Look deep into the crystal ball…

Innovation is an overplayed word. It has been misused, overused and misunderstood. True innovation though is sexy, smart and seductive. I know that it should go without saying, but real innovation is also truly forward looking. It can be frustratingly incremental at times while at other times it seems to leap forward in the blink of an eye. The incremental piece gets overlooked and we forget that great products are often paradoxically “overnight sensations that were years in the making.” When a truly brilliant idea finally comes to fruition as a usable product, it is the result of some carefully placed and forward thinking early bets by the creators.

Steve Jobs and Bill Gates both approached an important fork in the tech road; Jobs moved down the path of the “post PC” movement while Gates took the PC path. In the words of Frost (kinda), “(Jobs) took the path less travelled by and that has made all the difference.” Jobs looked into the crystal ball and began to position Apple towards eventual explosive growth. Incremental choices were made  that would ultimately converge into true disruption. Apple’s unveiling of the 5s and the 5c iPhones was an underwhelming event for some. I see it a bit differently. Two things really standout: the Fingerprint Security Ring and the 64Bit chip. The fingerprint security potentially could open up all kinds of integration. Think about the options for purchasing that come from the security of fingerprint level security. The 64bit chip also creates crazy speed and multi-tasking options for the phone. The shift towards mobile moves even faster now. The other key piece to consider is iOS7. It seems to me that the devices are being designed to showcase the operating system. The tech is the peripheral while the operating system takes on even greater importance. These seemingly incremental additions have to potential to eventually to lead to Apple’s next big thing.

Innovation is dependent on an overarching vision that is supported by smaller, integrated and forward thinking bets about the future. It is all about positioning hunches.  The vision of the future might be a bit fuzzy but there is a gut feeling about the correct direction.  At the outset of the creative process, rarely is the final product conceptualized or clearly pictured. Instead there is an understanding of needs, trends and possibilities for change. I have always been a proponent of the coaching adage, “practice makes permanent.” Just like the muscle memory that comes from repeated physical action, there is also institutional memory. This type of memory can be powerful or highly corrosive. In the right environment, the repeated practice creates powerful innovation and productivity. P&G, Apple, Google, Facebook, and numerous other companies are so successful because of the reflective positioning that creates the right institutional memory. Repeatedly bad positioning leads to the type of institutional memory that creates companies like ENRON! Each and every decision that an organization makes adds fuel to a feedback loop (picture the old cartoon image of the snowball rolling down a snowy hill).

In education, we are very much rooted in the now. Decisions are made based on test scores and other accumulated data. Analyzing this data is obviously important BUT it must be used wisely. Test scores are trailing indicators, good glimpses into “what was” that really need to be rethought before trying to use them to project what might be. We need to start being bolder with our interpretations of the data.  We need to use that data to start making important small bets now with an eye towards reaching a grander vision. Just like Steve Jobs aligned Apple with an eye towards the post-PC world, we need to start aligning all decisions towards a post-SCHOOL version of education. Instead of perpetuating and propping up the status quo of bureaucratic education, we have to start positioning our system to handle an “anytime and anyplace” version of education. Decentralization of education is underway and no one has a perfect vision of what the final product will look like. Our goal is to start making the decisions now that allow the learning to bloom. If we don’t, we risk irrelevance and obsolescence.

We have to take a glimpse into the crystal ball and try to make sense of the blurry future staring back at us. Let’s start the positioning of those small bets and hunches in order to create something powerful and self-perpetuating.

Just because it is, doesn’t mean it should be.

I am really loving the new Apple campaign. “Designed by Apple” continues with the experience over product theme. For those unfamiliar, take a look:

The video is beautiful. I love the overall feel but a couple of parts really standout. The narrator asks three probing questions, 1) “Who will this help?” 2) “Will it make a difference?” and 3) “Does this deserve to exist?”. These are fundamentally human-centred questions. The goal of these questions is to find answers that make life better for the user. At the heart of any human-centred venture lies empathy.  An empathetic experience revolves around the users’ needs and not around tools of the trade. I have been in education for 14 years now and I have experienced the good, the bad and the ugly of education. The good has been the kid centred, the bad has largely been programs before people experiences and the ugly has been coping with thoughtless process.

Public education naturally and rightfully brings with it a high level of accountability. This accountability also presents constraints. Austerity measures sound good but rarely work. Rather than embracing the austere, we should embrace purposeful program design. It’s not about cutting, it’s about purposeful usage. Constraints can breed creativity for the hopeful and austerity for the fearful. Canadian baseball writer Jonah Keri wrote a terrific book about the Tampa Rays called “The Extra 2%”. The Rays are saddled with the worst home field in MLB, poor attendance and limited revenue. By embracing these constraints and by charting out a holistic organizational design, the Rays win each and every year. They draft, sign and develop players to fit the model. They also leverage every possible angle within their control to move the team forward. In the face of constraints, they win.

As educators in a public system, we have to similarly embrace the constraints of our system. We must DESIGN programs, processes, PD sessions and classroom experiences. There are too many things in the system that “just are” but probably shouldn’t be. EVERYTHING in our system should be purposefully designed and be subject  to Apple’s three core questions: Who will this help? Will it make life better? Does this deserve to exist?

Stop and think for a moment about all of the board or ministry initiatives that you have seen come and go as an educator. What did they have in common? Now think about those that have lasted, endured and evolved. What do they have in common? The ones that have lasted are the ones that empathized with the intended users. They were designed with people in mind. The failures were those that put the product ahead of the people. To get a better idea, try to picture a Sony Store and an Apple Store. The Sony Store places HEAVY emphasis on the product. It is a really static environment that focuses on the specs rather than the usages. The Apple Store is buzzing with life and activity. People are using the products, having fun and becoming devotees. Apple wins on two fronts: they build elegant products AND experiences.

My point is:  EDUCATION = SONY STORE.

A strength of our profession is the ability to empathize with kids. This is clear to anyone who might walk into our best classrooms. As a system though, we do a pretty lousy job of empathizing with our larger community. This is not done with mal intent but rather out of a sense of being stuck. Structures, traditions, conventions and   the general status quo are powerful institutional forces. We put centrally created products and programs first and people second. This is evident from start to finish in program creation:programs largely lack consultation (even though the connective technology exists to remedy this), they are vetted centrally and DELIVERED in an expert to novice learning model. This simply cannot continue. Older teachers are burnt out from living this cycle year after year and for the younger teachers, this model is simply incongruent with the rest of their life. Growing up in a connected era has created ingrained expectations and habits. Sharing, curation and co-creation are a natural ways of life. We will be wasting ridiculous amounts of tax payer dollars if we continue with our program creation and delivery model because these teachers will ignore it all and do what comes naturally; share and create with peers both in person and via social media.

Change has to come for both reasons of utility and principle. For sheer utilitarian purposes, we must make better use of constrained funding and on the principles side, it is simply the right thing to do. We must empathize and design for our kids and teachers to reach their fullest potential.

Rebels with a cause.

I have always had a fondness for rebellious students. The kids who think differently and constantly push boundaries out of a sense of purpose. I both empathize with their motivations and admire their fortitude. In a small setting, these kids aren’t hard to find. They are your “Me to We” kids leading the cause for justice or they are your kids fighting against perceived injustices within the school. As an administrator, I have come to admire our teachers with similar rebellious inclinations. These are the teachers who love to ask “why?”. They do not accept “because that’s the way we’ve always done it” as an answer. These are the teachers who stir things up and can affect great change if properly connected.

My all-time favourite ad campaign is Apple’s “Think Different” from many moons ago. Thanks to YouTube, it is still around in all its glory:

We have a lot of educators in our system who think differently. These educators are constantly trying new things in order to advance student learning. Some of their plans and programs work while others don’t. Those who don’t like these educators will describe the programs that don’t work as failures while those with a more open attitude call it learning. It is only through guided experimentation that we find ideas of true merit. Clay Shirky puts it this way:

shirky usable

Finding these outliers and boundary pushers must become a system priority. Shining a light on the great work that they are doing will help the whole system to progress. I have a list of TCDSB (my board) educators on Twitter that I visit a few times each day. Quite honestly, I have learned more from these tweets about what’s going on in my board than from anything that comes from central office. This is not a criticism but rather the realities of our rapidly decentralizing world. My goal is not to find some magical solution or golden idea. Very rarely will you find an idea out there that fits perfectly into your particular context and quite frankly, that shouldn’t be your expectation. Guaranteed though that you will find usable pieces, practices to reflect upon, inspiration and possibly a new connection with whom to confer.

Our system leaders have to find these rebels and celebrate the hell out of their accomplishments. Yesterday, a superintendent for whom I have the greatest respect, gave me pause for thought when she told me that real change comes from where the “rubber hits the road” in our schools and not at the central level. I believe that there is a lot of truth to that if we assume that the role of senior and central staff will remain status quo. There are rebels who “think different” there as well. Building the connective framework to join thinkers together in an inviting and action-oriented manner is vital. Those at the system level can offer methods to support and scale the vibrant ideas gleaned from the community.  It is often said that constraints breed creativity. I could not agree more. We have budget constraints, political constraints, distance constraints and resource constraints. So let’s get creative by finding ideas from within rather than from the outside. It’s way cheaper and far more powerful. The power comes from the breadth of ideas and the potential for involvement, participation and engagement.  We have to actively look for our thinkers and doers. This is the embodiment of the collaboration that we strive for and how can we expect it from our kids if aren’t willing to do it ourselves.

Tablets in Ethiopia: Flipping without a Classroom

I just read a fascinating article in the June issue of WIRED magazine by Eric Steuer. Nicholas Negroponte (founder of the One Laptop Per Child project) in conjunction with Tufts University and the MIT Media Lab have launched a potentially groundbreaking research initiative focusing on the ability of children to learn without any schools, teachers or books.

The research team arranged for solar powered Tablets (courtesy of master designer Yves Behar) to be dropped off in an Ethiopian village without electricity and a literacy rate of 0%. The children in the test groups, aged 4 through 12, were given NO instruction in regards to even the basic workings of the Tablet. Negroponte shared the startling results:

  • within 15 minutes the first child figured out how to turn it on
  • within 3 more minutes ALL children had it turned on
  • after a week 47 of the loaded apps had been used
  • two weeks later the children were reciting the alphabet

The researchers hope to find out if this mastery of basic skills can lead to an intuitive development of critical reading comprehension skills.

The potential for this project is amazing. As tablet technology becomes more common place and thus cheaper, equity concerns in regards to Ed Tech start to evaporate. This study also shows the innate power of children to learn. This is further evidence that our job as educators is to facilitate and not dominate the education of our children.

Talk about the speed of innovation – Flipping the classroom, before the classroom even exists!

Apple: Innovation, Presentation & Customer Service

Carmine Gallo is a former CNN and CBS reporter turned author. He is also an Apple expert who has written three extremely valuable books about the world’s most valuable company and its co-founder Steve Jobs. Each book presents a specific aspect of Apple’s success. (CLICK on the BOOK TITLE to view the official YouTube video for each book.) The first book is “The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs”, the second “The Innovation Secrets of Steve Jobs” and most recently “The Apple Experience”.  Each one of these books can be used by both teachers and school administrators alike to better serve a community. Embedded in this post are PowerPoint presentations created by Carmine Gallo that provide an overview of each book. These presentations have been given a permanent page on The Digital Frontline as well for your reference. Enjoy –  I know I did!