Lallab Session #2 by Emma O’Hara

Similar to the Most Likely to Succeed screenings that Girls Innovate! hosted in August 2015, the Lallab session on Wednesday, December 30, 2015, forced me to consider my educational experience.

Lallab stands for “Learning About Learning, a Lab” and is a new initiative by Girls Innovate! Unlike the Most Likely to Succeed screenings, the Lallab sessions were small and focused and designed to engage community members and students with exploring the landscape of learning through the eyes and experiences of entrepreneurs in the field of learning; making visible the entrepreneurs’ processes to students; and engaging both the entrepreneurs and the students in a conversation. I enjoyed the session as it was small and focused, felt more real and relevant, and gave me a chance to meet other students – both high school and college, homeschooled and public-schooled, many of whom are from the other side of the Bay (Amador Valley High School, Pleasanton, CA).

When I saw the movie, it revealed to me that a different sort of school can exist and that my eleven years of public schooling wasn’t necessarily the only way to prepare people for the future. (Ironically, after I came to this earth-shaking revelation, I had to take a hiatus from the Girls Innovate! Teen Committee to do college applications.) This Lallab meeting was the first time, since the screenings, that I had a chance to engage in a public conversation about our education system. Having completed first semester of senior year at Sequoia High School in Redwood City, CA, sent out college applications, and been accepted and committed to Colby College, I now have even more experience as a student to reflect on this question.

We sat in a room at the Redwood Shores Library – about 15 of us – engaged in a conversation with two young entrepreneurs (Daniel Huang of CoderCentral and Richard Lo of PreHack) who are trying to innovate in the area of learning and engaging students in and for the 21st century. They wanted to know our thoughts about school and our experiences with projects and learning that have worked for us.

In my mind I thought that I shouldn’t worry whether my school experience and the school system I’ve been part of all my life are in some way ‘faulty’ or incomplete. I felt that we should celebrate the fact that people learn differently and have different experiences with the system. We should honor their stories and find a way to make more room in the world for nurturing such diversity. The meeting did end up providing a small semblance of such a space.

 

In addition to Richard (a Stanford grad who has been out for 5 years) and Daniel (a UCLA sophomore), there were nine other students (college, high school and middle school), as well as an experienced Silicon Valley entrepreneur (Shariq Mansoor, CTO and founder of FusionOps). Initially when we sat around the table we sat with people we knew; Daniel immediately changed that. He knew the discussion would be better if each of us had someone new as a neighbor. 

In our self-introductions to the group, we were asked to share thoughts on one of three things: (a) why we believe innovation in the field of learning is needed; (b) why it’s important for young people to think about their learning process; and (c) how our education has/has not empowered us (personally).

As we went around the room it became obvious that many felt the education system was too focused on grades, memorization and standards. That it was “about the school; about the test” and instead of innovating new ways to teach, people “assume that the system works, so they grow it”. I had a different take. I shared that, over time, I have developed consciousness about my learning style and my learning environment and have found ways to make them work for me. (Perhaps because I came from more limited circumstances than many of my peers, I had no choice but to work with what I have.)

After the introductions, Daniel introduced himself and then had us pair-share about a project that recently interested us – that we had to stay up late at night to work on.

Not only was it interesting to hear what my partner, Nafisa, did for her animation project, but when Daniel reined us back in and brought the discussion back out to the group, I could see the value in our experiences. He would call on one of us and ask us to explain our project and he would follow up with very pointed and direct follow up questions to get the information that he sought. For example, he called upon Nafisa and once she initially stated her answer he wanted to know what it was that made her be willing to stay up all night to work on it, how she connected with her group mates, and if something could have happened to make the situation better or worse. He was actively learning from her experiences so he could turn around and try to better cultivate such passion in his students and interns.

Following lunch we switched gears for about an hour to meet Shariq Mansoor. Richard led the interview. Shariq shared deep and honest comments about his experiences as an entrepreneur, as an employer looking at job candidates, and as a father with eyes on the changing learning landscape (he talked about how the school system is a factory model that seeks to optimize for further production). As far as future employment and entrepreneurship go, Shariq stressed passion.  He said that although a prestigious degree may get you some nods, the only thing that will make people want to hire you, follow you and keep you is your passion for what it is you’re after that aligns with their interests.

Following the interview with Shariq, we continued the discussion with Daniel. Daniel asked us to reflect on specific experiences in our extracurriculars that really helped us improve. Students shared about: being forced up on stage, being benched from a sport after injury, and having to be more communicative with coaches/teachers. We discovered that some of our best learning experiences came from actual doing, not just from being told what to do.

We did not have enough time to dig deeper into many of these experiences, but Daniel and Richard encouraged us to email them our thoughts on the matter because they want to learn more about what type of situations and opportunities harbor the most growth.

I, for sure, am looking forward to another Lallab session. Perhaps no one has a real and quantifiable solution to our discontent with the “tedious” and repetitive school system, but we can start discovering for ourselves how we best learn, how others can be engaged, and how to deliver better learning experiences for more people. We do this by opening up the conversation and engaging in the conversation in a meaningful way with other people – even the girl you see everyday may have a nugget of truth about her experiences that can enlighten your own journey. It is not enough just to read a book or go see a documentary; we have to meet each other in new and brave ways that push forward the conversation about education.

Happy New Year!

Emma O’Hara