December 09, 2013

Ira Glass on Storytelling - and key creative lessons for schools

Originally posted on NoTosh's fabulous Facebook page.

Ira Glass' words on storytelling and creativity have been doing the rounds this weekend, adapted from a Current.tv documentary from a while back. The key point in this clip is incredibly close to what we bring to educators when we talk about ideation and prototyping:

You can't just do ONE or TWO drafts of thinking; you have to make it double-digit drafting, prototyping thinking, gaining feedback and doing better next time.

What Ira Glass touches on is how, no matter how hard we try, we are never happy with our earlier pieces of work. As a result, there is only one tactic we can employ to guarantee that we get better: produce a LOT of work. The more we practice our craft, the better we get. 

Simple powerful advice with which no-one in their right mind would disagree, and many who create for a living recognise, but one piece schools are quick to forget under the pressures of time, "the test" and any other number of excuses not to give young people the chance to prototype thinking many, many times:

"Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through." —Ira Glass

Other lessons in the documentary are also compelling, and tie in beautifully to NoTosh's Design Thinking School work. He stresses the importance of having a process through which to work, the building blocks of one's trade. This equates to the thinking skills and knowing when to use which ones where in the process within a school environment.

In a second clip, Glass points to the longer-than-you-ever-think-it-will-be period of immersion as you seek out the problem to solve, or story to tell, and the wonderfully releasing moment of synthesis as you "kill" the stories not worth telling:


In a final clip, he concludes with the challenge facing all young people, too: how do you create something within a medium, without just copying what you've heard before? The answer: be yourself, talk like you, write and speak about what you know best. The more you are yourself, the better off you are. But how many kids are trying to be someone else, or play someone else's game at school, instead of finding their own way forward?

Challenging stuff.

November 29, 2013

There's no such thing as The Strategy. Only strategies, plural, for people

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Originally posted on the wonderful NoTosh Facebook page.

During my tour of Sweden, I worked with groups of senior education leaders - district directors, politicians, parent and union reps, principals - and sometimes it might even have been the first time that these distinct groups of leaders had sat together in the same room to talk about how their strategies for better learning might actually be put into place.

All the discussions and processes we used unearthed fascinating insights, interesting as much as anything for the potential that, until now, had been locked up in their different perspectives of what great learning actually entailed. One such fascinating discussion was with a wide range of education leaders at a 90 minute workshop in Tidaholm, a beautiful city a couple of hours out of Gothenburg.

We undertook an exercise that is quick to explain, and leaves ample time for people to share the hopes, fears and expectations of the future, in a structured way that leaves no innovative stone unturned.

Part of the process, nicknamed the Dilemma Dance, involves each mixed team (principal, district person, teacher) coming up with what they believe to be the core strategy to follow, the key problem to resolve or opportunity to be harnessed. Take a look at how diverse one group's understanding of a "common strategy" is:

// How might we help each student arrive at his or her maximum capacity from the gifts that (s)he has?

// There is always a way for everyone to learn; how might we find that way?

// How might we bring the world into the classroom in order to get every student included in their world?

// How might we give students the chance to participate in their learning through reflection?

// How might we create the kind of environment where joyful learning through participation, creativity and sharing is the norm?

Some are focussed on students' progress, others on equality, others on better formative assessment strategies, others still on a culture of curiosity and creativity. These fives groups came up with five different levels of focus for a "common strategy". And they're not alone - every group I've ever worked with comes up with something similar.

What does it reveal? It shows that there is no such thing as a common strategy. As soon as people are introduced to strategy - something that normally happens AFTER it has been written, incidentally - we suddenly realise that there are STRATEGIES, one for each type of person involved, each strategy giving that group of people a responsibility in delivering their part of the strategy bargain.

If more policy-makers and school leaders started with people at the core of their strategy/-ies, then maybe would see more a-ha! moments of this variety, earlier on in the process. Maybe we could begin to see the emergence of "pod-like" delegated leadership in schools, with people-centred strategy groups looking after every part of the school's community. Surely this is more feasible than one strategy pretending it could ever cater to everyone's needs?

Originally posted on the wonderful NoTosh Facebook page.

Pic of Tidaholm by Pete Hunt (CC)

November 19, 2013

It's in if... Strategies for focus

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Originally posted on NoTosh's fabby Facebook page
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When you're writing a strategy for education, it's vital to delimit what *really* matters, and there's a simple project management tool that can help.

Jamie Arnold is the most rigourous project manager I've ever had the pleasure to work with, during my time at Channel 4. He's the PM on the award-winning new gov.uk website of the Westminster Government in London, and over the months of development has shared much of the agile management setup he and others have been managing, in order to get the site up and out on time, and to budget.

One of my favourite takeaways is the "It's In If..." list for the project, pictured, which sums up in a few pithy phrases what the core activity of his organisation is. It helps when team members are faced with a personal challenge of whether or not to do something, or include a factor in a build. If it's not in, then it's not to be done. If it's not a core value that *only* your group, team or school can offer, leave it out or point people in the right direction, where that offering is better.

Schools and school districts could do with their own "It's in if..." lists to help focus the innovation of everyone in the school community. But if you were a teacher, writing your own "It's in if..." list for, say, resources used in a unit or making a decision to have a teacher-led section of a lesson or not, what would you put?

 

September 16, 2013

What if the world had a #TeachMeet on the same day?

First ever TeachMeet
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.

See Matt Esterman's (Australia) post about getting more first-timers organising their own TeachMeets as part of something global.

August 29, 2013

Creativity Rules from Master Builder, Master Designer Thomas Heatherwick

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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:

  1. QUESTION: "We have found that we tend to guide ourselves towards ideas by finding a few key questions to ask ourselves." (Tom Barrett's début book, Can Computers Keep Secrets, is all about this curiosity-mongering, and how parents and teachers can protect that curiosity for life. With schools, we want to help students ask higher order questions, and we do this through the creation of provocative generative statements).
  2. 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.)
  3. 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.)
  4. 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.

August 26, 2013

20% Time and Schools: not the best of bedfellows

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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.

Photo: George Armstrong

July 03, 2013

What technology would you kill in schools?

Ewan McIntosh interviewed for RSA
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.

Ewan McIntosh Interview RSA



June 29, 2013

5 Years Old: No More Worksheets (Please)

I'm not too keen on worksheets

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.

June 12, 2013

Choice - how much is just right?

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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.

May 31, 2013

Can collaboration in school ever really be Collaboration?

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Today I gave a speech to open A.B. Paterson College's new Collaborative Learning Centre, pointing out the key challenges around great collaboration, as outlined by Morten Hansen (I wrote a series of blog posts a while back sharing these worthwhile lessons). It got me thinking about the nature of most collaboration - even the good stuff - in schools, and the much more complex serendipitous nature of collaboration outside school.

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.

This post was cross-posted from NoTosh's fabby Facebook page. Give us a Like there and see more little gems from the whole team.

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

Module Masterclass

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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