Last year, through my involvement with a local community group, I had the opportunity to tour a few of the technology start-up companies that have sprung up in our city. Indeed, there is a thriving culture of tech start-ups here in the heartland of the Midwest, with many of them enjoying a national and international presence.
As I walked through the different workspaces, I began to notice some not-so-subtle differences between the world of technology innovation and the education world, where I have spent my professional life.
One of the most obvious things I noticed was the actual workspace, including office furnishings. There were very few walls, and where there were walls, they were typically made of glass. Instead of desks placed in a row of offices or closed cubicles, they were somewhat scattered about in a large, open space, with cords and monitors sitting precariously close to the edge of the desk.
There were large white boards located in many of the gathering spaces, and one location had a band of white glass that spanned the space, serving as the “idea board”. There were also spaces that were identified as problem-solving areas, where a person or group could pose a problem, and others could stop by and casually offer suggestions, ideas, and feedback. This didn’t seem to require a scheduled meeting, and we were told by one of our hosts that when there was a specific need, people gathered for about 10-15 minutes for a power session around problem-solving, then went back to their work.
By education-world standards, these workspaces seemed very “loose,” yet clearly there was a high degree of productivity. I could also sense a very different way of approaching things such as creativity, critical thinking, and problem solving.
Then it hit me. As educators, we’re asked to prepare our students to be “college and career ready,” meaning they will need to know how to exist in this type of space. Yet the very training we are providing is still largely conducted in the world of square boxes – our traditional classroom spaces.
Our thinking about education is also largely bound to the “square box” way of thinking, and as educators, we’re quite good at that world. We know the acronyms, understand the learning needs, can adjust to the behaviors, and are experts in our subject matter.
So how do we bridge the divide between a world that prepares students for the innovative jobs we’ve barely heard about or seen when we rarely interact with that world on a professional level?
Many school districts have developed partnerships with the world of innovation, and students are allowed to have some fabulous learning opportunities as they interact directly with those who are living and working in that environment every day. But those partnerships do very little in terms of helping administrators and teachers catch a wide vision of what the innovation space is all about.
I wrestled with the best approach to bridge the divide for a while, and then decided the only real way to think differently as an educator was to bring a group together from the innovation space and from the educational space and see what might emerge.
I gathered some folks from my education world who knew some people in technology and innovation and invited them to a meeting. We had a very brief agenda and no clear purpose, except to maybe help us think differently and better as we were launching a major district technology initiative. From this idea, the Tech Tank group was formed.
Our group is still in the early phase of development, and with each meeting we add a few new faces. In the beginning, I told people we didn’t want money, devices, or formalized commitments. Rather, we wanted to be together around some different topics so we could hear their thinking on any number of topics. In turn, we could translate some of that information to help us do things better in our classrooms across the district.
As time has gone by, we have found different areas where our thought partners are eager to do more and have a specific area of focus. They have also enjoyed touring the spaces of different companies, as we meet at a different location each time. The networking has come naturally, and make no mistake – there are some very strong ideas and opinions that don’t always match up – which has made for some lively, and very healthy debates along the way.
Thankfully, we have jumped completely over some of the things that can be hotly debated – choice of devices, to code or not to code – and have moved to larger possibilities – developing collaborative maker spaces, finding ways to help teachers see innovation spaces throughout the city, and giving kids new opportunities to create and innovate in our schools.
Tech Tank is very much a work in progress, but the possibility of impacting the way we do business as a school district continues to emerge with each meeting. We’ve joined together in a collective effort to share our worlds so we can ultimately think differently around what it really means to prepare our students within the education space. With our efforts, perhaps one day our students will successfully occupy the innovation space.