The Most Dangerous Phrase In The World

If you’ve been in education for a while there is a phrase you’ll hear regularly if you listen for it. It’s just seven little words but the impact of those words can be enormous. The people who utter this phrase often mean well, but it rarely leads to much that is positive. This phrase can kill a potentially good idea, ruin a worthwhile initiative or demoralise others who want to make a difference.

It may just be the most dangerous phrase in the world.

The phrase is “That’s the way we’ve always done it.”

You may have been on the receiving end of these words. Perhaps you came up with what you believed was a brilliant, clever, innovative or time-saving idea. You honestly feel your idea can improve an existing outcome and make a huge difference. So you approach your colleagues with your idea, knowing that by making just a few simple changes the world will be a better place. And while they might listen and thank you for your interesting suggestion, they inform you of all the reasons why your idea cannot possibly work, because the way things are currently done is just the way they’ve always been done.

It might not be said with these exact words, and it sometimes comes in many variations. There’s “We tried that years ago and it didn’t work”, or “We’d never be able to do it because the others won’t go along with it”, or “That might be ok for other schools but it would never work here”, or even the time tested “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. However it’s phrased, the message is essentially the same; we like the way things are and we don’t want to change them.

The irony is that while all these phrases are used to resist change, the world around us constantly changes. Change is just a natural thing.

We want our students to learn, which is just another way of saying we want them to change. Of course we want them to be better tomorrow than they were today. We want them to know more at the end of each term than they knew at the beginning. We want them to be more mature, have more wisdom, and make better decisions. All of that is based on the idea that they need to change. We call it growth.

And yet, far too often in schools we see systems and processes that stubbornly resist change. We see outdated curriculum, often locked in time by static syllabii and aging textbooks. We see processes being repeated each year, often without ever stopping to consider whether there may be a better way. We sometimes stick with “proven” tools and technologies without looking around to see if there may be better alternatives. And we also see the occasional teacher who does not realise that their 30 years of teaching experience has in fact been one year of teaching experience, repeated 30 times.

“That’s the way we’ve always done it”, or TTWWADI for short, is the reason we see the same old worksheets, the same old assessment tasks, the same old resources, used year and year. It’s also often the reason that we structure our schools in ways that contradict everything we know about how students learn most effectively. We want to make decisions in the best interests of our students, but we don’t because those decisions often contradict the way we’ve always done things.

Despite the fact that the outside world changes constantly it is still far too easy to find classrooms that don’t. TTWWADI-thinking does a grave disservice to the students that pass through those classrooms.

I recently overheard two sisters talking. The younger of the pair had the same teacher that her elder sister had five years before. Despite the five years that had passed, the older student was listening to her younger sibling talk about the work she was doing in class and remarking “Oh yes, I remember doing that assignment when I had that same teacher”. Unless that assignment was perfect and timeless, repeating it year after year without considering alternatives makes is seem like that teacher is simply on autopilot.

As this new school year begins, stop and think about what you’re doing. Are you reaching into your files and digging out the same teaching program you used last year? The same activities and worksheets you gave your students last year? The same letters to parents that were sent home last year?

If you’ve been in a school for more than a few years, think about how much has changed in the world around you. Even just five short years ago, most of us were not storing work in “the cloud”, or working collaboratively with others on shared documents, or learning by being digitally connected through various social streams. Technology provides great examples of these rapid changes but it’s hardly the only area of change. (Although you could probably argue that technology is the main driver that is forcing change in so many other areas). However you look at it and whatever the driver may be, it seems that change really is the only constant.

So why do some teachers embrace change and get excited about the possibilities of doing things in new and different ways, while others cling doggedly to doing things in ways that they have always done them? Why do some people immediately dismiss new or innovative ideas because they are not “the way we’ve always done it”?

Before exploring that question, it’s important to also recognise that just because something is different does not necessarily mean it’s better. Some of the things we repeat year after year may be done that way because they actually are the best way to do them. It can be exhausting to constantly be reinventing wheels that have already been invented. We don’t need to throw out everything we do and start again but we certainly should look at everything we do with fresh eyes and continually ask ourselves the critical question “Is there a better way to do this?”  

Carol Dweck’s work on the ideas of Growth Mindset vs Fixed Mindset is a good place to start. Without restating all of her research, essentially Dweck found that people see their world differently depending on whether they embrace a growth mindset or a fixed mindset. That is, whether they believe they are capable of growing and changing, or not. Those with fixed mindsets tend to believe the abilities they were born with, or that they have right now, are the abilities they will always have. Those with growth mindsets believe that they are capable of growing, so they see change as an opportunity for learning and trying new things. Ironically, having a fixed mindset is not fixed; once you realise that you are limiting yourself with this kind of thinking you can catch yourself doing it and consciously decide to respond differently.

Responding differently is hard. It’s not always easy to see past “the way we’ve always done it” and reimagine how things might be done differently because many of us have not been conditioned to think this way. But you can start by consciously and deliberately asking yourself one very simple question. Begin by asking yourself “Why?”

  • “Why are the desks in my classroom arranged like that?”
  • “Why do my students do that same geography assignment every year?”
  • “Why do we always study that same novel?”

Thinking bigger, consider some of the many aspects of school we take for granted, such as…

  • “Why is our school day structured the way it is?”
  • “Why are our lessons 50 minutes long?”
  • “Why does the school day start at 8:30 and finish at 3:00?”
  • “Why do we group students according to the age they were born?”

As you begin to ask “why?”, take note of your answers. If you find yourself answering the question with “because that’s the way we’ve always done it” then dig a little deeper. Why have you always done it like that? Is it because it is the best way? Maybe it was the best way at one time, but is it still the best way now? Could there be a better way? So many of the things we do, we don’t even think about anymore. We get so used to the way things work that we forget to question them.

One easy (and fun) thing you can do is simply to visit other schools. Just walking into a different environment and looking around can be enlightening. When you walk into someone else’s classroom you cannot help but notice how things are done differently. You find yourself noticing little things and saying “That’s interesting. I wonder why they do it like that?” You’ll see ideas that you hadn’t thought of. Ways of doing things you hadn’t considered. And when you return to your own classroom you’ll see it just a little bit differently. Looking outside the world you experience every day helps you have fresh eyes.

Consider this. Kodak, the once great film and camera company, is these days little more than a footnote in the history of photography. The reason? Their entire worldview was rooted in the idea of film cameras and film processing. When digital photography came along they dismissed it as a fad because it was “not the way we’ve always done it”. They failed to respond to the changes around them and that failure hit them hard. History is full of similar examples where entire industries – often large, seemingly entrenched empires – have been decimated because of their failure to respond to change. The Swiss watch industry refused to adopt the quartz movement because it was not the way they always made watches. It took them years to recover. The record industry initially rejected digital downloads because they were not they way they always distributed music. They eventually relented, but it put them years behind where they could have been had they chosen to lead that change. The list goes on.

There is no denying that we live in a world of enormous change, where a single technology can make “the way we’ve always done it” obsolete very quickly. As educators, we need to be leaders in the ability to change and adapt and learn. The students we teach today will be the next generation of innovators, entrepreneurs and world-changers, and will be the ones who must address the big, wicked problems that need be solved in our future. If we want the education we offer to our students to be the key to making the world a better place, then we need to develop mindful, creative, critical thinkers, who constantly ask “why?”

We will never get the future we want if we keep saying “that’s the way we’ve always done it”.

An edited version of this post was also published as an article in the March 2016 edition of Education Technology Solutions Magazine

 

Why Is This Even A Debate?

On TV tonight I saw an ad from some group that calls themselves the “Marriage Alliance“. I looked at their website which seems to be a thinly veiled attempt to be open minded when really all they want to do is oppose same sex marriage and maintain the unfair status quo…

Their site poses a number of open questions about marriage, and while they purport to being just trying to encourage a healthy discussion about the value of marriage in general, it’s pretty obvious what their agenda is. They are clearly in opposition to same sex marriage.

So, since they asked, here are my answers to the questions on their website…

Should children have the right to know their biological history?

Yes. As an adopted child myself, I should have the right to know my history if I choose to. Some choose to and some do not. But what’s your point?  So what if a child of a same sex couple knows their biological history and where they came from?  You think that will be a problem? You think a child will not be able to deal with that information? I believe you’re 100% wrong about that. Children don’t need to be protected from the truth, they need to be protected against those that think they cannot handle the truth.

Do we know the impacts of raising our children in a changed society?

No. And neither do you. But this proposed change to same sex marriage laws are about respecting people’s rights to acknowledge who they are as people and to give them the same rights that the rest of society already enjoys. If that means that society needs to change a few things to accommodate that shift then so be it. It’s not the first thing that has ever caused a “changed society” and it won’t be the last. The fact that you are so concerned about a “changed society” shows your true colours… you just don’t want anything to change from the way it is now. Sorry, but I have bad news for you…

Are you happy to have your family redefined as a social unit?

Yes. Perfectly happy. And by the way, I’m not gay myself just in case you were wondering. I have two children that were raised to be tolerant, open minded and respectful of others. My children understand that people are all different. They also understand that society changes. And they can cope with that. I’m a man married to a woman and I’m happy to be who I am. But I have many friends who are same-sex attracted and I want them to be happy with who they are, and to have the same rights that I have. I cannot think of a single good reason why they should not have the same rights as me, and that includes marriage if they so wish.

Are we asking the right questions about the proposals to redefine marriage?

I’m not sure what question you’re asking, since you haven’t really asked any good ones so far… but here’s what I think is the right question. Is it fair to deny same sex couples the right to be married? I happen to believe that to deny that right to anyone just because it doesn’t fit your own world view is unfair and unjust. If two people feel strongly enough about each other that they want to be married, who are you to deny that right? What higher authority granted you the right to be so bold as to suggest that you know best about who can and cannot be married?

Homage to Duchamp

It’s interesting that as you get older you become increasingly aware of your own influences. Aside from my parents and my direct family, who obviously had a major influence on my life, there are only handful of people whose ideas, thoughts and perspectives about the world have been so influential, so pervasive, so far reaching, that I can honestly say they have shaped the person I have become.

We all have them. They are the people you would invite to your ultimate fantasy dinner party. The ones who are so interesting, so fascinating in their ideas and the way they think about things, that you would give anything to spend time talking with them, learning from them and being in awe of them.

duchampI only have a few people in that category, but one is Marcel Duchamp.

For most people reading this, your reaction is probably “Marcel who?”

I don’t want to turn this into a history lesson, so if you want to know more about Duchamp, you can no doubt look him up. It’s quite likely that he will not affect you the way he affected me, and that’s ok. That’s what makes us all unique. But to me, Duchamp was one of the most brilliant minds of the 20th Century. He was one of the truly great thinkers whose ideas had a profound, lasting and life changing effect on me. His insightful genius, his witty sense of humour, his unswerving individualism, and his sheer brilliance forever changed the way I see the world. Or perhaps it was that he gave validation to the way I was already seeing the world for myself. Either way, I grew up seeing Duchamp as something of a hero. He struck me as one of the most brilliant minds I’d ever encountered.

As a young teenager, and then on into art school, I read everything about him that I could get my hands on. I pored over his work, looked at whatever photographs I could find of both him and his art, and was always astounded at the way he managed to express such profound ideas in such simple acts of creation. His disruptive sense of fun was more than just a means to amuse himself, it caused us to question and change the way we think about art, life and the world. Or at least that’s what it did for me. It was the way he took the idea of art beyond the “retinal” – the way something looks – and instead explored intellectual ideas embedded in the art.

Anyway, I was stunned tonight as I browsed around the web to find a 28 minute video of Duchamp being interviewed on the BBC in 1968 (the year he died). It’s an amazing interview.

Which brings me to the second point of this post. YouTube. I still hear of so many schools that block or limit access to YouTube. When I was a kid, growing up trying to read everything about Duchamp I could lay my hands on, I was completely unaware that any television interviews with him even existed. For everything I’d read or seen about Duchamp, tonight was the first time I had ever heard his voice or seen a moving image of the man. I went to art school in the 80s and taught art for several years but until tonight I had no idea that a 1968 interview with Marcel Duchamp existed.  Tonight was the first time I’d ever heard one of my lifelong heroes actually speak. And it was YouTube that made it possible. Forget the criticisms about millions of cute cat videos or pointless clips of stupid people doing even stupider things. Tonight I finally met one of my lifelong heroes and it was YouTube that made it possible. Think about that.

Seriously. If your school is still blocking YouTube, do you have any idea what you are depriving your students of?

Header Image: Wikimedia Commons http://goo.gl/nw77Qu

Predicting the Future

Practical Television, Visions of the Future, Televisions DIY Futuristic Magazine, UK, 1950 Art PrintPredicting the future is challenging.

I remember reading Nicholas Negroponte’s book Being Digital many years ago, and it’s been amazing to see so many of his predictions come to pass. In particular, I remember reading about his “trading places” idea, or what become known as the “Negroponte Switch”. It’s basically the idea that we used to have static devices that don’t move, like televisions, getting their signal delivered wirelessly through the air, while other devices that should be mobile, like telephones, required the use of cables in order to connect.

The “Switch”, predicted by Negroponte back in the 1980s, would be that telephones would one day get their signal wirelessly and televisions would get theirs via cables.  It took about 20 years for that to happen, but happen it certainly did.  Looking back now, if you understood the technologies that brought the changes, the signs were probably there and it made sense but it took someone like Negroponte to recognise it.

Thinking about that reminded me of another article I read sometime around the year 2000 where Jeff Hawkins, the founder of Palm Computing, predicted that one day more people would access the Internet using a phone or other handheld device than would access it using a regular personal computer.  In the late 90s, when I read that statement, I must admit I had a hard time imagining how you would get a legitimately decent Internet experience on a tiny underpowered handheld device with a small screen and a ridiculously slow connection. At the time, I owned a Palm III handheld device and even had a modem for it that I could plug-in to “dial in” to the Internet. Even though I felt I was pretty au-fait with technology and I thought I understood the principle of Moore’s Law, based on what I could do at the time it was still a struggle to envision a world where the main way to get access to the Internet was via a handheld device.

Of course, it’s easy to envision that now. Those technologies moved quickly and we had breakthrough devices like the iPhone that helped redefine the entire mobile experience. Depending on what report you read, we are pretty much at that point now where more people in the world are accessing the web on a handheld device of some sort than via a PC.  What once seemed far-fetched now seems obvious.

In this newspaper report from the New York PC Expo in 2000, Jeff Hawkins points out that Palm devices will soon be able to browse the web at speeds  of 8 to 9 kbps. Yes, kbps!  A recent article on mobile broadband speed in Australia says that some Aussie telcos are getting around 34Mbps over 4G wireless networks.  It took 14 years, but that’s nearly 4000 times faster.  And you can bet that speed will just get better and better.

The challenge with predicting the future is that we are generally far too conservative about it. Most of us find it difficult to make wild predictions because we still can’t quite picture how dramatic the changes will actually be. Basically, for most of us, even our wildest dreams are not really all that wild. When we do make bold predictions, most of us still underestimate the impact of those changes over time. And of course it only takes one unanticipated breakthrough technology to come along and change all the rules again.

If you could predict the future, aside from flying cars and robot brides, what does it look like for you? What are the big, huge, fundamental shifts that will shape the way we live in 20 years from now?

Image credit: Practical Television, Visions of the Future, Televisions DIY Futuristic Magazine, UK, 1950 Art Print

Babies and Bathwater

I was recently in Hong Kong for the excellent 21st Century Learning conference, where I had the very great pleasure of running some hands-on workshops in Google stuff, and also giving the closing keynote. As I mention at  the start of this talk, it was quite intimidating to think that I could say anything worth hearing after an amazing couple of days of learning from so many other amazing educators. (Having people like Stephen Heppell and Gary Stager in the audience didn’t make it any less intimidating either)

I actually didn’t even realise these talks were being recorded so when I spotted this on Twitter today it came as a bit of a surprise. For what it’s worth, here is a video of my talk, called Babies and Bathwater.

I go to quite a few conferences, and I’m always a little surprised at how few of them bother to video the presentations. Given the amount of time and energy that conference organisers put into running these events, you’d think they would be better at capturing things for later reuse. Good on you Paul, Justin and Graeme for making sure that you do it right at 21clHK.

Removing Friction

videostoreWith Google turning 15 last week, I’ve been pondering  about just how much friction has been removed from our lives because of technology (and web technology in particular).  Thanks to the web, many things that were once difficult, expensive, complicated or time-consuming have been made less of all of these things, and much of the inherent friction in these things has been dramatically reduced, and in some cases even eliminated completely. This removal of friction hasn’t always been painless, and many industries have been decimated by the massive disintermediation that  digital technology has brought to them.

Take the music industry as an obvious example.  In the space of about a decade, we’ve seen a huge shift from the idea of buying music on plastic disks to that of downloading music from “somewhere on the Internet”, hopefully by still paying for it with some sort of subscription model like Spotify or Google Play All Access, but all too often pirated for free from torrents and filesharing services. Aside from the  freedom of cost, it’s far more about the freedom of choice. I use the All Access subscription service and I love how it lets me think of pretty much any song I want to hear and immediately stream it directly from the web. I’m listening to more music than before, and paying what feels like a fair price for it. The record companies who used to control the music business are no longer in charge, and in a post-Napster world, the idea of buying music one CD at a time seems so outdated. Along with the power shift in the music business there have also been massive disruptions to the way the money flows. Artists are free to bypass the labels. Thanks to the web, to YouTube, to iTunes, etc, indie artists have the same opportunities that were only afforded to big names bands attached to major labels. More musicians can now play in this space, and it’s all thanks to the way the web has removed so many of the friction points that used to exist between musician and listener.

Example two. We saw the photographic film business almost vanish in a few short years because of digital cameras. Those 24 hour film processing places that either didn’t see the change coming, or didn’t react to it fast enough, were simply crushed by the revolution of digital photography.  It was a case of evolve or die, and many simply died. Kodak, once the titan of the photographic film industry, closed down their film production business and these days they are barely more than a footnote in the history of photography.  The inconveniences of shooting with film, like being able to take only 24 photos at a time, the fact that you couldn’t see what you shot until you got the photos back days or weeks later, and of course the expense and inconvenience, all conspired to make film photography an easy target for any technology that would make it simpler, faster and cheaper. While a few diehards still swear by film, it turns out that for the general photo-taking population, digital photography removed so much the friction from the cumbersome process of taking photos that the old ways of doing things became obsolete almost overnight.

Thanks to my Apple TV and Chromecast I haven’t set foot in a video rental store in many years.  The fact that  video rental stores still exist at all is just because of that percentage of the population who are still hanging on to their old ways. I’m sure that once Netflix arrives in Australia it will be the final nail in the video store coffin. These online digital download services remove almost all of the friction from the process of renting videos. No more getting in the car to go to the video store, no more futzing around with disks and having to remember to return them, no more sitting through endless ads before the movie starts, and no more late fees. Delivering video over the web has removed most of those pain points, and in the process has virtually killed the physical video rental business.

Then there is banking. I hear my 81 year old mother talk about how she still goes to the bank to get money out, or to the post office to pay her bills. Although I’m old enough to remember what that was like, I can’t imagine doing it that way any more. The web has removed so much of the friction from those things, there is no going back to the old way.

The list goes on… thanks to the web, we can more easily keep in touch with old friends, share our locations, publish our ideas, map our way through strange cities, and much more… faster, cheaper and more simply than ever before, and decimating the incumbent industries along the way.

Although I still know plenty of teachers who complain that technology is hard, that it’s all too overwhelming, the truth is that technology, and the web in particular, has made things easier than ever. It’s easier than ever to network with ideas, learn from others, and connect our students with the learning experiences we want them to have. Thanks to the rise of the web, we are living in a time which is, potentially, the fastest, cheapest and easiest it has ever been to be a learner.

So ask yourself, how has the web changed your classroom? Your school? Your profession? Your life? Are you doing the same things you’ve always done? Or have you seen these changes coming and reinvented your approach to the way you teach and learn? Has the web changed your job, and in the age of the Internet, have you reconsidered what exactly your job IS these days?

It should be obvious that the world has changed forever because of digital and network technologies, and that the genie is never going back into the bottle. Despite the apparent fact that a large number of schools still believe that they can keep doing what they have always done and everything will be ok, education is no more exempt from these changes than any other industry.

What are you doing to ensure that your classroom will not become the educational equivalent of a video store?

Changing the Bathwater, Keeping the Baby

Throwing the baby out with the bathwaterIt’s clear that there is quite a lot about this thing we call “school” that probably needs to change and that there are many schools around the world that are embracing and leading that change with some really innovative ideas about teaching and learning.

However, from what I can tell, innovation and genuine change for the better in education is still rather patchy and relies greatly on the passion and drive of individual teachers, many of whom fly “under the radar” in order to make positive change in their own educational circumstance. There are certainly schools that are, as a single organisation or even a whole system, making giant strides towards reinventing what modern education should be about, but if I was able to randomly drop you into one of the many millions of classrooms around the world to observe what’s taking place inside it, I think it would still be fairly hit or miss as to whether you’d find teaching and learning that was modern, contemporary and representative of the change that many of us want to see happen in education.

We talk a lot about reinventing school. We sometimes declare that school is a “broken system” and wonder about what it would be like to start with a clean slate. We feel the weight of tradition, of a school system based around an agrarian calendar, of a system that was born in a pre-digital age and we dream about changing it. We embrace technology. We build charter schools. We try lots of ideas for making schooling not only different, but hopefully better.

But you know something? Many of the smartest people I know are a product of this “broken” system. Many students emerge from their 13 years of schooling as perfectly normal, well adjusted, happy individuals, ready to embrace the task of making their own dent in the universe. So despite that fact that we like to declare schooling to be in dire need of an overhaul, it seems that it still produces many people who do just fine, thank you very much. This broken system, for all its faults, does actually work for some people. I’m well aware that it does NOT work for many others, and that it could probably work better even for those that emerged from it doing ok, but it got me wondering what aspects of school DO in fact work.

I’m as keen as anyone else to push education forward, to help rebuild it into something that is better and more able to meet the needs of even more students. To make it more “21st century”, if you will. Like so many of my colleagues around the world, I want to be an advocate for the change we need to drag our school system, often kicking and screaming, into the current millennium.

In the process, I’m wondering what, if anything, we should try to keep.

I once asked a group of students to imagine what school could be like if we could wipe the slate clean. What would “school” look like if we could start again, with no preconceptions about what school should look like. I was trying to prompt them to imagine what would happen if we took EVERYTHING about school, burnt it to the ground and threw it away, in order to rebuild the very notion of “school” from the ground up. Their answers were interesting; some were clearly unable to imagine anything that was much different to their current reality, and others really took to the idea of school with an axe, questioning everything and leaving very little that resembled school as we know it.

If we COULD wipe the slate clean, if we could just scrap everything about school and education as we know it, is there anything that you would keep? Despite the claims that our schools are not serving the needs of our current students, is there ANYTHING we do right now that we would NOT want to lose?

I understand that society, technology and the world around our students is changing at a pace greater than at anytime in history, and I appreciate that we really do need to get on with the task of reinventing schools to make them places of learning designed for our students’ future, not our own past, but perhaps we also have to be careful we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

So let me ask you… What do you think are the valuable, enduring and timeless aspects of education?  What are the things that, no matter how much we end up reinventing this thing we call “school”, you would not want to lose?