Saturday, February 25, 2012

Innovate to a Preferred Future

A lot of people are writing and speaking about innovation these days.  I hesitated to join in but it’s been on my mind lately too so why not see if I can add to the conversation.  Wikipedia (Feb. 25, 2012) starts its article on this topic with “Innovation is the creation of better or more effective products, processes, services, technologies, or ideas”.  When I read about the enormous problems innovationfacing us today and into the future, I see a rising need for more innovative thinking.  The worlds problems seem overwhelming with automated work, fuel costs and scarcity, war, public and private debt loads, education systems in need of redesign, governments buried in red tape and complexity, and the list goes on.  Small thinking isn’t going to help us solve these problems but innovation can.  The environment for learning matters tremendously as the authors of A New Culture of Learning suggest “when play happens within a medium for learning—much like a culture in a petri dish—it creates a context in which information, ideas, and passions grow” (Kindle 62).  Imagination and possibility thinking is what is needed more than ever.  We need students and adults, to get out of the box.

Our school board has approved the creation of an exciting new school called the Inquiry Hub which is the brain child of District Principal Stephen Whiffin.  Students in this school will be immersed in “an innovative, technology driven, full-time program which allows them to pursue their own learning questions by shaping their educational experience around their interests instead of structured classes”. image The intentions are to unlock the potential of students to learn in innovative ways.  There is the possibility that what is learned through this school will find its way into our traditional schools to increase innovation throughout.  This is the sort of thinking we need more of.  We need to be coloring outside the lines of tradition more so that more people will be able to tackle the enormous problems faced today and in the future.

An interesting paradox is upon us.  Most traditional thinking is that more education leads to greater success and prosperity.  Well, how does that map to a future of a workerless economy?  I’ve read iStock_000015553717XSmallarticles about the jobless recovery being experienced post 2008.  Previous recessions rebounded with people being hired back.  This most recent event has seen very low rehiring rates but much higher investment in machines and automation.  “In the years ahead,” Rifkin wrote, “more sophisticated software technologies are going to bring civilization ever closer to a near-workerless world” (Race Against the Machine, Kindle 118).  The authors do argue for an educational solution.  I believe that more education isn’t necessarily the answer but different learning could be.

“we are in the early throes of a Great Restructuring. Our technologies are racing ahead but many of our skills and organizations are lagging behind. So it’s urgent that we understand these phenomena, discuss their implications, and come up with strategies that allow human workers to race ahead with machines instead of racing against them” (Kindle 171)

We shouldn’t be like “[m]ost economists [who] aren't taking these worries very seriously. The idea that computers might significantly disrupt human labor markets—and, thus, further weaken the global economy—so far remains on the fringes” (Kindle 142).  Education and the world of work is where innovation really needs to play a key role in our future.  But, the question is, can our current education system as we know it with current curriculum and practices, meet the challenge?  I don’t think so.  Can it change and innovate fast enough?  I hope so.  Author Charles Leadbetter speaks about the 7 C’s of innovation.  Crisis, the first ‘C’, “generates focus, urgency, sharing, and new models”.  He includes Challenge which involves “asking stupid questions, supporting useful deviants, and supporting the future”.  We have many places in our world in a state of crisis, even our own province of British Columbia is faced with overwhelming debt, rapidly rising costs, political dysfunction, a dissatisfied population who relentlessly demands more services but simultaneously demands less taxes (seriously, how can that work?).  We have an education system which is actually pretty good (for today) but doesn’t evolve fast enough (it’s changes at a glacial pace) to provide for the much needed innovation.  In a world where “computers improve so quickly that their capabilities pass from the realm of science fiction into the everyday world not over the course of a human lifetime, or even within the span of a professional’s career, but instead in just a few years” (Race Against the Machine, Kindle 233).

I think we humans have been designed rather well to be adaptable, to generate new thinking and ideas, to overcome seemingly impossible obstacles.  I do think we have reason to have hope as we face the worlds problems.  Tools like “the city and the Web possess an undeniable track record at generating innovation” (Where Good Ideas Come From, Kindle 220).  “The trick to having good ideas is not to sit around in glorious isolation and try to think big thoughts. The trick is to get more parts on the table” (Kindle 515) or “a good idea is a network” (Kindle 522).  Connecting and networking minds, face to face (cities) and virtually matters to innovation.  Educational environments like our new Inquiry Hub are important “to make your iStock_000007192634XSmallmind more innovative, you have to place it inside environments that share that same network signature: networks of ideas or people that mimic the neural networks of a mind exploring the boundaries of the adjacent possible” (Kindle 546).  Mixing ideas causes the impossible to become possible.  Education is a key answer then, but we need it to be less rigid and content driven, and more about inquiry, problem solving, projects, invention, creation, play, and passion.  We need to weave the core knowledge, skills, and behaviors our society values, into a fundamentally different model for learning.  There’s certainly a lot of talk in BC about this but what we need now is flexibility and action.  Now is the time to learn differently, be immersed in innovation, and successfully face the problems in front of us.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Lifelong Professional Learning is Essential

What does it really mean to call oneself a "professional"? For me, there's an implication that a professional is working in a field that is knowledge intensive and requires regular ongoing practice to become and remain highly accomplished and valuable to their clients.

Wikipedia’s entry for Professional includes:

  1. Expert and specialized knowledge in field which one is practicing professionally
  2. Excellent manual/practical and literary skills in relation to profession

In our rapidly changing world, professionals should expect to be regularly honing and upgrading their skills and knowledge so as to remain relevant and current in their chosen field.  Notice the reference to “practicing professionally”.  To practice involves the iStock_000001448823XSmallindividual or professional in this context, taking some action on their part “to improve, to learn, to solve problems, to enhance or refine skills, to maintain skills”.  Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers claims that “researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours”.  He also says that “[p]ractice isn't the thing you do once you're good. It's the thing you do that makes you good”.  Who then, is responsible for a professional's ongoing learning, for improving and maintaining one’s professional practice?  I believe that individual professionals need to shift their learning into a higher gear to survive!

As technology continues to invade all aspects of our personal and professional lives, the answer to that question has to be "us" as in each of us being responsible for our own learning. How can we expect our employers to be responsible for this? Sure, employers should invest in training of their people but when someone says "I don't know how to do that" is training necessarily the right answer? Or, should a professional be expected to take charge of their learning and proactively keep their knowledge current, improve their skills, and develop new skills all in the name of being the best they can be for their clients?  Shouldn’t professionals be fearless learners?

I was in session three of a series this week with about 30 teachers continuing our learning about cooperative learning strategies. These sessions, both our time and any related costs, are paid for by our employer and for teachers by their union. However, if each individual did not invest substantially more time learning, both as job embedded and on their personal time, they could not possibly gain the benefits these strategies provide. As the facilitator reminded us, it takes 10 years or 10000 hours to become an expert at something. We won't accomplish that through a few workshops, it takes hard work and an ongoing time commitment. The teachers involved in this series who will benefit most are those who invest the time to make the strategies part of their professional practice.  I’ve been practicing these new strategies with my own staff – it takes a lot of time to become comfortable with new skills and you have to embrace the possibility of failure.  By the way, anyone who believes teaching is a simple profession should spend some time with teachers learning about good pedagogy and watch them as practitioners.  I used to naively believe that teaching was a fairly straightforward profession.  Learning along side and observing teachers has been an eye opener for me with respect to the complexity of the teaching profession!

It worries me when I hear about teachers who struggle to turn on a laptop computer or with basic concepts and uses of computers and digital tools and services. Sure, tablets like the iPad make "computing" simpler and more learnable but they don't replace a laptop, certainly not for an information worker like a teacher. I read recently a blog post written by a teacher, advocating that we are becoming 3:1, 3 devices (laptop, tablet, smartphone) per person. I would tend to agree, for information workers as each device has it's What have I done!?own strengths with some overlap. Professionals such as teachers need to become more comfortable learning new tools and adapting their practice along the way.  Being able to easily move amongst a laptop, tablet, and smartphone is becoming an essential skill for professionals.  Teachers need to take responsibility for investing time to learn the new tools viewed as valuable for them and their students.  Professionals must be willing to adapt their way of working as new tools and options materialize.

Chris Wejr through his recent post about teacher training talks about these expectations for new entrants to the teaching profession.  Supporting my argument here, he states that “we should have an expectation that teachers should be able to use technology not as a separate course but as a way in which students learn” and more importantly, “[t]echnology should not be something that stops in teacher training programs”.  I completely agree and add that this must be a lifelong expectation.  Technology is completely changing our world.  Charles Leadbetter stated recently during a conference session that “you don't learn to swim standing on the side of the pool”.  Teachers need to “get into the pool” with their students and continuously try, learn, fail, and succeed with new tools and options that support learning and teaching.

My employer and those I serve (teachers, students, principals, my staff, managers, executives, Board members) expect me, a professional, to be continuously immersed in learning and improving my knowledge and skills.  My relevance and value to them and to our mission as an organization, would be fleeting if it were not for my iStock_000005304585XSmallcontinuous learning.  I accomplish this through having a mind that is open to learning, being self-directed, curious, and willing to try and fail, until I get it.  This I believe is a key mindset for any professional.  Your expertise and value, learned during your “training” as a professional has a very limited shelf life in a world of rapid technology driven change.  Your value to your clients, to your students, depends on you having a lifelong self-directed, own-your-learning, orientation to professional learning!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

What Motivates You

I committed to writing a weekly blog post back in December 2009 and haven’t missed one yet.  Some weeks, actually many, I get to the weekend and have no idea what to write about.  My wife Shelley and iStock_000016027894XSmallwill kick blog titles around while drinking our morning coffees (she blogs weekly as well over here) until something resonates.  She came up with the idea to write about motivation today and I scooped it (she’s a sharing person).

mo·ti·va·tion /moh-tuh-vey-shuhn / noun

1. the act or an instance of motivating, or providing with a reason to act in a certain way. Synonyms: motive, inspiration, inducement, cause, impetus.

2. the state or condition of being motivated: We know that these students have strong motivation to learn.

Blogging for me is an outlet for my ideas.  My blog posts do not attract a lot of comments but my blog averages around 350-400 visitors from around the world with 1000-1400 page views per week.  This audience or readership definitely motivates me to write.  Having an audience makes me feel obligated to write regularly and with consistent quality, purpose, and depth.  If you read my blog regularly, you’ll find iStock_000008508482XSmallI tend to stick with topics involving technology, education, and the future but usually from a philosophical perspective.  I am a rather introspective person and like to think deeply about things, especially things that are bothering / worrying me, or that I’m super interested in or excited about.  It is really encouraging to receive direct emails from people saying how they enjoy my blogging.  Or, when I bump into people through my work or in a conference setting who want to meet me to tell me how much they enjoy my writing.  That is a motivator for sure.  Interestingly, in high school and college, I hated English and writing.  Fast forward to today, and I love it.  Obviously, the right motivators were not there during my formal education.  It was merely a means to an end.  How many students feel this same way?  Shouldn’t we be tapping into each students motivations to learn?  Isn’t that a key element of “personalized learning”?

Along with Chris Kennedy and Kris Magnusson, I was asked by Bruce Beairsto in December to keynote a session “Targeting Technology for Maximum Student Benefit” for the SFU Centre for Educational Leadership and Policy.  We invested time developing the theme, scenario, agenda package, and many many hours into designing and creating our own presentations.  There was no financial compensation for doing this.  I accepted this challenge for a few reasons:

  • an opportunity to speak to an important audience
  • an opportunity, an honour actually, to be asked to keynote with two leading BC educators (it was a little intimidating…)
  • the topic and the scenario is one I think, write, and talk about often and is a key focus area for my work
  • I enjoy public speaking, especially on topics I’m super interested in
  • I love to share stories of students and teachers undertaking interesting learning activities with educational technology

I will be facilitating a professional development session on social media for a group of principals and vice principals (PVP’s) in my school district this coming Friday.  Besides delivering some content about social media, we will focus primarily on the purpose for, mechanics of, and hands-on use of Twitter.  My hope from this session is that they will be motivated to commit to use Twitter in their professional practice.  If you’re interested, my unfinished Prezi that will guide the session is available here.  I hope each person will discover their own motivation to open white empty room with opened doorthe door of possibility by incorporating Twitter into their daily journey.  Many of us often say “Twitter is the best pro-d I’ve ever experienced”.  I hope for our PVP’s that they experience this for themselves.  Similarly, I would love to help our PVP’s become “life-long bloggers”.  I believe PVP’s can offer so much insight, knowledge, and experience to people through a professional blog.  Their voice is important.  Perhaps you’re a principal and you could offer and share your own experience and motivation for blogging and using Twitter.

Think about young people and gaming, sports, music, or just fun for a moment.  Generally speaking, do they need to be motivated by others to pursue their interests?  Not usually.  They take to things they are passionate about ‘like a duck to water’ (sorry, had to).  My point is, shouldn’t their schooling experience be personalized to their passions, to what motivates them?  I’m thinking more of the process, technique, or methods but also some of the content.  Educational content should be clearly purposeful and the relevance for kids made clear.  Another anecdote…  I used to see no point to history but it seems as I’ve grown older, history has become a fascination for me (The Future of History, Digital Immersive History Machine) and I really enjoy reading historical fiction as well.  I now see the point to learning from our past.

As educators and government officials in British Columbia discuss, debate, and speculate about the future of learning through the BC Education Plan, I hope motivation is a key element.  I do believe that some learning experiences should be “painful” (not necessarily enjoyable for the participant) as we humans seem to experience deep learning through difficult situations, “lessons learned”.  Also, there is a lot of content important to learn so as to be a productive contributing citizen that we may not choose as it isn’t interesting to us.  But, imagine for a moment a school experience for kids where, an arbitrary, 80% of their learning experiences were well aligned with what motivates them.  How might that improve student learning success, results on high stakes exams, their lifelong potential?  What motivates you?

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Limits of Complexity

I am increasingly aware of the complexity of “the system”.  Think about your place in the world and then consider the layers and walls around you that have been built up over time in “the system”.  iStock_000008176303XSmallThose of us that work for “the education system” would view things differently then say a plumber, electrician, or politician might.  Regardless, we all encounter complexity whether we choose to or not.  I’m primarily thinking about organizational complexity here.  Organizations tend to naturally become complex over time.  They become very difficult to work within, to accomplish things through, and become very expensive to operate.

“Few things can doom a “system” faster than excessive complexity, which then collapses into chaos.”, Is America in Danger of Collapsing (Feb. 5, 2012)

I probably read to broadly, too many obscure articles and books, but I see a pattern emerging: complexity is making our systems unsustainable.  Think of the costs of health care, education, law enforcement, roads and bridges, and governments.  A simple example, a friend recently took a job in one of the health care regions of British Columbia (BC) in an area of information technology (IT).  Health care IT in BC has in the past 5 years gone through an amalgamation.  She describes a system of differing standards, layers of management complexity, bureaucracy, turf wars, posturing, an impossibility to get things done, etc.

“A bureaucracy is an organization of non-elected officials of a government or organization who implement the rules, laws, and functions of their institution, and are occasionally characterized by officialism and red tape”, Wikipedia (Feb. 5, 2012)

Think about the levels of government our modern societies have built.  The implications of continued growth of complexity are serious: “[f]ew would argue that the enormous complexity of the gargantuan US Federal Government is a huge and dangerously expensive problem. The question is: Just how long can things go the way they have been going, before the US collapses into chaos?”, Is America in Danger of Collapsing (Feb. 5, 2012).  The article goes on to forecast the collapse of the US by 2017 and the European Union by 2013, unless something significant changes!

I work as a manager for a school district in BC which has two unions, one for teachers and a second for support staff.  I deal with the complexity of labor contracts on a regular basis.  I actually think unions serve a valuable purpose to protect the interests of workers and to keep management in check.  This is a good thing.  However, the challenge is how organizational complexity and cost to operate grows over time as power struggles play out between unions and employers.  Red tape and complex rules develop and almost no one actually understands them.  Over time this gets worse and worse as iStock_000011761845XSmallmanagers and employees try to interpret the rules, make mistakes, and through difficult grievance processes generate more red tape / rules that are even more complicated to understand.  Add to that the untold pages of policies, procedures, regulations, and “practices” and you get a picture of a complex environment.  Eventually nothing seems to make sense related to the organization’s purpose for being.  It’s a wonder that any real work gets done!  Now scale this out for BC to the other 59 school districts, 1000’s of cities, aboriginal peoples, provincial government ministries, and then across Canada including federal government ministries, and all the politicians, judges, lawyers, and public sector contractors.  There is an incredible amount of cost involved in running complex societies.  What value, or what costs to society, do these layers of complexity add?  How do we reverse course?

Thomas Homer-Dixon in The Upside of Down, Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization states that “[t]oday's converging energy, environmental, and political-economic stresses could cause a breakdown of national and global order”.  He does an amazing job of relating our times to that of the Roman Empire.  The ultimate downfall of the Roman Empire was its complexity.  When I read his book a few years back, the parallels to our society seemed eerily similar.  Ultimately, complexity takes on a life of its own and if its course is not corrected, “the system” collapses.  Familiar examples of our system in crisis include personal and public debt, the cost of health care, old age pension, pensions in general, unrest, poverty, water scarcity, etc.  All of these are in some way related to our complexity, which costs untold sums of money.  We who are affluent certainly enjoy the lifestyle complexity has brought us.  But, is our lifestyle, is our complexity, sustainable into the future?  I wonder…

I don’t want to leave you feeling worried that the world as we know it is about to end.  The good news is that we have been designed to be very resilient.  There are highly intelligent people among us all and we more often than not find solutions to very complex challenges.  But, I think we need to be sure not to have our heads in the sand thinking everything will just continue to grow and improve our lives as we’ve enjoyed to date.  I read somewhere recently that the baby boomer generation is the only generation in history to be more affluent than both their parents and their offspring.  Isn’t it time that we “somehow” correct course?  Our kids are depending on it.  John Dewey “continually argues that education and learning are social and interactive processes, and thus the school itself is a social institution through which social reform can and should take place”, iStock_000005861579XSmallWikipedia (Feb 5, 2012).  Somehow our schools, our curriculum, need to start steering this generation to a simpler future.  Complexity has limits and once the limit is crossed, history tells a story of chaos and starting over.  That sounds far more painful than correcting course.  Educators have influence over the next generation, I hope they are able to use it to help the next generation begin to choose a better way and reduce society’s complexity!