75 posts categorized "Design Thinking"

June 11, 2014

Do people really want a struggle, or an easy day of PD?

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Sometimes I wish I just ran flashy blogging workshops for a living. The days would be easy, the money, too. I wouldn't have to think hard, and nor would the attendees. I'd have photos of smiling complacent teachers out for a jolly PD day.

But the satisfaction would be zero on both sides of the fence. As our buddy John Davitt puts it, life is not about finding the right SOFTware, it's about enjoying some STRUGGLEware. NoTosh spends a lot of its time in that struggle space, helping people really operate in that zone of proximal development and, on days like Monday, maybe even just a wee bit beyond that.

This week the English Head Teachers with whom I was working and I both had a well-deserved pint after a real struggle of a day, working through how their loosely joined trust could increase its positive influence, without necessarily losing that mutual feeling of trust that has evolved over a few years. Basically: control without being controlling, was the order of the day.

That's a notoriously hard balance to strike. In January, we had explored the reality of the here and now was deciphered and some potentially strong platforms on which this group of Heads could build in the future. This week's session tackled the most difficult element - how do you set out some pragmatic action that takes the group from the status quo to their ambitious future, and not just that, but do it without diktat from on high?

We got there. Just. Between my first signs of the season's hayfever (atchoum!), the heat of the day, the heat of the discussion and the complexity of the relationships that make this group of Heads special, we got there. Pragmatic next steps that will begin to take them to a more powerful, influential place, ready to make students' learning better, together.

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If you want to struggle with me on some of the most challenging leadership and innovation tasks that a learning organisation might go through, you can work through some of the exercises and activities in my soon-to-be-released book, How To Come Up With Great Ideas And Actually Make Them Happen. It's available for pre-order now.

Or you can just look at other people having a struggle instead ;-):


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May 15, 2014

Real problem-finding attracting global researchers: Year 9, Denmark


Year 9 students have made a discovery through their own problem-finding in science, and international scientists are honing in on the consequences. Wifi and 3G next to the bed? Not any more.

More on problem-finding from my TEDx talk.

Cross-posted on NoTosh's Facebook page.

May 04, 2014

Look Up: knowing when to drop your tech to really learn...

Look Up. Effective technology use is knowing as much when to drop it, as to use it.

"Where we leave out all the bad bits, show no emotion…" A poem about real world empathy, being in the present, shutting down that screen... after you've watched it on YouTube, of course.

The point made here, though, is an interesting one when we reflect on the design thinking process and why it seems so powerful for learning, and is clearly distanced from "innovative technology use" when we see it used in schools. If anything, the key parts in the process - defining and reframing problems, ideating solutions to them, and soliciting and acting upon feedback, have nothing to do with a screen. There's great design research showing, too, that technology has failed to step up yet to the complexities of the real world thinking that our brains go through when trying to make sense of complex information in order to define a problem, or ideate a solution (e.g., Dorta, T., Pérez, E. and Lesage, A. (2008) - The Ideation Gap).

So, yes: look up, don't let the world pass by. Observe it, note the normal, embrace the differences and happenstance, create something new with someone else.

Cross-posted to NoTosh's regular updates on the Facebook page.

April 27, 2014

Jerome Bruner on what's behind the "surprise" of creativity


Eureka! moments rarely come from nowhere. Creativity and insight is hardly ever a lightning strike of insight, but more often a long hard slog. But it's been frustrating to hear people write off the hard slog required for this kind of creative insight, so I've been in search of some more backup for why this hard slog, what one might call the "trough of enlightenment", is necessary.

Much of the time that I'm not working with educators or creatives in industry is spent working out what their creative actions are, how they do them and why they do them that way. Some of this is achieved by observing their creative work, some of it by reading what others have noticed. Every Sunday, I wake up to the creative delights of the Brainpickings weekly email, and this week, a book review on Jerome Bruner has opened up some lovely creative insight on the effectiveness of creative surprise:

Predictive effectiveness is “the kind of surprise that yields high predictive value in its wake” — for instance, as in the most elegant formulae of mathematics and physics, which hold that whenever certain conditions are present, a specific outcome is guaranteed to be produced. (All of these 17 equations that changed the world are excellent examples.) Predictive effectiveness doesn’t always come through surprise — it’s often “the slow accretion of knowledge and urge.” And yet, Bruner argues, “the surprise may only come when we look back and see whence we have come” — the very thing Steve Jobs described in his autobiographical account of his own creative journey, in noting that “you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.”

This, to me, is why my team's way of harnessing design thinking in the classroom provides a sturdy process through which the "slow accretion of knowledge and urge" is given space to develop, through a planned, deep, intense immersion into a wide array of content and experiences. This content, in a schooling setting, is tied to curricular goals which are much broader than in a traditional classroom environment, in order that during a later period of synthesis there are, in fact, enough different dots to join together as we look backwards on our immersion, and create something knew. In this respect, I've always struggled with the idea that all of the design cycle is, in fact, a cycle. This first element - a deep immersion and synthesis - feels necessarily a linear, patient expanse of time where we do not feel the need to rush into ideation and making. We need to line up as many different areas of knowledge and concepts first, before being able to get that "surprise" connection between them and create something much more effective.

Bruner’s second form is formal effectiveness, the kind most frequently encountered in mathematics and logic, and occasionally music. He cites French polymath Henri Poincaré’s famous account of how creativity works, which holds that “sudden illumination” — the mythic Eureka! moment — is the unconscious combinatorial process that reveals “the unsuspected kinship between … facts, long known, but wrongly believed to be strangers to one another.”

The process of design thinking is often perceived as "impossible" to put into practice in certain subjects, namely mathematics, some science and music. I've always disagreed, believe that it is merely "hard". Why? Because, the combining concepts for a fresh creative outcome is the whole point of ideation and prototyping: we combine or oppose concepts, try them out and get feedback from our working (or from others) as to whether it works. However, it fits less succinctly into a six-week "design challenge" or project. These subject areas fall more likely into this "formal effectiveness", where sudden illumination, or sudden clicking of one's understanding, comes from a much longer exposure to the various concepts that make up the subject as a whole. This is why, perhaps, there is still a need to leave some slack for mathematics teachers to consider much of their work as a collection of loosely joined parts, taught and learned separately, in isolation, even, to some degree. But the challenge comes with the learner being given a specific time and space to look backwards, and make connections, combinations and oppositions for themselves, and explain any new insights that they feel they can make. In mathematics and music, for example, are the key points of design thinking knowing when we stand back and synthesise what we've learned, before we then hypothesise (ideate) and test our hypotheses (prototype)?

The third, Bruner notes, is the hardest to describe. Metaphorical effectiveness is also manifested by “connecting domains of experience that were before apart,” but what distinguishes it from the formal kind is that the mechanisms of connectedness come for the realm of art rather than science and logic — the kind of connectedness that Carl Jung described as “visionary,” in contrast to the merely psychological. (Metaphorical thinking, after all, is at the developmental root of human imagination.) While we are wired to make sense of the world via categorization, “metaphoric combination leaps beyond systematic placement, explores connections that before were unsuspected.”

The unifying mechanism for all three, however, remains what Einstein termed“combinatory play.” Bruner writes:

All of the forms of effective surprise grow out of a combinatorial activity — a placing of things in new perspectives.

Finally, Bruner touches on that much larger type of synthesis, which we can achieve when we are able to bring together domains that do not normally sit side by side. Traditional schooling sets students up to find this difficult - we learn our different domains in different spaces in high school and most of middle school. However, we do see this kind of "visionary connectedness" in young learners at Elementary and Early Years, where connections between one curricular area and another are made, when the curriculum itself doesn't make that link explicit. The educators we work with have been incredibly agile in recognising these moments, and taking advantage of them, to extend projects from a simple "let's make traditional food for homeless people in the park", to "understanding why our country's culture makes us want to do this in the first place", for example. What might high schools do to help students make these larger syntheses? Learning logs are a simple device, particularly if they can be searchable (as we discovered in our Evernote experiments in Rosendale Primary School) - students are able to search for key words related to today's topic, and unearth insights from learning months, or years, earlier, that they would have otherwise forgotten.

March 21, 2014

Lessons from Disney Pixar on how creativity leads to more summative success

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Pixar, since it was purchased by Disney, gives off an air of resilient creative and commercial success, but the journey is rarely that smooth. In fact, the more creative the output, the more commercially successful it is, for Pixar at least, and the processes used by the teams is remarkably close to what we see in highly effective classrooms.

During a keynote en français in Québec, I wondered why learning today sometimes felt less personalised than 30 years ago when personal computers first hit my primary school. Inspiration came to me from my daughters, Catriona and Anna, as for the nth time they sang along to the karaoké version of Disney's Frozen title track, Let It Go:

I was fascinated by the obvious success of this film in hooking my kids, and wondered if I might be able to make some links between what we know works, from the research of Dylan Wiliam, Hattie and the like, and what we see works in the creative industries with films like this. Much of the insight comes from a new book by Pixar’s President, Ed Catmull, which is released this April: Creativity, Inc.. Excerpts from the book can be read in this month’s Fast Company.

1. We all start out ugly

“After the original leaders of animation left Disney in the 1990s, the new people running things were from production. And they brought their values, which were to keep the production people busy and productive with one movie after another. So story development was organized in the same way they organized production. As a consequence of this "feed the beast" mentality, a balance was lost at Disney.

“The cost of that becomes clear when you think of how a movie starts out. It's a baby. It's like the foetus of a movie star; we all start out ugly. Every one of Pixar's stories starts out that way. A new thing is hard to define; it's not attractive, and it requires protection. When I was a researcher at DARPA, I had protection for what was ill-defined. Every new idea in any field needs protection. Pixar is set up to protect our director's ugly baby.”

This process is markedly not just a creative one - it involves critical thinking, too. But the point at which critical analysis is introduced is, well, critical. Too early, you kill your baby before it has a chance to grow fully. We do this all the time when we survey progress too early, or don't know what the purpose of an immersion period is.

2. We’ve been through the process ourselves. We share the language and steps

“People who take on complicated creative projects become lost at some point in the process. It is the nature of things--in order to create, you must internalize and almost become the project for a while, and that near-fusing with the project is an essential part of its emergence. But it is also confusing. Where once a movie's writer/director had perspective, he or she loses it. Where once he or she could see a forest, now there are only trees.”

Key to making sure that the balance is struck, and struck at the right time, is having a process on which you can depend, and which everyone in the team can trust. Most creatives we know at NoTosh use design thinking, or some version of it. The language between each team is different, but the language within each team is shared and common.

They all recognise that in the initial period of immersion it is too early to make the call as to the worthiness of any given problem or challenge. By synthesis they know that there is an opportunity to critique, to make sure that we’re headed on the right path. By the time you enter the ideation, prototyping and feedback loop, you are constantly starting and stopping, but each idea is small enough, light enough and on strong enough foundations of the immersion, to cope with tweaks, both major and minor. New ideas can get ditched easily, with a fresh crop of better ones emerging from the dust of the feedback.

3. Decide on your rules

“Earlier, before the screening, Pete had described what they'd come up with so far. "What's inside the mind?" he asked his colleagues. "Your emotions--and we've worked really hard to make these characters look the way those emotions feel. We have our main character, an emotion called Joy, who is effervescent. She literally glows when she's excited. Then we have Fear. He thinks of himself as confident and suave, but he's a little raw nerve and tends to freak out. The other characters are Anger, Sadness--her shape is inspired by teardrops--and Disgust, who basically turns up her nose at everything. And all these guys work at what we call Headquarters."

“That got a laugh, as did many scenes in the 10-minute preview that followed. Everyone agreed that the movie had the potential to be, like Pete's previous film Up, among our most original and affecting. But there seemed to be a consensus that one key scene--an argument between two characters about why certain memories fade while others burn bright forever--was too minor to sufficiently connect audiences to the film's profound ideas.

“Midway down the table, Brad Bird shifted in his chair. Brad joined Pixar in 2000, after having written and directed The Iron Giant at Warner Bros. His first movie for us was The Incredibles, which opened in 2004. Brad is a born rebel who fights against creative conformity in any guise. So it was no surprise that he was among the first to articulate his worries. "I understand that you want to keep this simple and relatable," he told Pete, "but I think we need something that your audience can get a little more invested in."

“Andrew Stanton spoke next. Andrew is fond of saying that people need to be wrong as fast as they can. In a battle, if you're faced with two hills and you're unsure which one to attack, he says, the right course of action is to hurry up and choose. If you find out it's the wrong hill, turn around and attack the other one. Now he seemed to be suggesting that Pete and his team had stormed the wrong hill. "I think you need to spend more time settling on the rules of your imagined world," he said.

“Every Pixar movie has its own rules that viewers have to accept, understand, and enjoy understanding. The voices of the toys in the Toy Story films, for example, are never audible to humans. The rats in Ratatouille walk on four paws, like normal vermin, except for Remy, our star, whose upright posture sets him apart. In Pete's film, one of the rules--at least at this point--was that memories (depicted as glowing glass globes) were stored in the brain by traveling through a maze of chutes into a kind of archive. When retrieved or remembered, they'd roll back down another tangle of chutes, like bowling balls being returned to bowlers at the alley.

“That construct was elegant and effective, but Andrew suggested that another rule needed to be clarified: how memories and emotions change over time, as the brain gets older. This was the moment in the film, Andrew said, to establish some key themes.”

If it takes a long time for Catmull to describe the formation of rules that guide the creation of a film, it takes an equally long time to make them clear in a learning situation. Taking Dylan Wiliam’s five key areas that teachers and schools might develop, one might feel that there are ready-made rules about “the way we should teach and learn”, ready to take off the shelf:

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But schools need to have internal discussions amongst staff about how to internalise these into the story they are trying to tell, with their clientèle in their locale, work out what the rules of their game are. Then teachers have to have the same conversations with their students, taking time out to think about thinking, to learn how to think - those learnings become the rules of engagement for the class, keeping learning on the straight and narrow, even when a project is complex, even when the project team is only seeing trees and no forest.


4. Know how to take feedback, and find a producer to help you through it

“An important corollary to the assertion that the Braintrust must be candid is that filmmakers must be ready to hear the truth; candor is only valuable if the person on the receiving end is open to it and willing, if necessary, to let go of things that don't work. Jonas Rivera, the producer of Pete's film, tries to make that painful process easier by "headlining" the main points of a Braintrust session--distilling the many observations down to a digestible takeaway. Once this meeting wrapped up, this is what he did for Pete, ticking off the areas that seemed the most problematic, reminding him of the scenes that resonated most. "So what do we blow up?" Jonas asked. "And what do you love? Is what you loved about the film different now than it was when we started?””

Getting critiqued is never pleasant, even if you’re used to feedback and feed forward from your peers. Despite the feeling that we give good feedback to students, teachers are, in a decade of seeing their feedback on conferences, less strong at giving feedback on their own learning. It takes work, effort, energy and sometimes a little painful learning to get feedback that is, in the words of Ron Berger, Kind, Specific and Useful. In the film industry, the Producer’s job in these “brain trust” advisories is to capture that feedback, headline it and begin to make it as useful as possible for the Director, who’s just had his worked critiqued, and might feel a bunch of things, not all positive.

In a classroom setting, when we are giving and receiving feedback, who is the third person playing the role of Producer?


5. The Pupils' View

During my talk, I asked a group of seven students to act as my own braintrust during the talk, providing me with the actions they as students might undertake to make a vision of a more shared learning journey come true, and to highlight which elements of this (new and slightly too hot-off-the-press talk) I should emphasise in the future. Here's what Marianne, Laurie, Marie-Pier, Roxanne, Mathieu, Éloïse and Joana from l'Ecole des Sentiers put to me via Twitter, and what I read out as my conclusions for the talk:

  • As students, we must also get involved! When teachers offer ideas using technology, they are easily discouraged, but students also have their long journey to undertake, too.
  • We must show them that we are interested and we are ready to encourage. Teachers feed the enthusiasm of their students.
  • We should be encouraged to be creative, to risk failure to rise, dust ourselves down and be better next time. Do not prioritize performance above all else.
  • As students we should create a school forum where everyone would be comfortable giving their ideas and asking questions.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions and to assert your ideas, as the opinion of the students is also important. We have a head on our shoulders.
  • And sometimes we can see things from another side :)
  • Our idealistic idea: find a way to finance the purchase of tablets for each pupil. There’d be no more need for a heavy textbook, manual or notebook. And we could connect with interactive whiteboards, with communication between student and teacher encouraged. There’s also an ecological advantage.
  • Students want to be involved in the course. No more lectures. Students could also talk in front of the class, expose other ideas, what we have understood. Help us not to have to depend on teachers so much.
  • Students would be able to give their ideas, eg for course topics or written work ... All ideas are welcome.
  • Suggesting an idea is the best demonstration of intelligence.
  • Do not aim solely at the acquisition of specific skills encourage overall development.
  • We must be able to define our own rules :)

En tant qu'élèves, on doit aussi s'impliquer! Quand les enseignants proposent des idées en utilisant les technologies, ils se decouragent facilement. Donc les élèves on aussi leur bout de chemin à faire.
Il faut leur montrer qu'on est intéressé et qu'on est prêt à les encourager. Les professeurs se nourrissent de l'enthousiasme de leurs élèves
On devrait être encouragé à la créativité, le risque, à tomber pour se relever meilleur. À ne pas prioritiser les performances.
En tant qu'élèves nous devrions créer un forum école où tout le monde serait bien à l'aise de donner leurs idées et poser leurs questions
Pas avoir peur de poser des questions et de s'affirmer, car l'opinion des élèves est aussi important. On a une tête sur les épaules
Et on voit parfois les choses d'un autre côté :)
Idée idéaliste: trouver un moyen de financer l'achat de tablettes propres à chaque éleve. Plus besoin de manuels ni cahier de notes,
Et connecter avec les tableaux interactifs, la communication élève-prof est favorisée. Avantage écologique également
Les élèves veulent être impliqué dans les cours. Plus de cours magistraux, les élèves pourraient aussi parler en avant de la classe, exposer
Aux autres leurs idées, ce qu'ils comprennent. S'aider entre nous et ne pas dépendre des enseignants
Les élèves aimeraient pouvoir donner leurs idées, par exemple pour les sujets de cours ou de productions écrites… Toute les idées sont bonnes
Une idées c'est la plus belle demonstration de l'intelligence
Se developer en tant que personne a l'école. Ne pas viser l'acquisition de compétence trop spécifique et encourager le développement global.
Il faut pouvoir définir nos propres règles :)


December 09, 2013

Ira Glass on Storytelling - and key creative lessons for schools

Originally posted on NoTosh's fabulous Facebook page.

Ira Glass' words on storytelling and creativity have been doing the rounds this weekend, adapted from a Current.tv documentary from a while back. The key point in this clip is incredibly close to what we bring to educators when we talk about ideation and prototyping:

You can't just do ONE or TWO drafts of thinking; you have to make it double-digit drafting, prototyping thinking, gaining feedback and doing better next time.

What Ira Glass touches on is how, no matter how hard we try, we are never happy with our earlier pieces of work. As a result, there is only one tactic we can employ to guarantee that we get better: produce a LOT of work. The more we practice our craft, the better we get. 

Simple powerful advice with which no-one in their right mind would disagree, and many who create for a living recognise, but one piece schools are quick to forget under the pressures of time, "the test" and any other number of excuses not to give young people the chance to prototype thinking many, many times:

"Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through." —Ira Glass

Other lessons in the documentary are also compelling, and tie in beautifully to NoTosh's Design Thinking School work. He stresses the importance of having a process through which to work, the building blocks of one's trade. This equates to the thinking skills and knowing when to use which ones where in the process within a school environment.

In a second clip, Glass points to the longer-than-you-ever-think-it-will-be period of immersion as you seek out the problem to solve, or story to tell, and the wonderfully releasing moment of synthesis as you "kill" the stories not worth telling:

In a final clip, he concludes with the challenge facing all young people, too: how do you create something within a medium, without just copying what you've heard before? The answer: be yourself, talk like you, write and speak about what you know best. The more you are yourself, the better off you are. But how many kids are trying to be someone else, or play someone else's game at school, instead of finding their own way forward?

Challenging stuff.

November 19, 2013

It's in if... Strategies for focus


Originally posted on NoTosh's fabby Facebook page

When you're writing a strategy for education, it's vital to delimit what *really* matters, and there's a simple project management tool that can help.

Jamie Arnold is the most rigourous project manager I've ever had the pleasure to work with, during my time at Channel 4. He's the PM on the award-winning new gov.uk website of the Westminster Government in London, and over the months of development has shared much of the agile management setup he and others have been managing, in order to get the site up and out on time, and to budget.

One of my favourite takeaways is the "It's In If..." list for the project, pictured, which sums up in a few pithy phrases what the core activity of his organisation is. It helps when team members are faced with a personal challenge of whether or not to do something, or include a factor in a build. If it's not in, then it's not to be done. If it's not a core value that *only* your group, team or school can offer, leave it out or point people in the right direction, where that offering is better.

Schools and school districts could do with their own "It's in if..." lists to help focus the innovation of everyone in the school community. But if you were a teacher, writing your own "It's in if..." list for, say, resources used in a unit or making a decision to have a teacher-led section of a lesson or not, what would you put?


August 29, 2013

Creativity Rules from Master Builder, Master Designer Thomas Heatherwick

In this month's Wired UK print magazine a superb insight into the working and creativity habits of London bus and Olympic flame designer, Thomas Heatherwick. In it, Wired's editors pull out his 'rules' for designing and making. They are a real validation of what Team NoTosh have been pulling out from our creative work and parsing through educational research, stimulating some ingenius practices in the schools with whom we work:

  1. QUESTION: "We have found that we tend to guide ourselves towards ideas by finding a few key questions to ask ourselves." (Tom Barrett's début book, Can Computers Keep Secrets, is all about this curiosity-mongering, and how parents and teachers can protect that curiosity for life. With schools, we want to help students ask higher order questions, and we do this through the creation of provocative generative statements).
  2. ZOOM IN, ZOOM OUT: "Our role is to pull right back and see something in its biggest context, but then zoom in until you're analysing the close detail, then pull back again. To never let one thing get disconnected from context and meaning." (This zoom in-out process is the purpose of a teacher-curated, student-led research or immersion phase, where it's not the pace of the class or teacher that determines what you look at next, but your interest, where it's been piqued. To pique that interest, teachers need to get savvy about planning rich immersions on the back of their provocative generative statement.)
  3. ELIMINATE: "You don't know what the outcome will be, but it feels like we're trying to solve a crime. You're eliminating options from your enquiries. Then you're left with something, and it's probably not what you expected." (In synthesis, using thinking tools and curative technologies such as Evernote or social bookmarking, young people can eliminate obvious solutions to problems, to see if there's an ingenious way to explore, explain or solve something.)
  4. MAKE: "Making is a way to do practical analysis. Anyone can relate to models. But it's not a tool for others, it's to show yourself, to make sure you're not fooling yourself." (Kids who 'prototype' one or two versions of their work aren't prototyping at all. Kids whose early prototypes are graded, assessed too early by their peers or teachers, don't have a chance to show themselves whether their ideas stand up. They need more than a few goes at getting things right, and several of those attempts have to be made for the purposes of self-assessment above all.)

If you want to learn more about how my team and I are putting design thinking into action in schools (beyond the shop class and post-it note facile stuff that you find on your average "design thinking education" Google search), then check out our NoTosh Lab, or 'Like' our Facebook page to get some regular updates from the schools, creative cos, hospitals, Governments and agencies with whom we're working around the world.

August 26, 2013

20% Time and Schools: not the best of bedfellows

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With the start of term in the Northern hemisphere, several of the schools we're working with have brought up the notion of offering their students "20% time", a version of what Google famously offer their employees to undertake their own, personal projects. But in schools, it often seems to fall short of our expectations of creative genius.

Post-it manufacturer 3M pre-date Google and a multitude of others in applying 20%/10%/5% time, the idea being that moments of genius, in personal creative time allotted to the workforce, can become the company's next core product. In school, it's often seen as a highly manageable way of introducing student choice and student-led learning in the classroom, sometimes without having to worry too much about the remaining 80%. It's a first step, a way to immediately programme in 'student-led' without having to take on the whole game of one's semester or school year.

The problem is, that students given this open stretch of time often don't know what to do, or beyond their initial couple of passions they run out of steam. Their end-products are largely under par of their capacity. Sure, there are moments of genius, just as in Google, 3M or any other corporation that introduces 20% time. But, just like them, they are by a small proportion of students, with the vast majority of ideas failing to hit the mark.

Is this use of time - and so much of it - worth trying in school? I don't think so.

It's interesting to note that even in cash-rich Google, the inefficiencies of offering so much undirected time to employees are now being curbed. Key to this is not killing off individual creativity - far from it. In corporate speak business leaders talk about aligning 20% time to the vision of the company, making sure it has something to do with the core business.

In schooling, this is equivalent to making sure that student-directed time is nonetheless tied to the vision of the project in hand, the core business of the class in that semester or term. Freewheeling results in what I saw as an investor in tech and media products: 1% success rates. The rest is chaff, mediocrity, not because the people behind those developments are fatally flawed, but because the process is: you can't expect 100% of creatives to be 100% creative all the time when there is no common vision. You up the stakes when you're vision is clear, something that never was, frankly, in my investment unit five years ago.

So 20% time and its variants are indeed a great way to introduce a manageable, constrained version of student-led learning, without having to change all your practice at once. But treat it with caution. The same principles of clear, shared objectives stand to make the most of it. Any piece of creative genius generally stems from some healthy design constraints set out at the start.

If it were me, I might start with this for a term, but I'd be concentrating on the next semester, and seeing how, using robust self- and peer-assessment techniques I can introduce more student autonomy throughout everything I do.

Photo: George Armstrong

June 12, 2013

Choice - how much is just right?


How much choice do humans want in their life? Between 3 and 19, if you read into the research by Choice guru Sheena Iyengaar. Her TED talk on choice is the most accessible way in, and her research papers are on Google Scholar. My new friend David Bill took me to the bourbon bar pictured above, in the French quarter of San Francisco and, indeed, the choice was so overwhelming I went for the drink I rarely do these days: a draught beer. When faced with overwhelming choice, we can get unimaginative.

So here's my question: do you offer at least three choices to students in every piece of thinking, learning or 'work' that they do? Most of the time when I ask this, the answer is a resounding "hmmm". Followed by a quiet 'no'.

We've been playing with the notion of Generative Student-Led Topics to get over the lack of real choice evident in so much enquiry- or project-based learning. Basically, we're exploring how teachers really design choice into learning, without inadvertently removing it. There's a brief summary of how we're doing that on the fabby NoTosh Lab pages.

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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