I love to try new things! The fact is that if we’re not living somewhat outside our comfort zones, we’re not doing much living at all. Life is about growth and without growth, we start to go backwards. When I recently jumped in the deep end and created a podcast about experiential education, it was not only a new experience, but a challenging one into which I had to put a lot of thought, time and effort to make it work.
It started out from listening to someone else’s podcast. Since I travel a lot for work, I’ve listened to a lot of podcasts in the car. What struck me though, was the fact that most of them were just conversations about topics I was interested in. However, there was nothing there in terms of really interesting experiential education. Certainly, there were shows out there about education, but they weren’t looking at the future of education. They were looking more at doing the same sort of things that have been done for about 200 years, but adding in a computer to the equation to make everyone feel that that’s progress. I’ll let you in on a secret… “It’s not!”
So I thought, who are some interesting people with whom I want to talk about what cool unique programs are they running? This was the starting point. I reached out to my first guest, explained what I was up to and asked if she were interested in being on the show. I was excited to get a very fast response. The only problem was, I had no recording equipment, never interviewed anyone before and massive time pressures from work.
Often people get to a point with an idea and even though it’s a great idea about which they’re excited, sometimes the first or second hurdle put a nail in the coffin of the idea and it falls onto the trash heap of dreams. That was not to be the case for me. Having already set a bunch of ludicrous goals, this was just another on the list. With my first guest lined up and booked in, I went out and bought a couple of lapel microphones which plugged into my iPhones. Buying stuff is the easy part. Everyone’s great at spending money. It’s what you do next with your purchase that either makes it worthwhile, or just another bit of gear that gathers dust.
With my tech equipment ready, I now needed some questions… This was probably the most challenging part of the whole process. I needed to research my guest and what cool things were being done in experiential education. Since I ended up with a broad range of guests, this meant that no single interview was going to be the same as another. I’d originally come up with a range of generic questions, which I promptly threw out. In researching the individual programs and backgrounds of the different guests, I found that I needed to explore more specific topics with each guest, rather than just try to ask the same questions of different people.
Added to this, when the interview was in progress, half the questions went out the window, as I found myself exploring other topics and issues which the guest brought up. By diving down the rabbit hole, it produced a far more interesting interview as well. For each subsequent guest, I was able to improve my listening skills and ask far better follow up questions on something said. For the first few interviews, I was too nervous for this and preferred to stick to my script, but as I became more comfortable with the fact that I could ask unscripted questions on the fly, it made it far easier to conduct a better interview. After all, the interviews were all aimed to explore their work in experiential education, not just for me to make it to the end of the script. In the end, out of roughly ten questions, I was usually only asking five or six. Everything else was simply further exploration of what had already been said.
As I conducted all the interviews in person, this added to the slight challenge of distance as some guests lived down the road and others in different countries. The craziest two recording days I had was towards the end of 2017. I had two days off work and I needed to record three interviews in two different states! I flew from Canberra to Melbourne first thing in the morning, hired a car, drove to rural Victoria, recorded the interview, back in the car to Melbourne, caught another plane to Adelaide! After staying with a friend overnight, I was off the next morning, to record two interviews one after another. Next, I was back on the plane to Canberra that evening and a 2.5 hour drive home! It was hectic, but worth it!
With a bunch of raw interviews recorded which covered a range of topics, it was now down to editing and adding some theme music. This wasn’t that hard, but still time consuming to ensure that each episode sounded good and wasn’t full of sound errors.
I won’t delve into the technical side of the whole podcast process but looking back on Season 1 for me I’ve learnt so much from the whole experience. On the one hand I now know how to conduct an interview with someone and draw out some key points from the work they do. I also learnt so much about other ways of doing things in education. There really is a huge gap that’s only growing bigger and bigger as schools are so slow to adapt to the changing world. Seeing some amazing standout programs such as the Australian Science & Maths School, really showed me what’s possible for education today, rather than just doing the same thing over and over… ‘because that’s the way we’ve always done it!’ type of attitudes with which so many schools are still battling.
I’m now in the process of recording Season 2 of the podcast, so if you’re running a unique experiential education program, I’d love to hear from you before I fill all the guests, but hey, if we can’t fit it in this time, there’s always Season 3!
Ultimately, if there’s some sort of fantastic idea you have, then no matter what the obstacles are that crop up, you can find a way around them. It was a lot work to complete this project, but anything worth doing always involves some significant effort. I encourage everyone to find something cool that can contribute to either education or helping others from your own experience. The best time to do it is always right now, so don’t delay. Get your next project up and running today and let me know how it goes!
I know what you’re thinking! This is going to be about a trip to Disneyland. Well, in a word, no! Although I have been to Magic Mountain in Disneyland, this is about an environmentally sensitive power station in Wales that’s built inside a mountain.
Before going to Llandberis, I’d never been to Wales, let alone heard of Electric Mountain. The drive there in my tiny rental car was challenging to say the least as that morning it had started to snow in the English Midlands and continued throughout the day. Although no stranger to driving in the snow, it’s usually been in a 4WD or with chains on. Driving the smallest, cheapest front wheel drive rental I could find through an unfamiliar landscape and foreign country is an experience not to be missed, especially in England, where nobody seems to be used to driving in the snow and the entire road system seems to shut down at the first hint of a snowflake.
Consequently, the four and a half hour drive, turned into a seven hour white knuckle ride and at one point it was snowing so hard I could barely see out the window. It was a great relief to finally reach the hotel without having skidded on ice or become lost in the Welsh Highlands.
Waking up the next day, it was amazing to see the snow-capped countryside through which I’d unknowingly driven in the dark. There were mountains, a lake and a wonderful town filled with slate roofed houses. Nearby, I was told there was a hydro electric power station called Electric Mountain. Whilst the landscape was scarred from centuries of slate mining, there was no power station to be seen. Deciding to go on a tour of the mysterious (and somewhat invisible) power station, there was nothing more than an information building to suggest it existed. However, once the introductory video started, it began to come clear, the entire power station was built into the mountain, not on the top, nor on the side. An enormous cavern was dug out and the entire station was built inside the mountain.
Similar to other hydro electric stations I’ve seen, this is one which works by releasing water from an upper holding dam to produce electricity in peak times of demand and then pumps the water back up during off peak times. Not a sustainable form of energy, but a really clever one. Add to this the fact that they can bring the power station generators online in twelve seconds, rather than hours for a standard plant, then you have one amazing feat of engineering.
Apart from the insanely brilliant idea of hiding the power station in the mountain, the other environmental sensitive aspects of the design include venting the water uphill to slow its speed, before it enters the lake. This ensures that there’s no visible output of water, as well as protecting the integrity of the lake and the fish that live inside. They also built a tunnel for the fish to go through so they can leave the dammed lake and head back upstream to spawn.
Inside the mountain itself, the enormous cavern houses the power generators into which the water rushes, to spin the turbines at 500rpm and produce electricity. The ability to rapidly switch on or off means continuity of power supply across the UK.
From an educational point of view, this is a wonderful day trip if you’re in Wales. It’s an opportunity for students to see how innovation, industry and environmental concerns can all be effectively managed without a detrimental effect. With a power crisis looming in Australia, it might be worth building a couple of these and a nuclear plant for good measure to provide clean and reliable sources of energy.
Recently, I was at a council meeting where they invited members of the community in for a brainstorming session. I liked the sound of it and there was free food, so I decided I had to go along. There were around 30 people there, with a mix of people from Council, business owners, local professionals, and other community members.
The task for everyone was to come up with innovative ideas for creating a modern connected city. Sounds simple, right? As with many other brainstorming sessions, the tables were covered with butchers’ paper and we had permanent markers to jot down notes. A presentation was given by Council as to what they were already innovating with in terms of local services. Whilst this was quite interesting, unfortunately, it seemed to skew the way everyone was thinking about innovation and so instead of people truly throwing out radical and innovative ideas, it merely appeared that they were replicating ideas, or just adding to the ones that Council had already said they were doing.
Whilst there’s usually an advantage to frontloading situations and getting people into the right mind-set, unfortunately in this case, it didn't seem to work and many of the ideas that were being thrown up, were not innovative. They were just pointless and some quite ludicrous.
I found myself sitting there feeling quite disempowered, as I frustratingly had no innovative ideas of my own. So why was that? Why was nothing coming to me? I've created and developed a number of innovative products, from the ‘Reducer Flush,’ that limited the amount of water that’s used each time you flush your toilet, as well as software for the livestock industry that provides up-to-the-minute pricing data for farmers, to medical and incident management software for teachers when they're out on excursions. If anyone at that table should have been coming up with ideas, I felt it should have been me…Or should it?
Despite my frustration, and feeling totally and utterly out of my depth, all I needed to do was realise that for me, sitting around a table and brainstorming with other people was never ever going to work. Why’s that you ask? If all it took to be innovative was to sit around a table and talk, then the world would be running short of problems to solve. The number of times I sat around a table at work in this manner, should mean that we have the most amazingly productive and cohesive workplace on earth. Unfortunately, it's not in time spent sitting around the table as that usually results in plenty of stupid ideas and a total lack of productivity.
Innovation is therefore a really tricky thing to understand. I recently read a number of books on early stage start-ups in the US. Many of these start-ups don't actually do anything. All they seem to have done is put a ‘high-performing’ team of people together and try to get them innovate, then at the same time try to delude VCs into giving them money to perpetuate their fantasy long enough in the hope of striking something useful. Think of it being like the gold rush days, where everyone was trying to get a piece of the action and instead of digging for gold in hills that actually might have gold in them, you just dig anywhere you can find a piece of dirt. Taking this approach just means you will get very good at moving mounds of dirt.
So how do we actually innovate? For me, every time I've had a good idea, it's been whilst skiing, paddling or running. It's not until I'm in a creative space that works for me, that I can be creative. Despite many people telling you if you put enough creative people together they will create something amazing, this is not always the case. The opposite can be true as well if you put a lot of creative people together, there is every chance they just go to fight. Can you imagine Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Vincent van Gogh in the same room? Would they work together to create the world's greatest masterpiece that would eclipse all of their individual works? Or would they simply argue and end up throwing paint at each other?
There is so much money in innovation and technology has been a great enabler. Consequently, people are desperate to somehow be part of it and try to invent ways for people to innovate. However, this often fails to recognise how individual and obscure the art of innovation is. Many innovations fail because they're not developed to solve a real-world problem. The truly successful innovations however, when looked at retrospectively seem so obvious. They usually are, because they fix a problem that previously caused great pain or annoyance.
So how do you come up with a simple and obvious solution that people will talk about retrospectively and say how ingenious it is? Firstly, what's your greatest frustration? Secondly, how can you improve or change something to reduce this frustration or fix the problem? Thirdly, when you come up with all sorts of ideas to solve your big frustration, test out the theory to see if it’s also other people’s frustration and check whether your solution would work. Fourthly, take action and do something about it.
With any innovation, it's often the last step that is forgotten. Many people have great ideas every day. However, very few of them have the time, energy and persistence to take the action necessary to turn these innovative ideas into workable solutions that make a difference to people's lives.
Next time you’re at work and you're forced to sit at a table and solve all the world's problems at once, think about where your most creative space is and instead of sitting around the table go to that creative place so you can innovate in a natural and effective way. If you approach innovation in this way, you won't be left at the table feeling disempowered. You can come back to the table with something truly amazing.
A short one this week, just to let you know that the Xperiential Education Podcast is Live!
The first two episodes are out and another will go live tomorrow! It’s been a wonderful educational experience for me traveling to meet the different educators and cover a huge range of topics and educational contexts. Please join us on this great journey for updates and some key links check out the website & twitter feed:
Web - www.xperiential.education
Facebook - https://www.facebook.com/experientialeducationpodcast/
You can subscribe to the Podcast on:
If you’re running a cool experiential education program, please get in touch, I’m always searching for great new ideas for shows and exploring different techniques and strategies for experiential education.
Often teachers like to tell others what to think. I know my teachers did when I was at school. In fact, they had an entire system in place there which actively stifled creative thinking.
However, as creative and independent thought becomes an increasingly important skill for students to have, how do we help develop creative thinkers?
Firstly, whatever you do, don't give students all the answers! This is a total cop out, much of which is borne from easy access to someone else's thoughts. What better way to study a novel for English, other than watch the movie and download all the crib notes! After all that's what everyone else is doing!
The problem with this approach is that you end up thinking exactly the way someone wants you to think, but ultimately other people's thoughts and feelings can never be your own and the most powerful lessons are based upon our own experiences, not others.
I see it all the time in education. Teachers feel the need to tell you exactly what a text means, what a character represents, what underlying themes are at play. All of this places a huge amount of perspective bias on a text. But what a text, a song, a piece of art or an engineering system means to one person, may be completely different to another! It's through encouraging and supporting this difference of perspective that drives creative thinkers.
If there were only ever one answer to everything, then between Google and Wikipedia, the world would be a perfectly balanced and happy place. Yet that would be a boring world in which to live.
Thankfully, instead there are endless answers, perspectives and feelings that are generated from literature, art and science that's taught in schools. The key to unlocking the value of this is by allowing students to explore and communicate their own personal perspectives.
Music for example is an easy way to spark discussions about abstract feedback such as feelings and interpretation. Give your students a song to listen to over and over and see what emotional response they have and ask them why. Whilst some songs will entice similar responses, there's countless ones that will have vastly different meanings for different people, because they're applying their own thoughts and experiences to the subject matter.
The artist may have had one idea stemming from life, but to be brutally honest, that means nothing to the listener. It's only from our own lives that we can draw our own emotional interpretations. Understanding this can be a powerful tool to help students develop a sense of independence, self-worth and identity and should be encouraged.
One song which fascinates me is Mad World, by Gary Jules, which is the theme song to Donnie Darko, which again is a movie which is amazingly complex and what it means to me is totally different from what it means to everyone else with whom I've discussed it.
There's no point in my analysing the song nor the movie here because I can only express my thoughts and feelings on it. Instead, listen to it a few times. How does it make you feel? Who do you think of when you hear it? This can be applied to so many songs. We listen to music, not because we care about the artist’s experiences. It's all an expression of our own. This is true for literature, art and science. They're all reflections of our own experiences and emotional responses.
So no matter what you're doing, there's never just one answer. Allow your students to explore and apply their own perspective. This encourages them to be creative and develops their critical and independent thinking skills, skills which will help them thrive in an ever-changing world.
I felt the bracing cold of Canberra, as I stepped from the car in anticipation of another challenging weekend at GovHack. I can understand why the Federal Parliament has a winter recess! However, despite this, I was rugged up and ready.
Walking up to the Snow Centre (Canberra Grammar’s amazing technology building), it was lit up with the GovHack and CGS logo projected onto the wall, looking more like a night club, than a school. Thinking of which, imagine how much money you could make from doing pop-up night clubs in schools on the weekends and in the holidays! Think about it! You have the venue, the sound systems, plenty of parking… You just need a liquor licence and you could make a ton of money! Hmmm I could be onto something… (patent pending © David Gregory 2017!!!)
Anyway, walking in, the place was buzzing with excitement. Even the registration process was cool, as I lined up to register. It was in a darkened room, illuminated by a number of computers. My name badge had been printed on this cool looking Perspex, which in the darkened room appeared to glow.
Armed with my badge and my laptop, I walked around and said hi to a few people I’d met last year. However, my nerves were starting to kick in. For me this sort of event, at least getting started is way outside my comfort zone. I may run around the countryside mountain biking, hiking, exploring new places and speaking to large audiences without any problems, going into an unknown project with a team of people I haven't even met yet is a tough and challenging experience for me. However, that's the whole point! Part of the challenge for me in doing something like this, is the fact that it is confronting and nerve wracking stepping out into the unknown.
Whilst I often talk about ways in which to push others outside their comfort zone, it makes little sense to be teaching this, unless you're going to do it yourself. Despite the nerves, the apprehension and not knowing how that night was going to turn out let alone the whole weekend, I walked in. Always worried that I wouldn’t be able to find a team, I pushed through this negative thinking, in anticipation of what could be. As usual, I was proved wrong on this. At the team forming point, I met some amazing and diverse people with whom I ended up working.
Whilst there are prizes for the most innovative use of data and a range of other categories, for me success was more to do with finding a team and working with that team to produce something interesting over the next forty six hours.
The excited noise of the crowd subsided, as ACT organiser Matt Purcell introduced the evening and ran through the rules of the event and provided a rundown of everything that was happening over the weekend and most importantly what was for dinner!
At the conclusion of his presentation, there was hurried activity as teams scrambled to their breakout rooms to start hacking, or grab a can of drink from the fridge, both good options! For our team, the first challenge was to get to know everybody's names and work out what everybody's strengths were. We quickly went around the table and introduced ourselves with a quick background as to what we do and why we were competing at GovHack.
Most teams had been organised beforehand and many of them had already devised some idea of the sort of projects they were going to work on. However, when you’ve just created a brand-new team with people you’ve never even met before, suddenly the challenge of this exercise escalates. Not only do you have to get to know people and work out their strengths really quickly, you have to come up with a cohesive and innovative idea using government data and produce at least a semi-working prototype within forty six hours.
For many, this might be an overwhelming task. However, I believe the key to success in this is effective communication. Even though we weren't able to go straight to a room and start working on our project, we were able to communicate effectively with each other and through our discussions and brainstorming, ideas started to flow and slowly come together.
As I've said many times before, for me being innovative is really hard sitting around a table. Yet this time, I found as ideas were being thrown up as to what datasets could be used, I was able to start bouncing ideas back that over the next hour and a half started to form into something quite interesting. The only thing which stumped all of us was the team name, which in the end pretty much ended up being based upon the solution that we created.
So what did we come up with?
After harassing countless government mentors and asking them what their biggest problem was, we came up with a mashup idea which evolved from using the cat restricted area data to chase down rogue cats, to a mobile app which allows drivers to quickly and accurately report injured wildlife to ACT Wildlife services. With the ultimate aim of faster rescue services and better data-capture on injured wildlife, our team got to work to research the impact of this in more depth and then built a business case and prototype from this.
The day seemed to evaporate as we brainstormed, planned and developed the idea. The sun had set and the rich tantalising smell of Indian food wafted through the air. With the organisers catering for 170 people, I've never seen so many massive buckets of curry in my life. It was a much needed and appreciated meal after a long day of hacking!
I headed off around 8:30 that evening after what had been a very productive day of team work. We’d all been working on our individual tasks, which were all contributing to the big picture of our overall project.
The next day started slowly, but the pace picked up to frantic levels as the deadline approached. We’d completed the project and the video just in time. However, after the first attempt to export the video from iMovie to YouTube failed, I had to do it manually and when I did, the computer was telling me it would take 26mins to upload the video and there were 13mins to go!!! Not able to rely on a timely server crash, I quickly re-exported the video at a much lower res and nervously cancelled the upload, removed the file and started again! The smaller video file uploaded quicker than I expected and thankfully with 4 mins to go, it was in!
Honey I Hit a Roo! - https://youtu.be/Gpi8EZiYi2Q
As the upload was confirmed, a great feeling of relief and achievement flooded in. It felt great to have successfully completed a project that two days ago, we had no idea about. Whilst at this point, it’s easy to reflect and say there was nothing to worry about, which in the end was true, if I hadn’t challenged myself and pushed myself outside my own comfort zone, I’d never have met such a great team who included Yogesh, Anthony, Ian and Mahathir and been able to create a really cool solution to a massive problem in Australia.
For the remainder of the year, I encourage everyone to do something that’s way outside their comfort zone. Don’t just teach it! Actually do it! Through this, you can become far more confident and effective in your own work and your own life. For me, this was such a great weekend, meeting new people and reconnecting with others I hadn’t seen in a long time. If you’ve never been to something like GovHack, then you must save the date for next year! A huge thankyou to Canberra Grammar, Matt Purcell and all the other GovHack volunteers who made it such an amazing weekend! Great work for me! It was a wonderful experience and the atmosphere of the whole event spoke volumes about how well it was done!