Daniel Scibienski is a teacher, community builder, and entrepreneur working to accelerate meaningful education projects through collaboration, technology, and unique events. A teacher with over 16 years of experience in language classrooms, he consults, speaks, and trains across the U.S. As a community builder, he has organized Edcamps, hackathons, a Meetup group, and a Pro Action Café. In 2015, he co-founded Princeton Innovates, a non-profit group that works to elevate the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Princeton, NJ. As an entrepreneur focused on social and education spheres, Daniel is on the co-founding team of June Labs, a startup working with technology companies and educators to consult, design, and develop better teaching and learning tools. Recently, he started building tools to support teachers using project based learning to develop language, academic, and 21st century skills. And he still manages to sleep seven hours a night and read bedtime stories to his children.
How has your educational trajectory and experience as an ELL teacher shaped your current work?
About 20 years ago, I volunteered to teach ESL to a group of adults because I thought it would be rewarding and easy. Well, it was anything but easy, but it was incredibly rewarding and that early role had a profound impact on me. Since then I have worked with students aged 5 to 85, from dozens of countries and locations including Thai refugees camps and the skyscrapers of Beijing. From the first day, I have been grateful to learn so much about the world through my students’ stories and memories.
Beyond gaining this vast amount of cultural and historical knowledge, teaching English Language Learners (ELLs) has grown my creativity, empathy, and communication ability. Teaching such a diverse group of people, many of whom don’t understand a majority of what I am saying, is a radical, ever-shifting chess game requiring constant iteration, humility, and human centered design. I carry these skills with me into the realms of community organizing, edtech, and entrepreneurship.
What have you learned from your work in organizing events such as Pro Action Cafe, Edcamp, and facilitating workshops at conferences such as LearnLaunch about how to harness the intelligence of a group to solve challenging problems in education?
Through events like the ones you mentioned, I have become a strong believer in the power of collective wisdom. Frequently the community itself has better answers to its problems than outside voices like consultants and experts. The community just needs structures and places, both in-person and online, to collaborate in order to develop and accelerate ideas. Furthermore, we often underestimate the power of conversation as a tool for change.
Edcamp is a powerful example. How many thousands of dollars are spent on professional development that has little impact and is the target of loathing by educators around the nation? Meanwhile, 400 educators voluntarily attend EdcampNJ, with six hours of professional development workshops on a Saturday at a total operating cost under $500, without keynotes, paid speakers, or consultants. And the model has been replicated successfully around the world. That’s amazing and shows the power of motivated people.
People are seeking meaningful opportunities in which they have autonomy over their own learning. Simply put, the answer is usually already in the room and we just have to open the door and arrange some tables.
What do you see as the greatest challenges and opportunities in building an ecosystem of innovation?
These are questions I struggle with constantly. Nearly everyone you talk with has an idea, ranging from the next great smartphone app to a non-profit to eradicate homelessness. Is the next Google lurking somewhere among those whims? Is it worth our time to investigate them or should we just leave them sleeping? We often carry these ideas with us but rarely share them beyond a friend or two. Even less commonly, do we test them. We struggle to innovate because we are busy, afraid, comfortable, and unaware.
In his book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King writes, "Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings." I think similarly about ideas. Create opportunities. Get your ideas out there, test them, give them away, put them to sleep, or feed them. There are so many ways to launch an idea with little or no money. Interested in starting a community organization? Before you hire a lawyer for the 501c3 application, start a meetup group. If that’s successful for a year, then start a non-profit.
How do you hope your work with Princeton Innovates and June Labs will change the learning landscape?
I want to facilitate opportunities for people to put their ideas out into the world, test them, and work with others. I am intrigued by the idea of scaling across. We typically hear about the notion of scaling up—building a product so that it can grow to have thousands or millions of users/customers. Scaling across takes a different approach by recognizing that problems are distinct for different groups, locations, and situations. Scaling across encourages the application of ideas and tools to meet local needs and enables people to craft solutions based on their perspectives. Both June Labs and Princeton Innovates are creating events, tools, and spaces for that to happen.Who are the most interesting people you are following on Twitter?
All three of these people are relentless, check them all out.
- Kevin Jarrett for building a design centered makerspace where deep and nuanced learning takes place, not just a room with some shiny toys.
- Jennie Magiera for connecting with educators in so many ways and for being an awesome presenter.
- Darren Hudgins for his great work with the IPDx conference and beyond.
Image: Courtesy Daniel Scibienski