January 2013
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Month January 2013

Rethinking…* Homelessness & Artistic Expression ~ Starving Artists Project

There’s now a record 46,000 homeless people in New York City struggling to communicate their very basic need for help, the need for food, the need for shelter, the need to be recognized. They reach out through the only means they have: scraps of cardboard and their own creativity. Sadly, we don’t even look, we’ve been subconsciously trained to ignore even the passionate cries for help of the homeless to go completely unnoticed. But what if there was a way to change this by changing the way we interpret these messages. After observing the creation of these signs, it became clear that these were not just messages, but rather heartfelt, beautiful pieces of handmade human expression. These were in every way individual pieces of art. We made it our mission to redirect these artful cries for help away from the streets to a forum where they could be properly seen and appreciated to inspire change.

Starving Artists Project is a social art initiative giving the NYC homeless community’s artistic cries for help a larger platform to inspire greater action.  Founded by Thompson Harrell & Nick Zafonte, the Starving Artists Project is based on the recognition that the signs for help of homeless people are “not just messages, but rather heartfelt, beautiful pieces of handmade human expression”, which led to their mission: “to redirect their artful cries for help from the streets to a forum where they can be properly appreciated, giving the homeless a more powerful voice, to bring about a more profound change.” Partnering up with world-renowned photographer, Andrew Zuckerman, Starving Artists Project photographed nearly thirty artists and collected their messages. The collection made its debut at the Dumbo Art Center in Brooklyn, NY, with the artists there to be recognized by the public.

Enjoy & rethink…*

(The Starving Artists Project Film from Thompson Harrell on Vimeo.)


John John

By John John

Shavar Stora

By Shavar Stora

Head over to StarvingArtistsProject.com for more pictures of the artists and their work.

(images via: starvingartistproject.com)

Beyond Willpower ~ The Science of Productivity

“How can we use science to crack open the potential of our minds? Is there a secret to being productive? The first thing to come to terms with is that your willpower is simply not enough. In fact, some studies suggest that willpower is an inexhaustible source that can be entirely used up.”

Find out how to unlock your productivity in this lovely animated 3-minute video brought to you by ASAP Science.

Enjoy & rethink…*

 ASAPscience on YouTube, published December 12, 2012

 The Science of Productivity {Design Taxi}

“Magic is a total moment of being astonished & questioning what you believe.” ~ Mario the Magician – Building Magic

Enjoy this delightful short film by KAL on Mario Marchese aka Mario the Magician…*

“There’s an old Bob Dylan song where he laughs before he starts playing and I always think about that laughter before he starts playing and sometimes I rewind it and I just listen to him laugh. It’s just this amazing unexpected moment because you’re listening to listen to music, you’re not listening to listen to Bob Dylan laugh and that’s magic. Right there, that’s magic.”

(Mario the Magician: Building Magic from MarioTheMagician on Vimeo.)


“Magic is creating a moment for someone else where they forget that reality is reality and they actually question everything for a moment and not in a scary way but in the most exciting way because magic is an experience. Magic is a total moment of being astonished and questioning what you believe.”

 Film: Mario the Magician – Building Magic {JunkCulture}

Tina Seelig: A Crash Course in Creativity

Tina Seelig: A Crash Course in Creativity

Tina Seelig’s Innovation Engine ~ A model of all the things we need to unlock creativity.

Fantastic talk by Tina Seelig on unlocking creativity. Seelig takes the viewer through her Innovation Engine, a model of the various components needed for creativity. Seelig identifies six such components and breaks them down into two categories–those pertaining to the self: imagination, knowledge and attitude–and those external factors pertaining to the world and our environments: culture, resources and habitat. In this intriguing and entertaining TEDxStanford talk, Seelig highlights various ways in which to grow our potential in each of these threads.

Enjoy and Rethink…*

 TedXTalks on Youtube, published August 1, 2012.

“The world sends us garbage. We send back music.” ~ Landfill Harmonic

Something to infuse your Monday with wonder and pride in humanity. The following trailer is for Landfill Harmonic, “an upcoming feature-length documentary about a remarkable orchestra from a remote village in Paraguay, whose young musicians play on instruments made from trash.” Landfill Harmonic follows the story of The Recycled Orchestra, an orchestra made up of children from Cateura, Paraguay, a slum built on a landfill. A beautiful meditation on the power of community, art and human dignity, Landfill Harmonic is a humbling source of inspiration.

Enjoy & rethink…*

(Landfill Harmonic movie teaser from Landfill Harmonic on Vimeo.)


“People realize that we shouldn’t throw away trash carelessly. Well, we shouldn’t throw away people either.”


 The Recycled Orchestra is Comprised of Paraguayan Youth Who Play Musical Instruments Crafted From Trash {Inhabitots}

Interleaving and Grit

Screen Shot 2012-12-28 at 11.07.54 AMI’m intrigued by the idea of interleaving. I know, I know, it looks like a typo. I must have meant “interweaving”… When I first read of interleaving, I was sure that the authors had typed it wrong. It’s a weird word, but a cool, simple concept to incorporate into your teaching.

So what is interleaving? I tried for a while to come up with my own concise definition of it, but I couldn’t do any better than Rohrer and Pashler (2010) did, so I’ll leave it to them:

If multiple kinds of skills must be learned, the opportunities to
practice each skill may be ordered in two very different ways:
blocked by type (e.g., aaabbbccc) or interleaved (e.g., abcbcacab).
Until recently, experimental comparisons of blocked and inter-
leaved practice had been limited to studies of motor skill learn-
ing, where it has been found that interleaving increases learning
(Carson & Wiegand, 1979; Hall, Domingues, & Cavazos, 1994;
Landin, Hebert, & Fairweather, 1993; Shea & Morgan, 1979).

Rohrer and Pashler expand on their mention of “motor skill learning” and discuss how much better it is for a batter to practice against different pitches in different orders, instead of doing a block of fastballs, a block of curveballs, etc. Presumably, interleaving is better for the pitcher as well. Interleaving keeps athletes on their toes and thereby sharpens their skills.

But how could interleaving help learning in the classroom? One easy way to incorporate interleaving is to alter the structure of math and language homework. A lot of practice assignments in math and language rely on blocked drills (e.g., a long series of Spanish words to be translated into English, then a long series of the opposite), but students might benefit from having to face different types of problems as they go (e.g., one English–>Spanish translation, followed by a Spanish–>English one).

Remember homework assignments from your math book when you were a kid? In my math books, I had to do a few problems from section A, a few problems from section B, and a few problems from section C. In each section, the problems were blocked–they were basically the same, addressing the same skill, just with different numbers thrown in. At times I could more or less go on autopilot and perform the same procedure without thinking too hard. When I finished one section and went on to the next, I had to readjust my procedure to the skills being tested in that section. And so on.

If I were interleaving, however, I might have done a problem from section A, followed by one from section B, followed by one from C, then back to B, then to C, then to A. Or something like that, which would keep me on my cognitive toes.

So let’s say I was designing a grammar assignment for my students. I could have them circle the direct objects in a series of five sentences, then move on to circling the subjects in a series of five different sentences. Maybe a third section of five sentences would require them to circle all the indirect objects.

That would be the blocking way of doing things, and that is exactly what I used to do (the grammar book I designed can bear witness to my unthinking tendency to work in blocks). But instead I might do this:

1. Identify the direct object:

The team won the game because of great coaching.

2. Identify the subject:

Somewhere in the forest lurks a big, bad wolf.

3. Identify the indirect object:

The old man told the children a story.

4. Identify the subject:

What do you think?

Studies suggest that interleaving the exercises this way (and the different skills the exercises test) increases student learning. But it isn’t some silver bullet that helps students learn things more easily.

Rohrer and Pashler cite Rohrer and Taylor (2007), a study in which college students were given four different types of math problems to solve. One group did blocks of each type of problem; another group faced the problems in an interleaved format. In the short term, the block-format students outperformed the interleaving students (mean scores of 89% and 60%, respectively). Yikes! What good, then, is interleaving?

Well, on a test given one week later, the interleavers’ average rose a bit and the blocking students’ average plummeted–63% to 20%! It looks as though interleaving helps you really learn something, even if if it makes things harder in the short term.

As you can see from this post’s title, I see a connection between these data and that word grit we hear a lot these days. Interleaving problems makes assignments harder–maybe even a bit more annoying–in the short term, for the sake of a larger payoff and deeper learning in the long term. Would our students see the value in that? Do our students understand that a lower initial score isn’t something to be afraid of, especially if it means they learn it better?

I think a lot of us wonder how we can really encourage grit into our classroom, and I doubt many of us think we can make our homework assignments seriously grit-fostering experiences. But it seems to me that interleaving problems offers one small way to make assignments more difficult, not for difficulty’s sake, but for learning’s sake. Interleaving might send the gritty message that “I know it’s hard now, but stick with it and you’ll really learn this stuff.” It’s certainly worth a try, right?…*

Further reading:
“Everything You Thought You Knew About Learning Is Wrong” by Garth Sundem (Wired)
“The Trouble With Homework” by Annie Murphy Paul (NYT)

Rohrer, D. & Pashler, H. (2010). Recent research on human learning challenges: Conventional instructional strategies. Educational Researcher, 39, 5, 406-412.

Rohrer, D., & Taylor, K. (2007). The shuffling of mathematics practice problems boosts learning. Instructional Science, 35, 481–498.

Friday Link Fest {January 3-11, 2013}

Friday Link Fest {January 3-11, 2013} Photograph by Elsa Fridman


The Future of Work  ~ a PSFK Labs Report

John Maeda & The Art of Leadership: Considering Business Leadership as an Artistic Endeavor ~ via Design Matters

“Art is about asking questions, which is a good way of looking at how to solve a problem. I like to apply how artists think to look at how to improve design, technology…and now leadership.” -John Maeda

To Increase Innovation Take the Sting Out of Failure ~ via Harvard Business Review, published January 9, 2013.

Start by defining a smart failure. Everyone in your organization knows what success is. It’s the things you put on a resume: increased revenues, decreased costs, delivered a product etc. Far fewer know what a smart failure is — i.e. the type of failures that should be congratulated. These are the thoughtful and well planned projects that for some reason didn’t work. Define them so people know the acceptable boundaries within which to fail. If you don’t define them, all failure looks risky and it will kill creativity and innovation.

Questions to consider in defining smart failures: What makes a failure smart in our organization? What makes a failure dumb? Specifically, what guidelines, approaches, or processes characterize smart risk taking? What clear examples can we point to, to demonstrate smart failures? You want people to clearly understand the right and wrong way to fail.

Bike Spikes Allow For Urban Rides In The Snow ~ For his graduation project at the Design Academy Eindhoven, Dutch designer Cesar van Rongen developed an ingenious solution for the two-wheeled set to use during the oh-so- cold-and-slippery season. via FastCoDesign, published January 10, 2013.

What Innovators Can Learn From Artists ~ via Design Mind, published January 2, 2013.

1. Artists are “neophiles”
2. Artists are humanists
3. Artists are craftspeople
4. Artists are like children
5. Artists rely on their intuition
6. Artists are comfortable with ambiguity
7. Artists are holistic, interdisciplinary thinkers
8. Artists thrive under constraints
9. Artists are great storytellers
10. Artists are conduits and not “masters of the universe”
11. Artists are passionate about their work
12. Artists are contrarians

Steelcase’s Anthropologist On Remaking Offices To Create Happier Workers ~ The need to text is new, while the needs to make contact–and to find privacy–are old. Same old human nature thrown into constantly new contexts. It’s the job of Donna Flynn, who directs Steelcase’s WorkSpace Futures, a 19-member independent research group within the global office design company, to understand how these timely (and timeless) trends shape the way we work. via Fast Company, published January 3, 2013.

The workplace is becoming distributed.
As teams spread out, the nature of collaboration changes.
This quest leads to another: privacy
At the core of all this is well-being.

21 Emotions For Which There Are No English Words ~ Infographic by design student Pei-Ying Lin. via Pop Sci, published January 4, 2013.

How to design breakthrough inventions60 Minutes‘ profile of David Kelley and IDEO: Global firm IDEO incorporates human behavior into product design — an innovative approach being taught at Stanford. Charlie Rose profiles the company’s founder, David Kelley. via 60 Minutes, Published January 6, 2013.


Jun Fujiwara’s Re: Sound Bottle Remixes The Sounds All Around You ~ via FastCoDesign, published January 9, 2013.

(Re: Sound Bottle from Jun Fujiwara on Vimeo.)

Grading for Skills, Not Scores

The usual way of categorizing things.

The usual way of categorizing things.


I take great pride in my gradebook. It’s a kinda-fancy, multi-colored collection of Excel spreadsheets that I made myself (with training and inspiration from my friend and former colleague Dan Lyons, @dan_lyons). I tinker with it year after year to get it just right. I can enter a test score in the test scores section, a quiz score in the quiz scores section, and some other grade in the miscellaneous section. All the formulas are there to spit out the students’ averages to however many decimal points I want. It’s precise, it’s easy, and it’s organized.

But is it organized the right way? The basic underlying structure is just an imitation of my understanding of what a gradebook should look like: tests count for X percent, quizzes count for Y percent, homework or class participation get factored in to some significant–but not too significant–extent.

During one of my classes at Teachers College last semester, a classmate told me about an idea he’d been playing around with: the skills-based gradebook. Why not keep track of the kinds of questions our students get wrong or the exact types of questions that keep tripping them up? For example, which is more useful for the math teacher and student: recording an 82% on the Unit 2 test, or recording that a student ran into trouble on the word problems section but did well with simplifying expressions? Of course, we might go over the test with the student afterwards and point out the difficulty with word problems, but it would likely be helpful to record the information and look for patterns throughout the year.

Paul Bambrick-Santoyo’s Driven by Data: A Practical Guide to Improve Instruction provides a helpful way for reconsidering how we design our curricula and how we keep track of student performance. If one of our students scores a 75% on his test but misses most of his questions in the antonyms section, do we record that in our gradebooks, or do we simply record the score and tell him to study harder next time? By keeping careful track of specific areas where our students are having trouble, we can offer guided and highly specific instruction to help them improve their performance and achieve mastery going forward. Bambrick-Santoyo offers a highly developed approach to “teaching to the test,” whereby teachers home in on the areas of weakness on one test to prepare their students for the next one. Skills-based mastery is the name of the game.

I have no doubt that many teachers already record student performance this way. Skills-based assessment may be one of the many areas in which primary-school teachers have much to teach those of us who have older students.  I also have no doubt that it requires more work to keep such careful records. But the benefit for the student–and for the teacher’s effectiveness–could be huge.

If we take this idea one step further, how could such thinking about assessment affect our report cards? What if students received joint comments from the English and history teachers about the students’ ability to write effective thesis statements and clear topic sentences? Or if the foreign language and English (and math!) teachers joined forces to assess the students’ understanding of grammatical and linguistic structure?

Addressing, assessing, and recording skills strength instead of simply recording grades on quizzes and tests…I’m still playing around with this basic idea and how I can incorporate it into my teaching. But I know that before I return to the classroom next year, I have an awful lot of work to do on my gradebook. Just when I thought I had it right, time to rethink…*

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