a spark, a burst

Burstiness is like the best moments in improv jazz. Someone plays a note, someone else jumps in with a harmony, and pretty soon, you have a collective sound that no one planned. Most groups never get to that point, but you know burstiness when you see it.(Trevor Noah + Adam Grant, 2018)

619: Biomedical Ethics

Summer 2017 with Mark Robinson

When I arrived in the Critical & Creative Thinking (CCT) program at UMass Boston, I was keen to explore the theory and practice of transdisciplinary teams, building on my past research and work that had shown me the value of diverse perspectives and expertise in generating new ideas and solutions. This interest in transdisciplinarity has continued through my time in the program, but has also evolved. I see continually blurred boundaries among disciplines not just formally in research, but also in moments as groups of people come together at work and in life to solve problems.

One interesting development in my thinking through this course was that I arrived thinking that modern case studies would be the most relevant, applicable lens through which to explore current issues. A significant component of the Biomedical Ethics curriculum revolves around the exploration of historic examples that still inform timely ethical issues. Slowly, through future courses (particularly those with Peter Taylor), I came to appreciate how the past could help us think critically about both the present and the future.

The work sample attached references the development of an algorithm, which is interesting in that I went on to research (both in CCT and in my work life) artificial intelligence, starting nearly two years after this paper was written. This perhaps gives a reader insight into an analytical, structured way of thinking that comes naturally to me – something that I would learn to shift in order to create space for divergent thinking, which continues to be a journey for me.

650: Mathematical Thinking

Fall 2017 with Peter Taylor

When I started taking Mathematical Thinking, I questioned both where I might find creativity in the course (due to what I considered to be the more straightforward, logical nature of the subject), but creativity in myself as a mathematical thinker (given that I have worked in science and math education for the bulk of my professional career). It was not long before I sensed shifts in my thinking, starting with suddenly seeing opportunities everywhere I went to engage in critical thought and ideation based on mathematical principles. Everywhere I went, I seemed to encounter quantitative information in society that begged for deeper exploration, everywhere I turned, it was there: math.

The course requires three smaller assignments, which reflect themes connected to my work in K-12 education: attitudes towards STEM, gender differences, and influences on youth perceptions of math. My work illustrates the start of what would eventually, in later CCT courses, come to inform my understanding of communities of practice, spheres of influence, and building constituencies. These layers begin with the individual and emanate outwards, eventually leading to a global context in which society envelops all actors. One interesting idea that started in 650 that I would like to return to, as it is not fully developed, is how the online space differs in our ability to engage others when compared to face-to-face engagement. What are the different influences in these two worlds? What challenges and opportunities exist in each? I would like to revisit these questions moving forward, thinking both critically and creatively about how technology shifts the spaces in which we build community and connect with others.

649: Scientific & Political Change

Spring 2018 with Peter Taylor

An important process of research and engagement – as well as flow states, which is an important concept in my final Synthesis work – is feedback. Although in the previous course, 650, I had been given a taste of the feedback process, this course pushed me as a critical and creative thinker to continue to unpack ideas, adopt new perspectives, and propose alternate solutions – even after I thought something was “done.” The format of CCT 649 is four mini assignments (project-based learning) that overlap; i.e., iteration continues on a past assignment even as the next is beginning. Prior to entering the program, I prided myself on an ability to stay organized and would often submit work in advance of deadlines, keen to “move forward.” I know now that there is a tension between this way of being and a different mode, in which there is openness and flexibility up until the last minute (and sometimes, even beyond!). It is a spectrum, where I know that I can learn from others and not hold so rigidly to my comfortable, default processes and systems. This course was what I identify as the start of that journey.

I have included all four of my PBLs in this portfolio, because they each have distinct memories for me about how they advanced me as a practitioner. The first, on bipartisan action, frustrated me to no end; more than any other CCT assignment, I remember back-and-forth dialogue with Professor Taylor about my arguments and political idealism versus reality. I took on that paper with the bias of a science educator with only the slightest exposure to science diplomacy (through a one-week AAAS training); looking back, I can see now that this was an initial exposure to the cycles of propositions, counter-propositions, and counter counter-propositions.

The second assignment on mental health apps was a topic I was passionate about (this would come back in future courses – see 612), and would have gladly pursued for the entire semester were I not forced to move on. It is probably because of this attachment to my ideas that I barely remember working on the third PBL, on virtual reality. This was a valuable lesson in being comfortable with “works in progress” and knowing that nothing is ever really complete. One of my ongoing challenges in CCT and in life is to sit with the feeling of uncertainty and incompleteness in analyzing ideas – knowing that I might never feel that the process is complete. Sometimes, the value lies in keeping the door open, rather than shutting it behind us. Juggling multiple ideas simultaneously and appreciating diverse, seemingly disconnected paths of inquiry is something I have learned to embrace.

The final assignment was the most connected to my professional life, which at the time was predominantly focused on supporting K-12 teachers with bringing coding education into their classrooms. In looking back at this work, I can see how it effectively brings together a range of material I was invested in (i.e., critical curation of ideas); however, I wonder if I was still comfortable in a “safe space” of familiar processes, such as the World Café model, asking questions that were typical and/or expected of me in the professional spaces I work in. Were I to revisit this work, I wonder how other processes of research and engagement might be implemented, those that might ask me to get uncomfortable and question the propositions that I held to be true. This would mean intentionally seeking out people who hold other ideas and perspectives, to help me challenge my views and ultimately refine or strengthen them.

602: Creative Thinking

Spring 2018 with Luanne Witkowski

The biggest influence that CCT 602 had on me was its incorporation of playful approaches, whether they were identified as such or not. Play and playfulness would come to be the major themes of my final Synthesis, and many of the weekly activities that were assigned to us in this course incorporated playfulness – which helped to fuel creativity. I remember in particular the assignment in the first week to create a physical journal (rather than completing it digitally), which I felt lukewarm about given that I was traveling frequently and the idea of spreading out an accordion-style book made out of a brown paper bag and colouring with markers on an airplane seemed impractical. However, I see the value of these sorts of exercises now – how whimsical word play, scribbling, and exploring different mediums of expression are processes that support creative engagement.

My museum assignment, a collaboration with my peer Amanda Lopes, was fun and brought back a theme that I first identified in 650 – the idea of physical and digital spaces in which collaboration, connection, and creativity can thrive. I continue to ponder how these environments provide both challenges and opportunities. As I write this reflection, at the end of my CCT journey and in the midst of a global pandemic that has made virtually all connections happen online, I particularly wonder how we can facilitate avenues of participation in a digital world. Other themes in this work continued in my Synthesis project, and remain ideas for further exploration: the role of technology in society, design thinking, transdisciplinarity, and universal design for learning.

627: Issues and Controversies in Antiracist and Multicultural Education

Summer 2018 with Pharmicia Monique Mosely

When I first entered CCT, I might have said that it is important to “acknowledge” or “appreciate” diverse perspectives, which would help us as a society to see things from different angles. However, these words don’t really do justice to the importance of absorbing and integrating these diverse perspectives. And in processes such as creating counter-propositions (and counter counter-propositions), it is critical to be able to look outside of ourselves and enter meaningful dialogue with others who are perhaps polar opposites to ourselves. What I appreciated most from CCT 627 was that we built tools and skills that might foster mindsets oriented towards open, vulnerable dialogue about race and racism. In the first week, we talked about “courageous conversations”, and I think this is a significant component of CCT – learning how to be comfortable with the uncomfortable, understanding how to create dialogue when silence might feel easier, and tackling controversial topics in everyday life.

In my final assignment, I wrote about coming from a place of privilege in which my personal life experience has been sheltered, and did not equip me with the language or skills to discuss multicultural and antiracism education with others in a meaningful way. My work discusses Canadian identity, in particular focusing on Canada’s Indigenous people. I write about how, throughout my own education, Indigenous voices were notably absent – even as we learned about their history and traditions. This leads to the importance of involving all potential constituents and stakeholders in work (as per CCT 693, Action Research) – for we can not truly create solutions that address everyone if everyone is not in the room.

Biology 654: Sustainability Science: Environment, Economy, and Equity

Fall 2018 with Kamaljit Bawa & Reinmar Seidler

This course was the only offering I took outside of CCT, and I found it interesting that processes I may have started to take for granted within the program were notably absent – and I missed them. To me, this was a positive sign that my mind had started to orient in a more habitual way towards processes that might support greater critical and creative thinking: exercises such as regular plus-delta feedback, ongoing revisions spurred by peer and instructor responses (such as those offered by Elbow), opening and closing circles, and sharing of works in progress to elicit deepening of thinking were elements that I missed.

I grew in this course by extending themes I am already passionate about – transdisciplinary approaches, environmental sustainability, education, design thinking, technology, game design, and play – and working collaboratively with a peer (Ali Orsi Davis) to design a full course syllabus (proposed for CCT) with associated resources and learning materials. In many ways this online course brings together many ideas that appear separately in my other coursework from the CCT program. Had I known then what I know now, I might have brought more of the processes of research and engagement as outlined by Taylor & Szteiter (2012) into my course experience of my own volition, in whatever ways I might have been able to, in order to provoke more opportunities for feedback and dialogue among those in the course.

645: Biology in Society: Critical Thinking

Spring 2019 with Peter Taylor & Morgan Thompson

At the end of CCT 645, I wrote a process review to explore what I had learned about myself as a learner, and how I had grown in my understandings of research and engagement processes. In this review, I talked about four key ideas: expanding my definition of project-based learning (PBL), learning through iteration, appreciating the tension of independence and connection, and coming back to my audience.

I have included this process review here (in addition to my semester-long project, Artificial intelligence (AI) for education), because it sheds light on my development as a critical and creative thinker. Although AI was the lens or focus through which I completed the assignments, the processes of the course transcend any individual topic. As in 619, I appreciated how historic examples could inform current topics, and the importance of analyzing how issues have evolved over time as an additional perspective to adopt.

The following passage of my writing illustrates how 645 furthered my ways of thinking: “Many times in class it was stated that a request for revision was “not a failure”, but I think because the alternate to revision was receiving an “OK”, the revision path felt like a “not OK”. Becoming comfortable with “failure” (even if it was not intended to be viewed as such) was something that I had to practice this semester as well. Even though I teach design thinking, prototyping, and the value of learning through failure (including building resiliency), it can still be humbling to experience it week over week for months. I was challenged to reframe revisions as opportunities for learning, and to foster my own growth mindset.”

693: Action Research for Educational, Professional and Personal Change

Spring 2019 with Jeremy Szteiter

I remember struggling for weeks at the outset of 693 to understand the meaning of “action research”. When I arrived at this course, I came with a preconceived idea of what research entailed – and this definition did not really include looking inward, analyzing one’s own practice, and actively designing and iterating on one’s own professional practice. I had so much enjoyed collaboration with others that I was resistant to the idea of action research necessitating an individual, autonomous journey (even if eventually this vision becomes more outward-looking, as one engages others in creating change).

At the end of the course, I wrote in personal reflections about how “letting go” helped me to gain more from the course. Although not an official process, letting go has served me well in so many aspects of the program. I’ve attached to this portfolio my professional development workbook, which is like a roadmap of how I discovered new paths and let go of ideas that were no longer serving me as I navigated the course. More than anything, this course provided me with tangible tools that I will implement in my work for years to come, such as the evaluation clock and narrative outlines to help me best express my ideas to others.

612: Seminar in Creativity

Summer 2019 with Ben Schwendener

This course, more than any other, put me in a vulnerable place. In the creation of my work (“The Rx Project“), I disclosed personal stories about my mental health struggles and my past that at first I was not sure I wanted to share openly. However, particularly in reflection, I see how this project was perhaps the start of an important them in my final Synthesis: the idea of finding a spark. I loved making this project. It was fun and engaging. I experienced flow.

There is a line on my site that says “I realized that by neglecting my passions and creative outlets (photography and writing being two major ones), that my mental health was suffering…over many years, I have come to see the strong correlation between my creative output and mental health, and how they ebb and flow together.” These words effectively capture the importance of undertaking this project. Although in other moments of CCT I have explored mental health from an intellectual angle (CCT 649), and reducing mental health stigma is something I care deeply about, this was a time when I addressed my own wellness not by discussing the topic, but by creating. The creating is what fuelled me, channeled my anxious energy into making something, and boosted my spirits. This work is something that I am intrinsically motivated to continue well beyond the scope of CCT, particularly in moments when I might not be feeling that spark – to remind me of how good it feels to be in flow and that I can be in that state more readily by intentionally pursuing my passions.

692: Processes of Research and Engagement

Fall 2019 with Jeremy Szteiter

The paper I wrote for 692 connected the realms of play, creativity, and organizational culture as a means to explore ways in which teams could work better together. This was in part inspired by forces that originally propelled me to begin in the CCT program – the “spark” of working in creative groups and experiencing collective flow, and hoping to capture that feeling by pursuing an academic path with other motivated and curious individuals. Although flow would not appear in my work until the final Synthesis project, I can see how my words circle around this concept and tie to themes that are in my assignments from previous courses, such as iteration, design, playfulness, diverse teams (e.g., transdisciplinary research), education and teaching, wellbeing, and creative output.

Many of the readings and ideas from my 692 paper spill into my final Synthesis, but it is evident how my thinking continued to refine over the weeks and months between these two works. I received feedback and learned more that made me question what organizational “culture” meant, how we (society) define terms like value, and whether it is feasible to coach a mindset in the span of a professional workshop or two. When I originally began this work, I imagined that I might be able to develop a short course or workshop mini-series that would teach these concepts for easy adoption; my original Synthesis concept was the creation of such a professional development programme. However, even in this work I reference the challenge of building enduring mindsets over time – and in this way, the paper reflects an unfinished, open-ended challenge. Earlier in this portfolio I wrote about my personal struggle with accepting works-in-progress and unanswered questions; here, there is evidence that I am keeping doors open for future exploration outside the scope of this single course.

694: Synthesis of Theory and Practice

Spring 2020 with Bobby Ricketts

In many ways, completing the Synthesis project felt like coming full circle; in other ways, it was the clarification and continuation of a journey I see extending well into the future. When I arrived in CCT, I was searching for spark and purpose. That feeling (of motivation, and occasionally flow) was something that I experienced and reflected on at various points in the courses that led up to completing the Synthesis. However, it was not until undertaking this project that I began to articulate what these concepts of motivation, meaning, and purpose meant to me – how my own creative output has led to a feeling of purpose – and how play has had a role in driving that creativity.

I am proud of the Synthesis paper, but in many ways it still reflects a work in progress. As I write these words, I have a stack of books waiting in the wings that I know will further my thinking – adding depth and nuance, or perhaps changing what I thought to be true. There are conversations that are yet to come, new perspectives to still incorporate, and growth on my road ahead. I think that three years ago, I would have said I am a critical and creative thinker. However, what that means to me – how I define that – has changed. The rubric I might have used in the past (thing like, How many new ideas? How unusual the idea? How many different arguments can be made to analyze an issue?) now has an additional layer of the critical and creative mindset: the openness to exploration and the unknown. I think my default state is still towards conscientiousness (on the “big five” personality traits, I definitely tend to be orderly, disciplined, and strive for achievement). However, I now have at least a couple of years of practice experimenting with other ways of being; I find myself at the end of the CCT program seeing value in creating space for the impulsive, for randomness and play.

My final Synthesis project incorporates themes that showed up early in my coursework and were regularly integrated into my assignments: creativity, mental wellbeing, connection and collaboration, teaching and learning, systems design and design thinking. The overarching theme of the project is on play and playfulness. It was a joy to continue my learning about play and start to connect with others that value play and being playful. It is my hope that playfulness can continue to be a lens through which I view the world, bringing with me the tools and skills learned in CCT. My exit self assessment (attached below) further describes my goals and achievements, both in 694 and CCT overall, and where I know I will continue to work and grow moving forward.

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