27 posts categorized "2015"

December 28, 2015

2015 Travel: Han Solo could do it in 878 milliseconds

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A confession: I quietly love flying. This year, I've done 163,581 miles of it.

I love that when you fly a lot, the airport social media staff say 'hello' on Twitter when you arrive and the cabin crew on your home route (or even on the Brisbane-Dubai non-stop route) recognise you from last time. I like getting great service, and see so many things about systems-thinking that work well in airlines, that I'm happy to forgive small indiscrepancies when they occur. All that said, flying strangles our planet as much as eating too much red meat, and for many, many reasons, I've wanted to stop flying quite so much, while not restricting the spread and growth of the ideas from our firm, NoTosh

I'm quite sure that nobody reading this blog really cares about how much I travel, but keeping an annual count on it has become a new year habit. When I started working at Channel 4, and then continuing when I created NoTosh, I wanted to keep track of what seemed like an interminable number of miles on the road and in the air. By 2012, 2013 and last year, I was beginning to wonder if I'd ever be able to get the number of miles down when they seemed to represent even more trips to the moon and back each and every year.

When you run a company based in Edinburgh with a great team living in Melbourne, you could easily spend your life on a plane - one flying to Melbourne feels better than two or more flying to Edinburgh. Indeed, in 2012, 2013 and 2014 it felt like I really did spend my life on a plane, as I went to the moon and back in my annual travel, with anything up to seven trips a year to Australia.

But last year, I began to find it a real mental and physical challenge to deal with the length of my trips, the nights away from home and, above all, the crazy distances. I made a decision at the dinner table of my friend and client Laurie, in Nanjing, China, while on a phone call to Peter Ford, my erstwhile colleague: in 2015, I'd reduce my miles as much as I could and still keep the company growing best I could.

I've started that journey with a third fewer miles in 2015 compared to 2014 or 2012, working towards getting to 2011 levels once more. It's still a silly number of miles in the air and on the road, but I'm happy to have achieved this without sacrificing the goal of our firm, to put learning at the heart of everything we do, and keep growing that learning mindset around the world.

And here's the thing: the whole team has travelled less than in, say, 2012 or 2013, and we've lost two of our staff - one to university study and the other to an 'offer he couldn't refuse' ;-). But in spite of all that, we have grown our turnover and, with traveling less, look likely to increase our profits later next year, something we can reinvest in developing our team, communications, books and so on. 

Our biggest challenge remains one behind the reason for all this travel in the first place: people still expect human contact, and think that this, rather than anything else, is "what we're paying for". I'm not convinced that's the right reason to get any consultancy firm involved with your school or company. "Having us over" is a luxury our planet can't always afford, and one that we don't always need to create stellar work. The same brains work via web conference as in a room in your school, and online learning and collaboration allows us to work in more flexible just-in-time ways, when the time is right for a busy teacher or executive. The times when I have really felt the benefit of being in the same room as people has been when we are codesigning a new programme, curriculum or learning environment, when being with each other for an extended period of time, in front of the inevitable whiteboard and post-it notes, helps make connections that we hadn't made online until that point. But for diagnostics, leading a PD session, doing a shorter length keynote talk - online still works really well for an audience that plans to actually do something with their learning (and an audience that plans to do nothing with their learning might well be less entertained, perhaps, by an online talk or workshop, but why would we want to take out days on travel for them, anyway?). 

Over the past year, that is the kind of work I've been concentrating on developing with NoTosh, and I think we'll see some great new programmes in 2016 as a result of the work my whole team has been doing to save our airmiles, save the planet and save some money for our clients. 

2007: 51,281 miles

2008: 81,887 miles

2009: 41,902 miles

2010: 106,372 miles

2011: 128,555 miles

2012: 242,266 miles

2013: 207,837 miles

2014: 237,195 miles

2015: 163,581 miles

 

July 14, 2015

Celebrating 10 years of edu.blogs.com - could we have yesterday's time with today's thinking?

First edublogs post

It's ten years today since I wrote my first blog post for me, and I wish we could have today's thinking with the space and time of a decade ago.

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I've blogged since around November 1999, one of the first users of a new, shaky service... Blogger. My first one was, as a student teacher, some kind of "making sense of Scottish education" affair. It was short-lived, audience-free, and felt presumptuous in the extreme. As a French and German teacher, I used the more stable Typepad service to run blogs with students on all sorts of field trips and school partnerships.

Early 2000s

There were various Paris-Normandy trips, the highlight of my teaching year, where we live-blogged from a Nokia 6230i with a 1.3megapixel inbuilt camera and extortionately expensive and unreliable 2G connection, while munching on smelly cheese and exploring the history of Omaha beach and surrounds. In the early years, mums and dads were sceptical of what it was for and why - most posts would garner barely 30 comments. Just one year on, though, the utility of the blog was clear to all: no more nervous phone calls to the school asking how we Johnny was doing, and literally hundreds of comments per blog. In fact, I've just spent the weekend at a wedding where I met many of the students from the 2005 blog for the first time since then.

Carol Fuller, a US teacher from South Cobb, near Atlanta, who I have never met, but to whom my primary school colleague John Johnston paid a visit over a decade ago, is still an online friend today. She got her students helping in a couple of projects where a US perspective on the world was essential to gain empathy beyond the pages of the textbook. The most popular post in one collaboration on politics was by far around banning guns. Plus ça change...

Her students took the often traumatic and insightful writing of our senior students' field trip blog to Auschwitz and wrote their own play on the back of it. It was pre-YouTube, so VHS cassettes flew across the Atlantic. Having the powerful writing of students still online, still being downloaded, feels important today as our world continues to struggle with terrible things happening in the world, viewed only through a screen. Laura Womersley's Confession is still one of the best pieces of writing I think I've ever read from a student, rendered more poignant than ever today knowing that just a few months later she died, suddenly, from an unexpected illness. Her words live on.

We used our blogs to publish the first high school podcast in Europe, maybe in the world. The wee lad who edited everything is now an accident and emergency doctor, and through micro-blogging - Twitter - is newly in touch with me this past year. He's no long a wee lad, either - six foot tall, and seeking his next challenges in life.

2005: the start of edu.blogs.com

It was only when I left my classroom to start a secondment with the Government, in the summer of 2005, that I knew I would miss sharing with other people. Until that point, it had always been through the conduit of my students' work. Now, I wanted to share whatever I might with a newly emergent group of educators, educators who wanted to share beyond their four walls. The first post was awkward (and indeed called "That awkward first post"). The early posts are bum-clenchingly naïve. But it was also the place that some small things were kicked off, and became big things. A few weeks after the first ScotEduBlogsMeetup, TeachMeet was born in a post in 2006.

Collisions

Early on, Loïc Lemeur, the founder of the blog platform I had been using for so long, invited me to speak at his emergent Les Blogs conference in Paris (now Europe's must-go-to tech conference, LeWeb). It's his birthday today, the day that I started my own blog - serendipity perhaps?

What followed my intervention there was the first sign that people might actually be reading and listening to what I was saying. James Farmer got stuck in, annoyed, I think, that a young buck was on the stage talking about classroom blogging (and he wasn't ;-). He was actually complaining about what everyone else on the panel had said, not what I contributed, which were just stories (much the same I what I try to contribute today). We didn't speak much after that, in spite of promises of beer in Brissie. 

I was fed up at how few teachers were sharing long-form thoughts and reflections on teaching, through blogs, and how a self-nominated cabal hectored those of us joining the fray "for not doing it right". Today, I feel that about the self-nominated if-Hattie-didn't-say-it-it-didn't-happen brigade. Back then my chief supporter in the collision with James Farmer and, later, Stephen Downes, was one Peter Ford - still one of my best buddies today, and working partner of the last three years. Collisions, I learned early on, are how we challenge ourselves to learn better. Heck, even Stephen came around to like something I did once... one of the best presentations he's ever heard. The content of it, too, came from collisions on this here blog.

I also had collisions through the blog with people who did not blog, namely my employers at the Scottish Government. I spent a few blog posts correcting newspaper stories in which I was misquoted, and many more writing my own thoughts on why the creation of a national schools intranet, a social network no-one outside schools could see, was doomed to fail. It did. Two years after leaving the education department, I was invited back by a new Education Minister to his expert committee that has overhauled the whole, expensive, useless venture. 

So, collisions on the blog were vital to my job, when I had one, and for the creation of NoTosh, my company. For ten years of professional collisions, thank you. I really wish there were more of them in long form.

TLDR has become the norm as educational discourse takes place in machine gun ratatats-à-Twitter. Where once we had comment feeds, dripping ideas, thoughts and disagreement with our ideas each day, we now have a tsunami of detritus in which we must seek out the comments of yore, never connected directly to the original thought that sparked them. Ten years ago, the half-life of an idea, of a discourse, could be as long as a month. Today, one is lucky if a thought lasts twenty seconds before it falls off the fold of the electronic page.

In the past decade, though, something better has come along, I think. More educators are writing books than ever before. More than most genres, there are plenty destined to become pulp, but there are so many more than a decade ago that offer genuine insight, great ideas, years of learning to the reader for no more than thirty bucks. They even come to your screen in a flash, if you want them to. I wonder, sometimes, if teachers writing books is not the long-form blog post in a different guise.

To that end, I've wondered about going back over ten years of blog posts, ignoring the truly embarrassing ones and unpicking the contentious ones with a more mature head on my shoulders. I'd love to write a book that takes ideas that mattered 10 years ago to me, and see whether they might matter more to people today. I have no idea whether this would work, whether it would even be of interest to people - the same questions I asked in my parents' dining room as I set about kicking off this electronic version of the book draft.

Thanks to those of you who have read my stuff, especially the longest posts like this one. Thanks, too, to those with whom I have collided over the last ten years. And to those who don't read my blog any more, who have unsubscribed because you feel it is "no longer relevant" (that's the most common reason for an unsubscribe), peace be with you. You have no idea of the fun you've missed out on ;-)

May 18, 2015

Do we actually want to close the achievement gap?

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I end this small run of blog posts with the question posed by Professor Brian Boyd at the beginning of our evening:

Do we want to close the achievement gap?

We know we can close the gap. It’s been done or almost been done before in Scottish education, but the answers have been ignored as they pass us by. The simple clue is this: poverty is single biggest predictor of achievement, and according to research (Hammonds sic, reference required), aged 10, a child living in poverty is 60% less likely to get to university.

Boyd borrowed from his own mother’s report card to ask us what kind of education we desire. Is it the academic success at all costs route, or is there another option we need to value as much, if not more? His mother’s report card, one that prevented her from becoming a secondary school pupil in Glasgow, is filled with G and FG, until the last point: Character and conduct - excellent.

What kind of pupils do we want to develop in Scotland? What do we value in our assessment system? Opening up opportunity for all is a tough game to play when the examination system rewards only certain types of behaviour, few of them related to what the Curriculum for Excellence says we stand for. In his own small community in East Kilbride, three secondary schools enter a period of meltdown as the local rag sets about creating its own local league table of performance, with those three ‘teams’ in competition for the top spot (or at least not the bottom one). Therefore, we must stop basing “the gap” largely on attainment.

First of all, Boyd would like us to remove the traditional, and non-sensical academic/vocational divide. Is the law or medicine degree we value not vocational? (Are all General Practitioners not Plumbers, as Dr Murray on the panel suggests?)

Second, we must start from the ground up, in the early years. It is with parental expectations from this youngest age that we can help prevent the gap becoming quite so large in the first place.

Third, there is no research that supports setting. So why do we continue? Telling students they’re not ‘top’ will certainly reinforce their expectation and aspirations to be anything other than top.

Fourthly, pedagogy doesn’t have to be a dirty word. Teachers must have opportunities to talk about learning and teaching, to hone their craft and learn from each other.

Finally, cooperation instead of competition between departments, school types, ages, stages, and sectors is the only way we can begin to crack this question. Scottish schools have never been comprehensive, really. People have flocked to what is perceived to be ‘the good school’, making them better schools as a result. And the rest of them?

but, collaboration with business… a step too far?
Collaboration with business might be the hardest step for Scottish school to take, in a system recognisable today as the one set up by socialist forefathers in the name of equality. For some in the education sphere there are, without a doubt, perceptions that business is anything but equality in action, but instead a position of privilege at the expense of others. This surely has to change.

Maybe it is telling, in fact, that NoTosh, a company I founded five years ago, with the explicit aim to bring creative approaches from creative enterprises into the classroom, sees less than 0.5% of its turnover generated in Scotland, and none of that comes from schools. The picture above, in fact, is of one project where we brought entrepreneurship skills to the vocational education system in Finland. In non-business speak: Scottish schools aren't as interested as nations all over the world, when it comes to seeing how learning, process and leadership from outside education might help us inside formal education. 

One thing is sure: the narrowing and closing of the achievement gap in its widest sense is not something schools and the school system will manage to do on its own. It is, perhaps, long time that conversations between business, creative enterprise and the public service begin to happen much more often, with much more drive to deliver for our children. 

Do schools ever want to partner with business?

 

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“Teachers like to agree with each other, when we talk about learning. It’s hard to change that, when the model we have wanted to make work has nonetheless been failing for 40 years.” Professor Brian Boyd

No area has remained up there in the contentiousness charts in Scotland as the notion of business and education working together to do something better for our young people.

Most schools do not ‘partner’ with colleges or universities. Instead, they are production facilities for undergraduates and college entrants. Fewer are set up to systematically provide apprenticeship opportunities as well as learning. At NoTosh, we’ve been working on a few, nascent projects to change the attitudes of schools from being these production facilities into something more of a life support - what metrics of success might we use if schools judged their success on the results of their alumni, five, ten or twenty years down the line, much like universities do?

City of Glasgow College have partnered with Newlands Junior College (NJC) to make the experience of a day in college more than what, in other circumstances, is too often perceived as a day off from school. The Junior College is called this, and not a school, for that very reason, to mark it out as a stepping stone between school and full-blown college. NoTosh helped last August to provoke the team around their thoughts of what 'unschool' might look like.

The College was backed and founded by Jim McColl, one of Scotland’s top business people. 

In the future, suggests, McColl, might be be possible to take funding of learning out of its pre-existing silos, particularly for this group of students, about 60 in every city at these ages, who just need a different approach to the traditional comprehensive approach? A crossover funding model that helps learning happen in both ‘school’ or Junior College and college or university might be interesting. In fact, some of the world’s top universities are thinking of such models for their own students: Stanford’s 2025 project talks about the Open Loop, where learning and work happen over far more than the usual four year degree, offering students a chance to grow through not just learning, but contributing to society through their work, too.

Such continuums of learning, from school to college to work, are the most rare in the world - we’re lucky in Scotland to have one in the form of Newlands Junior College. If we struggle to collaborate between educational institutions, then collaboration between those not in the world of formal education - namely businesses - feels far fetched. 

McColl is frank on his views of the traditional ‘comprenhensive’ education he received: he couldn’t get out of secondary school fast enough. In his small primary school “people cared”. He was the Dux of his class, even if, he jokes, the class only had seven pupils. Aged 16, he gained his Weir pumps apprenticeship, the choice grounded in nothing other than the fact it was the closest bus stop to his house. But, once there, the trainer told him: “Just work hard and we’ll give you all the support you need. If you want to get to the top, you just have to work hard.” He did. And in 2007 he bought the company. One might say he was successful, but not by any metrics of today’s academic race to nowhere. What he did have was a strong sense of self-efficacy, that sense that he could change the world around him, his own circumstances, through his own efforts. This is what is behind most powerful learning.

He saw that, particularly in Glasgow, poverty and deprivation were holding back too many youngsters. He held Focus Dinners with all the heads of Glasgow schools. They confirmed what he had believed: aspiration from the family was a key differentiating factor.

“Aged 14”, they said, “we can tell who is waiting to check out when they’re sixteen.”

Comprehensive is not comprehensive, he says: “We force kids who are just naturally more vocational into an academic system that doesn’t cater with them.”

The curriculum is made up one around a third in traditional core subjects of maths, science, English and technology, a third of College-based learning and the rest is Life Skills, led by Skillsforce, another partner from the world of non-formal education led by former military personnel. Each week has a theme related to doing better in life. “This week is eye contact week” explains McColl. “It’s funny at first, because they all over-emphasise things, but by the third or fourth day they’ve grown in confidence and hold conversations.”

The culture of obstacles lives on

The culture of obstacles referred to by Dr Murray, in her work engaging young people in the world of medicine, is what must be defeated, though, and it has to include the public sector. But the public sector has to do a better job not to hold back potentially useful ideas from outside its parameters. It has taken six years to get Newlands Junior College where it is today. Had the team waited for every funder and ‘stakeholder’ to give their accord, it would still be a sketch on paper. A third of local schools in Glasgow still refuse to engage with the model at all. There are also people who are too focussed on their own power games, and students are suffering in the meantime.

Compare this slow pace with the measured but impassioned ambition of McColl, who sees NJC and its future cousin schools around the country as always remaining a small family of schools, maybe 10-12 of them, and very much part of the system, an additional resource rather than an outside bolt-on to the system. 

We've got high hopes, hi-i-i-i-gh hopes...

Key to businesses’ success is their sense of high expectation - businesses with incremental improvements in mind barely get past their first tax return. This sense of high expectations is visible in everything NJC does, from its physical decor to the time and effort put into excelling at life, not just subjects. There was an almost disapproving ripple of excitement when the audience were told every youngster at NJC has an iPad. Frankly, it was the statement of entitlement to whatever it takes that was the point, not whether the kids got an iPad or an A4 pad on entry to the school.

All things being equal, are opportunities for all young people there, and are aspirations from all of those around them there? Making sure schools provide that aspiration is the key.

May 05, 2015

If the Scottish National Party holds the balance of power in Westminster, what would it mean for English education policy?

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If the Scottish National Party holds the balance of power in Westminster, what would it mean for English education policy?

In 48 hours the United Kingdom goes to the polls for its Westminster Parliamentary Election, choosing a new Government no matter the result. The Scottish National Party (SNP) has been at the centre of debates this past week as they shape up to sweep most seats, if not all of them, in Scotland, and in turn will become a potential and fascinating power broker for issues affecting the rest of the UK, and the whole of the UK.

The Times Education Supplement have published my latest article on what it might mean.

Pic - Scottish Government

April 24, 2015

Keeping students at school 24/7 through the Seven Spaces of Learning

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Imagine designing a school where the bell never rings, the day never ends, that keeps students in for as long as possible, in the same way as Google has designed its campuses to keep employees happy, but working.

That's what we explored during a fun field trip visit this week to Singapore Management University's SMU-X with the Facilities team and some great educators from Singapore American School (above), as they consider how they might create a more agile process for teachers to propose learning space innovations.

The space's project manager and initiator is Gan Hup Tan, Associate Director of Strategic Planning at the University, below. He's used design thinking principles to attempt the creation of a 'sticky space', where students choose to spend their time. But also visible were a large number of different type of space, and their type dictated, without signage, how it might be used. They fell fairly close to what I've come to call the seven spaces of learning.

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In a fascinating visit we witnessed that very concept, with many students even opting for a quick nap in the "Quiet Room", on inflatable mattresses and soft furnishings, so that they could rejoin their learning, with peers, in one of the many collaborative spaces nearby:

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 Ownership of the space is a challenge: it is open 24/7 with very much 'background' security staff, and no librarians or permanent 'assistors' on hand. And yet the only room with instructions on its use is the White Room, head-to-toe-to-floor idea-painted, with glass walls and door, so that students can map out big ideas:

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Interestingly, both here and on smaller whiteboards along the lines of workstations, there was plenty evidence that students claimed these spaces for personal expression, personal ownership. Cartoons, sketches and fun 'tags' felt like their principal purpose was to make students feel more at home, give more of a sense of belonging in an otherwise transient space.

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While most space was purposefully ambiguous in purpose, there was the one-button recording studio:

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Students insert their USB memory stick to start the system. Television lights switch on and the system is instantly ready to record, as soon as the big silver button is pressed:

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As soon as the recording is complete, press the button again, and the whole movie is saved, instantly, to your USB. Remove the USB, the lights go out automatically, and you can leave with your movie ready to upload. It's a lovely example of technology reducing the barrier to achieving a prototype of thinking, good enough to get feedback if not quite Hollywood in terms of editing. 

Does it work? Well, as I headed back to my hotel after dinner, a paused by the building. At the junction were six student-looking youth, takeaway food in their hands, heading towards the door. One swipe of their cards and they were in. 11pm learning - it’s certainly when many of us did our best work back in the day, no?

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February 24, 2015

When there just aren't #28minutes for #28daysofwriting

In 2007, I posted a picture of me blogging, with a one month old Catriona in one arm, one-handed typing on the other:

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One year later, I had stopped writing on my blog regularly (until this month) for many reasons:

  • At Channel 4 in 2008, I was so unschool in my work that I felt totally uninformed and uninspired to write about learning - this was daft, since every public service platform I funded and produced had learning at its heart.
  • By 2010, having started NoTosh, I ended up with a crisis of living in two electronic worlds, at a time when many of us were really at the beginning of fathoming how to live online privately as well as publicly. The NoTosh blog (we used to have one, and it'll make a reappearance in 2015!) was where I spent most of my writing time until 2011, as my edu.blogs.com writing fell away.
  • By 2012, I was on mega travel - nearly 250,000 miles a year - and the simple fact of being in the air without wifi thwarted efforts to write.
  • By late 2013, with the stress of opening a new office in Australia (even if it was led by the wonderful Tom Barrett, who was also, without a doubt, feeling a tad stressed himself), and then expanding it in 2014, and adding an office in San Francisco later that year, both delivering great learning for educators and creatives, planning it and attempting to keep a team happy was proving tough - writing on a blog, if I'm honest, didn't make any sense. 
  • One of the reasons for stopping transient writing was just that - I wanted more permanence. So I wrote my book, long form, as well as a new Masters course. 120,000 words in 12 weeks, while also traveling twice around the world. It helped me realise that writing was not the issue, but publishing it live was. 
  • And so to February 2015. I turned 37 yesterday, on a plane, and with no chance to write 'live'. Today, I'm in meetings from 8am until 9pm. I'm not going to have the energy to write, so this, too, is a forward-post with my head spinning from jetlag in Hong Kong.

I wouldn't swap my life for the world. I'm very fortunate to have a family that has come to cope, somehow, with my travels, and a supportive team who I can lean on when I need to. But when push comes to shove, it is writing on the blog that has always had the shove.

Maybe that's what making things explicit and public is all about - you magically find time to do things, ditching others, and not giving up what is truly important to you.

Above all, writing every day has been a wonderful model for that little Catriona, and her new (well, now four years old) sister, Anna:

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February 23, 2015

Expectations #28daysofwriting

This is what they call a "forward" post. I wrote it yesterday, when I had wifi and time, and am posting under today's date. I have a (reasonable) expectation that I will be alive tomorrow, and that this will not, therefore, freak out anyone unduly.

In the early days of blogging with my school students, back in 2002/3, I'd use forward posting on the foreign trips we made because mobile access to blogging software on my Nokia was so expensive. At the time I gauged our expectations of living tomorrow high, but was young enough and foolish enough to forget that, should our coach have gone off piste 88 mums and dads, notwithstanding the rest of our families, would have been rather taken aback to see us "happily arrived in Caen", and not in the mortuary. 

Expectations are funny things. We all like to believe we have different expectations, but some of our expectations are just hardwired, like the pentatonic scale, into our beings. This year, the case was proven when I felt obliged, finally, to remove my kid from her local school and attempt to fund a better future in a local private school. The principle reason for this move, against many education bones in my body, was that state education in my neck of the woods feels like it has lost its sense of expectation for every kid. Our expectations are realistic, perhaps, and the intention of supporting all children to achieve will help the lower 20% become a much more able lower 20%. But there will always be a bottom 20%. And if our efforts are in setting expectations for the middle, all kids will  tend to aim a little below whatever we set them. In her new school, Catriona is flourishing, with expectations set at a stratospheric level and a hidden understanding that, really, the goal isn't to meet them at all. There's something else going on.

This ties into what we consider 'normal' expectations. My expectation of being alive tomorrow (today) when this is posted are high. I place trust in my pilots, my plane and my fellow passengers, not to do us any harm.

My expectations of living another day along with my students back in 2002 were equally high, but not entirely shared by nervously grinning colleagues when they knew what I had prepped for future-posted blog posts.

My expectations for my kids' own learning are stratospheric. At 4 and 7 years old, I expect them to be able to do anything that they want, as long as... and there is the tough bit. What are the conditions for expectations that mean some schools succeed in pitching them perfectly, and others, on a systemic level, fail completely?

This is not a pushy parent, or a doting dad post. This is all about helping my kids learn earlier than I did what Steve Jobs put thus:

"When you grow up you tend to get told that the world is the way that it is, and your life is just to live your life inside the world, try not to bash into the walls too much, try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money...

"That's a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact:

"Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build things that other people can use.

"Once you discover that, you'll never be the same again."

February 22, 2015

Set a clear destination, but prepare to change the route #28daysofwriting

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This morning I set off for Dubai, and on to Hong Kong and Nanjing, before returning for a couple of days in Dubai, and then home in time for tea on Friday. It's a hectic week, with a lot of time in the plane. Something I've noticed over the past year is that flights have become longer. Most of the time, this is because of war and conflict 38,000ft below.

Take the initial route to Dubai, for example. Until last summer, this trip took me routinely over Southern Turkey, Syria, Mosul and Basra in Iraq, down the Persian Gulf sea border next to (but avoiding) Iran, and into Dubai (the blue line in the graphic above. Source: Daily Mail). I used to enjoy peering out at the flames from the oil fields of Iraq and the bright beacons of Kuwait.

Now, the safest route is a good 10-30 minutes longer, over what is deemed safer - Ukraine, the annexed Crimea and Iran, coming in through the back door to Dubai.

The destination hasn't changed but, due to horrific circumstances in Syria, Iraq and Eastern Ukraine, the route has had to.

When an organisation is looking at its strategy, I often find that the route and destination are conflated, they become one and the same. If the destination is too far flung or far-fetched, then we don't leave the current status quo. If the destination is appealing but the first attempt to get there is thwarted, we tend to see strategy teams crash land, declare a failure, and walk all the way back, slowly and painfully, to the status quo of before.

The teams who reroute overnight are rare. The teams with a genuine pioneer spirit are rarer - they tend to be the ones who call up my team to help them get to some genuine BHAGs (Big Hairy Audacious Goals).

Because this is the key to rerouting. It's a multi-team multidisciplinary effort, and everyone needs to know their role. Having everyone 'collaborate' on the same stuff is just group work, and the equivalent of having the entire ground staff, airline leadership team, crew and, if there's any space left, passengers on the rerouted plane:

  • teachers and students need to really understand where the institution is with a snapshot (three-week?) immersion. They need to learn the questioning skills that will unearth the really interesting emotional, empathetic and factual stories in the institution.
  • leadership need to provide a space in which the war room of thinking can be visible (and addable to) by everyone during this tight period of immersion.
  • the same research team need to work with school leadership to synthesise the mass of data they have gathered.
  • with outside help and provocation, the design and leadership team need to have confidence in putting forward to the Board the key problems and opportunities they have found, through pitches.
  • the Board have to be pushed to think beyond the micro and 'safe', and think about the inspiring future they can envision using the data they have been shown.
  • design teams need to iterate their nascent ideas to solve the problems they identified, before the Board commits to their wording. Their prototypes and feedback will inform the process.
  • everyone, whenever and with whomever they are working, needs to be aware of their decision-making rights and role in order to really collaborate.

Having a strategy, having a destination, is not enough. You need to have a timeline that shows when each of these steps will take place, and when each prototype will become more solid, should they prove successful. These tools enable the leadership to leave the flight deck, and let teachers, students, parents and other teams get on with their jobs, confident in the turns they take.

February 21, 2015

Crazy, stupid... innovation. The imperfect perfection of Tower Bridge #28daysofwriting

I've had a lovely week on holiday down in London with the family, being proper tourists. Under the dreich weather of Monday we ventured Thames-side and towards the terrifying but fun seethrough walkways of Tower Bridge. Along the side of the walkways were photographs of some of the world's great bridges, together with some of the history about how this iconic bridge came to be.

What did we learn?

This landmark, required to cope with the overwhelming population growth on either side of the river and increased river traffic to the upper parts of the Thames, was borne out of many, mostly failed, prototypes, most in the form of sketches.

Thank goodness we didn't stop at the first prototypes submitted to the public competition. The dual lock system would hardly have helped with the drastically increasing river traffic of the industrial revolution:

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And a system of hydraulic elevators would have failed in the other sense, not really foreseeing 2015's automotive traffic needing a quick north-south crossing:

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Some designers simply did without a bridge and went for the tunnel - perfect for traffic throughput in the longer term and not disruptive at all to the river traffic. In the end, though, it was feasibility that killed these tunnel ideas off - the runways required to descend human and horse-drawn traffic into them were so long that they ate up most of the land either side of the river:

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As the final designer was chosen, even his first drafts were off the mark on the aesthetic side:

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In the end, the rules for killing ideas and honing the kernels of interesting ideas down haven't changed since the bridge's completion in 1894 and today, as I describe them in my bookdesirability (do they want or need it?), feasibility (can we do it?) and viability (should we do it?).

The result, is an imperfect perfection that we recognise in an instant:

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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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