Empowering Education

Until quite recently, calls for more innovation in education have been answered in the same way we have traditionally taught everything else – by creating and following curriculum. In nine years of teaching high school, I witnessed the Ontario curriculum go through several major overhauls in an attempt to keep pace with the demands of the twenty first century. While this shows genuine determination to improve education, curriculum reform alone cannot be expected to respond to the rapid changes of our age. Curriculum may be education’s roadmap, but we need to empower teachers and students to be its drivers.

There is a growing movement of educators who understand that the curriculum can be used in a number of highly innovative ways. This progressive group can be thought of as educational “hackers” – a term which has been rescued from its pejorative and techy connotations and applied to those who find new applications for existing systems. It’s encouraging to witness this mindset enter the mainstream. This past June, I participated in Toronto’s first educational hackathon. Held at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), this event brought together teachers, students, and designers to prototype new approaches and products which could change the education system from within. The fact that an opportunity for such grassroots change was championed by an established institution like OISE is cause for optimism about the future of educational innovation.

The prospect of “hacking education” also tends to excite students. 13 year old Logan LaPlante received a lot of attention for his amazing TEDx talk in which he describes how he created the ultimate Individual Education Plan by applying a hacker’s mindset to his studies. Logan is clearly an exceptional young man, yet the core lesson he presents in his talk can be applied well beyond his own situation. When he talks about “hack schooling”, he is pointing to the many opportunities which are becoming available for students to take ownership of their education – to become active agents rather than passive consumers of knowledge.

To produce more innovators like Logan, education needs to be treated as open source data for teachers and students to customize. This approach is on full display in a new form of professional development for teachers. Edcamps are independently organized “un-conferences” which bring together teachers from across K-12 education. Every Edcamp begins with each participant writing a question or theme on a post-it note. Once these areas of interest are arrayed on a wall, the group votes to distill them into the dozen or so topics which then define the schedule for the day. There are no moderators or facilitators for the discussions that follow, and no AQ credits offered as a carrot. An Edcamp lets teachers hack their PD by providing an opportunity for self-directed, peer-enhanced, interdisciplinary enrichment. Like Logan, EdCamp attendees design their own education.

It was while attending Edcamp Hamilton that I spoke with a grade 7 teacher who told me that she routinely asks her students to participate in the design of their assignments. She shows her class the curriculum expectations that must be fulfilled, then works with her students to find creative ways of satisfying them. In her class, students apply curriculum rather than simply complying with it. And I suspect that, after hearing about this approach, other Edcampers have put this into practice in their own classrooms.

The desire to explore creative curriculum “hacks” is also evident in the growing demand for academic resources which prize divergent thinking and innovative approaches above strict curriculum adherence. Founded by Mary Gordon in 1996, Roots of Empathy has harnessed the creativity and emotional intelligence of over a million students so far. This program brings a neighbourhood infant and parent into the classroom every three weeks during a school year. Under the guidance of a trained instructor, students observe the baby’s development. They use these observations to identify and reflect upon their own feelings and relationships with others. This experience lets students practice making detailed observations and sophisticated comparisons, and helps them to develop mature self-assessment strategies.

In a similar vein, Who is Nobody has found a home in schools which recognize the connection between imagination and academic success. This resource is based around a featureless figure which students work together to build an identity for. Through a series of classroom activities students project aspects of their own personalities onto this piece of fabric and foam in an act which is simultaneously creative and reflective. Unlike traditional academic resources, Who is Nobody was not designed with a checklist of curriculum expectations in mind; rather, it has been offered as a creative experience which dynamic teachers can use to make the curriculum come alive. Like Roots of Empathy, Who is Nobody has been adopted by educational hackers who understand the high order goals of the education system, and are willing to go off-map to reach them.

I recently left classroom teaching to work as the Education Lead at Twenty One Toys. My role here has brought me into contact with a constellation of educators, students, and entrepreneurs who understand that it takes many different agents to make education the innovative and empowering experience it needs to be. Along with hackathons and Edcamps, Roots of Empathy and Who is Nobody, Twenty One Toys is part of a narrative of educational reform that involves many different storytellers. One of my favourite parts of my job (and there are a lot!) is collecting stories of how educators have applied our toys. The stories I have heard thus far have reinforced my optimism about the growing space for creativity and autonomy within the school system.

Educational hackers have taught me a great deal, but their most important lesson is simply this – the best way of empowering teachers and students is handing them the keys to the curriculum and seeing where they drive themselves.

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