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?
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!).
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.
You can't just do ONE or TWO drafts of thinking; you have to make it double-digit drafting, prototyping thinking, gaining feedback and doing better next time.
What Ira Glass touches on is how, no matter how hard we try, we are never happy with our earlier pieces of work. As a result, there is only one tactic we can employ to guarantee that we get better: produce a LOT of work. The more we practice our craft, the better we get.
Simple powerful advice with which no-one in their right mind would disagree, and many who create for a living recognise, but one piece schools are quick to forget under the pressures of time, "the test" and any other number of excuses not to give young people the chance to prototype thinking many, many times:
"Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through." —Ira Glass
Other lessons in the documentary are also compelling, and tie in beautifully to NoTosh's Design Thinking School work. He stresses the importance of having a process through which to work, the building blocks of one's trade. This equates to the thinking skills and knowing when to use which ones where in the process within a school environment.
In a final clip, he concludes with the challenge facing all young people, too: how do you create something within a medium, without just copying what you've heard before? The answer: be yourself, talk like you, write and speak about what you know best. The more you are yourself, the better off you are. But how many kids are trying to be someone else, or play someone else's game at school, instead of finding their own way forward?
British Philosopher Alan Watts sums up an attitude that took me years to understand, and which underlines the attitude to life that all my colleagues sign up to. If you want to do something - defend the charged, taxi people through cities, teach children, grow wine, whatever... - then do it.
I'm working at the moment with a group of teachers, engineers and entrepreneurs in Finland, all of whom are passionate about what they do. They'd do it, I'm sure, were money no object. And because they love it, they practice it, they get good at, and so people pay them to do it so well.
Yet I've met educators on my journey who wouldn't do it, were money no object. They should go and find something else they really want to do, and not perpetuate the model in front of our children. Life is already too short to be doing something you don't want to.
The full transcription of Alan Watts' If Money Were No Object:
What do you desire? What makes you itch? What sort of a situation would you like?
Let’s suppose, I do this often in vocational guidance of students, they come to me and say, well, we’re getting out of college and we haven’t the faintest idea what we want to do.
So I always ask the question, what would you like to do if money were no object? How would you really enjoy spending your life?
Well, it’s so amazing, as a result of our kind of educational system crowds of students say, well, we’d like to be painters, we’d like to be poets, we’d like to be writers, but as everybody knows you can’t earn any money that way. Or another person says well, I’d like to live an out-of-doors life and ride horses.
I say, you want to teach in a riding school? Let’s go through with it. What do you want to do?
When we finally got down to something which the individual says he really wants to do, I will say to him, you do that — and forget the money, because if you say that getting the money is the most important thing, you will spend your life completely wasting your time.
You’ll be doing things you don’t like doing in order to go on living, that is to go on doing things you don’t like doing, which is stupid. Better to have a short life that is full of what you like doing than a long life spent in a miserable way.
And after all, if you do really like what you’re doing, it doesn’t matter what it is, you can eventually turn it – you could eventually become a master of it. It’s the only way to become a master of something, to be really with it. And then you’ll be able to get a good fee for whatever it is.
So don’t worry too much that everybody is – somebody is interested in everything, anything you can be interested in, you will find others will.
But it’s absolutely stupid to spend your time doing things you don’t like in order to go on spending things you don’t like, doing things you don’t like and to teach your children to follow in the same track.
See what we are doing is we’re bringing up children and educating to live the same sort of lifes we are living. In order that they may justify themselves and find satisfaction in life by bringing up their children to bring up their children to do the same thing, so it’s all retch and no vomit — it never gets there.
And so, therefore, it’s so important to consider this question: what do I desire?
Just released on YouTube is a new campaign from Belgian agency Duval Guillaume, where they changed the operation of schools for a day. Boys went to school to learn. Girls went to school to clean out the toilets and undertake other menial tasks.
It feels to me like a modern-day, marketers version of the Brown Eyes, Blue Eyes experiment from Jane Elliot in the early 1970s. She undertook an experiment in arbitrary discrimination between "underclass" brown eyed people and the upper class blue eyed people. She did it against the fallout of Martin Luther King's assassination. We need something fresh like this today to make sure that we don't tolerate the tolerated, that all girls get to school, wherever they are in the world. Our fallout is last week's shooting of 14 year old Malala Yousafzai in Pakistan, shot because she believes girls should go to school.
Next week I'll be in Antwerp to hang out with Kris Hoet, the Director of Digital at the agency who came up with the idea. I wonder what questions educators might have about how we might harness the power of digital and the savvyness of great marketers to improve learning outcomes for more children?
I've spent the week back at Building Learning Communities in Boston, working alongside my colleague Tom Barrett and hanging out with great friends old and new. AlasMedia, my LA pals with whom I spend far too much time into the wee small hours talking about film, education, music and life, produced this clip to sum up the urgency with which we need to take what we learn from intensive weeks like this and put it into action in our classrooms.
What are you going to do on the First Five Days of school to make that dent in the status quo? Tell us using the Twitter hashtag #1st5days
In early February I presented, in French, a 90 minute story about how design thinking and the educational worlds of formative assessment, school building, curriculum and assessment strategy are all bound together.
I wanted to show to the audience at Clair 2012 in New Brunswick, Canada, what can happen when these apparently unrelated worlds of technology startups, product design and formal education are bound together by leaders with foresight and an understanding of the detail and complexity of learning, amazing learning opportunities can happen.
It was a joy to speak about the complexity of learning and teaching, with the time and audience who got it - it was, after all, New Brunswick teachers that taught me how to really teach through their French immersion, project-led pedagogy.
It's the first time I've ever had a standing ovation for a talk, especially one that was 90 minutes and between opportunities for the audience to drink wine and eat cheese. I was taken aback by that. And even more humbled by the words from Stephen Downes, who also braved his fears of keynoting en français at the event:
I've had my criticisms of Ewan McIntosh in the past and I will no doubt have my criticisms of him in the future. But they will be a bit tempered from now on, I think. Ewan McIntosh weaved what can only be called magic at the conference I attended at Clair 2012, in northern New Brunswick. It wasn't simply because his French is easier to follow than his English ;) - he wove a tapestry of ideas together talking about what it is that will draw out students, interest them, engage them, and get them to be more than just followers of orders. It was one of the best presentations I've even seen - visually beautiful, low-keyed, personal and engaging. He has clearly learned a lot from his work with TED, but also, with 90 minutes to work with, the talk was never rush, never forced, and, in the end, exactly the right length. He received a standing ovation at the end, very much (to my observation) a rarity at education conferences. Well deserved.
I think part of it was to do with speaking French, but not because I was making an effort to speak it or anything, more that as a result of speaking my second language in an unfamiliar context I took extra care, and extra time from the normal 45 minute keynote sprint, to weave the complexities of our learning world in a simple way.
It was great fun, and I'm grateful to Roberto Gauvin, the Principal teacher at Clair's learning centre, for the opportunity to come through the metre-thick snow and -30˚C freeze to work alongside such a dedicated group of franco-canadian educators.
You can download a copy of the talk from the Clair 2012 website (right click/control click and select "Save As..."). Better still, you can see the actions stemming from it and other talks when you dip into the manifesto for change, the DeCLAIRation, a pragmatic document for change based on what we all heard from the four speakers and our many corridor conversations.
This growing document is designed by 100 educators who gave up a Saturday morning in a gym in Clair, to provide links to research that disprove the key naysayer arguments for curricular, assessment and pedagogical change in the classroom. Well, it's a dream document for a keynoter, even one with 90 minutes, because the Saturday morning exercise allowed us to revisit and question all those things we had heard from the keynoters through two days of conference, and back up our views with research and leading practice, rather than anecdotes.
It's open until March 11th for changes, and then we're going to use it to create change in the Francophone and, with some translation, the Anglophone worlds of education, by create a copy that can be sent to every politician and Principal we know.
The Future Belongs To The Curious - so says this compelling clip passed on by Christian Long. But so say the scores of teachers with whom we work, when we suggest to them that the average 13 years of compulsory schooling content can be covered, easily, in less than 13 years time if, in fact, students choose what they cover, and when.
This is the core tenet of the first phase of The Design Thinking School: Immersion.
The first phase of design thinking does not take one fifth of the time: immersion might take up to 70% of the process, as great observations can lead quickly to great ideas for solving real problems. It's a process of opening up opportunities to explore, not shutting them down. This is where, from a teacher's perspective, all control sometimes feels lost as students explore unexpected tangents. The trick is keeping out of the way, and letting students justify to themselves and to others why some tangents are worth exploring and others less so.
Immersion: observation and empathy with others
The act of just observing what goes on in the world is one that most adults struggle with: we want to jump to inferences and even come up with ideas to problems that we've perceived. But there's only one way to spot a great problem: find it through speaking with people, observing their "thoughtless actions", as Jane Fulton Suri puts it, noticing the small things that don't work, and the band-aid solutions people have to make the world around them work better. It's in these observations, and the empathetic process of putting yourselves in their shoes, that interesting problems no-one has solved, and questions to which no-one (yet) knows the answers, will emerge.
Observations might be made around a general theme or a more specific challenge (often framed in the "How might we…?" or "What would happen if…?" vein). The teacher's job with his or her students, much like the client working with creative design agency, is to negotiate the initial trigger of research, the brief, which needs to be
1. open-ended enough not to suggest a pre-existing bias or answer to be second-guessed
2. epic enough to be worth solving or working out (it needs to pass the "so what?" test of your average 14 year old, regardless of the age group of children working on the challenge)
3. negotiated enough to allow the students to find interesting tangents to explore, but the teacher to retrospectively see how curricular goals can be matched with their learning.
Tim Brown, CEO of Ideo, puts it this way:
"The key of a design thinking structure is enough flexibility with enough specificity to ground its ideas in the lives of their intended beneficiaries."
How about these for starters?
What would happen if we cut down the last tree?
What would happen if humans became extinct?
How might we create a carbon zero school?
How does an iPad know where it is?
What would happen if there were no religions?
How might we solve a problem that will improve the lives of 100 people in our local community?
You'll notice that these are not framed as problems, but rather generative challenges out of which many problems could be found. It is these subsequent problems that students will set out to solve. This means that in a class of 30 students, working in groups of three, four or five, you could end up with 10 different problems being solved within the same initial challenge. Or, you might find students being drawn to one problem in particular.
What they did with this process opened up their eyes to a much more enrichening curriculum approach than anything that had been 'carefully' planned by the teacher. Students didn't just cover what needed covered - they went up and over that limit to surpass the core curriculum, putting it in context, and bringing in other, new and existing content that made their project ideas work.
The key to success, and the differentiator compared to other problem-based learning approaches? Students, not teachers, work out the challenge they want to solve.
Tom: At Mount Vernon School in the United States, as part of the ITU Telecom World conference that we helped to reinvent with the participation of 10,000 young people through design thinking, one picture sticks in my mind. As part of the empathy phase young students, no more than six or seven years old, carried water, large canisters of water, from home to school. They had pain on their faces, sweat pouring down their cheeks. All this to better understand what it's like. Because they did that, they thought up better products, through a broader range of solutions.
Ewan: It's hard to teach that empathy/observation part. Teachers want to cover what they feel they want to cover. But empathy and observation is going to go beyond what you need to cover in any six week period, because this isn't a six week project. It's a way of working, a way of learning that frees up so much time later in the year or in the child's school career, with enough cooperation between schools. I wonder whether this is why 3-18 schools, independent mostly, are able to better understand the potential time saving and the ability to reduce the repetition most school students have to put up with.
Cassie: The immersion stage is a very difficult stage. It's not about generating a solution, drawing in a sketchbook, or Googling ideas or finding information. It's about finding emotions, people's feelings, finding empathy for the problem.
Miriam: When we were in that immersion stage and we were really trying to create that empathy, we were trying to get out of the students their feelings, what they thought about it and then what action can we take to be better? It was sort of empowering to them to see that they can do something about it. It's not just your teachers, your parents your school, you can actually go out there and do something about it.
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.