Blog Posts

Building Relationships Through Conversation

Conversations are living things that evolve. Things usually start with a  provocation to initiate discussion, but it is up to the participants to move the ideas forward. The Skilled.Space conversations on “Empowering Student Changemakers” that I host every other Sunday is a great example of how we can use our collective input to build on each others’ ideas.

Getting the Conversation Started

The provocation in our recent session was about student presentations. I shared about the student-led presentations I viewed at the recent Schools of the Future conference. This annual event was held virtually this year and featured special sessions of live presentations solely by students. In addition to viewing some of these from the audience perspective, I also had the opportunity to mentor two of my former students for their presentations. 

These presentations covered a wide range of topics including a model United Nations program, developing curriculum on Filipino culture, and student-led DEI programming. It was clear in watching these presentations that these were topics that students were passionate about. They were engaged in their topic and communicated how they took a central role in driving these learning experiences.

Shifting the Discussion

After introducing the topic the group shifted into a discussion about the state of presentations in our classrooms. We asked, “are they really student-driven?”. One educator shared about the difference between how students engage with presenting in primary versus secondary school. In the younger ages, students tend to be more engaged with their learning, but then a noticeable shift happens as students mature. As they develop their identity they become more selective about which learning experiences they choose to engage with.

This can impact how they approach presenting their learning to their peers. They are much more self-conscious about the process. It is no longer viewed as an opportunity to speak excitedly about their learning. Instead, it is a time when they are forced to be in front of their peers and susceptible to judgment.

There is also an impact from the compliance-based learning models that students engage in starting in their secondary years. Students start to understand the grading game and view presentations as another way to be graded and scored by their teacher. In these cases are presentations really the authentic assessment that we think they are? Or are they another teacher-driven assignment that the students sheepishly complete to check a box and move on to the next thing? These were great points for the group to consider as we explored the topic of students as changemakers.

The Conversation Evolves

Here is where the conversation evolved to the next stage, and I often observe education discussions hit this point. A high school chemistry teacher asked how these presentations fit into courses like theirs that are standards-heavy, particularly AP courses. There is always a sense of dissonance when perspectives like this are brought up. How do you square the transformational ideas being discussed with the practical realities we are facing in our classrooms in the present moment? It was nice to see how the group navigated this incongruity.

We explored the role of PBL models to deliver content and provide opportunities for authentic student presentations. This led to others sharing about the need for professional development in order to train teachers to deliver this complex teaching model. This led to conversation about the challenges that cash-strapped districts face to support teachers that need PD centered on project-based learning.

Ideas were being exchanged at a face pace. Each participant gave each other the space to share their ideas and pass when they were done. It was a great opportunity to listen to a wide range of perspectives on this point. Among those participating we had a diversity of teaching experiences that helped examine this topic from different angles.

Through this process, we were able to see the full scope of a vicious cycle that occurs in our schooling system. Students test below standard, new pedagogies are discussed to address gaps in learning, schools talk about changes to implement, funds aren’t made available to train teachers, students struggle, more testing is done, and on and on. One teacher from a lower-income district emphasized the point that the schools that could utilize funds to develop PD to support project-based learning are often in these poorer districts.

Conversations as Relationship Builders

Skilled.Space says that with their platform you can “build relationships with more conversations”. I have definitely experienced this throughout the five sessions I have led on empowering student changemakers. Skilled.Space has allowed me the opportunity to build relationships with educators from different schools and from different parts of the world. 

The relationships I have built exist on three levels:

  • The ones I’ve had with educators before engaging on Skilled.Space have flourished
  • Connections among people I’ve met for the first time in these sessions have grown
  • New one-off correspondences Iʻve had on Skilled.Space have transitioned to other platforms where we’ve built on that initial interaction

I look forward to the sixth and final session of the “Empowering Student Changemakers” series. It has inspired me to evolve the work I do in my classroom and also the relationships I have with other educators. There has been a certain energy to the gatherings that is a reflection of our shared desire to support our students as drivers of their learning in school. Come join us for the closing session and let’s build something.

To read my other blog posts on my Skilled.Space conversations go to the following links:

Starting a Discussion On Empowering Student Changemakers

Contribution as Creativity

Parent-Teacher Collaboration

Defeating the Algorithm With Conversation

Defeating the Algorithm With Conversation

A recent article in The Atlantic titled “How to Put Out Democracy’s Dumpster Fire” is a deep dive into the role of social media and technology on how we exchange ideas in our society. The authors propose some alternatives to our current conversations “ruled by algorithms that are designed to capture attention, harvest data, and sell advertising”. 

During my time hosting bi-monthly conversations on Skilled.Space, I am becoming more and more convinced that this platform can play an essential role in defeating these algorithms. I’d like to offer a summary of how I view the value of these “conversations that propel”.

The Value of Openly Sharing Ideas

One primary means of leveling up our conversations is allowing for an open sharing of our experiences without fear of judgment. This past week a teacher shared their concerns about a new statewide computer science requirement. They were worried that by standardizing these classes they would lose the autonomy they currently have in grading their after-school computer elective. This opened up a dialogue about how they use a feedback-centered assessment model and if this can be incorporated into the new program as it is formalized in our schools. 

They were not being judged for not having the answers or that they were confused about best practices. Fellow educators offered their own experiences and shared their own fears about dealing with similar situations. Ideas were openly discussed and considered. Resources were shared and offered freely as a potential source of information.

These are not the types of responses that data-driven social media algorithms prioritize. In those cases discourse that is incendiary and divisive takes the attention trophy. People jockey for position to tout their opinions and solutions. Collective efficacy is forgotten, only to be replaced by individual braggadocio.

I appreciate the openness that this new generation of platforms offers. There is a diminished sense of having to share to impress. The focus is on sharing to learn. By being vulnerable to our own worries and fears we invite productive input. The ability for the group to develop their ideas actually relies on the sincerity of the users. 

The Value of Openly Questioning Systems

A number of rhetorical questions were exchanged as we dug deeper into trying to understand the role of assessment in supporting student voice and agency. These questions were not presented with the hope of being answered at the moment, but rather to spur deeper thought.

“How are districts/schools/states supporting changes in assessment models?” someone asked.

This is a difficult question to tackle. It demands a broad inquiry that would require years of research and analysis. But by simply proposing the question to the group we all had to pause. We had to thoroughly reflect on how exactly our schools can support changes in assessment within our learning communities. There was no need to respond to this question as if it were a threat. 

In our current attention-driven correspondences we view anything that questions the systems we are a part of as a critique of our very selves. But here no one felt the need to defend their role as a district administrator or school principal. We are all aware that the system needs fixing. We were comfortable allowing each other the space to pose questions that invite us to consider how to enact change.

The Value of Openly Offering Resources

The ability to openly share resources lays at the heart of productive dialogue. Knowing that you are engaged in a collective effort to learn and grow makes the procurement of the resources you suggest even more important.

When a link is shared or an article is suggested, it is not to demonstrate a superior understanding of a topic, but to help us better understand what is being discussed. The attention-capture construct creates a dynamic where the most bombastic headline wins. Content and quality are replaced with the allure of clickbait and dissension.

In our conversation, someone shared an in-depth article from the Washington Post titled “A Crusade to End Grading in High Schools”. This allowed for future reading and additional investigation on the topic of assessment.

The person who shared the article contributed their own thoughts on the topic. They communicated their own struggle to introduce radical change with nuance and articulation. This article wasn’t a prop to be used in some scheme to outwit the other people present. It was an offering freely given to those who were interested.

The Value of Openly Examining Oneself 

Ego dissolution is not an experience to be had publicly in our influencer social media culture. To admit defeat is to surely surrender to a potential “victor” in the conversation. Fortunately, this is not true in a conversation that is focused on propulsion rather than deceleration.

Throughout our discussion, I started to see the possibility that we don’t have all the answers. I came back to the original reason we gathered–to empower our students as changemakers.

Have we imagined that it could be the current students in our classrooms to be the ones to enter the education field and finally defeat the dragon of grade-based assessment? Is it possible that the current crop of young teachers starting new careers will be the voices of dissent?

Are we selfless enough to admit that it might be the high-energy multi-taskers of today that are the ones who will enact this change which for us only seems to be a utopian edu-fantasy?

I hope so.

The willingness to concede to the idea that we don’t have all the answers is an anathema to our current social media platforms. Rarely will the comment section in our newsfeed end with “sounds like none of us are sure, let’s move on”. The very levers being programmed by the engineers of these platforms have been set to dissuade this outcome. 

Like a panicked swimmer caught in a raging riptide, we are being manipulated to rage against the dying light. Is it possible Dylan Thomas had it wrong? Maybe it’s time we let go and surrender. Stay calm and resist fighting against the current. Swim parallel to the shore to get out of the rip. Calmer waters await outside the pull of the current.

Conversations that Propel

I have always been a first adopter, I am most comfortable trying new things. And I will admit that sometimes anything new appears to be a panacea for the problems that I tend to observe. But I also keep an open mind and keep showing up. I hold each space I enter as an opportunity for open conversation in order to learn and grow. 

Are other social media platforms providing space to learn and grow? Yes. I’ve made very deep and substantial connections on Twitter. I’ve viewed insightful videos on YouTube. Instagram has introduced me to thought leaders and quotes that have fundamentally shifted how I see the world. But I have only felt my practice truly propel through the conversations I’ve had on Skilled.Space. 

It’s still early in this transformation in how we communicate via technology. New problems are emerging every day and new solutions are being set up to address them. I get excited when I feel I’ve tapped into something new. The potential of these new spaces gives me hope. In these spaces, I actually feel part of the democratic exchange of ideas that we all value as being the essence of the American experiment.

I hope that you too are inspired by the things I’ve experienced. I see value in openly sharing ideas, questioning systems, offering resources, and examining oneself as an alternative to the closed systems of communication proliferating across the internet. I am sure if you disagree you will let me know. Come join me in a Skilled.Space and let’s have a conversation about it.

Zooming Into My Lens as a Hawaiʻi Educator

It was 3:30 am when I finally logged off Zoom. I checked the mug on my desk and it remained filled with the lukewarm coffee leftover from at least an hour ago. Still energized from the 3-4 cups I had consumed since 9:30 the previous night, the spectrum of colors scribbled on my iPad looked like a kaleidoscope.

This is what professional development looks like in the year 2021. A potentially unhealthy mix of odd time zones and way too much caffeine. But it is not all poor sleep patterns and poor beverage choices. Video conferencing technology has provided educators the opportunity to connect with others from all around the world that they would have never been able to meet. In the last year alone I’ve collaborated with people from Estonia, Sweden, Finland, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Uganda, and many more. Sometimes all in the course of one night, and always from the comfort of my own home.

However, this is not about the potential for Hawaiʻi educators to develop their pedagogy through online professional development or the appeal of connecting with new people. It is about the opportunity presented in these online spaces for Hawaiʻi-based educators to share their perspective. A perspective that is rooted in relationships, ‘āina, and community.

Initially, it was not clear to me that my voice had value in these global conversations. But over time I have realized that I have something unique to offer in these discussions. That I have a kuleana to both share my thinking and to make sure that I am honoring the people and place of Hawaiʻi as the source of my knowledge. I have also recognized that to fully hold space with this kuleana there is additional work that I have to do to unpack my own identity as a white settler in this pae ʻāina. This means I have to ask some deep questions about my role in this power structure.

The first step is to examine my impact as a white settler in a colonized land. I have to acknowledge the damage done to Kānaka Maoli through colonization, as well as how I may be perpetuating the pain and inequities through my own narrow lens as a white educator. While this has been uncomfortable, I have leaned into the discomfort with the goal of being able to recognize my blind spots and to understand the steps I can take to dismantle the Euro-centric narrative of learning in our Hawaiʻi classrooms.

I would like to offer some of my experiences that have helped me to re-center myself.

  • Practice kilo (observation) when participating in ʻāina-based learning experiences
  • Connect with and learn from the ʻāina and ʻāina-based educators in order to seek to better understand ancestral/indigenous knowledge
  • Reflect on how this knowledge can be used to change a system that privileges the holders of power
  • Humble myself to my limitations as one who is privileged by the system

Through this re-centering, I have re-evaluated my curriculum, content, and pedagogies. Iʻve asked myself, how am I perpetuating a history of control and power through the manner in which I structure my teaching? How are students, particularly Black, Brown, and Indigenous students not given voice and agency in the classroom? And what are the specific actions I am taking that may or may not be supporting student agency?

The answer to all these questions comes back to a concept that is the center of all Hawaiian cultural practices–aloha ʻāina. During this process of understanding my kuleana, I have actively sought out teachers around me that are rooted in Hawaiian-based cultural practices. This has allowed me the opportunity to observe how they operate within the systems of oppression that have been forced upon them.

When I began reflecting on my experiences with online professional development during the past year I thought I would primarily be focusing on the strategies I have gained as an educator. But I have gone much deeper. It is not just my pedagogy and practice as an educator that has changed. I have been given a new lens to view the world around me, and my place in it. 

I have developed a new strategy because this lens has provided me with a voice. A voice as a Hawaiʻi-based educator that reminds me I have a kuleana to live and share the tenants of Aloha ʻĀina. And the knowledge that with this voice I must help to teach others how they can shape learning across Hawaiʻi and across the world.

This post was originally written for the Hawaiʻi Society for Technology in Education monthly blog series. See the original post here.

Parent-Teacher Collaboration

Can parents help play the role of teacher? Can teachers help play the role of parent? Can both happen at the same time? These are some of the questions that were explored during our third session of the “Empowering Student Changemakers” series on Skilled.Space.

I started our discussion with a quote I heard during a podcast interview with author Julie Lythcott-Haims–“We’ve jettisoned the stuff of life out the window, and we shouldn’t be surprised that we graduate people with high GPAs who cannot do much for themselves”. This prompted some interesting sharing about the role of partnering with parents to ensure that we are raising young people who are well-rounded in the skills they will need to succeed as adults.

Celeste, an educator from Oʻahu in Hawaiʻi shared, “Teachers have caregiving roles as much as any parent”. And Georgina, an educator with international experience now based in the UK added “Learn things about what is happening at home to support students in school”. This back and forth helped guide the conversation towards the idea of effective partnering with parents. We began to chip away at the dichotomy of “teachers are responsible for this” and “parents are responsible for that”. What emerged instead is “we are in this together”.

These ideas are supported by research. John Hattie in his expansive meta-analysis of 138 influences that are related to learning outcomes, identified “parental involvement” as playing a key role in supporting student learning.1 In addition, teacher-student relationships play an important role as well. When we combine these two we can see the importance of effective partnering to ensure students have the skills to be facilitators of change in their world.

As the conversation continued, Kiki from New York shared her personal experience with her kids. She gives them agency in a number of small decisions to empower them to be independent thinkers and problem solvers. From tying their own shoes, to deciding what backpack to buy, to creating routines around homework–all of these actions help support kids that are able to “own the outcome of their education”.

This is a great description of what a student changemaker can be, one who owns the outcome of their education. In education, we are exploring ways to move away from the passive role of the student to one of an active participant. We have a better chance of nurturing these skills in students when parents and teachers are working in collaboration. 

The conversation had a surprise coda when the author of “How to Raise an Adult” Julie Lythcott-Haims joined in to take a few questions and show her gratitude. In this process, Julie offered this gem, “undermining of agency is an undermining of mental health”. I took this as an endorsement of the work that this group of educators has been engaging in. As the converation came to an end I felt confident that we are addressing issues that are at the heart of supporting students as changemakers.

1 https://visible-learning.org/hattie-ranking-influences-effect-sizes-learning-achievement/

Contribution as Creativity

Words are powerful. Words matter. One word that Iʻve been reflecting on this past week is compliance. This is a word that we hear a lot about in education, as in “the industrial model of education rewards compliance.”

It was during a conversation in my second session about “Empowering Student Changemakers” on the Skilled.Space platform that got me thinking about compliance in education. We were discussing ways to get students to engage with their learning and one of the participants said, “Creativity is a way to fight compliance”. They added, “If you have a culture of compliance it is working against everything you are trying to do to get them to be creative.”

I found these statements interesting so I quickly jotted them down. I made a mental note to do some further research to do dig into these ideas. But there was still a conversation happening. As the conversation continued additional ideas about empowering students were added. 

Someone shared about using an asset-based approach to shine the light on proper student behavior during school versus emphasizing rules on what not to do. Another participant explained how they disrupt the paradigm of the “sage on a stage” dynamic by using speaking prompts to provide space for students to act as content experts. And finally, one of the other attendees revealed how they utilize a student vote to decide a classroom activity.

All this sharing led to more questions that I wrote in my notes. What is the role of creativity in the classroom? How else do we fight compliance? Do we talk enough about how to fight compliance? What does it mean to be creative?

When the conversation ended I took a walk outside to reflect on the discussion. The word compliance remained at the top of my mind. I recalled that one of my favorite writers Seth Godin had described the role of compliance in our education models. When I returned home a quick google search led me to his Medium article “Stop Stealing Dreams”. But also to a shorter lesser-known blog post titled “Compliance is quite different from contribution”.

Reading that post put together a new idea in my mind. My thinking progressed from compliance as a relic of education to creativity as a way to fight compliance, and finally to contribution as a foil of compliance. The only logical conclusion is that contribution can be an expression of creativity. Thatʻs how conversation can propel!

Prior to this conversation, I had not thought of including contribution as part of the changemaker word cloud. Nor had I thought of contribution as having a relationship with creativity. I am grateful for this insight as a way to make creativity more accessible to educators that may be intimidated by creativity being solely an expression of artistry. 

As a musician, I am comfortable with the concept of creativity, but I have found that many educators without an artistic background are not. I hope that sharing this insight from our conversation will help other educators see contribution as a window into creativity.

This is why these open conversations are so important. Joining a group of thoughtful educators for a conversation increases your chances of hearing something that will challenge you to explore an idea in new ways. Having hosted two of these sessions now I believe even more in the power of conversation to propel.

If you are interested in joining this conversation go to http://skilled.space to start your free account.

What Musical Minds Teach Us About Innovation In Education: Coda

Author’s note: This post is based on the ideas from the book Two Beats Ahead by R. Michael Hendrix and Panos A. Panay.

As this series of blog posts come to an end the final post will not be a summary of what was covered in the chapter. Instead, in honor of the coda of this final chapter I will pause to write my final resolution about this experience.

My first exposure to music as a mindset for innovation came in a podcast hosted by IDEO with R. Michael Hendrix one of the authors of this book. It’s amazing now to look back almost two years later and reflect on this journey. I now have a master’s in Education Entrepreneurship, a new position at my school I could have only dreamed up, and a renewed philosophy on the role of music in my creative life.

One thing I still ask myself though is how can the concepts from this book be related to someone who isn’t musical? In sharing my experiences with the concepts in the book educators have said to me, “that’s great, but I am not a musical person so I don’t get it”.

I do not believe that people are inherently “not musical”. Just like I do not believe someone is “not a math person”, or can’t draw. I have the belief that these skills and mindsets can be nurtured in anyone. But what is a relatable entry point for someone who has not developed a musical mindset?

The answer came to me in an interview with actor, comedian, musician Ahmad Best speaking about the role of emotion in learning.

“What I am interested in is letting you know that you are the only you in this universe, and that is special. And I want to hear what you have to say, right? I don’t want you to do algebra. I want you to do your algebra. What does that mean? I don’t want you to learn history. I want you to be able to learn history your way, right?”.

For the educator who feels that they are “not musical” and they do not connect with the mindsets shared in the book, do not worry. To borrow the words of Lisa Kay Solomon when interviewing Best I have realized that true innovation is in your ability to “amplify their (students) emotional engines. The best learning happens with emotion, not devoid of emotion.”.

This emotional language comes from those human and creative endeavors that are a part of everyone’s life, the arts. To quote T Bone Burnett in the final pages of the book–”There were decisions made in the last century; we became more and more organized around systems. Within the school system, for example, there were decisions made about the most efficient way to teach children that stripped art of of the school system because art is the opposite of efficient. Art has nothing to do with efficiency, and efficiency has nothing to do with art. Art is inspired, or it’s not art”.

So I would like to remind all my educator peers to discover and bring your creative self into your instruction. These creative expressions are as varied as we are unique–surfing, painting, drawing, sewing, baking, photography, writing, dance, poetry, sport, flower arranging, cooking, juggling, comedy, and on and on…

As Hank Shocklee says, “We’re multi-dimensional beings. People who step into this, those are the kinds of people that are going to make the future. They’re going to replace people who are one-dimensional. Those who don’t understand are out of step, out of key, out of tune, out of time”. And finally, “The only way forward for us is through creativity–creativity which we have an enormous abundance of.”

This is the tenth and final part in a series connecting the ideas from Two Beats Ahead by R. Michael Hendrix and Pano A. Panay to education. To read part 1 on listening go here, part 2 on experimenting go here, part 3 on collaborating go here, part 4 on demoing go here, part 5 on producing go here, part 6 on connecting go here, part 7 on remixing go here, part 8 on sensing go here, and part 9 on reinventing go here.

Starting a Discussion On Empowering Student Changemakers

After a few weeks of planning with my friend Sara from the Swivl team, I was ready to open my “space”. Not a Twitter space, but my space. No no THAT Myspace, but a Skilled.Space”. What is Skilled.Space? The team at Swivl calls it “Live conversation spaces that propel students and teachers forward”.

Already five minutes into the conversation I could feel ourselves being propelled to the outer reaches of our topic. We were all gathered in our little corner of the internet to discuss empowering students as changemakers. Hawaiʻi (Oʻahu, and Hawaiʻi Island), California, the UK, Canada, and the Mid-Western United States were all gathered together, and everyone was bringing their full self to the conversation.

Quickly our conversation evolved into a back and forth with each teacher taking turns sharing about what happens when students bring their energy into the classroom. “Things go to another level”, one teacher noted. Someone else jumped in that in their social studies curriculum they de-emphasize the need to memorize content and instead push students to gain content knowledge through learning how to connect with their communities.

This prompted another share about how they use student input to review the school’s rules for behavior. Students rewrite the school “behavior charter” in their own language through collaboration and critical thinking. In this process, students are able to present their views to the admin and have the policies updated. I quickly made a note as they shared enthusiastically; “There is something very raw, pure, authentic, about letting those values and routines live the way they actually describe it, and makes it unique, it makes authentic. It really pops out at you because you can see it was really written by kids”.

As I stopped to breathe and take in the depth of thought being delivered in this digital space I was in awe. Here teachers were sharing freely from their heart, from their experience, from the very depths of what they believed as educators. I knew I had tapped into something.

Over the next 45 minutes, each participant shared stories about how they approach their classroom as a place where students can exhibit agency over their learning experience. A principal at a K-5 school went into detail about how students are involved in all aspects of life at their school from what clubs they form, to what they do for spirit week, to how they structure teams in their classroom. From this, we all converged around the idea that the classroom is the perfect place to start small. Students can best discover their own voice as changemakers in the intimacy of their small cohort of peers. “Starting smaller is better!” a district area teacher chimed in.

Ideas were being blasted through the galaxy (sorry I’m a little late on the space metaphors so had to slip one in) until our conversation concluded with some actionable items for each other to consider. One teacher related how they renamed their student council the “student action leadership team” in order to increase engagement. Another teacher shared the Twitter handle of an educator who had a blueprint for tapping into your PLN on social media to make a list of subject area experts for students to connect with to invite into the classroom for video chats.

The hour came to a close and I felt a great sense of gratitude for this group of educators who took time out of their Sunday to engage with each other. I felt a relationship with this group that I wouldn’t have gotten in a Twitter thread or even at a conference session. The conversation was real, without judgment, and full of the honest desire to offer our experience as a way to potentially help a fellow colleague.

I am looking forward to our next discussion on Sunday, and who knows where the conversation will go on “empowering student changemakers”. I know I’ll post on Twitter about it, and I’ll share some articles or maybe a podcast to spark some insights. But at the end of the day, it is our relationships that will further drive the conversation. And it is in those conversations where the magic happens.

If you’re interested in joining the conversation on “Empowering Student Changemakers” start a free account at Skilled.Space and join us on September 26 and then every other Sunday at 3 pm Eastern time. Follow me on Twitter @daganbernstein to get a link to our next conversation.

What Musical Minds Teach Us About Innovation In Education: Reinventing


Author’s note
: This post is based on the ideas from the book Two Beats Ahead by R. Michael Hendrix and Panos A. Panay.

David Bowie and teaching? Really, there’s a connection? Yes, there most certainly is.

This chapter on reinventing starts off with a detailed description of how Bowie used the idea of change throughout his career spanning twenty-six studio albums. This impacted countless musicians most notably Madonna and Lady Gaga who took a similar approach to their artistry.

Gaga is very clear that without the impact of Bowie in her life things would have been very different. Immersing herself in the album Aladdin Sane she describes how that experience changed everything for her. Gaga says, “I started to be more free with my choices. I started to have more fun”.

This idea of being free with our choices and having fun is what I would like my educator peers to walk away with as I come to the end of my exploration of this book. The primary idea that musical minds can teach us a lot about innovation in education is that through self-knowledge, we are capable of radical reinvention. As Bowie’s guitarist Carlos Alomar relates using one of Bowie’s favorite sayings, “Let go, or be dragged.”

In this chapter the authors cycle through a number of examples from the business world about companies reinventing themselves as the times changed. Nintendo went from a playing card company to making game machines. Nokia shifted from wood pulp to phones to 5G networks. Fujifilm went from film photography to skin-care products. You can add Netflix, Slack, and Twitter to that list as well. By knowing their capabilities, strengths, and purpose these companies were able to embrace change and survive where others faltered and failed.

Education as an industry is experiencing similar shifts. This is where the section titled “Making It Personal” applies so well. The story of musician Jen Trynin is a great example of someone navigating change to come out the other side as a more full and authentic individual. So is the story of Dr. Kristen Ellard (formally known as grunge musician Kristen Barry). As the authors say these artists “took time to understand themselves and leveraged what they learned to navigate their careers”.

Approaching life from the outside is a common thread in these examples. Dr. Ellard says, “I think I’m able to do that because of the way I have approached music. I was always on the outside, I’ve never played by the rules, and that gives me an incredible freedom to constantly be questioning”. I’d encourage all educators to do the same.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a situation in which weʻve had to reinvent out of necessity across all industries. The authors address this head-on in this chapter. The phrase “reinventing in the moment” is a great way to describe how we as teachers have had to approach this past year.

The musical example from the book is that of Def Leppard drummer Rick Allen who lost his arm in a car accident. Out of necessity, he was able to work with a friend to design a drumkit that incorporated electronic foot pedals. Reflecting on the experience Allen says: “I suppose it had a lot to do with the strength of those around me. They really didnʻt give me a choice; I had to stick around and deal with it”.

The result was a new invention and a new way of approaching drumming. I have seen myself and my teaching peers do similar things as we have had to navigate the challenge of instructing in this new world. Old systems failed, and new strategies were required. Much like Allen we didnʻt have the choice to not deal with it. We had to persevere and figure out how to solve new problems in the moment. For me my background and experience as a musician was a tremendous help in these situations.

The message of the book comes full circle in final section of this chapter titled “Busting at the Seams”. Iʻd like to print out this entire section and hand it to every educator that I encounter. Here is where I find the secret sauce. I’ll quote the authors, “At some point, you have to let go, trusting your own voice and your unique understanding of the world that is always unfolding around us.”

This is the mindset that is not taught in education degree programs. Music is a gateway to an art-centered outlook on how to approach the creative act of designing learning experiences. As the authors state, “Being open to new possibilities and capable of exploring and adapting to them with a musicianʻs mindset. When you do, you’ll find that not only can it open new doors for you, it becomes a way of life”.

Musician Pharell Williams takes it to another level, “There are a lot of people who focus on one thing singularly and that works for them. But for a lot of us, a lot of people in this generation and lot of people in the audience today, we’re pluralists. We need multiple outlets. We need to be able to express ourselves in different ways”.

And maybe thatʻs what this book was all about for me. As an aspiring musician who was starting to dip his toes into the education space, I wanted to do both. I saw the beauty in each and the creative outlet they offered. I saw them as being perfect compliments to each other and I wasnʻt willing to give either up to pursue the other.

This book is an apt summation of that plurality that I was searching for. But it is a plurality that can work for many of us. The musical mind is a lens we can all use to explore that fundamental question of who we are. And as educators, we cannot guide our students to make that discovery for themselves unless we have taken that journey ourself.

This is the nineth part in a series connecting the ideas from Two Beats Ahead by R. Michael Hendrix and Pano A. Panay to education. To read part 1 on listening go here, part 2 on experimenting go here, part 3 on collaborating go here, part 4 on demoing go here, part 5 on producing go here, part 6 on connecting go here, part 7 on remixing go here, and part 8 on sensing go here.

What Musical Minds Teach Us About Innovation In Education: Sensing

Author’s note: This post is based on the ideas from the book Two Beats Ahead by R. Michael Hendrix and Panos A. Panay.

Teachers across the country are hard at work getting their classroom spaces set up for another start to the school year. While going through this annual ritual I wonder how many are stopping to consider the impact that sound has on learning in their spaces. Chapter 8 on sensing from the book Two Beats Ahead provides educators with a lot to consider about the role of music can have on learning.

The chapter begins by looking at how sound can impact our experiences in hospitals. Musician Yoko Sen examined this through the lens of the following question–”What is the last sound you want to hear before you die?”. Using this provocation and her own experience in a hospital, she interviewed nurses and medical practitioners. Through this process she discovered that the typical sounds found in hospitals–machines, beeping, monitor rings, etc… contributed to stress and negative well-being for patients.

In reading this I thought about the sounds that we expose students to in our learning spaces. In schools students are vulnerable to the startling ring of clock bells, the hum of fluorescent lights, the squeak of shoes on floors, loud voices echoing off of narrow hallways, even the loud-speaking voice of teachers. All of these can negatively impact our students’ ability to engage in learning in a healthy and safe manner.

My hope is that Sen Sound, the enterprise created by Yoko to transfer the soundscape of medical facilities, can be applied to schools as well. There is ample medical evidence that noise can cause stress. As we shift conversations in our school around well-being and mental health, I would like to see healthy audio environments be part of this conversation.

In closing the section about Yoko the authors mention the idea of “democratizing sound design”. In imagining how we can implement audio solutions to support healthy learning spaces we should involve students, teachers, and families in the process. By putting them at the center of this conversation we can ensure that those who are impacted by sound in their learning spaces have input.

In considered this, reflect on the follwoing passage from the book about the relationship between how our body senses and communication: “Think about a time you were frustrated and your hands clenched, almost involuntarily. Or you were scared, and your ears seemed dialed into every tiny sound. Or you felt happy, and suddenly the day seemed brighter, smells seemed crisper. Our bodies follow their own kind of truth: the way we physically interact with the world shapes our feelings and vice versa.”

In the next part of the chapter the authors cover some of the ways that music can impact our bodily senses. How pop songs at 120 BPMs align with the natural rhythm of our 60 BPM heartbeats. Hearing songs like Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” or Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” can get our blood to rise, our head bobbing, and putting us in the groove. Or on the opposite end, how the guitar sounds of My Bloody Valentine can feel disorienting through their use of frequency boosting.

Failing to consider how sound can impact our students, we are allowing them to be unknowingly influenced by the ambient sounds around them. Instead, we can design our spaces to have a positive impact on stduents’ learning by intentionally incorporating sound into how we design our spaces.

Due to their location in the Boston area both authors have access to people interested in examining the relationship between music, body, and mind. In the section titled “Science of Sensing” they review some of the emerging fields of study in this area. They summarize a series of questions that are being explored by these scientists: Does music help fire neurons that go otherwise domrant? Is music medecine? Can it be prescribed? Might doctors someday recommend personalized diet of music based on a person’s biometrics? How might virtual immersive experiences aid in unlocking the power of music on the mind?

I believe that by exploring these questions it will result in a much deeper understanding of the role that music and sensing can have in learning. As we shift our focus in education to creative and collaborative learning spaces, we also need to invest in things that will create an environment to support this type of learning.

The authors point us back to a previous chapter with Bjork and Audur Capital in which they explored “emotional due diligence”. The following quote is so impactful–”And now that there is wisdom in letting out actual , literal nodies guide our creativity and our communication, it’s time to bring in the science.” Wow!

One final thing discussed in this section is research done by George Lakoff at University of California–Berkely as well as a study conducted at Yale. Lakoff’s research looked at how metaphors are a reflection of our human experience. The studies at Yale built upon this by examining how these metaphors actually can shape our reality. Through these studies we can see how warmth can be associated with happiness, or as Lakoff called it “a metaphor we can live by”.

Are we creating “warm” spaces in our schools for children to learn in? Or do they feel more cold, distant, and sterile? Are we best supporting students through creating spaces where they feel welcomed, safe, and inspired? What is the role of music in creating this sense of warmth that we know humans associate with a happy and soothing sensation?

At this point we have more questions than answers. But as an educator I believe that these are important areas for us to explore as we look at how we can innovate learning in our schools.

The last part of the chapter summaries the work of musician and producer Brain Eno. The authors explain how his Oblique Strategies* cards have a number of prompts that focus on physical recommendations–Breathe more deeply, Mute and continue, Put in earplugs.

Eno shares “We’re used to the idea that the great triumph of humans is their ability to control. What we’re not so used to is the idea that another great gift we have is the talent to surrender. To be able to surrender is to know when to stop trying to control.”

This leads into the gardening versus architecture metaphor. As creative individuals we need to be thinking of our works as an act of gardening, not an act of architecture. Yoko Sen builds on this metaphor with her own thinking: “I think the joy of my work was removing me out of the picture. It’s about other people and it’s OK that I don’t yet know what the answer will be. My role is to bridge the divide so people get to have voice.”

I can think of no better way to summarize my approach to teaching and learning! This chapter has really forced me to rethink and to consider more deeply the role that music and sound can play in an innovative learning environment. As I move more and more into the background and increase student agency, music will enter as an important element of this paradigm shift.

This was truly a transformative chapter for me as I think about what musical minds can teach us about innovation in education. Too often we focus on the details of curriculum, policy, learning targets and goals, and not enough about the actual spaces the learning will happen in. This chapter is an invitation to further explore how we design our learning spaces and the role of music in designing that space.

There is some literature on the role of music in learning. Much of it focuses on how to use music to improve learning, not on how music can improve the environment to support learning. I am hopeful that new advances in brain science and a renewed interest in sound can help push this research to a new frontier that can transform what learning looks like for our next generation.

*The Oblique Strategies cards are a series of 3- by 3.5-inch cards containing a prompt to be used as a way to explore a dilemma in a working situation.

This is the eighth part in a series connecting the ideas from Two Beats Ahead by R. Michael Hendrix and Pano A. Panay to education. To read part 1 on listening go here, part 2 on experimenting go here, part 3 on collaborating go here, part 4 on demoing go here, part 5 on producing go here, part 6 on connecting go here, and part 7 on remixing go here.

What Musical Minds Teach Us About Innovation In Education: Remixing


Authors note
: This post is based on the ideas from the book Two Beats Ahead by R. Michael Hendrix and Panos A. Panay.

In the spirit of this chapter on remixing, this blog post is a remix of Greta Thunberg’s infamous speech at the U.N. Climate Action Summit in 2019. To compose this post I took the transcript of her speech and remixed it replacing her ideas on climate change and actions with CO2 levels with some ideas on education and actions with technology. The full transcript of her speech along with the video can be accessed here.

I’d also like to note that this entire series of blog posts serve as a remix of the ideas from Two Beats Ahead. So my message to educators is to remix the ideas that you encounter in the world and reimagine how they can be applied to improve teaching and learning in our schools. Step outside of the education literature and seek other information to help you understand how you can improve your practice.

Below you will find my remix of Thunberg’s speech beginning with her response to a question about the message she has for world leaders.

“My message is that we’ll be watching you.

“This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be playing outside in the dirt on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you!

“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. Students are suffering. Students are dying. Entire school districts are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction of knowledge and critical thinking, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal testing of students. How dare you!

“For more than 30 years, the research has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away and come here saying that you’re doing enough, when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight.

“You say you hear us and that you understand the urgency. But no matter how sad and angry I am, I do not want to believe that. Because if you really understood the situation and still kept on failing to act, then you would be evil. And that I refuse to believe.

“The popular idea of adding more technology into our classroom over the coming years is only a small part of a broader solution to the current irreversible chain reactions beyond human control.

“Adding more computers into our classroom, increasing access to computer-based applications, introducing cameras and other student surveillance software may be acceptable to you. But those things do not include tipping points, most feedback loops, and additional negative impacts on teaching and learning hidden by structural inefficiencies, content-centered instruction, or the aspects of access and equity. They also rely on my generation blindly adhering to the introduction of data mining with technologies that barely exist.

“So the technological solutions are simply not acceptable to us — we who have to live with the consequences.

“How dare you pretend that this can be solved with just ‘business as usual and some technical solutions? With today’s use of surveillance technology and data mining our individual identities and freedoms will be entirely gone in the near future.

“There will not be any solutions or plans presented in line with what I am presenting here today, because the truth is too uncomfortable. And you are still not mature enough to tell it like it is.

“You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say: We will never forgive you.

“We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not.

“Thank you.”

This is the seventh part in a series connecting the ideas from Two Beats Ahead by R. Michael Hendrix and Pano A. Panay to education. To read part 1 on listening go here, part 2 on experimenting go here, part 3 on collaborating go here, part 4 on demoing go here, part 5 on producing go here, and part 6 on connecting go here.