Educators + Entrepreneurs = 'Big Ideas' in Half Moon Bay

Four days of focus on new approaches to K-20 education.

For the past three days in Half Moon Bay, the startup spirit of Silicon Valley has combined with the steadfastness of lifelong educators at the Big Ideas Fest, a conference focusing on providing solutions to some of education's most provocative questions.

"Education is in the state of disarray," said Lisa Petrides, the founder and president of the Half Moon Bay-based Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education (ISKME). ISKME launched the first Big Ideas Fest three years ago.

Instead of approaching solutions towards a space in the middle, she says, education is bifurcated, with people working as longtime educators on one end of the spectrum and new education business models such as corporate funding on the other end.

The Big Ideas Fest, a four-day meeting aimed at developing innovative approaches to the field using a collaborative, action-oriented design process, is designed to bring about solutions from that middle ground, Petrides says, where educators can devise solutions using entrepreneurial processes.

"The intention is how to teach educators a process that they can use in their own environments around education," she said.

Petrides co-developed the process ISKME has trademarked as "action collaboration" with Jonah Houston four years ago. Houston is a senior project leader at leading design firm IDEO in Palo Alto.

On Tuesday, participants ranging from seasoned teachers, administrators, and entrepreneurs developing education startups sat in circles at the conference location at the . The groups were tasked to design solutions to three separate challenges: achieving universal competency in basic literacy and math skills; leveraging open content, data and research to "transform" teaching and learning; and how to assess learning in a way to make "tangible" progress toward goals.

But instead of the usual verbal brainstorming and recording on paper, the groups transferred the ideas in their head to a prototype — actual physical models using pipecleaners and other objects — which "makes the idea tangible in a rapid and low-investment way," according to ISKME.

"When people see their ideas get out of their head and look at the models, it makes them visualize the solutions differently," Petrides said.

One of the key things about the prototype approach that could contribute to faster success in education, according to Petrides, is its practice of taking risks and not being afraid of failing and starting again — with a relatively low level of investment.

Using the technique of improv is also a way to keep the participants moving forward in designing actionable steps towards a solution, according to Chris Miller, whose El Granada-based improv company LifePlays has been a presence at the Big Ideas Fest since its first year.

"The improv helps keep participants open, connected, collaborating, and in a co-creative mind-set," he said.

According to Petrides, ISKME was inspired to launch the first Big Ideas Fest in response to how the organization could reignite the passion and drive of people committed to education.

"We wanted to make a TED for education that was a 'TED-plus' - because in TED there is no action," Petrides said.

In addition to the action collaboration workshops, participants heard from teachers, professors, administrators, and entrepreneurs including Bill Ayers, Professor of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago; Martha Kantner, the Undersecretary at the US Department of Education; Jody Lewen, Executive Director of the Prison University Project at San Quentin; and Kaycee Eckhardt, teacher at the New Orleans Charter Science and Math Academy, whose talk outlined her attempts to teach reading at a FEMA trailer in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

On Tuesday afternoon, Lee LeFever spoke about his path in building Common Craft, a series of videos explaining complicated topics in simple ways, while 14-year-old writing prodigy, teacher and published author Adora Svitak gave a polished presentation from her Kindle Fire. Svitak shared her path to recognizing what was the most important qualities one should possess as a teacher: being human, admitting one's weaknesses, and continuing to learn from one's students.

Sitting in a conference room next to a table of finished prototypes from the day's action collaboration sessions, educational entrepreneurs Varun Arora (from Pittsburgh, Penn.) and Sharon Marzouk (a Palo Alto resident) reflected upon the meeting's impact on their own path to launching startups.

"We've been sitting here in the design sessions with teachers, administrators, content creators, content funders, organizational support, social enterpreneurs, and students," Marzouk said. "In the fight for survival, you tend to focus on your project and this reminds you of the purpose for what you're doing."

Arora agreed. "As an entrepreneur, you're in your room or your garage and bogged down," he said. 

"When you come here, there's a bigger goal," he said. "It's a fuel injection."

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