Thursday, March 29, 2012


I hope the comments work again. J pointed out there was no place for comments. I actually didn't notice. Blogger has been acting up on me in terms of video, formatting, followers(can't see them) and comments. But Blogger is still better than some other environments I've had to use.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Innovation Likes Company...but not always

Yeah, yeah.  I know I said that Innovation Likes Company in my last post, but I got to thinking (on my own), and I realized that it is not always true.  When you need to get unstuck from a rut or need a new outlook, you can really only get that by hooking up with some other people.  HOWEVER, sometimes you need to be by yourself and grind things out. 

I am still struck by the innovators I have met who say they can't do it alone, and it is probably true.  No man is an island.  The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.  Two heads are better than one (unless you are buying shirts).  Sometimes you feel like a nut and sometimes you don't.  We definitely benefit from getting ideas from other people, but we don't always want what is good, or even expedient, for us.  It is why guys won't ask for directions when they are hopelessly lost.  It is why people continue to complain about a problem that is already solved.  It is human nature to defy logic because it is human nature to want to work things out for ourselves. 

I came across an interesting TedTalk by Susan Cain that promotes the Introvert.  It seems relevant here.  As an introvert myself, it scores a lot of points with me. 

TedTalks: The Power of the Introvert

Campfire, Watering Hole and Cave again
In terms of classroom design, we need to be able to allow for our spaces to accommodate all kinds of learning.  My favourite design model is the Campfire, Watering Hole, and Cave areas.  (I've mentioned this concept before, but I want to talk about it again because it underscores the balance between cooperative and solitary areas.)  We need a Campfire area where the whole class can meet.  Sometimes we need to give global instructions.  Also, if we want to become a community or a tribe, we need a central meeting spot to build those whole group bonds and build a class identity.  I've seen many classes use a circle or a classroom meeting area to fulfil this purpose.  We also need Watering Holes where partners or small groups can gather to collaborate.  If you want to see the intimate gathering potential of such an area, stand by the coffee machine or water cooler in an office on a Monday morning.  Or watch the buffet area at a wedding or party, and see how people meet informally to have a little tete a tete.  The Cave is a really important space for students who want to hunker down and get something done without being distracted.  This is that solitary space where the ideas we've gathered at the Campfire and Watering Hole get synthesized into our own personal way of thinking.  Sometimes we are using the Cave to focus the ideas in our heads and sometimes we are using the space to articulate or represent those ideas to others.

Even now, I sit by myself on my couch and write this (in my cave).  I need time away from others as I think and I write.  I bounce ideas off my wife at the dinner and my friends on the phone or around a table (at a watering hole).  And then I throw my ideas out into the world community for consideration (at my electronic campfire.  Kumbaya!).

Creating a Silent Cave

But in the classroom, I am finding it extremely difficult to create effective Cave spaces.    Isis/RM have these incredible soundproof Pods (right) that create a great cave space.  But even if I could fit these in my classroom, I could not afford them.  Interestingly, my students spontaneously create Cave spaces in our classroom by going under the risers, holing up behind the rolling book cases, stowing away in the cloakroom or removing themselves to the hallway.  All of these still present sound, light, smell, and distraction challenges. 

I was at the Apple Store in San Francisco.  It was crazy busy because of the launch of the new iPad, but because it was so busy, it gave me a chance to stand with my back against the wall and just watch how things worked.  Usually noisy things like the Genius Bar and big presentations were held upstairs.  That doesn't help me too much unless I saw through the ceiling.  But downstairs was regular business.  The interactions between the clients and Apple employees were mostly done at the centre areas, and people noodled at devices on their own at stations along the perimeter walls.  Hmmm, interesting.  By having the main interactions in the middle, customers walking in see that the message is "We are here to help you."  The action is in a more open space.  By having the isolated stations on the outside, those clients' backs are toward the centre, signalling and allowing privacy.  Like a teacher, it is also easier for the Apple people to stand in the centre and monitor their progress without disturbing them. 

I realize a lot of my quiet areas are in the middle of my classroom and my collab spaces are on the outside.  Maybe I should try to reverse them. 

I was talking to CC who is in charge of overseeing the construction of some of our new schools, and he mentioned the difficulty of creating collaborative classrooms that still allowed individual study spaces.  He mentioned cubicle dividers, sliding walls, and curtains as ways to divide rooms but said that these only provide physical barriers, but do not prevent sound from penetrating into outlying areas.  I thought to my own classroom.  I've experimented with lighting and mesh to create pockets of intimate spaces, but I have to admit, these things do nothing for sound.  Maybe I'll invest in a class set of earplugs or put it on next year's supply list. 

Innovation does like company.  But at some time, the company needs to go home so the introverts can get back to (quiet) work.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Innovation Likes Company

In my last post, I talked about the discomfort that leads to innovation.  Sure, making changes, large or small, will probably lead to a decrease in that uncomfortable feeling. 

If you are like me (God help you), as long as you are doing something, you feel like you are moving forward.  I will drive blocks out of my way, sometimes in the wrong direction, just to avoid a traffic stoppage. I feel like as long as I am moving (not necessarily forward), I am working toward my destination.  Yes, I am not known for a whole lot of action (my action figure would be "InAction Man"), but I count thinking as part of that action; it's just not active action.  But that thinking can lead to stewing.  Stewing can lead to brooding.  And that brooding can lead to obsessing.  And that obsessing can lead to a big pile of nothing (except maybe blogging).  Eventually, you (I) have to get up and do something.  (I have a built in timer; it's called sciatica.)  So what is that something we should do?  Find a support group.

What I've noticed in my investigations in innovation is that innovators like a support group.  I was surprised by this.  I assumed that great ideas come from within, and that innovators are solitary, isolated people.  Sure, some innovators can be far out people whose ideas or personalities can push people away, but innovators seek a support group.  In my district, we have a culture of collaboration.  Teachers meet in learning teams that are driven by the teachers and supported by the group.  Almost all of the innovators I've met in my district  belong to a learning team, and if they don't, they have some kind of other support group: university cohort, on-line network, grassroots group of like minded individuals, etc.

When I first started looking into classroom design, I too needed the justification from an outside group.  I went on-line and was disappointed with what I saw.  There was so little, and the sites I found were either school construction (beyond my scope and budget) or were classroom based, but really only talked about decoration (e.g. what borders and posters to put up).  It wasn't until I started blogging and found the blogs of others that my point of view started to expand.  I learned new ideas that I wanted to try and eschewed things that I thought wouldn't work or didn't pertain to me.  My contact with others led me to books and sites that I never would have found myself.  Then I started helping people with their classroom designs, but I learned as much from them as they did from me.   

Meeting others and hearing about their ideas is valuable.  It creates some shortcuts but also new pathways in thinking.  It is this exciting synergy that propels us through the discomfort of the initial phases of innovation,  and the new ideas and deeper understanding gained from others is what continues to mitigate that discomfort.  In talking to others, we get to examine and refine our own thinking and assumptions, and expand our horizons.   

I still don't think you can create a focus group for innovation.  If you bring a cross section of people together, they will define and constrict, and chip away at an idea until there is nothing useful or original left.  Focus groups are the wrong format for innovation because they tend to cleave down to what is known and familiar, not new and innovative.  I think that a support group does the opposite in that it opens up the possibilities and justifies the concept.  Instead of, "Yes, but..." as in a focus group, support groups are expansive with a "Yes, and ..." attitude. 

I would love it if schools could adopt this attitude.  Instead of hacking down new ideas to find 100 ways it won't work, we could be finding 100 ways it could.  We could teach kids to be comfortable with the discomfort of uncertainty, and to mitigate that discomfort by finding ways to solve each of these little puzzles with the power of a support group.  It's not that focus groups are bad, it's just the wrong mechanism for innovation. 

So, to get out of an innovation rut, go find a buddy.  Or at least, a well-intentioned blog.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Innovation is Uncomfortable.

A couple of weeks ago, a learning team of teachers invited me to sit in with them. I jumped at the opportunity because I've heard each of the three passionate teachers individually, so I thought that having all of them in one place would be exciting. And it was. They talked about interesting things they had already done and really creative things they wanted to try. They also had this great synergy in that the ideas piled up on each other. I can't wait to see how it all turns out.

They had a deep knowledge base of their paradigm (as they had done graduate work in it). So they had a specific set of terms and a shared understanding from which to draw. It was like watching skilled architects at work with the technical terminology, deep theoretical base, and creative vision, plus a mechanism for implementing their ideas too.

I found it all very, very interesting.  I threw in little bits here and there, but I was really happy to just take it all in.  One of the parts I found most interesting was something that was not intentional to the meeting.  Apart from myself and the three teachers who invited me, there were three other people present at the meeting: a facilitator, a student teacher, and a teacher (B) who was on staff with two of the other teachers, but who had not taken on the same paradigm of teaching as those two.  The facilitator was equally passionate about this paradigm.  The student teacher had gained some understanding of the paradigm from her sponsor teacher, and was content to listen to the conversation. 

I found it really fascinating to watch B the most.  She asked questions once in a while, but mostly, she was silent like me.  I'd met her before briefly about 12 years ago, so I don't know her that well.  Maybe I am projecting things on her or misjudging her entirely, but I saw a lot of discomfort.

I know that feeling.  Sometimes when teachers talk, I get the confused feeling of "I don't really understand what you are talking about."  Or worse, I get the guilty, inadequate feeling of "Man, I'm not doing any of those things," (or I am doing the exact opposite).   I don't worry about those feelings as much anymore.  It's not because I've turned into a teacher that knows and does everything; it's because I've come to realize that I don't know and do everything, and that it is impossible to do so.  (See my previous post about trying for 80%).  I came to that realization when I worked for the district and met a lot of teachers who felt the same guilt and inadequacy (which was pretty much all of them).

That kind of discomfort though is well, uncomfortable.  It is not a good feeling.  It is tremendously aggravating and unsettling.  But the great thing is this is where innovation is born.  Think of the oyster cliche.  The squishy bivalve works at that piece of grit and works at it until he gets this precious, lustery, gall stone.  If you want to make some really big changes, you are going to have to get good and unsettled first.  Someone or some thing is going to have to really push your buttons in order for you to act (especially if you are a lazy dude like me). 

I'm sure the Wright brothers were right ticked that birds flew and they didn't.  I'm sure (Monkee bass player) Mike Nesmith's mom got irritated one two many times when she invented correction fluid when she was a secretary.  I'm sure that Steve Jobs didn't have enough black turtle necks so he had to raise another billion with the iPhone. 

On a smaller scale, with the work I've been doing in my district around innovation, I've seen similar examples of discomfort leading to great ideas.  This one teacher couldn't stand the idea of kids hanging out at the convenience store or standing around smoking during breaks, so he turned his classroom into a movie club.  Now his kids have a place to go and even have a common language around the shared experiences of watching these movies.  Another teacher felt cut off from her students the way her classroom was arranged, so she enlisted the guidance of her students.  Now she has a beautiful, peaceful classroom that flows and works for everyone.  This other teacher didn't like the way her students were treating each other, so she got them to go out and volunteer in the community.  Now the students have a common bond in the services they provide, and are seen as community leaders.  A math teacher didn't like how he couldn't get to his lower students during class without boring his higher students, so he freed up his time by showing his lessons on-line in advance.  Now, he spends class time working with the struggling students while the higher students (who already watched the lesson at home) spend the time working on their "home"work. 

So my advice to B is to hang in there.  Learn from those others on the learning team or, better yet, find your own way to get over your discomfort.  Something great might come out of it. 

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but discomfort might be the embryo of innovation.