19 posts categorized "HE/FE"

March 08, 2011

Scottish Parliament Elections 2011: Is the SNP the only party with an education vision?

ScotlandVotes Education Hustings
When you listen to four politicians responsible for education and lifelong learning in their parties, it's remarkably easy to spot those with some savvy and those who choose to waffle on the clichés they think we want to hear.

At the Scotland on Sunday Education hustings this week the current Education Minister, Mike Russell, was at home sick, so the SNP's Lifelong Learning and Skills Minister Angela Constance took up the reins for the debate. She was joined by Des McNulty (Labour), Elizabeth Smith (Conservatives) and Margaret Smith (Liberal Democrats).

Angela Constance For all that she was a lastminute panel replacement, Constance was the only one speaking in terms of action, policy with the facts to back it up, with experience rooted in what she has seen herself in Scottish schools, on teacher unions' understandings of the current state of play and on the latest research, some of it commissioned by her Government over the past four years.

The others delivered platitudes, meaningless statements ("less indiscipline", "more testing", "more rigour") without any indication of what role a Government would play in achieving them.

Are we not all literacy and numeracy teachers?
Des McNulty from Labour believes that Scottish education is 'in a mess' because of decisions from the current Government and from Local Authorities themselves. He wants add 1000 extra teachers to lead on literacy and numeracy, despite the fact that when I was a teacher under his Government I distinctly remember them spearheading the approach of "every teacher is a teacher of literacy and numeracy".


The best practice from around the world shows that integrating higher aspirations for all children's literacy and numeracy throughout their curriculum leads to greater achievement in these areas, something that works the other way, too: skills learnt in one subject area are useful elsewhere.

That's why Scotland's Curriculum for Excellence is so vital: it's less something to be "implemented" from on high (with screeds of policy documents and advice sheets) and instead embraced from the teaching community, who, rightly, can expect more videoed examples from inside classrooms where the planning, the tactics and the teaching style can be observed in virtual-first-hand terms. A visit to the Journey to Excellence or Learning and Teaching Scotland websites shows that the current SNP Government have done just that, and the process of changing the habits of 150 years is well on its way - although it was always going to take longer than 4 years to see a wholesale 180 degree change in practice.

We're talking about upending existing notions of how we timetable, moving towards longer periods of learning, less movement around secondary schools, more practice emulating that of the primary school environment. This is what's increasing attainment in reading, writing and 'rithmetic in schools like the Stovner School in Norway, and countless other schools in the small-country systems we like to fetichise.

The opposite is what we see in England under Gove, whereby the Education Bill makes reference to "The Importance of Teaching" without looking carefully at what makes the best conditions for learning. Not only that, it does away with the key institutions for developing the quality of teachers in our classrooms.

Labour & Tory: Drive standards, test more
McNulty's other key platitude was that he wants to "drive standards with teachers". But what does that mean? Does he, along with his Conservative companion Elizabeth Smith, want to introduce "more rigourous testing, earlier, before students move on to secondary", testing the growth of our youngsters by pulling up their roots every six weeks? Do he and Smith want to increase the importance of "passing the test" later in school, and emulate the disastrous attempts to introduce "rigour" in the United States, which has left the arts, creativity and any teaching and learning outside the test out in the cold?

Greater rigour, and a return to 'traditional methods' as Smith put it, will meet only with disdain from our students, disengaging more of them at every turn. Look at what happened in Jamie Oliver's Channel 4 "Dream School" when Professor David Starkey, no doubt one of the greatest historians of his era with unbeatable knowledge, was unable to demonstrate, let alone inspire in his students, the kinds of soft skills so often berated by those who talk of "rigour": he exhibitted everything that's wrong with "rigour" in the classroom. Soft skills, which Starkey himself sees as less important than acquiring discreet areas of knowledge, would have saved him and his students much pain and embarrassment.

And engaging kids isn't about pandering to their whims. As David Price points out in his recent post on the Channel 4 series, engaging students is about appealing to their emotions, and, without that engagement of brain and emotion, deep learning cannot occur.

"I want to do something about indiscipline… [cue: tumbleweed]"
Finally, McNulty got tough: "I want to do something about indiscipline." Great. How? I do believe teachers have been trying for some time, and some of us have started to work out what it comes down to. It's about engaging students in the first place (see above, "Rigour"), involving parents more (they need to want to be involved, though - dragging kicking and screaming, parent or child, tends toward the ineffective), getting better in-class training on handling different types of students and support from better school leaders. Tell us, please, what your potential Government's role is in helping what we're trying to do already go faster, deeper, quicker.

Teaching the Teachers
While only the Tories are still daft enough now to think that Scottish students want to pay for their higher education, with Labour having changed their old position recently to align to that of the SNP, it was only the SNP who seem to have made the connection between Higher Education in general and those vital programmes that teach the teachers.

The Donaldson Report, commissioned by the SNP Government shows in no uncertain terms that higher investment in (free) teacher training is the only way to achieve long-term success in our classrooms. Not more testing. Not more textbooks. Not, as the SNP have nonetheless delivered, the smallest class sizes in Scotland's history (smaller class sizes inevitably make the teacher's job in developing youngsters easier). McKinsey's most recent research, as well as their 2007 report, repeatedly points out that teacher quality remains the sole factor in differentiating the average from the not-so-average education systems. Initial teacher education, yes, but above all continuing professional development.

This is one area, everywhere in the world, where Governments, teacher unions and teachers themselves can only ever work harder. It's mostly down to money and attitudes in the workforce - teachers need to know they can take up courses, take protected time out to reflect and do so without being told at the last minute they need to take the RE teacher's class again.

It is the SNP that has led the debate on Higher Education with the belief that higher education benefits society, not just the individual, says Angela Constance. She's right.

Invest in education and, generally, you always get more out the other side, and at least make some savings on the other budgets. Underspend or spend in the wrong places in education, and you might just break even, but the costs will re-emerge in health, justice and employment later on.

Education is the only Government spending area that really represents an investment. Everything else is spend. If we invest in education, in helping teachers improve day-by-day, the rest begins to fall into place.

[disclaimer: My company is currently working with the SNP on their election campaign's digital strategy. The views on this post are my own] 

December 14, 2010

Learning spaces. Virtual spaces. Physical spaces.

The Seven Spaces of Technology in School Environments from Ewan McIntosh on Vimeo.

I'm delivering the opening keynote for Edinburgh University's IT Futures Conference today and was asked to deliver an expanded version of the work I've been doing on the physical spaces of learning, and how they transgress virtual learning spaces, too. The theme of the conference is fascinating, and a conversation I'd like to see happening more regularly in more schools:

It will look at both the staff and student perspective of what the working space is, and is becoming. Where does technology fit in, and how do we work and study in this increasingly mobile world?

The video above is the short, 15 minute version of the main points. More notes and further reading can be found in its related blog post.

November 23, 2010

Something we've not told our students: "any notion of career-planning is ridiculous"


Russell Davies and Matt Jones speak sense in Wired:

"...We're facing working lives far, far longer than [the garden centre moguls] ever imagined. Medical and health technologies are going to nudge, prod and support us well into our hundreds, and economic and demographic forces are going to insist we keep working for most of that span. (Perhaps that's why so many of us are reluctant to actually get started?) Many of you reading this can anticipate working lives of more than 100 years. Which, on the upside, makes any notion of career-planning seem ridiculous -- the wisest response is most probably to do whatever is fun and remunerative at the time. Entire industries are arriving and then disappearing within the span of a single working lifetime -- and this will not get any better. The idea of working your way up the ladder seems faintly ridiculous when said ladder is being set on fire from below, dismantled from above and no longer has anything to lean against.

"My friend Matt Jones has posted some of his thoughts about this on his blog: "I'm going to be 40 soon. I find myself thinking about how to become a sustainable/resilient 50-yearold… 50 might be halfway through… it might only be a third of the way through my life. I've been very lucky for the past 20 years. What the hell am I going to do with all that time? How will I be able to pay my way? How do I stay involved and useful?" These are good questions, and ones I couldn't begin to answer, except that I'm sure older life is not going to be about careers; it's going to be about learning to learn and being ready and willing to start all over again. And it's going to be work that involves a lot of sitting down. Because extending our lives is one thing, keeping our knees going all that time is another."


December 15, 2009

How Mobile Cell Phones Change Everything When We Do

Mac-filled lecture theatre
Will Richardson posts the above picture and asks
"how many educators look at that picture and think "OMG, puhleeeeese let me teach in that classroom!" (I suspect not many)".
He points out that with the mobile technologies already in our students' pockets we're probably not far off that level of ubiquitous kitting out in our schools already. He's right. But he's less right in implying that great teachers would want to teaching in that classroom.

Further on Will points out that often teachers and decision-makers can get hung up on the "what technology" question, rather than the "curriculum question". This might be a linguistic anomaly, but curriculum, to me, is deciding what we learn, when. It is important, but the most important peg on which we need to hang our thought is pedagogy, which is about how we learn. Teachers decide pedagogy, not administrators, authorities or Governments. That's why teachers discussing not tech, but teach, becomes ever more vital as technologies open up new ways to approach learning.

But linguistic anomalies are the stuff of learning, so I hope Will doesn't mind me challenging this one, and seeing what we really think it possible if we could encourage colleagues to move beyond "OMG puhleeeeese" statements.

The reason the picture presents a dubious message is that neither curriculum nor pedagogy have changed an iota in this learning space: it's about the same layout - with as many apples on laps - as a Victorian classroom would have appeared.

It's not an image to proud of, to smile at, to wonder at, or one I'd want to be in. It sums up the biggest challenge facing learning: too many educators look at that and think all of above.

What can we aspire to?

The other night Stephen Heppell pointed out the Education_2010 report that he, Graham Brown-Martin and other luminaries had pulled together in 1999, outlining what they thought technology would be doing for learning in 2010. The predictions and visions hinted at in that Garamond/Helvetica-shocker of a ClarisWorks document are not far off what we're close to as hurl towards the end of this decade. And that, in no short measure down to the work of the authors in promoting mobiles' inevitable conquest of learning spaces. The key message: learners will all have access to portable 'micros'. The micros, though, are maybe not the laptops or notebooks, even, that photos like the above one hint at.

Christmas Cracker Research

It's particularly apt as the decade ends with a supposedly "credit crunch Christmas" where iPhones and iPod touches, and cheaper but no-less effective smartphones with the major carriers, will be appearing under the trees of our youngsters (and, in what even I, a gadget fan, would consider a touch of spoiling, in their stockings).

In the UK the changes in equipment provision is already happening, and in the US it's going to follow really soon: the image of students locked to their laptops could change to a more human image of students talking to each other face-to-face, and using their mobile phones for research, reference and recording.

That change from the tech-oriented to the person-oriented could change, but it needs teachers, not tech, to make that change happen.

In the UK children have owned and used mobile phones at any kind of scale in schools (legitimately or otherwise) for about six years. I remember the Christmas when they all came back with them. The next year it was the mp3 player. This Christmas I bet it'll be the hyprid iPod Touch or iPhone (if they're lucky). What kids get for Christmas one year is nearly always the forerunner to what is really desirable in a few years' time. Where mp3 players were the hot item in 2003, the iPod shuffle and mini took until 2005 to hit the mainstream school audience. Where iPhones and iPod touches hit the Christmas pressie list in 2009, there will be something more profound and far more widespread in adoption in 2011.

If you want the real aficionados head to South Korea and Japan for a lesson in ubiquity, but still, I wouldn't bet on their curriculum or pedagogy having changed much as a result (and their relative educational success is more likely down to the insane hours students and their private tutors put in, compared to the average three weeks' per year absenteeism of Scottish students).

As the iPhone makes the mobile's northern American cousin, the 'cell', something more mainstream over the Pond, mobiles' learning potential is finally gaining more than a niche gadget audience's attention. It becomes even more palpable as the replacement cell phones are not of the simpler phone-text-image cariety, but, of course, the of smartphone stock. The pic below shows the scale of this: it's part of the half-a-million cells thrown out every day in the USA as people upgrade to the next, better model:

Some mobile phones

But the lessons learned about cell phone use (and handheld learning devices stuck in schoolbags) for learning in the UK, through trials, pilots and the generally higher adoption of mobile telephony here than over the Pond, risk being ignored. Most of the conversations being had in Will's monster 130-plus comment post are thinking through issues that have been thought through, put into action, analysed and researched in the UK as long as four years ago.

There's a monster post (or a book) in pointing to the work of the past decade and what it means for the next one. Many of those lessons are online, in places like the Wolverhampton Learning2Go project, whose initial work in mostly offline potential of PDAs was groundbreaking, or the Consolarium in Scotland which has pioneered games-based learning using devices often hidden away in school bags, not a pioneering effort in theory, I hasten to add, but in hard-to-initiate classroom practice.

Finally, though, it is heartening to see that the pedagogy of Higher Education institutions is changing. The above picture is still far from being out-of-date - for many campuses it's still light-years ahead. But iPhone-equipped students of Abilene university in the States have seen their lecturers change from information-transferal mode (that's what Google's for) to educator,  leader  and even developer roles in the lecture hall.

It’s like a mashup of a 1960s teach-in with smartphone technology from the 2000s.

Each participating Abilene instructor is incorporating the iPhone differently into their curriculum. In some classrooms, professors project discussion questions onscreen in a PowerPoint presentation. Then, using polling software that Abilene coded for the iPhone, students can answer the questions anonymously by sending responses electronically with their iPhones. The software can also quickly quiz students to gauge whether they’re understanding the lesson.

... And if students don’t understand a lesson, they can ask the teacher to repeat it by simply tapping a button on the iPhone.

This is the exception to the rule. Heck, it's in Wired. [Update: My good friend, former Pentagon man and superb Ireland-based educator Bernie Goldbach, blogs on what his students are doing with their Nokias, and the joy they have researching with them.] But a student in the story outlines why making these fundamental changes to access to technologies, whether that is giving it away for free (in Abilene) or just allowing students to bring out the panoply of kit from their Christmas 09 haul, is a no-brainer:

“They’re preparing us for the real world — not a place where you’re not allowed to use anything.”

December 04, 2009

Mendeley: Last.fm for academic researchers


This is great if you are a researcher and, I'd have thought, indispensable if you're a researcher in academia. Make sure your papers are included in this prediction engine of research papers, helping users find academic friends-of-a-friend and papers they might otherwise have missed. It also allows an academic or groups of academics to annotate the reports they find.

And when the time comes to collate your academic report or paper, Mendeley will export to Word or OpenOffice the bibliography you used, in the right format. Are you on Mendeley.com? Should be.

August 16, 2009

Stand There And Do Nothing

This is the second of eight posts on the theme of Where Good Ideas Come From, following on from trying to work out Why it's Important to Know Where Good Ideas Come From. Picture from Tom, who has since realised that he needed to stop and stand still for a moment.

A key point about knowing Where Good Ideas Come From is realising that they don't come from some kind of change management programme, especially in a world where technology has helped change happen quicker than most of us can react to let alone predict. As George Church put it:

"In a changing world, inaction can be the radical 'action'" (cited by Tim O'Reilly)

Or, as Euan Semple cribbed it:

"Don't just do something: stand there."

For most people at any level in an organisation, especially in times where we might all be worried about keeping our jobs, taking time out to not be busy, to not be "doing things" and "fulfilling tasks", might feel counter-intuitive, but arguably it's a key tactic in making things around us slow down long enough to spot the great opportunity, the creative gap that can be filled.

Are we simply diagnosing problems, or..?

Without fail, each day I will see ideas that fulfill needs I didn't know anyone had. Incredibly clever people with huge skill in taking some lines of code and turning them into a product have managed to find a problem that needs solved. Except, unfortunately, it's a problem that most people don't have. Sure, in this Long Tail era we need only to find the 0.01% of the masses who really do need this idea to make it a resounding success, but the reality of the net is that, unless you know where to find these people and how to get your idea across to them, your idea is the equivalent of the tree falling down in the forest that no-one has seen: it doesn't exist. All too often, the engineers have diagnosed a problem that does not exist because they have not taken the trouble to go and speak to the people who they think might want it.

One of the reasons I read so many fewer educational blogs now than I did, say, two years ago is not because I'm less interested in learning and formal, schools-based education, but because so many educators' blogs are overwhelmingly samey. The reason: they're concentrating on tools of social media: "Transformative tools", "new tools", "21st century tools".... They then let me know how these tools are the solution to a problem that has only been waiting for this tool to show up and solve.

Notwithstanding the fact that where I come from a 'tool' is a form of insult ("See you, aye, you, see you, you're a pure tool, soyar!" (and 'Bing' is a slag heap), the tools are not, and have never been, the issue for the pent up frustration of educators the world over.

"It's that 'they' don't get the things that these tools can offer", is the cry. Well, no, it's not really. Because what those tools 'allow' teachers to do has been possible for much longer than that, namely collaboration, shared responsibility for learning, access to resources beyond the one classroom textbook and teacher's brain.

It's just that formal education has struggled for hundreds of years to do things any other way than the first way Scottish priests and Ministers did it back in the 12th Century and that the misunderstanding is therefore not to do with what tool someone could be using for purpose x, y or z, but rather to do with a lack of pedagogical independence and a form of professional arthritis.

Where our starting point is not tools or code, but people, the creative results are often different. Instead of solving problems (that may or may not exist) we instead turn our minds to creating beautiful things that people don't need but want to have. The world's full of them: the iPod (more beautiful, but not really improving on existing MP3 players at the time); BakerTweet (useful for a tiny community of people around a bakery in the North East of London, but beautiful enough an idea to make thousands more laugh on seeing it):

BakerTweet from POKE on Vimeo.


... Designing solutions?

I'd much rather be designing solutions that are fun, engaging, delighting than trying to find problems in our past ways of working that need "improved". The latter is what any "Government Initiative" is about: the previous bunch got it horribly wrong, so we're going to improve it. It's a way of looking at the world that is negative, obsessed with the ills of our world instead of looking for the opportunity that we've been missing thus far. I'd much rather be seeing the gaps between the good-enough solutions others have found, than trying to bulldoze their efforts. Creating more tools is not always the best means of doing this. Creating opportunities (training, conversations, blog posts, and, just sometimes, new tools) that help others also find this positive creative path of designing solutions is much more up my alley. The creator of the tool or Big Idea mustn't have all the fun - the user, participant, learner using the idea must have just as much fun using it, if not more. If you need an example where this is not the case, think of how much fun the cast of a theatre production have putting it together, and then think of the audience that have to endure it.

When it comes to designing tools, therefore, or even just appraising them for educational use, it would be interesting to think in terms of how they fit into the existing infrastructure. This is made easy by my current employer, whose vision is encapsulated in seven words: Do It First, Inspire Change, Make Trouble. As I look through hundreds of ideas I'll often be taken with a few quite quickly, before seeing if I can comfortably distinguish them from anything else that has gone before. I use this phrase to try and hone that decision down to facts:

[My thing here] is the only [thing of its genre]
that allows [these folk]
in [this geographical or online place]
to [achieve this great experience]
at a time when [people seek x, y or z]

This means of making decisions is not about a commercial company wanting to be the first in order to make tons more dosh than anyone else. It's about designing solutions between the gaps, rather than trying to bash the competition (bashing the competition or past initiatives is also excruciatingly hard work, and not very pleasant in the process). It's no suprise, perhaps, that this self-questioning approach originates from one of the most creative minds in the advertising industry, Marty Neumeier. Here's how he uses it to describe some great, creative companies that are about designing solutions instead of seeking out problems:

Harley Davidson is the only motorcycle manufacturer
that makes big, loud motorcycles
for macho guys (and macho wannabees)
most in the United States
who want to join a gang of cowboys
in an era of decreasing personal freedom


The White Strips are the only pop music duo
that records crude yet hip rocks songs
for young urbanites
in the US and other first-world countries
who long for authenticity
in an era of overproduced, me-too music

From his brilliant book, Zag

This should be the goal of any educational institution as much as any company. Pointing out the weak points in a system and then designing a "solution" to them is often the number one priority of any (normally annual) plan or curriculum, at the total expense of undertaking any gap-filling designing. Gap-filling is therefore seen as an additional thing for educators to do, rather than part and parcel of the job. That's one of the reasons for the professional arthritis of schooling and education.

I'd now dare educational leaders to take the jump that commercial operators have done for some time: forget trying to bash the competition (or, in SchoolsLand, trying to improve constantly on the way we did things last year), and instead come up with a gap-filling-only attitude. Doing so shows that you have confidence in the core product you're offering (sound teaching) and are keen to innovate truly in the untouched territory of your professional life, rather than mucking about around the edges of something that works OK. Who knows, you might become the next educational version of the iPhone, iPod or, if you're really luck, the BakerTweet.

Finding a professional pedagogy

How one achieves this change in attitude is certainly not an answer found in our laptops or in new gadgets and tools appearing all over the workplace. It's in attitudes, and knowing where your attitude is in relation to where you want it to be. Bangalore-based Gaurav Mishra shares this view when working with professional corporate clients and has abandoned any quest to explain (again) what the difference between the uses of blogging, social networking, bookmarking, podcasting and lifestreaming might be. Instead, he's distilled a professional pedagogy, if you will, into four main jargon-free perennial stages of development in our ways of working: The 4 Cs of Social Media. Go read, and see if you can correlate the best example of what you've students capable of doing with the progression of Content, Collaboration, Community and Collective Intelligence.

A pedagogy, scholarly or professional like Gaurav's, provides a vision set around people (the user, the learner or the participant). When we start with people, we end up designing beautiful things as a result of great ideas that come uninvited, that don't fit into our annual or three-year plan but which naturally always seem to fit our people-based (as opposed to results-based) vision. Rather than starting at a blank sheet of paper or computer screen and seeking out problems that don't exist, simply because we have a tool that allows us to do so, we are now crafting towards a known challenge that came to us.

This presents a significant challenge to those who are paid to invent curricula or frameworks or year-long (and occasionally three-year-long) plans. Given that they are no more superhuman than the rest of us how can they be doing anything other than seeking out problems that need 'sorted out'. They're certainly not given the luxury of time to let great creative initiatives come uninvited, at their leisure, based around real participants in the system.

When Michelangelo described sculpture it was as something that had to be sought out, not enforced on the stone:

The best artist has that thought alone
Which is contained within the marble shell;
The sculptor`s hand can only break the spell
To free the figures slumbering in the stone


The beauty was hidden in that block of stone, needing someone to come along and break that spell, remove the covers of rock that hid the creativity underneath. If we were to take this as our direction it would be at loggerheads with the constraints of curriculum and five-year structures. Curricula, school buildings and "creative processes" have generally been designed on spreadsheets and therefore look like spreadsheets. They have the same unresponsive, inflexible formulae as spreadsheets or, at the very least, require a master's hand to change them (hardly the stuff to inspire the masses in our organisations to take the creative lead and bend those spreadsheet columns).

Creativity is therefore a mixture. On the one hand, it's the ability to stand still and see the overarching line, the challenge that will make us achieve something beautiful while others scurry at ground level achieving tasks and 'doing stuff'. On the other, it's the desire to uncompromisingly seek out the creativity that sits before us in the blunt lumps of stone (and spreadsheets) that the quarrymen of our bureaucracies manage to produce.

The question for a leader, of course, is to work out whether they are a quarryman (or woman), or a Michelangelo. I know which one most leaders' egos would prefer to be, but for many leaders there's a need to spend some time at 35,000 feet working out where they are, and where their colleagues might want them to be.

So, should we be doing this creative leadership thinking in our creative bubble, or aiming to work collaboratively throughout the whole journey? If you're politically correct, you probably think that collaboration and creativity are exclusive bed buddies. As the next post in this series shows, you might be wrong there, too.

Related posts:

Introduction: Where Good Ideas Come From

Part One: Why It's Important (To Want) To Know Where Good Ideas Come From

August 06, 2009

Why it's important to (want to) know Where Good Ideas Come From


This is the first of eight posts on the theme of Where Good Ideas Come From

The creative industries in the UK alone are worth some £70bn each year, about 8% of GDP and growing at about double the rate of the rest of the economy, made up by everything as diverse as television production to game-making, book-writing to advertising, public relations to jewellery. For the past year I've been contributing to this industry, learning the art and science of commissioning new media ideas, turning internet, mobile and gaming ideas from paper dreams to running code realities.

In the workplace, we have a variety of processes, individual talents and skills to ensure that most of these dreams turn into good ideas in the real world, from designing efficient challenging structures through which people pitch their ideas, to the knack of producing a contract that not only makes sense but is fair to all parties. A fair dose of gut instinct and knowing the shifting sands of the vast new media landscape contribute to building, hopefully, more excellent ideas than fairly good ones. The processes hopefully eliminate the really dodgy ones altogether.

But given the aims of the initiative with which I'm working - Channel 4's Innovation for the Public - to change people's lives for the better, to have a lasting impact, to achieve technological and social firsts, and to do so with a trademark slug of trouble, finding and generating good ideas in the first place is something that, if we could define it, would make life a lot easier.

Knowing Where Good Ideas Come From in any walk of life leads not just to a more pleasant experience in life, but a better experience for others and a more profitable life for everyone.

Knowing what makes an idea good is one thing. 95% of ideas get rejected, a large number fairly swiftly and, say, 5-10% after having looked in more detail at the issues involved. Few, if any, seem to appear elsewhere suggesting that either the ideas are too costly to get off the ground, leaving a Government or private investor struggling to see their investment have the desired tangible result, or they are cheap to produce but aren't seen as Good Ideas by the intended users or participants.

Knowing what we could do to improve those conditions of creativity is another goal, perhaps more tangible. These conditions, these physiological, physical and mental places are Where Good Ideas Come From.

What's important to consider, though, is that "being creative" is not, as is often the assumed case, a result of some form of change management. All too often, change management and the overpriced consultancies that help you get from there to here are in the business of selling the change of a more creative company or self. If tapping into creativity is reduced to change management, then we are indeed in for a rocky journey. Only 30% of change management programmes achieve any change at all, let alone the intended one and not necessarily a change towards a more creative one. Creativity is something most of us can unearth in the right circumstances with enough time, effort and stamina to see us through the darker moments of our "crappy ideas" being mocked or left out to dry.

And, of course, some of us (most of us?) tend to come up with fairly crappy ideas most of the time, and that's alright, seeing if they work before moving onto the next one when we realise we were heading down the wrong path. Not just in the world of new media and technology, though, is the potential for heading down too many different paths and tangents at once so ripe. Never have the options opening up been so great, the tools at our creative disposal so varied. Creativity is attempting to go exponential when often our more analogue brains and bodies aren't really in a mood for catching up.

With this, change management, that sudden jolt of inspirational energy (or brush of quasi-guru-like consultant fluff), is even less appropriate a model on which to base an rebirth of creativity in our organisations. As George Church put it:

"In a changing world, inaction can be the radical 'action'" (cited by Tim O'Reilly)

Or, as Euan Semple cribbed it:

"Don't just do something: stand there."

It is no happenstance that our first main areas of investigation of Where Good Ideas Come From are nearly all about time (and the lack of it) and the need for us to stand still, do nothing and drink it in. Someone, I can't remember or Google who it was, once said that they were in the habit of taking a day return flight, at least but no more than four hours long (the time of the laptop battery) in order to get things done without interruptions. Sometimes it's just the practice of regularly, say, every Tuesday morning, of taking a flight at 35,000ft to see the world move by a little slower and take it all in, before joining the land at a seemingly faster speed later. Of course, that's not really how it works. We all fly faster when we're taking in the overall view of things at 35,000ft and that seems slower than when we're on the ground, 'only' going at 10mph at sealevel but things seeming too fast to take in, let alone control.

Nor is creativity some elusive black art available only to the few, while the rest of us trudge on with our lemming-like routine. As Colin Anderson, MD of Denki Games in Dundee, puts it:

Today we run the risk of thinking of creativity in the same way as we once thought of electro-magnetism – magical, unknowable, a black art. Poppycock, I say again! It’s a series of deliberate choices – some serial, some parallel, some conscious, some sub-conscious – made by assessing the values of many variables simultaneously through the filters of knowledge, experience and aesthetic appreciation. More variables than we can currently define and measure perhaps, but that doesn’t make it magic. I subscribe to the school of thought that says “art is a science with more than seven variables”, and from where I’m looking creativity is precisely that. (emphasis added)

There are indeed more than seven variables to creativity and therefore knowing Where Good Ideas Come From. I'm going to make an attempt to understand what some of those variables are and would ask for your help in the comments to fill in the inevitable chasm-like gaps.

August 03, 2009

Where Do Good Ideas Come From?


If we all knew the idea we'd not be writing blog posts like this, reading them or doing workshops on the matter. We'd be busy pulling that limitless supply of creativity out of its hole to see the light of day and bring us riches, joy, learning and new friends.

However, given that we're not, over the next month or so (or however long it takes me to splurge out those thoughts) I'll be summarising on this here blog some of the best online and offline reading and viewing that has attempted to answer that question, throwing in my own unresearched but tried and tested notions (and a few that haven't even got that far). This post will change to reflect the updating posts that will take a peek at:

  1. Why it's important to (want to) know Where Good Ideas Come From.
  2. Stand There And Do Nothing: Designing beautiful solutions rather than solving ugly problems
  3. Creative Genius. Man At Work: Arguments for not working as a team
  4. Getting Creativity Done (GCD): How to get productive and clean down the mental decks
  5. Nurturing creativity: Worrying about "Tanya's Bow" or the Dinosaurs: Some arguments for caring about the team, not pissing them off and really understanding what failure is
  6. Finding your tribe
  7. Creating visions, not missions

As they're posted, please leave comments, disagree, add your own links, videos and pictures. I hope that by the end of it we'll have a resource to which we might come back with the stories of how the works, thoughts and attitudes of others have changed the way we operate.

Bookmark this post and come back to it for updates, and subscribe to the blog to get a daily email or RSS feed in your reader every time there's a new post. Take a look at my instructions on how to subscribe.

Brill pic from Chris Metcalf

July 01, 2009

If the Army sees the potential in Facebook, why not schools?


When social networks were still finding their feet among their key demographic a few years ago, I was a keen advocate of formal learning institutions and their staff keeping out of those spaces, certainly not using them as social learning environments. danah's research backed this up and the concept of teachers creating "creepy treehouses" was enough to knock that desire of some on the head.

Seeing how the US Army has harnessed Facebook for a mix of both informal communication and leadership is opening up the question again in my mind, as the demographic using Facebook rises well into the 30s and Twitter's growth started with an older demographic and is only now appearing to edge southwards to early 20 year olds and teens (thanks to my wholly unscientific research - danah, if you're not busy this summer...).

It's particularly pertinent as Local Authorities charged with improving the prospects of their learners and staff in an increasingly technological age do not cease to become ever more Machiavellian in their desire to clamp down on any communication about the realities of being a teacher or learner in their patches.

On the Facebook blog this morning says Lieutenant Colonel Kevin Arata (link to his FB page):

Allowing our audience — including our soldiers — to connect and communicate through social networking is still considered risky business by some, and we do face unique challenges. The risks to operations security felt by some, or the fears that our soldiers will post "unbecoming" information, are outweighed by increased communication and sharing.

From an institution that in 2000 wouldn't allow unfettered access to email (and before that whose "Full Metal Jacket" reputation preceded it), one of the most traditional public institutions with the most apparently valid potential for killing communication to those back home has come a long way. And it also shows how far schools and teen learners working within them have to go before their life cycles start matching the real world.

What is it that Facebook brings the military? It allows family to keep in touch with minimal effort through a great deal of the deep ambient intimacy of the status update:


Facebook is also giving a platform for sharing of skills and advice between recruits:

It also allows senior members of staff in the military to, quickly and easily, without disrupting the flow of their day, update via cellphone or laptop on what (non-secret) operations they are undertaking. What exactly does an army Colonel do? Well, now you can 'follow' them and find out. It will almost certainly make a few more people aspire to doing something different or improving their act not just in seeing what superiors and, above all, seeing what peers are up to.

While intranets and VLEs provide a structured learning environment for teacher-defined groups of learners, they do not provide very well (or at all) for friends-of-a-friend (FOAF) communication, happenstance connections and temporary windows in on what FOAFs are up to. They are designed for preset activity with preset groups, despite the admirable efforts of talented creative individuals to shoehorn them into other more enticing uses. It's hard to argue that, in terms of how kids connect within the school environment with school-like material and contacts, things have really moved on since the likes of my students blogging and podcasting from their French trip in 2003 (the 2004, 2005 and Auschwitz blog remain). The fun serendipitous connections are happening very much outside the school boundaries, and the school institution itself remains largely blind to this. The knock-on effect is that school and what it should stand for - learning - are also blind to learners outside the schooling complex.

Now, at Channel 4 the Education department has worked with great skill over the past two years to create learning opportunities in the social networks and spaces where young people hang out (think Battlefront, YearDot, Routes.... There has been little attempt to make these interactions fit into schooling per se. At 4iP, where many of our products and services involve learning of some description, we continue this 'non-school' of thought.

I wonder: is there mileage for schools in looking at what the Army is achieving here and for what purposes, and seeing if there are unmet needs in the schooling environment which could be supported by social networking services and platforms which are increasingly better embedded in society? Or is this something in which only others outside the formal schooling environment are prepared to invest?

Pic: Full Metal Jacket

June 06, 2009

Twitter for learning in extremis: Surgery Live and, erm, Big Brother

Surgery Live Adam Gee, Channel 4's Cross-Platform Commissioner for Factual, last week helped bring together one of the most bizarre, insightful and exhilarating learning experiences I think I've ever taken part in on television: watch a surgeon perform his art/science live on television and ask him questions direct through Twitter.

Open heart surgery, awake brain surgery (i.e. patient awake as well as surgeon and us the trusty viewers), keyhole surgery, tumour removal – alive&direct thanks to Windfall Films in collaboration with the Wellcome Trust. Wild enough in itself I hear you say but that is not all, oh no, that is not all…

We will not hold up the cup and the milk and the cake and the fish on a rake, but as the Cat in the Hat said, we know some new tricks and your mother will not mind (unless she’s etherised upon a table, as that other cat-lover said). The plan is to tip our hat (red and white striped topper or whatever) to that increasingly common behaviour of Twittering whilst watching TV and encourage people to tweet away during the live operations, sharing their thoughts and asking questions. The big difference here is that this is live TV and you can make an impact with your tweet on the TV editorial. The best questions tweeted will be fed through to the presenter, arch-Twitterer Krishnan Guru-Murthy of Channel 4 News, who will swiftly pose them to the surgeon at work. So a matter of seconds between tweet and the question being uttered on live TV.

There were, of course, thousands of questions put through to the programme, helping the Surgery Live hashtag #slive hit the 3rd, then 2nd then 1st position on Twitter's trending, but there was also a great deal of conversation about the live operation between complete strangers who had found each other through the commonality of the hashtag, and their shared experience of learning what goes on inside our hearts/brains/stomachs.

In more formal education circles there have been attempts this year to engage audiences across education districts in, for example, live dissections of animals, where students are encouraged to put forward their questions. I think the Channel 4 Twitter experiment reveals some different behaviours that can only be encouraged in these more formal learning situations:

1. Twitter offers a certain degree of anonymity, which can be incredibly helpful in illiciting honest, high value questions from an audience (think other Channel 4 examples like Sexperience and Embarrassing Teenage Bodies, and my forthcoming You Booze You Lose). Where people know who you are, it can be inhibiting ("is my question stupid?", "should I know the answer to this?", "oh, I'll just wikipedia it afterwards"...)

2. The restrictions in place around a 140 character question or message mean that people cut to the chase and avoid the redundant language that clutters thinking in classrooms (and blog posts, VLEs, bulletin boards...). This is something found by the UT Dallas experiment highlighted in Derek Wenmoth this week.

3. Twitter helps you bump into people outside your learning/social circle, which in turn helps you emphathise, and see an issue from someone else's (very different) perspective. The one challenge with any Virtual Learning Environment in a school or country is that you are, more or less, sharing like thought with like thought, shaped by the culture and curriculum around it. When you take the questioning and answering global, you have an almost infinite number of conflicting perspectives to challenge your thinking.

At 4iP my colleague Lucy Würstlin took Twitter to a more entertainment-based medium (Big Brother) with her new product, Hashdash. The Hashdash Big Brother 10 launch night might have seemed pure entertainment, but it indeed helped a number of new Twitterers find their voice by educating the masses in Twitter etiquette, how to use hashdashes to have your message seen by more people with the same passion (in this case, #BB10).

Of course, at 4iP we have bigger plans afoot for this baby to help more people learn how the anonymity of Twitter can improve their learning (and their entertainment) with each other.

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.

Recent Posts