98 posts categorized "Curriculum"

January 16, 2012

Design Thinking 2: Immersion - don't give students a problem to solve...

The Future Belongs To The Curious - so says this compelling clip passed on by Christian Long. But so say the scores of teachers with whom we work, when we suggest to them that the average 13 years of compulsory schooling content can be covered, easily, in less than 13 years time if, in fact, students choose what they cover, and when.

This is the core tenet of the first phase of The Design Thinking School: Immersion.

When we began working with our schools in Brisbane, we explained Immersion like this: 

The first phase of design thinking does not take one fifth of the time: immersion might take up to 70% of the process, as great observations can lead quickly to great ideas for solving real problems. It's a process of opening up opportunities to explore, not shutting them down. This is where, from a teacher's perspective, all control sometimes feels lost as students explore unexpected tangents. The trick is keeping out of the way, and letting students justify to themselves and to others why some tangents are worth exploring and others less so.

Immersion: observation and empathy with others

The act of just observing what goes on in the world is one that most adults struggle with: we want to jump to inferences and even come up with ideas to problems that we've perceived. But there's only one way to spot a great problem: find it through speaking with people, observing their "thoughtless actions", as Jane Fulton Suri puts it, noticing the small things that don't work, and the band-aid solutions people have to make the world around them work better. It's in these observations, and the empathetic process of putting yourselves in their shoes, that interesting problems no-one has solved, and questions to which no-one (yet) knows the answers, will emerge.

Observations might be made around a general theme or a more specific challenge (often framed in the "How might we…?" or "What would happen if…?" vein). The teacher's job with his or her students, much like the client working with creative design agency, is to negotiate the initial trigger of research, the brief, which needs to be

1. open-ended enough not to suggest a pre-existing bias or answer to be second-guessed

2. epic enough to be worth solving or working out (it needs to pass the "so what?" test of your average 14 year old, regardless of the age group of children working on the challenge)

3. negotiated enough to allow the students to find interesting tangents to explore, but the teacher to retrospectively see how curricular goals can be matched with their learning.

 Tim Brown, CEO of Ideo, puts it this way:

"The key of a design thinking structure is enough flexibility with enough specificity to ground its ideas in the lives of their intended beneficiaries."

How about these for starters?

  • What would happen if we cut down the last tree?
  • What would happen if humans became extinct?
  • How might we create a carbon zero school?
  • How does an iPad know where it is?
  • What would happen if there were no religions?
  • How might we solve a problem that will improve the lives of 100 people in our local community?

You'll notice that these are not framed as problems, but rather generative challenges out of which many problems could be found. It is these subsequent problems that students will set out to solve. This means that in a class of 30 students, working in groups of three, four or five, you could end up with 10 different problems being solved within the same initial challenge. Or, you might find students being drawn to one problem in particular.

What they did with this process opened up their eyes to a much more enrichening curriculum approach than anything that had been 'carefully' planned by the teacher. Students didn't just cover what needed covered - they went up and over that limit to surpass the core curriculum, putting it in context, and bringing in other, new and existing content that made their project ideas work.

The key to success, and the differentiator compared to other problem-based learning approaches? Students, not teachers, work out the challenge they want to solve.

This key idea is what I explored in my TEDxLondon talk on the problem finders:


Now you can see for yourself how this plays out in the classroom in the video produced by the Brisbane Catholic Education Office.

Tom: At Mount Vernon School in the United States, as part of the ITU Telecom World conference that we helped to reinvent with the participation of 10,000 young people through design thinking, one picture sticks in my mind. As part of the empathy phase young students, no more than six or seven years old, carried water, large canisters of water, from home to school. They had pain on their faces, sweat pouring down their cheeks. All this to better understand what it's like. Because they did that, they thought up better products, through a broader range of solutions.

Ewan: It's hard to teach that empathy/observation part. Teachers want to cover what they feel they want to cover. But empathy and observation is going to go beyond what you need to cover in any six week period, because this isn't a six week project. It's a way of working, a way of learning that frees up so much time later in the year or in the child's school career, with enough cooperation between schools. I wonder whether this is why 3-18 schools, independent mostly, are able to better understand the potential time saving and the ability to reduce the repetition most school students have to put up with.

Cassie: The immersion stage is a very difficult stage. It's not about generating a solution, drawing in a sketchbook, or Googling ideas or finding information. It's about finding emotions, people's feelings, finding empathy for the problem. 

Miriam: When we were in that immersion stage and we were really trying to create that empathy, we were trying to get out of the students their feelings, what they thought about it and then what action can we take to be better? It was sort of empowering to them to see that they can do something about it. It's not just your teachers, your parents your school, you can actually go out there and do something about it.

January 11, 2012

Release the reins of learning: an annual post-script from... my mum


I don't do guest posts, but when it's your mother it's hard to say no. A year ago I wrote the Times Education Supplement's New Year editorial, If you truly want to engage pupils, relinquish the reins and give them the chance to learn by doing. At the time, my ideas were young, we had only been playing with them for six months or so, and Mrs McIntosh senior (and Mr McIntosh senior) weren't entirely sure how these "great ideas" were actually do-able. So we had many a dinner-table chat, and from these, as is the wont of the McIntosh family, my mother wrote a blog post, dry, unpublished, and asked me to push it out when I felt the time was right. She has since pushed it on her own blog, but I thought I'd ressurect this revolution again here.

A year on, the ideas in that article have been playing out in reality in so many of the schools with whom NoTosh has worked, and so it feels appropriate to now publish the foresight, and challenge, in my mother's post, written a year ago today:

The Revolution: a traditional English teacher’s take.
“Poetry, like all the arts, is useless”
Thus began an introductory note, written in the 1940s,  for Higher English students on the subject of poetry – a wonderful note which went on to demonstrate that a knowledge of poetry would not clothe or put a roof over the heads of those who knew how to approach it, it was nevertheless one of the most fulfilling cultural activities for students of English. 

The question for an English teacher who is sensitive to the need both for the cultural aspects of the subject and for the transactional writing that underpins half the subjects in the secondary curriculum is how to achieve a balance within a revolutionised school curriculum. This is one vision – the vision of an English teacher who has bridged the period between “Projects in Practice” and Higher Still, and who sees Curriculum for Excellence as a half-baked attempt to have a bloodless revolution.

  1. Transactional English in immersion learning through a central topic:If a whole school was immersed in a core topic such as Climate Change, dealing with everything from the Physics and Chemistry of the process through the social aspects and physical impact of change to the politics and journalism of dealing with it, then English writing and comprehension would be an integral part of the study. English specialists would have to be timetabled to be present in the area where such work was going on, to be a constant resource on the ground, to enable the best possible communication and expression of what was being done at all levels.
  2. Expressive and cultural input – especially from S3 upwards – in English:This is where the biggest change might be seen to take place. It would be perfectly possible to deliver the kind of lesson that has always brought, say, a poem to life to a much larger group than has been traditional since the days when partitioned classrooms used to be opened up to allow one teacher to take 60 pupils in time of absence of staff shortage. I’m thinking Big Lesson, followed by group work by pupils with teacher participation, followed by plenary feedback with some kind of projected backdrop showing the results of the discussions. This would free up timetable time to allow for more flexibility.

    [It always seemed a waste to me to have a whole year timetabled to be doing the same course at the same time when some of the work was suitable for this kind of treatment. It also seemed a shame for some pupils to be stuck with the one teacher for the two years, say, of S grade, when they could easily have a shot of someone who inspired them. There were often instances of pupils of one teacher coming to another for advice which was lacking in the class they were in]
  3. Technology as the glue as well as the instrument:If pupils were not isolated in the womb-like classroom of individual teachers (I’ll speak for English classes now) for up to 6 hours a week, but could because of flexible working spaces have access to technology and subject specialists when they needed it, provision of an adequate number of computers should be less of a problem – and the maintenance of them might be made simpler if 20 computers were not buried in the room of a cack-handed technophobe who didn’t ensure they were properly functional.

    I think the formative assessment of students involved in both the cultural and the transactional stages of English could be transformed by their doing all their working-out online, so that both the process and the input of the teacher could be publicly visible (whether in the wider  world or on a closed school site). This would save teacher-hours in repeating the same mantras (eg about the embedding of quotation in a Critical Essay for Higher English) and allow learning to take place through study of past materials (something I always did, but which was limited by having limited copies of exemplars).

    Final work could be submitted on paper if required, but I like the openness and accountability of the blog/ning model for ongoing assessment and appraisal. If twitter or other short-form communication were to be built in to the system, the resulting flexibility would expedite learning, mentoring, teaching, assessment and feedback – and none of these would be limited to the physical classroom or the 9-4 day.
  4. The integration of the extra-curricular:It strikes me that if something like The Pupils’ View had been a more collaborative activity, we would have had the Business Studies people onside teaching effective skills in typing and layout instead of fighting over when we could use their computers – and there was much useful learning going on with phone skills, advertising, layout & design, sweet-talking advertisers, selling papers. None of that was ever recognised.

Obviously timetabling and resources, school buildings and staffing are at the heart of this, but it seems to me a way of developing the ideas you were sharing so that the interesting and purely cultural aspects of the subject are not subordinated. And I have taken no account whatsoever of the matter of discipline and the disaffected pupil.

In my experience, there is a great deal of slack time and wasted effort in teaching as it currently stands. 
C.M.M. 01/11

These are many of the actual, practical ways that teachers in our Design Thinking School are piecing together a new form of curriculum, assessment and ways of teaching and learning. What practices and ideas would you add? 

January 02, 2012

Free up time by freeing up the timetable

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.

Timetable - danger!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.

TimetableAt 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.

As always, our brilliant teachers there are sharing their journey on their own blog, so if you want to see how this pans out through early 2012, just give them a regular visit or follow their posterous blog.

December 27, 2011

Ignoring What Works in Education, The Umbrella Man, and The Challenge of Framing

The Umbrella Man

Earlier this month I wrote in my GETideas blog about how in education we have a great talent for ignoring what the research out there says about what we know works in education, opting instead to largely continue with a status quo for which there is little supporting evidence of success at all. It's almost as if we strive for mediocrity in the face of proven excellence:

For example, formative assessment – student-initiated, self, and peer assessment – is far more effective at raising test scores than teaching to the test. Not putting any grades on student work at all, strictly limiting feedback solely to comments, is the most effective means of students eventually gaining top scores.

Go Google it and ye shall find.

Yet I haven’t heard one piece of discourse on formative assessment in the U.S. in 2011 that actually shows an understanding of what it is (the description is nearly always the precise opposite). And I do not know of any schools, anywhere, that have a policy that says that no student receives a grade until the examination (and I would love to be corrected on this).

Those making the decisions nearly always fall for the trap set for them: Our minds are built for ignoring the facts.

George Lakoff, the political strategist, sums this up most eloquently in the first chaper of his book, Don't Think of An Elephant (you just did, didn't you?):

When I teach the study of framing at [UC] Berkeley, in Cognitive Science 101, the first thing I do is I give my students an exercise. The exercise is: “Don’t think of an elephant! Whatever you do, do not think of an elephant.” I’ve never found a student who is able to do this. Every word, like elephant, evokes a frame, which can be an image or other kinds of knowledge: Elephants are large, have floppy ears and a trunk, are associated with circuses, and so on. The word is defined relative to that frame.

When we negate a frame, we evoke the frame. Richard Nixon found that out the hard way. While under pressure to resign during the Watergate scandal, Nixon addressed the nation on T.V. He stood before the nation and said, “I am not a crook.” And everybody thought about him as a crook.

You can read more about this notion of framing in my GETideas post.

Since writing this post, I've seen other examples of framing getting in the way of seeking out the facts that explain things, and of the facts not being as appealing as the frames through which people have already chosen to interpret an event. Really getting to understand how people frame seems key to helping move educators and education departments forward in adopting practices that the facts tell us work better than the status quo.

Take, for example, President John F Kennedy's assassination. This whole event, for large numbers of people, is framed, along with sadness, with the words "conspiracy theory". Thus, when The Umbrella Man was noticed on the street at the point of the assassination, despite the fact it was a beautiful day not requiring a black umbrella, people assumed that he was somehow part of the plot, providing many lavish explanations as to how so.

What emerged years later is a factual explanation and, as the author who coined the phrase The Umbrella Man puts it, a cautionary tale about frames:

View the whole clip, and explanation of The Umbrella Man with Errol Morris.

  • How are frames of those you're trying to convince to change their approach to teaching and learning getting in the way of adopting what we know works best?
  • What is it works best, in fact?
  • What challenges do researchers have themselves to overcome before educators start paying more attention to what they say works?
  • And what's the role of the teacher action researcher to start definining the agenda of what is known to work best?
  • Should it always be the PhDs that tell the teachers how to teach? Should all teachers strive to be researchers? Do you need to be a researcher to know what works best?

December 08, 2011

The Inspiring Maker Curriculum in Darlington

Maker Curriculum 3

"A school where learning is all about making? It sounds lovely in principle - or in a newspaper editorial or keynote - but it'll never work in practice."

Sometimes you give a talk or write an article, and you really wonder if it was any good in achieving anything at all. In 2010 I had addressed a group of Creative Practitioners and teachers, all part of the wonderful Creative Partnerships programme that put 'creatives' (artists, musicians, filmmakers and so on) into schools to imbue their way of working throughout learning and teaching. It was here that I started to really push the notion of creativity as being inescapably about making. How can you be creative without making something: a written poem, a car, a rocket?

Well, I discovered nearly 18 months on that Sam Hirst and Emma Farrow, teachers at West Park Academy, Darlington, had taken this to heart, and embarked on a maker's curriculum of their own. As with my own Creative Partnerships project, it was seven year olds that showed us how it's done.

Sam and Emma have given me some of their story to share with you:

A combination of the age of students and their varied socio-economic backgrounds had united them in the wrong way: the level of support they required and the constant questions they asked and assurances they needed were halting their capacity to learn.

It felt like they had stopped thinking for themselves, they had become passive learners unwilling to take any risks. looking only for the teacher to tell them what to do or else not to participating, opting out by remaining stuck.

The challenge was to get them to figure things out for themselves take away the certainty that there was a right answer to build up an approach to learning that was an active process. We also wanted a legacy, that would change the way we as teachers did things and resulted in independent learners who were able to persevere, make connections, take risks and ask and answer their own questions.

We needed John, our creative practitioner, power tools and time to explore, construct, create, fail, try again and a belief that we could build anything.

We realised that if children where going to construct they needed to explore how things were made and put together.

Maker Curriculum 1On the first day When the children arrived at school they were confronted with lots of stuff, old TVs, computers, toasters and hairdryers and lots of real tools. A day was spent taking things apart to see how they worked Children worked collaboratively, they talked they explained they showed us what they knew they were excited, curious and determined to discover. They spent over two hours, all on task, enthralled with what they were doing. They attempted to explain to each other what the purpose of each component was. The teacher was the observer, listening in, getting a window into their thinking. The purpose was for children to have an understanding of how ever day objects worked and that you can work things out just through exploration.

Maker Curriculum 2We then looked at what they could they turn all these bits into? No direction, totally from their imagination. Free rein just to explore, to construct, the fun of making something without a defined end product. Success was in the doing, the playing around with materials to generate ideas, the persevering the creating,  exploring what might be possible. We immediately saw in some children a flexibility of thought, an enthusiasm and tenacity that we had not seen before. 

Through discussions with John, the children identified the skills in order for them to realise their ideas, to prevent them becoming frustrated, they needed further exposure to different tools, techniques and skills in order to satisfy the demands of their creations. This was when we  brought in the power tools. There was a risk assessment to complete but beyond there was no further complications children could see that we trusted them to use these tools appropriately and they did not let us down. They were the right tools for the job.

Maker Curriculum ProductAs a result we got....runways, villages, planes, dragons, the list was endless and we also got enthusiasm and a love of the learning and acquisition of new skills

As we progressed we found gaps in their understanding in other subjects that could be addressed through to exposure to learning and experiences within the context of construction. What is the best way to bend an iron bar, how to measure accurately and why it is important. Which materials will allow an electric current to pass through and why we need to know? Through the doing, testing experimenting, questioning they learnt knowledge and skills in a context that could see a purpose for.

November 29, 2011

TEDxLondon: The Problem Finders [VIDEO]

In September I gave my first (and maybe last!) TEDx talk in London, on something I believe passionately about, and something I do not believe we're getting right, at scale, in schooling.

It's a linguistic nuance that requires significant changes in a teacher's pedagogy, approach, way of thinking and way of of collaborating. It's a change that we're enjoying working through with hundreds of educators on at NoTosh, throughout Australia, the Far East, Europe and, from next year, the USA.

Not on the video, now released by TEDx, is the pledge I was asked to make:

I pledge over this next twelve months to help 10,000 young people discover a problem-finding curriculum, through the development of confidence and skills in their teachers.

Well, with some help from some friends, we did manage to get 10,000 young people discovering a problem-finding curriculum: and we did it in 21 days.

We're working every week now with schools across the world in building The Design Thinking School, a pedagogical framework that borrows from enquiry-based learning and problem-solving curricula to bring new meaning and relevance to students, and we're finding that such a framework works regardless of curriculum, country, culture or language. In independent schools with parents wanting top marks, in city schools where students are disengaged, in suburb schools were students are successful but bored... in every case it's leading to more engaged students and better academic performance, in both elementary and high schools.

These Are "The Problem Finders":

I’ve been lucky enough to see our education system from several sides. I’ve been a teacher, an education advisor for government and I’ve worked as a talent spotter for TV companies and digital startups in the creative industries. I’ve noticed something in the way that we teach our young people that has a negative knock-on effect on their very ability later in life to contribute to a creative, sustainable world. With my teams of educators all over the world I’ve also seen the impact of a simple mindshift that every teacher in every classroom can make.

When I worked with the television corporation, my job was to seek out ideas that people had come up with and invest in them. The key: they had to find a problem that no-one else had solved. Out of 3000 ideas, this past three years, I think I’ve recommended about 30 of them. That means that our most creative people have about a 1% success rate in finding problems that need solving.

Currently, the world’s education systems are crazy about problem-based learning, but they’re obsessed with the wrong bit of it. While everyone looks at how we could help young people become better problem-solvers, we’re not thinking how we could create a generation of problem finders.

I’ve discovered just how many per cent of our learners are working in a problem finding curriculum. This summer, I met Simon Breakspear, a young educator from Sydney living in Cambrdige. He told me that the biggest headache he had in his current venture was finding a problem that no-one else had looked at. He went on to point out that he had never had to find a problem like this until this very moment, 25 years into his life. Simon was part of the one percent of us who undertake that bastion of quality learning: a PhD.

Another educator and good friend, Alan November, told me story a little later this summer. He once taught a Community Problem Solving course where, on the first day, he set students the task of finding a problem in the local community that they could then go off and solve using whatever technology they had available.From the front row a hand shot up. “Mr November?” began one of the girls in the class. “You’re the teacher, we’re the students. It’s your job to come up with the problems and give them to us to solve.” This was in 1983.

All our students, their parents and the people teaching them, have been indoctrinated that is teachers who sift through all the things we can learn, find the areas worth exploring, and make up theoretical problems for students to solve. On top of this, most educators believe that it is their job to invent problems at just the right level of difficulty to appeal to every one of the 30 children in front of them.
So we see this disingenuous belief that framing fake problems in different coloured books (the pink ones for the clever kids, the yellow ones for those “who need support”) is the best way to create problem solvers.

It is not.

Teachers, for too long, have actually been doing the richest work of learning for their students. Teachers find problems, frame them and the resources young people can use to solve them. Young people get a sliver of learning from coming up with ideas, based on some basic principles upon which the teacher has briefed them, and the teacher then comes back on the scene to run the whole feedback procedure.

How about something different?

In the classrooms in which I work, students explore the twenty or so themes upon which our planet really depends, immerse themselves in the ideas and information their teachers, peers and whole communities can impart, find the problems they feel are worth solving, theorise which ones will work and then try them out in a prototype. In their world, we don’t just write an essay or create yet another wiki or blog to describe what our idea is, but we actually build the solution to the problem with our own hands – in this case, these seven year olds built the world’s youngest TEDxKids event, and talked about their research and solutions to some of the world’s most pressing – or simply most interesting - problems. Do animals talk? Do babies have a secret language? Which cancer should we invest in curing first? Why do slugs needs slime?

Others in a Brisbane primary school we’re working chose to explore living for 24 hours without technology to immerse themselves not just in what makes technology so vital, but also the challenges and problems to our wellbeing that technology brings.

It takes courage for a teacher to let go of the reins of learning sufficiently to inspire problem finding where no textbook, teacher or standardized test knows the answer, where the teacher’s voice is but one of 30, 300 or 3000 others chipping in, guiding, coaxing and coaching through the ether. But this kind of learning surpasses the depth of thinking demanding by any traditional textbook, teaching or standardized test.

I began with a story about my friend Alan’s class, his students protesting that “he was the teacher, and they were the students”. Well, he persisted. After a year of problem-finding, those students insisted on the school opening up over the summer vacation so they could continue to find problems and solve them. When a new computer arrived, a student broke into school over the vacation – he didn’t break in to steal the computer, but to practice coding it. It’s rare we hear of students breaking into school to learn. But, I guess that’s what Problem-finding does to people.

Guy Claxton: What's the point of school?


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:

  1. Powerful learners are curious
  2. Confident learners have courage
  3. Powerful learners are good at exploration and investigation
  4. Powerful learning requires experimentation
  5. Powerful learners have imagination
  6. 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.
  7. Powerful learners have the virtue of sociability and sharing.
  8. 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:


Developing empathy

Experiment with building mental models of how someone else would have approached a problem (How would Mahatma Ghandi have approached global warming?)

Buy the book - it'll be by your side for a long time.

Pic: Bored by Matt

Finding the right problems to solve: Gladwell on the Norden bombsight

In his latest TED Talk, Malcolm Gladwell tells The Strange Tale of the Norden Bombsight, where the US Government spent billions on a technology that didn't solve the real problems of the people using it (bombers had huge accuracy with the machine but this was rendered useless by clouds), and was used for solving problems that didn't exist, too (perfect sighting on a nuclear bomb is not an essential).

Basically, we see governments and institutions continually inventing sights that can finding the pear barrel 20,000 feet below, even though we don't need it. We continually seek solutions to the wrong problems, at great expense, and build things we, and the users of the things, don't need. And finally, we have developed a strong capacity for building success around the wrong metrics to justify our bold, but wrong, decisions. 

Sound familiar?

What would happen if, instead of creating this generation of problem solvers, people who can solve imaginery theoretical pseudo problems really well, we helped carve out a generation of curious continual learners who want to find the next great genuine problem that needs solving?

October 03, 2011

Can your students join 10,000 others designing our future?

Problem finders
At TEDxLondon, BLC, Naace and a few other events this summer I asked if people wanted to join me in trying to encourage more curricula that were based less on students solving the irrelevant, contrived pseudo problems given to them in textbooks, and based more on finding great, real world problems that need solved.

A superb opportunity for action has come along.

Ever wondered what 10,000 young people could do to solve some of the world’s greatest problems? We want to know for the world’s most important ICT event, ITU Telecom World 11, by gathering young people's vision for the future on world2011.us.

The October 24-27 event is the flagship meeting of the world’s telecoms industries, brought together by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the specialised United Nations agency responsible for information and communication technologies. In the run up to the event, and during it, we’ll be showcasing the ideas of young people, aged 8-18, alongside the debates, panels and corridor discussions of these influential delegates.

I've been at so many events recently that have either totally lacked the student voice, or made third party reference to it through second-hand reportag from their teachers. This is a real chance for your students to make a global impact on problems that matter, wherever they are.

It’s a once-in-a-lifetime real world project-based learning opportunity, that ties into most teachers’ curriculum at any given point in the year.

We’re providing some brief points of inspiration to get you started, over the seven key themes, and will open up a wiki space today where teachers can collaborate and add to each other’s resources on the areas.

By October 24, we hope to have videos, photos, blogs and examples or prototypes of what young people believe might help solve challenges on their own doorstep. Sign up your class, school or district to begin sharing the ideas of your students. We want you to tell us how technology could be harnessed to:

To take part, you just have to sign up your interest, and from there you’re able to submit posts to the project.

Pic: some problem finders in one of our schools in Ormeau, Brisbane, Australia.

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

About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

Recent Posts