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
For the past six new years I've taken an interest in how much I'm sitting on a plane each year, destroying the planet that my children will inherit. Travel is an increasingly inevitable part of business, particularly in tough economic climates where, if you're not prepared to jump on a plane I fear one might lose any momentum worth talking about. For all the Google Hangouts, Skypes and Facetimes in the world, my team and I at NoTosh have found that online interactions lead only to one thing: people want to cement relationships face-to-face at some point.
NoTosh has been growing this year. 2011 saw Tom Barrett join the family, this year another great addition in Peter Ford. I've never been a fan of "hiring help", having a company website listing legions of 'staff' who, actually, are part-timers or an occasional extra face when the lone consultant at the top of the pyramid ends up over-stretched. As someone who's hired consultants from that kind of "broad church", I've rarely had the experience I thought I would. As a teacher "being given PD", I've felt the painful lack of continuity between a string of different consultants brought in, lacking any connection between their message, research or impact. With NoTosh, a tight-bound team who very often live out of each other's pockets, people have been able to play off the different personalities of the team. This means that all of us have been traveling more, as more people ask for seconds or thirds on the learning we've been doing with them.
A non-existent Scottish / UK market, and a booming clutch of global clients has led to many more trips through to Scandinavia, the Middle East and Australia. Scottish revenues at NoTosh are tiny - maybe around 5% of our total this year. The UK as a whole contributes a lot less than 50% of our turnover. It might be down to the economic squeeze - although we work in countries with far more squeeze to their purses than Scotland or the rest of the UK - or it might be a degree of tall-poppy-syndrome for which we are famous. It's more likely down to the fact that we've not yet really made an effort to sell anywhere in the world, let alone Scotland. Everything NoTosh has achieved so far has been down to kindly word of mouth, great partners and superb teachers that have put in the hours on interesting, impactful practice. For that, we are grateful. Even if it means that we get a bit clogged up with airplane aircon.
Australia is in itself big reason for a well-worn seat 14F. We've purposefully been looking to Australia since early 2011 as a place that a) has a heritage of great education innovation, b) realises there's always more to learn, and c) shares some of the educational heritage of Scotland. This year has been back-to-back Australia, working with schools throughout Brisbane and Sydney's Catholic Education Departments, as well as with independent schools there. We've also been working on creative projects with political parties and other groups, something we want to expand upon.
Will we reduce those miles? Yes.
If you don't want to travel somewhere, you live there. 2013 should see fewer of those trips to Oz and back - there was a point earlier in 2012 where I'd done seven return trips in 12 months! Tom Barrett moves in a matter days, with his family, to engage schools and creative groups who want to help build NoTosh - permanently - downunder. I'm grateful to Tom beyond words for the commitment he's made to our team in doing this - it was a case of stars aligning between his and his families wishes, and our opportunity here and now. I'm sure the promise of sunshine and the occasional beach might soften the blow for him and his family.
We're likely to hire again, too. We've spotted some talent that we're interested in, and now need to find those larger clients or groups of schools who, over a year, say, want to begin engaging with us on some deep projects on assessment, design thinking or creativity. We're also sure that there are more schools and groups of schools in the UK with whom we could build as strong a relationship as we have elsewhere.
We're building incredibly exciting UK-based programmes. Peter Ford has been a lead on three significant projects over the past nine months that have involved our whole team. We'll be sharing these in the New Year, along with their global expansion in 2013. For us, it's just great to see more, larger, bigger scale learning programmes taking hold in the UK, in spite of the recession.
There are a few other surprises, too, that my team and I will keep under wraps for the moment. If they're any good, you'll know about them in good time, I guess. All of these, though, are geared up to keeping our landing gear down, firmly planted on solid ground as much as possible. Wish us luck!
As a teenager I loved playing Bach on the piano, an instrument that for most of my playing time I was maybe less than loving about. It was all about first of all learning the rudiments, then adding in what you felt about it, then bringing the parts together into a whole that always felt greater than the sum of those elements I'd practiced in bar-by-bar, note-by-note detail. Today, I still play music - percussion - and it's the same process, I guess, that I describe in Bach: learn the rudiments well, pull them together bit by bit, then unleash the whole to see what it sounds like together with the band.
British Philosopher Alan Watts sums up an attitude that took me years to understand, and which underlines the attitude to life that all my colleagues sign up to. If you want to do something - defend the charged, taxi people through cities, teach children, grow wine, whatever... - then do it.
I'm working at the moment with a group of teachers, engineers and entrepreneurs in Finland, all of whom are passionate about what they do. They'd do it, I'm sure, were money no object. And because they love it, they practice it, they get good at, and so people pay them to do it so well.
Yet I've met educators on my journey who wouldn't do it, were money no object. They should go and find something else they really want to do, and not perpetuate the model in front of our children. Life is already too short to be doing something you don't want to.
The full transcription of Alan Watts' If Money Were No Object:
What do you desire? What makes you itch? What sort of a situation would you like?
Let’s suppose, I do this often in vocational guidance of students, they come to me and say, well, we’re getting out of college and we haven’t the faintest idea what we want to do.
So I always ask the question, what would you like to do if money were no object? How would you really enjoy spending your life?
Well, it’s so amazing, as a result of our kind of educational system crowds of students say, well, we’d like to be painters, we’d like to be poets, we’d like to be writers, but as everybody knows you can’t earn any money that way. Or another person says well, I’d like to live an out-of-doors life and ride horses.
I say, you want to teach in a riding school? Let’s go through with it. What do you want to do?
When we finally got down to something which the individual says he really wants to do, I will say to him, you do that — and forget the money, because if you say that getting the money is the most important thing, you will spend your life completely wasting your time.
You’ll be doing things you don’t like doing in order to go on living, that is to go on doing things you don’t like doing, which is stupid. Better to have a short life that is full of what you like doing than a long life spent in a miserable way.
And after all, if you do really like what you’re doing, it doesn’t matter what it is, you can eventually turn it – you could eventually become a master of it. It’s the only way to become a master of something, to be really with it. And then you’ll be able to get a good fee for whatever it is.
So don’t worry too much that everybody is – somebody is interested in everything, anything you can be interested in, you will find others will.
But it’s absolutely stupid to spend your time doing things you don’t like in order to go on spending things you don’t like, doing things you don’t like and to teach your children to follow in the same track.
See what we are doing is we’re bringing up children and educating to live the same sort of lifes we are living. In order that they may justify themselves and find satisfaction in life by bringing up their children to bring up their children to do the same thing, so it’s all retch and no vomit — it never gets there.
And so, therefore, it’s so important to consider this question: what do I desire?
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.