The Comet & The Tornado

In April 2011 I was incredibly fortunate to have a two week study tour to the USA when I met some of the most dynamic people influencing education at the time. This was all thanks to my great friend Amit Bhatia of Aspire. Along the way we met Sal Khan (Khan Academy), Dr Howard Gardner, Peter Cappelli (author of ‘The Indian Way’ and professor at Wharton School of Business), senior professors at Columbia School of Teaching, Stanford School of Education and many more.

One part of the trip that has stuck in my mind more than most was an amazing afternoon at Carnegie Mellon, visiting the Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) and meeting the man who heads it up – Don Marinelli. The Center was founded by Don and the now very famous Late Randy Pausch (The Last Lecture) and brought together the combination of Randy’s IT background with Don’s background in Drama. The result is a real eye-opener!

I recently came across this interview given by Don in March 2010. In this fascinating and wide ranging discussion he touches upon many of the things we talked about. Incidentally, our meeting with him took place in the same room – his office at the ETC, surrounded by all his baseball memorabilia, lava lamps, airplanes and film posters.

What he has to say about schools, about learning in the twenty first century and especially about learning spaces are refreshing. However, here we are 4 years later and I suspect Don might not be too impressed with progress to date.

As Don showed us around the ETC the infectious enthusiasm of the students was quite contagious. Here were people who were genuinely excited by what they were learning. Each project team had its own room. Each room was quirky and different in its own way, unique to the people who occupied it (and nobody needed to tell them how long to spend on task!!)

When he talks in the interview about people filling their rooms with things that matter to them, I am reminded of a conversation I once had with a room full of teachers. I posed a question to them. I pointed out that even when you visit the most nondescript of office buildings, one finds that each person has personalised their desk and the space around it in some way. One might have photos of family members, another has a favourite mouse pad, another a coffee mug,a plant in a pot, a poem or picture that means something significant to them. Yet, when we enter a teacher's workplace (the classroom) we find it sterile and not a shred of evidence of them - nothing personal. So, I asked them - what would happen if you personalised your workspace in some way - brought some things in to it that are significant to you? The answer was a very sad one - "it wouldn't last 5 minutes," said one teacher, and the rest in the room promptly backed her opinion.

Were they wrong and unduly cynical? If they were right, then what does that say about the de-humanizing, cold and institutionalised spaces we have created - spaces within which people are supposed to do great learning, and do it with enthusiasm? Places within which young people are meant to be learning about how to 'be in the world'.

I'm with Don - I think we can do better than that. A whole lot better.

(P.S. The Comet and the Tornado goes on to my 'To Be Read' list)

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