59 posts categorized "Productivity"

February 01, 2015

#28daysofwriting - it starts with one


A confession: our team at NoTosh has had blog guilt for years, and we keep having tense conversations about why we can't better share the amazing work the team and our clients get up to.

We developed a new website two years ago, with a flurry of writing, but haven't updated it half as much as we'd want to. We all have our own individual blogs which we update when... we have a holiday. If our time is not spent in the high energy, high adrenalin of engaging with thousands of teachers at an event, or the intensity of one business leader over the table, it is in the deep troughs of loneliness and boredom that come with sitting on planes for hours, or facing off the computer screen at the home office. 

Well, I know one thing: a good idea never came out of a computer. Great ideas come out of people's heads, and they come from experiences that have provoked them, jarred them, annoyed them, made them laugh or made them cry. The most vibrant of these experiences are not found on our Facebook walls; they are in the world around us.

My colleague Tom, who came up with this idea of 28 minutes of uninterrupted writing over each of February's 28 days, has kicked off what might become a kind of 'writers' anonymous' (indeed, I've fallen off the wagon twice already in this paragraph, helping my daughter work out how to programme her Dash and Dot). A group of fellow bloggers - writers who share their stuff straightaway - who can provide the mutual kick up the backside that no-one else is going to give you.

What do I plan to do with my 28 days? I have no plan at all. Most of my writing is planned - my 60,000 words of book writing was planned. Most of it is to deadlines - while I wrote my book I underestimated the effort it would take to also write 50,000 words of a new Masters course. A large chunk of my writing just needs done (if you've had an email from me this past week, that's you).

But my 28 days of writing, no matter how much arse-kicking my fellow blogging travellers give me, does not need done, and this is no doubt what will compel me to thump out my 28 minutes, every day, without fail.

My only foreseeable challenge with this 'writers' anonymous'? My writing is akin to an alcoholic's drinking - I go cold turkey for weeks on end, but once I start, I find it hard to stop. Keeping to just one 28 minute stint a day will be the challenge.

Here endeth the lesson / the first 28 minutes.

January 04, 2012

Collaboration 4: Overshooting the potential value

One of seven posts about collaboration and why it nearly always fails to deliver results, inspired by Morten T Hansen's Collaboration.

The quality of the teacher is the number one factor in the improvement of an education system, collaboration is the key factor in improving the quality of that teacher.

Collaboration helps increase academic success, yet most collaboration doesn't work. Here is one of Morten T. Hansen's six key reasons for collaboration failures:

Overshooting the potential value

Sony again made a collaboration slip-up when they went to collaborate with Columbia Pictures in 1989, the idea being that filmmaking and film delivery could be brought together in interesting ways. The problem arises when the films are no good, and any synergy is rendered useless: "Synergy: big wind, loud thunder, no rain." (as cited in Deals from Hell).

When I'm working with startups in a Business Model Generation workshop, inspired by the book of the same name, one of the challenges for them is seeing between who is a potential paying customer and who is a worthwhile partner. The key in partnership is in the name: it should be considered a lifetime commitment, and a partner can never be converted into a client at a later date. Clients are what businesses need, in order to gain results.

In the creative industries, there is yet further questioning of the value of collaboration. The best films (and definitely the easiest filmsets to work on) have one director who just directs. He or she tells people what it is they want. There might be some room for negotiation, or for a "why don't we try it this way", but by and large the director knows what they want and they don't so much collaborate during the shoot as get the thing done before sundown.

I wish it was as easy as that, though. Collaboration is often better than a lone genius going about their art. Gordon Torr spends an entertaining 288 pages struggling between creative examples of where the lone genius has won the day, and creative teams where synergy was the only way to success in Managing Creative People. He never does reach a conclusion, although he does point out that job titles and hierarchy are a key killer of creative potential, something that relates to how collaboration's costs can oft be misunderstood (my next post)...

In an education context, to gain results in the literal or pure learning sense, we need to know who and what resources constitute 'clients', from whom we'll get stuff to enrich our minds, and who we want to view as collaborative partners because the sum of those parts will be greater than the individuals themselves. It's not a given that two people collaborating will offer this secret sauce, so we have to think very carefully about with whom we collaborate, what we get out of it, what they get out of it and the potential for both parties to get something new out of the partnership and collaboration.

Never again should the words "get into some groups" or "partner up" be uttered without some thought by the students, and by their teacher, about who is going to offer whom a genuinely additive partnership for a collaboration.

January 02, 2012

Free up time by freeing up the timetable

One of the schools we're working with has just redesigned its timetables from scratch, based on the energy of the students, and negotiates most of each day with every student at the beginning and middle of the day.

When we're working with our Design Thinking Schools there is one challenge that is guaranteed to come up through the initial empathy and observation phase. It's symptoms are often first cited in great numbers: time, energy, curriculum coverage. We use a period of structured observation of every aspect of the school and a building blocks exercise to discover these issues, to get observations, not just opinions or perceptions:

The problem itself is actually far simpler: the constraint of the timetable.

So, whether it's an independent girls school in Sydney or a family of primary schools in South London, we get them to reimagine what the timetable could look like, based on how energetic and "up for" learning children (and their teachers) are, and on how much time is required to make the most of certain activities.

Timetable - danger!We discover different surprises in every school. At MLC School, through a colour-coding exercise on everyone's timetables we discovered that both teachers and students were low in energy and thinking capacity for the first couple of hours on a Monday morning, with other low energy levels at the close of the day (and little humour for learning that was foisted upon them, as opposed to learning of which they were in control). No surprise there, really, except the timetable tips an unfair disadvantage on students that have mathematics then, rather than a session of phyiscal education or another practical subject with some movement. Students learn that projects need long tracts of uninterrupted time, but maths needs short, sharp, high energy time to keep concentration levels up. Or, when studying maths at a higher level, students yearn longer sessions on maths to get deep into new concepts, try them out and create something from them that contributes to another project.

TimetableAt Rosendale School, South London, the teachers there have got around to publishing their two class timetables, clearly showing in light blue the 70% or so of the timetable that is up for negotiation, up for problem-finding and -solving.

This framework was designed with students, in much the same way as we did with high school students at MLC School in Sydney, to spot which parts of the day would lend themselves best to which kind of activity, and which activities were unmoveable, mostly down to visiting specialists needing these times, in the short-term at least.

As always, our brilliant teachers there are sharing their journey on their own blog, so if you want to see how this pans out through early 2012, just give them a regular visit or follow their posterous blog.

January 10, 2011

Stop sorting children by their date of manufacture

Abdul Chochan
Six years ago we got a hard time for getting our students to create little snippets of audio for each other and the wider world - using iPods for learning was seen as expensive and gimmicky. "Who has those devices? We couldn't possibly purchase devices for children. They're far too expensive for them to own them any time soon."

Six years on Abdul Chohan was getting the same feedback at his school, the Essa Academy. At the Learning Without Frontiers conference he recounts how he had seen iPod Touches, the next generation of device from our low-fi iPods of 2004, as the key to untapping new learning landscapes for his learners.

With a seamless wifi setup in the school students never lost touch with the web through their mobile devices. Polish students, recently arrived at the school, were able to decipher English-language physics lessons by backing up their learning with the Polish language version of the theme's wikipedia entry.

Above all, teachers could stop judging what students should or could be doing based "on their date of manufacture" (or, as some might add, on their sell-by date). Youngsters were able to extend or support their own learning as they saw fit, when they saw fit.

Students overnight had knowledge at their fingertips (and in their pockets) in text, on the web and in podcasts (boys in particular were amongst those downloading 900 or so GCSE Pods to revise for the examinations).

Edmodo provided a learning social network through which teachers and learners could send messages, manage their learning, set tasks, ask for help.

This film about the Essa Academy iPod Touch project from Newsround sums up more of the impact on the school:


The £40,000 ($80,000) leasing bill for printers will, as a result, be greatly reduced as the amount of paper being used is reduced significantly.

The cost of the devices themselves, even with a refresh rate of 18p/35c per day included, is therefore relatively affordable.

The results? Where, a year or two before, the school had been set for closure by the Government watchdog for having a pass rate never above 30%, examinations results coming in after this mobile investment, at Grades A*-C, were running at 99%.

When we believe that youngsters are capable of anything and, vitally, provide the human and virtual help and support to make that potential a possible, there's nothing that can hold them back.

January 01, 2011

I will act now: Happy New Year 2011

I've sat for just a little bit this afternoon marvelling at the velocity of shared links, blog posts penned, conversations raging on the Twitterverse about all manner of things: the future of education, coding hacks, social media marketing, Google analytics. And I once more leave the iPhone aside with a feeling that either

  • I'm either missing something by not engaging with this helter skelter chat 24/7 (for that is what it would take to keep up with everyone, across timezones);
  • not doing my job by ignoring most of it completely, or
  • neglecting my family; or
  • admitting that any potential I might have for flow in my work will disappear if I even try to engage more frequently (what do I really believe about assessment, about learning, about social media, about journalism in a new age, about communications with those who are not on Twitter, about...?)

There are so many people thinking about some great things in great ways, so many giving their local angle, and their world view, so many options to consider, that there must come a point where we stop thinking, stop speaking and take actions.

So that's my 2011 resolution, and one I'm going to enjoy keeping. I'm going to swallow more of my own advice, and that of Dr John Hunter, and not think so hard, just try the experiment.

From Euan a quote that sums up the urgency I feel to abandon the torrential streams flowing on this holiday of holidays:

I will act now. I will act now. I will act now. Henceforth, I will repeat these words each hour, each day, everyday, until the words become as much a habit as my breathing, and the action which follows becomes as instinctive as the blinking of my eyelids. With these words I can condition my mind to perform every action necessary for my success. I will act now. I will repeat these words again and again and again. I will walk where failures fear to walk. I will work when failures seek rest. I will act now for now is all I have. Tomorrow is the day reserved for the labor of the lazy. I am not lazy. Tomorrow is the day when the failure will succeed. I am not a failure. I will act now. Success will not wait. If I delay, success will become wed to another and lost to me forever. This is the time. This is the place. I am the person. -  Og Mandino

Pic of people really doing stuff, in the Loony Dook, from Gareth Harper.

September 04, 2010

Let's save millions: What's your 100 hour challenge?

Moon walk
Changes happen all the time in schools. But, in the same way as it’s hard to realise that the flight you’re on is moving swiftly through the air until either all 24,000 kms are up, I think change in education often goes unseen. And those iterative changes cost a lot of dosh. I reckon this lack of marking time could be costing us millions of education dollars, pounds and euros, but could be resolved by every teacher undertaking one simple challenge.

Why is marking time on our learning important? This lack of awareness makes every professional development course a potential financial liability. In one room three weeks ago we worked out that between staff present and staff covering lessons, not to even mention the cost of my time there (and by comparison I’m incredibly cheap) that somewhere near $80,000 was being invested in that one day. If nothing BIG happens off the back of that day then we have an expensive problem.

Research proves that most professional development does very little developing at all, since we rarely do anything significant with the input and conversations we have: Professional Development - A great way to avoid change is a pretty seminal paper in that respect (pdf). And most of those buying in professional development are not interested or empowered in budgetary terms to take the long-line approach that's required to make a difference, that Sheryl outlines in her long post (the clue is in the length - learning is a complex beast that requires more than 60 minutes of brim and sparkle from a keynoter).

This is serious. It’s not that I think we should all be patting ourselves on the back every moment we tweak (or overhaul) our work, but unless we know where we’ve come from and how far then we cannot hope to build upon what we have learnt and achieved in the future. Marking time and distance in change is important. That’s why I think more of us should be setting ourselves the 100 hour challenge.

Less effort, more action

I had thought years ago that all schools, once a year, could aspire to achieve 100 innovations in 100 days. But then, when I sat down and thought about it, it would need coordination, voting, people collaborating to get it all done, more organisation to carve out that time together… Basically, in most school environments I know, collaboration of this nature would end up being 90% management, 10% action.

However, if instead of trying to organise the effort, and instead allow the forces of our ‘education market’ within the school community to take hold, we might see something different. What would happen if everyone in the school community decided to undertake their own, personal, 100 hour challenge – working on something they’d like to learn how to do, one hour per day, every day, for three months or so.

Matt Webb was the chap who framed it this way for me, pointing out that 100 hours is an incredibly long time to learn something when, say, compared to learning how to drive (30-50 hours-ish) or the total time spent walking the moon (160 hours) - the pic above is from the marvelous Nasa Moon set.

And yet, 100 hours only represents an hour a day for three months, something most of us would be happy to sacrifice in order to get really good at something.

Change requires invitational leadership

I’d add to this a point for school leaders and managers, which employs my favourite leadership style: the policy of invitation. The most important thing with these personal 100 hours challenges is that the school leaders, from department heads to school principals, resist the temptation to tell staff what they should spend their 100 challenge on. This has to be learning of the DIY variety (not the HIDTY (Have It Done To You) genre). If a member of teaching staff wants to learn how to tango, then by goodness let him learn to tango. If another wants to learn how to write great apps in C++, then let them go for it.

Next, provide a place (physical and maybe also virtual) where students, teachers, admin staff and even parents can post their 100 hour challenge title on a post-it note. Let them move others’ post-its around. Encourage it as a leader by moving a few around yourself when no-one’s looking, finding where people have common graft in mind. Make it a real learning wall.

The 100 hour challenge might, for everyone, begin on the same day, and crescendo towards some kind of celebration of change, of a community of people clustering into mini communities, pairings, loosely grouped individuals pulling together to make their world that little bit better, more interesting or engaging.

The point is to make the most of the learning already going on in our lives, or to unlock the learning we've always wanted to do as teachers - too many teachers think that teaching comes first and learning, if there's time, comes after. If we're not to waste $80,000 one day, $60,000 the next on professional development that fails to develop anyone then we need to find some kinds of practical strategy that allow us to check and mark time on our learning thereafter.

Don't just read this post. Do something.

Here’s my challenge. Right now, put aside 100 hours starting at some point in the next twelve months. Do it right now, in your head. Put that time aside. 100 hours. 7 hours a week for 14 weeks. One hour a day, or one working day a week. It’s one term out of your entire life, it’s nothing. Okay, you’ve got that 100 hours?

Now for the next two days, go to talks (or listen to them online) and start conversations with people you don’t know, and choose what to spend your 100 hours on.

I guarantee that everyone reading this can produce something or has some special skill, and maybe they’re not even aware of it.

Ask your friends, colleagues and students what their’s is. Find out, because you’ll get ideas about what to learn yourself, and decide what to spend your 100 hours on.

Because when you contribute, when you participate in culture, when you’re no longer solving problems, but inventing culture itself, that is when life starts getting interesting.

Some 100 hour challenges we're already seeing emerge:

September 02, 2010

Teacher Productivity - what if we harnessed Mechanical Turk?

One of the most important areas of teacher development must surely be working out how to save time, create more time, drop some of the less meaningful activity in our days to create more, higher energy time to engage with students or improve our own professional learning? 9 times out of 10 the main barrier to teachers doing what they really want to do is 'time'. I think that we could transform teacher time and energy by crowdsourcing some of our most mundane duties.

I attempted a few sessions in New Zealand on this subject I can confirm, though, that most educators find it mind-numbingly irrelevant, perhaps even boring, to look at their working day and decipher what's important, urgent, necessary, unnecessary. Most educators I work with feel under seige from demands outside their control (or seemingly outside their control) and swiftly resign themselves to trudging on best they can.

I began wondering latterly, though, about what would happen if more teachers knew about and made use of virtual PAs, or some kind of educational equivalent. I pay mine about $25 an hour (and they charge by the minute) to handle the things that take up my time, but which don't need me to do them. For me, that's buying travel tickets, sorting receipts, filling in tax return information, handling my dry cleaning, getting foreign stamps for the post sorted out etc.

For a teacher there are endless tasks they have to undertake that they don't have to undertake:

  • insertion of grades into systems
  • typing report card comments (most teachers would take longer typing up their thoughts than dictating them for someone else to handle later)
  • spotting downward trends in student grades
  • compiling school reports and annual report information
  • creating standard letters to parents about school trips, unexplained absences, charity events
  • insert yours here...

I then wondered about using Mechanical Turk to handle some of the larger scale time-suckers that we have in education.

Mechanical Turk is Amazon's technology solution that isn't a technology solution: you submit a task and any necessary material and set a price per minute for the work. Then, in exchange for a few cents for a small chunk of that work you have interested parties, students, academics with some spare time, housewives and all sorts of other strangers take a tiny chunk of that work to complete. Mechanical Turk then brings all those bits back together again and sends you the completed work, along with a tiny bill. It's named after the machine of old, whereby a mysterious Turkish man would take any equation you gave his magical machine and it would then tell you the answer; in fact, there was a man hidden inside who'd work out the answer quickly.

For example, education conferences are happening every week, it seems, and are recorded increasingly in video and/or audio with slideshare visuals, but the art of conference blogging has more or less dropped off as a result. Skimming these videos and audio is a no-go, and so we find ourselves actually getting less from this increased number of conferences, recorded conversations and Elluminate sessions (well, I do anyway).

So if we took all those conference talks and submitted them to Mechanical Turk as we went along, for about $15 per seminar talk we could have a searchable, skimmable transcript that we can link to, highlight, annotate and build upon far easier than the video.

This is just one new problem that we've created, that Mechnical Turk thinking could crack, saving us all some more minutes in the day. What other areas of teaching and learning are Mechanical Turkable?

Photo of the Crowd

July 28, 2010

Kill The Meeting

I've got a pretty long-term fascination with the way Ideo work, simply because their outputs are so fascinating, and the means of getting there more so. I've worked in enough organisations that call themselves creative to know that few match the pace and flow of Ideo.

The Week In Two Minutes clip above shows a key reason why. Look at the variance of team work - people working alone, in pairs, in threes or fours; spot the different members by their t-shirt colours, showing how the makeup of the team changes over the course of a day.

What we do not see is any form of 'routine' meeting, some kind of default everyone-in-one-room, one-hour-on-Outlook, meeting-for-the-sake-of-meeting meeting. Take two minutes out to see it, and then email the video to a friend or colleagues to spread the lesson.

July 24, 2010

GETinsight | Clearing the decks for the year ahead: Productivity for Creativity

I've just posted a new piece at GETideas on how we can all prepare for the year ahead, and make sure that we keep on top of things, so that we have more time and energy for more creative practice throughout the year. You can read the full piece on the GETideas.org site and join me for a live phone or web chat this Tuesday to share your own tips.

Where Do Good Ideas Come From? Using Quiet Times to Prepare for the Year Ahead

For teachers, the summer vacation is often seen as the quiet time of year that they might find a moment, after the sand, sea and switching off, to start preparing for the year ahead. We can head off potential problems, the rest brings some of our most creative ideas to light, and we have that rare commodity – time – to think about how we could best teach particular areas of work.

School leaders don’t have that same stretch of time, but with fewer fire-fights to tackle in our classrooms and schools there is a chance to block out some thinking time of our own.   However, as some of Jim Spillane’s research on principals’ and Head Teachers’ working habits shows, we can in education spend too much time working alone on the wrong things.

Here are the headings of my top eight ‘mind hacks’ that some of the most inspirational and creative leaders I know have drawn out of their work:

1.    Clear your decks for the next year (GTD)

2.    One must-do activity a day

3.    Set aside "Desk Time"

4.    Don't Procrastinate

5.    Getting rid of "Extraneous Pillars"

6.    Kill assumptions: Only do stuff you want to do

7.    Do, don't think

8.    Abandon the quest for perfection

You can read the full piece on the GETideas.org site and join me for a live phone or web chat this Tuesday to share your own tips.

March 04, 2010

Blackberry email adds 10 working days to our year

Lost in Text

The Telegraph reports that the average Briton sees 10 extra days of work added to their year as a result of always-on email through devices like the Blackberry.

Yesterday, in a workshop that included an overview of some productivity tips for coping with more information, I made the point that for teachers more than any other profession, the notion of push always-on email was abhorrent:

  • Always-on email uses up mental bandwidth that, in teaching, is needed to concentrate on the 30 different learning challenges in front of you;
  • Always-on email encourages disorganisation in the sender's world: no email should ever be sent requesting a meeting any sooner than 24 hours ahead. If you need to see someone that soon, go and knock on their door. If you need a meeting with that person then the subject matter should be of such importance (and not urgency) that you can leave it so others can have time to prepare;
  • Always-on email is a distraction from doing the task in hand. If you don't think focus is important, then just spend some time in the world of Merlin Mann.
  • Always-on email outside the normal working day means you are working for free. If you need more time to do parts of your job that are not teaching then either a) ask for less contact time or b) lose some of your job that does not contribute to teaching your youngsters. Don't ask permission to do this. You're the professional, after all.

I was astonished, though, at the resistance to this concept. I'd have thought that good email management was a release for everyone, yet a few folk still felt that they had, in the course of the workshop and my keynote, received some useful emails which they wanted to think about. Fair enough, but they weren't concentrating, weren't able to concentrate, on the really challenging stuff I was trying to get them to think about. Their choice, and one I often make in a conference situation.

But we must always give ourselves the opportunity of maximum mental bandwidth at least once in the day to deal with the complex goals we're trying to achieve.

Pic from Kendriya in Andy Polaine's Lost In Text Flickr group (permission pending).

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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