With 3D printers whirring in the background and the smell of laser-cut wood fresh in the air, a group of dedicated teachers and students sat at a workstation to write a mantra for our Makerspace. Inspired by a process documented by Kevin Jarrett, the task took us only 20 minutes. My first thought was that we had defied the “rules” of change management. Looking back now, however, I began to understand that change is not something that necessarily follows a linear process.
“You didn’t really have a plan for your Makerspace, did you?” a colleague said to me a few months ago. Conventional wisdom suggests that technology planning needs to begin with a vision of what the learning outcomes will look like. The vision development process must have input from, and be shared with, all the key stakeholders in the community. “Begin with the end in mind” is the oft-repeated key for success. It is not unusual to hear school leaders say that they can’t move forward until they have a clear vision and path defined. While knowing exactly where you are headed is ideal, I suspect it is becoming increasingly impossible in today’s dynamic world. The certainty of long range planning seems a thing of the past. As David Price has remarked, “We know only two things for certain. The first is that we should learn to embrace uncertainty…. The second is that if all the old certainties are gone, then we have to be open to radical shifts in how we work, live and learn.”
Last year, as we started planning for a new Design Studio for our middle school, we knew that there were tools our students could use to make, design, create and prototype; we knew that we wanted creators, not consumers, and I suppose that was largely the extent of the initial vision we had. We were not certain how these machines worked, or what students would do with them, but we knew if we got those tools into the hands of students and teachers, something great would happen. Our ultimate ambition was to create opportunities for our students and teachers and to empower them to take advantage of this potential. We spent a great deal of time researching 3D printers, laser cutters, vinyl printers. We read voraciously, attended conferences, connected with experts in our PLN. Perhaps, more than anything, we had endless conversations with colleagues about the potential of our somewhat raw vision. We assembled a team that included teachers from the art, mathematics, science, theatre and technology departments. The team visited several fab labs in our city, had some basic training, made key local connections, asked for a lot of advice. Even after this preparation, we all agreed that we would not really know what would happen until we were fully immersed in it. But the team had some critical ingredients: enthusiasm, energy, a huge sense of fun, a major desire to do awesome things for our students, and a massive desire to learn and take risks. At our school, we call this culture.
We secured the support of our Board, we brought in some alumni to help us design the studio: the space became a reality. We bought the machines, and slowly learned how to use each one, teachers and students learning together. The team connected with other makers on Instructables to find ideas for projects, and then contributed their own ideas to the maker community. We made mistakes, we laughed, and we learned. The lab has been running for seven months now, and we wrote the mantra three days ago. In just 20 minutes our vision was clear and, for the first time, defined. It struck me that we were recording the results of a learning process that was messy, but ultimately rewarding in a studio that would not exist for those who insist on knowing all the answers before beginning an ambitious project.
Some might argue that that we really should have established the vision first, that we got lucky. I believe we had a critical component in place that was more important than vision – a culture of learning, of collaboration, of taking risks, of doing the right thing for students. Wanting to know all the answers before embarking on change is the domain of managers, not leaders.The difference, according to Tony Wagner, is this: “Managers do not take risks. Leaders do. They model the behaviors of learning, collaboration, effective teaching, and risk-taking that they expect of their teachers.”
There is no denying that vision plays an important role in leadership. Our mantra now proclaims the kind of learners we want our students and teachers to be. It is a mantra not just for our Design Studio, but for our school. Ironically, it articulates the very journey we took in establishing our program this year. We were able to get there, because the culture of the school supported the type of learning, discovery and risk-taking needed to make the transformational changes our digital world demands. As educators, we need to model the kind of learning we want for our students. If we wait to know all the answers, we will be left with only questions.