and more of the public. That, to me, should be a standard in HQPBL. In the ideal, the students are looking for ways to go public with what they’ve done, versus going public because it was a requirement.


“Projects may be done as an individual activity, but in today’s world – and workplace — it is important to learn the skill of collaboration.”

To better facilitate and display stellar collaboration, we patterned ourselves after successful non-profit organizations who do work similar to what More Than a Stigma does. This year, we have tried a little something different with collaboration to amp up the idea that we operate More Than a Stigma in a way that makes sense in the real world.

In a project-based setting, facilitators are often grouping students for projects. As my co-teacher and I thought about our massive mental health project, I began to wonder, “How long would it take for our students to realize they needed a team for themselves?” In the past, it’s always been expected that we, the facilitators, would group them up. This year we gave that chore to them. We reasoned that, for the most part, teaming up with collaborators happens naturally. Colleagues may have a shared interest or passion and decide to work together. Co-workers may realize that the workload is too much for just one person. Still, others may enjoy the perspective of others and the combining of minds. Whatever the reason to group up, we wanted our students to decide for themselves when and if they grouped up and to appreciate the reason for such collaborations. This also opened up several conversations about the difference between creating a team and collaboration. Teams do collaborate, but you can collaborate without forming a team. In “the real world” we sometimes temporarily collaborate with someone for feedback or to get help with a specific task.

So now, as our students work on this awesome opportunity to really impact their community, they are also making more decisions for themselves and learning how those decisions impact their work. We’ve seen students group up and when they do, they still follow the same norms we always have for groups. They still make contracts, which helps with accountability, they still keep project management logs to help meet benchmarks and they still rely on each other throughout the project to deliver an end product together. We’ve also seen students decide they need to collaborate on a short-term basis, to learn a new skill or get feedback. We’ve seen groups of two emerge as well as the more traditional team of four. But we’ve also seen mega groups where eight or more are working together and they are learning, for themselves, the unique benefits and challenges that come with those types of teams. In HQPBL, teamwork, collaboration, and working with someone else to deliver a product is a standard. What those teams look like or what collaboration looks like should be dictated by the nature of the work to secure the authentic nature of your project.

Project Management

“ In high quality PBL, students learn and make use of project management processes, tools, and strategies similar to those used in the world beyond school.”

More Than a Stigma is a beast. It’s a big project that asks the entire sophomore class to work together. Project management strategies are a must. The students quickly looked at the organization pattern of other organizations in the world that look like us. They learned about how to make decisions with large groups of people and how to divide up work and tasks in a way that still allowed for voice and choice.

One of our first strategies for project management was to hire help. More Than a Stigma employs a small band of leaders, selected from the sophomore class. These students submit resumes, go in for an interview, and, if hired, carry a certain load of responsibilities to help the project stay on track. Our More Than a Stigma Leadership Board act as representatives for their individual classes. This has proven helpful when decisions needs to be made. Ideas from each class are sent with their Leadership Board member to our weekly meetings. Leaders discuss the ideas, maybe seek additional ideas or feedback, go back to their classes a few times for more input, and then a decision is made.

Additionally, as we look at the work ahead, this year it’s our mental health conference, jobs are created. Those jobs are posted and students can decide if a certain job sounds like something they want to tackle. For example, one job this year is called Community Outreach. Students hired for this job are responsible for contacting sought after mental health organizations and asking them to participate in the conference. No one is made to do a job they don’t want to do. Those that don’t see themselves in any of the jobs we post are still working hard on the conference session they have proposed.

On a smaller scale, students use project-management logs to ensure that work their group has decided on gets done. Groups may determine certain roles. Some may decide to elect a leader of a team and that leader may help delegate other tasks. For example, if a group wants to make a video to go with their conference session, tasks to delegate may include filming, editing, script writing, etc. The group will determine deadlines and hold each other accountable.

More Than a Stigma could simply not work without proper organization and project management. The nice thing is, because the project is real, because everything is public and because so many are counting on us, the students don’t have to be lectured about the need for project management. What they do need are strategies and the environment in which to learn and use those strategies.


“In a high quality project, students learn to assess the quality of their work and think about how to make it better.”

More Than a Stigma is a rather long project. Sometimes, over the course of longer projects, kids tend to forget everything they’ve done. During More Than a Stigma, students are going all different directions, holding events, doing presentations, planning seminars and conferences and running websites and social media accounts. That’s a lot. We don’t want them to forget everything they’ve done because then reflection becomes problematic. We had to embed reflection into More Than a Stigma so that it took place at regular intervals. Where are we?  What have we done? How do we feel about what has been done? What’s next? What help do we need? One protocol we like to use at the end of the week is the Shapes Protocol. A facilitator draws three shapes on the board, a triangle, a square, and a circle. For the triangle, students write down three things they’re taking away from the work we did that week. The square is for things that square with their beliefs. The circle is for questions that are still circling their minds.  These could be content questions or logistical project questions.

At the very end of the project, to help students take in the massive amount of work they’ve done and to help them appreciate the journey, we put together a compilation video, which shows the evolution of the project. We watch it together as we bid the project farewell. Students get to see the uncertain beginning, the messy middle and the satisfying grand finale. This video is a staple in the project and it helps them appreciate and learn from every stage of a project.

The Core of HQPBL

Every project looks different. Those who practice project-based learning continually seek after projects that engage students in their own learning. I feel that More Than a Stigma helps engage our students because it’s real. High Quality PBL can be found in the real problems of our world. The stigma of mental illness is real. It’s actually the first thing to come up on Google as you begin typing, “The stigma of…” People feeling too ashamed to seek help for a mental illness is real. The need for our communities to become informed and change how they behave is real. Whatever they say about “kids these days”, these kids know when they’ve been asked to help out with something that matters. Give them something real and everything becomes real and meaningful too. A real problem provides real authenticity. Real authenticity results in real collaboration, project management and a real need to have the public witness their efforts. Start with something real and you’ll end with something real and impactful. And what’s more engaging than the chance to make a difference?

For more, see:

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Building on the Power of Digital Badges to Create Future-Ready Learning and Job Experiences for Students

By Connie Yowell. This post was originally published on Medium.

Take a moment to envision what the future of learning and work will look like in the next 10 to 20 years. Do you see the current model of education and business existing as we know it today? Perhaps some elements will remain the same but almost everyone will agree there must, and will be, changes to the way students learn and the way work takes place. One of the trends that have been preparing us for the future of learning and work over the past six years is digital badging.

The field began to realize the power digital badges could have in 2011. At that time, I was working on the Open Badges project at John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and one of our grantees, the Mozilla Foundation started to mobilize the Open Badge movement. The purpose of the badge was to have a visual representation of the skills and achievements a learner possessed, which were grounded in verifiable data and evidence and could move across the learner’s platforms and networks thereby empowering them not only to take charge of their own learning but also highlight the learning journey.

Over the next five years, we continued to unpack the impact personalized learning experiences, such as badging, could have on learners and the education system. Digital badges demonstrated they had potential by enabling much greater flexibility in designing personalized learning experiences and allowing individuals to earn them in a wide variety of learning environments after demonstrating competency. Knowledge and skill development and recognition of learning no longer had to take place solely in a classroom setting. This also meant that we needed to ensure two things:

  1. That compelling educational content could exist in these flexible formats.
  2. The field saw the value of learning (and thereby the badge) in these environments.

In 2015 there was a notable development with the rise of micro-credentials, especially for educators. Micro-credentials allow educators to take charge of their own professional development by demonstrating their knowledge on a subject through evidence which then leads to earning a credential (and a badge) that can be displayed in a digital portfolio and social networks. Micro-credentials for educators have been powerful for several reasons but two, in particular, stand out:

  1. This form of learning has challenged the traditional notion of “sits and gets”  professional development. Instead, educators are able to curate their own learning and demonstrate it to earn a credential, all driven by what they are most interested in.
  2. With educators experiencing this transformation in the learning process, it is somewhat easier to see, and then design for, a similar learning experience for students.

In 2016 we saw a shift in the community as the Badging Alliance became part of IMS Global Learning Consortium, and effective in January 2017 IMS Global “assumed the responsibility to lead the evolution of the Open Badges specification and to ensure the sustainability of the future Open Badges ecosystem.” Also in 2017, we saw a resurgence of badging as a learning strategy especially in the context of the future of learning and the future of work. This energy has continued in the first months of 2018 and it’s all for good reason: we know that digital badges are a game changer.

Badges open up a world of learning that many students previously did not have access to. Through badging students can take their learning outside of the school building, unlocking a world where they can learn skills that are of greatest interest to them or their future career, at a time and place that best suits their needs. Once the skill has been mastered it is captured in a badge which can be viewed in a digital portfolio that schools and potential employers can see.

This means that the traditional transcript, issued based on traditional modes of learning, is no longer the only way that skills and knowledge can be displayed. This flexibility in learning is not only important from a student’s standpoint but also from the standpoint of future employers. Take for example a 2016 Pew Research Center and Elon’s Imagining the Internet Center canvassing on the “The Future of Jobs and Jobs Training” which found that experts believe new credentialing systems will arise as self-directed learning continues to expand.

What’s more is that according to those canvassed, while college degrees will still have importance in 2026, “more employers may accept alternate credentialing systems, as learning options and their measures evolve.” Employers realize traditional models of education are no longer the only way to obtain and demonstrate knowledge, and this increases access and opportunity for more youth to learn through a variety of methods and showcase that knowledge with evidence, such as digital badges.

In 2015 the Association of American Colleges and Universities conducted an online survey of employers and college students and the findings were similar to that of the Pew Research Center study. A key finding of the survey was that “Employers say that, when evaluating a job candidate, it would be helpful for them to have access to an electronic portfolio summarizing and demonstrating the individual’s accomplishments in key skill and knowledge areas, in addition to a résumé and college transcript.”

This history and the amount of change we’ve seen since 2011 is encouraging. LRNG is committed to the power of digital badging. We believe badges have an incredible potential to transform the future of learning and work for every student regardless of their zip code. With LRNG, cities can support youth in unlocking potential jobs, internships, mentorships and learning so those even furthest from opportunity get connected.

For more, see:

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Attacking Complexity with Confidence

By Jonathan Rochelle, Katherine Prince and Tom Vander Ark

Of one thing we can be sure: tomorrow will be more complex than today. Technology continues to advance exponentially bringing with it more complex systems which often interact with each other and natural systems in unexpected ways.

Cancer researcher Kevin Jones describes his work as “taking a bath in uncertainty, unknowns, exceptions and outliers.” Dr. Jones thinks the two most important values, given uncertainty in his line of work, are humility and curiosity.

More lines of work involve the bath of uncertainty Dr. Jones experiences. We agree that a complex future warrants intellectual humility and curiosity, but we want every young person to know where to start and what to do when facing a new situation.

What we most desire for young people is confidence in the face of complexity.

A New Ball Game

Speaking to the nation’s EdTech directors (at #COSN18), we made the case that we’ve turned a corner and entered a new era. The World Economic Forum calls this shift the Fourth Industrial Revolution (the first three were driven by steam power, electricity, and the Internet). This new Industrial Revolution is powered by artificial intelligence — code that learns.

Artificial intelligence (AI) has been around for 50 years, but its power and use have jumped in the last two years. Powered by big data sets produced by a connected world and turbocharged by cheap computing and storage, artificial intelligence now augments every aspect of life:

  • With social platforms, it curates every screen we view
  • With sensors and cameras, it powers autonomous vehicles
  • With robots, it manages dark warehouses
  • With drones, it delivers packages
  • With bioinformatics, it enables personalized medicine.

Right behind this wave is distributed ledger technology typically called blockchain. You’ve heard of Bitcoin and all the other cryptocurrencies. They’re all based on a distributed ledger that eliminates the middleman in a transaction. Blockchain is already in use making supply chain transactions more efficient and promises to make college transcripts more portable and secure. It also has the potential to enable new kinds of exchanges and institutions.

When you put this all together, our children will clearly have a different life experience than we did, just as we did compared to our parents, but with maybe an order of magnitude more change. Many of the new human-made systems are extraordinarily complex, and they react in unexpected ways when they interact with each other or with natural systems (think 2010 flash crash, 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, 2016 election hacks, 2017 hurricane season).

With this extreme level of change, it’s obvious to ask, “How should education change?”  While the answer is less than obvious and could vary in different places and in different circumstances, the one thing that is clear is that our students deserve a new set of learning priorities (not just more added to a crowded set of learning objectives). This is the challenge before us.

Good News/Bad News

Together AI, big data, distributed ledgers, and a growing array of enabling technologies (e.g., wi-fi enabled video doorbells, robots, autonomous vehicles) promise extraordinary wealth and benefit. But across and within most countries (especially the USA), these promises will not be equally distributed.

While forecasts vary widely, we think it’s safe to say that:

  • Most jobs will continue to be augmented by smart tools, boosting the skill requirements for incumbents.
  • Jobs will change rapidly, creating the need for people to reskill and upskill across their lifetimes.
  • Employment structures will continue to become more project-based, whether people are working full-time for one organization or working as freelancers or task masters.
  • Job dislocation will accelerate over the next decade as automation improves and drops in price, but it will vary by sector and geography. High labor-cost markets such as the USA will probably see significant dislocation in the middle of the job market in the next two decades. The impacts will also be felt across job levels and categories.
  • Job formation opportunities will exist for people and regions that apply an entrepreneurial mindset and skill up quickly. Regions that respond with coordinated and responsive  physical and educational infrastructure could see net gains in employment. Others could become the new rust belt of the AI revolution.

Despite these serious implications, there has never been a better time to make a difference — to build an app, launch a campaign, start a business, or make contributions to global problems. Most big challenges and opportunities have giant associated data sets, and it has never been easier to collect and analyze data using smart tools. An exciting example is AI4All, a nonprofit connecting AI experts to high school students in six cities (see feature).

Economic opportunity now lies more in the hands of the people than ever before, rather than just with large, established companies. Starting and running a successful business is within reach for practically anyone — including the farmer with a smartphone who lives 50 miles from the nearest physical market or the crafter in a city who needs to reach her niche buyers around the world. Yet there are also significant social and ethical implications to navigate as we enter the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

New Preparation Priorities

In face of the uncertainty on the horizon, we most want young people to be confident — to be assured by prior success that they know how to address complex situations, how to navigate new places and people, and how to deliver value. Basic literacy remains important in the innovation economy but three new priorities are design thinking, social-emotional skills, and entrepreneurship.

Design thinking, popularized by the Stanford Design School, is a structured approach to problem solving. It starts with problem identification and research into people’s experience. Potential solutions are prototyped and improved through iteration. Computer scientists use a similar approach to design called computational thinking. Design skills should not be relegated to a coding class; it should (like writing) be integrated across the curriculum.

Social and emotional learning provides a foundation for navigating complexity, enabling people to develop strong inner selves that are resilient, reflective, and able to develop positive connections and relationships. Deep self-knowledge, emotional regulation, and social awareness will help people develop other skills and practices necessary to succeed in the emerging era.

Most high school graduates will enter the freelance economy or manage their careers as a series of projects. Freelancing or employed, everyone will be an entrepreneur in the new economy. Taking initiative to spot opportunity, pursuing partnerships, and delivering value will be critical for success.

Powerful Experiences

In a recent KnowledgeWorks report, Katherine and colleagues noted that “In many K-12 environments, responding to these opportunities will mean rethinking how learning is structured and organized; how resources, such as time, technology, and people are allocated to create meaningful learning opportunities; how learning is assessed and progress tracked; how space is used; and how educators are supported in modeling reflective learning and aspirational personal development.”

To flex these new muscles, learners need extended challenges — big integrated projects — that require initiative, design skills, collaboration, and public products. A growing coalition of schools calls this High Quality Project Based Learning (HQPBL).

Learners need space to ask big questions, try new things, and to create. It is more important than ever to help students build confidence by experiencing success in a variety of settings — in problem solving, in the sciences, in work settings, in publication, and in the performing arts.

We need to remove the pessimism attached to the type of feedback that includes “You’re not a math person” or “If you can’t do it quickly, you’re not smart.” We need to bring learners from that feeling of challenge to that feeling of achievement — which is teaching them that they can achieve anything and letting them know what it feels like to be proud of what they can achieve. By developing this confidence at an early age, our students can tackle learning and, more importantly, apply all these new capabilities to the complexity that is coming at us at record pace.

Where to Start?

On one hand, our prescription is pretty simple: help young people experience success in the face of complexity.

On the other hand, we realize that co-constructing a series of powerful learning experiences implies an ambitious change agenda — one with educational, financial, and political challenges. Where to start?

Every community is experiencing high levels of change and is struggling to interpret signals about what’s to come. It’s time for a community conversation. School communities, employers, civic leaders, and service organizations should begin (or accelerate) a conversation about what’s happening, what it means, and how to prepare.

KnowledgeWorks believes an essential first step to this work is to craft, develop and sustain a community-wide vision for personalized, competency-based learning. To guide these conversations, KnowledgeWorks produced a useful Visioning Toolkit: Laying the Groundwork for a Community-Wide Vision for Personalized Learning. It also produced a discussion guide focused on the changing nature of work and readiness, “Shaping the Future of Readiness: A Discussion and Facilitation Guide.”

Portrait of a Graduate from Battelle for Kids is another useful resource for guiding community conversations.

Without fail, we’ve seen these conversations yield thoughtful agreements updating student learning goals and promoting more powerful learning experiences.

Visit schools promoting powerful learning, prototype some learning experiences when you get back, then start a conversation.

For more see:

Jonathan Rochelle is Director of Product Management at Google. Katherine Prince is Senior Director of Strategic Foresight at KnowledgeWorks.

The Power of Visiting Schools –  How to Plan Your Next Visit

One of the best ways to see deeper learning in action is to visit schools. For many policymakers and educators, these visits are transformative, offering them an opportunity to be escorted through the school environment by student guides, visit classrooms, see teachers facilitating student learning, and talk to administrators about their role in creating an engaging learning space for all. Through schools visits, tour participants gain a greater understanding of why it’s important to help young people prepare for college, career and life not only by academic knowledge, but also by mastering skills such as critical thinking, problem solving and teamwork.

For 25 years, our organization–the American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF)–has been conducting study tours for policymakers, and more specifically for the last seven years the organization has conducted deeper learning study tours, which have been funded by the Hewlett Foundation. Through the tours, small teams of state and federal policy leaders and educators have had the opportunity to see deeper learning in action, with the aim of informing them about what conditions are necessary to provide innovative learning experiences to all students. Ideally, they will then move from contemplating change to taking action. Through conducting these tours and receiving recommendations for improvement from WestEd’s independent evaluation of them, we’ve learned that they remain valuable vehicles for adult learning. Here are some recommendations for you to consider as you organize your own tours of schools, or participate in these experiences.

Consider your goals

Before organizing a study tour, it’s helpful to think about why you’d want to bring people (be they policymakers, business leaders or educators) along on a tour, and what you expect to happen following the tour. You might consider using a framework similar to the one that WestEd evaluators provided us to help us clarify our tour goals and to think about our theory of action. This framework has four stages for understanding behavior change: precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, and action (this is the Transtheoretical Model of Change). As we organize tours, our goal is that, having heard from policy leaders and having visited schools, participants will move from contemplating change, to a period of preparation, to taking action. Our purpose with these tours is to promote deeper learning opportunities for all students, so we work towards clarifying what actions policymakers and educators will need to take to accomplish this goal.

Select and Prepare Participants Carefully

Study tours work best when the audience is comprised of people with diverse backgrounds, experiences, and roles. We have typically included representatives from various levels of policy (state and local), from higher education and K-12, from the business community, and from a variety of community organizations. All trip participants receive preparation materials well in advance, including draft agendas and information on the sites they will be visiting. Based on our evaluation’s recommendations, we will spend more time in the future connecting preparatory materials to documents that will be used for reflection on participant learning during the tour. We will also examine ways to conduct pre-trip needs assessments, to help participants better focus their learning. These could include the use of surveys, or a webinar that walks participants through identifying what they most need to learn about.

Provide High-Quality Tours

A high-quality tour includes framing remarks by state- and district-level leaders, site visits to schools, and time for guided reflection and networking. Participants generally appreciate the chance to tour schools, but always want more time to interact with administrators, teachers and students. School visit agendas should maximize this kind of meeting time, offering participants multiple opportunities to engage with the principal (usually at the start and end of the tour), to hear from teachers (through classroom visits, panel discussions, or sitting in on teacher planning meetings), and to interact with students (through guided tours, classroom visits, panel discussions, or shadowing them at their internships). It’s also helpful to hear from students who have graduated from high school, as this provides a window into their experience of how well their high school prepared them for postsecondary options. Having seen deeper learning in action, usually at two school sites, it’s important to provide time and structure for participants to tease out which components of the school models presented they could possibly incorporate into their own work. The evaluation of our tours revealed, unsurprisingly, that our participants want to focus even more on learning about the policies and processes at the teacher and administrator level that enable deeper learning. They also want to figure out how they can implement helpful policies – or quit doing some of the unhelpful ones!

Conduct Follow-Up and Provide Additional Resources!

Following the trip, we provide our participants with resources, including panelist presentations and information on the school sites. Additionally, we mail them a self-addressed postcard on which they have shared the action steps they committed to take, based on what they learned. This activity with the postcards is conducted right at the end of the study tour, and mailing it a few weeks after the trip provides a gentle nudge to action. We are exploring the ideas of conducting follow-up webinars to learn what resources and help participants still need, and possibly even creating toolkits that help them transition from learning on the trip to implementation back at their jobs. Part of this conversation will center on how we help participants tell the story of their experience, as we know they typically share information with colleagues. What story will they tell about deeper learning? About their encounters with students?  About the need to provide this kind of engaging, hands-on learning experience to each and every child?

The Learning Journey is an Iterative Process…

Participating in a tour to a school can be a transformative learning experience for attendees – but only if they continue to grapple with issues raised by the tour, and have a dedicated forum for contemplating possible action. Following our tours, participants continue to explore the intersection between deeper learning and career and technical education. They struggle with how to be more effective in providing deeper learning to diverse student populations. How to recruit, train, and provide ongoing professional development for teachers who facilitate deeper learning remains a topic of profound contemplation.

Organizing an effective tour takes time and effort. Going along on a tour requires dedication to one’s craft and a willingness to be open to new experiences. As you think about participating or organizing a tour, remember that these are iterative learning experiences, moving from precontemplation towards action. Just like the students and teachers we are visiting with, we are always on a learning journey–one we should ideally engage in with curiosity, an open mind, and plenty of zest!

For more, see:

Loretta Goodwin is Deputy Director of the American Youth Policy Forum. Follow her on Twitter: 

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How Shared Values at DSST Shape Youth Development

This post was originally posted by Culture Feed.

During her critical high school years, Karen missed a lot of school attending medical appointments with her mother who spoke limited English. Karen attended to translate but often felt inadequate to the task given the technical terminology.

Karen (center) discussed the challenges with Jeremy Wickenheiser who directs Entrepreneurial Studies at DSST Public Schools, a high performing network of secondary schools in Denver. Wickenheiser encouraged Karen to recruit two colleagues and delve deeper into the problem.

“These students identified a very real problem that they became experts in,” said Jeremy. “They did over 60 interviews with community members, hospitals, and clinics. As a result, they learned that existing solutions for translation and interpretation services are not effective.”

Karen and her classmates turned the problem into a business proposal for a startup called Aorta. The project was particular to Karen’s challenge but typical of the work students do at DSST. “Each of our business consulting or new venture creation projects demonstrate creativity, problem-solving, critical thinking, and an entrepreneurial mindset,” said Jeremy.

Shared Values at DSST

The STEM-focused (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) schools send all of their graduates to four-year colleges. DSST not only delivers on academic results but prepares young people for careers and civic contribution.

Shared values are central to life and learning at DSST. “We’re a values first organization,” said CEO Bill Kurtz. The shared values are alive in the DSST culture, practiced in the advisory system, and applied in real life learning opportunities.

The six values at the heart of DSST include:


  • Appreciating the value of a person or an object through your words,
  • actions and attitude—treating people appropriately with common courtesy.


  • Able to be trusted and or depended upon to complete tasks, follow directions and own up to your actions.


  • Being truthful, fair and trustworthy in your words and actions
  • doing as you say and saying as you do.


  • Possessing confidence and resolve to take risks and make right decisions in the face of pressure and adverse or unfamiliar circumstances.


  • Eager to learn, explore and question things to gain a deeper understanding.

Doing Your Best:

  • Putting your best effort into everything you do.

“Each human being strives to be fully known and affirmed for who they are and to contribute something significant to the human story,” said Kurtz. These values that encourage courage, curiosity and contribution are visibly present in all DSST schools.

A morning meeting kicks off the day at Stapleton Middle School (feeder to the flagship DSST high school). It proves a quick check in a reinforcement of shared values. During an advisory period, students receive individual feedback on how they are living the shared values.

“Our program is really built around three things,” Wickenheiser said, “‘Who am I?, How am I going to create impact?, and How can I start now?

Each junior completes an internship. Seniors frequently take the knowledge and relationships from their internship to develop a senior project like Karen’s startup proposal.

Through visual aids, cultural practices, regular feedback, and application opportunities, DSST students develop important values and habits of mind that will serve them for life.

For more, see:

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Rightly Seeing Students: Takeaways from SXSW EDU

By Ashley Bryan Flores

SXSW EDU, a precursor to the slightly more star-studded and well-known SXSW, is a conference that brings together innovators and entrepreneurs from across the education ecosystem. It’s a four-day blitz of ideas that is both energizing (the Stanford d.school’s Puzzle Bus was a hit) and exhausting (there were 400+ sessions to choose from).

Students were at the heart of SXSW EDU (as they should be), and the adults that teach, support, coach, heal, and design for them were challenged to put them first. As I scrambled from one session to the next with a few furious coffee breaks in between, I considered the complexity and richness of a student’s school experience and the many personas they take on during their journey. To simply call a student a “student” feels inadequate. Students are explorers, designers, creators, and, most importantly, humans. Schools that recognize and nurture these aspects of students told their stories at SXSW EDU, and I’m grateful to have had the chance to learn from and share their good work.

Students as explorers. Students are called on to investigate the world around them and engage with what they find. These schools use exploration to help students forge new understanding, develop a sense of self, and grow to appreciate the process of inquiry:

  • Grand Rapids Public Museum School, an XQ Super School winner, takes Place-Based Learning to a new level. The school is physically housed in the Grand Rapids Public Museum near other civic and academic institutions, so students use the Museum and the city as their classroom. Students are making the Museum their own, recently partnering with Urban Roots to repurpose an ornamental garden into a functioning community garden on the site.
  • Magnolia Montessori For All in Austin is the flagship campus of a growing network of public Montessori schools. The Montessori Method takes a whole-child (physical, social, emotional, cognitive) approach to education and encourages exploration and independence within a carefully curated environment. Aesthetics matter in Montessori, so during my SXSW EDU tour, I wasn’t surprised to see that Magnolia’s newly-built campus exuded a quiet but inspiring simplicity and a home-away-from-home spirit.

Students as designers. According to Evin Shutt, COO at 72andSunny, the second fastest-growing job class is the creative sector, outpaced only by the service sector. One-third of all jobs today live in the creative sector and yet represent 50% of income and 75% of discretionary spending in the United States. Facebook Recruiting Director Liz Wamai said her team doesn’t look at GPA or test scores but instead screens for things like cognitive flexibility, ability to tell a compelling story through data, and what candidates do as a side hustle – how they spend their time outside of work. The creative sector is only poised to grow, but how are schools preparing students to compete?

  • Students at Design Tech High School use Design Thinking as a creative problem-solving process to improve the world around them (in the comfort of a brand-new school on the Oracle campus, no less!).
  • Da Vinci Schools is a network of charter schools in California that anchors their work in authentic Project-Based Learning and partners with industry leaders to offer internship and work experience opportunities for students. 72andSunny is a partner and sees their work with Da Vinci as a chance to expand and diversify the creative class.

Students as creators. Children see the world as a playground of new possibilities, so their capacity for creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship should come as no surprise. There are tons of impressive schools and programs that successfully tap into students’ creative energy, but two new gems I discovered at SXSW EDU include:

  • Waukee Aspiring Professional Experience (APEX), a high school program in Waukee, Iowa, was born from a desire to grow “highly skilled, adaptable, global innovators and leaders.” Designed through collaboration across education, business, and community, APEX students tackle authentic challenges for local business partners across five sectors. The physical hub for APEX is the recently-built Waukee Innovation and Learning Center, a facility which more closely approximates a modern workplace than a typical high school.
  • HEART Board Pyramid, a Learn by Design finalist at SXSW EDU, is a fully recyclable “modular temporary popup space and furnishing system” designed to spark wonder and possibility for its users. Although not a school or program, the HEART Board Pyramid is a low-tech, high-engagement tool for students to flex their muscles as creators and collaborate and problem-solve with peers.

Students as humans. Every child comes to school with their own story: they have passions that they can’t get enough of, experiences that shaped them to be this way or that way, hopes for what the future holds, and fears and limitations that sometimes get in their way. Schools must accommodate students en masse, so regard for and attention to each student’s unique “humanness” feels like a tall order. There are schools, however, that are finding ways to identify, celebrate, and design for that humanness:

  • Spero Academy in Minneapolis serves 110 students with a range of cognitive and physical disabilities, many of whom are hypersensitive to their environment. When the opportunity to build a new school for Spero students came along, A.J. Paron-Wildes, interior designer and mother of a son with autism, helped cast a vision for learning environments ideally suited for the student population. Design was informed by the Austim ASPECTSS Design Index, a set of evidence-based guidelines specifically for people with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
  • RISE High Academy, another XQ Super School winner, opened in August 2017 to meet the needs of students who are disconnected from school and who require a networked family of educators, agencies, and support centers to thrive. RISE facilitates personalized teaching and learning in co-located spaces but also uses a mobile center to bring school to students who need it most, particularly homeless, foster, and formerly incarcerated youth on probation.

If we want to expect more from our students, then we ought to view them as more than “just” students. These four paradigms can serve as a foundation for making this cultural shift a reality in your school or district.

For more, see:

Ashley Bryan Flores is Vice President and Education Strategist at HKS, Inc. Follow her on Twitter: @ashbryanflores

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