Open Thinkering


Tag: Guardian

Innovation in education: what I’ll be talking about at the Guardian event today. (#IIE2011)

Guardian Innovation in Education

I’m in London today at the Guardian Innovation in Education event (hashtag #IIE2011). Not only will it be the first time I’ve been on a keynote panel but I’ll also be chairing a session for the first time. Happy days.

The following are those currently listed as joining me on the keynote panel (which has been shuffled more often that a Tory Cabinet):

I’ll be given a couple of minutes to outline my position on innovation and, bizarrely, learning styles. The latter is a non-starter as far as I’m concerned given my experience in the classroom and this devastating critique on YouTube by Prof. Daniel Willingham. But innovation? I’ve definitely got a couple of things to say about that.

1. Innovation is predicated upon standardisation

Homogeneity in ecological terms, refers to a reduction in biodiversity. I think it’s important to make it clear at the outset that’s not what I mean when I’m talking about standardisation. What I mean by standardisation is a common, negotiated base upon which something can be constructed. This base could be a technology, it could be a set of practices, a calendar, defined workflows or communications channels.

Something I would change if I could go back and re-teach my early career would be the way that I approached innovation. In my current position at JISC infoNet and in my previous role as Director of e-Learning I’ve seen just how important the social negotiation and co-construction of a common baseline is. To mix metaphors, it’s about getting people on the same page and facing the same direction. Too often in my early career I went full-tilt in a different direction to others, thinking to myself that I could bring others onboard I’d reached ‘version 1.0’. Now I realise the importance of bringing in people much earlier than that.

Whilst it is may be possible to enforce standardisation in a top-down manner, effective leaders know that this is unlikely to encourage buy-in. As I argued in Chapter 10 of my thesis on digital literacies the process is at least as important as the outcome. Conversation and iteration is important because the very nature of innovation means that you don’t know necessarily know what’s going to happen next. As Woodrow Wilson famously stated, “I not only use all the brains that I have, but all that I can borrow”.

Douglas Adams was being flippant when he called for “rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty” but, when it comes to innovation, demarcating such areas can be productive. Be focused. If, for example, your organisation is focusing upon methods of communication, getting sidetracked by existing problems (such as software incompatibilities) or irrelevancies (the staff dress code) is likely to be unhelpful. Get things right one at a time building towards a bigger picture. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

2. Sustaining and embedding innovation

In JISC’s Sustaining and Embedding Innovations: a good practice guide, Peter Chatterton defines three broad stages of innovation:

  1. Invention (generation of new ideas)
  2. Early Innovation (practical implementation of new inventions, usually in specific areas)
  3. Systemic Innovation (organisation or institution-wide adoption of inventions)

As colleague Andrew Stewart and I argued at the Future of Technology of Education conference the problem is that we get stuck at the second step. The reason for this is twofold, I believe.

Firstly, we’ve outsourced technological invention to the market. This means that early innovation (usually) involves taking something not designed explicitly with education in mind and finding way of using it for pedagogical purposes. By the time we’ve done that, of course, the market moved on and the process begins all over again. We’re like dogs chasing shiny cars.

The second reason, however, is due to education being a political football. Every year a raft of changes are enforced upon educational institutions, and schools in particular. Somtimes (and I’m looking at you, Michael Gove, with the English Baccalaureate) such changes are even made half-way through a school year! As a result, systemic innovation and ownership of the change process by overworked, underpaid staff is extremely difficult to achieve, even if they believe in the changes proposed. Some schools, such as Cramlington Learning Village manage focused, systemic change but these are few and far between.


Innovation is a tricky beast. You’re never quite sure when or where the next great idea will come from. There are, however, some ways to tame the monster. Here’s my three suggestions:

  • Focus on workflows: huge efficiencies can be gained by socially-negotiating these and using them as a standardised basis. In one school I used to work at, these were posted in every classroom for sanctions, rewards, book marking, everything. Review these often so they don’t become burdensome when the contexts change due to wider environmental factors.
  • Take a step back: as someone (hilariously) mentioned at a JISC programme startup meeting this week, “the early bird may get the worm, but it’s the second mouse that gets the cheese.” Make sure that everyone knows what they are there for. Have a discussion about the purpose(s) of education, if necessary.
  • Get everyone involved: when I say that you don’t know where the next transformational idea may come from, I’m serious. Get as many different angles on the problem as possible. And even when things are going well, have channels and methods of communication that allow people to make leftfield suggestions without being ridiculed.

What are YOUR thoughts on innovation in education?

Building a better future (despite the 1%)

Occupy Global

When I was in New York recently I didn’t attend the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations. Whilst I respect the ideas behind the movement, I’m just not sure it’s achieving anything. The protest inspired by #occupyws in my nearest city of Newcastle is certainly a bit forlorn and is gently ridiculed by the media. What’s far more effective, I think, is to infiltrate and convert the mass media to the cause. Not only does this mean a much wider representation of the ideas behind what’s going on, but (hopefully) retains the purity of the message.

I can’t claim to have read widely on the literature around #occupy and their message that it’s the 1% of the population that are screwing it up for everyone else but this article in the Guardian by George Monbiot certainly includes a few home truths. Here are what I consider to be the highlights (my emphases):

If wealth was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire. The claims that the ultra-rich 1% make for themselves – that they are possessed of unique intelligence or creativity or drive – are examples of the self-attribution fallacy. This means crediting yourself with outcomes for which you weren’t responsible. Many of those who are rich today got there because they were able to capture certain jobs. This capture owes less to talent and intelligence than to a combination of the rutheless exploitation of others and accidents of birth, as such jobs are taken disproportionately by people born in certain places and into certain classes.

In their book Snakes in Suits, Paul Babiak and Robert Hare point out that as the old corporate bureaucracies have been replaced by flexible, ever-changing structures, and as team players are deemed less valuable than competitive risk-takers, psychopathic traits are more likely to be selected and rewarded. Reading their work, it seems to me that if you have psychopathic tendencies and are born to a poor family, you’re likely to go to prison. If you have psychopathic tendencies and are born to a rich family, you’re likely to go to business school.

Chief executives now behave like dukes, extracting from their financial estates sums out of all proportion to the work they do or the value they generate, sums that sometimes exhaust the businesses they parasitise. They are no more deserving of the share of wealth they’ve captured than oil sheikhs.

Now they have almost bankrupted us. The wealth creators of neoliberal mythology are some of the most effective wealth destroyers the world has ever seen.

Whilst I agree with most of the ideas behind the above, one thing (perhaps because of space) that Monbiot doesn’t mention is that, financially, we in the west are pretty much all in the top 5% of the world’s richest people. I turn on a tap and water comes out. If I’m cold I turn up the heating. I can send my children to school for free. I don’t worry each day about violence to my family. I live in a democracy.

The trouble with messages such as ‘we are the 99%’ is that there exists huge disparity and diversity even within that figure. It comes across as mass individualistic protesting, with focus and definition provided by grouping around negative slogans rather than positive action. Whilst the 1% should be questioned and challenged, we all need to be doing more to create a fairer, more equitable society. Let’s not get carried away by political reductionism and slogans. We can do better than that. It’s trivially easy to retweet something or join a Facebook group, but what are we (myself included) actually doing over and above this to make this world a better place? I can’t help but think that marching and camping out isn’t enough any more. What (and where) are we building?

Image CC BY-NC Occupy Global

My mobile learning article for the Guardian Teacher Network

Whilst I was enjoying the sun in Malta and Gozo last week the Guardian Teacher Network published an article I wrote entitled How to use mobile devices in the classroom. It’s a piece I wrote originally in the wake of the #govephonehome debacle and then edited for publication a couple of months ago. It links to the lesson plan and presentation that regular readers of this blog will already have seen. 🙂

I wouldn’t have used the image included in the article as I think it displays the opposite logic to the position I’m arguing; it posits a negative whilst I’m espousing a positive. I suggested the photograph above but am at the mercy of editors!

I’m speaking at the Guardian Innovation in Education event next month. There’s still tickets left and the website features an interview with me here.

Image CC BY mortsan