by Joseph Bocchiaro III Ph.D., CStd, CTS-D, CTS-I, ISF-C, Principal Consultant, The Sextant Group

Well, this was certainly not what I expected was going to happen. Instead of heeding my favorite philosopher’s advice – Leonardo da Vinci, the Empiricist – I had already drawn my own conclusions for the experiment.

Leo had said, “Experience never errs, it is only your judgements that err by promising themselves effects not caused by your experiments.” Still true today. The “experiment” was a workshop I was privileged to hold at this year’s T-Summit Conference in Washington DC. with my colleague, Nancy Sturm. We should have gone in with open minds.

About 40 people packed into the front of the National Academy of Sciences auditorium to participate in a rapid-fire groupthink around the formation of the “T-Shaped Student.” Using the World Economic Forum’s New Vision for Education 21st Century Skills model, we challenged participants from higher education, architecture, and corporations with the question, “Which technology tools most apply to teaching and learning these 16 skills?” Each person was given a “toolkit” of 21 tools (i.e., colored stickers) to apply to a six-foot wide poster with the skills represented. These tools were drawn from the Envisioning the Future of Education Technology report from the Envisioning Technology Research Foundation. A collision of these two modern models ensued, engaging the participants in imagining their students adapting to working and living in a future full of new technologies.

We sparked this groupthink with our not-so-hidden agenda of crowdsourcing a design strategy for implementing educational technology in the built environment. We asked, “Would education and training professionals assist architects and technologists to envision space designs that will be relevant for years to come?” After all, there is significant investment any time bricks-and-mortar institutions implement technology. Can we project and predict how developing technologies will be best utilized for the greatest impact on the student body?

That’s where the fun – and the disconnect – began. We thought people would naturally apply technology tools to technology-based skills, and soft tools to soft skills. Then we saw the wheels turning: some tech tools are actually soft, such as social media or collaboration, even though the technology itself is very sophisticated. The raw data of these initial results is evidenced in the completed poster. Nancy and I had discussed the expected results at length with each other. Would there be specific technologies that people would strategically apply to teaching specific skills? Would people naturally associate some traditional tools, such as didactic learning, with traditional curricula? Would there be some real answers to some of the missing pieces in the New Vision model? Specifically, that model indicates that “additional tools are strongly needed to develop competencies and character qualities.” These are areas that have been widely suggested as some of the most important and sought-after characteristics of the workforce of the future. Would our collision of two models release the fusion energy of new ideas in this space?

Analyzing the raw data of the poster is bewildering and interesting. There are some slight correlations to our expected results…but only slight. Participants found that the 21 tools could be applied to virtually every one of the skills. One participant remarked during the exercise that she felt like it was a “set-up;” that every tool could be applied to every skill! Of course we had no such intention, but the results do lean in that direction, and that supplied a true “ah-ha!” moment for the group. People did a mental reset and looked at the model in a new way; they’d been jolted out of their traditional way of thinking. Subsequent discussion showed that the educators were interested in some of the technologies they had not heard of, such as augmented reality, and they were intrigued at imagining the possibilities of the applications.

We had used colors to separate the corporate, architecture, and education professionals, and we also saw no real difference in opinion between them. I had expected their practical and financial mindsets to overshadow their boldness, but it did not. My epiphany was that collective imagination does stimulate new ideas and boldness; that many educators are eager to explore the possibilities of teaching a new generation of students who are very different from themselves, especially when they are enabled and surrounded by people from other professions.

As with many such “studies”, there are no clear answers — only more questions. We intend to run this experiment/exercise again, giving the participants more time to deliberate, more copies of each tool to apply, and ample discussion time. We hope to make this not just an exercise, but truly a programming/visioning vehicle for The Sextant Group. We will use the results to ascertain how to be the best stewards of our clients’ funding when implementing technology in teaching/learning spaces.

Next time we will heed Leonardo, enjoying the thoughtfulness of our subjects in seeking new solutions that may require the leap of faith that empiricism discourages.