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

Friday, 4 May 2012

Suffering in Silence… Standardized testing from the view of an educator & parent

The Innovative Educator: Suffering in Silence… Standardized testing from the view of an educator & parent: Guest post by Renny Fong ( TimeOutDad ) As our children are undergoing the gruel of the high stakes standardized tests in New York...

Has Apple reinvented the textbook?


   "The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed" 
   William Gibson

Is the release of iBooks Author and a growing range of commercial textbooks available on iBooks part of a transformation of Education or is it just a step along the road to a digital education revolution?
In ‘new learning’ classrooms, teachers have embraced technology, have questioned the norms of teacher-student interaction and source content that suits need from multiple resources. The trend is to use technology to free student learning from narrow views of what Education is about and to free teachers where possible from some of the marking, progress reporting and assessment so that they can spend more time facilitating learning. Here are a few things that technology can be used to improve:

1. Instructional content
Content is what traditional print textbooks deliver – and in most cases deliver well. Content is generally written by teachers and experts for a specific year level in a curriculum. The idea is to provide access to all the knowledge necessary to take the examinations that the curriculum was written to address. This plays to the one-size-fits-all style of Education – where all students learn the same things, from the same source, at the same pace and at the same time. Not all students learn this way, meaning some are under-extended and prone to boredom and others get left behind.
Great teaching has always involved content beyond the textbook. Technology has increased the variety of sources that can be brought into the classroom and made access instant and paperless. Great teachers would always use multiple resources, but the introduction of technology into the classroom has perhaps increased the pressure on all teachers to add variety to their lessons.

2. Learning varieties
Students do not learn the same things at the same time, for the same reasons and at the same pace. Even if a textbook provides access to all the knowledge required to meet curriculum requirements, it is done in a linear fashion, starting from the front of the book and building knowledge on top of knowledge until we reach the end of the book.
Digital resources allow multiple access points to modular content allowing students to learn in visual, aural and kinesthetic ways at speeds that suit them. Content is linked across year levels allowing students to revise necessary content as needed either at the teacher’s direction or independently. Brighter students can skip repetitive practice of concepts they have already grasped and move on to more challenging material. Learning can be personalized, varied and most importantly, fun.

3. Interactivity
Since modern schooling was introduced during the industrial revolution – for those industrializing countries anyway – classroom interaction has evolved from a ‘lockstep’ teacher to student interaction to include student–student interaction, group work, and more. Technology has helped broaden the interaction available through social networks, interactive widgets that allow student-computer interaction, and teacher-student feedback (in both directions) via Learning Management Systems.

4. Diagnostics and progress reporting
Increasingly, technology specifically designed for schools includes tools for diagnosing what a student is already capable of and what she needs to learn. In a traditional school a student is expected to learn year 7 content in year 7. When the year ends, a line is drawn and the student moves to year 8, perhaps with a new teacher, a new textbook or new classmates. For a teacher with a curriculum to get through, it is difficult to devote time helping those that didn’t learn a portion of what they were supposed to in year 7. And so those left behind fall further behind.
Included in some digital resources these days are ways of checking which students have understood and can apply what lessons. Testing and marking students’ understanding of a concept is automated so that teachers can get instant feedback on how each student is doing, where they are in their learning, what remedial work is needed and have the option of using this data to produce individual and class progress reports for department heads, parent reports or to give feedback to students.

5. Assessment
Regardless of how we might feel about standardized testing, we live in a results oriented world. Teachers are expected to prepare students for examinations, testing what they have learned and practicing test-taking conditions and techniques. Some traditional textbooks come with practice exams or additional testing resources.

Some digital resources offer test generating facilities that teachers can use to create practice tests and timed conditions. Tests can be customized with ease to focus on specific areas needing practice for whole classes, groups and even individuals.


So how does Apple’s ‘reinvented textbook’ stand up to what is already being done by Edtech companies and progressive schools?

From what I’ve seen so far the presentation of content is an enhancement of traditional print textbooks, but is hardly new. Many publishers already produce enhanced or interactive versions of their print textbooks, including video, drag and drop and multiple choice exercises, slide shows, highlighting and bookmarking functions. What Apple have created is a new channel for such content, albeit one that needs that content to be reformatted to Apple’s proprietary systems.

The textbooks available so far via iBooks are essentially enhanced versions of flat print textbooks. They are linear rather than modular and revision of a prior year’s content would require a further purchase and download. They are visually more exciting than a print book but do not offer personalized learning or social networking but, by incorporating weblinks, can offer extension of content beyond the textbook.

iBooks Author allows users to create custom content. Experimenting with content creation leads to the discovery that photos and pictures are best loaded from iPhoto, which no longer comes packaged with the latest version of Mac OS X. Widgets can be created and loaded via Keynote, also Apple software for Mac. Thus despite iBooks Author being a free download, effective use is best achieved through the purchase of both iLife and iWork software packages, and of course a Mac. This is not a criticism. Apple is a commercial company that has to deliver profit to satisfy its shareholders. They are attempting to capture a share of the Education market, to generate a profit, by highlighting some (but not all) of the inadequacies of the traditional print textbook. This is akin to what booksellers have been doing for years – aggregating content from publishers and delivering it to schools, often along with pencils, notebooks, art supplies, etc.

Unlike some of the digital resources available to schools, resources available though iBooks are not linked to Learning Management Systems and cannot deliver class or individual reports of progress or customizable, automated tests with results. Interactivity is limited to student with textbook and the amount of interactivity that can be included will be limited, at least in the early days, by the sheer size of the download required and iPad memory needed to store the iBooks. Teachers should investigate just how much memory will be required to house all the textbooks needed for a school year and check whether the iPads available at their schools have sufficient memory for all the students’ needs and still run other apps that make the iPad such a wonderful tool.
 
No doubt textbooks delivered on iPads via iBooks will have many, many fans. Teachers who have shied away from introducing technology in the classroom, perhaps from fear of being less competent with technology than their students, may find the switch from textbook to iBook an easier and less challenging transition. But will iBooks attract those schools that have embraced technology in the classroom and have moved to resources beyond the textbook, giving up some of the gains they have made? I seriously doubt it. And has Apple ‘reinvented the textbook’? I don’t think so. But for many schools they may offer a step towards better and more efficient use of technology in classrooms. And schools must decide whether they mind having their technological future being tied to Apple.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Transform Education


In my opinion the biggest issue in the school system is that it has outlived its design. The whole system of teaching young people the same thing at the same time and at the same pace was designed to prepare a compliant workforce and willing consumers to staff and fuel Europe’s industrial revolution. Because it succeeded in its primary purpose it has been used as the model ever since. This is a ‘one size fits all’ view of Education.

We continue to head down the road that is standardized 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 standardized 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 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.  This is less of a ‘no child left behind’ system than a most children left behind one.

We are now in an era where ‘textbooks’ and/or accompanying resources no longer need to be linear (or merely linear), can have multiple entry points into topics and lessons, can self-mark and provide instant feedback and results to both teachers and students. Lessons can be tailored to account for visual, auditory and kinesthetic learners. Better use of technology can free teachers from teaching all students the same things at the same pace and give every student the chance to learn.  Here is an example of what can be done with content: www.hotmaths.com.au

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

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Learning to Learn



“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”
Benjamin Franklin
All my professional life I have been struck by the difference between remembering and learning. This may not be that surprising for someone who has been at various times a teacher, an author and a publisher. But there is a truth in the difference that continues to inspire me.

While we are growing up we are taught to remember - to churn out facts or apply formulae that get us through exams. We are not taught to learn - at least not in formal education.

Learning and remembering are not the same. Anything remembered can be forgotten. Anything learned is for life. Is it possible to 'un-learn’ how to ride a bicycle for example?

Real learning comes when we take risks. We have to fall off a bicycle before we learn to ride. Sadly, we are taught not to take risks, but rather to give the expected answers that we have remembered by rote. If we left it to schools to teach us how to ride a bicycle they’d have us studying a manual and remembering how to take the thing apart and put it back together! At school I was taught French in this way, expected to remember grammar rules and sheets of vocabulary that were promptly forgotten the minute I’d written down what I had stored in my mind for the exam. Thus, in the real world, when faced with the opportunity to think outside the box, to take risks in order to learn something new, we are conditioned not to. We operate within artificial boundaries set by social or corporate memory – or ‘the way we’ve always done things’.

In an increasingly competitive and changing business environment, leaders need to nurture creativity, not suppress it. And we need to assess and reward people based on what they have learned and continue to learn - not merely remembered for the purposes of gaining a qualification or ticking a box at an interview.

In the education publishing world that I inhabit, innovation is the key to survival, to growth and to contributing to a better education perhaps than the one we had. Innovation comes from learning and from applying that learning to the products and services of the future. For an organisation to learn, the individuals that are the heart of the organisation need to learn, to take risks, to fall off the bicycle, to question ‘the way we’ve always done things’ and to feel supported in doing that. As a ‘leader’ this means I have to strive to encourage risk-takers, to foster creativity and reward innovative behaviour. This is achieved through involving people in the decisions and directions the organization takes. Every day.

And so, in business, I look to Benjamin Franklin’s words for inspiration. Tell staff what to do and they’ll soon forget. Teach them what to do and they’ll remember, but never question the process or try to improve it. Involve them and they will learn, improve, thrive, innovate and ultimately drive the organization to success.

First posted on August 8, 2011 

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Correcting Einstein - Sorry about that

“Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school.”
Albert Einstein
For someone with a physics degree, who has nothing but respect for the great man, attempting to improve on something that Einstein said is tantamount to heresy. But here’s what I want to do and my justification for it. In the quote above, I want to replace ‘learned’ with ‘remembered’ or ‘memorised’. I think it is useful to make a distinction between remembering and learning. We can all recall memorising (or failing to memorise in my case!) lists of foreign language vocabulary for the next test. But how much good did it really do us? What percentage of the words on those lists is still with us now – or was even still with us a week after the test? The truth is that although we remembered the words on the list for the test – and some of us may have even passed the tests – we had learned little or nothing.

Now I know there will be someone reading this who says ‘but I still know the words on those vocabulary lists’ – and good for you, I say. But I’ll also wager that you had opportunities to hear and use those words in context and thus turned remembering into learning. You also probably mixed up tenses, conjugated verbs wrongly, and generally sounded like a foreigner in whatever language you were learning. And so you should – because that’s how you learn! You try something, you make mistakes, you learn and you do it better next time.

My other point is that while forgetting something memorised is as simple and as natural as breathing in and out - once something is truly learned, it cannot be forgotten.

So here’s what I think Einstein meant to say:

“Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything remembered in school”
and perhaps blame the anonymous reporter who misheard what the great man had to say.

Education is – or at least should be – the sum of all we learn in the course of our lives. Some of this comes from schools, though sadly, in my opinion, not nearly enough. But much of it comes from new experiences, from interaction with others and from the mistakes we make. Einstein summed it up himself when he said:

“Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”


First posted on August 28, 2011