Behind the wheel, driving our ongoing mission to embrace personalized learning and innovation is Matt Moran.
Behind the wheel, driving our ongoing mission to embrace personalized learning and innovation is Matt Moran. He teaches students to navigate an ever-evolving digital world with confidence, and fosters a deep understanding of how technology can be used to enhance every student's exploration of his or her spark of genius. We sat down with Mr. Moran to learn how technology is used in our classrooms and about Spark Tank, Dwight's unique incubator for K-12 students designed to nurture innovation, entrepreneurship, and leadership in our community.
What drew you to education?
As I was heading into my senior year of college at Boston University, I was very uncertain about what I wanted to do with my career. I took a summer job as a writing teacher in Boston, and I just loved my students' creativity and joy! During my senior year, I worked at an after-school program, wrote curriculum for a tutoring company, and served as a writing tutor at BU. While juggling those three jobs, I learned that I most enjoy working in a school setting because helping someone learn or achieve something new doesn't feel like work. It's a lot of fun!
What does it mean to be the Director of Technology and Innovation at Dwight? What are some of your primary objectives?
I manage the ways in which we use technology in the classroom and foster a culture of innovation. The most important thing for me to see is that we're using technology to meaningfully enhance learning, not just for its own sake. I'm also the head of our Design Department, so I oversee the curriculum and instruction in our design technology classes. In the past, I've taught math, science, writing, and humanities, and I still teach because I want to keep a foot in the classroom to see what really works and test out new ideas.
I draw inspiration from "Understanding by Design," an educational planning approach by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. The authors advocate for designing students' learning experiences to focus on what they will understand, as opposed to focusing solely on acquiring skills and amassing knowledge. If we did so we could not have a program like Spark Tank, where students are creating new inventions and trying to solve real-world problems. To do these things, one has to be able to ask meaningful questions, inquire, and try to understand the problem on a deep level.
My goal is to demystify technology and enable students to use it to drive their inquiries and to work toward their goals. Students may have a naïve understanding of technologies that they use every day, and it's important that they develop a deeper understanding of how they work.
For example, when a student mentioned a Google "doodle of the day," honoring Google's birthday, I began a classroom conversation about the effect that Google has on our lives. I asked students to imagine the Internet without Google. At this point, many high school seniors are young enough that they don't remember a time when Google wasn't available. We discussed how Google's search improved on previous search engine options by using links from other sites as a factor in determining the ranking of search results. We observed how links from one site to another are an important part of the value system, not just for Google search results, but also for the Internet as a whole. Then, I drew a connection to the importance of citations on the web and the need for students to cite their sources in their own creative work, which underscores what they're learning in other classes.
We also recently formed a Student Technology Committee, comprised of students who are interested in discussing technology issues with the Dwight student body. Topics include everything from issues of online privacy to the finer points of Dwight's 1:1 program. I look forward to seeing this program expand, as students take leadership roles in helping to shape our community-wide understanding of technology.
What courses do you teach?
I teach IB Middle Years Program Design classes for grades 6, 7, 8, and 10. I love the way that our curriculum has developed to include a balance of different types of design experiences.
Some of my favorite projects include:
●In Grade 6, students learn to program video games in Scratch and design an educational game for an audience of their choice.
●In Grade 7, students redesign a space at Dwight and create a 3D model using computer-assisted drawing (CAD) programs.
●In Grade 8, students learn to be social innovators and create a product or service to address a social issue. These projects vary widely, from designing an app to inventing a new product. This year, students will be tackle challenges from the UN's list of Sustainable Development Goals.
In technology education, we often ask students to deconstruct the world around them and build it again. For example, when asking a student to create a trailer for his/her favorite summer reading book, the first step is to watch existing examples to understand what makes a trailer persuasive and effective. Then, the student will use the knowledge gathered from that research to create his or her own video to persuade others to read the book, reinforcing our personalized approach to learning. Students are researching, planning, creating, and testing out their ideas all in service of their own goals.
What is your educational philosophy?
My educational philosophy is influenced by "constructivism," which is based on the understanding that learners create their own knowledge and understanding. It's a student-centered theory of learning, and its values are reflected throughout the International Baccalaureate curriculum. I think that students shouldn't receive wisdom directly from a book or teacher; rather, they should be guided to discover how new knowledge is meaningful to them and to connect it to their life and surroundings.
On my first day of orientation at Boston University, the dean told us that we were there to "build the minds that we would live in for the rest of our lives." That phrase has stuck with me ever since, and the word "build" really stands out to me. Education really is about building and creating, not just inputting information. The best part of education is when we — educators and students alike — create something new.
You've been instrumental in launching Spark Tank. Tell us about the program.
It is such a thrill to be working with Spark Tank. It's the most innovative thing that we could be doing, and it feels great to be on the cutting edge of the educational experience.
The most enjoyable part of the program is that the projects are so student-driven. Instead of telling students what they should be doing and learning, we ask them what they want to create — what problems they want to solve.
In Spark Tank, we're teaching a problem-solving process. Students progress through a five-stage development cycle — idea, research, prototype, execution, and launch — with guidance and mentorship from our faculty and The Dwight School Foundation's Spark Tank Committee, comprised of industry experts and entrepreneurs from our community. We wouldn't be able to accommodate such a diverse range of unique student interests without the individual attention of faculty mentors and Spark Tank judges.
Students gain tremendously from the expertise of their faculty mentors. For example, Alana Zussman, a Lower School technology teacher, and I have worked together with dozens of Timothy House students on their Spark Tank projects during lunch, recess, and after school. Bentley Ferraina, a Quest and English teacher, has coached students on their Spark Tank presentations before every Spark Tank judging event and advised many of them as they developed ideas and plans for their projects. Vita Zambetti, our Lower School music teacher, organized our first Timothy House student group for Spark Tank, the SPARKlers, whose project was to bring the gifts of Dwight's music program to others, including residents at nursing homes and students at under-resourced schools. Steve Farnsworth, a Design Technology teacher, helped Niko Sansevere '21 learn about the different processes and tools that he needed to create molds and design and print his customizable pen grips. These are just a few examples of faculty who mentor our Spark Tank participants.
Students also benefit greatly from the support and validation that the judges offer during presentations. Many of the Spark Tank judges have personally requested to mentor students after seeing their presentations in Spark Tank.
For example, Maria '23 has had an incredibly supportive team, comprised of Spark Tank judges Drew Pizzo, Jessica Capiraso, and Liz Lange — all leading experts in the fashion industry. They have given her advice on her designs, manufacturing, marketing, and so much more.
How has the Spark Tank process been integrated into the curriculum?
Spark Tank is a new frontier for Dwight, but there's a natural crossover with the IB curriculum, and Personal Projects in particular — the culminating experience for tenth grade students in the Middle Years Program. For example, some students create their Personal Project, and then bring it to Spark Tank for further development. Others take what they've worked on in Spark Tank and turn it into their project. It's a two-way street!
In our ninth and tenth grade design classes, we've integrated Spark Tank's development cycle into project assignments. For example, last trimester my students developed ideas and presentations based on the Spark Tank model. The best from each class presented in front of the entire grade — and the best of those recently presented their ideas in Spark Tank.
No matter how it happens, students are working on something that began with their own initiative. They have ownership over their projects and get to feel proud of their work and accomplishments. It's a very self-reinforcing system!
I'm excited to see how Spark Tank will continue to evolve. Thanks to Spark Tank, when a student works on a project in the classroom, it doesn't have to end there. That work can graduate into something much bigger! Each student's only limit is his or her own level of interest. We know that their potential is boundless!
What are some surprising things that you learned from the students as a Spark Tank mentor?
I've learned so much! These students are so talented — I'm always trying to stay one step ahead. I'm surprised and excited to see the breadth of projects that students decide to take on. I thought that everyone would want to create an app, but we have a whole variety of projects in the works: a fashion line, a customizable writing aid, a prosthetic hand, a solution to second-hand smoke, a child-friendly aid for receiving shots, and many more. We even have students who want to turn Spark Tank into its own product and share it with students beyond Dwight. Now that's what we call entrepreneurial!
What is your personal spark of genius?
This is a tough one! I'm creative and I have a passion for learning and studying new things. Outside of school, I'm constantly reading and gathering ideas.
I think my spark is generating new ideas, whether they're technology-related or otherwise, and finding a way to execute them all in my life and the lives of those around me.
What is a little-known fact about you?
As a technology expert, you might be surprised to learn that I'm a two-finger typist — and a great one, at that!
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