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Exploring, Envisioning & Enacting Prototypes for Innovative Site to Community Institution Partnerships

Exploring, Envisioning & Enacting Prototypes for Innovative Site to Community Institution Partnerships

Written by Ralph Cordova
April 13, 2012

So, have you ever asked how the learning that emerges within your classroom can sustain itself, or, itself be transformed when taken outside of the classroom? Have you wondered how the decades of insights into literacies-learning that have emerged from our individual and collective NWP practices might inform & transform how we think of ordinary ‘informal’ learning places as extraordinary learning spaces for learning?

Those conceptual nudges and hunches framed the Quick-Write’s question for our session at the 2012 NWP Annual Meeting, where we asked:

“What sort of ‘untapped’ opportunities exist (or may exist) at your local site that might center on youth-centered/connected learning and potential partners/institutions?”

The writing, and, paired sharing of our responses to this question helped us bring to our present consciousness the overall theme of our work, which was to explore possibilities for developing innovative learning partnerships with existing local learning and cultural institutions.

The session was designed to focus on supporting sites to explore ways to reach beyond our well-known school-based work we do, and, consider the diverse cultural landscapes within our communities to develop new partnerships focused on participatory, digital and new literacies, where cultural institutions can transform themselves into spaces where new knowledges are constructed. Kate Blinn, of NWP, and I facilitated this exploratory process to give participants two experiences:

1. To learn about the communities-based digital literacies projects underway by NWP’s MacArthur Foundation “Connected Learning” project, and, the Piasa Bluffs Writing Project’s participation in “CoLab” as an innovating and innovative professional learning community.

2. To unpack and try on ResponsiveDesign, the CoLab’s theory of action, to explore, envision & enact insightful and innovative Writing Project to community-based informal learning settings.


I’d venture to say at some level all NWP sites have uttered iterations of those questions since their earliest stirrings and beginnings as sites, as learning communities. These impulses, were probably first entertained in order to focus our Invitational Summer Institute and School-Based work we do, in order to view our classrooms as learning communities where we socially construct with our students literate ways of being and doing. No doubt, we then took those insights, like touchstones to remind us how we broaden the classroom learning landscape into the broader potential learning landscapes that exist beyond the classroom walls.

This ‘navigating the cultural borders of learning cultures’ perspective is not new. The research literature abounds with rich and insightful empirical knowledge of the ways in which communities of practices form themselves, how the situated nature of learning both shapes and is shaped by the participants, and, also on the ways in which people socially construct spaces as dynamic and ever-evolving ‘cultures-in-the-making.’ So, if there’s ‘nothing new under the sun,’ why is it so many communities such as museums, botanical gardens, science centers, and, I’d extend that to writing projects sites, are grappling with devising new ways to innovate their existing cultural technologies or ways of knowing and being, their raison d’etre evolved in a different place and time, into useful knowledges to help us rethink just what learning look likes, when it happens and where.

These questions and conceptual stirrings on the nature of how we think of the work we do, how we learn to name the work that emerges regarding its relevance, and, how we continuously learn to innovate and innovate from what we learn are even more important today in our 21st century shift. We are moving from an individual and isolated clusters view of knowing, into, a distributed, participatory and learner-centered way of being and doing.

This conceptual backdrop serves as an emergent discussion for the super-cool, generative, and, build-to-learn experience Kate Blinn and I facilitated at our NWP session that involved participants to unpack our theory of action, ResponsiveDesign, which puts the learner front and center as a prototyper as she builds to learn.

ResponsiveDesign grew out of our Piasa Buffs Writing Project’s struggle to develop an theory of action that is sturdy yet flexible in order to help us notice, name, study and revise our cultural practices, and in doing so, we harness those practices and innovate them towards relevance in an ever changing educational landscape. By cultural practices, we refer to what we hold near and dear to our identities as NWP sites: the Invitational Summer Institute, our Continuity Programs or our approaches to Professional Development with schools. Particularly, we harnessed ResponsiveDesign to help us innovate how we thought about, and, enacted what we formerly called the “Demonstration of Teaching Practices” during our ISI, which led to recasting these cornerstones of NWP culture as Inquiries Into My Practice, or IIMP. ResponsiveDesign served over 350 teachers within a school district as they developed prototypes of what might constitute a “Writing-Rich & Writing-Strong” classroom, from which guiding principles of practice were derived that would then focus their curricular enactments.

Thus, at the Annual Meeting, we wanted to share ResponsiveDesign with our NWP colleagues because of its potential to assist site directors and site teacher-leaders as a problem-solving theory of action that harnesses a build to learn approach to generate numerous potential radical solutions to a vexing problem. Rather than arrive at safe and already-tested solutions, ResponsiveDesign forces us to go for quantity of radical potential solutions, early on in the prototyping process, while periodically testing the idea at small resolutions looking for quick and rapid failures that lead to more successes in the later iterations of that model.

To test ResponsiveDesign in this larger context, outside of the familiarity of our PBWP culture, we asked session participants to interview each other harnessing ResponsiveDesign’s ethnographic process of Exploring in order to develop empathy, leading to Envisioning in order to developing radical innovative solutions while deferring judgment, and, Enacting where prototypes of solutions are tested for failure leading towards revision. The participants’ shared pursuit was on developing prototypes of models for their local site pursuits to build partnerships with community-based institutions like museums, libraries and botanical gardens centered around youth-centered/connected learning. Each person was ‘ethnosleuthing’ while developing empathy with their partner in order to surface what solutions would meet their partner’s locally-relevant needs. Each person developed a ‘Needs Statement’ to capture the notions in what would make for an ideal model to meet their partner’s needs: “Ralph’s site needs a way to establish connections between classroom based insights and community-based places where teachers and students can apply both their school and youth-participatory cultural knowledge. In this way, schools become relevant in our youth’s lives as innovative-practice learning places where new knowledge, and, stances to developing new knowledge is co-constructed rather than a place with existing knowledge is merely consumed and later tested.”

In this clip, participants are building-to-learn prototypes each believes gets closer to solving their partner’s needs. This ideating process is fast and physical process where we build a 3-dimensional model that embodies what we heard our partner tell us while interviewing them.

It becomes important just to build, build, revise, and re-build in order to get into a ideating flow space. Participants had only 8 minute to enact their model, and, at the end of that process they would ‘test’ their models by going live and presenting them to the end-user, the partner whom they had interviewed.

It also becomes important to share the prototype models with each other, get feedback from our partner for whom we built the prototype, and ideally, the next step would be to revise it yet again.

From this physical build-to-learn, we were actually playing-to-learn. In doing so, the physicality involved us to hold at bay the well-developed problem-solving and sometimes linear approaches, replete with ‘safe answers’  that are well-established in the neurons of the left-side of our brain, into a new space, a 3rd space where the envisioning and spatial, non-temporal, well of richness that is our right-side of the brain could come out and build. This process of sharing with each other is critical because it let’s us bring forward the intellectual capacities to critique, name aspects that work and don’t, and, then decide what must be revised or further iterated.

We have experienced our ResponsiveDesign process, in the larger cultural and contextual setting of our own WP work, to be a human-centered approach that methodologizes and harnesses creativity towards a problem-solving stance that yields innovative solutions. And, we want to share this process with as many of our colleagues as possible who want to lead their site to become knowledge-makers inside and outside the school settings. In doing so, our NWP sites have the potential to develop more visibility as invaluable resources within schools, and more importantly outside of schools with yet untapped community partnerships.

Do you want to become a more creatively confident leader and innovator? If so, please join us in Saint Louis, MO this July 9-13 for cross-site and cross-institutional Summer Leadership Institute in Creativity & Innovation.

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 Open 3RDspace-Brochure1.pdf