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Conference provided much-needed chance to focus on Big Ideas

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Posted: Sunday, December 23, 2012 4:49 pm

Recently, I had the extraordinary privilege of attending the “Big Ideas Fest” at the Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay. Sponsored by the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education for a fourth year, the Big Ideas Fest is a crucible of curricular creativity, an “edupreneur” party, and an epiphany garden for teachers like me.

Nationwide, education paradigms are experiencing “techtonic” shifts, and unlike the typical teacher workshops, the Big Ideas Fest represents a new “state-of-the-smart” in education reform.

The 2012 fest featured an all-star cast of transformational thinking. Highlights included Joan Blades of the epic MoveOn.org, MomsRising.org, and now “LivingRoomConversations.org” dedicated to bringing civil dialogue between progressives and conservatives. From Kuwait, Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa talked about his comic book series “The 99,” which offers a heroic connection between Muslim and Western societies. New Yorker Stephen Ritz upped his compelling TED talk on creating the Bronx Green Machine. Award-winning Nirvan Mullick talked about his video “Caine’s Arcade,” which offers a sweet story of empowering a child’s imagination. “Where the hell is Matt” Harding explained the “aha” moments in developing his international viral dance videos. Edtech czar Karen Cator outlined exciting prospects from the U.S. Department of Education. And Dr. George Lakoff from UC Berkeley described in gentle detail the neuroscientific power of empathy in our lives. And that is just for starters.

One of the unique features of the conference was the “Action Collabs,” groups of participants given a design challenge to develop and present. This year, there were three themes: adult education, arts education, and international education.

By design and without introduction of titles and egos, the participants jumped into the process. Entrepreneurs, administrators, teachers and the presenters themselves were on the floors of conference rooms throughout the hotel incubating ideas, big and small, about how to create educational products and movements that could and should transform the landscape of learning worldwide. “Yes, and …” they had fun!

Several other aspects of the conference were noteworthy: “Buttonology” was a system of giving and getting feedback based on aspects of participation. The Media Lounge manifested myriad models of online engagement. The Road Trip Nation brought actual student involvement, and many of the Action Collabs had high school kids in them. And John Quigley of Spectral Q took an aerial photo of all the participants looking out, up and into the future from the bluffs at the Ritz overlooking the Pacific.

From my perspective as a teacher who has been in the classroom for more than 25 years, it’s been tough to be in public education recently. The pay has never been that great, but with devastating budget cuts, an era of “No Test Left Behind” and the general feeling from the media that most of America’s problems have been caused by schools, it has been hard to be inspired.

The Big Ideas Fest, however, was that inspiration. The art of thinking was honored, the craft of creativity was analyzed, and designs for innovation were explored. Most of us left more equipped and energized to carry on the most important task of educating students.

The next day, however, I confronted the reality of those students whose challenges — the banality of youth culture, poverty, lack of motivation, attention deficit disorders, the technologies of distraction — had not gone away. Now my challenge is to take that inspiration and apply it. And that will take a Big Idea — or two.

Randy Vail is a teacher at Pescadero High School.

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