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A Call for Beacons

In 2012, I was able to attend the Constructing Modern Knowledge (CMK) Summer Institute. It is a professional learning opportunity hosted by Gary Stager and Sylvia Martinez – of Invent To Learn fame – along with a faculty of “educational pioneers, bestselling authors, and inventors of educational technologies.” It’s a mind-on/hands-on experience into constructionist learning – not by listening, but by doing deep, rich project work. It was like no other MakerEd professional learning experience I had attended ever attended before. As a matter of fact, it was my first real MakerEd professional learning experience!

Among the many takeaways from the Institute, one of my most valuable was the concept of “Beacons” for projects and teams.  To clarify what is meant by the beacon metaphor, think about what a beacon does in real-life: it is typically a light, or signal, that helps people find their position or the position of other things… like the shoreline, or a channel through a waterway.

At CMK, attendees proposed a project that they wanted to work on during the four days of the Institute, and thus became a Beacon for that project. Anyone that wanted to work on that project would then seek that person out, and join them to form a team. But the Beacon did not have to be the person with the most technical expertise on the team. As a matter of fact, the Beacons at CMK often didn’t know anything about how they were going to complete their projects. But that was intentional because part of the experience was learning what you needed to learn in that moment. To aid in that learning, the entire Institute became a network of support. Someone might know a little bit (or a lotta bit 🙂 about the project someone had proposed but decided they didn’t want to work on that project. However, because they knew who the Beacon was, that knowledgeable person could eventually seek them out and offer help or guidance if the Beacon’s team desired it.

One of the best examples of this Beacon concept in action at CMK12 happened to my friend Josh Burker – of The Invent to Learn Guide to Fun fame. Josh decided his project was going to be a record player made out of Legos. He proposed this project, and a couple of other projects like a Lego mechanism that could be cranked and would play a tune on a guitar, and all the attendees recognized him as the Beacon for that endeavor. I didn’t join him, but I was fascinated by the idea of making plastic blocks do what I thought was completely impossible. (SPOILER: He was able to make the Lego phonograph, and would eventually have it published in Make Magazine!) So throughout the Institute, I would go over and check on the progress he was making. I was constantly in amazement at what was clearly an assault on my definition of impossible 🙂 Even though I could offer him no useful help on his project, I still spent lots of time with him asking questions and learning from the work that he was doing and how he had incorporated this kind of learning in his classroom.

But I wasn’t the only visitor Josh had. He had a working record player, complete with curb sharpened needle, proper gearing and motor speed to achieve the right rpm for the record, and a horn to broadcast the sound… but he was having problems getting the sound to be loud enough to hear without putting your ear right up to the plastic cup horn. I wasn’t there when it happened, but Josh told the story of how someone sought him out as Beacon to see how he was doing. When Josh told him about the volume problem he was having, this person suggested putting something soft, like cotton or napkins, into the horn to help make it louder. This person had some kind of prior experience working with phonographs, although certainly not the Lego kind, and told Josh about this “trick” he used to make them louder. Josh tried it, and then like a magical audio charm, the volume went up enough for people standing around the player to hear it! Because of the Beacon protocol, Josh was able to complete his project.

Since that CMK experience, I have incorporated the Beacon concept in my classes with students. It works especially well in certain contexts:

  • When students are beginning to work on a wide variety of personal projects, and some students haven’t decided yet what they want to do themselves. Using Beacons gives the “undecideds” a chance to exercise personal choice, and join someone on a project that sounds interesting to them. They may work for a while with that Beacon, and then end up taking one of three roads:
  1. Continue working with the original Beacon until that project is completed.
  2. Lose interest in that particular project, and then go join another Beacon.
  3. Come up with their own idea for a new project to pursue, and become a Beacon themselves.

In every case, that undecided student will have learned something from the experience that they didn’t know prior to it.

  • When you want to ensure that your learners have a chance to wear both a student hat AND a teacher hat. Beacons can be a great way to help stir the liquid network that is your classroom, by simply giving students a person to wander to. The results are an increase in the exchange and collision of ideas, plus the recognition that peers can be sources of expertise and support. A conversation with a visitor may unlock a sticking point in your project, or a temporary check-out on your project to check-in on another one might provide an insight that could be applied to your own.
  • When you want to create a system for soliciting discussion on projects that can happen asynchronously outside of class, having people as Beacons – instead of a project or a place or a problem – gives classmates a visual invitation to start an exchange. (ie “Hey Bob! Fancy meeting you at the football game. How’s your Lego phonograph coming along? I found this article in Make Magazine that might be helpful to you.”)

But classrooms aren’t the only place for using Beacons. I’ve begun experimenting with the idea of using them with teams of faculty members. Where I see great value in this approach is in the recognition that the teacher electing to tackle an identified need doesn’t have to be the one who already has the “answer”. The Beacons aren’t supposed to have the solution, they are the ones that are supposed to lead the creation of the solution. And that is particularly powerful, especially in a culture that is trying to encourage faculty to do more experiment and “risk-taking” as part of a growth mindset. Further, with the remaining faculty knowing who the Beacon is for a particular need, they can seek them out if they are interested in helping them, or sharing thoughts or questions about the need that could prove valuable to the Beacon’s team. Lastly, the use of Beacons can create ownership of the solution by faculty, instead of administrators trying to get buy-in on it; ownership > buy-in after all.

Having used this protocol with great success in my classrooms, and having seen it executed masterfully with teachers in a professional learning setting, I can’t help but believe how valuable it could be when used in a school faculty setting. If agency is your goal, then beacons can light the way.

By Jim Tiffin Jr (Cross-posted on my personal blog, Building Capacity)

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