On Potato Chips, the Ice Age, and Creative Thinking

Topics: Education Policy

To successfully scale the work of personalized learning across the country, it is importance that we help policymakers understand creative, successful education approaches. Have you ever met someone who thinks about the world in a different way? I don’t mean someone with different opinions—I mean someone who helps open your mind to new ideas by reframing something simple. Someone whose lens on life helps you understand and engage with the world in new ways. Someone who you really, really, really want to learn from.

I was surrounded by about 500 of those “someones” a few weeks ago. These folks, practitioners and learners who are advancing personalized learning in Wisconsin and 13 other states, came together to share, learn, and engage with one another at Wisconsin’s CESA #1 Institute for Personalized Learning convening. The convening hit at a time when my mind was already swimming with thoughts of equity, supports, and policy related to personalized learning, and I was thankful to be in a space where those thoughts were met with creative, student-centered ideas— the kind that allows schools to be “bastions of creativity and wonder,” to quote one of the convening’s keynote speakers.

This same keynote speaker, John Spencer, joked about how he was born “in the Ice Age,” but not the Ice Age we usually think about. This was indeed not the canned joke about how he’s “old as an iceberg.” He switched it up. It was the era of Vanilla Ice, Ice T, and Ice Cube, he said. A genius hook that led to a lot of age-based laughter for those of us born in the same generation. There was more to his joke than just age-related humor, though. With this joke, he immediately framed things differently for us. Precisely because he didn’t use Ice Age to mean what we usually think– boring, old, and tired– he set an expectation for us to think outside the box during the conference.

Voice and choice, making room for new perspectives

“Your voice matters. When you don’t share it with the world, you rob the world of your creativity.”

Based on a fishbowl activity I attended, sometimes using that voice means sharing a passion project on potato chips. I participated in one student’s presentation from FLIGHT Academy based on an entire quarter of research on potato chips. He used multiplication to determine how many chips the United States consumes each year, memorized and narrated a YouTube video about the technology of making potato chips, and fed us his homemade version of potato chips having experimented with them at home, where he discovered vinegar is the key ingredient to making them crispy. And you know what? I learned a lot from it. In that moment, I was the student and he was the teacher. This young man helped me think differently about what’s worth studying, and from that I pondered what I might study if I were to do my own passion project.

The term often used for the kind of academic and creative opportunity that allows for passion projects to exist is “student voice and choice.” I learned that voice and choice can exist in many different contexts outside of passion projects. Another breakout session I attended featured students in a high school AP physics course, not exactly something one would expect to have much “voice and choice.” But as it turned out, voice and choice were just as important in their class, it just looked a little different. Each student introduced themselves to us the way they introduce themselves in the class at the beginning of the year. Here’s what we learned about each student:

  • Their name
  • How they like to access information
  • How they like to engage in learning
  • How they best express what they have learned
  • Their outside interests
  • Their aspirations

In the classroom, this meant that Mr. Mo and the other students had a clear understanding of each other from the first day of school. Mr. Mo knew that there were some students who prefer to access information through his lectures, while others had already watched videos online about the topic and were ready to dig in to a project. He knew that they had varying aspirations from medical school to changing the world, and that they expressed what they learned along the way completely differently from their classmates. As a result, he could tailor—reframe, if you will—the experiences of each student in the class so that they truly learned and engaged with the material.

Respecting each other so we can collaborate, so we can learn

In so many ways, personalized, student-centered learning is about collaboration. Stephan Turnipseed, the second day’s keynote speaker, said this about collaboration: “The heart of collaboration is respect. The mind of collaboration is sharing. If we don’t respect each other, we’ll never learn to share with each other.”

The Institute for Personalized Learning has created a truly collaborative space for professionals. As I think about scaling the work of personalized learning across the country, I think about how important it will be to help policymakers understand the myriad ways creative approaches to education are being implemented in the field.

How can we, as advocates for personalized, student-centered learning…

  • Create an environment where policymakers feel empowered to take bold chances on policies that will benefit students by engaging them in ways they have not been allowed to be engaged before?
  • Educate policymakers and leaders in all the diverse experiences and aspirations and relationships to learning that each student has?
  • Continue to highlight all the “someones” who are helping reframe education for their students?

It starts with collaboration. With respect. With sharing.