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.

The wicked, wicked problem of 21C

Design theorist Horst Rittel described wicked problems as being large, open ended and requiring a social response. These problems are so wicked because nobody owns the problem entirely nor has a clear idea of a solution. Think about climate change as an example. It affects all of us, we all have contributed to varying degrees, different stakeholders have vastly different opinions, there is no clear solution and change will most definitely have to come from a large scale societal response. There are numerous piecemeal efforts aimed at solving this problem but no overarching or integrated plan has yet been hatched; thus the wickedness of the problem.

The reformation of public education in these early days of 21C is a most wicked problem as well. We know that a change is necessary but we are not quite sure what the change needs to be. We recognize that there is a problem but we aren’t quite sure exactly what the problem is let alone how best to solve it. Solutions are pushed forward daily but they are patchwork at best and often contradictory which leads to headaches and confusion. Abe Simpson poetically captures my own confusion:



To solve the wicked problem of transitioning effectively to a pedagogy of 21C learning, we MUST adopt a design mentality. Design thinking is a mindset that looks to find elegant solutions to wicked problems. At the root of design thinking is the belief that something may be and working towards reaching out to it. Like science, design thinking requires exploration and experimentation. The difference lies in its focus. While science focus on discovered reality, design thinking is based on invented choice.

Charles Owen spells out the key aspects of design thinking as: inventiveness, human centred focus, adaptive to emerging realities, belief in multifunctionality, systemic vision, ability to tell stories, looking for win-win situations, and self-governing practicality. I want to narrow the focus down to system vision, human centred focus, adaptivity, thinking win-win and story-telling.

Education is by its vary nature subject to a variety of stakeholders. To solve the wicked problem of 21c transition, a social response is required. We must engage all stakeholders from the outset. We must realize that we will be working with competing interests and ideas from the outset. Design thinkers engage stakeholders through Charettes. These are  intensive brainstorming or collaborative sessions brining all stakeholders together. The goal is to share, critique and invent in a manner that accelerates the development of large-scale projects.

According to Jeanne Liedtka, Charettes:

  1. involve everyone from the start who might build, use, sell, approve, or block the project
  2. work concurrently and cross-functionally
  3. work in short feedback loops
  4. work in detail

The most important requirement is that a coherent overall design must emerge. The process starts with the end in mind. Conversations need to start with possibilities and work towards something that can be acted upon. Since so much of the process involves a variety of stakeholders with a heavy focus on what could be, story-telling becomes vital. The ability to paint a picture and persuade is vital for designers. The vision must be articulated with patterns explained and uncovered. We must help others visualize the final product and guide them to acceptance. We must place great value on simplicity and elegance.

There will be constraints and roadblocks along the way but as the found of IKEA, Ingvar Kamprad pointed out “Regard every problem as a possibility.”

Over the next few posts, I will sharing my thoughts for designing a 21C plan. I will be using my board, the Toronto Catholic District School Board as the guinea pig. I highly recommend the book “Rotman on Design”. It is a compilation of design thinking articles from Rotman Magazine and has been HUGELY influential on my thinking.



David Kelley from the masterclass design firm IDEO provides a great synopsis:


Optimism sucks! Be Hopeful.Be Fearless.

“Hope and optimism are different. Optimism tends to be based on the notion that there’s enough evidence out there to believe things are gonna be better, much more rational, deeply secular, whereas hope looks at the evidence and says, “It doesn’t look good at all. Doesn’t look good at all. Gonna go beyond the evidence to create new possibilities based on visions that become contagious to allow people to engage in heroic actions always against the odds, no guarantee whatsoever.” That’s hope. I’m a prisoner of hope, though. Gonna die a prisoner of hope.”
― Cornell West

Like Dr. West, I too am a prisoner of hope. I have a really hard time with optimism. It is too shallow and thin of a concept. The hopeful person acknowledges that there are problems in the world and does not hide from them. The hopeful person decides to fight the problems rather than pretending that they are not so bad. I see optimism as an empty smile or an ostrich with its head stuck in the sand. Rather than rolling up your sleeves and getting your hands dirty fixing a problem, the optimist takes a passive approach.

My biggest problem with optimism is that it leads to incrementalism. The change agenda is slow and plodding with a complete lack of bold action. As Dr. West says, hope is based on visions of new possibilities. The incrementalist approach brought on by optimism also leads to low expectations. The hopeful person sets audacious goals and fights hard to achieve them.

So what does this have to do with education?

I really believe that we must have high expectations for our system, our boards, our leaders and ourselves. If we want education to move into the 21st Century, then we have to be bold and fearless. We have to map out a real vision for progress and not just a piecemeal or retread plan packaged as a vision. The best way to craft such a vision is collaboratively. When we are supported, we are more confident. When we are engaged and involved, we are more passionate. If we want big change, we need a larger pool of ideas from which to draw. Take bold action to incorporate collaborative technology into our system.

The video in the header is from the Case Foundation started by Steve and Jean Case (early builders of AOL). The goal of the foundation is to spark innovation and collaboration around the world. The plan that they set out for collaboration and innovation is bold yet attainable. Please take their pledge seriously. Real change comes from a collective and hopeful vision.

Please click on their logo to view the Case Foundation site:

BE BOLD. BE HOPEFUL. BE FEARLESS. Remember, we are all in this together!

Put down your Haterade and stop judging!

Clay Shirky is an author and media expert out of New York University. He specializes in a subject near and dear to my heart, technology as a tool to create and empower networks. I am most intrigued by Shirky’s concept of “cognitive surplus”. Essentially, cognitive surplus is the free time that is afforded to people as a result of our modern society. We don’t have to spend all of our time finding ways to survive like our ancestors.

The 35+ age cohort spent the majority of their youthful free time watching T.V. The net generation has used their free time in a much more creative manner. We (as in adults and educators) are VERY quick to dismiss much of this work as nonsense. Be honest, how many times have you described a student’s time online as a waste of time?

Shirky uses the site lolcats as a cognitive surplus case study. This lovely site is a repository for funny cat pictures that have been digitally annotated or altered as seen here:

As silly as this picture may be, it is still a creative act. It was then shared with a larger audience helping to create community.  Creative acts like this are gateways to more productive and powerful online activities. Wikipedia represents one of those higher forms of collaborative action. Rather than spending countless hours viewing a one way medium like T.V, the digital youth are creating and curating content. They are creating audiences of their own, rather than being a Nielson statistic.

There is a powerful message here for teachers. We have to facilitate purposeful connections for our students and most importantly, we have to stop judging! Am I tempted to call lolcats a waste of time? Sure, but I really believe that any creative act is better than nothing. At least it is a starting point for something more.  The goal is not to criticize but to guide. The more authentic opportunities for collaboration that we provide for our students, the more Wikipedia type ventures we foster. If we don’t provide rich and collaborative digital activites, lolcats and the like will be the extent of our students digitally creative acts. So, repeat after me, “I solemnly swear to bite my tongue and no longer describe my students online time as a waste. I will provide rich collaborative opportunities to guide them towards more productive and powerful creative acts.” 

Remember, we’re all in this together!

As evolutionary ideas become nuanced, there seems to be a move away from Dawkins’ reductionist ideas of the “selfish gene” where humans are simply hosts for gene survival and any form of altruism or desire for the greater good is reduced to kin selection. The new movement focuses much more on the benefits of cooperation and working together for the greater good. Martin Nowak of Harvard university penned the book “Supercooperators” where he argues that cooperation is hardwired into our very genetic make-up and he just happens to be a devote Roman Catholic (another nail in the coffin in the false dichotomy of science vs. religion).

Of particular interest to this post are the ideas of J.Haidt and his work with “Hive Psychology”. Haidt’s work focuses on happiness and its relationship to losing oneself in a greater whole or cause.  An article on Scott Belsky’s the99% highlights two major tenets of Hive Psychology:

(1) “The most effective moral communities – from a well-being perspective – are those that offer occasional experiences in which self-consciousness is greatly reduced and one feels merged with or part of something greater than the self.”

(2) “The self can be an obstacle to happiness (given our inherent limitations as humans!), so people need to lose their selves occasionally by becoming part of an emergent social organism in order to reach the highest level of human flourishing.”

-From “Hive Psychology, Happiness & Public Policy” by J. Haidt, P. Seder & S. Kesebir

The goal of this post is not to debate evolutionary science or explore the relatively new field of evolutionary psychology, instead I want to underline the importance of cooperation and teamwork at school. Student success must ALWAYS be paramount to any initiative undertaken in any school but the well-being of the staff within a school is vitally important as well.

We live in a world of ubiquitous connectivity. As educators and educational leaders, the goal is to ensure that these connections are purposeful. There are times of deep isolation in our profession and I have teachers become completely disconnected as a result. Building a strong community of support based upon professional development, mental health and most importantly student success is just the type of moral engagement that Haidt discusses. Building a true community of learners that advances the lives of parents, students and staff members is a powerful thing. It is the type of thing in which we should seek to lose ourselves.

How often have you found yourself excited by the “ping” on your phone which signifies a new message? We get excited because it is the potential for a connection to another person or group. The haters will tell you that this type of virtual connection is empty and only leads to more empty connections. I think that’s nonsense. When my wife, who is home on maternity leave, sends me a picture of our daughters on my phone, I am not satisfied. It only makes me want to see them in person all the more. The pictures alone are not an end, instead they represent another layer of connection. Let’s harness these virtual connections and use them to make our face to face connections more meaningful, productive and vibrant. Rather than viewing collaborative tech platforms as an empty connection, view them as a tool to expand connectivity. The goal is not to replace face to face contact rather it is to diversify connectivity and deepen bonds.

Technology like Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Google Groups, Chatter, Edmodo and many more, provides us with a chance to share information as well as build community. We can end isolation and build deeper supports so that we do not feel overwhelmed or bogged down my minutiae when we do have opportunities for face to face collaboration at school.

Let’s get lost in education together. The more purpose that we create in education, the happier that everyone will be. Remember, we are all in this together!

Mathalicious: Don’t just learn math, use math.

Mathalicious is a web based digital math tool. Math topics are presented to students in an engaging and contextualized manner. For example, expressions and equations are explained through an examination of calorie burning after eating McDonald’s. Problem solving and critical thinking are at the heart of every activity. The creators stress that Mathalicious is not just about learning math, it is about using math. The activities are aligned with American common core standards but they overlap nicely with the Ontario Curriculum Expectations.

The information for each problem is presented via an embedded Slide Rocket presentation that can be shared with the students. Detailed lesson guides and student worksheets are available in PDF.

Remember a few years back when Radiohead released an album on their web page and invited users to pay whatever they wished for the download? Mathalicious is using a similar price hook. The suggested payment is $20/month but you can subscribe for as little as $5/month. The developers do not want to let price be an object to learning.

I REALLY like this site. It is well worth checking out. The integration of collaboration, content, critical thinking and context is outstanding.