Be Unreasonable

Here’s something I’ve noticed about people. Most people love the familiar. They find something that they like and they get used to it. On the surface that would seem like a logical idea, and while it’s certainly ok to like having favourite things – after all, that’s what makes them our favourite things – the problem is that we can get so attached to those things to the point where we never discover alternatives to them. And this means we sometimes become blind to the alternatives, the potential opportunities they offer us, or the idea that we could perhaps like other things even more.

It’s good to be able to identify the ideas, objects and things we are most attached to, and then deliberately make an effort to look around and see what other alternatives exist.  For example, if you normally go to a church, you could try visiting a mosque. If you normally choose McDonalds, try a Hungry Jacks instead. If you normally drive, try walking. If you don’t like to dance, take a dance class. Mix it up a bit.

Trying alternative options doesn’t mean you have to permanently adopt them. Of course you don’t have to convert to Islam if you’re a Christian, or switch to a Mac if you love Windows. It just means you will be more aware of what’s out there, and might even reinforce that your initial choice is indeed the best one for you.  But sometimes trying an alternative to what you’re familiar makes you realise that walking is not so bad, or that you actually enjoy dancing, or that the burgers really are better at the other place.

One of the phrases that I think we all get a little caught up on at times is “that’s the way we’ve always done it”. And it’s probably true that when we start to accept the way we do things as being just the way we do things, that it closes us off from the possibilities of trying something different. Because honestly, if we never look around us, how will we know what’s around us? 

George Bernard Shaw once wrote “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world”. And really, if you can adapt yourself to the way the world works, to just accept it as it is, then it will likely be comfortable and serve you well, so why wouldn’t you just adapt to it and accept it?  It seems a perfectly reasonable thing to do, doesn’t it?. He then goes on to note that “The unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself” And it is those people, those unreasonable, annoying, pain-in-the-butt people, who continually want the change the world instead of just accepting it, who question the status quo, who are never satisfied with how things work, who constantly ask why things are done the way they are, who are always looking at other options; those are the people who ultimately change and improve the world because they are the ones who dare to consider that there may be alternatives to the way we’ve always done things. Shaw concludes “Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

So how does one become unreasonable?

I think the first step is to become much more aware of what your likes and preferences actually are.  What routines do you regularly have? What foods do you eat often? What TV shows do you watch? What operating system do you use? How do you usually get to work? Notice it. Observe it. Then think about mixing it up.  Watch something different. Try getting to work a different way. Try using a different piece of software. Order a meal you wouldn’t normally order. On their own, none of these things might be overly life-changing. Walking to work instead of catching the bus is not, on its own, a huge decision.  However, the effect of questioning your current choices and making a change could be huge. From little things, big things grow.

The second step is to find alternatives. For all the things you currently have in your life, what other things exist that could possibly help you see them differently? Perhaps it’s just because of the kind of work I do with helping people use technology, but the way people become attached to computer operating systems and software are a great example of how entrenched people can become in their choices. Indeed, the whole PC vs Mac thing has been an ongoing cultural meme for years! I meet a lot of people who live in either a Windows world or a Mac world, and who simply cannot function in the other world, or have a negative opinion of it based on the fact that it’s not the one they use themselves. And it’s obviously ok to have a preference for one thing or the other, although if your choice is just based on the default you started with and you have no actual knowledge of what the “other side” is like, then your opinion as to which is best isn’t really worth much since it’s based on, well, nothing. But if you’ve used many different versions of Windows and MacOS, have tried different distros of Linux, have spent serious time using a Chromebook, or even tried other, less known OSes such as BeOS, OS/2, etc, then now I am interested to hear your thoughts on it because I know I’m listening to someone with an open mind and a range of perspectives.

If I could wave a magic wand and change one thing about the world, I think it would be this.  To increase people’s tolerance to the unknown.  To help them be less afraid of those things that are different to what they are used to. To help them be more willing to take a risk or try something new. 

Because if we could all be more ok about the alternatives to our own “normal”, we’d start to see that there really are lots of amazing experiences, ideas, things and people out there.  We’d start to understand that so many of the really big problems in the world – racism, bigotry, terrorism, war, homophobia, hatespeech, bullying – are little more than the result of people not being able to acknowledge, explore and accept that there are other things that exist outside their own little world, alternatives that they would not otherwise be exposed to, that might not be as terrible as they think.

Imagine how much richer our lives would be if we could get past living in a world filled with “that’s just the way we’ve always done it” thinking, and replace it with a whole new set of completely unreasonable ideas that shake us up and help us see the world a bit differently.

Imagine the Possibilities

I recently gave this keynote at the EdTechteam Cape Town Summit, titled “Imagine the Possibilities”. I’ve actually given this talk a number of times at Summits and other events all over the world, but this is likely the last time I’ll use it, so I’m posting it here just for posterity.

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.