The fifth annual Better World by Design conference hit the ground running yesterday in Providence, RI. After coffee and breakfast in the RISD Museum Lobby, workshops and tours began immediately.
Despite stormy skies, energy was high in the Thinking Wrong about Neighborhoods workshop led by Marc O'Brien of Future. Flying through stacks of post-it notes, the various teams "thought wrong" about neighborhoods and came up with concepts that made absolutely no sense, as was the goal. Going way beyond any boundry of comfort, participants generated concepts ranging from treehouse forts for monkeys to pregnant ducks. Shirts were made at the end of the workshop, and proudly worn at the birthday party at the conclusion of the day.
Thinking Wrong about Neighborhoods workshop with Future Projects.
Kicking off the speaker session for the afternoon, Shula Ponet, a game designer at the Institute of Play/Quest to Learn, spoke on the power of games in educational settings. The Institute of Play takes a unique approach to K-12 education. Connecting teachers with game designers, the institute combines a school with an in-house design studio to work collaboratively on designing games and crafting experiences to engage students in learning.
Quest to Learn is the first school of its kind and is also a public school located in New York City. The school has its own custom curriculum-based online social network (Being Me), a mixed-reality learning environment (SMALLab), an in-school teacher and professional development program (Studio Q), and much more. Others have taken notice. The school has partners such as Intel, the Mozilla Foundation, The Museum of Modern Art, and the Smithsonian, just to name a few.
"Failure reframed as iteration creates safe spaces for students to learn," Ponet spoke. By incorporating lessons into games, it reduces the risk and makes students partaking less afraid to fail. "In a game, failure is a necessary condition for eventual success," said Ponet. She cited a specific example of a game where students had to guess the hypotenuse of a triangle based on it's two other sides, a near impossible task for the classmates who hadn't yet discovered the Pythagorean Theorem. If they didn't guess, however, there was no chance of any of them ever moving across the board and winning the game. So, they guessed, and failed, eventually succeeding.
During the Q&A, it was asked what the data looked like comparing Quest to Learn to other schools in the New York City area. Ponet responded that the school was about on par with other local schools, but that the Institute of Play looked to teach students "life skills" in addition to their math, science, and humanities requirements. By bringing games into the curriculum, Ponet believes that vital life skills such as collaboration and engagement can be taught as well.
The biggest hit of the day, however, was Rocco Landesman, the tenth chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Landesman was only possibly shadowed by his own introduction, a revival of the Anything Goes hit, "You're the Top" sung by Better World Committee member Andreas Nicholas. It was an appropriate introduction for the graduate of Yale School of Drama and producer of several Broadway shows.
Landesman started off by speaking about his own experience in the arts, growing up surrounded by performers, artists, and designers—it was an aspect of his life he just took for granted. "For far too many students," Landesman spoke, "it cannot be assumed that the arts are a part of their education."
The powerful statement was only the beginning of the twenty-minute lecture on the importance of arts education and reform policy in that sector. "The arts need to be front and center of every education reform policy," Landesman said. Looking to other investments cities make to improve their communities, Landesman asked the audience why we are putting money into having two cops on every street versus two arts teachers in every school.
Landesman shared with the crowd the "lessons" he learned over the past three years:
1. "Schools change when the arts are brought into their centers." - Landesman acknowledged that we know the power of the arts, and have seen the radical differences between schools that have a strong art program versus one without.
2. " As a community, we have to be bolder." - "We need to work collectively to succeed," spoke Landesman. While politicians and activists can draw attention to the problem, the NEA should not be driving the conversation. The student is the common denominator and arts education needs to be a core responsibility of every board and department of education in this country.
3. "We know what works." - The arts can be powerful when coupled with other subjects, but we know what makes for a successful arts education. Arts education absolutely needs to take place in schools, in out-of-school-time settings, and in communities. But the individual student is the common denominator.
4. "The arts needs to behave like other subjects if we want to become as central as other subjects." - When it comes to budgetary cuts, Landesman pointed out, the arts are always the first to go. Thought of as a "nice to have" rather than a "need to have," arts education should be a core component in the curriculum and it is up to school leaders to drive that conversation.
The second half of the afternoon featured simultaneous panels on Sustainable Business and Design Policy, as well as a Natural Fiber Composites workshop, which took place in RISD's Industrial Design department.
The day concluded with an epic birthday party over at ANCHOR, a collaborative working space in downtown Providence. The birthday party was, of course, not without cake, a photo booth, a bike-powered DJ, and an open bar—all integral components for an excellent dance party.
After this action-packed first day, I'm looking forward to the next two days of the conference. With a full schedule of hands-on workshops and compelling speakers, Saturday and Sunday will be sure to leave all attendees inspired.