Design, innovation & our future: why should we care?

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses. – Henry Ford

We are by our nature curious! We see patterns, ask questions, and draw conclusions. Occasionally we ask more questions. If we don’t get answers that make sense, we wonder. Not always for ourselves, for others too. We see things through their eyes. Often, we don’t stop there. We go beyond wonder and take action. We take a few notes, make a sketch, and connect a few dots. I would argue, we are all designers provided we work at it; else we risk becoming a group of passive consumers. We must care about design because the world does not need faster horses.

Future ready
I never let my schooling get in the way of my education. – Mark Twain

We can no longer accurately predict the future. Social media strategist, blogger, data miner, drone pilot, who knew these would be jobs? 1 We are creating artificial intelligence (AI) that does the amazing, drives, writes, and grades. We replace TVs, phones, and computers, not fix. Cars run for ten+ years. The future looks good. Yet, if we eliminate more jobs then we create, what will we all do? This is why we need our curiosity, interesting questions, and our ability to care; it defines our “humanness” if you will. We need to focus our educational efforts on our uniquely human qualities, which cannot be duplicated; else what job is next.

Creativity & innovation
Repetition is the death of magic. –Bill Watterson

Self-driving cars, stores where you don’t line up,2 and AI that writes poetry3 all seem wildly creative and innovative. Yet, so many products are poorly designed or lack empathy. We wait in too many lines. And standardized tests still define our future. We are in an age of transition. We struggle with how to teach creativity and define innovation. The top ten grossing films in each year of the first decade of the millennium, seventy-four of the one hundred were sequels, adaptations of an earlier work, or based on comic book/video games.4 Going forward, we need to be comfortable with the dynamic nature of terms like original, inventive, fresh, surprising, risk, better, and useful. Algorithms/AI cannot yet solve complex problems, build social collateral, or be empathetic. Remember when we used to play in the sandbox? We build stuff, worked with others, and sought feedback from parents. Teamwork can be infectious, if we let it. The future needs creativity and innovation and people who question authority. Let’s get back in the sandbox and keep magic alive.

What can we do?
Every great design begins with an even better story. – Lorinda Mamo

Don’t wait! Curiosity, wonder, the design cycle, these are not top down movements. It is not going to come from admin, the school board, or even parents. We are all creative provided we give ourselves the permission. Celebrate good design when we see it. Call out bad design, but be prepared to ask questions, to step up, and offer insights and solutions based on research. Critics only and passive consumers need not apply. Stop just reading and discussing what defines creativity, innovation, and design and take responsibility for our future! Go create a story to own. There no shame in failing, so why not do it with a little style?

Note: this post is a result of an on going collaborative between myself and  John McBryde the Director of Origins Education. Without his guidance and friendship, it would look quite different.

Footnotes

1. 10 jobs that did not exist 10 years ago – Digital Marketing Institute
2. Amazon to open convenience store with no lines – the two way breaking news from NPR
3. Google’s AI has written some amazingly mournful poetry – Wired
4. Everything’s a remix part 1 – Kirby Ferguson

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If you are looking for innovative learning, don’t rely on a GPS

I recently spent a week in the Bay Area with a group of colleagues researching innovative learning. We visited half dozen schools, took in the Exploratorium, stopped by IDEO, the Stanford D School, Apple’s Executive Briefing Centre, and attended the Nueva Innovative Learning Conference. The learning was immense. Our pace was fast. The time was limited.
We saw great learning; we saw learning that we do better. After much reflection, I am confident we possess the same innovative spirit here. The question, how do we build upon it, to grow it, to innovate the innovators if you will? image by By Jean Marc Cote 

Common language

Innovation takes many forms and individually we all hold our own unique understanding of it. This is good, for diversity is a key to innovation.  Methods may vary, speed is relative and success is not a given. It is the learning during the process that we are after. We need to start with commonality by creating a “common language.” It will provide clarity, inspiration and direction. The definitions will need to be simple enough to grasp and apply, yet thick enough to ensure cohesion and fluidity. Any tweaks, augmentations, or additions made must be made known to all our innovators. Without consistency and communication, no organization, large or small, can maintain or scale innovation.

Growth mindset – rethinking risk

We need to focus on improvement instead getting it right. We need to work to promote learning as a whole process with multiple answers that lead to better questions. Students who understand this are more likely to work towards improvement.  Simply urging students to take a risk is not enough. Risk inherently implies danger or harm. We need to create a culture that distances ourselves from risk and embraces growth. Learners should not need to ask for permission to take action on a task or a project. Yes, assessment will need to be rethought, just remember take small steps but dream big.

Collisions of people

Diverse groups of learners solve problems better and faster than homogeneous ones. Traditionally educators are grouped by subject area, yet we need and exit our comfortable departmental bubbles. By engineering diversity while channeling accountability, we will see action and learning across the organization. Everyone has an idea, a suggestion, or a thought. Often it is never offered. Worse, those who do contribute are rarely empowered to action it. We need to create collaborative environments where people routinely share their ideas. We can build open offices, communal kitchens, team rooms, and cafes. Yet, this only gets us so far. Leaders, at all levels, will need to promote, model, and celebrate collision to build a growth mindset culture where our mantras are “what if” and “yes, and.”

Tasks & spaces – research

Innovation exists in our schools, no dispute. Let’s find it, look at it, ask lots of questions of it, and leave it alone. If it isn’t broke, why break it? There will be plenty of time to tweak or scale it later. It’s the data we want, specifically from the question, “how did these educators innovate with current tools and in their current space.” Educators are quick to champion innovation, especially if they had this tool, something extra in their room, or could access a Makerspace. We get it! You want stuff to innovate. Yet, we as educators cannot wait for the school to formally come up with a plan to change the tools or space available. Channel your inner MacGyver and start by changing tasks, being creative available materials, and leveraging the right tool for the task. If we do, every room becomes a Maker Space.

Showcase & celebrate

Showcasing hard work brings validation. With validation, new inspiration emerges, commitment can be renewed, and moments of reflection often come to light. Celebrating exam results got us this far. From here, we focus on the process of the learning. Successes and setbacks, they all need to come to light. Leaders, educators, and learners alike need to be apart of creating our growth mindset. Highlight it in class. Mention it at the water cooler. Entertain with it at school gatherings. Write about it on your blog, newsletters, or in your favorite medium, Yes, it is easier said than done. Yet it is crucial to success.

Seeing it through – chutzpah

Innovation was always around. We just conveniently ignored it. Our challenge is making and sustaining it. Yes, other challenges will emerge, yet how do we not ignore innovation again? We build it into our workflows. We continually come back to our common language for guidance. Its continued use and discussion keeps us moving forward. As learners change, new collisions of ideas will occur. Both educators and learners will depart and arrive, we need to be ready to receive them, guide them, encourage them, and even get out of their way. Tasks and spaces will continue to be questioned, tweaked, and at times completely scrapped. The conditions for innovation will never be ideal, yet they will always be optimal if you let it.

Tofu, invention, moving on, and rebounding

I frequented this small place in Beijing, which served inventive dishes. Their egg white wrapped tofu and walnut prawns both supplied visual texture and firm mouth feel. They served other dishes too; yet, one day the two dish were gone. They explained it “we don’t make those anymore.” I sampled the menu, yet found nothing particularly as inventive. So, I stopped going.

Restaurants can do okay on average food for a while, if they compensate with a terrific staff. Toss in a great wine list and, yes people will come back. They may be between chefs? Maybe the chef’s is amidst a personal crisis. Or maybe its owner is off starting her/his new restaurant? The point, people notice when something is off or does not work right. They will go with the flow, eat there, or continue to pay/work, as long as something else offsets it, convenience, staff, or price.

When something starts to slip, inventive dishes, an attention to detail, or great attitudes, people move on both physically and mentally. Physical movement rebounds are less challenging. Staff can coached to step up. New customers can be wooed with inventive recipes. Positive attitudes when facing challenges go a long way and build confidence. When people mentally move on, their mentality changes. Gone is the inventive spirit. Little gets celebrated. Challenges go unsolved or worse unaddressed. You hear, “we do it this way” all to often. When this mentality becomes part of your culture, rebounding is more challenging. So, why not just channel your energy to create a vibrant and dynamic culture that manages transitions well in order to sustain itself in the first place?

Image by dgray_xplane @ creative commons

Change – Slow Boats – Willingness

Loose-leaf tea, Mandarin collars, century old eggs, congee, and tofu help me balance normality in my life. Yet, twenty years ago, I didn’t like them. I actively avoided them. And I certainly didn’t waste any time reflecting or writing about them. Life works to compliment our existence, but only when we are ready.


Images by A Girl With Tealynac, & Kake Pugh @ Creative Commons

Growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio, I saw not many of the articles above. Yes, there were Chinese restaurants, but tofu on the menu, I don’t recall. Leaves slipped from the teapot occasionally, but I would fish them out with my spoon. And Mandarin collars in the land of button downs, blue blazers, and prep ties, pleeease!

Proximity alone is not enough. I moved to Beijing two decades ago. Yet, with apologies to Dr. Seuss, I refused to eat century old eggs. If tea was served, I produced my own bag. When tofu was offered, I politely declined. I was confident in my new surroundings, just not crazy. Or so I thought.

Appreciation is key. Congee, alone is pretty boring. Cook it slow enough, add the right amount of water, set an egg in the right way, add some picked ginger, peanuts, scallions, add a dash of soy or chilli sauce, and voila, you’re in business. Yet, pleasures, likes, and vices all come from somewhere. It starts with a story here, a recommendation there, or an introduction from a friend of a friend. Rarely do we find them just waiting around for us. Appreciation plus willingness equals change, especially when the process is repeated over time.

Passion is crucial. It plays a starring role and is referenced continually. Someone shows us a way. We  talk, we learn, and we connect. To you, it’s a game of straining tea with your teeth and politely spitting. To others it’s the process. How leaves open, float and sink. What the flavor is like between pots. Or possibly it is not the tea at all, but rather the social dynamic of the undertaking. Passion with a dose of imagination brings creativity.

Risk, failure, and resilience feature prominently too. Not all century old eggs taste the same. You can’t buy a Mandarin Collar jacket off the rack. Well, not at Brooks Brothers. If you want something to work, it’s going to take energy. Visit a tailor, order a mystery dish, live on the edge and try some loose-leaf tea. Will you get it right the first time, probably not? For me, it’s always that third fitting at the tailor when you hit it big.  Yes, we possess a finite amount of energy, but what else are you going to do, with it?

I get it. Teas is for drinking, not grazing. Rice is great when fried, not as soup. And tofu’s lack of texture creeps people out. Remember it is not about you. It is about seeing greatness in small things. These small things restore normality in an ever-changing world, even if only for a short time. Change happens with or without you. So, why not enjoy the ride?

The kitchen, outpost of creativity!

The kitchen stands as one of the home’s last physical creative spaces. Whether you are following a recipe, working from memory, or just winging it, you create something! Yes, your experience will vary, e.g., ingredients available, improvisation skills,  social media distractions, and time available. Let none of these reasons stop you. No one ever starves to death because they lacked an ingredient, used the wrong pan, or couldn’t find the recipe. You may not always eat well, but you will eat. And try to remember, fun and enjoyment improves taste.

I think of the kitchen as my Zen garden. I roll up my sleeves and use my hands for something other than typing. The chopping, the dicing, the mincing, it brings a bit of balance to my day. I am in control and a sense of order materializes. Ingredients, unlike email, do not just suddenly appear. Kitchen technology advances slowly, e.g., mixer to electric mixer. If you don’t have an ingredient, you improvise. If you can’t improvise, you

The Internet has no smell. In the kitchen, you knead the bread, punching and turning. You see it rise. The smell fills the home, thereby adding to conversation, e.g., “when’s the bread going to be done Dad?” You hear it tear as you break the bread apart. As you eat, you notice the texture, the mouth feel, and the taste. Your olfactory organs experience a rhythm for a brief moment and life is good. Don’t try this with computer chips.

Think of the kitchen as the original social media. We cook to eat, live, and grow. Yet, how much more interesting is it to cook for an audience? Feedback is immediate and often abundant. You learn about the lives of family and friends. Stories get told. Faces will be made. You discover people’s tastes, their comfort foods, and definitely their limits. You add spice where you can and a bit of zest always helps. You might even succeed in making the unappealing, appealing. Think brussels sprouts and a 10 year old boy, I recommend bacon!

We learn by doing, not watching, not talking about it, and rarely just by reading. Put down the computer and head to the kitchen. If you can’t put down the computer take it with you.  If you can challenge yourself to be able to create something that makes people, including yourself, happy, you will possess friends all your life.

“The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude.” 
― Julia Child

Filters, Fire Walls, Productivity, & Tea

blockage2Recently I found myself in Beijing reflecting on the question of “filtered” Internet. In my case, no, Youtube, Google Drive, New York Times, Diigo, Twitter or access blogs. Even my trusted VPN proved deferential to the great firewall.

Now, I love China. I spent 17 years of my life there. We both grew up together. I learned how to manage change, when to press forward, when to step off, and when drink tea. It’s an art form that we all need to practice, the stepping off, not the tea drinking. Beijing is part of me and I definitely am a better person because of it.

So I asked myself, what if your regular workflow no longer flowed? What if suddenly your regular tools did not work effectively? Would your life or your work be less meaningful?

Upon extensive reflection and numerous cups of tea, I decided, no, your life would potentially be even more meaningful. You would find a new workflow. You would find new tools. Yes, it would take time. You might be less efficient, possibly be a little less informed, and you definitely would be a lot less entertained! Yet, these could be good things.

You would learn a lot about yourself. Life moves pretty fast and with a changing learning curve, you need to be able to size up a situation quickly. You need to know your boundaries, both hard and soft. With limited resources, you would be better at judging your capacity. In an Internet of limitless possibilities, it is easy to get overwhelmed and a little lost.

It would be frightening. Your trusted tools/friends might leave you at any time. You would need to be open to taking risks. You would be responsible for something that works in a new way or possibly does not work at times. You would definitely shore up the troubleshooting and problem solving part of your resume. You might even find yourself asking, “Do you really believe in a process or a particular product? Is this really worth my time?” Nothing like a little challenge or change to illuminate the obvious.

Creativity and innovation would flourish. Outcomes would still need to be reached and decisions made. Responsibility does not end when someone filters your Internet. It would force you to think and use your imagination to accomplish tasks. When you continually meet challenges, you become accustom to alternative ways, other points of view, and any help you can get at all. Often the Internet gets in our way and slows us down.

cupofteaIf you find yourself in an Internet filtering or constantly changing situation, focus and self-discipline are your allies, not to mention a strong cup of tea. Concentrate on the how and the why and less upon what is no longer available or what you lost. If you can navigate change and balance creativity, innovation, and imagination, you will ensure life long learning. Knowledge is a process, not something you can Google!

Trip versus Journey

A trip is usually somewhere you have been before. A trip to the market! A trip to the post office. There’s usually a specific purpose or a goal. To buy groceries. To buy stamps. With a journey, there is more of an unknown element involved, a challenge if you will. A little mystery. A little risk. All trips can be journeys, if you let them. And all journeys can turn into trips, if you remove the challenge. Many want their journeys to be trips. They like the element of control. They like constancy. They appreciate change, just on their terms. Yet too much control hinders or obscures the learning. And if you end up taking the learning out of the journey, then it is just a trip. So, what’s it today, a trip or on a journey?

Image by -Snugg- @ Creative Commons