March 21, 2014

Lessons from Disney Pixar on how creativity leads to more summative success

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Pixar, since it was purchased by Disney, gives off an air of resilient creative and commercial success, but the journey is rarely that smooth. In fact, the more creative the output, the more commercially successful it is, for Pixar at least, and the processes used by the teams is remarkably close to what we see in highly effective classrooms.

During a keynote en français in Québec, I wondered why learning today sometimes felt less personalised than 30 years ago when personal computers first hit my primary school. Inspiration came to me from my daughters, Catriona and Anna, as for the nth time they sang along to the karaoké version of Disney's Frozen title track, Let It Go:

I was fascinated by the obvious success of this film in hooking my kids, and wondered if I might be able to make some links between what we know works, from the research of Dylan Wiliam, Hattie and the like, and what we see works in the creative industries with films like this. Much of the insight comes from a new book by Pixar’s President, Ed Catmull, which is released this April: Creativity, Inc.. Excerpts from the book can be read in this month’s Fast Company.

1. We all start out ugly

“After the original leaders of animation left Disney in the 1990s, the new people running things were from production. And they brought their values, which were to keep the production people busy and productive with one movie after another. So story development was organized in the same way they organized production. As a consequence of this "feed the beast" mentality, a balance was lost at Disney.

“The cost of that becomes clear when you think of how a movie starts out. It's a baby. It's like the foetus of a movie star; we all start out ugly. Every one of Pixar's stories starts out that way. A new thing is hard to define; it's not attractive, and it requires protection. When I was a researcher at DARPA, I had protection for what was ill-defined. Every new idea in any field needs protection. Pixar is set up to protect our director's ugly baby.”

This process is markedly not just a creative one - it involves critical thinking, too. But the point at which critical analysis is introduced is, well, critical. Too early, you kill your baby before it has a chance to grow fully. We do this all the time when we survey progress too early, or don't know what the purpose of an immersion period is.


2. We’ve been through the process ourselves. We share the language and steps

“People who take on complicated creative projects become lost at some point in the process. It is the nature of things--in order to create, you must internalize and almost become the project for a while, and that near-fusing with the project is an essential part of its emergence. But it is also confusing. Where once a movie's writer/director had perspective, he or she loses it. Where once he or she could see a forest, now there are only trees.”

Key to making sure that the balance is struck, and struck at the right time, is having a process on which you can depend, and which everyone in the team can trust. Most creatives we know at NoTosh use design thinking, or some version of it. The language between each team is different, but the language within each team is shared and common.

They all recognise that in the initial period of immersion it is too early to make the call as to the worthiness of any given problem or challenge. By synthesis they know that there is an opportunity to critique, to make sure that we’re headed on the right path. By the time you enter the ideation, prototyping and feedback loop, you are constantly starting and stopping, but each idea is small enough, light enough and on strong enough foundations of the immersion, to cope with tweaks, both major and minor. New ideas can get ditched easily, with a fresh crop of better ones emerging from the dust of the feedback.


3. Decide on your rules

“Earlier, before the screening, Pete had described what they'd come up with so far. "What's inside the mind?" he asked his colleagues. "Your emotions--and we've worked really hard to make these characters look the way those emotions feel. We have our main character, an emotion called Joy, who is effervescent. She literally glows when she's excited. Then we have Fear. He thinks of himself as confident and suave, but he's a little raw nerve and tends to freak out. The other characters are Anger, Sadness--her shape is inspired by teardrops--and Disgust, who basically turns up her nose at everything. And all these guys work at what we call Headquarters."

“That got a laugh, as did many scenes in the 10-minute preview that followed. Everyone agreed that the movie had the potential to be, like Pete's previous film Up, among our most original and affecting. But there seemed to be a consensus that one key scene--an argument between two characters about why certain memories fade while others burn bright forever--was too minor to sufficiently connect audiences to the film's profound ideas.

“Midway down the table, Brad Bird shifted in his chair. Brad joined Pixar in 2000, after having written and directed The Iron Giant at Warner Bros. His first movie for us was The Incredibles, which opened in 2004. Brad is a born rebel who fights against creative conformity in any guise. So it was no surprise that he was among the first to articulate his worries. "I understand that you want to keep this simple and relatable," he told Pete, "but I think we need something that your audience can get a little more invested in."

“Andrew Stanton spoke next. Andrew is fond of saying that people need to be wrong as fast as they can. In a battle, if you're faced with two hills and you're unsure which one to attack, he says, the right course of action is to hurry up and choose. If you find out it's the wrong hill, turn around and attack the other one. Now he seemed to be suggesting that Pete and his team had stormed the wrong hill. "I think you need to spend more time settling on the rules of your imagined world," he said.

“Every Pixar movie has its own rules that viewers have to accept, understand, and enjoy understanding. The voices of the toys in the Toy Story films, for example, are never audible to humans. The rats in Ratatouille walk on four paws, like normal vermin, except for Remy, our star, whose upright posture sets him apart. In Pete's film, one of the rules--at least at this point--was that memories (depicted as glowing glass globes) were stored in the brain by traveling through a maze of chutes into a kind of archive. When retrieved or remembered, they'd roll back down another tangle of chutes, like bowling balls being returned to bowlers at the alley.

“That construct was elegant and effective, but Andrew suggested that another rule needed to be clarified: how memories and emotions change over time, as the brain gets older. This was the moment in the film, Andrew said, to establish some key themes.”

If it takes a long time for Catmull to describe the formation of rules that guide the creation of a film, it takes an equally long time to make them clear in a learning situation. Taking Dylan Wiliam’s five key areas that teachers and schools might develop, one might feel that there are ready-made rules about “the way we should teach and learn”, ready to take off the shelf:

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But schools need to have internal discussions amongst staff about how to internalise these into the story they are trying to tell, with their clientèle in their locale, work out what the rules of their game are. Then teachers have to have the same conversations with their students, taking time out to think about thinking, to learn how to think - those learnings become the rules of engagement for the class, keeping learning on the straight and narrow, even when a project is complex, even when the project team is only seeing trees and no forest.

 

4. Know how to take feedback, and find a producer to help you through it

“An important corollary to the assertion that the Braintrust must be candid is that filmmakers must be ready to hear the truth; candor is only valuable if the person on the receiving end is open to it and willing, if necessary, to let go of things that don't work. Jonas Rivera, the producer of Pete's film, tries to make that painful process easier by "headlining" the main points of a Braintrust session--distilling the many observations down to a digestible takeaway. Once this meeting wrapped up, this is what he did for Pete, ticking off the areas that seemed the most problematic, reminding him of the scenes that resonated most. "So what do we blow up?" Jonas asked. "And what do you love? Is what you loved about the film different now than it was when we started?””

Getting critiqued is never pleasant, even if you’re used to feedback and feed forward from your peers. Despite the feeling that we give good feedback to students, teachers are, in a decade of seeing their feedback on conferences, less strong at giving feedback on their own learning. It takes work, effort, energy and sometimes a little painful learning to get feedback that is, in the words of Ron Berger, Kind, Specific and Useful. In the film industry, the Producer’s job in these “brain trust” advisories is to capture that feedback, headline it and begin to make it as useful as possible for the Director, who’s just had his worked critiqued, and might feel a bunch of things, not all positive.

In a classroom setting, when we are giving and receiving feedback, who is the third person playing the role of Producer?

 

5. The Pupils' View

During my talk, I asked a group of seven students to act as my own braintrust during the talk, providing me with the actions they as students might undertake to make a vision of a more shared learning journey come true, and to highlight which elements of this (new and slightly too hot-off-the-press talk) I should emphasise in the future. Here's what Marianne, Laurie, Marie-Pier, Roxanne, Mathieu, Éloïse and Joana from l'Ecole des Sentiers put to me via Twitter, and what I read out as my conclusions for the talk:

  • As students, we must also get involved! When teachers offer ideas using technology, they are easily discouraged, but students also have their long journey to undertake, too.
  • We must show them that we are interested and we are ready to encourage. Teachers feed the enthusiasm of their students.
  • We should be encouraged to be creative, to risk failure to rise, dust ourselves down and be better next time. Do not prioritize performance above all else.
  • As students we should create a school forum where everyone would be comfortable giving their ideas and asking questions.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions and to assert your ideas, as the opinion of the students is also important. We have a head on our shoulders.
  • And sometimes we can see things from another side :)
  • Our idealistic idea: find a way to finance the purchase of tablets for each pupil. There’d be no more need for a heavy textbook, manual or notebook. And we could connect with interactive whiteboards, with communication between student and teacher encouraged. There’s also an ecological advantage.
  • Students want to be involved in the course. No more lectures. Students could also talk in front of the class, expose other ideas, what we have understood. Help us not to have to depend on teachers so much.
  • Students would be able to give their ideas, eg for course topics or written work ... All ideas are welcome.
  • Suggesting an idea is the best demonstration of intelligence.
  • Do not aim solely at the acquisition of specific skills encourage overall development.
  • We must be able to define our own rules :)

En tant qu'élèves, on doit aussi s'impliquer! Quand les enseignants proposent des idées en utilisant les technologies, ils se decouragent facilement. Donc les élèves on aussi leur bout de chemin à faire.
Il faut leur montrer qu'on est intéressé et qu'on est prêt à les encourager. Les professeurs se nourrissent de l'enthousiasme de leurs élèves
On devrait être encouragé à la créativité, le risque, à tomber pour se relever meilleur. À ne pas prioritiser les performances.
En tant qu'élèves nous devrions créer un forum école où tout le monde serait bien à l'aise de donner leurs idées et poser leurs questions
Pas avoir peur de poser des questions et de s'affirmer, car l'opinion des élèves est aussi important. On a une tête sur les épaules
Et on voit parfois les choses d'un autre côté :)
Idée idéaliste: trouver un moyen de financer l'achat de tablettes propres à chaque éleve. Plus besoin de manuels ni cahier de notes,
Et connecter avec les tableaux interactifs, la communication élève-prof est favorisée. Avantage écologique également
Les élèves veulent être impliqué dans les cours. Plus de cours magistraux, les élèves pourraient aussi parler en avant de la classe, exposer
Aux autres leurs idées, ce qu'ils comprennent. S'aider entre nous et ne pas dépendre des enseignants
Les élèves aimeraient pouvoir donner leurs idées, par exemple pour les sujets de cours ou de productions écrites… Toute les idées sont bonnes
Une idées c'est la plus belle demonstration de l'intelligence
Se developer en tant que personne a l'école. Ne pas viser l'acquisition de compétence trop spécifique et encourager le développement global.
Il faut pouvoir définir nos propres règles :)

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January 19, 2014

National competitively through learning - what would you add?

I've been invited to participate in a rather fast-paced panel on the future of education at the Global Competitiveness Forum in Riyadh, The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and would appreciate your help in sense-checking my thoughts, below.

There are two key challenges being raised in the debates at the Forum, the key global event exploring how all countries, especially those in the Middle East, might become tomorrow’s leaders in industry, education and commerce. 

Firstly, education keeps reappearing as the sparring partner of competitiveness: research shows that, not only does talent follow money, but money follows talent, meaning that education really is one of the few Government departments where money is truly invested, not spent. 

Second, the need for innovation is spurred by entrepreneurship, companies that start small, but they all need to have ambition to scale, according to Harvard’s Daniel Isenberg.

This notion of scalability, though, is one that is troublesome in education. Away from the spreadsheets and the grand strategy planning, what are the real influences on a child or young university student? Family and close friends, for sure, but school comes a joint first in most cases. What each individual school, and each individual teacher within it and the parents do, has a direct influence on the outcomes of each student. This is the most unscalable model of innovation and sustainability in quality that one could ever imagine - two parents for every child and their teachers, all needing to act in concert and help that young person learn in an effective, entrepreneurial, student-driven way. You show me the algorithmic model that permits that, without loss of signal. 

The unit of real change in a child’s life is the individual school – not the “system”. How might we design strategy that provides a solid foundation from which individual schools can grow with success in their own way, rather than policy from on high that all too often ends up straightjacketing innovation?

Second, the content of that strategy - what teachers and others need to do - needs to be based on what we know works for learning, not what we remember from when we were students at school ourselves. What Pierre Bourdieu calls the “identity” and “field” of teachers and teaching is one of our greatest challenges - people enter the profession most likely because of a vision of what teaching is like based on how they saw themselves being taught. It means that most of our young teachers can expect to start teaching with methods at least a decade out-of-date, or worse.

For example, most schools continue to value critical linear thinking and logic far higher than creative thinking and abductive reasoning.  Creative thinking needs taught, not caught, for students to flourish in a world where our greatest innovations require an equal dose of critical and creative thinking. This creative thinking, including the use of failure to improve one’s efforts, is strongly tied to the notion of assessment, and is often the reason schools and teachers argue they “don’t have time for creativity”: assessment.

One key example of Bourdieu’s blinding “identity” as a teacher in the “field” of teaching is the attitude taken by policymakers, Head Teachers, teachers, parents and the general public to the word “assessment”. The word “assessment” is consistently misunderstood by those designing them, implementing them and insisting upon them. The biggest educational business trends this coming year - in big data - are all driven on the false premise that more testing is what is required. “Formative” assessment, a very clear set of nonetheless soft thinking skills, that put assessment in the hands of students and their peers, are what we know make the big difference - not data gathering, analysis and teacher-led interventions on each and every young face in front of them.

While big business, particularly with players in North America, invests its money in summative assessment and learning-by-numbers, there is ample opportunity for States and private enterprise elsewhere in the world to invest smartly in working out how we take the skills of great teachers and make those more accessible to everyone else.

January 10, 2014

Why do Education Ministers feel the need to use History lessons as their policy vehicle?

Pyne Gove

Another week, another education minister, another lambasting of the way history is taught. This time, it's not the feckless Gove of England (top right) who's basing his entire education policy on how teachers should teach history (funnily enough, he's actually Scottish by birth, which might explain the Minister's confused understanding of British history), but instead the Australian Christopher Pyne who wants to remove "partisan bias" from the Australian curriculum, starting with the way history is taught.

A priori, there's little wrong with the notion of "celebrating Australia" in history lessons (in the same way as we celebrate Scottish history here, and English / British history south of the border). And in my gander through the Australian history curriculum there is little partisan anything. But, in an age of multicutlural, multi-faith, multi-lingual classrooms this assertive Aussie, Aussie, Aussie approach might be considered a brash act of "partisan bias" by those students sat in classrooms where, often, the majority are made up of more than whatever "being Australian", or for that matter "being Scottish" or "being British" might entail in the politicians' eyes. 

"Being Australian" or "Being British" is, today, hugely complex, and the challenge for Ministers using history as their key vehicle for reinforcing these notions is that history is filled with stories that, in 2014, might be considered partisan bias. Indeed, the way an English Education Minister understands the First World War is imbued with partisan bias that belittles the contribution by Australia's war dead. Thankfully, Pyne's advisors haven't worked that out yet.

It is only looking at the whole child, the whole curriculum, and not picking on a pet topic that feels 'safe' with its dates, "hard facts" and knowledge, that will actually help children learn what is really feels like to be a modern day Scot, Brit or Australian.

All of this seems of minor interest, really, when one considers the really concerning aspect of this Australia-English Education Minister policy, that of facial furniture. I wonder whether, in 2014, one of the "partisan baises" of being an Education Minister is that of 1970s National Health Service spectacles.

December 09, 2013

Ira Glass on Storytelling - and key creative lessons for schools

Originally posted on NoTosh's fabulous Facebook page.

Ira Glass' words on storytelling and creativity have been doing the rounds this weekend, adapted from a Current.tv documentary from a while back. The key point in this clip is incredibly close to what we bring to educators when we talk about ideation and prototyping:

You can't just do ONE or TWO drafts of thinking; you have to make it double-digit drafting, prototyping thinking, gaining feedback and doing better next time.

What Ira Glass touches on is how, no matter how hard we try, we are never happy with our earlier pieces of work. As a result, there is only one tactic we can employ to guarantee that we get better: produce a LOT of work. The more we practice our craft, the better we get. 

Simple powerful advice with which no-one in their right mind would disagree, and many who create for a living recognise, but one piece schools are quick to forget under the pressures of time, "the test" and any other number of excuses not to give young people the chance to prototype thinking many, many times:

"Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through." —Ira Glass

Other lessons in the documentary are also compelling, and tie in beautifully to NoTosh's Design Thinking School work. He stresses the importance of having a process through which to work, the building blocks of one's trade. This equates to the thinking skills and knowing when to use which ones where in the process within a school environment.

In a second clip, Glass points to the longer-than-you-ever-think-it-will-be period of immersion as you seek out the problem to solve, or story to tell, and the wonderfully releasing moment of synthesis as you "kill" the stories not worth telling:


In a final clip, he concludes with the challenge facing all young people, too: how do you create something within a medium, without just copying what you've heard before? The answer: be yourself, talk like you, write and speak about what you know best. The more you are yourself, the better off you are. But how many kids are trying to be someone else, or play someone else's game at school, instead of finding their own way forward?

Challenging stuff.

November 29, 2013

There's no such thing as The Strategy. Only strategies, plural, for people

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Originally posted on the wonderful NoTosh Facebook page.

During my tour of Sweden, I worked with groups of senior education leaders - district directors, politicians, parent and union reps, principals - and sometimes it might even have been the first time that these distinct groups of leaders had sat together in the same room to talk about how their strategies for better learning might actually be put into place.

All the discussions and processes we used unearthed fascinating insights, interesting as much as anything for the potential that, until now, had been locked up in their different perspectives of what great learning actually entailed. One such fascinating discussion was with a wide range of education leaders at a 90 minute workshop in Tidaholm, a beautiful city a couple of hours out of Gothenburg.

We undertook an exercise that is quick to explain, and leaves ample time for people to share the hopes, fears and expectations of the future, in a structured way that leaves no innovative stone unturned.

Part of the process, nicknamed the Dilemma Dance, involves each mixed team (principal, district person, teacher) coming up with what they believe to be the core strategy to follow, the key problem to resolve or opportunity to be harnessed. Take a look at how diverse one group's understanding of a "common strategy" is:

// How might we help each student arrive at his or her maximum capacity from the gifts that (s)he has?

// There is always a way for everyone to learn; how might we find that way?

// How might we bring the world into the classroom in order to get every student included in their world?

// How might we give students the chance to participate in their learning through reflection?

// How might we create the kind of environment where joyful learning through participation, creativity and sharing is the norm?

Some are focussed on students' progress, others on equality, others on better formative assessment strategies, others still on a culture of curiosity and creativity. These fives groups came up with five different levels of focus for a "common strategy". And they're not alone - every group I've ever worked with comes up with something similar.

What does it reveal? It shows that there is no such thing as a common strategy. As soon as people are introduced to strategy - something that normally happens AFTER it has been written, incidentally - we suddenly realise that there are STRATEGIES, one for each type of person involved, each strategy giving that group of people a responsibility in delivering their part of the strategy bargain.

If more policy-makers and school leaders started with people at the core of their strategy/-ies, then maybe would see more a-ha! moments of this variety, earlier on in the process. Maybe we could begin to see the emergence of "pod-like" delegated leadership in schools, with people-centred strategy groups looking after every part of the school's community. Surely this is more feasible than one strategy pretending it could ever cater to everyone's needs?

Originally posted on the wonderful NoTosh Facebook page.

Pic of Tidaholm by Pete Hunt (CC)

November 19, 2013

It's in if... Strategies for focus

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Originally posted on NoTosh's fabby Facebook page
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When you're writing a strategy for education, it's vital to delimit what *really* matters, and there's a simple project management tool that can help.

Jamie Arnold is the most rigourous project manager I've ever had the pleasure to work with, during my time at Channel 4. He's the PM on the award-winning new gov.uk website of the Westminster Government in London, and over the months of development has shared much of the agile management setup he and others have been managing, in order to get the site up and out on time, and to budget.

One of my favourite takeaways is the "It's In If..." list for the project, pictured, which sums up in a few pithy phrases what the core activity of his organisation is. It helps when team members are faced with a personal challenge of whether or not to do something, or include a factor in a build. If it's not in, then it's not to be done. If it's not a core value that *only* your group, team or school can offer, leave it out or point people in the right direction, where that offering is better.

Schools and school districts could do with their own "It's in if..." lists to help focus the innovation of everyone in the school community. But if you were a teacher, writing your own "It's in if..." list for, say, resources used in a unit or making a decision to have a teacher-led section of a lesson or not, what would you put?

 

September 16, 2013

What if the world had a #TeachMeet on the same day?

First ever TeachMeet
In conversations with several TeachMeet organisers over the past two years, one thing is perceived as a wasted opportunity in the way the unconference operates: it's hard to be aware of what's going on in learning through TeachMeets in other countries. In many places, TeachMeet is considered "their thing", that is, TeachMeet is an Australian, American, Scottish, Danish, Dutch, Irish, Spanish thing. 

So that is why we started to ask: "What could happen in terms of heightening awareness globally if we found a date when everyone could coordinate their TeachMeets to happen over the same 24 hours, or the same week?"

To that end, using the hashtag #teachmeet, we're trying to find out that precious date when the worlds schools are not on holiday. When we find it, we'll invite everyone to set up their own event in concert, to share locally and think globally.

From my own perspective, it's a great mechanism, too, to remind people the values of TeachMeet: it's free, non-commercial, no PowerPoint and ideally in a small, non-edu-feeling venue. The first one, pictured, where we welcomed one Will Richardson to sit in with some lively Scottish educators, was held in the Jolly Judge Pub in Edinburgh. For me, it still stands as one of the best I've ever attended. I want more people to realise that they can bring teacher learning to their own community, without the need for projectors, sound systems, money and keynoters.

See Matt Esterman's (Australia) post about getting more first-timers organising their own TeachMeets as part of something global.

August 29, 2013

Creativity Rules from Master Builder, Master Designer Thomas Heatherwick

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In this month's Wired UK print magazine a superb insight into the working and creativity habits of London bus and Olympic flame designer, Thomas Heatherwick. In it, Wired's editors pull out his 'rules' for designing and making. They are a real validation of what Team NoTosh have been pulling out from our creative work and parsing through educational research, stimulating some ingenius practices in the schools with whom we work:

  1. QUESTION: "We have found that we tend to guide ourselves towards ideas by finding a few key questions to ask ourselves." (Tom Barrett's début book, Can Computers Keep Secrets, is all about this curiosity-mongering, and how parents and teachers can protect that curiosity for life. With schools, we want to help students ask higher order questions, and we do this through the creation of provocative generative statements).
  2. ZOOM IN, ZOOM OUT: "Our role is to pull right back and see something in its biggest context, but then zoom in until you're analysing the close detail, then pull back again. To never let one thing get disconnected from context and meaning." (This zoom in-out process is the purpose of a teacher-curated, student-led research or immersion phase, where it's not the pace of the class or teacher that determines what you look at next, but your interest, where it's been piqued. To pique that interest, teachers need to get savvy about planning rich immersions on the back of their provocative generative statement.)
  3. ELIMINATE: "You don't know what the outcome will be, but it feels like we're trying to solve a crime. You're eliminating options from your enquiries. Then you're left with something, and it's probably not what you expected." (In synthesis, using thinking tools and curative technologies such as Evernote or social bookmarking, young people can eliminate obvious solutions to problems, to see if there's an ingenious way to explore, explain or solve something.)
  4. MAKE: "Making is a way to do practical analysis. Anyone can relate to models. But it's not a tool for others, it's to show yourself, to make sure you're not fooling yourself." (Kids who 'prototype' one or two versions of their work aren't prototyping at all. Kids whose early prototypes are graded, assessed too early by their peers or teachers, don't have a chance to show themselves whether their ideas stand up. They need more than a few goes at getting things right, and several of those attempts have to be made for the purposes of self-assessment above all.)

If you want to learn more about how my team and I are putting design thinking into action in schools (beyond the shop class and post-it note facile stuff that you find on your average "design thinking education" Google search), then check out our NoTosh Lab, or 'Like' our Facebook page to get some regular updates from the schools, creative cos, hospitals, Governments and agencies with whom we're working around the world.

August 26, 2013

20% Time and Schools: not the best of bedfellows

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With the start of term in the Northern hemisphere, several of the schools we're working with have brought up the notion of offering their students "20% time", a version of what Google famously offer their employees to undertake their own, personal projects. But in schools, it often seems to fall short of our expectations of creative genius.

Post-it manufacturer 3M pre-date Google and a multitude of others in applying 20%/10%/5% time, the idea being that moments of genius, in personal creative time allotted to the workforce, can become the company's next core product. In school, it's often seen as a highly manageable way of introducing student choice and student-led learning in the classroom, sometimes without having to worry too much about the remaining 80%. It's a first step, a way to immediately programme in 'student-led' without having to take on the whole game of one's semester or school year.

The problem is, that students given this open stretch of time often don't know what to do, or beyond their initial couple of passions they run out of steam. Their end-products are largely under par of their capacity. Sure, there are moments of genius, just as in Google, 3M or any other corporation that introduces 20% time. But, just like them, they are by a small proportion of students, with the vast majority of ideas failing to hit the mark.

Is this use of time - and so much of it - worth trying in school? I don't think so.

It's interesting to note that even in cash-rich Google, the inefficiencies of offering so much undirected time to employees are now being curbed. Key to this is not killing off individual creativity - far from it. In corporate speak business leaders talk about aligning 20% time to the vision of the company, making sure it has something to do with the core business.

In schooling, this is equivalent to making sure that student-directed time is nonetheless tied to the vision of the project in hand, the core business of the class in that semester or term. Freewheeling results in what I saw as an investor in tech and media products: 1% success rates. The rest is chaff, mediocrity, not because the people behind those developments are fatally flawed, but because the process is: you can't expect 100% of creatives to be 100% creative all the time when there is no common vision. You up the stakes when you're vision is clear, something that never was, frankly, in my investment unit five years ago.

So 20% time and its variants are indeed a great way to introduce a manageable, constrained version of student-led learning, without having to change all your practice at once. But treat it with caution. The same principles of clear, shared objectives stand to make the most of it. Any piece of creative genius generally stems from some healthy design constraints set out at the start.

If it were me, I might start with this for a term, but I'd be concentrating on the next semester, and seeing how, using robust self- and peer-assessment techniques I can introduce more student autonomy throughout everything I do.

Photo: George Armstrong

July 03, 2013

What technology would you kill in schools?

Ewan McIntosh interviewed for RSA
What is the one technology I would kill off in schools, and which one would I replace it with? Are screens responsible for kids being more demanding and should adults be telling kids how to achieve balance in their lives between tech and the rest?

Yesterday I was interviewed via Skype from the offices of Camilla Batmanghelidjh's kids company, by students from five RSA Academy Schools (the same RSA behind the RSA Animates and our WatchDrawThink campaign around those Animates).

The students have been creating audio podcasts on the topic 'What About Tomorrow?' - teenagers growing up in uncertain times, and interviewed Sir Ken Robinson at The RSA in London this week, and me in Edinburgh, over Skype, on the topic. They'll agreed to let me publish the full interview with me here and now, excerpts of which will appear alongside Sir Ken's and Camilla's take later in the year.

Ewan McIntosh Interview RSA



About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is a teacher, speaker and investor, regarded as one of Europe’s foremost experts in digital media for public services.

His company, NoTosh Limited, invests in tech startups and film on behalf of public and private investors, works with those companies to build their creative businesses, and takes the lessons learnt from the way these people work back into schools and universities across the world.

Ewan’s education keynotes & MasterClasses

Module Masterclass

Do you worry that your school or district could better harness its people, digital technology or physical space? Do you want some actionable inspiration, a mentor for a learning journey with your staff?

In a keynote or masterclass we can give them concrete ideas based on experience, enthusiasm fired by a vision of what can be, and backup before and after to make it happen for them.

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