71 posts categorized "Design Thinking"

January 11, 2012

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

Reins

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had many a dinner-table chat, and from these, as is the wont of the McIntosh family, my mother wrote a blog post, dry, unpublished, and asked me to push it out when I felt the time was right.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 10, 2012

Design Thinking 1: Overview of a transformative learning ethic

Design Thinking Brisbane from Danielle Carter on Vimeo.

In 2011, with NoTosh, I started a programme of learning with the Catholic Education Office in Brisbane, to transform learning with our Design Thinking School programme. Six months on, we've captured some of the teacher feedback, thanks to our film friends at the Education Office, and it's revealing more transformation, more engagement of teachers in their own learning, and more responsiblity of learning transferred to students than we could have ever hoped for.

Over a short series of posts I'll take you through the key elements of the process, what it looks like in the planning and execution phases and how students, teachers and leaders respond to it.

While Design Thinking is a process that dates nearly 30 years, born out of the firm IDEO in California, and we've only been working on the process in schools since the summer of 2010, the workshops and online community support that we've been nurturing in Brisbane and other locations around the world is based on two fairly unique elements of practice we're lucky to come across every day at NoTosh:

  1. The marrying of what we know works best in learning, based on the most recent research on formative assessment, school design, experential and active learning, play and technology, with what we know about the creative process of design thinking;
  2. Taking our regular work with tech startups, film and TV companies, fashion houses and designers to inform, update and validate the creative processes' likelihood of generating new knowledge, as well as reinforcing existing understanding.

I hope that my reflections on the forthcoming posts are useful. They're far from complete - there's a book later this year to get closer to that - but they might provide a starting point for working this out in your own classroom or, if you're seeking to change a school or district of schools, it might provide the starting point to get in touch to work together.

January 05, 2012

Collaboration 7: Implementing the Wrong Solution

Wrong solution
One of seven posts about collaboration and why it nearly always fails to deliver results, inspired by Morten T Hansen's Collaboration.

The quality of the teacher is the number one factor in the improvement of an education system, collaboration is the key factor in improving the quality of that teacher.

Collaboration helps increase academic success, yet most collaboration doesn't work. Here is one of Morten T. Hansen's six key reasons for collaboration failures:
 

Implementing the Wrong Solution

Following on from misdiagnoses, is finding the wrong solution. Learning Management Systems, as described earlier, were the wrong solution to the wrong problem. IT managers were convinced that some IT, instead of some psychology, would help solve the problem of teachers not sharing their work and ideas.

The same's true of those trying to 'protect' young people by not allowing them or encouraging them to post to the open world wide web: the problem is not so much internet predators as the lack of media literacy skills to not put oneself at risk online. The right solution here is not internet filtering or setting school blog platform defaults to 'private', but to set school blog defaults to 'public' and initiate a superb media literacy programme for every student, parent and teacher.

Morten T Hansen's answer is that we need disciplined collaboration, where leaders i) evaluate what opportunities there are for collaboration (where an upside will be created), ii) spot the barriers to collaboration (not-invented-here, unwillingness to help and preference to hoard one's ideas, inability to seek out ideas, and an unwillingness to collaborate with people we don't know very well).

Picture from Noel C

Collaboration 6: Misdiagnosing the problem

Misdiagnosis
One of seven posts about collaboration and why it nearly always fails to deliver results, inspired by Morten T Hansen's Collaboration.

The quality of the teacher is the number one factor in the improvement of an education system, collaboration is the key factor in improving the quality of that teacher.

Collaboration helps increase academic success, yet most collaboration doesn't work. Here is one of Morten T. Hansen's six key reasons for collaboration failures:
 

Misdiagnosing the problem

How many schools do we know where leaders want to share good practice between staff but don't know where it is, when the real problem is that people are unwilling to share their good bits of practice?

National resource- and idea-sharing platforms, 'owned' by a Government or commercial organisation, have consistently failed to bring the majority of educators to their doors as the problem they have identified - people don't have anywhere to share - is a misdiagnosis.

The problem, for large numbers of educators, is that they are unwilling to share no matter who, what or where the platform is.

Once you know that this is the problem, one can begin to work out with those people what kinds of environment might encourage them to change their behaviour.

Pic from Mark

January 04, 2012

Collaboration 4: Overshooting the potential value

Baguio Airport
One of seven posts about collaboration and why it nearly always fails to deliver results, inspired by Morten T Hansen's Collaboration.

The quality of the teacher is the number one factor in the improvement of an education system, collaboration is the key factor in improving the quality of that teacher.

Collaboration helps increase academic success, yet most collaboration doesn't work. Here is one of Morten T. Hansen's six key reasons for collaboration failures:
 

Overshooting the potential value

Sony again made a collaboration slip-up when they went to collaborate with Columbia Pictures in 1989, the idea being that filmmaking and film delivery could be brought together in interesting ways. The problem arises when the films are no good, and any synergy is rendered useless: "Synergy: big wind, loud thunder, no rain." (as cited in Deals from Hell).

When I'm working with startups in a Business Model Generation workshop, inspired by the book of the same name, one of the challenges for them is seeing between who is a potential paying customer and who is a worthwhile partner. The key in partnership is in the name: it should be considered a lifetime commitment, and a partner can never be converted into a client at a later date. Clients are what businesses need, in order to gain results.

In the creative industries, there is yet further questioning of the value of collaboration. The best films (and definitely the easiest filmsets to work on) have one director who just directs. He or she tells people what it is they want. There might be some room for negotiation, or for a "why don't we try it this way", but by and large the director knows what they want and they don't so much collaborate during the shoot as get the thing done before sundown.

I wish it was as easy as that, though. Collaboration is often better than a lone genius going about their art. Gordon Torr spends an entertaining 288 pages struggling between creative examples of where the lone genius has won the day, and creative teams where synergy was the only way to success in Managing Creative People. He never does reach a conclusion, although he does point out that job titles and hierarchy are a key killer of creative potential, something that relates to how collaboration's costs can oft be misunderstood (my next post)...

In an education context, to gain results in the literal or pure learning sense, we need to know who and what resources constitute 'clients', from whom we'll get stuff to enrich our minds, and who we want to view as collaborative partners because the sum of those parts will be greater than the individuals themselves. It's not a given that two people collaborating will offer this secret sauce, so we have to think very carefully about with whom we collaborate, what we get out of it, what they get out of it and the potential for both parties to get something new out of the partnership and collaboration.

Never again should the words "get into some groups" or "partner up" be uttered without some thought by the students, and by their teacher, about who is going to offer whom a genuinely additive partnership for a collaboration.

Pic of the deadly Baguio Airport by Storm Crypt

January 03, 2012

Collaboration 1: Collaboration is the key influence in the quality of teaching

3588106574_864b1baf76_z
One of seven posts about collaboration and why it nearly always fails to deliver results, inspired by Morten T Hansen's Collaboration.

The quality of the teacher is the number one factor in the improvement of an education system, collaboration is the key factor in improving the quality of that teacher.

Collaboration helps increase academic success, yet most collaboration doesn't work. The Microsoft-supported ITL Research revealed in a large-scale study:

"Innovative teaching happens more in environments where teachers collaborate. In schools where teachers report more frequent collaboration with one another on teaching practices, innovative teaching scores tend to be higher... Teachers told us that collaboration can be an important mechanism for sharing teaching practices and for mutual support toward improving them."

 Anecdotally, this has also been the prime driver in the continued growth and success of the TeachMeet movement since 2006, and EdCamps since then, providing environments in which teachers, for whatever reason, feel comfortable sharing. We'll explore over this series of posts what makes collaboration work sometimes, and fail others.

In education, the ITL Research mentioned earlier offers some light as to how further barriers might be approached.

"If innovative teaching is not yet commonplace, under what climates and conditions does it flourish? For a host of reasons, ecosystems (be they educational or biological) have strikingly different features in different places. Accordingly, we might expect different approaches and conditions to be driving factors in the different parts of the world represented in this research. We report here on factors that emerge as salient across countries, drawing from both survey data and qualitative reports.

Collaboration relies on a supportive culture, alignment of incentives, and times built into teachers’ schedules during which collaboration can take place."

And when John Hattie undertook his study of 800 reviews he found that the most effective teaching practices included a reliance on "the influence of peers, feedback, transparent learning intentions and success criteria... using various strategies, attending to both surface and deep knowing:

  • Reciprocal teaching (teachers enabling students to learn and use self-learning)
  • Feedback (specific response to student work)
  • Teaching students self- verbalization or self/questioning
  • Meta-cognition
strategies (awareness Problem-solving and knowledge of one’s teaching

In short - the most effective teaching requires the most effective collaboration. The challenge, I believe, is that in education, as in the world of business, many or most collaborations are not effective.

Morten T. Hansen spent years trying to work out why leaders sabotage themselves by promoting more collaboration in their organisation:

"In their eagerness to get people to tear down silos and work in cross-unit teams, leaders often forget that the goal of collaboration is not collaboration in itself, but results. Leaders need to think differently, focusing on what Hansen calls disciplined collaboration."

In Collaboration he examines companies like Hewlett Packard, Proctor & Gamble, Apple and BP to find out how the best teams know when to collaborate, and when not to.

In education, the sign of a bad collaboration might be summed up flippantly with the line: "Oh no, not another wiki…" The web is littered with "collaborations" that may have made the teachers involved feel fluffy and warm, but which added little to the results of the learning process.

Morten T Hansen outlines from his decade of research six key reasons for most collaboration's failure, and over the next six blog posts, we'll explore each one in turn.

Pic from Andrew Wong

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.

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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