Sunday, 26 August 2012

Curating content for the classroom

Catch a man a fish and you feed him for a day.  Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.
Chinese proverb

Catch a man a fish and you can sell it to him.  Teach a man to fish and you ruin a wonderful business opportunity.
Karl Marx

Catch a man a fish and he eats for a day.  Teach a man to fish and he has no time left to do his day-job.
Mark O’Neil

Three contrasting views of the world.  Let’s look at what these might be taken to mean in the context of a teacher, and teaching.

There is a lot being written out there in cyberspace right now about how the digital revolution in the classroom spells the end of the textbook.  In Australia, for example, there are state and federal government initiatives to collect vast amounts of discrete digital content so that teachers can search for content and build their lessons for a new curriculum from the ground up.  The principle is that teaching a man to fish feeds him for a lifetime.  The teacher, having been given access to an ocean full of content can pull out what they need, throw back what they don’t need and build an entire course themselves.

There is also a movement out there in cyberspace that suggests textbooks are the results of large publishing companies trying to control what is learned.  The suggestion is that publishers are withholding something from teachers in order to create a business opportunity.

And then there’s the third view – mine.  When your doctor diagnoses what is making you sick, you don’t expect her to then pop into a back room and manufacture the drugs you need to recover.  You don’t expect a baker to grow the wheat she needs to make the bread she sells.  So why, suddenly, and because technology affords an opportunity to improve schooling, are we expecting teachers to become the sole curators of content?  Some teachers have always done this – compiled their own content and built their own courses to match a curriculum.  Many of these teachers are called ‘authors’ – because they publish what they have done for the benefit of other teachers teaching the same course. Publishers provide the mechanism for this to happen – meaning that many teachers can benefit from the efforts of a few.

In the digital world there is still a role for curators of content.  Whether traditional publishers or new tech-led entrants continue to collect, collate and curate content or whether some teachers choose to curate their own content is a choice.  Just as teachers have always had a choice from a range of textbooks written by authors of varied experience - including a choice not to choose – then surely teachers now will still look to experienced colleagues to curate content.

Is it a problem that curators of content expect to be paid for their services?  I don’t think so.  We don’t expect the wheat farmer to provide the baker with free raw materials.   

This is also an issue, it seems to me, with government-sponsored collections of discrete items of content.  A teacher searching for a diagram of what is happening in a chemical reaction – for example – is likely to get multiple hits at varying levels of difficulty and have to spend precious time sifting and searching for the relevant content.  Are we seriously suggesting that every teacher should find the time in their already packed schedules to plan lessons in this way?  How many times does the wheel need inventing?

Good teachers have always supplemented their core materials with what they have found that they believe will engage their students. They might find these extra resources in a government-sponsored web collection of discrete content. But only when these state sponsored collections are properly curated so that a teacher can find the right content at the right level of difficulty for the right course will these collections become viable sources for complete course content.  Once they are curated and organized in this way there will be a word to describe what they do – publisher!

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Tear down these walls.

Learning is not something that is ‘done’ to a student by a teacher. Learning only happens when a student chooses to engage with what is being taught. But, obviously learning can also happen without a teacher. Regardless of how old we are, whether we ‘succeeded’ in school or not, learning is what humans do. As long as we live, learning is a choice.

Traditional schooling was (is?) about a teacher imparting knowledge perceived to be useful to a group of students. This happened in an enclosed space, for a fixed time and with no outside influence or interference for the duration of the ‘lesson’. Exams, assignments and essays were, and often still are, done alone.

In the industrial society where these students left school and entered factories, this was good preparation for their lives as adult workers – performing repetitive tasks, probably alone, in an enclosed space and under supervision and with little or no outside interference.

So does traditional schooling as described still have relevance today? In today’s business world employees are expected to work in groups and teams, communicate ideas and information, share good practice and continually learn new skills in a fast-paced, rapidly changing environment. They are constantly connected – by computer, messaging systems, email and phone – sometimes 24/7. It is not necessarily the ‘what’ of what we are learning that has changed. It is the ‘how’, ‘where’ and ‘when’.

So why do some classrooms still have the look and feel of traditional schooling? Surely to prepare for their adult lives students at school should be encouraged to connect, work in teams, be creative, and share what they learn. And in a connected world where teachers are not the only, or even the best, source of information, why are students required to turn off phones, disconnect from the internet and all others and take assessments and examinations alone and cut off from all sources of information. Precisely how is this the best preparation for adult life and what are the results of assessments and examinations meant to tell us?

Businesses are not getting enough of the creative, independent, collaborative employees they need. You’d think that this would mean industry pressure would be put on governments to transform formal education; but far from it. Businesses still interview and hire graduate candidates based on performance in standardized tests; tests that show the candidate has a host of skills the business is not looking for!

Of course, there are schools making strong progress in the transformation of education, and there are businesses that select ‘maverick’ candidates based on criteria other than examination results because they have mastered the ‘where’, ‘when' and ‘how’ of learning. But if we are ever going to transform the whole system, business, government, educators and parents all have to agree to engage with the process of change. We need to take away the closed door classroom – tear down the walls even. We need open-network classrooms, not silenced phones. Students need to discover, not absorb. Teachers needs to become filters of knowledge rather than the sum of all knowledge.

The system right now encourages students to become the kind of people that it takes to succeed at standardised tests – compliant, obedient, secretive and able to work in isolation. We are testing the wrong things!

Put your hand up if you are willing to be the one that tells the current generation that we’ve been teaching them the wrong way and testing them on all the wrong stuff. Tear down the classroom walls and rethink how, where, when and why students learn best.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Realising Change

In a previous post Managing Change I wrote about two ways that change can be affected – forced change (F-Change) and nurtured change (N-Change).  The role of management for each of these is vastly different.  For anyone seeking to instigate change the polar opposite approaches might be:



insist on perfection
to staff opinion and objections and follow up
from the front, because no-one else has the required vision
resources, feedback and follow-up in time
decide who is capable and who does what by when
to key meetings and show willing to engage with staff
assert your authority to make change
for yourself
the way things are done
learning, ideas, creativity and improvement from and by all
apportion tasks on a need to know basis
decision making by assigning responsibility with accountability
all fears and misgivings that staff may have
be humble and avoid arrogance
assign accountability to key staff
opportunities and chances for staff to shine
your will on all to achieve the desired outcome
ideas and suggestions across teams, departments and groups

As in anything, there is more than one way to skin a cat, but in my experience leaning towards one of these extremes rather than the other leads to innovation, staff satisfaction and lasting change. 

“All great changes are preceded by chaos.” - Deepak Chopra

Monday, 2 July 2012

Fear of Change in Education

A quick search on Google Images can throw light on how technology has changed our lives. (@abdulchohan, Festival of Education 2012).  Try this for yourself – search for Google Images for 19th century surgery and 21st century surgery.  In typical images of 19th century surgery you will see men in suits operating on a patient lying on what looks like the kitchen table.  In the 21st century image you will see surgeons in a clean environment surrounded by technology.  Try the same for printing, or banking to see the impact technology has had on our lives.

But when the same search is done for education, there is a difference.  Pictures of 19th century schoolrooms – of children sat at desks in rows facing the teacher – are not so dissimilar to some 21st century pictures.  There are exceptions, but it is clear that technology has not yet made an impact on all classrooms. 

In recent years the rise of the ebook and the ebook reader has been rapid.  @aydinstone points out in ‘Touching makes you feel different’ that just as the car didn’t replace the bicycle and television didn’t replace radio, then ebook readers will not replace physical books.  They will exist alongside each other, appealing to a different audience.

The shift in schools to ebooks or other digital resources has so far been slow.  Typically teachers still assign print textbooks for their courses despite the investment in digital and interactive textbooks by both traditional schoolbook publishers and new market entrants and the ever-expanding teacher generated shared resources to be found online.  Why is this?  @coolcatteacher  blogs that even schools that have computers aren’t necessarily using them for anything constructive or relevant.  What is it that makes the take-up of digital resources so slow?  Teachers are time-poor, sometimes complain of a lack of professional development around technology and some seem threatened by students that may be more technologically adept than they are.

But the fact is that none of us would be willing to go under the surgeon’s knife knowing that those operating would not be using the available technology, nor would we accept a bank with no ATMs and no instant online transactions.  Our children deserve the best opportunities that they can get from their education.  This means teachers, principals, governments and businesses taking responsibility for ensuring that technology is used effectively to enhance and improve schooling.  If professional development is the answer then let’s make it happen!  This does not mean that every lesson in every school needs to be taught online or from a digital resource.  Some journeys are still best undertaken on a bicycle!  But it does mean using the most appropriate resources for the job at hand.

Fear of change is not an excuse.

'He who rejects change is the architect of decay. The only human institution which rejects progress is the cemetery.'   Harold Wilson

Monday, 11 June 2012

Managing Change

‘Change Management’ is generally seen as a process of transition from a current state to a desired new future state.  Change management can be affected for groups from individuals to organisations.  Some even attempt to affect change in a whole industry – the International Teacher Development Institute (, for example, is changing the way English language teachers develop teaching skills by creating a dedicated community that provides support, encouragement and leadership.
Broadly speaking, change can be affected in 2 ways.  It can be forced (F-change) or nurtured (N-change). 

A quick search online throws up three distinct meanings of ‘manage’.  They are:
1. Part of Speech: verb.  Definition: be in charge, control, dominate.
2. Part of Speech: verb.  Definition: survive, get by, cope, endure.
3. Part of Speech: verb.  Definition: achieve, bring about, conclude.

It is how the process is managed that defines how change is affected.  F-change is managed by those seeking to affect change in an organization in the sense defined in 1.  The change is imposed, controlled and dominated by those managing the change.
Under F-change, those most affected, the employees of the organization, have to cope with what is imposed – i.e. they manage change in the sense defined in 2.  They get by, or survive the change imposed.

N-Change is change from within.  It is a process that involves all concerned, that includes the employees as well as the employers and that happens by choice.  In this scenario change is managed in the sense of definition 3 - i.e. N-change is brought about by all involved.

iTDi is ‘for teachers by teachers’.  It is change from within, affected by all those that participate and involve themselves – N-Change.  What is your experience of change management?  Have you experienced F-change or N-change and how successful was it?

Friday, 8 June 2012

The Purpose of Education

At a recent meeting at my daughter’s school involving representatives of the teaching staff, the school’s council and some parents, I was struck by the school’s determination to offer a program that encouraged its pupils to be both creative and remarkable.  This school is one of many who are questioning the role of education and aligning themselves to 21st century needs. 

This is a necessary endeavor and one that all schools should be undertaking and it has led me to question what schooling is actually for, and the needs of society schools should be addressing.  There is, I think, a disjoint between what schools have traditionally offered and the needs of society.

Education produces adults who are:
Economies need adults who are:


19th century industrialization, which led to the creation of universal education was based on low-cost uniformity to educate students to a minimum standard to produce compliant workers and eager consumers. Strange though that as consumers we increasingly demand customization and personalization of what we purchase but don’t have the same expectations of mass education.

In Japan there is an expression about ‘knocking down the nail that sticks out’ – implying that uniformity is the goal.  UK politicians have recently cited Japan’s education system as one to admire and aspire to.  I disagree, not because Japan’s system doesn’t produce graduates of a high standard – it does, particularly in mathematics and science rather than in the ‘softer’ (harder to test?) subjects – but because in seeking uniformity, ultimately some talent gets wasted and some young adults don’t get to follow their ‘passion’.  Seth Godin, writing about marketing in  his book ‘Purple Cow’ states that the opposite of ‘remarkable’ is ‘good’.  I believe this can be applied to school graduates also – that producing remarkable adults ought to be the goal and that ‘good’ is not good enough.

Meeting minimum standards is also not much of an aspiration.  It leads, in my opinion, to a ‘most children left behind’ world where adults miss out on finding their true talents and end up bored or disgruntled in the jobs they have.

To transform the system and encourage schools to strive to produce remarkable adults we have to ask ourselves if there is a need to change teacher education. Are we mass-producing teachers indoctrinated into teaching for a bygone age?  The answer may be yes and no, but it is as good a place to start asking questions as any.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Unblocking Potential - Part 3. Arrogance

This is the third post, and last for now, looking at ways that a business could be blocking its own potential and making suggestions for unblocking the ideas, creativity and innovation that fuels future business success.

3. Arrogance

‘Innovation is this amazing intersection between someone's imagination and the reality in which they live. The problem is, many companies don't have great imagination, but their view of reality tells them that it's impossible to do what they imagine.‘
Ron Johnson

All businesses have, or should have a business plan.  This plan represents the strategic vision of the organization and its goals over the next three or five years.  Some companies take this plan altogether too seriously and. by sticking too rigidly to plan, stifle creativity and innovation and miss opportunities for growth.  There are some tell-tale signs that the company has arrogantly assumed its plans are close to perfect and should not be strayed from at any cost:

‘We’ve tried that before.’  This is a sign that the organization is settling for what innovation it already has; that success has bred arrogance.  It is closed to new ideas, flashes of inspiration and leaps of imagination.

‘It won’t work.’  Brainstorming sessions are most easily stopped dead in their tracks by comments such as this, especially if the comment comes from senior management.  This leads to the stifling of imagination and the death of ideas before they have a chance to germinate.

‘Let’s ask a focus group.’  Focus groups are great for giving you feedback on what’s already been invented – on a fresh look at something that is already available.   They are reactive, not proactive.  Focus groups are not the place to go looking for ideas, or for how to turn ideas into innovation.  That’s your role!

‘That’s not my job.’  When staff start complaining that they have no time to pursue new opportunities, this could be because delivering the plan has become more important than growing the business.

Here’s an analogy that most should relate to.  There are two kinds of school teacher – those who plan their lessons meticulously and those who plan to be flexible.  Remember the meticulous planner that taught you at school?  If you couldn’t remember something you had learned in previous lessons that you needed to apply in today’s lesson it was your fault.  No way would this teacher slow down to accommodate those that needed time to catch up.  The curriculum had to be taught – end to end, in order and without deviation.  The flexible planner teacher listened and observed what was going on in her classroom.  She revised when revision was needed, picked up on what worked best for certain students and which others needed extra help.  The goal was learning, not meeting strict curriculum goals.  The big difference for me was that I learned what the flexible teacher wanted me to learn and can still apply what I learned today, 30+ years later.  I learned very little from the meticulous planners.  In the main, they got me through the examinations - but at the cost of learning.

In business as in teaching, a plan is a plan, not the plan.  It should not be set in stone but should be an organic, flexible, changing, frequently updated view of where the company is going.  Don’t accept arrogance.  Listen to those who have ideas, however weird or wild they might be and ignore accusations of foolishness.  Not every idea will make it through to implementation, but every idea should have a chance to be aired. Keep learning to keep growing.

‘Learning and innovation go hand in hand. The arrogance of success is to think that what you did yesterday will be sufficient for tomorrow.’
William Pollard

Monday, 21 May 2012

Unblocking Potential - Part 2. Internal risks

This is the second post where I am looking at ways that a business could be blocking its own potential and making suggestions for unblocking the ideas, creativity and innovation that fuels future business success.

2.     Internal risks

‘Safe is risky’
Seth Godin

Business Intelligence has become big business.  Companies, quite rightly, want to analyse data they collect from customers, suppliers, distributors and employees so that they make informed decisions about investment in products and services and sales and marketing strategies.  Business systems age and are replaced b ever more sophisticated and expensive back-end software that integrates everything from financial reporting to inventory control.

Some businesses spend so much time and effort focusing on improving business intelligence systems and analyzing data to within an inch of its existence in order to try to reduce or even eliminate risk in decision making – to make ‘safer’ decisions.  This doesn’t always have the desired effect.  Building or rebuilding these systems can sometimes be a risk in itself – and not just a financial one.  In extreme cases the focus of the business slips becomes internal.  Vast armies of staff are assigned to ‘change agendas’ that require them to focus on internal systems. The company becomes so focused on internal issues that it loses its focus on the customer.  This means that opportunities go unnoticed and customer interest can slip away.

Part of any business strategy is risk analysis and mitigation.  While all companies must take internal risks to modernise or improve, it is also necessary to identify external, customer facing risks.  It seems like an obvious thing to say, but the customer must be at the centre of focus.

The risk of not taking customer-facing risks in today’s rapidly changing markets is high.

‘Creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties.
            Erich Fromm


Monday, 7 May 2012

Unblocking Potential - Part 1. Aversion to risk

Over the next few posts I am going to be looking at ways that a business could be blocking its own potential and making suggestions for unblocking the ideas, creativity and innovation that fuels future business success.

1.     Aversion to risk
In an episode of ‘The Big Bang Theory’, Sheldon learns to swim by studying techniques on the Internet.  He does not see the need to test these in actual water, preferring to claim that the skills he ‘learns’ in his living room are transferable should he ever need to actually swim!  Those of us who can swim know this to be nonsense, and that learning to swim involves learning by doing.  In the process of learning it is likely that we will swallow some water, flail about helplessly and maybe shed a few tears before we finally work up the courage to take the risk and trust ourselves not to drown. In business we have to go through similar steps to success.  Granted, knowing your market and analyzing trends and competitor activity are an essential part of deciding whether or not to take a risk, just as studying swimming techniques will help us to swim more efficiently once we have taken the plunge, but we do not learn the outcome without taking the risk. Not all risks are equal – some learn to swim much more adeptly and quickly than others.  In business taking a risk is not a guarantee of success and there are no guarantees that others who take the same risk will not out-perform you.  But the point is that unless the business takes the risk, the outcome will remain unknown and the opportunity missed.

The point here is not to take risks every time an opportunity arises.  That’s a fast route to bankruptcy.  However, the business that shies away from every opportunity because of a risk-averse attitude is doomed to mediocrity if not failure.  Too many businesses take such a conservative approach attempting to analyze every risk and its possible mitigation to within an inch of its life that by the time they are ready to take a risk the opportunity has passed or been snapped up by a competitor. 

There is an element of gambling involved in risk taking.  The business must spell out how much it is willing to stake and is prepared to lose, what the return is likely to be and what the odds of success are.  And then dive in.

   ‘Creativity makes a leap, then looks to see where it is.’ 
   Mason Cooley

Saturday, 5 May 2012

A bigger net

   “Give them a mile and they’ll take an inch” 
   Seth Godin 

It would be hard not to contend that technology is having an impact on how we communicate, how we interact with content and how we learn. Businesses across the globe race to keep up with advances, use social media to market their wares and hire armies of technology and information specialists. Yet despite the rapid growth of the technology available to enhance education many businesses complain that they find it hard to find truly innovative staff. Why is that? 

For 150 years, education systems around the world have worked like a production line. Children are fed into the production line based on the date they were born – or date of manufacture. They move from year to year and then from classroom to classroom having ‘knowledge’ poured into their heads by ‘experts’. Some children have room in their heads to take in more ‘knowledge’ than others and these are sent off to university to be future ‘leaders’. They have been conditioned to do as they are told and not question authority. They are taught to pass standardised tests, taught to conform and urged to be good consumers, thus ensuring the perpetuation of the system. Many of those rejected by this production line end up in prison – and we are seeing a rapid growth of this group too! 

Technology is not the answer to transformation in education. It does however provide educators with alternatives. Students are not empty vessels to be filled up with knowledge imparted by a succession of teachers. They only learn while they are engaged with a subject. They learn different things at different times and at different paces. Some learn best visually, some aurally and others by doing – or from a combination of these. And of course many teachers know this! We are privileged to live in an age where technology allows access to content in a multitude of ways. Content and Learning Management Systems not only free teachers’ valuable time by providing instant reporting and analysis tools allowing more time to build opportunities for creativity into their lessons, but also allow students to access content in whatever way best suits their learning style, whenever it suits them and to work at a pace they are comfortable with. Content can be interactive, real and stimulating. And of course many teachers know this too and strive to encourage critical thinking, imagination and creativity! But that is not where education systems are leading us. 

We continue to head down the road that is standardised testing, drill and practice and one-size-fits-all schooling. Schools are not measured on students’ ability to think critically, to be creative or expressive. They are measured by the number of students that have performed to minimum levels against standardised tests. For many of us who have been through the system, our memories of the classroom are often of boredom, repetition and a sense that we couldn’t get out of there soon enough. Given the wealth of resources available for the modern classroom, the alternatives that technologies offer and our own less-than-happy memories of our schooling, it seems that we (government, teachers, administrators, business leaders, parents, and so on) are taking an inch when we are being handed a mile. We are denying children the opportunities to be creative, turning them into the same compliant consumers that we have become. We are encouraging them to wish their childhood away, as many of us did, in a race to get out of the system. 

    “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” 
    Pablo Picasso 

Creative people are born. Millions of them. Sadly our education systems discourage the use of imagination, stifle creativity, encourage conformity and thus innovative thinking eludes the majority. Not surprising, as that is exactly what they were designed to do in order to fill the factory floors of the industrial revolution. 

These systems have to go. It is not enough to want to improve schools, replace standardised tests with results that demonstrate critical thinking, imagination and creativity, educate teachers to use new technologies and stop expecting every child to learn according to an unrealistic standardised timetable. Spending more and more on making minor improvements is not enough. We need to transform education. 

 If when fishing we cannot catch enough fish to feed our family because the net is too small, then we have two options. The first is to reduce our expectations and accept that the family will have to get by on fewer fish. This is the choice we have taken when educating this generation. We expect less, and then complain that the system does not produce what society needs. The second choice is to get a bigger net. Starting from scratch, design a system of education that uses all the resources, technological or otherwise, to create opportunities for all students to engage with what should be a joyful, rewarding period of their lives – their schooldays. We have an obligation to transform what is learned, when it is learned, how it is learned, at what pace it is learned so that the people that emerge understand why they have learned.  

First posted October 21, 2011