Solutions involve connections and interconnections, not just code

A reflection on going beyond coding when thinking solutions and the Digital Technologies curriculum.

I attended an eLearning session recently where the participants were asked to place ourselves along a continuum in regards to their confidence in regards to the Digital Technologies curriculum. At the far end of the continuum was the idea of ‘coding your own reporting program’. The conversation the ensued was intriguing. “That is not me … I could never do that … You need to know a lot of Excel for that.” To me this only tells part of the story associated with digital technologies.

When you look at something like a reporting solution, we need to start by addressing the problem being addressed? This is why there is a focus on design thinking in the curriculum. A part of this process can be identifying what other solutions already exist. If there is already an application that addresses the problem you are trying to solve, why would you start again?

Alternatively, it is important to work out if there is something you can start with and build upon. Maybe a solution that you have found only addresses a part of your problem, but offers a starting point. This may include some pre-existing code that can be adapted. That is the power of a open platforms like GitHub and Scratch, where you can not only access other people’s code, but share your own iterations.

Another twist is where you might develop a first iteration and then bring others on-board. At some point a solution may benefit from incorporating other skill-sets, perspectives and resources. For example, at some point Gmail went from being somebody’s 20% project to something being developed by a team. In an interview with EdTechCrew, Adam Bellow reflected on the development of eduClipper. After some initial work, he outsourced the creation of a new platform to an outside provider. He then took this iteration and refined it further. This is not to say Bellow could not code it himself, but when we get to systems thinking, there is sometimes more efficient and effective ways of working.

So when we ask the question, can you create a reporting solution, maybe we should ask why are we doing it and has someone else already laid the groundwork? This is something that comes through in Doug Belshaw’s work around digital literacies, such an activity is bigger than whether or not you can code.

So what about you? What has been your experience of coding? Comments welcome.

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People often cringe at the idea of bringing business principles into school. See criticism of Pearson, problems with free schools in England and the out-sourcing of education in Africa. There is the belief that business will undermine the intent behind providing a public education for all through the means of economic growth and inevitable cost cuttings and compromise that come with it. This however denies the possibilities of bringing in various principles and practices into the classroom to support with the discovery of new learning possibilities and potentials. For every year and every context brings a new set of students to guide, each coming with their own interests and challenges. Here then is my take on Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup and what possibilities going lean and thinking like an entrepreneur might bring to learning in the classroom:


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Starting with a vision linked to a hypothesis, the lean focus is on the build-measure-learn feedback loop. This is about learning at each step along the way and making adjustments accordingly. Whether it be Jackie Gerstein’s iterative process, Gary Stager and Sylvia Libow Martinez’ idea of think-make-improve or Alma Harris and Michelle Jones’ disciplined collaboration, each framework provides a structure for learning through a constant cycle of feedback and reflection. Providing his own take on this, Doug Belshaw has written about the possibilities of Kanban and Agile workflows for education, while Steve Brophy has reflected on the use of the Modern Learning Canvas to support innovation.

Minimum Viable Product

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Rather than committing endless resources to an idea, the minimum viable product is designed to quickly develop an experiment in order to test out the riskiest assumptions. Yevgeniy (Jim) Brikman argues that the MVP is better considered as a process of gathering feedback, rather than the actual creation of a product. In education, this is significant as too often extensive resources are committed to a problem with little thought given to refining the initial hypothesis. For example, Richard Olsen suggests that before investing time and money into a new digital platform to increase writing results, get students to swap laptops in order to test whether collaboration makes a difference. This initial information can be used to develop a clearer picture of the problem.

Archetypal Customer

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It is so easy to come up with an idea and forget who it is actually designed for. Although we may think that we know the customer or audience, it is important to be open to actively developing this understanding. In education, our customers are the students. Although it can be easy to be guided by the age expectations of curriculum documents, this often overlooks where students are actually at or what their interests may be. It is for this reason that simply rehashing old planners can be problematic.

Vanity Metrics

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In a recent post, Corrie Barclay spoke about the importance of using data to identify what needs to be done. This is true, but the problem is that too often we measure what is easy or obvious, rather than what really matters. This can lead to confusion about what work we actually need to do. Eric Ries describes this as ‘vanity matrix’, those numbers that are rolled out, but with a little digging are shown to bare very little information. The problem is that we need to be more creative about how we measure innovation. This often begins by defining what the problem is in the first place. Simply coming back to NAPLAN results, PISA rankings or progression points does not always suffice. To gain a deeper perspective we often need multiple points of data to draw a clearer picture of the problem at hand.


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Whether it is zooming in, zooming out, changing customer, moving from an application to a platform, moving from a platform to an application, changing how value is captured or adjusting the channels used to deliver the product, a pivot is best understood as a significant change of tack. Eric Ries describes this as, “a change in strategy without a change in vision.” In education, this is about making those significant structural changes to support an improvement in learning. For example, Greg Miller provides different methods for reallocating time to support self-directed learning. While Corrie Barclay has shared how his school has used the flipped classroom model to improve student outcomes and engagement. Each of these changes involve a considerable change in resources and thinking.


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One of the challenges associated with innovation is the fear of risk and failure, especially when it comes to larger organisations. One answer is to sandbox such change, that is portioning off a part of the whole to focus on research and development. Once such changes have been appropriately refined and prototyped, they can then be taken out of the sandbox and added to the status quo. Adrian Camm describes this as running ‘dual operating systems‘. An example of this is idea of electives. Instead of doing more of the same, electives offer a prime opportunity to test and trial different practices to find out what works best.

Success Theatre

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In Counting What Counts, Yong Zhao suggests that, “numbers don’t lie, but they can be used to endorse lies.” This says so much. Sometimes the worst thing that we do is find any way possible to provide a supposed story of success. This unwillingness to recognise the elephant (or elephants as Will Richardson would have it) in the room often leads to a failure to innovate based on the initial vision and hypothesis. The challenge is often developing a collaborative culture which recognises failure and confusion as an opportunity to feed forward, that is the potential to see where the next learning step is and act on it.

Now maybe I am wrong. Maybe I am being too optimistic about the benefits of business to support learning. Maybe it is all just a part of the neo-liberalism ideal, whose roads all seem to lead to Pearson. Can such principles be used to develop a system that encourages the creation of value as opposed to fostering growth? As always, thoughts and comments welcome.

For more on Lean Startup, here is a collection of videos to get your going or else visit the website The Lean Startup.

Also, check out Tim Kastelle’s Lead Startup series for further elaboration on the different concepts, as well as the Episode #o68 of the TER Podcast for a discussion of the merits of business in education.

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I am not sure exactly what I thought when I started Oliver Quinlan’s The Thinking Teacher, but a part of me wondered whether maybe it would be a step-by-step guide on how to teach the art of thinking, incorporate it within the curriculum, assess it, measure it. And in many respects it was, just not in the manner that I expected.

Unlike other edureads which set out to provide some sort of defined answer, slowly unpacked across one hundred odd pages, Quinlan provides a book of questions and beginnings. It is not as much about the answers as it is about the act of reflecting.

Touching on a range of different facets central to education, such as the lenses we apply, the purpose to learning, planning for learning and what might constitute success. The book never feels like a lecture or a diatribe, but rather an invitation to get the reader to think for themselves, providing alternative points of view to get things started.

The Thinking Teacher is one of those books which in itself provokes thinking. The well intended irony is that in the end the thinking teacher is you, the reader, the teacher, the learner. As Quinlan asserts,

Asking questions that we do not know the answers to can lead to change – either a change in how we interact with the world or about how we think about the way it works.

The succuess of this book is not because it provides a series of checklists or resources in the appendix covering all things thinking, but for providing a context to reflect, wonder and imagine.

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In a recent post, Jon Andrews reflected on the influence of Edutech and its ongoing relevance. It got me reflecting on my own experiences in regards to conferences and professional development. One event that stands out in particular was the 2014 Google Teachers Academy.

There was so much conjecture prior to the event about what it meant and how the representatives were selected. While in a conversation afterwards, one of the questions brought up was that of impact. I argued that time would tell the success of the evolution associated with Google Teacher’s Academy move from a focus on tools to a focus on innovation and change. However, a part of me thinks that this also misses something. Focusing on ‘success’ sometimes misses the chance influences and impact. As I have discussed before in regards to data and connections, reducing success to a particular outcome does not recognise the serendipitous learning and experience through failure.

So as I look back, here are some aspects that have impacted me:

  • Design Thinking: The biggest take-away was to not only learning about, but learning through Design Thinking. From the different immersion activities, such as drawing a classroom to interviewing different stakeholders; to using hexagons to maps ideas in order to develop a how might we question; then generating ideas and then filtering them; as well as prototyping and critiquing different iterations. I have long wondered about the different facets of inquiry-based learning. However, I had not really had the opportunity to properly explore Design Thinking. One of the things which really stood out to me was the cyclic nature of the process. Although it focuses on an authentic end goal, as other forms of inquiry do, it incorporates an element of ongoing refinement that is sometimes lost within other processes. This experience also made a lot more sense when I read Ewan McIntosh’s book How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make The Happen. This is not to say that Hamish, Tom and the coaches did not do a good job with the constraints of time. However, it was not really until the end, when you can stand back and reflect, that you can make sense of the process, rather than just the ideation being actioned.
  • Connections: I remember reading that being a part of the Google Teachers Academy would provide access to a range of connections. Although I am now in a few new Google Groups, which is dip in and out of, the real bonds and connections were those that I formed simply being a part of the process. Ironically, it was the time spent chatting around meal times and during the taxi rides when the friendships were formed. It simply reiterated the fact that learning is more often than not relational. We can follow all the people in the world, but there is always something humane and so much more meaningful associated with face to face contact. Although I knew quite a few people before (and they knew me I found out), I feel that bit more connected now. I am not sure if this justifies the program, but must not be overlooked.
  • Start with Why: One of the interesting things that occurred at GTA was that every coach received a copy of Simon Sinek’s book, Start With Why. Before the event, I had not heard of Sinek and his golden circle. After watching his Ted Talk, I read the book over the Christmas holidays. It was one of those books that, like Carol Dweck’s Mindsets, really clarified the way I saw things, particularly in regards to innovation. Just being ‘right’ or bringing a good idea to the table does will not necessarily bring the change desired. The challenge is to really be clear why such change and innovation is important. This can mean supporting others to drive change, helping them as leaders.
  • GEG: Considering it was an event organised by an edtech giant, I am not sure how much Googly knowledge I left GTA with and I am not sure that it really matters. Instead, the event demonstrated the potential for using Google Apps to support change. I actually think that I left with more thoughts about how to facilitate professional development. For example, Corrie Barclay and I ran a Google Educator Group event at the end of last year. We designed it around the idea that teachers could share and create. It was not necessarily the ‘success’ that I envisaged, but it did leave me with more to critique and think about. A part of a longer process exploring how to support others with change.
  • Driving Change: It has been interesting seeing some others celebrate their successes. Whether it be Riss Leung and her new makerspace or Steve Mouldey’s website 1st Follower, designed to support others with the change process. I left GTA with the question: How Might We ENGAGE PARENTS in a CULTURAL SHIFT to make RELATIONSHIPS and CONNECTIONS the focus of learning? Part of me thought that this might have been a little too ambitious. However, to me, that was the point of the event. I would liked to have jumped into disruptive pedagogies or some other area of change, but I felt that was the safe option. I chose a topic that was messy and wicked, with no clear solution. Every school is unique and has its own context. Engaging with parents and the wider community in a meaningful way is one area that this shows through. Since then, I have continued to ask questions, read widely, listen to different perspectives and test out different iterations. I will be honest, I definitely have not succeeded in bringing parents and the community into the classroom as Chris Betcher and I had envisaged. However I have started implementing different means of sharing and connecting beyond the classroom, which is definitely a step further in what feels like the direction.

So what about you? What big events have you been a part of? Programs that you’ve been privy to? What are the lasting impacts on your professional practice? As always, comments are welcome.

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Over last few days I attended Google Teachers Academy in Sydney. There has been a change to proceedings this year with +No Tosh taking control, bringing a Design Thinking approach to the table. The focus has moved away from creating a group Google ninjas to supporting change and reform in education.

At the heart of it all is the notion of moonshots. Heralding from John F. Kennedy’s declaration that ‘we will land on the moon‘, a moonshot is an idea both with its feet on the ground, but its heads in the clouds. That is both practical and ideal. One of those dreams that people say are too hard, which we however choose to be bothered by.

Inspired by +Daniel Donahoo‘s keynote at ICTEV13, the challenge I arrived with was how do we engage the school community in meaningful dialogue in order to transform our practises to build a better tomorrow. However, I was also mindful of holding onto my idea lightly. Our first activity was to workshop our ideas in our group. My group was made up of +Riss Leung, +Michelle Wong, +Juliet Revell, +Jordan Grant and +Kim Martin, while our mentor was +Chris Betcher. What came out of those discussions was that when it comes to change there are three key stakeholders in the village: students, staff and parents.

Having already been through a process of trying to evolve teacher pedagogy via the introduction of the Ultranet, it was decided that this is not going to be a fertile space to focus on. On the other hand, it was thought that focusing on students is too often limited to a few random classes taught and becomes more like an oasis in the desert, rather than a massive wave of change. It was therefore decided that the stakeholder most left out of discussions and with the strongest voice of change are parents. This wasn’t what I had really expected. However, on reflection of all my immersions, it occurred to me that parents were often either absent or left out of the conversation. Merely told what the change will be, with little effort to explain why.

I was then faced with one of those Matrix moments where I had to make a decision. Would I position myself with cultural shift and pedagogical change, something that I am really passionate about and feel really comfortable with, or focus on engaging with change outside of the classroom, in particular parental and community engagement, something that I neither feel comfortable nor confident with. I made the decision to focus on community engagement for to me moonshots are not about being safe and comfortable, rather it is the opposite. As I suggest to my own students, find the learning that makes you feel most uncomfortable and go there.

Through this process, I ended up in small a group with +Kim Martin and +Ben Gallagher trying to unpack what exactly was the challenge associated with engaging with the wider community. We did this using hexagonal thinking. This involved writing down all of the concepts associated with the topic. We then took in turns at stringing all those ideas together, whilst at the same time opening ourselves up to critique and feedback. After a few goes we eventually came up with an agreed understanding which we recorded:

creative commons licensed (BY) flickr photo by mrkrndvs:

After this we returned to our original groups and worked through the ‘How Might We’ task. This involves completing a prompt: how might we ACTION WHAT for WHOM in order to CHANGE SOMETHING. The purpose of this was to come up with a clearer guide for our moonshot. After several revisions, I came up with:

How Might We ENGAGE PARENTS in a CULTURAL SHIFT to make RELATIONSHIPS and CONNECTIONS the focus of learning?

The focus on connections and relationships came out of my immersions with just about everyone stating that the purpose of education was relational, yet the reality in our classrooms is so often far from that.

From there I brainstormed a range of ideas and possibilities to solve this problem. I finally decided that the focus needed to be on engaging parents by not only inviting them into classrooms, but actually engaging them in meaningful action and including them in the classroom. For too often parents are invited in to help with menial tasks, such as photocopying or laminating. However, we fail to entrust them with a meaningful voice. This lack of agency subsequently leaves them both disempowered and on the outer. In some respect the first person that we need to buy in when it comes to schooling are parents.

My moonshot then is about going beyond parent teacher interviews, beyond grandparent morning teas once a year, beyond attending information evenings once a year and beyond simply signing readers. It is not only about getting parents involved in the classroom, but about giving them the opportunity to add value to what is going on. I left feeling that a part of the solution was getting parents into the classroom, but after further thought I think that it needs to be something more. I think that the first step is actually finding out who our parents are and what skills that they may have to give back to the community. For teachers are far from the only voice able to give back to the community, a point that I made in reference to PLN’s and listening to everyone.

I have read and heard a lot of criticism of late about the Google Certified Teacher program. For me not only was it an opportunity to work with people that I had never met before, but the possibility to challenge my ways of thinking. In the end, being a Google Certified Teacher is not a certificate, it is not something done, rather it is something that you do. It is a mindset, it is a way of approaching problems, a belief that we can change the world with that change starting at one.

Photo via +Anthony Speranza

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