Open Thinkering


Why Ewan McIntosh *was* (partly) wrong.

***Ewan’s gone back and added some clarification to his blog post. I’ve still got issues with points 3 and 4, but I’m pleased that we’re more in agreement than I initially thought. I thought about deleting this post, but I’ve learned that once something goes online, it should stay online!***

Ewan McIntosh

Based on an original CC BY-NC Ewan McIntosh @ Flickr

I like Ewan McIntosh. He’s a great guy: extraordinarily innovative and has worked hard for innovation within the educational community. However, I think that having moved away from the education sector he’s perhaps become a little out-of-touch with the realities of the classroom.

Normally that would be fine, but there are literally thousands of people who read his blog and are influenced by him. That’s why I want to take issue with a recent post of his entitled Why backward social-network-banning education authorities are wrong. I agree with the main thrust of the post about the folly of local authorities blocking access to social networking sites. However, Ewan concludes with the following:

What do I reckon could be done (only my tuppence worth, I add…) In a recent interview for Merlin John’s new Innovators series I outline how I believe things could change:

  1. design tools and learning spaces that entice and delight young people, rather than tools we have to mandate them to use – if the kid had a choice, would they use that or the competition?;
  2. plan less, creating time and room for movement as innovations come up;
  3. stand still and do nothing: look at what is working in the world around you and steal, steal, steal (and give credit where it’s due);
  4. if there’s a bandwagon, jump on it and see if it goes anyhere (a Coulterism);
  5. don’t do pilots, just do the real deal from the start.

(N.B. I’ve numbered these for ease of reference)

I’ve already outlined my opposition to the fourth point in On the important difference between hitchhiking and bandwagon-jumping. Here’s my reason for opposing, with varying degrees of intensity, the other points:

1. Tools & Learning Spaces

As educators, we should be using the best tools for the job. There are two ways to conceive of ‘best tools.’ The old thinking was that the ‘best tools for the job’ were those prevalent in industry. Hence we have schools teaching Microsoft Office to students in ICT lessons. That’s wrong.

But the opposite of that isn’t designing our own tools and learning spaces. It’s using the best tools for the job. Those are tools with a pedigree, a user base and enable us to get data out as easily as we put it in. That’s why I’m a big fan of Open Source Software. Designing our own tools and learning spaces can often lead to the creation of ‘creepy treehouses’, stripped-down versions of what’s available elsewhere and clunky functionality.

Knowing what Ewan usually says about these things, I think we’re probably actually in agreement about this. I just don’t think he’s put it very clearly in what I’ve quoted above.

2. Plan less

I actually think we need to plan more than we do currently as educators. Instead of planning in isolation, however, we need to plan in collaboration. We should be planning not only with other educators (in our own educational institutions and further afield) but with students. This is where real innovation occurs. 🙂

It’s the learning outcomes that are important, not the tools we use. Yes, students need to learn how to use tools, but that shouldn’t be the focus. So I agree that we should ensure we have time and space to allow for innovation, but we shouldn’t be leaving spaces to be filled with ‘cool tools’. That’s the wrong emphasis.

3. Stand still and do nothing

Granted, reflection is important. I spend a lot of time doing this and encourage my students to do the same as often as I can. But it’s not really a tactic that can be used that much. In fact it’s something that goes against 4iP’s (Ewan’s employer) mantra of ‘Do it first. Make trouble. Inspire change.’

Yes, we need to be aware of what others are doing. Yes, we need to take time to think about how what others are doing can be adapted for our own use. But we also need to get on and do it as well! Looking around you can equally lead to copying instead of innovation. Nothing can be imported wholesale and be expected to work perfectly without modification. Everything requires work.

5. Pilots

Ewan sets up a false dichotomy when he states “don’t do pilots, just do the real deal from the start.” Piloting before rolling out can be the ‘real deal from the start.’ Take, for example, my rolling out of e-learning tools and approaches at the Academy. The only reason I was confident in getting every member of staff using Google Apps straight away is because I’d ‘piloted’ it in various ways in other schools. I knew all the features, likely problems, and anticipated training needs.

Without pilots of tools and approaches the person responsible for roll-out is constantly firefighting. That’s a stressful thing to do and not conducive to innovation. Whilst I understand the sentiment about making bold leaps and being uninhibited, that’s not always as possible as we’d like to think. There are other factors to consider, not least child protection and politics. Research is vital.

What do you think? Have I made fair criticisms? Are Ewan and I actually saying the same thing?

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11 thoughts on “Why Ewan McIntosh *was* (partly) wrong.

  1. Greta post Doug. I very much agree with you, but to be fair, Ewan seems to be talking more about CPD and teacher use of these tools rather than class use. That said, much of what you say equally applies to adults, although you’d hope the latter were more able to understand why they are in the creepy tree house and how to transfer the principles learned to the environments in the wild. (OTH, young people are often more flexible and able to make that transfer intuitively without having examined why.)

    1. Indeed – as Ewan’s response on his blog and clarification has made clear, we agree about more than we differ upon. :-)

      I take your point about students living an unexamined life. I think that’s why bandwagon-jumping can be a bad idea: students may produce something that *looks* good without necessarily having gone through the (normally) important processes behind creating that artefact.

  2. We agree on much, Doug:

    1. Yes, it’s about using the correct (existing) tools for the job, and mashing those up to create new ones where appropriate and exciting to do so. The thrust of my post is arguably against those ‘edu’ creations that are unexciting and made for administration, not learning.

    2. Plan less is quite distinct, and relates to the Merlin John piece (which explains this anyway in much more detail – follow the link): it’s about planning some gaps for the unknown so that we can have more time to think and plan when we NEED to, not when senior managers want us to plan for something that, by the time it comes around, has become less important.

    3. Standing still and doing nothing shouldn’t last too long. Nuff said ;-)

    5. I think the word ‘pilot’ is often used to preempt expected failure, instead of setting expectations higher that the small initial project will grow into something more significant. This one is probably more semantics than anything else.

    Personally, I think you don’t think I’m wrong, but perhaps the melding of my own blog post and an interview on another webpage have led me to synthesise too much what actually demands more attention and thought (that Merlin’s piece conveys).

    1. You’re right, Ewan. But it was a blog post title that got your (and other people’s) attention, wasn’t it?

      It’s a real shame that Twitter seems to have taken over and become the ‘norm’ for comments about blog posts. I much prefer interactions like we’ve had today – considered, unconstrained reflections – instead of 140 characters. Twitter has it’s place but isn’t appropriate for everything.

      I do hope you return (in an explicit way and job-related way) to education someday. You’re missed in this sphere!

  3. Hi Doug, apart from the title of your post – a little bit harsh! (I hope you were meaning it tongue firmly in cheek) – you have a decent argument.

    The thing I like about what Ewan does whether he is in touch with educuation or not (which I think he is) is that he often gives my grey cells a kick up the backside and helps me to challenge the status quo in terms of what happens in my classroom.

    Your bandwagon/hitch-hiking point was something that I was thinking of when I read Ewan post and I do agree with you there. If you are trying new things do it with a sense of direction.

    I kinda disagree with both of you with planning. Don’t plan ‘more’ or ‘less’. Facilitate space for learning to happen but keep plans open, free and allow the creativity of the learners to take the learning in new directions. As you say however, a sense of direction (an outcome) is important in this.

    Well hey, thats my tuppenceworth ;-) Thanks both for some challenging thoughts.

    1. Yes, the original post title (‘Why Ewan McIntosh is wrong’) was meant to start a debate. I’m glad it has.

      Your point about planning is a goodone. It’s all about direction; I think we can agree upon that! :-)

  4. Your definition of planning, Krysia, is the same as the one I’ve clarified with (while you were writing your comment, I think). I’ve updated my post for more clarity, but the sense of planning you describe is actually quite clear in the Merlin John article, I think.

    I got used to “being out of education” when, one week into the new job, I was listed not as an education blogger but a media one. Of course, the labeling of “being out of education” is exactly the kind of comment that alienates parents and those with an interest in education the world over. Oh well.

    The fact of the matter is that I live the trials of the current day classroom through my wife and friends who can’t seem to talk about anything else during the week, and it’s not much different to the realities one school session ago. And today I see how young people interact with each other and online most days more now than I ever did as a teacher.

    I’d be sorry if, because I’m not wiping snot of kids 9-5, I couldn’t add my angle to the debate on where learning could and can go.

    1. Just to clarify, Ewan, my concerns that you are/were ‘out of touch’ with the classroom stemmed from the lack of detail in your original post.

      I do think, however, that removing oneself from an everyday school setting can lead to a vastly different outlook. Sometimes (often, in fact) that can give a valuable and different angle on a particular issue. Sometimes, though, it involves a disconnect. I can see now that you’re not disconnected – yet! ;-)

  5. Thank you Doug for igniting this healthy debate. I have a couple of points to make – more thoughts than outright fact, although reading all of the material from Ewan and the elated Merlin article is helping to clarify my thoughts. I have to say that it is very refreshing to see this level of debate, devoid of mudslinging.

    1. ‘Out of Touch’ , although I think that everyone is entitled to give their opinion about education, and indeed both yourself and Ewan often cause me to think, rethink and analyse, there is an issue when those not connected to schools and the classrooms try to change education. I have experiences to many blog posts, keynote lectures and poor inset delivered by ‘experts’ who never suggest a practical way forward. It’s one thing to imagine the future, but a whole other kettle of fish to actually create the social change that is needed in our school in order for real change to take place. I guess one of my mam’ favorite sayings hits the nail on the head ‘Any fool can critisise and every fool does’: it is easy to say what’s broken and what it should be like, but what we need is a road map to help us with the journey.

    Having said this, neither of you could be accused of being in the ‘out of touch’ category ;-)

    In addition, too often senior school leaders are not only out of touch with the classroom and latest developments, but also with the outside world of industry and innovation

    2. Planning – in geography classrooms we have for years been planning to not plan. Floating topicality (not my term) enables us to explore current events and react to what the pupils tell us they want to learn. Having said this, there is a scaffold behind the lack of planning. A route map if you like designed to support teachers. This approach should be adopted more widely if education is to adapt to an every changing playing field.

    3. About ‘Pilots’, these are often carried out at a Middle Leader level as, in my view, the main barrier to real educational change is the inability of school leaders to filter out and prioritse what is important. The role of educational leaders at all levels should be to act as censors to the government, NGO, charity initiatives. The sleep issue today is one example. I agree with the point that sometimes a pilot is embarked upon with an expectation of faliure. In my experience this is often due to a lack of funding / time / support.

    Of course, I am speaking as a middle leader from the perspective. I don;t yet have the perspective of being higher up the food chain ;)

    The cogs are defiantly turning!

    1. Thanks for your considered input, David – some interesting views in there, especially ‘planning not to plan’!

      I respect Ewan’s views enormously but am wary as someone within school but who teaches a reduced timetable (13 periods per fortnight) that it’s easy to become out of touch with everyday practices.

      That’s not to say that people not teaching on an everyday basis can’t have a valuable input, of course. It’s just that I forget what it’s like to be in the classroom over the summer holidays, never mind after a few years out of the profession!

  6. I am governed by planning however I come from a curriculum area that has been rightly, and proudly, accused of planning as we walked through the classroom door. One of my current tasks is to produce a detailed plan for what we will do in the next 18 months as an organisation. We are already 6 months into a 1 year plan that in places has significantly shifted and become outdated by moves in tech that we are using. To quote a military maxim (Napoleon) ‘No plan survives first contact with the enemy’. I have intentions, I have aims and goals, and I can see ways of possibly achieving these, but at any point the whole context may switch and alter significantly – so my detailed plan has been a bit of a waste – I either amend, abandon, or more likely grimly hang onto is as a comfort blanket.So I’d argue for the usefulness of knowing what we want to achieve, and the detailed planning time (often rendered a waste by circumstances) is used for discussions and possibilities considerations instead. This equips us for a more flexible and often more interesting experience anyway. This also fits better with the way some of us can employ the expertise of our personal learning networks – which are by their nature not context bound.

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