While search technology made the process of seeking the answers to our questions easier and quicker, social technology and our networks have had a paradoxical effort. Has the ease of 'asking' numbed our curiosity to investigate unknown knowns for ourselves?
There’s a strange paradox at work here. We live in an era where information is more freely available and easily accessible than ever before. Learning has, broadly speaking, evolved in three stages. First, knowledge resided in books or was held by experts. Students had to “knock” – to go looking – to find the answers. Then came Google, and with it students learned to “seek” because it was right there at their fingertips.
With the advent of Facebook and other social networks, we’ve entered the era of “ask”. Knowledge resides in the minds of the network, so students can just throw out a question on their Facebook page: “Hey guys, how would you answer this question that our professor set?”...
Students don’t read lengthy documents – like academic papers – any longer. They don’t go hunting for answers. They just put a question out to their network, sit back and wait for the answers to come their way.
It's not just our students who have become this Generation Ask - their teachers, in droves, sit on Twitter asking questions to the network, whose answers are waiting there to be found. The technology of our networks risks turning us into lazy researchers, for one.
But more worryingly, not doing our own homework, our own research, and relying instead on what others perceive to be 'right', means that we don't accidentally rub up against the interesting tangents that always come with one's own, personal, more time-consuming research.
The unknown unknowns remain untouched in this age of the network, and each individual's 'filter bubble' merely narrows down those chances further. The more our networks act as a magnifying glass on the loudest voices, the less likely we are to see the bigger picture, the whole context, and gain the depth of understanding we would ideally seek.
Pic by Kate Ter Haar
In 2007, I posted a picture of me blogging, with a one month old Catriona in one arm, one-handed typing on the other:
One year later, I had stopped writing on my blog regularly (until this month) for many reasons:
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:
NoTosh doesn't just help scores of schools and private business with their strategy; we're in the process of adjusting our own course, too. What I've noticed, is that the activity known as 'wordsmithing' is normally referred to dismissively, with disdain, as something someone else will do much later on, once they "real work" of strategising is done. These leaders could not be more wrong.
Far from the afterthought or polishing to which the task is often reduced, getting the wordsmithing right as you create your strategy is vital if you want people to really believe in it.
To help me on NoTosh's own strategising I've been diving into Andy Maslen's tomes (that's his distinguished mug on the top of the post). For a copywriter extraordinaire, he tends to spend at least half his books helping the reader understand what it is they are trying to do and why the hell they're doing it. I can imagine a few strategies dying a necessarily premature death by around p.43 of most his books.
A key point that resonates as I undertake a few schools-based strategy projects, is this one:
People want to know what's in it for them (WIIFM?).
They don't care how clever you are.
They don't care that you are proud / humble / honoured about anything.
They don't care how much excellence you promote.
People want to know what's in it for them.
He suggests a couple of writing tools that will help education strategists (any strategist, really) to convey their 'why', and in turn the WIIFM, so much more clearly:
A confession: our team at NoTosh has had blog guilt for years, and we keep having tense conversations about why we can't better share the amazing work the team and our clients get up to.
We developed a new website two years ago, with a flurry of writing, but haven't updated it half as much as we'd want to. We all have our own individual blogs which we update when... we have a holiday. If our time is not spent in the high energy, high adrenalin of engaging with thousands of teachers at an event, or the intensity of one business leader over the table, it is in the deep troughs of loneliness and boredom that come with sitting on planes for hours, or facing off the computer screen at the home office.
Well, I know one thing: a good idea never came out of a computer. Great ideas come out of people's heads, and they come from experiences that have provoked them, jarred them, annoyed them, made them laugh or made them cry. The most vibrant of these experiences are not found on our Facebook walls; they are in the world around us.
My colleague Tom, who came up with this idea of 28 minutes of uninterrupted writing over each of February's 28 days, has kicked off what might become a kind of 'writers' anonymous' (indeed, I've fallen off the wagon twice already in this paragraph, helping my daughter work out how to programme her Dash and Dot). A group of fellow bloggers - writers who share their stuff straightaway - who can provide the mutual kick up the backside that no-one else is going to give you.
What do I plan to do with my 28 days? I have no plan at all. Most of my writing is planned - my 60,000 words of book writing was planned. Most of it is to deadlines - while I wrote my book I underestimated the effort it would take to also write 50,000 words of a new Masters course. A large chunk of my writing just needs done (if you've had an email from me this past week, that's you).
But my 28 days of writing, no matter how much arse-kicking my fellow blogging travellers give me, does not need done, and this is no doubt what will compel me to thump out my 28 minutes, every day, without fail.
My only foreseeable challenge with this 'writers' anonymous'? My writing is akin to an alcoholic's drinking - I go cold turkey for weeks on end, but once I start, I find it hard to stop. Keeping to just one 28 minute stint a day will be the challenge.
Here endeth the lesson / the first 28 minutes.
One simple delay doesn't a catastrophe make. But when work elsewhere affects your team's workflow, unknown to you, and new technologies don't quite fit within the system, you can very quickly pay the price.
The trainspotter in me enjoyed reading John Bull's dissection of the Christmas travel woes incurred as a result of otherwise 'normal' festive engineering works. For those outside the UK and insulated from this local news, thousands of trains and tens of thousands of passengers experienced horrendous delays and cancellations at one of London's key railway stations as a result of engineering works running over.
Bull's post outlines a series of poor management and leadership decisions, mostly based on the challenge of predicting likely scenarios in the hours and days ahead. Leaders in every walk of life face similar prediction challenges.
But as I read this I wondered where my own red flag would have appeared. What about you?
Much of these issues are related to the "second horizon" of implementing a great idea. The toolsets and skillsets that help implement ideas quickly, such as the 'pre-mortem' to test for potential failure points, are detailed in my book: How To Come Up With Great Ideas And Actually Make Them Happen.
Look Up. Effective technology use is knowing as much when to drop it, as to use it.
"Where we leave out all the bad bits, show no emotion…" A poem about real world empathy, being in the present, shutting down that screen... after you've watched it on YouTube, of course.
The point made here, though, is an interesting one when we reflect on the design thinking process and why it seems so powerful for learning, and is clearly distanced from "innovative technology use" when we see it used in schools. If anything, the key parts in the process - defining and reframing problems, ideating solutions to them, and soliciting and acting upon feedback, have nothing to do with a screen. There's great design research showing, too, that technology has failed to step up yet to the complexities of the real world thinking that our brains go through when trying to make sense of complex information in order to define a problem, or ideate a solution (e.g., Dorta, T., Pérez, E. and Lesage, A. (2008) - The Ideation Gap).
So, yes: look up, don't let the world pass by. Observe it, note the normal, embrace the differences and happenstance, create something new with someone else.
Cross-posted to NoTosh's regular updates on the 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?
Pic of Tidaholm by Pete Hunt (CC)
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?
My Flemish pal Kris Hoet has been at it again with his collaborators at Duval Guillaume, producing this incredible clip about a team of music lovers, musicians and DJs who, despite having physical challenges, are able to create music manipulating a programme with only their brainwaves. The goal of Smirnoff, the advertiser? To show that there is the power to create in every one of us.
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.
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.