6 posts categorized "August 2012"

August 31, 2012

What computers can't do: hexagonal thinking

I'm working on an advisory project at the moment where the team in charge is largely remote: we're all spread around the world and the people organising things spend too much time in front of Word, PowerPoint and Outlook. The result? Lots of text gets sent back and forth and that text is festooned with bullet points, numbers and linear thinking.

I first came across the antithesis to this from the creator of "the learning organisation" concept Arie de Geus' The Living Company: hexagonal thinking. Hexagonal thinking involves writing down key components of knowledge, observation and understanding on hexagons, not in lists, and then placing them in patterns that show the connections between ideas, and the connections between clusters of those ideas and other clusters. It is complexity made simple.

De Geus had found that when he and executives were trying to help insurance people better understand their complex products, the expensive computer simulations they had developed were not doing the job: staff were too busy trying to "win" the simulation that the more significant, and complex, information about the products was lost. With the introduction of hexagonal thinking those complex connections were made swiftly and deeply.

In the classroom does this work? Of course! And it was my good friend Chris Harte who showed me how it could be done with something as banal, and complex, as French grammar:


Chris has since gone slightly crazy about hexagons, and presented on it in his new home of Melbourne, Australia, at his local TeachMeet:


I only wish bureaucrats also thought in hexagons...

August 30, 2012

Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz


I'm paraphrasing somewhat, but this is a fascinating interview from jazz musician and management professor Frank Barrett, on a key design thinking skill, where problem solving alone is not sufficient.

A certain creative mindset with a distinct process that a team can use to hit its groove and make new discoveries is at the core of jazz, and it's at the core to the way of thinking that we've been working hard on with design thinking in schools. Likewise, the jazz musicians' practice of dislodging their routines in order not to fall into clichés is core to the design thinking process: the process of 'playing' remains the same, but the mindset we learn helps us see the same things we've seen before in a new light, time and time again:

 "Improvisational mindset means that you have to leap in and take action, to say "yes". "Yes" is a mindset of affirmative confidence. You can't stop and problem solve. Problem solving is just not sufficient. If you're just in a problem-solving mindset your imagination is going to be shrunk. Comedy improvisors have an obligation to build on someone else's gag with "yes, and…". The same is true in jazz. You don't stop and analyse, criticise what you've heard. You jump on it and build."

As a jazz drummer through most of my youth (and still, on headphones and my Roland, in my office ;-) this podcast reminds me of all the leadership and team thinking lessons that I learned back then: comping to make the soloist sound great, that sense of "ubuntu", where I can't sound good unless my buddy sounds good, that constant listening to others in order to build on what they started...

Other leadership lessons have been summed up beautifully by musicians in these clips. My favourite, and one that I often pillage at the closing of a workshop or talk, is Itay Talgam's set of metaphors of conductors and leadership:

Stefon Harris talks about how, in jazz, there are never mistakes unless you as a band don't build on each other's playing:

And Benjamin Zander talks about how to lead people to love music (or learning, or anything...)

Thanks to my Detroit buddy Jordy for sending me the link to this podcast.

(Original photo http://www.flickr.com/photos/edublogger/2705855811/)

August 22, 2012

What's the difference between PBL and Design Thinking?

Bianca Hewes and some others were last night asking some good questions to seek out the difference between design thinking and project-based learning (PBL) as techniques for use in the classroom. These kinds of questions we explore through out workshops with educators around the world, and there's an explanation developing in a book I hope to release soon. In the meantime, here's a quick and dirty take on the question from me:

For much of the past three years my colleagues and I been working through a specific innovation process with educators on the one hand, and non-education organisations on the other: media groups, technology startups, fashion companies, the UN, political parties... The process is design thinking.

When we work with creative, government or political organisations, the approach is a logical extension of what they're doing, a welcome structure through which to explore a wider scope of a given challenge.

When we work with schools, we're taking the Design Thinking process and marrying it with what we know from research about what makes great learning. However, there's a piece of vocabulary that often gets in the teachers' way of seeing what design thinking might bring to the learning process: PBL, or project-based learning. "It's just PBL"; "This is the same as CBL": the understanding of a model which is close, but not quite the same to design thinking, makes it harder to spot the differences and additional elements that could help enrichen practice.

So what are the key differences between a PBL project and one where design thinking is mashed with what we know makes learning great? (N.B. Following some criticism on Twitter, I feel it is worth pointing out that these reflections are just that, reflections on practice I've either observed first hand or have researched online. Don't get mad: comment and take part in the discussion).

0. Important point: there's probably less of a #PBL vs Design Thinking distinction to make, but rather, how can design thinking add to existing well-kent pedagogies of PBL?

1. A PBL project tends to explore a relatively narrow subject area, with a narrow essential question
In many, if not most PBL, projects I've seen, the project is defined by the essential question(s), which often sound like curricular checkpoints, or which funnel learning down a particular pre-defined path. In many, the groupings of students and their activities are defined (the film crew, the researchers, the presentation-makers, the event organisers).

In Design Thinking, the goal is to explore the widest possible area(s) for longer, to offer a good half-dozen or more potential lines of enquiry that students might end up exploring. The essential question(s) come much later in the process (as much as half-way through, in the synthesis stage) and...

2. In Design Thinking, the students, not the teacher, write the essential question(s)
In PBL, the teacher does a lot of the learning for the student: taking a large potential area of study and narrowing it down into a manageable project question. The teacher often delivers a "brief" for learners through two or three essential questions, much in the same way as a client delivers a brief to a design firm.

In Design Thinking, the teacher avoids asking a question at all, and comes up with what we call a generative topic (from David Perkins' work), a curiosity-mongering statement that opens up an area of study, doesn't narrow it down. The questions that come from this investigation are the ones that students will go on to look at in more detail, come with ideas around solving or presenting.

Design firms like IDEO and our own web designers at NoTosh often take a brief from a client and then through their research, they change it. However, in learning, the use of a generative topic from the start speeds up the process, and teaches this skill of "helpful disobedience" of the brief. There's little difference, in fact, between a traditional project-based learning experience and a deep design thinking experience if the educator is giving a brief: design thinking merely adds some structure to PBL, a new vocabulary, and, it seems from every workshop I spot online, lots of LEGOs, pipe cleaners and post-its. There is more to Design Thinking for learning than this utilitarian service-improvement model that's currently getting big airtime!

A large part of our work with educators is working on how to develop higher order questioning skills in students. So many Design Thinking projects we observe elsewhere at the moment are based around relatively lower order questions, or on just school/community improvement. Design Thinking can be so much more than this, but it takes the marriage between Design Thinking as a creative industries process and the best educational research we can find. It's hard to find people teaching Shakespeare, religious studies or mathematics through the process, the very things we're seeing educators through our work begin to achieve. Core to raising that ambition is raising the quality of questioning in both teachers and students, something that remains untouched in most schools.

3. The ideas of what students will produce in PBL are often set by the teacher.
In Design Thinking students make the choice about what their prototype will be. Prototype or product ideas for learning are often set in advance in a PBL project ("you will produce a film", or "you will be able to use multimedia and text").

In Design Thinking the decision about which medium to use to show an idea lies entirely with the students, and again comes later in the process, when they know more about the initial exploratory topic.

4. Design Thinking provides a set of vocabulary that increasingly makes sense to employers in the creative, financial and governmental and innovation sectors.
The biggest challenge with PBL is that it was invented for education by educators. Design Thinking was created 30 years ago by a product design outfit (IDEO) as a way of working and thinking, to help provide better solutions to clients. The process helped bring about the graphical interface and computer mouse. It's now coming into the language of many large firms as they seek a more structured way to innovate.

The language PBL uses is, by contrast, inconsistent and not usable outside the classroom. So, using a process that encourage deeper, wider thinking AND helps develop a life skill provides great value to learners.

5. And what about Understanding by Design..?
When we first came across Understanding by Design, or UbD, it felt, in the words of those harnessing it, very similar to their first impressions of design thinking. However, there's a key difference. UbD involves the educator deciding on a final view of success and working back from that, designing learning towards the final goal. Design Thinking does it the other way around.

UbD almost tries to give students the impression they have choice, responsibility for their learning, real things to create in order to learn, but in fact, it fails to respect the choices learners make, as tangents are a) less likely to appear (the immersion phease of research at the beginning is narrower by design) and b) less likely to be given time and resource by the teacher when they do appear (such tangents are off the goal that the teacher has already set in mind).

Although controversial to say, I feel that UbD and many project-based learning approaches do nothing but disempower the learner, or at least not empower them any more than traditional coursework and chalk-and-talk. It's maybe less the approach that is wrong (since depth and higher order thinking is a staple of most guides to project-based learning) but the practice that ends up occurring as people find themselves pushed back into the status quo of assessment accountability and content coverage fear from their superiors. As a result, many design thinking projects we see are too narrowly designed around school or community improvement, something Reggio Emilia and Montessori schools have been doing (better?) for scores of years. Why are we not seeing PBL or Design Thinking taking place across whole school curricula, from Shakespeare to science, school canteens to Cantonese?

It's time people look more seriously towards the amazing work done by educators in Europe and Australia, where design thinking is truly stretching the scope within which learners operate. There. I said it! :-) And I promise that over the next six months we'll share even more of those amazing learning stories.

This is a brief outline of five key differences between the two approaches. As I wrote above, there is a new book coming out soon from me outlining the amazing work done by our Design Thinking Schools and creative clients around the world. This will provide the depth that some folk might want after this briefest of explanations. We also run intensive workshops for educators and creative firms, wherever you are in the world, that help enthuse staff and set them out on the journey towards more student-led learning. If you're interested in one of those, just get in touch.

August 16, 2012

"My results..." Care less about what everyone says

In England and Wales today, and in Scotland last week, youngsters have been receiving their examination results. All those months of hard work, well, work in any case, pay off in about the 10 seconds it takes to open an envelope and take a glance over the final scores. Some people even choose to do it in front of the TV cameras - you'd have never found me wanting to do that!

At that point in time, the effort, the learning that went on, and the lessons to carry on into later life all disappear into distant memory. It might as well not have happened.

But a tweet this morning from London's friendliest entrepreneur Oli Barrett sent me seeking out the pre-envelope-opening tweets, all those people talking about "my results" on Twitter. The search string has been fascinating, particularly in the early morning.

OliBarrett My Results on Twitter


Here's a representative sample of tweets from one small run through the search:
Tweets about my results 1
Tweets about my results 2

Tweets about my results 4
Tweets about my results 5

It feels in my very unscientific way of measuring things that about 80% want to throw themselves under various modes of public transport, most fear mediocrity, most fear what other people will say.
It's the last one that I wish we could teach young people about - care less about what other people say, more about what YOU do.


August 13, 2012

SOLO Taxonomy: giving students a sense of progress in learning

I am here

Without a sense of progress you cannot be creative, so what language can we offer students that enables them to take control of understanding where they are in their learning?

One key notion about creativity is that the ability to calculate progress is an important part of the creative process: knowing when something feels 'done'. Knowing when you're stuck, when you're done, when you're at the end of that chunk of learning is essential. It gives that indication that you need to go back out and get some more insights from someone or something.

Knowing where you are in your learning requires a language, a rubric of some sort, and one which fits the bill really well is John BiggsSOLO Taxonomy (Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes). This is a thinking tool which I came across from Chris Harte in his Cramlington Learning Village days. Often, the language used to frame learning in the SOLO Taxonomy is used by the teacher to assess learners' progress, but far more powerful is when the learner him- or herself is encouraged to use the language as a self-assessment tool. Giving the rubric to the learner by making it clearly visible in every classroom increases their capacity to take ownership of their future direction of travel.

The SOLO Taxonomy is like a stepping stone progression through the perceived understanding of a given area. We use it in the ideation phase of our design thinking work to test how rich an idea might be, or whether more immersion in the topic needs done to add depth to it:

SOLO Taxonomy Stepping stones


The model provides five levels of understanding of a given topic or area of learning:

  • Pre-structural - The task is not attacked appropriately; the student hasn’t really understood the point and uses too simple a way of going about it. In languages, this feels like knowing odds and sods of language, but never being able to pull together a sentence for oneself. 
  • Uni-structural - The student's response only focuses on one relevant aspect. In a languages classroom this might be where a student can answer a specific question with a very specific answer, but can't go "off piste" linguistically.
  • Multi-structural - The student's response focuses on several relevant aspects but they are treated independently and additively. Assessment of this level is primarily quantitative. In a languages classroom you might see a student able to link together some obvious connections of language, but still unable to pull the conversation around to other related areas.
  • Relational - The different aspects have become integrated into a coherent whole. This level is what is normally meant by an adequate understanding of some topic. In a foreign language this might be the capacity to speak the language well enough to understand and be understood, but perhaps some of the cultural impact or context is still lost.
  • Extended abstract - The previous integrated whole may be conceptualised at a higher level of abstraction and generalised to a new topic or area. Here, in a foreign language, we can imagine both a linguistic competence but also the capacity to develop an understanding of how that language has impacted on its culture, on other cultures, on literature and so on.

Tait Coles describes how he put it into action with phenomenal results in his classroom, and David Didau builds on Tait's thinking and provides some resources to get you started:


Additional links (14/08/12):

Pam Hook, a New Zealand educator who has taken Biggs' thinking and created many of the graphical rubrics and other resources you'll see peppered around the web, provides a rich bank of practical advice and printables to get you started on her site. If you're starting a school year, her downloadable slideshares will help you help colleagues make sense of how this can change practice.

Have you been using the SOLO Taxonomy? Want to start this new school year? Let me know in the comments how it impacts the capacity of your students to take control of their own learning.

Using spam to learn about persuasive language


A genius lesson or two from Scottish colleagues who immerse students in real world spams in order to see what kinds of reply they might write:

I gave a class of twelve year olds a selection of genuine spam emails and asked them to write down what their replies to these would be. It mostly purported to be from a distressed Nigerian monarch living in exile looking for a friendly Briton to share a fortune with. Some of the kids quickly twigged and wrote sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek responses. But a few of them seemed genuinely intrigued and happy to enter into correspondence; others tried to negotiate the terms to make more money. It was this naivety and innocence that I wanted to address in the pupils. They had to become aware of dastardly tricks.

As an English teacher, it was important to zoom in on the persuasive language techniques used in spam emails. By the end of the unit pupils could tell you that spam emails use terms of endearment to hook in the recipient, include hyperlinks to news articles to make their stories more plausible, describe accidents or impending threats to generate sympathy, and specify tight deadlines to make the deal seem juicier.

Read more and get some resources for this on the Scottish Book Trust site. Hat tip on this one to my old colleague Bill Boyd.

Photo: Holley St Germain

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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