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.
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 group. Here 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:
Teachers take the seemingly impossible and make it happen. Every day. Teachers are the moonshot profession. We want to work with as many of you as possible in London and Amsterdam this year, at our GTA design thinking workshops.
When NoTosh took the Google Teacher Academy (GTA), we wanted to move it beyond simply exploring 'tech tools' and see if we couldn't harness the talents of educators, a sprinkling of technology, and a foundation of inspiration and moonshot thinking to really change the world of education.
Well, Google let us do it.
If you're a school leader, please apply yourself, or encourage your teams to do so. If you're an innovator teacher, jump in and share your dreams for learning. If you're an educator in FE, HE or early years, consider representing your sector with an application, and add something different to the mix.
The Google Teacher Academy has been redesigned to help teachers gain understanding of the latest technologies while working in collaborative teams to solve chunky challenges that they've identified. Participants will be coached in harnessing the design thinking process to select and frame the chunkiest challenges in education, locally and globally, before working over two intensive days to prototype solutions alongside Googlers and selected expert coaches.
Design thinking is an innovation process used by some of the world's most successful organisations to find and solve the greatest challenges on the planet. It is a simple process that can be harnessed back in your classroom, putting your students in the driving seat of their learning.
Selected expert mentors and Googlers will introduce new technologies with the potential to transform learning, as well as revisiting more familiar tools with a lens of student-centred learning in mind.
Participants will learn by doing, working in teams of fellow educators to trial their ideas there and then, before being supported for six months by a mentoring team as they try out new methodologies and technologies in their classroom.
NoTosh, your facilitators for this journey, are global experts in innovation, creativity and learning, with offices in Edinburgh, Melbourne and San Francisco. The entire team plus a group of selected educators from the UK and Netherlands, will be on hand to support you as you put your ideas into practice.
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.
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.
“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.
“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.
“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:
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.
“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?
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 :)
What is the one technology I would kill off in schools, and which one would I replace it with? Are screens responsible for kids being more demanding and should adults be telling kids how to achieve balance in their lives between tech and the rest?
Yesterday I was interviewed via Skype from the offices of Camilla Batmanghelidjh's kids company, by students from five RSA Academy Schools (the same RSA behind the RSA Animates and our WatchDrawThink campaign around those Animates).
The students have been creating audio podcasts on the topic 'What About Tomorrow?' - teenagers growing up in uncertain times, and interviewed Sir Ken Robinson at The RSA in London this week, and me in Edinburgh, over Skype, on the topic. They'll agreed to let me publish the full interview with me here and now, excerpts of which will appear alongside Sir Ken's and Camilla's take later in the year.
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.
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.