Navigating the chaos of good, powerful, fun, energizing learning environments doesn’t mean you have to give up wildness, beautiful messes, multiple perspectives, passion, or creative energy. I’ve been learning intensively lately, which brings me tremendous joy and pleasure in daily life, even as it brings huge-feeling responsibilities for landing what I’m learning and taking off from there to new, productive chaos. This week, immersion in the KaosPilots method for inspiring innovation in higher education has brought me back to this blog. I am compelled to land the plane, so here we go!
Thanks to Mike Mullins and Virajita Singh, who worked long and hard at organizing and fund-raising, Simon Kavanagh brought the Kaos Pilots in from Denmark for a landing in Minnesota. Simon led a group of 15 higher education teachers from two University of Minnesota campuses through a 3-day immersive teaching workshop. Our purpose was to step back from our ordinary routines, get inspired, messy, and creative; moving through chaos and control into true collaboration. And we really, authentically, beautifully did it. In just 3 days.
Breaking from ordinary routines
Whew. A monumental amount of organizational juju was necessary to get 3 days set up in the middle of a semester, in the context of teaching, parenting, deadlines for grants and proposals, and a LOT of meetings over pressing issues at work. But I won’t go into all that; suffice it to say it would never happened without amazing help from dear friends, old and new.
Much more fascinating for me was noticing the extent to which this workshop functioned with low/no tech and encouraged a remarkably technology-free environment. At various moments we worked with markers, glue, various colors and sizes of sticky notes, scissors, magazines (for cutting up), enormous swaths of paper, charts, posters, small notebooks, and our own (often favorite, and much discussed) pens. A few of us made notes into iPads or phones, occasionally photographing a poster or chart, but for most of us, most of the time, very few devices were open or being used. One result of this was certainly a vast reduction in multi-tasking. When there was a break, some folks scurried to catch up on e-mail, but mostly, we continued to talk, share snacks, and make plans – even at the breaks. And we drank a lot of coffee!
Now let me clarify: there were no rules about closing laptops or putting away devices. No one said, don’t run off to go shopping during lunch. The workshop leader never said we couldn’t multi-task during sessions if we wished. The attention of all 15 of us was fairly constantly compelled and occupied by what was happening in the room(s), with our co-participants, and the questions/exercises we were asked to engage in. A quick taste of this:
Early on we were asked to take blank paper and a marker and partner off with someone, look into their eyes and draw a picture of them (while maintaining eye contact) without looking at the paper. Then we wrote a question about the person we’d been starring at, signed our work of art, and gifted it to them. Looking around, we found another partner and off we went to do it again. At the end of 20 minutes or so, we each had 6 or 7 works of art reflecting our identities back to ourselves. In one, my colleague pictured me with lots of hair squiggles, a big cartoon smile, and the question “how can we work together?” In another, a colleague drew what appeared to me to be several faces, two in profile, one straight on, and one at the top of the head that looked like a moon. “Who is your favorite band?” was the question. When asked to choose one that would be our “theme” for the workshop, I chose the multiple face and wrote “messy and multiple” as my theme.
Getting Inspired, Messy, Creative
A second exercise on the first day gave two groups a stack of Legos to arrange according to a set of instructions. Each one in the group had only a piece of the instructions, and we could not talk or use words (even written words). We instantly experienced chaos (ok, “kaos”). Leaders emerged and receded, methods of creating a common (though nonverbal language) emerged. But mostly we failed. We all tried to control the situation. I felt my anxiety crescendo into sadness, and threw my hands up in despair. I stepped back and let the others continue, knowing I had failed at my piece of the structure. Then one of my colleagues made eye contact with me, gave me a questioning gesture that related to my instruction, and boom, I was drawn back in. Still not successfully, but after the time was up, we had all learned a powerful lesson about how chaos and control interfere with collaboration.
Using the I Do Art method for setting up our workshop, we discussed our intention, desired outcomes, agenda and the roles/rules/responsibilities we wished to live by for the 3-day timeframe. Our workshop leader often did not reveal what would happen next, enhancing the sense of chaos, but also the sense of excitement.
Moving through Chaos & Control into True Collaboration
The biggest chunk of workshop time was spent in smaller teams, working on a specific project. Those of us who wished to propose something we wanted help on, formally presented project ideas to the whole group on the morning of the second day (a new class, a program, an interdisciplinary cohort, whatever we were cooking on). Three projects were chosen by everyone by simply walking around the room and joining a group based on the project presentation, who you wanted to work with, etc. We all chose which projects we wanted to work on. Work began with a re-presentation from a project-leader about what the heck the project was about (my project was a new cultural anthropology course on Participatory Media Methods), and then leaders stepped back and let the chaos ensue. We began by creating an enormous collage about the project. This was loads of fun and our group’s (remarkably comfortable) silence reminded me of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow.
From the collage and from our previous Lego exercise, we created one word or short phrase stickies around “SKA” (yup, lots of jokes about music) – Skills, Knowledge, & Attitudes. We created a “vision statement” for the project (that one took a lot of extra coffee). Following our “I Do Art” agreements, we paid attention to our roles and different leaders emerged at different moments in the project.
We used a rubric provided by the workshop leader to organize our project into a backward design; in other words, we designed from the stickies and vision back to the specificities of the course components, outcomes, and products:
Sometimes we revised the provided rubric, before filling it in with our stickies; this:
We learned about the project from each other and paid attention to our own impulses to control:
Later, we noticed that we had bonded as a team when one of our members pushed back against the workshop leader’s advice about how we should proceed. This incident really made me think about how teachers unintentionally create dynamics for students to negotiate, and how those dynamics can make or break learning.
In the process of presenting our completed designs back to the group as a whole, as well as to several invited guests, we received useful feedback to take home with us. Finally, we sat down with our teammates and enjoyed an “appreciative inquiry” session in which we gave each of our teammates our thoughts about: you served the group well when you . . . . and what I would like to see more of is . . . . .
Other small exercises ensued as the plane began to slowly come down into lower altitudes and then we pilots of chaos landed with a shout out to the whole Minneapolis campus quad about what each of us stands for as teachers. The energy of that landing carried me back home and brings me into the next arc of the semester with a very different comportment towards each of my projects. I am taking my time, acknowledging the obligations and excitements of being a pilot, and remembering to land the damn plane before taking off again.