STEAMConf 2021 - Nancy Otero on DOING: a fundamental learning process from 0 to 100 years

Nancy Otero’s talk at STEAMConf Barcelona ‘21 brought us along on a personal journey from her time studying at Stanford with Paulo Blikstein to her work now as Director of Learning at Make: and CEO at Kitco, and her quest to answer a series of fundamental questions concerning what learning means to her, the nature of learning as a lifelong human pursuit, and learning’s place in contextualizing our lived experience in a shared process of continued social development. Along the way we are treated to an exploration of Nancy’s methodical and pragmatic research practice, and an examination of existing challenges she continues to tackle. This practice saw her develop and deliver a number of skills-based learning programs for students of various ages, backgrounds and socio-economic status in Mexico and the USA, the outcomes from which she uses to unpack tentative but promising answers to her probing questions, and frame their value for all learners.

Day 1 Talk: DOING, a fundamental learning process from 0 to 100 years - Nancy Otero Director of Learning at Make: Founder and CEO at Kitco, San Francisco, CA, USA

The familiar, standard framework for learning, with its increasingly untenable view that ideas are platonic forms to be plucked from the air and implanted into students’ heads, is presented throughout in contrast to her arguments and approach. We are reminded how the standard factory model of learning which still holds prominence globally departs from ancient and timeless natural modes of human expression, collaboration and ultimately, learning we can all instinctively relate to.

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In its place we are offered DOING as a route to learning that is closer to the naturalistic human model and thus a candidate for deeper, more inclusive learning. This idea and approach is explored in the context of innovative environment design & technology integration (as seen in makerspaces), and student interest-led, skills-based and community contextualised projects.

"What would it be like if a school turns its entire curriculum into projects, Nancy Otero wondered, without conventional classrooms and without isolating disciplines? No schedules or grades? At Portfolio School in New York, tests, grades and schedules were eliminated, creating a learning framework where DOING transformative projects became a fundamental piece to apply and internalize powerful human ideas. Four years later, says Nancy, DOING is a fundamental avenue of learning, a tool that tangibly shapes a legacy of human ideas while adding personal meaning. This way of learning is not only for schools but for universities, for adults and informal learning."

We are treated to three examples of DOING in practice including an after-school FabLab embedded program for Mexican high-school students, a collaborative and immersive project exploring light with a group of kindergarten students from the Portfolio School in NYC, and a remote learning program, Make: Learning Labs for young adults not in education, employment or training (NEETs) of which there are 300m people in such a situation globally.

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What stood out for me from these case studies was the degree of confidence students developed, their level of engagement (and willing involvement) with the process, the broad range of skills they were learning in parallel, and the technical abilities they all demonstrated (which seemed to surprise many of the students themselves). The (often collaborative) projects that were coming out of these learning programs were integrating multiple cutting-edge technologies, digital fabrication, with project management and presentation skills, targeting real problems with actionable solutions for their communities. In one example of the confidence the students were gaining on these programs, one 7 year old student submitted a paper proposal for FabLearn Conference 2017 and was invited to give a presentation, which she did. It is easy to see how this type of contextualisation would help instill a strong sense of self-efficacy and belonging to any student who is given the opportunity to craft that experience for themselves.

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As the talk progressed Nancy outlined the emergent methodologies that guide these programs and presented them in a highly-structured framework, thus giving any educator the opportunity to implement and test these ideas in their own educational settings. In a response to a question I posed at the end of the talk (relating to examples of DOING connecting with standard public curricula) she very kindly shared the work she can done connecting individuals in schools with local makerspaces and detailed how the Beam Centre in NY is working to further bridge the gap. One example of great work where this has been implemented with success is the Poetry Machine created at Brooklyn International High School.

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As the talk concluded Nancy was very clear to point out that what had emerged from her research was still indicative rather than conclusive and that there were still important challenges to be addressed. Regardless, the provocations that Nancy’s research and practice brings to the surface, the changes seen in her student’s lives, and the clarity of the framework she presents offers a credible argument for the efficacy of DOING as a timeless, effective and engaging route to learning.

This keynote presentation for STEAMConf Barcelona ‘21 was both inspiring and had extremely practical takeaways. I found it particularly exciting that Nancy’s practice is a direct reflection of the pedagogy she espouses, whose brilliance and success serve to add credence to it. In the wake of Nancy’s talk I find myself feeling invigorated and optimistic, and in great anticipation for the rest of the conference.

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Nancy is the Director of Learning at Make:, Founder and CEO at Kitco and Member of the Board at Beam Centre ¦¦ Nancy's Website & Blog