August 30, 2007

Collaborative creatives and the future of education

Andy Polaine set the scene with the importance of collaborative design and creativity in this new age, and now turns his attention to how education can innovate in a future we cannot determine.

'Slime mould and suburbs'
There are lots of small things being developed independently on the web that are becoming one, much in the same way as slime moulds form - one cell links to another until you get that yellowy fibrous material you find in rotten logs. It's the way small villages and towns become part of cities.

This changing, metamorphising of the web we thought we knew is so much like these slime moulds that it's almost impossible to track and follow until you see the final fibrous mould and wonder: "How did that get there?". So how can education change when the mould appears so slowly?

Process vs Knowledge
One way, that reflects how designers have worked for years, is the emerging importance placed on process instead of knowledge. Knowing how to do something is actually less beneficial than actually doing it. Listening to a seminar on how to podcast, for example, is less beneficial than doing a series of radio shows on a local environmental issue.

Funding: the fossil fuel of education
Funding is never going to be enough in education. It's effectively a toxic fuel that creates short-term benefits easily but leaves unsustainability in its wake. Great efficiencies are not what is required to resolve this, but rather greater effectiveness. The Victorian Industrial Revolution way of doing things doesn't work. If I have an idea in the shower to whom does it belong; if I make professional connections in Facebook but I'm only allowed to use it during breaks (as the national trade union stated today) then am I not working for free? The boundaries have changed. People graze for knowledge, they don't clock in for it. Life, work and play are converging like they never have done before. It's a mix of work ethic and play ethic.

But for education leaders to count on this convergence as their sole research and development, professional development or employee improvement is not sustainable either - less and less money for more and more grazing?

Expertise by portfolio or degree?
Likewise, if this grazing has not been 'credentialised' then, under the old regime, it's not been seen as having worth. Would you rather spend four years increasing your knowledge and capacity by reading 800 blogs a day for free or by spending $50,000 for an MBA?

Increasingly, though, this unpaid unofficial expertise and capacity is turning the investment in an MBA sour; portofolios, not further degrees, are what give you the edge. Just ask Jonathan Harris. Does formal education recognise and support this? In education circles is a blog seen as being as valuable as a certificate? That's a challenge to resolve, a truth to be acknowledged at the very least.

Portfolios' little cousin, Learning Logs, are currently mostly done on paper, if at all, are rarely read or shared by and with the teacher, almost never read by fellow students. Maybe an online alternative is the only feasible way of not only making learning logs more manageable, but also making them of more worth.

Harnessing 'grazed' portfolio expertise

So even if you have educators who understand the potential of the portfolio, and students who also engage in this online grazing and gathering of information and continuous collaboration to analyse or discuss it, how can you know about it and how can the education institution take advantage of it?

Tom Coates' outline of what makes a successful social network provide some worthwhile ethical pointers for any education institution thinking of using blogs, wikis or social networks to harness the expertise being grazed and published in online portfolios:

How you can use social software to build aggregate value… in a nutshell:

  • An individual should get value from their contribution
  • These contributions should provide value to their peers as well
  • The organization that hosts the service should derive aggregate value and be able to expose that back to the users.

What would an education institution look like that works on this basis? What would happen if there were no departments or even no funding in the institution? What would a sustainable, open source, sharing, nurturing and mentoring institution look like? How can education institutions keep themselves relevant?

Well, I think I know one place that's getting there, not-so-slowly and very surely: an online social space where people can share what they've done, see what others have done and create collaborative projects with that information; open source leadership that encourages and empowers unpromoted staff to have an active distributed role in decision-making, rather than cutting managers and expecting the remainder to do more; collaborative projects for designing new curricula and bringing colleagues up to speed.

I'm sure there are others.

I'm hoping there will be more.


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Ewan, this is a great post. Thanks. Does a great job of starting to give us a language with which to talk about how we can foster and nurture professional development in this 'new' environment. Starts to offer answers to questions that we are beginning to ask ourselves here at NCSL in England about what the future of online networking and collaboration might look like within our profession. I think the big challenge for us is influencing the culture of the profession to take these ideas on board. Also love the pulling together of lots of different influences in this post. Impressive. Daddy's brain's still whirring despite the sleepless nights eh?

Hi Ewan,
Lots of good stuff here. I struggle with the work-play balance everyday. It would be nice if your play that adds value could add to your income.
Open-source Leadership and an open social space make EL look a very attractive place to work. I wonder how many LAs will follow the example?


I'm very interested by the idea that people are now "grazing for knowledge" instead of "clocking in" for it. What does this suggest about our entire education model? Bells, schedules, class periods may all be on their way out. Of course, I don't see this happening on a large scale in the immediate term, but I do think that this is the concept that is going to change the face of a school day as we know it.
That said, in order to maintain sanity, it is important for education professionals to remember that regardless of whether the learning is done "on the clock", as it used to be, it's vital on a personal level for teachers to punch out occasionally.

the section on Process vs Knowledge doesn't make sense. To suggest there is greater "benefit" in doing than knowing is foolish on several levels.

Firstly the idea that there's greater benefit to society (or the individual) in doing rather than knowing raises the question of how do your measure or equate the benefit of each. In what situation is doing better than knowing?

Secondly how can anyone separate the two concept of knowing and doing? Surely they are intertwined! I can't do something if I don't know how to do it. I need to know the difference between left and right before I can turn/move left or right (ie doing it).

Thirdly, if I use Physics as an example. Which physicist is better the one who creates the theory or the one who applies it? I think it was Newton who's famously used the phrase "Standing on the shoulders of giants." to indicate the relationship between one scientist and another.

Lastly if doing was better than knowing there would be a lot of areas of the curriculum we could dismiss. Which elements of a modern language could we remove if the doing better than knowing mentality was applied?

All good questions, Kenny, for Andy. I think there is a tension between the old ideas of knowing as much as possible since 'stuff' can now be found from its reference point in a click. Knowing how is all about process, what I'm referring to here. Knowing stuff but not knowing how to use it is pointless - that is what is being said by Andy here, I think.

Really enjoyed reading your Blog. You have some very good points of view.


Really enjoyed reading your Blog. You have some very good points of view.


I'm not 100% that doing is more important or 'versus' knowledge as such, I was arguing more that in education process is usually massively undervalued whilst knowledge (or the demonstration of having learned it) is massively over-valued.

Obviously knowledge of a process provides a paradox to that argument in any case. But sometimes it's good to provoke the rationalists and traditionalists out there too.

What always strikes me, though, is that so much education still is about imparting information (which is really what that should be: "information vs process") and that art and design (and music) have really always been more interested in the development of the individual and thus their process than any particular end results that can be measured/assessed. Most of the progressive literature on teaching and learning (from the past 25 years too) advocates a similar approach and this seems to be a real eye-opener to colleagues in traditional sciences and engineering faculties who are finding out about this afresh.

Yet at the same time art and design faculties have tried to fit their round shape into the square pegs of the science model and research funding structures and this seems to me to be a really poor strategy.

I don't mean to say that art and design are 'special cases' and shouldn't be regarded as academic subjects or research, but rather that they always have been 'proper' in that sense, just that the instruments by which these things have been measured have been wrong. In many respects they've been so far behind the curve they're now ahead and should be shouting from the rooftops about their expertise in the 'creative economy' instead of management consultants re- packaging and re-selling these ideas.

Okay, I'm ranting now... I'll stop there.

Awesome post Ewan! My favorite line of yours, which I'm sure to quote:

"People graze for knowledge, they don't clock in for it. Life, work and play are converging like they never have done before."

As John mentioned above, this is an important question as we look at our education model and good food for thought. As for myself, this reply is part of my work...late in the evening here across the pond.

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About Ewan

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.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

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.

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