With the start of a new year, there’s always the hope and anticipation of something new and something better! People look for change and there are high hopes all around that that change will actually come.
However, we all know most people can’t keep a New Year’s resolution for more than a day or so, so let’s not even bother with that. Instead, I want to look at why teachers must be prepared to reinvent themselves over and over again.
For most people this can be difficult, but for teachers even more so. In the past year, I was running a program which had many challenges arise throughout, one of which was the chef walking out, leaving us to cater for eighty people ourselves. Now I won’t go into all the details surrounding this as we don’t have that much time, but when I expected other teachers to adapt, jump in and get cooking, I got the response from many of them, ‘We’re just teachers, we can’t be expected to cook.’ Having run a number of businesses, as well as residential programs, this approach doesn’t sit well with me, as sometimes we find ourselves in situations, not of our own making, but we have to find a solution one way or another.
This made me think, after I quickly worked out how to cook for eighty people with one other staff member who was prepared to give it a go. Why are so many teachers reluctant to try anything new?
To me, this seems at odds with the whole concept of teaching. You really do need to be able to think on your feet and adapt to situations as they change. Although most teachers will never be in a situation where you find yourself cooking for a lot of people, you never know what you might need to do to remain relevant in today’s changing world.
For me, teaching others has always been at the core of what I’ve done. Whilst I may move from business to education, to politics, to business and back to education, empowering others to develop and grow within themselves appears in every single context in which I’ve worked. However, to truly appreciate the place of education in today’s rapidly changing world, the experiences outside of education have been far more valuable than the experiences within education itself.
Ultimately, I’ve found myself reinventing myself time and time again. From electrical salesman to political staffer, computer technician, teacher, barista, café owner and tech entrepreneur, each time I’ve changed what I’ve been doing, I’ve felt far more energised and motivated than before and it has all helped me be a better teacher. Fancy that! Experiential Education is the best form of education possible.
However, most teachers and most people never reinvent themselves or what they do. If they start to feel stale in what they’re doing, they will often just grind it out and keep doing the same thing in the hope it will get better. The fact is that it won’t! Stale teachers, are hopeless teachers, incapable of doing anything useful, let alone teach. Now there’s not the need for anyone to reinvent themselves as many times as I have, unless you really feel like it. However, taking time out from teaching to work in another industry, or completely different role, is not only healthy, but moving forward, I believe, will be critical to the success of teachers in the modern world. If teachers are expected to teach their students how to be flexible, adaptable, dynamic, critical thinking problem solvers, then they themselves need these sorts of qualities and the only way you get these qualities is through real life experience, which often doesn’t happen inside the confines of a school.
Therefore, at the tipping point of the new year, are you feeling stale? Are you feeling like you’re no longer being challenged? If so, why not take some time off and go and work in another job, something completely different. The experience and skills you will gain from this will be more empowering and worthwhile than a thousand staff ‘development’ days and when you go back to teaching, this experience away from teaching will have made you a far better teacher than before. Having gone in and out of education for years, I’ve found every time I come back, I’ve learnt something new and useful, because it’s through our experiences that we always learn the most. Why not give something new a go this next year? With so much to be gained, it’s always well worth it!
This week, since it’s the new year holiday period, I thought I'd write more about adventures and well nothing about work. After a massive past month, I managed to jump on a plane and fly to Japan. I love flying and with my favourite TV show, now movie, Absolutely Fabulous on the entertainment system, the movie was just the right length to have dinner and then fall asleep. Having not stopped for weeks, it wasn't hard at all to doze off and wake when the stewards were serving breakfast!
After a muesli and a couple of espressos, I was all ready to go. Another thing I love about travelling is the fact that one moment I can be in stinking hot weather, the next I step into winter. It's not quite like going into your cupboard and discovering Narnia, but not that far off it either!
Shuffling through immigration seems to get faster and faster as they improve technology to check people through. The biggest hassle however, was trying to work out how to make all the connections to get to my destination. The Japanese I did at school hardly prepared me for any of this. It came down to a couple of options. 1. I could wait 4 hours and catch a bus directly to my hotel (boring). 2. Get a mono-rail, bullet train and bus to my destination. Far more interesting… and challenging! Whilst I already knew of these two options and had it planned out in my mind what I needed to do to make this happen, it's not until you're faced with a ticket machine that even when in English Mode doesn't make sense and no ticket sales desks in sight.
I managed to fudge my way through and buy a ticket. I wasn't sure if it were the right one, but hey it kept working everytime I stuck it in a machine, so I guessed I was on the right track. (The track being a monorail, it was kind of hard not to be!)
I made my way to Tokyo Central Station and from here ran around madly trying to find the next connection. It was the bullet train! I again did battle with the ticket machine that had way too many options that didn't make any sense at all. However, I finally succeeded in getting it to spit out a ticket, yet when I went to the gate, it turns out it wanted two tickets. So after the guard said something I didn't understand except for the word two, I went back and got a second ticket (which was apparently slightly different somehow). Placing both tickets in the machine at once, it worked! With a strange feeling that this ticketing process was somehow inefficient and un-Japanese, I raced up to the platform as the train was minutes from leaving.
This was my first time on a bullet train and it was amazing! The sleek design, the aerodynamics, the whole train was awesome. I can't for the life of me work out why Australia hasn't built any lines for them. The smooth pace at which they accelerated and slowed mean that you were never thrown about. Although I have to admit I was slightly disappointed that leaving the station I wasn't nailed to the back of my seat by 5Gs of thrust. Now that would be cool.
Seeing the sheer size and spread of Tokyo was something itself. The high-rise apartments, the industrial areas, the sprawl of the city seemed to go on forever. As the urban centre became more distant, the train sped up hitting over 280kph! The world flashed by and in the distance, I could see the snow capped Mt Fuji dominating the landscape.
The train ride was around 1.5hrs and as the towns became more rural, the design of the building changed and there was some great tranquility about this transition.
Reaching Nagano (venue of the 1998 Winter Olympics), the bullet train ride ended. Stepping off the headed carriage, I was snapped back into winter by the frosty chill in the air. From here, I transitioned onto a bus for the final leg of the journey. As the bus wound its way through the rural townships, light snow began to fall, getting heavier and heavier as we ascended into the mountains.
After another hour and a bit on the bus, we reached the township of Hakuba, a great town now deep with snow. I explored town for a couple of hours buying and eating some random foods which looked like one thing but tasted like something else. One such food looked like a cream bun and turned out to have some sort of black bean mash within it! Ha! It's always worth trying new foods and I eventually stumbled on something I liked for lunch.
Going anywhere new for the first time is always filled with uncertainty, but that's what makes it so exciting. I don't know what's going to happen next, but to an extent it doesn't matter, as enjoying the journey and everything that happens along the way is the most important thing. It's way too easy to get so wrapped up in work and ‘regular’ life that you miss out on the opportunities to travel, to explore and to experience new things. So over the Christmas break, think about somewhere new you'd like to go or something new you’d like to try. Ask yourself where your next adventure will be and go and book it in the next hour! Whatever it is, don't delay, don't defer it, make it happen and have an awesome adventure whatever it may be!
This year has been an amazing transformative one! The more we learn ourselves, the more effective we are as educators. From working out how to hack together a series of audio recordings into a cohesive podcast series to running a long-stay residential outdoor education program, I learnt a lot about problem solving, adaptability and resilience.
When faced with problems, which to many might seem insurmountable, I’ve learnt there are always ways around them. It’s just taking the time to be resourceful enough to find a workable solution. This is something that from my own experiences, I’ve been able to model and reflect upon with staff and students. I saw an interesting presentation about healthy habits for the brain. One part really stood out. The presenter commented, when working with students, don’t allow anyone, including yourself to say, ‘I can’t do this’. Instead reframe everything into, ‘How can I do this?’ One blocks the creative process. The other opens your mind to endless possibilities. This simple shift has helped me find the answers to countless challenges this year and is something I’ve worked hard to instill in my students, so no matter what is thrown at them, they can open their minds, adapt and find innovative solutions to anything.
Merry Christmas and thanks for reading throughout the year, it really means lot I hope you've had a wonderful challenging year and all the best for 2019!
Today we find ourselves at an exciting time in history. The digital revolution has dramatically changed the world and continues to do so at a frantic pace. Unfortunately, many people haven’t yet realized the scope of what’s going on. We’re in the midst of the second greatest Renaissance in the history of the world! Never before have we seen such upheaval and rapid change than that of the digital age. However, before we explore how the digital age is swiftly destroying the effectiveness of our traditional education system, let’s look back at the last Renaissance which took roughly 300 years to run its course.
From the 14th Century onwards, a radical shift in thinking occurred in Europe. Rather than just mindlessly stabbing each other with swords, knowledge was emerging as power. This social and cultural ‘rebirth’ which started in Italy, was driven by powerful families such as the Medici who sought out ancient texts from Greece, Rome and the Middle East. From this came different ways of thinking and monumental shifts in Art and Culture that transformed the world. A form of education known as Humanism reintroduced philosophy, poetry and progressive thinking to a Europe that was still emerging from the dark ages. The result was that now, nation states had more intelligent and well-educated people who could crack a witty joke before stabbing you with their sword.
Unlike today, during the Renaissance, England was in the process of exiting Europe after the 100 Years War, Russia had a slightly aggressive foreign policy stance and there was conflict in the Middle East. It was a time when the world was flat, the sun revolved around the earth and the printing press had just been invented. The Chinese had already invented similar mass production printing approximately 600 years earlier, but we shouldn’t let the facts get in the way of a good European story!
Legendary artists such as Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo were busy sculpting and painting naked frescoes all over the Vatican. However, the Council of Trent in 1564, decided that nudity was shockingly unnatural and consequently employed another artist, Daniele da Volterra to take his paint brush to the shocking nudes and paint underpants on them, thus ending the constantly whispered sniggers of blushing visiting nuns.
Let’s now race ahead to the 18th and 19th centuries to the next period of massive upheaval, known as the Industrial Revolution. This was a time when Britannia ruled the waves, the Prussian government had just limited the working week for children to 51 hours and everyone was smart enough to realise that ‘clean coal’ was complete nonsense. Jobs were being lost to automation and children were far better at using new steam powered technology than their Luddite parents. From steam trains to ships and cotton mills, everything in England was being exponentially scaled up, including the mass production of education.
In 1833, the British Government passed the Factory Act, making it compulsory for children in factories to receive two hours of education a day. By 1880, it was compulsory for children up to the age of 10 to go to school and in 1902 a system of secondary schools was established. Thus the ‘modern’ education system was born most of which still remains in place today.
Born from the dark satanic mills of Industrial England, the world of 1902 is a far cry from the world of 2018! However, what’s both exciting and worrying at the same time is the fact that the world of 2030 can, and most likely will, be vastly different from today.
The first Renaissance took around 300 years to run its course. However, in the next 10 - 15 years, we face an enormous challenge as the digital tsunami of change bears down upon us! To be honest, teenagers being able to use snapchat to communicate has not been a huge leap for mankind. Despite the average teen’s ability to play with technological devices that have more processing power in them than the first moon landing, this has done little to prepare them for the change that’s upon us. According to a recent Four Corners report, over 5 million jobs will either disappear or be significantly restructured over the next 10 - 15 years, which is around 40% of the entire Australian workforce. We’re not talking 100 years. We’re not talking generational change over 50 years. We’re talking 10 Christmas’ dinners away and almost half the jobs in Australia will have permanently changed!
Where does that leave us as educators? To put it into a school context, for those of you who lead a K-12 school, the students who are now in Kindergarten will be graduating into a vastly different social and economic world. Businesses are automating every single process they can to reduce the need for and cost of human labour, as well as leveraging emerging technologies such as AI (Artificial Intelligence) and robots that can learn. Consequently, many ‘white collar’ jobs are now disappearing.
How do we address the new reality that’s bearing down upon us faster than a handshaking, baby-kissing politician on election day? Do we A). stick some more computers and a robot in a classroom and hope a bit more eLearning ‘fixes’ it? Or B) radically shift our thinking and approach, to prepare staff and students for a rapidly changing world?
For me, the only answer is B). However, the radical shift, is basically not so radical after all and something which was originally suggested over 100 years ago by Kurt Hahn and John Dewey that learning through experience and reflection is the best educational approach to help prepare students for the challenges and complexities of life.
After watching the Four Corners episode, I decided to start my research project and learn how other experiential educators are addressing the tsunami of change. Since podcasts are trendy right now, what better way than to create a podcast about experiential education? Turns out, it’s a great way to meet interesting people and learn from their experiences.
Added to this, I love to try new things and it’s something I’ve always encouraged staff and students, to do! If we’re not living somewhat outside our comfort zones, we’re not living much at all. When I recently jumped in the deep end and created Xperiential Education (the podcast), it was not only a new experience, but a challenging one into which I had to put a lot of thought, time and energy to make it work. From this, a really valuable picture emerged of shifts in education, preparing students for an unknown future.
As an outdoor education teacher, the first episode was all about outdoor education and I travelled to New Zealand to Tihoi Venture School near Lake Taupo where I spoke with the Director Cyn Smith about their long-stay residential program for Year 10 boys. It’s a back to basics program without technology that focusses on relationships and social and emotional growth through experience and reflection. Conversely, the final interview I did with Glenys Thompson, Deputy Principal of the Australian Science & Mathematics School (ASMS) in Adelaide with its STEM focus, is heavily tech-based. However, the educational methodology for this program is essentially the same as the Tihoi Venture School’s back to basics program. Ultimately, the ASMS program is not about the technology itself, which is often a trap into which STEM programs fall. It’s all about learning and growth through experience and reflection and has produced some amazing outcomes for students.
From outdoor ed, to science, to art, to drama and ultimately to the workplace, I’ve found the core principles needed for our students to be successful in a world of constant change regardless of the environment are: critical thinking, problem solving, risk taking, adaptability and teamwork. The only way to effectively build and develop these skills is from within the students themselves through practical experiential education. Real experiences, creating authentic teachable moments, lead to reflective practices and growth within students.
Teachers who are still spoon feeding all the answers to their students to ensure they do well in exams, are failing their classes dismally. Although schools that approach education this way may get some great ‘headline’ marks for their glossy brochures, their graduating students will find it increasinly difficult to cope in a world 10 - 15 years from now that requires a flexible and adaptable skill-set that cannot be rote learnt. It has to be through interactions with others and experiences that involve levels of risk and potential for failure that students learn best.
From this, a couple of key questions for school leaders come to mind, “What are we preparing our students for?” and “How can we prepare them?”
The ‘let’s keep doing what we’ve always done’ approach is bound to fail on every level, as it did during the first Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution. Let’s forget about those who don’t like change for the moment. They’re going to be left behind anyway. One of the most powerful drivers of our younger generation today is that of social justice. Millennials love a good cause, so why not leverage that in their education? The ASMS is doing exactly that, as they’ve structured their entire program around taking massive global social and economic issues that need addressing and empowering their students to develop practical solutions that leverage technology to create a better outcome for others in the world. Unless your students have that social and emotional context and skill set, this isn’t going to work well, but it’s exactly what’s needed to maximise the educational opportunities for students and prepare them for the challenges of the unknown future.
To help prepare your school, staff and students for those 10 short Christmases away and the seismic social and economic shift that’s happening around us, here’s a few suggestions:
1. If you don’t have an outdoor ed program, start one. The skills developed are the exact same critical thinking, adaptability and teamwork skills your students need to be successful in life. It also helps to build that elusive ‘resilience’ that everyone’s talking about these days.
2. Create some industry partnerships to allow students to work in businesses, social enterprises or community groups as part of an integrated, experiential education program. Many new jobs will be service-based and increasingly reliant on a person’s ability to socially interact with others. Create some authentic and mutually beneficial situations in which these interactions can occur.
3. Find ways to empower staff and students to adopt real causes and make a difference in the world. This sets the scene for a life of responsibility and consideration for others and will empower our students to shape this radically changing world with the values and moral compass they’ve been encouraged to build throughout their formative years at school.
However, the most important and the easiest thing to build into your school’s program is reflective practices.
“We do not learn from experience... we learn from reflecting on experience.” - John Dewy
The time spent on reviewing what worked, what didn’t and how to improve next time, is far more powerful than any other approach and is adaptable to any subject and situation. This allows students to take risks and fail, yet not be afraid of failure and that’s key to surviving and thriving in a world of constant change.
We’re now in the middle of the second renaissance or global rebirth, driven by the rapid changes in technology which are reshaping our world. Whilst our traditional education system still needs to be majorly overhauled to address this shift, we shouldn’t worry too much about the future. We have a generation of students who genuinely care about the world and we still have the ability to develop unique educational programs in our own schools which can develop the social and emotional skills needed for students to succeed in whatever they choose. We are living in the most exciting time in history and as educators, we can help shape a wonderful future for our students and the world no matter what happens in 5, 10, 20 or 100 years’ time!
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!