Risk vs Reward – Lessons from the Road

Open road

I spent a few hours this afternoon driving the nearly 200km from Sydney to Bathurst for a day of work in a Bathurst school tomorrow. As I crossed the Blue Mountains and went past Lithgow, the roads open up a little and there are longer, straighter faster stretches of road. On one particularly long straight stretch of road I noticed that my steering wheel hung ever so slightly to the right even though I was driving in a straight line. It wasn’t enough to really bother me, but I started to wonder why it was like that and what it would take to fix it so the steering wheel was perfectly neutral while driving in a straight line. I’m sure the reason had something to do with the camber of the road, and I realised that I do in fact have some level of understanding of how a vehicle’s steering system works. How did I know this? As I pondered the question I remembered back to my very first car and how I had – on several occasions – pulled the steering wheel off and put it back on again.

VW Type 3You might be wondering what caused me to remove and replace the steering wheel on my car.  I mean, who does that? As I tried to remember the reason for why I would be disassembling parts of my car, it dawned on me that I used to take that old 1970 Volkswagen Type III apart and put it back to together again not because there was anything wrong with it, but simply because I could. Yes, I used to pull things apart on that car and put them back together again just for the fun of it and to try to understand how things worked.

There were many times where I pulled my VW apart and couldn’t figure out how to put it back together, and it was off the road for a few days until I could work it out. Back then, that didn’t seem like a big deal. And the value in learning how my car worked seemed a small price to pay for the inconvenience of having it off the road temporarily.  Since the VW I’ve had several other cars that I’ve been quite willing to pull apart and try to put back together, simply because I wanted to know how they worked. Engines, gearboxes, diffs… I’ve had all these things in pieces just because I was curious about what was inside and how things worked.

As I drove along in my current car, a 2015 Mitsubishi ASX, I pondered the prospect of pulling the steering wheel off and putting it back on again, adjusting it by one spline and wondering if that might fix my steering wheel’s droop to the right. As I thought about doing this, I realised that I honestly wouldn’t attempt it on the Mitsubishi, not only because it was probably way more complex than my old VW, but it was more likely to be an expensive repair if I messed it up.  Could I work out how to remove and replace the steering wheel on my current car? Sure. But would I? Nah, probably not.

And I got to thinking about why that is. I’m still a curious person and I still like to know how things work. But the idea of taking my 2015 ASX apart and putting it back together again – for fun – is just not something I’d consider, even though I’ve done it to several of the cars I’ve owned over the years.

What was different? As I thought about this, I wondered if it was the fact that the newer and more expensive the car, the less inclined I would be to tinker with it just for fun. My ASX cost about $26,000. My first VW cost $800.  There was a lot less to lose with the VW if I got it wrong.

This got me thinking about the learning process and about the balance between risk and reward. Unless you are prepared to take the risk of breaking something, you’re probably not going to reap the reward of learning. I don’t really know exactly how the steering wheel on my ASX works because I’ve not attempted to pull it apart, and so I will probably remain fairly ignorant of its inner workings. That’s just a risk vs reward situation I’m going to accept for now. This car is simply too expensive if I fuck it up.

As a teacher, over the years I’ve done a lot of great projects with kids. Some have been amazingly successful and have dramatically changed the way I think about the teaching and learning process. And some have been total disasters. But the value for me as a teacher – as a teacher who wants to continually be getting better at what I do – comes from being willing to take that risk that even if things don’t work out, the value of what I learn from trying makes it worthwhile anyway.

For several years I worked in a fancy high-falutin private school. I won’t say that I was being completely risk averse during my time there, but I also don’t think I took as many big gambles and tried as many radical things as I once would have, simply because the stakes were a little higher if I happened to mess it up. This school had a reputation to protect, demanding parents to keep happy, and there were more policy-driven hoops to jump through to really try outrageous ideas. By contrast, I’ve worked in several schools that had far less to lose, and in those schools it was always much easier to try new ideas because it didn’t matter so much whether they worked or not. Most of the best innovation seems to come from situations where failing is most definitely an option.

It’s nice to be well resourced and have great facilities. But you can do an awful lot of great stuff in a school with very limited resources. You don’t need a lot of money or resources or fancy facilities to be innovative and try new ideas. You just need to be willing to try stuff, and to not worry about whether it works or not.

The other things that struck me as I thought about this idea is that some of the cheapest, shittiest cars I’ve ever owned – the ones I had no issue pulling apart and tinkering with – are the ones that gave me the fondest memories and the deepest emotional attachment. The last few cars I’ve owned have been brand new, reasonably expensive, “nice” cars, but I have very little emotional attachment to them at all. They are just transport. Yes they are comfortable, reliable and pleasant to drive, but that’s about it. The cars I’ve loved owning the most over the years were mostly second-hand, cheap, with lots of quirky flaws yet I look back at the experiences they gave me with such great memories and the knowledge that they even shaped me as a person.  I see some parallels with the classroom there too.

Sometimes you can put that steering wheel back after you pull it apart, and sometimes you can’t. The point is not that everything you do needs to work. The real point is that everything you do should be an opportunity to be a better learner.

Creating Creativity

Dear Internet,

I could use some of your help if you have a moment.

I’ve been fortunate to have been asked to present an extended workshop at the Learning 2.012 Conference in Beijing China in a few weeks. It’s very exciting. I presented at the Learning 2.010 conference in Shanghai two years ago and it was totally awesome, absolutely one of the best learning events I’ve been part of.

The session I’m running this year is called Creativity and Innovation in the Classroom. It’s a big topic that could really go in any number of directions, which is both exciting and scary at the same time (made even more scary by the possibility that we might not have any Internet access that week in China!)

Obviously I feel as though I have something to contribute on the topic or I wouldn’t have suggested it, but I would really love to tap into some of your collective wisdom. I’m a big believer in the wisdom of the crowd, and I’m hoping to pick your collective brains a little.  I’m well aware that all of you together are far smarter and more creative than I can ever be on my own…

Here’s the actual blurb that is listed on the Learning2 website…

Increasingly, the ability to be consistently creative and to think in innovative ways is what distinguishes great companies, great products and great individuals. As educators, what lessons can we learn from this? How can we apply the same principles of creativity and innovation to our classrooms in order to build engaging, interesting and challenging environments for ourselves and our students.

There are some learning outcomes listed there too, just to try and give me some focus. Really though, the cool thing about this particular conference is that it kind of evolves on the fly, and the participants are just as responsible – actually moreso – than the presenters in fleshing out the content of the sessions.

So here is my request…

If you were coming to this session, what sorts of things do you think should be part of it? What ideas, suggestions or activities would you suggest if you were participating in it? If you were running it? Do you have any great stories or ideas that would fit in with the theme? What do you do in YOUR classrooms to make them places of creativity and innovation?

I would really love to bring the wisdom of my network into these sessions. If you can offer your insights, and I really hope you can, please leave a suggestion in the comments below. You could also Tweet, email, Facebook or Google+ me, but to be honest, having all your ideas in the comment thread below would be really convenient.

Thanks! You guys are awesome…

Nothing New Under The Sun

The recent decision in the Apple/Samsung debacle has really got me thinking about a few things. If you read my last blog post you’ll know that I feel somewhat disappointed in Apple’s seemingly bullying behaviour towards a competitor. I suppose I feel like this because I have had such a high opinion of Apple for so long and this is just not what I expected from them. The hashtag #boycottapple was trending globally on Twitter for a while this morning so clearly a lot of other people were equally unimpressed with the whole thing.

Realistically, I know it’s more complicated than that. The fact is that Apple is a company, not a person, and companies are ruled on business decisions, not emotions. There is no doubt that Apple brought amazing innovation to the phone business with the release of the first iPhone and that numerous competitors immediately changed their design ideas in order to compete. And yes, quite a few of them probably copied some ideas. I also understand that Apple has a responsibility to their shareholders to protect their intellectual property, and so they probably had little choice but to pursue Samsung and teach them a lesson that to copy is not acceptable. There may have been other options on the table for Samsung to license some of these technologies and ideas, paying Apple for the right to use them, but no deal was reached. Whether that was because the price was unacceptably high, or some other reason, I don’t know. The point is that no agreement was reached and Apple had to act to protect their patents.

Which is the real issue here. The patents. Let me point out that I’m not a patent lawyer, so I won’t pretend to understand the finer issues of IP law, but it seems quite obvious to me that the US patent system is set up in a way that allows ideas to be patented that many reasonable people would not see as patentable ideas.

Slide to Unlock images from the Apple patent applicationTake the slide-to-unlock feature for example, Apple’s method for unlocking a touch screen device. You can read the full patent application here (pdf, 418kb) which describes the idea behind the slide-to-unlock feature.  The application is titled “UNLOCKING A DEVICE BY PERFORMING GESTURES ON AN UNLOCK IMAGE” and takes 35 pages to explain the rationale, background and method for sliding a finger across a touch screen to unlock it. Again, I’m not a patent lawyer, but surely for an idea to be patented it needs to be original, and not have prior art. If it’s been done before by someone else, then how on earth can it be a patentable, original idea?

Now take a look at this video of a demonstration of the Neonode M1n, a quirky little device that was not overly successful, but skip to the 4:00 minute mark in the video and look at how the device is unlocked. I’ll wait while you do that…

Look familiar? Sliding a finger across a touch screen to unlock an electronic device clearly existed prior to the iPhone, so how can a patent be awarded for this? You might argue that Apple implemented it differently to the Neonode, but you could equally argue that Android implemented it differently again. And how different does it really need to be before you can argue that it is not just an evolution of the idea that came before, but is now a whole new idea?

In fact, what about the picture on the right, which make the point that the basic idea of sliding something sideways to unlock it is not at all new and has existed in a pre-digital form for a long time. At which point do we accept that a new idea – which clearly has its fundamental roots in an existing idea – is different enough to be considered a whole new independent (and therefore patentable) idea?

Slide-to-unlock is a good idea, no question. Whether they invented it or not, Apple implemented it in a good way that makes sense. If other phone makers had truly wanted to play by the rules they would have looked at what Apple did and said to themselves “Ok, so we can’t do it like THAT… we need to come up with a different way to do unlock the touch screen.” And given the number of really smart people who work in this industry, I have no doubt that they could have come up with some other non-infringing way to do it (and given the ruling in Apple’s favour, they may have to come up with other ways to do it in the future).

And that’s just slide-to-unlock.  There were other, much vaguer, patents that were apparently infringed, like making a device that was rectangular with rounded corners. Or having glass screen that goes from edge to edge. Or the shape of the bezel. Let’s assume that there were numerous patented ideas that other manufacturers looked at and said “well, we can’t do it that way, we just have to come up with a different way to do it”. Presumably, this is what Steve Jobs was talking about when he said he wanted other companies to stop stealing Apple’s ideas and come up with their own ideas. Make it differently so that it’s not the same as Apple’s stuff. This, despite the fact that Apple is obviously very good at taking the ideas of others and reinterpreting them into something different enough, or polished enough, or novel enough, that it might be considered “new”.  A lot of the anger being directed at Apple right now is because of the massive hypocrisy they’re displaying by both simultaneously taking the ideas of others and building on them while doing everything possible to prevent others from doing them same thing to them.

I know that when I get into a car to drive it, I’me very glad that there is a round steering wheel in front of me, and brake, clutch and accelerator pedals where I expect to find them. Whatever car I drive, I’m glad they all work in a similar way. I’d hate to have a situation where every car I got into had a slightly different method for stopping and steering, simply because each car company had to come up with their own way of doing things because they were not allowed to “copy” other cars. That’s not innovation, that’s insanity.

In an interview with Robert X. Cringely, Steve Jobs once famously claimed Picasso said “Good artists copy, great artists steal”. A bit of research online suggests that Picasso never actually said this at all. Jobs never let the truth get in the way of a good story. It turns out that the Picasso myth was actually based on a similar quote attributed to the poet T S Eliot, who allegedly said “Good poets copy, great poets steal.” In an excellent blog post by lawyer Nancy Prager she asserts that the (mis)quote was attributed to Eliot in a 2006 article by a chemical engineering professor called Bill Hammack about fair use and copyright. Further research revealed that the misquote was based on a 1921 essay written by T S Eliot about the playwright Phillip Massinger, which Bill Hammack later decided to paraphrase as “Good poets copy, great poets steal”.

The original Eliot essay said…

One of the surest tests [of the superiority or inferiority of a poet] is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.

In other words, stealing might be ok as long as you make the original better. Or, as Albert Einstein once observed, “The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources”.

I find it interesting that even the story of the statement about copying vs stealing is based on an evolutionary trail of the quote as it morphs from one form to another, becoming variously attributed to different people along the way. Maybe Picasso did say it, who knows? He may have even come across the T S Eliot version. And he apparently influenced the thinking of Jobs with it. Or not. Who knows. Does it even matter?  It seems that ideas rarely stand on their own, and are usually part of a much bigger web of similar ideas.

Perhaps when we hear Jobs misquote Picasso, who was misattributed to Eliot, who was paraphrashed by Hammack, what we should take from the statement is not only that “stealing” is really just about taking ideas and making them better, but also that copying and “stealing” of ideas is a legitimate means by which a culture is transmitted.

I think it opens up an even bigger discussion about what constitutes originality, what we mean exactly by “innovation”, as well as the incredible value of sharing.  Perhaps in another blog post…

Schooling vs Learning

I was at the always-amazing ULearn conference in Christchurch last year and got asked to do a EdTalk.  These short video clips are done by the good folk at Core Education, where they essentially just sit you in front of a video camera and let you rabbit on about education and your own educational perspectives for a few minutes.  My buddy Jane Nicholls was working the camera and she kept telling me to just talk about whatever I wanted to talk about. When she sat me down and said “go” I still had absolutely no idea what to say. I just did a brain dump and quite literally blurted out some of the stuff I was thinking about at the time.