"Put a wheel on it!" This is the phrase that has my eyes rolling back several times over when people think they are creating a 'flexible' learning or working space. Flexibility requires flexibility of thought as much as furniture, and the one piece of furniture that says "you only have one thing to do" is the hallowed desk. Offices organise hierarchies with them; schools get locked into 19th century style timetables with them. If only you could get rid of the desks at the touch of a switch....
During the day, this Amsterdam design studio looks like a typical workspace. But at 6 p.m., someone turns a key, and all of the desks suddenly lift up into the air, with computers and paperwork attached. The floor clears, and the space turns into something new.
The large shared desks are attached to the ceiling with steel cables, and use a mechanism from large theatre productions to lift everything up and down. During work hours, the desks balance on rolling cabinets to keep them at the correct height and steady. When the work day is over, the whole room can be cleared in a couple of minutes.
Learning in school is one thing. Heading to university another. Rarely does either truly reflect the incredible pace of change in the world beyond those thirteen years of formal education, where the demands for more complex collaboration and ingenuity test even the best education systems' agility to the limit.
Take the world of fashion, for example. One of our clients, a luxury fashion brand for whom we develop and deliver education programmes in the communities in which it operates, has grown nearly ten times in as many years. Digital teams now operate on a par with merchandising and finance, and clothing designers themselves are acutely aware from their very first sketch how their product will look in a digital store as much as on the runway.
The people in these teams would be unlikely to have ever met had they attended the same school. Slightly geeky computer programmers would hardly be seen creating amazing projects with the fashionistas, the mathematics and science majors wouldn't be seen spending time in home economics thinking about how they could imbue cloth with data-processing technology that will heat the fabric when it's cold outside, and cool it down when summer arrives.
And in university, these serendipitous, tangential collaborations are made even more unlikely to succeed in anywhere other than extracurricular clubs, as students specialise ever deeper, narrower.
Yet, in the world outside formal education, serendipity is increasingly what makes the creative, financial, scientific and engineering worlds go around. Tangents, not five year plans, are where the biggest discoveries and creations of the past decade have come from, whether it's developing social networks with billions of users, finding preventative medicine in foods that can help more of us avoid cancer by eating certain foods regularly and cooking them correctly, or developing construction technologies that enable apartment blocks 17 stories high to be constructed in one week in China's expansive metropolises.
Chefs work with PhDs, construction trades work in ways that run against what their forefathers would have said was "right", and individuals in dorms can reach out and find the right team to get the rest done just as well.
Schools have an opportunity to prepare their young people with the robustness and acuity that is required to survive and thrive in this fast-paced, anything-is-possible world. It involves schools spending time like they've never spent it before understanding what constitutes collaboration, real collaboration and not just 'group work'.
It means the construction of new spaces, and the overhauling of existing ones. Rows of chairs and the same group of students sitting with each other all year long is not preparation for collaboration 'out there'. Students of the same ability working with each other doesn't chime with the notion that, in true collaboration, you reach out to those smarter than you to fill your gaps in understanding - we need more cross-age coaching, joint projects, younger students bringing their different perspective on the world to older students who might have lost it on the way.
And these aren't just great for collaboration. Education research is mounting that it is the skill set for collaboration in the real world that also brings the most to learners' progress in school.
Now, go and discuss this. In a team. Collaborate on something to rock the status quo of group work and encourage young people to truly collaborate.
I've spent the week back at Building Learning Communities in Boston, working alongside my colleague Tom Barrett and hanging out with great friends old and new. AlasMedia, my LA pals with whom I spend far too much time into the wee small hours talking about film, education, music and life, produced this clip to sum up the urgency with which we need to take what we learn from intensive weeks like this and put it into action in our classrooms.
What are you going to do on the First Five Days of school to make that dent in the status quo? Tell us using the Twitter hashtag #1st5days
One of our proudest long-term Design Thinking School programmes is taking place in Sydney, Australia, with MLC School. Back in November we kicked off a programme of pedagogical change, to inform a new school bulding, with an intensive design thinking workshop. More on that soon over on the NoTosh site.
It has already led to a different type of language being used in the school: refreshingly, instead of "yes, but", we are now hearing "what if..." and "so what, who cares..." as the key questions asked around policy ideas and pedagogy.
But the biggest challenge that came through our Building Blocks challenge, sourcing the main blocks to change, was Time (or the lack of it). You can see time forming as the key concern in the middle of this timelapse of the process:
Tom and I traded a few ideas based on the way we work, harnessing GTD, the Done Wall and a vision founded on fuzzy goals that allows us to achieve a lot without getting bogged down too much in adminstering that creativity.
A throwaway phrase in one exercise, though, was the notion that, at the end of the day, we have to invest time to make time. James, one of our star music teachers, explains on his blog:
"INVEST TIME TO MAKE TIME". This motto, which I have since repeated to myself daily, has been my ticket to FREEDOM. It has given me the courage to change the way I do things as it has taken the guilt and anxiety away from "wasting" time in class (and on my own at my desk) to plan topics and projects WITH my students.
Yes, I may spend two entire lessons with my students planning a learning project, but the earnings on this relatively small investment are so high (and not only time wise). I get through more topics in a shorter amount of time (tick, tick, tick goes my virtual pen on my syllabus document), the students are more engaged and consequently put MORE time and effort themselves into the project.
From the workshop I have also held quite tightly onto... [the] image of the curriculum being like a 3D matrix...: instead of working through our syllabus in a linear manner, we could visualise all the student outcomes in a three-dimensional matrix and tick them off at different points in time as the students meet them through their various projects. This is also a great way to help us see that interdisciplinary teaching through project based learning is DOABLE.
So, INVEST TIME TO MAKE TIME... in any area of your life, really.
One of the schools we're working with has just redesigned its timetables from scratch, based on the energy of the students, and negotiates most of each day with every student at the beginning and middle of the day.
When we're working with our Design Thinking Schools there is one challenge that is guaranteed to come up through the initial empathy and observation phase. It's symptoms are often first cited in great numbers: time, energy, curriculum coverage. We use a period of structured observation of every aspect of the school and a building blocks exercise to discover these issues, to get observations, not just opinions or perceptions:
The problem itself is actually far simpler: the constraint of the timetable.
So, whether it's an independent girls school in Sydney or a family of primary schools in South London, we get them to reimagine what the timetable could look like, based on how energetic and "up for" learning children (and their teachers) are, and on how much time is required to make the most of certain activities.
We discover different surprises in every school. At MLC School, through a colour-coding exercise on everyone's timetables we discovered that both teachers and students were low in energy and thinking capacity for the first couple of hours on a Monday morning, with other low energy levels at the close of the day (and little humour for learning that was foisted upon them, as opposed to learning of which they were in control). No surprise there, really, except the timetable tips an unfair disadvantage on students that have mathematics then, rather than a session of phyiscal education or another practical subject with some movement. Students learn that projects need long tracts of uninterrupted time, but maths needs short, sharp, high energy time to keep concentration levels up. Or, when studying maths at a higher level, students yearn longer sessions on maths to get deep into new concepts, try them out and create something from them that contributes to another project.
At Rosendale School, South London, the teachers there have got around to publishing their two class timetables, clearly showing in light blue the 70% or so of the timetable that is up for negotiation, up for problem-finding and -solving.
This framework was designed with students, in much the same way as we did with high school students at MLC School in Sydney, to spot which parts of the day would lend themselves best to which kind of activity, and which activities were unmoveable, mostly down to visiting specialists needing these times, in the short-term at least.
We're working on rebuilding MLC School in Sydney, Australia, with project partner architects BVN Architecture. Part of our exploration has looked at the role of the Seven Spaces in rethinking the learning that might take place, and what effect that will have on the space.
Here's a fun example of simple 'secret' space that I'd love to see more of in school. Wouldn't it be great if the physical space of learning remained one where there were always surprises, beyond the first week of entry to the institution, surprises that might take students several years to discover, which they would want to keep secret for future generations to also have fun with?
We often talk about building in more curiosity to the learning of our young people. Their building is a great place to start that:
Secret Passageway Switch Use to activate a secret passageway (or turn on a lamp). When placed in a bookshelf, this electrical switch uses your favorite hard-bound book, without damaging it, to conceal its true function.
For the past year I've been pushing educators we've been working with on The Design Thinking School to get a copy of Prof Guy Claxton's book, What's The Point of School. If ever you've wondered what about the rationale behind the way we currently do things, and what might be a suitable response to the objections of what's being proposed by people like us, then this is a good place to start.
I've summed up the key points for me, along with some of my own commentary, in this post.
In the book, he summarises a literature review that looked at, what he terms, The magnificent eight qualities of powerful learners:
Powerful learners are curious
Confident learners have courage
Powerful learners are good at exploration and investigation
Powerful learning requires experimentation
Powerful learners have imagination
The creativity of imagination needs to be yoked to reason and discipline, the ability to think carefully, rigourously, and methodically. to analyse and evaluate as well as take the creative leap.
Powerful learners have the virtue of sociability and sharing.
Powerful learners are reflective: what assumptions have we made? how are we going about this? They don't consider themselves with a fixed mindset, as 'good' or 'average'.
From this, he has also summed up what the research tells us about the reasons we want to learn:
Responsibility for learning
Respect for their views on their education, being taken seriously
Real things to explore, not pseudo contexts
Choice in what, when, where and how they are learning
Challenge of getting their teeth into something difficult, but not demoralising, and experience the satisfaction of making genuine progress.
Collaboration so that thinking and struggling happens with others in the same boat.
If the only thing we asked teachers to do was to balance their planning, teaching and student learning success against these "three Rs and three Cs", then we'd be doing well each and every day, no questions asked.
Of course, there are always detractors of anything that challenges the status quo of "the curriculum says this", "the exams require that". To this, Claxton retorts: how many of the status quo assumptions have actually been tested against research, and how many of the detractors have themselves read the research if it even exists?
To this point: Research shows that old-fashioned teaching of grammar has been ineffective even in terms of developing pupils' practice literacy. A large-scale review from the University of York in 2005 found no evidence that teaching the parts of speech, noun phrases, relative clauses and so on helped 5-16 year olds improve the quality of their writing:
"Predictably, the traditionalists retaliated to this attack on one of their most cherished beliefs by ignoring research and reiterating their articles of faith.
'Children have to learn the basics and grammar and syntax before the can develop their writing', thundered Nick Seaton, chairman of the campaign for Real Education'. 'A knowledge of grammar must always come before creativity."
And blind faith and bombast must always come before a weighing of the evidence, apparently."
(cf Richard Andrwe, Carole Torgerson, Sue Beverton, Allison Freeman, Terry Locke, Graham Low, Alison Robinson and Die Zhu, 'The effect of grammar teaching on writing development', British Educationa; Research Journal, 2006, 32 (1), pp.39-55)
Good results versus engagement
The research shows that the former is surpassed by the latter. Schools should always be about engagement first and foremost. (Chris Watkins, International School Improvement Network, 2001: learning about learning enhances performance.)
Students need to be encouraged to get into the habit of questioning those founts of "correct" knowledge: textbooks' purpose is to be used as the subject of the following questions:
How do we know this is true?
Whose claim is it?
For what purpose was this knowledge generated?
What is the unacknowledged vantage point of the textbook authors?
Why are they keeping themselves so well hidden?
What do you do to show you're learning?
For 10 years I've been encouraging teachers to keep a learning log, online preferably to share their practice. It's often met with complaints of time to do this, or "who wuld be interested", but for me sharing one's learning is amongst the most important work of the teacher.
Peter Mountstephen in Bath, plays a new musical instrument - badly - at the beginning of every school year and then learns how to play it better throughout the year. Students don't just see him learn - they hear him, warts and all. Who's modelling learning about learning to our children? And what's the effect on learning when adults do, publicly, show their learning?
Public learning logs or learning leaderboards celebrate people who are at the edge of their own learning. Not comparative to others in the class, but how much they have improved on their own learning, into new, uncomfortable places.
A "Riskometer" - or Traffic light systems to let learners show how much risk they feel they are taking - allows teachers to make informed judgements about how hard a kid feels they're pushing themselves. This sort of self-benchmarked formative assessment is much more motivating than moving up and down a class list or league table. (W. Harlen and R. Deakin-Crick 'A systematic review of the impact of summative assessment and tests on students' motivation for learning', Research Evidence in Education Library, EPPI Centre, Social Science Research Unit, London, 2002.)
The Could Be Curriculum
Learning about learning is a bit more fake when the teacher knew the answers all along. What about a ‘Could be’ curriculum instead of an ‘Is’ curriculum. What about thinking like scientists instead of being taught what scientists discovered?
Learning through an authentic (to the student) challenge avoids the conundrum we hear in many a classroom" “What are you learning? Page 38, sir”. WALT (What Are we Learning Today) needs to be negotiated. not decided in the lesson plan of the teacher and 'shared' at the beginning of a lesson.
Students in one classroom were noted as not putting their hands up when they were stuck or asked "does anyone have any questions?" as they felt you "had to know the answer to the question you were going to ask".
To get around this, matching the creative process of Design Thinking where learners need to start further back in a broad topic, Claxton suggests that teachers instead design "Wild Topics of 'Plores'", areas for exPLORing. This is what we do in our Design Thinking School.
The goal is to explore genuine knowledge making, not regurgitation of consumed transmission. Well designed challenges (quite tight with flexibility) increase attainment, motivation and skills of learning about learning, as well as covering the content. (Jo Bealer, Experiencing School Mathematics, OU Press, Buckingham, 1997)
Battling with duplication
When a subject justifies itself first and foremost on which learning muscles it flexes, then, if another does it better, why duplicate? (e.g. maths/science, French/English).
This excerpt reminds me what St George's School for Girls has been doing with its Curriculum Wall:
Experiment with building mental models of how someone else would have approached a problem (How would Mahatma Ghandi have approached global warming?)
20 years ago if you wanted to win a Formula 1 Grand Prix race, you got yourself a good car and a good driver. Today, you need a team of scores of computer scientists, engineers and mathematicians, analysing your car's computer eveyr millisecond of every lap: without this data harvesting and analysis you will not win a race.
Today's cities, says, Ratti are heading the same way, and many are getting there already. Having placed billions of data connections in our cities over the past few years, cities are beginning to talk back to us, as the artefacts in MoMa's Talk To Me Exhibition show. And it's important that we harness this. Cities currently take up:
2% world surface
50% world population
75% of energy communication
80% of CO2 emissions
Managing cities based on cell phone use
During the World Cup final Ratti's team at MIT's Senseable City Lab saw how cell phone use matched the to and fro of people around the match itself and in cafés and homes around a city. How could this data be used to provide better information to public transport, buses and taxis?
We spend so much energy in our cities and corporations sourcing the goods that make our products, but we know very little about where the waste from our products ends up. Here, harnessing data from pervasive geo-location-aware tags on 3000 products, Ratti's team were able to see the extent to which our waste travels around the world and back. Using this data, could our city fathers and corporations design better waste solutions, not just better sourcing solutions?
Planning a great response to great (and pervasive) data
Analysing data reveals stories - in a telecoms example in the United Kingdom Ratti's team looked at the two connections made with every network communication. This helped redraw the map of Great Britain, with Scotland the first, most clearly marked out communicative community, but with countries like Wales split in two, north and south, and the epic-centre of the echo chamber that is London-London communication clearly marked out:
This analysis of data can therefore suggest to us several things, and reveal the communities around which we might want to build specific services, which often don't match the "official" boundaries marked out by politicians. Something for Scotland will, naturally, be very different for something based around the communication habits of someone in London or Wales. More on the analysis process can be seen in this video and the research paper:
The Copenhagen Wheel - helping individuals to help the community
And how can data be harnessed on a level much more "on the ground", by citizens? The Copenhagen Wheel was a creation from the MIT Senseable City Lab, which makes life easier for the cyclist but uses their efforts to provide information about the city that can be used to help everyone:
It transforms ordinary bicycles quickly into hybrid e-bikes that also function as mobile sensing units. The Copenhagen Wheel allows you to capture the energy dissipated while cycling and braking and save it for when you need a bit of a boost. It also maps pollution levels, traffic congestion, and road conditions in real-time.
Conclusions (and questions that remain!)
How can we make data more useful in other contexts than it currently is?
What is there we can do to make the collection of data from one person actually helpful to them, while beneficial to the wider community, not just the political or adminstrative élites?
What innovations in data collection for the common good are there to be found in education? But also in parenting, transport, food and drink, energy consumption and creation?
This talk was the opening keynote at Smart City Expo in Barcelona, Spain, where I'm giving a talk on how we can harness design thinking to better involve our communities, and our children, in building better cities.
This week I'm back at Building Learning Communities (#BLC11), Boston, MA, after a three year hiatus (as I dipped my toes into something totally different). I can't wait to see old friends and make some new ones, and to hang out with some of the brightest thinking you can get in the education space.
The keynote is the one thing both Alan November, the host, and I wanted to do differently. Based on NoTosh's work with Cisco this past 18 months, I'm delighted to be in a conversation with their Director Global Education, Bill Fowler, a conversation we want you to help shape, whether you're at the event, or spectating from afar.
There are seven key questions we're probably going totally fail to tackle over the hour, but I vouch on my part to follow them through for the next few months in the work I do with schools around the world with Tom. Most of the readers of this blog have influence - on their school, their district, their government. We want you to join the already burgeoning debate and contribute your own take on things.
Can you add your own thoughts, arguments, research pieces to these questions and help us create a long-lasting set of strong arguments with which to influence the Governments, districts and schools with whom we all work?
The questions are co-written, and those of you who know me well will know what my own angle would be on some of them - but I want challenged, pushed, cajoled into thinking about others' views on the same subjects.
The keynote later this week will be tweeted live, hopefully webcast, too, and I'll be doing my best to keep up with the live online action as well as responding to points from Bill and the audience. I look forward to seeing you there, in person or online!
Will Richardson, at EduCon in Philly's Science Leadership Academy, led a discussion around (yet again) finding out what the story should be, a story we present in order to stimulate a sensible, researched, passionate and open discussion around learning that doesn't resort to the extremes, and which really has students' learning at its core.
As part of this call to thinking, he's proposed getting 10,000 parents involved in discussions at some point later this day, based on a stimulus presentation, and leading to... well, something yet to be decided. It's a lobbying effort, and a valiant, worthwhile one, too. It's got some incredibly clever people working hard on it already.
But 10,000 parents? That's too easy. That's not telling me, or any other parent, that this conversation is important enough to be happening. So I'd like to make a contribution to the branding effort, and to the ambition of this. If it's worth doing it's worth doing globally, and at scale.
111111 for 111111 is an international campaign to get 111,111 parents into schools all around the world on 11 November, 2011, to talk about what learning means for them now, and what it could mean in the future.
There is no 'standard' presentation - learning is not the same the world over, however 'flat' you think the world might be. But there will be tools, discussion frameworks, starters for ten, video that presents both sides of most arguments, points of view and inspirational ideas from countries you've not been to.
Can you help get some of those 111,111 parents into your school on 11 November, 2011? I'm sure you can. Coming soon, we need a site to input how many parents have 'pledged' their support, and what they'd like to discuss. I've got the site infrastructure almost in place through another project I'm working on, and I'm happy to bank roll the costs of supporting that platform through the rest of the year.
Are you in? Leave a comment, or tag your discussion #111111 on twitter.
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.
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.