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Finding the spark
Educator, web designer join forces

Most TEDx presentations are one person onstage, perhaps with a few visual enhancements. But this Friday’s TEDx Creative Coast, for which we serve as media sponsor, features a couple of two–person presentations.

The presentation by web designer Andrew Davies and Gould Elementary  School teacher Jaime McGrath is notable not only for its dual nature,  but for the impactful nature of the content. They’ll talk about the  challenges and solutions involved with bringing problem–solving design  skills to bear in the academic environment that puts standardized  testing over everything else. We had an e-mail exchange with them last week.

Why the decision to collaborate on a TEDx presentation? Who does what?

Jaime McGrath: Our collaboration grew organically from Drew’s visit with my students as a professional designer. My students loved the experience, I was elated, and Drew was impressed. When Jake Hodesh suggested we propose TED talks – separately – Drew thought of me and I thought of him. It was a perfect match, like peanut butter and chocolate, or Bert and Ernie. I think I’m Bert. And peanut butter.

Drew Davies: I was thoroughly impressed with those kids in the classes I visited, as I was with Jaime’s idea to bring professionals in and do a series on design for 8-year-olds. So I did a blog post about it  (at and it got some good reactions. So when the call for speakers came out for TEDxCC, I was encouraged to try and do something dealing with my visit. After a bit of research it was clear that the best approach was to collaborate with Jaime. Jaime provided most of the meat, theoretical underpinnings and local examples, I helped craft the narrative flow of the presentation, and made it look pretty.

Do you strictly see standardized tests as part of the problem, not the solution?

Jaime McGrath:  Standardized tests provide some useful indicators, such as regional data, but they do not accurately measure student achievement, they don’t improve student learning, and they certainly do not prove a teacher’s effectiveness. Design projects, however, can be graded on an objective rubric and take into account far more than memorization of facts; they can, for example, show how a student used time effectively, researched and analyzed new information, worked neatly and cooperatively – all essential life and work skills that standardized tests will never gauge.

Drew Davies: What he said.

Was there a ‘Eureka’ moment for either/both of you when you realized what is really important?

Jaime McGrath:  My eureka moment came in my first months of teaching, when  I threw my hands up and asked the sky, “Why am I wasting all my  energy trying to force these kids to do things they don’t want to  do?” I realized that the kids weren’t the problem. Kids are essentially the same today as they were in the times of Noah’s boys, Tom Sawyer, and Peter Pan. So I began the process of creating a  learning environment based upon what students both want and need – using what they want (fun, a sense of belonging,etc.) to deliver  what they need (learning). I don’t think I’ll ever arrive at some destination, a perfection of teaching. As society continues developing, teachers must continue learning to teach.

Drew Davies: The spark happened while I was in Jaime’s classroom. I was  intensely jealous of those kids having such a cool teacher doing all  these great fun projects and obviously learning a lot in the process. But the realization came over a long period of time diving into the research for this topic. My brain’s already wired to believe that everyone should think like designers, but not wanting to succumb to confirmation bias I needed some evidence. So it took a few podcasts, research papers and blog posts for me to realize that this idea of  Design in Education is not just a fad but a substantive movement with real results.