Monthly Archives: April 2015

The Latest EdTech Concept: The Decision-Maker Cap

The Decision-Maker Cap is the latest creation of our company, The Common Student. It is shaped like a baseball cap, is adjustable and comes in eight colors. The Decision-Maker Cap is now available for $55.99 and can help your high school senior make that very dreadful, very final decision: What should I do with the rest of my life?

What Does the Decision-Maker Cap Do?

The Deci-MC, as we like to call it, supports decision making by sorting through user memory, biorhythms, various social media outlets,and PAARC test scores. A weighted algorithm incorporates inputs into to the following questions into an overall rubric for decisions. All the user needs to do is wear the cap!

  1. What did I like about school so far?
  2. What did I not like about school so far?
  3. What did I excel in at school?
  4. What did I excel in outside of school?
  5. If I could do anything, what would that be?
  6. If I could go anywhere, where would that be?
  7. How much money am I going to have saved at age 65?
  8. How healthy am I going to be at age 65?
  9. How much more climate change will occur in the next four years?
  10. Will I ever be comfortable speaking in a large group?

Pilot Study

For our pilot study, we offered Deci-MCs to high school seniors in 30 high schools in 10 different cities in the United States. Three of the schools opted out of participation, citing discomfort with our data policy. Four others took the hats, attempted to resell to a competitor of ours, and were charged with illegal trafficking of high stakes technology.

The remaining schools participated in a three-week pilot during  which test users wore the caps in three different settings: in class, in sessions with guidance counselors, and at home. While results varied, we were able to conclude:

  • In 76% of all cases, Deci-MC activity was highest during class time, leading us to believe that students spend most time during class considering their options for life after school.
  • In 85% of all cases, Deci-MC activity was lowest during visits with guidance counselors, leading us to conclude that students do not focus on their future when placed inside a box with three class walls.
  • In all but 10% of cases, data from home usage was unreliable because these students’ guardians made them take their hats off.


Recommendations Made

The Deci-MC compiles data over a three-week period and sends its recommendations via email, text, or voicemail, depending on which notification method the student selected when first signing up. Recommendation messages include the following:

  • You should consider going to college; four years (or more) in a somewhat safe environment will help nurture your intellect, skillset, and social life significantly.
  • Take a gap year. You need to recharge before committing to the university experience.
  • Here’s the deal. You should work part-time and go to school part-time. You will be a better person for it. And you won’t have debt hanging on your neck for the rest of your life.
  • You really should think about creating your own learning program from a series of online courses, internships and travel experiences. A self-directed learner like you can benefit greatly from these experiences.

Decision-Maker Cap v.2

Our first release focuses on the recommended decisions and is meant to be used by students alone, or as part of discussions with friends, parents, guidance counselors, etc. Our next version will have increased capabilities to support the process of decision making, so that in addition to the final recommendations, they will get:

  • Daily updates with lists of Tumbler and other blogs with articles relevant to the user’s interests.
  • Recommended podcast playlists to provide more input per student interests.
  • Vibrating functionality to send students a quick buzz to help them focus while taking the AP classes listed on their college applications.
  • Weekly digest of options, including college, gap year, part-time, and self-directed learning to remind students that there are choices.

Disclosure: In addition to the other hats I wear as writer, designer and strategist, I am also the mother of a high school senior who has chronicled some of her own journey into growing up and decision making in song. If you are interested, take a listen here.

Replace High Stakes Testing with Higher Return Design Thinking

Several articles in the past couple of weeks have highlighted the methodology of design thinking for both the business environment and education, particularly higher ed. Fast Company provides a quick reboot for those who may need a refresher in“Design Thinking . . . What is That?” The Chronicle of Higher Ed provides a more in-depth examination of the place of design thinking in higher ed in “Is ‘Design Thinking’ the New Liberal Arts?” The Chronicle piece details the popularity of “d. school” classes amongst the general populous at Stanford and discusses the potential to extend the model to college education in general.

What about K-12?

I’ve written before about the value of the design process in K-12, as executed by groups such as Tools at Schools, for example, and the great partnerships that collaborate to bring businesses into the schools to help engage students in more extended design projects. This week I’m prompted by the current focus on design thinking to review some of the benefits for emerging adults (aka high schoolers) should more design thinking be applied to curricula in exchange for traditional grading and testing methodologies.

The Benefits of Design Thinking To K-12 Learning

If we take a look at each stage of design thinking methodology, we can see how this process builds skills that a curriculum based on high stakes testing cannot.

  1. Empathize: Incorporating empathy into the process of learning can have huge benefits. As we listen in order to uncover partner, client, or subject needs, we are practicing an invaluable skill. I’m reminded of my hero, Paulo Freire and how he utilized the tools of dialogue and problem solving to the learning process. Learning how to respect your partner in the dialogue that begins the design process can not only further engage your learners in the current design activity, but will have powerful, long-lasting effects that no amount of preparing for an exam can.
  2. Define: The process of uncovering needs, documenting and then synthesizing these findings requires critical thinking skills of the highest order. Applying these skills to a real-world problem beats practicing test questions any day.
  3. Ideate: This is where creativity really kicks in and learners get to generate means of addressing the problem. With everyone chipping in, and with a sticky note (or white board, or newsprint) array of potential solutions, a great volume of ideas may result. Essential to this step of the process is the belief that “no idea is too stupid,” a concept that any student in a traditional school setting can tell you is not usually practiced. Sorting through and finding the main themes that arise are also a great way to practice problem-solving skills in an authentic manner. Test taking requires a very discrete set of skills that tend to stifle rather than nourish creative problem solving.
  4. Prototype: Creating a physical prototype of either one aspect of or the entire solution and responding to feedback on it provides opportunities for applying a range of skills that test practice does not. Building something out of paper, markers, wood, metal, etc. results in a project deliverable that may in some cases evolve into the actual end-product solution.
  5. Test: Listening to feedback from others, probing further and applying that to a refinement of a solution will serve our kids well as they move on to the workplace. The advice from the d. School is “Don’t defend your prototype; instead watch how your partner (client/user) uses and misuses it. Again, this provides so much more valuable experience than filling in a bubble sheet or staring at a computerized version of the same exam.

As school districts and families struggle with adherence to or rejection of new test-driven curricula, the idea of engaging our kids in more productive and authentic learning experiences becomes more attractive. As each year of high school juniors and seniors waste months in mostly solitary preparation for one of two (or both) standardized tests to sum up the value of their 12 years of schooling, considering alternative ways to practice and build real-life skills becomes increasingly important.

Today’s Practitioners in K-12 and Beyond

As you have probably surmised, design thinking in K-12 will best be realized when schools effectively partner with experienced practitioners as well as corporate sponsors and mentors to help students through the different phases of the process. I’ve written before about Tools at Schools, the brainchild of cofounders Don Buckley, Rinat Aruh and Johan Liden. They have partnered with Puma, for example, to work with students designing “The Sneaker of the Future” and with faculty at the St. Mark’s School in Boston to rethink “STEM to STEAM” amongst other projects. Design thinking is being applied to classroom curriculum as well as professional development and curriculum design.

Juliette LaMontagne, founder of the Breaker projects, is helping to re-engage youth (14-26-year olds) in the learning process by working through regionally-based, real-life design projects , such as the “The Future of the Book,” “Urban Micro Agriculture,” “Technology for Civic Engagement,” and “The Future of Stuff.” Students who have participated in Breaker projects talk about how devoted people are to the projects, how hierarchies vanished as part of the project process, how student-focused the work was, and the great benefit of working with industry mentors.

In many districts and schools across the country, faculty are engaged in projects to re-design or even re-envision school. Imagine if the $1,000 or so spent per PAARC exam question were re-channeled to building design thinking into our standard curriculum model.

Try It. You’ll Like It!

Clearly incorporating design thinking into a curriculum or even considering revamping a school curriculum around this concept requires planning and resources that many schools may not currently have access to. That’s why the partnerships are so important. When we consider what is really at stake, we must continue to push for further change.

If you’re interested in exploring the design process further on your own, or within your school, the has a virtual crash course in design available for anyone to take you, working with a partner or group, through a full design cycle. Or use theFuture of Stuff Challenge resources to engage in your own manufacturing challenge (or one of your own . . . design).

Backing Into School Design from the Workplace of Tomorrow

I originally posted portions of this in a blog titled “This is a School That Johnny Wants to Attend.” A couple of readers thought the fictional “Johnny” suffered from ADD, but he wasn’t meant to be. The content here is significanty updated in order to explore the issue further.

Who is Johnny and Why Is He Suffering?

Johnny is only one of thousands of kids who are either already slipping though the cracks or who are on the verge of doing so. Kids as early as kindergarten complain about being bored in school and suffer from a lack of engagement in the learning process. Daniel Goleman recently noted in an article here that “Anyone who looks at the brain and how it works knows that your emotional state directly affects how you can use your academic skills. If you’re upset, it shrinks your working memory. You can’t pay attention to what the teacher’s saying. You can’t learn.”

So, I invented Johnny as a means of exploring how we might make school more effective for him and others in similar circumstances, taking into account what all kids need in order to prepare more effectively for the workplace of tomorrow.

Johnny is ten years old and has had his share of difficulties in school. He has a hard time sitting still for all of his lessons, and he can’t seem to focus on what the teacher is saying. He sits and stares at his worksheets in class and cries when his parents tell him to do his homework. He’s happier building model airplanes and playing video games. He appears to be disinterested in school, and everyone around him is frustrated and concerned.

I worry about Johnny, so I decided to design an optimal school for him. This school has:

  • More material that is introduced at home for homework. He accesses these lessons on his computer, working through interactive learning modules and videos, responding to online quizzes, all in preparation for a deeper dive in school the following day.
  • Less time in class listening to the teacher talking about a new topic, and more time asking questions of his peers and his teachers about what he reviewed at home.
  • Fewer days spent inside the classroom.
  • Some days at home or at a friend’s house on a designated “e-learning” day completing assignments online doing some individual assignments, and other assignments with a friend or two via Skype.
  • Physical Education programs that incorporate local sports clubs and self-guided activities geared to build confidence and individual accountability for one’s health.
  • Some days at a local business learning how paper is manufactured, cows are raised, food is prepared, architects build models, etc. In each grade, he is introduced to different industries and returns to some from previous years, building a more sophisticated base of knowledge throughout the years.
  • Museum days where he works in small groups on a long-term project lasting several weeks to several months.
  • Days at school, working in groups as his teacher walks around the room providing feedback; or working alone and getting one-on-one time with his teacher.
  • Days at school where different experts come into the classroom and work on coding projects, design projects, building projects, etc.
  • Service days where he volunteers with organizations in the community in activities that match or expand his own skills.

Extending the Community of Teaching

In Johnny’s new school, the responsibility for teaching is extended to a broader community of practicing experts, is enhanced by technology, and is individualized to further support his learning. His classroom teacher plays an ever important role guiding him through these experiences and providing feedback and support to reinforce learning from this wider range of resources. Teaching is as vital a role as ever in this scenario, but responsibility is shared with a wider circle of expert resources providing more input into the experience than has been true in the past.

Reconfiguring the Physical Classroom

An additional consideration for extending learning opportunties is to change the physical environment of the classroom. One great case for this is the work being done by Intrinsic Schools , where learning environments, called “pods” differentiate the type of activity students are engaged in: The Ocean, for small group engagement; The Shade, for students working on group work and projects; and The Coastline, where students engage in independent work. A recent article in EdSurgeprovides more details on this innovative model.

There’s great work being done in higher ed and the corporate space as well that can help us learn about making space more adaptable, more appropriate for specific types of activities, more conducive (or “ambient”) for creative thinking, more “democratic” in terms of how information is displayed and shared, etc. For some more details on this, see an earlier blog, “Design Help for Those Who Can’t Sit Still”.

Some Existing Models

Some aspects of this new school are currently being integrated into curriculum across the country as teachers flip their classrooms and blended learning technology assists in the individualization of the learning experience. As partnerships expand with technology providers and practicing experts in a wider range of industries, curriculum design extends into a curatorial role within the PK-12 just as it has with learning and development teams in the corporate sphere.

Like Intrinsic, AltSchools is an example of an innovative school model that is pushing the envelop in terms, but in a way that goes beyond the redesigned school buildng and associated curricular changes. AltSchool differs in terms of creating communities of students of mixed grade levels, personalizing learning by assigning students indovidualized “playlists” to work through, and immersing students in project-based learning that take students out of the classroom more frequently. You can learn more about AltSchools on their site and here.

Backing into Learning Models from the Workplace of Tomorrow

We back into the learning experience starting from the working world, providing over the PK-12 experience what learners need to know sooner and over a broader range of time. Yes, what people need to know changes all the time, but by extending the learning network to the community that includes the current workforce, the curriculum is more likely to refresh as needed over time. There’s less of chance of culture shock when people move on from PK to college and on to work. It’s 70:20:10 for the younger set.

I think Johnny has a better chance of being happier in this model as the lines between “school” and “life” become further blurred. He was never disinterested in learning, as he was teaching himself all the time. He has more opportunities to participate in and drive his overall learning experience, and more of a chance of making an impact on the world one step at a time.