"Put a wheel on it!" This is the phrase that has my eyes rolling back several times over when people think they are creating a 'flexible' learning or working space. Flexibility requires flexibility of thought as much as furniture, and the one piece of furniture that says "you only have one thing to do" is the hallowed desk. Offices organise hierarchies with them; schools get locked into 19th century style timetables with them. If only you could get rid of the desks at the touch of a switch....
During the day, this Amsterdam design studio looks like a typical workspace. But at 6 p.m., someone turns a key, and all of the desks suddenly lift up into the air, with computers and paperwork attached. The floor clears, and the space turns into something new.
The large shared desks are attached to the ceiling with steel cables, and use a mechanism from large theatre productions to lift everything up and down. During work hours, the desks balance on rolling cabinets to keep them at the correct height and steady. When the work day is over, the whole room can be cleared in a couple of minutes.
Provocations lead to deep, broad learning, and students tend to learn more, faster as a result. I've been showing educators how this is so, and how to do it, for the past five years with my motley crew. New Zealand educator Rob Ferguson woke me up this morning with a tweet, about how a provocation (the video, above) led to his students not just "doing art" for their 10th Grade assessments, but "doing art" to make a difference, as part of a global movement of artists:
This might seem simple, but at play is some good, deep thinking. The provocation, through the video clip, comes at the beginning of learning, along with many other resources and content sources in an immersion that will contradict, delight, frustrate and generate a discord. This is not PBL where the teacher creates just one problem or open-ended 'essential' question, but a more realworld scenario where conflicting and provocative takes on several subject matters create confusion and discord. This discord is what sets students off to "problem-find" for themselves, seeking the genuine core of the many problems and many potentially 'essential' questions being presented. Having synthesised down to their own problem, or "how might we" statement, students will set out to ideate and prototype their solutions to the problem, or their way of showing off what they have learned. Often the ingredients used in the provocation will reappear in the prototypes, of which the photo above is one example.
Simple on the surface, deep, complex, frustrating, confusing learning on the underbelly: that is what we mean by design thinking for learning. And not a 3D printer or robot in sight!
We are all artists. But not all of us should exhibit.
So says John Hegarty in "There Are No Rules", which I continue to dip into during my break in Tuscany. I laughed when I read this line, because, in my own drawing/sketches case, it's too true. We can all be creative, but not all creative produce is equally stop-you-in-your-tracks creative. The thing is, you don't know until you start to create, whether or not it's going to be worth exhibiting. You've just got to start. And this is why starting is so hard - we can be fearful that what we produce will not be worth exhibiting, so we don't even bother to start it off.
But when I'm on holiday, I don't care so much about what other people think. Most tourists display this characteristic, with their clothing choices perhaps, or their behaviour in the bars on the Southern Spanish coast. I display this characteristic in "having a go" at things I'm normally afraid of wasting time on: writing, drawing and sketching.
I tend to create more on holiday than I do during the working year, the audiences being smaller (Facebookers are also on holiday, the readership lower, the conferences closed for another season) and the canvas being less daunting. One of my favourite holidayish things to do is to draw on paper placemats before my meal arrives, using my daughters' coloured pencils to create whatever comes to mind. I've spent this week on honing my horses skills, learning how to draw them again (when I was 3, I could draw a good horse, jumping over a hedgerow).
During the working year, all of this would draw a simple question: "Why, Ewan?". But during holidays, no-one questions WHY I want to draw horses. On placemats.
It's the distinct lack of "why?", in fact, and the implied criticism that seems to come with those three letters, that relaxes me, helps me concentrate, helps me focus my efforts on one thing, and doing it best I can, and often a little bit better than that, in fact. No devil's advocate. No "have you thought about doing cats instead?". No "why?".
When most people find out that they are in line to create a new physical or virtual environment for their school, few have really driven deep into what the research says, and how it might pan out in practice. And, with deadlines in place, and architects producing their "masterplans" based on what they have been able to squeeze out of school communities, the clock is ticking too fast in most cases to begin that learning journey in a timely fashion.
School principals, deputies, librarians and innovator educators can base multi-million dollar decisions on hearsay, gurus' say-so, and what the Joneses have done with their school. For the initial cohort of students on our inaugural Masters subject on Designing Spaces for Learning at CSU (Charles Sturt University), the story will be very different.
Today marks the opening of this special Masters course that I've been writing for the past eight months for CSU, along with my boss/mentor Judy O'Connell. I'm not an academic by nature, so it's been a learning experience for me to get into the lecturer mode, and work out how to turn a significant body of research into tangible activities that our Masters students can undertake to explore and discover for themselves how research might translate into new practices.
I have high hopes that these students will make some headway into moving the education community away from a few, high profile conferences, speakers and coffee table books on "cool" or "audacious" learning spaces, to new understandings borne of a wide body of research into space design, the processes we can use to co-design, and why we say we want the kind of learning we do.
Above is my introduction video welcoming students. It's a welcome to you, too, to dip into as much of the material that leaks out of this Masters as possible. Students will have private forums and blogs where they can work out prototypes of thinking they might not yet be prepared to share with the wider world, but there are public spaces where students are being encouraged over the next 16 weeks to share what their insights might be.
There is a Flickr group, and a Google+ group where most of their more polished thinking will eventually end up, linking to their individual blogs where we can. In addition, the Twitter hashtag #inf536 is beginning to get moving, too.
Join the fray where you can - and feel free to disagree with this initial provocation, armed with your research and practice, of course! Share examples of schools which have been built on research and practice that you know, and feel free to point out examples which did not work out as expected too.
I'm currently attempting some "holiday" in France, but the downtime has had my brain whizzing with sights that are more or less unfamiliar, certainly not from the time when I lived here over a decade ago or from my wife's own upbringing.
One such thing is what you can observe in the photo I took in a book shop in a city centre mall. This was the third shop we'd been into where we observed the same pattern:
Children and teenagers, though never adults, would diligently and without having been told to, take their bags to the entrance and dump them in a pile before going about their shopping.
I remarked that in pretty much any other country, a) the bags would be stolen within minutes, or b) they'd be removed as a bomb threat, and almost certainly c) any young person asked on entering a store to leave their bag would cry foul, civil liberties and assumptions of innocent-until-caught-with-a-loot-of-school-supplies (this was a stationery and book shop; hardly the stuff of hardened crack heads or hungry desperadoes).
France is certainly struggling at the moment. Her economy is dying, her politicians panicking, her entrepreneurs leaving by their hundreds every week on the Eurostar.
But success might be more likely to appear some day soon if it can do one thing for the taxpayers, citizens and workers of tomorrow: trust them as equal citizens in a Republic built on liberté, égalité and fraternité.
The computer is my instrument. I play it. will.i.am
On one of my bored 38,000 feet periods I discovered a documentary about Creative Visionaries, and will.i.am was on. The guy's a superstar, a creative superstar for me for lots of reasons. I love this song that isn't released yet: Mona Lisa Smile. I like his way of thinking about music, about fashion, about life. I like his hero's journey (go and find out about it). As a drummer, I love the way he talks about rythmn and he does so here in his one piece of music thus far not to have drums.
"My instrument is the computer. I'm looking at this glowing screen. I'm looking at light. Think about it. I stay in the studio 12 hours a day, staring at the light, designing it, shaping it... I affect the lives of millions of people. That's crazy".
Crazy, but not uncommon. Glowing rectangles have so much to answer for. Getting to the point where you see the glowing rectangle as your instrument, and then combining it with real, 'analogue' instruments in an orchestra that "symbolises... human collaboration", this is the balance that we should always seek with technology. Treating it as an artform amongst many artforms interests me.
Design Thinking father Tim Brown blogged a while ago this great pleading from some of Britain's best designers and design educators for Government and schools to heighten the importance of design, technology, design thinking and prototyping skills through the vehicle of engineering subjects such as design and technology. It's a great clip, with many great reasonings as to why making learning concrete makes so much sense.
However, as impatient as I ever am, it's not enough.
Design thinking - learning how to scope out and solve problems within seemingly vast areas of knowledge and experience - is something I believe belongs as a framework across the curriculum. It's as core a skill as literacy and numeracy, but a lot less well understood by teachers outside the design technology world. It needs the time, attention and thinking power of educators to be understood as a framework that contains so many of what we already know are powerful learning and teaching strategies for student improvement.
With NoTosh, I've been fortunate to foster and see the beginnings of this whole-school approach to design thinking in schools around the world, with our partners in the UK, US, Australia and the Far East. The Design Thinking School is taking hold in many areas, and challenging the status quo in some painful ways in others.
But challenging the status quo, that content cannot be covered unless a teacher or day-by-day curriculum is 'delivering' it, is what we're all about. And, school by school, that sea change - design thinking throughout the school, not just in the design technology class - is happening.
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.
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.
At 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.
20 years ago if you wanted to win a Formula 1 Grand Prix race, you got yourself a good car and a good driver. Today, you need a team of scores of computer scientists, engineers and mathematicians, analysing your car's computer eveyr millisecond of every lap: without this data harvesting and analysis you will not win a race.
Today's cities, says, Ratti are heading the same way, and many are getting there already. Having placed billions of data connections in our cities over the past few years, cities are beginning to talk back to us, as the artefacts in MoMa's Talk To Me Exhibition show. And it's important that we harness this. Cities currently take up:
2% world surface
50% world population
75% of energy communication
80% of CO2 emissions
Managing cities based on cell phone use
During the World Cup final Ratti's team at MIT's Senseable City Lab saw how cell phone use matched the to and fro of people around the match itself and in cafés and homes around a city. How could this data be used to provide better information to public transport, buses and taxis?
We spend so much energy in our cities and corporations sourcing the goods that make our products, but we know very little about where the waste from our products ends up. Here, harnessing data from pervasive geo-location-aware tags on 3000 products, Ratti's team were able to see the extent to which our waste travels around the world and back. Using this data, could our city fathers and corporations design better waste solutions, not just better sourcing solutions?
Planning a great response to great (and pervasive) data
Analysing data reveals stories - in a telecoms example in the United Kingdom Ratti's team looked at the two connections made with every network communication. This helped redraw the map of Great Britain, with Scotland the first, most clearly marked out communicative community, but with countries like Wales split in two, north and south, and the epic-centre of the echo chamber that is London-London communication clearly marked out:
This analysis of data can therefore suggest to us several things, and reveal the communities around which we might want to build specific services, which often don't match the "official" boundaries marked out by politicians. Something for Scotland will, naturally, be very different for something based around the communication habits of someone in London or Wales. More on the analysis process can be seen in this video and the research paper:
The Copenhagen Wheel - helping individuals to help the community
And how can data be harnessed on a level much more "on the ground", by citizens? The Copenhagen Wheel was a creation from the MIT Senseable City Lab, which makes life easier for the cyclist but uses their efforts to provide information about the city that can be used to help everyone:
It transforms ordinary bicycles quickly into hybrid e-bikes that also function as mobile sensing units. The Copenhagen Wheel allows you to capture the energy dissipated while cycling and braking and save it for when you need a bit of a boost. It also maps pollution levels, traffic congestion, and road conditions in real-time.
Conclusions (and questions that remain!)
How can we make data more useful in other contexts than it currently is?
What is there we can do to make the collection of data from one person actually helpful to them, while beneficial to the wider community, not just the political or adminstrative élites?
What innovations in data collection for the common good are there to be found in education? But also in parenting, transport, food and drink, energy consumption and creation?
This talk was the opening keynote at Smart City Expo in Barcelona, Spain, where I'm giving a talk on how we can harness design thinking to better involve our communities, and our children, in building better cities.
Colour swatches Use the metaphor from pantone cards from the painters' shop, or military ribbon bands, to transfer new information. Example: Military ribbons as a means to explore the debauchery of rock bands, Information is Beautiful book.
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.
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.