What transition taught me.

Raicho Valley, JapanIt probably seems odd to try to contextualise the past 7 months, but the thoughts suddenly started coming to me. Isn’t it odd when we make a change or a shift, often we’re simply looking for anyone to give us the confidence to know it is the right thing to do. We’re all looking for affirmation of one kind or another. Well, what follows are some insights on my journey that I think go to prove that grabbing an opportunity, shaking it vigorously, and then embracing it, are valuable at any kind of scale.

Insight #1 – Make Space

Our lives are so incredibly full. The lack of posts here is an indicator of that. As we get older things get seemingly more complex: work, money, health, homes, children, travel, exercise, love. Yet we also hat-tip and stare with envy at those that just ‘let go’ and seem to suddenly change direction. When I drew a line in my time at the State Library, it was a sign that I had indeed learnt from my past, in realising that hanging on until you’re either very sick, crazy, demoralised, or all three is a very unhealthy and unsatisfying way to live. In my view, it is exactly the same as knowing when to change tact on a program or project you’re doing, because you realise there is a better way to do it. Making space helps to reset the mind, opening up deep thinking, and lets opportunity find you. Making space allows you to reconnect with the things you wanted to invest more in.

Ironically enough, in the world of education, we have crammed the lives of our young people with so much schooling stuff, that we moan about opportunities to change, thinking that it means adding more. We should be cutting all the extra Maths and English garble (improperly justified as literacy and numeracy) and start injecting more mindfulness into learning. When we look at some of the most progressive and ‘innovative’ education systems in the world, very often they’re doing the simplest thing: giving kids time to connect with themselves, their inner voices, and just letting kids be kids. What if learning was about creative ways to ‘make space’, learning to let go, failing and quitting with grace? Well, my way of making space was to quit my job while not having a plan for another. Crazy? Maybe. But making space was the best thing I could have done; easy to say given I have landed in work that feeds exactly the energy I was looking for. Which leads me to insight two…

Insight #2 – Have A Fail Safe

You think I was crazy quitting my job, while not having another to go to? With a mortgage and a family? Sorry, but you just missed Insight #1. Even when I held on too long as a teacher/coordinator/manager, I had an escape plan: I’d been saving as much money as I could to take a holiday with my family; four months in a Japanese winter was the best thing I have done since travelling the world after leaving Uni. That time made me realise that I wasn’t ready to go back into school. After all, how could I contemplate teaching in an established school when I’d spent nearly 7 years designing one with colleagues and kids? So when it came time to pull that parachute from the Library, I did so feeling pretty proud of what I’d been able to ‘achieve’ (read: get away with) and mindful that the environment wasn’t exciting me as it had done before.

So I cashed in my many days of accrued leave and instead set upon finding that next ‘wave’. Sure, I might have been only 6 months away from long-service leave, but once you’re set, who wants to wait? Finding that next wave translated into heaps of coffees with people; and maybe a couple of whiskies. People who I respected, people who weren’t necessarily going to give me a job, but instead were going to give me insight and honesty. I already look back on that time with fondness; in making that space, cool ideas and connections formed, ideas that have already changed me. You’re escape plan may look different to mine, but take the time to find it – whether it’s money you’ve saved, holidays you’re owed, or amazing conversations to be had. But there’s a key tenet to this Insight that makes it work…

Insight #3 – Find People Who Trust You

Time again in my working life and my personal life, everything comes back to trust. It’s one of the reasons we underpinned the middle years City Campus  program with the foundations of ‘trust and responsibility’. School and business operate the same at the core: if leaders don’t trust those that ‘work’ for them, it’s revealed in the exorbitant rules and blockers put in place. If students and employees don’t trust their teachers/leaders they will never show any great commitment or creativity – because they know it isn’t valued. I consider myself a very fortunate (and perhaps intuitive) person to have worked with people I trust. People who can give me honesty and confidence, and I know it’s not out of politics or manipulation. People who go with an idea or program I’m pitching because they trust my judgement, my insights, my ability. Very often all you need is just one – make sure it’s someone who has some leadership up the chain! Of course the most important piece of trust you can have in making these kinds of transitions is your partner – I simply could not have survived the changes I’ve made without the love and support of my partner; that’s where I drew my strength. It gave me the strength to give myself to the next endeavour.

Insight #4 – Give And Invest

I have recently just finished reading the book ‘Give and take‘ by Adam Grant, I highly recommend it. As someone who feels silly for trusting people sometimes, or who feels like I give too much of my time to so many different groups, Adam’s book was like a mirror into these experiences. When I left the Library I gave myself to almost any idea or opportunity coming my way, it didn’t matter whether it was paid or not. In fact one of the opportunities offered to me in November last year was to help curate and program the first Do Lectures Australia. I will post in more detail about this particular event, but let it be said that I had little idea at the time that it would be one of the most amazing event experiences I’ve had; yes, I’ve already agreed to help do another one in 2015. At the very least I recognised very quickly with Do Lectures Australia that while it was unpaid, I would be well ‘paid’ in the networks, ideas, and people I’d get to connect with.

I also made sure that I booked into and bought tickets for events that fed my creativity and networks. Strangely enough instead of hitting social media like a hound with all the time in the world, I actually pulled back from it – I still can’t explain why; I think it was that making space allowed me to give of myself and invest in myself that negated the need to look for this online.

Insight #5 – Be Prepared To Start Again

I believe that the one thing I’m most proud of as an educator are the times when I threw out convention, tradition, and assumption and started again. Often with successful programs that already worked. Sure it worked, so why do it the same again? Because it will never be the same again, especially if you’re talking about a program that involves people. And if it doesn’t work, then you’re already committed to trying to start again, or change tact. It applies to work and life. ‘Closing up shop’ and relocating your life to another country, even with a family in tow, is something I hold as my ‘ultimate escape plan’. I think I’ll be a disappointed old man if I never crack that one out for a whirl. My transition to NoTosh came in February, a whole 3 months after leaving my last job. To be honest, I don’t think I would have had them come knocking if had I not made the space to rethink things and reconnect myself to myself. I actually wasn’t sure that I was ‘qualified’ to be someone who would use design thinking to help evolve education. It was like starting again, but knowing that I had the trust and support of people who ironically were spread around the world.

A teacher in a recent workshop was completely astonished that I had only been delivering design thinking workshops for 3 months; she thought I’d been doing it for years. What I tell educators now is that I have been, I just didn’t know it. Design thinking isn’t a science, or a philosophy, hell, it isn’t even a pedagogy, for me it simply affirms a process about what sits at the heart of all good learning experiences – look up at the five insights and you’ll find them.

Game developers take on game-based learning

You know how these things start: a tweet about some new research into the benefits of game-based learning spawns 45 tweets and all sorts of thinking about the intersection of games and learning. Yeah, that old chestnut. What was exciting about this tweeting flurry was that the insights and perspectives on what makes a game a learning experience came from game developers, not teachers.

The conversation was sparked by my tweet about an Australian study from Macquarie University for the NSW Curriculum and Learning Innovation Centre which highlighted the benefits of game-based math. The research was carried out by Dr. Kristy Goodwin, who highlighted the following benefits in the Mangahigh Extended Evaluation report (PDF):

  • Improved student learning outcomes,

  • 100% teachers reported that games had improved student learning,

  • 83% of students reported that the games helped their learning,

  • 94% of students reported that Mangahigh was more enjoyable than traditional modes of mathematics instruction,

  • Teachers reported enhanced student confidence which may lead to greater engagement and motivation, and

  • Instant feedback contributed directly to a more transparent learning process.

Getting acknowledgment that games have a role to play in learning and education is always good news – except the use of the phrase ‘Digital Game-Based Learning’ just seemed unnecessary and overly academic. This report added to the growing global body of significant research into the value of games in learning environments. Learning through play, who knew right? Der.

No, the really exciting bit was that I had only been recently reflecting on being more engaged with my Twitter followers who are either game developers or those that support the games community. This kind of report provided the fuel to get the conversation started. Very quickly game developers Andrew Goulding (@brawesomewaffle), Ben K (@AussieBen), and Andrew Duval (@_AndrewDuval) got involved in a tweet-chat about games and their impact on learning.

A few things became central to the conversation that followed. First, my initial point that other factors are crucial than just dumping the game in a classroom of students: that time and again the tech/game is only as powerful as the capacity of the teachers to make it meaningful in the context of the students’ work, otherwise it’s just a stupid way to crowd an attention-seeking, disjointed, and desperate curriculum. This means that teachers have got to start understanding games as a separate medium, the same as they might do with books or films, in order to appreciate the mechanics, design, and opportunities they offer. And there’s only one way to do this: play them.

Second, the way games are funded in Australia has a history of being pretty sporadic. Given that Australia has developed games which have stood their own ground on the world stage makes for a very impressive story – but that’s for another time. Certainly when it comes to the funding of educational games, things get even more lean. The US has gone quite a way to making in-roads on developing better educational games, thanks to the funnelling of major philanthropic investment from groups like the MacArthur Foundation, the Joan Ganz Cooney Centre, and the Gates Foundation. Of course the scale of these organisations do not exist in Australia, and neither does the kinds of support and thinking for games-based learning. This is gradually changing however, with examples like Knowledge Quest, Mathletics, LiteracyPlanet emerging as some examples of ways games can be built around learning outcomes.

Third, most people who grew up with games know that making a game educational is not the only way learning happens; and edutainment has a horrible history of trying so hard to gamify learning to make it ‘fun’ that it sucks all the fun out. And those who make games are even more qualified to have insights on this area, as Andrew Goulding pointed out –

The second comment by Andrew nailed it, in my opinion. It highlighted something often overlooked by those wrapped up in edutainment, and the same affliction teachers have when they use a tool, resource, or game that they don’t fully understand. Mechanics and motivation matter. I think this tweet would make great context for a panel program with educators and game developers. Andrew Duval qualified this by saying –

That last comment by Andrew Duval would also make a great public debate for educators and developers; and parents for that matter. There is such a pressing need to better educate people about how games function, their purpose, and their potential for teachable moments. For far too long games have been lumped together in the bucket of mindless violence, subconscious gambling, and meaningless story – it’s worth remembering that other mediums have all gone through this societal evolution; consider music, films, comics, and even books. Andrew Goulding wrapped it up towards the end with this nice insight –

While there is still so much to learn about game-based learning, there is also clearly a need to have more conversations like this, with a wider audience of experienced developers, designers, educators, and learners. It can start and end with everyone playing their way around a room full of games of all genres and platforms, coming together to explore perspectives and experiences, and building a better awareness that the answers often lie in communities we’re not connected with enough.

Also check out: Mangahigh and Dragonbox App

Disconnected learning

If you could have a day off tomorrow to learn anything you wanted, what would it be? Have a think now…

There could be so many things you or I could learn in a day, probably the vastness of choices would make it so hard to decide. It might be connected to other people. It might be working with experts. It be making something, or finally learning to finish something. Imagine the pathways that one day of learning might open up for us? OK, now back to reality. Sorry.

Today across parts of Australia, children undertook testing for NAPLAN, the National Assessment Program – Literacy And Numeracy, to help the Government work out how well our children spell, write, add, subtract, etc. A lot of anxiety happens around NAPLAN. Schools become dominated by it. There’s the idea that a lot is riding on how well the students do, because it reflects how well the teachers do, leading to how effective the school is. Sure, I get it. I can understand the pressure. What I can’t fathom is the learning.

I hear that some schools let primary school students watch a movie after their NAPLAN test was over. I hear some schools are giving students the Friday off from school after all the testing they’ve endured over the week. Are these meant to be rewards? Are they an acknowledgment that testing is hard work? The preparation, the testing, the recovery – all this for what are otherwise incredibly disconnected experiences from real learning.

You know what hard work is? Changing the system of education. If you’re reading this then you probably have a very good idea of what challenges this kind of change brings. Seeing education evolve isn’t going to happen with NAPLAN. It keeps us firmly planted in the traditional mindset that testing, scores, and buckets of testing data is going to give us insights into how to help education be better, be more effective; be better funded? Today I came across this video about the ’10 Expectations’ of school from the people at Leaving to Learn. The video does a very good job of defining the things that make school work, giving teachers and students a sense of purpose and engagement. The irony is that these ten expectations are more like ten challenges – because schools don’t work this way. These expectations would scare many schools.

As the video explains: these are imperatives. And to think that schools might evaluate themselves by these? Now there’s a test I’d like to see implemented. These imperatives suggest that current schooling is full of disconnected learning: we give kids the pieces, in the form of lots of separate lessons, hoping that somehow they will figure out how to make a whole. What it ends up creating are lots of ‘holes’ – ones that I’m sure existed for all our school experiences as well.

This thinking leads nicely into another piece of the puzzle: the content king. Education is dominated by content. It is saturated by it, driven by it, and confused by it. And in the world of the internet, content has multiplied millions and millions of times, in all its forms, from catalogues to cat videos, from testimonials to tweets. What we’ve gained in the technology though, is the ability to finally make connections with our learning, in real time to real places and people, really, really fast. The web scares schools too – because, just like the big bad world outside the walls of the school, the internet is waiting to chew up our attention, making us mindless, thoughtless, and selfish victims. Or so Nicholas Carr would have us believe.

Something about this logic seems all wrong. Just like the logic of NAPLAN tests. It makes sense at first, but the more you consider how the web is empowering nations of people who haven’t had the chance to learn what they really wanted, to help innovators and inventors iterate faster than ever, then you have to wonder whether Carr has simply watched too many cat videos. If you only go by the numbers then we all think Gangnam Style is the world’s greatest ever music video. The long tail of the web should make us think twice. ‘Disconnected learning’ in this context, can also relate to those moments when we are absorbed in thinking and learning deeply through the web on a key topic, a key talk, a moment of inspiration. If we need to make time to refocus, think deeply, meditate away from all the distractions of this world, then education is still not making the grade.

As a final footnote, last night I played Commander Chris Hadfield’s now famous video cover of ‘Space Oddity‘ to my two little kids. They were amazed. The questions came thick and fast. We went to his Google+ page to have a look at his other exploits and commentary while he was at the space station. More questions. More wonder. More opportunities to learn. I found it quite amazing to see these two little children discover there was another world in space, where the laws of science weren’t quite the same as on Earth. It gave them new perspectives, and a reason to connect with their learning.