A house of sticks

House of sticks






We are playing with the future all the time. We’re often told to invest carefully in it. We feel compelled, obliged, and sometimes pressured into doing far more to secure our future than we should. Take the current debate about the National Broadband Network infrastructure. There’s enormous pressure to invest in the best possible cable network for Australia, so that access to decent network speeds are on par with other developed and technological countries. For many in Australia it’s having at least any access full stop. It should be a no-brainer. Next take the debate about investing in education, much of it driven by findings and recommendations of the Gonski Review. Again there’s masses of pressure and energy around making sure all of the young citizens of Australia have a better, fairer, and richer education. Do you reckon it’s that hard to make a call on it? Stemming from these rather frustrated thoughts was the most selfish problem – trying to work out whether to renovate our existing home or knock it all down and rebuild.

At every level of our lives we are often making crucial decisions – ones that affect our future and the future of others. It doesn’t matter whether you’re trying to improve your living conditions or helping millions of people have better access to quality education. Complexity and limitations will blur, cloud, trick, and frustrate us at every stage. Which makes you less surprised to see people revel in taking risks. We marvel at people that can base jump off the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore, shake our heads at stock brokers who earn and lose millions of dollars, and gape at entrepreneurs who make their projects soar.

I’ve often become really worked up when it comes to people taking risks. In particular within workplaces who desperately want ‘innovation’, but are so anxious and insular that ideas can’t flourish. Innovation is inseparable from risk. It’s doesn’t matter whether you’re a base jumper, a stock broker, or an entrepreneur. Or even if you’re a technician improving networks, a teacher working with students, and a home owner looking to build. If we really want to change and create a better future, then we’re going to have to start taking some risks, and quit the blocking, doubting, and apprehension of ideas, which often delays them long enough to lose their momentum.

We all know the story of the three little pigs. The houses of sticks, timber, and stone. The ferocity and unimaginable force with which the wolf could blow down ideas with (hot) air. We know why we’re told this story: don’t jeopardise the future by building the present on poor foundations because we didn’t want to invest the time. But how would the story have changed if the little pig who built his house of sticks, had been given a better education in constructing his house? Good experiences in understanding the materials that he was working with, and how building something pretty solid (and maybe even creative) with them was entirely possible. Sure, the wolf couldn’t blow down the house made of stone, but just because the home has more weight doesn’t mean it shouldn’t also have some faults.

Maybe we’re all trying to build houses made of stone, when we should consider making it out of sticks – and see how clever and quickly our ideas can take shape. There will be a lot of people who might shoot this approach down; and if you’re building a national broadband network or correcting the inequity in education, then the scale and consequences become even more risky. But when I think about all the decisions I’m grappling with around renovating or rebuilding my home, scale and consequences are just as prevalent. Which direction allows innovation to flourish? Now there’s a question.

The Green School fiasco

I’ve been attending a few events out of the ordinary over the past week: the first was the Social Melbourne 5 year birthday meetup at Ponyfish Island, the second was the TEDxMelbourne network event at The Deck, then there was the Green School evening at the Hilton (I’ll get to that one in a sec), and last night was the SYN Awards at the State Library of Victoria. That’s a pretty mixed bunch of networks, and they all certainly made for some interesting conversations and experiences. All except for the Green School evening…

See, I should have had the ‘spidey-sense’ tingling when I signed up for that one. I should have seen that it was really a marketing ploy in disguise; using education to sell into the wallets of optimistic parents and teachers. It was only when I arrived that I started to question why the Green School would use the Hilton to talk about their school. It just didn’t seem ‘green’. Sure, there was about 100 people there, with a sprinkling of educators, but it was when the pop music started blasting over the PA as we took our seats and the presenters took to the stage that I started to look for the exit. OK, so I stayed just to see where it was going… and I tweeted the proceedings.

“Ok, so there’s going to be some selling of their camps for kids at #greenschoolmelb – it all makes sense now.”

“It seems Green School calls its library a ‘book bank’ – not sure about that one. #greenschoolmelb

“A slideshow of the campus which doesn’t seem to feature kids in the photos. Bad move. #greenschoolmelb

But then something weird happened. The provocative presenter, Alan Wagstaff (Learning Manager, Green School Bali) started challenging the audience about the purpose of school. ‘The mission of schooling is to send kids to university.’ ‘School timetables look the same all over the world. They are a magnet for everything that’s school centric, not kid centric.’ Saying this along with what was clearly a Powerpoint designed with animations from 1999 may have not seemed like a good idea, and you could sense that it made a number of audience members uncomfortable; he openly targeted the teachers in the room, which is why I never raised my hand when he asked. In a bizarre way though, I found myself bonding with these perspectives, as they are the kind of disruptive system thinking that I often enjoy debating with others. It was in two further statements he made that I found the gems in what was otherwise a pretty desperate sales pitch to the room:  ‘Student centered programs are crippled by teacher fear and parent prejudice.’ and ‘If you want something to stick, teach it over ‘three days in three ways.’

As soon as he walked off stage, I picked up my phone like I was taking a call and marched out of the Hilton. For a school that was trying to communicate a love of its philosophy and of the way it teaches children, they failed. Points for the provocative statements though – not many people can take a stage, metaphorically kick the audience in the head, and make them grateful for it. Alan Wagstaff gave it a shot, but it didn’t quite come off with the audience. I often give provocative statements a shot too when I present to teachers and librarians; perhaps I need to alter my strategy.

In an interesting footnote, the Twitter chat on the way home about these comments generated some further stimulating points – some of which I was challenged to defend. I like that. It makes us accountable for our opinions. It makes attending that portion of the event worthwhile. It means I will write a post at some point expanding my thoughts on why schools should ditch their timetables, stop using exam and test results to wax about how good they are, and why schools should stop behaving like people expect schools to behave.

Yearning to learn

Snowboarding at Hakuba 47 in Nagano Japan

When I came across this old photo recently, I was really proud. This was only my first season snowboarding, and I’d taken to it with passion, zeal, and feeling. I don’t think I’d ever been so absorbed by something like this. There is little in my own schooling that would have compared to this kind of immersion. I lived and breathed snowboarding in Japan, even though most of the time I couldn’t speak much of the language with people on the mountain or read the snowboard magazines I would buy. I learned by trial and error, through friends, and watching videos, photos, and others.

There was a period of rapid learning and improvement in those early years, when every day on the snow another technique or another trick was added to the repertoire. Then it was about practice and refinement. I struggled with practice and refinement; I don’t think I’ve ever been particularly good at picking myself up after failure. There were plenty of crashes, bumps, and screams of frustration too. Yet all I needed to keep going was the sense that I could see myself getting better, and of course the gradual acquirement of better equipment. This was yearning to learn. I was 27.

On Saturday afternoon I attended TeachMeet Melbourne held at the Royal Children’s Hospital. There was a series of interesting short talks from teachers speaking about their passion for learning, and the innovations they were discovering. During the break one of the attendees asked whether I was presenting. ‘No,’ I replied ‘I’ve never presented at TeachMeet. I haven’t felt I had any learning’s to share.’ She replied, ‘Well, you’ve just been to Japan, it would be great to hear about what you learnt from that.’ Yes it would, I thought. But I don’t think TeachMeet is really the forum for sharing travel stories, or selling my passions; it should be about what you do to educate others, and what you learned while doing so.

If I did give a TeachMeet talk on snowboarding, I would repeat the first two paragraphs above. Then I’d look long and hard at the audience, and say ‘I don’t have many regrets, but I regret finding my passion for snowboarding at age 27. As an educator I don’t have many regrets, but I regret not being more aware of finding what made my students passionate, and doing everything I can to help them pursue it.’ When we’re yearning to learn, there is little that stands in our way for absorbing the skills, content, and experiences; even the language. We hit stumbling blocks on this path, and can often stagnate, like I did with snowboarding. This is why we need to have good mentors and networks to push us, motivate us, and guide us.

Finding (and sustaining) a yearning to learn is crucial for all of us, whether it’s snowboarding or a TeachMeet. I suspect there are many adults and a lot of children who haven’t found this yet, let alone experienced it. It would indeed make for an interesting education environment where this was the mission.

A transition to something else

I have some awesome diaries in my drawers at home. The kind of volumes that I imagined would make a great story one day. Mostly they were written when I traveled the globe from 1997-2000; UK, Europe, America, and Japan. I pick them up from time to time, flick to a random entry and start reading. Usually I am transported back to that moment within five words. I can feel the energy and the passion of the experience, the thoughts and ideas, and the struggle to find the words to describe them all. Maybe that’s why I gave up on blogging so quickly… I last posted a blog back in 2009, I think.

In the meantime social media filled that void of ideas, commentary, and cool stuff. Thanks partly to the prompting of others, too many in-depth coffee conversations that ended with ‘man, you should blog about that’, and a sense of having something more meaningful and meaty to say now, here lies the birth of this blog. At least this time I have made the commitment in hosting, money, time, and pushing myself to learn more, that should sustain this blog for at least three years. Things do change though…

We are all in a state of constant transition; and that’s what this will be all about. Actually that’s what my blog posts were about a few years ago. Transitions are physical and they are mental. Transitions are sweet and exhilarating, and they can also be ugly and uncomfortable. Let’s get ready to ride one; and maybe chuck in some memories from those diaries just for the fun of it.