Merry Christmas

As we celebrate Christmas and 2010 draws to a close, here’s a little video to make you smile.

Special Christmas wishes to everyone who has been part of my world for the last 12 months.  It’s been a wonderful year, full of learning, fun, travel, meeting interesting people, connecting with my network, and sharing ideas with each other.  I’ve had the good fortune to do some travelling this year and met many wonderful folk in person that I’ve only ever known online, as well as meeting a whole of great new people, and that’s been a real highlight for me.  You know who you are, and I feel so much richer for it.  Thanks!  

I feel like 2010 has been an amazing year of connecting with others, and it’s been incredibly rewarding on many levels.  To everyone who has left comments on the blog, connected via Twitter or Facebook or Skype or email or the many other ways we have of being connected (including face to face of course!), thank you… those connections mean a great deal to me.

Hope you all have a great Christmas with your families and friends, and that 2011 will be a great year for you.

Love, Chris

Thanks to ExcentricPT on YouTube for excellent 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

Travelling Freak Show

Chinese people, as a general rule, have dark hair.  As a race of people, they also tend to not be quite as tall as some other races of people.  And you could be forgiven for thinking that most Chinese people adhere to fairly strict diets because they tend to be fairly slim in build.

Now before you accuse me of making racist remarks, I’m simply making an observation on what I’ve seen.  And apparently the Chinese people themselves would concur with these observations because whenever they see a westerner (or “big nose” as they call us) who is tall, heavily built or has non-black hair, they tend to stare and talk.  Because I’m fairly tall, in some cases I even had some of the Shanghai locals come up and ask to have their photo taken with me, such is their interest in these strange “big nose” visitors.

So you can imagine the attention we drew when myself, Wes Fryer, Gail Lovely and Melinda Alford decided to spend a day of sightseeing in Suzhou, (苏州市) a city to the west of Shanghai.  Wes is as tall as I am, but with blonde hair. Gail has hair that is blonde bordering on redhead. And Melinda has a wild shock of long dark hair and a stocky frame.  Together as a group, we must have looked like a travelling freak show.

Our day started with a taxi ride from Pudong to Puxi and the local railway station.  The railway station was amazing… more like an airport.  People were lined up to buy tickets at the many vending machines outside the terminal, and you do need to specify exactly what train you plan to catch as all seating is allocated. Once a train is full you can’t get a seat.

The trains themselves are high speed, and we got one of the brand new G-series trains that covers the 120km (75 miles) from Shanghai to Suzhou in a mere 25 minutes.  At one point we clocked our speed at over 270km/h.  I don’t think any of us realised just how fast we were going until we got off the train at Suzhou station and another train went through on a different line. It was a bit of a blur!

Once out of the massive Suzhou railway station, Melinda, who speaks some Chinese, managed to do some negotiations with a local driver to transport us around for the day.  For a very small fee he was to be our guide (well, our driver… with little English, he didn’t really say a lot!) and take us around to some of the sights of the city.  To be honest, we had no idea where he would be taking us, but we just trusted him to do it.

As it turns out, I thought we got a great snapshot into some of the sights of Suzhou.  We started out at the Beisi Pagoda, a 9-story temple with a history that goes back some 1700 years.  Wes and I climbed to the very top for photos and to marvel at the view.

We then visited a silk factory.  China is known for its silk production and Suzhou was one of the main cities on the famous Silk Road.  It was interesting to see how they spin the silk into threads, quite literally just unravelling the silkworm cocoon and using machinery to spin the very fine silk threads into a fibre. They also used some interesting techniques that stretched the cocoons over a bamboo frame to produce a silk web that was then stretched out over a bed-sized frame in layers to produce a silk blanket.  Of course, no visit to any sort of factory such as this would be complete without exiting via the giftshop!  I started to video inside the giftshop but was very quickly told to turn off the camera because it was not allowed.  At first I thought that was odd until I realised how many products they had that used Disney characters… I’m guessing that they aren’t paying Disney a whole lot of licensing fees for the use of Donald and Mickey?

By the way, as we entered the silk factory a little Chinese guy with no real English came up to me and started pointing at my arms and touching them… I think he was making comment on my height and build, implying that I had big arms (I don’t think I do, but he seemed to think so) and this was fairly typical of the sort of attention that our little “gang of four” got as we traveled around.

Our driver decided that he would do a little “side job” while we in the silk factory, so we went and had lunch while we waiting for him.  We found a fast food noodle and dumpling place where Melinda placed an order in Chinese (thank goodness we had Melinda with us…  this would have all been so much harder otherwise!) and we soon has a fast food feast on the table.  It was kind of funny, because the food was all soups and dumplings and noodles, but the store felt exactly like a McDonalds or KFC.  The menus were all in Chinese of course.

After lunch we kept touring around, getting plenty of sideways glanced from the locals who seemed to think that we were a bit of a novelty.  Our driver picked us up and took us down by the river where we struck a deal with a barge owner to take us into the water city.  It was a bit of a highlight of the day, as we had our own private barge to show us the city from the water. Melinda said she’d been to the city many times but always on foot, and thought that seeing it from the water was the way to go.  It would have been nice to get off the barge at some point and go exploring a little, but instead we navigated our way into the central part of the canal system before turning around and going back to our waiting driver.  We all laughed when our boat captain got on the phone and rang our driver to ask (translated thanks to Melinda) “Where are you?  I’ve got your Big Noses here”.

To finish our day, we went to a silk embroidery factory and saw some silk artwork being made. Our guide was very informative, with quite good English, and he explained the finer points of silk embroidery… it’s quite an artform!

After that we visited a lovely traditional Chinese garden.  Well, I guess it was kind of traditional if you don’t count the animatronic figures in the displays! Some of them were pretty funny.  Overall though, the gardens were very nice and we all went for a walk up and down the river, taking photos and talking.

Back at the railway station waiting for our train, we were still getting checked out by the locals. People would sit in bemusement as we walked past, not quite sure what to make of the four of us. We certainly stood out.  As we waited, Wes started working on a digital story project using a terrific little iPhone app called Storykit, while I let some little Chinese kids play Fruit Ninja on my iPhone.

The trip back to Shanghai was quick and we grabbed a taxi back to Pudong, where we had dinner in an American-style cafe.  There was lots of laughing and fun as we shared a few drinks, reflected on our day, and unsuccessfully tried to demonstrate the robustness of Chinese paper money.  We finished off our day with a bit of shopping at the local Best Buy, before grabbing a taxi back to our hotel.

Overall, a great day shared with great folk.  Let’s do it again sometime…

Fullsize photos on Flickr at