Learning, Innovation, and Instagram (#IITB, Pt. 2 of 4): Building a Community of Learning

February 10, 2020

I’m watching—and, more importantly, participating in—the growth of another community of learning—the one fostered by writer-presenter-educator George Couros through the “Innovate Inside the Box [#IITB] Instagram Book Study” group he and his co-author, Katie Novak, are creating around their book Innovate Inside the Box: Empowering Learners Through UDL [Universal Design for Learning]and the Innovator’s Mindset.

It’s not a surprise at all to me that the community is thriving under their guidance: Couros’s Innovator’s Mindset MOOC (massive open online course) a couple of years ago was a playfully innovative and inspiring opportunity to work with a dynamic group of co-conspirators in learning. And the idea of using Instagram as a platform for learning has obviously been successful in attracting enough people to make this a unique and transformative learning opportunity well worth pursuing. As I mentioned in the first post in this series of reflections inspired by the #IITB book study group, it has been engaging from the moment during which I posted my first offering after opening an Instagram account last week and began interacting with George and the other co-conspirators—an experience that has quickly deepened after just seven days of online, asynchronous interactions. I’m finding kindred spirits—other teacher-trainer-learners with seemingly inexhaustible depths of curiosity. A willingness to experiment with new concepts and tools. And a commitment to creating time and space to interact around an overlapping set of topics that include innovation in learning, incorporating Instagram into learning, and exploring ways to expand our own learning in ways that will benefit those we serve. The experience is multifaceted—an online (mostly asynchronous) book discussion group, functioning in a way that is reminiscent of the best connectivist MOOCs (massive open online courses) I have joined. It has us interacting within the platform (Instagram) through the images, videos, and text we have been posting, and allows for interactions through the comments that we post about our own and others’ offerings and through expanded interactions via posting blog pieces like this one and reading (and responding to) those posted by others.

Most interestingly—and again, not surprisingly—the interactions themselves reflect many of the eight characteristics of the Innovator’s Mindset that all of us have been exploring and attempting to (further) develop. Going beyond the suggested basic level of participation—a suggested three postings for each of the three weeks the book discussion is scheduled to continue—because I have wanted to as fully as possible immerse myself in Instagram as a tool for training-teaching-learning, I’ve been creating separate posts that serve to summarize and respond to at least one element of each of the characteristics. The remainder of this blog post pulls lightly-edited text from each of the first four posts I completed while contributing to the discussions on four of the eight Innovator’s Mindset characteristics.

Comments accompanying the first post, on the Innovator’s Mindset characteristic of empathy: This, Couros proposes, “is about helping students seek out problems that are meaningful to them and then finding ways to solve or respond to those issues,” and it hearkens back to earlier passages in the book regarding the importance of asking the right questions to produce concrete, positive learning results. The goal, Novak adds, is “to empower students to become purposeful, motivated, resourceful, strategic learners”—a practice Couros and Novak put into play in the way they are encouraging those of us in the “Innovate inside the Box Instagram Book Study” group to absorb the content of their book, then apply it by producing Instagram posts that carry our learning forward through a process of deciding what each of us wants to know about Instagram and overcoming problems we face in locating and adapting solutions to design problems related to the creation of these posts.

Comments about the second characteristic (problem finders-solvers): This, Couros proposes, “is about helping students seek out problems that are meaningful to them and then finding ways to solve or respond to those issues,” and it hearkens back to earlier passages in the book regarding the importance of asking the right questions to produce concrete, positive learning results. The goal, Novak adds, is “to empower students to become purposeful, motivated, resourceful, strategic learners”—a practice Couros and Novak put into play in the way they are encouraging those of us in the “Innovate inside the Box Instagram Book Study” group to absorb the content of their book, then apply it by producing Instagram posts that carry our learning forward through a process of deciding what each of us wants to know about Instagram and overcoming problems we face in locating and adapting solutions to design problems related to the creation of these posts.

Comments about the third characteristic (risk-taking): Turning to “risk-taking” as one of eight characteristics of the Innovator’s Mindset (in “Innovate Inside the Box: Empowering Learners Through UDL [Universal Design for Learning] and the Innovator’s Mindset”), Couros and Novak are explicit in noting that they are not advocating “doing things that would harm our learners”; they are advocating the act of “moving from a comfortable average in pursuit of an unknown better”—something at the heart of the positive transformations that effective learning fosters. It’s a theme that speaks to me powerfully because I have, at points in my lifelong learning endeavors, caught myself (stupidly) thinking about not taking a course because it might lower my GPA—took me years to realize I no longer cared about grades; I cared about the positive results any great learning experience produces. I also occasionally catch myself—and stop myself from—holding back with questions about or experimental approaches to learning challenges offered in onsite and online courses and workshops; the self-imposed barrier, of course, comes from the fear that my peers/colleagues might somehow think less of me if I ask I a “stupid” question or produce results that are less dazzling than I hoped to produce when completing a learning task. What it comes down to, of course, is modeling for my co-conspirators in learning the very behavior I hope to foster in them: a willingness to try new things, overcome the fears that often accompany the act of taking risks, and live with—and actually embrace—the temporary failures that accompany us as we take the path toward learning what we want and need to learn. We “have to eliminate the barriers that prevent students from taking risks,” Novak counsels, and I would suggest we need to do the same for ourselves if we want to develop and benefit from adopting and nurturing the characteristics of the Innovative Mindset—for our learners and ourselves.

Comments accompanying my Instagram post on the fourth characteristic (networked); Being “networked”—the fourth of the eight characteristics of the Innovator’s Mindset (in “Innovate Inside the Box: Empowering Learners Through UDL [Universal Design for Learning] and the Innovator’s Mindset”)—is “crucial both to innovative teaching and learning as well as to helping students develop an Innovator’s Mindset,” George Couros writes. It’s a characteristic well-fostered in the “Innovate Inside the Box Instagram Book Study” group for which this and my other #InnovateInsideTheBox posts on Instagram [with copies posted to Tumblr] have been prepared: by engaging in an asynchronous book discussion via Instagram, those of us participating with George and his “Inside the Box” co-author, Katie Novak, are meeting and engaging with others in a rapidly-developing network of educators (aka, trainer-teacher-learners] that has the potential to become another long-term community of learning. We work through Instagram; we learn with and from each other; and, if we’re successful, we and the learners we serve will benefit from having nurtured the “networked” and other Innovator’s Mindset characteristics we are developing with each new interaction we help create. As Novak observes, “When we provide students [ourselves included] with authentic opportunities to network and dive their own learning, it’s a hell of a ride.”

–N.B.: This is the second in a set of reflections inspired by #IITB, the Innovate Inside the Box Instagram Book Study group. Next: The four remaining characteristics (observant, creators, resilient, and reflective).


Jonah Lehrer: Creatively Imagining Solutions

June 19, 2012

Imagine a book with an approach so creative and so playfully appealing that we run out and buy it, devour it, look for interviews with the author, and then dive into the promotional video as well as other videos because we discover depths in the work that we suspect we’ll never grow tired of exploring. Then realize you don’t have to imagine it, because Jonah Lehrer has written it.

Reading Lehrer’s Imagine: How Creativity Works pulls us onto familiar turf—the study of creativity, how the brain works, how we resolve the numerous challenges life tosses our way, and how we as trainer-teacher-learners can more effectively fulfill our potential. It also takes us down some intriguing paths by creatively using storytelling to help us understand how much effort is required to produce what so often appears to be an unearned flash of brilliant insight.

As Malcolm Gladwell so effectively does in Outliers: The Story of Success, Lehrer continually shows us that it’s practice that often can be found at the base of those divine moments of creativity we so admire.

“Creativity shouldn’t be seen as something otherworldly,” he writes near the beginning of his book. “It shouldn’t be thought of as a process reserved for artists and inventors and other ‘creative types.’ The human mind, after all, has the creative impulse built into its operating system, hard-wired into its most essential programming code. At any given moment, the brain is automatically forming new associations, continually connecting an everyday x to an unexpected y.

Drawing from research into the way the brain works, he helps us understand what we can do to nurture our own creative impulses.

“When our minds are at ease…we’re more likely to direct the spotlight of attention inward, toward that stream of remote associations emanating from the right hemisphere”—a practice we can foster in our students through the learning opportunities we provide. “In contrast, when we are diligently focused, our attention tends to be directed outward, toward the details of the problems we’re trying to solve….It’s not until we’re being massaged by warm water, unable to check our e-mail, that we’re finally able to hear the quiet voices in the backs of our heads telling us about the insight. The answers have been there all along—we just weren’t listening” (pp. 31-32).

There’s plenty here for those steeped in adult learning theory as proposed by Malcolm Knowles in The Adult Learner and Robert Gagné in The Conditions of Learning.  In the same way that Knowles and Gagné encouraged us to recognize that learners progress by building upon what they already know, Lehrer looks into the way our brain functions and he reports that a newly created thought is “transmitted back to its source—those pleasure-hungry dopamine cells in the midbrain—so the neurons learn from the new idea. ‘We call that a recursive loop,’ [Earl] Miller says. ‘It allows the system to feed on itself, so that one idea leads naturally to the next. We can then build on these connections, so that they lead to other, richer connections’” (pp. 67-68).

Those steeped in the theory and reality of the way we approach change—ranging  from Everett Rogers and his seminal work Diffusion of Innovations to Dan Ariely and his Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions—will be equally intrigued by the insights Lehrer provides through his summaries of brain-based research. Taking something as simple as the transformations we undergo as a result of traveling to new places, he observes that “[w]hen we get home, home is still the same. But something in our minds has been changed, and that changes everything” (p. 130)—an observation that presciently captures what happens to us in the course of traveling with Lehrer through Imagine.

By the time we finish reading the book, we recognize that something in our minds has changed. Reading and trying to solve the brain teasers he provides early in the text makes us more aware of how we approach problem-solving. Reading about how Yo-Yo Ma, Bob Dylan, Milton Glaser, and many others diligently approach their craft helps change the way we approach our own. And reading how creative teams that aren’t completely inbred and, at the same time, are not completely composed of individuals who have never worked together before makes us more aware of the successful learning teams we have been lucky enough to join.

Yet even as he works to show us the magic behind what so often appears to be creative legerdemain, Lehrer is smart enough to know that even though we are making great strides in understanding the science behind our creative processes, there is still something innately human about retaining a sense of awe when we explore this subject: “Creativity is like that magic trick. For the first time, we can see the source of imagination, that massive network of electrical cells that lets us constantly form new connections between old ideas….There will always be something slightly miraculous about the imagination.” (p. 251).

N.B.: For a look at how Lehrer’s book can guide us in developing effective communities of practice, please see “Imagine, Creativity, and Communities of Practice” in ASTD’s Learning Circuits online publication. And for information about the publisher’s withdrawal of Imagine, please see this updated posting.


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