What if we ask more questions?: 2014 Reflections

Over the course of the last year, I’ve changed the approach with which I participate in conferences, thanks in part to a number of amazing conference experiences (e.g., FUSE14) and a formative conversation I had with +Karl Lindgren-Streicher and +Kristen Swanson at #cue14 last spring (Karl has also written on the conversation). In brief, we talked at length about how we want to make our conference experiences more conversational, given the amazing number of educational minds that they always collect, and wondered how we could create and/or participate in more discussion-based opportunities that give us the chance to think deeply about education.

The What If…? conference model is one such opportunity, and so I was excited to learn a few months ago that one of these events, What If…? Las Vegas, would be coming to Las Vegas over the holiday break, when I would be home visiting my family. What If…? conferences work by inviting a number of “Questioneers” to give 8-minute presentations around a central question that’s typically radical and challenging with the goal of inspiring change agents. After every 3 questions, conference participants break out in to small group sessions, where we discuss the questions in more detail and work on “action plan” steps based on them.

With a welcome diversity of questions and participants, What If…? Las Vegas provided the perfect forum to think through some of the ideas I’ve been churning in my head this year. I’ll outline just a few of the excellent questions below:

  • For me, 2014 has been the year of innovation, in which I’ve been eager to put action behind the ideas I’ve been thinking on. Ebele Mogo asked the question “What if the only limits were the limits of our imagination?”, focusing on disruptive criticism, which she argued we should be doing “by creation but first by confronting.” I love the way she framed criticism not as something negative and to be avoided, but rather as a natural part of the innovation process that critically relies on the power of imagination and creation. By engaging with all prior creation in this way, we can all be artists, regardless of the particular subject that we study. This is the essential component of the “Yes, and…” culture that I’m so invested in creating within our community.

  • Over the summer, I read Steven Johnson’s excellent Future Perfect on the rise of the distributed network, which has been one of the more transformative ideas I’ve learned in quite some time. Without going into too much detail here, I’m in agreement with Johnson, Aaron Dignan (cf. his fantastic 99u talk on thinking like a startup), and others that the “flat” org model that many startups are using belong in education. 
    Melanie Sanchez wondered “What if the middle man should not be eliminated?”, based on her experience translating between specialists and non-specialists. She provided a compelling argument for the need of facilitators or “middlemen”, and so I’m still thinking about what role such facilitators can play within a distributed network. In this type of network, it seems to me that, unlike the centralized networks with facilitators only at network nodes, everyone in a distributed network should view themselves in this middleman role. And in education, I think this means that all teachers should see themselves as facilitators, bridging the gap between content and skills on the one hand and students on the other.

  • In the last quarter of the year, I’ve found myself deeply interest in urban design and the “New Urbanism” movement, which argues for more pedestrian-friendly urban and social architecture and against the suburb or “exurb” model that grew after World War II in the United States (cf. Happy City and The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City for some excellent reading on the ideas). Like the distributed network, I think there are parallels to be found between New Urbanism and school design, but the idea is still just taking shape in my head.
    Rachel Aliana Jaffe asked “What if we could design the future experience of the city using place-specific digital applications?” and explored what the future of the internet could look like as a tool for collaboration and socializing. As I continue to think about the ways that New Urbanist architecture applies to schools, I am reminded to consider the futurist perspectives that Rachel mentioned as a necessary part of this architecture, in that digital technologies should have a central role in adding a social purpose to what we do.

  • Overall, my biggest takeaway from the calendar year is the power of questions to spark storytelling. But there’s often an awkward contradiction between using stories to define us and being able to change or let them go altogether so that we’re not bound to them. This is exactly what mindfulness can bring to education, and it’s something I’ve been thinking about for quite some time now.
    There were a number of questions anchored on storytelling, and I found Mark Laisure‘s question “What if you could spend your days really truly being you?” to be especially provocative. He made me think carefully about what I tell myself about myself and what I really believe about myself, namely what it means to be authentically “me.” This question is perhaps one of the more important questions worth reflecting on, as we continue to work on our professional growth, and I’m certain that I’ll spend quite some time thinking through it.
With its focus on people and their stories and its setting in a revitalized part of Downtown Las Vegas, the What If…? conference experience was a huge success (especially while spending time with +Sara Boucher and +Melissa Strong). I now see that we don’t ask open-ended questions, either to ourselves or to our students, and it’s more clear to me than ever that sustainable learning is about the questions we learn to ask, rather than the answers. Questions are precisely what allows us to be designers of our own experiences, and I am looking forward to thinking through the questions above in greater details with a designer’s mindset. There will be at least three more What If…? conferences coming to California next year, with one coming to the San Diego, Los Angeles, and Bay Areas, respectively, and I can’t wait to go through this process again. Thanks to +Matt Murrie and Felicia Mae Rateliff for organizing and running the conference, and thanks to all the wonderful and inspiring participants!

What are your top 3 takeaway questions that you’ve learned this year? I’m very eager to know what others have to share so we can start taking actions toward answering our questions the right way and make some waves together.