Bring out the LEGO

In MSTU 4029 this week we’ll be visiting a local school to see a portal, an immersive audio-visual space, and the school’s Fab Lab.  In preparation, we read an interview with Mitch Resnick, author of Lifelong Kindergarten, professor at MIT’s Media Lab and one of the people responsible for creating the Scratch programming language.  In talking about adoption of the maker movement in schools, Resnick says:

“There are some wonderful instances of people doing great activities around making, and other people who misapply it, and do things in a way that’s too regimented. We’ve seen this in some of the projects we’ve worked on. When we work with the LEGO company on different robotics kits, we see kids doing wonderfully creative explorations and inventions in some places; in other places, the whole class is told what to do and everyone makes the exact same thing. That zaps the creativity out of the process.”

This reminded me of a study in which researchers used LEGO kits vs LEGO free-building to study the impact of task type on creativity in problem solving. The original article, The Downstream Consequences of Problem-Solving Mindsets: How Playing with LEGO Influences Creativity (Moreau and Engeset, 2016) is available through research databases, but also well-summarized here by Psychology Today.  To give a brief overview, Moreau and Engset studied well-defined problems and ill-defined problems.  Well-defined problems have a clear, single answer, have a clear process to arrive at a solution, and often seek quick, logical completion.  Ill-defined problems have no single answer, have a high level of ambiguity, and require creativity to tackle.  Through a number of experiments, they found that subjects who assembled a LEGO kit with step-by-step instructions were less creative in finding solutions to subsequent ill-defined problems that those who were provide with LEGO bricks and the instruction to “build something”(Moreau and Engeset, 2016).  They also found that if someone had been primed for well-defined problem solving, they were more likely to choose a subsequent task that was also well-defined rather than one that was ill-defined (Moreau and Engeset, 2016).  Why does this matter?  Both the original authors and those of the article in Psychology Today ponder whether our increasingly well-defined-problem-lifestyle of ubiquitous Google access to answer any question, step-by-step meal prep services, and other ready-made solutions will make us less prone to seek ill-defined tasks and less creative when faced with them.  Moreover, as AI takes over the well-defined tasks, how well-suited will we be to the ill-defined tasks that face us in solving big problems?  Since most educational technology problems are ill-defined, these findings are worth pondering for anyone who is going to be working in the edtech field.

In light of this, just as we want to encourage creativity in our students, we need to foster it in ourselves and our colleagues.  In my graduate program in 2012, we were able to visit the Google office in NYC.  One of their features was a LEGO room, which we were told was a place for employees to come and foster their creativity.  Seems like Google was on to something there.  Break out the free-building LEGO activities to prime yourself for creativity.

In your next design thinking project, how might your group prime themselves for divergent thinking and creative problem solving?

Works Cited:

C. Page Moreau and Marit Gundersen Engeset (2016) The Downstream Consequences of Problem-Solving Mindsets: How Playing with LEGO Influences Creativity. Journal of Marketing Research: February 2016, Vol. 53, No. 1, pp. 18-30.


Brainstorming for Introverts

A key step in the design thinking processes we’re studying in MSTU4029 is ideation.

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One image of brainstorming is of a loud, chaotic activity with lot of people shouting out ideas in rapid succession.  In reality, done well, ideation is an organized process with rules, like “no judgement,” that should make people feel comfortable in the ideation process.  Check out IDEO’s video and outline of effective brainstorming techniques to see this process in action.

But even with these rules and processes, brainstorming sessions can be intimidating, especially for introverted participants. So, I was pretty excited to run across 4 Ways to Collaborate More Effectively Than a Traditional Meeting on Susan Cain’s Quite Revolution site.  (Aside: If you aren’t familiar with Susan Cain’s work, I highly recommend it.  Her book, Quiet, The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, explained me to myself).  In addition to presenting methods that can be helpful for those who need more time to think and are unlikely to speak up easily in a group, the ideas in this article are great if your group can’t physically be in the same place at the same time.

I tested one tool in the article – a site called Candor – that would be a great alternative to an in-person brainstorming session. With Candor, you pose your question to a group and invite your team to the session.  Privately and asynchronously, each person creates virtual post it notes with 1 idea per note.  You can only see your own notes at this stage.  After the convener of the brainstorm session “closes” the submission phase, all individuals in the group can see all ideas on “post-its” and “like” them.  With an anonymous mode, group members can’t tell who submitted which idea and as the voting progresses, only the convener can see the total votes.  The creators of Candor believe their product reduces bias and social pressure and helps to insure that everyone’s ideas get equal billing.  I found it quick to set up and intuitive to use.  It’s an interesting alternative for when a traditional, in person brainstorming session isn’t possible or desirable.   If you’ve found other ways to undertake the ideation stage of design thinking when with geographically- distributed teams, share your tips and tool suggestions in the comments.


A new purpose

For the Spring 2018 semester, I’m taking a course titled Managing Educational Technology Resources (aka Solving Educational Technology Problems).  This space has been revamped and updated to serve the the needs of that class.   Looking back over ten years of posts, I’ve pruned some content that was outdated or irrelevant and left that which is tied to the original theme “Notes from the intersection of technology, education, and obsessive organization…”

Early weeks of the course have focused on Design Thinking concepts that will be used to consider challenges in education technology.   It’s interesting to consider how these techniques could have impacted the planning of previous projects as well as to think about how to use them moving forward.  I look forward to sharing resources, ideas, and reflections in this space in the weeks to come.


Merit Pay and Cholesterol

I’m working on a paper about whether merit pay has any place in independent schools.   Before I write the paper, I need to figure out what I actually think, so I’ve been reading a lot about merit pay and education.  As I read everything from randomized, controlled studies to blogs, I keep getting hit with comparisons of merit pay in education to other careers.  I think I’ve hit on the one that really puts it in perspective for me: my cholesterol.

I have high cholesterol, which one might consider an overall indicator of my health.  What if my doctor got merit pay based on my cholesterol level?

What tools does my doctor have to improve my health as measured by my cholesterol level?

  • Expertise: My doctor can try to impress upon me the importance of lower my cholesterol, my risks, and what I should do.
  • Face Time and Teaching:  My doctor can meet with me to share her expertise and tell me exactly what I need to do, what to eat or not eat, how much exercise I should consider.
  • Medication: My doctor can prescribe any number of medications for reduction of cholesterol.
  • Assessment: My doctor can test my cholesterol periodically to see if I have made progress.
  • Reinforcement/Punishment: My doctor can praise me when I do what she asks and she can rebuke me when I don’t.  Depending on how health insurance works in the future, I may pay more if my cholesterol levels stay high.

What does my doctor have to overcome?

  • My genes: Pretty much everyone in my family has high cholesterol. I’ve had cousins who had high cholesterol in elementary school.  There’s a good chance that there are some genetic forces at work that neither my doctor nor I can control.
  • My beliefs: I believe that there’s little I can do for my cholesterol.  I have a lot of reasons.  People in my family don’t tend to have heart disease in spite of our lipid counts. We do tend to have weird and uncomfortable side effects when we take statin drugs.  We don’t tend to see lower cholesterol as a result of regular exercise.  We don’t generally eat high-cholesterol foods.  Based on these trends, I tend to believe that efforts to lower my cholesterol through prescriptions, diet, and exercise will fail.  Carol Dweck would probably say I have a fixed mindset about my cholesterol.
  • My non-compliance: When I’m actually at an appointment with my doctor, I generally refuse to accept Lipitor or similar medications.  I will however, usually agree to something else that is supposed to lower my cholesterol, like taking fish oil.  Right now I am supposed to be taking fish oil every day.  I haven’t taken fish oil at all since two days after I last promised to start doing it.

Is it fair to measure my doctor’s effectiveness based on my cholesterol level?  No!

With all the tools and expertise that she has, my doctor cannot ultimately control my cholesterol.  If you want to know how good she is, you’d probably need to sit in the exam room and watch her have these conversations and ask me if I thought she was effective.  Simply looking at my number doesn’t tell you anything about her efforts, only about my actions.  I like my doctor a lot; she’s attentive and funny.  She cares a lot about my health. She tries hard to get me to take the measures listed above.  She knows when to push a little harder, like at the beginning of the summer when I have more time to exercise and cook healthy meals.  She knows when to let it lie, like when I’m in the office because of a nasty case of food poisoning.   My total cholesterol count of 290 doesn’t tell you any of this.  If you judged her based on it, you’d do her a huge disservice.

So, hopefully this metaphor makes sense.  Teachers have expertise, face time, teaching tools, homework, parent conferences, stickers, praise, assessments, and grades in their toolbox for helping students learn.   But they have to overcome factors like learning differences, individual motivation, home life, student stress, cultural biases about the value of education, and the value students place on the rewards available to teachers in order to “achieve” which is then measured by a students’ scores on a single day.

I’m still not sure how I feel about some kind of merit pay for teachers, but I understand how I feel about using standardized test scores as the only component of determining teacher effectiveness.  What do you think?  Share your thoughts about this metaphor, your experience with merit pay, or how your school measures about teacher effectiveness. Leave comments about my cholesterol and lipitor out of it, please.

Are your students threatened?

One of my homework assignments this holiday was to read Whistling Vivaldi by Claude Steele, currently Dean of the School of Education at Stanford and previous Provost of Columbia University.   The book focuses on stereotype threat and how students are effected by it.  If you teach, you need to read this book.

Steele served on a minority retention committee while a professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.  There he saw that African-American students were under-performing based on their SAT scores as compared to other groups.   He describes experiments he and his colleagues did to try to understand what was causing certain college students to under-perform.  Through clear prose, he explains how he and others discovered stereotype threat was responsible for this disturbing trend.

When do students suffer from stereotype threat?  When poor performance would confirm a negative stereotype about a group they identify with.  Steel uses many examples including female math students, white sprinters, minority students and students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds.   The anxiety induced by wanting to disprove a stereotype or fearing confirming that stereotype actually changes the patterns of activity in the brain and results in poorer performance than the individual would have on that task without the threat.   Stereotype threat has a real and measurable impact on performance, physiology, and emotional well-being.

So, ask yourself, who in my classroom might be under stereotype threat?   Not limited to race or gender, stereotype threat can be based anything that  makes someone a minority in the room.  Fortunately, there are many small and inexpensive interventions that can help mitigate stereotype threat.  The studies in the book are fascinating; I have had the opportunity to read many of them in my coursework.  Small things like normalizing struggle, development of a growth mindset, and values affirmation can reduce the impact of stereotype threat in a surprisingly long-lasting way.

Chances are there is someone in your classroom experiencing stereotype threat.  You owe it to them to read Whistling Vivaldi.