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…

Lessons from the Yamanote Line

Last weekend, I was in Yokohama doing some workshops with Kim Cofino for various groups of teachers in the Tokyo/Yokohama area, including the current COETAIL cohort. It was a heap of fun, and I’ll write more about that later.

On Monday, I spent the day running PD for staff of Yokohama International School, and I was asked to do a short presentation to get things started. The brief was just to present “something inspirational”, whatever that meant. To be honest, my mind was drawing a complete blank and was quite lost for an idea. I went back to the hotel room on Sunday night – my last night before returning home to Australia – and started working on my presentation. I was really quite stuck for an idea, but I was also keen to get it done so I could go out exploring some of the Japanese sights on my last night there.

I got to the point where if I stayed in the hotel room working I knew I wouldn’t see anything so I just decided to go out exploring anyway and hopefully something would come to me before tomorrow morning.

This slideshow is what I came up with. As I stood there at a Japanese railway ticket machine with absolutely no idea how to use it, unable to read the instructions, feeling quite anxious about heading off to explore a strange city I didn’t understand, it occurred to me that this is what all learners must feel like as they launch into unknown territory. I reasoned that I would be talking to many teachers the next day who perhaps felt equally anxious and unsure about exploring the world of technology. Maybe there were lessons I could learn from my night out on the trains of Tokyo that might serve as a useful metaphor for my talk the next morning.

I took a collection of photos from my travels on my iPhone, and then used Keynote on my phone to put this slideshow together whilst on the train. By the time I got back to the hotel (an adventure in itself!) the slideshow was 95% done. I did end up importing it to my Mac to add the finishing touches, but it was essentially produced almost entirely on the iPhone.

I don’t claim it’s a perfect metaphor, but hopefully there are a few lessons in here that might be useful to anyone moving into a world where they feel strange and uncomfortable.

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.

To be an ADE

I’ve always aspired to be an Apple Distinguished Educator, but I’ve never actually done anything about applying for it. As far as my own personal computer use goes, anyone who knows me knows that I am most definitely a Mac guy, but I assumed that I wouldn’t be able to apply to be an ADE because most of the schools I’ve worked in have been primarily Windows schools.  As they say, one should never assume.

While it’s true that many – probably most – ADEs work exclusively in Apple schools, apparently it’s not always the case.  While chatting with someone from Apple a while ago I mentioned this, and they replied that the ADE program is aimed at recognising teachers, and does not necessarily focus on the type of computers used in the school that teacher works at.

To become an ADE you obviously need to be active in certain ways that help spread the message about technology and it’s value for education.  You need to be passionate about the ways that digital technology (and pretty obviously, Apple digital technology in particular) can make students more engaged and creative.  You need to demonstrate some degree of innovative practice and a reasonable level of experience in the classroom. I hope I can do all these things. And you need to fill in the appropriate forms.  I’m pretty sure I can do that part.

Oh, and you also need to make a short 2 minute video that gives a bit of an insight into who you are and what you do and what you might bring to the party.  Apparently the video is pretty important.  I gave it my best shot.

Anyway, I finally got my ADE application in for this next intake of teachers (a few days before the deadline too! Woohoo!) so my fingers are crossed.  If you’re interested, here’s the video.

DaVinci in your Classroom

At the 2010 ULearn conference I was asked to participate in a Pecha Kucha event.  A Pecha Kucha is a way of giving a presentation with 20 supporting slides, where each slide is automatically timed to show for only 20 seconds.  This leads to a presentation of exactly 6 minutes and 40 seconds.  Despite being one of the shortest presentations I’ve given, this was certainly one of the hardest to put together, just in terms of working out the timing and figuring out what to say in those 20 blocks of 20 seconds.  It sounds easy, but it certainly took a while to get it together.

Here is the summary of what the talk was about…

“As a gifted polymath, Leonardo da Vinci stands out as the prototypical lifelong learner. Curious, inventive, creative… All the things we would love our students to be. But how well would da Vinci have survived in today’s typical classroom?  If Leonardo was a student in a school today would he have achieved to the same degree?”

And here are the words that went with each slide…  as you can see, there are 20 paragraphs, each one goes with the 20 slides…

Leonardo Da Vinci.  Artist. Inventor. Scientist. Architect. Sculptor. Engineer. Astronomer.  One of the great geniuses of history.  My question to you is this…  if Da Vinci were alive today, would he have survived in your classroom? And more importantly, would he have thrived in your classroom?

Leonardo grew up in the 1400s, a time of great change, where society was being dramatically reshaped by disruptive new technologies like the printing press. Today, we also live in a time of great change, where society is being dramatically reshaped by disruptive new technologies like the web.

I don’t know what sort of student Leonardo would have been. If he was like most people of his day, he probably never actually went to school, but HAD he been a student, based on everything we know about him, he would probably have been clever, eager to learn and extremely curious.

I suspect that Leonardo would have been one of those students that constantly asked “why?”, who constantly wanted to know more, who constantly thought outside the box.  I suspect he would have been smarter than most of his peers, and probably smarter than most of his teachers.

Of course, if Leonardo was in school today there’s little doubt it would be a school that proudly proclaimed on its website that they were about catering to individual needs, developing “life long learners” and giving each students a genuine “love of learning”.  After all, isn’t that what ALL schools say they are about?

The reality is that most schools are bound by the straightjacket of a timetable, and still constricted by disjointed curriculums imposed upon them by “the powers that be”. We still put up with curriculums where subjects are isolated from each other and delivered in small chunks of mandated hours.

In Leonardo’s case, I imagine that his teachers would not quite have known what to do with him.  He would have been the weird kid that wrote back-to-front just for fun, daydreamed about building impossible flying machines or worked on mathematical problems that weren’t in the textbook.

He would have doodled endlessly, all over his school books, no doubt being told that if he didn’t stop defacing them with that ridiculous scribbling he would have to pay the cost of replacing them.  Those sketches of the human body made directly from his own observations?  They’d be of little use because those things would not be on the test.

And yet, despite the fact that Leonardo might have been a bit of a misfit in school, he serves as an incredible example of what it means to be truly educated.  On one hand a gifted artist, on the other an extraordinary scientist, he demonstrated an unusual capacity to perceive the world with both sides of his brain.

For some reason, we tend to think in terms of “the arts” and “the sciences” with an implied belief that, if you’re good at one, you’re probably not good at the other.  And we tend to have a unspoken hierarchy where the “real” subjects like maths, science and english are more important than the “soft” subjects like art, dance and drama.

I don’t think Leonardo would have seen it this way. The same mind and hands that created “The Last Supper”, with all it’s emotional depth and religious symbolism, were equally engaged with creating detailed scientific observations of birds in flights in order to invent machines to help man do the same.

The term polymath is used to describe a person who possesses expertise across a significant number of subject areas. History is full of famous polymaths from Aristotle to Benjamin Franklin to Isaac Asimov, although Leonardo may have been the most exemplary polymath of all.

When you look at the achievements of such bold thinkers, and what they bring to humanity, you’d think we’d be trying to figure out how to nurture this kind of outlook. Yet, you have to wonder whether our current system of schooling does anything to actually encourage this kind of thinking.

We compartmentalize learning into discrete blocks called subjects, prescribe them a minimum number of required hours, divide the days into chunks of time called periods, and focus on passing the test at the end. It would appear we’re doing all we can to suppress polymath-like thinking rather than encourage it.

Even as adults, we seem surprised when we discover that our tax accountant plays saxophone in a jazz band; that the captain of the football team enjoys opera, or a woman who illustrates children’s books has a law degree. We’ve created a culture where having diversity in our interests and abilities is seen as the exception rather than the rule.

I wonder if, as Leonardo observed the physics of how light reflected across his subject’s face, he was giving much thought to whether he was “doing science” versus “doing art”?  I wonder if dividing our understanding of the world into discrete chunks help us understand it, or whether it actually limits the way we understand it?

Perhaps Leonardo’s greatest asset was his unquenchable curiosity and his desire to know more about the world, regardless of how it was categorised.  And perhaps our biggest problem in schools today is the difficulty we seem to have in maintaining a broad perspective, because as much as we say we want to develop independent free thinkers, we continue to reward compliant rule followers.

I can’t help but wonder if Leonardo had the “advantage” of attending school as we know it, whether he would have grown into this brilliant Renaissance Man he was? Would the experience of school have nurtured his curious spirit, or would it have squashed him into a polite conformist that simply did well on standardised tests

Not every child will be a brilliant polymath like Leonardo da Vinci, but every child deserves a chance to aspire to it. Despite the fact that most educational systems say they aim to develop a love of learning in every student, the fact is that “school”, as a generalized concept, may not actually be the best environment to nurture individual brilliance.

So I ask you again… how would Leonardo da Vinci have survived in your classroom?  And although we may never know for certain, I hope you think about what you can do, with the students you teach right now in 2010, to help them discover their inner da Vinci.

PS: I’ve scheduled this post to go live during the actual PK event.  I’ll add a video to it afterwards that contains the audio/visuals of the talk