Active-Con Invigorates Educators with Captivating, Inspiring Discussions

The joy and engagement of Active-Con returned in-person to the Lower Hudson Regional Information Center for the first time in two years. Keynote speakers Dr. John Spencer and Dr. Robert Dillon wowed audiences with thought-provoking and dynamic presentations about student choice, divergent thinking, physical space and sustainable design.

Active-Con is the LHRIC’s annual hallmark event of its TLI series. It highlights the intersection of technology, instructional design, and active and flexible learning spaces. Now in its sixth year, the event welcomed 53 educators to the Harrison campus on March 4 and hosted another 32 virtually.

The morning kicked off with Dr. Spencer’s humorous yet introspective keynote, “Navigating the Maze of an Unpredictable World.” His talk was founded on a statement that one of his middle school teachers said to him: “When you hide your voice, you rob the world of your creativity.”

As a student, Dr. Spencer – a current college professor who previously taught middle school for 12 years – was a self-described nerd who felt invisible. One day, a teacher asked him to do a special History Day Project. Despite being shy and unsure of himself, he ended up competing at the district, state and national levels.

“That was the first time I owned my learning,” said Dr. Spencer, who created a project about baseball and the civil rights movement. “It was the first time that I had voice and choice. For the first time ever, I could organize my own research. I was working harder than I ever had before… And it wasn’t fake. It was real and authentic.”

During his keynote, Dr. Spencer encouraged educators to give their students some freedom. For example, as a middle school student, not only did selecting the topic of his project engage and inspire him, but so did the freedom to organize his work the way that suited him best. Instead of creating notecards and filing his work into a binder, he used a spreadsheet, which worked better for him.

“I believe to my core that classrooms should be bastions of creativity and wonder,” said Dr. Spencer, adding that the act of creation is a magical experience. “Meaningful projects are something that every single student deserves access to.”

He continued to say that a learning transformation is always taking place. While in school, students are taught a typical path forward: work hard in school, graduate from college and climb the corporate ladder. However, due to ever-changing technology, the path has transformed into a maze.

While the future of technology is uncertain, educators must empower students now. Students should chase their curiosity and be encouraged to ask questions.

“It’s the idea of chasing your geeky interests,” Dr. Spencer said. “It’s not about the product you create but the process you use.”

However, not everything will go according to plan, he said. Throughout his time creating his History Day Project, he felt lost while performing research and he made mistakes while presenting. During his keynote, Dr. Spencer asked educators to remember that every human is “always under construction,” adding that “we’re always trying things and doing things differently” to be at our best.

“In a world of constant change, our students will need to be adaptable,” he continued. “It’s not that we want students to embrace failure - we want them to see that it’s okay to fail forward.”

Despite the potential to make mistakes, trying new things and sharing your passions with others are positive steps forward in learning. To grow as learners, students must be given opportunities to share their work with an audience. Dr. Spencer listed its benefits: students will grow more empathetic, they embrace constructive criticism, they become fearless, they work harder, they develop a growth mindset, they connect the learning to their world, they find their creative voice and they engage in iterative thinking.

“Empathy is a deeper definition of empowerment,” he said. “To truly be empowered means to move beyond yourself and go feel what other people are experiencing.”

The second keynote featured Dr. Dillon, who passionately shared his presentation, “Sustainable Space Concepts that Will Survive the Stress Test of COVID.” His talk focused on the notion that students are influenced by where they learn.

Following several months of virtual learning, students and staff members returned to in-person and hybrid learning. Schools battled against a variety of COVID mitigation strategies that, while beneficial for health and safety, were not conducive to learning. For example, increased ventilation in classrooms meant that students were often freezing, especially during the winter months. In addition, plexiglass shields made it hard to hear and lowered personal connection.

“It wasn’t how they wanted to learn,” said Dr. Dillon, who has been an educator for two decades, focusing on conceptual design, active learning and healthy buildings. “Don’t let us forget the lessons we learned of what we don’t want… We should continue to make sure that the idea of concurrent learning is happening.”

Living, teaching and learning through the COVID-19 pandemic has caused people to “feel off,” not be at 100% and not be learning at their best. The added stress resulted in poor academics, less growth and increased absenteeism.

“If we don’t make changes and continue to move things forward, we’re going to keep having those feelings,” said Dr. Dillon, a longtime educator and thought leader who has served as teacher, principal and director of innovation. “Where kids learn has been causing learning loss for decades.”

He explained that if students are in classrooms that do not promote learning, they will not learn. One solution is through neuroarchitecture - buildings or spaces that are created to increase cognitive capacity, improve memory and boost mental stimulation.

Simple ways to tackle the problem include enhancing choice and agency for students, as well as creating more quiet spaces for students to refocus themselves. Dr. Dillon urged educators to reduce visual noise as “research says that this hurts kids.” He encouraged more time for children to draw and write, as it improves their memory, along with bringing natural elements into the classrooms, like natural-toned colors, which have been shown to lower stress and anxiety. In addition, Dr. Dillon urged that there be more productive movement in every classroom so that students do not have to sit in a chair the entire lesson.

“It’s not humanly possible to be still,” he said. “You can be quieter with the body, but you can’t be still. You need to give people the opportunity to move around.”

When creating a space, educators should design in partnership with students, not only for them. Making them part of the process gives planning committee members direct access to feedback on what is working for students and what is not. Dr. Dillon added that “learning spaces should be a human resources priority,” as educational environments largely impact students and staff members’ efficiency and effectiveness.

With much emphasis on classrooms, Dr. Dillon said that hallways are also prime opportunities for learning. Schools can set up their halls like museums, offering students the chance to learn while they walk through. Children can be engaged if the information is interesting and relevant to them. For example, this could include mentioning what was on the site before the school was built.

In between the two keynote addresses, Dr. Dillon and Dr. Spencer each guided a breakout session twice. Dr. Spencer led “Divergent Thinking for Deeper Thought,” while Dr. Dillon conducted “Maximizing Spaces Using the Creative Constraints Protocol.”

Active-Con concluded with a district panel discussion, which centered on sharing information about school districts’ new active learning spaces. The discussion featured educators from Pelham Public Schools, the Valhalla Union Free School District, the Brewster Central School District, the Chappaqua Central School District and White Plains Central School District.

The LHRIC will host its annual TELL Awards celebration on Thursday, March 24, honoring teachers and leaders who are transforming education through innovative work. It will take place at the Edith Macy Conference Center and will feature a keynote by author and educator Dr. Devorah Heitner.

The TLI Virtual Keynote Series continues on Friday, April 29, with keynote speakers Will Richardson and Homa Tavagnar. They will share the presentation “Passing through the Pandemic Portal: Who Will We Choose to Become as Individuals and as Institutions.”

The annual Tech Expo will be in-person at the Edith Macy Conference Center on Friday, May 20, featuring a keynote by New York Times best-selling author Pete Burgess. His talk, “Teach Like a Pirate,” will center around increasing student engagement and boosting creativity.

Active-Con Photos

Dr. John Spencer

Dr. Robert Dillon