Imagine designing a school where the bell never rings, the day never ends, that keeps students in for as long as possible, in the same way as Google has designed its campuses to keep employees happy, but working.
That's what we explored during a fun field trip visit this week to Singapore Management University's SMU-X with the Facilities team and some great educators from Singapore American School (above), as they consider how they might create a more agile process for teachers to propose learning space innovations.
The space's project manager and initiator is Gan Hup Tan, Associate Director of Strategic Planning at the University, below. He's used design thinking principles to attempt the creation of a 'sticky space', where students choose to spend their time. But also visible were a large number of different type of space, and their type dictated, without signage, how it might be used. They fell fairly close to what I've come to call the seven spaces of learning.
In a fascinating visit we witnessed that very concept, with many students even opting for a quick nap in the "Quiet Room", on inflatable mattresses and soft furnishings, so that they could rejoin their learning, with peers, in one of the many collaborative spaces nearby:
Ownership of the space is a challenge: it is open 24/7 with very much 'background' security staff, and no librarians or permanent 'assistors' on hand. And yet the only room with instructions on its use is the White Room, head-to-toe-to-floor idea-painted, with glass walls and door, so that students can map out big ideas:
Interestingly, both here and on smaller whiteboards along the lines of workstations, there was plenty evidence that students claimed these spaces for personal expression, personal ownership. Cartoons, sketches and fun 'tags' felt like their principal purpose was to make students feel more at home, give more of a sense of belonging in an otherwise transient space.
While most space was purposefully ambiguous in purpose, there was the one-button recording studio:
Students insert their USB memory stick to start the system. Television lights switch on and the system is instantly ready to record, as soon as the big silver button is pressed:
As soon as the recording is complete, press the button again, and the whole movie is saved, instantly, to your USB. Remove the USB, the lights go out automatically, and you can leave with your movie ready to upload. It's a lovely example of technology reducing the barrier to achieving a prototype of thinking, good enough to get feedback if not quite Hollywood in terms of editing.
Does it work? Well, as I headed back to my hotel after dinner, a paused by the building. At the junction were six student-looking youth, takeaway food in their hands, heading towards the door. One swipe of their cards and they were in. 11pm learning - it’s certainly when many of us did our best work back in the day, no?
In 2007, I posted a picture of me blogging, with a one month old Catriona in one arm, one-handed typing on the other:
One year later, I had stopped writing on my blog regularly (until this month) for many reasons:
I wouldn't swap my life for the world. I'm very fortunate to have a family that has come to cope, somehow, with my travels, and a supportive team who I can lean on when I need to. But when push comes to shove, it is writing on the blog that has always had the shove.
Maybe that's what making things explicit and public is all about - you magically find time to do things, ditching others, and not giving up what is truly important to you.
Above all, writing every day has been a wonderful model for that little Catriona, and her new (well, now four years old) sister, Anna:
This is what they call a "forward" post. I wrote it yesterday, when I had wifi and time, and am posting under today's date. I have a (reasonable) expectation that I will be alive tomorrow, and that this will not, therefore, freak out anyone unduly.
In the early days of blogging with my school students, back in 2002/3, I'd use forward posting on the foreign trips we made because mobile access to blogging software on my Nokia was so expensive. At the time I gauged our expectations of living tomorrow high, but was young enough and foolish enough to forget that, should our coach have gone off piste 88 mums and dads, notwithstanding the rest of our families, would have been rather taken aback to see us "happily arrived in Caen", and not in the mortuary.
Expectations are funny things. We all like to believe we have different expectations, but some of our expectations are just hardwired, like the pentatonic scale, into our beings. This year, the case was proven when I felt obliged, finally, to remove my kid from her local school and attempt to fund a better future in a local private school. The principle reason for this move, against many education bones in my body, was that state education in my neck of the woods feels like it has lost its sense of expectation for every kid. Our expectations are realistic, perhaps, and the intention of supporting all children to achieve will help the lower 20% become a much more able lower 20%. But there will always be a bottom 20%. And if our efforts are in setting expectations for the middle, all kids will tend to aim a little below whatever we set them. In her new school, Catriona is flourishing, with expectations set at a stratospheric level and a hidden understanding that, really, the goal isn't to meet them at all. There's something else going on.
This ties into what we consider 'normal' expectations. My expectation of being alive tomorrow (today) when this is posted are high. I place trust in my pilots, my plane and my fellow passengers, not to do us any harm.
My expectations of living another day along with my students back in 2002 were equally high, but not entirely shared by nervously grinning colleagues when they knew what I had prepped for future-posted blog posts.
My expectations for my kids' own learning are stratospheric. At 4 and 7 years old, I expect them to be able to do anything that they want, as long as... and there is the tough bit. What are the conditions for expectations that mean some schools succeed in pitching them perfectly, and others, on a systemic level, fail completely?
This is not a pushy parent, or a doting dad post. This is all about helping my kids learn earlier than I did what Steve Jobs put thus:
"When you grow up you tend to get told that the world is the way that it is, and your life is just to live your life inside the world, try not to bash into the walls too much, try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money...
"That's a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact:
"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."
This morning I set off for Dubai, and on to Hong Kong and Nanjing, before returning for a couple of days in Dubai, and then home in time for tea on Friday. It's a hectic week, with a lot of time in the plane. Something I've noticed over the past year is that flights have become longer. Most of the time, this is because of war and conflict 38,000ft below.
Take the initial route to Dubai, for example. Until last summer, this trip took me routinely over Southern Turkey, Syria, Mosul and Basra in Iraq, down the Persian Gulf sea border next to (but avoiding) Iran, and into Dubai (the blue line in the graphic above. Source: Daily Mail). I used to enjoy peering out at the flames from the oil fields of Iraq and the bright beacons of Kuwait.
Now, the safest route is a good 10-30 minutes longer, over what is deemed safer - Ukraine, the annexed Crimea and Iran, coming in through the back door to Dubai.
The destination hasn't changed but, due to horrific circumstances in Syria, Iraq and Eastern Ukraine, the route has had to.
When an organisation is looking at its strategy, I often find that the route and destination are conflated, they become one and the same. If the destination is too far flung or far-fetched, then we don't leave the current status quo. If the destination is appealing but the first attempt to get there is thwarted, we tend to see strategy teams crash land, declare a failure, and walk all the way back, slowly and painfully, to the status quo of before.
The teams who reroute overnight are rare. The teams with a genuine pioneer spirit are rarer - they tend to be the ones who call up my team to help them get to some genuine BHAGs (Big Hairy Audacious Goals).
Because this is the key to rerouting. It's a multi-team multidisciplinary effort, and everyone needs to know their role. Having everyone 'collaborate' on the same stuff is just group work, and the equivalent of having the entire ground staff, airline leadership team, crew and, if there's any space left, passengers on the rerouted plane:
Having a strategy, having a destination, is not enough. You need to have a timeline that shows when each of these steps will take place, and when each prototype will become more solid, should they prove successful. These tools enable the leadership to leave the flight deck, and let teachers, students, parents and other teams get on with their jobs, confident in the turns they take.
I've had a lovely week on holiday down in London with the family, being proper tourists. Under the dreich weather of Monday we ventured Thames-side and towards the terrifying but fun seethrough walkways of Tower Bridge. Along the side of the walkways were photographs of some of the world's great bridges, together with some of the history about how this iconic bridge came to be.
What did we learn?
This landmark, required to cope with the overwhelming population growth on either side of the river and increased river traffic to the upper parts of the Thames, was borne out of many, mostly failed, prototypes, most in the form of sketches.
Thank goodness we didn't stop at the first prototypes submitted to the public competition. The dual lock system would hardly have helped with the drastically increasing river traffic of the industrial revolution:
And a system of hydraulic elevators would have failed in the other sense, not really foreseeing 2015's automotive traffic needing a quick north-south crossing:
Some designers simply did without a bridge and went for the tunnel - perfect for traffic throughput in the longer term and not disruptive at all to the river traffic. In the end, though, it was feasibility that killed these tunnel ideas off - the runways required to descend human and horse-drawn traffic into them were so long that they ate up most of the land either side of the river:
As the final designer was chosen, even his first drafts were off the mark on the aesthetic side:
In the end, the rules for killing ideas and honing the kernels of interesting ideas down haven't changed since the bridge's completion in 1894 and today, as I describe them in my book: desirability (do they want or need it?), feasibility (can we do it?) and viability (should we do it?).
The result, is an imperfect perfection that we recognise in an instant:
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?
Algorithms help us turn complex stories into dara that can drive a decision. Nearly every grading system and student performance tracker education has is based on algorithms, which is why, perhaps, they feel so useless to learners and teachers when, in some places, that is all they are supposed to care about.
This Wired article (http://www.wired.com/2013/06/ups-astronomical-math) talks about delivery firm UPS and its new software for answering "the traveling salesman's problem", namely: how to get from A-Z via all the required points in the middle most efficiently. The software is not algorithmic, that is, it's not written in a lab, shipped and then "done to" the driver. Instead, the driver can use his or her often superior knowledge of local quirks in traffic at certain times of day, those lanes and side streets that shave minutes of a journey, even if it is not as a crow would fly. The software then learns from this deviation and helps all UPS drivers do better next time.
It is heuristic, not algorithmic, and this is interesting for tracking software of any kind because heuristics, while always possible in maths and programming, was hard to do better than a human until relatively recently.
What would this mean for learning analytics, a host of services and products more often arousing ideas of big money than big student progress? It means that the decisions of the most successful students could land data that helps weaker students perform better. It means that the subtle pedagogies of self-reported grading and quality feedback might begin to have a hope of being undertaken, and undertaken WELL, by software.
That would be the kind of learning analytics I might start to get excited by.
Television drama's whole point is to bring you through an often slow start, followed by a complex development to a point where there are two or three potential dénouements before, "Cut!", it is the end of the episode and you will have to await the "right answer" in the following week's show.
This post came to me at 10pm last night, on Day 16 of this challenge, after a day of holidaying in London and with my head (and feet) too weary to put finger to touchscreen.
Mrs Mc and I had just watched another live instalment of Broadchurch, murder mystery extraordinaire, particularly since in the second series there is no actual fresh murder to investigate. The verdict is about to be given on the accused killer from Series 1 when the inevitable happens... Cue title music.
This moment has even gained a moniker in British homes, based on the theme tune to the real masters of the four-times-a-week cliffhanger, London-based soap opera Eastenders. It's call a "ba...ba...ba...ba, ba, ba-ba-ba-ba" (YouTube will provide overseas readers with auditory explanation).
Eastenders is such a master of writing in the perfect pace that every 28 minute episode ends with a tantalising screen freeze on the latest shocked face / smirking baddy / confused victim. For really big stories the cliffhanger can last significantly longer. This week, to celebrate the show's 30 year birthday, we will finally find out the answer to a question unanswered for the past 14 months: "Who killed Lucy Beale?"
Now, most classrooms do not involve murder, incest, dodgy deals and danger, but "good teaching" encourages a type of pacing that totally ignores the ingredients that have millions in the edges of their seats every day: the good old cliffhanger. In fact, we see teachers giving away the punchline at the beginning: "Today we are learning this:..."
Just because we tell kids "we are learning" does not mean they will learn it. But the ingredients of good drama can also be found research on what makes good learning:
Edward de Bono's work takes precisely five pages to talk about the importance of provocation to help the learner learn deeply about an issue or concept and the related tangents ("Lateral Thinking"; "Mechanism of the Mind"). In my team's experience, the intrigue provides enough of an "after-burner" of interest to push the learner deep enough into learning new concepts and ideas that the inherent interest in the content can be discovered.
2. Not planning "a lesson"
In most classrooms, still, we see teachers planning the days before for one lesson at a time, and it is no wonder that learning feels chunked up to the point it is no longer recognisable in its original form. This runs against what David Perkins calls "Making Learning Whole". Making learning whole means that we think of learning like a long, 12 or 16 part drama, and build our story on that long line rather than the minutiae of each lesson. Then, in terms of the detail, we write in the 2 minute catchups from the last episode, the beginnings and, crucially, the structured cliffhangers to retain interest until the next lesson / episode. If you're planning one lesson at a time instead of thinking about the long line of learning this is impossible to achieve.
There you go. 28 minutes is up and a small provocation, I hope, to inspire some different types of planning. Get some more ideas on how to plan that stuff on the NoTosh Lab: http://www.notosh.com/lab
These stressful moments happen to all fathers: my Mac had to head into the Mac Doctor aka Genius Bar for some replacement organs.
So, I am now properly digital native, frantically writing this with thumbs on an iPhone in the stressful 28 minutes prior to shoving two children out of the door, fed, watered, washed and clothed (OK, the last bit isn't that teenaged a behaviour, but you get the picture).
What I am wondering is whether four days of enforced thumb-blogging is going to affect my writing style, turning thoughtful prose, composed at the larger sensible and serious MacBook Pro, into Facebookish tweet-happy nonsense that no-one except me will care about. That said, given the number of comments left on the first 14 days of this 2015 writing adventure compared to the flowing discussions oneight have seen 10 years ago, I'm not sure anyone cares about many blog posts any more.
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.