June 23, 2014

#EduTECH 2014: Agile Leadership

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Five year plans are the last thing I'd be creating if I wanted to see innovation happen in a school. Most creative organisations we work with have something more akin to an innovation strategy based on audacious goals, with a skillset in one's team that helps each individual find their place in making those goals happen, one small step at a time. While the vision is agreed by the top of the organisation the means to get there are democratic, and based on creative process as much as individual creative prowess.

At Australia's EduTECH conference I was delighted to once more keynote the leadership of learning strand, with thousands of people coming along to get an update on some of NoTosh's thinking as it's developed this year. The theme was closely tied to my forthcoming book, a labour of love on agile leadership called How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen. It provides many of those practical stories of success from which we can learn, from the creative industries and from schools (some of which you'd classify as creative industries, too!).

I kicked off with the picture that had been most snapped last year: the F.A.I.L. "First Attempt In Learning" poster I captured in Meshendia Dampier's Rosendale Primary School classroom. Five year plans, you see, don't allow for a lot of failure, or departure from 'the script', regardless of how the world around you might change. What kinds of change?

  • It could be as simple as being better informed a couple of years down the line than you were when you wrote the strategy - we learn, and then look slightly embarrassed at our five year plans that now seem woefully naive or out of date. 
  • It could be seismic - when the Japanese earthquake hit, one of our favourite schools, American School in Japan, saw so many families question their stay in the country, that they realised that they would need to signficantly reinvent the offering to entice more families to stay in the country, for a great school as much as anything else (you can see some of their learning journey with design thinking in their Google+ posts).
  • It could be that others simply innovate faster than you, and your plan is holding you back. When we started TeachMeet in 2006, it was seen as innovative by the very organisations that it was designed to get around. No matter how hard they tried, they couldn't colonise it, make it their own - they were left standing while people just did it for themselves.

Agile Leadership is based on overcoming two obstacles to get to a new way of working. 

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Contradictions arise when something you've held as true is challenged by new evidence or experience. The feeling of contradiction is hard to overcome, because it necessitates some further investigation to work out whether the status quo is correct, partially correct, or just plain wrong, now that we have this new evidence to hand. In school strategy this is problematic - very often, when working with a school, there is reticence and some fear at best, anger at worst, when we suggest that we should start writing a strategy by really getting deep into the way things actually are, warts and all. In the book, I provide a ton of skills and techniques that teams can use to gauge better where things are, such as interviews, sketches, ideas wallets and bug lists.

Tensions are moderately more workable, as they occur once a team has bought into the new information that has presented itself, realising that it contradicts the status quo, and now have the task of altering the course of a strategy to accommodate it. It's not an easy process - it's full of tensions and tension. You can imagine the joy of running a workshop in this part! Take for example, the fairly strong evidence that grading does not improve learning, but comments do. I showed a video example of educators at ASIJ who, after all, have had grading feature as a fairly core part of their work. What happened when they saw the evidence of grading being less advantageous than comments alone? Some of the teachers went to test it for themselves, to work through those tensions, and change their own 'strategy' of learning and teaching. The results might be positive, or less so, but with the experience in hand it's far easier to work through the tensions, and gain a new insight for the way things might be. For those who don't experiment, they're still stuck with their contradictions, unable to move forward and challenge the way it's always been done.

Surprises appear when we least expect them. As Hatchuel and Weil put it in their concept-knowledge theory, these are the "you don't know what you don't know" moments. Surprises like these come to you - you can't search for them as you don't know they exist. Having an open mind is how most of us see these surprises and seize them. But in a strategy, where a 'decision has been made', and the text itself is highly specific, surprises can be blocked out, placed in the shadows never to be seized and used to make learning better in the organisation.

Such surprises often appear when we centre our strategy on people, rather than things that need done. When we reframe a strategy around people we can start work out what each individual group in our community can do, when and where we see that action happening, how they'll do it and, vitally, why they'd care enough to give a damn to do it. This actor mapping process is hugely powerful as a technique to open up the mind to such surprises, but incredibly challenge for teams to use - most teams feel they need 45 minutes to have a go at the technique, take 90, and still want the rest of the morning to see it through. Thinking about strategy from a human perspective, rather than a leadership one (full of the related, irrelevant jargon) is a tough move.

Ultimately, agile leadership is about recognising that everyone in the 'orchestra' of school is a leader, provided the strategy has been scored in a way that enables everyone to know their part in making it happen. The metaphor with music is one I concluded with, based on this old conductors' post I wrote. But it is also how I had started, with this haunting, stressful moment as Maria Joao Pires realises that she has been practicing the wrong concerto for the concert (it is no mistake that Mozart's D Minor Concerto is an obsession about feeling loneliness and despair...). With it, I asked the audience who the leader actually was at different moments of the piece, what the role of knowledge might have been, and how the understanding and trust between leaders leads to inspiring action: 

You can pre-order or purchase your copy of How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, and see some of the practical means of overcoming these barriers to creative leadership. And, for something free and instant, you can get a useful cheat sheet of agile leadership strategies by signing up to the NoTosh mailing list.

June 11, 2014

Do people really want a struggle, or an easy day of PD?

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Sometimes I wish I just ran flashy blogging workshops for a living. The days would be easy, the money, too. I wouldn't have to think hard, and nor would the attendees. I'd have photos of smiling complacent teachers out for a jolly PD day.

But the satisfaction would be zero on both sides of the fence. As our buddy John Davitt puts it, life is not about finding the right SOFTware, it's about enjoying some STRUGGLEware. NoTosh spends a lot of its time in that struggle space, helping people really operate in that zone of proximal development and, on days like Monday, maybe even just a wee bit beyond that.

This week the English Head Teachers with whom I was working and I both had a well-deserved pint after a real struggle of a day, working through how their loosely joined trust could increase its positive influence, without necessarily losing that mutual feeling of trust that has evolved over a few years. Basically: control without being controlling, was the order of the day.

That's a notoriously hard balance to strike. In January, we had explored the reality of the here and now was deciphered and some potentially strong platforms on which this group of Heads could build in the future. This week's session tackled the most difficult element - how do you set out some pragmatic action that takes the group from the status quo to their ambitious future, and not just that, but do it without diktat from on high?

We got there. Just. Between my first signs of the season's hayfever (atchoum!), the heat of the day, the heat of the discussion and the complexity of the relationships that make this group of Heads special, we got there. Pragmatic next steps that will begin to take them to a more powerful, influential place, ready to make students' learning better, together.

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If you want to struggle with me on some of the most challenging leadership and innovation tasks that a learning organisation might go through, you can work through some of the exercises and activities in my soon-to-be-released book, How To Come Up With Great Ideas And Actually Make Them Happen. It's available for pre-order now.

Or you can just look at other people having a struggle instead ;-):

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May 15, 2014

Real problem-finding attracting global researchers: Year 9, Denmark

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Year 9 students have made a discovery through their own problem-finding in science, and international scientists are honing in on the consequences. Wifi and 3G next to the bed? Not any more.

More on problem-finding from my TEDx talk.

Cross-posted on NoTosh's Facebook page.

May 04, 2014

Look Up: knowing when to drop your tech to really learn...

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.

April 27, 2014

Jerome Bruner on what's behind the "surprise" of creativity

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Eureka! moments rarely come from nowhere. Creativity and insight is hardly ever a lightning strike of insight, but more often a long hard slog. But it's been frustrating to hear people write off the hard slog required for this kind of creative insight, so I've been in search of some more backup for why this hard slog, what one might call the "trough of enlightenment", is necessary.

Much of the time that I'm not working with educators or creatives in industry is spent working out what their creative actions are, how they do them and why they do them that way. Some of this is achieved by observing their creative work, some of it by reading what others have noticed. Every Sunday, I wake up to the creative delights of the Brainpickings weekly email, and this week, a book review on Jerome Bruner has opened up some lovely creative insight on the effectiveness of creative surprise:

Predictive effectiveness is “the kind of surprise that yields high predictive value in its wake” — for instance, as in the most elegant formulae of mathematics and physics, which hold that whenever certain conditions are present, a specific outcome is guaranteed to be produced. (All of these 17 equations that changed the world are excellent examples.) Predictive effectiveness doesn’t always come through surprise — it’s often “the slow accretion of knowledge and urge.” And yet, Bruner argues, “the surprise may only come when we look back and see whence we have come” — the very thing Steve Jobs described in his autobiographical account of his own creative journey, in noting that “you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.”

This, to me, is why my team's way of harnessing design thinking in the classroom provides a sturdy process through which the "slow accretion of knowledge and urge" is given space to develop, through a planned, deep, intense immersion into a wide array of content and experiences. This content, in a schooling setting, is tied to curricular goals which are much broader than in a traditional classroom environment, in order that during a later period of synthesis there are, in fact, enough different dots to join together as we look backwards on our immersion, and create something knew. In this respect, I've always struggled with the idea that all of the design cycle is, in fact, a cycle. This first element - a deep immersion and synthesis - feels necessarily a linear, patient expanse of time where we do not feel the need to rush into ideation and making. We need to line up as many different areas of knowledge and concepts first, before being able to get that "surprise" connection between them and create something much more effective.

Bruner’s second form is formal effectiveness, the kind most frequently encountered in mathematics and logic, and occasionally music. He cites French polymath Henri Poincaré’s famous account of how creativity works, which holds that “sudden illumination” — the mythic Eureka! moment — is the unconscious combinatorial process that reveals “the unsuspected kinship between … facts, long known, but wrongly believed to be strangers to one another.”

The process of design thinking is often perceived as "impossible" to put into practice in certain subjects, namely mathematics, some science and music. I've always disagreed, believe that it is merely "hard". Why? Because, the combining concepts for a fresh creative outcome is the whole point of ideation and prototyping: we combine or oppose concepts, try them out and get feedback from our working (or from others) as to whether it works. However, it fits less succinctly into a six-week "design challenge" or project. These subject areas fall more likely into this "formal effectiveness", where sudden illumination, or sudden clicking of one's understanding, comes from a much longer exposure to the various concepts that make up the subject as a whole. This is why, perhaps, there is still a need to leave some slack for mathematics teachers to consider much of their work as a collection of loosely joined parts, taught and learned separately, in isolation, even, to some degree. But the challenge comes with the learner being given a specific time and space to look backwards, and make connections, combinations and oppositions for themselves, and explain any new insights that they feel they can make. In mathematics and music, for example, are the key points of design thinking knowing when we stand back and synthesise what we've learned, before we then hypothesise (ideate) and test our hypotheses (prototype)?

The third, Bruner notes, is the hardest to describe. Metaphorical effectiveness is also manifested by “connecting domains of experience that were before apart,” but what distinguishes it from the formal kind is that the mechanisms of connectedness come for the realm of art rather than science and logic — the kind of connectedness that Carl Jung described as “visionary,” in contrast to the merely psychological. (Metaphorical thinking, after all, is at the developmental root of human imagination.) While we are wired to make sense of the world via categorization, “metaphoric combination leaps beyond systematic placement, explores connections that before were unsuspected.”

The unifying mechanism for all three, however, remains what Einstein termed“combinatory play.” Bruner writes:

All of the forms of effective surprise grow out of a combinatorial activity — a placing of things in new perspectives.

Finally, Bruner touches on that much larger type of synthesis, which we can achieve when we are able to bring together domains that do not normally sit side by side. Traditional schooling sets students up to find this difficult - we learn our different domains in different spaces in high school and most of middle school. However, we do see this kind of "visionary connectedness" in young learners at Elementary and Early Years, where connections between one curricular area and another are made, when the curriculum itself doesn't make that link explicit. The educators we work with have been incredibly agile in recognising these moments, and taking advantage of them, to extend projects from a simple "let's make traditional food for homeless people in the park", to "understanding why our country's culture makes us want to do this in the first place", for example. What might high schools do to help students make these larger syntheses? Learning logs are a simple device, particularly if they can be searchable (as we discovered in our Evernote experiments in Rosendale Primary School) - students are able to search for key words related to today's topic, and unearth insights from learning months, or years, earlier, that they would have otherwise forgotten.

About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is a teacher, speaker and investor, regarded as one of Europe’s foremost experts in digital media for public services.

His company, NoTosh Limited, invests in tech startups and film on behalf of public and private investors, works with those companies to build their creative businesses, and takes the lessons learnt from the way these people work back into schools and universities across the world.

Ewan’s education keynotes & MasterClasses

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Do you worry that your school or district could better harness its people, digital technology or physical space? Do you want some actionable inspiration, a mentor for a learning journey with your staff?

In a keynote or masterclass we can give them concrete ideas based on experience, enthusiasm fired by a vision of what can be, and backup before and after to make it happen for them.

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