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 ;-)
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?
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:
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.
Originally posted on NoTosh's fabulous Facebook page.
Ira Glass' words on storytelling and creativity have been doing the rounds this weekend, adapted from a Current.tv documentary from a while back. The key point in this clip is incredibly close to what we bring to educators when we talk about ideation and prototyping:
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 second clip, Glass points to the longer-than-you-ever-think-it-will-be period of immersion as you seek out the problem to solve, or story to tell, and the wonderfully releasing moment of synthesis as you "kill" the stories not worth telling:
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
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.