Big Ideas Fest: Transforming Education in a Festival of Ideas


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Each December, education stakeholders gather at Half Moon Bay for a three-day immersion into creative collaboration with a goal to transform K-20 education. ISKME’s (The Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education) annual event Big Ideas Fest includes keynotes and RapidFire Talks with thought leaders hitting hard on important change points in education. Action Collabs provide design-thinking labs that engage groups of teachers, policy makers, students, funders, entrepreneurs and edu-prenuers to brainstorm and prototype  – on the spot – creating scalable solutions to the big issues in education. A lively combination of education evolution and revolution, the event provides a great pulse to systemic change occurring in education in an atmosphere that encourages risk and imagination, and informs national discussions for each year following the gathering.
Creating Solutions to Education Challenges
Big Ideas Fest got its start when two creative visionaries found themselves dissatisfied by previous education conferences. “In 2008, Jonah Houston (now an ISKME board member) and I found ourselves on the same flight back to San Francisco from Salt Lake City, having just attended an education conference that failed to inspire us,” explains Dr. Lisa Petrides, ISKME president. “The event was supposed to be about new thinking and innovation in education, yet we lamented that each person left with exactly the same perspective as they walked in with 3 days earlier. Once we realized that we had a lengthy flight delay, we began to talk about the need for an education-related event that was fully immersive. Rather than having attendees sitting for days listening to talking heads, we wanted an event where people actually participated in creating solutions to education challenges and where they felt emboldened to move their bodies as well as their minds. We wanted to create a festival of ideas as well as a design workshop to collaboratively prototype some of those ideas, and we wanted to bring a new sense of optimism to the field of education. And that is the origins of Big Ideas Fest. “
Thinking on Their Feet
Labyrinth_BIFThis year’s Big Ideas Fest included about 200 people from 10 countries. “Big Ideas Fest 2013 has benefited from our constant review and revisions from the previous four years,” says Petrides. “One highlight was the labyrinth we made from the 1,600 school books that were donated by the Internet Archive. On the first day, participants constructed their own books covers and titles for their books based on the idea of how they would rebrand education, and then a labyrinth was made by stacking up all of the books. During the Fest, participants walked through the labyrinth, reading book titles created and designed by others, and finding their way through this mass of knowledge. We always try to create a physical metaphor for what we do, and I feel this year’s labyrinth demonstrated our collaborative search for knowledge in a visceral way.
Thought Leaders to Watch, Listen to and Follow in 2014
“The Rapid Fire speakers —  modeled on TED’s quick presentation format — were exceptionally inspirational this year,” says Petrides, “starting with Columbia Teacher’s College Professor Christopher Emdin’s call to engage students in science through hip hop and other arts that they are passionate about,” said Petrides. “Empathy for others was a strong theme, with keynoter Shiza Shahid, CEO of The Malala Fund, talking about her organization’s campaign to promote education for girls worldwide, and Hannah Chung, cofounder of Sproutel, developing Jerry the Bear, an interactive learning aid for children with Type 1 diabetes.” University of Maryland University College President and Civitas Learning partner Dr. Marie Cini also presented a compelling Rapid Fire talk. (Check back for video of these speakers in January 2014.) Learn more about some of these thought leaders here: Shiza Shahid is the co-founder CEO of Malala Fund, named for the young Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai shot by the Taliban for her campaign for girls’ rights to education. In addition to her keynote, Ms. Shahid shared the stage as she was named the recipient of this year’s ISKME’s Innovation in Action Award. Since receiving the award at BIF, Ms. Shahid has been named one of Time Magazine’s 30 Under 30, 30 millennials who are changing the world. Follow her work on Twitter @Malala Fund. Dr. Christopher Emdin, a professor in the Department of Mathematics, Science and Technology at Teachers College, Columbia University. Dr. Emdin also serves as Director of Science Education at the Center for Health Equity and Urban Science Education. His latest book is Urban Science for the Hip Hop Generation. Follow Christopher Emdin on Twitter @chrisemdin. Nina Simon has been described as a “museum visionary” by Smithsonian Magazine for her community-centered approach to design. She is the Executive Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, where she led an institutional turnaround based on creative risk-taking, grassroots participation, and unexpected community partnerships. Nina is the author of The Participatory Museum (2010) and the popular Museum 2.0 blog. Follow Nina Simon on Twitter @ninaksimon.
Roadtrip Nation Continues to Inspire
Another highlight — as it has been every year — was the participation of eight Roadtrip Nation students from South San Francisco High School. From within the green RoadNation RV parked outside the hotel, the students conducted interviews with participants about what inspired them to choose their particular career. “At the end of the Fest, the students were interviewed in this video about how their lives were changed by attending this event,” says Petrides. It’s an inspiring video and worth a watch. “And finally, as another highlight, this was the first year a team of 10 teachers and administrators from Doha, Qatar flew half way around the world to join us.” One conference attendee had this to say:
“I’m just so jazzed. I’m on my 28th year in education and I have absolutely never gone to a conference like that. It exceeded all my expectations. Exceeds any conference I’ve ever attended. I’m 50 years old and was going to retire. After Big Ideas Fest, I’m thinking no way I’m retiring, I have too much to do. We have a big vision here and my job is to make it come to life. The Fest affirmed and gave permission to go and be and do. To not be afraid. The great speakers were a highlight. And the biggest thing were that the people presenting are like us – out there, regular people, on the front lines and willing to take a risk and be affirmed by regular people. You don’t need to be Steve Jobs. You just have to be willing to take it and run with it.” 

For more on the events and education thought leaders to follow, access Big Ideas Fest.

Lisa Petrides

Lisa Petrides is President and Founder of ISKME (Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education), a global leader in research and practice around data use, open education, and social learning in the education sector.

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