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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February 20, 2015

Learning about the unknown unknowns #28daysofwriting

Designing the unknown | Long Version (25min) from CGS Mines ParisTech on Vimeo.

Sometimes the 28 days of writing is really the 25 minutes of watching.

My question: when a teacher uses Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe's backwards design or understanding by design type methodology for learning, and nothing else, will your students ever experience the more real-world feeling of trying to fathom the fuzzy, ambiguous unknowns that lie ahead?

February 18, 2015

From UPS to Us: learning analytics thay could make a class smarter together #28daysofwriting

Algorithms help us turn complex stories into dara that can drive a decision. Nearly every grading system and student performance tracker education has is based on algorithms, which is why, perhaps, they feel so useless to learners and teachers when, in some places, that is all they are supposed to care about.

This Wired article (http://www.wired.com/2013/06/ups-astronomical-math) talks about delivery firm UPS and its new software for answering "the traveling salesman's problem", namely: how to get from A-Z via all the required points in the middle most efficiently. The software is not algorithmic, that is, it's not written in a lab, shipped and then "done to" the driver. Instead, the driver can use his or her often superior knowledge of local quirks in traffic at certain times of day, those lanes and side streets that shave minutes of a journey, even if it is not as a crow would fly. The software then learns from this deviation and helps all UPS drivers do better next time.

It is heuristic, not algorithmic, and this is interesting for tracking software of any kind because heuristics, while always possible in maths and programming, was hard to do better than a human until relatively recently.

What would this mean for learning analytics, a host of services and products more often arousing ideas of big money than big student progress? It means that the decisions of the most successful students could land data that helps weaker students perform better. It means that the subtle pedagogies of self-reported grading and quality feedback might begin to have a hope of being undertaken, and undertaken WELL, by software.

That would be the kind of learning analytics I might start to get excited by.

February 17, 2015

Cliffhanger learning #28daysofwriting

Television drama's whole point is to bring you through an often slow start, followed by a complex development to a point where there are two or three potential dénouements before, "Cut!", it is the end of the episode and you will have to await the "right answer" in the following week's show.

This post came to me at 10pm last night, on Day 16 of this challenge, after a day of holidaying in London and with my head (and feet) too weary to put finger to touchscreen.

Mrs Mc and I had just watched another live instalment of Broadchurch, murder mystery extraordinaire, particularly since in the second series there is no actual fresh murder to investigate. The verdict is about to be given on the accused killer from Series 1 when the inevitable happens... Cue title music.

This moment has even gained a moniker in British homes, based on the theme tune to the real masters of the four-times-a-week cliffhanger, London-based soap opera Eastenders. It's call a "ba...ba...ba...ba, ba, ba-ba-ba-ba" (YouTube will provide overseas readers with auditory explanation).

Eastenders is such a master of writing in the perfect pace that every 28 minute episode ends with a tantalising screen freeze on the latest shocked face / smirking baddy / confused victim. For really big stories the cliffhanger can last significantly longer. This week, to celebrate the show's 30 year birthday, we will finally find out the answer to a question unanswered for the past 14 months: "Who killed Lucy Beale?"

Now, most classrooms do not involve murder, incest, dodgy deals and danger, but "good teaching" encourages a type of pacing that totally ignores the ingredients that have millions in the edges of their seats every day: the good old cliffhanger. In fact, we see teachers giving away the punchline at the beginning: "Today we are learning this:..."

Just because we tell kids "we are learning" does not mean they will learn it. But the ingredients of good drama can also be found research on what makes good learning:

1. Provocation
Edward de Bono's work takes precisely five pages to talk about the importance of provocation to help the learner learn deeply about an issue or concept and the related tangents ("Lateral Thinking"; "Mechanism of the Mind"). In my team's experience, the intrigue provides enough of an "after-burner" of interest to push the learner deep enough into learning new concepts and ideas that the inherent interest in the content can be discovered.

2. Not planning "a lesson"
In most classrooms, still, we see teachers planning the days before for one lesson at a time, and it is no wonder that learning feels chunked up to the point it is no longer recognisable in its original form. This runs against what David Perkins calls "Making Learning Whole". Making learning whole means that we think of learning like a long, 12 or 16 part drama, and build our story on that long line rather than the minutiae of each lesson. Then, in terms of the detail, we write in the 2 minute catchups from the last episode, the beginnings and, crucially, the structured cliffhangers to retain interest until the next lesson / episode. If you're planning one lesson at a time instead of thinking about the long line of learning this is impossible to achieve.

There you go. 28 minutes is up and a small provocation, I hope, to inspire some different types of planning. Get some more ideas on how to plan that stuff on the NoTosh Lab: http://www.notosh.com/lab

February 15, 2015

#28daysofwriting... on a phone

These stressful moments happen to all fathers: my Mac had to head into the Mac Doctor aka Genius Bar for some replacement organs.

So, I am now properly digital native, frantically writing this with thumbs on an iPhone in the stressful 28 minutes prior to shoving two children out of the door, fed, watered, washed and clothed (OK, the last bit isn't that teenaged a behaviour, but you get the picture).

What I am wondering is whether four days of enforced thumb-blogging is going to affect my writing style, turning thoughtful prose, composed at the larger sensible and serious MacBook Pro, into Facebookish tweet-happy nonsense that no-one except me will care about. That said, given the number of comments left on the first 14 days of this 2015 writing adventure compared to the flowing discussions oneight have seen 10 years ago, I'm not sure anyone cares about many blog posts any more.

February 14, 2015

The school design process is broken. Isn't it? #28daysoflearning

Flexible Furniture - really?

I've been shown hundreds of 'flexible learning spaces' over the years, and none of them are any more flexible than the addition of a wheel here and there might allow. In fact, if you look on Google for 'flexible learning spaces', the above panoply of wheel-laden MDF and plastic is what you discover. Now, I'm all for the wheel - a marvellous invention for which we still find a great use.

However, the humble wheel is not the basis of flexible learning.

We need to stop spending billions on school spaces, technological and physical, that respond to a brief about learning that reinforces the (mistaken) understandings about what makes great learning experiences still held by many architects and the commissioners of new learning spaces.

I'm preparing a new talk on designing spaces for learning, based on NoTosh's work in helping school innovators, leaders and architects to move beyond the current clichés of "flexible learning":

Learning space design and construction has never been a more pressing issue for schools in both state and independent/private sectors. Even those with small or no budgets are seeking to renovate and constantly improve the learning environment to better harness our growing understanding of what makes for strong learning, and the ever-changing technology options that we face.

And yet, most of our multi-million dollar decisions are based on anecdote and seeking to emulate or synthesise what others have done, with little research or questioning “why” before the budget is allocated, the masterplan produced, and the work on design begins.

In this keynote, Ewan McIntosh, founder of global creative and learning consultancy NoTosh, and Subject Coordinator at Charles Sturt University’s Designing Spaces for Learning Masters, sets the scene for what’s working, what’s not, and where the most innovative learning space design might want to head. Above all, how can our learning space help us to raise attainment and better engage learners in a more current, engaging form of learning?

The traditional process of deciding a new space is required, writing a brief, commissioning an architect to create a masterplan, involving the community in the masterplan creation and the subsequent phases of build is, frankly, the wrong one. It cannot, by definition, be user-centred. The users are involved far too late in the day. The architect needs to know the bid is worthwhile going in for. The commissioner needs to know the budget in order to write a brief which, by default, adds a constraint that, for most architects' masterplans, leads to a different set of pastel shades with which to paint the now de facto glass, steel, atrium and, yes, 'flexible' spaces for all that wheel-endowed furniture.

This fault-line strikes most design - the designer is nearly always at the centre of the process, rarely the people who will use the design. Even in so-called 'human-centred design' practice, you'll find it's the designers, not the users, who end up doing the synthesis, coming up with the ingenious ideas to 'solve their problems'. I'm a firm believer in bringing users into the design process. I don't think designerly skills are that specialist that they cannot be taught, in time, to better prepare the ground for a design.

And when you're going to spend $40-80m on a new build, that investment of time and effort is worth it, to get it right for the users' needs.

There are some examples of people getting it right, or at least righter. Dear Architect is a joyous document, written and designed by the students of one generation to build a space for the next group to come up to Walker's "The Works". By designing the brief, by doing the lion's share of the design before the architects even get sight of it, these students and teachers have gone a long way to changing their existing practice, too. Just by envisioning where they'd like to be, helps shape a move from the status quo to something new in the teaching and learning, new building or not.

The talk has a way to go to move beyond rant (like this) and into the research that I uncovered in writing the Masters course. And it has even further to go before a 16 week course can become a 20 minute punchy, inspiring talk. But the basic premise is one I'd like to bounce around with educators - is this a process, behaviour and frustration you recognise?

February 13, 2015

Would you rather look smart or be smart? #28daysofwriting

 

Reggie Watts breaks me up every time I hear the beginning of this TED Talk. It's funny because, so many times before, I've heard this kind of faux-erudite nonsense from self-proclaimed intelligentsia, in an unfunny context. It comes from people who want to look smart, instead of just being smart. Click play and read along...:

"... and that's one of the things that I enjoy most about this convention. It's not so much, as so little as to do with what everything is. (Laughter) But it is within our self-interest to understand the topography of our lives unto ourselves. (Laughter) The future states that there is no time other than the collapsation of that sensation of the mirror of the memories in which we are living. (Laughter) Common knowledge, but important nonetheless. (Laughter) As we face fear in these times, and fear is all around us, we also have anti-fear. It's hard to imagine or measure. The background radiation is simply too static to be able to be seen under the normal spectral analysis. But we feel as though there are times when a lot of us -- you know what I'm say'n? But -- you know what I'm say'n? Cuz, like, as a hip hop thing, you know what I'm say'n, TED be rock'n -- you know what I'm say'n. Like so I wrote a song, and I hope you guys dig it. It's a song about people and sasquatches -- (Laughter) -- and other French science stuff. That's French science. Okay, here we go. ♫

Watts is then just smart.

Would you rather look smart or be smart? For the past decade I've been a fiendish reader of all things simplicity, especially the art of making complex ideas simple. I've often been off the mark on that one, but not for wont of trying. I take solace from the fact that most policy on education, most curricula, most education research is written in such a way as to render its content useless for the people who need to understand it most.

One way writers aim for simplicity is to pace themselves against readability scores. Andy Maslen, copywriter genius featured in yesterday's post, has just fist-bumped himself with a lifetime best score of 98.2 for readability of some copy he wrote. The other end of the spectrum is just as amusing. Marcel Proust's Swann Way has one sentence whose score is -515.1: 

"But I had seen first one and then another of the rooms in which I had slept during my life, and in the end I would revisit them all in the long course of my waking dream: rooms in winter, where on going to bed I would at once bury my head in a nest, built up out of the most diverse materials, the corner of my pillow, the top of my blankets, a piece of a shawl, the edge of my bed, and a copy of an evening paper, all of which things I would contrive, with the infinite patience of birds building their nests, to cement into one whole; rooms where, in a keen frost, I would feel the satisfaction of being shut in from the outer world (like the sea-swallow which builds at the end of a dark tunnel and is kept warm by the surrounding earth), and where, the fire keeping in all night, I would sleep wrapped up, as it were, in a great cloak of snug and savoury air, shot with the glow of the logs which would break out again in flame: in a sort of alcove without walls, a cave of warmth dug out of the heart of the room itself, a zone of heat whose boundaries were constantly shifting and altering in temperature as gusts of air ran across them to strike freshly upon my face, from the corners of the room, or from parts near the window or far from the fireplace which had therefore remained cold—or rooms in summer, where I would delight to feel myself a part of the warm evening, where the moonlight striking upon the half-opened shutters would throw down to the foot of my bed its enchanted ladder; where I would fall asleep, as it might be in the open air, like a titmouse which the breeze keeps poised in the focus of a sunbeam—or sometimes the Louis XVI room, so cheerful that I could never feel really unhappy, even on my first night in it: that room where the slender columns which lightly supported its ceiling would part, ever so gracefully, to indicate where the bed was and to keep it separate; sometimes again that little room with the high ceiling, hollowed in the form of a pyramid out of two separate storeys, and partly walled with mahogany, in which from the first moment my mind was drugged by the unfamiliar scent of flowering grasses, convinced of the hostility of the violet curtains and of the insolent indifference of a clock that chattered on at the top of its voice as though I were not there; while a strange and pitiless mirror with square feet, which stood across one corner of the room, cleared for itself a site I had not looked to find tenanted in the quiet surroundings of my normal field of vision: that room in which my mind, forcing itself for hours on end to leave its moorings, to elongate itself upwards so as to take on the exact shape of the room, and to reach to the summit of that monstrous funnel, had passed so many anxious nights while my body lay stretched out in bed, my eyes staring upwards, my ears straining, my nostrils sniffing uneasily, and my heart beating; until custom had changed the colour of the curtains, made the clock keep quiet, brought an expression of pity to the cruel, slanting face of the glass, disguised or even completely dispelled the scent of flowering grasses, and distinctly reduced the apparent loftiness of the ceiling."

I'll admit this now. I've not read the book. Nor have I actually read the sentence that I just copied and pasted here. Why? Because it's not really the point of this post.

The point of this post is to place an intellectual earworm in your mind, ready for Monday morning, or the next time you turn finger to keyboard, pen to paper, to convince anyone to do anything. No-one cares how smart you try to show yourself to be,  how smart your strategy might look, how smart your tech programme appears to be. They care how smart all of it really is, meaning your job is to share it in as simple a way as possible.

(The readability score of this blog post, without Proust, is 80. #fistbump)

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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