271 posts categorized "Education & Technology Policy"

February 12, 2015

Your strategy does not interest me. Next! #28daysofwriting

Andy maslen

NoTosh doesn't just help scores of schools and private business with their strategy; we're in the process of adjusting our own course, too. What I've noticed, is that the activity known as 'wordsmithing' is normally referred to dismissively, with disdain, as something someone else will do much later on, once they "real work" of strategising is done. These leaders could not be more wrong.

Far from the afterthought or polishing to which the task is often reduced, getting the wordsmithing right as you create your strategy is vital if you want people to really believe in it.

To help me on NoTosh's own strategising I've been diving into Andy Maslen's tomes (that's his distinguished mug on the top of the post). For a copywriter extraordinaire, he tends to spend at least half his books helping the reader understand what it is they are trying to do and why the hell they're doing it. I can imagine a few strategies dying a necessarily premature death by around p.43 of most his books. 

A key point that resonates as I undertake a few schools-based strategy projects, is this one:

People want to know what's in it for them (WIIFM?).
They don't care how clever you are.
They don't care that you are proud / humble / honoured about anything.
They don't care how much excellence you promote.
People want to know what's in it for them.

He suggests a couple of writing tools that will help education strategists (any strategist, really) to convey their 'why', and in turn the WIIFM, so much more clearly:

  • KFC:
    What do you want your reader / student / parent / teacher / peer to know, how do you want them to feel about it, and what do you want them to commit to?
  • Don't use the 'F' word - use the 'B' word
    Don't list off the features of your latest product / school / initiative / programme of work / technology roll-out. Tell us the benefits in our lives. This works in the same way as I suggest people should pitch new ideas to their peers: start with a 'pain', turn the thumbscrews until we're begging for an answer, and then tell us all about how your idea is going to make our lives so much better.
  • FAB: Grab me by the ... benefits
    Features first, then tell me the general advantages of working in this way might be, and then tell me the benefits to me personally.
  • Don't assume I'm paying attention
    Too many governmental policies, school strategies and "research-based" approaches to learning simply assume that the audience should be receptive to the new idea. This is a fatal flaw, and undermines even the best ideas. Assume that your audience has plenty of other far more interesting things to be doing, and write your strategy or pitch to wrestle their attention back towards you. Try starting the strategy with the words "How" or "Now" and see how people want to take part in making it happen.

 

February 11, 2015

Working out a school's competitive position even when it's not competing #28daysofwriting

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Most schools are state schools, so the idea that leadership might spend time working out a competitive position, or value proposition, often seems absurd. Surely that is an exercise the preserve of private schools and, even more so, private business? State schools are for local kids - the value proposition is that the school is closest to your home. Period.

Steve Mouldey blogged yesterday about his own school's vision, and how it sets this state school, Hobsonville, apart from other schools in the area. In this post he cites an excerpt from Grant Lichtman's #EdJourney (pp. 92-94) where the notion of value proposition is justified on the fact that students have more mobility between education provision (other schools, homeschooling, online) than ever before. Steve talks about a notion of value proposition that I'd disagree with:

"The Value Proposition, as I understand it, is about what you actually do compared to what you say you will do (much like Espoused Theory vs Theory in Use by Chris Argyris)."

In our startup work, the value proposition is much more clearly understood as what you do compared to what your competitors say they do, or are perceived as doing, by their customers. The competitors might not actually deliver on what they say they do, but the perception of the customer is all.

For example, in my local area of Edinburgh are three primary schools:

  • the closest one to home is in a Victorian building, where school inspectors have repeatedly made the point that capital building and repair projects eat into funds that could otherwise be used for learning. I decided not to send my child there;
  • the one at the top of the hill has a fabulous reputation, thanks to the perceived quality of the high school with which it is associated. The high school changed head teacher years ago, and has been on decline since then. The primary school's inspectorate report is average. I decided not to send my children there;
  • the Catholic school is the furthest away from home. Catholic education is often perceived as a good choice - parents chose to send their children there, whereas the other state schools are often default schools, being closest to home, ergo, parents who make a choice care more about their kids' learning, ergo: the kids will be more engaged at home as well as in school. Also, on a visit to the school, this perception was reinforced during a school tour and two successful first years for our eldest. We chose to put our first kid there.

But this school's value propositions (in this case: quality of learning, getting the job of learning done, lowering cost (it's free!)) were not consistently applied. As soon as our daughter hit Primary 3, the key reason for using this school - quality of learning and getting the job done - suffered. A new teacher, needing some solid support from other teaching colleagues and the leadership team, struggled as neither was offered sufficiently. The cost of sending my kid there increased dramatically - she was unhappy, which made her mother and me devastated. The cost was not financial. The cost was emotional.

My kid no longer goes there. We've increased costs substantially, by opting out of the local education system and sending her to a school 20 minutes away. However, we are guaranteed on the value proposition of the new school - a consistently excellent education, no quibbles.

A value proposition, even if you are a state school, is a vital value to hone down, not just so that kids aren't ripped out of your school but so that everyone, including the leaders, can be held to account when kinks in the system appear. If you state that excellence in education is your value proposition, then you'd better get that nailed, all the time, every time, or perceptions will change and take a long time to bring back.

And defining a value proposition is easy - you can really only choose one top value you pursue, and a close-place second one. Beyond two core value propositions, your team will be lost and not know what they are chasing:

  • newness
    New schools can use this as a value proposition for a few months for each new school year to be introduced, to gain traction fast but, above all, to inspire distributed leadership and innovation in teaching and learning among its staff. It won't just happen - it needs stated as the value proposition by the school's founders.
  • performance
    Is your school in the top 10, top 20, top 50 of the country? Work out where the cut-off point for your excellence might be, where your performance is considered worth talking about. Equally, movement from mediocrity to excellence is worth talking about. The Bohunt School (11th best in England, from the middle ground, in six years flat) is my global fave for that kind of heroes story.
  • customisation
    Do you offer a learning experience that is genuinely student-led - can I make the kind of education I want?
  • "getting the job done"
    Do you consistently get kids what they need - not excellent, not poor, but you will get them into college / into an apprenticeship, and you fail no-one?
  • design
    Amazing facilities? Beautiful resources? Great food in the restaurant (not canteen...)?
  • brand/status
    Are you already in a position of being "the" school that people send their kids to? How do you maintain that with another value proposition that no-one else offers? This nearly always goes hand in hand with another value proposition that justifies the brand.
  • price
    Most state schools are free or near-to-free to attend. Price isn't a great VP in that case. For private schools, this is a huge consideration.
  • cost reduction
    Much like price, the cost of education is already low for most. Being geographically well-placed reduces families' costs of getting to school. Providing transport for children is another way. Providing technology is another.
  • risk reduction
    Do you reduce the risk that a child will fail, through additional support or a specific strategy?
  • accessibility
    Do you give access to activities or experiences that are normally the preserve of private schools? Or do you offer access to university early on, to students who would not normally expect that? Or do you provide access to business-building where most schools do not?
  • convenience/usability
    Are you close by, or run with flexible hours? Are you approachable for parents? Do you have facilities that help students stay in school longer? Holiday learning days?

Pic  |  Ref: Business Model Generation

February 09, 2015

A vision statement should only ever work for your organisation #28daysofwriting

167418602_4467a7bdd7_b

Does your organisation have a high level vision statement? That's it. On page three of the strategy document no-one reads. The motto that makes everyone roll their eyes slightly. It probably involves something to do with excellence, being "the best", or caring, or striving, or something else with a similar drone. What if I suggested that you might come up with a vision statement that no-one else on the planet, no other organisation, could ever get away with using themselves?

Think about some of the great strategy or vision statements of our time. These ones are taken from my new book:

  • Amazon: Every book, ever printed, in any language, all available in less than 60 seconds.
    Ford: Democratize the automobile.

  • Google: Organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful.

  • JFK's Moon Challenge: This nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.

  • Microsoft: A computer on every desk and in every home.

  • Disney: Be the best company in the world for all fields of family entertainment.

  • Hewlett-Packard: Be one of the best managed corporations in the world.

  • Sony: Embody changing the image of Japanese products as being of poor quality; create a pocket transistor radio.

Closer to home, I was lucky enough to hear the backstory to the vision statement of Linn, the world's best music player company (based in Glasgow, Scotland):

Linn makes anything you listen to at home sound better.

Let's break that down:

Linn makes (in our factory) anything (games, tv, iPad, MP3, streaming music) you listen to (Linn products are so good, and relatively expensive, that they are not the kinds of product that you would just "hear" in the background, while you do the hoovering) at home (not at the office, nightclub, restaurant) sound better (this is their major technological point of difference: reduction of loss from studio to ear)

It took Linn's MD Gilad Tiefenbrun and his team over 18 months to get to the point where they had this one sentence that helps any one member of staff, and their customers, understand precisely what they are getting, and how it is made. Every word counts. Together, they create something that is genuinely unique and exciting for all those involved in building, and listening to, the product.

What's your current vision, and how might you change it to make it unique?

Pic: https://www.flickr.com/photos/cpstorm/167418602

February 03, 2015

Stop thinking out of the box - the box IS the thinking #28daysofwriting

Whitebox

I can't stand it when people say they want to "think out of the box". I try my best to hide the pain on my face, muscles enter involuntary spasm, and I smile back knowing that the mission ahead is going to be a delicate one. It was adman legendaire Gerry Farrell, last Friday, who helped me understand why my buttocks clench in disappointment on hearing this. You see: it's the boxes we live with that force us to be creative in the first place.

As Gerry explained in a talk in Edinburgh, ads people tend to have the same boxes for every creative project:

  • the budget is always going to be $5000, not $50,000; 
  • the timescale will always be next week, not next month;
  • the product is the one the client has to sell, not the one the adman wishes he could sell for them.

Well, most of my work isn't with admen. It's with other creative folk and above all teachers. Educators. The ones who work with kids. They would dream of a budget of $5000 (well, anything, really). That marking is due tomorrow, not next week. The product I have is the class of thirty-three weans in front of me at 9am tomorrow, and the day after, and we only have a few chances, if that, to do our best by them. If this particular 'campaign' falls down, the cost to us all is a heavy one.

But Gerry's point - that the boxes we live by make us creative - still stands. The key is working out what the important boxes are, so that we can work well within them. Here's my non-exhaustive list of creative constraints that teachers can revel in, in order to create invigorating learning experiences for and with their young charges:

  • The Curriculum
    A curriculum is not some burden that we must carry. It can be a creative stimulus. What happens if you take page 6 with page 27, and bash them together to come up with a new project idea? So, until this point in time "we've always taught Introduction to Algebra in the third week of October". Why? What makes people do that? Ask 'why' often enough (at least five times) and most afficionados of ithasalwaysbeendonethiswayitis will be stuck for words, and explanations. Now you can start to innovate with your curriculum. Why? Why not?
  • Assessments
    Teachers and students have no idea how lucky we are. The admen would sell their grannies if they had a success criteria, printed out in advance, and laminated, to tell them what a good campaign should look like. Students can do what admen would do with such criteria - go way beyond them to keep the client happy and get the next gig. The trick is making sure that the students really understand what's meant by all the twaddle that makes up the ridiculous adjectival foreplay of most formal success criteria.
  • The boss says no
    The boss doesn't know any better until you show them, until you sell them the benefits of your idea, not just the endless features of your idea. If the benefit is clearly better learning for your youngsters, any professional outfit would encourage you to get on with it and not bother the boss with silly questions and posturing anyway. If you're in doubt, try Steve Jobs' quote for size:

    "Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build things that other people can use.
    "Once you discover that, you'll never be the same again."

  • I don't have the time
    I do believe you have the same time as that person, over there, who's done the cool thing you want to do. And we've already established you're as smart as them. You have different priorities, that's all. Get them straight, and you'll never say "I don't have time for that" again. You will only be left saying "that's a great idea, but it's not for me, right now. I'm busy transforming the world with this idea over here."

    Most of the best ideas come quickly as the result of a well-identified pain point. When the pain's at fever pitch, I've seen teams of six people create 226 ideas in 10 minutes flat. If I'd given them a day, instead of 10 minutes, we'd have come up with six ideas.

What other creative constraints are there? What other boxes should we stop thinking outside of, and start jumping into?

January 14, 2015

Engage, Inspire, Empower - language learning and technology

I got back to being a language teacher last night, doing a quick talk and then conversation with some of the teachers participating in our Malta Better Learning with Technologies groupHere is the video of the talk, where I was inspired by the instant nature of understanding we gain from the cartoons we've seen over the past week:

  • The universal language of image
  • The growth of the image thanks to technology - Insta...everything
  • The move of technology's dominance in text (blogs and podcasts of 2005) to image (YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat in 2015)
  • How do we play the whole game of learning, every day, in the language classroom?
  • What S.T.A.R. moments do we create for our students to amplify the meaning of what we're doing?
  • Can we inform students later, and start with the why of engagement, inspiration and then empowering through information and the 'how'?
  • "Real world" does not mean we have to take every student on a foreign exchange visit. Real world is no longer the long-term relationships we had to build with partner schools in 2005. Real world can be short-term reaching out to someone, just for a lesson, for a moment, to gather an empathy for how others might think.
  • Real world can also be imaginative - video games as a stimulus for writing, or TED talks for stimulus in reading and listening (and speaking!).

January 02, 2015

Inspiration is everywhere. Even in Galena, Kansas...

I love this tweet from a couple of years back by animation firm, Pixar:

Pixar inspiration

Inspiration is everywhere: A lonely old tow truck in Galena, Kansas caught our eye. You know the rest...

What were they talking about?

93i

Now, I don't think I know anyone from Galena, Kansas, but I'm pretty sure that those kids in Spring Grove School don't believe, hand on heart, that inspiration is everywhere, as they set off into their new year, examinations, tests and keeping up with each other's Facebook boasts. That, after all, is what January in 2015 will mean for so many: an attempt to look forward to a positive future, but a reality check, around January 5th, that actually life will carry on as it always has done, always will do. 

Life-changing, world-changing or neighbourhood-changing inspiration is everywhere, though, and no more so than in places where things are not working.

On p.43 of my book I talk about the attitude real innovators have: they don't blog that "things in the system don't work, it's all broken!", and they don't ask facile questions such as "what does 21st century education look like?" and then not bother answering them. Instead, they spot the small details that get in the way and go about removing them, altering them or rebuilding them:

Most successful innovators in and outside education spend their time always seeking out what doesn't quite work, what doesn't satisfy the needs of the people it should do, what could be made incrementally better. They are not negative people; far from it, in fact, as they seek not to moan but make the world a better place, one incremental change at a time. Doing this means that they spend time – small snippets and extended periods, depending on what time they have available – looking at the world around them with a critical eye and an endless run of questions about why things are the way they are. They are not satisfied to leave an under-par situation – they want to make it better as soon as possible. 

  • What are things really like at the moment?
  • If we were to take a snapshot in time, where is our school, where are our learners?
  • What are people trying to achieve at the moment, and are they managing it?
  • What are the areas where people find they're held back, or encouraged to take their learning further?
  • How do we engage with parents, the school board, the wider community?
  • How do we know they're happy with it?
  • Where are the people who are happy with what we do?
  • Where are the people who we don't know are either satisfied or not?
  • What about the people who are not, at the moment, part of our school community? Why are they not?
  • What are they doing instead?

This is a non-exhaustive list of questions that might be of interest to any innovator, and to answer any or all of these questions would take a long time, but that active immersion into the way things are needs to happen all the time.

Immersion is just as it sounds: long, deep and sometimes painful. The swimming pool analogy isn't bad for explaining it:

If you were immersed in a swimming pool you'd have the water over your head. You would, over time, become short of breath. A real immersive experience would push that feeling just a little beyond what feels comfortable before, finally, at the last possible moment, coming up for breath. And, with every time you get immersed in the water, the longer you can bear it before coming up for breath. With more practice, you can swim while holding your breath, travelling while building resistance to the pressure. In a school, this is the equivalent of the Head Teacher and other leaders being capable of not only managing business-as-usual, but also having the mental bandwidth, the practice of longitudinal immersion, to see potential for ‘new innovation’ as it arises. In short, it's about taking time to reflect, not regularly but constantly, on how things might be made better.

This is, if you like, a manifesto for problem-finding in the way we manage, lead and create innovation in our schools, in the same way as I started pleading for problem-finding over and above problem-solving five years ago to this week. Problem-finding is what really shifts the school's thinking from 'stand and deliver' teacher centricity, and so, too, it can move innovation from the board room (far from the point where the innovation will make a difference) to the classroom and community:

So, instead of lofty resolutions for 2015, that we will all break by January 5th, in our hearts and minds at least, why not start seeking big innovation in the little details, by problem-finding, not idea-creating?

Reference:
How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, available from NoTosh Publishing. Kindle and standard paperback due Summer 2015.

August 29, 2014

Out Now! How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make The Happen

How To Come Up With Great Ideas iTunes

Finally! How To Come Up With Great Ideas And Actually Make Them Happen is out, in iBooks, at least. You can buy a copy now in your local store, and get your own ideas to fruition quicker and better, with your community in mind:

USA:

https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/how-to-come-up-great-ideas/id909659149?mt=11

UK:
https://itunes.apple.com/gb/book/how-to-come-up-great-ideas/id909659149?mt=11

AUSTRALIA:
https://itunes.apple.com/au/book/how-to-come-up-great-ideas/id909659149?mt=11

The book is available in every iTunes store globally. The beautiful, full-colour paperback is currently in printing in England, and will be heading out to pre-orders from September 9th, and available for general sale shortly thereafter (http://notosh.myshopify.com/products/how-to-come-up-with-great-ideas).

Thank you to all those who pre-ordered and waited patiently for it. I'm delighted that my first book is finally out there in people's hands, and cannot wait to hear back from readers on how they develop their innovative ideas.

Here's the blurb for those of you who've not yet dived in:

How can students, teachers and school leaders in the education world innovate, share and build on new ideas, taking them out of individual classrooms to have a wider impact? What could schools ever learn from luxury fashion houses, political campaigners, global tech, media and telecommunications companies, and the world's biggest businesses of tomorrow, the startups? 

You can achieve ambitious visions for learning through swift innovation by borrowing from the people who invent, create much from little, and refine their ideas with a swiftness few of those large corporations, Government or schools have seen.

Learn more through practical steps, workshop activities for your own teams in your learning environment, and plenty of real success stories, to help kick-start the innovation for you.

How To Come Up With Great Ideas And Actually Make Them Happen can be purchased on the iTunes store as an iBook, and in paperback on http://www.notosh.com/books

June 23, 2014

#EduTECH 2014: Agile Leadership

Agile Leadership1.001

Five year plans are the last thing I'd be creating if I wanted to see innovation happen in a school. Most creative organisations we work with have something more akin to an innovation strategy based on audacious goals, with a skillset in one's team that helps each individual find their place in making those goals happen, one small step at a time. While the vision is agreed by the top of the organisation the means to get there are democratic, and based on creative process as much as individual creative prowess.

At Australia's EduTECH conference I was delighted to once more keynote the leadership of learning strand, with thousands of people coming along to get an update on some of NoTosh's thinking as it's developed this year. The theme was closely tied to my forthcoming book, a labour of love on agile leadership called How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen. It provides many of those practical stories of success from which we can learn, from the creative industries and from schools (some of which you'd classify as creative industries, too!).

I kicked off with the picture that had been most snapped last year: the F.A.I.L. "First Attempt In Learning" poster I captured in Meshendia Dampier's Rosendale Primary School classroom. Five year plans, you see, don't allow for a lot of failure, or departure from 'the script', regardless of how the world around you might change. What kinds of change?

  • It could be as simple as being better informed a couple of years down the line than you were when you wrote the strategy - we learn, and then look slightly embarrassed at our five year plans that now seem woefully naive or out of date. 
  • It could be seismic - when the Japanese earthquake hit, one of our favourite schools, American School in Japan, saw so many families question their stay in the country, that they realised that they would need to signficantly reinvent the offering to entice more families to stay in the country, for a great school as much as anything else (you can see some of their learning journey with design thinking in their Google+ posts).
  • It could be that others simply innovate faster than you, and your plan is holding you back. When we started TeachMeet in 2006, it was seen as innovative by the very organisations that it was designed to get around. No matter how hard they tried, they couldn't colonise it, make it their own - they were left standing while people just did it for themselves.

Agile Leadership is based on overcoming two obstacles to get to a new way of working. 

Agile Leadership.001

Contradictions arise when something you've held as true is challenged by new evidence or experience. The feeling of contradiction is hard to overcome, because it necessitates some further investigation to work out whether the status quo is correct, partially correct, or just plain wrong, now that we have this new evidence to hand. In school strategy this is problematic - very often, when working with a school, there is reticence and some fear at best, anger at worst, when we suggest that we should start writing a strategy by really getting deep into the way things actually are, warts and all. In the book, I provide a ton of skills and techniques that teams can use to gauge better where things are, such as interviews, sketches, ideas wallets and bug lists.

Tensions are moderately more workable, as they occur once a team has bought into the new information that has presented itself, realising that it contradicts the status quo, and now have the task of altering the course of a strategy to accommodate it. It's not an easy process - it's full of tensions and tension. You can imagine the joy of running a workshop in this part! Take for example, the fairly strong evidence that grading does not improve learning, but comments do. I showed a video example of educators at ASIJ who, after all, have had grading feature as a fairly core part of their work. What happened when they saw the evidence of grading being less advantageous than comments alone? Some of the teachers went to test it for themselves, to work through those tensions, and change their own 'strategy' of learning and teaching. The results might be positive, or less so, but with the experience in hand it's far easier to work through the tensions, and gain a new insight for the way things might be. For those who don't experiment, they're still stuck with their contradictions, unable to move forward and challenge the way it's always been done.

Surprises appear when we least expect them. As Hatchuel and Weil put it in their concept-knowledge theory, these are the "you don't know what you don't know" moments. Surprises like these come to you - you can't search for them as you don't know they exist. Having an open mind is how most of us see these surprises and seize them. But in a strategy, where a 'decision has been made', and the text itself is highly specific, surprises can be blocked out, placed in the shadows never to be seized and used to make learning better in the organisation.

Such surprises often appear when we centre our strategy on people, rather than things that need done. When we reframe a strategy around people we can start work out what each individual group in our community can do, when and where we see that action happening, how they'll do it and, vitally, why they'd care enough to give a damn to do it. This actor mapping process is hugely powerful as a technique to open up the mind to such surprises, but incredibly challenge for teams to use - most teams feel they need 45 minutes to have a go at the technique, take 90, and still want the rest of the morning to see it through. Thinking about strategy from a human perspective, rather than a leadership one (full of the related, irrelevant jargon) is a tough move.

Ultimately, agile leadership is about recognising that everyone in the 'orchestra' of school is a leader, provided the strategy has been scored in a way that enables everyone to know their part in making it happen. The metaphor with music is one I concluded with, based on this old conductors' post I wrote. But it is also how I had started, with this haunting, stressful moment as Maria Joao Pires realises that she has been practicing the wrong concerto for the concert (it is no mistake that Mozart's D Minor Concerto is an obsession about feeling loneliness and despair...). With it, I asked the audience who the leader actually was at different moments of the piece, what the role of knowledge might have been, and how the understanding and trust between leaders leads to inspiring action: 

You can pre-order or purchase your copy of How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, and see some of the practical means of overcoming these barriers to creative leadership. And, for something free and instant, you can get a useful cheat sheet of agile leadership strategies by signing up to the NoTosh mailing list.

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.

March 21, 2014

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

Pixar and Creativity.001

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:

Dylan Wiliam.001

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 :)

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About Ewan

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

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

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

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

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