Constraint


creative commons licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by graymalkn

Constraint:

  • something that limits or restricts someone or something
  • control that limits or restricts someone’s actions or behaviour

For a while now I have been a strong advocate for student voice in their learning and choice in what they learn. I have written about our four Innovation Weeks, and proselytized at length about the power in turning over control to our students, and the resulting learning that has occurred as a result. The push back against relinquishing control of our classrooms is dwindling, and I find far less resistance to these ideas when I present them at conferences or post about them here.

During one of my last conference presentations, the question came up about why I thought Innovation Week was beneficial to student learning, and how I felt it compared to other similar ideas like the wildly popular and fantastic Genius Hour. My response was that I find great value in the experience being limited by time, and that the deadline pushed our students to do amazing things in just that one week. I feel that the constraint of a one week time limit (5 days really), pushes students in ways that force them to deliver on their ideas (see fantastic Seth Godin video on “Shipping”), and that it helps focus what might otherwise become aimless or unmotivated without an end-point.

I read a fantastic post about Google’s ATAP team (Advanced Technology and Projects) a few weeks ago and in the article it talks about how the two-year time limit imposed on these ATAP teams motivates them to achieve great things because with every week that passes they are 1% closer to the deadline. I loved this quote, and it inspired a few posts (here and here) about how we should create similar research and development teams in education.

There is a sense of urgency, you don’t come to build a career. You come to do a project, to do something epic, and then you go.”

Since my last conference presentation I have been revisiting some ideas I had, and trying to look at them through the lens of constraint. I am starting to think that building in constraint can be just as effective as building in choice when we look at creating learning experiences for our students that challenge and grow their imagination. I was reminded of the scene from Apollo 13 when the NASA engineers had to create a solution to get a square CO2 filter into a round hole:

I believe that working to find a solution to a problem while navigating the restrictions or difficulties is an authentic means to fostering creativity, critical thinking and innovation in our students. We have no doubt done this already with spaghetti bridge building, shopping on a budget, and Rube-Goldberg machines built with things you find around your house. Where I think there can be some growth in this area is instead building a learning experience around a constraint rather than adding a constraint to an already developed learning experience, as I would suggest all of the above would qualify as.

Maybe one of the following may have potential, and maybe you can help me turn them into great experiences for our students with some suggestions:

Guerrilla/Ambush Learning – excuse the cheesy title, it is a work in progress. The idea is built around the constraint of time and limited preparedness. Students sign up to participate, and on a chosen day, all participants are shuttled into the gym where we have tables and chairs set up. They are handed a coloured card and asked to sit at the table that corresponds to their colour. Once everyone is in, a problem is shared with the group, and the challenge is given to each table to develop a solution to the problem. A clock with let’s say 5 hours on it starts to countdown. The groups have to work together to come up with a solution to the problem and have it ready to defend at the end of the 5 hours. Sample problems could be clean drinking water in a third world country, inner-city literacy rates or limiting cars into a city centre. As long as the problem is big enough to tackle and a problem that exists somewhere in the world, I believe the task would be engaging and meaningful.

Helping Hand – again, cheesy title that will be improved by someone (anyone?) out there. The idea is built around the constraint of space and limited resources. The idea initially started as lunch boxes to a 3rd world country but with some help from my colleagues (Thanks Courtney, Dana, Brad and Carson) we refocused this on cloth grocery bags for homeless people. The idea is that students have to come up with the best use of the space provided by one cloth grocery bag. The question would be what would be the most effective way they could fill the bag to provide to a homeless person with the most beneficial contents they could come up with. The limitation would be that they would have to actively seek out the donation of all contents. Whether it was medical supplies, a blanket, non-perishable food items, toiletries etc. they would have to contact a business, explain their project and then convince the business to help them out with a donation. I think with some work done behind the scenes before the project you could probably get some businesses or associations on board to help.

For the helping hand project we are thinking of doing it in January or February when it can get very cold in our neck of the woods, and after the Christmas season, when the shelters get a great deal of help from people already. We hope to partner with a shelter that can not only act as a resource for the exercise, but can hopefully facilitate our participating students in the handing out of these bags.

Whether the limitation or constraint you put on students is real or imagined, creating this type of experience challenges students to be imaginative in their finding a solution. Just as the best way to foster resilience in students is to give them a meaningful reason to be resilient, the best way to foster innovation and creativity is going to be to challenge them in ways that force them to be imaginative and innovative.

In a great article that Whitney Johnson wrote for the Harvard Business Review entitled Why Innovators Love Constraints, she talks about how constraints can push us, and how in the real world this type of thinking is required. I think this quote does a good job of connecting this type of learning to the type of thinkers our world is going to require, or already requires:

A tightly-lidded box can stifle and suffocate. It can motivate us to figure out how get outside the box. To make choices about how we will expend the resources we do have available to us, to find cheaper, more nimble ways of doing something as a person – and as a corporation. Our perceived limitations may give us direction on where we might play, or want to play. Indeed, if we will let them, constraints can (and will) drive us to disruption.

As always, I’d love your thoughts, comments, or recommendations.

A Great Disconnect


creative commons licensed ( BY-NC-SA ) flickr photo shared by Joe Dsilva

I love to read about the ways that people are pushing boundaries and I do not limit that reading to the education realm. I believe so much can be learned from every other domain, be it business, the arts, etc. that we shouldn’t limit ourselves to focusing our learning from education minds alone.

My brilliant friend Paul Genge (follow him on twitter, he is doing amazing work in curriculum redesign) turned me on to the book Open by David Price which I am finding really quite interesting, as it talks about all the changes our new open knowledge culture will have on our global community in all realms – education, business, culture. While his commentary on the changes education will have to undertake to align itself with this new culture are fascinating, it was in a section on the changing world of business that I found inspiration:

If a business is simply buying in knowledge, as and when it’s needed, how is it going to grow its own bank of knowledge and expertise?  (Price, 2013)

Addressing just how easy it is becoming to outsource work, and to access freelance workers all over the planet, Price addresses the idea that by doing so, a business builds less and less intellectual capital within their company and amongst their own talented workers.

Immediately my mind went to the topic of research and development in education, a topic I have written about before, including my last post. In that post, I put forth this quote from research I had read in my recent masters coursework:

Advances in educational know-how are likely to remain slow and uncertain until educational institutions follow suit and devote funds to supporting their role in the production of educational PPK (Principled Practical Knowledge). (Bereiter, 2014)

Bereiter advocates innovation from within, and I have imagined this as our own funded and supported R&D departments, most likely at a divisional level, pushing practice and driving systemic change. When I honestly look at what that would mean, logistically and financially, I see the minimum commitment being no less than three professionals, and when including research, professional development and a working space, the cost would probably end up being close to half a million dollars. Working in a relatively small school division, the chances of this happening are probably very small. So what is the answer?

In a study done for Strategy & Business magazine entitled Making Ideas Work, Jaruzelski, Loehr and Holman looked at the research and development budgets of some of the world’s most innovative companies and measured that up against the success each company had, and the feedback the company itself gave about their own level of innovation. While their study presented companies with R&D budgets in the billions, and names like Apple, Google and Toyota, I found this finding the most interesting:

As our study has consistently shown over the past eight years, there is no long-term correlation between the amount of money a company spends on its innovation efforts and its overall financial performance; instead, what matters is how companies use that money and other resources, as well as the quality of their talent, processes, and decision making. Those are the things that determine their ability to execute their innovation agendas. (Jaruzelski, Loehr & Holman, 2012)

The “quality of their talent”, I would imagine this is a key indicator of success in any industry. So you need talented people. Of course. And you need to spend your money effectively. Yep. Nothing earth shattering in that, but when you think of the talent your educational organization has, and you think about what David Price talks about when he illustrated a key pitfall that occurs when businesses look outside their walls with freelance work and outsourcing, I find myself forced to reflect on our current practices. How much money is spent in an educational organization to bring in talent to guide us on our way? What would happen to the intellectual capital and level of talent/ability in an educational organization if that money was directed towards individuals within the organization to develop knowledge and guide the way from within?

So we probably aren’t ready to shell out half a million to set up an R&D department in most school divisions, but there has to be another way to develop ideas from within while developing ability within our organization at the same time. What about R&D teams? What about an R&D team of educators who come together periodically to work on an idea? Let’s say 4-6 educators, meeting 8 days of each school year and doing so for a 2 year cycle? The division provides a space to meet, sub coverage for the educators and support in the way of required materials and/or PD. The whole thing could probably be done for under $30,000 over a two year cycle. Hmmmm, now we are getting closer to numbers that are pretty reasonable.

Hypothetically, we put together a pilot group to tackle the idea of mindfulness in schools. We bring in 4- 6 educators, they review research and publications, they attend a conference or two, they use their time together to plan ways to bring the research to life in buildings, and at the end of two years they present the findings to the division, and hopefully to the rest of the educators so that the seed can spread, the practice take root and systemic change can occur.

The two-year cycle idea came from this great article that I read today about Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) team, and how Google pushes the team by creating a firm two year delivery date for their team projects and reminding them that every week they are 1% closer to the deadline. I think the constraint of a two year deadline is a key factor in the innovation, if you don’t put a delivery date on it, there is always a chance the work could keep spiralling without ever finishing – Seth Godin has a great video on the “Shipping” of innovative ideas. Since the teams would be on two-year cycles, this would by no means be a career change, there would be no need for permanent positions to be set up. It could be a lot like the way Regina Dugan, Google ATAP leader, puts it in this quote:

There is a sense of urgency, you don’t come to build a career. You come to do a project, to do something epic, and then you go.

A great disconnect I see is that we talk about innovation and building the capacity within our organizations but then we spend money to bring in outside experts to show us the way and to be the innovators. A lot of times, the topics  or areas covered are not beyond us, but out of convenience we pay them to come and lead sessions. If we looked within our organizations I am sure we often have the talent to lead in this area, or at the very least, a small group of passionate educators willing to learn more about it. If a goal for the professional learning of our organizations started first with a goal of building the knowledge and abilities of our educators we would be purposeful in the way we directed resources to ensure that we weren’t simply adopting someone else’s “best practices” but instead developing our own. The question should not be “Who should we bring in to be the expert?” it should be “who can become our expert?”.