So much school strategy is thunder and lightning, no rain. Teachers don't know how to use it at 9am on Monday morning, students never see it, let alone know how to take their part in making the strategy happen for real.
Not in our latest workshop in Sweden.
We've been working with our Swedish partners Lin Education, with colleague Bonnie Stewart over from Canada, to provide a group of Malmö teachers and leaders with some deep, but brief, provocations on how media, identity, our networks and our approach to students owning more of their learning can be more likely to succeed.
They have spent the afternoon synthesising all of this to work out what the key headache they have might actually be, before defining an objective they'd like to meet to resolve that pain. Then, we've helped them work out the three or four key strategic projects they need to work through in order to get to the objective, reach their summit.
Here, the youngest teacher in each team is pitching their fifth prototype of the strategy, having received feedback all afternoon from different groups. In this session they only get the questions and feedback of colleagues, and are not allowed to reply. THAT is the serious work they'll do in the weeks to come - answering the questions and queries of colleagues to make the objective more concrete.
It's a brief, light version of what we've been doing with schools over a year or longer, tackling challenges in individual classrooms, perhaps, more than whole school ones. But the impact on these teachers is already fascinating - they're walking away having learned something, with a plan of their next actions, and the means to persuade the colleagues to join them.
The techniques we've used are described in my book, How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen.
While search technology made the process of seeking the answers to our questions easier and quicker, social technology and our networks have had a paradoxical effort. Has the ease of 'asking' numbed our curiosity to investigate unknown knowns for ourselves?
There’s a strange paradox at work here. We live in an era where information is more freely available and easily accessible than ever before. Learning has, broadly speaking, evolved in three stages. First, knowledge resided in books or was held by experts. Students had to “knock” – to go looking – to find the answers. Then came Google, and with it students learned to “seek” because it was right there at their fingertips.
With the advent of Facebook and other social networks, we’ve entered the era of “ask”. Knowledge resides in the minds of the network, so students can just throw out a question on their Facebook page: “Hey guys, how would you answer this question that our professor set?”...
Students don’t read lengthy documents – like academic papers – any longer. They don’t go hunting for answers. They just put a question out to their network, sit back and wait for the answers to come their way.
It's not just our students who have become this Generation Ask - their teachers, in droves, sit on Twitter asking questions to the network, whose answers are waiting there to be found. The technology of our networks risks turning us into lazy researchers, for one.
But more worryingly, not doing our own homework, our own research, and relying instead on what others perceive to be 'right', means that we don't accidentally rub up against the interesting tangents that always come with one's own, personal, more time-consuming research.
The unknown unknowns remain untouched in this age of the network, and each individual's 'filter bubble' merely narrows down those chances further. The more our networks act as a magnifying glass on the loudest voices, the less likely we are to see the bigger picture, the whole context, and gain the depth of understanding we would ideally seek.
Pic by Kate Ter Haar
It's ten years today since I wrote my first blog post for me, and I wish we could have today's thinking with the space and time of a decade ago.
I've blogged since around November 1999, one of the first users of a new, shaky service... Blogger. My first one was, as a student teacher, some kind of "making sense of Scottish education" affair. It was short-lived, audience-free, and felt presumptuous in the extreme. As a French and German teacher, I used the more stable Typepad service to run blogs with students on all sorts of field trips and school partnerships.
There were various Paris-Normandy trips, the highlight of my teaching year, where we live-blogged from a Nokia 6230i with a 1.3megapixel inbuilt camera and extortionately expensive and unreliable 2G connection, while munching on smelly cheese and exploring the history of Omaha beach and surrounds. In the early years, mums and dads were sceptical of what it was for and why - most posts would garner barely 30 comments. Just one year on, though, the utility of the blog was clear to all: no more nervous phone calls to the school asking how we Johnny was doing, and literally hundreds of comments per blog. In fact, I've just spent the weekend at a wedding where I met many of the students from the 2005 blog for the first time since then.
Carol Fuller, a US teacher from South Cobb, near Atlanta, who I have never met, but to whom my primary school colleague John Johnston paid a visit over a decade ago, is still an online friend today. She got her students helping in a couple of projects where a US perspective on the world was essential to gain empathy beyond the pages of the textbook. The most popular post in one collaboration on politics was by far around banning guns. Plus ça change...
Her students took the often traumatic and insightful writing of our senior students' field trip blog to Auschwitz and wrote their own play on the back of it. It was pre-YouTube, so VHS cassettes flew across the Atlantic. Having the powerful writing of students still online, still being downloaded, feels important today as our world continues to struggle with terrible things happening in the world, viewed only through a screen. Laura Womersley's Confession is still one of the best pieces of writing I think I've ever read from a student, rendered more poignant than ever today knowing that just a few months later she died, suddenly, from an unexpected illness. Her words live on.
We used our blogs to publish the first high school podcast in Europe, maybe in the world. The wee lad who edited everything is now an accident and emergency doctor, and through micro-blogging - Twitter - is newly in touch with me this past year. He's no long a wee lad, either - six foot tall, and seeking his next challenges in life.
It was only when I left my classroom to start a secondment with the Government, in the summer of 2005, that I knew I would miss sharing with other people. Until that point, it had always been through the conduit of my students' work. Now, I wanted to share whatever I might with a newly emergent group of educators, educators who wanted to share beyond their four walls. The first post was awkward (and indeed called "That awkward first post"). The early posts are bum-clenchingly naïve. But it was also the place that some small things were kicked off, and became big things. A few weeks after the first ScotEduBlogsMeetup, TeachMeet was born in a post in 2006.
Early on, Loïc Lemeur, the founder of the blog platform I had been using for so long, invited me to speak at his emergent Les Blogs conference in Paris (now Europe's must-go-to tech conference, LeWeb). It's his birthday today, the day that I started my own blog - serendipity perhaps?
What followed my intervention there was the first sign that people might actually be reading and listening to what I was saying. James Farmer got stuck in, annoyed, I think, that a young buck was on the stage talking about classroom blogging (and he wasn't ;-). He was actually complaining about what everyone else on the panel had said, not what I contributed, which were just stories (much the same I what I try to contribute today). We didn't speak much after that, in spite of promises of beer in Brissie.
I was fed up at how few teachers were sharing long-form thoughts and reflections on teaching, through blogs, and how a self-nominated cabal hectored those of us joining the fray "for not doing it right". Today, I feel that about the self-nominated if-Hattie-didn't-say-it-it-didn't-happen brigade. Back then my chief supporter in the collision with James Farmer and, later, Stephen Downes, was one Peter Ford - still one of my best buddies today, and working partner of the last three years. Collisions, I learned early on, are how we challenge ourselves to learn better. Heck, even Stephen came around to like something I did once... one of the best presentations he's ever heard. The content of it, too, came from collisions on this here blog.
I also had collisions through the blog with people who did not blog, namely my employers at the Scottish Government. I spent a few blog posts correcting newspaper stories in which I was misquoted, and many more writing my own thoughts on why the creation of a national schools intranet, a social network no-one outside schools could see, was doomed to fail. It did. Two years after leaving the education department, I was invited back by a new Education Minister to his expert committee that has overhauled the whole, expensive, useless venture.
So, collisions on the blog were vital to my job, when I had one, and for the creation of NoTosh, my company. For ten years of professional collisions, thank you. I really wish there were more of them in long form.
TLDR has become the norm as educational discourse takes place in machine gun ratatats-à-Twitter. Where once we had comment feeds, dripping ideas, thoughts and disagreement with our ideas each day, we now have a tsunami of detritus in which we must seek out the comments of yore, never connected directly to the original thought that sparked them. Ten years ago, the half-life of an idea, of a discourse, could be as long as a month. Today, one is lucky if a thought lasts twenty seconds before it falls off the fold of the electronic page.
In the past decade, though, something better has come along, I think. More educators are writing books than ever before. More than most genres, there are plenty destined to become pulp, but there are so many more than a decade ago that offer genuine insight, great ideas, years of learning to the reader for no more than thirty bucks. They even come to your screen in a flash, if you want them to. I wonder, sometimes, if teachers writing books is not the long-form blog post in a different guise.
To that end, I've wondered about going back over ten years of blog posts, ignoring the truly embarrassing ones and unpicking the contentious ones with a more mature head on my shoulders. I'd love to write a book that takes ideas that mattered 10 years ago to me, and see whether they might matter more to people today. I have no idea whether this would work, whether it would even be of interest to people - the same questions I asked in my parents' dining room as I set about kicking off this electronic version of the book draft.
Thanks to those of you who have read my stuff, especially the longest posts like this one. Thanks, too, to those with whom I have collided over the last ten years. And to those who don't read my blog any more, who have unsubscribed because you feel it is "no longer relevant" (that's the most common reason for an unsubscribe), peace be with you. You have no idea of the fun you've missed out on ;-)
No grades (ever), no sitting down at desks, and harnessing student boredom as a motivator to create and explore might seem an odd recipe for academic success and entry to university, but that is exactly what one of Scotland's newest schools is attempting to do.
Drumdruan Upper School was created a few years ago by Scottish actress Tilda Swinton, star of many a Hollywood blockbuster and forever in my mind the terrifying Witch in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The school extends a Steiner education beyond the age of 14, and takes students through to their University years. The Observer has published a fascinating and detailed account of some of the recipe that makes this a special place and, above all, has bowled over the traditionally conservative schools inspectorate:
That is not what happened: the inspectors sat in the classes and watched the students. And if you watch the students at Drumduan, you soon notice they are confident, articulate, highly motivated and respectful. These are, in fact, the words used by the inspectors in their subsequent report. You might even believe the students at Drumduan wanted to be there. The inspectors clearly felt so, but it was when they had retired to an office to confer that Krzysztof, a master of the spontaneous gesture, delivered the coup de grace. He sang to them.
Music is something of a hallmark at Drumduan, where children participate in regular workshops – often on instruments like a wheelie bin – and start each day singing in four-part harmonies. “We were rehearsing in another room, and I said: ‘This song is terrific, we have to show these inspectors,’” Krzysztof recalls. “So we burst into their office – they were a bit alarmed – and I said: ‘I’m sorry, we’ve just got to sing this song to you.’” The song was “Media Vita”, a medieval score of haunting beauty that reduced the inspectors to tears, according to Krzysztof. Bowled over by their praise – he is a man whose emotions are close to the surface – Krzysztof asked if he could give them a hug, probably a first for all of them.
“There’s no grading, no testing at all,” Tilda had explained to me earlier. “My children are now 17, and they will go through this school without any tests at any time, so it’s incredibly art-based, practical learning. For example, they learn their science by building a Canadian canoe, or making a knife, or caramelising onions. And they’re all happy 17-year-olds. I can’t believe it – happy and inspired.”
It’s been a decade since I first heard the education conference cliché that we are preparing our kids for a future we don’t even understand. I argue that since then we've done little about it, in this week's Editorial in the Times Educational Supplement.
Ten years ago, that wasn’t really true. In fact, the immediate future was pretty predictable between 2005 and 2010: the internet remained slow and some kids didn’t have it at home, most didn’t use Facebook, smartphones were still far too expensive and the iPad wasn’t launched until January 2010. Even terrorism was mostly still “over there”, and wars likewise, rather than recruiting from comprehensives in the Home Counties.
Since then the world has learned what “exponential” really means. The normal trajectory post-school is no longer a linear certainty but a struggle with what a new breed of thinker and doer embraces as “fuzzy goals”. This emergent group of young people, activists and senior industry leaders spends most of its days grappling with unknown unknowns – technologies, jobs, ways of thinking and, yes, even terrorist groups that we didn’t even know we didn’t know about.
At the same time, our understanding of “what matters” in education hasn’t budged beyond a few pockets of relative daring. We still operate within our hierarchy of subjects, overcharged curricula and an expectation that teachers will stand and deliver it. There is little room for fuzziness here.
In this week's Times Educational Supplement, I expand on how fuzzy problem-finding and -solving are some of the core skills that we've been ignoring too long in the search for standaradisation and content-heavy cramming. What do you think?
Pic by HB2
Sometimes the 28 days of writing is really the 25 minutes of watching.
My question: when a teacher uses Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe's backwards design or understanding by design type methodology for learning, and nothing else, will your students ever experience the more real-world feeling of trying to fathom the fuzzy, ambiguous unknowns that lie ahead?
At a concert in Gothenburg Concert Hall October 23, 2013, Christian Zacharias stopped playing in the middle of Haydn's Piano Concerto, interrupted by a cell phone ringing for the second time the same concert. Was he right to stop?
In this interview, that I've used in two recent keynotes on creativity and failure, Zacharias makes the point that listening to a concert is one of the rare moments in our lives where we can concentrate on just one thing, without interruption. Much like deep thinking or learning, interruptions by phone rings (or bell rings in school) are catastrophic for our projects and ideas.
In this instance, it was just too much. On the up side, Zacharias says, after such an interruption, the audience is even more attuned to what is going on, on the stage.
But not all interruptions need to be treated with the same disdain:
I love the shrug at the end, a realisation that something simple and playful can diffuse the potential blot on a whole performance.
In teaching, it's easy to let interruptions get in the way of our thinking. We respond with anger, frustration, telling offs... But it is the regular interruptions to our thinking - the bell, the timetable, the examination - that risk being the biggest incumbrance to sustainable levels of creativity and deep thinking of school students the world over.
10 years ago, I might have been amongst the masses to point out that the bell, the timetable and the examination are all thrust upon me, as a teacher, and that I have no chance of controlling them merely in the name of creativity. Today, however, I know that teachers can achieve so much more if they design their way out of it. I've just come off a call with educators at Nanjing International School where, in preparing and prototyping ideas for a new strategy:
All of these have come as a result of the school working as a whole, with design thinking mindsets along the way, to think differently about learning, to make learning happen from the point of view of what works for the student, more than what works for reinforcing the existing system.
Less of the status quo can only ever be a good thing...
I should finish by pointing to the encore of Zacharias, where his playfulness is finally visible.
This is Saturday's #28daysofwriting, written on Saturday February 7th, but not typed up until Monday February 9th. Why? At the weekend I make every attempt to unplug from technology. Most of my best ideas do not happen while staring at a screen, small or large, but from doing the opposite: experiencing life around me.
Stating this will annoy some of the 28 people awaiting a pitch, programme, plan, project proposal or reply. Some of them will have waited a week, as last week's trip to Canada was so intense I didn't have the energy to give them the quality of thinking and time they deserve.
But unplugging on a regular basis, and not just splurging on an "analogue August" or "wifi-less winter" is something we should all aspire to do. Less little and often, more significant time offline and regular.
I know my own team tend to take their weekends for getting down to the beach, into a restaurant or two, or heading for brisk walks through English woods or Scottish coasts. As such, I'd never expect an email reply from them, from about midday on Friday through to mid-morning on Monday (leaving them time to prioritise first thing).
Quartz reports on an entire Connecticut-based marketing firm who had a whole-organisation offline, no device day. To be honest, I was surprised that one day offline for a team was able to make the news n the first place. But then I thought a little harder, and realised that for a whole team to decide in advance to go native (and not digitally so) was still a rare thing, even if just for one day.
The story reveals some of the reasons it might be important to take more frequent time off instead of these newsworthy splurges:
The pic on the post is mine, from Soho, London - the one place where you might get away with being both plugged in and unplugged at the same time.
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.
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.