Under palm trees and hanging lights, over a bridge that crossed between rose gardens and a live band dressed like shrubbery, educators attending the National School Boards Association’s 2007 T+L conference were urged to inspire and be inspired.

The annual ed-tech conference took place Oct. 17-19 in Nashville, Tenn., at the Gaylord Opryland Resort Hotel–a convention center that boasts a 44-foot waterfall and its own indoor riverboat ride–and provided a setting where educators seemed like characters in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

In total, there were some 200 exhibitor booths, 1,800 participants, and two unusual choices for keynote speakers at an ed-tech event: the creative mastermind behind Cirque du Soleil and the founder of commercial space travel.

However, that was exactly the point conference organizers were making–to think outside the box and use new ways to encourage the kind of innovation that is needed for 21st-century success.

The opening speaker was Lyn Heward, Cirque’s former president of creative content, who stood in front of a giant screen that featured whirling acrobats. Day two’s speaker, Peter Diamandis, the brains behind the X Prize Foundation, later stood in front of the same giant screen–only instead of professional acrobats, teachers and students tumbled and cavorted in zero gravity.

“This isn’t just about managing people, it’s about knowing how to inspire, how to stimulate, and how to achieve results,” explained Heward. Though she was referring to her own responsibilities as a circus director, she also was describing many key traits that educators, too, need to reach their goals.

To be a good leader (and educator), Heward said, one must apply creativity to everyday tasks. She gave the example of how Cirque casts its acrobats: “We don’t do cattle calls, we have closed screenings. We ask them to climb up a rope, of course, but we also ask them to sing as they hang on with nothing but their legs.” By asking individuals to push themselves creatively, Cirque not only inspires its members but builds a team around multiple, well-rounded skills.

Diamandis and his foundation have managed, after eleven and a half years of work, to convince the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to allow specially engineered planes, called Zero Gs, to carry commercial passengers–and this year, 400 were teachers.

The foundation’s Northrup Grumann Program, based around Zero G flights, gives students and educators a complete science package with pre-flight workshops, seminars, informational materials, and tools about space, physics, and many other subjects.

“Teachers say they come back from Zero G and their students view them as heroes,” Diamandis told a captivated audience. “It builds interest in science. Those teachers who have gone have managed to raise science assessment scores in their classes by as much as 20 percent.”

For her part, Heward described how Cirque’s main goal is not to mold a performer into a character, but to find the character unique to him or her. “There’s so much individual potential, and it’s our job to help [performers] reach that potential … to help them become who they really are inside,” she said.

Although educators, too, must help each student reach his or her potential, collaboration also is crucial to success.

Heward described what she calls “collective creativity,” or a whole team being able to create a masterful show. “It’s not enough to have a famous designer for fashion models to come and design costumes,” she explained. “He must work with our creative costume designer to make pieces that reflect the troupe as a whole.”

Diamandis also noted the importance of collaboration in his mission to spur technological, medical, and scientific innovation. Each X Prize–which so far includes the Genome X Prize, the Automotive X Prize, and the Google Lunar X Prize–will give millions of dollars to the first privately funded team to achieve the mission presented. Through these X Prizes, Diamandis’ foundation has seen interest from across the globe in trying to make significant technological advances.

Both speakers ended their real-life success stories with examples that showed the importance of taking risks. Heward told of one Cirque member who performed a fire trick for the Academy Awards. She described how this fire performer was burned during practice the night before. Despite receiving third-degree burns all over his back, he managed to perform the next night at the Academy Awards–and the show was perfect.

“He told me something that day that I will pass on to you now,” said Heward. “He said that you have to leverage your credibility to take risks. Even if you’re burned, try again, and your credibility will grow.”

She continued: “Creative risks are not the most dangerous type of risks. Complacency is the most dangerous risk–the one that will almost always yield no results. So open those creative doors, keep things fresh, and reach for that high potential!”

Diamandis agreed, saying his dream is to “let kids feel like if they want to travel to space they can.” Although the FAA remains wary of his project, Diamandis hopes to take not only more teachers into space next year, but a thousand students as well.

The message of both speakers was clear: You don’t have to be in a circus to perform miracles, and you don’t need millions of dollars to be able to fly.

Educators need to inspire students in new and creative ways. Heward even gave an example of how Cirque’s creation studio is built like a giant pirate ship.

But, educators also must inspire themselves and know that every student has the potential to reach 21st-century learning goals.

By practicing teamwork, finding new ways to teach, and incorporating new and efficient technologies into the classroom, educators can help ensure that the United States will continue to be a leader in progress and innovation in the 21st century.

As teachers, vendors, speakers, and administrators walked from booth to ballroom and from waterfalls to giant lily pads, they saw for themselves that with a little hard work, anything is possible.

Links:

T+L

Lyn Heward profile

X Prize Foundation