Rich experiences for the izzy+ team in Nicaragua

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Editor’s note: The following is a post from Brandon Reame, izzy+’s Market Development Strategist. Brandon is leading our second annual “giving back through design” trip to Nicaragua, November 8-13, 2013. The designers on the trip with him won the opportunity during the 2013 Valentine’s Day promotion. Look for another post about the trip soon, and read about last year’s inaugural trip here!

Many people join a company to do a job. One of the things that’s exciting about izzy+,  is that our employees and collaborators are interested in more than just a job. They’re eager to make a difference, both within the company as well as the outside world.

During the next few days, Melissa Huff (from our Chicago team) and I, along with the help of Grand Valley State University, have the pleasure of hosting six interior designers from around the country as we work together to improve elementary schools in one of the poorest corners of the world.

We are in Ometepe, Nicaragua, a pair of volcanic islands found in the heart of freshwater Lake Nicaragua. Ometepe is the largest volcanic island inside a fresh water lake in the world. Additionally, Lake Nicaragua is the 19th largest freshwater lake in the world, and 9th largest within the Americas. The climate is tropical, and several varieties of monkeys are found throughout the area.

During our flight, I asked our participants what they are most excited about. Here’s what they said:

“I am really looking forward to being inspired and helping people through design.” Eda Muco, Dyer Brown Architects, Boston

“I can’t wait to experience a new culture and have the opportunity to work on such a unique project!” Katie McCarthy, Perkins+Will, Minneapolis

“To be able to make a difference in one school that could turn into so much more is a legacy I wish everyone could experience. I am grateful for izzy+ for allowing me to be a part of this wonderful opportunity with a great group of people.”  Carrie Estock, Little Diversified, Charlotte

“I’m looking forward to experiencing a brand new culture and having the opportunity to share the joy of design with people across the globe—working hands on with them, in their environment.” Will Jenkins, HOK, New York City

“I’m most excited about how this trip will empower others, as well as myself, to continue to help people in need. Not only do we need to use our resources at hand, but we also need to provide new resources for the overlooked.” Justin Martinez, OZ, Denver

“I am excited about another opportunity to work with talented young people on a project that thinks about and does something for education and children. It gives me energy and motivation. And to do it all in a culture and surroundings that are so very different than the US is most stimulating. I’m excited that younger people show an interest in other cultures and in wanting to contribute in helping others less fortunate.” Waltraud, GVSU/AGII, Holland

“I’m excited about new ideas, new puzzles, and new ways of viewing the world learned from new friends in two languages. This is a dream to work on projects that impact educational change from the formative years. The can-do spirit of izzy+ is always exciting to be around. Thank you Chuck [Saylor] and all at izzy+ who help!” Dr. Lane, GVSU/AGII, Holland

“I am most excited about this trip offering me the opportunity to experience a culture and place of the world I have never been, and more importantly, to make a positive impact on a community of people. To be able to put our knowledge and creativity to use to bring learning and socialization tools to children is definitely the most rewarding part of this trip. I’m truly grateful to izzy+ for taking this on and believing that people matter most.” Melissa Huff, izzy+, Chicago

It’s always fun exploring a new country and culture, especially with a new group of travel companions and collaborators. While on paper the country can be described as poor, the opportunity to live and work side by side with the local Nicaraguans is a very rich experience. This beautiful country is rich in culture, history, and its people are dedicated to improving the lives of their future generations through education.

We will be sending updates throughout the trip via izzy+ social media. Be sure to add, like, bookmark, and follow us on Twitter and Facebook!

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A design industry give-away that gives back

As everyone in the Architecture and Design world knows, swag and give-aways are fool-proof ways to catch your market’s eye. But what would happen if the give-away was also a give-back?

This was a question izzy+ started asking a year ago as we made plans for our annual Valentine’s Day promotion, which introduces a new izzy+ product to nearly 5,000 interior designers each February. Sure, the event should include colorful izzy+ bags and custom-made chocolates (it is Valentine’s Day, after all), but what if instead of doing a drawing for something flashy, like plane tickets to anywhere in the world or the newest Apple gear, we gave away something that would support our corporate values around giving back?

“The big prizes we had done the last couple of years were flashy, but there’s no substance,” says Brandon Reame, izzy+’s Market Development Strategist and learning expert. “We wanted to promote the ideas we care about most, like giving back, supporting relationships, and offering opportunities for unexpected learning.”

So, during February of 2012, members of the interior design community were given not just chocolate and other goodies, but also a chance to go on an izzy+-sponsored trip to Nicaragua. Over 1,700 designers indicated interest in the promotion, 80 of whom later followed up by filling out a questionnaire about themselves and their interest in the trip. On November 1, six interior designers from around the U.S. flew to Nicaragua, joining Brandon and Jill Horning of the izzy+ team, along with two members of the Grand Valley State University Applied Global Innovation Initiative, which played a key role in planning and laying the groundwork for the trip. The group just returned from their giving-back adventure on November 6.

The main goal in Nicaragua, Brandon says, was helping a group of teachers in the North Central town of Esteli design and build learning toolkits for young students. The izzy+ group had to think through the interior and exterior designs of the kits and how the curriculum could best be organized.

“We’re trying to make the learning experience more inspiring and engaging for the students,” Brandon says. “Designers have great skills and an understanding for what sparks people’s curiosity and engagement. Watching these designers work side-by-side with elementary teachers who make one or two dollars a day—it was just amazing to see everyone work together to really make a difference in such a short amount of time.”

The available resources for most teachers in Nicaragua are so limited, Brandon adds, saying that many schools are little more than metal shacks with dirt floors. Students often have to bring their own chairs from home.

The izzy+ group also contributed to the design of a building that is being converted into a new learning center in Esteli. Leveraging the skills of the designers, Brandon says they reviewed architects’ construction plans then focused on providing recommendations for one aspect of the interior—creating an entrance that would be welcoming and inspiring.

In addition to the design work they did, the izzy+ group toured other schools, visited local markets and a sustainable coffee farming community, experienced cultural traditions like the holiday known as Day of the Saints, and shared meals with many local business people, leaders, teachers and university administrators.

Karin Dax, a designer from Boston, said the trip was an “amazing experience.”

“As soon as I heard about the trip I thought ‘I definitely want to do that,’” says Karin, who is an avid traveler and a fluent Spanish speaker. Helping to design the learning kits was a highlight, she says. “Once we started to understand our role and our goals, and we began talking to the teachers more about what they needed, it was really easy to contribute—we just had to dive in and use our skills to help make their vision a reality.”

And the positive effects of this trip will continue to ripple out—not only for the communities in Nicaragua the izzy+ team visited, but also for the designers back home.

“I think a trip like this puts our everyday lives into perspective,” Karin says. “In Nicaragua, the questions are, ‘Do they have running water and food? Are they able to learn what they need to learn to have a sustainable future?’ Then you come home and a client is upset about a paint color not being quite right. It makes you take a step back and realize all that we have. You reevaluate what’s important, what matters most, and what kind of work you want to be doing.”

As far as izzy+ is concerned, these types of giving-back trips are definitely a part of the company’s future.

“Giving back is a core value that runs deep at izzy+—all the way to our parent company, JSJ,” says Brandon. “And this trip reminded me of an important lesson: Bringing together a creative group of people to help support meaningful causes is extremely addicting. I cannot wait to host a similar trip again.”

Moving away from one-size-fits-all learning, technology & spaces

What does the future of learning look like?

In the minds of many, it looks high tech and new—a complex array of technology and apps waiting to be woven into traditional curricula and classrooms.

Others believe the future of learning should more closely mimic the ways people learned long ago—more collaboration, more Socratic dialogue, and more opportunities for hands-on discovery.

At izzy+, we think the key is balancing the two—utilizing time-tested person-to-person learning approaches, along with the best advances technology has to offer.

Brandon Reame, izzy+’s Market Development Strategist and education research guru, says schools and colleges just need to ensure that two critical components exist: a focus on people, and plenty of flexibility inherent in the learning spaces.

“The important thing is that learning needs to move away from a one-size-fits-all model,” says Reame. “The most effective learning happens when the students, along with their lives and circumstances, are taken into account. Sure, there are lots of trends in education, but if you just apply them across the board you’re not going to get great results. At the end of the day, it has to be about the students and their engagement. How do you leverage technology, pedagogy, and the learning environment to create a more engaging learning experience?”

Over the past few generations, a move toward one-size-fits-all education has gradually become a system that some compare to a factory, as a recent Fast Company article, “Replacing The Classroom-As-Factory With Collaborative Learning,” suggests.

Reame says technology provides a variety of tools to help move teaching and learning away from a factory model. Technology, after all, allows people to learn anywhere at any time, at their own pace and in their own way, accessing more information and connecting with more people than ever. The challenge, however, is to make sure these new approaches are applied in meaningful ways and in tech-friendly, flexible learning spaces.

“Technology is more mobile than ever, and students are more tech-savvy than ever,” Ream says. “Those changes generate a greater need for new, inspiring learning spaces that offer lots of flexibility. There needs to be a mix of formal and informal learning spaces, with opportunities for small groups to gather, professors to guide discussions, and people to relax and catch up on reading and thinking on their own. Integrating technology isn’t just about having places to plug in. It’s about how people learn and interact.”

Because learning, at the end of the day, is about people, just like izzy+ has always been about people first, not furniture. That’s why we think this sentiment from the post “Are Kids Really Motivated By Technology?” is a great one for designers, teachers, parents and everyone to keep in mind as students across the country head back to school:

…finding ways to motivate students in our classrooms shouldn’t start with conversations about technology. Instead, it should start with conversations about our kids. What are they deeply moved by? What are they most interested in? What would surprise them? Challenge them? Leave them wondering? Once you have the answers to these questions — only after you have the answers to these questions — are you ready to make choices about the kinds of digital tools that are worth embracing.

The Dewey Connection Cart and 6-Top Table help instructors integrate technology into the classroom while ensuring students are able to easily converse and collaborate.

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Several Dewey 6-Top Tables can be pushed together for flexible, collaborative set ups. Dewey Connection Carts and Lecterns help instructors integrate technology.

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Comfortable third spaces, like this one featuring Harter Forum lounge seating, are critical in learning environments because they accommodate both informal gatherings and solo study time.

The shift away from teaching and managing (toward something more inspiring)

Quick: Think back to your favorite teachers or professors. What made them so great?

We asked this question recently on Facebook and Twitter. Here’s some of what people said:

– “openness to the ideas of others”

– “more interested in posing interesting questions than handing out answers”

– “encouraging, challenging, motivated and inspired”

– “caring, fun, motivating”

– “sense of humor and sardonic wit”

– “believed in me more than I believed in myself”

– “challenging projects that were quick and unique”

– “he lives the story, constantly challenges the norm, and believes students can accomplish anything”

A variety of views are represented, but there is a red thread to be teased out: Great teachers seem to be characterized by interaction with their students, not authority over them.

That’s exactly what izzy+ founder and CEO Chuck Saylor remembers about his favorite teachers, and it’s exactly why he thinks we need to reconsider the label “teacher” altogether.

“I’m not sure I believe in the idea of any one person ‘teaching’ people anything and then walking out of the room,” says Saylor. “It doesn’t fit with what learning means in the 21st century. The era of expertise is over.”

The Move From One-Directional To Multi-Directional Learning

More and more, the focus is shifting away from the teaching and toward the learning—in other words, away from an idea of a knowledge center or authority. The same sort of shift needs to happen in the workplace, where Saylor has a similar aversion to the word “manager.” Teaching and managing are one-directional, Saylor explains, while learning and growing are multi-directional.

“It’s not about managing people, it’s about collaborating with them, just like it’s not about teaching people, it’s about learning and growing together. It’s about coaching, mentoring, interaction, and shared experiences. This translates all the way up through life, not just in school. We have to shift our focus and get it right.”

The Role Of Space Design In Learning

One of the most important places to begin this shift is in the design of spaces for learning, working, and meeting. Environments that are set up to allow and even encourage interaction are key to increasing a transparent sharing of ideas and, ultimately, to developing intelligence.

“The more we find ourselves in places that allow us to share knowledge and ideas, the more our understanding grows,” Saylor says. “We are scalable—our minds are scalable. The growth is directly proportional to how much we interact and exchange information with others.”

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For more information around these ideas, Chuck Saylor recommends the book Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter, by Liz Wiseman. The book’s premise is that “multipliers” are leaders who inspire and stretch others, making them smarter and more capable. Being this kind of leader (or teacher), Wiseman says, involves disciplines like optimizing talent, creating intensity, extending challenges, encouraging debate, and instilling ownership. In other words, it involves inspiring and engaging people, not managing them.

The Dewey 6-Top table by Fixtures (above) prompts interaction and brings people closer together around ideas—in learning settings as well as workplaces.

Many of our concept pieces, like the Nemo bar and arbor pictured above, are all about gathering people in casual “third spaces,” whether they’re working independently or having impromptu meetings and conversations.