Interrogating innovation

New is always better

My life seems to be all about innovation at the moment. I’ve been teaching Designing Innovative Learning and Evaluating Learning and Innovation this semester, worked on a winter school intensive program last July called Leading Innovation, and hearing about innovation seemingly every time I turn on the TV or walk into an organisation. It is, in short, very much the zeitgeist. The focus on innovation is understandable. The world is moving faster than ever and advances in technology and ways of collaborating have made people acutely aware of the need to continually learn and adapt. Innovation appears to have fulfilled this need by offering a way forward through the seeming chaos. A toolbox of methods and a mindset shift which made it OK to come up with new ideas and try new things.

Innovation can be a slippery concept to define. What strikes me more is that when I hear people, such as employees or students, talk about innovation there is no interrogation of what the term means in general or within a specific context. I see this as problematic. On the one hand, perhaps it is just something that we all know when we see it. On the other hand, however, a lack of clear and universally accepted definitions of innovation and innovating provides cracks through which good intentions can fall. But what is meant by innovation? What does innovation look like? Often the discourses around innovation are around the tools, but what exactly does it mean to innovate?

To try to answer this question I designed an activity for my Designing Innovative Learning classes this semester to try and start a conversation about the nature of innovation using music as a discussion stimulus. Yes, music. Music and musicians are often touted as being innovative. Artists such as David Bowie, Lady Gaga, and Queen are often described as being innovative but what is it that makes them so?

Before our first class, I ask students to think about a piece of music which they see as being innovative. Then, they need to post a clip of the music to the class online discussion board and explain why they chose that piece of music. What is it about that piece of music that is innovative to them? This is the interesting part. Student choices range from classical music to 80’s pop but they all had two things in common. Firstly, a key theme which emerged was that the class overwhelmingly saw innovation as putting existing things together in new ways to make something new for a particular time and place. The time and place part is important because it ties into the second theme which was that innovation is context and individually specific. What is innovative to one person, time, or place may not be to another. I think that this is important and not often considered. Everyone has different experiences and expectations influence their opinions – these need to be taken into account with innovations as much as anything else. The other interesting thing about using music as a stimulus for discussion is that it forced the students to move beyond how we innovate to discuss what is innovative. It also required students to move beyond the usual discussion of innovation of being the preserve of technology and discuss it more at a conceptual level.

At the end of the activity I then created a Spotify playlist which I used throughout the semester in class. It never failed to remind the students of the key themes we discussed in the first class or to get them talking again – even if it was just to discuss the relative merits of 1980s power ballads 🙂

You can listen to the playlist here and judge the selections for yourself. Innovative or not? What piece of music or artist would you say is innovative and why?

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Operationalising complexity for leading

Image attribution: #barpreplife: One Point https://www.barexambrief.com/barpreplife-one-point

In my last blog post, I noted that, if we take a complex systems view of leading, then much of what we currently offer for leadership development may be obsolete. I closed that post with some questions:

  • Are you developing your leaders for working in complex adaptive organisations or training them the same way you always have with a change in terminology and expecting different results?
  • How are you helping your leaders to get out of the way?

This post builds on the previous one by proposing answers to these questions.

The slippery nature of adopting complexity approaches for leadership was brought home powerfully to me a few weeks ago by a student in my Leading Learning class. This student kept asking me again and again “But what do we DO with all of this?”. I can’t blame him. He has spent his career working in large corporations and was frustrated at the lack of concrete answers he was getting. He wanted to know exactly which skills his leaders needed and how to deliver the training. I can appreciate his perspective and he’s not the first student to ask me to operationalise these concepts. For most of my career that’s how I’ve approached leadership development programs too. A set of skills or “leadership behaviours” that we train. We might use some innovative teaching and learning methods to be sure, but it’s still a behavioural approach to leadership development.

Adopting a complexity approach asks us to move away from behavioural approaches as a set of static leadership behaviours is insufficient to deal with the flux and change of the contemporary workplace. But what do we do if we don’t train leaders how to be leaders?

After much reflection and reading on the topic, my answer is this – leaders don’t need skills. They need a mindset shift accompanied by theoretical and analytical tools. What if complexity was not adopted merely as part of a “traditional” leadership program but was a instead taught to leaders as a set of theoretical and analytical tools which they could use to gather data about their context and make more effective decisions.

In my (as yet) imaginary program, leaders would be encouraged to read and reflect. They would be challenged with discussions about the nature of their work and how a leader is just a part of a far larger system. The leaders would be encouraged to see themselves as part of something bigger and their traditional western notions of the “leader as saviour” would be challenged. In short, they would be given tools to look at their own practice and situate it more broadly within a system. Leaders would learn as opposed to be trained. The “leader” would be decentralised from their rarified spot at the centre of the process and discussions of “leadership” as something static that can be learned would be sidelined in favour of reflection on leader’s day-to-day practices and those of the people whom they “lead”. Taking a complexity approach requires that leading is a continuous process which adapts to emergence and operates within multiple highly networked and overlapping contexts. Leaders need a mindset shift to see themselves as part of multiple systems, contexts, and relationships rather than as responsible for planning and controlling from on high. Leaders need to be shown how to get out of the way and encouraged to think of themselves as part of the action rather than overseeing it.

An Astronaut’s guide to learning

Space Oddity

Photo sourced from http://thewordofward.co.uk/chris-hadfield-the-making-of-the-space-oddity-video/

Over the summer I’ve (finally) been catching up on some reading and stumbled across a gem called An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Colonel Chris Hadfield. Col. Hadfield was an astronaut for over twenty years and commanded the International Space Station. His book details his journey to becoming an astronaut, something he wanted since he saw the first moon landing as a child, as well as lessons he learned along the way.

So what has this got to do with learning? One of the things I found most interesting about the book was how much of an astronaut’s time is spent learning and training – in fact, the vast majority of their time. In a twenty year career, Col. Hadfield went into space just three times. The rest of the time was spent training to be in space, troubleshooting for other astronauts, helping work through technical problems being experienced in orbit, and developing new tools and procedures to be used in the future to make space travel safer and more efficient. Most days, he notes, they train and take classes as well as sit many exams for which they often study on the weekends. On top of all of that, a key part of their service is having ground jobs supporting other astronaut’s missions which are also crucial for developing their own skills.

There are three key lessons I’d like to focus on from the book in this post. First is the role of reflection in astronaut training. Second is how how NASA created and facilitated a rich learning culture for their staff. Third is how Col. Hadfield went about planning the learning he needed throughout his career which often involved planning ahead many steps into an uncertain future.

Reflection

An absolutely key part of learning for astronauts was reflection-in-action as they undertook tasks as well as reflection-on-action after completing a task, mission, or simulation. Often this took the form of detailed debriefing sessions with all of the key stakeholders. These open and frank conversations and reflections were, Hadfield notes, at times painful but always important and helpful. He describes them as being key to operational and organisational success. My last blog post discussed the importance of reflection and I don’t think that it’s importance, particularly in contexts of uncertainty and “fluid work” (Lizier, 2017) can be overstated. The ability to reflect on our day-to-day work is key to learning through work but how can organisations encourage and reward reflection?

NASA as a “learning organisation”

The concept of the learning organisation (Senge, 1990) has been a popular one over nearly thirty years but not without criticisms (e.g. Fenwick, 2001; Caldwell, 2005). I have mixed opinions about learning organisations but, reading Chris Hadfield’s descriptions of NASA, I immediately thought of the learning organisation concept. In particular, the type of environment and culture that NASA created which supported and facilitated learning. First was a general expectation that everyone was learning all of the time. In addition, “everyone at NASA is a critic” as Chris Hadfield says. This is important to extract maximum learning opportunities from every situation. One quote from the book (p. 79) particularly stuck with me:

“At NASA, we’re not just expected to respond positively to criticism, but to go one step further and draw attention to our own missteps and miscalculations. It’s not easy for hyper-competitive people to talk openly about screw-ups that make them look foolish or incompetent. Management has to create a climate where owning up to mistakes is permissible and colleagues have to agree, collectively, to cut each other some slack.”

The last sentence in particular made me think. It made me think of working in organisations were they talked a good game about learning and encouraging innovation, experimentation, and risk taking but, ultimately, it was all just talk. People didn’t feel safe to make those criticisms or have open and honest conversations. At NASA their lives may depend on it and so it is OK to be learner at NASA, something that researchers (Boud & Solomon, 2003) have found is challenging for many people and organisations. There are key questions here for managers and learning practitioners: how are you supporting risk taking, experimentation, and innovation? Is it truly encouraged or are you just paying lip-service? What processes do you have in place to really, critically, debrief projects and tasks?

Career planning

The final point I want to discuss in this post is how Col. Hadfield prepared for his career by looking ahead and thinking about what skills might be needed in the future. As he notes, the requirements for astronauts change over time making skills obsolete. For example, the Space Shuttle program required skilled pilots who could fly the most complicated ship on earth for short periods of time whereas now astronauts and cosmonauts fly in a largely automated vehicle called a Soyuz. Col. Hadfield was particularly skilled at looking at what was happening and reacting to trends that he could see shaping the future.

That didn’t mean that he’d be right. He could be training for something that he would never have to do but it would mean that he’d be ready to take up opportunities as they arose. He emphasises this point, that, to take opportunities, you need to be prepared all of the time. An example of this is that he speaks fluent Russian and has been learning it for around 15-20 years. When he started learning Russian there was no formal announcement that space launches would move to Russia but he could see some key trends and wanted to be prepared. Turns out he was right and he was then ready to take opportunities to work at the charmingly named Star City (no relation to our not so charming edifice in Sydney) near Moscow.

Since this is the time of year when people are starting to think about (heaven help us) Development Plans for the coming year, this is a point worth making. We often ask people to think about their next role or where they want to be in five years but in current contexts of flux and change is that really going to work anymore? Perhaps it’s better to look around at key trends in your field and think ahead to the sorts of skills that would be broadly useful in the future rather than focusing on one or two specific roles which may not exist by the time you get there. For example, for learning practitioners, e-learning and augmented reality are becoming more influential along with STEM skills more generally. I’m planning on starting to learn some basic coding this year to fill that gap in my knowledge. I don’t think I’ll ever be a coder but at least I will have an awareness of what it entails and the key steps involved. I’ve also recently finished an online course about designing e-learning.

So, learning like an astronaut. I highly recommend the book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth as both an interesting read and a chance for learning geeks to really geek-out by reading about a true lifelong learner. It speaks to current key areas of lifelong learning and learning throughout one’s career as well as learning through work. You may also want to check out this video which made Col. Hadfield famous 🙂

 

References

Boud, D., & Solomon, N. (2003). “I don’t think I am a learner”: Acts of naming learners at work. Journal of Workplace Learning, 15(7), 326-331

Caldwell, R. (2005) Leadership and Learning: A Critical Reexamination of Senge’s Learning Organization, Systemic Practice and Action Research, 18(4), 335-434

Fenwick, T. (2001) Questioning the concept of the learning organization. In Paechter, C., Preedy, M., Scott, D. & Soler, J. (Eds), Knowledge, Power, and Learning (Ch. 6, 74-88). Paul Chapman Publishing Ltd: London

Hadfield, C. (2013) An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth. Pan Books: London

Lizier, A.L. (2017) Investigating work and learning in complex adaptive organisations. Journal of Workplace Learning,

Senge, P (1990) The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. Century Business: London

No more death by PowerPoint: A peer feedback process to replace student presentations

This blog post is a little different. I’ve written it to complement a presentation I gave at the 2017 UTS Teaching and Learning Forum where I presented about a subject that I teach in the Master of Education (Learning and Leadership) called Designing Innovative Learning. This post gives some more of the “how to” detail that I didn’t have time to include in my session at the forum. A copy of the slides can be found here.

Who has sat through several hours of presentations either as a student or as an instructor? While there’s a time and place for in-class presentations often they are not necessarily the optimal way to assess student learning or meet the learning goals. When running Designing Innovative Learning for the first time I was faced with this choice. Continue with the planned 10 minute individual student presentations which would use up over half of the final block (all day) class or go back to first principles and think about what type of activity would better suit the learning goals for the subject and the students? I chose the latter and changed the activity from presentations to small peer feedback groups.

Here’s how it works.

  1. As part of their final assessment for the subject, students design a learning initiative for an issue they have identified in their work context. There are two parts to this assessment. The first is the compulsory but ungraded peer feedback activity. The second is a report which students submit a few weeks later once they have their feedback.
  2. In class, all students are assigned to groups of three or four (depending on numbers in the class).  These groups use a template based on the Ladder of Feedback to provide feedback on each other’s learning initiatives which they are designing for their final assessment for the subject. Students are assigned to groups intentionally based on an earlier assessment where they outline the learning issue that they have identified. This ensures that students in the small groups are all working on similar projects which helps in terms of providing useful feedback and not needing to explain context to the others in as much detail.
  3. Each student has 20 – 30 minutes (depending on group numbers) to present an overview of their learning initiative.  It is up to students what they present.  Some students present an overview of their whole design or some just select parts where they want feedback – the choice is theirs based on what would be of greatest value to their learning and professional practice. The only limitation is that students only have 20 minutes. The remaining students in the group who are not presenting make notes during each presentation/discussion using the Ladder of Feedback template.
  4. Following the presentation, there will be 10-20 minutes for other group members to ask questions and give feedback.  The feedback sessions are timed and the instructor monitors when the time is up for each person and the group needs to move on to talking about the next person’s learning initiative.
  5. After all group members have had the chance to present and receive feedback, we spend some time as a class consolidating the feedback students received, discussing any questions that have been raised, and talking about how to incorporate the feedback into their final reports (which are graded).

Students who cannot attend class are still assigned to a group for feedback and they then prepare a short video or audio recording which is uploaded to a discussion board on our learning management system. Their peers then leave feedback in the comments of the discussion thread using the same Ladder of Feedback approach.

The benefits that I’ve observed from making this change include:

  • It made the activity a lower stakes part of assessment but still authentic in terms of how learning initiatives tend to be designed in the “real world” as negotiated collaborations
  • Students love being able to talk to peers in detail about their learning initiatives and work contexts – this provides a great opportunity for social learning and networking opportunities for students
  • Reduction in time from around 4.5 hours to 2 hours, freeing up block time for other activities and discussions to further the learning goals and finish the subject with more of a bang than a presentation whimper
  • Takes pressure off students who are not confident presenters or for whom English is a second (or third) language. Also means less preparation time for students who no longer need to prepare a full presentation if they don’t want to
  • Better quality and more detailed feedback for students to improve learning and assessment performance than they might expect following a more formal presentation
  • The opportunity for students to talk about their initiative and critically reflect on what they were planning. Often students comment that just talking about it out loud helped them process what they wanted to do and they have then changed their whole approach

Key take home messages:

  • Go back to first principles when designing or re-designing an activity or assessment

–What are you trying to achieve?

–How does the activity or assessment further the learning goals?

  • Simple is often very effective. Learning doesn’t always need to be high tech and you need to select the best tool for the job (see my last post for more about that)
  • Provide guidance and structure for students, don’t leave success to chance. I intentionally assign students to groups based on their projects as well as provide structure in terms of instructions and templates for feedback. This ensures that students can get on with productive discussions without worrying about what they are supposed to be doing.

The song must further the story

At present, I have the tremendous good fortune to be spending a few days visiting a friend in Honolulu – I know, life’s tough. On the way over on the flight from Sydney I couldn’t get this song from the Disney movie Moana out of my head.

For those of you who don’t have small children, you may be blessedly unaware of this song…until now. You’re welcome for the ear-worm!

Having this song on infinite repeat for around 9 hours reminded me of a saying attributed to Walt Disney which I used in a workshop a few weeks ago. The workshop was part of a research project I’m involved in with the RAAF and myself and my colleagues were facilitating a workshop about the use of blended learning tools in learning design. One of the participants asked how to select the right tools for the job which prompted me to remark that Walt Disney once said that the songs in Disney movies are not just there for the music but they must also be there to further the story. The clip above from Moana is a good example of this. In the song, Maui, the demi-God of the wind and sky, sings a song with gives his back story and legend for viewers who are not familiar with it in a catchy, fast, and easy to understand way through the song.

In the same way, the tools that we use when designing learning initiatives must also “tell the story” of the learning. Often the new and shiny blended or online learning tool (Kahoots anyone?) is used because it’s just there, or it’s exciting, or managers want it used maybe because they’ve paid a lot for it). It’s important to stop at such points in the learning design process and ask how that tool or approach will further the learning goals – how does it help you to tell your learning story? If it doesn’t push your learning story forward, do you need it? Is there something similar but more effective that you could use instead? The tools that you select may be catchy and appeal to learners initially, but their enthusiasm may pall once they realise that there is an activity or tool there more for the sake of it than for any real pedagogical benefit. Effective learning design should help the learners meet their learning goals in the most coherent and engaging way possible, whether or not the tools used are new and shiny. What you end up with may not necessarily be Shiny but it may well do a better job for the learners.