Tag Archives: Nigel Barlow

Insanely Great Learning: Are we creating it?

Do we have insanely great learning? What does it look like? Can we describe it using the power of story? Can we act as if this is going to be a transformational year for our classroom, our school, and our organization? These are the challenges from Nigel Barlow, author of the book Re-Think: How to think differently and keynote speaker at the recent Apple Canada Educational Leadership Institute. I was fortunate to hear Nigel speak on innovation in leadership and how to be more adventurous in achieving your goals.

“You can create or invent a more successful future for your organization,” encourages Nigel Barlow. The key is to have a possibility mindset where you think, “Why not?” or “What if?” rather than “Yes, but…” Steve Jobs wanted to create “insanely great products.” Design was important to him and the team at Apple. They wanted to design the icons to be so aesthetically pleasing that people would want to lick them off the ipad.  The image sticks with you. Can we create our vision of the future of learning with the same kind of intense metaphor? Can we write the future of learning as a series of stories? What would “insanely great learning” look like for students? And what does “insanely great teaching” look like? Am I providing “insanely great leadership?”

In our work, do we use the power of story to invent the future? As Barlow states, “Stories communicate the future in a way that bulletin points will not do.” He gives the example of the Good Samaritan. Jesus could have used a mission statement like “Be kind” but instead chose to invoke the power of the story. Story has an emotional and visionary impact. Story can touch our hearts and minds and move us in such a way that we want to live the story.

In Barlow’s session, we did not work on creating a mission or vision for our organization. Instead, he walked us through some story instructions for “Inventing our Future.” We worked in teams at our table to identify the most inspiring and exciting ideas that struck us during the Institute.  We were to record these and use them as the ‘Ingredients Of Our Story.’  This was a crucial step to the story. Then the group had to choose a viewpoint from inside or outside the school (eg. student, teacher, parent, etc.) and weave our ideas into a brief ‘Day in the Life’ set ahead two years in time.  He asked us to ensure it was achievable but push out the boundaries, to use humour and creativity and focus on attitudinal and behavioural changes. The teams shared out at the end of the session, either reading the stories or showing the movies that each group had created. It was some intense work but allowed people to invent a future that capitalized on some of the fabulous ideas we had explored throughout the conference.

I met with a small group recently and used Nigel Barlow’s ideas to talk about Creating a Legend for Insanely Great Learning.  The slideshare includes some of his ideas and also two links to videos where Barlow shares his ideas.

This was an opportunity for those in the room to think about their work in fresh ways.  One leader found the session “therapeutic…very refreshing.” Another participant described it as “just what they needed.” The session was designed to be an opportunity to create some dissonance, push against some organizational stereotypes and ponder some different possibilities. We need to take more opportunities to pause and think about our work in reflective ways that allow us to move forward. It was fascinating to see how one principal in the room was already creating the story of the future. She was learning iMovie: filming teachers and students in their great learning moments as a way to capture the story of her school going forward.

What does insanely great learning look like? Can you tell the story? Are you living the story? Is this a transformational year for you, your class, your school and the district?

Perhaps T.E. Lawrence was more prophetic that we realize:

“All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.”

Dream on.

Credit for the ideas in this post go to Nigel Barlow. Thanks to Apple Canada for inviting me to the Educational Leadership Institute. Thanks to Donna Vansant for her help in pulling some of these pieces together for presentation to my f2f network.

Pondering Personal Space, Connected Minds and Action

Chance favours the connected mind.
Steven Johnson

How do we create a coral reef in our organizations? Where do good ideas happen? Can we create an environment where innovation thrives? Is there a space where good ideas can collide? Do we encourage opportunities for personal reflection too? And how do we allow that collaborative collision space, those innovative ideas, to generate action?

I keep thinking about the tweet from Neil Stephenson:

I want a coral reef too. I hunt down Steven Johnson. I remember I have the book (Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation). It sat on my night table for a little while. True confessions: I only read the first few chapters, as the book didn’t quite hold me. I head back to the digital highway and find some reviews that give me the basics on what I need to know.  I tweet a librarian who connects me to some more good related resources.

I watch the video:

Johnson has many entertaining ideas but I am particularly struck by the notion of connection. “Chance favours the connected mind” keeps reverberating in my head. I see it lived in our district, through our innovative projects, our Engaging the Digital Learner series and through our district’s professional learning network (see our twitter hashtag #sd36learn). I follow the hashtag and I see teacher after teacher making a connection with someone across the system. This connection often goes beyond the virtual.  Sometimes I see they visit each other’s schools, make arrangements to meet for real coffee and/or discuss their practice. I see people connecting across grades and from high school to elementary school in unusual ways, creating productive alliances around teaching and learning. This is a curious thing.

Johnson talks about the ‘liquid network’ as “an environment where ideas come into contact with each other.” He provides the historical context of coffee houses in 17th and 18th century–these were places people gathered to share ideas over coffee. We do that virtually via twitter. We do it in real-time, face-to-face in many schools. It often happens organically. But can we be strategic about ensuring it happens? Is there a liquid network in all our schools? Throughout our districts? Where are we taking time to incubate our hunches? Where are we connecting our good ideas beyond the virtual realm?  Does it happen in our staff rooms? In the hallways? At the Board Office? In the meetings we hold? At pro-d days or in between sessions at conferences? And do we create this same type of space for students in the classroom? In the library? The learning commons? Can we structure this architecturally into our system rather than leaving it to organic and spontaneous hit and miss activity? Can we be intentional and strategic in our diffusion strategies?

And when do we take the time for our own personal reflection so that we can come to the table rich with ideas and thoughts? Nigel Barlow asked us, “Where are you when you have great ideas?” Think about it. Where are you? Some of my best ideas come during or after a run. For me, these ideas come when there is an opportunity for both silence and alone time, often on the heels of a complex problem, significant question, or conundrum where someone at work has challenged me. Some of the best work we do is when we are asked curious questions, not yes or no questions, but those kind of questions that create that puzzled look on our faces. These are thought-provoking and disturbing questions that can create some uncomfortable dissonance. This is a good thing. I need the personal time to process, to reflect and to see things from different angles. Then I can come back to the coral reef to let the ideas collide, grow bigger and come to life.

and come to life. Coral reefs are one of the most diverse ecosystems that flourish with life. The liquid network–whether it is over virtual coffee or the life-giving waters of the coral reef– is a potent metaphor; ideas connect, expand and are adopted.  Can we design our organizations to do the same?  I grapple with the notion of creating a coral reef for ideas and collaboration but I keep thinking about action. Does it come alive? Does it change our schools? Does it change our practice? Does it change learning?  Does it change me? How can I work better and differently in my position so that all of us can pause to think deeply, to connect richly with others (both virtually and in person), and then to allow those innovative ideas to become a lived reality across a large system.

I am looking for an organizational coral reef where ideas collide in some form of liquid network. I want whole scale change that permeates the system and where ideas are so attractive others are pulled to them from across schools and the organization. This is not about a one-classroom silo of significant change dependent on one teacher, or one team of teachers with a supportive administration. This is about creating capacity across a monolithic system. This is about generative conversations that lead us to learn and grow in such ways that we are compelled to change our practice. Call it what you may–the coral reef, the liquid network—but this becomes the inspiration for transformation. The contagion of good ideas spreads, is explored, and is action-ed. The organization grows and reinvents itself. We reinvent ourselves. And as we do that, our own sense of purpose, our own passion for our work, grows and comes alive as well. And professionally, this is how we come to life, too.