GENSLER PANEL: steelemaley4.001

Prototyping the Future




In 2010 I showed an undergraduate class in instructional technology I was teaching Sugata Mitra’s TED Talk The Child Driven Education .  As we finished, I asked them to develop questions for our next  seminar on new learning ecologies and opened the floor to immediate questions and discussion.  Though a blended class, I had shown this film face to face so that I might see the reactions of these soon to be minted teachers. They were silent until an older student in a midlife career change asked the critical question…. “what did he mean when he said ‘if machines could replace a teacher’ they should?” From there, the discussion flowed beautifully.  That conversation persisted for the rest of the course and, I hope, beyond.
In that class and many others, I have tried to guide deliberation with big questions about humans, design and practice– not offering technology as some cut away all powerful and intervening point of its own. Technological tools in the hands of humans can be used to innovate, expand and open our social economic and environmental frontier. An iPad used by a second grader to answer the questions she has co-developed by collecting participatory data for a global & multi-sited project on water quality is powerful.  Crowd sourcing people (student partners, mentors, etc. . . ) to support the learning process via the vast landscape of the internet is powerful.  Focus on the action, the social construct, the learning involved, not the structures of “school” or “positions” and you have the aims of education alight and aloft–in practice. That said, technology today is being used to replicate the 20thcentury models of education anew.  The replacement of textbooks “online”, the “flipping” of didactic instruction to the web and the adaptive learning wave seem to inflame institutional immunity to change, not reflect what is needed in our rapidly changing world.  I will admit that technology, used to replicate 20th century teaching challenges the salience of teaching–a very stark realization.  Enter Sugata.

Sugata challenges, inspires and infuriates the educational community.  He is an educator and a futurist who, through his design research projects, has created a series of design fictions, described by Bruce Sterling as “the deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change.”

Take a look at his TED Wish again:


Sugata is not advocating that technology replace humans, rather that humans use technology  to envision, design and practice within new ecologies of learning. He posits that the teacher’s role today is to “set the learning in motion” and that “educational self organization Its not about making learning happen its about letting it happen.” He also asks a  wondrous question in the Ted talk… we “want to be spare parts for a massive supercomputer in the future?”.  Sugata is challenging us to a global deliberation, to join a global research project, to observe, question, experiment, network and associate.  To me, this is the way human agency is embedded in technology and innovation.  Deliberation, decision making, prototyping, iteration all involve the designer and end user to be involved as active and connected agents in learning–if not this, what is the aim of education?

Sugata recently headlined The Oppi Festival with a host of others I respect dearly including Yong Zhao, Tony Wagner and Doug Belshaw. According to this post, Sugata continues to ruffle feathers in certain circles of education while according to this post he continues to inspire.  Sugata is doing exactly what he set out to do, and he is doing it well.

Are you engaging with Sugata in his research, incorporating his ideas into your design and practice as an educator?  I would love for you to leave information on your project, commentary and links.



Design Fiction and Prototyping Disruption

I was amazed by this Bruce Sterling talk at NEXT 13 that Audrey Waters forwarded. She mentions going over the talk again and again….I can see why:

Though Sterling situates a role for design fiction in the disruptive innovation/innovators landscape (for a VERY talented crowd at NEXT13 ) he does much more in this talk.  His call for a networked civil world is stunning, his scolding questions to the crowd about the facile nature of innovation and humanity even more so.

I realize now that so much of my instructional design has started with  what I could call design fiction (though I have called it theorizing).  My good friend Rob Greco has long discussed design fiction and encouraged me to think more broadly about the space.  I will be doing this more over the year and exploring the obvious nexus between design fiction and the design thinking/making/diy movements afoot in education. This quote from Boulding (1996) keeps surfacing for me…..

Imagining how events could be otherwise than they are is a hallmark freedom and power of human beings. Making social imagination work for us involves us in new concepts and principles, in new ways of using our minds to grasp complexities we do not yet comprehend. Thinking this way helps us construct new social realities both locally and globally. Social imagination is not merely for the sake of of academic knowing; it must include our feelings, and it must include our acting.- D. Bob Gowin in Boulding (1998)

Here are a few links that Sterling mentions about those leading in the design fiction/human-design-innovation space.

Superflux: “is a collaborative design practice working at the intersection of
emerging technologies and everyday life to design for a world in flux.”

The Near Future Laboratory: who’s “goal is to understand how imaginations and hypothesis become materialized to swerve the present into new, more habitable near future worlds.”

Arup Forsight: who “research and raise awareness about the major challenges affecting the built environment and their implications. We also run events to help clients think more creatively about the long term future, and to manage risk and uncertainty more effectively.”

Design Interaction Program at RCA: who “are interested in the social, cultural and ethical consequences of emerging technologies, and this means asking probing questions through design. To this end, we encourage students to consider the implications, as well as the applications, of new technologies, and thus to seek fresh approaches to interaction design – approaches that are meaningful and relevant today. In short, we see this field of design as a fertile way of thinking about the life around us, within us, and in the future beyond us”.


A Networked Learning Ecology

I wrote this post in 2011 and am reposting now after an inspiring NAIS14 session led by Bo Adams, and  Grant Lichtman and after confluence with so many incredible educators over the last two weeks. You can find a crowd-sourced archive of Bo and Grant’s session at the Twitter hashtag #boandgrant. I hope these ideas might spark further conversation about what’s going on in education already and what’s possible in the near future.

A day in the learning ecology of Piper Hahn

Piper is a 15 year old who lives in Midcoast Maine, US. A year ago, Piper heard about a new way to learn, and decided to take part in a new learning experience called the Maine Networked Learning Project. Known as “the Mesh” to participants, this learning ecology offered Piper the chance to apply her passion for learning in highly experiential and collaborative ways with groups of young people of varied ages, adult and youth mentors with knowledge territory specialties and organizations focused on ensuring sustainable and resilient societies, economies, and the environment. This is a snapshot of her day.

A day in the learning ecology of Piper Hahn

Piper gets ready for her week by sitting outside sipping tea and looking at her smart phone. She is checking project updates sent from the team she has been working with for the last two months on her Google Reader and Twitter feed. The project Piper is checking in on deals with food justice in the rural communities of her bioregion.

Seeing many updates, and much activity she decides to look at the overall “mesh” schedule for the day. She notices that the MNLP van will be moving across the local region starting in an hour. To get a ride on this local transportation system she has to ride her bike to a station stop or have her parents drop her off at the regional mesh meet-up location. But before deciding this she reviews her weekly schedule on her mobile.

Piper notices that she and three others will be presenting at the local Veterans of Foreign Wars organization to a large group on the history of local food cultivation in the region. She and her Food Justice project group have spent a good deal of time completing ethnographic studies of the areas “locals”. These participant interviews are seminal to their presentation as they show that local sustainability and resilience projects are not “outside” or “rich Peoples” pursuits, but can save local economies and the historical heritage this stakeholder group cherishes. The group has also been working in restoration crews on local farms as a service learning tie in to their studies. The project has been extensive. Piper and her group have covered mathematics, experimental sciences, writing, social sciences and much more in an integrated project framework. They have relied on their mesh mentors, local experts (educators, authors, historians, scientists….), and the internet for research, recording (writing, video) and exhibiting their knowledge and understanding to multiple community stakeholder groups.

As the project presentation pre-work is done, Piper contacts her group via twitter hashtag to remind all that they will need an hour to meet-up before the presentation and to ride their bikes to the VAW hall from the meet-up. Immediately she gets a response from three of the four other group members that they will meet prior to the VAW event. They remind each other that a collaborative learning session will be going on for applied algebra and trigonometry concepts at Noon. This session will be special, as an innovative regional planner from rural Scotland will be mentoring at the Self Organized Learning Environment today along with their local quantitative reasoning/systems thinking mentors. She video chats with one participant letting her know that she will be at the SOLE, and is hoping to get a ride to her house (or dorm) after today’s VAW presentation. That done, Piper checks with her parents (or dorm parents) and decides to ride her bike to a mesh station stop. She then rides the mesh van into town and catches up on posts in her Reader and replies to myriad comments and responses in here network on the way.

At the Meet-up location (a wide open space that reminds Piper of a open market of some kind), she settles in with the other young people in study, discussion and deliberation. Today she takes out her tablet and reads a work in global literature that was suggested by a mentor she has in South Asia. She will take notes on the work over the next hour and send those notes via blog post to the mentor. The mentor, other participants and Piper are involved in a global project combining cultural understandings of place into a wiki resource for future learners to use. She sees connections everywhere in her learning and after being inspired by an experience in India she’s just read about (or had?), Piper adds content for today’s VFW presentation to the shared presentation document for group review.

Piper takes a run with others from the meet-up, and then decides to review the quantitative reasoning skills that figure into the edible re-vegetation project from Scotland being discussed at the SOLE today. Piper will get another chance to apply her growing knowledge and understanding with today’s SOLE because the re-vegetation work they are doing locally is based on the Scottish project being discussed.

After the SOLE, and successful VAW presentation the group meets at a Mesh group members house. The group has grown from five to seven now as the crew who filmed the presentation and ethnographic methods over the last months are with them to discuss editing and working on the script for the groups public exhibition of findings. Piper and her group know that the scientists, mentors, politicians, local and global participants, and their peers will attend the exhibition. This step in their project leads to funding and further action on their multi-year food security project. After Dinner with the host family, rides home for most, and ePortfolio updates. The rest of the week will be full of networked, experiential, and mobile learning directly applied to creating solutions in an interdependent world.

Who Are You Now?

“We cannot withdraw from the choices or moral consequences that come with knowledge”

-J. Roberts (2012)

Do you remember the last time your community of learners came alive in ways that astounded you….maybe scared you ( a little?). Students convened online study sessions around topics of self and social concerns, the way physics connects to the earth, poetry, a book, a simulation of the UN….took an interconnected service  learning project to worldwide levels, devoted themselves to others (or in my case, the student who has devoted her life to the architecture of resilient human rights struggles after our course studied Darfur)….that, just the world of upper schools. Amazing middle level educators like Bill Ivey can undoubtedly tell us of integrated mini-societies, futures thinking projects and more that that made the walls and halls of his school burst at the seams and demand the outside world as an essential freedom for growth.  Lower schools could regale us with stories of learning that feature heart-exploration, play and foundational connection to community and scholastic learning that cause hope to flourish.  The outcomes of the times you may be envisioning are vast. These experiences propel individuals and communities of learning into the spaces many of us yearn for in education.  They are wild spaces, panarchic frontiers and borderlands of learning. These learning experiences are liminal….but do they last?  How do we process experiences past the feel good times as they fade so often under a duress of the status quo and reoccurring managerial education that orders us again….not as ecologic complexity might order, but with social constructs that take enormous effort on the part of humans to maintain (schedules, tests, behavior management, fragmented disciplinary instruction)….

What if we asked ourselves, colleagues and the young people we interact with “who are you now?” as a key assessment or better yet, centerpiece of our curricula.1 Given the space and time to reflect on this question what can you imagine they would say….what would you say?  “Who are you now?”  The statement gathers the epistemology and praxis of experience in education in the simplest yet most potent way.  If we are discussing schools, pedagogy, thinking and action this question is in many ways all encompassing. Who are you now?  Have you given yourself, the students you serve, the  faculty you inspire, the community you share joy with the time to reflect on those experiences that made the heart sing?  Aren’t our founding school visions and missions built upon supporting young people in a growth meant to easily answer this question for the sake of the world? It is startling to know how much we and our learning communities learn every day, month and year. I challenge you to ask this question of yourself, students and beyond on a regular basis. Be careful however, in the way you open a heart and soul.  If you ask, listen for their sake as they answer.  Do not grade, do not measure, do not benchmark against a standard….simply ask and listen.  I hope what you hear is experience unchained. If this experience is allowed to grow and change in your school as humanity does what is our next step? The new fields of experiential education are open to us.  We are “making”, flying kids around the earth and driving them across town to connect and serve, enabling connections around the earth through the internet, sitting down with, instead of standing in front of young people, and asking foundational questions of ourselves about education. Ultimately then, what are the moral choices we would face as the answers to our question “who are you now?” emerged and wove a tapestry of humanity and confluence around us?


1 I participated in the 2014 Independent Schools Experiential Education Network (ISEEN) Annual Institute January 15-18. The experience was iseenfulfilling. Meaningful discussions and collaboration unfolded daily at the institute with some amazing educators from around North America. As you might imagine this group was active and I found myself in deep belly laughs multiple times–a treat. In a recent post I make an argument that a New Field For Learning is emergent in education. The institute is a testament to this in many ways with its focus on experiential education. There were a wide arc of individuals at ISEEN representing faculty, directors of outdoor programs and amazing Headmasters like Ed Maggert of The College School. There where also industry professionals, professors, researchers, lawyers and luminaries like Dan Garvey (link is to a video of Dan Speaking on the future of education at a NOLS faculty gathering). As I reflect on the conference a few points of wonder have stayed with me as I think about the place of experience in education.

On day two of ISEEN, Dr. Barry Wright spoke to the institute on institutional and personal change. I tend to be tough company for businessese speakers on the topic of change. My work is influenced by the time I have worked with and learned from Shoshana Zuboff . Her work on bypass, mutation and change theory for institutions sings to me as vitally important. That said, Barry was a good speaker, a smart man and a tale he told has stuck. The tale was of him entering his Ph. D. program and being reunited with an earlier mentor he had not seen for years. As he worked to track his mentor down, he only caught fleeting interactions with the man. He describes the first interaction with this professor like so. As he walked eagerly to speak with the mentor, the man looked him in the eyes and said “who are you now?”, and kept walking.

My thanks go out to Jesse Barre of Albuquerque Academy and all of the participants at ISEEN 14.  You moved me.


A New Field of Learning

I am spending this week in Winnipeg, Manitoba with Matt Henderson of Saint-John’s Ravenscourt School (SJR). Matt’s teaching and research focus on a few deep interests of mine, ecoliteracy and experience in educaton. Its been wonderful to get to know him better, and share time this week on a new level. As part of the visit I wrote a short piece called a “New Field of Learning”. The paper title is inspired by a Rumi quote first read in Roberts (2012), “Out beyond the ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” The short paper takes a wide view of a new movement in education weaving scholastics and experience. My work on the design of The Bridge Year is also part of the paper and used as an example design and possibility in this movement.

The paper was inspiration for a teacher workshop I delivered to Upper School faculty at SJR and was published in the Manitoba Association of Computer Educators and Manitoba Social Science Teachers Association journal ahead of a gathering this week.

If you are not following Matt Henderson yet, I would wholeheartedly recommend it. He is an inspiration and will be a guiding figure in the new fields of education.


At the rise of today, and after a long and wonderful day in our vegetable garden prepping and planting, I watched as my wife and co-conspirator did something that reminded me of how wondrous learning environments are designed.

Design can be many things to many people and the at times worry laden “field” of educational design takes into account the cultural, corporate and confused landscape of “education” with an engineers eye and an activists heart, often to good ends.  Learning in many places (I will not list here) shows progress, smiling children and overall good results.  However, the best results, and we all know this, come from something more organic than even the best  design plan.

Back to the land (in this case our organically certified property that we lease to some of the most amazing organic farmers and try to farm ourselves), and my wife.  I spent the day prepping beds, raking and honing some of the best soil in Maine….it will grow amazing vegetables if tended well.  No chemicals, no water (seriously) and little interference tell  of much understanding and planning year after year….good results.  My wife though, always has a way of bypassing all of the planning and just planting the seeds.

On this day, she emptied out a compost bin on a mostly tilled piece of pasture near our garden beds. Its important to know that I have been worried over this piece of land as it was planted but untended last year (read re-pastured) and has had one disc and one till this year (still a frontier).  No matter, out came the rich compost-ish material: some soil but also egg shells a few carrot bits and some other still showing things (not totally “cooked” at all).  She then proceeded to gently mix in some soil from the area near the pile.  It looked messy, disheveled and then…. then she planted seeds.

No this is not the first time she has done this and yes it is second nature to her, passed down from a line of powerful and practical women and their gardens–and it works every time but it always takes me by pleasant surprise.  For out of this pile of mixed and mashed freedom will come our best and sweetest melon of the year, the pumpkin that makes us all gasp…..

I sat and watched, then after all was well finished and I remained in the field, I looked at the pile and thought of the best learning experiences I have had with communities of kids.  Should they have grown to what they were, did I have a plan or design….( was the soil prepared enough)? I can only say that I trusted the seeds, and the environment found–mashed-up and perhaps even unsightly (you do remember the last time you heard the *sound* of learning or looked deeply at the kids as they interacted?  That sweet and tad bit chaotic sound and sight….).  These times, yield the most growth, the sweetest moments, and the lasting bonds.

A wondrous learning environment is often one that emerges, with our care as adults. Our care in letting go of our worry and will to control, our importance in knowing what “works”, or what history says will work “always”…. For just as those seeds will grow wild, they will grow because a gentle bravery bucked all of horticulture and believed in the ability of seeds and freedom at one moment in time.





On Mutation in Education

Mutation in Education1



The Individual

In the 21st century, the individual is the kernal of energy for educational design.


Who are you? What do you need?

Two questions that drive education at the root and rhizomatic levels. Schools have not been tasked with these questions in the past at more than a philosophical level (there are distinct examples otherwise most certainly).


Education–>>Content–>>Hours | Resources and assets needed for each individual.

A premium puzzle exists within this design.

  • Education is multifaceted–culture-as-local space blends with a global civic culture born of the networked world. The individual as interdependent and connected part of the world.
  • Content drives education, be it pure experience or didactic instruction, content is what we as humans intake and produce in organic realms of design,  iteration, understanding and beyond in cycles.
  • For schools and society at present hours matter.  How long someone needs to spend on any given content is important for both progress and leisure.  Schools need to understand the fluidity of time and its discontents.  Ubiquity in learning requires a very different conception of “scheduling”.

Once education, content and hours are considered in design, schools must look at the resources and assets necessary to see education as an ecology.


What would need to happen to realize this mutation in your learning community?

1 Distilled from ongoing conversation and deliberation with Shoshana Zuboff,  Jim Maxmin, Grant Litchman and a very important roundtable discsussion on Lake Damariscotta, ME this spring.

Mobile Learning: Education and Adaptation

A society which is mobile, which is full of channels for the distribution of a change occurring anywhere, must see to it that its members are educated to personal initiative and adaptability.

John Dewey 1916

The quote above was prominent on the new JISC Mobile Learning InfoKit.

Backpacks, Bow Ties and Beyond


photoI can still remember the rain drenched afternoon I realized I would devote my professional life/life to young people and education.  My wife and I were leading  six students in the remote backcountry of Alaska’s Chugach Range.  At a river’s edge 12 miles from the last human sighting (fairly good considering seeing a human at all was rare) I waded in to test the crossing.  On the other side of the river (still miles away) was a rare trapper’s cabin that I had (still) not made it to in my travels in Alaska. I “knew” that these dedicated 14-16 year olds would have “the experience of a lifetime” there.  At midstream in the river  I was waist deep in the river torrent shouldering a full Dana Designs Arcflex Astralplane Overkill pack and (at that time of my life;))built like a solid piece of muscle–it was unsafe…. but I wanted the cabin.  But as I glanced back at my group on the shore I let go of “my” world forever and looked into the eyes of learners for the first time.  What did I see?  A group of cold, scared, able, intelligent, caring and wonderful young people looking at me seeming to  say, “alright we will follow you….”.  I moved back to them from the torrent and words came out that were newly natural: “this is not going to work”.  Instead of testing my W-EMT by courting disaster with kids washed down a wild Alaskan river, we set up tarps on a river bar in the rain and ate burnt beans (yes I also cooked that night)….and thankfully were avoided by thousand pound brown bears.  As we ate, I said the words that changed my life forever….”let’s plan what we are going to do from here-together”. We had no schedule when I dropped mine, and beyond the obvious considerations of safety and health they were given the power to learn for their own sake.  In the future, I co-designed all of my wilderness programs and programs of any kind with learner control at the center. I became an educator.


Fast forward to my “classroom” experiences. I have learned little about young people in the structure of schools.  I have learned to be pained by what I have seen as “schooling” (from schedules to carrot and stick approaches in curriculum), watched confusion and complexity soak up the time and hearts of caring adults and young people….. I will stop here because  you know these issues, they are a litany of “softballs” thrown in education– they are the “cabins across the river” in education.  What did I do? I looked at the young people at the edge of new rivers.  I encouraged learning communities that did not have the boundary of the classrooms assigned, I refused to numerically judge students.  Instead, I saw the internet as a ubiquitous learning environment. I did then what is now called flipping, blended learning, and ePortfolio assessment.  I  needed to make learning as ubiquitous as I could, because I saw those eyes looking at me again and again–“alright we will follow you….”.  I gave and still give the freedom to students to tell me and their learning communities about their lives, weaving that life into the history, geography, global studies, information studies and interdisciplinary projects we undertake.  I didn’t give grades, instead narratives and facilitated constant feedback through peer assessment.  I could not do this all in the school structure.  I had to invent a wilderness experience on the internet.  So with some luck,  Moodle then Mahara, Basecamp, blogs, Twitter, Project Foundry and more we built communities that were integrative and start with the question “lets plan what we are going to do from here-together”.


Where we go from our places of Backpacks or Bowties is vital.  Private school, public school, unschool, homeschool, other programs aside, we have a mission to look into the eyes of the young people who have either decided or been compulsed to learn with us.  Your choices as adults and educators intensely matter and you will be challenged by school and at times even the students who have grown comfortable in the ease of traditional schooling.  The challenge is worth it.

My reflection here comes after meeting Deb Meier for the first time last week.  Deb is a champion of democratic education and a wise, wise elder in our collective community.  Her talk was an amazing blend of her common material, but also wildness.  After a long pause in her speech and seeming to drift with thought she said simply:  “our job as educators is to help create unconquerable humans”. Yes, unconquerable…., the words and meaning of these words are like a fresh mountain air to me.  Will the “beyonds” you design help create unconquerable humans?  Mine will.  But regardless of what you decide to do,  please always look back, see the young people you have dedicated your life to and I hope you hear yourself say “let’s plan what we are going to do from here-together”.