What Musical Minds Teach Us About Innovation In Education: Listening

I recently started the book “Two Beats Ahead” by Panos A. Panay and R. Michael Hendrix. This book examines what musical minds teach us about innovation. It has been on my radar since I first heard Hendrix mention these ideas in a podcast with IDEO about a year and a half ago. Since then I haven’t been able to get these ideas out of my head. I have been waiting for this book with anticipation. I was excited to finally have a settled moment to sit with the first chapter last night.

I want to capture my thinking about what I just read, and hopefully the subsequent chapters as well if I can. I also want to do this through the lens of education and teaching, which is my domain. As a musician and songwriter, I connect deeply with the premise of the book. It is something I have thought about, but have not been able to articulate. I feel that the book has unlocked ideas that have been floating around in my subconscious for years.

The first chapter is titled “Listening: The Space Between the Notes.” The opening quote is by Björk: “The most powerful thing is often the thing which lies slumbering in the silence.”

As educators, we need to develop the skill of having an awareness of the things that are not there. In teaching we have a tendency to get too focused on the deliverables–content is king. Too many educators make the standards and the content that the students need to learn the sole focus of their teaching.

But what are we missing when we put so much emphasis on this? We are missing out on relationships. We are losing sight of the human part of learning. An important part of designing learning experiences is to create the conditions that allow for full immersion. When we develop an awareness of our students’ human experience and listen for the gaps in their experience, we can build upon the relationships that are so important for effective instruction.

A second type of listening that Hendrix and Panay discuss is listening to ourselves. They introduce the term emotional due diligence. How often do we as educators really do emotional due diligence? How can we, as designers of these educational experiences, deliver if we have not found our own voice?

Teaching and learning are very personal and intimate experiences. It involves a lot of trust, compassion, empathy, and communication. To do this effectively we need to know what our own individual style is. We are not just classically trained musicians playing notes off of a score, or delivering content from a curriculum. We need to take our individual experiences and edit them together into a mosaic that is our own unique voice.

The process of getting to this point is through self-analysis and emotional due diligence. Take the time to look inside. What drives you, why are you doing this, what is your purpose of dedicating yourself to the craft of teaching and learning?

In the book the authors use a quote from Pharrell Williams that I won’t reproduce here (go get the book!), but essentially he advises to have a healthy amount of delusion. Much like an artist, you have to be somewhat delusional to get into teaching. To think that you can deliver learning to young people is somewhat a delusional premise. That’s a good thing. As Pharrell says, don’t talk yourself out of doing something amazing.

The last part of this first chapter in listening is to remove the ego. As educators this is essential. While it is healthy to have a certain amount of delusion, don’t allow that thought to prevent you from getting your ego out of the way. When we remove our ego we are open to shifting our practice. We invite change and understand that it is a healthy part of the evolution of our craft.

Panos and Hendrix share that it is easy to recast failures as pivots, as stepping stones on the road to success. The true aim, they share, is to ground these pivots in “listening for opportunities and finding new alignments.” The way to do this is to “open yourself up, be aware and watchful, be listening.” The “failures” we endure as educators are more than just opportunities for a pivot, they are moments of the ego dissolving. It is a key moment in which you have the opportunity to listen to yourself and trust your thinking to take you on a new path.

As educators, we work in dynamic and shifting spaces. We cannot enter into these spaces with a fixed mindset of how things are and how they should be. We need to listen for the silence. This takes practice. This is a discipline that takes a focused effort. But I do believe it can be taught and learned. We can look to musicians for these lessons and learn from them. Again as Panos and Hendrix so eloquently share at the conclusion of the chapter: “Listen, notice, feel. Anticipate the possibilities that come from silence”.

Rinse, Wash, Wash Again, Repeat

I recently engaged in a Twitter educhat in which we were asked to share our big “aha” from this year. For me, it was undoubtedly the reduction in the number of content standards I teach and assess.

Heading into the summer our principal suggested the book “Focus – Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning“. There was one line in there that just lept of the page – “We should reduce the content contained in most standards documents by about 50 percent”. I was shocked, I mean I already have eliminated a number of standards from the “typical” Algebra 1 curriculum, but how would I reduce it by 50%?

For this school year, instructional time was reduced due to the scheduling changes made because of the pandemic. I figured this was a good time to give it a try. With less face-to-face time I felt it was a good opportunity to de-emphasize covering every piece of content. The goal would be to focus on the depth of the content areas I would choose to emphasize – something I had been wanting to do.

My approach was to first start with a list of all the content standards I typically teach and count them up. Fortunately, I already had a list of these. I had 92 different content standards on my list.

Rather than go for the full 50% cut in one swoop, I started by grouping everything into 4 or 5 main “modules” that would guide my overall curriculum. Once I had done that I went through the list and determined which content standards were absolutely essential in targeting those macro-level modules. In my first attempt, I got down to about 55, pretty close to 50% and was pleasantly surprised.

Being so close to the 50% threshold, I thought, OK I’ll make another pass at it. I had now removed the reins of being beholden to hitting all these content markers. I began to feel much more comfortable removing other content. During this second pass a picture of what my new trimmed-down curriculum emerged.

Let me give an example. Previously my curriculum included “Students are able to generate a table of values to graph an absolute value equation”. Rather than target this standard, I put more emphasis on the broader module about “graphing functions”. During this module, I went into more depth about functions, tables, and inputs and outputs. We examined what a function is and what it means to input x values into a function and what those y output values represent.

Having gone into more depth into the process of generating values from a table, I was able to give them an absolute value function and they graphed it with no problem. They had accessed the depth of understanding about what a function is and how it can be used to represent a variety of mathematical operations so there was no need to cover absolute functions separately. By breaking down the learning to the fundamental skills, students demonstrated that they were much more versatile and adaptable to a variety of mathematical situations.

Moving forward I would like to explore the use of modules more deeply. Rather than presenting everything in a fixed linear fashion, I would like to structure the learning around modules that can be circled back to throughout the year. For example as I prep for the next lesson on quadratic equations I am more confident in referring to the work on both linear and exponential functions that we previously covered. This will allow students to make connections across the curriculum.

This work is by no means perfect. In fact, seeing how bloated our curriculum is has forced me to rethink the type of content I am delivering and how I will design the learning experiences for students. My hope is that by focusing the curriculum on the core concepts that we can explore more real-world applications of the mathematical concepts we are covering.

If you are considering trimming down your curriculum I highly suggest you give it a try. Follow these short four steps:

  1. List all the content that you deliver in a given school year (Rinse)
  2. Go through and keep only the core content items that are essential for students in the next course sequence in your subject (Wash)
  3. Remove any final content that students could understand by applying the learning from the core content pieces you identified in step 2 (Wash again)
  4. Implement it into your classroom and revise as needed (Repeat)

Time to KonMari Your Professional Learning

The recent shift to online and virtual professional learning opportunities has presented a buffet of options for educators. Since the end of the school year last June I have consumed hundreds of hours of content, many of it free. This is tremendously exciting. As a teacher I am always looking to grow and learn new things. But when is too much….too much?

I recently hit my breaking point. Between the demands of teaching, the need to support my home life, and a renewed focus on my own well-being, I had to reconsider the amount of time I am chasing professional growth.

I don’t want to eliminate the need for professional learning for teachers. In fact I think it is the single most important thing that we as educators need to be doing. In a rapidly changing world with new technologies and information being thrown at us daily, there is tremendous value in being a lifelong learner.

What I have found is that the need to consume every new webinar, test every new technology, and hear from every new thought leader espousing breakthrough knowledge about our future world has its drawbacks. As educators, we guide our students to reach for transfer-level understanding. We design experiences that allow students to transition from surface, to deep, to transfer-level understanding. When we try to over-consume information we are not allowing ourselves to experience this same transition..

There are times when it is appropriate to go “all in” on a topic. For example, this summer in the wake of the George Floyd protests and the Black Lives Matter movement I realized I was vastly under-learned in topics around race, social justice, and white privilege. I did a deep dive of reading, listening to podcasts, and attending webinars. I listened, engaged, and reflected deeply about my own experiences and lack of knowledge. I came out on the other side with reliable resources and connections to go to in the future when I had a question that I needed an answer to.

As the year has gone on I have been trying to replicate that deep dive on every new idea that comes my way. The result has been not deep diving at all, but just skimming the surface. This doesn’t provide the attention my ideas deserve in order to be examined in a deeper way.

So what are my suggestions to address this? I have applied the principles of “KonMari” to my own professional learning. There are many ways that the KonMari approach has been applied, so I am using the general five steps outlined in this medium post. They have been slightly modified to fit my own use case.

  1. Discard by category first: Place all your professional learning resources into categories. Do this in order starting with the things that take up the most of your attention first and then going down the line. For me, it was in the following order: books, podcasts, research papers, webinars, social media.
  2. Break a category into subcategories as needed: For example, podcasts can be broken into categories like technology, leadership, education policy, social justice, or content-specific topics (for me that could be mathematics or project-based learning), etc…. Do the same for your books, research papers, or whatever else you listed in step 1.
  3. Only keep the things that spark joy: This is probably the most well-known part of the process. You can think of it as things that speak to your heart, gets you excited, moves you, etc… If it is a physical thing like a book you can physically hold it and ask yourself if it sparks joy. If it something digital like a podcast or a research paper I will look at its title or podcast page and ask myself if I get excited looking at it. I know it might feel weird to look at a little box on an iPhone screen and ask yourself if it sparks joy, but we’re trying to get you to make some changes here so be open to doing things that make you feel a little silly.
  4. After items have been discarded, thoroughly re-organize your “space”: Again a lot of these “spaces” are going to be digital, but they can still be organized. Make folders in your hard drive or google dive with your research papers that are clearly titled by topic. I started using a platform called Mindstone that allows you to organize pdfs and online articles into categories and tags for later reference. For podcasts, I have made playlists by category like “tech”, “leadership” etc… so I know where to find podcast on topics when I want to go to them. For webinars or online events, make some clear rules about how you will interact with them. For example, I said I will not attend online events that happen during my workday. Or give yourself specific categories of events that are you will attend so you are not trying to consume everything. If you want to learn about social justice. Commit to only attending events on that topic. When you are ready to move to a new topic, set a new limit on what you’ll attend.
  5. Do it all at one time: The Japanese term for this is “ikki ni” which means “in one go”. This is very important as you are trying to change an entire mindset. If you can do it all at once you will be well on your way to fundamentally changing the mindset that has been causing you all the “professional learning clutter” in your life.

I hope these tips are helpful. I am by no means an expert on this and still fall back into my old ways. I think the mantra of “progress not perfection” is good to apply here. We are professional educators so we value learning. But this can also get the best of us and lead to that “wide, but not deep” approach that we try to guide our students away from. By applying the KonMari approach to our professional learning I think we can engage more deeply with the growth we are trying to obtain. This will put us on the path to making the foundational changes in our professional lives that we are seeking.

Context Driving Content–A Case Study In Skateboarding Innovation

I began to lose interest in school as I entered my teenage years. Yes, I performed well, did my homework, completed the assignments, but I can’t say I was into school. What I wanted to do was two things—play guitar and skateboard. I would also add play basketball too for good measure. Now that I am working in the field of education as a teacher, I see how all three of those are frameworks to understand potential innovations in how learning experiences are crafted and delivered.

In this post, I just want to focus on skateboarding. I believe there is a lot from the skateboarding world that can be brought into the education space. These could be entrepreneurship, creativity, expression, physical fitness. But there is one key idea I want to focus on that was explained by skateboarding legend Rodney Mullen in his TED Talk “Pop an ollie and innovate!”.

In this talk Mullen asks the question:

“How can I expand, how can the context, how can the environment change the very nature of what I do?”

So let me give you some background. Rodney Mullen started out as a world-class freestyle skater. Freestyle skateboarding is one of the oldest forms of skating. It involves doing tricks on flat ground and was often part of organized contests in which the skaters were judged on their technical skills. Mullen was the best in the world at this, winning 34 of the 35 contents he entered.

Mullen was a true innovator of the sport having invented hundreds of tricks. Foremost among these is the ollie which is now considered a staple maneuver in skateboarding. He also created other tricks that are foundational moves in the modern skateboarding world like the kickflip, heelflip, 36o flip.

At this time though, vert was the more popular form of skateboarding. The high air maneuvers and aerial spins most popularized by Tony Hawk drew thousands of fans across the world. Much of the industry at this time—from the clothing, shoes, boards, wheels, and other equipment were all geared towards vert skating

In the early 1990s, a new form of skateboarding emerged and eventually took over, street skating. Skaters moved off the flat ground, out of the ramps and empty swimming pools, and into the urban landscape. This emerging style was more improvisational in style. The skater was now interacting with the environment, analyzing the architecture and determining what they could do with the contexts they were presented with.

So what does this have to do with learning? Well let’s look back at the quote from Mullen: “How can I expand, how can the context, how can the environment change the very nature of what I do?”. This was someone who was recognized as being the best in the world at his craft. He had created the very tricks that the entire sport of skateboarding was built on. But he recognized that these tricks had no relevance when they are being done on flat ground. What they were lacking was some context.

I feel we are doing the same thing to our learners. We are giving them content (tricks/maneuvers if you will) without any context. They are basically skateboarding on flat ground. Completing math problems in isolation, writing analytical essays without relevance, learning verb conjugations without conversation—these are all examples of content that is lacking context.

I would propose that an important innovation that teachers need to consider and implement is to allow the context dictate what kind of content they deliver. Mullen made this key pivot and ended up completely revolutionizing street skateboarding. He took the various tricks he invented for flatground and reimagined them for use on the urban landscape. He would carefully analyze the components of the terrain and make decisions about what tricks (content) to execute (deliver) based on that terrain (context).

A simple example of how this could look would be in mathematics. Don’t limit yourself to teaching linear equations according to the exacting standards set by national curricula. Look at the context of a linear equation. Maybe sales of a certain item for example, and build out learning tasks that emphasize how that content could be applied in that context.

And don’t limit yourself to solely placing the content into this new context. Dig deeper, bring in new technical skills that can be used to build on this content knowledge. Students can engage with spreadsheets using data formulas, and graphing functions. This could also lead to projects in which students design a business plan or collaborate on an entrepreneurial venture.

I see the application of this going beyond the context-based learning as developed by the Salter approach. I imagine a learning experience that I would call “context-driven learning”. This can be applied to build the competencies required to develop a student-driven capstone project to be used as an assessment at the culmination of a division.

More about how context can drive content needs to be thought through. I find Rodney Mullen’s insights into how he innovated his skateboard practice as an inspiring way to think about how I can innovate my teaching practice. Watch the TED talk and decide for yourself.

Carefully Move and Tend to Things

The minimal viable product is a key idea in the lean startup method. But is this the correct approach? I recently came across an interview with Roger McNamee in which he dug into this question. I believe that with access to the data about the effects of technology on our health and safety we need to reconsider our answer to this question.

Creating a landing page for a website and publishing it seems innocent enough and in many ways it is. What about a pharmaceutical? Or an AI algorithm that collects data about users? Facial recognition software? Should these technologies be put in front of users before they have been properly vetted and tested? I don’t think so.

“Move fast and break things” is an ethos that has produced concerns about safety, privacy, fair competition, and privacy (see Roger McNamee’s writing here). Others have written about this as well including Jonathan Taplin, Hemant Taneja, and of course the wonderful book by Shoshan Zuboff.

Scott Galloway has dubbed this the “exploitation economy.” I would like to propose something more humane. The terms “human-centered capitalism” or “humanistic capitalism” are now being considered as a foil to the “develop at all costs” of the previous years. These words are being discussed from a variety of angles. From innovative political thinker Andrew Yang to conservative thinktank The Hoover Institute.

Research has shown that diversity increases innovation. It is my belief that a shift to a more humane form of technology and entrepreneurship will increase diversity. It will allow for more voices and products to enter the marketplace. The advantage won’t be on the first movers, but to those that consider their impact most deeply.

If a field needs to be tended do you bulldoze through the whole thing and destroy everything in your path? Or do you go through row by row and remove the infesting weeds by hand? I suggest we carefully consider our impact on each plant and take out the ones that don’t belong. The former will create a barren landscape in which anything can repopulate without any regard to its place in the ecosystem. The latter approach only removes what isn’t needed, allowing the remaining plants to flourish, and create a healthy balanced ecosystem.

It is time for a more careful approach as we begin to move into the next revolution. The human revolution. I suggest that rather than moving fast and breaking things we carefully move and tend to things.

The Path to Entrepreneurship

Part 3 in a three-part series on Entrepreneurship In Education for the course Education Theories, Trends, and Entrepreneurship at the Oulu University of Applied Sciences Education Entrepreneurship Master’s Degree Programme. Read part 1 by clicking here and Part 2 by clicking here.

There has been a large amount of skepticism towards the idea of teaching entrepreneurship in schools. Economics and finance are common in many high schools and even in some middle school programs, and of course colleges and universities across the United States offer degrees in business and related fields. But when it comes to entrepreneurship it is seen as not fitting into the box of formalized education.

We are beginning to see some change in this belief though. In middle and high schools there is interest in experiential, project, and inquiry learning models as being a core part of the curriculum. While these exist primarily at independent schools, public schools are incorporating student-driven projects as being an option as a graduation requirement. Capstone projects are also being used as culminating academic experiences at different divisions. By nature, these capstone projects utilize many skills typically found in entrepreneurship: creative thinking, design thinking, and collaboration.

In addition, business schools are starting to embrace entrepreneurship as having a critical role in their programs. Bucking the idea that successful entrepreneurs are those that dropped out of business school to pursue their ideas, acclaimed business schools such as Stanford, NYU, and the University of Virginia are teaching entrepreneurship as part of their MBA program. Through incubator programs, start-up competitions, and other experiential learning methodologies, entrepreneurship is starting to become more common in leading schools across the United States.

This embrace of entrepreneurship has the potential to be very impactful in our schools. First, it can promote the acquisition of 21st century skills (future skills). Entrepreneurship is a great platform to teach the skills needed in a rapidly changing world. These include storytelling, curiosity, persistence, compassion, problem-solving, creative expression among others.

Second, it can increase interdisciplinary learning and methodologies. In entrepreneurship, you need knowledge from a variety of fields whether it be mathematics for business modeling, English for writing, or social studies for world knowledge and cultural awareness. Entrepreneurship provides students the opportunity to combine learning from these fields.

And finally, it supports student agency and ownership of learning. By nature, entrepreneurship invites ideation and passion. While these aren’t the only things that make for a successful entrepreneurial venture, they are part of the equation. Through the development of entrepreneurial thinking, students can explore their individual passions and personality. This requires students to be agents of their own learning and to take a more active role in skill acquisition and application of their learning.

I was never exposed to entrepreneurship in my schooling. It was something that came to me later in my adult life as I struggled to navigate a changing world at the turn of the century. My first exposure came as an independent ‘ukulele instructor. I was working at an ‘ukulele shop and I realized there was a need for ‘ukulele instruction. I created a business in which I would deliver ‘ukulele instruction to kids, adults, and families. My customers were both locals and visitors. I also realized that the ‘ukulele was very popular in Japan, so I learned basic Japanese and began to do instruction to Japanese visitors to Hawai’i as well.

As I progressed I started to develop my own curriculum for teaching the ‘ukulele. I taught group courses and workshops on the ‘ukulele at an adult education non-profit in my community. As people in the community became aware of my skills as an ‘ukulele instructor, it led to opportunities to teach ‘ukulele at local schools. This culminated with co-directing an annual ‘ukulele festival involving multiple schools throughout Hawai’i Island.

These experiences in entrepreneurship culminated with bringing entrepreneurial thinking into the classroom. Once I transitioned into a full-time classroom teacher I began to look for opportunities to foster entrepreneurial thinking in students. I built a digital media class as well as a grade 8 capstone course in which students were able to design their own learning. Students practiced ideation, collaboration, critical thinking, and other skills that are an important part of entrepreneurship.

Today I have pursued my entrepreneurial interests even further. In the summer of 2018, I joined the team at the National Capstone Consortium. This partnership gave me the opportunity to design the summer summit programming. From there I took the initiative to build an online platform for members during the pandemic when we were forced to cancel the summit. Currently, I am enrolled in the Education Entrepreneurship program at Oulu University to gain a formal understanding of entrepreneurship and continue to expand the online platform for our members of the consortium.

As we face an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous future I think entrepreneurship will have an increasingly important role in not only our education system, but in people’s individual lives as well. And I think it only a matter of time before we see entrepreneurship existing as an area of study within our school systems right along with mathematics, literature, and science. In fact, I think future students will be better served if entrepreneurship can operate as a link between these siloed areas of study. This has the possibility to create a new generation of creative thinkers that can potentially solve some of the most pressing problems of our time.

Entrepreneur Stories

Part 2 in a three-part series on Entrepreneurship In Education for the course Education Theories, Trends, and Entrepreneurship at the Oulu University of Applied Sciences Education Entrepreneurship Master’s Degree Programme. Read part 1 by clicking here and part 3 by clicking here.

As an aspiring entrepreneur, I enjoy learning about the journeys of other entrepreneurs. There are many that are relevant to me in which I can take a piece of their experience to use as inspiration. There are the obvious candidates – Phil Knight, Steve Jobs, Walt Disney, or Oprah Winfrey as their stories are true examples of entrepreneurial magic. For this article though I would like to focus on three entrepreneurs that are most relevant to me in the current moment.

The first is Sal Khan founder of Khan Academy. The part of his story that I find most inspiring is how he leveraged the available technologies at the time to solve a very real and present problem. His niece needed help on her math homework and he used a phone line and Yahoo Doodle notepad to share his work with her. As his service grew to other students, he started posting videos on YouTube of his tutorials. Of course we know what happened next, as more than 6 million subscribers and 1.7 billion views later he has created one of the most well known online education platforms in the world.

The second is Harley Finkelstein, President of Shopify. What I find so inspiring about his story is how he hustled to put himself through college when his family went bankrupt. He did this by creating a company that printed t-shirts for college clubs at the school he was attending and selling them to members. He later figured out how to license comic book images to use on shirts and created a separate business selling those. It was through these ventures that he met a couple of other entrepreneurs with whom he founded Shopify.

The final entrepreneur is Canva founder Melanie Perkins. There are a number of things that I find extremely inspiring about her story, but the primary one is the persistence that she demonstrated in pursuing her idea. After coming up with the concept of an easy to use online design platform she dedicated herself to bringing this business to life. She had a singular focus on this idea and she had total confidence that it was too good to not succeed. Of course it took luck, serendipity, and business acumen to create a multi-billion dollar company, but it was her fortitude that helped her navigate the challenging world of securing her initial funding.

The reason I choose to highlight these three is there is one thing they all share that is relevant to me in the early stages of my entrepreneurial journey. The common thread is the value of building your own individual technical knowledge about the field that your idea lives in. It is not just about the idea itself, let’s say a social media app, but what is your technical knowledge about that field? It is important to know about coding, user interfaces, design, etc… and to also have a firm grounding in business strategy, marketing, and finance. Finkelstein took a free Stanford course on software development (he even took a course in Khan Academy too!). For Perkins, before launching her idea of an online design tool, she created a yearbook company so she could learn how to create digital graphics and interact with a user interface.

There are endless things to learn from the hundreds of entrepreneurs existing in the world today. Through podcasts, books, articles, and interviews it is easy to source advice and knowledge from each of their successes and failures to guide your own journey in entrepreneurship. There are a number of common traits that you will hear many entrepneurs share – perseverance, creativity, vision, confidence, adaptability, etc… For me, I like to stay grounded in guidance that is more practical. Ship your ideas, learn technical skills, or write a letter to a potential mentor. These are things that I can immediately apply to my own journey and use as stepping stones towards creating value out of my own idea, which is what entrepreneurship is all about.

Entrepreneurship In Education


Part 1 in a three-part series on Entrepreneurship In Education for the course Education Theories, Trends, and Entrepreneurship at the Oulu University of Applied Sciences Education Entrepreneurship Master’s Degree Programme. Read part 2 by clicking here and part 3 by clicking here.

The words entrepreneurship and education when taken individually can be romanticized and idealized. But when they are put together they conjure up a different set of emotions. Some words that might come to mind are contradiction, sacrilege, or possibly even blasphemy. But for me, they are bound by two important words, creation and value.

Entrepreneurship is commonly defined as “creating economic value through a business or enterprise.” In the context of education entrepreneurship, I prefer to focus on the components that speak to the creation of value. I define education entrepreneurship as “creating value for teaching and learning through a business or enterprise.” This value creation can come in many forms. It may be improving assessment, developing a course or program, or introducing a new textbook.

In contrast to entrepreneurship, in which value is created from something that previously didn’t exist, there is also something called intrapreneurship. This is the creation of value within a pre-existing institution or organization. For example, if you are already operating within an established enterprise you can create value for that company. Often times this is initiated by a self-motivated individual who is looking to take action to solve a problem that already exists.

As an education entrepreneur, my experiences have primarily been intrapreneurial. This has taken two forms, first in my work as part of the National Capstone Consortium, and second, as a faculty member where I currently work. Within the consortium, I have created an online platform for members to co-create knowledge and share their experiences. I saw the need for a virtual space for educators to interact outside of our one-week summer summit and so I pitched the idea to the team and was granted funding and support to develop this idea.

At the school where I work full time, I have taken on a few different intrapreneurial ventures. One was putting together a proposal to redesign our middle school math curriculum and modifying our textbook sequence. Both of these efforts involved the creation of value within an organization that was already pre-existing. This is how I would define them as being intrapreneurial.

At the moment continuing work on these intrapreneurial plans is most relevant to me. I am involved in two institutions that I am passionate about and I would like to continue to create value for them both. I have some ideas about building on my work with the National Capstone Consortium through the creation of online courses for professional learning. At the school I am working at I am looking into developing systems of competency-based learning for assessment.

As I move forward in my entrepreneurial endeavors there are some key skills to apply and further develop. The first of these is collaboration. This is sometimes an overused and misunderstood word. In entrepreneurship, I think it is very important. While people may see entrepreneurship as an individualistic act, it actually takes a lot of working with others, primarily in co-creating, and co-ideation. The second is experimentation. I also like to think of this as play. Trying new things, shipping your ideas, and essentially make the doing of the work part of the creative process. And finally, connection. Bringing your ideas to an audience and interacting with them as they experience your creation.

These key entrepreneurial skills – collaboration, experimentation, and connection are drawn from my experiences as a creative in music. These are three skills that I rely heavily on as a musician and that I feel have a direct application in the world of entrepreneurship. It is through my work as an education entrepreneur that I look to create value in teaching and learning.

Experiences Developing Knowledge in the Fields of Education and Entrepreneurship (and Creativity)

Learning and knowledge are difficult terms to define, yet are elements that are integral parts of our existence as humans. How can something that is so ingrained in our identify be such a challenge to talk about? Probably because learning and knowledge are highly complex activities that are highly variable from person to person, from moment to moment, and from experience to experience.

This is a summary of three key components of my knowledge base and the learning experiences that nurtured their development. They are the non-formalized learning experiences I’ve had in my field as a professional educator, the individual learning journey I took as an entrepreneur in my career as a music professional, and the informal learning path I took as a creative in the field of music. This last part will focus on my learning in the realm of traditional Hawaiian acoustic string music.

The purpose behind this writing is as part of an assignment in my graduate studies in Educational Entrepreneurship at Oulu University of Applied Sciences. It is an examination of the variety of learning experiences that have shaped my purpose behind establishing a formal community of practice around capstone education in the United States.

My knowledge as an educator has relied tremendously on a variety of non-formal learning experiences. We can define non-formal learning for our purposes as learning that exists outside of a formalized learning structure commonly found at universities, colleges, or trade schools. While I do have training and certification in the field of English as a Second Language instruction, my current professional domain is primarily in Mathematics instruction.

After a number of years of on the job training as a substitute teacher and tutor, I was given the privilege and responsibility of delivering a formal grade 8 algebra curriculum. My process of gaining knowledge in this domain was through consistent attendance at conference-style seminars. I also consumed literature on mathematics instruction which was primarily introduced or facilitated through the experiences I had at professional development seminars. Some notable conference experiences were at the Visible Learning Conference and at the conference of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

These experiences have had a tremendous impact on developing my knowledge as a professional mathematics instructor and educator in general. I have since delivered presentations within small professional learning communities as well as my school community at large. I have also become more involved in shaping the mathematics curriculum at my school. These opportunities were only made available to me through knowledge gained by these non-formal learning experiences.

As for individualized learning, this has taken place in my experiences in the entrepreneurial field as a professional musician. I am defining individual learning as the process of gaining knowledge through self-directed means. I developed this applicable knowledge in the areas of website design, pricing, marketing, tax laws, logo and branding design, and live sound engineering. The manner in which I gained this knowledge was through reading books, podcasts, online articles and journals, observation, and basic trial-and-error. Over time this leads to a fully operational business that I called “Dagan Music” that has generated consistent income for me. At the moment due to COVID and my focus on developing my career as an educational professional, I have shifted my priorities away from supporting this entrepreneurial venture, but I plan on continuing this field as a supplement to my educational career.

The final area of knowledge acquisition I’d like to share is in the domain of Hawaiian acoustic string music. This is the most personal to me as it carries with it not only the surface level knowledge required to create this style of music but the cultural knowledge behind it as well. In fact, it is part of the cultural construct of learning this type of music that is typically bound to the informal delivery mechanism.

For this final domain, I will be defining informal learning as learning from experience. In the case of Hawaiian acoustic string music, the knowledge is commonly delivered through watching, listening, and participating in unstructured jam sessions called kanikapila. These often occur at social gatherings at homes, backyards, or the beach where people gather to socialize, celebrate, or sometimes mourn the loss of a significant community member.

My experience growing up embedded in the Hawaiian community on Hawaiʻi Island I had exposure to these informal jam sessions and spent many hours at first observing, watching, and listening. The knowledge gained from these experiences was then developed at home through the disciplined practice of the various musical canon associated with this type of music. After many years of this learning, which could be categorized as self-directed, I slowly moved towards immersing myself in the music-making part of the experience. At this stage, the knowledge was accelerated through the mentorship of individuals who were established as masters of this craft.

The final stage of gaining knowledge in this field was through considerable time spent in additional kanikapila. Here the finer points of Hawaiian acoustic string music were emphasized and developed through these mentorship relationships. Finally, the experience culminated with full acceptance into the community through professional opportunities to perform alongside the purveyors of this craft in public settings. This final stage establishes you within the community as having gained the relevant knowledge to be a practitioner of this form of music.

These three separate learning experiences have had a significant impact on my desire to establish a formal community of practice around capstone education in the United States. They all overlap at an intersection of creativity, entrepreneurship, and explicit knowledge. These are the three things that I feel will guide the development of educational models in the coming millennia. All three are legs on the stool of learning. Creativity is the phenomenon of forming something new, entrepreneurship as the act of extracting value, and explicit knowledge as information that has been codified in order to be transmissible. It is my goal as an educational entrepreneur to build organizations that can facilitate the development of these educational models.

Jumping In: Part 3 of Diving Into Inquiry

This is the part of the journey in which I made the bold and adventurous step of directly incorporating the inquiry model into my classroom. Having read the book Diving Into Inquiry by Trevor McKenzie I had arrived at the point in which I could see with some level of clarity how this would look in my teaching.

Just to back up a little, I did have some experience with an inquiry model in a digital technology class that I had been teaching for a couple years without even knowing it. I may not have had the framework or lexicon to describe what I was doing as being pure inquiry, but looking back by taking a student centered approach in how I designed rubrics, gave students agency in choosing artifacts for their learning, and through the creation of an authentic audience for their products, I had already been espousing the main tenants of inquiry based learning in my classroom. The jump I was looking to make this school year, was to have it more transparently embedded into the learning the students would be doing. So in looking at step one of starting the inquiry process, “Think big and plan for the future classroom you want for your learners”, I had already made progress towards that goal.

What I did do this year in a class that I had rebranded as “Music Technology” was to combine the elements I had already been using with the language of inquiry, and to also embed the framework of a design thinking model developed by John Spencer and AJ Juliani called “The Launch Cycle” into the process. I could write a whole series of blogs on the launch cycle model and their accompanying website and book, but I am just going to point you to their resources on the web and let you explore them yourself. So go here to learn more about the Launch Cycle. Basically this is a design thinking framework. And one that I think when it is combined with the tenants of inquiry espoused by Trevor McKenzie can combine to be a powerful force for learning. I included a graphic from their website for reference.

So how did this look? Well first I started off with the process of getting students to explore and investigate music technology as a broad topic. I started with a video that showed a music producer demonstrating how he uses technology to create an entire song from scratch using only his phone and his computer. The video showed how we as people are music creators and how through the use of technology we can design and build original musical creations with minimal resources. I then provided students the space to just explore different ways that music and technology work together to create original products. I held discussions with students in which they were encouraged to share what interests them and what they are passionate about. A student who liked surfing shared about the types of songs on their favorite YouTube surfing video. A student into video games shared about how music is effectively used to convey emotion during certain idea game sequences. Anything to get them to connect the topic of music technology to their own lives. And that’s what the overall goal was in this first phase, to just get them to connect to the learning that we were doing.

The way Mckenzie describes this process in Dive Into Inquiry is through the four pillars of inquiry. We were primarily living in the “explore a passion” and “delve into your curiosities” pillars, but you can see in his book that there are other areas in which you can get students to begin the inquiry process. In terms of exploring a passion McKenzie does provide a series of prompts that you can use for students to reflect about their passions which was very helpful. In the Launch cycle this is what Spencer and Juliani call “Look, Listen, and Learn”. It is essentially an opportunity for students to just be free, explore, investigate and begin that process of connecting with a topic or idea that they are passionate about engaging with.

Once students has identified something that they are passionate about, the next stage of this process was to start asking questions and doing some research. Now here is where there is a little dissonance in approaches between the “launch cycle” and the inquiry model proposed by Mckenzie, but I think both are equally valid approaches. McKenzie proposes that students should create an essential question, make a proposal, then begin researching. The launch cycle suggests researching, developing ideas, then making a proposal (they call it the “ask tons of questions”, “understand the process or problem”, and “navigate ideas” sequence). I have tried both, specifically in my year long Capstone course that I teach, and I personally have found that having students conduct the research then making the proposal afterwards as proposed by Spencer and Juliani has some advantages. But I do not think that it is black and white and that there is a lot of validity in having students make a proposal then beginning the research afterwards.

Again, having tried both, I personally found that when students make the proposal first before having done extensive research, they end up making changes to their idea. Where as if we provide students the space to do the research first and then make a proposal, they have more information to draw from when pitching their idea. I will also add as a follow up that many of these steps are cyclical and if students make a proposal, then research, then make edits to their original proposal they are still arriving at the same point of incorporating their learning into their proposed product. So in this sense as long as you are providing students the space to dig more deeply in their topic during the process of pitching their idea students will be successful in having agency in how they are going to be representing their learning. Much like anything, try out different approaches, see what works best for you and your students, reflect, and as always be open to change. All in all if there is some form of research and a proposal after students have identified an idea or topic that they are passionate about you are supporting student inquiry.

There is one thing I do want to mention here before we move on, there were a series of protocols and presentations of the learning that took place during the research and proposal phases. For the research, each student did have to submit their notes to me that was assessed on a rubric that they created through a process of collaborative work. They also created a slide deck summarizing the key information that they learned about their topic that was presented to the class. That was also assessed on a rubric that they created as a class through a collabroative process of suggesting different grading criteria. Not only did these steps encourage ownership and agency in their learning, but it also gave them an opportunity to practice those crucial 21st century skills of collaboration, communication, and critical thinking. In proposing their project idea they worked in small groups and pairs “pitching” their project idea and using a protocol of clarifying and probing questions from their peers in which they collected feedback. They then used that feedback to edit their proposals and prepared them for final submission to me for approval. Spencer and Juliani have something they call the twenty minute feedback system that was helpful here.

Next came the part in which they began creating their product. In this phase it is really important to make sure that they had a plan for how they were going to get this product made. If a student was going to make a video of them dancing with original music that they created and added to the edited video, they had to present a detailed calendar of the tasks that they would complete to bring this idea to fruition by a set a deadline. This was initiated in the proposal phase, meaning when proposing their product they had to provide a rough outline of 4 or 5 major tasks they would need to do in order to bring their product to life. In McKenzie’s book he has a section titled “the plan and the pitch”. He also provides a nice checklist of items titled “Free Inquiry Proposal” that outlines the questions a student needs to have addressed before they move into the creation phase. What I am saying is that this rough outline needs to be brought out of the proposal and treated separately as its own step.

My suggestion here is to not underestimate the importance of this step. It needs to be made clear to students that this all needs to be worked out before you can give a go ahead for them to begin creating their product. I have also found that this is also the part the students struggled with the most. In my case I found that a student might have a good idea, for example make a video of themselves dancing with music, but haven’t been able to think through the steps required to get to the final product. And this is where I realized I had aimed a little too high in that not all the students had come into my class with experience in this type of learning. Also being in a mixed grade arts elective I had students of different grade levels with a variety of capacities to independently design their learning.

Regardless, through careful work with each student, and intentional feedback and guidance I was able to develop a plan for each student to create a sequence of tasks and a proposal that had a framework that they could follow to ensure an opportunity at success. I did have the advantage of a smaller class and at a smaller school in which I had established relationships with many of the students. So the ability to effectively connect with them and draw out their ideas was made easier than if I had a large class with students that I had not had any previous relationship with. So I would suggest that maybe you be very intentional about the level of expectation you have for students in being able to design an entire project with the experience that they have.

Once the plan and proposal was made and approved, I was now able to simply give students the space, time, and resources to bring their idea to life. I created a system in which we made a large white board with each student, their project plan, the major taks with due dates, and their essential question. Each day they had to write a brief summary at the end of class sharing about how they had progressed on the task that they were currently working on and what they were going to do next. At the end of each week they did a broader summary of the work that they did that week and how they were progressing in the their overall plan. I found that this kept them accountable to themselves and to their plan and gave them the space to reflect on how they were progressing towards completion of their product. This is somewhat along the lines of what McKenzie called “learning evidence check-ins”. I would say though that rather being a check in on the evidence of the learning, these are check ins on evidence of their product development. Essentially the purpose of the class is for students to learn how to use technology to create products using music, so in that sense I’m checking for evidence of their learning. I feel that the sentiment is the same, but above all it is important that I am regularly engaging with each student to keep tabs on what they are doing.

So a lot of my time was spent moving from student to student, making sure they were engaging with their product creation, and helping guide them towards resources that would help them answer any questions that they had. I did find this last step very important. Rather than be the one with all the answers I forced them to go and find answers to any questions that they had. Sometimes this was really hard because there may be asking me how to do something on Gargeband that I knew how to do, but I really wanted to make the creation authentic and get them to be more comfortable finding answers on their own rather than always turning to me. After a little while of this they became very used to this process and stopped always turning to me when they have a quesiton.

The other reason that this is nice is that sometimes we really don’t know how to answer their questions For example I had one student building a MIDI controller using an Arduino. This was something that I had zero experience with and I honestly couldn’t have helped him even if I tried! Where I was able to be of help was in connecting him with resources or mentors that might be helpful. For example I contacted a teacher at a local school who taught a music recording class for high schoolers and put them in touch via email. Through this communication the student was able to get some information about their question that ultimately allowed them to create their MIDI controller.

Moving forward as the students progressed through their product creation phase about 3/4 of the way through I created a check in phase where students shared their progress in small groups and asked for feedback on how to overcome a particular challenge. This would align with the “highlight and fix” phase from the launch cycle of Spencer and Juliani. I didn’t quite see this specifically built into McKenzie’s process in Dive Into Inquiry, but I will say that there are a number of mentions of peer feedback, and looking at other’s work. So while he may not explicitly outline a process for doing this in his model, the process fo eliciting feedback, sharing with peers, and revising your work based on that feedback is covered. Again, do not underestimate this phase as well. Students are very honest with each other and also I have found that since they are the ones in the process of creating their product, they can often see things or suggest things that we may not notice. And again, there is that built in power of students taking ownership of their and each others’ learning and having agency in the process. Rather than turning to me for validation or confirmation of their work, they are using input from their peers on how to make improvements. Of course it is important here that you have clear protocols and expectations in place for how this process will unfold in order to ensure respectful communication and collaboration. The last thing you want to see is a student getting discouraged or giving up because another student was inappropriately critical of their work. But I have found that students are very respectful of each other and are more than capable of providing effective feedback to each other.

So this brings us to the final and most exciting phase. McKenzie called it a “public display of understanding”, Spencer and Juliani call it the “Launch”. Either way it is important that you provide students a platform to show off what they created. So I did this in a few different ways. First internally students presented their creations to their classmates via a prepared presentation in which they summarized their essential question, their process, and their final creation. Again they were assessed on a rubric that they collaboratively created as a class. I then created an opportunity during a lunch recess for all students to come into the digital media lab to see and interact with the products. And then finally I solicited a few projects to be shared at our school assembly. I also can add that the timing of the project completion conveniently feel right after our parent’s weekend event so while parents were visiting students were able to share with parents and families when their projects were right at about 95% complete. In the future I think I would create some sort of authentic showcase for all parents to interact with the student projects, possibly during a block of time after school.

Now I am not going to say that everything went peachy and happy. Some students were behind deadlines, some had to drastically reduce the scope of their project to create something tangible. Some wanted to shift their idea completely in the middle of the project creation and were sadly dissaponted when I guided them towards seeing their idea through. Some students struggled with learning the necessary skills to execute their project idea. But all in all, I asked students to be reflective on their process and identify where did things go wrong. I shared my own experiences of projects in my own life that had gone awry an how I had to pivot to get it completed. I constantly emphasized that this is a process and that in the long run it is most important that they learn how to think independently and to problem solve, rather than be able to create some masterpiece.

It was a big mental hurdle for students to revel in the process rather than the product. Students struggled to have to create something to represent their learning rather than just take a test. In fact about half way through one student said out loud, “why can’t we just take a test on this instead of having to do all this stuff?”. Fortunately one of the students shot back, “yeah but then we wouldn’t have anything that we created at the end, we’d just have some piece of paper with a number on it”. I quietly looked at up and thought to myself, “thank you, maybe we got a shot here”.

I can’t say how right McKenzie was when he said, “find comfort in the uncertainty”. I had no idea how this process was going to go. I feel fortunate to work at a school that trusts me and gives me the freedom to teach a class like music technology where my leadership can say, that sounds awesome, go for it! I know I am privileged to work at a school that can provide me the resources to purchases the items necessary to create music technology products. But as I will share in the next post in this blog series, this way of teaching and learning can work in a variety of classrooms with a limited budget. Because after this experience in music technology I was so inspired that I felt ready to take this into my grade 8 Algebra 1 class. I saw so much potential in these models developed by Mckenzie and the team of Spencer and Juliani that I knew I had to go deeper, I had to dive even further into his thing called inquiry.