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First Different, Then Better First Different, Then Better

First Different, Then Better

by Samuel Steinberg Seidel
June 4, 2010

How Elliot Washor and Big Picture Learning are changing what it means to innovate.

“We call these Do-Be-Do’s. It’s the ‘first different, then better’ version of innovation,” Elliot Washor, co-founder and co-director of Big Picture Learning explains, referring to the unique symposiums he has been convening periodically over the last few years.

When I ask Washor, who has been a mentor of mine for years, to expound on this idea, he adds: 

"Innovation needs to really be something new. You can’t be sure if it’s gonna work better if it’s never been done before. Innovation is about developing new degrees of certainty in a very uncertain world. But you should never get so sure of yourselves that you can't change what you do."

It would be easy enough for Washor to be sure of himself. Big Picture Learning now has 122 schools around the world. The model creates a personalized learning environment that works in tandem with the real world. They have received multi-million dollar grants to replicate the model and to convene other school design/management organizations to learn from one another.

You might even think that someone in this position would just sit back and the collect accolades, not to mention speakers’ fees. But not Washor.

He recently convened two symposiums on young people who have disconnected from their schools. Washor is the first to admit that he never really felt connected anywhere, including the world of education. His charge to both groups: Collectively imagine what kinds of programs would be most successful at reengaging young people who have left high school.

I had the good fortune to be invited to attend both symposiums—one in Seattle, the other in Newark. Over the years I've learned that when Washor invites me to something, it’s going to be interesting. I promptly cleared the calendar and headed out west.

From the moment you walk in, you know it’s not your average conference. The tables are covered with tubs of Play-Doh and squeezy balls. A visual note-taker sketches large colorful graphic interpretations of the conversations. 

“We get everyone in the same room and we create a structure and culture where they actually listen to each other,” Washor explains. “Lots of people who put on education conferences have young people come speak, but a lot of them don't actually believe that these young people know what is ahead of them.”

In this spirit, the symposiums started and ended with the voices of students. Several young people shared their stories of disconnecting and reconnecting from school. These same students attended the entire symposiums, participating alongside educators two to four times their age.

Washor also shared a story about Westinghouse High School in Brooklyn. His uncle went there. So did Biggie Smalls, Jay-Z, Lil Kim, and Busta Rhymes—all at about the same time. But the school didn’t recognize their brilliance or know how to engage them. And only Busta ended up graduating. Amazing that a school could miss such talent, he pointed out—and sad it couldn’t figure out how to connect with their passions.

“We want to create programs that are aware of who the young people are,” he explained to us as we began to wrap our minds around what he was asking us to do. “Sometimes kids really have to leave and all schools can say is 'stay in school.' What if they were designed to have the flexibility to say, ‘Okay, leave, but let’s keep working together and stay connected to make sure you are learning and preparing for the world’?”

The bulk of the symposium occurred in small groups. A few of us asked if we could initiate a group that would focus specifically on program designs that involve technology. Washor gave us the green light and moments later we were sitting on couches with three other attendees—one of whom was a student—discussing the way young people interact with technology.

A few minutes into our conversation, Big Picture board member and fashion designer Marc Ecko bounded into the room, iPad in hand. Ecko leapt into the discussion and we began brainstorming a learning environment where young people could explore careers virtually. We discussed the possibilities that could emerge from empowering young people as the designers and programmers of these cyber-environments.

Ecko grabbed a marker and sketched an ecosystem in which young people who have disconnected from school would participate in these virtual learning environments. It would provide a constant stream of data to educators whose role it is to engage young people and their families, as well as to the developers of the environments, who in turn could continually tweak the design to improve young peoples’ learning experiences. And did we mention the tricked-out, mobile tractor-trailer learning lab that would serve as a recruitment mechanism to capture kids’ interest?

Is this sounding crazy yet? Hopefully. That was the whole point of the symposium.

After each group had captured their strongest concepts on a large sheet of paper, we traded with each other and added ideas and questions to other groups’ concepts. Concepts ranged from a micro-lending institution that would support cohorts of young people with entrepreneurial passions to a resource center where every young person would work with a “life coach” to develop and execute a personal life plan.

As I packed up my Play-Doh, I wondered: Would the sum of our work amount to an innovative new program design for Big Picture? 

The idea that innovative ideas can emerge from a brief gathering of stakeholders and experts is inspiring. Hungry to play again, I asked Washor what he had in mind for the next symposium: “We’re going to do one on nutrition and healthy lifestyles,” he responded. “And we want to do one on Big Picture 2.0, where we develop the next iteration of Big Picture schools. They would have none of the structures of our current schools, but they would have the same distinguishers—that's the challenge.”  

As Washor answered my question, I realized that not only are these symposiums an opportunity for a diverse group to come together to brainstorm new solutions to entrenched challenges. They’re also a chance, for those of us lucky enough to be invited, to participate for one day in the creative generation of ideas that is constantly occurring in the mind of Washor and to be reminded that, in fact, such connections are happening in all our minds all the time. And that it's vital we explore them.

Plato said: “Do not…keep children to their studies by compulsion, but by play.” Washor's symposiums remind us that the same is true for those of us responsible for providing enriching educational opportunities for children.

Samuel Steinberg Seidel is a teacher, school coach, nonprofit consultant and author of the forthcoming book, "Hip Hop Genius." He regularly writes about hip-hop, education, and innovation for The Husslington Post.

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