January 20, 2015

Uncollaborating: Brainstorm and Prototype alone

I'm planning some fast-paced introduction workshops to the design cycle, and how it can be used to tackle seemingly huge issues in a speedy, inspirational, creative way.

The problem is that everyone comes believing that collaboration is where innovation comes from, and that just isn't the case. Not always, anyway.

One of the challenges we sometimes see is that, in a group brainstorming exercise such as 100 Ideas Now, teams generate lots of good ideas, but then, through consensus, hone them down into relatively tame and 'safe' ideas. It's no surprise that we sometimes wonder whether any of those ideas actually get implemented back at home, outside the workshop experience. (As a side note, I'm delighted to say that I do, in fact, often hear about major timetable innovations or changed school dining experiences months after the initial workshop, but it feels inconsistent...)

We already make sure that those brainstorming activities start as individual activities, a discipline that most workshop participants find incredibly hard to stick to - they want to debate, pitch, share their ideas. Sharing is good after all, isn't it?

Even the honing exercises start individually, before becoming a consensus.

Google Ventures' Jake Knapp talks about his challenge in finding 'alone time' to generate ideas and prototype them quickly, without the need to pitch and explain himself too early on. What he does is a design sprint, by any other name, but it is one he undertakes largely alone

This idea of using design sprints in school innovation is something I dive into in greater detail in my book, How To Come Up With Great Ideas. It's a technique rarely used in big industry or schools, but those who do see how it might be used immediately get excited by the potential.

What is the project you might be doing at the moment that would benefit, not from a five year strategy, but from a sprint of a few weeks?

January 14, 2015

Engage, Inspire, Empower - language learning and technology

I got back to being a language teacher last night, doing a quick talk and then conversation with some of the teachers participating in our Malta Better Learning with Technologies groupHere is the video of the talk, where I was inspired by the instant nature of understanding we gain from the cartoons we've seen over the past week:

  • The universal language of image
  • The growth of the image thanks to technology - Insta...everything
  • The move of technology's dominance in text (blogs and podcasts of 2005) to image (YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat in 2015)
  • How do we play the whole game of learning, every day, in the language classroom?
  • What S.T.A.R. moments do we create for our students to amplify the meaning of what we're doing?
  • Can we inform students later, and start with the why of engagement, inspiration and then empowering through information and the 'how'?
  • "Real world" does not mean we have to take every student on a foreign exchange visit. Real world is no longer the long-term relationships we had to build with partner schools in 2005. Real world can be short-term reaching out to someone, just for a lesson, for a moment, to gather an empathy for how others might think.
  • Real world can also be imaginative - video games as a stimulus for writing, or TED talks for stimulus in reading and listening (and speaking!).

January 10, 2015

The Devil's Advocate... or how to kill creativity

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I do love my weekend dose of Hunting English, and this week's post was an interesting look at the role of Devil's Advocate in decision-making, and in learning:

In an election year, a time of miracle cures and vested interests pushing their cargo cults, we should pay heed to the Devil’s Advocate’s role in “suggest[ing] natural explanations for alleged miracles, and even to bring forward human and selfish motives for deeds that have been accounted heroic virtues”. When we are presented with the latest miracle cure for all our educational ills – be it teaching ‘character’; possessing a ‘growth mindset’; the latest technological wizardry; the latest research evidence; a new school structure or savior school leader; or even a newly ordained Secretary of State for Education – we should seek out natural explanations and ask challenging questions.

I left a comment on the post, with a caveat on the way the role of devil's advocate is taken, that I've learned over the past 8 years working in both education and in creative product teams:

I've had a mixed relationship with the devil's advocate role (and even the film ;-). I've found it useful before, when I've been it, but always wondered why I was irked when someone started with the phrase "just to be the devil's advocate...". It was reading Stanford creativity researcher, James Adams' Conceptual Blockbusting and then Tom Kelley's Ten Faces of Innovation that I discovered why that particular blanket role is not as helpful as approaching it with a specific goal in mind. Kelley's suggestion is that it can be approached from one of these ten creative team roles, roles I recognise in the creative industry teams I've worked in. I've talked about the effort in avoiding a black and white, yes and no "devil's advocate" type role in my new book, How To Come Up With Great Ideas.

One of the key reasons for doing this, is that when most (unskilled) devil's advocates adopt that role, the put the onus of proving or disproving a state on the person making the suggestion, meaning that, over time, there is more chance that people resist making potentially risky or alternative suggestions to the status quo.

In short: it can kill creativity and innovation. When people play the devil's advocate well, they are often the ones presenting the evidence that might suggest an alternative viewpoint, and opening an opportunity for learning. When they just state the opposite, based on gut feel or personal opinion, it can be the most demoralising blow to people trying to advance their own knowledge, their team or the field.

Pic CC by Shallom

January 04, 2015

When is failure a failure? Maria Joao Pires has an answer...

The 1st Movement of Mozart's D Minor Concerto is an obsession about feeling loneliness and despair. That is exactly as virtuoso pianist Maria Joao Pires must have felt as she realised that she had practiced the wrong concerto for a summer concert series.

This clip is a wonderful example of agile leadership. In the moment of panic, the conductor takes control, not with a baton or by stopping the orchestra, but with a beautiful embracing smile, and a jovial reassurance that she would manage.

Pires then takes the leadership role on, summoning her memory, her expertise, talent and prior learning, to tackle the new concerto she hadn't been prepared to play in the first place.

When we talk about failure in learning, it is vital that we talk about failure and what we learn from it. Failure for failure's sake is a tragedy. Pires had 'done her homework' and knew the other concerto (and probably many others) by heart, from experience. She had also done her homework in being able to 'make the show go on', regardless. But no doubt, she'll rehearse with the orchestra before future live performances, she'll make the time to have that preparatory phone call. Thankfully, her learning gives her the opportunity, post-performance, to try again and get it right.

Most learning in school, though, does not give time for failure to be learned from. Instead, even though half or more of the students in the classroom may have scope for improvement, teachers feel compelled to "move on", to "get on" to the next piece of content, or to get onto the test. Really, in an ideal world, the student makes the decision about when they are 'done', ready to move on to the next thing, and often they will know what that next thing is.

Where the teacher holds all the planning in their hands, though, when the teacher perceives curriculum and success criteria as teacher-destined documents, and not as documents to flesh out hand in hand with students, this 'ideal world' does not happen.

Make the first step of 2015 towards letting students really do their homework: give them the curricular and success criteria tools we've normally kept behind the teacher's desk, and work out with them how their projects, their ideas and their ambitions meet them halfway.

January 03, 2015

Dispositions of thinking, from design thinking

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The problem with "design thinking" is that everyone thinks they do it already, but they all do something different. And, far too often, evidence of actual student 'thinking' is hard to spot in the various products, 'maker' outputs and endless movies produced in these 'design thinking' 'projects'.

For my colleagues and me, design thinking is giving careful consideration to what kind of thinking you want to undertake at what specific moment of learning. It's brutally simple, hard to pull off well.

It means that you have to know what kind of learning is even possible in a given project, with what kind of content, and what skills will be required to access that content with the minimum viable teacher assistance beyond teaching those skills, or marshalling challenging discussion. Above all, it's about making sure that students know

  • what they've learned,
  • how they know they learned it, and
  • what their next step might be.

Often, as in the picture above of some of my students on a Sunderland Uni media degree, there is little being 'made' or physically constructed (so often, design thinking is perceived as being about craft, design or tech), but all their thinking and discussion on the issue at hand is made visible, as evidence (for themselves) of the answer to each of those key self-assessment questions.

But NoTosh is not alone in its efforts to help educators understand how to put more of the learning onus on students. Harvard University, no less, seeks dispositions of thinking that are not dissimilar, and in many cases identical, to what makes up the impact of design thinking that we see in our schools:

  1. The disposition to be broad and adventurous
    The tendency to be open-minded, to explore alternative views; an alertness to narrow thinking; the ability to generate multiple options.
  2. The disposition toward sustained intellectual curiosity
    The tendency to wonder, probe, find problems, a zest for inquiry; an alertness for anomalies; the ability to observe closely and formulate questions.
  3. The disposition to clarify and seek understanding
    A desire to understand clearly, to seek connections and explanations; an alertness to unclarity and need for focus; an ability to build conceptualizations.
  4. The disposition to be planful and strategic
    The drive to set goals, to make and execute plans, to envision outcomes; alertness to lack of direction; the ability to formulate goals and plans.
  5. The disposition to be intellectually careful
    The urge for precision, organization, thoroughness; an alertness to possible error or inaccuracy; the ability to process information precisely.
  6. The disposition to seek and evaluate reasons
    The tendency to question the given, to demand justification; an alertness to the need for evidence; the ability to weigh and assess reasons.
  7. The disposition be metacognitive
    The tendency to be aware of and monitor the flow of one's own thinking; alertness to complex thinking situations; the ability to exercise control of mental processes and to be reflective.

This new year, we will be overhauling our NoTosh website to reveal more of the ways we've helped schools, and they've helped themselves, to become more robust in delivering on these dispositions with their young people.

About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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