Disobedient Thinking

It was recommended to me a little while ago that I should watch the following TED Talk and I’m so glad I did.

Welby Ings talks about creativity, which he defines as disobedient thinking. It made me think about a few things:

  • I have often wondered about the labels we put on children. On the one hand, I can see why grown ups can be relieved that there is a label and a reason for a certain behavior or way of being, then help can be sought. On the other hand, I wonder how detrimental this can be to the child’s self esteem. It is also clear from the talk that we are kidding ourselves when we think that students don’t realise they are not doing so well when we label them as a “rhino” rather than “below the standard” or just plain “thick.” When we talk in staff rooms we (rightly) avoid the words thick, dumb etc. But are we just putting a positive spin on something when students can see right through it all…?
  • This talk about embracing all learners’ strengths is nothing new either. We have long talked about multiple intelligences and the importance of allowing students to be creative or in their element at school. But you can see how people can have a perspective on schooling like Ings if you are only able to shine in the odd art or PE or technology lesson. Which makes me wonder, how do we balance what is a vital skill of becoming literate, with opportunities to be creative? Are these two things as mutually exclusive as they are often treated in schools? How can we move beyond the talk to actually valuing all different learners?
  • Something that often comes up in my work with teachers is the difficulty we have in shifting the locus of control. I can see why this is, when teachers have all felt what it is like to lose control and have to gain it back as beginning teachers. I can also see why this is a barrier to the kind of thought Ings is talking about. That pesky question of “why are we doing this?” is a threat to control but a great example of critical and analytical thought.
  • I like the idea in the talk of creativity being “ordinary stuff” rather than a special quality reserved to a lucky few.
  • I also liked the idea that organisations are not creative, the individuals in organisations are. It made me wonder about the place individuality and individual thought has in a world where collaboration is so highly valued. After all, you can’t have a team without individuals.
  • Also on this point, Ings says that if everyone “sing(s) from the same song sheet” then the organisation will “never go through the roof” and you will “never get a choir” but a “loud monotone” instead. Which begs the question, how do you balance cohesiveness and moving towards a common goal or vision, with individuality?
  • Lastly, I loved the analogy of “toxic marshmallow” and a “ballet of Pavlov’s dogs” to describe learning which is safe, mediocre and follows a ritual formula. I think it is a matter of setting students up to have success, whilst also not saving them and teaching them to be comfortable with a challenge. No mean feat!

What is the teacher’s role and the student’s role in a modern learning environment?

This year I have been privileged to begin working with a cluster of Catholic schools on Auckland’s North Shore. One of these schools is St Joseph’s in Takapuna, who are on the cusp of moving into their brand new (and very fancy!) modern learning environment. They have been doing lots of thinking about this over the past few years so it was timely to bring all their ideas together and discuss –

What is the teacher’s role and the student’s role in a modern learning environment?

We peppered the conversation with inputs from Michael Fullan and Derek Wenmoth to help our thinking.

2010 Ten trends: Changing role of teachers and learners from EDtalks on Vimeo.

Below are the ideas that came out of the conversation. Please excuse the shadows on the photos.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Effective teams and leaders. What can we learn from chickens and coffee breaks?!

This is a fabulous TED Talk, by Margaret Heffernan, reminding us that great schools are not the result of super stars, but of a collective whole.

She begins by outlining an old view of leadership and the workplace, whereby there is a superstar at the top and a pecking order below. This, she says, leads to aggression, waste and dysfunction.

Instead, Heffernan advocates a different group structure. One where:

  • Group members are sensitive towards one another
  • Everyone gives equal time to one another
  • There is more social cohesion and focus placed on what happens between people, not just within one person – “What matters is the mortar, not just the bricks.”
  • People help one another and motivate each other
  • Conflict is frequent, “because candor is safe”

This is basically social capital, where work is social and collaborative, people know each other and know how everyone fits together. This, Heffernan says, compounds with time so people need opportunities to connect and we need to value the social nature of work more.

coffeeThe Sweedish appear to know this as they have a word for a coffee break which is about more than just drinking coffee. It’s about connecting. Fika is the word.


Orchestras also know this. Their blind selection process allows selectors to find people who will the a valuable part of the whole, without having biases.

So what is the leader’s role in this? To create conditions for people to do their most courageous work and honor the workplace’s principles, according to Heffernan.

What does the New Zealand economy tell us about the future of education?

This is the fourth post in a series, sharing some reading I have been doing recently though a paper on education futures which, by the way, I would absolutely recommend.

This post is about the book “Get off the grass: Kickstarting New Zealand’s innovation economy.” by Shaun Hendy and Paul Callaghan.

get off the grass


A bit of a summary:

Hendy and Callagahan argue that New Zealand is in a bit of strife. They discuss the ‘New Zealand paradox’ where we have all the conditions to create growth – we rank highly in ease of starting a business, access to legal and political rights and free trade,  plus low corruption and tax rates. However, we don’t see the prosperity you would expect – “we don’t fit the theory that if a country meets the laissez-faire criteria for prosperity, prosperity should follow.”

The authors point to an over dependence on agriculture and primary resources, as well as a reliance on our ‘clean green’ brand, as the problem. They suggest we need to move away from this, to a more knowledge and innovation based economy.

To do this, Hendy and Callagahan suggest some changes to our economy. Firstly, innovators need to collaborate more – bigger cities see more patents but we don’t have big cities, so we need to find ways to collaborate effectively on a more national scale. We need to break down barriers between companies in order to share information both within the country and overseas. Information needs to be shared between people with “weak ties”, whose knowledge compliments each other. In order to do this, more needs to be spent on research and development as well as setting up systems to help connect people with complimentary ideas. We also need to alter our country’s self-perception towards a nation of knowledgeable people, not just people of the land.  This, as well as a bigger focus on science and technology, should result in more ideas, more diversity in products and more novel products.


My response to/thinking about this text:

What are people studying at tertiary level?

As I was reading this, I was thinking about how this applies to education and I remembered an article in the news about a year ago worrying about the way there were so few agriculture graduates. So I wondered whether this was still the case, and whether young people were already going for different careers. I came across this article, saying that student numbers in agricultural science degrees are actually on the rise again! So then, what are people graduating with qualifications in? I came across this (hopefully not too out of date) summary from the 2013 census:



So if the authors are right, and we need more scientists and technologically minded people, our graduates in these areas look potentially promising to my untrained eye. Especially if they need to connect with those who have the business skills to get their ideas off the ground. I also notice the kinds of graduates that might have the ‘soft skills’ that computers don’t seem to have yet and there appear to be graduates of that sort too.


What do we teach in schools?

Since the book was so strong on science and technology, it made me think…. It is a bit of a conundrum, what we should be teaching in schools! Do students need basic literacy and numeracy skills? Do they need ‘soft skills’ and competencies? What about science and technology? What about the lack of focus we have on creativity? How can we even make predictions around this, when we have no idea what the future will hold? Which makes you question what the purpose of an education system even is!



The part of the book about connecting people with ‘weak ties’ also made me think. I wonder how we make this happen with teachers and educationalists. When I think of my networks, the people I associate with have pretty similar ideas. On Twitter, I pick like-minded people to follow, I attend events and conferences with people who all talk about the same sort of ideas in what feels like a bit of an echo chamber, I’ve chosen to do a paper centering on ideas that I’ve thought a fair bit about, I’ve even chosen a critical friend who shares very similar ideas… My interactions with people who don’t echo similar ideas to me are fairly slim and I’d imagine most teachers are in the same boat. Perhaps this is why education is seen to be a bit stagnant….


Schools as innovation incubators?

This is the third post in a series, sharing some reading I have been doing recently.

This post is about the book “Creating innovators: The making of young people who will change the world.” by Tony Wagner.

Front Cover

A bit of a summary:

Tony Wagner’s key idea in his book “Creating Innovators” is that, in order for America (and, I dare say, little old New Zealand) to remain competitive economically, schools need to change so that we create innovators. He states that schools aren’t failing, they are obsolete and, to make them relevant, we need to switch focus to thinking more about what students are able to do with what they know. Wagner brings in examples from schools of different levels, teachers and parents to illustrate his points.

Wagner highlights a few aspects of school culture that are incongruous with the idea of creating innovators and suggests alternatives:

  • Focus on collaboration instead of individual achievement
  • Problem solve using multiple disciplines, instead of teaching in a highly specialised/silo-ed manner
  • Encourage students to be OK with failure, instead of teaching to the test and playing ‘guess what’s in the teacher’s head’ – leading to risk aversion.
  • Encourage creation and problem solving instead of passive consumption of information
  • Ensure students are intrinsically motivated, through “Play, passion and purpose”
  • Ensure teachers model themselves as innovators, by doing the above.

My response to/thinking about this text:

I very much enjoyed this book, building on Wagner’s previous work, “The Global Achievement Gap,” which identifies seven essential skills for students in the 21st Century: critical thinking, collaboration, adaptability, entrepreneurship, analytics, communication and curiosity.  I would recommend it as it was easy to read, good to get you thinking and I liked the fact it looked at education from a broader perspective  (i.e. not just schools, but home too).

The book did bring up a few questions for me:

  • I have been thinking about whether you need independence or collaboration (or, of course, a mixture) for good entrepreneurship. I wrote a blog post about this earlier in the year and it still perplexes me. I did find it interesting that the examples of your entrepreneurs given in the book were all individuals who had collaborated in terms of their relationships with key mentor figures, but perhaps not with other like-minded individuals to enhance a product or idea. I do wonder whether we need to focus on both collaboration AND independence and proactivity, in varying proportions for different people. Perhaps it comes down to building self-awareness; of when it is best to collaborate and when it is best to stand on your own two feet. When I think about this, I’m always drawn back to the video “I Choose C” which made be wince the first time I watched it – how many times to we get students to ‘think, pair, share’ prior to giving a response? Is this always the best strategy?
  • As I mentioned before, one thing I really enjoyed in this book was the focus on both school and home. We forget sometimes that ‘education’ isn’t just from 9-3 within the walls of the classroom. I think we need to explore the idea of parent and school partnership further than what exists in the schools I have experienced. It also brings up the question – how do we change public and parental perception of what is important in education? Or the other way around, as  the entrepreneurial parents in the book demonstrate – how do we change school’s perceptions of what is important?
  • I also question the idea that we all need to be innovators. It seems like an overly simplified panacea to the problem to me. I wonder whether there actually is a successful one size fits all approach that would solve all our education system problems. Or is it about thinking in an ‘onside of the box’ kind of a way, that could be useful for lots of careers?
  • Wagner asserts that “we live in a credentialed society” where “college has increasingly become merely ‘a sorting and credentialing mechanism’” – So does this mean that universities need to change, in order to allow everyone else to as well? It seems to me that you can only make so many changes in ECE, primary and secondary before you hit a bit of a wall – hang on, put the breaks on, what if Johnny wants to go to university? Won’t he need to be prepared for that system?
  • Wagner also states that “our education system is charged with an essentially ‘conserving’ task – preserving and transferring our knowledge ‘capital’ to the next generation” – which begs the question, when is this OK? What knowledge is worth transferring, so students can learn from the generations before them? Are social things worth transferring? What about basic literacy skills? What about life skills? I think there needs to be a balance between working it out for yourself and just being taught how to do things that don’t really need reinventing, like ironing a shirt.
  • Another quote from the book – “We need Accountability 2.0…to assess the quality of students’ work and teachers’ effectiveness. I believe all students should maintain a digital portfolio, beginning in first grade, that follows them through school and contains their best work, and that students should have to periodically demonstrate what they know. Progress from one school division to the next— say from middle school to high school— should be based on evidence of proficiency in students’ oral and written work. Think of this as the “merit badge” approach to learning and to accountability. We need clear evidence of students’ progressive mastery over time of the skills that matter most…” – This begs the question, what are the standards we would assess? What is important to be proficient at? What happens if you don’t meet the standard? Are you stuck in middle school?
  • Lastly, Wagner mentions the “…dangers of student being pressured to specialize too soon…” – So what do we teach before they specialise? What is worth knowing?

Lots of big questions from this book! Perhaps some for a future EduCafe session…