Connecting with Pure Genius

A chat with a classroom innovation advocate and purpose-driven educator.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

CREDIT Don WettrickEver hear of an innovation specialist? Well, talking to one is refreshing and highly recommended. Don Wettrick is an Innovation Specialist at Noblesville High School, just outside Indianapolis, Indiana. He is the author of “Pure Genius: Building a Culture of Innovation and Taking 20% Time to the Next Level”. Don has worked as a middle school and high school teacher; educational and innovation consultant; and educational speaker. He is passionate about helping students find their educational opportunities and providing them with the digital tools they need to give them a competitive edge. He has lectured across the US and Europe about collaboration, social media use, and work environments that enable innovation. Don also hosts an Internet radio program, InnovatED, for the BAM! Radio Network. Most importantly, Don

It’s is not “just about the tech,” but rather collecting ideas and data and connecting them in ways you didn’t think of before.

works with educators and students to bring innovation and collaborative skills into education. He lives in Indianapolis with his wife, Alicia, and three children: Ava, Anna, and Grant. After getting to know more about what’s currently on his mind in this interview, find him on Twitter @donwettrick where he tweets updates on his student’s innovation work.

Victor: What have been some of your key highlights in working with technology in education? 

Don: My highlight in working with technology has always been in our attitude to learn together. I will never be up to date with the latest update or newest app. However, a teacher willing to learn together with his/her students is important for two reasons. First, because there is a willingness to move forward and embrace technology in the first place. Secondly, because teachers should model the life-long learner approach. So when a 42-year old man is willing to roll up his sleeves, it sends a tone of learning through trial and error, but never rejecting something out of fear.

Victor: What formative experience have you had along the way that have helped you arrive to your current approach to edtech? 

Don: My “formative” experience and approach to EdTech is pretty much in my first answer. Several years ago I was asked to take over the “school announcements,” which meant my somewhat limited experience in college would finally pay off. I was going to be the broadcasting teacher. The problem was that I had been out long enough that my knowledge base was mostly obsolete. I accepted the challenge and learned with the students. I quickly found that 99% of our problems could be solved in a YouTube tutorial. We would go there to view great examples of work, find collaborators, and post our work for truly authentic assessment. Since then I have started an “Innovation class,” which is very EdTech friendly (think of a “Genius Hour” class every day). This approach to learning is the exact method I have used to my “formative training”- trial and error and/or learning with the students.

Victor: What are a few key principles you advise students, teachers and parents on in regards to a smart approach to using technology to enhance and improve learning experiences? 

Don: Our approach to technology has been to use technology as a tool, and not be a slave to the tool. Educational technology is here to make students lives more functional and streamlined. If the technology (whether it be a device or an app) is making things too difficult, then it doesn’t work for you… move on to something else. This is not to say that some technology will be a struggle at first, but in general the technology is a tool to enable you to be more effective.

Victor: What are your general thoughts on education today? Any key trends in technology that educators should be looking at? Why those? 

Don: I have been lucky enough to start an innovation class at Noblesville High School. In this class, each student is provided time and resources to pursue projects that interest them. The process includes doing research on what common core standards they believe they will master, conduct a feasibility report before the “big” project begins, then collaborate with outside experts to really create a unique learning experience. Lastly, we harness blogs and social media to showcase our learning and encourage students creating a digital brand.

While the trend of “Genius Hour” and “20% Time” have made a great impact on education, I want to encourage educators to foster creativity and innovation past the 20% of a school week.

Victor: You’ve written the book on innovative learning, where do you get that passion and drive – a mentor, a parent? Did something happen to you in your own schooling? 

CREDIT Pure Genius by Don WettrickDon: I was inspired (and continue to be inspired) by innovation thought leaders like Daniel Pink and Tina Seelig, to name a few. I actually got the courage to ask my school to dedicate an entire class toward innovation after watching Dan’s TED talk. Since starting the class, I have had the privilege of connecting with innovation leaders all over the world. Tina Seelig, author of InGenius, and Stanford’s d.school and innovation tour-de-force, has been a wealth of information. I decided to write my own book based off of our trials and errors from the innovation class. Giving homage to the Genius Hour approach, I titled the book “Pure Genius: Creating a Culture of Innovation and Taking 20% Time to the Next Level.”

In writing this book, I connected with teachers that use “Genius Hour” methods from elementary and middle levels, and demonstrated what innovation in the classroom looks like. Often times there is a little reluctance from some educators because they think that “innovation” means working with technology they are not comfortable with. However, innovation is a new way to solve problems. However, it’s not “just about the tech,” but rather collecting ideas and data and connecting them in ways you didn’t think of before. The technology aspect of an innovation project is there to enhance, and more teachers need to know this.

Victor: Any interesting anecdote you have that is representative of your efforts in education? 

Don: I also must admit that I wanted to start an “innovation” class because I had some “Ferris Bueller” type of English classes growing up. Once I decided to take on a project, instead of doing the usual essay and poster combo, I put my heart and soul into the project, which was a video I scripted, shot, and produced. When it was over I received an “A” with no other feedback. That was it. Just a grade. Remembering how I felt about working hard for an audience of one has, however, served as a lesson to my students. I want them to understand that we can learn with great people. I tell my students to find collaborators- they will make you better (and be potential employers in the future). Lastly, I want them to publish their results to the world! Blogging and YouTube have been the best way to show mastery! It’s nice to get an “A” from the teacher, but even better to show the world your work matters.

Victor: Any great places you’ve visited or schools that you see are really doing it right? Why those? Anything else?

Don: I’ve seen great evidence of awesome “innovative” approaches in the classroom. I’m happy to say that it is catching on! The word “innovation” is being used all the time, from car commercials to company mission statements. Education also seems to be embracing the spirit of innovation as well. And while I like how “Genius Hour” has opened the door to acceptance in our schools, I think it’s time to dedicate more toward creativity and innovation. If you want to see great leaders in this field, take a look at leaders like Joy Kirr, AJ Juliani, Kevin Brookhauser, and the thousands of teachers using the #GeniusHour Twitter chats. Also innovation leaders like Tom and David Kelley from IDEO, Seth Godin, and Dave Burkus have always been on my radar for cutting edge ideas on innovation. I love to connect with great minds, especially if you want to help my students! I can be found on Twitter @donwettrick, and my email is: dwettrick@gmail.com

Victor Rivero is the Editor in Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com

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