Urgent Optimism

I have started and stopped writing about my experiences as an educator four times. Each time I start, I think I know what I want to say. I think I have the secret to creating the most perfect classroom. Each time I think I have discovered the framework that will help other teachers; the framework I wish I had 20 years ago when I decided to pursue my calling to as an educator. I abandon each attempt because I can’t seem to hold on to my thoughts; like trying to hold a handful of water, writing about being a teacher keeps slipping through my fingers.

Every year brings new students, new challenges and new ideas. I am continually inspired by mentors I read like Astro Teller, Peter Diamandis, Austin Kleon and Dr. Ibram Kendi. I keep tweaking my ideas based on what I have learned from innovative organizations like IDEO, Stanford’s d.school and Google X. Each time I think I have found the key, I have looked down to my paper and realized it is still blank.

So, why start now? Why start again?

Peter Diamandis has been discussing and writing about convergence since 2015 with his “Six Ds of Exponentials”: digitization, deception, disruption, demonetization, dematerialization, and democratization. This chain reaction of technological progression leads to enormous new opportunities that seemed science fiction ten years ago. When technologies converge (think robotics and sensors) we see new industries (Google and automotive industry) combining to create autonomous vehicles.

Peter Diamandis

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, I have felt a convergence inside of me. With old and new ideas forming, social unrest and protests building, I have spent a great deal of time reflecting on my life and career as an educator. Jane McGonigal, game designer and author of Reality is Broken, discusses the concept of urgent optimism: the desire to act immediately to tackle an obstacle, motivated by the belief that you have a reasonable hope of success. She believes that active Gamers always believe that an epic win is possible and that it is always worth trying. Gamers don’t sit around and wait for the perfect time to try, they act immediately; they try now.

I have been in public education for twenty years. I have been both amazed and dumbfoundedly frustrated at the potential in creating a system that provides education for all students while severely limiting the ability of great teachers to teach in creative and innovative ways. I have spent my career tackling obstacles because I believe in the power of public education. I believe in having innovative neighborhood schools in every neighborhood. Unlike virtuoso Gamers, I have suffered from learned helplessness as I tried new pedagogical practices in my classroom and either failed or was told to stop. How do I keep trying to innovate my craft as a teacher when the system is rigged against this type of thinking? How do I try to meet the diverse needs of all of my 21st Century students when the school system is still operating using a pre-industrial model for content delivery and instruction that is rooted in white supremacy and racial discrimination?

Throughout my career as an educator, I have worked to instill a growth mindset in my students. Sometimes practicing what one preaches is easier said than done. However, as I steeped myself in creativity and innovative cultures (e.g.: Google, IDEO), I learned to shift my thinking from learned helplessness to learned optimism; from a scarcity mindset to an abundance mindset. Turns out that the world is better than I think and my mindset matters. Even with the daily barrage of systemic obstacles that inhibit my ability to feel like I am making a positive impact on my students, I can still see amazing things happening in my classroom and my school district. Negativity is a self-fulfilling cycle: the more one believes the labels or the negative narratives others say about you or your students or your teaching style, the more you believe it. This Pygmalion effect can result in teacher demoralization and burnout as they begin to internalize the problems in the system (e.g.: “these kids now-a-days are less engaged”; “teaching used to be better before standardized testing”).

Luckily, even on my worst days, I work to buck the system, dismantle oppressive systemic structures, and disrupt the status quo. I have felt demoralized and frustrated; I have felt helpless; I have felt defeated and confused as to my next step; but, within all of these negative feelings, I always gravitate toward what matters most: my students.

Some of my former students.

My search for creating the most engaging classroom experiences for my students led me to design thinking and liberatory design. Tom and David Kelley, author and founder of the d.school and IDEO, respectively may not have coined the term “design thinking”, but their focus at IDEO on human-centered design has allowed them to scale creativity and innovation throughout their organization. Design thinking has become their process for creativity and innovation. IDEO innovates routinely with design thinking. Tim Brown, CEO and President of IDEO explains that “the evolution from design to design thinking is the story of the evolution from the creation of products to the analysis of the relationship between people and products, and from there to the relationship between people and people” (Brown & Kātz, 2019, pp. 47–48). I may not create products, but as a teacher, I provide a service. I may not be designing ergonomic furniture for my clients, but why can’t I view myself as a teacher-designer for my student-clients?

The Liberatory Design Mindsets, developed through a collaboration between the National Equity Project and the Stanford d.school’s K12 Lab) are evolutions of the design thinking mindsets commonly used at the Stanford d.school. There is an explicit intention of developing equity-centered creative agencies in order for educators to solve their own problems in community with others. My students are diverse and I continue to strive to build strong and lasting relationships with them and their families so that I can begin to provide equitable educational experiences. I came to refer to this as creating STEM-foundational thinking instructional activities that promote deep learning. Early in my career, I began using Blended learning and instructional technology to increase the access for my students of color to rigorous course content. I had difficult, but important conversations with my students and their families about race in America and our school system. I started talking to my co-workers about implicit bias and how it is affecting their instructional practices. I came to believe that a truly equitable classroom experience is synonymous with an innovative classroom experience. Innovation equals equity and visa versa.

Over the year, I continued to hit roadblocks, but I was increasing my vocabulary around creativity, innovation, design thinking, social justice and racism. My increased knowledge didn’t make change happen easier, but it did give me the language I needed to identify the gaps I was seeing and to inspire other educators toward more innovative and equitable educational experience.

Then, COVID-19 forced us all to pause. Everything shut down: schools, restaurants, movie theaters, public parks. Everything. Like most others, I worked from home and began taking stock in my life and career. By this time, I had left the classroom to coach teachers around STEM and innovation. Was I really making a difference? The further I got from my own classroom, the less of an impact I felt I was making. The fewer classroom lessons I experienced and the more meetings I attended, the more frustrated I became. I saw how narrowly-focused administrators were because they lost sight of individual students. Students became data points and data points became indicators for success and these indicators were purchased using tax-payer dollars for new curricula, mandatory teacher training, and new buildings. Many people believed (and still believe) that with new buildings and curricula, came new and innovative mindsets and pedagogy. Nope. I saw the same worksheets on the same rows of desks. The only difference was that there was new carpet and everything was on castor wheels.

Lots of things in my career as an educator have begun to converge. Perhaps they have been converging all this time, but now with the “great pause” of the pandemic, I have had time to slow down and reflect. I have had time to collect my thoughts and see how my previous experiences as a teacher and an instructional coach have steered me to where I am now. I should give credit where credit is due. As I stated earlier, I have started and stopped writing about my experiences and expertise as an educator many times. Along with a convergence of old and new experiences, these three books pushed me to write.

I first learned about Dr. Ibram X. Kendi in 2016 when I read Stamped from the Beginning. His definitive history and meta-analysis of racist ideas in America helped me see the bigger picture of race in public education. He both educated me on the history of racism and challenged me to expose them in my sphere of influence. When George Floyd was murdered by white police officers on May 25, 2020, I felt an enormous realization settle on my shoulders: I have not been doing enough. I claim to be an ally, but I am not challenging the system enough. I am having uncomfortable conversations with individuals, but I am not pushing those in power to have those same conversations. Reading How to be an Anti-racist by Dr. Kendi helped me further to understand what I need to do in order to advance the cause of social justice and equity in our public schools.

https://jakeknapp.com/make-time

I picked up Make Time by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky (JZ) in June, 2020 because it was the last book on my nightstand that I had not read. I read Sprint by Jake and JZ in 2016 and had already been applying the concept of design sprints and solving really big problems. I loved the idea of having educators, parents, students, and other stakeholders tackle audacious problems in education that have remained unsolved. Make Time was less for my job and more for myself. Jake and JZ helped me focus on what matters most: teaching is the one job done by so many and is worth writing about.

Creative Confidence by Tom and David Kelley (author and founder of the d.school and IDEO, respectively) reviewed and solidified much of what I have learned about creativity and innovation over the past twenty years. I learned the connection between design thinking and creative confidence, which I would argue I have lacked for most of my career. I have moved from fear to courage; from a blank page to insight; from planning to action; from duty to passion; and from reading another book about creativity or innovation or equity and education to beginning to write about my experiences as an anti-racist and innovative educator.

Here is what I hope to accomplish in the upcoming series of blog posts.

I have the audacious goal of taking you all on a journey with me from design thinking to visual thinking; from ordinary to exponential education; from Critical Race Theory to racial consciousness and culturally responsive education in the classroom; from creativity to innovation; and from writing lesson plans to designing learning experiences for students.

Each post will have a section titled Equity Defined. These sections will give a brief description of a specific equity concept that is connected to the overall blog post. The concepts range from implicit bias to the power of storytelling to culturally responsive pedagogy to various organizations that are doing some amazing things to disrupt and redesign public education.

Throughout these blog posts, I will discuss the current public education system, including status quo bias, system justification, cognitive dissonance, and many specific banal aspects of schooling in America (e.g.: standardized testing, worksheets). I want to illustrate why these boring elements have become commonplace and standardized in every classroom. I believe that many of us consider ourselves to be “box checkers.” I want to discuss how checking the very large box of standardized testing has taken teachers away from creating flow states in the classroom. Teachers see themselves as content-delivery pedagogues instead of learning experience designers. There are a continuous loop of state and district educational initiatives that keep teachers checking boxes and staying in the status quo.

These blog posts will be what I wish I had twenty years ago when I was a naive and rebellious new teacher entering the classroom for the first time. These posts will synthesize all that I have learned (and am still learning) throughout my career.

I hope to inspire you to greatness.

I hope to ask a lot of questions and help you question the status quo.

I hope to help teachers create the BEST learning experiences possible for their students by creating inclusive cultures of creativity and innovation.

These blog posts are for independent thinkers that are nonconforming and rebellious.

These blog posts are for those who want to push the boundaries of what is possible.

These blog posts are for those who dream of transformational change.

These blog posts are for you.

References

Brown, T., & Kātz, B. (2019). Change by design: How design thinking transforms organizations and inspires innovation. New York, NY, NY: HarperBusiness.

McGonigal, J. (2012). Reality is broken: Why games make us better and how they can change the world. London: Vintage.

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Adrian Neibauer

Adrian Neibauer

I am a learning experience designer. I’m an intellectual thinker. I push the boundaries of what’s possible. I have lots stories to tell and change to make.