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3 reasons you need a critical friend


If there’s one thing that I’ve learned in my adult life, it’s that you can be considered a good conversationalist merely by being a good listener. That’s the thing: people want to be heard, to tell their story, to let what’s inside them out.

That’s great, but there’s at least one stage further than that: being good at asking questions. Socrates was great at it. This ‘Socratic approach’ not only stimulates debate, but thought and reflection. Knowing someone who can challenge you in a thoughtful, kind, and meaningful way is a hugely valuable resource on which to draw.

I’ve been prompted into writing about this as I’ve recently taken on what is now my fifth client for whom I am a ‘critical friend’. In none of these cases have I sought out this work, but instead have been approached by each client as someone who they think can help them. This could be a short term thing or, more often, is longer-term, and organised in a more ad-hoc, semi-structured way.

Thinking through what kind of things I talk about with my clients, there’s three broad areas where I’ve been able to help.

1. Motivation and encouragement

We’ve all been there: we know what we need to do in our professional lives, but we just can’t seem to traction. I’ve worked with those who would describe themselves as self-starters, yet have found value in helping me give shape to their plans.

Working with Doug is both a real pleasure and a kick up the backside! (Zoe Ross)

Doug is a very creative, motivated and talented individual, who inspires others around him to think from different angles and to challenge constructively. (Patrick Bellis)

2. Insight and analysis

Sometimes what you need is a person you trust to provide some objectivity on particular problems or struggles you’re having. These could be monumental professional struggles, or they could be #firstworldproblems. Either way, through discussion a way forward usually develops – either at the time, or reflecting on the conversation, by email.

Working with Doug has been one of the highlights of my career. His insights make anything I’m working on better. (Laura Hilliger)

The thing that Doug provided for me, above all, was insight. Through his incisive questioning and our subsequent discussions, Doug was able to help me to discover for myself, the very best way forward for my business and for me personally. He’s incredibly easy to work with and a thoroughly nice guy to boot. I’d highly recommend using his strengths to get the best out of yours. (Greg Perry)

3. Connection and inspiration

It’s easy to think that you’re slaving away, ploughing your own lonely furrow. In fact, there’s many people around the world with similar hopes and dreams as you. Learning from and/or connecting with them can be exciting, liberating, and confirm that what you’re doing is worthwhile.

I would wholeheartedly recommend Doug as a consultant, trainer, coach and all round wise and inspiring critical friend. (Sarah Horrocks)

As a freelancer, I am often alone with my own work. Being able to spend time talking things through with Doug was not only practical, but a catalyst for developing my ideas to help others. (Eylan Ezekiel)

Next steps

As I mentioned above, this is the first time I’ve offered this as a discrete (and discreet, if necessary!) service. I’m keen to help people, spending time to aid them in realising their hopes and dreams.

If you think I can help you, please do get in touch. The first 30 minutes we spend together is free, and I can tailor follow-up sessions to suit you, your time, and your budget. I reply to every email within 24 hours.


Note: some of the above quotations are taken from clients, and some from others who have been kind enough to recommend me on LinkedIn.

Thanks to Eylan Ezekiel for feedback on this post, and John Johnston for drastically reducing the filesize of the gif!

Weeknote 17/2016

This week I’ve been:

Next week it’s Bank Holiday Monday in England, so I’m counting that as my day off. I’ll then be working with City & Guilds on Tuesday and Wednesday in London, and on Thursday from home. On Friday I’ll also be at home, writing a report for Cambridge English.

3 Types of EdTech Baggage: Toolsets, Mindsets, Skillsets [DML Central]

3 Types of EdTech Baggage: Toolsets, Mindsets, Skillsets

My latest post for DML Central has just been published. Entitled 3 Types of EdTech Baggage: Toolsets, Mindsets, Skillsets it was prompted by a Quentin Blake-esque sketch from Bryan Mathers that made me laugh.

So, in this post, I want to challenge the assumption that those resisting the adoption of a particular technology are neo-Luddites. I’m basing this on my experience in schools, universities, and now as an independent consultant working with all kinds of organisations. I see a much more nuanced picture than is often put forward. Assuming people should “get with the program” can, after all, be a little techno-deterministic.

I’d love your feedback on the post itself, so I’ve closed comments here to encourage you to do so!

Click here to read the post in full

Weeknote 16/2016

This week I’ve been:

On Sunday I’ll be at Maker Faire UK in Newcastle. Next week I’m taking it easy on Monday and Tuesday with just a few meetings and pottering around at home. Then I’m in London on Wednesday and Thursday with City & Guilds, and Cambridge on Friday running a workshop.

Quality Mountain Days 1 and 2: Lake District

Update: I created selfie videos to document each day as I went along. I then used a Sony app to create short highlight videos. You can view them here: Day 1 (Friday) / Day 2 (Saturday)

This evening I’ve spent some time planning my first two ‘Quality Mountain Days’. As I explained in The psychology of going up a mountain, walking on Friday and Saturday in the Lake District will count as 10% of the days I need to have under my belt before starting my Mountain Leader award.

I’m aiming to fulfil all of the Quality Mountain Day criteria:

  • the individual takes part in the planning and leadership
  • navigation skills are required away from marked paths
  • experience must be in terrain and weather comparable to that found in UK and Irish hills
  • knowledge is increased and skills practised
  • attention is paid to safety
  • five hours or more journey time
  • adverse conditions may be encountered

This post is to document my planning. I’ll update afterwards with photos I take and any notes/voice recordings I make!

Day 1: Friday 22 April 2016

Dale Head and Fleetwith Pike (Friday 22 April 2016)

Weather forecast from the Mountain Weather Service for Friday:

  • Wind? Northeasterly 15 to 20mph
  • Effect of wind on you? Small
  • How wet? Risk snow & hail showers later. Substantially or completely dry, but later afternoon and evening, risk showers, of soft hail, or above 600m snow.
  • Cloud? Very little
  • Sunshine and Air Clarity? Bursts of bright sunshine, mainly morning. The air very clear.
  • How cold? (at 750m): 1 to 3C, highest west Lakes in afternoon.

I get back home to where I live in Morpeth, Northumberland late on Thursday night, so I’ll be up early Friday morning to pack and then drive the 2.5 hours to the Lake District. I’m going to give the above route plan (created using a photo of an OS map and Skitch) to the YHA Borrowdale staff with the time I left and the time I expect to be back.

While I’ve walked up to Dale Head before (last year when I did the Mountain Skills course) this will be the first time I’ve been up there by myself. In fact it’s the first time I’ll have been up any mountain alone. I’m planning to push on, past Yewcrag Quarries and over onto Fleetwith Pike. It may be quite exposed and windy over there, so my backup plan is to abort that small circle part of the route and head down the dismantled tramway.

Either way, returning via Honister House should be pretty straightforward and the route should be reasonably flat once I’ve got down to Lowbank Crags. If I’ve worked this out correctly it should be about 14km. That should be quite enough to keep me going for the five hours I need to be out and about for it to count as a ‘Quality Mountain Day’!

Day 2: Saturday 23 April 2016

Dodd, Skiddaw, and Little Man (Saturday 23 April 2016)

Weather forecast from the Mountain Weather Service for Saturday:

  • Wind? Northerly 20 to 25mph, strongest Pennines
  • Effect of wind on you? May impede walking some higher areas. Notable wind chill for late April.
  • How wet? Snow and hail showers. Light showers or flurries developing, snow or soft hail to low levels, spreading increasingly from north by afternoon.
  • Cloud? Mostly very little
  • Sunshine and Air Clarity? Occasional bright sunshine. Visibility superb, but much reduced during showers and where also in cloud.
  • How cold? (at 750m): 0 or -1C

I want to get out, get up, and get home as soon as possible on Saturday — especially given the snow flurries forecast for the afternoon. I’m planning to park in Millbeck, then walk through Lyzzick Wood and up Dodd. This should give me some indication as to whether it’s safe to head up towards Skiddaw via Carl Side.

If it is, I’ll go that way, stopping off to test my micro-navigational skills by finding the cairn indicated on the map. Instead of taking the main path to the top of Skiddaw, I’m going to take the smaller track and see if I can keep on it. I’m hoping that visibility will be good enough to take some decent photos from Skiddaw Man.

After something to eat, if I can see the weather coming in, I may retrace myself and come down the track that follows Slades Beck. However, the plan is to keep going and make my way to Little Man, finding the two cairns shown on the map. From there I’ll follow the path down and round to Applethwaite, then back to the car. All told, that’s around 11km, but will be more challenging than Friday due to the weather.

Note: many thanks to Craig Taylor for responding so quickly and comprehensively to my Twitter DMs. I wanted to check that these routes seemed reasonable and he gave me some ‘old-timers’ advice that should ensure I have a safe and successful trip. Having done the Mountain Leader qualification himself (and been in the army) he’s been a great source of encouragement and support, loaning me some books last year to help with my understanding of what’s required!

A quick redesign

Blog redesign (April 2016)

I know that quite a few people get updates from my blog via email and RSS, so for their benefit (and because I always do this when I apply a new theme) I thought I’d share a quick update.

Yesterday, I followed a link from Hacker News to I played about with the idea of applying a similar kind of theme to my blog but, in the end, found the (free) Casper theme by Lacy Morrow. It’s based on the default theme found on the Ghost publishing platform, and I think it’s great.

Every theme has its own affordances and constraints. With this one I had to reduce the number of items in my main menu, and add some links to social profiles. I started by adding all of the places I pay attention to online but, after stepping back and taking a second look, stripped back the icons to just Twitter, email, LinkedIn, and RSS.

I’ve had mixed feedback so far. More creative types have said it “destroys their soul” (harsh!) whereas others have praised how clean it looks. I’d love your feedback!

This is a good time to remind you that I’ve got a now-similar-looking blog for alternative thoughts and reactions at It’s got an RSS feed. 🙂

Refocusing my energies

Derek Sivers:

Those of you who often over-commit or feel too scattered may appreciate a new philosophy I’m trying:

If I’m not saying “HELL YEAH!” about something, then say no.

Meaning: When deciding whether to commit to something, if I feel anything less than, “Wow! That would be amazing! Absolutely! Hell yeah!” – then my answer is no.

When you say no to most things, you leave room in your life to really throw yourself completely into that rare thing that makes you say “HELL YEAH!”

We’re all busy. We’ve all taken on too much. Saying yes to less is the way out.

A few of us are setting up a co-operative called I’ll have more details soon but I’m going to have to dedicate quite a lot of time to this over the next few weeks and months, over and above my current day-to-day stuff with clients for Dynamic Skillset.

As a result, I’ve decided to pull back from several projects and trips that I was planning. These include the BadgeChain group, attending the Groningen Declaration meeting in Cape Town to present on Open Badges and blockchain, and writing a chapter that I said I’d write for an upcoming book. I remain committed to the 2016 Digital Badge Summit, and running a pre-conference workshop at ISTE in June.

I do feel bad about this, but the whole point of being self-employed is to have more control over what I do, when I do it, and who I do it with. I’m looking forward to working in a spirit of solidarity and co-operation, and I want to bring my A-game to give that a chance to flourish.

Image CC BY Ian Liu


Weeknote 15/2016

This week I’ve been:

  • Sending out Issue #210 of Doug Belshaw’s Thought Shrapnel, my weekly newsletter loosely focused on education, technology, and productivity. This week it included links about blockchain in education, Mozilla’s Web Literacy Map 2.0, and how to find productive hours. Many thanks to 9Sharp for sponsoring this week’s issue!
  • Recording and releasing Episode 46 (‘Maltese Credentials’) of the Today In Digital Education podcast, my weekly podcast with co-host Dai Barnes. This week we discussed elephants in the classroom, Dai’s experiences in Malta, Liberia outsourcing their education system, what Doug learned while at Mozilla, the cult of the attention web, what constitutes a credential, how to find your most productive hours, and more! You can discuss TIDE in our Slack channel.
  • Demoing the progress I’ve made on the refresh to our church’s website. You can see it here. I’ve still got to port a lot of the content across.
  • Suffering from a debilitating migraine on Monday. I’d planned to work from home, but I ended up spending the day in bed, and reading as I wasn’t much use to anyone. It’s been a while since I’ve had one that bad.
  • Helping Eylan Ezekiel with some planning and prioritisation as a ‘critical friend’. It was a great opportunity to hang out with him in his house in Oxford, and meet his lovely family. I’ve been doing more and more of this kind of work, both in-person and remotely, so perhaps it’s time to offer it as an explicit service of Dynamic Skillset?
  • Setting up and instance of Sandstorm for Work to see if it’s going to work for a new venture a few of us have planned.
  • Participating in the first day of the Tech Infrastructure for the Future Social Sector Hack in Oxford. This was organised by Tris Lumley from NPC, and facilitated by Andy Gibson. Eylan was there, as was John Bevan, and I managed to demo something by the end of the day! Afterwards, I checked out Broad Street, where Thornton’s bookshop used to be (where I worked during the summer almost 20 years ago) and had a pint with Eylan in The Eagle and Child, a famous and favourite pub.
  • Working for City & Guilds from their London office on Thursday, and from home for them on Friday. This involved some collaboration with Bryan Mathers and collating lots of links around the future of work/toolsets.
  • Flashing my Sony Xperia Z3 Compact with a new ROM giving me Android 6.0.1 (‘Marshmallow’). I’d been using CyanogenMod nightly builds, but they were both a little unstable (especially around Bluetooth) and stuck on Android 5.1. In the end I used a ROM that Sony have rolled out experimentally in Latin America…
  • Writing:

Next week, I’m working from home on Monday, then in London from Tuesday to Thursday. I’ll be back home to sleep in my own bed, then I’m off to the Lake District to spend two days up a mountain. This should count towards the 20 ‘quality mountain days’ I need to accrue before starting my Mountain Leader course. It’s then Maker Faire UK in Newcastle on the Sunday!

Weeknote 14/2016

This week I’ve been:

Next week I’ll be working from home on Monday, then heading to Oxford to work with Eylan Ezekiel on Tuesday, before taking part in the Tech Infrastructure for the Future Social Sector Hack event on Wednesday. I’ll be in London working with City & Guilds on Thursday, and then home on Friday.

3 things I learned during my time at Mozilla


On my to-do list for the last year has been ‘write up what I learned at Mozilla’. I didn’t want this anniversary week to go by without writing something, so despite this being nowhere near as comprehensive as what I’d like to write, it at least shifts that item from my to-do list!

The following are three (plus one bonus) personal learning points that I felt were some of my main takeaways from the three years I spent working for the Mozilla Foundation. After being a volunteer from 2011, I became a member of staff from 2012-15, working first as Badges & Skills Lead, and then transitioning to Web Literacy Lead.

1. Working openly by default is awesome

Mozilla is radically open. Most meetings are available via public URLs, notes and projects are open for public scrutiny, and work is shared by default on the open web.

There are many unexpected benefits through doing this, including it being a lot easier to find out what your colleagues are working on. It’s therefore easy to co-ordinate efforts between teams, and to bring people into projects.

In fact, I think that working openly is such an advantage, that I’ve been advocating it to every client I’ve worked with since setting up Dynamic Skillset. Thankfully, there’s now a fantastic book to help with that evangelism entitled The Open Organization by the CEO of Red Hat, a $2bn Open Source tech firm.

2. The mission is more important than individuals

This feels like an odd point to include and could, in fact, be seen as somewhat negative. However, for me, it was a positive, and one of the main reasons I decided to spend my time volunteering for Mozilla in the first place. When the mission and manifesto of an organisation are explicit and publicly-available, it’s immediately obvious whether what you’re working on is worthwhile in the eyes of your colleagues.

No organisation is without its politics, but working for Mozilla was the first time I’d experienced the peculiar politics of Open Source. Instead of the institutional politics of educational institutions, these were politics about the best way to further the mission of the organisation. Sometimes this led to people leaving the organisation. Sometimes it led to heated debates. But the great thing was that these discussions were all ultimately focused on achieving the same end goals.

3. Working remotely is hard

I do like working remotely, but it’s difficult — and for reasons you might not immediately expect. The upsides of remote working are pretty obvious: no commute, live wherever you like, and structure your day more flexibly than you could do if you were based in an office.

What I learned pretty quickly is that there can be a fairly large downside to every interaction with colleagues being somewhat transactional. What I mean by that is there’s no corridor conversations, no wandering over to someone else’s desk to see how they are, no watercooler conversations.

There are huge efficiency gains to be had by having remote workers all around the globe — the sun never sets on your workforce — but it’s imperative that they come together from time to time. Thankfully, Mozilla were pretty good at flying us out to San Francisco, Toronto, and other places (like Portland, Oregon) to work together and have high-bandwidth conversations.

Perhaps the hardest thing about working remotely is that lack of bandwidth. Yes, I had frequent video conversations with colleagues, but a lot of interaction was text-based. When there’s no way to read the intention of a potentially-ambiguous sentence, dwelling on these interactions in the solitude of remote working can be anxiety-inducing.

Since leaving Mozilla I’ve read some studies that suggest that successful long-term remote working is best done based in teams. I can see the logic in that. The blend I’ve got now with some work being done face-to-face with clients, and some from home, seems to suit me better.

(4. Technical skills are underrated)

This is a bonus point, but one that I thought I should include. As you’d expect, Mozilla was an environment with the most technology-savvy people I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with. There were some drawbacks to this, including an element of what Evgeny Morozov would call ‘technological solutionism’, but on the whole it was extremely positive.

There were three specific ways in which having tech-savvy colleagues was helpful. First, it meant that you could assume a baseline. Mozilla can use tools with its staff and volunteers that may be uncomfortable or confusing for the average office worker. There is a high cognitive load, for example, when participating in a meeting via etherpad, chat, and voice call simultaneously. But being able to use exactly the right tool for the job rather than just a generic tool catering to the lowest common denominator has its advantages.

Second, tech-savvy colleagues means that things you discuss in meetings and at work weeks get prototyped quickly. I can still remember how shocked I was when Atul Varma created a version of the WebLitMapper a few days after I’d mentioned that such a thing would be useful!

The third point is somewhat related to the first. When you have a majority of people with a high level of technical skills, the default is towards upskilling, rather than dumbing down. There were numerous spontaneous ways in which this type of skillsharing occurred, especially when Mozilla started using GitHub for everything — including planning!


Although I’m genuinely happier than I’ve ever been in my current position as a self-employed, independent consultant, I wouldn’t trade my experience working for Mozilla for anything. It was a privilege to work alongside such talented colleagues and do work that was truly making the web a better place.

One of the reasons for writing this post was that I’ve found that I tend to introduce myself as someone who “used to work for Mozilla”. This week, one year on, marks a time at which I reflect happily on the time I had there, but ensure that my eyes are on the future.

Like so many former members of staff, I’ve found it difficult to disentangle my own identity from that of Mozilla. I purposely took this past year as time completely away from any Mozilla projects so I could gain some critical distance — and so that people realised I’d actually moved on!

So who am I? I’m Dr. Doug Belshaw, an independent consultant focusing on the intersection of education, technology, and productivity. But I remain a Mozillian. You can find me at here.

Image CC BY Paul Clarke (bonus points if you can spot me!)