32 posts categorized "Current Affairs"

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



March 29, 2013

Help! Missing: trust in young people

I'm currently attempting some "holiday" in France, but the downtime has had my brain whizzing with sights that are more or less unfamiliar, certainly not from the time when I lived here over a decade ago or from my wife's own upbringing.

One such thing is what you can observe in the photo I took in a book shop in a city centre mall. This was the third shop we'd been into where we observed the same pattern:

Children and teenagers, though never adults, would diligently and without having been told to, take their bags to the entrance and dump them in a pile before going about their shopping.

I remarked that in pretty much any other country, a) the bags would be stolen within minutes, or b) they'd be removed as a bomb threat, and almost certainly c) any young person asked on entering a store to leave their bag would cry foul, civil liberties and assumptions of innocent-until-caught-with-a-loot-of-school-supplies (this was a stationery and book shop; hardly the stuff of hardened crack heads or hungry desperadoes).

France is certainly struggling at the moment. Her economy is dying, her politicians panicking, her entrepreneurs leaving by their hundreds every week on the Eurostar.

But success might be more likely to appear some day soon if it can do one thing for the taxpayers, citizens and workers of tomorrow: trust them as equal citizens in a Republic built on liberté, égalité and fraternité.

Help! Missing: trust in young people

June 19, 2012

#NeverSeconds: Students can change the world - when we get out of the way

When I was at school, I wrote an article in the student newspaper (the Pupils' View) about how fresh, healthy food was disproportionately overpriced compared to the "yellow food" on offer in the school canteen. The result was that the Catering Director for the Local Authority actually left her job. And I got into a fair bit of trouble.

This all happened in Dunoon Grammar School, part of the Local Authority Argyll and Bute who, with similar sense of grievance and bullying last week attempted to silence one nine-year-old Martha Payne with a brutal, long-winded press release and ban of Martha's online activities.

Martha First Meal
Since the end of the Easter holidays, Martha has been writing a daily food blog about her school lunches, with the support of her dad, as a self-initiated writing project. It also set out in the noble aim to fund the building of kitchens for less fortunate children in Malawi, through the Mary's Meals charity.

Her first posts revealed the tiny portions (hence the name of her blog: NeverSeconds) and, yes, the rather yellow fried nature of her food. But things improved within barely weeks, and most meals were absolutely fine (a summary average of the scores she gave to each meal results in something over 7.5 - not bad for mass-produced school meals, but with room for improvement, a point which was very much Martha's).

Where Martha forgot her camera, she took to drawing her meal. She scored not just out of ten, but also on a health rating, how many mouthfuls it took to get through and, disturbingly, how many pieces of hair were found in it (I've yet to spot the post where there is some hair; again, a good sign).

Within weeks, her notoriety was such that school kids from elsewhere around the world were sharing their meals for Martha to publish on her blog on their behalf. 

TV chefs Jamie Oliver and Nick Nairn championed her and invited Martha over to learn how to cook herself.

Nick Nairn

Vitally, her food portions became bigger, so that a "growing girl" like her had half a chance.

So far, so good, so much a passionate kid with a passion for food, and a good way with words. And a nine-year-old changing her school's approach to food. 

Until last week:

This morning in maths I got taken out of class by my head teacher and taken to her office. I was told that I could not take any more photos of my school dinners because of a headline in a newspaper today. 

I only write my blog not newspapers and I am sad I am no longer allowed to take photos. I will miss sharing and rating my school dinners and I’ll miss seeing the dinners you send me too. I don’t think I will be able to finish raising enough money for a kitchen for Mary’s Meals either. 

Argyll and Bute, the school district rather than the otherwise very supportive school itself, issued a damning edict, preventing Martha from taking any more photos, writing any more blog posts about her lunches. Dinner ladies were, said the illiterate press release (we serve "deserts" to our children, really?), "afraid for their jobs". It was, according to one legal journalist, "one of the most piss-poor justifications of a ban of anything from any public authority".

Martha Payne legal tweet

Celeb chef Jamie Oliver, known globally for his crusade against poor school food, waded in to get people to lend their support with a simple retweet of his "Stay strong, Martha".

Martha Payne Jamie Oliver Tweet

Mary's Meals, for whom Martha's blog had raised £2000 by Thursday night, the day of the ban, issued a statement outlining the consequences of the ban on her efforts to build kitchens in schools in Malawi, a country with whom Scotland has a long-standing official partnership.

Martha's "Goodbye" post earned over 2000 comments and Twitter's #neverseconds tag went into meltdown. #NeverSeconds, the girl Martha Payne and, excruciatingly, Argyll and Bute council all hit the top trending terms in the UK. Her blog, having reached 2m hits in just over a month already, now saw its blog counter unable to keep up as she broke through 3m in one day.

And I was livid for her. How dare councils, and this council in particular, once more attempt to bully those in its learning community. I sent a quick tweet to the Education Minister, who is also the member of the Scottish Parliament for the area, requesting he do something in what had already been established a ridiculous and illegal abuse of power. He tweet back that he agreed, having requested the Head of the Council to lift the ban immediately.

Martha Payne Mike Russell to EM

Within 20 minutes the Head of the Council was on the radio, announcing a change of tack.

Argyll and Bute finally managed a new statement, the politicians showing more sense than their feckless faceless bureaucrats and lifting the ban.

As a result of the debacle, Argyll and Bute has gained a global reputation for awful PR, a tortoise-like reaction time on Twitter and, potentially, an interesting place to go on holiday. Was it all a tourism ploy? Given the repeated mess they get themselves into, they're almost certainly not not that clever.

But, on a positive note, Martha's long-term goal of raising £7000 for a new kitchen in a Malawi school was rather superseded: she was at nearly £50,000 ($100,000) at the weekend just past, now at £100,000 ($200,000) with more rushing in every day

She has also created the beginnings of, hopefully, lasting change: she will head up a council summit on school meals and work with them longer term on improving the quality of food for every child in the district. Happily, she's back to blogging it all once more with the support of her school and, reluctantly or not, her Local Authority. She has now had her first kitchen in Malawi named in her honour.

_60982494_lirangwepupils

Martha shows every facet of great learning: real world change, making the environment around her better, sharing her thinking with the world, having a conscious for the world beyond her immediate horizons, and robustness in the face of incredible media and social media pressure. She is another 'Caine', with a supportive parent and facilitating adults around her. She'll go far.

Donate to Martha's campaign through her blog: http://neverseconds.blogspot.co.uk/

October 20, 2011

Our class of 10,000 students from 127 countries lasting 21 days

ITUWorld11kids - image

How many creativity gurus have you heard this past year talking about the overarching potential of our young people to solve the problems of tomorrow? Well, we thought we'd see just how good they are at solving those problems.

The photograph at the top of this post is just one example of how young people care about other people many thousands of miles away and want to make their lives better - produced in the last period of a long day in Iowa. You can read more of them on the world2011.us site.

Sure, it's just a piece of marketing. But it sums up weeks of work they've put in to harnessing design thinking to explore, synthesise and hone down problems they believe they could solve. And this past week, they've been prototyping their ideas for solving them.

Over the past 21 days, with the immense support of the UN agency for ICT, the International Telecommuncations Union (ITU), m'colleague Tom Barrett and I have been trying to make good our promise that we could bring 10,000 young people along, virtually, to "the most important ICT event in the world".

ITU Telecom World 11 gathers nearly 2500 of the world's Heads of State, CEOs of all the global telecommunications firms and policy wonks from South America to South Africa, Southampton to the Hamptons. We set up a campaign site to involve over four times the number of delegates (at perhaps four times less their average age ;-) to see whether their ideas collided or parted at their very roots. The goals were several:

  • provoke the speakers into speaking in 'normal', jargon-free language, conscious that 10,000 young people were trying to get a grasp on the issues that will affect them more, perhaps, than said experts on stage;
  • see if young people genuinely cared about solving what the UN has outlined as its key challenges, such as decreasing poverty and hunger, increasing access to education for all, improving gender equality and so on...
  • see if they cared enough and if their teachers, increasingly confined by State requirements to "cover the curriculum", were fired up enough to break through the pedagogical red tape and create opportunities for their students to find real problems that need solving, and then go on to propose genuine, workable solutions.

Within 21 days I can confirm one thing: never underestimate what young people are capable of.

As we head into the conference week (follow on the Twitter hashtag of #world11kids for all things young-people-related, and #ituworld11 for the wider conference coverage) I'm thrilled at what we're going to be revealing to delegates through plasma screens and projections, revealing what our class of 10,000 has achieved this past three weeks.

We're also going to see hundreds of them now participating live on the podium through Twitter as Secretary-Generals, CEOs, Heads of State and inventors of the switches that make the web work seek out the concerns and ideas of 8-18 year olds around the globe.

You want problem-based learning? This kinda fits the bill. I can't wait to unpack with our teachers and schools how on earth they've managed to achieve so much with so little time and such epic challenges to solve. It's not too late to get involved... what's holding you back?

August 27, 2011

Why Eric Schmidt is only partly right about science & technology education [#mgeitf]

Eric Schmidt Google

Google Chairman Eric Schmidt was the first non-television exec to deliver the McTaggart Lecture at the Media Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival last night. A core part of his talk was on the state of "UK education", and how "over the past century, the UK has stopped nurturing its polymaths. You need to bring art and science back together." Britain should look to the "glory days" of the Victorian era for reminders of how the two disciplines can work together, he said. 

"It was a time when the same people wrote poetry and built bridges. Lewis Carroll didn't just write one of the classic fairytales of all time. He was also a mathematics tutor at Oxford. James Clerk Maxwell was described by Einstein as among the best physicists since Newton – but was also a published poet."

"I was flabbergasted to learn that today computer science isn't even taught as standard in UK schools. Your IT curriculum focuses on teaching how to use software, but gives no insight into how it's made."

It's a shame, though, that he didn't Google a little more on the education system of the country in which he was speaking. Scotland.

There is no such thing as "UK education", only English and Welsh, Northern Irish and Scottish. The latter is significantly different from the others, and programming is a core part of our curriculum for excellence Technologies strand, from age 3 through to 18.

It's why my daughter learns input-process-output at nursery school (kindergarten) through computer programmes and robots. It's why the literary structure and coding expertise needed to create a computer game is taught in more and more primary (elementary) schools. It's the reason that the very "learn how to use, not how to make it" approach to software has been questioned for the last eight years or more in Scottish computer science circles, and moves are made to reinstate the importance of programming at secondary (high school) level.

It's why our definition of 'text' in the Literacy (arts) guidance moves well beyond "the three Rs" and includes the likes of text messaging, computer games and the web at large.

In England, the education minister has gone from not mentioning technology at all in his curriculum and policy plans, to making piecemeal and out-dated contributions about how technology provides a great carrot and stick for learning. The differences between this and the forward-looking ambition of his Scottish counterpart are stark.

Yes, the McTaggart lecture is designed to "boil down to anger and arch-villains, impossible proposals and insults". But, Mr Schmidt, before going in for a great, potentially constructive insult for our neighbours, please accept an invitation to discover more about the country - and its own education system - that you have been kind enough to visit.

Read the McTaggart lecture in full.

Photo from TechCrunch

May 10, 2011

We made history: lessons for learning from co-directing a Scottish election landslide campaign

Election SNP edublogs

"The best new media team in UK political campaigning history."

It was with immense pride in what we had achieved as a country, and the part I had played as part of a genial team, that I heard these words from Angus Robertson MP, the Director of the 2011 Campaign for the Scottish National Party (SNP), as we celebrated a Scottish Parliament election win with a majority that, in the theory behind the design of the Scottish Parliamentary system, was never meant to be possible.

NoTosh SNP election campaign coverage I've written in greater detail about the strategy behind our winning campaign, and linked to much of the press coverage on this in the last few days, over on the NoTosh website. But there are lessons from this political campaign for those of us trying to build better learning communities. At the core of the online campaign was, after all, community building, and we did it in short term, with next to no budget, to great effect.

No-one in the UK - or Europe - has come close to what a small HQ team, a couple of external team members (NoTosh friend Ian Dommett, myself and a team of crack creatives), and legions of volunteers and activists achieved over the past 100 days. The newspapers, the Party's leaders and tens of thousands of commenters on our Facebook pages and blogs have put it quite simply, using five words: "We won. We made history". A map of new constituencies in the Scottish Parliament 2011-16When I started work on the campaign's digital strategy and tactics, with 100 days to go to polling day, all polls indicated that the Labour party were set to win: at one point we were 15 points behind challengers, the Labour party.

Hope did, indeed, beat fear. We redrew the political map of Scotland and, by engaging every demographic out there, helped make concrete the fact that the SNP really is Scotland's National Party.

We helped shift the public viewpoint from one where, six weeks ago, the party languished some 10-15 points behind Labour, to one where it finished with an outright majority of 69 seats in the 129 seat Parliament, a majority of Scots wanting a Scottish government working for Scotland in the form of the SNP.

The press have covered our campaign strategy, particularly the digital part I was lucky enough to co-direct with the inhouse head Kirk J Torrance. You can read about this in detail over on the NoTosh website. It's worth pointing out in that article the reference to the design thinking approach we took to generate, prototype and move forward over 100 ideas of digital and offline media engagement, an approach that resembles enquiry-based learning techniques and which generates significantly more workable, responsive ideas than drawing up papers, annual plans or working in isolation in a leadership team suite of offices.

There are a few points about this project which I feel have pertinence in so many domains, not just political campaigning, lessons which could be extracted to the world of learning, school leadership and building better learning communities:

  1. Online activism is not PR: it actually creates change in the real world (including that most critical of offline actions in an election: vote for us), rather than just creating the perception that something is changing in the real world.

    Most school websites are PR. Good school Facebook pages are relentlessly appearing on parents' and pupils' own feeds, at all times of the day and night, creating offline actions that are desirable (do your homework, here's some help, this parents' evening looks interesting - I might head along for it).

  2. Positivity and optimism are underestimated, underused, under-believed-in
    All those who live in the land of "Yes But" do not belong in successful teams. Believing your goal is possible frees the mind to work out how you're going to get there, and prevents wasted hours debating "if" things are happening, and frees up space to ask "should" things happen.

  3. Talented, passionate teams and a clear simple message are the can't-do-without ingredients for success
    I have rarely worked with such a bunch of hyper talented, yet quietly spoken, unassuming, modest and generous people as the team at SNP HQ. That passion and talent, together with that very Scottish attitude and "let's work together" ethos, is what created the Scottish successes of the renaissance and industrial revolution, and will see us through the development of our next revolution in being at the centre of the Green Economy Reindustrialisation of Scotland. It certainly had a top place in achieving success on quite this scale.

    Clear messages on the learning vision for a school are, in my experience, a rare beast. School leaders could do a lot worse than employ some of these election campaign tactics in creating, honing and sharing their clear vision of learning with the school community at large. It's not good enough to say "We're all about learning". Are you about "Engaging youngsters and creating smiles every day"? Or are you about "The best examination results you can get". The former will almost certainly lead to the latter, but placing examination results as your core message will leave people in no doubt as to their decision-making process when faced with the choice of going down the avenue of an interesting, deep, rich discussion, or thumping on with content that has been pre-set, pre-planned.

  4. Having the best leadership secures you success Peter Murrell, the Chief Executive of the SNP, holds all the qualities I've just described. He's quiet, hard to gauge at first even, but is the smartest mind in political campaign management in the UK, quite possibly in Europe. He is, without a doubt and with no offence to the amazing people I work with every day, the most dynamic, alert and decisive Chief Executive with whom I've ever had the pleasure to work.

    He, Angus Robertson and, of course, the leaders of the party in Scotland itself (notably those with whom I was able to work most closely: Alex Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon and John Swinney), gave us permission to go with what our guts, and our data, told us felt right to do. "If you ever need anything" was the most common phrase I heard which, as an external consultant, is a gift. Thank you to the leadership team for their confidence, their trust and their support in helping Kirk, the team and me get our ideas out into bits, bytes and relationships.

For me, this particular gig is now over. But there will be other elections, other campaigns. None of the lessons we've got here are anything that a half decent consultant with some life experience and an overdraft couldn't find out from their local book store and some choice reads on the web. That is why I have no issues sharing these elements of what some might call the "secret sauce".

The secret of any sauce is, of course, in the subtle turns of the ladle that the entire kitchen staff put in over a service and that service, my friends, I've been very lucky to be part of for a history-making 100 days.

March 29, 2011

Data Reveals Stories: Part Five | Maps

This is one of a six-part series on how to harness data to reveal stories. It represents notes and follow-on links. If you want to take part in an exciting workshop to get your hands on real life data sets, create your own visualisations and learn how to share them, you can join me in Boston at Building Learning Communities for my pre-conference workshop this summer, or ask for it as one of our masterclass sessions. Many of the examples cited are from the information visualiser's Bible, Information is Beautiful: buy the book (in the UK | in the USA) or visit the blog.

Map overlays
Countries are not all given equal status in the learning we do/did at school. Map overlays show this.
Examples:
Take several of the world's richest and most prominent countries and see how many you can fit into an outline of Africa:

Africa and the rest

Take four of the world's four richest economies and see how many you can fit inside the richest of all: the United States. (Information is Beautiful, pp.61, 142-3, 202)

Everyone thinks their own country is bigger than it really is. The Brits are as guilty as anyone else. Just listen to the oohs and ahs at these proportionate maps, courtesy of Sheffield-based Alisdair Rae:

UK in Africa

The BBC's How Big Really helps people understand the scale of issues around environmental disasters, the war on terror, disease and other global issues, but showing their extent atop the town or city where that person lives:

BBC Dimensions


Real maps, abstract stories
Take a map whose coloration or name markings tell a different story. The master of this was CS Lewis with the maps for the Chronicles of Narnia:

Narnia

Other examples:
Interactive Diabetes map of America
Flight pattern maps from The Endless City
A world of number ones - every country has to be great at something:

Number one for something

Proportionate Maps
A wonderful collection of maps from the University of Sheffield, UK, show the world map through different lenses to explore global issues. For example, population density as a map is amongst other concepts on WorldMapper:

Population Map



Mind maps / Organised Mind Maps
Favoured by the Guardian for its coverage of large, complex economy issues, these give a lot of information and show how it relates:

Guardian organised mind maps

March 08, 2011

Scottish Parliament Elections 2011: Is the SNP the only party with an education vision?

ScotlandVotes Education Hustings
When you listen to four politicians responsible for education and lifelong learning in their parties, it's remarkably easy to spot those with some savvy and those who choose to waffle on the clichés they think we want to hear.


At the Scotland on Sunday Education hustings this week the current Education Minister, Mike Russell, was at home sick, so the SNP's Lifelong Learning and Skills Minister Angela Constance took up the reins for the debate. She was joined by Des McNulty (Labour), Elizabeth Smith (Conservatives) and Margaret Smith (Liberal Democrats).

Angela Constance For all that she was a lastminute panel replacement, Constance was the only one speaking in terms of action, policy with the facts to back it up, with experience rooted in what she has seen herself in Scottish schools, on teacher unions' understandings of the current state of play and on the latest research, some of it commissioned by her Government over the past four years.

The others delivered platitudes, meaningless statements ("less indiscipline", "more testing", "more rigour") without any indication of what role a Government would play in achieving them.

Are we not all literacy and numeracy teachers?
Des McNulty from Labour believes that Scottish education is 'in a mess' because of decisions from the current Government and from Local Authorities themselves. He wants add 1000 extra teachers to lead on literacy and numeracy, despite the fact that when I was a teacher under his Government I distinctly remember them spearheading the approach of "every teacher is a teacher of literacy and numeracy".

 

The best practice from around the world shows that integrating higher aspirations for all children's literacy and numeracy throughout their curriculum leads to greater achievement in these areas, something that works the other way, too: skills learnt in one subject area are useful elsewhere.

That's why Scotland's Curriculum for Excellence is so vital: it's less something to be "implemented" from on high (with screeds of policy documents and advice sheets) and instead embraced from the teaching community, who, rightly, can expect more videoed examples from inside classrooms where the planning, the tactics and the teaching style can be observed in virtual-first-hand terms. A visit to the Journey to Excellence or Learning and Teaching Scotland websites shows that the current SNP Government have done just that, and the process of changing the habits of 150 years is well on its way - although it was always going to take longer than 4 years to see a wholesale 180 degree change in practice.

We're talking about upending existing notions of how we timetable, moving towards longer periods of learning, less movement around secondary schools, more practice emulating that of the primary school environment. This is what's increasing attainment in reading, writing and 'rithmetic in schools like the Stovner School in Norway, and countless other schools in the small-country systems we like to fetichise.

The opposite is what we see in England under Gove, whereby the Education Bill makes reference to "The Importance of Teaching" without looking carefully at what makes the best conditions for learning. Not only that, it does away with the key institutions for developing the quality of teachers in our classrooms.

Labour & Tory: Drive standards, test more
McNulty's other key platitude was that he wants to "drive standards with teachers". But what does that mean? Does he, along with his Conservative companion Elizabeth Smith, want to introduce "more rigourous testing, earlier, before students move on to secondary", testing the growth of our youngsters by pulling up their roots every six weeks? Do he and Smith want to increase the importance of "passing the test" later in school, and emulate the disastrous attempts to introduce "rigour" in the United States, which has left the arts, creativity and any teaching and learning outside the test out in the cold?

Greater rigour, and a return to 'traditional methods' as Smith put it, will meet only with disdain from our students, disengaging more of them at every turn. Look at what happened in Jamie Oliver's Channel 4 "Dream School" when Professor David Starkey, no doubt one of the greatest historians of his era with unbeatable knowledge, was unable to demonstrate, let alone inspire in his students, the kinds of soft skills so often berated by those who talk of "rigour": he exhibitted everything that's wrong with "rigour" in the classroom. Soft skills, which Starkey himself sees as less important than acquiring discreet areas of knowledge, would have saved him and his students much pain and embarrassment.

And engaging kids isn't about pandering to their whims. As David Price points out in his recent post on the Channel 4 series, engaging students is about appealing to their emotions, and, without that engagement of brain and emotion, deep learning cannot occur.

"I want to do something about indiscipline… [cue: tumbleweed]"
Finally, McNulty got tough: "I want to do something about indiscipline." Great. How? I do believe teachers have been trying for some time, and some of us have started to work out what it comes down to. It's about engaging students in the first place (see above, "Rigour"), involving parents more (they need to want to be involved, though - dragging kicking and screaming, parent or child, tends toward the ineffective), getting better in-class training on handling different types of students and support from better school leaders. Tell us, please, what your potential Government's role is in helping what we're trying to do already go faster, deeper, quicker.

Teaching the Teachers
While only the Tories are still daft enough now to think that Scottish students want to pay for their higher education, with Labour having changed their old position recently to align to that of the SNP, it was only the SNP who seem to have made the connection between Higher Education in general and those vital programmes that teach the teachers.

The Donaldson Report, commissioned by the SNP Government shows in no uncertain terms that higher investment in (free) teacher training is the only way to achieve long-term success in our classrooms. Not more testing. Not more textbooks. Not, as the SNP have nonetheless delivered, the smallest class sizes in Scotland's history (smaller class sizes inevitably make the teacher's job in developing youngsters easier). McKinsey's most recent research, as well as their 2007 report, repeatedly points out that teacher quality remains the sole factor in differentiating the average from the not-so-average education systems. Initial teacher education, yes, but above all continuing professional development.

This is one area, everywhere in the world, where Governments, teacher unions and teachers themselves can only ever work harder. It's mostly down to money and attitudes in the workforce - teachers need to know they can take up courses, take protected time out to reflect and do so without being told at the last minute they need to take the RE teacher's class again.

It is the SNP that has led the debate on Higher Education with the belief that higher education benefits society, not just the individual, says Angela Constance. She's right.

Invest in education and, generally, you always get more out the other side, and at least make some savings on the other budgets. Underspend or spend in the wrong places in education, and you might just break even, but the costs will re-emerge in health, justice and employment later on.

Education is the only Government spending area that really represents an investment. Everything else is spend. If we invest in education, in helping teachers improve day-by-day, the rest begins to fall into place.

[disclaimer: My company is currently working with the SNP on their election campaign's digital strategy. The views on this post are my own] 

October 26, 2010

My first Huffington Post: You Don't Have to Make cuts in Education to Save Education's Money

Banksy - follow your dreams
Late last week I had my first blog post appear on the Huffington Post, the world's most popular blog (though it's Ed section is significantly weaker than its celeb news, I imagine).

It was a riff on a piece I'd previously written up here, pointing out that if ever there was a point in public service spending history to take the time out to consider alternative solutions to the problems we face, it was now.

A forensic focus on growth, with a population that can break boundaries and innovate, does not come from harnessing traditional values of "cut back, focus on getting to the month's end intact". It comes from innovative policy-making first and foremost, with innovation flowing from the rest of us accordingly:

If I said that the worst solutions for the challenges you're facing might just be the best way out of a tight spot, would you believe me? If I suggested that one terrible idea could save a U.S. school district up to $25 million a year -- cutting an education budget and maybe even increasing teacher numbers -- would you be more interested?

As nations around the world seek to save money in their education budgets -- the U.K. seems an exception to the rule with its $8 billion increase in education, it's only budget increase at all -- we might wonder whether creative flair in decision making might be more effective at saving money than the budget holder's red pen.

When you ask a room of teachers or policymakers to come up with their "best" solutions to a problem you often tend to get great ideas, but not always the best ones. They can be contrived versions of management speak and almost always involve some self-censorship from the team: people don't offer anything up unless they feel, explicitly or subconsciously, that it will get buy-in from the rest of the committee or that favored butcher of creativity, the stakeholders. People's "best ideas" for saving money generally involve generous doses of "chop this" and "cut back on that".

At a time when education budgets have never been smaller, and are only going to get even more so, the kind of thinking that defaults to the "old ways" of doing things -- expensive committees, organizations, meetings, 'experts' -- just won't cut it any more. Stanford's Tina Seelig suggested another route to me that has already saved education departments millions this month.

Ask people for their "worst" solutions to a problem and people tend not to hold back at all -- laughs are had and the terrible ideas flow. And while the initial suggestions might feel stupid, pointless or ridiculous to the originating team members, these awful ideas can take on a spectacular new lease of life in the hands of another, unrelated group.

By insisting on a "yes and" approach, rather than a "yes but" approach, a fresh set of eyes can turn these "worst" ideas into the ones that will save money, improve service or make people happier in the workplace.

I've tried this approach on several senior education groups now from Bahrain to the Scottish Borders, each time with huge success. With one school district, seeking creative ways to maintain the quality of their services for millions of pounds less, the results were simply brilliant.

  • Reduce cleaning costs by scrapping school cleaners. Yes and... we'll get the students to clean the two square meters around the area in which they are standing at 2 p.m. every day.
  • Reduce the cost of maintaining school grounds by no longer using Council environmental services. Yes and... we'll get students to swap the neat lawns for some self-grown fruits and vegetables, leading to cheaper, better and fresher produce in school meals while also teaching youngsters about crop cycles and basic biology. We could even generate some extra money by selling extra produce to the community, or generate good will by giving it away to those families who occasionally struggle with the bills.
  • Reduce the money spent on transporting children to school by stopping taxi runs from remote areas. Yes and... we'll seek out parents to get some regular car sharing started. And we can make a feature of the diverse locations our students live in to create a massive start-of-term expedition to explore the area on foot, and see how close and how far students live from school.
  • Improve the quality of service provision by forming a committee. Yes, a committee made up of everyone in the community -- you can call in to local radio and share who you think has made the biggest improvement in your local services (the refuse collector who always replaces the lid on your bin and cleans up rubbish, for example), but the result is given anonymously. That way, everyone in the Council thinks it might be them and adjusts their behavior accordingly.

I don't know the precise figure spent on fruits and vegetables, cleaning and gardening in U.K. schools, but these ideas, applied nationally, could have a much more positive effect on what and how students learn, as well as saving at least a few million.

I'll leave you with a simple one you could get your local school to give up on right now: window cleaning alone is $50,000 a year in one English borough, which nationally would lead to a saving of at least £25 million a year.

If the U.S. did away with schools window cleaning for a year, and instead the community pulled in around it, how many millions could we save?

An excellent point in the Huff Post comments was that, in some 40 years of being a student in or a teacher at high schools in the US, the commenter had never seen a window cleaner. That's the point. It's a hidden expense few of us spot. They're there, every morning when I walk to the train at 6am en route to Newcastle, England. I imagine there there, too, in the wee small hours, making sure your $100m school buildings made of glass and steel reflect the natural light they were designed to. ;-)

Pic: Chris

September 20, 2010

Write a Twistory, help a kids charity

ByteNight
The Byte Night Bedtime Story aims to beat the Guiness World Record for the world's biggest crowdsourced bedtime story in history. It's a great way to get students reading an (ever-longer) story and then adding their own 140 characters' worth, without the need to register for Twitter or another service - this makes it ideal for kids no matter how young or old they are.

What's more, you help raise money for Action for Children’s annual charity sleep-out event that takes place in various locations across the UK, this year on 8th October. There's no reason, in fact, why the sleep-out couldn't take place in other countries around the world, highlighting the plight of homeless children and raising some supporting cash in the process.

As of the time of writing you have 18 days to make your contribution to the story.

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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