In conversations with several TeachMeet organisers over the past two years, one thing is perceived as a wasted opportunity in the way the unconference operates: it's hard to be aware of what's going on in learning through TeachMeets in other countries. In many places, TeachMeet is considered "their thing", that is, TeachMeet is an Australian, American, Scottish, Danish, Dutch, Irish, Spanish thing.
So that is why we started to ask: "What could happen in terms of heightening awareness globally if we found a date when everyone could coordinate their TeachMeets to happen over the same 24 hours, or the same week?"
To that end, using the hashtag #teachmeet, we're trying to find out that precious date when the worlds schools are not on holiday. When we find it, we'll invite everyone to set up their own event in concert, to share locally and think globally.
From my own perspective, it's a great mechanism, too, to remind people the values of TeachMeet: it's free, non-commercial, no PowerPoint and ideally in a small, non-edu-feeling venue. The first one, pictured, where we welcomed one Will Richardson to sit in with some lively Scottish educators, was held in the Jolly Judge Pub in Edinburgh. For me, it still stands as one of the best I've ever attended. I want more people to realise that they can bring teacher learning to their own community, without the need for projectors, sound systems, money and keynoters.
In this month's Wired UK print magazine a superb insight into the working and creativity habits of London bus and Olympic flame designer, Thomas Heatherwick. In it, Wired's editors pull out his 'rules' for designing and making. They are a real validation of what Team NoTosh have been pulling out from our creative work and parsing through educational research, stimulating some ingenius practices in the schools with whom we work:
ZOOM IN, ZOOM OUT: "Our role is to pull right back and see something in its biggest context, but then zoom in until you're analysing the close detail, then pull back again. To never let one thing get disconnected from context and meaning." (This zoom in-out process is the purpose of a teacher-curated, student-led research or immersion phase, where it's not the pace of the class or teacher that determines what you look at next, but your interest, where it's been piqued. To pique that interest, teachers need to get savvy about planning rich immersions on the back of their provocative generative statement.)
ELIMINATE: "You don't know what the outcome will be, but it feels like we're trying to solve a crime. You're eliminating options from your enquiries. Then you're left with something, and it's probably not what you expected." (In synthesis, using thinking tools and curative technologies such as Evernote or social bookmarking, young people can eliminate obvious solutions to problems, to see if there's an ingenious way to explore, explain or solve something.)
MAKE: "Making is a way to do practical analysis. Anyone can relate to models. But it's not a tool for others, it's to show yourself, to make sure you're not fooling yourself." (Kids who 'prototype' one or two versions of their work aren't prototyping at all. Kids whose early prototypes are graded, assessed too early by their peers or teachers, don't have a chance to show themselves whether their ideas stand up. They need more than a few goes at getting things right, and several of those attempts have to be made for the purposes of self-assessment above all.)
If you want to learn more about how my team and I are putting design thinking into action in schools (beyond the shop class and post-it note facile stuff that you find on your average "design thinking education" Google search), then check out our NoTosh Lab, or 'Like' our Facebook page to get some regular updates from the schools, creative cos, hospitals, Governments and agencies with whom we're working around the world.
With the start of term in the Northern hemisphere, several of the schools we're working with have brought up the notion of offering their students "20% time", a version of what Google famously offer their employees to undertake their own, personal projects. But in schools, it often seems to fall short of our expectations of creative genius.
Post-it manufacturer 3M pre-date Google and a multitude of others in applying 20%/10%/5% time, the idea being that moments of genius, in personal creative time allotted to the workforce, can become the company's next core product. In school, it's often seen as a highly manageable way of introducing student choice and student-led learning in the classroom, sometimes without having to worry too much about the remaining 80%. It's a first step, a way to immediately programme in 'student-led' without having to take on the whole game of one's semester or school year.
The problem is, that students given this open stretch of time often don't know what to do, or beyond their initial couple of passions they run out of steam. Their end-products are largely under par of their capacity. Sure, there are moments of genius, just as in Google, 3M or any other corporation that introduces 20% time. But, just like them, they are by a small proportion of students, with the vast majority of ideas failing to hit the mark.
Is this use of time - and so much of it - worth trying in school? I don't think so.
It's interesting to note that even in cash-rich Google, the inefficiencies of offering so much undirected time to employees are now being curbed. Key to this is not killing off individual creativity - far from it. In corporate speak business leaders talk about aligning 20% time to the vision of the company, making sure it has something to do with the core business.
In schooling, this is equivalent to making sure that student-directed time is nonetheless tied to the vision of the project in hand, the core business of the class in that semester or term. Freewheeling results in what I saw as an investor in tech and media products: 1% success rates. The rest is chaff, mediocrity, not because the people behind those developments are fatally flawed, but because the process is: you can't expect 100% of creatives to be 100% creative all the time when there is no common vision. You up the stakes when you're vision is clear, something that never was, frankly, in my investment unit five years ago.
So 20% time and its variants are indeed a great way to introduce a manageable, constrained version of student-led learning, without having to change all your practice at once. But treat it with caution. The same principles of clear, shared objectives stand to make the most of it. Any piece of creative genius generally stems from some healthy design constraints set out at the start.
If it were me, I might start with this for a term, but I'd be concentrating on the next semester, and seeing how, using robust self- and peer-assessment techniques I can introduce more student autonomy throughout everything I do.
What is the one technology I would kill off in schools, and which one would I replace it with? Are screens responsible for kids being more demanding and should adults be telling kids how to achieve balance in their lives between tech and the rest?
Yesterday I was interviewed via Skype from the offices of Camilla Batmanghelidjh's kids company, by students from five RSA Academy Schools (the same RSA behind the RSA Animates and our WatchDrawThink campaign around those Animates).
The students have been creating audio podcasts on the topic 'What About Tomorrow?' - teenagers growing up in uncertain times, and interviewed Sir Ken Robinson at The RSA in London this week, and me in Edinburgh, over Skype, on the topic. They'll agreed to let me publish the full interview with me here and now, excerpts of which will appear alongside Sir Ken's and Camilla's take later in the year.
Catriona's just finished Primary 1 (Kindergarten) and was asked to give her feedback on her learning, for the benefit of the school. It's a fab school - 360 feedback is something I'd love to see in every school, more often. I just loved her comment, and hope that every teacher she ever has, from now on, pays heed: Catriona, and most other children, are not so keen on worksheets.
How much choice do humans want in their life? Between 3 and 19, if you read into the research by Choice guru Sheena Iyengaar. Her TED talk on choice is the most accessible way in, and her research papers are on Google Scholar. My new friend David Bill took me to the bourbon bar pictured above, in the French quarter of San Francisco and, indeed, the choice was so overwhelming I went for the drink I rarely do these days: a draught beer. When faced with overwhelming choice, we can get unimaginative.
So here's my question: do you offer at least three choices to students in every piece of thinking, learning or 'work' that they do? Most of the time when I ask this, the answer is a resounding "hmmm". Followed by a quiet 'no'.
We've been playing with the notion of Generative Student-Led Topics to get over the lack of real choice evident in so much enquiry- or project-based learning. Basically, we're exploring how teachers really design choice into learning, without inadvertently removing it. There's a brief summary of how we're doing that on the fabby NoTosh Lab pages.
Learning in school is one thing. Heading to university another. Rarely does either truly reflect the incredible pace of change in the world beyond those thirteen years of formal education, where the demands for more complex collaboration and ingenuity test even the best education systems' agility to the limit.
Take the world of fashion, for example. One of our clients, a luxury fashion brand for whom we develop and deliver education programmes in the communities in which it operates, has grown nearly ten times in as many years. Digital teams now operate on a par with merchandising and finance, and clothing designers themselves are acutely aware from their very first sketch how their product will look in a digital store as much as on the runway.
The people in these teams would be unlikely to have ever met had they attended the same school. Slightly geeky computer programmers would hardly be seen creating amazing projects with the fashionistas, the mathematics and science majors wouldn't be seen spending time in home economics thinking about how they could imbue cloth with data-processing technology that will heat the fabric when it's cold outside, and cool it down when summer arrives.
And in university, these serendipitous, tangential collaborations are made even more unlikely to succeed in anywhere other than extracurricular clubs, as students specialise ever deeper, narrower.
Yet, in the world outside formal education, serendipity is increasingly what makes the creative, financial, scientific and engineering worlds go around. Tangents, not five year plans, are where the biggest discoveries and creations of the past decade have come from, whether it's developing social networks with billions of users, finding preventative medicine in foods that can help more of us avoid cancer by eating certain foods regularly and cooking them correctly, or developing construction technologies that enable apartment blocks 17 stories high to be constructed in one week in China's expansive metropolises.
Chefs work with PhDs, construction trades work in ways that run against what their forefathers would have said was "right", and individuals in dorms can reach out and find the right team to get the rest done just as well.
Schools have an opportunity to prepare their young people with the robustness and acuity that is required to survive and thrive in this fast-paced, anything-is-possible world. It involves schools spending time like they've never spent it before understanding what constitutes collaboration, real collaboration and not just 'group work'.
It means the construction of new spaces, and the overhauling of existing ones. Rows of chairs and the same group of students sitting with each other all year long is not preparation for collaboration 'out there'. Students of the same ability working with each other doesn't chime with the notion that, in true collaboration, you reach out to those smarter than you to fill your gaps in understanding - we need more cross-age coaching, joint projects, younger students bringing their different perspective on the world to older students who might have lost it on the way.
And these aren't just great for collaboration. Education research is mounting that it is the skill set for collaboration in the real world that also brings the most to learners' progress in school.
Now, go and discuss this. In a team. Collaborate on something to rock the status quo of group work and encourage young people to truly collaborate.
My Flemish pal Kris Hoet has been at it again with his collaborators at Duval Guillaume, producing this incredible clip about a team of music lovers, musicians and DJs who, despite having physical challenges, are able to create music manipulating a programme with only their brainwaves. The goal of Smirnoff, the advertiser? To show that there is the power to create in every one of us.
I'm currently attempting some "holiday" in France, but the downtime has had my brain whizzing with sights that are more or less unfamiliar, certainly not from the time when I lived here over a decade ago or from my wife's own upbringing.
One such thing is what you can observe in the photo I took in a book shop in a city centre mall. This was the third shop we'd been into where we observed the same pattern:
Children and teenagers, though never adults, would diligently and without having been told to, take their bags to the entrance and dump them in a pile before going about their shopping.
I remarked that in pretty much any other country, a) the bags would be stolen within minutes, or b) they'd be removed as a bomb threat, and almost certainly c) any young person asked on entering a store to leave their bag would cry foul, civil liberties and assumptions of innocent-until-caught-with-a-loot-of-school-supplies (this was a stationery and book shop; hardly the stuff of hardened crack heads or hungry desperadoes).
France is certainly struggling at the moment. Her economy is dying, her politicians panicking, her entrepreneurs leaving by their hundreds every week on the Eurostar.
But success might be more likely to appear some day soon if it can do one thing for the taxpayers, citizens and workers of tomorrow: trust them as equal citizens in a Republic built on liberté, égalité and fraternité.
Three years ago, nearly to the day, I registered my dream with Companies House: my new enterprise NoTosh was conceived on December 21st, 2009, with that magic serial number that, at the time, means so much. Of course, once the mortgage payments become due, the romanticism goes out the window: a company is only a company when it grows.
Anyone can conceive a company. It's when they turn over some cash that they get born, and so NoTosh was really born on January 5th, 2010, when I went to (paid) work for the first time. The first client was Northern Film & Media, growing their digital strategy to something that still makes up a large chunk of their revenues and investments. NoTosh worked with them on loads of innovative strategies, including the creation of the world's first ever iPad Investment Fund, something that has kick-started several successful businesses. I'll be forever grateful to Agnes Wilkie and Tom Harvey for taking the plunge with me and my nascent venture at such an early stage, and putting enough cash in the bank to allow me to start taking some risks.
Wanting to take advantage of a Christmas gift I'd asked for from my wife, I cycled to work in Newcastle from Edinburgh, through some of the most bitter, deep snow. I left the house at 0610 in the morning, realising by 0620 that I'd never make my train on time at the speed I could muster on the slippery roads. That was also NoTosh's first ever taxi receipt claim.
It is rather apt that, 3 years from that date, Tom Barrett is arriving bleary-eyed in Melbourne to kick off NoTosh Australia. It's not -4C, as it was on my first day off to work, but more likely 40C+ as he heads into a summer heatwave. But one thing remains the same: his flight arrives from Dubai at 0610 - the same time I set out on my bike for that first day's worth of work.
Tom joined NoTosh on May 1st, 2011, his initiation spent in the buzz of the world's biggest ever election swing (33% swing in 100 days flat!) that NoTosh helped lead with the SNP political party. He saw, fast, that this was no ordinary "education consultancy". Over the next six months a lot of Tom's time was spent getting aquainted with the books and with his own core clients. It was November, in the taxi to the airport at the end of a long trip to Taiwan and Brisbane, our first big foreign trip together (boy, those are fun!), that Tom said, quite emphatically: "We will live here one day, I'm sure. It's just a matter of when."
By April, we were working intensively on a new project in the fashion industry, helping a behemoth company see how it could help people learn better about themselves. Tom and Peter, who had joined us that winter, had come for a few days lockdown in Edinburgh as we worked out our masterplan for this huge programme of work. Working away from home is mostly fun, but not seeing your family is very unfun. Tom had just come off a conversation with his family, a little bluesy, and we got talking about how we could make that better. We'd both been having several trips downunder that year, and Tom's wife had long harboured an ambition to go there. Was now the right time? Would it work for NoTosh? Would it really be possible?
Yes. We make things happen for ourselves. And that was that.
It goes to show what a complex process it is to get things started overseas, and we're far from finished with the practicalities of setting up a subsidiary in Australia. That conversation was eight months ago, and there's much still to do. The first task is no doubt for Tom to do some unpacking! But already we're speaking to those districts and schools who, like NoTosh's first clients in 2010, want to help create something unique and fresh downunder, with the experiences from our truly global work.
Far from "leaving the UK" (there have been scores of tweets along the lines of "UK's loss, Australia's gain"), Tom's change of base, change of home, means that we can bolster and amplify the amazing work Tom and the rest of our team has been doing in Australia, the US, the Middle East and around Europe. It means that we can all spend a little less time in planes. It also means, I think, that more of the amazing work we've already started in Australia, but which isn't widely known back home, might be brought to audiences in the UK and elsewhere.
It's tremendously exciting, and the next three years will undoubtedly prove as exciting as the first three. By then, we'll no longer be a toddler. Heck, we'll be about old enough to go to Elementary School.
Pic of Ballarat: Richard Taylor | Right, Edinburgh's Newhaven Harbour, NoTosh's HQ
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.
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.