Reggie Watts breaks me up every time I hear the beginning of this TED Talk. It's funny because, so many times before, I've heard this kind of faux-erudite nonsense from self-proclaimed intelligentsia, in an unfunny context. It comes from people who want to look smart, instead of just being smart. Click play and read along...:
"... and that's one of the things that I enjoy most about this convention. It's not so much, as so little as to do with what everything is. (Laughter) But it is within our self-interest to understand the topography of our lives unto ourselves. (Laughter) The future states that there is no time other than the collapsation of that sensation of the mirror of the memories in which we are living. (Laughter) Common knowledge, but important nonetheless. (Laughter) As we face fear in these times, and fear is all around us, we also have anti-fear. It's hard to imagine or measure. The background radiation is simply too static to be able to be seen under the normal spectral analysis. But we feel as though there are times when a lot of us -- you know what I'm say'n? But -- you know what I'm say'n? Cuz, like, as a hip hop thing, you know what I'm say'n, TED be rock'n -- you know what I'm say'n. Like so I wrote a song, and I hope you guys dig it. It's a song about people and sasquatches -- (Laughter) -- and other French science stuff. That's French science. Okay, here we go. ♫
Watts is then just smart.
Would you rather look smart or be smart? For the past decade I've been a fiendish reader of all things simplicity, especially the art of making complex ideas simple. I've often been off the mark on that one, but not for wont of trying. I take solace from the fact that most policy on education, most curricula, most education research is written in such a way as to render its content useless for the people who need to understand it most.
"But I had seen first one and then another of the rooms in which I had slept during my life, and in the end I would revisit them all in the long course of my waking dream: rooms in winter, where on going to bed I would at once bury my head in a nest, built up out of the most diverse materials, the corner of my pillow, the top of my blankets, a piece of a shawl, the edge of my bed, and a copy of an evening paper, all of which things I would contrive, with the infinite patience of birds building their nests, to cement into one whole; rooms where, in a keen frost, I would feel the satisfaction of being shut in from the outer world (like the sea-swallow which builds at the end of a dark tunnel and is kept warm by the surrounding earth), and where, the fire keeping in all night, I would sleep wrapped up, as it were, in a great cloak of snug and savoury air, shot with the glow of the logs which would break out again in flame: in a sort of alcove without walls, a cave of warmth dug out of the heart of the room itself, a zone of heat whose boundaries were constantly shifting and altering in temperature as gusts of air ran across them to strike freshly upon my face, from the corners of the room, or from parts near the window or far from the fireplace which had therefore remained cold—or rooms in summer, where I would delight to feel myself a part of the warm evening, where the moonlight striking upon the half-opened shutters would throw down to the foot of my bed its enchanted ladder; where I would fall asleep, as it might be in the open air, like a titmouse which the breeze keeps poised in the focus of a sunbeam—or sometimes the Louis XVI room, so cheerful that I could never feel really unhappy, even on my first night in it: that room where the slender columns which lightly supported its ceiling would part, ever so gracefully, to indicate where the bed was and to keep it separate; sometimes again that little room with the high ceiling, hollowed in the form of a pyramid out of two separate storeys, and partly walled with mahogany, in which from the first moment my mind was drugged by the unfamiliar scent of flowering grasses, convinced of the hostility of the violet curtains and of the insolent indifference of a clock that chattered on at the top of its voice as though I were not there; while a strange and pitiless mirror with square feet, which stood across one corner of the room, cleared for itself a site I had not looked to find tenanted in the quiet surroundings of my normal field of vision: that room in which my mind, forcing itself for hours on end to leave its moorings, to elongate itself upwards so as to take on the exact shape of the room, and to reach to the summit of that monstrous funnel, had passed so many anxious nights while my body lay stretched out in bed, my eyes staring upwards, my ears straining, my nostrils sniffing uneasily, and my heart beating; until custom had changed the colour of the curtains, made the clock keep quiet, brought an expression of pity to the cruel, slanting face of the glass, disguised or even completely dispelled the scent of flowering grasses, and distinctly reduced the apparent loftiness of the ceiling."
I'll admit this now. I've not read the book. Nor have I actually read the sentence that I just copied and pasted here. Why? Because it's not really the point of this post.
The point of this post is to place an intellectual earworm in your mind, ready for Monday morning, or the next time you turn finger to keyboard, pen to paper, to convince anyone to do anything. No-one cares how smart you try to show yourself to be, how smart your strategy might look, how smart your tech programme appears to be. They care how smart all of it really is, meaning your job is to share it in as simple a way as possible.
(The readability score of this blog post, without Proust, is 80. #fistbump)
In this interview, that I've used in two recent keynotes on creativity and failure, Zacharias makes the point that listening to a concert is one of the rare moments in our lives where we can concentrate on just one thing, without interruption. Much like deep thinking or learning, interruptions by phone rings (or bell rings in school) are catastrophic for our projects and ideas.
In this instance, it was just too much. On the up side, Zacharias says, after such an interruption, the audience is even more attuned to what is going on, on the stage.
I love the shrug at the end, a realisation that something simple and playful can diffuse the potential blot on a whole performance.
In teaching, it's easy to let interruptions get in the way of our thinking. We respond with anger, frustration, telling offs... But it is the regular interruptions to our thinking - the bell, the timetable, the examination - that risk being the biggest incumbrance to sustainable levels of creativity and deep thinking of school students the world over.
10 years ago, I might have been amongst the masses to point out that the bell, the timetable and the examination are all thrust upon me, as a teacher, and that I have no chance of controlling them merely in the name of creativity. Today, however, I know that teachers can achieve so much more if they design their way out of it. I've just come off a call with educators at Nanjing International School where, in preparing and prototyping ideas for a new strategy:
students have taken longer periods of time with specialists, rather than the chop-change of a regular schedule - more learning, less running around between classes;
homework has been replaced with home learning, based on the self-created projects students undertake during the day;
students develop personal projects get deep into learning outside the classroom, where there are no bells or timetables (said one kid: "When you're interested in it it's really easy!");
parents are sitting in with their sons and daughters during class and lunchtime, to see how they learn what they learn;
students are starting kernels of social entrepreneurship firms whose objective is longevity and sustainability, not short-term money-making.
All of these have come as a result of the school working as a whole, with design thinking mindsets along the way, to think differently about learning, to make learning happen from the point of view of what works for the student, more than what works for reinforcing the existing system.
Less of the status quo can only ever be a good thing...
In short: you don't know what you don't know. And given that you do not know you don't know it, there's no way for you to ask specific-enough a question to get a specific answer back, from Google or for a friend. It is the theory behind the much simpler concept I came up with, of "Ungoogleable Thinking".
I write the Masters course at Charles Sturt Uni on Designing Spaces for Learning. The key concept above is described in this video clip. It's simple, and at the same time one of the most complex concepts for my students to get their heads around.
The key point made in the video is what my team and I have tried to show through our work with schools: as you cannot seek out the answers to questions you cannot ask, you need another way to 'bump into' those unknown unknowns. The only two ways to do this are chance (have someone tell you something you didn't know - but that means a lot of teacher talk to get to a few morsels of new stuff for a whole class) or you enter into a voyage of discovery - everything else is going to be stuff you know you don't know, or that you know already.
This is where a teacher can curate resources, and provoke learners, to such an extent that we can take a safe guess that students will bump into concepts that they didn't know they didn't know. And when this happens, the learner needs to connect this new concept to what they know before, thereby creating new understanding and knowledge.
This means that, while useful some of the time, the traditional "understanding by design" project is unlikely to ever facilitate deeper learning of the "unknown unknown" variety. Why? Because the teacher has defined the end point and an ever-convergent route of arriving there for the students.
In our design thinking work, we tend to look at much fuzzier problem areas, leading to multiple routes to several potential outcomes. Learning goals are not met at the end of the project, therefore - there are too many potential routes to showing understanding or problem-solving for even the most expansive rubric to be usable. Instead, success criteria are met during a much more predictable period of immersion, where the resources curated by the teacher are highly likely to help learners understand their prior knowledge (known knowns) and stuff they knew they didn't know, but can find out to help them answer key questions (known unknowns). A troubling provocation is often the launchpad for students to try and take prior knowledge and new ideas, to try and create something new.
It is only at the point of students making their own independent synthesis of the rich information they've gleaned, that a potential disjunction might be created, a point at which the student wants to dive deeper or off at a tangent to explore a much fuzzier area of their understanding of the world.
If ever you are seeking ways to help every student hit their zone of proximal development, then Hatchuel and Weil's C-K Theory is not a bad place to start (though you might need more than 28 minutes of reading and viewing to get it, and see how your practice might change thanks to it!).
The original limited edition version of my book, How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, is down to its last few copies barely 10 weeks after we received crates of them. This was the full-colour 'beautiful' book that I had wanted to make, but its manufacture was incredibly (and surprisingly) complex. Once the last copies have been sold, we'll only reprint on special bulk orders of 70+ for this beautiful landscape paperback.
In the meantime, we've been working on producing a more simple version of the book, black and white, with no pictures, for those who want to have the book on their Kindle device, and it's finally available!
This morning in Edmonton I'll be giving a keynote made up almost entirely of musical metaphors for educators. I've only given the talk once, but it proved particularly powerful with my group of Swedish educators at the time, because you don't need to speak great English to understand the lessons we can learn for our own classrooms.
In the excerpt above, young pianist David Kadouch gets pushed by pianist Daniel Baremboim. In fact, he gets a pretty hard time when he changes the dynamic - when he plays an E flat note louder than the pianissimo (super quiet) the composer asked for. When asked why he was doing it the young Kadouch replies: "Because I like it". Baremboim is not impressed:
"I'm very sorry, with all due respect, it's not good enough.
"If you had thought of a good reason... I would have said 'chapeau'. But "I like it" is not good enough.
I'm not trying to compare what you're trying to do with the way I think it should go. I'm trying to help you achieve more of what you want to achieve yourself, so that's why it's important that I know why."
Baremboim points out that, because the student has not thought of the reason he is playing something in a certain way, he cannot justify playing it that way.
When I think of teachers' practice, I hit the same kind of conversation daily. I'm no Baremboim of teaching, but I can ask "Why" to find out why a teacher thinks that planning or teaching in a certain way is the best way of achieving what they want to achieve. Knowing the why, we can then both work together to ascertain if, from the world of teaching and learning savvy that we can access, the chosen path is really the best one at all.
This is the essence of design thinking. We design (take time to consider each element of) our thinking (we actually think through for ourselves; don't just assume that the first answer is the right one).
Alas, most days the initial response is more or less what Kadouch says: "Because I like doing it that way; Because I've always done it that way; Because I saw someone else do it that way." None of these answers is good enough.
There's no care, no design, no thinking.
Here are some simple "Whys" where "because I like it" isn't good enough. And the resultant conversation might help open up some better learning in any classroom:
Why do you start a lesson with a teacher's voice?
When people are talking why do you keep going?
When students are clearly producing pretty but shallow work, why do you let them give the presentation?
When that kid wants to make a movie again, why do you let them?
Why do you, and not your students, choose the resources and activities that they will undertake each and every hour they're with you?
Why do you assume that student-led learning of content will lead to students 'getting through' less content than if you stand and deliver it?
Why do you think maths students cannot undertake student-led projects as effectively as in social studies?
I can't stand it when people say they want to "think out of the box". I try my best to hide the pain on my face, muscles enter involuntary spasm, and I smile back knowing that the mission ahead is going to be a delicate one. It was adman legendaire Gerry Farrell, last Friday, who helped me understand why my buttocks clench in disappointment on hearing this. You see: it's the boxes we live with that forceus to be creative in the first place.
As Gerry explained in a talk in Edinburgh, ads people tend to have the same boxes for every creative project:
the budget is always going to be $5000, not $50,000;
the timescale will always be next week, not next month;
the product is the one the client has to sell, not the one the adman wishes he could sell for them.
Well, most of my work isn't with admen. It's with other creative folk and above all teachers. Educators. The ones who work with kids. They would dream of a budget of $5000 (well, anything, really). That marking is due tomorrow, not next week. The product I have is the class of thirty-three weans in front of me at 9am tomorrow, and the day after, and we only have a few chances, if that, to do our best by them. If this particular 'campaign' falls down, the cost to us all is a heavy one.
But Gerry's point - that the boxes we live by make us creative - still stands. The key is working out what the important boxes are, so that we can work well within them. Here's my non-exhaustive list of creative constraints that teachers can revel in, in order to create invigorating learning experiences for and with their young charges:
The Curriculum A curriculum is not some burden that we must carry. It can be a creative stimulus. What happens if you take page 6 with page 27, and bash them together to come up with a new project idea? So, until this point in time "we've always taught Introduction to Algebra in the third week of October". Why? What makes people do that? Ask 'why' often enough (at least five times) and most afficionados of ithasalwaysbeendonethiswayitis will be stuck for words, and explanations. Now you can start to innovate with your curriculum. Why? Why not?
Assessments Teachers and students have no idea how lucky we are. The admen would sell their grannies if they had a success criteria, printed out in advance, and laminated, to tell them what a good campaign should look like. Students can do what admen would do with such criteria - go way beyond them to keep the client happy and get the next gig. The trick is making sure that the students really understand what's meant by all the twaddle that makes up the ridiculous adjectival foreplay of most formal success criteria.
The boss says no The boss doesn't know any better until you show them, until you sell them the benefits of your idea, not just the endless features of your idea. If the benefit is clearly better learning for your youngsters, any professional outfit would encourage you to get on with it and not bother the boss with silly questions and posturing anyway. If you're in doubt, try Steve Jobs' quote for size:
"Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build things that other people can use. "Once you discover that, you'll never be the same again."
I don't have the time I do believe you have the same time as that person, over there, who's done the cool thing you want to do. And we've already established you're as smart as them. You have different priorities, that's all. Get them straight, and you'll never say "I don't have time for that" again. You will only be left saying "that's a great idea, but it's not for me, right now. I'm busy transforming the world with this idea over here."
Most of the best ideas come quickly as the result of a well-identified pain point. When the pain's at fever pitch, I've seen teams of six people create 226 ideas in 10 minutes flat. If I'd given them a day, instead of 10 minutes, we'd have come up with six ideas.
What other creative constraints are there? What other boxes should we stop thinking outside of, and start jumping into?
Last Friday the legendary Creative Director Gerry Farrell gave a talk about all things 'ugly', and many stories revolved around how we deal with failure, or apparent failure. In one story he talked about Angostura Bitters, an alcoholic mixer with which I had a brief relationship during a passing phase of enjoying the ladies' drink "Long Vodka".
In the early days of the drink, the two brother team who created it decided to get recognition for their new drink by entering a contest. In an efficiency move, one was charged with choosing the best bottle for the job, the other brother placed in charge of the label production.
One small mistake: they didn't communicate on the size of anything.
When the bottle came back with a label that was far too big for the bottle, it was too late to fix. They entered the competition regardless which they promptly lost. However, one judge remarked about their "signature labelling", and the rest is history. Ever since, they have kept that original label, too big for the bottle with too much text on it.
In most creative organisations (including schools), the 'mistake' is what kills the idea before it even gets a chance to compete. Releasing even imperfect ideas, like a blog post rushed out in 28 minutes one morning, is better than ditching the whole damned thing. And we invent lame excuses for not creating / releasing / writing publicly. If I were to replace any of your school language with the Angostura story we'd end up with:
Who'd be interested in (this drink)?
I've spent all this time thinking about making (a drink) but I don't think people will try it.
(The bottle) is the wrong platform for (this drink) - we need to wait until we buy the right one.
The boss won't like (the drink) that I've made. Better I keep it quiet, never let anyone drink it, than go let him taste it first.
OK, the boss hates (my drink) - it lost the competition - so we'd better throw in the towel.
If I don't get permission to make (great drinks) then I just won't try it.
I've got too many (drinks) ideas to choose which one to make first. So I'll do nothing.
I could go on. These excuses take seconds to come up with. Actually doing something takes a lot longer.
This kick up the backside, that no-one will make your ideas happen for you, is the very thing I go into depth in, on my new book How To Come Up With Great Ideas.
When you don't 'get' something, when there's something you've not got that gets in the way of building your idea, do you put your hands up and wait until the next piece in your puzzle becomes available, or do you just make stuff happen with the resources you've got - are you a puzzle maker who struggles when a piece is missing or a quilt maker who makes the best out of what you have? Tina Seelig explains this wonderful metaphor further. My own book, How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, provides hundreds of tools and skillsets you can use and develop to make the most happen with what you have.
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?
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.